Archive for April, 2007
April 13th, 2007
Earlier this week, when I crowed about Toronto’s prominence in this and last week’s New Yorker, I hadn’t read Alex Ross’s piece about new-music groups in New York, in which the vision of a “total synthesis of pop and classical traditions” includes an account of Polmo Polpo, Toca Loca and the Social Music Work Group’s NYC visit, “three groups from Canada” (in fact, all Torontonian) numbered among cases where “it’s thrilling when a programmer decides to follow a common thread from one genre to another.” But even before he got to that, when he mentioned “a new kind of insterstitial music - one that makes a virtue of falling between the cracks,” I was thinking that Toronto in the last five years or more has been making a specialty of that. I regretted that I hadn’t had time to do anything to publicize the Sandro Perri/”In C” excursion to New York, so I’m glad to see I didn’t need to: Alex’s account of new-music activity in NYC is exciting overall, but his attention to the T-dot contingent reinforces my sense that in its boundary-jumping, Toronto takes a backseat to no comers.
April 11th, 2007
On what seems to be my blog-of-the week, Faking It, Yuval Taylor posted quite awhile back on the question of “band theme songs,” which in the Faking It book is a subtopic in their discussion of autobiographical song. Yuval dates the emergence of the genre in rock to 1967, with theme songs from Paul Revere & the Raiders, Them, the Mamas & the Papas and the Monkees. If the latter were first, it might just have been a genre spawned by the fact that if you’re both a band and a TV show, you need a theme. But I bet it also had to do with the counterculture imperative of letting-it-all-hang-out (a much more middle-class-youth version of “authenticity” not far removed from the confessional-song impulse). The Wikipedia account of what happened next is pretty astounding. In the comments, Yuval acknowledges that band theme songs “far predate rock’n'roll,” giving a jazz band tune from 1928 as an example.
Well, tonight, I happened across an even earlier case, specifically from 1844: The Hutchinson Family Band, a glee-club style group who were huge stars in mid-19th-century America, made up of three brothers and a sister, had a theme song that told the audience who they were, where they came from and what they stood for: It was called The Old Granite State. It was their biggest hit and they opened every concert with it. I wonder if it was the first case of a band accounting for its existence in song, or if even this drew on an existing tradition?
The easier-to-read version I just linked is a bit less biographical, but in the sheet music they get into serious family detail, much to their descendents’ pleasure. The song also doubled, and tripled, and quadrupled, as: (a) a state song (obviously); (b) a pro-temperance song (”We are all teetotalers/ We are all teetotalers/ We are all teetotalers/ And have signed the Temp’rance Pledge”); and even (c) an anti-slavery song (with the later addition, “Yes we’re friends of Emancipation/ And we’ll sing the Proclamation/ Till it echoes through our nation.”) Which is kind of a nice precursor to “we’re too busy singin’/ to put anybody down,” though the Hutchinsons ain’t exactly letting their hair down.
Also, it seems bandleader Jesse Hutchinson was happy to play encores - even in the most trying circumstances.
April 10th, 2007
Another take from another angle on the bad-band/crap-music approaches raised earlier this week: Trash Aesthetic, a record label that puts out anything submitted to it, but only in editions of three copies.
From the site: “Of these copies, 1 will be given to the artist, and the other 1 or 2 will be sold through the label. The idea of Trash Aesthetic, in part, is to totally short-circuit the collector impulse in experimental music, and to encourage true experimentation on the part of the listener. Many artists featured on Trash Aesthetic will be unknown and possibly unreleased elsewhere, and the idea of this label is to provide a forum for these musicians to make a one-on-one connection with a listener.”
I stumbled on it searching for something else (specifically this book; and neither of them should be confused with this ‘legit’ label) but did find a brief thread about it from 2005 on Bagatellen. Anyone ever heard any of the releases? I wouldn’t be surprised if some were quite good. The situation of the project within explicitly “experimental” music builds a comparatively safe container, of course: The savaging that “bad bands” have received in Toronto is, I think, very much related to their framing within the “band” (read-as-rock) world, with its specific tolerances; the “experimental music” and art worlds have their own boundaries, but Bad Bands would’ve been close enough to fitting inside them that it would have been relatively boring to frame it that way. (Although it’d be fun to see, oh, 123Ten or Pyramid Culture try to play in an avant-garde festival, like Victoriaville, where they’d be roundly attacked for quite another set of reasons.)
