Gidon Kremer & Kremerata Baltica: Astor Piazzolla, “Oblivion” from “Henry IV”

This piece originally appeared at The Tannhauser Gate — JB

I think that the assertion that the Nobel Prize in Literature is essentially silly (and therefore, we are fools for taking it seriously) has something to be said for it. (Those happen to be the positions of the British novelist and translator Tim Parks.)

Not one of: James Joyce, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Henry James, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Mark Twain, Nabokov and Chekhov made the cut. But strange omissions compete with strange awardings—John Steinbeck “got the gong” (a slang term for a large medallion), yet James Joyce did not? Furthermore, the requirement that a candidate must be alive to receive the prize meant that late-blooming (or posthumously published) authors such as Kafka, Proust, Calvino, and Mandelstam could not even be considered.

Still and all, there are a few unimpeachable selections (Bob Dylan, in my opinion, is most definitely not among them).

In my opinion, Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Solzhenitsyn, Faulkner, and Hermann Hesse all deserved the money and the medal. I even think that Sigrid Undset (who?) was a deserving recipient. Undset’s massive (1400 pages) Medieval trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter should be much better known. I am tempted to say that if you loved The Lord of the Rings, you should try Kristin Lavransdatter. (In the period when she was “working up to” Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset had published a Norwegian translation of the Arthurian legends.)

For what all this has to do with Gidon Kremer and Astor Piazzolla, please click on the jump link. Continue Reading →

Music Is The Weapon, But Then Again, It Always Was

AT THE CORNER of 8th and Market in San Francisco, by a shuttered subway escalator outside a Burger King, an unusual soundtrack plays. A beige speaker, mounted atop a tall window, blasts Baroque harpsichord at deafening volumes. The music never stops. Night and day, Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi rain down from Burger King rooftops onto empty streets.
Empty streets, however, are the target audience for this concert. The playlist has been selected to repel sidewalk listeners — specifically, the mid-Market homeless who once congregated outside the restaurant doors that served as a neighborhood hub for the indigent. Outside the BART escalator, an encampment of grocery carts, sleeping bags, and plastic tarmacs had evolved into a sidewalk shantytown attracting throngs of squatters and street denizens. “There used to be a mob that would hang out there,” remarked local resident David Allen, “and now there may be just one or two people.” When I passed the corner, the only sign of life I found was a trembling woman crouched on the pavement, head in hand, as classical harpsichord besieged her ears.

Welcome to the world of “weaponized classical music”, where homeless people, thugs, dirtbags, and “teens” are actively repelled through the high-volume application of music that they don’t happen to like. It’s a tactic that is well over thirty years old, having been started with “Mozart At The 7-Eleven” in British Columbia back in ’85. In any era but this one, people would hear about this and chuckle. In $THE_CURRENT_YEAR, however, we must respond with everything from academic papers to the increasingly-shopworn boilerplate accusations of bigotry and racism. In the process of doing so, however, we will lay ourselves out to the possibility of deconstructive evisceration. Allow me to wield the knife. As Pusha-T said a few weeks ago, it’s going to be a surgical summer.

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In Memory of David A. Wilson II, 1944-2018

David Wilson, assembling a WAMM loudspeaker, 1986. Courtesy of Wilson Audio.

In Chicago in 1972, Peter McGrath was holding down a part-time job in a stereo store, while he pursued his graduate studies in fine art.

For those who were not alive and aware at the time, the early 1970s witnessed the dawning of the second Golden Age of Hi-Fi. The first Golden Age encompassed the late 1940s through early 1960s. Pioneering companies included Fisher, McIntosh Laboratory, and Marantz (electronics); Klipsch (horn loudspeakers); QUAD (electrostatic loudspeakers, and electronics); and Acoustic Research (acoustic-suspension loudspeakers, and turntables). The great hi-fi companies of the 1950s established the component stereo system (consisting of a turntable and sometimes a tuner or reel-to-reel tape deck, vacuum-tube amplification, and loudspeakers) as a vital part of what was understood to be “the good life.”

