Monday, February 28, 2011

More Musical Signs

Mixed Meters has had several on-going photo series. For example, there was Fallen AvocadosBlank Wall and Bunnies and Balloons.  No, these don't make much sense.  Why would you expect this blog to make sense? 

Another series involves pictures of business or product signs which use musical terminology.  Apparently many musical words hold some mysterious fascination for the non-musical.  Maybe musical words increase sales. 

This post is the fourth in a series.  In part one we learned the words trio, forte, cornet, arpeggio, aria and allegro. In part two there was koda, tritono and concertoPart three included melody, allegro, opera, counterpoint, cantata and Amadeus.

Today's word list includes several musical forms: aria, sonata and symphony plus one which contains only an opening movement.  There's a score, one on which it is forbidden to walk, plus parts.  I think these parts are for the sonata in the previous picture.  And finally there's a musical apartment building moving at a speed related to its latitude.

Do you wonder what The 1st Movement or Vizual Symphony do?
Yes, you can click on any picture to embiggen it.
All of the pictures were taken in Pasadena, CA.

Tags North:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Street Art Now and Then

On the corner of Hill Avenue and Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena there used to be a Ford dealership.  It was called Pasadena Ford.  When it closed in August 2008 someone carefully painted out the word "Ford" on every sign.  Nothing else, just the one name wherever it appeared.

The lot is empty now.  For a while, students from Pasadena City College could park there cheap.  One day a year it's a prime spot to park huge RVs directly on the Rose Parade route.

Yesterday I noticed a new bit of "street art" on the wall just north of the main lot.  I figured it must be a Banksy since that secretive street artist is getting such a lot of publicity by being nominated for an Oscar.  A little research seems to indicate that this was done by a different anonymous street artist who uses the handle "¢ommon ¢ents".

The image has been printed on some large format printer and attached to the wall with glue.  At the bottom, where the artist signed his "name", the paper is ripped.  Here's a closeup of Lady Liberty's tablet - the same text repeats and repeats until finally it turns to plain old gibberish.

I wonder why ¢ommon ¢ents singled out the L.A. Times.  It's not the behind-the-scenes power broker of the General Otis or Chandler family days.  The poor paper is lucky to still be in business.

This art, in my opinion, is not terribly moving.  More interesting is the piece of graffiti which lived in this same spot previously, one actually drawn on the wall by someone.  That one appeared after the dealership closed.  After a while someone painted it out.   Here are pictures which I took on March 19, 2009.

A young boy in a Little League uniform is about to catch a small missile in his baseball glove.  We may imagine that the result will not be pleasant for the boy.  The artwork and the anti-war message is more subtle than ¢ommon ¢ents' Statue of Liberty by several orders of magnitude.

In April 2009 there was discussion of this painting at Pasadena Daily Photo.

By clicking the photos, especially the previous one, you will see an enlargement.

The real Banksy has a photo of a Statue of Liberty-themed piece on his website.  Here it is:

If you want, you could read my Oscar rant from last year.   Or you could look at these two Mixed Meters graffiti-related posts: Graffiti Animals of California and Taggers With Spellcheck

Yesterday Pasadena Adjacent had a graffiti-related post.

Street Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Future From A Car Commercial

Last night I came across the nine-minute 1956 movie Design for Dreaming.  This particular bit of Fifties Futurism is a big-budget General Motors industrial musical - an almost-modern ballet with lots of costume changes danced to almost-modern music with sung rhymed couplets.
Girls don't go to motoramas, 
dressed in a pair of pink pajamas!
The Cars of the Future are the real stars, of course.  The movie ends with the "fabulous turbine-powered Firebird 2" which is "designed for the electronic highway of the future."
Firebird 2 to the control tower.
We are about to take off on the Highway of Tomorrow.
Stand by.
Tomorrow, tomorrow. 
Our dreams will come true.
Together, together.
We'll make the world new.
The Kitchen of the Future from Frigidaire, a subsidiary of GM, also makes an appearance.  That's where the lady of the house will bake a cake, decorate it and even put candles on top, all quite unattended.  The kitchen does this inside of some sort of glass dome and then phones her when the cake is ready.

