Extra sugar, extra salt, extra oil and MSG!

Friday, May 30, 2003

I'm subscribed to a Rolling Stone e-mail update thingy, which usually does little besides clutter my mailbox and occasionally elicit a mild chuckle ("Record Execs Sue Entire Nation").  Today, however, I recieved one of the most exciting bits of music news I've ever heard: 
Brian Wilson is reviving "Smile." 
For many of you, this will mean very little.  For the rest of you, please take a moment to catch your breath and clean up any mess you might've just made.  There's an official announcement on Brian's website, though it offers little detail. 
The bad news is that he's doing it live in Europe.  The good news is that practically everything he's done in the last four years has been documented on CD and DVD, so there's a pretty good chance we'll be able to hear it if he doesn't take "Smile" on tour in the U.S.  I imagine he will, though, barring outright hostility from European audiences (unlikely) or his own inability to master the material (a possibility).  It looks like tickets for the UK shows are already on sale, though they aren't happening until 2004.   
This is fairly shocking news considering that the making of "Smile" (circa 1966-67) was a major breaking point between Brian and sanity.  He couldn't finish the record, and I've never heard him say that he ever wanted to finish the record since then.  He still may not, but to see him play it live should be thrilling.  Why?  The main reason is that obsessive fans will get a sort of "definitive" take on what "Smile" should be.  There are plenty of bootlegs and theories on what the final tracklist should've been.  Some mixes were cobbled together after the fact by supposedly knowledgable recording engineers, and Domenic Priore, author of "Look, Listen, Vibrate, Smile," has established a widely-accepted album sequence, but no one really knows how close to finished some of the songs were and what Brian would've come up with had he completed the project.  Several songs from the sessions were officially released on the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" box set a few years ago, including "Our Prayer," "Cabinessence," and "Wonderful," and many of them turned up in different (usually poorer quality) versions on several of the Beach Boys' post-"Smile" albums.  The bootlegs reveal the possibility of a much darker, melancholy, sometimes funny, occasionally cluttered, and always fascinating album, though, and have kept fans intrigued for years.  Since Brian has changed significantly since the time of those recordings, it will be interesing to see how he puts it all together: what will be different, added, or omitted?  And can it be successfully performed live? 
All of the interviews I've seen with him in recent years have shown him to be cagey on the topic of "Smile."  It seemed to scare him, and while he understood that fans really wanted to hear a finished product, he stuck by his original decision (if it was, in fact, a conscious decision) to abandon it.  Still, he never buried it. Is that because we won't let him, or because he knows that he was close to something wonderful and has come to terms with the chaos that surrounded it? Since the box set came out, there's been an increased awareness of the strength of the material. At the 2001 Brian Wilson tribute, "Our Prayer," "Surf's Up," "Good Vibrations," and "Heroes and Villains" were performed, all from "Smile."  He's also played "Vegetables" live.  And now, apparently, Brian has worked up the inner-strength to fully engage with the material.

It's inspiring, though a little frightening, to see what a simple, enthusiastic man he is today, and, like most fans, I hope he'll succeed with this major challenge.  The cynical side of me is reminded of the Special Olympics, while my romantic half (okay, maybe less than half) is happy to feel connected to something much larger than your average pop phenomenon. It's a fairly unique situation, rooting for a broken genius like this. The lyrics, largely written by Van Dyke Parks, involve two major themes: lost love and the myths of early America (goldmines, both). The music ranges from soothing to creepy, and is, at times, sublime (such as the polyphonic coda to "Surf's Up"). Banjos, slide whistles, harpsichords, woodblocks, french horns, and nonsense syllables collide, but somehow it works, and I've ended up with a highly emotional attachment to the album, as much as it exists. I can't wait to see what Brian does with "Smile." It may just be exactly what the world needs right now.

A children's song
Have you listened as they played
Their song is love
And the children know the way

Thursday, May 29, 2003

I just heard a Barbara Streisand recording of "Memory" on KLBB. My first instinct is to say "my wife and I were very moved," except that I'm not married, I don't like Barbara Streisand, and I absolutely detest Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Reloaded had its problems, but I'm talking about the production team behind Avril Lavigne and -- horror of horrors -- the upcoming Liz Phair album.  The Matrix, aka Scott Spock, Graham Edwards, and Lauren Christy, are the latest in a line of hip songmaking factories (see also: the Neptunes, Babyface, Rodney Jerkins) who have tricked record executives into believing the myth of producer as artist (if we define "artist" as "infallible moneymaking machine").  I don't know what happened to Liz Phair that, at the age of 36, and with only three albums under her belt, she would try to recreate herself as a mainstream pop airhead, but that is, sadly, what has happened.  It's too late, folks, there's nothing we can do ("no, Liz, no!").  I heard the song "Extraordinary" on Radio K yesterday and later caught a sizeable preview at the Electric Fetus.  Words like "cloying," "childish" and "crushing disappointment" came to mind.  AMG already has a scathing (though fair) review of her new self-titled record.  Yes, self-titled, in case the complete sonic overhaul wasn't a big enough clue that this is "The New Liz Phair."  My instinct is, of course, to blame the producers, but then I don't imagine anyone corralled Liz Phair into doing this (would "I made a pact with the devil" hold up in court?).  Check out one of her new songs and an embarrassing "look at me, I can be just as hot as a 16-year-old, dammit!" picture at her new website. You can listen to snippets of the whole record, too. Hey, some of those tunes are pretty catchy! 
So what the Hell is my problem with Reloaded?  How about:
(1) Bad music.  Throughout.
(2) "Big speech" scene (Morpheus addresses the collected humans of Zion in a giant cave). Scenes like that never work, and the Wachowskis should know that. Larry Fishburne couldn't pull it off because no one could.
(3) "Big party" scene.  This is what we're fighting for?  Spring break in Miami Beach?  No, no, no, no, no, no.  There must be something more symbolic of humanity than sweaty dancing to a bad Stomp! remix. 
(4) Convenient but pointless Morpheus/Niobe/Commander Lock love triangle subplot. It doesn't do much to develop the character of Morpheus, and we just met the other two so we can't care too much about how they feel.