I think it is tremendously important to point out that although hi-fi started out as a hands-on hobby for technically-inclined males, by the late 1950s, high-quality music playback in the home via stereo components was almost universally regarded as something to aspire to—even if in many cases, people had to settle for suitcase stereos or the massive pieces of furniture called console stereos. Going back and reading general-circulation magazines of the 1950s (as well as male-oriented magazines such as Esquire and Playboy), one is struck by the prevalence of advertisements for hi-fi components and loudspeakers, as well as for “culturally improving” book and record clubs.

More context, backstory, and appreciations of David A. Wilson, after the jump link. Continue Reading →

John Mayer And The Search For Content

“I hope you like it… it took me 90 minutes to make it.” That’s John Mayer’s pitch for the “New Light” video, which he teased on Instagram the day beforehand with endless discussions on “content”.

As usual, John’s on to something. We live in the era of “content” rather than “creation”. Creation takes time, but the Internet isn’t hungry for creation. It’s hungry for content, which is ephemeral by nature and by design. It takes a while to interact with creation, but content is the equivalent of the Burger King Mac N’ Cheetos. You consume it, perhaps glancing at an advertisement as you do so, then you move on.

This didn’t happen by accident. This situation was created by reasonably smart people who had some reasonably smart ideas regarding creation versus aggregation. For a meandering and fairly spergy but still perceptive insight into the gap between creation and aggregation, take a look at this article about the never-ending battle between Yelp and Google. Yelp was designed to take advantage of Google Search, but in doing so they made themselves hideously vulnerable to Google’s every whim. Furthermore, they serve as a living example of “the commoditization of content” in favor of aggregation.

John Mayer doesn’t need Google. He has a built-in fan base who pay attention to his every move, even when that move is eating hot wings while wearing a $75,000 watch. You can look at this video as an example of authentically aristocratic disdain for “content pushers”, or you can see it as his wink and nod to an aging fanbase. Hell, it might just be a chance for him to show off some rare and expensive pieces of Japanese street style. I don’t know. The rest of us out there aren’t so lucky. We need to keep generating content the way a child needs to tread water once he’s too far off shore to come home — and for the same reason.

Cashing In With The Satans Of Swing

Twenty-five years ago, I happened to find the complete tablature for Dire Straits’ “Sultans Of Swing” during a late-night session browsing USENET on the university VAX. I printed the whole thing out, for free, because back then my school let VAX users print whatever they wanted for free. Amazing, right? When I think of all the things I printed out at school just because I wasn’t sure if I’d ever find them again. We had no way of knowing that Google would end up buying most of the USENET archives. We had no way of knowing there would be a Google. We still thought that the Internet would end up taking us to the Singularity. What fools we were. Anyway, after printing the tab out I tossed it in a 3-ring binder. Then I forgot about it.

About five years ago, I found that binder, pulled out the tab, and fussed around until I was more or less able to play “Sultans Of Swing”. I was reasonably proud of myself for having done so. It’s a brilliant tune and there are parts where the timing is more than a little tricky. I never shared this accomplishment with anyone, so I’m not sure why YouTube thought I’d want to see the above video. Maybe the almighty algorithm knows me better than I know myself.

There are two talented musicians at work in this song, and it’s a pleasure to watch, but what impresses me the most is how well it’s been monetized. After the jump, I’ll explain all the ways that this “Sultans Of Swing” cover is making cash. Less clear than the how, unfortunately, is the who. Who’s actually getting paid? It’s not as simple as you might think.

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This Is (A Trio Of) America(n-made Honda Accords)

If you went to Starbucks this morning, chances are that the gender-studies major who made your unicorn frappo-whatever has very strong opinions about Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover’s new video, titled This Is America and seen above.

Warning: It’s not necessarily safe for work.

I’m probably too old, too classically-educated, and too, er, “privileged” to be permitted an opinion on the video itself. It’s deliberately ambiguous in virtually all of its most controversial aspects. Much ink has been spilled on the “Jim Crow” pose struck by Glover before he shoots the hooded figure, but the hooded figure is an older Black musician. So is he saying that playing an acoustic guitar is the act of an Uncle Tom, or is he suggesting that the violence-suffused rap music of the modern era, which by and large replaced the blues and conventional R&B within the black community, is nothing but blackface stupidity?

