Thursday, August 25, 2005


Aquarius Records is a cozy shop in the Mission with a self-professed bias towards the "new, weird and wonderful." With sections for "found sounds and field recordings," "Japan," and "emusic" (electronica, experimental, exotica), not to mention a soundtrack section dominated by the likes of Goblin and Ennio Morricone, you go to Aquarius to find something new, to challenge your ears, and to support the little record store that could. The hardwood floor creaks as you survey the rack of staff picks; maybe you pick one up to read the very fine print on an index card stuck to the front, and maybe you smirk at the self-satisfied tone of some of these reviews, and maybe you tuck one under your arm anyway. Circle the room once or twice, observe the wall of Conet polaroids and stop at the listening station to fight a losing battle with an old remote control. Pester the shopkeepers (sometimes they seem to like the attention) or remain famously anonymous and clack-clack, flip-flip through the crowded rows of discs.

Hustle home to give your purchases a first listen. Pore over every detail of the liner notes--glossy or letterpress, wordy or succinct--and chide the artists who give short shrift to this aspect of their album; these days, it's half the reason for buying a disc. The soundtrack to Girl on a Motorcycle, for example, is the most fun item of the lot. (Fun? The insert unfolds to a small version of the original movie poster; hold it up to your waist and pretend those are your splendidly cat-suited hips! Oo la la.) The score, reminiscent of goofy '60s spy music, Les Baxter-ish percussion exotica, and the wooing haze of a Bond soundtrack, includes Hammond organ and steel guitar as well as the "real" sounds of motorcycles, people breathing, and church bells.

To dream or to dance? To dance or to dream? Between Colleen and Venetian Snares, you find music to suit either mood. Cecile Schott (Colleen) creates singularly moody pieces playing guitar, koto, glockenspeil, music box, harp, or glass wind chimes, but you wonder why this was filed under "electronic." The electronics (when present) lie well underneath the acoustic sounding instrumental minimalism. Oh, this explains it and makes you curious to hear her more thoroughly electronic music. Venetian Snares, on the otherhand, throws you out of Schott's dreamscape with bursts of a twentieth century orchestral composition that you can't quite name. The anechoic breaks between the string-section samples place you squarely in the world of electronic collage. The beats build up, but the Snares never leave the symphony far behind: the hilariously twisted take on the Elgar cello concerto doesn't even ruffle your classical music feathers, though the occasional distant cry of some opera diva is a little over the top. You try to make sense of the various spoken texts, particularly the rather unsettling one on pigeons, when the phone rings. Really--not as some exhilirating, laptop-processed beat-t-tt-t but your in-real-time phone.

It is a friend calling to tell you that Luc Ferrari has died. Oh. He performed at UC Berkeley a few years ago and proved that, when done this well, musique concrete can succeed in a concert hall setting. You were held transfixed while listening to Far West News, a travelogue in which, amidst the cleanly recorded sounds of car doors opening and closing and footsteps crunching on gravel, the question "what do you think of impeachment?" became a wry motive. You remember, too, first hearing Cellule 75 and appreciating the complete integration of percussion, piano, and electronics; the electronics, in a Ferrari composition, are necessary music, never just for effect. Set the Aquarius purchases aside for a moment, promising to listen again to them later, and put on Presque Rien. In the midst of your homage, wonder who might fit the niche precisely between Luc Ferrari and Venetian Snares. Who indeed?

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

And Claude Concurs

DebussyThe little piano prelude Des pas sur la neige is lean and wide-eyed, all line and simplicity, and not really about footsteps at all. It is evocative, yes, but not representative. Unlike the more well-known La Cathedrale engloutie, where stacked, open-voiced harmonies mark time regularly... slowly... with a pacing reminiscent of a grand old passacaglia, Footsteps in the Snow surveys the scene from a place of stillness. Here is an open landscape and a distant line of horizon punctuated by a few halting steps. The music holds taught in a peculiar way: the voices (from three to four) are as clear and distinct as in baroque counterpoint, but in Debussy they do not converse. The texture approaches intricacy but remains simple. Fundamentally simple. A tediously notated motive. A melodic voice. A bass line resigned to ascending and descending stepwise motion. I prefer this Debussy, the one who lays bare the bones of composition and refuses (except in bars 29-31, where he just couldn't help himself) to flesh it out. Debussy, clear and simple.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Paul Bertolli and Richard Tuttle share an almost obsessive exploration of the simple. Chef Bertolli expounds his "direct and authentic" aesthetic in Cooking by Hand, an eloquent collection of the treats and techniques one might find at his much-lauded Oliveto. With whole pages devoted to a fundamental ingredient (tomato, pear, flour) or a singularly artisan preparation (making coppa or conserva), the book is not so much inspiration for direct kitchen activity as it is a challenge to pause -- and imagine philosophically for a moment. Cooking by hand ... in your mind! Bertolli's dedication to the pure and basic is countered by a more formal attention to structure and juxtaposition, and reads as either an impossible approach to the easy or an easy approach to the impossible. Which? I am not quite sure.

Nor am I always sure how such pure concepts manage to hold their own in the artifice of Restaurant, a place where one expects more than a gazpacho made solely of "tomato and a little salt." How does Bertolli get away with that? Of course, a "proper" setting encourages one to pause -- and consider and appreciate the artistry of casual simplicity, but still! At the SFMOMA recently, I found myself mulling over the same puzzle. The Richard Tuttle exhibit is a collection of naive and playfully abstract works as well as a more knowing exploration of the most elemental materials. Line, letter, shape. Wire, wood, color. And because a retrospective prompts the viewer to recognize how designs and shapes continue and recur within the span of a career, what might initially seem like a bunch of kinder-classroom art projects becomes more than that. A whole aesthetic is visible. The monochromatic canvas cloths and constructed wood "paintings" from the 1960s find resonance in Tuttle's sketchbook exercises (early 1970s), and the sketches echo through even to later, more sculptural works. In the floor and wall "assemblages" (late 1980s), what was once flat suddenly becomes tangible and complicated, but ultimately, Tuttle returns his lines, letters and shapes to the flat plane, to a page within an artist's book.

The presentation of simple principles tends to leave meaning wide open, but Tuttle and Bertolli only flirt with abstraction. Tomato? Plywood? Wire shadow? Summer squash? One cannot help but reference a very personal relationship to these familiar materials, and this bit of "personal referencing" is what provokes comments of the sort I heard wandering through the Tuttle show: "Why, I could do this!" or "My son made a picture just like that in his second grade art class." Sure, and your son could smash a whole tomato in a bowl and call it gazpacho, too. Viewing the simple as "art" is often a challenge and why Restaurant or Museum become almost necessary. Bertolli and Tuttle are virtuosos who turn our focus to something quite primary and basic; while not revolutionary, their work causes one to pay attention and realize that being simple is not so simple at all.

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Thursday, August 11, 2005


A spritz here. A spritz there. I settled my date for the opera today and then caught the end of this radio program on my way home this evening. We ready ourselves...musically and otherwise.

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Monday, August 08, 2005

Aesop's Meme

Once I thought I'd never go outside this fence. This space was plenty for me. But I walked down the road one day, and just what happened I can't say. But little by little it came to be, that line between the earth and sky came beckoning to me.

In the rural town where I grew up it is now the fifth day of harvest. August throws me into nostalgia and remembrance like no other month; it is when I most wish for the country: the absolute silence that stills ... everything ... at around sunset, the morning chatter of northwestern meadowlarks, and the dry rustling grain in the fields--a party of old ghosts in starched petticoats. I wish, I wish, I wish... but nothing in the bay area sounds so pure. I miss, too, the leisurely walks with Grandma to the cemetery, though regrettably, since the town has no stoplights and (until very recently) no sidewalks, we always had to proceed down the middle of the road with caution.

Like The Tender Land's Laurie, I left the small town for a larger town, and the larger town for a compact city, and, who knows, maybe the future suggests another metropolis. Maybe. The "citification" of this country mouse has never been easy; I seem to inaugurate each move wondering if I've made some sort of stupid mistake: leaving a wonderful (and relatively unknown) piano teacher for The Conservatory Experience, then jumping the conservatory ship and its requisite solo piano recital for the study of Shakespeare and Renaissance poetry, and finally returning to music studies (not at all stupid) but alienating myself from yet another wonderful (and relatively well-known) piano teacher (stupid). (Me and piano teachers, sigh!) On the other hand, certain events changed my life and could never have occurred in rural eastern Washington. On the second day of college, for example, a voice instructor handed me the Rorem Plath songs and said, "Oh, as a piano major, you'll be accompanying some of my voice students this semester. This is your first assignment. Good luck!" After an afternoon spent plinking out vocal lines and trying to make sense of the seemingly mismatched accompaniments, I threw the "weird" songs to the floor and wondered how to obtain reassignment. Sticking it out with those Rorem songs broadened my musical awareness immensely--immediately--and helped develop an ongoing personal aesthetic.

From country to city--and back again--is a variation on old Aesop's fable and a pattern of behavior adopted by numerous musicians, especially composers. Major venues, and the cultured audiences to fill them, exist in the great cities, yet summer disperses the musical "scene" to idylls like Aspen and Tanglewood. City mice in the country, how cute. More seriously, consider Ives, who progressed from Danbury to New Haven to New York City, gathering in the sounds of modernization ("The Circus Band," "Ann Street") but never losing sense of peaceful New England ("Thoreau," "Serenity"). Europeans feel the lure, as well. Mahler spent productive summers in Attersee but could only acheive his fame and reputation in cosmopolitan Vienna. And where but far beyond Paris could Messiaen go to catalogue bird songs? The mystical in his music, however, is not so simple and needs a metropolitan mindset to appreciate it. Well, we shall have to convene around the dinner table some time and talk about the merits of the city and the pleasures of the country and vice versa. [John Cage, master mushroom forager, will cook for us, interspersing his description of forested trails with the names and goings-on of more citified avant-garde experimentalists.]

The San Francisco bay area is a reluctant Metropolitan, too, somehow shy of being 100% city. Places like Marin and the wine country, though hardly 100% "country," temper the urban experience. The choice between city and country is not so black and white. Many of my musical colleagues and I make pointed efforts to avoid certain urban luxuries, including the gym and, sometimes, the clean, perfectly parsed lanes of the swimming pool, because a walk in the hills or a dip in a secluded lake is much more satisfying. A performer's musical practice tends to focus so specifically on physical memory-mastery; trudging five miles over fire trails returns one to physical sloppiness and a more mundane reality. Yet after a long walk in the woods, the first thing I turn to is the most urban comfort of all--my laptop--who currently exerts (some wonder how healthy) an incredible influence on my life. The city mouse and her laptop? Of course. On the farm, far from wifi, a pen and a few sheets of lined notebook paper would suffice. In the end, I miss the harvest, yes, but distant reminders of it are plenty enough for me.

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Sunday, August 07, 2005

Coming Soon!

After some time in the garage, Sidecar Syndicate returns! We will debut a brief excerpt of our new show at the Midsummer's Daydream Festival on August 14. "Silver and Shadow" casts music by Ives, Hege, and Carson adrift in a seemingly familiar coastal setting; it is a myth that welcomes poets and parlor girls, lovers and longshoremen. In the fog of this dream, Sidecar Syndicate sources Edgar Allen Poe and Percy Grainger and blurs the lines between text and song. Like two sirens, Anne Hege (voice, electronics) and Heather Heise (pianos, voice and accordions) act as guides through a through-composed set of art songs and crafted electronic interludes.

toy accord Sunday, August 14th at 2pm
The Chamber Arts House
2924 Ashby (at Elmwood)
Berkeley, CA

In recent weeks, the shopping list for this show sent me on a quite a treasure hunt.

Large silver scissors/shears
Receipt roll (long roll of white paper)
Old, crusty fishermen's net
This chair
Large clear glass fishbowl
Blue light
Bedsheet, curtain, or bolt of fabric
Hook & Eye closures (oversized)
Black cotton, halter-style leotard
Fisher Price "wobbly bell" toy
Silver spray paint

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Saturday, August 06, 2005


[The] story starts at sea...a perilous voyage to an unknown land. A shipwreck. The wild waters roar and heave. The brave vessel is dashed all to pieces, and all the helpless souls within her ...drowned. All save one: a lady...whose soul is greater than the ocean and her spirit stronger than the sea's embrace. Not for her a watery end, but a new life beginning on a stranger shore. [...] She will be my heroine for all time, and her name will be...Viola.

--Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare in Love

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Friday, August 05, 2005

Excuse Me?

Johnny Otis accompanied me all the way to the fish market, so I really had no excuse for the musical misprision that came out of my mouth. I shimmied through the door in a very good mood and picked out a small fish for later this evening. I chatted with the fishmonger about grilling techniques. One mound of coals or two? Fancy fish basket or no? A rub of oil? Some herbs? He asked what kind of grill I planned to use. I extended my arms in a textbook first-position "o" and said, "you know, one of those ubiquitous Weber grills." He stared at me. Hard. Maybe my use of the word "ubiquitous" amused him. Maybe the ballet arms were a little much. With the slightly puzzled look still on his face, he said, "I'd recommend one pile of coals, but place your fish on the outer edge. Put the hood on and make sure the vent is open. Those, uh, Weber grills are pretty straightforward, really." He stressed the word Weber: wĕb'urr. I realized my faux pas, the fault of all these years immersed in classical music, and felt myself go red. No wonder he gave me a funny look! I paid for my fish and hurried home to prep it for its fate on the (I kid you not) "vāyb'r" grill.

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Monday, August 01, 2005