by carl wilson

March 27, 2008

Au Claire de l'Histoire:
Recording History Revised

Music history, or at least the history of recording technology, is re-made today with the publication of Zoilus friend and ace anachronist Jody Rosen's A1 piece in The New York Times about the discovery of an 1860 "sound recording" that pre-dates the famous Edison "Mary Had a Little Lamb" side by decades.

The twist is that the "phonautogram" technology involved was a development in sound recording but not in sound reproduction, leaving our Benjaminesque paradigms in place. So history has been excitingly footnoted more than rewritten, I suppose.

Nevertheless, it's fascinating as an instance of how current technology is able to lend new meaning to past technology - it's an artifact that only gains significance now, when there's a way to translate it back into sound via digitization. I'm really curious what else is in the archive of what was done with phaunotogramophony. What parallel developments can we imagine with other dead-end retro-explorations if they were re-examined by current science? (I'm sure there must be hardcore-science equivalents, eg., revisiting naturalist observation of the 19th century with current software... scientists out there?) It's all very steampunk!

It does make me think of, for instance, Colin Nancarrow's work with player-piano rolls
or the digital reproduction of Glenn Gould performances on magical robot pianos.

On a personal note, I'm tickled that the piece of music in question, "Au claire de la lune" - and by the way, I suggest you listen to the later NYT mp3 example first, as it makes the 1860 one more comprehensible - is the one French songs all English-Canadians know from FSL classes (aside from "O Canada" en francais, I suppose, as well as "Frere Jacques" [pardon the lack of accents but they're a bitch to program at 2 a.m.] which everybody knows). Recorded music and bad French singing in Grade 9 share some DNA.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, March 27 at 12:38 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)


March 25, 2008

Survey: Hello, Turrronnto!
(Goodbye, Gig Guide?)

I have a question: How much do local readers use the Zoilus "gig guide" nowadays? I ask because, as you might have noticed, it's gotten tougher for me and my little team of helpers to keep up with the listings the past few months, as we've all been extra-busy. Would you be just as happy with just a list of upcoming highlights (perhaps an expanded version of the "top shows" list in the sidebar to your left?) or is the comprehensive list still important to you? Please advise in the comments - thanks!

(PS: The first draft of the April calendar is now up and there are tons of exciting things coming our way. Send in your additions and amendments too.)

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, March 25 at 2:03 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (27)


March 21, 2008


From an email I got this afternoon (at random, I assume) from Atlanta-based BREAK magazine. It seems kind of worth repeating as a snapshot of the music-journalism game 2008.

My question: Is anyone actually getting $2500 to post an MP3?

"Since you are an avid supporter of BREAK, we would like to introduce to you first PUSHIN. To learn more about this exciting opportunity, I've attached a detailed media kit explaining more about this new venture. This is an innovative project and unprecedented on today's underground scene. The complete PUSHIN experience kicks off in April of this year. And don't say that I left you in the dark! This initiative is going down major and you should reserve your slot in the hottest new Indie rag on the streets today, and perform @ the PUSHIN Showcase/Launch Party, get featured in the PUSHIN Mix CD, and receive an MP3 PUSH for $400.00.

"Think about this: you pay XYZ publication $200-$300 for a feature, a showcase promoter $500-$1000 to perform, a mix CD promoter $300 for a feature, and an online promoter $125-$2500 for 1 MP3 Blast. On average that's about $2500.00! BREAK Media Group has proven that we can put together a scorching hot publication, produce scorching hot showcases, and put out fire hot email blasts! And now you can get all that and more for $400.00. Now who's really down for the independent artists PUSHIN to get a BREAK?

"Why be in the PUSHIN' section? Because the industry is watching! You will be featured in 2500, full color/full size glossy magazines that will be distributed throughout the nation, and your story will be blasted to over 60,000 industry contacts beginning in April. Through BREAK Magazine and PUSHIN, your story will be told the right way!"

