Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

This year I have many thanks to give. It's been a remarkable year so far, and I look forward to a relaxing last few weeks (work aside!)

I am thankful for my health. I have my issues and problems, but am healthy, hearty, and hale and have made good progress this year.

I am thankful to be working on two great projects and interviewing for and evaluating more other new opportunities than I can count, during a time when so many cannot find any work at all.

I am thankful I for my wonderful friends and the experiences we've had together this year.

I am thankful for my family, most of all my lovely wife.

Monday, November 16, 2009

John Cage vs. Robert Rauschenberg

John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert RauschenbergWonderful music blog Synthtopia asked a great question:
Why do people still hate John Cage?
(when they love Robert Rauschenberg)

I believe the answer lies in cultural differences between the worlds of art and music, and in how popular (i.e. non-university/ivory tower) culture interfaces with and accepts visual art and music.

The primary problem is music fans are like Grampa Simpson - "I don't like change!". The audience for "serious" music has never really moved beyond the 19th century (and that's being charitable!). Classical concert-goers still worship the ancient ones - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms. Maybe you can get some classical fans to listen to Debussy - but only the "nice" stuff.

All the interesting music akin to the exciting 20th century art movements (expressionism, futurism, collage, dada, abstract expressionism) is "hard to listen to", and it's difficult to convince symphonies, with their high overheads and dwindling audiences, to take a chance...even on something as relatively mild as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. As a result, people don't get to experience much of Cage's works, and inevitably what gets played by symphonies is what is reinforced as "the best".

Meanwhile nearly everybody else is listening to pop music (and I include here any flavor of electro, house, metal, country, hip-hop, etc.) and few of those listeners are interested in, understand, or appreciate John Cage's innovations. A quick glance at the comments on the Synthtopia article unfortunately confirms this - some the normally well-considered, open-minded folks revert to the stock comments about Cage - "he's a charlatan/my kid could do that", "his ideas are more important than his art", and of course, "it's not real music". Cage would have whole-heartedly supported and endorsed all of the previous statements, by the way.

But these are exactly the same comments leveled at Rauschenberg, Pollock, and other visual artists of the 20th century. Presumably these statements are made by people who think Caspar David Friedrich or Leonardo Da Vinci or whoever painted the crying clown with the flower are the only "real artists".

Art changes as culture changes, because art reflects and is culture. When we shut art down, we're shutting down cultural change, literally living in the past, off of old, received ideas. People hated Beethoven and Wagner at first, too.

Cage's body of work is as diverse and thought-provoking as those of his good friend Marcel Duchamp - and they are the most important artists of the last 100 years (or more).

However, finding good recordings of said Cage works is challenging, because what gets recorded is what will get bought, and people don't like Cage's music. So there's a vicious cycle.

Plus some of Cage's works don't translate well to the recorded environment, either because they're "conceptual" or because they rely on improvisation or chance, meaning that a particular recording of them is completely beside the point.

Finally, visual art has a certain immediacy - you look at something, you get it. And if you don't, you can look away and come back to it later. People's hyperbole to the contrary, it's hard for something you look at but don't like to "hurt your eyes" (bright, flashing lights aside). Music is inherently temporal - you have to sit through it, and in some cases, actually pay attention. That's hard for a lot of people. And in some cases, the sounds are jarring, loud, and inescapable.

We don't have to like every piece of art we experience, but we should at least try to appreciate it and understand why it's important or interesting before we go back to listening to our old favorites. This requires effort on our part. We have to change our culture, our education, and our mindsets and not fear or shirk that effort.

It's a challenge. When I observe the world these days, I see a retreat from empathy, from understanding, and from the effort required to look beyond easy, shallow surfaces. Cage believed music was all around us, everywhere. We just had to go to the trouble to listen to it. How can anyone not appreciate that?

Monday, November 09, 2009

My Top Ten Twenties on SF Appeal

I was featured on the "cover" (do websites have covers?) of SFAppeal today, as part of Corey Denis' fantastic "Top Ten Twenties" project.

She asked what my top 20 albums from 2000-2009 were. Here is my response:

What are your top 20 albums released between 2000 - 2009?

1. Austere - Curio (2000)
Austere is a mysterious duo from Portland, Oregon. The epitome of independent music. They manufacture and release their music themselves, with beautiful, unique, hand-made packaging. "Curio" came in a cover made with real gold leaf and a riddle, which when solved, prompted Austere to send me a link to a bonus track. I am a huge fan of Austere - nearly every one of their releases is fascinating and special.

2. Death Cab For Cutie - We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes (2000)
My friend Dave Lampton introduced me to this album. Death Cab's songwriting peak coupled with crisp production. Great songs filled with longing. Makes me think of college. I play this when the days start getting short and the nights start getting long.

3. Morphine - The Night (2000)
Morphine's posthumous release, and their finest hour. Murky, mysterious, and sexy. Really the only essential Morphine album. Good with a bottle of red wine and someone new to kiss.

4. Outkast - Stankonia (2000)
Stankonia catches Outkast poised between their relative hip-hop obscurity and their commercial success and following mediocrity. Their best album all the way through, with several standout tracks, including the unfortunately prescient "B.O.B."

