As a writer, even though I am not part of any sort of literati, I am still plugged into the lit scene. You need to be if you want to understand the general to-and-fro of any industry you are interested in becoming a part of (same goes for TV, music, theatre, etc..). That said, I must make an admission. I am making this admission because I think there are a lot of people like me out there who feel the same but are reticent to admit it.
Here goes: I don’t take any particular interest in the life of the artist outside of his or her art.
When I read a book, I don’t care if an author comes from the East Coast and studied journalism, had a drug problem and now lives in a shed with a mastiff. It’s not that I don’t care about this author personally, it’s that these facts shouldn’t have anything to do with the book that I am about to read. I should be able to pick up the book, knowing nothing about said author, and be able to read it, enjoy it, be fully affected by it, without substantially missing something due to a lack of familiarity with the author’s biography.
And yet, when you are culturally plugged-in (and by this I mean, you check out industry blogs, trade mags, etc.) there is so much white noise about the artists themselves that it seems divergent from what it is they are supposed to be doing: their work. We can talk about Picasso’s passions, but 100 years from now there will probably only be discussion of his work – your work is the only thing left after you and everyone who knew you has died. And if people are still talking more about you than your work after this point, then I would think the quality of your work was overstated.
Would knowing that Stephen King battled drug addiction offer an insight into some of his writing? Yes. But, my point is that if that insight is necessary in order to fully appreciate a piece of work then there is a problem. The work doesn’t work if you need a biographical cheat sheet to inject context into the material.
I think Bryan Ferry is an fantastic vocalist – and I don’t want to know anything more than that. Nor the details outside a director’s films, nor what inspired the playwright to write her play. I’ve got my own shit going on, thanks very much.
Ephemera is for journalists, fanzines, and those working on their Ph.D. The general public should not feel inadequate if they pick a DVD or book off a shelf, sit down in a theatre, or load a song without being prepared with supplemental information not contained within the medium which contains the work. The work inevitably has to stand up for itself. I write this for two reasons: first, with the likes of the AV Club and traditional print/TV media clamouring to add as much web-based context as possible to every article, there’s a growing sense that – for the everyman – if you aren’t savvy to the smallest details of each artist’s passings and goings, you are nothing but a tourist. Secondly, embracing social media to a claustrophobic degree, we can now read endless commentating on authors reading their work for a live audience!…something no one really asked for outside the publishing companies themselves and perhaps the authors’ parents. Let’s face it: most authors can’t read aloud to save their lives – it’s not their specialty.
There are reasons for digging deeper, but that’s up to the individual. It was interesting to learn more about HP Lovecraft when I reviewed Michel Houellebecq’s quasi-biography of him and his work. What’s funny, however – using that same example – is that when I proceeded to read the two works by Lovecraft contained in that same book, I don’t recall thinking to myself “Ahh – this is where his uncomfortable relationship with women takes shape!”. That’s because the stories were two of his masterpieces, and when you witness a masterpiece, peripheral biographical information is going to gunk-up your enjoyment.
The medium may be the message, but the work contains the words. Outside of this we are left with cultural “bonus features”. Nice to have, but not necessary.
I like jazz music, even though I am not an authority on the genre. Heck, I like all genres of music. I may not have a lot of pure country & western on my shelf but without C&W a lot of the music I love (and do have on the shelf) would not exist. Period. Music, if it’s possible to talk about it in such broad terms, is a wide-spanning ecosystem where every genre and sub-genre makes an eventual impact on the whole [insert pebble/ocean analogy here].
There is a jazz radio station in Toronto that I listen to (that is, when I want to listen to jazz), named Jazz.FM91 – or, less formally, JazzFM. They have some great programming (The Big Band Show with Glen Woodcock is a fave) and some great hosts (Heather Bambrick, Walter Venafro). I even like the guy who reads the news in the morning (Tim Keele, with that old-school newsman voice). Aside from a couple of annoyances, there wasn’t much to dislike.
The problem is, similar to what plagues public broadcasters, in trying to appeal to a wide audience (and it should be noted that JazzFM is supported by donations) they end up playing a lot of crap which makes me lunge for the remote to change the channel: Joni Mitchell doing jazz, jazz musicians covering Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello doing “swing” versions of his own songs. Overall, an overdependence on middle-of-the-road lyrical jazz of the sort that elevator manufacturers would consider too ironic to use as background music.
It used to be easy to avoid the bad programming: namely, Ralph Benmurgui’s morning show (the man insists on sucking all the oxygen out of the control room…seriously, if someone mentioned that a 737 hit a dog on a runway in Mexico, Benmurgui would instantly quip: “You know, I was in this great airport in Puerto Vallarta last winter where they served this wonderful coffee! And let me just say to our Mexican listeners: ¡Le deseamos el mejor!“) and their choice of the syndicated Sunday morning program, Radio Deluxe (where hosts John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey play an assortment of jazz classics performed almost soley by – wait for it – John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey! Here’s a lesson to all you starving artists: if those royalty cheques aren’t coming in fast enough, just start a show where you can program your own work).