General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, March 21 at 4:52 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


March 18, 2008

Conduction Junction, What's Your Funktion?

Greg Tate conducts Burnt Sugar at the Bowery Poetry Club in September. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

Prior to next Thursday's gig by New York's Bitches' Brew-wrestles-Sun Ra-on-Funkadelic's-trampoline ensemble Burnt Sugar at the Lula Lounge, there's going to be a workshop in which leader Greg Tate (perhaps the writer most responsible for making me want to do music criticism - get this book back in print!) and members of his "mojosexual cotillion" will school Torontonians in the fine art of "conduction," the alphabet of hand and baton gestures developed by Butch Morris to turn conducting into a method of improvised composition. It's a participatory workshop (bring your instruments), starts at 6:30 pm on March 26, and entry is $20 (or $30 with a ticket to the show, which otherwise would run $20 on its own) and spaces are limited: To register, holler at synaptic_circus at yahoo dot com.

Which reminds me that I haven't gotten around to touting Dave Clark's recent book, How to Conduct ... Yourself!, a more laid-back rundown of creative conducting techniques by the drummer and leader of Toronto's own Woodchoppers' Association, the anarchic improvising orchestra. It's an entertaining intro (with bright full-colour photographs of Clark cheerfully demonstrating his moves) to conducting for the baton-shy, and does a great job illustrating what creative guidance can add to ensemble playing. It makes you want to start conducting everyone you know - do the dishes more sweetly!, bring the conversation to a crescendo now!.

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, March 18 at 4:49 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)


March 17, 2008

A Compressed Thought

Jake's comment on that Deerhoof-and-silence/dynamics post from last week: "If everyone digs music with dynamic shifts, why do so few of us make it?"

He blames it, basically, on indiscipline and ego. But today it occurred to me that it might relate to the great debate about compression - both the kind of compression that shrinks songs down into mp3s and the kind that makes all the records on the radio go to 11, all the time. If most of the music people hear has its dynamics all squashed together, that becomes the kind of music they want to make. Or are at least afraid not to make, which may be the psychological dynamic Jake is observing.

And this seems as good a point as any to point to Carl the Impostume's two superb posts about Pere Ubu (one and two), who understood that if you wanted to make your guitars "sound like a nuclear destruction" you first had to get "a ticket to the sonic reduction."

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, March 17 at 5:33 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)


Three or Four Goats out of Five?

Centre, John Darnielle; right, Peter Hughes; lower middle, drummer Jon Wurster.
Rear, just nudging into the frame: that missing star from my Blender review.

My review of The Mountain Goats' Heretic Pride, written two months ago, is finally up on the Blender site. Magazine time takes time to get in tune with. Also, looking through this month's review section I decidedly feel like I underrated the record: nothing wrong with the writeup itself (well, one thing, which I'll get to) but it should have been four stars instead of three. This is one of the flaws of the starring system quite apart from the reductiveness and near-meaninglessness of it: Unless you're the editor and can compare how every writer is rating records, each of us are using a star system in our minds and that adds up to an incoherent syntax. For example, here's Xgau giving Ottawa's Kathleen Edwards a thanks-but-no-thanks review. Three stars. Meanwhile I had in mind more the question, "How does this record rank among Mountain Goats records?" because I assume that relative to most records, every TMGs record is a five-star record. I was thinking, "If Sunset Tree and Sweden are five-star TMGs records and maybe Get Lonely and Nine Black Poppies are four-star TMGs records, then maybe this and Nothing For Juice are three-star TMGs records."

I may have been "wrong" about that - it earns four stars relative to TMGs norms, I feel now (stars are all about mouth-feel, or the aural equivalent) - but not no-better-than-Pride-Tiger wrong.