(5) Undeniably muddled editing during the scenes leading up to Neo's confrontation with The Architect.

(6) Self-important mumbo-jumbo about free will gummed up in a package that is specifically designed to disarm the audience of free will.  Exhibit A: if you want to understand why/how Neo recieved that envelope from the Oracle, you have to buy the videogame. That's the real lesson of the film: "pay more if you want to know more."  Knowledge comes at a price? Is it better not to question, then? Exhibit B: The Architect uses unnecessarily big-sounding words and convoluted sentence structures in order to confound the viewer (putting us in the POV of verbally-challenged Neo), thus requiring a second viewing to grasp the meaning of this seemingly pivitol scene (or you can read a transcript here). 

That last point is key, because the entire film begs to be seen again (barring, perhaps, a number of moments in Zion). For every grimace-inducing misstep there's a proportionately cool moment (virtual camera moves, Neo in flight, Carrie-Anne Moss in vinyl).  I suppose I can only blame myself for this, I mean, I could skip seeing it again, and I could try to force myself not to see Revolutions in the Fall, but I know I won't be able to stop myself.  Gloria Foster is looking down on me from heaven and laughing maniacally.   
There are plenty of things to like about the movie.  It features numerous important black characters, for starters, not the usual "token Negro" usually seen in sci-fi (a tradition visible as far back as Planet of the Apes).  Watch for Gina Torres, formerly of the TV shows Firefly and Cleopatra 2525 (remember that one?), and recently on Angel.  She's married to Laurence Fishburne and can be seen early on talking to Link's wife.  Some of the action is really cool, too.  Most action films in the last decade have suffered from a complete lack of logic or even visual coherence (I'm thinking Independence Day and Batman Forever, especially).  Fortunately, there was some method in the Wachowski Bros.' madness, especially in the big chase scene.  And, sap that I am, I found myself moved by the love story between Trinity and Neo, if only because they're both so damn hot. 

I guess what it all comes down to is that I wish I could fly, but I can't, and I hate being taunted by the fact that there's nothing I can do to change that. Screw you, Wachowskis!

Okay, I'm done for now. Have a lovely Memorial Day weekend.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

NYC, Part Six: Here Comes The Shark Attack
Dramatis Personae
Dr. Chameleon = Your Hero.  Counfounds some and evades many with his chameleonic powers.
Junior Scientist = Dr. C's partner in crime-fighting.  Exhibits a marvelous command over the natural forces.
Dok Millenium = A mysterious being from the future who brings tidings both good and bad.
Lorika = A magickal creature from the NetherRealm, armed with her special good-luck cookies.
John = Civilian and friend to the Junior Scientist.
Friday, April 25.  New York City.  Dr. Chameleon and the Junior Scientist swooped across Central Park on a return trip to Museum Mile, their surveillance mission on the east side still incomplete.  The target: Neue Galerie, a high-class museum that eats like a meal.  Security was tight, but Dr. Chameleon could smell the fear on their collective brows.  They were easily thwarted by his hooded cloak, and so the dashing duo made it through unscathed.  The works by Schiele and Klimt were phenomenal, though few in number, and the Christian Schad exhibit was indecent but proved no threat to the sovereignty of the United States.  Following a brief visit to the gift shop, our heroes moved on.
Inconspicuously travelling downtown in a bus (so as not to arouse suspicion), Jr. Scientist and the chameleonic one paused to pay tribute to the Great Chrome Temple before heading to the International Center of Photgraphy.  The ICP had two major exhibits.  The first, "Bronzeville: Black Chicago in Pictures 1941-1943," featured Farm Security Administration photographers who captured life on the south side of Chicago.  Many of the prints (newly created from negatives housed at the Library of Congress) were accompanied by text from Richard Wright's book 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, an overtly Socialist reading of black urban plight that grew as a result of the Great Migration.  Dr. Chameleon was momentarily called to action when a plump, swishy aristocrat breezed through and gestured vaguely at the photographs with a dismissive "oh, this is wonderful."  Dr. Chameleon couldn't believe his horns — what callous ignorance!  Respecting the museum staff's wishes to maintain a peaceful atmosphere, the Chameleon retreated to the lavatory where he redirected his outrage, and prevented many others from using the facilities for a long while.  With some tension relieved, he was further calmed after spotting one of his heroes, Gordon Parks, in a photograph of a south side community center taken April, 1942.
Exploring the downstairs gallery led our champions to the exhibit entitled "How Human: Life in the Post-Genome Era," which would seem to be right up our heroes' collective alleys.  Unfortunately, the theories behind most of the artworks were more interesting than the resulting pieces.  The 3-D works by the art(n) collective were flashy — but to what end? our heroes wondered.  Giant color photographs by Anthony Goicolea and Julie Moos also suffered from a lack of aesthetic pleasure.  Catherine Chalmers Genetically Engineered Mouse series and Justine Cooper's Transformers installation were a little more stimulating.  Richard Press' Ground Zero photographs weren't nearly as haunting as the images of Sage Sohier, whose Woman Fitted with Facial Prosthesis After Cancer was one of the more amazing things Dr. Chameleon had ever seen.  Who knew you could live with a giant hole in your head?  "This is something that can give us all hope," the Chameleon intoned somberly, and quietly faded from view. 
Junior Scientist caught up with him outside, depsite a security guard's pleas for her continued presence.  Apparently they were quite relieved to have the team on the premises, providing as they did an extra level of safety.  But our heroes were needed Uptown.  Passing by Town Hall, which they'd just seen in "A Mighty Wind," the intense search for falafel commenced.  Dr. Chameleon was frequently thwarted by misleading menus in New York.  First, he'd attempted to order espresso at a bar which clearly listed espresso on it's menu, only to be told otherwise by the bartender.  At that point, he lost control of his powers and blinded the Junior Scientist with red swirling colors.  Rapid calming was required.  The falafel place, rather than anger the Chameleon, merely confused him.  Again, a beverage was ordered and then denied (in this case iced tea).  Hunger overwhelmed him and limited his ability to adjust to this crushing news.  Perhaps this is Dr. Chameleon's one true weakness, then.  Let us hope his mortal enemies do not tap into this secret weapon: beverage withholding.
Dinner was interrupted by an urgent cry for help.  There was a noisy disturbance down the street at the Beacon, where two gangs named "Portastatic" and "Yo La Tengo" were battling for supremacy, with a hapless audience caught in the middle.  Yo La Tengo, in collusion with some aliens from planet Sun Ra, were clearly the dominant gang, with their extremely long set and violently loud keyboards.  They even gathered a dozen children onstage and encouraged them to use blue language.  Portastatic held their own, making up for a hopelessly quiet violin player with a few energetic guitar solos.  Dr. Chameleon and Junior Scientist were outnumbered and outmatched.  Fortunately, some reinforcements arrived in the form of Dok Millennium, Lorika, and John.  The newly formed superteam were able to rein in the out-of-control bands, a truce was reached, and a celebration commenced, capped-off with an excellent rendition of Devo's "Gates of Steel" sung by James McNew.  The triumphant entourage retreated to a local Thai restaurant where many rolls were consumed and many drinks were imbibed, notably the exotic caipirinha.  Sadly, this new league of fantabulous gentlecreatures was torn asunder by rain, obnoxious college students, restrictive taxicabs, inexplicable subway closings, and an aggressive homeless man.  The night came to a quiet, gradual end, and as the morning came, so did Dr. Chameleon's visit to Manahattan.
After a lovely breakfast of berried pancakes and French toast (delivered, no less), there was much sadness as Dr. Chameleon and the Junior Scientist prepared to part.  They are still battling on two fronts, but victory is close at hand and soon the two shall be united.  Dr. Chamleon will be returning to New York over Memorial Day weekend to help in the struggle, and meet with another one of his heroes (sometimes heroes need heroes, too).  Bobby Hutcherson will be performing with the McCoy Tyner Trio at Iridium, which should have a reinvigorating effect upon His Sneakiness.  Who knows what thrilling adventures will be in store for him this time?  Tune in next week to find out!

