This is a remarkably vibrant and moving love song about, well, gay pirates. I don't know anything about Cosmo Jarvis, except he's 21 and has a lot going on.
This is a remarkably vibrant and moving love song about, well, gay pirates. I don't know anything about Cosmo Jarvis, except he's 21 and has a lot going on.
I had no idea, really. Beyond the few songs I'd heard on the radio, I knew little about Patti Smith's work, and nothing about her life. She was one of many artists I admire from a distance because of the esteem in which others hold her.
Just Kids isn't a substitute for listening to her songs or reading her poetry, but it is an entertaining and moving account of her life, centering on her remarkable relationship with her muse and protector, the artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Mapplethorpe and Smith meet as starving artists in 1967 in New York City. "Artist" here makes them sound accomplished, but really, at 21, they barely had more than the urge to create and the drive to live on the edge of starvation in order to do so. Patti, well-read and voracious in her interests, carries romantic notions of Jean Genet and Arthur Rimbaud, but has trouble completing her own poetry. Less immersed in the work of others, Robert creates odd assemblages but can't realize the large-scale installations in his head. Mostly, they loved and inspire each other while they wait for lightning to strike.
Most of their early life together is squalid, and the kindness of strangers is a persistent theme. Due to luck and their personal charm, they make friends and better themselves in a slow spiral up from poverty. Patti works in bookstores and seems to support both of them. They move into the Chelsea Hotel and hang out at Max's Kansas City, mingling (and more) with everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to Harry Smith and Sam Shepard to the social and artistic mavericks of Andy Warhol's Factory. Patti describes moments with friends like Todd Rundgren and William Burroughs in ways that amuse and impress without seeming boastful.
Patti and Robert each move on to other lovers and patrons without ever letting each other go fully, and her description of their bond makes it timeless and mystical. Patti writes well, remembering details of haircuts, clothes, meals, and conversations that helped to immerse me in the heady and charged New York art world of the late '60s and early '70s. (As a former used-book fiend, I especially loved her memories of finding valuable editions for cheap that she would then flip into a much-needed meal or a rent payment.)
Patti's description of her forays into acting and poetry reading make her eventual transformation into a proto-punk rocker completely inevitable, and it's hard not to see Robert's artistic growth as a kind of simultaneous ascent into purity and descent into depravity. In the end, though, this is a story about two people who have a connection like few others have ever shared, though they've long before parted as lovers. It's a beautiful thing.
Courtesy Dangerous Minds: Biande Ologunde is a mask-wearing Nigerian singer and saxophonist who goes by the name Lagbaja ("anonymous" or "faceless one") and sings his Afrobeat music (at least in this song) in a Yoruba-English creole.
You can pretty much get the gist of what's he's singing about from the video, but following along with the lyrics helps decipher the words a bit. Basically: why do we have to copy American hip-hop fashion -- gold chains, tooth caps, tattoos, big cars? According to a Nigerian Pidgin dictionary I found, panda is slang for cheap, gold-plated jewelry.
Love the choreography.
Here's a taste of the lyrics:
Because of panda
Wey I no' dey wear
Them say I no' dey bling
Ordinary panda o - Eeeee Panda
Wey I not dey wear
Them say I not dey cool
Ordinary panda o - Eeeee Panda
In early '80s, I stopped at a colleague's home for a beer. Looking through his small collection of Styx and Huey Lewis records, I saw an anomaly: a Steve Reich LP, "Octet, Music for Large Ensemble, Violin Phase." I'd never heard of him, but the sheet-music cover and ECM label made it seem promising. I put it on right then and heard a machine-like stream of sound I'd never experienced before: xylophones and marimbas and strings repeating clusters of notes, long pulses of wind instruments, and other sounds I couldn't identify. Twenty minutes later I told my friend I was taking the album home, and I never did give it back. I've been enamored with Reich since that day.
