by carl wilson

February 24, 2009

"Curiouser and Curiouser!" cried Alice

celine_album.jpg stephen_colbert.jpg

Uh. Huh. Wed., March 4, 11:30 pm EST, on The Comedy Network and Comedy Central.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 24 at 7:59 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (30)


February 23, 2009

James Franco Journeys to the End of Taste
(a.k.a. Strangest Day Ever)

I woke up this morning to various emails and frantic Facebook "wall messages" conveying the news that James Franco (Sean Penn's boyfriend in Milk, Peter Parker's frenemy in Spider-Man and, of course, bad-boy Daniel in Freaks and Geeks) name-checked my book on the Oscars red carpet last night. Turns out that not only did he mention it, he gave it a more on-point quick summary than almost any of the reviewers.

Now, besides acting and preparing for his bar mitzvah (as he discussed earlier in that interview), Franco's currently doing simultaneous MFA's at Columbia and NYU, so it's not really so weird (however it feels to me!) that he's plugged into stuff like this. I hope he passes the book along to a few of his Hollywood friends - the movie industry could stand to unthink some of its assumptions about the "mass" audience versus the "prestige" audience, no?

PS: Apologies to Idolator for ripping off their headline, but I just loved it too much.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, February 23 at 2:22 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)


February 19, 2009

The Secret Love Affair
of Speech and Song: A History

Saxophonist Leon Kingstone introduces Charles Spearin's "Mrs. Morris" in the middle of a Broken Social Scene concert.

Following up on my piece last week about Charles Spearin's The Happiness Project, in which he turns the cadences of his neighbours' conversations about happiness into the melodies and rhythms of songs, I've put together a quick (well, not so quick) cultural history on how musicians have tried to transform human speech into music through the ages (but particularly, often thanks to technology, in the 20th century).

[ ... continues on the jump ...]

Caveats: In places my knowledge of these instances is not deep, and any corrections of fact are welcome. I know I left out talkboxes, vocoders and other voice-processing stuff from the '70s to today - that's the subject of a future, more substantive project. Plus, I've moved some of my general remarks from the original version of this post to the end, for efficiency's sake. Future posts might cover some omitted examples, especially with your help.

Prehistory to Gutenberg: Chant, lyric, epic
Sacred texts and epic poetry in many cultures are transmitted orally as chant/song long before they are written down, from the Hindu Vedas to Homer's Odyssey to Gregorian chant. The Vedas, in particular, use a tonal system that places them very much in the twilight zone between speech and song.

Mantra Pushpam - Vedic Hymns: This mantra is from Taithreeya Aranyakam of the Yajur Veda.

c. 8th-13th Century: African talking drums
Griots in the ancient Ghana empire use drums whose tones imitate speech to communicate across distance in villages; even in their musical use in various places in Africa they operate with a kind of grammar related to language, though of course they can be and often are played without reference to those systems.

Nigerian-born drummer Rasaki Aladokun, "Master of the Talking Drum" and former King Sunny Ade accompanist, demonstrates and explains.

1580s: Florentine Camerata, monody
Renaissance humanists in Florence create more intelligible vocal style (voice-and-accompaniment rather than polyphony) to emulate their suppositions of how ancient Greek drama was spoken-sung (their suppositions were wrong, but...); an influence on operatic aria and recitative in particular (and western musical history in general).

Giulio Caccini (c.1550-1680), "Amor, io parto," for soprano voice, from "Le nuove musiche, 1601" set on an anonymous text (Montserrat Figueras, soprano; Hopkinson Smith, baroque guitar; Harmonia Mundi).

1868: Modest Mussorgsky, Zhenitba
Russian composer attempts to write opera in heightened but naturalistic speech patterns; he abandons it after Act 1 but uses a moderated version of the technique in later works such as Boris Godunov.

Boris Christoff in the death scene from Boris Godunov. Vienna, 1980s.

1904: Leos Janacek, Jenufa
Moravian composer incorporates his own notation of local "speech melodies" into his opera, though how directly he did so remains a debate among musicologists.

The end of the first act of Janacek's Jenufa from The National Theatre in Prague in 2005 with Tomas Cerny and Dana Buresova.

The great Czech violinist-vocalist Iva Bittova sings Janacek's song "Muzikanti" (Musicians) from "Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs" (Moravska lidova poezie v pisnich) with the Skampa Quartet. See a past Zoilus post about Bittova.

1912: Arnold Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire
German modernist composer uses sprechstimme ("spoken voice") as a less-tonal extension of traditional recitative; the technique is taken up by Alban Berg in operas such as Lulu.