Monday, May 19, 2003

Survey says: San Francisco, #1 in books and booze!

North Beach barkeep Ed Moose, proprietor of Moose's, said that's hardly a surprise because San Francisco is a drinking town and always has been. He said he knows people who go through $744 on alcohol in a week, never mind for the whole year.

"All through history San Franciscans have been drinkers," he said. "The Gold Rush, the lack of women, the boom and bust times, the devil-may-care attitude, all of that is here."

[ via Librarian & Information Science News ]

A man told me that his daughter* was "gushing with superlatives" for me, after I'd helped her with a computer several days before. I'm so good. Hooray for me.

Also, our numbers are way up, both for people coming through the door AND circulation. That's really good news, although I fear that nobody up top is paying any attention.

*It's actually unclear what their relationship is. He referred to her as "my girl" but she was less than half his age and of a different ethnic background. Maybe it's better that I don't know.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

NYC, Part Five: This Magic Moment

Three snippets that stand out in my memory:

1. The day I arrived, riding up an elevator, a college student told me he liked my coat and wondered where I got it. It's a blue Swedish "military" coat from Ragstock.

2. A man riding a Segway at night through Greenwich Village. He stopped at a corner and was talking to a woman. As we walked by, I overheard him saying, "no, no, I don't work for the company, I'm not trying to sell anything."

3. At one subway station, there was a hole in the ceiling of the tunnel with a great shaft of light shining through. Flakes of debris were lazily floating in the sunbeam, like snow. It was a rare, beautiful moment underground.

Friday, May 16, 2003

I thought about blogging on the lunar eclipse, and then I thought, "naw, Chuck'll have some sweet pictures of it," and then I thought "but it's too dark, I bet his camera can't get a decent exposure." Of course, I was wrong.

Several observations I made while watching the moon:

"It looks like a featureless penny...without the Abe Lincoln."

"If I was a cave man I would totally be going crazy right now."

"Let's go get ice cream."

"Hey, isn't that Pam Hill?"

And it was Pam, former Radio K DJ, with a jaunty young fellow smoking a pipe. They were on their way to Chino Latino to have mojitos.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

NYC, Part Four: Headed for the Finish Line

I realize that I'm turning a week-long vacation into a near-epic, but you have to understand that in my little world, such a trip is an epic. Which brings us to Thursday. Thursday was a lovely, sunny day, and we took the train all the way downtown to Battery Park: the end of the line (unless you're going to Brooklyn, that is). Emerging from the dark tunnel, we blinked our little eyes in confusion. The subway stop lets you off right by the Staten Island Ferry terminal, but the path to the Liberty Island ferry was not clearly marked. I knew we were supposed to find tickets at Castle Clinton, but I didn't see anything resembling a castle anywhere. We wandered through the park, frequently thwarted by areas marked off by the construction-equivalent of police tape (construction tape?), until we came to a great stone ring which inexplicably bears the title "castle." Ferry tickets were obtained quickly and easily, and as we headed to the next line, we were serenaded by a tenor sax rendition of "When The Saints Go Marching In." The performer was apparently not familiar with the classical concept of "theme and variations," as he repeatedly tooted the theme with little in the way of variation. The line led into a tent with metal detectors and a squadron of security guards, where I took my belt off in public for the first (but probably not the last) time.

