Thursday, April 30, 2009

Hiding Behind A Microphone: We Get So Strange Across The Border

The second in a set of three (or more) postings on my mid-life musical musings:

The rural villages out in my neck of the woods still have the deeply ingrained habit of putting on talent shows, either in one of the many ancient churches or in a Legion Hall. The roster gets filled by the usual gamut of talent: a boy saws away at a violin, a young girl fumbles through the “Peanuts” theme on piano. These acts are buttressed by story tellers and various vocal arrangements involving all ages. Sometimes a version of karaoke ensues — canned music is employed on behalf of a singer behind a microphone.

Eventually a foot-stompin’, chicken-pickin’ band takes the stage. This group pointedly pushes away all means of amplification. They sing and play as loud as they can, and inevitably get the crowd riled up in a happy froth. The music is by nature infectious, but more than that, with the distance of amplification removed, the music’s emotional appeal gains direct access to the emotional center of the brain.

In this promo clip for the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss disc, Plant talks about feeling intimidated at singing harmonies in Krauss’s living room: “I’m alright hiding behind a microphone,” he says, a statement that sounds paradoxical, yet holds a surprising truth: our technology can camouflage and provide a protective distance between the performer and audience, even as it amplifies, empowers and emboldens them both.

It’s worth remembering this has been the case for less than 100 years. Prior to electricity, a large audience was best served by a group of performers singing in concert. Typically these groups explored natural dynamics of amplification. A traditional Barbershop Quartet, for instance, sings harmonies in a key that, even when sung quietly, naturally cuts through an incredible amount of street noise.

If a single performer wanted to reach a large audience, she had to have a resonant voice and an incredible set of pipes. Listen to the recordings of Hank Williams or Billie Holiday, and you hear the voices of performers who have learned not to rely on amplification — because they can’t. The next juke joint might have a mic and an amplifier, but it probably won't. The movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou frames this technological shift rather artfully: when the Soggy Bottom Boys first “sing into a can” they employ the harmonies and pitch of non-amplified performers; when Tim Blake Nelson later sings “In The Jailhouse Now,” he’s using a voice that couldn’t carry past a parlor full of people: a crooner’s voice, akin to Bing Crosby’s — one of the first performers to exploit amplification to its full potential.

Even as electric amplification allows a larger audience to experience vocal intimacy (Sweetheart, it’s Bing! Singing, “If I Didn’t Care” — as if he were here in our parlor!), it superimposes its own distance from that intimacy (Bing lives in Hollywood, and you sent him some money for the privilege of hearing him in your parlor). This paradox of amplification is not always welcome, and almost never comprehended. I know a few recording performers, and it’s quite rare to find one who acknowledges this distancing effect. It’s even rarer to find a listener with that awareness. Most listeners would be incredulous to learn just how wounded some artists get when they stumble across a blogger flaming their work, or even a mouthy kid on a sidewalk who says, “Bah, yer not THAT good.”

Meanwhile, the boy whose violin and bow just sawed through “Sunrise, Sunset” is applauded and encouraged to perform in the next show at the end of August. Coming up is a drumming circle, ages eight to forty-eight. They take the stage and begin their rhythm. It’s very basic — anyone could do it — but it has a collective, natural power that makes the foundations of the old church tremble.

Outside, a silver Civic cruises by, its stereo system droning out a monotonous THOOM, THOOM ... THOOM, THOOM ....

One of these things is not like the other....

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Obligatory Hockey Post

This isn't working the way it was supposed to. How Carolina got past the league's best goalie is a mystery to me. And where did Grapes' beloved San Jose team disappear to? I acknowledge I've been generous in spirit toward Randy Carlyle's Anaheim Ducks, but that was then and this is now. I don't enjoy Anaheim's style of play: it's ponderous and heavy with elbows, and for once in my life I'm hoping Detroit makes short work of them.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pop Music: How Deep Is Your Love?

Some mid-life musical musings, in three (or more) posts:

I recently bought the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever.

