Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, March 29, 2008

In Davis, California visiting my beloved spouse’s relatives, nothing to worry about. Bike rides through the gorgeous bike trails of Davis. A trip to a Central Valley nature preserve of California prairie. Reading and napping and playing with the kids – our son and 3 nieces, two older and one younger than him.

In 1862 Augustus Leopold Egg painted a picture of two women in a train, one napping, one reading, with sub-Alpine landscape lying out the window, un-beheld. Reading draws one into another’s consciousness, another consciousness, language spilling from someone’s mind to yours. Today I realized that I expect no new revelations of poetry in my lifetime. Good poems, sure, some, but no New Thing, no new style, no new paradigm of perception or procedure. As opposed to music, from which I expect continual new revelations. Why do I place so little faith in poetry? Is it because the poetry commentators I find most congenial wax most enthusiastically about poetry that is literally my age or older, poetry that was written in my infancy? Poetry is the most poorly theorized of the arts, which is paradoxical, since its material is of the same substance as theory – language. But language is the weather and the atmosphere, the water to our fishy existence; our consciousness of it is limited because our consciousness is of it. Poetry is under-theorized because the great modernist explorations of painting and music that happened in the 20th century never quite happened with poetry, or, more broadly, literature. The Abstract Expressionists and the Minimalists explored the nature of paint-as-painting, the fundamental This-ness of painting through the medium of paint. Composers led by Luigi Russolo, Edgard Varése, Pierre Schaeffer, and John Cage explored the nature of sound-as-music, the fundamental This-ness of music through the medium of sound. It never happened with literature, because language is always a pre-mediated and fractional medium; there is no “pure language” or “fundamental language” in the same way that there is “pure sound” or “fundamental sound” or “pure paint” or “pure color.” Consequently, fundamental explorations of sound poetry a la Hugo Ball or Kurt Schwitters or Ernst Jandl always verge into music, while fundamental explorations of visual poetry a la Apollinaire or Tom Phillips verge into visual art. Coincidentally, poetry has not been as successful in incorporating the full gamut of language experience into its aesthetic realm as music and visual art have. The concert halls may play soundtracks of video games, and museums display advertisements through the ages, but no curator of poetry includes the products of Madison Avenue in his or her anthologies – not even Burma-Shave! (Probably my dad’s favorite 20th century poet.)

The other night I mentioned that researchers have reproduced sound from an impression of soundwaves recorded in 1860, around the time of Egg’s painting. The recording was not made with the intent of reproducing the sound, unlike Edison’s invention of recording 18 years later. Nevertheless, the recording of the soundwaves onto paper was sufficient to allow researchers and sound engineers to use them for sound reproduction 148 years later. If you haven’t heard it yet, I urge you to click on the link and listen to the MP3.

You will hear a teenage French girl singing a French song for 10 seconds, with a lot of audio noise. She never imagined that her performance would be heard again. Her father, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, who invented the soundwave-recording device, never imagined that her voice would be heard again. That we hear it now points up just how uncanny the phenomenon of recorded sound is. Human life has existed in something very much like our present form for many many tens of thousands of years, and yet it has only been for 130 years that we have been able to record sound. If the teenager on that recording were still alive, she would be 163 years old. For the first time, voices reach across the abyss of death and speak to us from the past.

Writing and painting have enabled something like this to happen for millennia, as has musical notation for several centuries. But a person’s actual voice is something else again. It’s the body in process, air through larynx and mouth, each larynx and mouth unique to the individual. My mom has kept my late father’s voice on her answering machine. One of my siblings will only call our mom on her cell phone, because hearing our dad’s voice is too intense. I love hearing Dad’s voice, but I utterly sympathize with my sibling’s reaction.

-- Augustus Leopold Egg, The Traveling Companions, 1862

Thursday, March 27, 2008

I've mentioned it before but I do love my band.

Bob Barraza plays drums and shakuhachi (Japanese wooden) flute and sings, Jen Anspach sings, I play guitar and harmonica and sing, Robert Hinrix plays bass and mandolin and sings, and Mac McClure plays bowed saw and sings. Delightful people and lovely musicians all. Eric Stovall joined us on lead guitar on about half of our 29 songs last show, that's him below. Another dear friend and tasty picker.

And my son sang with us on 4 or 5 songs last show, and beat a paint can with a stick on one song.