Soon we found ourselves setting out from shore toward the statue of the big lady. It was a really nice day to be out on the water. Everything is closed on Liberty Island, so they drop you off and you can't do much besides wander around and stare up at the giant statue, but it's totally worth it. You get a great view of downtown Manhattan, and the Statue of Liberty itself is amazing. I just hope we don't send it back to the French in an empty gesture of defiance. I took three hundred pictures before we had to catch the next ferry over to Ellis Island.

Ellis Island turned out to be really interesting, and I wish we'd had more time to spend there. We started out in the "Silent Voices" exhibit, devoted to the lost years at Ellis Island, from 1954, when the island was closed, to around 1983 when major restoration began. The photographs were bleak and desolate, which greatly appealed to my adolescent artistic sensibility. One caption read "Fences were built in World War II when the island served as a detention center for enemy aliens," and I was disappointed when I found out they meant Germans. I also spotted a sign that read "ALA War Service Library," which I haven't been able to find very much about online. If you Google it you'll get a list of documents the ALA owns (but not the contents of said documents), a bunch of references to War Service Library bookplates, and this rather irritating thread.

I ended up being fairly curious about the history of Ellis Island, and gleaned what I could from the "Ellis Island Chronicles" exhibit. I raised the geek flag high and got excited by a series of models showing the progression of Ellis Island from the tiny sandbar it started out as, to its three-island heyday, to the two-island structure that currently stands (or floats, as it were). The best part was a display of immigration-related sheet music from the early 20th century. One song, written by William Jerome and Jean Schwartz, was called "In Blinky Winky Chinky Chinatown." Another, apparently in reference to Chinese laundries, was called "No Wash-ee To-tay." Ho ho hoooo! So funny! The third title I tapped into my Handspring Visor (a near-ancient PDA given to me by tech-savvy friend Chuck) was billed as "Yonkle The Cow-boy Jew, being sung with great success by 'that Yiddish loafer' Glenn Burt." Good stuff.

We hopped on the last ferry back to Manhattan, and were immediately greated by a squaking refrain of "When The Saints Go Marching In" when we hit land. Trying to get out of the park in a hurry, we weaved our way around many trinket-selling carts, only to have the sax player launch into "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?" It was then that I knew, truly, that there is no God. After a brief visit to a WWII memorial in Battery Park (a tiny little "woof! woof!" ringing in our ears), we headed back uptown to Benny's Burritos, where I promptly ruined the otherwise excellent food by dumping red and green habanero sauce all over it. The place is great though, since you can get a good, relatively cheap vegan burrito and a decent margarita, it's quick, and it's casual. Hooray!

After dinner, we took a long walk over to the Mercury Lounge to see, finally, The Hold Steady, about whom I'd heard a vague rumor back in December. You see, The Hold Steady is Craig Finn's new band, and Craig Finn was the voice of Lifter Puller, who are one of my all-time favorite bands, who, sadly, broke up in 2000. Lifter Puller spawned the sporadic likes of Hawaii (pure genius) and The Brokerdealer, but The Hold Steady comes the closest to recapturing the glory of Lifter Puller. Tad Kubler, the latter-day bass player for Lifter Puller, plays guitar in The Hold Steady, and Craig's lyrics are as good as--if not better than--they ever were. Their sound is more straightforward than Lifter Puller's, not nearly as original and a bit less catchy, but no less energetic. This is a half-assed review written by a starry-eyed fanboy. Welcome to the internet. Seriously, though, I was so happy to be there. Even the bar service was good. I also had the pleasure of eavesdropping on excited east coast Lifter Puller fans (bemoaning the inaccesability of the June reunion shows in Mpls.) and critical neophytes ("I'm Springsteen, now I'm Elvis Costello, but I've got this poetry-slam vibe going!"), who were clearly not catching Finn-fever.

When we got back uptown there were National Guard troops in the subway station, which was kind of a shock to me. I'm not used to seeing people wandering around with M16s. On the other hand, I was pretty sure no one was gonna fuck with me while the troops were around, which was reassuring. More automatic weapons in our public transit stations, please!

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion of "Dr. Chameleon's Wild New York Adventure," to be followed by an epilogue and several afterwords. Thank you for your patronage.

300 public libraries have created wishlists on amazon.com in an attempt to cope with budget slashing.

[ thanks to David W. for the tip ]

Wednesday, May 14, 2003


NYC, Part Three: Waiting For Godot

Wednesday we took it slow and easy. Late in the day, we made a return trip to Kitchenette for "breakfast," then headed back to Other Music because I discovered that the Spoon CD single I'd bought the day before consisted of two songs I already owned, "Car Radio" and "Advance Cassette" from "A Series of Sneaks". I was surprised because the single came out in 2001 on the label 12XU, and "A Series of Sneaks" was originally released by Elektra in 1998 (it's times like that when I want a wireless, portable internet connection so very badly). Getting to Other Music turned out to be a bit of a hassle, though, because there were swarms of people around the block, all aiming toward the Tower Records across the street. I asked an employee what all the hubbub was about. Madonna.

On our way back to the subway, we ran into Jr. Scientist's friend John, who travelled with us back uptown to meet Chad and Darren for some Ethiopian food. I'd tried Ethiopian once many years ago at a place on Riverside in Minneapolis and was not too excited. The food at Awash was much better, and pretty enjoyable (though I don't recommend meeting people for the first time while eating with your hands). Best of all, I was introduced to a good African beer: Addis Ale. Usually I find beers from Asia or the southern hemisphere (Sapporo, Taj Mahal, Corona, etc.) to be light, flavorless, and high in alcohol content, but this (like Mexico's Negra Modelo) was a nice exception to that rule.

