Monday, March 31, 2008


Many artists impose on themselves a moral system. Banksy only mounts shows in "warehouses, war zones, or places full of live animals" - a gallant policy which I respect. Neckface, my second favorite graffitist, regards his art with an almost opposite mentality, a mentality I respect equally; he tags billboards, puts on shows in numerous galleries, and designs T-shirts and shoe lines. Neckface seems to transcend a self-fragmentation that often occurs when artists engage in different mediums - take Johnny Greenwood, for example, whose Radiohead songs are nothing like his film score to There Will Be Blood - everything blends together in one continuous mode of expression. One could easily critique the graffitist for an old-fashioned organicism, but I wouldn't go so far. I think he just figured out a provocative, transmutable style - that of a 'very naughty boy' - and stuck with it. He can operate on a very small scale (this is the coolest shoe I've ever seen):

And a very large one:

The basic hypocrisy of a graffiti artist's work appearing galleries is the negation of graffiti's power: to evade the canonizing, self-affirming museum culture. At the same time, if someone can do both quite well, I say what the hell. Interesting tidbit: it's rumored that Neckface's cousin is serial killer Richard Ramirez - perhaps why his imagery is pretty morbid. A few more great tags:

Delta (Boris Tellegen) is another fantastic graffitist/gallery artist. Based in the Netherlands, he combines an industrial design background with a polished aesthetic. Two of his outdoor examples:

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Classical Music Spring Fashion Show - Part 2 (BIG Hair)

In Part 1 of this potentially never-ending 'classical music fashion' exposé, I referenced Herbert von Karajan's white, shiny beacon of hair, and Evgeny Kissin's embarrassing disco 'fro. Apparently, Karajan had an assistant hold a brush offstage at every concert so he could tend to his prized sculpture between pieces. Let us continue to admire the revolting 'dos within classical music, this time exclusively conductors.

Perhaps conductors today are inspired by one of the first great baton-wielders caught on film, Arthur Nikisch. He had a cute part and dashing mustache, to be sure. While contemporary conductors can't match Nikisch's facial hair, they certainly outdo him. (I'll go with that pun, though originally unintended.) Let's take a look at just a few examples, spanning the continents:

Japanese Seiji Ozawa (Wow.)

American James Levine (I think Kissin's got him, but just barely)

Italian Riccardo Muti (with bangs that rival Nikisch's)

27-year-old Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel: the younger generation carries the torch. See the link for a gushing NYT article.

Pop parallel: Kenny G?

And how about jazz icon Pat Metheny (seen in a common, intimate moment with his guitar)? Though obviously approving of his hair, Metheny purportedly spoke out against G for his version of "What a Wonderful World" in which he superimposes his own sounds over Louis Armstrong recordings (see/hear video above).

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Classical Music Spring Fashion Show - Part 1 (all black)

What is it with all black? Really. I thought contemporary classical music was all about being progressive. I thought new music meant something new, not more of the same. New music group counter)induction appears above. Let's see a few more:

Get the point?

Granted, few go to new music concerts to see a preview of next year's fashion trends. Black clothing can guide listeners away from the surface and towards the sound, away from the ostentatious hair phenomenon - from Karajan (above left) to Kissen (above right) - or the soloist in the bright dress (Anne-Sophie Mutter, below). But whenever I think about donning black pants, black shirt, black socks, black shoes...I just can't do it. Everybody does it. And like it or not, we live in a visual culture. All black sticks out just as much as a yellow dress. It's the idea of newness, which I hope the music I write and perform embodies, that makes me turn away from the widespread normalcy of playing in black.

So, who do all these uber-hip performers want to look like? Trinity, Morpheus, or Neo from The Matrix? I can understand that. I do, too.

But maybe they just wish they were in a Metal band (see photo of Kamelot, top). I do as well. Real bad. But I play the clarinet.
Perhaps they're all closet bikers. I guess I could get into that, too.

The monk thing, though, I don't know if I'm into. But they go well with this blog's black background.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Adès Craze

Almost on cue, when I tell other composers I'm into fusing classical with techno, they respond: "Oh, have you heard Adès' Asyla??"