Furthermore, the motif of police violence is omnipresent throughout the video. There’s no statistical backing for the media hysteria regarding “racist police killers”, but nobody seems to want to be the first to admit it. I’m reminded of the scene in The Wire where Slim Charles says, “If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie.”. The problem is that there are a great many people in America who seem to want to fight on that lie. More pertinently, they want other people to fight on that lie while they collect their checks from the major media corporations and from George Soros. It’s a brilliant racket, earning rapper-style money stirring up racial hatred in the pages of the mainstream press while you buy, then try to flip, a $2.1 million townhouse.

Okay, let’s put all of that aside and talk about the real issue in Glover’s video: the Accords.

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And Now For Something Not Quite Completely Different

Last year we talked about John Mayer’s released-in-waves recent effort, The Search For Everything, and one of my favorite tracks on that album. I guess that the Temptations felt the same way, because they cover “Still Feel Like Your Man” on their latest release. (Only one of the original Temptations is still in the band, if you want to discuss the Ship-of-Theseus angle.) I think the track is pretty good and it meets the traditional standard of being sufficiently different from the original to merit your consideration.

I’d like to dedicate this song once again to all the husbands, fiances, and boyfriends out there from coast to coast who still wonder if I’m going to show up out of nowhere and steal your girl back. Not that I would — I’m very happily married. But keep wondering, you feckless mooks.

Those of you who want to see Mayer’s official video for the song, complete with dancing pandas, awkward dabs, and enough samurai imagery to make noted Japanese-book lyric-lifter Bobby Zimmerman blush:

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Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie: “When the Levee Breaks” (1929)

(This piece originally appeared on The Tannhauser Gate — JB)

The infosphere is fairly crackling with the news that the current incarnation of the musical ensemble Fairport Convention Fleetwood Mac has notified one of its elderly members that his services will not be required for their upcoming world tour. More than 40 years later, Fleetwood Mac Drama still grabs headlines.

My favorite story about Fleetwood Mac is that during the Narcissistically tumultuous (my words, not theirs) recording of their 1977 mega-album Rumours, the two remaining founding members of the band (Mick Fleetwood and John McVie) repaired to the recording studio’s parking lot to get a breath of fresh air. One of these two gentlemen, not at all at peace with the way things were then developing (at the time, the tattered remnants of the original band were being either re-energized or supplanted by a pair of newcomers), said (or perhaps it is more accurate to write, “whined”) to the other,

“You know, we used to be a blues band.”

To which the other replied, “Yeah. But now, we’re rich.”

(That riposte refers to the fact that while the group was recording Rumours, their most-recently-released recording Fleetwood Mac, which was the first album with newcomers Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, was topping the charts and already throwing off so much cash that the previously hardscrabble members of the band were buying houses in Los Angeles. But: A blues record, Fleetwood Mac was not.)

That exchange says a lot about the endgame of British popular music’s fascination with American blues music.

Intriguing history, and sound bytes, after the jump link. Continue Reading →

Amazon Takes (Your Money), Then Amazon Taketh Away (The Service)

“Someone is here to see you,” the nurse said, in a voice that was more or less indistinguishable from the battle cry of a bull elephant. It was March 26, 1988, and I was lying in a hospital bed near the top of what was then Riverside Methodist Hospital’s only tower. Four days previously, I’d been smacked by a 10-wheel Mack lumber truck during a brief street ride on my Free Agent Limo. The right fender had broken my neck then I’d been tangled in the back wheels of the trailer before being gored in the back by the recurve of the rear bumper which then dragged me a hundred feet, face-down, along the gravel shoulder. No, that’s not the reason I’m ugly. I was born this way.

At some point my right femur had shattered into four pieces, allowing me to kick myself in the face with my blue-and-white “Big Nike” high-top during my merry trip. When I came to a halt, I had a brief chat with my pal Woody, who was riding with me, as to the state of my bike. After they loaded me in the ambulance I had the good luck to pass out and stay that way for a while.