Next stop: Smoke Jazz. It was a no-cover night at the newly smoke-free club. Performing were regulars "The Hot Pants Funk Sextet" (I'd just like to make it clear that "sextet" and "sex quartet" are two very different things). The Hotpants' front line was a little weak, but the drummer (Joe Strasser) was solid-fonky and a wild Wurlitzer solo by Jeremy Manasia made the night worthwhile for me. Manasia lives in a world where Bud Powell plays fuzzed-out wah-wah fusion, and I'd like to spend more time in that place.

Smoke was pretty crowded and the people-watching was occasionally hilarious. We spotted a rather sullen young woman who looked like she'd been dragged there. There were, in fact, two of these grim-faced girls with their arms crossed, and a third who was subtly bobbing her head up and down, apparently the guilty party who'd forced the other two to come along. They left in short order, hopefully to find some hot guys at a fun, wild bar. Like, with body shots and stuff. As we left, John pointed out a collagen-injected woman in an alarmingly low-cut dress with a gigantic leaf-shaped pendant hanging from her neck, sporting a look much like the girls we'd seen earlier. I was told that on earlier visits our companions had spotted Yoko Ono and Kareem Abdul-Jabar. I was hoping to have some kind of celebrity encounter of my own, but my wish never came true, even though New York is crawling with celebrities. Celebrities and sewer-rats. I was close to Madonna, yes, but didn't actually see her. Meanwhile, my pal Chuck got an interview with a cast-member of The Sopranos. Truly, the celebrity is an elusive, and ephemeral, creature.

We finished off with some strawberry shortcake we'd brought home from Kitchenette, which was the best possible end to our day, maybe even better than meeting a celebrity (if you can believe that).

Monday, May 12, 2003

But then, that's why he's called The Man, isn't it, because he always gets his way? All the union leaders and attorneys in the world couldn't stop the city from getting their damn money out of me. Fortunately, they're no longer telling me it all (nearly $1200) has to be paid back by the end of the year, so I'm probably going to end up having them take out only $50/month or so, as long as they don't try to collect interest. I wouldn't be suprised if The Man didn't go and pull some crazy stunt like that.

Oh, hey, there's a cardinal outside my window. Hello, pretty red bird! Birds don't pay no attention to The Man. No, they don't. I wish I could be free like that. Free as a bird...

Wait- there's two! I think one is a female. I wonder if they're going to mate. Damn, this is exciting. Keep clicking on "refresh" in case there's some hot, sweaty bird-love to report later. You wouldn't want to miss that!

When I retire I think I should start a bird-watching blog, if there are still birds and blogs in 2040, that is. "Granpapa, tell me about the birds and the blogs again, won't you please?"

Sunday, May 11, 2003

While we're on the topic of old pianos, I thought I'd mention some interesting CDs featuring early keyboard instruments.  This requires a fair amount of background to make even a little sense, which is a major reason, I'd guess, that no one buys classical CDs anymore.  Too much gawddamn work! If you're not familiar with the concept of "historically informed performance," the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston have a quick intro here, featuring this pithy quote from longtime proponent Christopher Hogwood:
"There is no reason to say that the modern piano is better or worse than the piano that Mozart played. But you can say that there is a congruence between the music Mozart wrote and the instruments of his day. Once you replace the instruments with modern ones, that congruence is lost. It's like putting Mozart in a Porsche -- a wonderful bit of engineering that he didn't have."
There's also a pretty interesting video on the subject, "The History of the Pianoforte" by Eva Badura-Skoda, which will explain these concepts far better than I'm able to.
Generally, pianos from the 18th century to the mid-19th century are referred to as "fortepianos," meaning literally, "loud soft."  The pianoforte, as the modern instrument is known, was named to differentiate it from its dominant keyboard predecessor, the harpsichord, which did not offer much in the way of dynamic range due to its plucking mechanism.  The action of the pianoforte allowed the player to control how hard the hammers hit the strings, affecting how quiet or loud the piano sounded, accordingly.  The switcheroo from "pianoforte" to "fortepiano" is a semantic technique used to differentiate the old, historic (forte)piano from the modern piano(forte). 

While Bartolomeo Cristofori is considered the father of the piano, the fortepiano didn't come into widespread use until the 1780s or so, during the time Mozart was composing in Vienna.  These early Viennese fortepianos (made by Anton Walter and Johann Andreas Stein, among others) are light and brittle sounding, and are well-suited to the Classical music of Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven.  Around the turn of the century, significant changes were made in the construction of the instrument.  The English pianos of John Broadwood and Muzio Clementi had a more aggressive, resonant tone than their Viennese predecessors, but are lacking in clarity.  French and German manufacturers, including Pleyel, Erard, and Graf, brought the fortepiano to new heights of sensitivity and richness in the 1830s, matching the music of the early Romantics such as Schubert and Chopin.  Various techniques which I won't try to explain (including cross-stringing and metal reinforcing) were introduced around the 1840s, effectively ending the era of the fortepiano and ushering in the age of the modern grand. 

In many ways, the evolution of the fortepiano is related to the evolution of the concert hall.  Music which was once performed in courts and parlors became increasingly public, requiring a louder instrument.  What was lost in the process, I would argue, was the interesting and often unpredictable variance of timbre in the earlier instruments.  The bass notes on a fortepiano tend to have a buzzing quality you don't find in the modern piano, where the lower registers often become muddled.  Such an effect is wonderful for the music of Ravel and Debussy, but shrouds the sprightliness of Mozart in an undesirable morass.   
While I clearly enjoy listening to music on instruments of the period, I'm not going to argue that this is the "right" way to hear the music.  It is, however, an important listening experience, and I find people who detest historically informed performance to be tiresome and needlessly narrow-minded.  Laughably, some (including the venerated Charles Rosen) argue that the composers of the Classical era (roughly 1750-1820) would've preferred the sound of the modern grand because the fortepiano was inadequate. Why, then, would those composers have written so many works for such a feeble instrument? Sadly, because some cynics have attacked the use of the fortepiano, and the industry sees historically informed performance as a boutique niche, it's hard to get some of the better recordings that are out there.  Nonetheless, they do show up in local stores and on-line (often used), so I urge the interested to seek out these CDs. Berkshire Record Outlet Inc. is a great place to find music at irresistibly low prices.  