Speaking of framing and its almost totalitarian power over artistic reception, there’s been a lot of talk about this Washington Post article from Sunday, in which the paper got one of the world’s greatest violinists, Joshua Bell, to dress down and busk in a subway station during the morning rush hour, while reporters observed the crowd reactions. It’s long but worth reading, though I have a thousand gripes, including the writer’s shit-eating grin as he slaps itself on the back for his delightful cleverness, the article’s condescending tone that’s accompanied by a series of qualifications that show it not even to have the courage of its own condescension, and some really obvious flaws in the design of the experiment. But the results say a great deal, I think: Very little about the taste and discernment of the public, and no more than a smidgen about the state of classical music (though it would’ve been cool to put a great rock guitarist and a great rapper in the same position and compare), but quite a bit about the dependence of art, no matter how powerful the art, on a comprehensible frame and contextual knowledge. (Not to mention what Washington Post editors think would be funny/profound.) Look particularly for the comments from Mark Leithauser from the National Gallery, who says even an expert might not recognize a modernist masterpiece if he came across it tacked up on a cafeteria wall during breakfast. Bell comes off as a neat cat and a good sport, although part of what the story doesn’t tell you (though a Q&A the paper posted later did) is that the experiment happened at morning rush hour on a Friday in January (a completely self-defeating choice) because that’s the only time Bell agreed to do it, and that it was not even in the subway but outside the entrance because that’s the only thing the transit people would allow, and that the paper held the story for months so that it would coincide with his receipt of the Avery Fisher Prize, which happened tonight.
Still, holy shit, it’s a 7,000-word article more-or-less explicitly about aesthetic theory, with a catchy premise, in a mainstream paper. I don’t mean to be a total Grouch snarking from my bad/crap/trash can - they deserve two cheers.
April 10th, 2007
When pseudo-seriously-pseudonymed Brooklyn artists are doing it, you know it’s happened: Like eight-bit and heavy metal before him, Bruce Springsteen has crossed over from the resurgent-among-arty-musicians zone to the referenced-in-art-galleries plateau of trendiness. Collections of academic papers are sure to follow. I don’t have spare theorizing time (or mental space) but feel free to submit yours: Suggested themes include masculinity, sincerity, assertions-of-suburban/exurban-identity, post-industrial melancholy, guitar-as-Other, New Class exoticization of past class locations, etc. If you employ the term “new Boss” please do not include the phrase “same as the old Boss” in your response. I refuse to call it something like “hipster Bruce” as in “hipster metal,” because I don’t think the word hipster has any substantial meaning, though it’s sure tempting. But I’m going with “Boss-a-nova” for the moment. Among all the novas, though, the only one I think is super (though I like the Bossisms on the Arcade Fire disc) is The Blankket, from whom, by the way, there are rumours of an upcoming tour.
April 10th, 2007
The New Yorker has gone a little Toronto-happy for April: Last week, a big article devoted to Darren Werschler-Henry’s excellent history/meditation on the typewriter, The Iron Whim (felicitations, Darren), and this week, SFJ on Feist.
April 7th, 2007
Through a link on the aforementioned Faking It blog, I’ve discovered Crap Art, the manifesto of a movement invented by a Pittsburgh-based computer-science PhD and musician named Tom 7. Its outline reminds me right away of Toronto’s own controversial Bad Bands, though there’s certainly a contrast in tone. (I don’t think the computer folks are quite as familiar with the history of avant manifestos.) I think the most intriguing point in the Crapifesto is this one: “3. The creation of art is more important than its consumption. Therefore, aesthetics (except in the biased eye/ear of the creator) are overrated as a judgment of the worth of art.” It sounds ridiculous on its face - what does “important” mean there? - but a lot of the more intriguing emerging art now (and for a while) has played around with that question: If making art is more rewarding than hearing/looking-at/reading/etc.’ing it (a debatable point but certainly a tenable stance), what forms would minimize the consumption side and distribute the production process? You can name your own instances. Although I’m not convinced that putting a shitty album on the web every day is a good example.