Glenn Gould & Patricia Rideout perform Pierrot Lunaire on the CBC in 1975.

1914: F.T. Marinetti, Zang Tumb Tumb
Italian Futurist leader performs manic nonsense-syllable sound poem, which influences Luigi Rossolo's "art of noise" as well as Dadaists such as Kurt Schwitters, whose Ursonate (1922-1932) extends sound poetry into four movements of gibberish lasting nearly 45 minutes (though today, Canadian poet Christian Bök can perform it in under 19 minutes, from memory - download from UBU Web).



Christian Bök covers a sound poem in Icelandic (a language he does not speak).

1920s Wah-Wah sounds in jazz.
Jazz solos using mutes and hand flutters over the end of a horn create a sing-talk kind of wah-wah sound, often to humorous effect. Often heard in Duke Ellington's band, for interest. The "wah-wah" pedal later achieves this for guitar.

1943: Harry Partch, U.S. Highball
As many of you will know, this midcentury American eccentric invented a microtonal 43-tone harmonic system and a host of bizarrely beautiful junkyard instruments to play them. What's less known is that Partch's initial motivation was to find a music that could better capture the subtle melodies of speech - to actually score the way people ordinarily talk, rather than (as most of the composers in this list do) "rounding" their tones off to the nearest standard instrumental note. This piece based on overheard hobo dialogue is one of the finest examples.

Partch's piece performed & discussed by Robert Osborne.

1951: Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, Symphonie pour un homme seul
Musique-concrete innovators incorporate speaking voices along with other "unmusical" sound in compositions for records, tape, mixers, soon followed by others such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Gyorgy Ligeti and John Cage. (For some reason embedding is turned off for this video, which on YouTube is also misattributed to Yoko Ono.)

1957: The bebop/beat-poetry connection.
This year marks the first "jazz poetry" reading at the Circle in the Square, with David Amram and Jack Kerouac. Ken Nordine releases the first of his Word Jazz albums, which explicitly attempt to reproduce the effects of bop in prosody. The jazz-poetry practice (which I should note was presaged by scat singing and Lord Buckley, and one might try to get Vachel Lindsay [though that poet-performer, with his racist views, viscerally disliked jazz] and the Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes in too) becomes clichéd so rapidly that it's being parodied already in the following year's B-movies and TV (like High School Confidential and Peter Gunn - "there ain't no jelly doughnut!") and would soon be a staple of sixties sitcoms from The Munsters to Petticoat Junction, not to mention ongoing Dobie Gillis character Maynard G. Krebs.

Amram recalls the Circle in the Square reading in a TV news segment decades later.

Ken Nordine's "Colors".

Ornette Coleman with an unidentified reader (Kenneth Patchen? Herbert Huncke?) and percussionist, while Allen Ginsberg looks on, date unknown.

1960: Charles Mingus & Eric Dolphy, "What Love?"
Two jazz masters take a playful approach to imitating speech on their instruments in several early '60s cuts; this one in which Mingus's bass "argues" with Dolphy's bass clarinet, from Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (one of my favourite records), is the best-known. Sadly I can't find video evidence online, but if you have or download the recording, go to about 8:30 in the 15-minute track to hear the start of their dispute, though the most uncanny highlights come at about 11 minutes in, here's the relevant section - the interplay becomes more intensely dialogic as it goes on.

What Love? (excerpt)

1960: Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite
Roach's jazz landmark not only united bop and African music, poetry and protest, but in the cadences of many of Abbey Lincoln's performances, linked African-American song to the style of political speech in the Civil Rights Movement.

1965: Steve Reich, "It's Gonna Rain"
American Minimalist pioneer plays two identical tape loops of an apocalyptic Pentecostal preacher out of phase so that his voice gradually begins creating overtones and contrapuntal rhythms with itself - an influence on much voice-based work to follow, including David Byrne & Brian Eno's vocal-sample-based tracks on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, most obviously "Help Me Somebody."

A documentary clip about this period in Reich's work.

1967: You're in Love, Charlie Brown
The muted-horn, jazz wah-wah technique is adapted by Bill Melendez, the producer of the Peanuts TV specials, for the "Charlie Brown's teacher" voice. The incomprehensible (usually scolding) blather of adult talk was actually played on trombone: "Composer John Scott Trotter directed his trombonist to 'enunciate' the teacher's dialog as though it were a trombone riff. Trotter did a great job... he would read the teacher's line, e.g., 'Linus, where's your homework?' then direct the trombonist to repeat Trotter's inflection through his instrument." Here's a clip. (Go to about 1:20.) And here's a pure blast of Peanuts wah-wah adultspeak:

Charlie Brown's teacher voice.

I mention this one partly because Spearin told me it was an influence on The Happiness Project, the first place he'd heard an instrument used to simulate dialogue. As a kid, he would listen to his parents' conversations, often not knowing or caring what they were talking about, and listen to low-pitched Dad and high-pitched Mom as if they were two Peanuts voices singing a duet.

1970: Alvin Lucier, "I Am Sitting in a Room"
Composer recites text into tape recording, plays it back to re-record it, over and over, until the text is swallowed up in echoes and resonance and becomes pure tone. Another seminal track in contemporary music and sound art.

A dance-video interpretation of Lucier's work.

1970s African-American spoken word and diasporic dub poetry.
From militant black nationalist vocal group The Last Poets (who called their music "jazzoetry") to soul poet Gil Scott Heron and the great Linton Kwesi Johnson in the UK, the forerunners of rap funked up the linguistic volume, with a steady riddim and a strong vein of political protest, throughout the dismal decade.

1971: The Last Poets, "When the Revolution Comes."

1972: Gil Scott Heron, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."

1978: Linton Kwesi Johnson, "Dread Beat an' Blood."

1978: Paul Lansky, "Six Fantasies on a Poem by Thomas Campion"
In a highly influential piece, the pioneering computer-music composer processes the sound of his wife reading text by a Renaissance poet. Lansky went on to compose many more voice-based pieces, including this one:

Lansky's "Pattern's Patterns" animated by Grady Klein, from Lansky's CD, Alphabet Book.

1979: Sugarhill Gang, "Rapper's Delight"
First hit rap single is widely mistaken for a novelty rather than the start of a pop-music shift that would make stylized speech nearly as important as singing and sampling (beginning with DJ'ing) as vital as drums.

Original 1979 promo video.

1982: Scott Johnson, "John Somebody"
New York composer uses transcribed pitches and rhythms of taped casual chatter ("You know that guy - John somebody... ?") as the basis for a fully harmonized score with electric guitars. He later used the technique in a piece for the Kronos Quartet called Cold War Suite, featuring the voice of the great journalist I.F. Stone in "How It Happens".

John Somebody part 1.
"Lawless Things" from Johnson's Cold War Suite, featuring tapes of I.F. Stone.

1984: Hermeto Pascoal, "Tiruliruli"
Brazilian jazz giant (a favourite of Miles Davis) accompanies loop of excited soccer announcer; Pascoal develops his own theory of "Som da Aura" (sound of the aura) in which he musically imitates not only voices of ordinary Brazilians but barnyard sounds, inanimate objects, etc., trying to capture their essences, their souls, in sound, to capture the ongoing music of the world. He can even do it spontaneously in concert, with members of his audiences, with remarkable accuracy.

Tiruliruli (from the album Canoa da Lagoa, Municipio de Arapiraca).

Pascoal sets the speech of three blind sisters to music.

Pascoal does the same with the voice of actor Yves Montand.

1988: Steve Reich, "Different Trains"
Interviews with Holocaust survivors weave in and out of train sounds and a string quartet in this moving, Grammy-winning "speech melody" piece, the first place most music fans heard the speech-into-melody technique. Reich goes on to use digital samples of voices in works such as The Cave (1993), City Life (1995) and Three Tales (2002).

Steve Reich discusses Different Trains on ARTS: The South Bank Show on ITV in 2006.

Reich's City Life, part 3: "It's Been a Honeymoon" (1995).

1990: Réné Lussier, "Le trésor de la langue"
In the aftermath of the controversies around the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord, the prominent Quebec "musique actuelle" guitarist composes an album based on the voices of francophone culture, politics and literature (the title means "The treasure of language"). His guitar traces the tunes of everything from Charles de Gaulle's "Vive le Quebec libre" speech and the FLQ Manifesto to warmer, sweeter aspects of Quebec life. Lussier was quoted: "It's remarkable what melodies we speak to each other every day! And no one's the least bothered by these phrases, but transpose them into music and they can become surprising, even disturbing!"

I wish I had an excerpt to share (my copy is on cassette and I don't have conversion capability); if anyone can help, please do.