The first example is an unusual recording of sonatas by the relatively obscure composer Ludovico Giustini di Pistoia (1685-1744). The sonatas were performed by Cremilde Rosado Fernandes at the Shrine To Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, of all places, an unheralded treasure of the Midwest if ever there was one (ed. note: there is, and it's called "Carhenge"). The fortepiano used in this recording was built in Lisbon in 1767 by Manuel Antunes, which provides us with the rare opportunity to hear a very early piano in good working condition. The Antunes sounds more like a dulcimer than anything; a far cry from the sounds we associate with the word "piano." Though I wouldn't suggest this CD to most people, it does offer a unique listening experience for the curious, and you can buy it for $15 from the Shrine's gift shop.

The next selection is one I consider a must-have for any classical music collection, no matter how small. It is Robert Levin's recording of Mozart's piano concertos nos. 17 and 20, with Christopher Hogwood and The Academy of Ancient Music. Shamefully out-of-print, this CD offers all the best of Mozart in a pretty little package. The G major concerto (K453) showcases the cheerful Mozart so well-loved by casual listeners, while the D minor concerto (K466) provides an intriguing glimpse of his oft-romanticized darker side. Levin is an amazing pianist, and his (as yet incomplete) cycle of Mozart's concertos is the best available (sorry Mr. Bilson--you know I love you). On this disc, he performs on a copy of the quintessential Mozart piano, a Viennese instrument by Anton Walter built around 1795.

Another superb CD was released on the Opus 111 label in 1999, featuring pianist Janusz Olejniczak, titled "Chopin: Evening Around An 1831 Pleyel." The fates are cruel indeed that this CD, too, should be out of print. Even if you never listen to classical music you would do well to own this title. From the famous, sepulchral Marche funèbre to the mournful Prelude No. 4 (Op. 28), this disc focuses on the bleak side of Chopin, but functions as an excellent introduction to both Chopin and the gorgeous sound of the latter day fortepiano. It doubles as a soundtrack to the film La note bleue, in which Olejniczak starred as Chopin himself.

Finally, we have Schubert's Divertissements recorded for Teldec by Andreas Staier and Alexei Lubimov on a copy of an 1826 Graf. This CD is a good example of one of the things that makes historically informed performance so much fun, a feaure exclusive to the domain of the fortepiano: the so-called "Turkish stop." Fortepianos featured a variety of interesting special effects over the years, employing as many as eight pedals (compared to the modern standard three). The most spectacular and ridiculous of these effects was what was then known as Turkish percussion: a drum, bell, and cymbal inside (and under) the case of the fortepiano used to provide a lively accompaniment for marches, or simply startle the audience into wakefulness.

There's a lot of good stuff out there, folks. Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more now. Buy...and be happy.

Further edification throughout the nation, mon:
A Short History of the Piano.

The Evolution of the Piano.

The Fortepiano.

The Early Romantic Fortepiano and its Music.

Mozart's keyboards.

Keyboard Instruments from the Time of Mozart.

Beethoven and the fortepiano.
Beethoven's sonatas on period instruments.
The Schubert Club's local collection of historic pianos.

Thursday, May 08, 2003

NYC, Part Two: Magic and Loss

Tuesday was quite lovely. We started out at the Candle Cafe and enjoyed two delicious vegan sandwiches, the Tuscan Seitan Parmesan and Grilled Tempeh + Portobello Panini, with salads and smoothies. Yum! Off to the Met, then, which I'd been to before but was more than happy to be visiting again. Unfortunately I'd been there pre-9/11, and getting in was a bit more confusing this time. There was a sign listing prohibited items, including cameras. I had two in our backpack (one was a Hello Kitty camera purchased the day before), but it looked like we were supposed to check our bag, so that would work out fine. It turned out to be more complicated than that. First we went to a table where a guy searched our bag and told us we had to check it, but that we should pull out our valuables, including the cameras, wallet, passport, etc. We're not supposed to bring cameras in, but we can't check them in our bag, so I have to carry them around? Huh? I waited in the long bag-check line while my lovely and talented companion "Jr. S" went to get us tickets. She got through hers much quicker and the woman who sold her our tickets told her that we didn't need to check our bags. Indeed, there were women with purses larger than our backpack and kids entering with bags, also. We went straight for the Egyptian art on the north end of the lobby and were told by security there that we needed to check our bag. Don't these people get any training? There was no way in Hell I was gonna wait on that line again, so we just went through a different entrance and spent two hours inside with not another single security guard telling us to get rid of the bag. In hopes of clarifying their policy, I checked the Met's website and found this:

All packages and umbrellas must be left in the coat-check areas near the Museum entrances before entering the galleries, and must be retrieved before the Museum closes. No luggage or garment bags will be accepted.

Packages? But no luggage. Whatever. I was going to criticize them for having a similarly inconsistent photo policy (they allowed pictures in some rooms but not others), but after Lori explained it to me I calmed down and accepted it. Take a deep breath. Aaaahhhh. This really shouldn't garner so much commentary but I'm always fascinated by the inability of large organizations to function properly.

So, yeah, I got to stare at Seurat's Parade de cirque for a good long while, though the gallery was crowded and not well-suited to contemplative meditation. I'd forgotten how many wonderful Van Gogh paintings they have, and once again enjoyed visiting the musical instruments (they have one of the three oldest pianos in the world) and arms and armor collections. As at most other major art museums I've been to, they had a single Francis Bacon and a few nice Giacometti pieces. Still, it felt like I didn't see nearly enough. Then again, I find it hard to spend more than two hours per museum, and I'm really happy with what I did see, and most important of all, with the experience of sharing those things with the person I was with.