We have a show coming up, and I couldn't be more delighted to be on the bill with my old friend Ross Lipman. He'll be showing films and doing a reading, and the band will play a set. Ross is a serious dude; he has shown his films across the country and in Europe.

My band will be very different than last time.

I mentioned a week ago that Jen is out of the country. Well, Eric is going to be out of town too, and the venue isn't kid friendly so my son is out, and I just found out this weekend that Robert will be out of town as well due to unavoidable obligations. Subbing for Jen and Robert will be Jillian and Jim Graham, a lovely and talented couple my son and I met at the open mike we've been playing. Jillian will sing and play some rhythm guitar, and Jim is a hot bassist. First practice was with Jim tonight -- it's going to be fine. I love my band.

Also on the bill will be a free-improv ensemble I'm putting together. Bob and Mac from Ruby Thicket (my band) will be in the group, and maybe Jim. My old college pal the composer Bill Potter will be playing guitar-synth, and I have tentative commitments from two other composer friends, one a drummer and the other a pianist, and also from a fiddler I've shared a bill with before. This group will play a 20 or 30 minute set to close the show. I'll be singing standards to free-noise-improv accompaniment. I'm curious to hear us.

If you're in the Seattle area, please consider dropping by. It's an early show:
Sunday April 13, 7:00 pm, finished by 9:30, in the Jewel Box Theater at the Rendezvous, 2322 Second Ave., Seattle 98121, in Belltown.

* * *

I saw the George Clooney flick, Michael Clayton, tonight. Thrillers are paranoia machines. I always leave them as if awakening from a bad dream. I am not sure why I like this sensation, but I do.

* * *

This just in. Researchers have converted soundwave recordings made in 1860 -- nearly two decades before Edison -- into sound. It's a great and eerie sound. Jody Rosen has an mp3 and the story.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

he first used the word “robot.”

My beloved spouse and I saw R.U.R. -- Rossum’s Universal Robots -- last Saturday. What a trippy play! I’d read it 20 or 25 years ago, as the band I’d been with in high school was first called R.U.R., and then the Young Rossums as we found out that a Grand Rapids band was already playing around the state under the name R.U.R. I’d forgotten what a nutty play it is.

The Czech writer Karel Capek wrote it in 1921. Vonnegut’s Player Piano echoes major themes. Ball of Fire, a screwball comedy with Cary Grant & Barbara Stanwyck, borrowed a major chunk of its imagery. What makes the play nutty, besides its enormous logical contradictions, is continually shifting tone, from screwball comedy to visionary passion to violent catastrophe to florid poetic tragedy to possible hope. What makes the play famous: it coined the word “robot.” Capek’s brother Josef coined the word when Karel got stuck while writing it.

Open Circle Theater’s production rocked it. The funny scenes were very funny. The drama was dramatic. The grimness was grim. Witty sound design. Fine all the way around.

Friday, March 21, 2008

2 or 3 times a week I have massive driving to do for work and commuting. The radio radio is my frequent companion, especially since the CD player died.

Heard Sheryl Crow’s new single, “Love Is Free” Thursday. Good beat, catchy cheery tune, nicely lively Beatle-esque electronic vocal timbres at a couple points, and sweet catchy clever chorus close, “Oh oh everybody’s making love ‘cause love is free.” I just read the lyrics and they’re not quite intelligible to me -- something about not worrying about your money and keeping your chin up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which, well, it’s obnoxious when rich people tell us not to worry about money; and isn’t it funny I’d been thinking that at her best Crow is the Beatles’ truest heir, and, whaddaya know, the head Beatle also urged us not to worry about money, once many years ago. Still -- catchy tune, and a great singer.

George Strait’s “I Saw God Today” sweetly celebrates a baby’s birth. Made me think: God is Process, God is Time.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

As if in answer to last night’s question as to how it could be that one of my favorite singers and songwriters could pack clubs with stomping fans, get a record deal, play with famous people, and still not become famous herself, I came across this (
via Michaelangelo Matos):

A talented writer for a slick magazine entertainingly reviews 763 MP3s by acts that played at SXSW recently. I had heard of
only a tiny fraction of the acts, a few handfuls. Some of those I’d heard, I don’t much like, and this writer did. Which just goes to show you. I was heartened to see that he picked Canadian Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq as the most interesting of the bunch -- she’s fabulous.