1990s-2000s: Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Maranthappa
Influenced by multiculturalism and hip-hop, interconnected young New York jazz musicians compose pieces based on speech in different languages, etc. Here's an NPR story about Moran's 2006 "Artists Ought to Be Writing," based on artist Adrian Piper's early 1970s manifesto. And here's part of a piece Moran and his trio-mates (bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits) based on a phone conversation between two Turkish friends, from 2003's The Bandwagon:

"Ringing My Phone (Straight Outta Istanbul)" (excerpt)

2001: Topology, Airwaves.
This Australian contemporary-music group (not well-known in North America) with composers Robert Davidson, Jonathan Dimond and Jamie Clark, create an entire suite of music based on historical radio archives. (Davidson in particular had already done some work on speech-into-song.) They used different genres of music to represent their various subjects, from radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi himself to Churchill, Hitler, Malcolm X, Einstein and more. In this damned-funny example, Bill Clinton's "That woman, Miss Lewinsky" press conference is tartly matched to the jaunty anthem of his own political campaigns.

2006: Diana Deutsch, "Speech-to-Song Illusion"
(aka, "Sometimes Behave So Strangely").

I discussed Professor Deutsch's University of California research in my piece on The Happiness Project. For a fuller explanation of her research on the "speech-to-song-illusion" - not to mention fascinating stuff on the effect of speaking a tonal language (in which words have radically different meaning at different pitches, as in for example Mandarin) on the ability to develop perfect pitch - give a listen to this segment with her on WNYC's Radio Lab. Here's an mp3 of her demonstrating the "speech-to-song effect" - in which any spoken phrase played back in a loop can transform seamlessly into music, in this case a hook so weirdly catchy I can still hum it to myself more than a year after I first heard it. As she explains (to much greater effect) on the radio show, she stumbled on it quite by accident when a tape loop of her own voice caught her ear. (Many more aural illusions can be found on Prof. Deutsch's own website.)

Diana Deutsch's Speech-to-Sound Illusion

2008-09: Political campaign propaganda on YouTube.
During the U.S. presidential race, musical settings of political speeches became practically an Internet trend, including, most famously,'s celeb-stuffed "Yes We Can" video, which turned Barack Obama's New Hampshire primary speech into a tune that recalls Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." But much more fun are New York pianist Henry Hey's puckish jazzifications of Sarah Palin, John McCain and George W. Bush.

Hey does McCain & Palin.

Hey does a January press conference by Bush.

Sarah Palin again (with animated typography).

And of course,'s hugely popular "Yes We Can".

2009: Charles Spearin, The Happiness Project
Which brings us, finally, back to doh.

It's not only an intriguing area musicologically - where, each of these practices implicitly asks, is the actual divide between speaking and singing, and how much is music an extension of language or vice-versa? - there's also something almost inherently spiritual in the question (think of chants and mantras), an impulse that resurfaces in Spearin's project. We sing language and language sings us.

It's also inherently, potently democratic - it's not only the musically gifted who have something to sing but all of us, in our interactions, in our mundane and demotic remarks, are singing the songs of the self, the songs of the social. Many composers have grabbed on to speech-music's potential as a tool of political critique, and as a way of bringing history to life - no doubt partly because when we think of public speech, political speech is at the forefront of our associations (personally I await the first great symphony to be composed with snatches of dialogue from TV shows). An interest in greater naturalism is often involved (Harry Partch and Leos Janacek, each in their different contexts, wanted to represent speech more truthfully, particularly the vernacular of the poor) as is a kind of populism and occasional ethnolinguistic pride, as in the case of, again, Janacek's tributes to Moravian culture or Réné Lussier's to that of Quebec. And and YouTube get in here too.

While Spearin's project may be less musically rewarding than some of the others, the conceptual marriage of form and subject really makes up for it - he is unearthing its politics in a broader non-ideological way and bringing the question full circle back to its spiritual origins. Many of the other 20th century examples are more formalist or structural in their concerns, but not Spearin (or Partch or Pascoal, I'd venture). These are voices you can breathe in.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, February 19 at 5:22 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (22)


February 12, 2009

Torn Between Two Music Lovers (or More):
V-Day Weekend, Evan Parker vs. Wavelength
(Also: WL Swan Song's First Note)


Eye weekly breaks the news that this weekend's Wavelength 450 anniversary shows mark the beginning of the end (or at least the beginning of a change) for the series at the heart of the Toronto scene. Stuart Berman reports that as of next February's Wavelength 500, there will be no more weekly pwyc Sunday-night shows at Sneaky Dee's. The Wavelength umbrella organization will shift its sights towards other kinds of projects.

