February 08, 2010

Angus Douglas

Angus Douglas, original (in every sense of the word) guitarist for Sydney post-punk band Tactics died this week after a long period of declining health. That wasn't so unexpected, unfortunately, but that doesn't make it any easier or any less sad — Angus was a creative fire, an endless source of odd or unexpected riffs, ideas, phrases, and anything else that occurred to him, and a smart, likable, funny, and good-natured person in real life.

I have no idea if there's anything planned in his memory, but if I hear anything, I'll let interested parties know.

(Photo circa 1980 (?), by Stephen Hocking).

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January 09, 2010

Rights Rights

I have a little sideline in video making; some of these videos would benefit from music soundtracks derived from (or using as-is) classical or rap or whatever recordings. Unfortunately, while I'd be happy paying a reasonable price to use these tracks on public versions of the videos, there's just no easy way to get those rights, and no fair pricing setup. Around here you typically have to get at least two types of rights per song (sync rights and a master use license); but there's no single central place to find out who the original rights holders are (there may be many, and you may never be able to discover with any certainty whether the rights are unencumbered by other hidden rights holders through derivative licensing), and even if you find them, it may take months or even years of wrangling to get an agreement, which will inevitably cost an arm and a leg (think thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars with a reduction if you're just doing a film festival or you're a student or whatever). The system's set up for large-scale studio films and lawyers; it's hopeless for people like me who're only too happy to pay but have no mechanism for doing so that doesn't include paying more than every other production expense combined for a single soundtrack right, for a short video that's intended for only very limited public showing, or that's not a commercial work.

I dream of the day when there's a central authoritative and efficient rights clearing house for things like this, with a simple payment system based on micro payments per (YouTube, Vimeo, whatever) play, up to a capped amount (think something like a penny per play up to (say) $500 for non-mainstream use). Fat chance, of course, but I can dream.

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November 19, 2009


I recently stumbled across a Beethoven quote somewhere which has him saying his Sixth Symphony is "a matter more of feeling than of painting in sounds". The difference in what "painting" means now compared to then brought me up short: what else is something like a Rothko or a Bacon or a Diebenkorn than a "matter of feeling" or affect or, well, visual musicality? Well, it's a lot else, really, but it's still hard to think of "painting" as realistic depiction or something somewhat programmatic in the way it must have been to Beethoven.

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November 09, 2009

Mahler and Glass

I finally get to see Hitchcock's Vertigo (in the restored version on DVD) … and now I can make sense of la Jetée and Sans Soleil (sorry, in-joke).

But I'm puzzled by the critical responses to this film (or what I know of them): this slightly-garish, overheated, implausibly-plotted, over-acted creaking sprawl of a film is surely quite a lot of fun, but to me it felt more like watching an extended soap than a top 100 movie. At least this is one film where San Francisco isn't a character so much as just a backdrop (to this long-time Bay Area resident it feels like a home movie; it's funny how little has changed in the City over the years, except how white everyone is in a film about a city that even then was all over the map color-wise, and how strangely easy it is for Jimmy Stewart to park his car in parts of the city historically choked with parked cars).

The real pleasure for me was the score, which sounded like a tonally-conservative Mahler crossed occasionally with sprinkles of Glass; a joy to hear loud. Otherwise, I found myself counting The Simpsons references and wondering about the possibilities of a subdued form of Camp.

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November 04, 2009


(Or, "What I Did On My Holidays In Bakersfield"…).

No, I don't expect anyone to get all the way through this one. And yes, it has a soundtrack, which needs to be heard loud with a good sound system.

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October 20, 2009

East vs West

Watching the excellent Whitehouse-hosted "Fiesta Latina" on TV the other evening, I'm struck by just how Mexican my Latino music experience is compared to the more usual conception of "Latino" in this country (and especially Back East). Say "Latino" and I suspect most Americans think Cuban or Puerto Rican music translated through New York or Miami (Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Ruben Blades, Papa Yankee, etc., or Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, or the Afro-Cubans if they're older), but around here it's more likely Flaco Jimenez or Los Tigres or even Selena. You can't walk far in my neighbourhood without hearing Norteno or Tejano or Conjunto leaking from the bars and shops, or a burst of Mexican pop, or Mariachi in front of St Elizabeth's. Country vs. Jazz, in so many words.