In a glutted marketplace, with over-sated consumers, it’s tough to make a connection. Who knows how it is that one becomes famous and another doesn’t? I once met someone whose records twice got 4-star reviews from Rolling Stone magazine, and I don’t think she has ever made a living from music either.

Making the connection is a wonderful experience. Tuesday night Christy McWilson rocked the house. Music as a way to grapple with the immensity and confusion and unknowability of life, making it beautiful and personal and danceable and intense -- it's a great thing.

My band is playing April 13. Hope you can come.
Let's see if we connect.

-- Georges Braque, Guitar and Program: “Statue d'Epouvante” (1913)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The first time I heard Christy McWilson play her song “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” with her band the Picketts, way back in the early-mid-’90s, I wondered whether it was a rockin’ Everly Brothers tune I’d never heard. Nope. It was hers.

She’s a classical country-rockabilly songwriter, full of witty, biting turns of phrase melded to well-baited musical hooks. I heard her play tonight in a little bar in Ballard after not having heard her live for a couple of years. One song I’d never heard grabbed me: “The Hair of the Dog Is a Man’s Best Friend.”

I began to understand how come she ain’t rich. A great country-rockabilly belter, somewhat like Wanda Jackson but with a richer voice, and one of the solidest songwriters around, the difference between Christy and most people is -- she means it. “Meaning it” doesn’t mean unironically. She means “the hair of the dog is a man’s best friend” bitterly -- she announced it was about her ex, whom she described as an alcoholic. Another line depicts him turning his back on her to kiss the bottle. “All of these songs are true stories,” she said at one point. The intensity of her performances makes you believe.

Her records, solo and with the Picketts, while full of terrific songs and fine performances, have never done her justice. Onstage she’s a fireplug, bouncing up and down playing her rhythm guitar during John Olufs’s hot leads (I was happy to see Olufs -- the Picketts’ lead guitarist, with her tonight). But it’s not just her stage presence that impresses -- her records have never done justice to her vocal presence. I’ve always wondered whether a touch of the indie-rock aesthetic of “muffle the vocals” on her records hasn’t been at cross-purposes with her classic rockabilly-country style.

“A Chip On My Shoulder and My Heart On My Sleeve” is the catch phrase of another song Christy sang tonight. As a self-portrait, it’s catchy, clever, and perhaps too-true-for-pop. Purveyors of the classic country style prefer a dash of detachment nowadays, and the rock world divides between the un-cleverly sincere and the cleverly ironic. Cleverness, clarity, catchiness, and intensity worked for John Lennon in the 1960s, but he was singing in the style of his day, and Christy is singing in a 50-year-old style with a spritz of amped-up punk. I love her stuff, and in the mid-’90s the Picketts could regularly pack a mid-size Seattle club with stomping, shouting fans; but -- there’s no money in being a great singer, or a great songwriter, or even both, unless you . . .

I don’t know what that “unless you” would be. Unless you fit into the stylistic divisions of the day? Or convince enough others to embrace your nonconformity, I suppose.

“We sang this song on Conan O’Brien,” she introduced one song, “and look where it got us.” Tuesday night, playing for free in a small bar that wasn’t full. “Not that there’s anything wrong with this!” she humorously backtracked, as she gestured to the room, most of whom knew her personally.

One line in the song she had sung on Conan brought tears to my eyes. Something about, “I say a prayer before I leap.” The band -- Olufs on lead, a fine electric bass player, and Picketts drummer Blackie Sleep, who also contributed his terrific duet vocals on a few songs -- had gotten quiet, it was just Christy and her guitar. The immensity, the confusion, the unknowability of life. Prayer or not -- we all gotta leap.

She’s working on a new record. I’m rooting for her.

* * *

I caught Christy’s set after my own band practice. Jillian, the newest member (sitting in to sing the parts of Jennifer, who is out of the country and won’t be back by our next gig), brought her guitar, and her rhythm playing changed the whole band. I’ll be playing stand-up bass on half the numbers while Robert, the regular bass player, plays mandolin. (The show is April 13 at the Rendezvous, downtown.) I love my own rhythm playing, but hearing its absence on half the set made me realize -- I love my own playing maybe too much. It’s great to hear the songs without my “touch” in the middle of them. I’ve always loved playing bass, so, practice was a blast. All five of us are singing on some of the songs, Mac’s got the bowed saw going on a few, Bob the drummer will be playing shakuhachi flute on one song and ukulele on another -- it should be a gas.