Aside from any marketing or corporate branding aspects, this movie struck me as a great example of how we saw the future during the fifties.  And the future was good, all filled with gleaming chrome.  Here, watch the future for yourself:

I immediately associated this advertisement with a current one for a different automobile with a different view about the future, a much darker outlook.  Elaborate music, dance and poetry, gleaming chrome, formal costumes are all missing. Instead we have a car in a dark tunnel accompanied by a sober, threatening male voice listing the evils of the future as predicted by competing automobiles.

Here's his text. It's kind of free verse:
Hands-free driving.
Cars that park themselves.
An unmanned car
Driven by a search engine company.
We've seen that movie.
It ends with robots
Harvesting our bodiess for energy.
(motor sounds)
This is the all new 2011 Dodge Charger.
Leader of the human resistance.

Apparently, in 2011, Fear of the Future can sell cars.  As cars become more and more computerized it looks like the "electronic highway of the future" from Design for Dreaming might just happen.  But if that future is frightening, you can forestall it by purchasing a noisy, muscle car - one that wouldn't have looked or sounded out of place on the highways of the nineteen fifties.

The tunnel in this (and many other) television commercials is Second Street in downtown Los Angeles.  Here's a shot from the end of the commercial showing the car driving out of the tunnel.  I've added the same shot from Google Street View.  Google, of course, is the search engine company developing a "self-driving" car.  In spite of what the Dodge ad says, the Google car isn't yet "unmanned".

Here's an ad from the August 1964 Readers Digest (page 200). I xeroxed this myself sometime after the Three Mile Island Accident in 1979 and saved it ever since because it touts cheap electricity from atomic power.  The picture shows a well-manicured woman holding the household control device of the future and therefore it fits into this post quite well.

She's monitoring her baby in the crib via the "Video Scan".  The other rotary knobs are marked "R/C Clean", "Lawn Care", "Disposal", "Floor Care", "Food Prep."  (Click the picture for enlargement.)

 Here's the text in a format Mrs. Google's robot can read.

easy does it
someday you may be able to run your all-electric home by fingertip control

Whatever electrical wonders come your way in the future, there'll be plenty of low-priced electricity to help you enjoy them.

America's more than 300 investor-owned electric light and power companies are seeing to that right now.  For example, they are investing about a billion dollars to develop atomic power as another source of cheap electricity.

And they have more than 1800 other research and development projects in progress or recently completed.  All are pointed toward keeping you and all Americans amply supplied with dependable, low-priced electric service, now and in the wonderful new world of your electric future.

Investor-Owned Electric Light and Power Companies
People you can depend on to power America's porgress
Sponsors' names on request through this magazine.

Here's a collection of articles about how the 50s viewed the future, from a blog called Paleofuture.

Fifties Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . .

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Milton Babbitt and the Super Bowl

A couple weeks ago, in the middle of the night, I flipped on the kitchen television to one of those overnight news shows. I found no news. Instead the anchors were picking their personal favorites in the Super Bowl.

At that moment I heard a little voice in my head. "You should write a blog post about Milton Babbitt and the Super Bowl."  Babbitt had passed away only a few days earlier.

"But," I replied, "Babbitt has nothing whatsoever to do with professional football."

"Not my problem," it countered.  I called it several unpleasant names - but the voice had already left my head.

That's how I got stuck trying to compare America's premier professor of serial music composition and America's premier professional football championship holiday.  It's my brain's fault.  Such an essay is uphill work because the intersection of the sets of properties of Babbitt's music and Super Bowl games is null.  (Babbitt would understand.  He was a brainy guy.)

I reread "Who Cares If You Listen", Babbitt's 1958 editor-titled essay in High Fidelity Magazine.  He lamented the lack of contextual background which listeners brought to serious contemporary music:
The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics.  Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields.
To Babbitt, writing music was highly technical and highly theoretical.  He thought that such research would lead to future musical benefits for all.  Theory and composition-wise that certainly never happened, although the miniature descendants of the room-sized synthesizer which Babbitt used in the fifties have since turned music on its head.