Adès is a talented composer. Many Brits have latched on to him because he's good, and probably also because they want another Elgar or Britten. Regardless, his attempt to incorporate techno pulse into Asyla's second movement is not so good. I admit, it's pretty funny watching grey-haired string players or contrabass clarinetists jerking their bodies to the beat. But his use of a giant concert bass drum, played with the regular soft mallet, just doesn't work. In the youtube video below, you can see the percussionist trying to muffle the sound's decay with his left hand, but without much success. A couple improvements could be:

a) amplifying a kick bass drum; or...(gasp!)
b) using electronic percussion

The off-beat cymbal sounds are also lame, for lack of a better adjective. I like Thomas Adès' music more or less. Just not his technoclassica.

So why doesn't he try out an electronic beat? Will he? No way. Here's his answer: "I love the idea of computer music...I’m saying that with a half-raised eyebrow. It makes me think of cute sounds, such as when you turn on your computer, there is an F major chord. Those things are very charming in a way, but I can’t imagine being that interested in sitting and having someone press ‘play.’" Adès also writes everything out by hand, without computer software - a man of the old school. Vivien Schweitzer stretches a bit far in her NYT article from today, describing conductor Simon Rattle as "a shaggy-haired D.J., exhorting his tuxedo-clad clubbers to frenzied heights of illicit exuberance." He looks like a typical conductor to me: old, melodramatic, and in desparate need of a haircut. I think we've gotta look to a younger generation for genuine hipness.

Dear Thomas, I'm so glad that my pieces which incorporate computer sounds will always be cute!!

About a year and a half ago, while perusing the internet, I came across Mason Bates. Finding him was bittersweet; I was thrilled that someone was doing what I wanted to do - combine classical chops and electronica - and people were digging it. But he got there first. I think our tastes in electronica are pretty different, though, and maybe his breakthroughs will allow composers like me, with a little luck, to find acclaim as well. On February 1, The San Francisco Symphony, with money from the Craig Capital Foundation, put on a cool show they called Mercury Soul with Bates at club Mezzanine, which featured works by composers such as Webern and Ligeti, DJ sets by Bates (aka DJ Masonic), and the premier of Bates' Seismology (see the program here, and a preview article).

They tried pretty hard (see this promo photo, in which the tuxedo/track jacket juxtaposition reminds me more of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure than the present; also Bates' giant headphones that lead nowhere are a little silly), but hey - I wish I'd been there. As easy as it might be to critique this 'classical meets electronica' evening, it seems like damn good progress to me. They chose a solid composer, who brings beats (electronic, at that) together with 'classical' much better than Adès, and a great club venue, which beats the pants off any concert hall. Check out pics of the event.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The genetics of sound

Computers are starting to hear just like we do.

I learned about Melodyne software from Andrew Hearst's great site, panopticist. Melodyne is a piece of sound editing software made by the German company, Celemony. It's good for things like high quality time-stretching and pitch shifting, processes other software can also accomplish. Probably, Melodyne does it a little better than most. However, this fall they're planning to release Melodyne plugin 2 (full version plus plugin will go for $399), which many say is gonna revolutionize the sound studio. I think it's gonna revolutionize music, period. View their promo video if you want.

I've said "holy shit" a lot more than I normally do on a Friday morning. Melodyne's new feature, Direct Note Access, is the ability to analyze polyphonic audio content and separate notes within a chord. Once they're separate, you can alter each individually, shifting, stretching, muting little parts of the audio, not the whole file. And it really does. About 11 minutes into the video below, creator Peter Neubacher moves a trumpet melody around without changing a thing about the (minimal upright bass) accompaniment. Right now, the software might be hard pressed to pick a flute line out of a giant orchestral texture, but based on what it can do now, they'll surely advance the software in the next few years. Even within solo lines over accompaniment, glissandi are harder to deal with as opposed to straight pitches.