Besides transforming the number that accompanies each edition of Wavelength from a mounting total to something of a countdown, the move reflects an overall mood and to some degree a puzzlement among those of us who were part of the upswing in DIY activity in Toronto music and other arts in the first few years of this decade. Stuart and his interviewees have smart reflections in the piece - here's my two cents:

The novelty and excitement of that "Torontopian" time led to an exploratory, anything-goes spirit not only in groups like Wavelength that drove it but in a wider circle of people, audience members who were inspired to become more participatory in their attitudes and often to make the leap to starting projects themselves. Now that the amount and diversity of work going on here is taken more as a given, people are more inclined to stick to their own areas of interest - and for a bordercrossing series like Wavelength (or, I'd add, an eclectic website like this one), the result is an apparent re-narrowing of our audiences and contacts. I applaud the Wavelength team for being willing to take risks and reinvent itself to respond - we're all called upon to think creatively about how to renew the culture adventurousness that we cherish, rather than just kvetch that things ain't like they used to be.

It's unfortunate, then, that this weekend's Wavelength birthday festivities - which have been an annual occasion to draw together the best of different scenes and styles - are happening at crosspurposes with a signal occasion in the improvised-music community, an AIMToronto "Interface" series welcoming the renowned British saxophonist Evan Parker to town to play in mixed ensembles with Toronto improvisers at Somewhere There.

Is it really a conflict, you ask? Well, notice how both downtown weeklies, full of WL anniversary coverage, neglected to highlight Parker's visit (same goes for the dailies, but that's less surprising). At least Now has a Q&A; with another jazz giant, Randy Weston, who plays up at York tomorrow night. And it's partly that publicity is not AIMToronto's strong suit. But both papers have writers who should be well aware of Parker's stature.

Not to make more of this than it deserves, as conflicts inevitably arise between different concert organizers, but the missed opportunity for intersection - that is, to invite Parker and some AIMT'onians to play one of the WL gigs, for example - is symptomatic of the current, somewhat atomized state of affairs here in ErsTOpia. Not to mention how much trickier it makes my own calendar for the weekend (while trying to squeeze in a bit of proper V-Day hearts'n'flowersing at that).

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, February 12 at 5:01 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)


February 11, 2009

Happiness is a Project


Today in The Globe & Mail, I have a feature about Toronto musician Charles Spearin (Do Make Say Think, Broken Social Scene) and his new album of compositions based on interviews with his neighbours, The Happiness Project, released this week. Bonus material coming on Zoilus later this afternoon, er, Thursday.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, February 11 at 12:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


February 5, 2009

Lux E Tenebris


The Guardian puts brilliant spin on sad news: "It's hard to think of Lux Interior as dead, despite what reports say. Then again, it was always hard to think of him as alive."

Psychobilly was never my drug of choice, but it was a key influence on the first post-punk-alt-indie-underground bands that I saw as a teenager, the likes of Deja Voodoo and the Gruesomes in Montreal or Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (forerunners to the Sadies) and The Forgotten Rebels in Toronto - not to mention what would become goth culture, and even emo, David Lynch movies, neo-burlesque shows, roller derby and so on. It's impossible to resist the romantic mythos of the Cramps - Erick Purkhiser of Akron (part of the irradiated generation of Ohioddity that would create Devo, Pere Ubu and, lest we forget, Eric Carmen) picks up California girl Christine Wallace hitchhiking in 1970, and by 1973 they're reborn as Lux Interior and Poison Ivy - a marriage of true minds and engine parts that gave birth to a band that would last 35 years and a refraction of '50s and '60s garage-band fashion and noise that seems like it will never end - if only because, in a way, it never began.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, February 05 at 3:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


February 3, 2009

Come 'n' Get It ... !

Max Tundra plays Toronto with the Junior Boys in March.

For the first time in a hound's years, the Zoilus Toronto Gig Guide is back up to two-month-long fightin' strength. Granted, pickings in March are slimmish, but we've got at least part of the Canadian Music Week schedule (Herman Dune! Jon-Rae Fletcher! Chad VanGaalen! Malajube!), plus a few other highlights - Charles Spearin's Happiness Project! Junior Boys with Max Tundra! Cut Copy! Stereo Total! Raphael Saddiq! Fleetwood Mac!? - and I'm sure you'll alert us to what's missing, pronto, right?

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 03 at 7:31 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)


Comin' Round


Ohio/Texas swamp-blues band The Heartless Bastards, with remarkable frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom, has new disc The Mountain out today. I gave it a four-star review in Blender magazine.


General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 03 at 1:38 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)


Zoilus by Carl Wilson