(The program's high-profile music director was actually famously-local Oaklander (born-and-bred) Sheila E. (daughter of Pete Escovedo), which makes the disconnect a little more pronounced).

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September 04, 2009

What's Going On?

In the hot dawn air on that ragged block of East 7th up past 23rd, someone's playing Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" loudly through the open windows of a parked car, that smooth deliberate fluid propulsive drive and repeated gunshot crack reverberating off the idling trucks and half-lit cinderblock workshops and ramshackle houses, sending shivers up my spine.

One of those Oakland moments, I guess…

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June 29, 2009

No Night Sweats

Phil Turnbull's excellent Australian Post Punk site No Night Sweats is back, bigger and better than ever after moving from BigPond to new hosting (and its own domain). I'm not exactly a totally disinterested bystander, but take a look… (and check out Phil and Rob's A Slow Rip blog too while you're at it).

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June 27, 2009

All That Jazz

It's hot, at least by Bay Area summer standards (20C by 10am, but probably at least 40C just twenty minutes' drive over the Hills), and they've thrown open the roof and front walls of the Milano for the breeze. At the back of the upper level three very nerdy and earnest-looking students are gathered around a laptop and a textbook labeled "Modern Piano Jazz" (or something like that), absent-mindedly drinking coffee. At one point one of them looks up and loudly says to no one in particular "E9th!" as though he's had a revelation. I can't help hearing it in my mind as played up the neck on my old blue Strat.

Down the street at Moe's a Famous Author who I don't recognize but feel I should is bantering with the staff. They know who she is; me, I just trawl through the architecture section for low-price gems. There's a large cut-price hardback on Frank Gehry which I just have to buy — you can't spend much time in LA without running across his buildings, where they tend to seem more at home and less forced than in the wider world. As I leave the Famous Author glances at the book under my arm and asks whether there are any Gehrys in the Bay Area? I'm ashamed to say I don't actually know, which feels weird.

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March 29, 2009

The Trance

"Composers often do not hear the music that is being played… We are listening to something and at the same time creating something else." Lutosławski quoted in Alex Ross's "The Rest Is Noise". I never thought of myself as a photographer until the day I realised I often lost the original completely in a reverie of imagining my own way through a scene or situation.

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January 01, 2009

Paradise Drive

"I was driven into Paradise" — Schoenberg on exile in California (that same California that surprisingly threads its way between Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Reilly, and John Adams at least…).

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November 10, 2008

Soundtrack For A Future Short

Click here for a lightly-edited and only slightly mashed-up mp3 I did of an Ivesian short stroll around Sproul Plaza last Saturday while the University of California band warmed up for a game (listen to it with headphones and loud to get the full effect).

I take my surrealism where I can get it, I guess.

(There's a much larger and higher-quality audio-only Quicktime version here for those of you with the bandwidth).

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October 24, 2008

Guerrilla Gigging

Some friends of mine playing as That Man Fantastic, live on the street in Oakland's Grandlake district. No, I'm none of the people in the video — I'm behind the camera (and in the edit suite), as always.

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August 17, 2008

Stunt Ballet

"Once again The Crucible sets the dance scene ablaze with a fusion of classical ballet, fire performance, aerialists, acrobats and break dancers to create a fiery and funky interpretation of Stravinsky’s masterpiece. It’s definitely ballet with an industrial edge provided by Crucible artisans, a cameo appearance by a Pontiac Firebird, and a ballerina’s graceful pas-de-deux with a motorcycle stunt rider." (from a flyer promoting local arts and craft outfit The Crucible's latest song and dance).