Reich has been composing since the '60s, and he returns often to certain inspirations which find their expression in new ways. Some of his earliest pieces involved a process called phasing, using a short snippet of found speech. Two identical fragments are played in unison, then one is slowly moved out of phase, creating unusual musical and "psychoacoustic" effects. He then used this technique with written music, creating Piano Phase and Violin Phase. Clapping Music is a phasing piece he wrote for two percussionists to play with no instruments. After his study of percussive music in Ghana and gamelan in Bali, he took this idea further and wrote Drumming, a long piece for small drums, marimbas, glockenspiel, voices, and a piccolo. After this, he was less interested in using the process, though he did write Electric Guitar Phase many years later.
Though not employing phasing, the use of short, densely interconnected phrases led to more complex works with larger ensembles. The best known from this period is Music for 18 Musicians, a modern masterpiece. In this and other similar pieces, the instruments -- including hammered instruments, pianos, strings, woodwinds, and voices -- play patterned, percussive figures while other instruments hold long notes like drones. It all creates a kind of shimmering, trancelike presence that doesn't move melodically as most Western classical music does, but is still wonderfully expressive and satisfying. The work is played without a conductor, and was originally performed by Reich's ensemble without a score, with section changes marked by musical cues.
Another shift in his music occurred with his seeming rediscovery of words, as he set spoken and sung phrases to music; this period seemed to coincide with an exploration of Jewish themes. Different Trains, another Reich masterpiece, is an especially powerful work that draws on these techniques, combining a string quartet (played by Kronos Quartet in the original), sound effects, and short phrases recorded from interviews Reich performed. In the first movement, train whistles and crossing bells mix with taped spoken fragments (each doubled by a solo instrument) of train porters and passengers remembering train travel in the US before WWII. In the second movement, set in Europe, the train whistles become air raid sirens, and the voices are from holocaust survivors describing their very different and harrowing train experiences in Europe during WWII. Reich had incorporated sung texts before this, in works like Tehillim and The Desert Music, but Different Trains added an emotional depth that the music and sounds helped to amplify.
In another emotionally rich composition, Reich and his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot, collaborated on The Cave, a large-scale installation/opera that explores the story of Abraham as the father of Judaism and Christianity (through his child Isaac, by his wife Sarah) and Islam (through her maid Hagar and her child Ishmael, both of whom Sarah banishes). We hear the voices of Jews in Israel, Muslims in Palestine, and Americans (who mostly seem uninformed of the importance of the story, regardless of their religion). Typewriter sounds, sung Bible verses, sampled interview fragments, and prayers in Hebrew and Arabic feature throughout, all of which are seen in related videos. A large 3x3 structure, rather like the Hollywood Squares set, houses the live musicians and the video screens. As far as I can tell, no performance video of this work survives.
Reich again used this process of building a large piece around found samples and a central theme in City Life and Three Tales. The idea of working with samples is also found in several instrumental works for one or more musicians to play against multiple tape loops, often called "Counterpoints." One example is Electric Counterpart, commissioned and played by Pat Metheny on electric guitar (and later sampled in the Orb's Little Fluffy Clouds), and there are others written for instruments like clarinet, flute, cello, and piano. Triple Quartet (commissioned by Kronos Quartet) and the recent Double Sextet (which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize) are for larger ensembles.
At 74, Reich continues to create valuable new compositions, and I see I've fallen behind. The Daniel Variations is a vocal work written in tribute to Daniel Pearl, the reporter kidnapped and executed in Pakistan in 2002. WTC 9/11 for String Quartet and Tape is a 2010 work about which I know nothing -- maybe I should go to its New York premiere next year!
Here's a short piece called Nagoya Marimbas, and below that Part 1 of an informative documentary of Reich on the South Bank Show, with appearances by Brian Eno, Michael Tilson Thomas, Kronos, and others.
Here's a much more thorough and interesting documentary on Reich from The South Bank Show, in six parts on YouTube.