Babbitt concludes his essay with a reference to the "is classical music dead?" debate:
Granting to music the position accorded other arts and sciences promises the sole substantial means of survival for the music I have been describing.  Admittedly, if this music is not supported, the whistling repertory of the man in the street will be little affected, the concert-going activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture will be little disturbed.  But music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live. (italics added)
Here's some of Milton Babbitt's music to listen to as you read about the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl is a battle in abstract.  Two teams of armored warriors engage in ritual medieval combat while attempting to adjust the geo-position of an oviform leather ball to their own advantage. There are many ways in which the Super Bowl is different than Milton Babbitt's music.
  • Milton Babbitt's music does not need a half time show.  Nor is there a cuisine (e.g. pizza, wings, chips and guacamole) associated with it.
  • Babbitt's music receives little, if any, attention.  Super Bowl Sunday has become an important all-American celebration of capitalist sports. 
  • Babbitt's music is not widely known.  The Super Bowl has millions of fans. 
  • Babbitt's music is highly intellectual.  The brainiest aspect to the Super Bowl is probably chronic traumatic encephalopathy.   That's the progressive damage done to the brains of players who are constantly bashing into one another with great force.  This very violence is one of the reasons people like football. 
  • Babbitt used higher mathematics in the composition of his music.  Mathematically, a Super Bowl fan must be able to add four numbers and decide whether the total is greater than ten.  Extra credit is given to fans who can remember the rules for Roman numerals.  This year was Super Bowl XLV.
  • Listening to Babbitt's music requires intense concentration.  Watching football does not require much attention span at all.  The plays are short and there is plenty of time in between for commentators to explain what happened - just in case you missed something.
  • Babbitt's music has little commercial value.  Corporations spend millions of dollars for a few seconds of Super Bowl air time to sell their products. 
Here's a television ad extolling four men who have attended every Super Bowl.  These men are no less the heroes of Super Bowl than the players on the field.  They are the conspicuous consumers of Super Bowl culture.  Other people are envious of them.   The ad announces a contest for a lifetime of free Super Bowl tickets given to one lucky winner.   I must have missed the competition to win free tickets to Milton Babbitt concerts for life.

Naturally I listened to some of Milton Babbitt's music before writing this.  I was struck by a certain nineteen fifties feeling of his pieces, sort of like giant audible Jackson Pollock paintings.  Overall, his abstraction is pure and his attention to technique is overarching.   On a micro level each event, each note, each drip becomes its own world, like a tiny atom whizzing through vast emptiness.   I strained (and failed) to hear connections.  What's more, his notes never combine to create emotion or excitement or drama, the very things I feel music is good at.  Maybe someone with better ears or more nimble brain can fathom Babbitt's music. 

I also watched some of the Super Bowl broadcast.  Football, like any sport, is goal oriented activity.  The goal is winning and the drive towards that goal represents great drama.   We can pick a side to cheer for and personally share in outcome.  The competition and violence become easy metaphors for much of real life.  These are amplified by the media until the whole event is larger than life.  The Super Bowl is geared to producing emotion, excitement and drama - and little else.

Milton Babbitt and the Super Bowl are opposites on any spectrum.  I guess the one thing they have in common is my personal failure to understand either one.  I find them both empty experiences.  I scratch my head because I see that other people seem to get pleasure from them.  I bet there are even certain people who love both Babbitt and the Super Bowl.  Why didn't the voice in my head visit them instead?   Those people should have written this article.

Here's a one-hour movie entitled Babbitt: Portrait of a Serial Composer by Robert Hilferty, completed by Laura Karpman. If you're interested in the life and personality of this highly intelligent, academic, uncompromising artist, I highly recommend watching.  This was more fascinating for me than listening to Babbitt's music directly.

It also reminded me of the one time I met Milton Babbitt.   In the very early seventies I was an undergraduate at Carleton who had only recently decided to take a chance at a career in composition. He and I had a brief private discussion during which he was not particularly discouraging.  He gave a lecture to the assembled music students and faculty - many of whom attended out of politeness more than interest. 

I remember suggesting that he was a professor at Columbia (rather than Princeton) because I knew of him mostly through recordings from the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center. He seemed a bit annoyed at my confusion between the two schools.   This movie also reminded me just how quickly he could talk.

About 52 minutes into the movie a young woman makes this comment:
My brain is stimulated by Milton Babbitt's music and my heart is touched by the freeing of my mind, which is a different way to have one's heart touched than usual.  And in that way I find his music extraordinary and unique.
What a beautiful sentiment.  I wonder what she'd have to say about the Super Bowl.

ADDENDUM: okay, here's one way in which serial music composition and professional football are alike: they're both activities of interest principally to men.

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