On more substantive grounds, the following thoughts got left out or muddled by space squeeze: First, I wanted to say that fans might end up calling Heretic Pride "the drums record," unless touring and all the fan enthusiasm over "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" makes the next one even more of a drums record. Second, in the review I ended up saying, "The mixture of corrupters and corruptees helps Darnielle explore the nature of evil without losing his sense of humor." This is not quite what I meant. Rather, what helps him do that is the mixture of a psychological naturalism (albeit an expressionistic one) with imagery and characters from genres that either reject or don't bother with psychology (such as horror and fantasy). It's like Ibsen or Strindberg being directed by Roger Corman or Russ Meyer. Things that would be too overwhelming to face become approachable because they are situated "In the Craters on the Moon" (which I've lately come to consider less an Iraq song than a New Orleans song, though I know that it isn't "really" either one) or in a comic book or a pulp novel. (Even "San Bernadino" almost, almost, seems like it could be set in a Harlequin-style romance. "Marduk T-Shirt Men's Room Incident," on the other hand, doesn't allow any such outs; only its elliptical lyrical style prevents it from being unbearable.)

Finally, "succumb, willingly or not, to corruption" is an understatement of what happens in many of these songs. I hadn't been living with the record long enough when I wrote it to understand that the "heretic pride" of the title, as I and others have discussed before, has to do with characters throwing themselves willfully, sometimes almost gleefully, into the flames (in at least one song, literally so) - affirming their humanity, even if they can affirm nothing else.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, March 17 at 4:14 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


March 15, 2008

Istvan Kantor's Transmission Machine:
Message (Redundantly) Received

Istvan Kantor was formerly known as Monty Cantsin, although of course he wasn't the only artist to use that Neoist multiple identity, just the only one who angrily claimed to be the "real" Monty Cantsin, which is a fine showcase of Kantor's persistent deafness to his own contradictions. I went to see his latest work, a showcase called Transmission Machine last night at the Theatre Centre in Toronto as part of the Free Fall performance-art festival, and I think my arm candy (as she likes me to call her) put it best when she said afterwards, "Why does the theatre of the oppressed always have to be so oppressive?"

[ continued after the jump ... ]

Kantor's got a reactor's worth of energy - constantly on the move except when doing a headstand on a long stainless-steel sink, burning off excess calories by trashing furniture seemingly at random. By any means necessary he'll make sure you can't ignore him, which explains why he's forever splattering his blood on valuable paintings in museums and galleries and, everywhere else, setting shit on fire. (His bio for Free Fall points out that he is probably the sole person ever simultaneously banned from the AGO and Sneaky Dee's.) As he must be in his mid-50s or so, the vigour is impressive, but all that drive is directed down the "shock art" dead end of masculinist modernism, with self-glorifying-martyr crap fully intact.

My favourite section of the show was the opening monologue, in which Kantor narrated his life story - that he came from Budapest, but before that he was a "monolith that was really a filing cabinet" (using a black cabinet on stage to illustrate this creation myth) as well as Wilhelm Reich and other historical figures - and reached the point of describing the past 60 years as an era of "mental gentrification" in which "broadcast imperialism" has forced all other elements of life to the margins in favour of the "shiny" - the remaking of reality on the model of the television screen, for example in the AGO's current renovation with a new titanium facade courtesy of Frank Gehry and Damien Hirst's $100-million diamond-encrusted skull.

And then Kantor went on a spree of very shiny fire-setting and giant-video-screen projections (okay, he does throw paint on the video screens at the end), with a crew of videographers and photographers following him around the stage documenting the performance and not inserting "broadcast imperialism" between us and him. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that this was intentional, which is generous considering what followed.