Watched Glass: A Portrait of Philip Glass in 12 Parts (by Scott Hicks, the director of Shine) a few nights ago. It certainly rounded him out for me, with lots of "personal" time spent with him in his New York and Nova Scotia homes, as well as concert venues and with family and famous friends -- the artist Chuck Close, with whom he's been friends since the sixties, and Errol Morris appear often.
I appreciate that he's a seeker, and we see sections with his Qi Gong teacher, his Toltec shaman, and his friend Gelek Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist (Glass is also close to the Dalai Lama, we're told). He's had tragedy (his third wife died), but we also see hints that his fourth marriage (with young kids) is breaking up. And we see that he is a tireless worker, juggling multiple movie scores and appearances around the world.
In the end, though, I was drawn no closer to his music. He's certainly been pursuing a singular vision for 40-plus years, but it all seems very repetitive to me. I say this as a lover of repetition, and of his contemporary Steve Reich (who is never mentioned) -- I don't mean the repetition within a piece, but throughout his career. Except for the vocal works and other collaborations, his works all seem so similar. There's no "early" or "late" periods, and those freaking up-and-down arpeggios keep appearing over and over, whether it's solo piano or chamber or large-scale works. Everything sounds like Koyaanisqatsi. I want to like him, because so many others do.
I did enjoy Chuck Close repeating an old joke:
Here's a scene from Koyaanisqatsi.
With some help from the great Andy Devine.
Radiohead's moody, powerful song Exit Music (For a Film) has been a favorite of fans for some time. Leaving aside the many, many earnest solo YouTube efforts, I was amazed by the number of working musicians who discovered something new to do with this song:
But this is my favorite: The University of Arizona marching band, complete with baton/flag twirlers and unusual band formations.
Wow. This jaw-dropping new video for Arcade Fire's "We Used To Wait" (from The Suburbs) is billed as an "interactive film" by Chris Milk. It plays in multiple browser windows and uses Google Maps, an address you provide, and some deeply impressive HTML5 chops to deliver an experience I've never, um, experienced before. When it asks you to type or draw a message, I found drawing to have a more satisfactory result. Just, really, wow.
As it says, this film is processor intensive -- you should shut down other programs and close unnecessary browser tabs.
UPDATE: Google posted an informative page about the various technical aspects that went into this video, many that I didn't notice: "Choreographed windows, interactive flocking, custom rendered maps, real-time compositing, procedural drawing, 3D canvas rendering... this Chrome Experiment has them all."
Elijah Wald's 2004 book, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues begins like this:
There has probably been more romantic foolishness written about blues in general, and Robert Johnson in particular, than just about any other genre or performer in the twentieth century.
In a nutshell, Wald's goal is to help us see Robert Johnson and the pre-war blues as perceived in his time and by his audience. Because a lot of what we in our time think about both of them has been shaped by white intellectuals who came along thirty years later and "explained" the blues as part of a deeply spiritual, almost mystical expression -- a pure music made by naive but brilliant instrumental masters who bared their souls in the swamplands of the Mississippi Delta.
But the blues was pop music, and blues musicians were professionals who played a wide variety of music, not just blues. Whatever their audiences wanted to hear, whatever the girls wanted to dance to, they played. They aspired for the good life, dressing in high style and playing in nice clubs for big audiences in Chicago and New York, and their audiences liked that as well. Nobody wanted to stay in rundown honky-tonks on Southern backroads if they could help it.
But the white aficionados who discovered the music decades later turned it in to a kind of outsider art,the more obscure, the better. Just as now, critics avoided lauding music that appealed to the masses. They felt the popular blues musicians playing the stage in Chicago were too slick, too commercial. They wanted "the real thing," so they searched for the most obscure players and the rarest records. By the '50s and '60s, when white archivists reissued old country blues 78s on LP, everything was turned around: they championed musicians who most people had never heard back in the day, and the big stars -- the ones most in demand by black audiences of the '20s and '30s -- became obscure.