Mashups have become wildly popular (and sadly illegal). Those who adhere to antiquated value systems don't think Girltalk is artistic. They say the software is meant for altering one's own recording, but this new program will inevitably make the complex mixing and editing that Girltalk does a lot easier, and will therefore explode the genre. It will make more disparate songs easier to mold together. If more people can do what he does, then he'll have to step it up. This is great for DJ culture. Now we can change chord progressions, add dissonance, or any number of other things to existing recordings instead of just juxtaposing unrelated songs. It could be a great way to comment on other artists. Maybe a mashup explosion will push people to reevaluate what they consider original in music and--way, way, down the road--when a giant consumer market presents itself that would outweigh profits from untouched originals, the legal system will adapt to what people want to pay to hear.

Celemony may have deliberately called this plugin Direct Note Access because of its acronym, DNA. Much like the discovery of smaller and smaller parts of our genetic code, this audio DNA is pulling out smaller and smaller parts of audio information, and altering it. In biology, a genetic mutation usually means a catastrophe, but in digital sound, it can be quite the opposite.

Usually, theories are theories, and often evade reality. I like Neubacker's reversal of this norm: "the more I pondered the subject [of DNA], the more I began to see that what doesn't work in theory can still work in reality." This post seems like an advertisement for this company. It's not. I'm just excited.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Lately I've felt nauseous on account of the academy, or institutionalized art. I guess it's kind of funny that the institution where I study is paying me to try to tear down its walls. The status quo often feels like a giant bowl of jello that you'll float in for the rest of your life if you're not careful--maybe a little flexible at times, but on the whole, pretty fixed and relatively transparent (translucent, I guess). However, for some artists, it's pretty easy to smash it all to hell.

I could begin a long diatribe against the authenticity, unity, and individuality that modernism adopted from its predecessors, dating back at least to Kant. (See Richard Taruskin for a fantastic example, a book review turned testimony subtitled "Defending classical music against its devotees.") And I'd like to. But for now, let's enjoy two artists who let their work speak for itself.

Banksy could be today's most relevant artist. Check out his drawing, above, that depicts his opinion of high art and museum culture. He's daring; he's visually stimulating; he's hysterical; and he's campaigning against real (but perhaps unsolvable) problems like war, greed, etc. According to the artist, "None of the print and painting exhibitions in proper art galleries are anything to do with me, it's all stuff they bought previously. I only ever mount shows in warehouses or war zones or places full of live animals (I'm aware the pictures don't stand up on their own)." Check out his whole site, but especially the films page, where you can view the guy in action at a zoo, and in the news after having somehow designed a giant exhibition of his work on the wall that separates Palestine from Israel in the West Bank. Here's a great youtube news clip:

Pierre Pinoncelli is a neo-Dadaist and a Marcel Duchamp devotee. You might wonder why, then, he pissed into his idol's most famous work, Fountain. Oh, and he hit it with a hammer. On two different occasions. Fountain, a urinal signed by Duchamp as "R. Mutt," was given the Turner Prize, by 500 "art experts," for being the most influential work of modern art. Duchamp's piece satirizes museum art, and the museum world embraced it for just that reason, to show that it does allow self-critique. Pinoncelli argues that the institution of art has commodified the work and muffled its meaning; that's why he whipped it out in 1993 while the urinal was on display in Nimes, and why he took a hammer to it in 2006 at the Centre Pompidou: to free Duchamp's spirit from "museum bureaucracy and art establishment, with its snobbery and its cliquishness and its shiny invitations and champagne receptions and art-denying money values."

A close friend wrote a brilliant paper on Pinoncelli and the avant-garde in college, and I owe any real discussion of the man's performance art to this friend. When he publishes the paper, I'll be the first to post a link.

Another priceless excerpt from the Infoshop article:
"He did, in fact, once appear as Santa Claus outside the Nice branch of the Galeries Lafayettes department store. He emptied a sack of toys on the pavement and smashed them to protest against the commercialisation of Christmas. Children burst into tears. Their parents pursued him down the street."

Do we have to risk arrest to make provocative art or truly challenge the institution? Maybe, but hopefully not. For now, I'm just glad these two dudes exist.