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SOUNDTRACK: DAN TEPFER-Tiny Desk Concert #884 (August 29, 2019).

Most of the time, a Tiny Desk Concert is an opportunity to see an artist in a quiet almost unplugged setting.  Sometimes, it’s an opportunity to see a band really show off in a close space.  And sometimes a Tiny Desk Concert will blow your freaking mind.

Like this one.

I have never seen anything like this.

Dan Tepfer has created a program that plays the piano along with him.  It’s for a project he calls Natural Machines.

Watch the keys and you’ll see this Disklavier — a player piano — plucking notes on its own. But it’s not a prerecorded script.

Here’s how it works: Tepfer plays a note, and a computer program he authored reads those notes and tells the piano what to play in response. Tepfer can load different algorithms into the program that determine the pattern of playback, like one that returns the same note, only an octave higher. Another will play the inverted note based on the center of the piano keys. These rules create interesting restrictions that Tepfer says make room for thoughtful improvisation. In his words, he’s not writing these songs, so much as writing the way they work.

Tepfer plays free improvisation–he “makes things up and tries to be present in the moment” but the computer responds to him in real time based on rules.

He says for “Canon At The Octave” theres’ an axis of symmetry on the piano and “everything I play on one side if reflected on the other side.  Super simple, but it leads to musical problems that lead to real music.”

Since he is improvising, he is also reacting to what the computer makes.

He explains that “Tremolo” is when a note is repeated very quickly.  He gives the example of a violin player playing a note quickly.  It’s much harder on piano than a violin and it’s impossible to do more than ten notes at once.

He plays single notes that generate a series of chords playing quickly all at once–it’s really cool to watch the piano take off as if with a mind of its own.

But watching the piano isn’t the only cool thing

To better communicate what’s happening between him and the piano, Tepfer converted these audio-impulse data into visualizations on the screen behind him, displaying in real time the notes he plays followed by the piano’s feedback. [We dive even deeper into this project in a recent Jazz Night in America video piece].

He explains that these improvs are super short versions to show off how the programs work.

“TriadSculpture” is all about harmonic ratios.  Pythagoras discovered that sounds work with whole numbers.  The math behind music.  So Tepfer has mapped numbers as a 3-D object and he has been printing them–even more mind blowing.  The computer program generates these shapes–  everything he plays on his left hand creates those shaped in real time on the screen.

Perhaps the trickiest part here, unlike a human-to-human duo, is that the computer plays along with 100 percent accuracy based solely on Tepfer’s moves. He compares it to dancing with a robot that never misses a beat. Tepfer has to play in kind to keep the train on the tracks, but if he falls out of step, so does the computer.

Fortunately he never falls out of time (or at least it’s hard to tell since it’s all improvised.

The final piece is “Constant Motion” in which he plays a note and the computer responds to it by playing a note either up or down.  This creates a fun fast piece that explores the full range of the piano.  The visuals for it are very cool too.

I’m not sure if this would be fun to see live (at least any more fun than an improvising pianist is) because listening to it you don’t always really know what’s happening or that the piano is doing the work.  But seeing it up close like this is awesome.

[READ: August 21, 2019] Holy Cow

Like most people, ever since watching The X-Files, I’ve liked David Duchovny (why don’t you love me?).

I watched some of the Red Shoes Diaries just for him.  I watched some of Californication just for him (Didn’t have whatever network it was on, so never watched more than a bit of it).  But I’m always willing to give him a shot because I think he’s smart but goofy.

Enter Holy Cow.

This is Duchovny’s first novel and just what a pitch it must have been.

Hi, this is David Duchovny.  Yup, that one.  I’d like to write an adult book about a cow that wants to go to India once she finds out cows are worshiped there.  Yes, David Duchovny.

I had no idea he had written this book.  I just happened to see it on my library shelf when I was looking for something else.  The book was short and had (terrible) drawings in it and seemed like it would be absurdly funny.

So, with the caveat that if you think that a talking cow buying a plane ticket and going to Jerusalem with a pig and to Turkey with a turkey sounds stupid and juvenile.  Well, you’d be right.  But you’d be missing out on an enjoyable, silly romp if that kept you from reading it. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: CAROLINA EYCK AND CLARICE JENSEN-Tiny Desk Concert #816 (January 11, 2019).