Playing music is really physical. Thumping the bass, hitting the guitar, singing singing singing -- it’s all about the body, transforming the body into music. Chuck Mangione was right, as he tenderly embraced his flugelhorn. It feels so good.

-- photo of Christy McWilson and John Olufs's hair and chin by Joe Mabel

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A week ago my beloved spouse and I had date night, made possible by the kid sleeping over next door. The kid has enormous tonsils (not a problem at this time, say the docs) and the snore of a person several times his weight and age.

After we made arrangements for the sleepover, my beloved spouse told me that the last time he slept over, the next-door neighbor kid woke up and crept into her parents’ room.
“Mommy, there’s a wolf in my room.”

“No, sweetheart, you just had a bad dream.”

“No, Mommy, the Big Bad Wolf is in my room. I heard it!”

Our neighbor investigated her daughter’s room. The Big Bad Wolf was our son, snoring away.

* * *

That afternoon, before the sleepover and date night, I took the kid and the neighbor kid to listen to Pacific Northwest Native (S’Klallam tribe) storyteller Roger Fernandez. Two wonderful stories, humorous and resonant, beautifully told. One mentioned “the cycle of life” and for the time being the affliction of continual thoughts of mortality that has intermittently gripped me for a couple of years now loosened. I felt as if a cloud had lifted.

The kids absorbed the stories. Rapt. We all were.

The cycle of life. Good to remember.

* * *

Yesterday I took the kid to a St. Patrick’s Day parade. We saw five friends in the parade. A junior-high group wearing kelly-green bowlers cheered when one of them gave a hat to the kid and he put it on. He wore it the rest of the day and my pockets were stuffed with the candy that paraders threw. A junior-high marching band playing the Santana (and Tito Puente) hit “Oye Como Va” was choice. And a bagpipe group played “Amazing Grace” sweetly and powerfully.

* * *

Date night was fun. We saw a film in which Fats Waller figures prominently, but at the culmination of the plot, which is all about Waller, the soundtrack played the Duke Ellington tune, “Solitude.” I love that tune -- I based the only film soundtrack I have made on that song -- but I wanted to hear Waller at that moment.

(My one soundtrack was for a film by my friend Ross Lipman, which he is showing on April 13 in Seattle along with other work; my band is playing that night too -- hope you can make it!)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Jody Rosen will be at Town Hall (Seattle) Thursday night (tonight!), talking about early 20th century minstrel-pop that made fun of Jews, what he has called Jewface, by analogy with “blackface,” in a CD compilation he has produced. One of many questions I’d like to ask Jody -- I assume that “Jewface” is his coinage -- is whether “Hebe song,” another term for the phenomenon, by analogy with “coon song,” is a latterday coinage as well.

His thinking on the emotional rationale for “Jews making fun of Jews” is captivating, persuasive, and resonant, and has shifted my thought processes about this stuff. In brief: making fun of unassimilated immigrants, as the songs by and large do, was an assimilationist strategy. This dynamic has played itself out repeatedly as different immigrant groups have come to the U.S.

Something I noticed that I might not have if it hadn’t been for Jody’s work: Barbra Streisand’s two Top 40 hits in the 1960s were related to the work of one of the great purveyors of Hebe songs in the 1910s and ‘20s: Fanny Brice. “Second Hand Rose” -- a mild Hebe song -- had been a big hit for Brice 44 years before it hit for Streisand, and “People” comes from Funny Girl, the musical about Brice’s life, and is sung in her character.

Like their contemporary coon songs -- and like a lot of the “fine” art of the time -- the Hebe songs can be offensive. I’m looking forward to hearing Jody navigate through these emotional minefields.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Robert Christgau, the late Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus, Courtney Love,
Tom Carson, Steve Albini in drag, the late Lester Bangs (
l. to r.)


“The album I would most want to have with me if I were marooned, abandoned, stranded on a desert island” is a bizarrely solipsistic and emotionally out-of-touch premise for an essay, but two collections have been published of them. It’s impossible to know what single album would bring the most consolation if one were to find oneself alone in the world with no hope of rescue, but with music-playback capabilities. An album that consoles one now might be unbearable under those (preposterous, impossible) circumstances.