April 7th, 2007
Yuval Taylor and Hugh Barker are the authors of a new book called Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, one of those books that, as a writer, make you smack your head and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” In a sense, I did think of it - my Celine Dion book is in part very much about the relationship between credibility and perceptions of authenticity, but I was surprised a big publisher (Norton) would do a book on such a seemingly abstruse topic head-on. Barker & Taylor make it accessible with reams of anecdotal and musical examples, from Leadbelly and the Lomaxes to Donna Summer to J-Lo, with cases just familiar enough to be engaging and just obscure enough to be instructive. I don’t agree with everything they say but it’s a very good read. (Interestingly, it shares its main title with another recent book on the question of authenticity, but from a philosophical point of view on ethics, sincerity and conventional behaviour. It’s a fraught issue of the era, not just in music or even the arts, for some reasons I hope to speculate about in my book.)
Barker and Taylor are also blogging on related matters, and the quality of their entries there so far may tell you whether you’d like to read the book. I found out about the blog at the tail end of a nice interview with Taylor on the web/NPR show The Sound of Young America - currently you can find the episode here. I like this program enough to subscribe to its podcast, but much prefer it when it relaxes its fixation on comedy and uses host Jesse Thorn’s quite considerable talents and charms as an interviewer. (Also highly recommended is his interview with Matmos from October.)
April 4th, 2007
A Tiravanija installation, with the artist at the far right of the pic.
I went to hear the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija speak tonight at the Ontario College of Art & Design, of which, by the way, he’s an alumnus: He moved to Canada with his Thai diplomat parents when he was 19, started as a history student at Carleton in Ottawa and as his interest in art was stirring, happened to notice an OCAD (or OCA as it was then) calendar on a counsellor’s office shelf, pulled together a portfolio and applied. This was in the early ’80s, an especially dynamic time in the Toronto art scene, which spilled over into the school. (He moved on from there to study at the Chicago Institute of Art and the Whitney program, and is now based in Thailand, Berlin and New York.) On his return visit, Rirkrit (as everyone seems to call him) is the first of OCAD’s “Nomadic Residents,” a program of the school’s new Professional Gallery, which is meant to “inspire and influence the OCAD community by featuring artists from around the world whose work questions issues such as travel, mobility, displacement, dislocation, and homelessness, as well as the speed or instability of modern life. … [to] to join here to there, the local to the global and the provisional and the permanent.” He had a low-key chat with OCAD prof and gallery curator Charles Reeve, sometimes so low-key it was boring, and yet I walked away feeling inspired.
Tiravanija is a bit of a pet of the “relational aesthetics” scene, enough so that a picture of one of his installations formed the cover of Parisian critic/curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s book of that name. He’s best known for installations he’s been doing since the early 1990s in which he cooks Thai food for gallerygoers, making the social interaction his material. Another is a meticulous reconstruction of his New York apartment, installed in various galleries in other cities, open 24 hours with an invitation for people to just come hang out and use the place as they pleased. I’ve always been a bit mystified by the acclaim, from descriptions of his work, feeling that aside from the obvious desire to subvert the inertia of museum/gallery space (an old theme by now), it sounded rather thin. And when he started talking about his student days, when he said his work was always very well-received, I thought, “Aha, maybe he’s just, like, the perpetual ‘A’ student of the art world.”
