by carl wilson

April 29, 2007

Sidenote

With that flurry of Pop Con posts (parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) Zoilus is going into low gear for the next several weeks. I have a book to finish, and as a result, posting will be more sporadic and less long-winded throughout May. The gig guide and other features will be updated, but probably not as consistently as usual. My apologies for any inconvenience.

| Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 29 at 4:39 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Investigate, Impeach, Indict and Incarcerate:
EMP Pop Con, Part 5

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Finally, notes from some of the papers I got to hear:

Jonathan Lethem's opening keynote talk was a lovely piece of writing about the sort of transcendental condition of the "wannabe," about the music critic and fan's place in the "fifth Beatle" position and the way various musicians have created room in their own music for those sorts of points of identification. (The hypeman being an obvious example.) People were a bit snooty about Jonathan's talk, mainly because it didn't tell us anything we didn't already know, but I appreciated the generosity of it: Jonathan, who's got the kind of popular recognition for his writing a lot of critics would envy, was explaining in subtle, memoiristic style why he's got his own case of music-critic envy. Still, as a keynote, it did set a bit of the tone of the conference, in which provocation and dissent took a back seat to appreciations and contextualizations.

Robert Fink showed how musicological analysis can rock in his paper on James Brown's Soul Power, 1971, when he mapped that chorus against Stokely Carmichael's 1966 "Black Power" chant - and showed that the "soul power!" shout falls rhythmically like a shout back at the black-power chant. "It's as if James Brown recognized Stokely Carmichael as another performer - and decided to cut him," Fink said. He also noted that Brown's anti-revolutionary song ("we don't need-uh/ revolution!/ we gotta have-uh/ constitution!") put the emphasis on the word "soul" whereas Carmichael's revolution-minded chant stressed "power." He was calling up the political speech but also rebutting and rewriting it. As Fink summed up, "If one's brothers rhythmicize politics, what can one do but politicize one's rhythm?"

Joshua Clover gave one of the conference's best presentations, "1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About," part of a book in progress. I can't convey all its multimedia umph, but its main point was to weigh the actual year 1989 (the year that included Tiananmen Square and the "fall" of the Berlin Wall) against the signified cultural 1989, or 1989 versus "1989". Using the example of La Marseillese, he said that "it's no easy matter to date a song" (adding, "as every Pazz & Jop voter knows"), which is like "the difficulty of dating history itself." When the French Revolution happened in 1789, La Marseillese didn't exist; it was composed in 1792. "It cannot belong to 1789 but it belongs entirely to '1789.' " The result of these slippages is that "our sense of process disappears," and we lose our awareness of historical contingency, when memory is consolidated in images and symbols and songs.

Joshua then applied that thought to the songs of "1989", such as Scorpions' Wind of Change, which came out in 1990 but actually had been written earlier about glasnost, but was attached to the Berlin Wall story by its video (and the fact that Scorpions were German). "Power ballads exist so one can feel all weepy and overwhelemed, as one does in the face of the historical sublime... like a tiny Zippo in a world on fire." He went on, "The 'moment' is 'magic' but unstated, so that it can attach to whatever magic moment may arrive - the first kiss, the sixth beer, the end of Communism, whatever." His next example was 1991's Right Here, Right Now, by Jesus Jones, which was the musical equivalent of Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis and made the boast "Bob Dylan didn't have this to sing about." His last example was Roxette's Listen to Your Heart, which besides being the first number 1 single that never came out as a 45, was the soundtrack to Civic Forum (Vaclav Havel's party) advertisements in the then-Czechoslovakia, a song that Joshua said had the "eventless, pleasurable, post-historical ongoingness" that mirrors "the path of the 'new world order,' or as it would like to think." These songs and their videos helped make "1989" an "image-story that every song helped to tell," a story in which "1989" is removed from historical process and becomes a "magic moment," rendered unanalyzable, a moment of "nerf humanism." The music critic, he argued, has a responsibility to historicize in the face of "the pop-songization of history."

