Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Camille and the Cardiacs

Here's an NPR story about popular music in France. I turned the car on midway through the clip of singer Camille. She is described as "part Bjørk and part her own dangerous imagination." Bjork? Nah. "Dangerous Imagination" Okay, I'm in.

I suggest you listen to the radio story before reading on. Can you guess which bit of the Camille excerpt caused me to decide immediately to buy that album?

Based on less than a seconds worth of sound I eventually purchased the album called Le Fil. Read about Camille here. Here's Camille's website where you can hear a couple cuts from Le Fil by watching videos.

Camille Le Fil cover
Musically I find Le Fil completely involving, even intriguing. Plenty of vocal textures, vocal noises, vocal drones, overtone singing. There's hardly any instrumental backup. It's a very open, widely spacious, expansively empty album. Any one would like this (except minimalists and serialists.)

After several listenings I was surprised to discover many pages of lyrics in the booklet. I've always said I like pop music more if I can't understand the words. But French is a special case, filled as it is with non-human sounds to which my brain fails to assign linguistic meaning. And so I process the sounds not as language but as music. That's a good thing.

My second victim today is On Land and in the Sea by the Cardiacs. I can't understand the words on this album either even though they're all in English. This is because the lyrics are all shouted rapid-fire over annoyingly loud rock and roll.

The Cardiacs are an English punk rock band. Just look at their picture. They look like a punk band, don't you think?

The Cardiacs, looking very patrician
These two albums are as different as two albums can be. Well, one is French the other is English. One is a up and coming mega-pop star on a major label, the other is a decades-old under-ground independent-label noise band.

I ran across this video of "Tarred and Feathered" by the Cardiacs on You Tube months ago. I was smitten by the obvious weirdness and the crazy rhythm. Imagine that instead of going over to the dark side of 12-tonality late in life, Stravinsky had written punk rock music instead. Might have sounded something like this.

I searched for a Cardiacs album - the clerk at Canterbury's, the good Pasadena record store, asked me "Where do you find these things?"

Independently of this, I received an email from a gentleman in England named Ben Singleton. He wanted to ask me questions about my least favorite Frank Zappa album Thingfish. I noticed that on Ben's MySpace Page he had listed the Cardiacs among his favorite music.

After I answered Ben's question he offered to send me a copy of a Cardiacs album. After a short while On Land and in the Sea arrived as Ben's thank you gift. He's a nice guy. I hated the album. I even threatened to use it to drive Leslie out of my office when I wanted her to stop using my computer.

So what did I do after listening to this awful album a few times. I went to the Cardiacs website, of course, and ordered their greatest hits album. Maybe I did that to fulfill John Cage's commandment:
"If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all."
Or maybe I'm just a masochist.

Here are more Cardiacs videos to confuse you more. Enjoy them.
The Consultant's Flower Garden
A Little Man and a House

Graffiti animal - space man - drawn on cement
Here's some other recent Mixed Meters CD purchases:
Marc Blitzstein "The Cradle Will Rock" If you don't know this political musical I suggest you watch Tim Robbin's movie Cradle Will Rock as an introduction.

Electric Gypsyland - I'm a sucker for these remix albums of East European brass bands like Tarif de Haidouks. I'm a sucker for Tango remixes too (like the Gotan Project) There's now an Electric Gypsyland 2 too.

The Puppini Sisters (their over-designed home page is here) - Betcha Bottom Dollar. Leslie requested this album. The close-harmony female trio formed, apparently, in response to the Mixed-Meters approved soundtrack to the animated movie Triplets of Belleville Hopefully in the future there will be other, more interesting, versions of I Will Survive done in the style of the Andrews Sisters.

Trance Fusion - a guitar solo only album by Frank Zappa that puts the Shut Up series to shame. (The uber-over-designed Trance Fusion page is here.)

Two discs of music by Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) - my brief investigation into reasons why composers are forgotten. Here's a Rued Langgaard website. I decided I needed to hear some of this Danish composers works when I read that the fourth phase of his creative career was entitled "Obstinacy and absurdity" Okay, I'm in.

Speaking of Danish composers. Here's a trenchant quote from a recent post by Roboflutist, a real working musician:
"Our audience wouldn't like the Nielsen. So which Mozart will you be playing?"
Okay, I'm way off topic now. Leave a comment if you think you discern a common thread among all this. Or if you really want to know which tiny little bit of the Camille album started it all.

Album Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

30 Second Spots - In America Everyone Is A Great Artist

You will make more sense of this post if you first refer back to In Which David Listens to Two Radio Stations Alternately. Pay special attention to the comment by Alex Shapiro.