However, lately, outside of these distractions I’ve had to lunge for the remote more and more. JazzFM is becoming synonymous with all the clichés that keep people under the age of 55 from listening (or considering listening) to jazz: the first, that “jazz” is a never-ending series of earnestly pedantic covers of songs such as “I Can See Clearly Now” and “Aguas de Marco”. The second, that everything you need to program a jazz-based radio station is contained in the Blue Note CD box set (seriously: I pulled this out last year and began listening to all 5 CDs, and I had to stop because I realized this was practically half of JazzFM’s playlist).
In the end, I fear JazzFM is becoming just another Top-40/Oldies radio station. This is great news for Michael Bublé and Diana Krall – can anyone name an original composition either of them has written? But what of people who’ve never experienced anything but the mention of Oscar Peterson’s name? Did Miles Davis stop creating music after 1960? In case anyone from the station is reading this (or not), I’m not asking for the Jolly Roger to be flown over the JazzFM building – what I’m asking is whether the middle of the road (which is where they seem to be sitting) needs to be so damned narrow.
My friend, Charles Spearin, has released an innovative CD he calls “The Happiness Project“. The gist of it is that he began to interview his neighbours and recorded their conversations. Attuned to the tonality of how people expressed themselves he got the idea to replace the voices of his interviewee’s with musical instruments which mimicked each person’s voice pattern. The result is a unique (and very approachable) experiment which weaves voice, instrumentation, and environmental background sounds (birds, etc..). You may know Charles’ other projects, namely Broken Social Scene or Do Make Say Think. If you’re interested, please check out the site for “The Happiness Project” and see what he’s up to.
Yes…the improv-rock band, of which I am a member, returns. We play the mighty Press Club this Monday (July 28th). If you are in Toronto or plan to visit, check us out.
Without going into great detail, my friend Simon got me hooked on a list-making exercise. The task: list your favourite albums (favoured for various personal or technical reasons) for every year you’ve been alive.
This posed many problems, as anyone who loves music would discover. Firstly, how does one pick only *one* album from, let’s say 2004 when there were so many great releases (“Louden Up Now” by !!! being a notable casualty). What about albums that – while not “great” – represent a moment in time for the listener which can never be replaced (I’m thinking “Pod” by The Breeders).
As Simon later shared with me, after we’d posted our lists, there are Sophie’s Choice moments: which albums do you choose to include and which do you decide to cast away? Heart-breaking, really. And then, of course, there are those years which for the individual are barren (mid-80s, mid-90s) of truly wonderful music…choosing between two or more great releases is one thing; at least you can make a choice. What do you do when there’s nothing particularly good? (Hint: you hold your nose and spin the wheel.)
And of course, after you make these choices, you inevitably bolt out of your sleep in the middle of the night, screaming “Why didn’t I pick The The? Nooo!”. Oh, the horror. In any case, these are what I picked. Try it some day – it’s hard, but sorta fun at the same time (he says).
1970 – Cosmo’s Factory, Creedence Clearwater Revival
1971 – Pearl, Janis Joplin
1972 – Exile on Main Street, The Rolling Stones
1973 – Stranded, Roxy Music
1974 – 1969: Velvet Underground Live, The Velvet Underground *
1975 – Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin
1976 – Fly Like An Eagle, Steve Miller Band
1977 – Marquee Moon, Television
1978 – Street Hassle, Lou Reed
1979 – The Wall, Pink Floyd
1980 – Scary Monsters, David Bowie
1981 – Tattoo You, The Rolling Stones
1982 – Shoot Out The Lights, Richard and Linda Thompson
1983 – Rock ‘n Soul, Pt. 1, Hall & Oates
1984 – Couldn’t Stand The Weather, Stevie Ray Vaughan
1985 – This Nation’s Saving Grace, The Fall
1986 – The Colour of Spring, Talk Talk
1987 – The Joshua Tree, U2 ***
1988 – If I Should Fall From Grace With God, The Pogues
1989 – tie: Girls Girls Girls, Elvis Costello **
1989 – tie: Doolittle, Pixies
1990 – Passages, Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass
1991 – Symphony No. 3, Op. 36, Henryk Gorecki
1992 – Whale Music, The Rheostatics
1993 – The Sound of Speed, The Jesus and Mary Chain**
1994 – Bee Thousand, Guided By Voices
1995 – Alien Lanes, Guided By Voices
1996 – Murder Ballads, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds ***
1997 – September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill, Various
1998 – The Italian Flag, Prolapse
1999 – Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada, Godspeed You Black Emperor! ****
2000 – Kid A, Radiohead
2001 – Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upward, The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band
2002 – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco
2003 – tie:Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn, Do Make Say Think
2003 – tie: Fever To Tell, Yeah Yeah Yeahs
2004 – N’Ecoutez Pas, Fly Pan Am
2005 – No Wow, The Kills ***
2006 – Glissandro 70, Glissandro 70
2007 – Tromatic Reflexxions, Von Südenfed
2008 – Au Contraire, Pas Chic Chic
* (technically, it came out in ’74 even though it was recorded in ’69)
** (compilations, but I say it’s fair)
*** (arguably terrible years for albums, music, and mankind)
**** (of all the years, there was simply nothing I could slot in here that I was really happy with)
I must make an admission.