There have been a lot of bands I have first heard of on Tiny Desk and whom I hope to see live one day.  Carolina Eyck and Clarice Jensen are two women I would love to see live–together or separately.

The concert opens with a looping voice (Carolina’s) and what appears to be her using a theremin to play looped samples.  And then soon enough, she starts showing off how awesome she is at the futuristic 100-year-old instrument.

Carolina Eyck is the first to bring a theremin to the Tiny Desk. The early electronic instrument with the slithery sound was invented almost 100 years ago by Leon Theremin, a Soviet scientist with a penchant for espionage. It looks like a simple black metal box with a couple of protruding antennae, but to play the theremin like Eyck does, with her lyrical phrasing and precisely “fingered” articulation, takes a special kind of virtuosity.

After playing a remarkably sophisticated melody on the theremin (with suitable trippy effects here and there), for about three minutes, she explains how the instrument works.  She even shows a very precise scale.

The position of the hands influences electromagnetic fields to produce pitch and volume. Recognized as one of today’s preeminent theremin specialists, Eyck writes her own compositions, such as the pulsating “Delphic” which opens the set, and she’s got big shot composers writing theremin concertos for her.

Up next is Clarice Jensen with “her wonderful cello.”

Joining Eyck for this two-musician-in-one Tiny Desk is cellist Clarice Jensen. When she’s not making gorgeous, drone-infused albums like last year’s For This From That Will be Filled, Jensen directs one of today’s leading new music outfits, ACME, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble.

Jensen doesn’t explain what’s going on, but she makes some amazing sounds out of that instrument–she’s clearly got pedals and she modifies and loops the sounds she’s making.

“Three Leos,” composed by Jensen, offers her masterful art of looping the cello into symphonic layers of swirling, submerged choirs with a wistful tune soaring above.

Vak Eyck comes back for the final song, a wonderfully odd duet of cello and theremin.

The two musicians close with “Frequencies,” a piece jointly composed specifically for this Tiny Desk performance. Amid roiling figures in cello and melodies hovering in the theremin, listen closely for a wink at the NPR Morning Edition theme music.

Van Eyck make soaring sounds, while Jensen scratches and squeals the cello.  Within a minute Jensen is playing beautiful cello and Van Eyck is flicking melodies out of thin air.

[READ: June 24, 2017] Less

It wasn’t until several chapters into this book that I realized I had read an excerpt from it (and that’s probably why I grabbed it in the first place).  I also had no idea it won the Pulitzer (PULL-It-ser, not PEW-lit-ser) until when I looked for some details about it just now.

It opens with a narrator talking about Arthur Less.  He describes him somewhat unflatteringly but more in a realistic-he’s-turning-fifty way, than a displeased way.

And soon the humor kicks in.

The driver who arrives to take Less to an interview assumes he is a woman because she found his previous novel’s female protagonist so compelling and persuasive that she was sure the book was written by a woman (and there was no author photo).  So she has been calling out for “Miss Arthur,” which he has ignored because he is not a woman.  This makes him late and, strangely, apologetic.

He is in New York to interview a famous author H. H. H. Mandern who has, at the last moment, come down with food poisoning.

It takes only ten pages to get the main plot out of the way:

Less is a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrived in the mail: his boyfriend of the past nine years is about to be married to someone else. He can’t say yes–it would be too awkward–and he can’t say no–it would look like defeat. The solution might just be on his desk –a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.  Can he simply get out of town, and go around the world, as a way to avoid looking foolish? (more…)

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815SOUNDTRACK: BORIS-Pink (2005/2016).

You never know exactly what you’re going to get with an experimental band like Boris.  Well, you sort of know what you’re going to get–it will be loud and heavy (mostly).

Boris is and pretty much always has been a trio from Japan: Takeshi on vocals, and double neck bass/ guitar;  Atsuo on drums and some vocals and Wata – with guitars effects and vocals.

.  Their first album came out in 1996 and was a 60 minute continuous piece of drone metal.  It is considered ground breaking (and ground shaking) and is completely influential.  It (along with half of their catalog) is currently out of print, at least in the U.S.  Boris is also nigh impossible to collect all of their music, if you like that sort of thing.  Their Japanese releases are inevitably different from any American release (and sometimes vinyl differs from CD).  Either by track order or length of song or even the mix of particular songs

A decade and eight (plus) releases later with names like Amplifier Worship and Heavy Rocks, they put out Pink.