If I were shipwrecked and abandoned, I would be freaking out. Alternating between out-wild panic and inconsolable tears. It’s hard to know what music would console, sitting here in my living room, staying up too late, listening to Lester Young, and contemplating what single album, were I to find myself there, would be the most likely to inspire the response, “Oh, I’m glad that this is the CD that I had in my coat pocket when I jumped into the lifeboat, and fucking-A, here’s a working CD player with solar cell batteries!” It’s impossible to know.

When I feel abandoned, I want to feel connected with my people -- family and friends who are my family. Music that connects me to them. My grandma and I never discussed Bach -- she turned me on to Chopin and Debussy -- but a 1933 recording of Wanda Landowska playing the Goldberg Variations reminds me of her. She would have been 26 then, and a fine pianist; the lo-fi recording calls to mind a milieu I never knew except reflected in the memories of beloved older relatives I grew up loved by. The Four Freshmen, Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald connect me with my mom; the Four Freshmen in particular because a quartet she was in sang in that style (I never heard them). My dad loved Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller -- the elegant music pulled a powerful connection to his own childhood and beloved parents who died young. The Beach Boys connect me with my friend Jay and my brother. Right now I’m wondering whether Smiley Smile isn’t the greatest album ever -- stuffed full with tossed-off beautiful melodies, passion, goofiness, and comradery; is there a sweeter moment in the rock era than the first verse of “Little Pad,” which breaks down as the Beach Boys collapse in gales of stoned laughter for no discernible reason? I can’t think of one, unless it’s Paul McCartney munching “rhythm carrot” as guest star percussionist on “Vegetables.” Veda Hille connects me with my beloved spouse, who turned me on to her, and with whom I drove to Vancouver for a CD release party by Veda, a memorable, wonderful show. Woody Guthrie and Ornette Coleman and Charles Ives connect me with my friend John D., with whom I passionately explored this music in high school, with whom I share a love for this music to this day.

Shipwreck is a powerful myth. A stock figure of the single-panel cartoon. A founding myth in American literature -- “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee,” Ishmael (quoting Job) at the end of Moby-Dick -- that figures in the poetry of Charles Olson and George Oppen.

And Gilligan’s Island, that pseudo-comical update of Sartre’s No Exit, where the damnation is deeper as possible exits appear, only to reject the shipwrecked; where the play lasts for 98 episodes -- over 30 hours -- with the shipwrecked people still abandoned; and then repeats forever in the limbo of syndication (a nightmare version of Nietzsche’s myth of the eternal return).

And Shakespeare’s Prospero.

Left alone to rot on an island, I would have to stop listening to my beloved album; it would become a totem connecting me with my pre-abandonment life. I would take it out on special occasions and torment myself with memories of happiness.

An unpleasant fantasy, all the way around. And yet it’s real. Most people in the course of a life from time to time feel shipwrecked, either economically, or romantically, or in some general way, often all tied together, as life tends to be. Ten years ago I wrote a song on the theme, for a solo dance my friend Jack Magai was choreographing; we were both reading Moby-Dick at the time (when his partner got pregnant I tried in vain to persuade them to name the boy “Queequeg”). Shipwrecked, everything I have is gone, I’m so alone -- indulging the self-pity can be cathartic.

I’m grateful to music in so many ways, not least in the way it has connected me to my nearest and dearest. Far from marooned or stranded or abandoned, music has been the life raft, the banquet and the host. Communion and cosmos. Ensemble -- we’re all in this together.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Native Illinois drum circle singing at University of Illinois a few years ago.

My new favorite radio show: “Sounds from the Four Directions,” Wednesday nights from 11:00 PM to 1:00 AM on KBCS, community radio from Bellevue Community College, 91.3 FM. (Bellevue is the historically conservative Seattle suburb, due east across Lake Washington. Belying its reputation, Bellevue is now the 3rd largest city in the state, behind Seattle and Tacoma, and it has a smaller percentage of white residents than Seattle. Every year it gets politically more liberal.)

“Annette Squetimkin-Anquoe hosts Sounds From the Four Directions, featuring Native music of many different styles.” Since my beloved spouse (who is white) started taking me to powwows several years ago, I have grown to love traditional Native American music -- rhythmically subtle, vocally exciting; at once energizing and calming.