What followed was sound and fury and the fumes of burning gas, giving us three kinds of headaches, as Kantor tried to analogize broadcast imperialism and neighbourhood gentrification in Toronto, in speech and video (a hokey bunch of actors playing "developers" stalking Kantor's neighbourhood) and song (a ditty called "I love the stench"). He set himself up as a paragon of "the poor," falling into the usual but nevertheless irksome pattern of blithely equating the voluntary poverty of the artist with the unchosen poverty of poor people. And what's to be done? Well, "revolution," though by the time he's tangled his red flag (literally) around his head three or four times, you get that he knows the non-ness of this answer, but he sticks to it because it sounds exciting despite its void credibility (which you'd think someone from Budapest might have realized quicker). Along the way he elaborately, through video images, compared gentrification both to torture with electrification and, here it comes, to Nazi genocide. (Good ol' reductio ad Hitler, or Hitler ex machima if you prefer.)

The show ended with Kantor inviting members of the audience to come up on stage with him as "revolutionaries" and the others to make a "ratatat-tat" machine-gun sound, "executing" them. It was kinda fun, as goofy group-participation exercises are, even when they're a dispiriting wallow in futility.

That moment at least had some gentle conviviality to it, as opposed to the ego-on-performance-art-cliche-amphetamines of the previous hour. More than the shallow analysis, what's maddening is, given the anti-sociality of the problem he's addressing, the unexamined way in which he tries to attack it with more anti-sociality. Cute as the "stench" song was, praising the noise, pollution and violence poor people are forced to live with "because it keeps the developers away" is revolting, and it only keeps the developers away till there's a buck to be made - as is the case currently in Kantor's nabe of "dirty Bloor West," which is where the art galleries fleeing high rent on Queen West are about to relocate.

The real-estate regime - which Kantor, with 1980s-punk-zine panache, dubbed "the Rentagon" - goes unchecked because there's no public will to develop neighbourhoods any other way. Private interests are quite willing to bulldoze their way through social and architectural dysfunction, since that all makes land and buildings cheap enough to turn a tidy profit. Meanwhile government and political formations aggressively neglect those areas. The Rentagon would be undermined by efforts to bring healthy development to people and places that need it while preserving affordable housing (ideally owned by the residents) and services - efforts not sexy and politically profitable enough to be worth the bother.

By mirroring the black-and-white view that places and cultures must by nature be either unlivable shitholes or yuppie palisades in the rhetoric and symbolism of his show - it's either Hitler or revolution, it's either quiescence or red flags and fire and furniture-smashing - Kantor is just re-enacting the logic of gentrification, not to mention repeating 20th-century avant-gardism as farce.

That's always been my reaction to his stuff, but last night I at least appreciated some of his countervailing eccentric charm. It was much better when he was dancing around and singing a kooky, Cabaret-style song about the cities he lived in before "a beautiful prophetess" lured him to Toronto and the subsequent birth of his kids, or showing off his admirable upper-body strength and balancing skills doing headstands. Because when he tries out the acrobatics of thinking, Kantor just crashes jarringly onto the audience's last nerve.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, March 15 at 8:44 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)


March 6, 2008

Printably Yours

A nice press day for my book today, with an interview in The Onion AV Club (with its catty comments section) and a review on The Guardian's music blog.

Meanwhile in today's Globe, Robert Everett-Green and I handicap Canadian Music Week. (Some of my prose there is pretty hasty-wastey, but the choices themselves are more considered.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, March 06 at 1:19 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)


'Hoof Has Seen the Wind:
On Deerhoof and Silences

I haven't had time/energy to see many live shows so far in '08, and wasn't especially regretting it. Aside from the head-detonating Veda Hille/The Fits/Tomboyfriend concert at the Gladstone a couple of weeks ago, and that Baby Dee snowstorm-night jamboree a couple of weeks before that, there hasn't been much to motivate me to drag my sorry ass out into this sorry, ass-dragging winter when I could be having lambchops and wine and reading or whatevering in my apartment. Thus I was millimetres away from skipping tonight's Deerhoof spectacle at the Phoenix, as part of the opening-night showcase of Canadian Music Week, even though I deeply love the band and had never (shocking admission) seen them, no doubt due to similarly short-sighted past decisions. That mistake was averted thanks to Jonny Dovercourt staring at me in disbelief earlier this evening when I mentioned that I was feeling too tired to go. Ah, good old shame!

You already know this, no doubt, but Deerhoof is the kind of band that makes you wonder how you ever felt going to see live music could be a chore. It's not just the three-rock-dudes-and-one-diminutive-pixie-singer dynamic; or bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki's theatricality (her stillness which explodes into thrashing, her secret semaphore-mime coded hand signals, the deadpan affect that makes her cooing, chirping voice seem to be piped in from Erewhon); or the extraordinary musicianship of the whole ensemble (especially the Keith Moon-meets-Han Bennink drumming of Greg Saunier); or the way that somehow '80s Tokyo noise-rock, jazz-exotica, prog, post-punk, mod 60s garage, no-wave, J-pop, Bartok, Zorn, Braxton and sugar-cereal commercial jingles all seem to soul-kiss in their music. It's not the catchiness of a music that plots in so many ways against catchiness. It's not even the light show, which consisted of a large light-emitting spinning propeller and a series of garbage-can-lids-on-light-stands that all together seemed (can this be right?) to be a sound visualizer, triggered by the peaks and valleys and frequencies of the music, like a multipart mechanical oscilloscope.

No, it's those peaks and valleys themselves, and most especially the deep valleys - that is, the silences, pauses, dead stops, 180-degree turns. It's the silences, I think, that account for the accessibility and memorability of a music so complicated as Deerhoof's, with its multiple time signatures, generic shifts, surprising dynamics and modal melodic meanderings. While stubbornly refusing to "add up" to a standard rock song, Deerhoof music respects the fact that the ear is apt to be overloaded and overcrowded by what they do, and so they build in rest stops that almost magically boost the listener's capacity to take all the content in. And at the same time of course all the stops and silences act as a tease, building anticipation so that when the music comes, it seems to gush back in a rush, a sexual release (albeit an animated-cartoon sexual release in Deerhoof's case). It's not just a gimmick they use here and there - Deerhoof plays silences all the friggin' time, as much a building block of their sound as Saunier's bruising kick drum or Matsuzaki's trilling coo. It's the simplest answer (though of course there is no simple answer) to the question that hearing this group inevitably raises: Why can't more bands do this? Why can't live music always be this transporting? Because too few musicians realize that they are architects.

The live rock bands that have had a similar effect on me psycho-somatically, that feeling of out-of-body transport and transcendence, by the way, all share Deerhoof's propensity for stop-start dynamics: the Pixies way back in their first incarnation, 1980s and 1990s-era Pere Ubu (not, at least the last time I saw them, the current version), The Ex, the Dogfaced Hermans, God Is My Copilot, Fugazi and even Bruce Springsteen. (For an easy example, think about "Rosalita.") In other genres - because, for example, of syncopation - that stop-start space is effectively built into the rhythms and polyrhythms - what is funk but a stop-start beat layered over a stop-start? There's "the 1" and then there's not the 1. I'll stop speculating before my musicological limits become apparent, but I'll extend the question psychologically and philosophically: Why, in noisy music, do separations and silences become so important? There's the need I already raised for suspense and release, for contrast, for relief from outbursts of ecstasy, but in some ways loud-quiet-loud forms, way over-used since Nirvana, serve those purposes.