Pink is a landmark album for Boris (two years ago they toured the album),  because even though it was still incredibly heavy, it also experimented.  Most notably with shoegaze.

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Pink has a specific track listing on both American and Japanese releases, but the vinyl mixes things up.

The CD releases open with “決別” (“Farewell”) a beautiful soaring 7 minute slow song with a catchy chord sequence and lovely ringing guitars.  Although the beauty is interrupted by Wata’s wailing guitar solos.  She plays some wonderful soaring notes although at times they are rather piercing.  But it’s still kind of soothing and dreamy

Until track 2, when “Pink” scorches forth with a  super fast super heavy super guitar blast.  Four minutes of all out metal with soaring guitars, heavy drums and some appropriate screams from drummer/singer Atsuo.  And if you listen with headphones, there may be two or three guitars echoing in there (in addition to Wata, Tetsuo exclsuivly plays a doubleneck bass/guitar so you never really know what you’re going to get form him next.

The two and a half-minute “スクリーンの女” (“Woman on the Screen”) continues the thrash while the two-minute “別になんでもない” (“Nothing Special”) only increases it with a guitar so fuzzed out as to be almost recognizable.

“ブラックアウト” (“Blackout”) shows another side of the band.   Still loud, still heavy, but grindingly slow and sludgy (those shoegaze days are long gone).  The song ends with nearly a minute of ringing feedback before abruptly cutting off and switching to a more standard heavy metal sound in the 75 second instrumental “Electric.”

“偽ブレッド” (“Pseudo-Bread”) stomps along with fast drums and all kinds of distortion.  It’s even got a kind of mumbly sing-along chorus.  In the second half of these song there’s a great riff and even some “ooh oohs” to sing along to.  It’s really catchy until the ten seconds of noise tacked on at the end (the vinyl version extends this sheer brutal wall of noise to six minutes!).

“ぬるい炎” (“Afterburner”) changes tempo a lot.  It sounds like a big old 1970s rock song with chanted vocals and hand claps.  Wata’s solo is pure old school classic rock.  Prominent drums and highly distorted guitars split headphones as the vocals sit in the middle of the three-minute “6を3つ” (“Six, Three Times”).

“My Machine” is only two minutes on the CD, but it is eleven on the vinyl.  The Cd version taken from the middle of the song–where there’s more bass and echoed guitars underneath, while the eleven minute version has soaring guitars and washes of waves moving back and forth.  It’s dreamy and lovely until the ending feedback, of course.  But that fades out and then it’s just relaxing washes of waves until the main melody pokes it head back up briefly and then fades once more.  There’s a kind of rumble for the last minute or so of the extended version which leads into “Farewell” on the vinyl.  But the CD continues with “俺を捨てたところ” (“Just Abandoned Myself”).  On the American release, it’s eighteen minutes long, although it’s only ten minutes on the Japanese version.

The song is a favorite of many fans.  It’s got a totally catchy riff with distant vocals singing a catchy melody.  It’s like 7 minutes of a super catchy metal song with great vocals, a catchy melody and a terrific baseline riff.  There’s some very cool sounds that bounce around the song too.  Around eight minutes the heaviness goes away and soaring guitars take over, but with a low rumble to keep it grounded.  The next six or so minutes are pretty much classic metal drone–two chords repeated slowly while a feebacking guitar wails over the top.  The only difference is the kind of quieter guitar that;s sort of soloing throughout–almost plucking out notes amid the noise.

Pink was reissued in 2016 as a deluxe two disc package.  The second disc is called Forbidden Songs with nine well-produced and great-sounding tracks.

“Your Name Part 2” is dreamy and melodic.  It opens quietly almost like a spaghetti western with some bass notes, soaring guitar notes, and quietly echoed vocals.  “Heavy Rock Industry” starts with some loud droning chords and then about a minute an a half in there’s just drums and Atsuo whooping until the song takes off again.  “SOFUN” is four minutes of a heavy pummeling riff and scorching solos.

“non/sha/lant” is like a heavy short jam with bass riffage and soloing followed by some guitar work.  “Room Noise” is catchy with a cool bassline and soaring guitars.  “Talisman” is slow and heavy with loud distortion.  There’s a shouted chorus with heavy downtuned guitars that makes it almost singalongy.

“N.F. Sorrow” is nearly eight minutes long.  starts off slow with echoed vocals and a shaker.  It’s a quiet moody piece that builds to a heavy chorus with rumbling slow bass.  When the song really gets moving around 6 minutes there’s some great driving bass under Wata’s solo.

“Are You Ready?” is a simple two note riff on the guitar with a chorus of loudly whispered menace.  The song fades on a wild solo.  And the bonus disc ends with the 2 minute “Tiptoe” a quiet piece of gently plucked guitars and echoed notes that resolves into a really catchy melody.

Boris has dozens of records out but this is certainly the place to start–you get to experience pretty much all phases of the band.

[READ: July 21, 2015] “Lost Luggage”

This was the 2015 New Yorker fiction issue.  It featured several stories and several one-page essays from writers I like.  The subject this time was “Time Travel.”

Mueenudin imagines travelling back in time to the 1930s when India was still unified, to visit his father when he was young.

His father was a lawyer and when he studied at Oxford, the girls nicknamed him The Shiek. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: JAMILA WOODS-Tiny Desk Concert #699 (January 29, 2018).

Jamila Woods is the Associate Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors, the non-profit organization behind the Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry slam festival.  She also did guest vocals on a slew of albums recently.

Last year she released her debut album HEAVN.  But there is so much more

Singer, songwriter, poet, educator and community organizer Jamila Woods is also a freedom fighter: a voice that celebrates black ancestry, black feminism and black identity. “Look at what they did to my sisters last century, last week,” goes a line from “Blk Girl Soldier,” her powerful opening number at the Tiny Desk.

A cool bass line from Erik Hunter opens “Blk Girl Soldier.”  I don’t love the music that much (too jazz lite for me) but the lyrics are outstanding

We go missing by the hundreds…
The camera loves us, Oscar doesn’t…
They want us in the kitchen
Kill our sons with lynchings
We get loud about it
Oh now we’re the bitches

Woods’ delivery is fantastic and the backing vocals (and keys) from Aminata Burton add a nice touch.  Throughout this song and the others the drums are great–different sounds and rhythms from Ralph Schaefer.

Woods followed “Blk Girl Soldier” with “Giovanni,” another anthem of black female pride, inspired by the Nikki Giovanni poem “Ego Tripping.” The original text includes no punctuation, not a single comma or period, and reveals a liberated prosody that is also illustrated in the song. Listen how her lyricism interplays with the rhythm section’s syncopated groove to create a captivating state of emotional buoyancy.

I love the stops and starts and the groovy bass and soaring guitars from Justin Canavan.  But once again, I’m more enamored of her lyrics

Little Bitty you wanna call me
100 motherfuckers can’t tell me
How I’m supposed to look when I’m angry
How I’m supposed to shriek when you’re around me

“Holy” opens with just keys and a punctuating drum beat.  This song is a slower one and it is all about self-empowerment.

Of particular note is her recurring theme of self-love, as heard in “Holy,” the last song in this set: “Woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me.” (What a refreshing affirmation to hear “loving me,” instead of the predictable “loving you.”)

I don’t like R&B, but I could see this album transcending that for me.

[READ: November 12, 2017] The Resurrection of Joan Ashby

I received an email from A.M. Homes touting this book (obviously, I wasn’t the only one).  It was quite an encouraging email so I decided to give this fascinating book a try.  Boy, did I love it.

The book opens with a clip from the Fall issue of Literature Magazine.   It is a story about Joan Ashby, wondering where she has been all of these years.  The article says that they have been allowed to look at her childhood notebooks.

At thirteen she wrote nine precepts she was determined to follow in order to become a writer

  1. Do not waste time
  2. Ignore Eleanor when she tells me I need friends
  3. Read great literature every day
  4. Write every day
  5. Rewrite every day
  6. Avoid crushes and love
  7. Do not entertain any offer of marriage
  8. Never ever have children
  9. Never allow anyone to get in my way

Eight years later she burst onto the scene with her first collection of short stories about incest, murder, insanity, suicide, abandonment and the theft of lives called Other Small Spaces.  Four years later in 1989 her second book Fictional Family Life was a collection of superbly interlocked stories.

She was considered brutal and unsparing and wrote very powerfully.

During all of this time, her parents were irrelevant–they didn’t seem to think much about her when she was young and when she became successful she had little to do with them.

The “magazine” prints excerpts from these stories and here is where Wolas really shines.  She creates story fragments that really show off what a great writer Ashby (and of course, by extension, Wolas) is.

These are followed by an interview and her last public sighting–a reading of her work.  It was at this reading that her first shock was revealed–she had gotten married.  And when she toured for the second book, the women who revered her were outraged by this betrayal.

The opening section is “continued after the break” which is basically the rest of the book. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: A DIFFERENT KIND OF CHRISTMAS (1994).

This is one of the first alternative Christmas albums I bought.  I don’t listen to it that much because I tend to think it’s not that good (the cover is pretty uninspired).  But there’s actually quite a lot of good stuff on this.

SYD STRAW-“The Christmas Twist”
I’m happy to report that the “twist” is not some dark storyline, but an actual dance of The Twist.  Syd has written a Twist and it’s fun and dancey with plenty of Christmas lines to sing along to.  It’s a great opening track.

SHONEN KNIFE-“Space Christmas”
Shonen Knife does what they do best–short fast punky pop songs.  This one about a space Christmas, of course.

NRBQ-“A Christmas Wish”
I know this from the She & Him version.  I didn’t realize I had the original.  It’s sweet and cute with a really catchy and lovely melody in the “people all over the world” line.

BRUCE COCKBURN-“Mary Had A Baby”
This is one of those call and response songs that is very repetitive and goes on for too long.  If it was shorter it would be fun.

The dB’s-“Home For The Holidays”
This is kind of a stomping country song. It’s got a cool stomp stomp in the middle.  At under 3 minutes it’s just right.

SHELLYAN ORPHAN-“Ice” [NSFC]
I love the vocals and the song is quite pretty.  But this song is a downer (I don’t like Christmas anymore) and at over 5 minutes is not really good Christmas party music.

FISHBONE-“It’s A Wonderful Life”
Man I love this song.  It’s a super fun and dancey ska song that cites It’s a Wonderful Life and is just full of fun and pep.

POI DOG PONDERING-“Mele Kalikimaka”
It’s funny to hear this Hawaiian song done in this New Orleans brass style.  It’s a fun song regardless of who is doing it.

T-BONE BURNETT-“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”
This opens as a pretty instrumental version of this song on acoustic guitar and violin.  Lovely.  The vocals are fine, but I’d have preferred it with no words–the instrumentation was really striking,

TIMBUK 3-“All I Want For Christmas” [NSFC]
I really disliked Timbuk 3 back in the 1980s.  But I find their strange deliver to be reminiscent of X and I’m quite attracted to their style.  I like this song a lot. Although I can’t endorse a Christmas song about WWIII.  And I suppose lyrically, it’s a bit naive.  But the music is fantastic.

DAVE EDMUNDS-“Run, Rudolph Run”
I don;t know that anyone can get me to enjoy this song. Certainly not this vert standard version of it.

SHAWN COLVIN-“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”
Shawn has a lovely voice and this song is delightful.  It’s a simple piano version with some gentle accompaniment.  Interestingly, this does not appear on her own Christmas album (see the 24th), probably because it might be too upbeat–she does get a bit carried away, vocally, by the end.

So there’s nothing stellar on this disc (except Fishbone), but it’s a solid collection of alternative versions of songs and a few solid originals.

[READ: October 19, 2017] Pashmina

I wanted to love this book so much.  It has so many awesome elements.  The black and white to color juxtapositions are wonderful.  The colors are gorgeous and Chanani’s drawing style is simple but charming and effective.

And I think wanting to like this book as much as I did is why I wound up not enjoying it as much as I wanted.

And that’s because it feel like there’s a lot left out of the book–I wanted it to be twice as long.

This story is about Priyanka, a young Indian-American girl.  She is raised by her mother (and knows literally nothing about her father–her mother won’t say a word about him). (more…)

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