I enjoyed all of the "Songlines" panel, though I missed Roni Sarig's first paper on Triggerman while I was listening to Mark Sinker's interesting ramble on music writing; Michael Barthel, known to Zoilus readers for his Clap Clap Blog, one of my favourite music blogs, gave a great paper about how Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah has gradually been reduced by successive cover versions (beginning with John Cale and then multiplying exponentially with Jeff Buckley's cover of John Cale's cover, which was then itself used as the source of uncountable covers), and their use in film and TV soundtracks. It's gone, he said, from a drily sceptical, wry, multifaceted work into a one-dimensional "sad" song to use whenever you need to show a montage of various characters in various places being sad. "It's become the auditory equivalent of a silent-film actress pressing the back of her hand to her head." The effect, he said, was like "making a Matisse into a washcloth" - but, he added, a song isn't a Matisse: "Wring it out and it's ready again." Then he demonstrated this by playing his own recording of Hallelujah, using verses Cale and Buckley cut from the original (which no one ever sings) and a panoply of wild, cheerful musical styles. Now there's a critical manoeuvre you wouldn't get from an academic. It was great finally to meet Mike, who's as bright-eyed and wry himself as any reader would expect. His paper is up on his site now.

Next came Mike McGonigal, a writer I've admired since he was publishing the wonderful Chemical Imbalance zine in the early '90s, speaking both reverently and humorously about Blind Willie Johnson's Black was the Night, Cold was the Ground, and offering fascinating notes on guitar evangelists, street-corner singers and shout-singing preachers (most amazingly, Washington Phillips, who sang to an instrument that might have been an autoharp or a miniature piano called a doceola, but which sounded like "a celestial ice-cream truck"). His paper also featured the most hilariously self-reflexively sarcastic Power Point slides of the conference, which went perfectly with his mix of passion and self-mockery as a speaker. And the panel closed with Anthony Miller's survey of songs about Patty Hearst, of which of course there are loads, and I can't believe I'd never realized it before - from Patti Smith's version of Hey, Joe to some awful Dylanish folk music to the Ramones' Judy was a Punk, the Misfits' She, Camper van Beethoven's Tania on Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Black Box Recorder's Love Song to an Heiress. Miller didn't really have an extensive argument to make about all these weird refractions of 1960s mythology, but it was rich material.

Yuval Taylor's piece on "feelgood/bad vibes" culture in 1972 was very fine, though he couldn't improve on his opening, which pointed out that 1972 was the sole year the Grammys gave out an award for "Best Pop Instrumental With Vocal Coloring," and the nominees were Santana, Isaac Hayes and Emerson Lake and Palmer. What kind of strange world was this, he asked, where flutey exotic-semi-rock with sighs and chanting could be considered an entire genre? A world where gatefold album covers were for rolling joints, clearly. (I'd say this was also a foretaste of the New Age music to come.) Meeting Yuval was one of the weekend's highlights.

Franklin Bruno may win the prize for the conference's weirdest topic: The various fifties-and-sixties satirical versions of My Fair Lady and their cast albums. He pointed out that My Fair Lady's own original cast album was actually the "jackpot" that cemented the place of the 33 1/3 LP, selling 8 million copies. One of the versions was Canadian content (Franklin apologized in advance if he was about to commit any offences against Canadian culture): My Fur Lady, a hit musical at McGill in the late '50s, featured, if I followed correctly, an, um, "Eskimo princess" who for political reasons needed to become a proper Canadian, and the main joke of the show seems to have been that you can't "Teach Me How to be Canadian" (as one of the songs was titled) because Canadians don't have any distinctive attributes. The others were My Square Laddie, in which someone tries to learn how to be a bohemian ("I could've boozed all night"), and, most interestingly, My Fairfax Lady, a kind of double-reverse-satire in which a British actress in L.A. wants to learn to be American, but stumbles onto L.A.'s Jewish strip and so ends up being taught to speak in a Yiddish accent, in a script loaded with Catskills-style humour. Franklin was a little pressed for time so he didn't get to elaborate too much on his final analysis, and I didn't take proper notes - again, hopefully he'll publish it, at least on his blog.

Another of my favourite bloggers, Mike Powell, was at the conference for the first time, and it was a delight to meet him. I really enjoyed his paper, "The Pyongyang Hit Parade," which brought us into his pathological obsession with North Korean state-produced pop music, which is of course the only pop music there. It seemed as if Mike started out his journey feeling like he'd stumbled into sort of a "reverse Disneyland" that could be his own private anti-utopian dreamworld musical hobby, but became more and more uncomfortable and disturbed by it as he found out more about it. What sticks with me is his assertion that there is absolutely no sign of a musical underground, a culture of samizdat, in the country, according to accounts from people who have gotten out. I find this an impossible thought to assimilate - usually, at least after dictatorships fall, one finds out about the underground activity that was going on all along - it even happened in Nazi Germany - and I feel compelled to believe that of North Korea. It seems like the bleakest of all possibilities to contemplate that there can be a totalitarian state so complete as to staunch even private imaginative expression. But it also feels important to consider that possibility. This is what I love about Mike's criticism, that it's not only intellectually keen and curious, but never without a personal imprint, an eagerness to put the messy emotions and less-noble impulses and involuntary nerves and bruises on the page, too. I aspire to that.