But as he spoke, in gentle tones and small whorls and spirals, around his work, of how he concentrates on the details of the spaces he works in and, particularly, how his projects are always in contention with the physical and legal and institutional barriers and limits of those spaces, and how he changes his work in relation to those limits, I started to get a sense of the energy and chargedness that those who attend his shows seem to experience. It was also striking how much of his work is really to create instructions (or “recipes” if you will) that other people interpret and carry out, and how unnarcissistically open he is to the inevitability of those instructions being altered and improvised upon by the participants, in a flux and flow. For two “retrospectives” of his work in Europe, for instance, he simply left museum spaces totally empty and wrote a script for their docents to use (and elaborate on) to guide audiences around the room while pointing out and describing the “works” that weren’t actually there. It’s a beautiful concept, a game of let’s-pretend that at the same time elegantly answers the absurd problem of how to gather together a body of work that consists mainly of ephemeral experiences. (Very cagey.) And it doesn’t involve Tiravanija’s presence at all, except as absent referent, as source of initial chain of reaction, reinforcing the quiet rebuke to individualism in his approach. Likewise, I was moved by the idea of “The Land,” a collaborative project he’s undertaken on a large former rice field in Thailand, which is simply open for artists to use as a site - including architectural investigations of sustainable development. He described the recent “One Year” project, in which a group of artists just spent a year there, getting some work done, but mainly getting to know and talk with one another - it made me think about relationship versus work, in the way some of the best “relational” projects I’ve seen or been involved with have done, whether all this business of producing artifacts and documents and art is, in the end, as important as the human connections that arise in the process.
His responses to audience questions that drew on the art-world rhetoric around his work were also nice to see - when people asked about “the social as the new modernism” or “open-source art” he would shrug them off, a bit embarrassed, though respectful, conveying that his role as an artist was to explore and expose the territory, not to be the one to map it. I often feel that it’s unseemly when artists get too excited about the critical vocabularies around their own work, as though their works really were reducible to a journal article on issues in politics or philosophy or aesthetics, in which case maybe they’d be better off just writing journal articles. (This isn’t meant to be a slam against artists who do have a precise intellectual armature for what they’re doing, as many of the greatest have, and certainly not against journal articles; but with the re-academicization of the art world, sometimes the critical discourse has become the cart drawing the horse; by distancing himself from the hype other people use to sell his work on the intellectual market, Rirkrit seemed to avoid becoming their product.)
I was also stirred by the video that was projected while he and Reeve talked, a gorgeously simple documentary of a meal he cooked with a group of people in Singapore, which gave a bit of a taste (sorry) of his work for those of us who haven’t encountered it first-hand. And then there’s his exhibition in the OCAD gallery, which opens today, and which he avoided addressing directly but explained by means of several stories about dealing with those aforementioned institutional limits in other places. The background (at least as rumoured in the audience) is that he wanted to have something cooking, but that was deemed a fire hazard; other proposals ran up against other OCAD rules. So what he did, as a few of us found out by slipping upstairs for a peek, was to wall up the entrance to the gallery - and again, remember, this is its first exhibit, as well as Tiravanija’s first Canadian solo show - with, I think, cinderblock bricks, and sealed with mortar. So no one can enter it. He said this was also a “time-based” work, hinting broadly that it wouldn’t stay in the same condition over the coming months. I’m very curious to see how it develops.
You can view a video of a conversation a year ago between Tiravanija and science-fiction writer and conceptual gadabout Bruce Sterling at the Walker Center in Minneapolis online. It’s more animated than tonight’s talk was, but be warned, Sterling is rather overbearing in relation to the softspoken Tiravanija. Still worth watching, though.
Plus, for some music content: the Rirkrit Tiravanija song (er, not a keeper).
April 4th, 2007
Fingers crossed that everything turns out all right for Billy Joe Shaver. The 67-year-old country songwriting legend (Old Five & Dimers Like Me, Old Lump of Coal, Georgia on a Fast Train) turned himself in yesterday after shooting a guy in the face (what we call “the full Cheney”) in the parking lot of a Waco-area bar on the weekend. Shaver says the shooting was in self-defence against a drunk, knife-wielding stranger, an explanation that looks fairly likely to stick. Shaver posted $50K bail and then went to play a gig at Waterloo Records in Austin.