The night before the famous WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, a rally for 3rd World debt forgiveness took place at a big downtown church. I got there too late to get in the church, as did a few thousand other people, out in the November rain. In a covered outdoor plaza-entrance to a big building across the street, protected from the rain, a Native drum circle sang. Hitting the solid, unvarying rhythm on the drum, singing their powerful, rhythmically surprising unisons -- they won the love of the assembled, rained-upon Jubilee-ers; after every song the crowd would roar with approval. The singers never looked up. We didn’t matter.

For some reason megaphoned Christian evangelists frequent lefty demonstrations to harangue and threaten damnation; there was one that night. (Why they don’t harangue crowds streaming into football stadiums, I have no idea.) At one point this recruiter-for-God said, about the Native singers, “Listen to the savages. Why do they sound so angry? Because they reject God.”

A circle of orange-vested “safety” officers from Jobs With Justice had locked their arms around the preacher to keep the crowd away from him. But when the evangelist revealed his racism, I lost my temper. I approached one of the safety people. “Why not let the Christian have his martyrdom?” I said. That pissed the guard off. “We’re not here to protect him; we’re here to protect the demonstration.”

Good point.

I didn’t really want to kill the man.

You can listen to Sounds from the Four Directions here. It’s a marvelous show.

* * *

Sounds from the Four Directions is my new favorite radio show; my long-time favorite radio show is the Swing Years and Beyond, Saturdays from 7:00 PM to midnight on KUOW, the University of Washington’s NPR-affiliate station. For reasons I won’t go into now (maybe another time), the kid wanted to pose listening to the show. I got out some records for props. My beloved spouse took the photo.

Earth Liberation Front used explosive devices to torch three unoccupied mansions in a new rural development Monday night, with damage estimated to be worth $7 million.

Arson and bombs are terrifying, but ELF goes out of its way not to harm people. So far, they have succeeded. Obviously, they run a calculated risk, and I am glad that they have succeeded in this aspect of their intention.

People have been calling their act “terrorism,” but ELF’s action is not the equivalent of bombing a mall during lunch hour -- not even close.` To equate property destruction with terrorism trivializes murder. I do not defend ELF. The risk they run is too great, and the property destruction in itself is sickening. (I would feel sickened if an arsonist destroyed my property. Maybe you wouldn’t; if so, you’re a rare breed.) But no matter how psychologically violent, and no matter how risky, an action that intends no physical harm against persons, and succeeds in that intention, is not terrorism -- even if arson is terrifying, which it is.

While mulling this over on Tuesday, I heard Tim McGraw’s song “If You’re Reading This” for the first time on the car radio. The song’s protagonist is a soldier who has died, who sings of the letter that he has written to his wife “to be opened in the event of my death.” It’s a heart-tugger -- stoic -- and it makes a claim for nobility. But the current war is not noble.

American culture rallies around the men and women who have volunteered for the military. I understand the urge to root for the home team. My country, right or wrong -- yes, but I would emphasize the my, where the slogan seems to celebrate the wrong. When my country is wrong it’s my duty -- not my right, my duty -- to say so. Because it is my country.

More than 4,000 Americans and an estimated 150,000 Iraqis have died in consequence of the American invasion of Iraq. I honestly do not understand what principle the protagonist of Tim McGraw’s song died for. Not to defend me or anybody else in America. Not to promote democracy. Not to liberate anybody. Why?

The U.S.’s invasion of Iraq was based on the doctrine of preemptive war. Even if Iraq had been found to have had mass-casualty weapons, the U.S. invasion still would have violated international law. It still would have been illegal and immoral -- and it still would have been nonsense. Even with the most catastrophic weapons available, Iraq would have posed no threat to the U.S.

The reply to this line of argument usually goes, “Remember 9/11.” I do remember it. I remember how unfathomably ghastly it was that nearly 3,000 Americans were murdered on one day -- the atrocity has not lost its shock.

Our invasion of Iraq has unleashed fifty 9/11s on a much smaller country. It was guaranteed -- from the beginning -- to kill at least as many people as died on 9/11.

And for what? To prevent another 9/11 here by making one somewhere else? That scenario presupposes not a suicide bomber, but a suicide dictator. If any third world leader were to launch an attack on the United States, they would sign their own death warrant. The threat posed to the U.S. by Iraq was minuscule. Tiny. Almost nonexistent -- theoretical at best.