5. PJ Harvey - Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000)
I am not a rabid PJ Harvey fan, but I absolutely love two of her albums - "To Bring You My Love" and this one. From the ringing, yowling opening track to the sweet finish, there are no weak spots. The soundtrack to my introduction to San Francisco. I don't think Ms. Harvey has made a record nearly this good since.

6. Idaho - Levitate (2001)
Jeff Martin from Idaho went on to do film and TV scoring after "Levitate". You can hear why - his aching voice and solid production are coupled to some great songs, like "For Granted". I'm a sucker for anyone name-checking freeways (see also: Death Cab For Cutie, Ryuichi Sakamoto & David Sylvian).

7. Lucinda Williams - Essence (2001)
Lucinda Williams' "Essence" is the sound of heartache. I cannot listen to this album without tearing up a little. And the title track is sexy and worthy of a soul rave-up cover version.

8. Local H - Here Comes The Zoo (2002)
Local H epitomizes angry, grungy guitar rock, and nowhere better than on "Here Comes The Zoo". "Half Life" is a solid example of the band's sound. No mere lunkheads, this record is actually a concept album of sorts, and the story it tells is as dark as they come.

9. The Church - After Everything Now This (2002)
The Church have made a lot of records (23 at last count). And their 90s output was...not very good. "After Everything Now This" marks a dramatic turning point, where they began cranking out great rock albums. If any new band released a song like "Numbers", they'd be the next big thing. And the normally oblique Steve Kilbey is quite affecting when he details learning of the death of his father in the title track. The soundtrack for afternoon sliding into night.

10. John Foxx & Harold Budd - Translucence/Drift Music (2003)
John Foxx was the original singer for Ultravox and wrote some of their best songs. After Midge Ure replaced him, he made a number of great synth-pop albums, particularly the Gary Numan-esque "Metamatic". In later years he started making ambient music. This 2003 album found him collaborating with Harold Budd. Each disc has its own character - "Translucence" is more focused on piano, "Drift Music" more synth. Great with morning coffee.

11. Tim Hecker - Radio Amor (2003)
\"Radio Amor" proves that it is possible for an album without words or melodies to tell a story. Ambient music at the other end of the spectrum from "Translucence/Drift Music", full of noise, hisses, radio static, and glitchy, stuttering piano samples.

12. TV On The Radio - Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (2004)
TV On The Radio is a really interesting band, seemingly bent on following their muse regardless of fashion. Great songs, hazy production. Solid for parties.

13. Harold Budd - Avalon Sutra (2004)
Harold Budd's planned valedictory album. Beautiful music largely for actual, real, acoustic instruments. Miniature masterpieces. Reminds everyone that Budd is a composer with a serious music background. The sound of Sunday morning.

14. Ryuichi Sakamoto - Chasm (2004)
Ryuichi Sakamoto has been making interesting records for a long time, ranging from progressive to pop to absolute weirdness and noise. "Chasm" contains all of the above, starting with glitchy hip-hop and moving through beautiful ambient and instrumental music. By far the standout is the track with David Sylvian - "World Citizen", which manages to name-check the 101 freeway in a beautiful, haunting song.

15. Stars Of The Lid - and Their Refinement of The Decline (2006)
Ambient music made with acoustic instruments (brass and strings), or passable samples of same. Beautiful, slow, marred only by the juvenile humor of the titles. Put the cover away and just listen. I think of falling asleep on airplanes.

16. Scott Walker - The Drift (2006)
There may be some obscure albums on this list, but none are weirder or more disturbing than Scott Walker's "The Drift". Music writers talk about "experimental" music, or records that push the boundaries. They all sound like Hannah Montana next to "The Drift", which is a veritable David Lynch film in sound. Creepy, powerful, even funny...there really is nothing else like it, all wrapped in Walker's mannered, operatic voice. Not bad for a former 60's pop star. A record worth focusing on. 

17. Burial - Untrue (2007)
The formerly anonymous poster boy for dubstep, Burial's "Untrue" is a DJ Shadow-meets-Blade Runner masterpiece, improving just enough on his debut to create a sound but not a rut. Great for subways, walks in the rain, or working.

18. Fennesz Sakamoto - Cendre (2007)
I never get tired of hearing this album. Christian Fennesz' "Venice" almost made this list, and Sakamoto's "Chasm" did. Their collaboration on "Cendre" brings the best of both worlds. Sounds like watching time-lapse film of pianos disintegrating, burning, or corroding. One track is clearly a transformation of one of Erik Satie's "Gymnopedies".

19. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver (2007)
Only LCD Soundsystem can make an introspective, melancholy dance music record. The bass parts are all cribbed from other songs. Every track is good, and some reach beyond greatness into the sublime. 

20. M83 - Saturdays = Youth (2008)
I refrained from loading this list up with reissues and limited myself to just one album from a band from the 80s. But M83 has me covered. Their retro-flavored "Saturdays = Youth" reminds me of what it was like to be a teenager discovering the 4AD catalog, feeling everything with the intensity of the first time. This album has beautiful, ethereal songs played with heart, passion, and emotion. Wonderfully free of the irony infecting so much  neo-80s stuff. Some bands look at old photos and laugh about how funny everybody looked. M83 looks at the same photos, sighs, and remembers what falling in love for the first time felt like.