Thus, Robert Johnson, a talented professional musician who sold fewer than 5000 records and died at 27 (becoming a prototype of the tragic rock star), became emblematic of an entire genre. Stories grew up about his abilities and his history, though few people had any certainty about them. Wald makes it clear that Johnson was not a mystical figure in tune with a haunted muse with a skill inspired (figuratively or actually) by a deal with the Devil.
The truth about the blues, as Wald shows, is that white record producers weren't interested in travelling to Mississippi to record black artists crooning romantic ballads or playing upbeat jazz or swing tunes. It didn't matter that black musicians -- and audiences -- loved Guy Lombardo, Bing Crosby, and Lawrence Welk -- these were white-owned record labels making music to sell in Chicago and New York, and what sold were rural black performers playing the blues.
Another interesting reversal Wald describes is with dress. Even if black blues players were poor, they'd spend their money to buy a nice suit to wear onstage. But the white producers liked to promote them as penniless downtrodden ramblers, and the young white rock stars who idolized them adopted jeans and work shirts -- farm and laborer clothes -- in emulation. No contemporary of Robert Johnson would ever play a gig dressed like that! You can see this difference in the original LP cover on the left, and the CD cover on the right -- the CD used a photo of Johnson that hadn't been discovered in 1961, dressed in a sharp pinstriped suit and a jaunty hat.
As with Wald's subsequent book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll, he strips away decades of received wisdom about popular music and helps us see it -- especially music played by and inspired by African-Americans -- as it really was: a commercial art form played by practiced, talented performers making music that audiences loved.
I suspect for many people, the banjo is inextricably linked with old-time, white music, mostly from rural America. The clichéd sources include the Dueling Banjos scene in Deliverance, the theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies, the high lonesome bluegrass of Bill Monroe, the earnest sing-alongs of Pete Seeger; maybe, for a few, the fluttering rhythm behind a Dixieland band.
That is, unless you've heard Béla Fleck. Fleck has almost by himself showed how the banjo can fit within a much wider range of instrumental music, from modern jazz to baroque to his own genre-jumping blend.
Learning that the banjo had come to America with the slaves, Fleck became interested in visiting its African roots. The result is Throw Down Your Heart, the best example I've seen of a Western musician meeting African music on its own terms. Other projects (like Ry Cooder with Ali Farka Toure, Paul Simon in South Africa, or Henry Kaiser and David Lindley in Madagascar) generally find a comfortable fusion that bridges the cultures, or insert themselves within existing music forms, with mostly wonderful results.
But Fleck is such a superior musician, he's able to sit with the very best players, adapting to their odd time signatures and unusual scales, matching their speed or providing generous accompaniment wherever necessary. And that particular plink of the banjo sounds entirely right, whether complementing the thumb piano or trading riffs with its ancestors, the West African akonting and ngoni.
Fleck visits Uganda and Tanzania in East Africa, and the Gambia and Mali in West Africa. He has such an open and friendly manner (coupled with his skills) that he and his new musical friends just merge as if they'd been playing for years. We do see Fleck transcribing music and rehearsing, but several sessions are evidently improvisatory and he is able to both accompany and solo as if he knew the music intimately.
At one point, Fleck says, paraphrasing, "I can cheat and play along until I feel it, but I want to learn their music so that they feel it." I like to believe he did.
Nearly every musical encounter is so rich and even emotional, but a few highlights stand out: in Uganda, Haruna Walusimbi brings tears with his song for his late father; the family of the late Hukwe Zawose and the visiting Masai singers in Tanzania; and the beautiful international diva of Mali, Oumou Sangaré. If you get the DVD, do not skip the extras -- over an hour of performances, without all that interruptive narrative.
Here's a typical scene from the movie, in which Fleck plays in Tanzania with Ruth Akello, one of the rare women to play thumb piano.
And here's the trailer from the movie.