Oh heck, here's what she wrote (in purple):
The demise of L.A.'s commercial classical radio station has presented a new and thrilling opportunity for your radio game:
Schoenberg/Willie Nelson mash-ups.
Or, Bartok/LeAnn Rimes.
Maybe, Brahms/Charlie Pride....?
I think it's time to open your ears to a NEW kind of stereo effect...
Meet Your Muse - a billboard near a freeway in Pasadena (I don't remember what it was selling me)By now Alex should know better than to offer any opportunity (no matter how slight) to serve as my muse. Apparently she didn't learn her lesson from her previous tangle with Mixed Meters. Check out and listen to this post entitled The On and Off Topic Blues for Alex in which you can hear the music I created to avoid attending a composers' forum.

By the way, Alex seems to have disappeared from the paradise known as Malibu. Rumor has it she's been banished to a gulag on a remote island in the far northwest of the country because of her moderate behavior. I trust there is an abundance of classical radio and contemporary performance there. Maybe she'll get time off for good behavior. Her blog is about music derived from seaweed. Check it out.

an empty box of American-quality Maverick cigarettes I found at Starbucks
In America Everyone Is A Great Artist is a combination of two types of music I don’t like – 12-tone Music and Country Music. It combines the classically country themes of faithless lovers, big honkin' eighteen wheelers, serialism and the quest for tenure into an annoyingly saccharine comment on every American baby-boomer's birthright: our entitlement to creatively express our identical sheltered experiences repetitively in the hopes of expanding our 15 minutes of fame into a vast fortune.

In America I can take two kinds of music I don’t like and combine them into one piece you don’t like. Is this a great country, or what?

In America Everyone Is A Great Artist is one minute and 33 seconds long. It is copyright (c) 2007 by David Ocker.

P.S. I'm trying this new little embedded mp3 player from the website MOG where I have established yet another David Ocker blog. I just can't resist when they're free. I hope both my readers will leave a comment on how well this works. Please? Purty Please?

P.P.S. The picture of the Maverick cigarette box has two tenuous musical relevances. One is MTT's excellent American Maverick radio series. The other is a country band called The Mavericks, with whose music Leslie lovingly tormented me in the early years of our marriage.

P.P.P.S. My radio station game survives between KUSC (the classical classical station) and KJAZZ (the classical jazz station). The results aren't great as often as they were between two classical classical stations, but it sure beats listening to KKGO (the country classical station).

P.P.P.P.S. If you hate my recurrent bit about "both my readers", please leave the third comment to this post.

Great Country or What Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Mingus Epitaph

Think of a U.S. President approaching the end of his second term, worrying about his "legacy". There's little he can do to change people's memory of how he screwed up his first 6 years.

George Bush musician
In the same way it's dangerous for a composer to write his own musical epitaph; any attempts to suggest how people ought to remember you will simply be accused of self interest.

Some composers, disappointed in their accomplishments, console themselves that they'll be resurrected, Bach-like, to great acclaim 50 years hence. Other composers, unwilling to face reality, delude themselves, Schoenberg-like, that they alone know the future. No wonder composers can be so bitter.

Suppose a composer, accutely aware of his own mortality, writes a huge, complex piece fully expecting no one will hear it until after he dies. And he tells people "I wrote it for my tombstone." And then he doesn't even finish it.

But wait. What if he's not just pissing his ego into the wind? Suppose he really is a great composer and as time passes people steadily value his music more and more. What then should we think of his own attempt to define our memories of him when there are plenty of excellent reasons to remember him anyway.

These were some of my contorted thoughts as I returned home from a rare performance of Charles Mingus' Epitaph. Yep, he named his own epitaph "Epitaph" and he described it as a symphony, although it's way beyond that.

The Mingus Epitaph ensemble onstage
Wednesday night Epitaph was performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall by 31 musicians, all funereally attired except for one trombonist, and conducted by Gunther Schuller. Schuller is to be commended for helping rescue Epitaph from oblivion and making it performable.
Read about this production of Epitaph here.
More about its previous history is here.

Schuller talked too much. During his first speech someone in the audience shouted "Just Play It" only to be shushed. They should have shushed Gunther instead, his commentary was longwinded and patronizing. He told us that we probably wouldn't like all of it. That's true for me - I find the opening movement curiously off-putting.

Someone asked me about the recording of the previous performances and I said "It shouldn't be your first Mingus album" - that's true but the wrong thing to say to someone who, as it turned out, already had several.

the compact disc recording of Mingus Epitaph 1989
Afterwards a friend suggested that what Epitaph needs is an editor. There's just too much of it. Mingus didn't put the final polish on it. Others should feel free to sort the components into shorter, more accessible formats. Call it an "Epitaph set" (for jazzers) or an "Epitaph suite" (for the classically minded).