My guess is that the power of silence also has to do with the character of consciousness and experience. Consciousness is not a continuous process, but a chain of discrete moments forever vanishing before we can get hold of them - in a sense, of experiences slipping away before they are truly experienced. It's always now, and now and now and now, and as the bulk of Eastern thought and religion informs us, one of the basic dilemmas of life is that we seldom feel "in" that now: its elusiveness is its essence. It doesn't disappear by dwindling away, by cresting and falling, but always all of a sudden: This instant, this second, this hour, this day is "now" but in the time it takes to note that fact, the instant is now "then." As a survival mechanism, our minds create a continuity out of it, the way our optical processes narrate the discrete frames of cinema, stillness becoming an illusion of movement, but this is a constant, perhaps exhausting subconscious effort. Experience is as much made of total breaks, of gaps and aporias, as it is of content. Music, like (almost) all art, takes the chaos of experience and makes something more coherent of it because it has form - even the most abstract art has greater structure than the experience of consciousness. (Although it also might have more freedom than social experience, with its daily routines, etc. - a combination that helps account for its pleasure.) So perhaps this meta-genre of "stop-start" art feels especially elevating because it returns the fragmented experience of life to us, magnified and exaggerated, so that what feels day to day as a frustrating limitation of the mind can be transformed into a hosannah of glorious affirmation: "Praise be to the gap, to the disappearance and reappearance of the moment! What a miracle that time annihilates itself, because, behold, it also spontaneously regenerates in the very moment of its demise! What a happy universe in which a black hole becomes a big bang every instant! Let us observe it in slow-motion replay, and dance!"

And the delightful paradox is the way that the sudden stops and gaps superficially make everything feel more chaotic, but in fact are a rigid form of organization: You're hearing a song that consists of six different emotional tones, time-signatures and practically six whole different genres, and it seems like the silences are the knife-blade shredding them in an indifferent blender, but then you're flabbergasted to realize that these silences keep coming in the exact same place in the sequence, on the seventh beat of a thirteen-beat pattern, and this means that the musicians are marching in military discipline, their minds having to be synched to all these subtle patterns and kicking in formation like a can-can line, at the same time as the music is evoking the most interior experience of existential disjunct. As great music always does, they're taking privacy and making it social again.

So, er, way to go, Deerhoof.

By the time I got to the Phoenix (hey, mediocre venue, but aptly named!), I'd missed the first few bands (including intriguing locals ">Ten Kens, who've managed to elude most music writers' tracking systems till now, though they've been gaming world conquest in their lair awhile and their record, as Zoilus readers might like to know, was produced by Colin Stewart, who's helmed the board for among others Destroyer's This Night and Veda Hille). But I did see much-blogzzed-about (and, to be fair, New-Yorkerzzed about) L.A. duo No Age, who were affable kids with great energy and occasional songs. At their best, they're part of the current Jesus & Mary Chain revival but without the po'face, as if the Jesus & Mary Chain had been part of the Gilman Street punk scene in San Francisco - indeed, with youthy yelly exuberance such that I could almost imagine them as misplaced Torontopians, or more specifically drummer/vocalist Dean Spunt as Matt Collins from Ninja High School. I liked the way Spunt played riffs on his drums rather than just beats, and the way those riffs interacted with Randy Randall's tidier-than-they-seemed guitar figures, and the way they deploy electronics almost as a subversive stealth agent, and the way they sound even live like you're hearing them on a low-bandwith YouTube video, and the way occasionally that all added up, with the yelling, to an anthemic feeling. I like them best when they yell together so that what felt like bratty mischief suddenly seems like a conspiracy. But they'd go down a lot better at their home base at The Smell in L.A., or any cramped intimate room, with an audience of friends, than they did shouting "how are you feeling, Toronto?" on a slushy March night in the oversized pickup-joint that is the Phoenix with an audience of winter-weary Toronto Deerhoof fans and CMW takin'-care-of-businessers who spent their set wondering why they bother to come to see live music.

And No Age might sound a lot better if they found out that little secret about silence.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, March 06 at 2:08 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)


March 3, 2008

Guitars Everywhere Weep: Jeff Healey, RIP

Very sad. Jeff Healey, who died yesterday, was, of course, a great contributor to the Canadian music scene on every level, making his name with electric-blues and soft-rock ballads but moving on later in life to a devotion to pre-war-style jazz. He was the proprieter of Healey's Roadhouse and by all accounts a total mensch; he was only 41; he fought cancer literally all of his life (it blinded him in infancy); and it really isn't fair.

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Monday, March 03 at 6:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


Zoilus by Carl Wilson