Eye-gouger of the week: A re-enactment of 9/11. In mime. The Enya soundtrack does not help matters. This video actually reminded me of an excellent story on the This American Life TV show this week, in which a 9/11 widow recounts how she tried to get back to her hobby - standup comedy - in the year after her husband died, and couldn’t understand why her jokes - often about her husband - weren’t getting laughs after she revealed the context. “I’ve got the setups, the beats, the punchlines - what could be wrong?” She was so far inside the experience that she couldn’t see that other people would be shocked. In the segment, shot more recently, she watches old videos of herself doing the act, and comments that she must have been out of her mind, but at the same time it was something she’d had to do and doesn’t regret. Likewise, the mime in the YouTube video is so locked in his “craft’s” invisible box that he can’t see the tackiness of his act through the invisible wall. (If I could at this point I would link to the great 9/11 song by Milkbag Brother, but it seems to be nowhere online. Assistance, anyone?)
(I’m liking the TV translation of TAL in general, by the way, although I still prefer the radio version - the show is really well done, the photography especially, but beyond the imaginative richness of radio, the fact that the TV version is only a half-hour rather than an hour on a given theme means it loses dimensionality and depth.)
“In the bed sheets of boredom”: Someone has YouTubed a whole lot of scopitones and TV clips of Jacques Brel and other French chansonniers with English subtitles. I love Brel, but sometimes the results of the transliterations explain how Seasons in the Sun turned out the way it did. (Don’t get me wrong, I like Seasons in the Sun in all its mawkish glory. But it doesn’t quite preserve the urbanity of Brel.) His guitar technique, as in this clip of Seul, is also a thing to wonder at.
Ooh, almost forgot: Since I haven’t mentioned any of his pieces for a while except in a complainy way, I want to mention that Sasha’s current New Yorker piece on Prince is very good: “His songs can be maudlin, clever, obvious, as ornate as Versailles, as simple as pencils, hilarious, crude, breathtakingly wise, corny, and so musically rich that he seems to be working with instruments nobody else owns.”
April 2nd, 2007
An enormous pile of jottings of the past few days to share with you. So let’s get started:
The most interesting visitor to Toronto of the next week or so is Phil Minton, the British monster vocal improvisor who’s performed with everyone from Fred Frith to Peter Brotzmann to Derek Bailey to Tom Cora to Bob Ostertag to John Butcher to Carla Bley to Higo Hiroshi to Mike Westbrook to… well, the whole blinkin’ improvised-music world. Minton is mainly here for an Images Festival gig with Toronto’s own Michael Snow (and the festival includes some other promising audio-visual performances too), but the most intriguing thing is Sunday’s workshop of Phil Minton’s Feral Choir, a vocal group improv orgy mostly for non-musicians. (Here’s a sound clip.) If that seems a bit familiar, it’s not unlike what Toronto’s own Misha Glouberman has been up to with his improv workshops the past few years (unaware, he tells me, of the Feral Choir); but Minton of course brings his own supper to that table. The Feral Choir event takes place Sunday afternoon, and you have to pre-register. Minton’s other local appearances are in the gig guide (and in the “top shows” sidebar to your left).
Kevin of Aperture Enzyme has posted video of the Wavelength panel discussion on diversity and the Toronto indie-kulcha scene, which took place in February. He’s also posting work from his ongoing documentary-in-progress on local participatory culture, beginning with his interview with the folks from Newmindspace, whom I discussed in this recent post, and who were the subject of a (frequently, but of course not always) cogent critical discussion in recent days on Stillepost, as well as this interesting post on a blog new to me (although I object to the overly precious distinction being drawn there between “fun” and “pleasure”). The two new postings on Kevin’s site make for an amusing contrast - a discussion of diversity combined with a group that illustrates exactly how not to cultivate diversity (not that diversity’s necessarily the highest virtue, but). Personally, I hope that the Newmindspace “issue” stops sucking up all the oxygen for talking about participatory work, art games, public space, etc., and that more compelling (and less-easy-to-snipe-at) practitioners can get some smidgen of the same attention. For which reason, I won’t talk any more about Newmindspace on this site. Instead, I direct your attention for instance to the next, season-capping edition of the group-conversational art-talk-show Pick 7 at Hub 14 whose guest on April 17 will be composer-producer John Wilson, ex-of Meat Beat Manifesto. Just for instance. Feel free to wear your fairy wings. And participate.