Either way, it will never be performed much because it requires such formidable resources - double jazz band with little added amenities like oboe, english horn, bassoon, contrabass clarinet, timpani. (The improvised bassoon solo is one of my favorite spots - played excellently with multiphonic enhancement by Michael Rabinowitz. But if they could amplify the pianos why couldn't they amplify the bassoon just a bit too?)

picture of Charles Mingus with flag from
Finally, I had an epiphany during Epitaph. One of the sections is a well known, up-tempo Mingus tune called Better Git It In Your Soul. It was performed by a small ensemble like the ones Mingus himself led; Schuller didn't conduct that section.

During this famous, high-energy, exciting piece that I've heard countless times before and which is as much of a standard as any Mingus tune, why did I find myself crying like a baby? Tears rolling down my cheeks. No kidding. What the heck was going on here?

Later I hypothesized that I was witnessing the birth of classical music - like a new volcano breaking the surface from below. Mingus' real epitaph, the one WE actually remember him by, is not his complex "I'll prove I'm a serious composer" works. What he will be remembered for are his pieces that people can enjoy and understand immediately. He wrote many pieces like that - and when I heard this one in a fine concert hall constructed especially for the classics (a different sort of classics but still the classics) it felt monumental.

People get to choose which music becomes "classical". They pick music because they want to remember it, share it, learn from it, be friends with it. At that moment I knew Better Git It In Your Soul is a classical piece that belonged in Disney Hall every bit as much as Beethoven. Maybe more.

My previous post on why Mingus is one of my favorite composers is here.

Another Mixed Meters post describing the previous time I cried at a concert.

Six moods of Gunther Schuller:

the six moods of Gunther Schuller

Addendum from a 1982 letter to Thomas Oboe Lee from Gunther Schuller, posted on the Internet here:
The history of music is rampant with examples of composers who were overrated and over-praised in their time only to be forgotten later and, the reverse of that, neglected composers finally discovered after their time. Then there is the classic difference between a composer's own conception of the validity of his work on the one hand, and his contemporaries' perception of his work...

Young Gunther Schuller Photograph from Encyclopædia Britannica Online Other Gunther pictures from here and here or here and elsewhere. The picture of George "War" Bush came from here.

Tombstone Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The New Yorker and The Hero Composer in Los Angeles

I think of Playboy and The New Yorker in much the same way. I was exposed to both publications in my twenties not with subscriptions but with stacks of hand-me-down back issues belonging to friends. Each magazine reflected an imaginary fantasy world of my young adult brain, one professional, the other sexual. I read both in the same way - starting at the back I would thumb through to the front looking for cartoons. As it turned out I was almost forty before I ever visited New York City, over fifty when I first rode the subway alone.

It's been quite a while since I've seen either publication. Recently I wanted to read the Alex Ross New Yorker article about Esa-Pekka Salonen. I know Esa-Pekka personally because I've worked on most of his new music since the last millennium (well, since 1999) and even edited some of his pieces for publication.

My neighborhood Rite Aid (that's a drug store) has a huge wall of magazines so I figured I could walk up there and get a copy. I found no New Yorker. A clerk asked a supervisor "Do we carry a magazine called The New Yorker?" I inferred that he had never heard of it. Later I found my copy hidden on a top shelf at Vroman's, a local independent bookstore. I've read there are now more New Yorker subscribers in California than in New York.

art is where you find it - New Yorker cover detail
In case you run across a stack of back issues and want to read this fine article, the cover shows a young hip couple wearing black standing in front of a huge ersatz Jackson Pollock action painting completely absorbed by the tiny video screen of the camera they have just used to photograph that very painting. I can relate to their motivation completely; they want to save the experience for later. The remaining illustrations in this article are various ersatz accidental modern art pieces that I have saved for later (i.e. now) from my trips to that great gallery space called Pasadena.

Anyway, old habits remain and I opened my new copy of The New Yorker from the back and skimmed forward reading the cartoons. There seemed fewer of them and some inside illustrations were in color and the type was bigger. Does bigger type mean an aging readership with deteriorating eyesight? Probably.

an imitation Jackson Pollock in Pasadena Gold Line station
Alex Ross describes Esa-Pekka exceptionally well - I could attest to every description of his personality and behavior. I wondered about just one thing: that E-P would only know who Jabba the Hutt was via his young son Oliver. I've discussed science fiction with Esa-Pekka several times - although the conversation ranged more towards Lem than Lucas.