My wife and I were preparing to celebrate our anniversary. I was trolling through that enormous repository of commercially approved downloads, looking for music she might enjoy on the ride into the city. As I perused through her list of favorite artists, sampling their new material, it occurred to me she might be happier with something she hadn’t heard in a while, but could sing along to. The Saturday Night Fever album had just received a new coat of paint, so I clicked “purchase” and burned it straight to CD.

The CD’s inaugural spin was pleasant. Neither of us had owned this soundtrack before, but it didn’t matter. The movie came out when I turned 12 and was just discovering my preferences in pop. For the next five years it was impossible to listen to the radio for more than five minutes without getting hit by something from this album. Although I was a vocal member of the “Disco Sucks!” cadre of pubescent male radio listeners, I secretly enjoyed the illicit thrill of dance music (girls dance to it — what's not to like?). For me, the songs conjured memories of sweaty palms and nervous laughter in roller skating rinks. Now, over 30 years later, I couldn’t recollect more than one or two lines from various choruses. My wife, on the other hand, is the youngest of four and knew the album from front to back.

So, mission: accomplished. Personally, however, what started out as a nostalgic trip was gradually prompting feelings of unease. It took me a while to put my finger on exactly what was bugging me, but I gradually identified the problem. First of all, there was the sound. The songs had been tweaked to meet the current taste for all things bright and bassy. Just touching the volume knob was enough to fill the car with the aural landscape of 70s disco, making the music startlingly close. The distance I was used to — chiefly the flat, arid sound of AM broadcasting, or the dull bellow of a DJ’s sound system — had been obliterated, and with it the romance of memory.

I thought of the 15 (or so) million people who, back in the day, had crowded the record stores to purchase the vinyl double album. If they were like me, they played their records from beginning to end, by halves. The stylus touched down, the familiar hiss and pop gave notice to just how loud the volume was going to be, then the music erupted. And the listener stayed with it — no hitting the “skip track” button when things got slow.

Those filters and limitations, and many more besides, were now completely removed. Not only that, but my temperament as a listener had changed. I was now taken over with a new set of expectations cultivated by digital convenience — a shorter attention span, the knee-jerk impulse to cut immediately to songs I wanted to hear, etc. The banalities of “A Fifth Of Beethoven” tested my patience in ways I hadn’t anticipated. The now unmediated presence of the Gibb brothers and their production team seemed to highlight a falseness within their expressed sentiment. And then it dawned on me that there was something about owning the music that deflated its former drama. Prior to this, stumbling across a radio station playing “Stayin’ Alive” had been a giddy treat. Queuing up the song in my car stereo at my own convenience ... not so much. Worst of all, I had now rendered impotent the future power of random radio play.

There remains, of course, the unalloyed pleasure of hearing one’s wife singing along to songs she hasn’t heard in years. But the experience has me re-thinking my expectations of — and my relationship to — recorded music, and music in general.

"There Must Be Some Way Outta Here..."

See how long you can endure this auction block slide-show of Michael Jackson's Neverland items before you have to look away. Via Boing-Boing.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Whither "Regional Identity"?

If there's a region of Canada which might be likened to a geographical satellite dish, it's Southern Ontario. Traditionally both the centre of Canada and one of the most densely populated and media-saturated regions on the continent, Southern Ontario therefore embodies one of those paradoxes that may well define the English-Canadian experience. As a prominent media centre, it tends to set the agenda for national identity, yet as a prominent media receptacle has precious little identity of its own. Case in point: Southern Ontario may be the only part of Canada that never speaks of having a "regional identity." When the regions are thus referred to, it means anywhere but the area roughly contained between Ottawa and Windsor (G).

Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond, musing about Canadian regional identity (and Jim Carrey) in Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey (A).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Writin' Courses

Neal Stephenson's researcher offers her trade secrets in an exclusive Research For Writers class. Even if you've only read 100 pages of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, you know this class is worth the nickel. Via Boing-Boing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dan Zanes

I apologize for the light blogging of late. The demands of spring, the needs of family and the end-of-season follies on ice all conspire to keep me from considered composition. Instead, I'll link to a couple of interviews with Dan Zanes -- rocker-turned-mensch, and something of a role model for yours truly. I'm not sure when he won the Esky (pictured at right -- I don't even know if the magazine still gives 'em out) but belated congratulations are in order. Here is Zanes' official website.

Getting back to hockey: the best games seem to be played by teams on the west coast. And here's a particular curiosity: Vancouver game play (so far) is among the most exciting in the play-offs. How can this be, when so many of their players are former Leafs?!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Gratuitous Hockey Post

So "Grapes" predicts a Bruins-Sharks fight for the Stanley Cup? I'm skeptical, but he's seen more hockey this year than I have. And I have to admit: I wouldn't mind. Whenever I've had the chance to watch either team, I've enjoyed the game. So go get 'em, guys. In the meantime, I'll be thinking of an old co-worker as I cheer on Vancouver. More about that later.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Playing At Fitness

I posted this in my other blog, but since this is the page with "followers" I include it here, too:

This month's ish of Men's Health describes a fitness camp in the rain-forests of Brazil. It can be read online, but the link, unfortunately, doesn't include any of the photos in the magazine. Basically, campers (all male) pay to strip down to their surfer shorts and run around the jungle like they're Tarzan.

You could not pay me enough to join a group like that. First of all, I hate group exercise; I hate to exercise in front of anyone. Restricting the group to men is a further disincentive. Add the flaky element of "let's pretend" ("We're warriors!" "We're an elite corps of primates!" "We're all Tarzan!") and you've just described my idea of Hell.

And yet, and yet ... there is an aspect of "play" that I miss in my fitness routine (such as it is). Years ago I took an early morning Aikido class at the YMCA. I had mixed feelings about the experience which became decidedly un-mixed the morning I was dropped on my head by a Russian black-belt (silver lining: the Russian knew a terrific chiropractor). I didn't much enjoy the grappling, but I had nothing but love for the warm-up.

This consisted of breathing exercises, followed by stretching, followed by tumbling. It lasted about 12 minutes, and by the end of it the entire body felt ready for anything (short of being dropped on the head). The breathing and the stretching I can do easily enough on my own, but the tumbling is another matter. A large space is required, and floor mats are recommended. And to be honest, there is something thrilling about a group of 20 people hitting the floor in unison.

Hm. Maybe I need to start my own "fitness camp" (emphasis on camp -- second definition) in the verdant forests of Ontario?

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Art of Anticipation: Carnivàle

I recently heard about a guy who owned a copy of Pink Floyd's The Wall when he was a kid. He would sometimes consider the gatefold, but he very rarely played the album. It was just too overwhelming an experience.

I'm having a similar difficulty with Carnivàle, the first season of which I found on sale for $12. I find the art on the box to be, frankly, overwhelming. I've got it up as my OS wallpaper. When I'm between tasks, I often find myself staring at it and imagining the stories behind the characters. At this point I can't quite summon myself to start watching the shows because the experience is almost certainly going to be a let-down.

I've done a little internet digging to see who's responsible for the art. It's tough to say, but I'm guessing the box art is done by A52, the folks responsible for the opening title sequence.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Art of Persuasion

I remain disenfranchised with the current efforts to revive the Paramount Star Trek franchise, but even so I have to admit: this is a stroke of viral marketing genius! (Thanks, Scott!)

The One From The Other by Philip Kerr

Looking at the stacks of mystery titles in the airport, a friend of mine said, “I think they’ve solved ‘em all.” I couldn’t help but think that he was right, in some visceral way; no matter how convoluted the crime, no matter how unlikely the twist, few readers will be genuinely surprised by the mystery’s solution. Mystery writers, understanding this, seem to adopt one of three approaches. First: rely on the pleasure of formula and familiarity, presenting a heroic detective doggedly searching for the novel’s final page. Second: displace the genre’s conventions, placing the sleuth in unusual settings or situations. Third: treat the genre as literature of exhaustion, the detective’s drive for truth being no match for the problem of existenceNick Bredie, reviewing The Manual Of Detection by Jedidiah Berry.

Philip Kerr is an old hand at employing all three of these techniques, which he does with a well-oiled utility in The One From The Other (A). What Bredie fails to account for in his formulation of mystery writing is the most financially successful approach to the genre: exploration of a compelling personality and character. There are some series that will be successful for as long as the author is willing to contribute to them, just because a particular character has settled deeply into the public imagination. Sherlock Holmes is the first such detective that springs to mind. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels are a contemporary example. So are Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels — and The One From The Other marks Gunther’s return to the printed page after nearly 20 years.

That’s an awfully long time for Bernie Gunther to sit in Kerr’s mental pantry, and it shows. In Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy (A) Bernie Gunther was a cunning thug whose heart still had some surprising soft spots. The social upheaval that gave rise to the Third Reich provided Kerr with ample opportunity to displace the genre’s conventions. Post-war Germany is a similarly fecund environment, but the instincts that kept Bernie alive on the Russian Front (and, earlier, Dachau) seem to be in serious decline. What surprised Bernie in the trilogy were moments when it seemed like virtue was possible. What surprises him now are a few blatantly obvious genre tropes. At one late point in The One From The Other, when Bernie sighs with relief, I slapped my forehead and said, “D’oh!” This was not the Bernie Gunther I remembered.

Of course, it could be that Gunther’s wartime experiences have blunted his formerly shrewd perceptiveness. It could also be that Kerr (and this particular reader) just need a little more time with the character. I certainly didn’t begrudge my time with this book. Just because it doesn’t soar to the heights, or plummet to the depths, of the trilogy that gave birth to the character doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading. Nor does it deter me in the least from reading Kerr’s next Gunther novel, A Quiet Flame (A).

Flashback: more WP on the Berlin Noir trilogy, here.

A Stay Against Confusion: Essays On Faith & Fiction by Ron Hansen

Ron Hansen’s A Stay Against Confusion: Essays On Faith & Fiction (A) attracted me with a chapter devoted to John Gardner. I borrowed the book from the library and quickly polished it off.

Hansen is one of those peculiar people commonly referred to as “a devout Catholic.” He begins the book with a meditation on how he fell in love with the deep power of story while attending mass as a child, and he concludes it with an ebullient essay on The Eucharist. In between there are ruminations on stigmata, various stories and films that sustain his imagination, and personalities who have Made A Difference. When I started the book, the only essay I wanted to read was the Gardner bit. But Hansen is a beguiling writer, and I found myself compelled to read even those chapters which at first blush seemed of limited interest.

This book is a declaration of love and devotion. There are many readers who will find encouragement in Hansen’s thoughtful approach to his task — for those looking for an appropriate meditation to close the final week of Lent, Hansen’s homily on Anima Christi is just the thing. Still, I have to admit I find it all a little alien. It seems to me this is a devotional impulse that almost takes root at a cellular level within the bloodstream. If that sounds cheeky, I don’t mean it to: I’m simply at a loss to understand it.

It could be that, as a member of the Church, my devotion is too mean. Also, the Catholic Church has long excelled at projecting the romance of devotion; in my tradition the romance begins with apocalyptic sects (and sex — the wiki is a little coy on this matter and mentions only the polygamy), retreats quickly into the barn and stops the door with monster of a book called The Martyr’s Mirror (W). Catholics get all those fabulous costumes; we get shunned if we wear anything with a zipper. In any case, my religious dialog begins with a grudge, and moves gradually (if at all) into the arena of glory, laud and honor.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way for everyone. If any of this is a curiosity to you, walk over to your local library and make that request. As for whether or not it’s worth the cover price, well ... was it not a Catholic who came up with, “Caveat emptor”?