It's late and this is getting lengthy, but a few more: Kathy Meizels' paper drawn from her thesis work on American Idol was typically strong - I've interviewed Kathy for my book, so I'll wait to remark on her ideas there; Daphne Carr presented some cool research on the Great Battle of Hot Topic among teen punks and wannabes; and Michaelangelo Matos had the brilliant idea of doing a reality check on the stereotype of the Bob Marley poster in the white kid's dorm room, highlighted by his interview with a couple who go around from campus to campus selling posters.

Wendy Fonarow talked charmingly about her "three zones" research on the psychogeography of the indie-scene club gig, which I've referenced here before - I need to read her book - updating it with some salient thoughts on how the cellphone-camera gig-documenting epidemic in zone 1 (the "pit" in front of the stage) is messing with the participatory dynamics there, moving the experience "into the future anterior," so that it's not about being there, but that tomorrow, "I will have been there."

I've already referred to Jesse Fuchs' paper on musical video games, which was a technical tour de force of game visuals and sounds. He argued that games can offer music context, causality, a blur of the listener-performer boundary, familiarity, educational purpose and decontextualization (appreciating music differently by engaging with it physically rather than aurally), and made a pitch for the value of the "honest fake" over "fake honesty" and the utopian impulse in game playing, an activity that's the opposite of work.

The conversation at the University of Washington on Friday evening, between the great hip-hop writer Jeff Chang and the music historian Gaye T. Johnson (whose research on the way the arrival of the Eighth Regimental Band from Mexico in New Orleans in the 1880s for the Cotton Exposition would influence black music in NOLA sounds fascinating) was just a delight, and included some very stirring discussion of the plight of New Orleans now, "the right of return" and "the imperative to forget." Their commitment, sensitivity and intellectual rigor were inspiring.

There's more, like RJ Smith's recreation of how the first incarnation of Destroy All Monsters (a proto-punk noise band with artists Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw) emerged from the post-sixties bummer of Detroit and Ann Arbor. Kembrew McLeod's uproarious recounting of how his tiny Virginia town became the butt of a Spin magazine prank in the post-grunge search for the "next Seattle." Simon Reynolds's paper talked about the way that techno goes through cycles in relationship to the city of London - that a new style will come out of London (usually meaning black London), and then it will get modified by DJs who are responding to the tastes of a more international (white) audience, and at some point that will reach a breaking point where someone feels the need to assert a London identity again, and often their response creates the next genre. The kind of thing that's obvious when pointed out but not beforehand. Meeting Simon at last was another of the Pop Con's pleasures.

Then there was Ned Sublette's call on the "Resurrecting New Orleans" panel that members of the Bush administration be "investigated, impeached, indicted, and incarcerated" for what they did and didn't do around hurricane Katrina, which does in some ways seem even more criminal than the Iraq war. I spent a long night in the hotel bar being regaled along with David Grubbs with Ned's tales of playing with Glenn Branca and LaMonte Young in the 1970s. Ned is an amazing, intoxicating raconteur.

But enough now. An affectionate hi to all the folks I got to meet at EMP this year, the old friends I got to spend too little time with, to Jake London and John Shaw for being my chauffeurs and tour guides to Seattle, and to those I wish I'd met and didn't find space or nerve to talk to, or whose papers I had to miss. Next year, the great spirit and Paul Allen willing.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 29 at 4:08 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

Freaks in the Forkways:
EMP Pop Con, Part 4

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I moderated a panel at the Pop Con called "Forks in the Folkways," unfortunately at the same time as the exciting "Rethinking Hip-Hop Roots" panel with Oliver Wang on boogaloo, Jeff Chang on the Latin sources of the breakbeat, Garnette Cadogan (whose acquaintance I was delighted to make over the weekend, a very quick, warm, learned and funny guy) on the Jamaican side of the story (which, as he mentioned to me, is a little more obvious to people in Toronto than it is to most Americans) and Joe Schloss on the Puerto Rican uprock antecedent to breakdancing. But I was proud of our panel, which included some of the best shit I heard all weekend. My friend Carl Zimring, an environmental historian who also happens to be a huge music geek, gave fascinating paper on Woody Guthrie's love of dams and other attitudes that separate (and historicize) his politics from what contemporary left-wingers (including Billy Bragg and Wilco) might assume he thought.

Meghan Drury Askins, who comes from the same small countercultural California town as Joanna Newsom, put her old schoolmate's music in the context of Nevada City history and psychogeography - for example the local river, which she points out appears in Newsom's songs as a place of respite and recharge; not to mention the fact that the outline of the county is deliberately drawn in the shape of a pistol pointing at a neighbouring county, in hommage to old historical resentments, which points up the place's ornery side. Scott Seward showed off his habitual blend of wit, knowledge and beautiful language in his paper on the folkie bent of much current extreme metal (not flinching from the way that folkie bent crosses over with Euro-metal's pagan-Aryan drift toward Nazism, but pointing out that worrying too much about the politics of guitar-obsessed dweebs who seldom leave their basements may be misplaced).

And the amazing Erik Davis, as always, managed to make topics hippies think about seem a million percent more intriguing. This time he brought his engaged scepticism to bear on "Freak Folk and the Analog Ethic," pointing out that unlike most analog fetishists who fixate on vinyl records, folks like Newsom and MVⅇ and, to some degree, Steve Albini, among others, look to analog as a practice, and by physically intertwining themselves with the inconveniences and slowness of analog methods, they take an impulse that appears like mere nostalgia and turn it into a lived reality. I can't do justice to the complexities of his talk (digital/analog as particle/wave, for example) because I didn't want to take notes up on the dias, but it was exactly the sort of thing that our imaginary crossdisciplinary Believer-styled music mag ought to publish; it sparked some great chat in the q-&-a period.

(To be continued...)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 29 at 2:27 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Good News for 'Sounds of the Ocean':
EMP Pop Con, Part 3

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My first two posts on EMP were a whole lot of meta-talk, but I think the meta-talk was one of the most invigorating parts of the event this year. One reason was that Robert Christgau was such a presence this year. In a way, the whole event and all this thinking about the future of music writing was in the shadow of the conflicts around Bob's firing at the Village Voice, and Bob was in a (deserved but amusingly odd) position of being the Pop Con's sort of patron martyr and saint. But I think finding himself turned into a freelancer also made him feel more than before that at EMP he's among his peers, so he was a less distanced observer. His contributions definitely helped liven things up, but I think a few people also felt intimidated out of participating in discussions, inhibited from arguing with his authoritative voice. That's probably inevitable at a gathering that brings together "big names" and small, and it's mostly a wonderful thing that Bob, like Greil Marcus and other star critics, comes out year after year to mingle.

Bob's own address was the essay manque for this year's VV Pazz & Jop poll, the first ever that he didn't preside over, and his thoughts on the rival Jackin' Pop poll that Michaelangelo Matos organized for the Idolator blog. (And in which I voted, while boycotting P&J; - Christgau, fyi, voted in both.) His talk included a lot of wise reflection with a smattering of generational crossfire, the flipside of Amy Phillips' remark about "the kids." I think Bob, too, was overgeneralizing. He was obviously right that a poll that skews younger might privilege "emergent" culture at the expense of the "residual" (TV on the Radio over Bob Dylan and the New York Dolls), but I think it's actually that younger critics have more diverse interests in terms of older culture - that is, practice a kind of "long tail" historicism, with less focused attention on the established canon and more time for other roots and rhizomes. What's more, those younger critics will be older someday too, and come to share Bob's interest in the long view. (Maybe I find this easier to see, being almost halfway in age between Bob and the whippersnappers he was fretting about.) Whether they/we will be able to get jobs at that point, of course, is less assured.

In the same panel, Daphne Brooks gave a beautiful, erudite paper about TV on the Radio's sonic black internationalism that made me want to give their album a fresh listen (although her mentions of their commonalities with Radiohead reminded me of other reasons I'm not so drawn to them).

Tim Quirk, the well-named, affable and charming executive from Rhapsody.com and singer for Too Much Joy, spoke about what the "universal jukebox," subscription-based model of music delivery might mean for the future of listening and "the economics of adoration." The upside is that it favours deep catalogue, transforming the industry term "turntable hit" (something that gets played a lot on radio but doesn't sell) from a perjorative to a goal; the downside is that it favours background music - especially "warm, upbeat acoustic troubadors." Several people voiced distress about the implications for black music, though Quirk pointed out that while he called his paper "Good News for Yo La Tengo" he could have called it "Good news for Luther Vandross." I'd say what's distressing is that this model disperses the marketing imperatives and pressures that can push pop toward novelty and surprise; that is, big hits could become less interesting.

">Jesse Fuchs (who'd earlier given a fantastic presentation on interactive music-based video games, from Parappa the Rapper to Guitar Hero) nailed it when he said that the paper should have been called "Good News for Brian Eno and 'Sounds of the Ocean.' " And bad news for Timbaland.

Incidentally,, in the closing session, Quirk also pointed out that music writers are in demand by such services to serve as guides and curators for subscribers. Which is a way of thinking about music for living. But it's not much of a way of writing about music, and that distinction matters to me much the way the distinction between foreground and background music does.

(To be continued...)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 29 at 2:04 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

The Death of Rumination?
EMP Pop Con, Part 2

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Ellen Willis, photographed by Jade Albert, circa 1981. Thanks to Rockcritics.com.

The other lunch sessions included the very touching tribute to Ellen Willis, where Bob Christgau, Ann Powers, Sasha Frere-Jones, Daphne Carr and others who had known or been very affected by Willis's work spoke affectingly about her and read various kick-ass passages of Willis's rock writing, which cries out for a comprehensive collection. She sounded like a formidable woman. Christgau, who had a relationship with Willis in the 1960s and renewed their friendship later in life, said, "People thought she was shy. She wasn't shy. She was thinking - and ignoring you."

And then there was the closing discussion, "On the Future of Thinking about Music for a Living." The story of this session has already been boiled down to the moment that Pitchfork's Amy Phillips said that kids don't read long pieces anymore and that if the writers in the room wanted to make a living they would have to learn to write very, very fast, for a market that wants information about music faster than they can listen to it, practically faster than it can be made. And then the room had a collective shitfit and Tom Kipp (a great thinker-without-portfolio) said, "We must not accept the death of rumination."

Part of what's wrong with how this story has been recounted is that Amy was interpreted as saying, "Pitchfork is gonna eat your lunch," whereas in fact her passionate tone definitely conveyed her own alarm at the situation. But it also omits a lot of the other responses to and anticipations of the same idea that came up at the session: The academics spoke about the increasing support in disciplines such as American Studies and Musicology for pop-music studies and a growing crossover with journalistic methodology (as in researching music by actually asking the musicians). Jody Rosen (of Slate and many other publications) talked about the publishing industry's hunger for non-fiction books - saying that he's written a book about Irving Berlin and the song White Christmas and has a contract for a book about an obscure 18th-century musical instrument (Benjamin Franklin's glass harmonica), and as a result he and his wife own an apartment in Brooklyn. If that sounds crass to you, you're not a critic - the future of thinking about music doesn't seem at all dark to me, but the question of making a living at it (and thus having time to do it deeply and well) is a fraught one indeed. Also, Douglas Wolk made a great, pithy point, that with the Internet, writers need to think of what they do less as making pronouncements and more as proposing conversations. (This is exactly why I started Zoilus.)

But Jody's point also spoke to the bigger context that I think Amy missed: If nobody wants to read about pop music, if nobody wants extensive analysis, why does the 33 1/3 series exist? Why does the Da Capo anthology exist? Why are there more high-quality books about all kinds of music being printed these days than ever before? I think what Amy sees from the Pitchfork vantage point is actually a lot of "kids" who never would have read in-depth pop criticism in the first place, and are using blogs and Pfork the way previous generations would have relied on John Peel or another favourite DJ, just as tip sheets for good new music. But other blog readers, the students in popular-culture courses, the buyers of those books, form the same passionate minority that's always been the critic's audience, and I suspect that mini-crowd is bigger now than before - maybe not as activated as in the 1970s, when rock crit as we know it was born because music was the overwhelmingly dominant force in youth culture, but still plenty healthy enough to give rumination a future. (Pretty Goes with Pretty has some parallel thoughts.)

However, to move that future in a direction that Pop Con types would like to see, as Eric Weisbard (the director of the conference) pointed out, the Pop Conference community, if we can call it that, also has the ability to band together. Josh Kun brought up one possible venue - the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg's Popular Music Project, which he directs, and which proposes to be "a one-stop home for the interdisciplinary study and analysis of popular music" and a "point of open contact between scholars, musicians, students, producers, musicians, engineers, critics, label chiefs, and of course, fans."

As well, though, there was some talk about trying to create a way for the people that EMP brings together to stay in touch and share their work between Pop Cons - apparently this happened once before, in the early years of the event, with the "Pop Talk" message board, which fizzled, but perhaps the time has come to reinvigorate that effort. The most exciting vision, though, would be to try to start a magazine - online or in print or both - that would talk about music in the terms and on the level that the Pop Conference inspires. The Believer has been brought up a couple of times as a model, and in fact the Pop Con is in discussion with that magazine about doing a collaborative issue sometime in the future. An ongoing magazine, obviously, would require a group of people to step up to plan, finance, edit and publish the thing - and it would have its own downside, no doubt factionalizing folks who felt included and those who didn't - but it's a dream worth dreaming.

As for those who say rumination has no future? Keep thinking - and ignore them.

(To be continued...)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 29 at 1:47 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

April 28, 2007

One Week After:
EMP Pop Con 2007, Part 1

I didn't get quite the mind-jolt from the Pop Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle this year that I have in the past. As always, it was an amazing event - the only place journalists, academics, some musicians and some industry people as well as a few thinkers-without-portfolio (like Internet fan-discussion group members) gather and exchange ideas and energies. I'm going to break my notes up into a series of more digestibly sized posts but this is really one long recap and reflection.

As I said, I didn't come away with quite the same high. I don't think it's because the presentations were any weaker, though I felt that many were less pointed - collections of intriguing material and analysis rather than arguments. It was partly because it was my third time, and also that I'm a bit worn out from busyness and wasn't as sparkable as usual. It may have been that the subject - about "time and place," geography and history in music - was, though worthy, by nature a little distancing and less likely to cause present-tense controversy and conflict.

But it was also because there were more panels scheduled - which meant that whenever you were hearing one speaker, you were missing three others, and that when you chatted with people at the conference, chances were that they hadn't heard any of the same presentations you had. So conversation was often limited to, "What have you heard that you liked?" rather than "What did you think of what so-and-so said?" I realize it's tough for the programming committee to reject so many submissions, but the number will likely only rise in future (the way proposals have risen for the 33 1/3 series, which along with the annual Da Capo Best Music Writing anthology is in some ways a print analogue of the Pop Con), but the value of the event - as of all criticism - is as much in the conversation it enables as in the presentations themselves, and that side should be nurtured just as diligently. The curators recognized this by scheduling three different discussion/plenary sessions and a presenters' afterparty (thanks, Matos!) on top of the opening and closing receptions, but the architecture of the conference also affects the content of those interactions.

For my part, I decided to propose a discussion session rather than a specific paper this year. It was called "Seeing Scenes: The Music Critic in Place." My idea was to talk about localism and partisanship as both fruitful strategies and conflict-ridden problems in critical practice. I partly used Toronto theatre-maker Darren O'Donnell's Q&A; format - getting individuals up one by one and letting the audience ask them anything they wanted on the theme - and then let that morph into a more free-form discussion. I was happy with how it went - a chance among other things to talk to non-Toronto folk about my somewhat-controversial place in promoting and analyzing things like Torontopia and Bad Bands - but there were some disappointments: First, predictably, it took awhile to get warmed up, and with the necessary time constraints, it felt like we had to end just when things were getting interesting. Second, a lot fewer folks in the room than I expected actually work as local rather than (as they say in the U.S.) "national" critics. I inadvertantly compounded that problem in my facilitation, as the people I knew personally and who were therefore the first to pitch in and help the talk get going were all "national" writers, although Ann Powers, for instance, had some really fascinating things to say about working in Los Angeles and feeling frustrated by the way the entertainment-industry agenda and her editors' need to drive eyeballs to their website prevent her from being able to engage with the city itself as much as she'd like. (With a nice sidebar on the fact that in L.A. the music business itself is "local.")