In the rest of the article Ross talks of our acoustically fine concert hall and the exceptional orchestra which inhabits it, of the recently announced change in music directorship here and how the orchestra's administration has made miracles happen. Ross, always the optimist, concludes that Esa-Pekka's tenure in Los Angeles "may mark a turning point in the recent history of classical music in America." Wow, I hope I live long enough to find out if that's true.

In one bizarre episode Ross follows a Philharmonic cellist through a busy day - commuting on a motorcycle, teaching the Elgar concerto, and taking an improvisation lesson in Laurel Canyon from a teacher who tells him to "find the magic in the intervals". Yeah, dude, far out. Californians are like that. Got any papers?

an imitation Mark Rothko behind a Cost Plus in Pasadena
But in the entire article this one sentence was most interesting to me:
Perhaps (LA Philharmonic President & Executive Director Deborah) Borda's boldest notion is to give visiting composers such as (John) Adams and Thomas Ades the same royal treatment that is extended to the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell; Borda talks about "hero composers."
Ah yes. The "composer as hero" syndrome. I thought that was just a concept that I had come up with years ago to explain away the Philharmonic's tunnel vision of new music marketing. Apparently they do it consciously. Of course they do. Conscious or not, it predates the Borda years.

Over the years I've had the opportunity to watch this phenomenon both from a distance and from up close. The first hero composers that I remember in L.A. were Pierre Boulez and Wittold Lutoslawski. Back then I was producing concerts of alternative new music (i.e. an alternative to what happened at the Phil.). I think I would have given several important body parts for a performance of my music by the Philharmonic.

an imitation Picasso portrait somewhere in Pasadena
In my first years in Los Angeles new music was never programmed on the second half of Philharmonic concerts because a large portion of the audience would simply leave at intermission. In the late '80s I remember overhearing two subscribers discuss their least-favorite recent new music performances (an awful Mel Powell piece won hands down.) Once in the 90s, after John Adams had given a pre-concert lecture, I overheard a woman say "He seems like a very genuine person." And indeed he is. But so was Mel.

I'm not saying our music heroes don't deserve attention. But I feel strongly that the world of creative music should not be an all or nothing, winner take all place. There must be hundreds of composers in the US with the talent , experience, ideas and motivation for the job of Hero, if it were only offered. For whatever reason, very few are chosen. All four that I can think of in LA have already been mentioned here.

the back of an air conditioner at Castle Green in Pasadena
Selling composers as heroes works not because they are treated like soloists, as Alex Ross suggests, but because they are treated more like the classical gods, your Beethovens and your Wagners. My sense is that nineteenth century music sustains general interest in all classical music in this country. As a result we treat living composers by the standards we use for nineteenth century composers. It's a very top down arrangement. I've never liked it.

About the time of the movie Amadeus (1984) I got myself into a spot of difficulty when a local free newspaper quoted me calling the then composer-in-residence of the Philharmonic "the Salieri of new music in Los Angeles." What got back to this person was that I was accusing him of murder. (After that I was more careful to be specific about which interview comments were on the record and which not. By the way, that very reviewer has since won a Pulitzer prize.)

Back then I stayed on good terms with the composer by writing a letter to the paper explaining what I meant: that the composer-in-residence had great influence on deciding whose music was heard "at court" By "at court" of course I meant "at the Philharmonic". Now, 20 years on, Amadeus is pretty much forgotten and I've learned my lesson about making analogies.

a red door with graffiti on it near a frame store in Pasadena
These days I just compare the Philharmonic to an 800-pound gorilla. The analogy "at court" still works, however, and I even get to attend once in a while. By either analogy the Philharmonic is the only really big player in the local new music scene. The nearest competitor in the same weight class is the San Francisco Symphony. I've noticed that East Coast people tend to think San Francisco is much closer to L.A. than it really is, not just in distance but also in culture. Los Angeles is spread out over a huge geography - but it's not that big.

Finally, once Alex Ross finished his New Yorker article he wrote this in his blog: "You L.A. people are lucky." Yeah, probably so. But I'd like to suggest that he withhold judgment until he spends some time here during the months of August and September. That's when the sun burns your skin and the smog burns your eyes and the programming with fireworks at the only live classical music venue in town burns your soul.

an imitation Andy Warhol in the window of a 99cents only store in Pasadena
Sign up for a free weekly New Yorker cartoon email here.

Paul Viapiano, also a Pasadena blogger, has this recent article about reading The New Yorker.