All tuckered out from historical overload and irritating crowds, we sat outside for awhile and contemplated our next move. It turned out to be too late to get to any of the other major museums, so we set off on a quest to find the castle used in the film The Fisher King. Though shot to appear as though it were on Central Park, the Armory that stood in for Langdon Carmichael's townhouse was on 94th and Madison, just a few blocks away. Now abandoned, it was recognizable even without the filmmakers' augmentations — during the filming they dressed it up with gargoyles, stained glass windows, and a double staircase. Looking up at the battlements through a leafless tree gave me the thrill of being connected to Gilliam and the Monty Python tradition, in however an illusory fashion.

From there we went downtown to Washington Square Park, where the famous arch was, like so many buildings, covered in scaffolding and a shroud. I could vaguely grasp the scope of the arch, but it's at times like that where I wonder how much difference it makes to see a reproduction of something as opposed to the thing itself (I think some important people have probably written about this before, maybe). Still, in past visits I was happy to see the Flatiron building, Rockefeller Center, and Grand Central Station. This time I spotted Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, Lincoln Center, and, uh...Trump Towers. On every visit I've been fascinated by the Chrysler building. I don't care if that turns me into a goggle-eyed tourist, it's exciting to be around these famous places and bask in the history of the gigantic cultural center that is New York City.

Unable to appreciate the arch in all its majesty, we wandered back across the park and were serenaded by a busker bashing out a song on the acoustic guitar. It took me awhile to figure out that he was trying to sing "Big Shot" by Billy Joel, and *!!WOW!!* did that ever suck. I attmpted to blot out his sonic intrusion by making snobbish purchases at Other Music, including the long sought-after "D-D-Don't Don't Stop The Beat" album by Junior Senior. The shopping bug had bit, so I dragged my poor companion on to two more CD shops in the East Village before we rested for dinner.

There is a row of Indian restaurants on E. 6th St. between 1st and 2nd Avenues, the pushy barkers on the sidewalk contrasting sharply with the beautiful, hypnotic lights inside. We ended up in a tiny, mostly empty place called Sonargao, surrounded by glowing red chili peppers dangling from the ceiling. It wasn't the best Indian food I've ever had, but it was dirt cheap and the atmosphere was magical. It's such a simple, brilliant idea, magnified a hundred fold by the mirrored walls. Bathed in an otherworldly red light, we stuffed ourselves on Mattar Paneer, Channa Saag, Poori and pickled mango. The last two were new to me. Poori is a donut-like deep fried puffy bread, and the mangos were, well, pickled. Sour. Difficult to describe, but tasty. After all this, the waiter brought us free ice cream, which we really didn't need but enjoyed anyway.

Afterward, we debated going to see Brokeback and Califone at the Village Underground but decided instead to try and get a quiet drink somewhere. This, unfortunately, turned out to be unneccesarily difficult as every bar we walked by was either too loud, too scummy, or too fancy. We ended up sitting at the bar in a Mexican restaurant that was blaring bad early 90s pop techno (think "La Bouche"), next to a fat, drunk guy who was speaking Spanish to the bartender and a gross couple making out. There were parrots clutching beer cans hanging from the ceiling and pathetic cardboard Easter bunny decorations on the wall, all of which made for a rather unique atmosphere. Fortunately, there was plenty more fun to be had in the coming days...

Monday, May 05, 2003

Recently a little boy came up to me and asked "have you seen any dinosaur books?" Yep, sure have. Next? I should've told him they were over in non-fiction getting their asses kicked by the evolution and ecology books.

But seriously, maybe if children were taught how to ask questions we might improve as a species. I don't mean grammatically (though it would make my job a lot easier), but in real terms of critical thinking. Unfortunately, the status quo is best upheld when the masses are distracted by bling bling and fear, and our conversations on education get clouded by the smoke and mirrors of standardized tests and workload. Method? Content? Well, those can be whisked away with the uproar of some overly-sensitive special-interest group. "What? Homosexuals want to kidnap my children and sell them to disease-carrying terrorists? This must be stopped!" Meanwhile, the machine rolls on unimpeded, with a bunch of fat, selfish, unthinking slaves to feed on.

"The Information Age" seems to be little more than a swirling vortex of insignificance meant to distract and cripple. With the looming release of The Matrix: Reloaded and other sci-fi fantasies this summer, I need to remind myself that there is a far more insidious illusion cloaking the world...

Whew! Got that out of the way. Now on to the movies! Check out the preview for Rise of the Machines. Did you see that naked chick terminator? Dude! Too bad Robert Patrick isn't in this one. Oh, well, here's hoping that Agent Doggett is in the next X-Files movie.

Friday, May 02, 2003

NYC, Part One: Welcome To The Machine
I hadn't flown in a year and a half, so I was a bit stressed about getting through airport security. I made sure not to bring any political books or journals with anti-American sentiments in them (you know, like, "I think the ERA is a good idea"), and I read the TSA's guidelines. When I got to the airport and asked a security guard if I should take my belt off, the guy said "if you think it will set the detector off," leaving me with the impression that security at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport has not improved much. On September 2, 2001, I waltzed through the security gate without a single employee so much as raising their head to glance at me. Now they may be paying more attention but they still don't seem to know how to do their jobs properly. Security at LaGuardia was much friendlier and competent, which is funny because you think they'd be the difficult, uptight ones.