American popular usage calls its warriors “heroes.” Maybe it is heroic to die or risk death for what you believe in. But if what you believe in makes no sense; if the only principle involved is blind loyalty to a murderous, lying commander; if enacting that loyalty implicates you in a war crime, where is the heroism?

Yesterday the juxtaposition of terrorism and heroism made American English feel like a foreign language.

-- photo by Mike Siegel, Seattle Times

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Dawn Upshaw rocks but needs a better sound engineer.

Dawn Upshaw sang Osvaldo Golijov’s Ayre at the Seattle Symphony’s joint, Benaroya Hall, Friday night, with Orquesta Los Pelegrinos, a hot chamber ensemble made up of members of the Grammy-Award-winning group eighth blackbird and other musicians. The performance rocked but the mix was bad and the experience as a whole fell between the cracks of the piece, between classical and a pop version of “world” music, between chamber and orchestral, between acoustic and electric. It tried to bring these disparate strands together and, to my ears, failed. I was in the minority, though. The audience cheered the piece with a five-minute standing ovation.

The mix was bad. Upshaw was too low. In traditional classical music, under-powered singers in large halls are the norm. But this isn’t traditional classical music. One movement boasted four Dawn Upshaws singing together, one of her live in the room with us, the other three pre-recorded. She was amplified for the concert. But not enough to make it work in the room.

The electronic percussion was mixed too high. The electronic reverb on the electronic percussion made the band sound less cohesive. I can only speculate, but the case of the over-reverbed electronic percussion may have been a result of not thinking through the difference between live performance and record production. For the record, it makes sense to overlay a veneer of reverberation on the whole ensemble. But to take the treated percussion recording and perform with it, the reverb will redouble against the acoustics of the actual room. It puts the recorded track out of sync with the live musicians. A more effective route would be to eliminate the reverb from the recording for live performance.

On the record, Golijov makes full use of pop studio trickery, to powerful effect. It’s loud, powerful, high-impact music.

It wasn’t that at Benaroya Hall on Friday night. It sounded small, and the smallness felt like a concession to classical convention. “Don’t amplify it too loud.”

One classical convention pleased me more than it had on the record. The almost inaudibly quiet recitation of a translation of a poem by the Palestinian poet and activist Mahmoud Darwish is equally too-quiet on the record, but the near-inaudibility played better with the speaker in sight.

Ayre is a masterpiece of marketing. If it had been marketed as a world-music fusion album -- which is what it is -- it would have garnered a handful of deservedly excellent reviews and then dropped from sight. As “classical” music its novelty has serious legs. From a world-fusion viewpoint, some of the composing feels second-hand. Golijov can reel off an excellent klezmer-style riff, but once he lays it out, he doesn’t surprise us with anything within the style he is mimicking. A musician with more commitment to a style will find continual surprises within it.

Again, my reaction was in the minority. I can understand why: The exciting bits were exciting, the pretty bits were pretty, the juxtapositions were novel from a classical point of view, Upshaw’s performance throughout was fantastic, the band was terrific, some of the writing -- the last movement in particular -- is gorgeous. And
I do have to give it up to Golijov for using techno-style electronic percussion for a movement in very fast 18/8 meter -- a quick 6-beat measure with very fast triplets throughout -- I have no recollection of having heard that meter elsewhere, and it works great techno-style.

So why am I such a grump? Because the music didn’t fit the venue, the technical logistics were not thought through, and in at least one place the music seemed second-hand.

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A quick note about the deplorable quality of the complementary programs provided by the symphony: Nowhere does the program acknowledge that Oscar-winning soundtrack composer Gustavo Santoalalla wrote two of Ayre’s movements (I wrote about this last May; the use of multiple composers is another similarity with world-fusion; typically, the Symphony’s program elided this). Also, there was no information about the band besides their names; I had to dig through a number of internet search links before I found out anything about them.

* * *

I’m not really so grumpy. It’s funny. Now, several days after the concert, themes from the piece echo in my mind’s ear. I want to hear it again -- on a recording. In fact, I’m listening to it now on my computer as I type this. I’m even liking the klezmer licks.

-- Photo by Dario Acosta.

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