A previous Mixed Meters post - Los Angeles, New Music Backwater

Eustace Tilley Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Southwest Chamber Music Gets Half a Mil

This small article was in today's Los Angeles Times

Chamber receives $500,000 grant
Southwest Chamber Music has received a grant totaling $500,000 to be paid over the next 10 years from the Schoenberg Family Charitable Fund.

The grant, the largest in the Pasadena group's history, will be used to pay for future recordings. Southwest received classical album Grammy Awards in 2003 and 2004. (Chris Pasles)
a gong belonging to composer William KraftHalf a million dollars is a lot of money and quite a long term commitment for a chamber music group - especially one that does so much modern repertoire. I hope they use it to good effect.

Congratulations to SCMS. Here's their website.

Okay, by a show of hands, how many of you knew there was such a thing as "The Schoenberg Family Charitable Fund"? (Not me.)

12-tone Tags: . . . . . .

Friday, May 04, 2007

Boogie Woogie Worldwide

There's a broadcast TV channel which floats down onto our house from Mount Wilson high above Pasadena. Channel 63 KBEH plays MTV TR3S (er, tres, like "three" - I guess there's an MTV uno and dos somewhere, huh? - we're the last people in Pasadena that don't get cable.)

Anyway MTV3 plays music videos from the Latino side of town, some in English, some in Spanish. They program what they call "Los Hits" Sometimes these stupid hip hop videos are the best thing on our television. And I always find that I enjoy contemporary pop music more if it is in a language I don't understand.

Christina Aguilera - still from Candyman video, like Andrews Sisters
My ears perked up to hear some authentic sounding 40's big band jazz on the station. It turned out to be this very cool video called Candyman by Christina Aguilera.

Christina Aguilera - still from Candyman video, jitterbugger cops a feel
It's music that would make your Grandmother want to dance and lyrics that that would make her complain to the FCC. Imagine a group like the Andrews Sisters singing a song very much like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B in a movie like Abbott and Costello's Buck Privates, only modern.

In Christina's video she (playing all three sisters) is entertaining horny, young soldiers and sailors about to ship out to certain death. Imagine snappy uniforms, cigarette girls with bottles of Campari, women jitterbugging in impossibly high heels, and Rosie the Riveter at a luncheonette wearing a bare midriff. All played by Christina.

Christina Aguilera - still from Candyman video, cigarette girl with bottle
A harmonized mildly hip-hopish interlude suggests this isn't real 40's music. There's a back beat of hand claps all the way through to keep youthful bodies bouncing. A trumpeter plays a solo of just one note. Hard to really swing on just one note, but you work with what you get.

And then there's the lyrics. In the '40s women really did publicly sing songs about men making their panties drop, didn't they? And what the heck is a "Vodka double wine"?

Christina Aguilera - still from Candyman video, Rosie the Riveter is STRONG
But wait. Here's the real thing: you can watch the Andrews Sisters themselves sing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B in the movie Buck Privates.

saluting Andrews Sisters sing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy in Buck Privates
This Andrews Sisters' video has exactly one cut - meaning it's very close to what they might do live. By comparison Christina's Candyman is video by a thousand cuts. Could she do any of this in concert?

Want to check out some European boogie woogie? Here's a link to a WFMU Beware of the Blog post about a cheezy Euro-disco tune entitled Yes Sir I Can Boogie I'm pretty sure this boogie is neither music nor dance. Just casual sex.

They say this was a big hit in the '70s. Some sort of European cultural advantage that we Americans were never blessed with. I direct your attention to a version of YSICB sung in German by a Finn named M.A. Numminen. You've gotta listen to Numminen's version just to hear him yodel. Yep, disco yodeling. There's both a video and an mp3.

M A Numminen sings Yes Sir I Can Boogie in German
Thanks to WFMU you can have your fill of cheezy Euro-disco. Scroll down for Crazy Frog links!

Still craving more Boogie Woogie from the other side of the globe? How about an Indian television dance show entitled Boogie Woogie? (Watch the Kids Challenge episode here.)

You can watch a crypto-marine-zoology version of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy performed by Bette Midler and friends. The performers have sexy hips and they hop about a lot. But it's not hip hop.

And here's boogie from the strangest possible place, my brain. Click here to hear my piece called Jihadist Boogie a 30-Second Spot originally posted last summer. Read all about Jihadist Boogie here.

Copyright © June 15, 2006 by David Ocker - 59 seconds

Finally - how about some authentic boogie woogie - or maybe just jazz from the '30s? This site Red Hot Jazz has more good stuff than you can shake your bootie at, baby.

Boogie Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .