Archive for September, 2008
September 16th, 2008
A curious twist in the Loudnessiad: A Guitar Hero alternate mix of the new Metallica album Death Magnetic (widely agreed to be seriously overcompressed, which if we still used magnetic tape would make its title rich in… is there a term for unintentional appropriateness?) provides the transition point from the fan remix to the fan remaster.
September 15th, 2008
David Foster Wallace: Leave a light burning.
I’ve been spending much of the day, after spending a lot of yesterday simply knocked out by it, looking around at quotes and articles and YouTube videos and other tributes to and reminiscences about David Foster Wallace, whose suicide this weekend was a shock and devastating and disappointing even though he was a writer who was always frank about the struggle against succumbing to enormous sadness and despair (and art’s role on both sides of that struggle), someone whose work addressed depression and addiction so incisively but also compulsively. They are being compiled here, on the longtime fan site “the howling fantods,” named after the catchphrase in Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest for extreme agitation. (A term that has a longer history than I’d realized.) It seems apt, given what a deep kinship and admiration and envy and inspiration DFW kindled in other writers, that what came to mind when I heard the news was a line from an unpublished story by an old friend: “He died of an attack of suicide.”
As a fiction writer, Wallace seemed to me to be perhaps the only one in North America who both understood what the project needed to be in his time, and had the full unquestionable capability of doing it, although there did seem to be some self-stalling and sidelining going on in the past decade. It speaks profoundly of the sociality and intimacy and seriousness of his work that when I heard the news my first feeling, and others have told me they felt the same, was to wish I had known him and had been able to do something to help - even though it’s immediately obvious that he probably had no shortage of people around who cared, and that often when an attack of suicide comes on no amount of door-bolting and torch-waving by the villagers can drive the monster off. But the first feeling was that empathy for the loneliness he must have been feeling, because his understanding of human loneliness was so obvious in his writing, with all his willingness or rather determination to use all his erudition and verbal firepower to acknowledge and face the sentimental and the banal, which in the avant-pomo-whatever tradition that spawned him is of course the forbidden zone. (It’s just hit me that his influence on my own book was bigger than I consciously realized.) The second feeling, of course, was of the great loss to literature and to culture, of all the potential that will go unfulfilled.
Partly because his death coincided with a not-so-great weekend for me on that banal-human-sentiments, stuff-of-life level, I really am too smacked to say much more, but I’ll end with a quotation I’ve always remembered from a 1996 Salon interview by Laura Miller, whose appreciation of Wallace today was one of the most resonant I read.
“It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that’s gutted our generation. All the things that my parents said to me, like “It’s really important not to lie.” OK, check, got it. I nod at that but I really don’t feel it. Until I get to be about 30 and I realize that if I lie to you, I also can’t trust you. I feel that I’m in pain, I’m nervous, I’m lonely and I can’t figure out why. Then I realize, “Oh, perhaps the way to deal with this is really not to lie.” The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting — which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff — can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can’t, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel.”
David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008
September 11th, 2008
This seems to be “quote week” (or should that just be “week”) here on Zoilus, but I couldn’t resist this uproarious testimony from f.o.z. Owen Pallett to a musician previously all but unknown to me. (Yes, it’s a press release.) Followed by Max Tundra testifying for his chosen instrument, an antique that once was the darling of the world. Followed by one of the songs from Tundra’s upcoming, third album Parallax Error Beheads You so we can all assess how full of it Owen is, or what it is he is full of.
About Max Tundra by Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy)
Max and I met in Barcelona in 2005 at Primavera Sound. His slot was at 4 a.m. He put on a mask, wrapped himself up in tape, and played forty minutes of music made mostly using Amiga sample tracker software from the late 1980s. There was virtuosic melodica playing, Pointer Sisters-style singing, and an eight-minute version of “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound Of Music. I was wasted and ended up passing out on a beach in my underwear. When the sun rose, I woke up with dried merengue and sand glued to my hair [er, I think Owen means meringue, the eggy topping, and not merengue, the Dominican dance music, but since he was in Spain and in Spanish they're the same, no harm no [sic] - ed.], and in a daze, I realized that I had just witnessed nothing less than the best music performance of my life.
What sets Max Tundra apart from any other band in the world is his attention to detail. This album is impossibly full of ideas, seeking out every imaginable sound in the world and giving each their own curtain call. When you listen to this album, you’d think that it was made by an eccentric millionaire, with every name-brand pop music producer in the world contributing their own two seconds of material. Upon closer inspection, you’d realize that it’s been six years since Mastered By Guy At The Exchange, in that time, Max probably hasn’t had a single good night’s sleep.
I can’t compare this record to any record I’ve ever heard before. Even Max’s previous records are a distant echo. It is dance music, it is discourse, it is teen sex comedy, it is a video game, it is a dance troupe, it is a thirteen course meal with Amontillado. It is shock and awe. Listen and be humbled.
About the Commodore Amiga 500 by Max Tundra
There are no modern-day computers on this record. My PC is strictly for emails and Photoshopping the words Max Tundra into Coldplay line-ups. The main technology behind this and all of my albums has been the Commodore Amiga 500 - bestselling home computer at the time - running a $1 public domain software tracker program. The sounds don’t emerge from the Amiga itself however; the machine is used to control various synths, samplers and the like. I look at colums of numbers all day on the screen of a black and white television; these digits relate to pitches, durations and tones. A lot of the noises on my record are real; the cello, bass guitar, drums, piano, trumpet and others are all rehearsed and played by me, but sometimes I will use realistic fake versions of these noises. Each song is recorded in a different way; drumkits are recorded on mono cassette recorders twice, then stuck together on the left and right of a mix; string arrangements are planned and then layered up; each note of an electric guitar is sampled so that it can be sequenced in ways too complicated for my fat fingers to play at full speed. And then I have a cup of tea and sing my heart out.
Max Tundra, “Which Song”
September 10th, 2008
So there’s a Canadian election going on, too (to my personal irritation). The following “open letter” has appeared many places in French and a few in English, but among anglos it might be mainly theatre people who’ve read it. It is an unusually powerful evocation of the intimacy of art and politics, in a broader spirit than merely that of “protest,” though of course it is that too and for good reason. Playwright-director Wajdi Mouawad is one of the more distinct voices in contemporary Canadian writing.
An open letter to Prime Minister Harper
Monsieur le premier ministre,
We are neighbours. We work across the street from one another. You are Prime Minister of the Parliament of Canada and I, across the way, am a writer, theatre director and Artistic Director of the French Theatre at the National Arts Centre (NAC). So, like you, I am an employee of the state, working for the Federal Government; in other words, we are colleagues.
Let me take advantage of this unique position, as one functionary to another, to chat with you about the elimination of some federal grants in the field of culture, something that your government recently undertook. [... continues ...]
September 8th, 2008
I didn’t flip the word-producing, note-taking, signifyin’ Critic Machine chip on in my head during yesterday’s astounding double-feature matinee at the Guelph Jazz Festival featuring John Zorn’s The Dreamers and Electric Masada. Sometimes all the humming and whirring of the analytic hard drive is just too much static in the ears. But it was truly one of the finest shows I’ve seen in years, and I think the finest I’ve ever seen in Guelph’s handsome Riverrun auditorium.
The two ensembles had almost the same personnel - Marc Ribot (guitar), Jamie Saft (organs), Joey Baron (drums), Cyro Baptista (percussion), Trevor Dunn (bass) and Kenny Wollenson (percussion) - except that in Electric Masada they were joined by Ikue Mori on electronics, and Wollesen switched over from vibes to drum kit, making it a dual-drummer barrage. And, in Electric Masada, Zorn played his sax more (none of us could recall after if he’d played it at all in The Dreamers) - although he still let it rest much of the time in order to conduct, which he does with great charm and precision. Indeed watching him conduct was one of the great pleasures of the show - slamming down his fists to trigger an improvised-explosive blast of a group sforzando, or tapping the air with his knuckles to bring an abrupt pause, or stretching out a hand and giving a spidery come-on with his fingers to ask a player to give him more of what they were doing (at one point Mori, sitting a few inches from the bandleader, responded by wiggling her own fingers right back along his). But most of all it was just the fluid, unforced power of all these musicians, making this collective music like they were sailing a boat out to sea: As the rhythm section pulled their ropes tight, Ribot’s guitar might rise cinemascope-style up into the sun; or when Saft’s organ would move from harmonious vamping into a set of anxious amphetamine riffs, Baptista might reach into his seemingly wheelbarrow-sized stock of noisemakers and, say, shake a hula hoop covered in bells and gauze to hint that gentler waves would soon surface over the horizon.
I hadn’t heard the recording of The Dreamers that came out this spring, but on the evidence of yesterday’s show it’s roughly in the mode of Zorn’s popular 2001 album The Gift - surf-inflected, Morricone-refracted, post-lounge with beautifully concise head melodies played mostly on the guitar and vibes, never going so far out as to get skronky or violent. But that was what E-Masada was for, of course, and by the end of that second hour-plus, Zorn and his companions had taken us on a musical tour through so many emotional weather regions that it felt thoroughly, classically cathartic, as if we had all vaulted together through a purgative sonic-obstacle course for the soul. The Guelph crowd repaid their efforts with two standing ovations and screams of rapture, and after an encore (a few tunes from the aforementioned Gift), the band seemed to leave the stage feeling very pleased with their day’s work, arms slung around one another’s shoulders, chatting amiably as they vanished into the wings.
September 5th, 2008
Wasilla, Alaska, band Portugal.The Man are no fans of their neighbour turned governor
turned VP-candidate, Sarah Palin. See final item.
I am on the programming committee for this year’s Pop Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Our call for papers went out this week: This year’s theme is “Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic,” a deliberate turn to the saucy after last year’s perhaps-a-bit-earnest mix of topics. If you want to talk over ideas, feel free to get in touch - I’ll be getting in touch with a few of you.
My fellow Pop Conf. committee member Ann Powers picks up on some points from my Silver Jews article to discuss the generational place of politics in today’s music on the L.A. Times music blog. My quick answer to the question of “where’s today’s Rage Against the Machine/Public Enemy/The Clash/Bob Dylan?” by the way, is that the idea that putting messages in music is an effective means of rallying people politically is out of fashion - so the politics in music is now more about subcultural cluster formations and social networks. But since this is short-attention-span Friday, I won’t stop to develop the point.
Local queer zine Fab talked to me for a piece in their new issue that asks: Celine Dion - worst gay icon ever?
I should have said earlier in the week, but voting is now on for the ECHO prize for Canadian songwriting. Go the page and you can listen to all five nominated songs; you can vote once a day up till 4:59 pm on Sept 29.
Another reminder: As part of the Toronto International Film Festival, my friend Margaux Williamson’s beautiful documentartry Teenager Hamlet 2006 is screening through Sept 13 at the Katherine Mullherin gallery, 1082 Queen Street West. Previously discussed here, and this week’s Eye has more.
Meanwhile, with a Canadian election call hanging over us like a dirty spiderweb about to get all up in our hair, the arts community is getting organized to respond to the Harper government’s recent round of disses. Get involved in the well-sorted strategy of the unofficial “Department of Culture” here. More comment sure to follow.
Anyone been attending the Guelph Jazz Festival this week? I’d be happy to hear reports. I was there on Wednesday afternoon to moderate a panel discussion on “Improvising Digital Community” between DJ Spooky (Paul Miller) and Vijay Iyer, which flew by way too quickly to even summarize, though I think it got hottest when it ran into this zone: the role of creative labour (and corporeal labour) in digital culture, and whether there is still an important distinction between the artist’s role as consumer and as producer. Vijay put it out: “We are more than our playlists” - Paul agreed, but ambivalently. I’ll be going back to Guelph on Sunday for the double-header John Zorn jawn.
Finally, have you read this scorching anti-Sarah Palin screed from her Alaska hometown’s leading rock band? Guitarist/vocalist John Gourley of the oddly punctuated Portugal.The Man writes, after a lengthy and touching personal anecdote: “I see the sport hunter, the censor, choice taker, the revelations reader, and the high school cheerleader. It is endlessly embarrassing to watch people fall all over this idea. This is not my Alaska. The Alaska I know.” (Via Rock&Rap Confidential.)
September 2nd, 2008
Here is my email interview with David Berman, of/aka The Silver Jews. He was writing (for the first time, he said) from within a moving van, so his answers are uncharacteristically brief, but there’s plenty of detail I didn’t get in to the Globe profile.
CW: There aren’t that many precedents for your position in popular music: A “serious” poet - not a poetaster, not a light-verse guy, not a Rod McKuen or Jewel - who is (or becomes) a similarly respected songwriter. Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, a few more-obscure figures. I’m curious how you experience and regard the aesthetic divide between those worlds. And why isn’t it crossed more often?
DB: It’s definitely not a case of dual citizenship, as the gatekeepers of neither poetry nor rock have tried to claim me as one of their own. I live somewhat uneasily, in a little noticed DMZ at the back of the universe.
I wanted poetry’s intensity of language poured into a larger vessel than academia can provide. Perhaps I now need to be pouring into an ever bigger vessel, i.e., a screenplay.
Is literary writing something you continue to do or intend to return to?
The labor is thankless, the rewards are small, and frankly there are many great talents in the language arts. I want to be working in a field where the high marks are low enough as to make real-world historical songwriting victories entirely achievable. I don’t see painting or fiction or poetry within miles of its masters. I’m working in a field whose commonly acknowledged greatest practitioners - Dylan, Springsteen, etc. - have so little control over their supposed mastery.
September 2nd, 2008
In celebration of the long-awaited first-ever visit of the Silver Jews to Toronto tonight (and Montreal tomorrow), I have a feature today in The Globe and Mail. The more I listen, the more impressed I am with the Jews’ new album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea - with the way it bursts out of the previous dingy-basement-window-view perspective of bandleader David Berman (seen above with wife/bassist/backup-singer Cassie and canine companion). It really reaches out into the world - probably not coincidentally given that it’s the first album he’s made since going on tour for the first time ever (and when he did it he did it all the way: a world tour - the related short documentary, Silver Jew is more than worth an hour of your time). But the shift is also a reflection of breaking out of the kind of insulated self-regard that was part of the ’90s-disaffected-dude attitude that Berman raised to a kind of poetic sublime.
Rather than the droll monologue of a very very smart friend, as a lot of his work seemed in the past, LOM LOC feels more like poetic reportage - wondrous scenes he’s witnessed that are over before anyone else gets there - but with the bright hope that someday you, his listener-companion, might arrive just in time to see the “chicken-fried pigeon in a Sonny James sauce,” the “vocal martyr in the vegan press,” the menacing Mr. Games with “a jeweler’s hands and a blurry face” and other Snuffleupaguses (Snuffleupagi?) of the Joosian plane.
Later today I’ll post a full transcript of my email interview with Berman.