I flew through O'Hare and saw the freaky light tunnel there for the first time, which enhanced my feeling that I was entering some sort of fantasy land from which I might never return (though obviously I did, which is really too bad). I'd been to New York City twice before but only for very short visits and I missed many of the famous landmarks. This time I was on the left side of the plane and got a great view of Manhattan as we came in for a landing. While I didn't go to Ground Zero, I did spend some time staring the giant hole in the sky where the WTC was supposed to be and wished I'd paid more attention to it when I had the chance. Unfortunately, I had something in common with the terrorists in viewing the WTC as a symbol of immoral (though certainly our definitions of "immoral" skew wildly from one another) capitalism run rampant, so I didn't have much interest in it, and so I missed my chance to get the best view of the city. Still, I went up the Empire State Building on my second day there and that was a pretty impressive view (not that you can tell from my blurry, underlit photos). It occured to me that as a child the idea of standing on top of the Empire State Building was one of the coolest things imaginable, so I gave my inner child a high-five and enjoyed the heck out of it. Still, I was dismayed by the huge crowds and the 9/11 commemorative snow-globe. Distasteful as it was, I wanted to buy one, but my better half wisely discouraged me. Also, while we were waiting in one of the six lines on the way up I noticed a sign with a picture of a gun and a knife crossed out, so I tossed my shiv in a waste-paper basket and exhaled loudly. I'm sick of John Law always telling me what to do.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. As a member of the libural eleet I normally take cabs in strange cities, but in a jolly nod to the proletariat I took the bus from LaGuardia to my host's place in Morningside Heights, pretty much a straight shot going West. I'd never been in Harlem before, because usually the maps cut off around 92nd St. (seriously, do a Google search and notice how Manhattan disappears off the north end of Central Park). I figured, if it didn't exist, then I didn't want to go there, but both Harlem and the bus ride were just fine. Did I mention I'm white? Anyway, I had a delicious tuna melt at Kitchenette (also the site of some fabulous breakfasting later in the week) and then we wandered downtown to get some action, which turned out to be seeing "A Mighty Wind" at the Lincoln Center Loews Cineplex. It was on a gi-normous screen and I laughed my ass right off. I think Guest cut it together to get the maximum number of guffaws-per-minute, so it went by a little fast, but I still enjoyed it immensely. They just keep getting better at creating characters who are--by nature--funny, but also somewhat believable and sympathetic. I wish I'd appreciated SCTV more as a child because Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy are pure geniuses.

We ate at Penang, a Malaysian restaurant, and enjoyed the Kari Sayur Campur, a thick, spicy broth full of tofu, mushrooms, eggplant, and assorted vegetables bubbling in a clay pot. To the best of my knowledge, we can't get Malaysian food in the Twin Cities, and I'd developed a fond memory of this stuff. I'm glad the second go-round lived up to my expectations. We had a lovely stroll that evening, and I went to Tower Records, setting the tone for a week in which I spent an inordinate amount of time in a very small number of CD-selling establishments (Tower, Virgin, Other Music, and a couple of places in the East Village).

Sunday included the aforementioned skyscraper excursion, and my first visit to Times Square, which was more disturbing than I had guessed it would be. We had a somewhat unfortunate dining experience at the 46th St. Zen Palate where we were serenaded by Enya, followed by a somewhat irritating visit to a giant, empty bar with an incompetent bartender. On the bright side, this was followed by one of the best parts of my trip, a visit to Birdland. We saw the Chico O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band and man did they cook. Arturo "Chico" O'Farrill is a Cuban music legend and was leading the band up until his death in 2001. Arturo Jr. has been leading the band since, though someone was filling in for him that night. No matter, they're a tight unit with a great feel for both latin music and jazz. And, lucky us, they're coming to Ted Mann in October. Don' t miss it. The staff at Birdland was excellent, too. They were friendly, helpful, and made an excellent sidecar. Make that four excellent sidecars.

Monday was a shopping extravaganza, including a whirlwind ride through Times Square: Sam Ash, the Sanrio store, and the Virgin Megastore. I also spotted Colony records which looked exciting, but when I went back to investigate it was totally lame. Good for buying sheet music, maybe, but single CDs cost around $23. I can only assume they plan to trick recently-arrived foreign visitors who haven't yet figured out the exchange rate. Please note the excessive use of quotation marks and misuse of "apostrophe's" on their website. I was very proud of myself, the Jr. Scientist left me there to go to class and I managed to find my way back to her place. All alone in New York City! Wookit wittew Biwwy aw by himsewf. I wished I'd been wearing a helmet. I was pretty confident though, which, if you know me, is quite an accomplishment (usually my eyes glaze over when I'm in new situations and I start to drool). In the process I learned that standing on the curb behind phone booths is a great way to take pictures on horribly crowded streets.

That night we had a lengthy, amazing meal at a brand new place called Sezz Medi. Accompanied by a cheap, excellent American viognier (and a Manhattan for the lady), we feasted on mussels, a green salad with red onions and beets, a mushroom risotto with truffle sauce, and a sea bass which was outshined by the marinated artichoke hearts it came with. Dessert followed with a yummy little glass of porto. Happy, happy me.

That's it for now. Stay tuned for more, including the much-requested list of crap I bought. It's important that the world know these things.

This page was created for an exhibit in the "Faculty Peep Show" on display at the Perkinson Gallery, Kirkland Fine Arts Center, Millikin University from April 11-25, 2003. The show was organized to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of marshmallow peeps. Criteria for the show included the incorporation of peeps into a work related to your discipline. Thus the birth of Peep Research: A study of small fluffy creatures and library usage.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

I could totally be a ninja. Today I startled a man looking at Consumer Reports just by walking up and shelving something nearby, and before that a co-worker backed up while she was talking to someone and actually stepped on me, nearly impaling herself on the scissors I was holding. It's like I'm totally invisable, man.

I'm thinking about adding an adjective to my resumé: "unobtrusive." That sounds better than "shadowy" or "covert," but could be misconstrued as "unavailable" or "forgettable." I should probably just wear a bell around my neck.

Maybe a career change is in order. Are there ninja training schools? There's gotta be more money in assassination and sabotage than there is in public service. Though probably not as much excitement.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?