Even though I’m a writer, even though I work in film and television, even though I take pretty photos with pretty cameras, there is nothing that seeps faster through my skin, as someone who feels for art, as wholly as music. For me it is the ethyl alcohol of expression.
All it takes is a well-played scale in the right key, on the right day, in the right mood, and I’m sold. Here I am, cash in hand! What band is that? Who is that? Some songs attack me unawares with their brilliance, ignobly leaking out of someone’s cheap computer speaker from some streaming internet radio station. It’s like one of Homer’s Sirens, and me without wax to plug my ears or spare hands on the ship’s deck to strap me down.
I remember music with succinct precision and stalk it down, if only for information to complete the missing pieces of the what/who/when puzzle I carry with me. I remember being sixteen and regularly hounding the employees at a large record store in Edmonton, asking if they knew of the existence to the soundtrack for the film Brazil (and each time my enthusiasm was met with a resounding “no”. It wasn’t released until over a decade later, by which time – while thankful for its eventual existence, for sake of people to experience – I was over it, like a scorned lover).
Sometimes there’s nothing worse than falling in love only to be separated without details of who or what it was that caught your passion. In the case of music, it’s doubly hard because you don’t even have the luxury of a face etched in your memory; you are left with something frustratingly abstract: what it sounds like, which by comparison makes paleontology seem straightforward. It’s the rootsy, gypsy-sounding piece with the theremin!
A recent example is the not-so-recent film Kafka, by Steven Soderbergh. As a film, it’s vivid and engaging, though it suffers from Soderbergh’s serial emotionlessness. It was the soundtrack, however, which caught me off-guard. A beautiful piece of work by Cliff Martinez which incorporated Eastern European (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say Western-interpreted flavours of Eastern European) motifs performed on a hammered dulcimer. As soon as I heard that instrument, in that evocative score, my attention was rapped. Done. Thank you. Unfortunately, and not unusually, there was no soundtrack issued (when you consider the type of film it was, released by a major Hollywood studio, and how miserably it must’ve performed in theatres, one can only imagine how the question of “Should we release a soundtrack?” was greeted). On this note, I feel bad for a lot of film and TV composers, or at least the ones whose work transcends the need to only be experienced whilst married to picture and sound effects. If you see a composer on the street, hug him or her. Then ask why the hell they’re not in their studios, holding up the mix, working as they should. I digress…
Yesterday I chanced to search for the Kafka soundtrack again, and to my surprise, on Cliff Martinez’ website, he has released his music cues for various soundtracks which were never commercially available before (for free, albeit with the proviso that they not be used professionally). I couldn’t believe it. I found myself downloading his cues for Kafka in a single Zip file (just under 60 megabytes), and within no time, I’d transferred them to my “portable digital music player”.
I ask what more fulfillment you need when you have a hammered dulcimer, its soft yet briskly percussive tones, reminiscent of a harp, in your headphones on the streetcar.
For anyone in Toronto who didn’t check out Pas Chic Chic back in April, they are playing tomorrow (May 3rd) as part of Over The Top Fest 2008 (note: there isn’t a week in Toronto where there isn’t some sort of film/music festival happening). They’re at the WhipperSnapper Gallery (587a College St. 8PM. $8 @ the door).
Although I’m not likely to make it this time out due to other commitments, I enjoyed their previous show at The Drake, even though it was barely publicized. Mind you, neither is this one. I don’t know what the issue is, and where the finger should be pointed, but for some reason the only publicity Pas Chic Chic gets is from fans, which is unfortunate as you’d think their label (or someone) would have a vested interest in getting the word out.
By the way, I managed to pick up their CD, Au Contraire – it’s very good. I’m hoping (hint to anyone out there visiting who knows the band) they decide to share the lyrics with us someday soon, as my French isn’t good enough to understand what’s being sung half the time.
[May 8: Pas Chic Chic's label has provided feedback in the Comments to this post. Looks like the culprit is more complex than I'd guessed. Thanks for responding, guys!]