It hadn’t been certain that I would survive the thing but I was helped both by my cockroach-like nature and the willingness of a hotshot 31-year-old orthopedic specialist to cut open my right leg, scoop out the garbage, and install a shiny new titanium femur nail in its place. Top billing, however, has to go to Dr. Janet Bay, who happened to be walking by as they were bringing me in, diagnosed the spinal injury from looking at my pupils, and immediately stabilized my neck. Otherwise I’d be a “quad” with a breathing machine today. Then, as now, Dr. Bay wore a crew cut; I repeatedly called her “sir” during our initial interactions, mostly because I’d had my head dragged along the road. What can I say. In her place I’d have let me die.

Anyway. Four days later I was sitting in the hospital with a mind-numbing amount of pain but some not inconsiderable satisfaction from the brand-new Sony D-2 Discman sitting in my lap. My father had arrived with it shortly after the femur surgery. Something about his time in Vietnam must have told him that my biggest enemy in the weeks to come would be boredom. He’d also brought Eric B. and Rakin’s “Paid In Full” so I would have something to play in said Discman.

When the nurse announced that visitor in a voice to vibrate my deeply-injured head like a struck bell, I was surprised but not shocked to see my Honors English III teacher, Scott Weber. If any of my teachers would have bothered to see me, it would be him; after all, his class was the only one I didn’t spend either talking back or sleeping through. In truth, he was more than a little bit overqualified to be a high school teacher and he would go on to be a significant landholder and gun dealer in Cody, Wyoming, where he has made plenty of enemies. His debut novel, Plain People, is a joy to read.

But I digress. Mr. Weber brought me his condolences, and he also brought me two brand-new CDs. One of them was the fourth Led Zep album, the other was Now and Zen, Robert Plant’s oft-panned Eighties electronica record complete with a DJ merrily scratching his way through tracks like “Tall Cool One” and “Walking Towards Paradise”. It was a nontrivial gift, $32 spent on an injured kid in an era where a high school teacher was lucky to earn $300 a week after tax. Mr. Weber recently told me that he’d bought himself a loaded Audi A8 with the money he made selling guns; as far as I’m concerned he deserves a Phantom EWB.

Needless to say, both of those CDs are etched in my head from the hundreds of times I listened to them in the weeks that followed. About a decade ago, I “ripped” them into my iTunes; six years ago, I uploaded those MP3s to Amazon Music. It has been a long time since I actually played either disc. But I still own them, I have unlimited license to use them as I like, and at any time I like I can pull them out and listen to them, even though it has been thirty years since Mr. Weber bought them for me.

I’m telling this rather long story because of a notification that Amazon Music just served me regarding my Amazon Music Player and the “250,000 song service” for which I currently pay. There’s a difference between ownership of an item and the use of a service, and Amazon has decided to forcibly remind me of that difference.

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A Sign Of Times Long Past, Now Available For Free

About a decade or so back, give or take, I wrote and recorded a song for a woman I particularly liked at the time. She was not what you would call music-savvy, but when I explained that I played all of the instruments on the song myself she promptly responded with, “Like Prince does.”

“Yes,” I replied. “I’m pretty much just like Prince.” Here’s the funny part, though: I am just like Prince. Not in the sense of being an inhumanly talented and accomplished musical prodigy, of course. Rather, we have both demonstrated an ability to make enemies and foul our own nest for reasons ranging from a manic belief in our artistic integrity to simple mean-spiritedness.

A few weeks ago, for example, I was sent the final PDF of something I’d written for a major print publication — not R&T, I hasten to add. The article had been given to an editor who proceeded to shit all over the thing, introducing borderline obscenity and broken-glass sentence structure even as he tirelessly removed anything that looked like literature from the text. As fate would have it, the writer’s fee for that piece almost perfectly matched up with the overall cost for my Honda Challenge race weekend last month. So I took the money, because I’d be a fool not to, and because there was a certain satisfaction in having my trophies paid for even if I didn’t like the work. Yet you won’t be hearing about this piece on this site, and when I get my copy of the magazine I’ll be throwing it in the trash. It’s not difficult for me to understand why Prince effectively destroyed his career so he could have control of his own music. He didn’t want to see his own name on something that he despised.

Yet just like Prince, there have been times when I would be better off with a little bit of oversight.

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