In the second half a few folks, such as Peter Scholtes of Minneapolis's City Pages (I love the name of his blog, by the way: "Complicated Fun") spoke up for the values of localism, saying that all music begins as local music and that if critics disdain getting their hands dirty in that arena - a lot of the critics present said they just didn't hear good music being made by local acts, for instance - then part of the ecosystem of how great music happens gets damaged. But mostly the localism idea (which to me is also a political proposal about the need as a citizen and an intellectual to be engaged with the community in which you're physically situated, not just in the notional and virtual communities of culture) was slighted in favour of a discussion about how friendly critics should be with their subjects. I felt like this was a misreading of my advocacy of "partisanship" and critical engagement with the artistic process, but probably an inevitable one. Robert Christgau intervened on the side of the predictable but worthy ideal of critical distance, saying that critics who don't maintain it are just bad critics. Ann asked, picking up on some points I'd made in my introduction, whether they might just be up to something different. Bob said, "No, I'll stick with bad." Which got a laugh, but was a bit difficult to answer without feeling like you'd be picking an unwinnable fight. (More about that in a second.) Still, it felt like the session stirred a few pots, and people said they enjoyed it.

(To be continued...)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 28 at 11:46 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

April 26, 2007

Blushing Announcement

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Hi there. My hiatus ended up a little lengthier than expected, and I won't be able to get to a Pop Conference recap till tomorrow (there were no major scandals), but wanted to pop in and mention that I'm taking part tonight in Coach House author, playwright and banjo player Sean Dixon's launch party for his new, first novel, The Girls Who Saw Everything. The launch is an "authorial banjoree," which will feature a bunch of writers, from Ann Marie MacDonald to RM Vaughn to yours truly and finally Mr. Dixon himself, among others, performing music. A sadistic and infernal scheme. Globe columnist Russell Smith will be spinning as DJ Roomtone. So if you want to witness me do two things I cannot really do, sing and play guitar, at the expense of a Mountain Goats tune and a Franklin Bruno song (two bits to those who suss the thematic), be at the Gladstone tonight. The other performers will be better. Doors are at 7 pm, show starts at 7:30, I'll be on somewhere between 8 and 8:30. Entry is gratis. More tomorrow.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 26 at 2:17 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

April 16, 2007

Farewells and Au Revoirs

RIP Tonic, the vital space for creative improvised music in New York. Nate Chinen has a fine, and sad, requiem in today's Times.

And I'll be taking a blog break for a few days as I get ready to head out to one of my favourite annual events, the Experience Music Project Pop Conference, a gathering of critics, academics, musicians and gadflies in Seattle, this year on the topic of "Waking Up From History: Music, Time, and Place," with Jonathan Lethem giving the keynote and other speakers including Sasha Frere Jones, Joshua Clover, Elizabeth Mendez Berry, Michael ("Eppy") Barthel, Mike McGonigal, Robert Christgau, Ann Powers, David Grubbs, Tim Hecker, Daphne Carr, Michaelangelo Matos, Douglas Wolk, Jeff Chang, Greil Marcus, Franklin Bruno, Ned Sublette, Oliver Wang, Erik Davis, Eric Weisbard and many more, including yours truly leading a bull session and moderating a panel. I'm going to try to do some live posting from the conference, which begins on Thursday, but it's a tight schedule, so most of my notes will probably be post-hoc. But the Pop Con always generates some provocative fodder. (Remember last year's Stephin Merritt Zipadeedoodah flap?) Hope to see some of you in Seattle, and see the rest of you back here in a few days.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 16 at 3:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

Help a Fella (on a Deadline) Out

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As I hammer away at the block of shape-shifting, slippery and yet unyielding granite/jello that will become a short book on Celine Dion and the dilemma of taste, I've been collecting examples of cover versions of songs that she's performed, in different styles - so far mostly of My Heart Will Go On. I've got punk, surf-guitar, Gregorian chant, techno-remix, and parody, but I could use more, and I'd like to get some that aren't My Heart Will Go On. (Ideally they'd be songs from Let's Talk About Love, since that album's the focus of the book, but they don't have to be.) Versions in other languages and any style that's not too close to her own are welcome. If you can send me mp3s or YouTube links and such, all the better, but if you just happen to know of one, that's fantastic too. (For the record, I already have the New Found Glory, Switchblade Kittens and Los Straitjackets versions, as well as the Illegal Art collage of Titanic samples with My Heart..., and someone's promised to send me the Sigur Ros mashup. Anyone have copies of the Vandals version, or the rumoured and possibly apocryphal Libertines version? The Weird Al parody?)