Speaking of participatory art, renowned relational artist Rirkrit Tiravanija is giving a talk Wednesday to launch his residency at OCAD.
And speaking of web-based, participatory documentaries-in-progress, Montreal filmmaker Brett Gaylor is working on an NFB film called The Basement Tapes which deals with copyright and remix culture issues, and he’s putting his footage where his rhetoric is with a website called Open Source Cinema, where you can sign up to do your own mixes of material from the movie, which includes interviews with artists such as Brazil’s Bondo do Role and Philadelphia’s Girl Talk - an artist who inspired, as I’ve just learned because somehow I overlooked the entire Internet gabbing about it, a stirring defence of mashups, remixes and mix tapes on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives last month.
Such moments are all too rare in the ongoing artists-versus-corporations-versus-(let’s also admit this)-pirates war, despite the lukewarm comfort of today’s anti-DRM announcement by iTunes/EMI. For all the ink and hysteria that the defence of music theft can inspire - and although I’m not entirely against illegal downloading - the issues of fair use, sampling and appropriation will always get me going more. Then again, so will pigheaded legislation that threatens to destroy an entire new medium (in this case, streaming web radio, which I will often use several hours a day), and, hey, could even open the door to wrecking the old medium too (as if it weren’t already wrecked enough).
Which makes me doubly grateful for the Future of Music Coalition, the artist-driven education-and-lobbying group, who may not be copyright radicals but do have a keener-than-the-average-net-geek sense of which fights count. Their latest campaign, Rock the Net, rallies musicians around the fundamental question of supporting net neutrality (I assume you know what that means, and if not you can learn on their site). The artists involved so far include R.E.M., Ted Leo, Death Cab, OK Go, Bob Mould, Calexico, Kathleen Hanna, The Donnas, Kronos Quartet… and they’ll be performing to raise cash & awareness on neutrality in the coming months.
Before entirely leaving behind the Canadian-documentary-film front (if I haven’t already, and I suppose I have), I’ll also mention that it’s worth watching the trailer for I Met the Walrus, a creative animated redeployment of the tapes Toronto teen Jerry Levitan made when John Lennon and Yoko Ono were bedding-in here in 1969.
Last week, one of my favourite mp3 blogs, Moistworks, held its annualish Writer’s Week, drawing contributions from Susan Choi, Jenny Offill, Dana Spiotta, Christopher Sorrentino and Rick Moody. They’re all worth reading, although collectively they drove me a bit crazy, as the impulse a novelist seems to have when asked to write about music seems to be almost universally to let the melodic madeleines unleash so many memories about what-they-heard-when that practically every one of them tells you half their life’s story. The exception is Moody, which stands to reason as he writes about music more frequently. The tale he tells of his friend who makes music with his younger brother Bill, who has Down syndrome, is a compelling case of the “outsider music” problem, challenging our sense of where exploitation does or doesn’t arise (reminiscent of Reynols). I suggest you watch Bill’s Bigfoot video, peruse some of the consequent comments on YouTube, and mull it over for yourself.
Finally, we find out where Robyn Hitchcock went wrong: He thinks that “inconsequential” is a good artistic goal, while assuring us that his “painless” songs of “indifference” are not “meaningless.” With which he gets everything exactly bassackwards and accounts for why ninety percent of his 1990s-and-on non-Soft-Boys music is so wearyingly exasperating.
Though nowhere near as weirdly bedeviling as this misbegotten “cultural celebration”, which on the one hand just seems like garden-variety hyper-commodification, and on the other kind of nightmarish and sickening, like building a licorice model of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with a gingerbread Eliza skipping across a lake of 7-Up. It’s the authentic black experience! Just eat it!