In other words, NASCAR in drag for hipsters who wouldn't be seen dead at a NASCAR event (both demos have tats; it's just that one group thinks of them as pictures, the other as "art"; and for one group, "industrial" is an edgy aesthetic; the other, a way of life). That great herd of independent minds, again, I guess. See you at Burning Man. Boom!! Bang!! Crash!! Dude, the Flames…

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December 17, 2007


Accidentally caught mid-flight on a local arts channel while skimming between Simpsons episodes and PBS pledge breaks, one of those fortuitous chancy Postmodern collisions between a familiar overheated shriek of Modernism and the self-conscious Postmodernism of late 90's Manhattan (I'm amazed I haven't seen it before). Made for each other, you'd think, in a place where the irony is arch (and the "i" in Irony most definitely upper-case), and where (mirroring the respective sins of their eras) the cliches both drip a hysterical earnestness and simultaneously preempt any criticism (and where the WTC sill stands). But I'm seduced by the cooler visual lyrical rhetoric as a sort of visual sprechstimme mirroring the music, and if you can't hear the Schoenbergs on the streets of Midtown, you'll miss seeing the Rothkos in the surfaces surrounding you. And dreams go forth to greet the distance….

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October 06, 2007

All Warm And Fuzzy

In the Milano they're playing a light, unfamiliar, flowing Spanish-language cover of the old Pretenders song "Back On The Chain Gang" with a very different set of lyrics in the chorus, I can't get it out of my head all day, later I discover it's one of Selena's, something I hadn't quite expected or known. Down Telegraph, Mars is now telling me I make their sweaters feel all fuzzy, which seems a little unlikely, but they know best. You can't argue with an oracle.

At Moe's I pick up two remaindered coffee table books on late modern (but not Modern) architecture: I seem to look to architecture (rather than photography or painting, etc.) for visual inspiration nowadays. And not just the architecture in books, but those concrete images talking to each other across the streets of San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, and Los Angeles… (there's not a lot of capital "A" Architecture in the Bay Area, so you have to go looking for architecture in the small, in the unexpected detailing above a shopfront in Oakland's uptown district, or the way the Transamerica Pyramid is so often visible at street level only by reflection, or in the overall effect of a streetful of shabby Victorian terraces). There's more to chew on there than in most of those capital "A" art books I can't help also browsing….

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September 16, 2007

American Genius

Stax pre-1969. More important than the moon shot.

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August 17, 2007


Propelled across the Great Basin and the Mojave by Glass's attractively expansive 3rd Symphony (it's a perfect soundtrack for high desert two-lane blacktops), I had to ask: why did he write this as a symphony rather than a quartet? It's a natural for a quartet (a form he's written well for); his orchestration (19 piece string band) doesn't bring much to the piece for me, it just muddies the lines, subtracts from the power by adding to the volume (yes, he eventually gets 19 separate lines running simultaneously, but that feels a little gimmicky in context, something like wringing a Bolero from Metamorphosen).

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July 07, 2007

Three Genres

I've never been at the cutting edge of music (I've never been at the cutting edge of anything), so I'm always one of the slowest and last to pick up new musical styles or trends. But when I did eventually pick up on them, three genres in particular really affected me: reggae, rap, and western swing.

Reggae hit me at just the right time — the bottom fallen out of punk, and New Wave and post-punk gathering steam. I'd known about (and heard) Bob Marley, of course, but hadn't really listened to it at all — and most of what I heard sounded like just rather pleasant pop ("I Shot The Sheriff"…), and the association with bands like The Clash really didn't help either. And then I heard, in quick succession, Culture, Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals, Lee "Scratch" Perry, and Peter Tosh. Nothing too hardcore or adventurous, but what got me immediately was the sense of rhythmic and harmonic space — especially obvious in the dub versions — that allowed for so much subtlety and complexity in the background or in little bursts here and there (listen to what's going on in the background of a good Toots album one day…). It's the old story that everyone knows: complex effects through simplicity — but I'm a little slow, so it was a revelation for me. And hearing Sly and Robbie play together so … intuitively … in a way that anchored everyone else in space was another revelation. How could you do so much with space?! I started playing a lot less, and listening for the spaces. I started thinking about rhythm as elision as well as propulsion….

Rap: I remember the first time I heard what I think must have been The Sugar Hill Gang. I wanted to jump up in the air and shout it was so good, so different — shit, how did they do that?! The scratching, the beats, the toasting, the sampling — it both hit me like a wall, and seemed like such an obvious alternative to reggae toasting. I always knew I could never do anything like that, but I always knew it would lodge there in my mind for the rest of my life, even if the genre faded or changed out of all recognition. I suddenly knew what you could do with raw materials, raw sources, I suddenly knew you could work all this stuff into something exciting, I suddenly knew you could do so much musically with basic technology and a driven will… it seemed like punk's basic lessons all over again, ten thousand kilometres away. Someone else had picked up the torch….

Western Swing: I remember doing my engineering homework late one night in Redfern listening to Double Jay when this enthusiastic mixture of Jazz and Country came on. Christ, what the hell was this? A guy fiddling away like Stephane Grappelli over a basic country song while the guitarist noodles around with weird jazz scales and chords behind a hick singing about lost love in Texas? Pedal steel and exuberant horn lines? Country with rhythm? I phoned Double Jay to ask what the hell it was (I used to know several staffers there and thought I'd ask one of them). Mac Cocker himself answered, which was a little like talking to God. "It's Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys — it's called 'Western Swing'". OK, I wrote it down and went back to my homework. Years later I still marvel at how a bunch of Okies and Texas good old boys picked up on the jazz and blues coming out of New Orleans and Memphis and just made it work so naturally with basic country music. Yes, it later underwent a rather twee revival during the 1990's that destroyed it a bit for me, but that crossing of two quite different genres always struck me as one of the better examples of the musical melting pot. Plus for me there's personal resonance in the Oaktown and Bakersfield connections — two cities that have played very different roles in my life over the past fifteen years and that both became Western Swing and Country centres in their own ways.

(Part of Punk (and Later)).

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May 20, 2007

Short Shameful Confession

I always thought (and still think) that Frank Zappa was a smug old bastard; his music always seemed too contrived, too hectoring, too knowing, too... 1970's Californian. Very much a music of its time and place, I think.

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May 05, 2007

Longer Days

Mars tells me now that Longer Days Mean Shorter Skirts, but all I see is bondage gear in their windows and the usual derros, ancient hippies, and ageing self-important boomers strewn along the begarbaged blocks of Telegraph. In Moe's I buy a cheap remaindered paperback of Adorno's collected essays on music, a rich collection of easy targets. Adorno's writings on music are one of those sprawling guilty pleasures for me: he's so certain of the details (and so often right about the details) that he seems to completely miss the bigger picture. He's a Man On A(n Aesthetic) Mission, and he never lets us forget it — and like reading any literate True Believer, reading him is like entering another universe, something as entertainingly off-kilter in its way as Ben Marcus (an author Our Theodor would Not Approve Of, I'm sure).

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March 11, 2007

Gold & Wax

"I found [Gigi's] 'Gold & Wax' in San Francisco. (It's difficult to find music I want to buy in Bamako. […])" — Amadou, in a recent NYT "Playlist" recommendation. The irony: as someone who lives in San Francisco (at least as far as the rest of the world's concerned…) the only damn place I could find (Ethiopian local resident) Gigi's stuff was on iTunes.

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January 21, 2007

Taking The Fifth

In the Milano, the guy behind the counter switches the radio from some tired-sounding Conjunto to the local classical cheese station, and there's something terribly familiar about the results. It takes a minute or so, but I realise I'm hearing Beethoven's Fifth for the the first time in maybe a decade, and start actually listening along with the bagels. It's one of my short shameful confessions, I guess, but for me this concise little piece of bombast transcends "warhorse" at times, and if it weren't so often verging on the delirious, it could almost be Classical rather than Romantic, with those clean lines developing with such well-measured logic. One day I'll have the courage to listen to it properly again… damn the critics.

I wander down to Moe's and torture myself by browsing books I can't afford to buy. There's yet another of those twee many-words-with-few-pictures books on (this time) female nudes now (they always have that "now!" there with the unstated exclamation mark). Give me nakeds instead, any day.

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