Much obliged, thanks.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 16 at 4:30 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

April 15, 2007

Nothing is Bulletproof

Last night, I felt lucky indeed to be present at the second night of the Toronto debut of the reconstituted Simply Saucer at Ciao Edie's, to witness Edgar Breau coyly quoting himself from the Cyborgs Revisited recording of Illegal Bodies: "This is a song about the future, when, unless you have a metal body, they're not gonna allow you to walk the streets." The small room was quite packed (considerably more than the previous night, I'm told) and there were plenty of high points to the set, including Dance the Mutation and Low Profile, but at least on this occasion, it didn't seem to me that this reborn group (which besides Breau includes original bassist Kevin Christoff and three new members) quite has the electricity it would need to sustain itself and do the 1970s material justice. Breau's still a guitar hero, but his singing has domesticated itself over the decades in ways that deprive it of the discarded-aluminum timbre it once had (an evolution that may or may not be associated with his embrace of family values and western civ in the intervening years), and the rhythms similarly never hit the funk-in-a-shambles (or shambles-in-a-funk) motorik spot that I associate with Saucer. Some of the new arrangements are attractive, but the reworking of Bulletproof Nothing (another in the Saucer top-five) stripped out the abjection of the original without quite arriving anywhere (I think they were going for a "pretty" version, but pretty really isn't the Saucer's forte). I'd happily go see them again, and look forward to the upcoming Half Human Half Live disc, which will bring us some unheard diamonds from the Saucer vaults, but it doesn't quite bring the legend to life. Of course, one might wonder whether the legend ever came across live or whether part of the sonic aura of the Saucer was actually constructed in the studio. I imagine their gigs were always kind of uneven, which would partially explain why they made such slow headway the first time around, beyond the standard account (also true, no doubt) of music-biz misprision. But of course it's also no surprise that there'd be a different chemistry between the gang of teens who united to become Saucer in mid-70s Hamilton and the mixed-age "project" that's been assembled 30 years later. Goes to show, you can't go home again, no matter how toxic and depressing home was to begin with. Witnessing the two-thirds-successful reunion of the Saucer also gives me new awe at the way the reunited Mission of Burma and Rocket from the Tombs managed to leave no gaps in their inhabitations of their past selves, to call forth those spirits as if it were as simple as swinging open a door. Watching Breau and co., you're more aware of the complexity of that manoeuvre, which is reason enough in itself to witness them. I hope they'll be back, albeit in a more hospitable venue (Sneaky Dee's? perhaps in a Wavelength show?).

(Later: A clip of Saucer playing Here Come the Cyborgs on Sat. night. There are several videos from Friday on that site too.)

Also, at the risk of continued accusations of local boosterism - wow, if you folks thought Sasha Frere Jones's New Yorker profile of Feist was adoring, brace yourself for the lovefeistfest that is today's Jon Pareles piece on Ms. Leslie, the lead of the NY Times' Sunday Arts section. I've yet to hear the album that's causing all the fuss, The Reminder, but if you haven't seen the video, whose shooting frames Pareles' article, do yourself a favour. Mushaboom and the Bee Gees cover aside, I wasn't a fan of Let It Die, but if 1 2 3 4's any indication, I am about to be dunked in the waters and born again.

| Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 15 at 6:04 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

April 13, 2007

Hometown Chuffedness

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.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, April 13 at 4:04 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (25)

 

April 11, 2007

Hey Hey, We're the Glee Club

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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.

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 11 at 11:27 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

April 10, 2007

The Bad, the Crap, the Trash and the Frame

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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.

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, April 10 at 9:39 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

It's Official: Boss-a-Nova Mania

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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.

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, April 10 at 4:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (17)

 

The Torontoner?

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.

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, April 10 at 1:43 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

April 7, 2007

'Bad,' Meet 'Crap':
Can 'Crime-Against-Humanity Art' Be Far Behind?

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.

| Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 07 at 9:52 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)

 

Genuine Fakes

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.)

| Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 07 at 2:40 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

April 4, 2007

Turning Around on Rirkrit Tiravanija

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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).

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 04 at 11:55 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

A Close Shaver

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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.

Chris Frey has a valuable piece about how copyright issues are hobbling documentary filmmakers, related to the Open Source Cinema link I posted on Monday.

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."

| Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 04 at 2:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

April 2, 2007

Omnium Gatherum: Vocal Noise, Scream 4 Streams,
Tune-Troubling Authors & Soul Truffles

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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!

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 02 at 7:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson