Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Fresh Look Back at Right Now

A TIME-HONORED tradition: Stand outside a movie theater with a camera and microphone and poll the audience members for their reactions. What did you think of the film? A grandmotherly woman makes a face and waves her hand in disgust: Revolting! Idiotic! A middle-aged gentleman, stout and respectable, takes a more tolerant view: This is a movie about how young people live today, he says, a movie made by young people, and he is generally in favor of young people. But a sober-looking, well-dressed younger fellow demurs. “I don’t think it’s very serious,” he says dismissively.

This little scene of impromptu amateur film criticism — or market research, if you prefer — occurs in Emmanuel Laurent’s new documentary, “Two in the Wave,” about the filmmakers François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, whose friendship was a driving force and a central fact (as well as, eventually, a casualty) of the French New Wave. Those people outside that Parisian cinema in 1960 have just seen “Breathless,” Mr. Godard’s debut feature, starring Jean Seberg as an American exchange student who teases, loves, protects and betrays a French hoodlum played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, who smokes and runs his thumb pensively over his lips. Some of the patrons are baffled, some enthusiastic, some noncommittal, a mixed bag of responses that seems a bit deflating. Aren’t they aware of the historical significance of what they have just witnessed?

Is it possible now, 50 years later, even to imagine seeing “Breathless” for the first time? Mr. Godard’s film quickly took its place among those touchstones of modern art that signified a decisive break with what came before — paintings and books and pieces of music that have held onto their reputation for radicalism long after being accepted as masterpieces, venerated in museums and taught in schools.

Somehow, the galvanic, iconoclastic force of their arrival is preserved as they age into institutional respectability. So even if you were not around to hear, let’s say, the catcalls greeting Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” or to unwrap a copy of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” smuggled over from Paris in defiance of the postmaster general, or to examine Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” or Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans when they were first exhibited, the works themselves allow you to place yourself among the brave vanguard who did. And even if you did not see “Breathless” during its first run at the dawn of the ’60s, surely every frame carries an afterimage of that heady time, just as every jazz note and blast of ambient street noise on the soundtrack brings echoes of an almost mythic moment.

At the same time, though, such legendary status can also be a burden, weighing down what was once fresh and shocking with a heavy freight of expectation and received opinion. There is perhaps no episode in all of film history quite as encrusted with contradictory significance as the cresting, in 1959 and 1960, of the Nouvelle Vague. It was a burst of youthful, irreverent energy that was also a decisive engagement in the continuing battle to establish cinema as a serious art form. The partisans of the new — Truffaut and Mr. Godard, along with comrades like Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer — were steeped in film history. Before taking up their cameras they had been critics, polemicists and self-taught scholars, and yet, like other aesthetic insurgents before them, they attacked a reigning style they believed was characterized by unthinking and sclerotic traditionalism. And their drive to reassert the glory of French cinema was grounded in an almost fanatical love of American movies.

Mr. Godard, who had made a handful of shorts before turning to a true-crime scenario that Mr. Truffaut had been working on, was perhaps the most extreme and paradoxical figure in this movement, and would go on to become a prolific and polarizing filmmaker. He would pass through a period of intense, if not always intelligible, political militancy in the late ’60s and early ’70s before settling into his current status somewhere between grand old man and crazy uncle of world cinema. His most recent feature, “Film Socialism,” showed up at the Cannes Film Festival last week, though the director himself did not, offering as explanation for his absence a cryptic reference to the Greek financial crisis. He has, for as long as some of us can remember, walked the fine line between prophet and crank, turning out films that are essayistic, abstract, enraging and intermittently beautiful and issuing variously grandiose and gnomic statements about his own work, the state of the world and the future of cinema.

But that is now. Back then it was surely different. An immaculate and glowing new print of “Breathless” will be shown, starting Friday, at Film Forum in Manhattan, and while no restoration can scrub away the accumulated layers of history, its anniversary can be taken as an invitation to take a fresh look. What if, instead of seeking out an artifact of the past, you could experience the film in its own present tense? Not, in other words, as a flashback to 1960, enticing as that may be, but as 90 minutes of right now.

That kind of time travel is part of the special allure of movies, and “Breathless,” precisely because it so effortlessly, so breathlessly, captures the rhythms of its time and place, erases the distance between the now and then. And yet even as Mr. Godard and his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, record the sights and sounds of Paris with documentary immediacy, the images are infused with an unmistakable nostalgia. This is not something a latter-day viewer — perhaps besotted by secondhand memories of vintage cars circling the Place de la Concorde or pretty young women selling The New York Herald Tribune in front of cafes — brings to “Breathless.” Rather, the film’s evident and self-conscious desire to tap into a reservoir of existing references and associations is a sign of its director’s obsession with other movies.

You don’t have to recognize this film’s overt cinematic allusions to be aware of its indebtedness. When Michel (Mr. Belmondo) pauses in front of a movie theater to admire an image of Humphrey Bogart, he is confirming what we already know about him, which is that he is a cinematic construct, a man who has perhaps seen too many movies invented by another man who has spent his adult life doing almost nothing else. As a satellite orbiting the twin suns of the Paris Cinémathèque and the journal Cahiers du Cinéma, Mr. Godard was an ardent champion of the Hollywood directors whose reputation as artists is one of France’s great gifts to America and the world. Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Fritz Lang — and perhaps above all Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchock: these were not just influences on “Breathless,” but axioms in its universe of meaning.

The phenomenon of movie-mad moviemakers is a familiar one by now. The young American directors of the 1970s — including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich and George Lucas — used to be identified as members of “the film generation” because they had grown up compulsively watching movies, assimilating genre conventions and shot selections that would become the raw material of their own work. Twenty years later, Quentin Tarantino, whose production company is named after Mr. Godard’s 1964 film “Bande à Part,” would refresh and extend this tradition of film-geek filmmaking. Mr. Tarantino’s career consists of a series of genre pastiches and homages that manage to feel startlingly novel, esoteric formal exercises that are nonetheless accessible pieces of popular entertainment.

“Breathless” was there first. Which is to say that it was already late. Seen from its most unflattering angle, it is a thin and derivative film noir. A generic tough guy steals a car, shoots a policeman, sweet-talks a series of women, hobnobs with his underworld pals and tries to stay a step ahead of the dogged detectives on his trail. His poses and attitudes seem borrowed, arising less from any social or psychological condition or biographical facts than from a desire to be as cool as the guys in the movies.

The wonder is that he surpasses them, and that “Breathless,” quoting from so many other movies (and shuffling together cultural references that include Faulkner, Jean Renoir, Mozart and Bach as well as Hollywood movies), still feels entirely original. It still, that is, has the power to defy conventional expectations about what a movie should be while providing an utterly captivating moviegoing experience. A coherent plot, strong and credible emotions and motivations, convincing performances, visual continuity — all of these things are missing from “Breathless,” disregarded with a cavalier insouciance that feels like liberation. It turns out that a movie — this movie, anyway — doesn’t need any of those things, and that they might get in the way of other, more immediate pleasures. You are free, in other words, to revel in the beauty of Paris and Jean Seberg, the exquisite sangfroid of Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the restless velocity of Mr. Godard’s shooting style. And style, for those 90 minutes, is — to phrase it in the absolute, hyperbolic terms Mr. Godard has always favored — everything.

In a way, that skeptical young man was right: “Breathless” is not serious. It is a lark, a joke, a travesty of everything earnest and responsible that the cinema can (and perhaps should) provide. Is it a love story? A crime story? A cautionary tale or an act of brazen seduction? All of these things and none of them. It proceeds entirely by its own rules and on the momentum of its director’s audacity. That music! Those tracking shots that seem to snake through the streets of Paris in a single sprint! That long scene — almost a third of the movie’s running time — in which the two main characters laze around in a long postcoital seminar, talking about love, death, literature and music while the camera floats around them.

“Breathless” is a pop artifact and a daring work of art, made at a time when the two possibilities existed in a state of almost perfect convergence. That is the source of its uniqueness. Much as it may have influenced what was to come later, there is still nothing else quite like it. Its sexual candor is still surprising, and even now, at 50, it is still cool, still new, still — after all this time! — a bulletin from the future of movies.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

An Eye on America Is Also Under Watch

ANY journalist working in a war-torn or politically unstable region knows the risks and headaches of the job: threats to personal safety, difficulties of access, interference from authorities. For the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has now made one film in occupied Iraq (the Oscar-nominated “My Country, My Country”) and another in the volatile Persian Gulf state of Yemen (“The Oath”), there is the added complication of being, she believes, on a United States government watch list.

Flying home to New York in 2006 from a film festival in Sarajevo, Ms. Poitras was stopped while changing planes in Vienna and questioned by security agents there. Since then she has traveled to Yemen repeatedly to work on “The Oath” and, by her count, she has been stopped for questioning more than 20 times; whenever she arrives home from a trip abroad, customs and border-protection officials are waiting for her plane, she said.

When going to the Berlin film festival in February to show “The Oath,” Ms. Poitras said, airline agents at Kennedy Airport told her she was not authorized to board the flight; she was only allowed on after her lawyer made a few well-placed calls.

For security reasons the United States government does not say why people are on the watch list, or even confirm that they are on it. But Ms. Poitras said she thinks it is the frequency of her trips to the Middle East and the associations she has made in the course of making her films that have raised concerns.

All that time she has spent in the danger zones of Iraq and Yemen have produced two of the most searching documentaries of the post-9/11 era, on-the-ground chronicles that are sensitive to both the political and the human consequences of American foreign policy.

“My Country, My Country” observes the prelude to the 2005 Iraqi elections through the eyes of a Sunni doctor seeking a seat on the Baghdad Provincial Council. “The Oath,” which had its premiere at Sundance in January and is now playing at the IFC Center in Manhattan, again uses what Ms. Poitras calls a “micro-macro” approach, “following an individual story to look at the bigger questions.”

Her intended focus was the American detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, and her initial idea was to document the homecoming of a released prisoner. She started her search in Yemen, the home of a significant number of Guantánamo detainees, including the most prominent of them all, Salim Hamdan.

Captured in Afghanistan in November 2001, Mr. Hamdan had worked as a driver for Osama bin Laden since the mid-1990s. He was the first person to stand trial under the military tribunals that the Bush administration devised after 9/11 and that the Supreme Court, ruling in the case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, later found to be a violation of international law.

In Sana, Yemen’s capital, a local journalist helping Ms. Poitras asked if she wanted to meet Mr. Hamdan’s family. She found herself in the living room of a voluble man in his early 30s who went by the nom de guerre Abu Jandal (his real name is Nasser al-Bahri). Without looking for him, Ms. Poitras had stumbled upon an ideal subject for her film: “Someone who intersects in so many ways with the post-9/11 universe,” she said.

Abu Jandal once worked for Al Qaeda, serving as a bodyguard for Mr. bin Laden and running guest houses in Afghanistan for new recruits. It was Abu Jandal who enlisted Mr. Hamdan on a jihadi mission in the mid-’90s, and the two men became brothers-in-law when they married sisters at Mr. bin Laden’s urging.

It took patience and persistence to get the kind of access to Abu Jandal that Ms. Poitras wanted. “He wouldn’t say no, but dates would keep getting pushed,” she said. She shot the film over two years, making a dozen trips to Yemen and waiting for days or weeks until he was ready to meet. Sometimes a monthlong trip would yield a mere four or five hours of footage.

Abu Jandal is not exactly publicity shy. In “The Oath” Ms. Poitras incorporates clips from his television appearances, on “60 Minutes” and an Al Jazeera program, and shows him being interviewed by Robert F. Worth, a reporter for The New York Times. But while it was not hard to get Mr. Jandal to talk, Ms. Poitras also wanted to shadow him in everyday settings. In “The Oath” he is seen holding court with young radicals, praying with his son and chatting with passengers in his taxi.

Ms. Poitras said she constantly wrestled with the contradictions of Abu Jandal, who has renounced terrorism but still supports the goals of Al Qaeda, and with the idea of making a film about a religious extremist who is so charismatic. While most political documentaries are only too eager to tell the viewer what to think, “The Oath” keeps the expectations and sympathies of audiences in provocative flux.

In the largely progressive world of American political documentaries, Ms. Poitras said: “I knew I was making a film that wasn’t going to be easily messaged. It doesn’t fit into an easy story, something we can rally around and use as a symbol of what’s wrong with the war on terror.”

Abu Jandal’s troublesome charm is both a crucial part of the story and a central conundrum for the storyteller. “You have to show the charisma to understand how this organization works,” Ms. Poitras said, referring to Al Qaeda. “But it also feels like you’re playing with fire because you don’t want to be a mouthpiece for him.”

Another difficulty was in figuring out how to tell Mr. Hamdan’s story alongside Abu Jandal’s. While Ms. Poitras filmed him in Yemen, her co-cinematographer, Kirsten Johnson, was at Guantánamo Bay, following his brother-in-law’s trial. (Ms. Johnson also shot the exterior scenes in Yemen; she and Ms. Poitras won the best cinematography award in the documentary section at Sundance.)

Off limits to the filmmakers, Mr. Hamdan is the specter who haunts “The Oath.” His letters to Abu Jandal are heard in voice-over, accompanying ominous shots of barren Guantánamo landscapes. Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom, so Ms. Johnson’s approach was to “spend as much time as I could at the trial, and then carry that with me out into the world,” she said, looking for visual analogues to evoke Mr. Hamdan’s condition. (On the stand Mr. Hamdan, who had been held in solitary confinement, described the sensation of “growing eyes” all over his body.)

Ms. Poitras described the making of “The Oath” as “a constant process of negotiation,” with Abu Jandal in person and then again in the editing room as she and her editor, Jonathan Oppenheim, pored over the raw material.

“Usually you see two sides of people when you’re looking at footage, and they seem fairly integrated,” Mr. Oppenheim said. “I would see 8 or 10 people in Abu Jandal.”

With its surprising reversals and deferred revelations, not to mention an antihero who doubles as an unreliable narrator, “The Oath” draws on storytelling methods more often associated with fiction than with documentary. During her ample downtime in Yemen, Ms. Poitras said, she read Don DeLillo novels, including “Mao II” and “Libra,” which had explored the horror and mystique of terrorism long before 9/11. And while editing, she had in the back of her mind the streamlined moral film thrillers of the Dardenne brothers.

“He’s a complicated protagonist and, in a sense, he’s irreconcilable,” Ms. Poitras said of Abu Jandal. “The film was very much about constructing a mystery around who this guy is. There’s a constant questioning about his motivations.”

Ms. Poitras has yet to settle on her next project, but there will be less international travel involved. She sees “My Country, My Country” and “The Oath” as the first two parts of a trilogy that she plans to conclude with a documentary about domestic surveillance or the 9/11 trials.

Whatever it is, the next film will try to confront, on home turf, the original trauma of 9/11 that ripples through her Iraq and Yemen documentaries. “I really think they’re movies about America,” she said, “and I want to wrap it up here.”


Sunday, May 9, 2010

Walter Sear, an Audio Engineer With a Passion for Analog, Dies at 80

Walter Sear, an audio engineer whose steadfast devotion to pre-digital recording technology led him to maintain a studio with vintage, analog equipment, a risk that paid off in recent years as musicians like Norah Jones, Wilco and Wynton Marsalis flocked there for its rich natural sound, died on April 29 in Manhattan. He was 80 and lived on the Upper West Side.

The cause was complications of a subdural hematoma, or bleeding from the brain, after he injured himself in a fall, said his daughter Julia.

At various times Mr. Sear was a professional tuba player; a designer, importer and dealer of specialty tubas; a composer of film soundtracks; and an electronic music enthusiast who advised Robert Moog on the design of his Moog synthesizer, the instrument that revolutionized popular music beginning in the 1960s.

But to more recent generations of musicians, Mr. Sear was best known as the owner of Sear Sound, a studio on West 48th Street in Manhattan that, guided by Mr. Sear’s intransigent ear, has for decades resisted the conversion to digital recording equipment.

The studio is renowned for its lovingly maintained gear, including a console built by Mr. Sear and an extensive collection of microphones powered with vacuum tubes — the glowing glass bulbs that contribute to the often-cited “warm” sound of analog audio — instead of solid-state transistors.

Among the musicians who have recorded at Sear are Ms. Jones, Mr. Marsalis, Steely Dan, Wilco, Lou Reed, Joanna Newsom and Bjork. Bono and the Edge of U2 were recently there working on music for their long-delayed Broadway musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” according to the studio manager, Roberta Findlay.

Analog equipment, like cassette tape decks, records and reproduces sound as continuous wave forms. Digital equipment converts audio information into sequences of numbers that approximate those waves, but to analog advocates like Mr. Sear, those digital approximations can sound crude and cold by comparison.

“There has been a serious deterioration in the quality of recorded sound since the 1960s, which continues to get worse to this day,” Mr. Sear wrote in the late 1990s in a wide-ranging six-part critique of the music industry, “What Have They Done to My Art?,” which is posted on Sear Sound’s Web site,

Walter Edmond Sear was born in New Orleans on April 27, 1930, and moved to Jackson Heights, Queens, with his family when he was a year old. His father studied mechanical engineering but could not find a job in that field because he was Jewish, so he and his wife worked as clothing dealers to South American department stores, Mr. Sear’s daughter Julia said. She survives him, along with his wife, Edith; another daughter, Shana Sear Gaskill; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Sear, trained as a tubist, graduated in 1951 from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and began playing in orchestras and music halls. But he also studied mechanical and electrical engineering, and he was an inveterate tinkerer. He invented a new form of valve for the tuba and had a Belgian factory manufacture the new tubas for him to sell.

In the late 1950s he struck up a friendship with Moog after writing to him to order parts for a theremin, the whistling, no-hands instrument best known from science-fiction film soundtracks. Moog’s first synthesizers were bulky and impractical, but according to Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco’s book “Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer,” Mr. Sear was one of a handful of colleagues in the mid-1960s who persuaded Moog to make the device more musician-friendly by adding a keyboard. Mr. Sear became Moog’s synthesizer dealer in New York. Moog died in 2005.

Sear Sound opened in 1970 in the Paramount Hotel on West 46th Street and in 1990 moved to its current location on 48th Street, a space that had once been used by another famous studio, the Hit Factory. Mr. Sear built much of the studio himself, and over the decades acquired a trove of analog gear, including decommissioned tape machines from Abbey Road Studios in London that had once been used by the Beatles. Mr. Sear maintained all the equipment and was a regular sight at the studio until March, when he fell on his way home from work.

Digital technology began appearing in recording studios in the late 1970s, and by the time Sonic Youth went to Sear Sound to record its album “Sister,” in 1987, analog equipment had fallen out of favor. Lee Ranaldo, one of the band’s guitarists, said in an interview on Tuesday that the studio had some of the cheapest rates in town. But the band was still captivated by the quality of the sound recorded there, and by the passionate and cantankerous character Mr. Sear.

“In the ’80s and early ’90s he was a lone voice in the wilderness, saying you’re going down the wrong path — recordings are sounding worse and worse,” Mr. Ranaldo said. “And he stuck to his guns. It took a long time for him to come around to allowing digital recording gear into his studios, and when he finally did bring it in, he still kind of kept it in a corner.”

Nowadays, vintage equipment and analog audio — including vinyl albums — have come back into vogue, and Sear Studio is in high demand, with scant availability and rates to match.

Sonic Youth most recently mixed its 2006 album “Rather Ripped” there, but Mr. Ranaldo said it has gotten harder and harder to book at Sear Sound. “We’re priced out of the place,” he said.


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Diphtheria Epidemic in Haiti

Why is this on a media blog? Imagine a country where your children are dying one after another. Would you have time for a story about a film, or a a piece of art, a piece of music?

ep·i·dem·ic   /ˌɛpɪˈdɛmɪk/ Show Spelled[ep-i-dem-ik] Show IPA
1. Also, ep·i·dem·i·cal. (of a disease) affecting many persons at the same time, and spreading from person to person in a locality where the disease is not permanently prevalent.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Fred Frith: Mapping the Further Reaches

So much so, in fact, that the discontinuities between that band's albums will always be more pronounced than their continuity. Any notion of music in a state of flux that this might imply has been indicative of Frith's work in the decades since that band split up. Now that he can be realistically considered as something of a musical polymath, Frith continues to push at the boundaries even while he maps out his own singular musical territory.

All About Jazz: Even if an opinion is informed entirely by the subjective evidence of music on record, it's still apparent that Henry Cow was working a seam of that must, perhaps inevitably, be called progressive rock quite unlike anyone else. To what--if any--degree was that uniqueness the product of conscious decision making, or was the process not conscious at all?

Fred Frith: It's never really that simple, is it? The balance between having a strong sense of direction while not really having a clue what you're doing has always been kind of central to where I live musically. I think we were simply getting on with the things that interested us at the time, touched by any kind of music that we found exciting and alive. We pretty much did anything we felt like doing, and incorporated ideas from any source that seemed fruitful or interesting, musical or otherwise.

AAJ: Nearly all of the band's music on record was, until relatively Recently, put out by Virgin Records. Did the company think they were going to make money on the band?

FF: The people Richard Branson asked to run the creative side of the label were an adventurous bunch, and I think they were hoping to bring music that they liked to a broader audience. When Tubular Bells [released by Mike Oldfield in 1973] took off, it must have seemed like they were onto something. We were lucky to be able to develop in the shadow of that success, because it ensured that the adventure continued, at least for a couple of years, until Richard started to understand that this wasn't going to actually make him any serious money. But they gave us their full support for three studio LPs, and with generous conditions--meaning that we could spend unlimited time in a state of the art recording studio, and really learn how the studio worked, and how we could work in the studio. The only thing I've ever experienced that was comparable was when I recorded my first film soundtrack for Peter Mettler in the studios of the National Film Board of Canada, and they gave us six whole weeks. That, and the first three Henry Cow records, represents the longest amount of time I've ever been given to work on single projects. In the Sunrise days, we would do a whole record from conception to mix in a maximum of two weeks. Now, I'm lucky if I get one.

AAJ: In common with a great many musicians it's apparent that you haven't just arrived at a musical reference point and stuck with it. As a multi-instrumentalist, that maxim might be said to be more pronounced but how did you arrive at your vocabulary on the guitar?

FF: I don't think I've arrived anywhere yet. I'm still traveling. I use whatever vocabulary is most suited to the conversation I'm having, and I'm certainly not interested in having the same conversation over and over again. Which means that the resources at my disposal are always (hopefully) continuing to develop and evolve, as the need arises. When you learn a language you can only become fluent by discovering who you are in that language. Music is the same for me. I have to learn who I am in whatever context I'm working.

AAJ: Precedents weren't exactly thick on the ground when you first started playing solo improvised guitar, and it's clear from the evidence on record that you had already worked out a vocabulary for that setting. Were you aware of such figures as Derek Bailey, Keith Rowe and Hans Reichel at that time, and if so, to what extent would you cite them as influences?

FF: I bought the first AMM record in 1969 and it had a big impact on me; made me listen differently. I saw Derek perform in 1971, and after Guitar Solos (Fred/ReR, 1974) came out, Hans introduced himself by sending me one of his records. Derek and Hans became good friends. Keith was more complicated because I never actually saw him perform anything except revolutionary songs until I played with him in the early '80s. My awareness of him was more political--he used to try and get Henry Cow to join the Workers Revolutionary Party, and I didn't feel very drawn to his music at that time. The person who really influenced me was none of the above, but Barre Phillips, whose first solo double-bass record set me on the path to becoming a serious improviser and also gave me a hint as to how I could approach the instrument in a "total" way.

AAJ: In common with later bands from the pre-punk and punk eras-- This Heat and The Slits, for example--it could be argued that Henry Cow was political in its very being; a creative collective, to be sure. To what extent was there continuity between the band's musical and social outlook, and did one flow inevitably from the other?

FF: It was all pretty much permanently intertwined and in a constant state of flux. We argued constantly and about everything--musical, social, political...gastronomic! Sometimes the arguments were friendly and constructive and sometimes they were neurotic and personal, and sometimes rather desperate. I've no idea how we were able to sustain our energy for so long, except that we were almost psychotically creative. Seeing the DVD from Switzerland that we released as part of the box set was a revelation to me--I remember it as a very dark period in our life, tense and nerve-wracking--and yet the energy fairly crackles off the screen, and we're unbelievably tight. It was reassuring. In the end, all you can say is that we couldn't really have done it any other way than creative collectivity, musical and political engagement of the broadest kind, and a large helping of love and respect when the wind was blowing in the right direction.

AAJ: Georgie Born [bassist with Henry Cow in the band's latter days] has gone on record identifying the mid-1970s as "a darkly fecund era in the soul of British culture." Although it's pretty apparent what has happened politically in the intervening years, can you think of some present day examples of collective action in musicmaking you can empathize with in that regard?

FF: Well, AACM is still going strong, and I have the deepest admiration for Muhal Richard Abrams and the movement he started, for example. Actually, I see communities of like-minded musicians and sound artists springing up all over the place, and it's not so much about "bands" as about united fronts...

AAJ: One of the things that is now a hallmark of your work is your willingness to diversify and not simply to straddle the divide between composition and improvisation. Has this resulted in you considering music more as a whole or in having an appreciation for labels or compartmentalizing?

FF: Labels are useful up to a point. They give a general idea about certain kinds of commonalities, but I suspect that they're often more an identifier of the people who are on the receiving end than the ones who are busy doing it. When I hear the words "progressive rock" I think first of the people who identify themselves as "progressive rock" fans. I've always done a lot of different things and all my musical activities tend to inform each other in various ways. Sometimes I'm more involved in one kind of activity, sometimes in another. And sure, it makes up a "whole" when considered as an accumulation of things that I do and have done. But music is an impossibly rich and diverse field, constantly mutating and developing and changing. Even if you come up with a useful label it will already have spawned sub-categories by tomorrow. You can't be hip any more by knowing the latest thing because it's already over.

AAJ: Has working with a rock band [Cosa Brava], decades after the Henry Cow split, provoked the remembrance of things past or does it mark another step on the way? Perhaps it's a mixture of both?

FF: Everything I do is as likely as not to invoke remembrance of things past. How could it not? All music is about memory. And don't forget that I have been involved in a lot of bands since Henry Cow: Aksak Maboul [1979], Art Bears [1979-81], Skeleton Crew [1982-86], Keep the Dog [1989-92], The FF Guitar Quartet [1996-99], Tense Serenity [1996-97], Massacre [1980-82 and 1998-present]. Cosa Brava is part of a continuum that exists long past Henry Cow days. It's actually a very different kind of experience. All the musicians in Cosa Brava read music fluently, as well as having a rock attitude to putting together songs, and it's that particular combination that makes what we do possible, the idea of composing parts in the way I would for a classical ensemble, knowing that they can be performed at a very high level, while simultaneously containing the seeds of their own deconstruction. That approach began with the Guitar Quartet--well, it began with Henry Cow really--but in a way we were positing the electric guitar as a classical ensemble and now, of course, there are lots of electric guitar ensembles, so it obviously worked. Cosa Brava is not referential in the same way. For me the central focus of the group is melodic and narrative.

AAJ: How does solo improvisation compare with working in a group? Presumably there can be continuity between the two despite the very different demands of setting.

FF: I view them very differently, on the level of theater as much as anything. Being alone in front of an audience is a very different kind of experience for both parties. And your relationship with the material is different. There is nobody to have a musical conversation with, so obviously it changes your attitude to vocabulary, to take up where we left off before...

AAJ: Amongst other things in the course of your musical life you've been given the opportunity to compose for the Rova Saxophone Quartet and Ensemble Modern. In the same way as with your work as a solo improviser and with groups, is it easy to reconcile the specific discipline of composition with the different preoccupations and discipline of the improviser?

FF: It was very fortunate for me that I began to write for others with ROVA, because I knew them pretty well already, and they are all stellar improvisers, so there wasn't anything to reconcile--they already had a very good understanding of the territory in both cases and indeed were precisely interested in the points where the two disciplines intersect. I've written some of my best work for them because of that fact.

Ensemble Modern was a different story. They had and still have very little collective experience of improvisation and are, for the most part, rather suspicious of it--even if there were and are some very good individual improvisers in the group; the late Wolfgang Stryi being, of course, one of them, and I miss him. My approach to writing for them was quite different, balanced between what I wanted to learn from them as a composer and what they wanted to learn from me as an improviser. It finally was very successful--our recording won awards--but it wasn't an easy process, and I probably ended up getting more out of it than they did. I've been able to apply what I learned to other composing projects with other classical ensembles but somehow I don't think they've done much improvising since Traffic Continues (Winter and Winter, 2000). Whatever the truth of the matter, it was a wonderful opportunity for me to enter into a world I didn't have much direct experience of. They're fantastic musicians, and were very welcoming, which I've always appreciated.

In the end it's all about people--I like to work with people, not instruments, which means that the most important thing is to develop deep working relationships with musicians you trust, and who trust you, without either of you necessarily knowing where you're going. And the same is true whether the music is improvised or composed, or however else you want to describe it. I feel it when I'm working with Cosa Brava, and also with Arditti Quartet, and it's what makes life exciting and fulfilling.

AAJ: Given that you hold down an academic post (professor of composition at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.), would it be true to say that you've found all the musical contexts you've worked in to be equally stimulating and do you hope that things will stay that way in the future?

FF: Not equally stimulating--that would be a tall order--but if I'm learning something then it's all good, in the end, right? I love teaching at Mills, partly because of its history of support for and investment in experimental approaches--the fact that Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, John Cage, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Xenakis, Berio, Pauline Oliveros, Anthony Braxton, Alvin Curran and so many others have passed through here tells its own story--but mostly because of the students who come here, who tend to be the kinds of musicians and sound artists who don't quite fit anywhere else, and who come from all over the world to be here. That makes for a stimulating community to say the least.

AAJ: Has your association with Mills College been a happy and fruitful one?

FF: My colleagues and I are stretched pretty thin sometimes but it's been a very good 10 years, and I consider myself lucky and privileged to be here, to hear so much great work, and to get a glimpse of what the future of music will look like. So, yes, absolutely.

AAJ: It could be argued that, as a band, Henry Cow was fortunate in getting Dagmar Krause as a singer. How important is it for you that a musician or singer has a distinct identity? If indeed it is important can you give some examples of people whose work you admire in this regard outside of those you've already recorded with?

FF: I don't know of any musician who doesn't have a distinct identity though they may not always be in touch with it.

AAJ: Given that you play a variety of instruments, to what extent are you aware of their different characters and sonorities and to what extent does such knowledge inform how you utilize them?

FF: Very aware, and it informs my use of them profoundly.

AAJ: With particular reference to your work as an improviser, how important is the passing moment to you? Is it important that, to use the Beckett maxim, you leave a stain upon the silence?

FF: Improvising is impossible without being constantly in the moment. Beckett also said "Some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more," which is kind of a similar idea...

AAJ: Do you feel as engaged as you have at any other arbitrary point in your career with the mechanics of making music? As someone who it seems has consciously concerned himself specifically with the vocabulary of the guitar, to what extent is this still the case, if indeed it ever has been?

FF: I'm fascinated with acoustic guitar right now, after making To Sail To Sail (Tzadik, 2008). I feel as if I have a lot of work to do to understand it, to get to grips with the possibilities. But in the end the mechanics is always less interesting than what is being expressed.

AAJ: Would you say that modernism is still a sustainable proposition in the sense that music can perpetually be seen to be moving forward, as opposed to being merely a rehash of what's gone before?

Selected Discography

Cosa Brava, Ragged Atlas (Intakt, 2010)
Fred Frith, Nowhere / Sideshow / Thin Air (Fred/ReR, 2009)
Fred Frith/Arte Quartett, The Big Picture (Intakt, 2009)
Fred Frith/Arte Quartett, Still Urban (Intakt, 2009)
Henry Cow, The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set (ReR Megacorp, 2009)
Fred Frith, The Happy End Problem (Fred/ReR, 2008)
Fred Frith, To Sail To Sail (Tzadik, 2008)
Fred Frith, Eleventh Hour (Winter and Winter, 2005)
Fred Frith, Clearing (Tzadik, 2001)
Fred Frith/Ensemble Modern, Traffic Continues (Winter and Winter, 2000)
Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, Ayaya Moses (Ambiances Magnétiques, 1997)
Massacre, Killing Time (Celluloid Records, 1981)
Fred Frith, Gravity (Ralph Records, 1980)
Henry Cow, Western Culture (Broadcast, 1979)
Art Bears, Hopes and Fears (Recommended Records, 1978)
Fred Frith, Guitar Solos (Caroline Records, 1974)
Henry Cow, Unrest (Virgin Records, 1974)


Monday, May 3, 2010

A Breather for Moyers; Next Step Is Unclear

Bill Moyers Journal,” first broadcast in 1971, came to a close on Friday, with Mr. Moyers warning viewers that “plutocracy and democracy don’t mix,” as he compared past eras of populist insurgency to the present moment in America.

“Now we have come to another parting of the ways, and once again the fate and character of our country are up for grabs,” he said from his desk in New York.

Given those stakes, it might seem like an odd time for Mr. Moyers to sign off from PBS. The end of the “Journal” is a milestone both for public broadcasting and for Mr. Moyers, whose explorations of corporate power versus people power were unlike anything else on television.

Those close to Mr. Moyers, 75, say he is not fully retiring but merely catching his breath after three tiring years of weekly deadline demands. His next step is unknown, even to him, they said.

To his viewers Mr. Moyers and the “Journal” represented a rare place on television where experts, academics and public interest advocates could talk at length about public affairs. True to form, the final broadcast opened with a case study about community organizers in Iowa.

Mr. Moyers, a press secretary for President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, was first the host of the “Journal” from 1971 to 1981 (with one hiatus). He worked for CBS and NBC on separate occasions, but most of his professional career has been with PBS. He was the host of the weekly PBS series “Now” between 2002 and 2004, but left to write a book and produce documentaries.

Mr. Moyers resurrected the “Journal” in 2007, and since announcing the program’s end last November, he has made it clear that he was leaving on his own terms. PBS asked him to stay for four more months while it prepared a replacement for his time slot, and he agreed. (The new show, “Need to Know,” begins next Friday.)

Mr. Moyers did not respond to an interview request over the weekend. In a blog post last month he said: “There are some things left to do that the deadlines and demands of a weekly broadcast don’t permit. At 76, it’s now or never.”

At a farewell party on Friday night Mr. Moyers recalled that the former CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite once told him that he “made a terrible mistake retiring at 65.” He added, “I have had 10 more years than Walter to commit to journalism,” according to several staffers who were there. Amid a backdrop of financial misdeeds and bailouts, the dominant theme of the 2007-10 “Journal” was corporate power.

Judy Doctoroff O’Neill, an executive producer of the “Journal” and the president of Public Affairs Television, the production company of Mr. Moyers and his wife, Judith, said, “We really tried to look at how corporate power is affecting our democracy, but also the efforts of people to take back the government and have it be the government of the people.”

That has been a major theme of Mr. Moyers’s journalism career. In his final weekly broadcast he said that “democracy only works when we claim it as our own.”

Neal Shapiro, the chief executive of in New York, said that Mr. Moyers “gave voice to the voiceless in a way that PBS is charged with doing.”

Mr. Moyers has long been a controversial figure. In a column in the May 10 issue of The Nation, the media columnist Eric Alterman called Mr. Moyers the “last unapologetic liberal anywhere in broadcast television.” Conservative critics have long accused Mr. Moyers and his programs of being one-sided.

“To our critics,” he said on Friday’s finale, “I’m glad you paid attention; the second most important thing to journalists is to know we’re not being ignored.” (The only thing more important, he said, is independence.)

The “Journal” was financed on a year-to-year basis by foundations and one corporation, the Mutual of America life insurance company. Mr. Moyers has not yet sought funds for new projects, indicating that he “has not been thinking about what’s next logistically,” Mr. Moyers’s executive assistant, Karen Kimball, said in an e-mail message on Sunday. “He has said that he intends to take the next three months to finish the move, take some deep breaths and read.”

Ms. Doctoroff O’Neill said, “I’m pretty confident that after a bit of a break we’ll figure out the next project that makes sense for us.”

Some of the “Journal” staff members will work for “Need to Know.” A few will move to the new offices of Mr. Moyers’s production company. Others are looking for new jobs.

“It’s a hard time to be going off the air because there’s a lot of work to be done,” Ms. Doctoroff O’Neill noted, citing topics like “inequality, financial reform, health reform, war.” She added, “We’re hopeful that ‘Need to Know’ will keep the pressure on.”

At a dinner for underwriters of the program on Saturday, she said she observed that about 1,000 people have been employed by Mr. Moyers’s production company at various times.

“That means there are a lot of people who have been shaped by Bill’s brand of journalism,” she said, “who know it’s our job to uncover and not just cover.”


Sunday, May 2, 2010

Muddy Waters Interview on Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972


The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench - a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."
- Hunter S. Thompson

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Steven Van Zandt Told Springsteen That 'Born to Run' 'Sucked'

Steven Van Zandt has claimed he told Bruce Springsteen that his 'Born to Run' album "sucked" -- and Springsteen then challenged him to improve it.

The guitarist, who has been collaborating with Springsteen since the mid-'70s, told Uncut magazine's one-off publication 'Bruce Springsteen -- Ultimate Music Guide' that he criticised the legendary LP during its recording process, reports

But Springsteen promptly told him to make it better -- with Van Zandt more than happy to take a stab at it. He explained, "All I did on 'Born to Run' were the horns on '10th Avenue Freeze-Out.' I was just in the studio, hanging around. He said, 'What do you think?' and I said, 'I think it sucks.' And he said, 'Well, go f---ing fix it, then.'"

Van Zandt continued, "So I went and fixed it. People came to the Bottom Line (New York venue) basically to laugh at us. And a funny thing happened -- we f---ing blew their minds."

The album, released in 1975 and featuring classics like title track 'Born to Run' and 'Thunder Road', was ranked 18th in Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.


Neil Young Working With Daniel Lanois on New Album

Old bandmate David Crosby has spilled the beans on Neil Young's latest solo project -- and it seems the Canadian troubadour could be going stadium rock, at least if his choice of producer is any indication.

According to Crosby, Young is recording with super-producer Daniel Lanois -- most known for his connection with U2 -- and is "having a great time talking music with him and just relating to him."

As well as manning the mixing desk a half-dozen times for the Irish megastars, Lanois produced Bob Dylan's 'Time Out of Mind' and a couple of Peter Gabriel discs.

The new Young effort will follow up 2009's 'Fork in the Road,' and may feature a Crosby cameo, if his ex-CSNY cohort gets his way. "I said to him, 'If you want a harmony, I'm volunteering,'" Crosby told Rolling Stone. "He said, 'You know, if I need one you'll be the first guy I call.'"

The former Byrds singer also says that the January 2010 death of filmmaker L.A. Johnson, who produced a number of Young's concert films and had a long-time friendship with the singer-songwriter, could have a big impact on the direction of the new album. "I think that Neil's been a little lonely for someone to interact that way, because his best buddy died and that just really left a hole there," explained Crosby. "The guy's paid an awful lot of dues, man. I suspect this will be a very heartfelt record. I expect it will be a very special record."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Man Who Stopped Time to Set It in Motion Again

Eadweard Muybridge, photographer of nature, is captured in 1872 in the Grant Mariposa Grove at Yosemite.

Technology moves fast, art slower. You could say that art is still catching up to Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), a pioneer of stop-motion photography and early filmmaking.

In “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, you can see how Muybridge himself got up to speed with industrialization, mechanization and the other radical changes of the late 19th century.

His impact on the 20th is difficult to overstate. The writer Rebecca Solnit, in her 2003 biography, called Muybridge “the man who split the second,” aligning him with the inventor of the atom bomb. Cultural signposts as diverse as Francis Bacon’s paintings and the performance-capture technology of “Avatar” can be traced back to the trotting horse that Muybridge photographed on a racetrack in Palo Alto, Calif.

In the Corcoran’s thorough and absorbing show, organized by its chief curator, Philip Brookman, that horse doesn’t appear until the final couple of galleries. But you can see Muybridge’s ideas about time and movement develop in richly layered landscapes, panoramas and sequential views of buildings under construction.

Born Edward James Muggeridge in the market town of Kingston upon Thames, a few miles southwest of London, Muybridge ventured to San Francisco around 1855 and made his name as a bookseller. After an 1860 stagecoach accident left him with a major head injury, he recuperated in England, where interest in photography was growing fast, and there he took up the camera. He returned to San Francisco as a photographer, one of many trying to capitalize on the market for Western landscapes.

There, he made famous and powerful friends, including Leland Stanford, the politician and railroad magnate whose collection of racehorses he famously photographed. Muybridge became a celebrity himself when he was tried, and acquitted, for the 1874 murder of his wife’s lover. (The head injury played a role in his defense.)

Along the way, he changed his name from Muggeridge to Muygridge and finally Muybridge (pronounced MOY-bridge); Edward became Eadweard (pronounced Edward). On his business cards and in advertisements for his studio he called himself Helios, the sun god from Greek mythology. The moniker was a clever reference to “sun pictures,” early photographic prints made in sunlight, but it also branded him as a traveling, outdoor photographer. The logo on his stationery showed a winged camera.

His early works are mostly stereographs (two-part photographs that give the illusion of three-dimensionality when seen in a special viewer, or stereoscope; the museum provides glasses that perform the same function). Like other stereographers, Muybridge exploited the technology by seeking out views with sharply receding perspectives.

In other ways, though, Muybridge distinguished himself from the competition. Whether surveying the Yosemite Valley or the booming city of San Francisco, he looked for unusual vantage points and played up discrepancies in scale. In “The Astonished Woodchopper,” one of his most theatrical images, a man with an ax confronts a giant sequoia.

He also wasn’t above using special effects: printing pictures extra dark so that they appeared to have been exposed under moonlight, or adding clouds from a second negative. Some of these tricks were standard practice for 19th-century photographers, but they may come as a shock to viewers who think of Muybridge as more of a scientist than an artist.

He seems to have been comfortable with both disciplines. And as Ms. Solnit argues in an eloquent catalog essay, there was a lot of crossover between the two: “Muybridge was as much an artist for scientists as he was a scientist for artists.” She notes that the painter Albert Bierstadt adapted compositions from Muybridge’s Yosemite photographs, just as the geologist Clarence King studied them for traces of glacial activity.

His album “Yosemite Views,” made with considerable effort and at great expense, is certainly stunning. Muybridge carted a mammoth-plate camera up and down the steep cliffs to look for vertiginous angles that would separate his album from an earlier one by Carleton Watkins.

He paid special attention to Yosemite’s waterfalls, which appear as milky, vaporous cones because of the images’ long exposure times. As the filmmaker Hollis Frampton has written about Muybridge’s work, “What is to be seen is not water itself, but the virtual volume it occupies during the whole time-interval of the exposure.” As it happens, the Yosemite album dates from 1872 — the same year that Muybridge began his experiments with Stanford’s prize racehorse, Occident.

More modern and striking is a series he made a year earlier: a government commission to photograph lighthouses along the Pacific Coast. The subject was tailor-made for him, from the cliffs rising hundreds of feet above the sea to the beacons whose technology seems with hindsight to anticipate that of moving pictures. These are some of Muybridge’s most gorgeous and versatile images, in tune with 19th-century Romanticism and 20th-century Structuralism alike.

But Muybridge wasn’t just a landscape photographer, he was also a photojournalist — one who, more often than not, worked for powerful interests. In 1873 the United States Army commissioned him to document the Lava Beds in Northern California, where war had broken out between the Modoc Indians and the government. His photographs were meant to assist the Army in moving troops through the inhospitable terrain, but some were published in magazines and newspapers. (In one, marketed as “Modoc Brave Lying in Wait for a Shot,” the subject was, in fact, a member of a neighboring tribe who worked as a scout for the military.)

The government gave Muybridge access to major building projects like the San Francisco City Hall and the city’s branch of the United States Mint, which he photographed at various stages of construction. And the Pacific Mail Steamship Company commissioned from him a series documenting coffee production in Latin America meant to reassure foreign investors with its orderly and hierarchical depictions of labor.

His most significant connection was undoubtedly his friendship with Stanford. It’s enshrined in Muybridge’s mesmerizing “Panorama of San Francisco,” shot from the rarefied precipice now known as Nob Hill, where Stanford was putting up an enormous mansion.

Yet the facts of Muybridge’s elite patronage were at odds with the democratic potential of his chosen medium. He seemed to understand this, especially in his later years when he marketed his locomotion studies to the masses at events like the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Materials from those studies — photographs, books, letters, patent models — are packed into the show’s final three galleries. Also here is Muybridge’s only surviving Zoopraxiscope, a device he invented by adding a spinning glass disk to a lantern slide projector.

The Zoopraxiscope can’t be operated by visitors, alas, but a digital projection animates some of Muybridge’s well-known photographs of animals, men, women and children in motion. The men run, jump, wrestle and pour buckets of water on one another. The women do some of these things, but they also wash and iron clothes. Many of the sequences are antic; more than a few are erotic, or homoerotic. They’re art, science and popular entertainment, and they’re what people think of when they think of Muybridge.

But, for me, the show’s defining moment was a single still image — a photograph from 1872 of Muybridge sitting in front of a giant sequoia. It seems to encompass geologic and human time, eras and instants, the rings of the tree and the horse circling the track.


Henri Cartier-Bresson: Big Picture

With 300 or so photographs, "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century," a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, is, as Ed Sullivan used to say, a really big show. No doubt, nothing less would do to represent the vast scope of an artist Richard Avedon called, with just the slightest exaggeration, "the Tolstoy of photography."

But six years after his death at the magnificent age of 95, Cartier-Bresson proves that you can be one of the most famous names in photography and still be one of its greatest enigmas. For a few years in the 1930s, he was a fiercely dedicated avant-gardist, making pictures that were powerfully strange. Yet after World War II, he somehow became one of the biggest mainstream photojournalists, working for magazines that liked pictures to be plainly legible and not too subtly nuanced. And let's not even talk about inscrutable. (See pictures from the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit.)

Born near Paris in 1908 to a prosperous family of thread manufacturers, Cartier-Bresson once hoped to become a painter. As it turned out, his gifts in that department were modest; no less a judge than Gertrude Stein took one look at his work and suggested he join the family business. Wealthy enough to do nothing in particular, he drifted for years, studying with the middling painter André Lhote and hanging on the edges of the Surrealist movement. Though his formal education ended at 18, he was a classic aesthete, bookish and art-obsessed, with fine-boned features and skin so fair that in Mexico a girlfriend gave him a Spanish nickname meaning "beautiful man with face the color of shrimp."

He was tougher than he looked. In 1930 he abruptly abandoned the stale confines of bourgeois civilization for the more primal realms of French colonial Africa. (Even in this, he was playing the artiste: think Gauguin in Polynesia or Rimbaud in Abyssinia. Among the French, the flight to primitivism was something of a creative-class tradition.) In the Ivory Coast, he lived for a year as a hunter, selling to villagers the game he killed. And without quite thinking of himself as a photographer, he also took pictures. (See pictures by Bruce Davidson.)

It wasn't until his return to France in 1931 that Cartier-Bresson made a crucial realization: through photography, he could achieve the goals of the Surrealists he so much admired. The MoMA show, which runs through June 28 and then travels to Chicago, San Francisco and Atlanta, is a career-spanning retrospective. But while Cartier-Bresson's Surrealist phase would be just a brief moment in that career, it was a crucial one.

MoMA's chief curator of photography, Peter Galassi, who organized this show, produced a brilliant little Cartier-Bresson exhibition in 1987 that made explicit the importance of Surrealism to the photographer's early work. Cartier-Bresson never joined the movement in any formal way and didn't even care much for the work of Surrealist painters like Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, who he thought simply illustrated contrived paradoxes. What excited him was the Surrealist attempt to bypass the rational faculties as a way to glimpse a deeper reality. In their struggle to circumvent the conscious mind, the Surrealists tried hypnotism, free drawing and automatic writing. It was Cartier-Bresson's great insight that his Leica was the most automatic instrument of all. If a photographer simply gave himself over to the chance encounters of the day and captured them at the right instant, a snapshot could drive straight to the heart of the uncanny. All the obsessions of Surrealist fantasy — shock juxtapositions, erotic concealments, dismembered anatomies — were at large in the ordinary life of the streets.

As his biographer Pierre Assouline once put it, in those years Cartier-Bresson used his camera "as a Geiger counter," a machine to register the secret pulse of the world. And there's certainly a whole world of crackling enigmas in Valencia, Spain, 1933, made at a bullring. On the right, a man's disembodied head signals to us from his frame within a frame. At center, a broken 7 presides in a semicircle that seems to emanate from his glasses. And at left, another man peers into a dark threshold. All it took to find these things was a click.

The Globetrotter
Cartier-Bresson worked most intensely under the spell of Surrealism for just three years, from 1932 to 1934. For the next three, he virtually stopped taking pictures while he dabbled in filmmaking. But by 1937, right after his first marriage, he took a job as a photographer for the leftist Paris daily Ce Soir, work that bent him to the disciplines and conventions of deadline journalism. He didn't like them much. When he left that job in 1939, with World War II looming, he left the world of salaried employment for good. By June of the following year, he was a prisoner of war in a German labor camp, where he languished for three years before escaping. (See pictures by blind photographers.)

Cartier-Bresson emerged from the war committed at last to the idea of himself as a photographer. His roots in Surrealism may have made him an unlikely candidate for the pivotal role he would soon play in the emergence of magazine photojournalism. But along with the photographers Robert Capa and David Szymin, known as Chim, he became a founding member of Magnum — one of the dominant photo agencies in the years when plush weeklies like LIFE and Paris Match paid big money for pictures. As Galassi points out in the show's catalog, of the great figures of early modernist photography — including André Kertész, Edward Weston and Walker Evans — Cartier-Bresson "is the only one whose work blossomed so fully after the war."

How did he make this unlikely transition? No doubt it helped that he learned to rely less on the complex geometry of his earlier work and moved toward a more direct style. What you also get less often in pictures from his later years is the mesmerizing oddity of those from the '30s. In a Cartier-Bresson from, say, 1960, you feel that you're seeing a recognizable world through an exquisitely attentive eye. In the earlier work, you're seeing another world altogether. (Read: "Marcel Duchamp: Anything Goes.")

Yet he never entirely let go of that world. Even in the 1950s and '60s, a whiff of the surreal persists. How else to describe the artificial sky filled with artificial planes in World's Fair, Brussels, 1958? And it's unmistakable in Torcello, Near Venice, 1953, where the spiked prow of a gondola reads the dial of an arched bridge, while also bearing down on a running girl who is nearly identical to a figure in Giorgio de Chirico's Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, a painting the Surrealists revered.

Until he put down his camera in the 1970s to devote himself to drawing, Cartier-Bresson almost never stopped traveling. He was at the scene of some of the most important stories of his time — India in the final days of the British Raj, Beijing just before Mao's army entered. But his greatest gift was for pictures that didn't report anything more newsworthy than the erotic storm system of bodies in Coney Island, New York, 1946, or the domestic bliss of Bougival, Near Paris, 1956. An image of a man being greeted from the threshold of his houseboat by his wife, baby and dogs, it's a tour de force of art-historical synthesis. The collage-style juxtaposition of figures, the abrupt changes of scale between the man and what he's seeing: it's all very modern. But the supple line of the man's torso could have been drawn by Bronzino, while his wife and baby gently summon the long tradition of the Madonna and child — which is apt, since this may be the most succinct picture of heaven ever made. If it's true that Cartier-Bresson was the Tolstoy of photography, it's because he knew that the great pulse of his time flowed through the humblest places.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Alan Sillitoe, ‘Angry’ British Novelist, Dies at 82

Alan Sillitoe, a British writer whose two early works — a novel, “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” and a short story, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” — drew attention to the seething alienation of the postwar working class in England, died on Sunday in London. He was 82.

His son, David, confirmed the death to The Associated Press.

Mr. Sillitoe, who grew up desperately poor and left school at 14, had a long and prolific career, and he spent much of it plumbing the privations of his childhood for material. He published more than 50 books — including poetry, essays, travel writing and fiction for both adults and children — along with a handful of plays and screenplays. But he never repeated the acclaim or the influence that accrued to his first works of fiction, which were published in the late 1950s and led critics to group him with the so-called angry young men, writers like Kingsley Amis, John Braine, John Wain and the playwright John Osborne who were also describing characters in revolt against the British class system.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, however, Mr. Sillitoe wrote about people who were more concerned with defying the elite class than joining it. Arthur Seaton, the frequently drunk, amorally libidinous 22-year-old factory worker in “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” (1958), sees the world as an us-against-them proposition. His strategy for living is to hoard the pleasures of the moment, to turn life into a perpetual Saturday night in a barroom and a bedroom and fend off the responsibilities of Sunday morning. (The 1960 film was a star-making vehicle for Albert Finney.)

Smith, the narrator of “Loneliness,” a 17-year-old thief who had been sent to a reformatory, is similarly opposed to the straight and narrow. When he proves to have a gift for cross-country running and becomes a favorite of the institution’s governor, he continues his rebellion by purposely losing a race, stopping just short of the finish line as the flummoxed and appalled governor looks on. The moment — later captured in a 1962 film directed by Tony Richardson and starring Tom Courtenay and Michael Redgrave — was a perfect symbol of the divide between the classes. The governor thinks he has lost; the runner thinks he has won.

“Cunning is what counts in life, and even that you’ve got to use in the slyest way you can,” Smith says at one point. “I’m telling you straight: they’re cunning, and I’m cunning. If only ‘them’ and ‘us’ had the same ideas, we’d get on like a house on fire, but they don’t see eye to eye with us, and we don’t see eye to eye with them, so that’s how it stands and how it will always stand.”

Alan Sillitoe was born in Nottingham, England, on March 4, 1928. His father was a laborer, often unemployed, and frequently violent. The family often moved to avoid the rent collector.

As a teenager he worked in a bicycle factory and as an air traffic control assistant. In the Royal Air Force he served as a radio operator in Malaya. He began to write during a recuperation from tuberculosis.

“I was 20 years old when I first tried to write, and it took 10 years before I learned how to do it,” he once said.

His survivors include his wife, Ruth Fainlight, a poet; a son, David; and a daughter, Susan.

Mr. Sillitoe often wrote with a political outlook sympathetic to the working poor, and much of the criticism of his work after “Saturday Night” and “Loneliness” complained of its being bogged down in philosophical heavy-handedness. He spent much of his life traveling, and his novels frequently contrived to transport working-class Englishmen to foreign lands.

In “Key to the Door” (1961) the lead character (Arthur Seaton’s brother) joins the military and is sent to Malaya, and in “The Death of William Posters” (1965) a man escaping the drudgery of a marriage finds his way to Algeria, where he becomes a gun smuggler. More recently, Mr. Sillitoe published “Gadfly in Russia” (2007), a collection of four decades of writing about Russia.

Mr. Sillitoe’s other books include several forays into far-flung literary genres. One, “The General” (1960), is an allegory about art and war that concerns a symphony orchestra on a train that is seized by an enemy army; “A Start in Life” (1970) is a pastiche melding the grit of modern Nottingham with the picaresque tradition of the 18th century; and “Travels in Nihilon” (1971) is a satirical fantasy set in a fictional nation where self-indulgence and self-expression are lionized.

In 1995, he published an autobiography, “Life Without Armour.”


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Plastic Bag

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Monday, March 15, 2010

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Paul Auster

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Lou Reed’s ‘Machine’: Now More Strings, Less Metal

Fireworks Ensemble performing "Metal Machine Music," a 1975 work transcribed by Ulrich Krieger and Luca Venitucci, at Miller Theater.

A real-time, chamber-music performance of an inhumanly generated composition: that was Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” as played by the Fireworks Ensemble at Miller Theater on Friday night.

Mr. Reed recorded his 1975 album “Metal Machine Music” (RCA) by leaning guitars against amplifiers, cranking them up until the feedback screamed, playing melodies amid the sonic melee and layering and manipulating the results, including changing the tape speed of some parts. Then he chose four segments for 16-minute LP sides.

It sounded like a riot in a shortwave radio factory: a fusillade of sustained, pulsating and scurrying electronic tones that adds up to a hyperactive drone, as consonant as the overtone series. It was proudly anticommercial and defiantly arty. It was Minimalistic process music at rock volume, an impersonal wall of sound. Now, 35 years later, it also sounds unexpectedly merry.

Ulrich Krieger had the bizarre idea of transcribing that thicket of tones to be played by live musicians. It took considerable time and the help of a partner, Luca Venitucci, to analyze the welter of information; they had finished only three of the four sections when the transcription had its premiere in 2002. Now they have four. At the Miller Mr. Krieger directed a 16-member, amplified ensemble of strings, winds, guitar, accordion, piano and percussion, though there was no conductor. The music is in proportional notation, played to a clock; a violinist periodically stood up to signal.

The transcription changes everything. It corresponds to some of the more perceptible events of the original: sudden dropouts and surges of certain registers, rhythmic throbs, the squeal when a high overtone suddenly appears, the suggestion of a melodic moment. But the original “Metal Machine Music” has no narrative line, no direction. It simply, and wildly, exists. There are few intentional phrases or interactions between parts, and no sense of ensemble. That’s what humans bring, no matter how conceptually disciplined.

On the album “Metal Machine Music” sounds frenetic. In performance the Fireworks Ensemble musicians were just that, with the string players in the front row sawing away at nearly constant tremolos. (One violinist’s bow trailed a hank of loose horsehair less than halfway through the piece.) Yet their combined efforts brought out something richer and more meditative than the album. Each of the four sections became an endless tremolo chord, oceanic and Wagnerian, with recognizable instruments adding dabs of melody and glimmers of allusion: a Celtic accordion phrase, a brass fanfare.

The music was still unremitting; there were a few walkouts. It was also electrifying, a perceptual overload, with notes fluttering at points all over the frequency spectrum and tiny inner parts peeking out. The transcribed “Metal Machine Music” no longer reflects its title. Now it’s more string than metal, and it’s flesh rather than machine. It’s a world away from the original in both execution and intent; it’s social rather than solitary, respectful rather than irritating. But in its own much more formal way, it’s just as maniacal.


Sunday, January 31, 2010

19th-Century Concept, With a Few Upgrades

PAT METHENY, the jazz guitarist, has lately spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about robots. Actually, that’s putting it mildly: he has been downright obsessed with robots, and with getting them to do his bidding. “I haven’t slept more than four hours a night for six months now,” he said one day last fall at a makeshift rehearsal space in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, the former home of a Byzantine Catholic church.

Wearing a T-shirt and faded jeans, his tousled mane tucked under a baseball cap, Mr. Metheny stood before a 14-foot-high, 35-foot-wide wall festooned with musical instruments: an imposing, circuit-wired one-man band. The contraption itself seemed byzantine, all the more so when it sprang to life in a mechanical whirl: beaters tapping cymbals, levers gliding over strings, mallets cascading across a vibraphone.

Mr. Metheny closed his eyes and hunched over his guitar, bringing a human touch to “Expansion,” the centerpiece of his new album, “Orchestrion” (Nonesuch). With its shifting tonal center and fluttering groove, the tune combined aspects of post-Coltrane jazz and Brazilian pop with cinematic breadth. So beyond the obvious technical feat — thousands of moving parts, executing a programmed score — the performance dazzled on a basic level. Mr. Metheny and the unmanned orchestra were making his kind of music.

“This is something I’ve literally been dreaming about since I was 9,” said Mr. Metheny, who, at 55, has three gold albums and 17 Grammy Awards to his name. Easily one of the most enterprising jazz musicians of his generation, he has worked in an array of settings, from folkish duos to boppish trios to the heartland sprawl of the Pat Metheny Group. But robots were a new wrinkle, and Mr. Metheny seemed eager to explain himself. He did so in the midst of preparations for a grueling tour, which kicks off on Monday in Champagne, France, and concludes with shows at Town Hall in Manhattan on May 21 and 22.

Mr. Metheny, who grew up in Lee’s Summit, Mo., traces his intrigue with musical automation to an antique player piano in the basement of his grandfather’s house in Wisconsin. Later he learned about orchestrions, the pneumatically driven mechanical orchestras that flourished in the 19th century, before the advent of commercial recording. Though impressed by the Jules Verne-ish mechanisms, he was struck by their musical limitations. “I thought, ‘Why couldn’t it be something else?’ ” he said. “Honestly it struck me as such an obvious thing to do. I’m kind of stunned nobody’s really approached it.”

Voluble and amiably intense, Mr. Metheny gives the impression of a restless intellect governed by quiet discipline. He first made his name as a teenage prodigy under the wing of the vibraphonist Gary Burton, who consulted on the orchestrion’s mallet selection. “I’ve learned never to underestimate Pat,” Mr. Burton said. “He makes things work that most of us wouldn’t dare to try.”

The progressive current in Mr. Metheny’s music runs deep. His albums, notably with the Pat Metheny Group, have pushed the envelope not only in terms of early-adopter synthesizer use (an interest shared with his founding partner in the band, the keyboardist Lyle Mays) but also with regard to harmony, texture and compositional form.

Along the way he became a gear-head touchstone. In the 2009 Mike Judge film “Extract” a pair of guitar store employees reverently drop his name in an inept flirtation with a customer. A different sort of geek might be drawn to “Orchestrion,” given its whiff of Victorian futurism, a hallmark of the steampunk aesthetic. “There’s an awful lot of overlap between what Pat is doing and what we do as steampunks,” C. Allegra Hawksmoor, an editor at Steampunk Magazine, said in an e-mail message. (Asked about that subculture, Mr. Metheny seemed wary: “It’s not really on my radar.”)

Style, in any case, has rarely been the prime motivator for Mr. Metheny, who earnestly uses the word “research” to describe the music-making process. He said “Orchestrion” was especially valuable because it led him to new methods, a new frame of possibilities. “The record is a viable portrait of what I’m hearing right now,” he said, “and I wouldn’t have gotten to that result any other way.”

It was about five years ago that he began to sense that the technology for a modern orchestrion was in reach. Mark Herbert, his longtime guitar technician, had designed a mechanical instrument with solenoids, which employ electromechanical rather than pneumatic energy. Bells went off for Mr. Metheny, who already owned a Disklavier, the solenoid-powered piano made by Yamaha.

His interest led him to Eric Singer, a Brooklyn engineer and musician doing similar work with a confab he called Lemur (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots). Among Mr. Singer’s breakthrough inventions was a guitar-bot, which resembles the junky droid in the movie “Short Circuit” but works remarkably well as a musical device. Soon Lemur had been commissioned to build an orchestra. “Being Pat Metheny with his grand vision, he wanted one of everything,” Mr. Singer said.

What complicated the assignment was Mr. Metheny’s high standard for dynamics. Each instrument needed to be not only hair-trigger responsive to his signals but also capable of a range of volume. The robots receive their orders from Mr. Metheny’s computer, on which he runs two different software programs — or, no less effectively, from his guitar or keyboard. (He said he plans to incorporate some robotic free improvisation on the tour, as a counterweight to his intricately plotted compositions.)

In the end Lemur created most but not all of the rig. Mr. Herbert provided at least one solenoid guitar, while Ken Caulkins, who has done animatronics work for Disneyland, made some pneumatic pieces, including an electric bass. A Chicago pipe organ company created two cabinets filled with jugs and bottles, to be played with blasts of air.

“Everything came in months late,” Mr. Metheny said of the instruments, which began arriving last March, along with a daunting challenge. “There’s some hardcore technical reasons why most mechanical music doesn’t groove that hard,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Man, if it should be able to do anything, it should be able to do that.’ So one of my first tasks was to go through, solenoid by solenoid, and find out how each one felt the beat. And then figuring out software compensations for that latency. That took weeks.”

Then there was the music, some of which he had composed ahead of time.

“None of it worked,” he said. “It didn’t feel good, it didn’t sound good. It wasn’t happening.” So he went back to Square 1. “I very quickly had to find out what they were good at,” he recalled, referring to the robots. “What can they do, what can’t they do? And there’s a whole bunch that they can’t do. But I kind of wrote for their strengths.”

Remarkably, “Orchestrion,” recorded in October, shows few traces of herky-jerky compromise. “Entry Point,” the first tune completed, is a study in subtle undulation. “Spirit of the Air,” with its percussive pulsations, recalls both Steve Reich and vintage Pat Metheny Group albums like “Still Life (Talking).” The album’s only truly awkward moment occurs in “Soul Search,” during a flirtation with swing — not a robot strength, it turns out, even with cymbals on loan from Jack DeJohnette.

But then there’s the shimmering, labyrinthine title track, an overture of palpable ambition. “A percussion ensemble could play it, and I hope one will someday,” Mr. Metheny said. “But it would require the world’s greatest virtuosos practicing for two months.” (Of course the humans would then play it better, he clarified.)

He acknowledges but deflects the megalomaniacal implications of the work. “A big part of my interest as a bandleader has been in trying to discover and illuminate my favorite potentials in each setting,” he said in a follow-up e-mail message. “This is a setting with lots of potential, but not many reference points. In fact, basically none.” In the same message, which exceeded 1,800 words, he compared “Orchestrion” to the Stevie Wonder album “Music of My Mind,” in which Mr. Wonder played nearly every instrument himself. “This is exactly that — but live,” he said.

Steve Rodby, the bassist in the Pat Metheny Group, and an associate producer of the album, made the same analogy. “To me this record is so much more about Pat than it is about the robots,” he said. “It has this intrinsic liveliness — I almost said ‘lifelike quality’ — that comes from the fact that it’s not sampled instruments. It’s real sound in the air, and Pat’s in there improvising.”

In that sense the live “Orchestrion” experience is bound to overshadow the album, provided Mr. Metheny’s road crew can sustain it. During a second visit to the church, issues of transport — for a solo tour with eight and a half tons of equipment — were a pressing concern.

“I anticipate this tour as being a deeply character-building experience,” Mr. Metheny said. (At any mention of potential malfunction he knocked on the wood floor.) Leif Krinkle, a Lemur robot builder, was inspecting equipment nearby, as was David Oakes, Mr. Metheny’s technical director of many years, who will run the tour.

“Some of these things aren’t done being built,” Mr. Oakes said. He pointed to one input mechanism. “That’s hardly road worthy: a two-by-four with wires taped to it. And it’s not like I can call up and order a Fender Twin case for these. Every case has to be custom designed. I’m building them myself.”

Mr. Metheny interrupted from across the room. “Leif’s never heard this,” he called, cueing up “Expansion,” his showcase piece. And for the next eight or nine minutes the room once again filled with movement and sound, every bit as uncanny as before. Bringing the tune in for landing, Mr. Metheny looked up expectantly.

“It was nice to hear it as music,” Mr. Krinkle said, “rather than seeing every little thing that needs to get work done.” There was a meaningful pause.

“Looks like a big to-do list to me,” Mr. Oakes said, not joining in the ensuing laugh.

“Me too,” Mr. Metheny agreed. But he was beaming.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Mathematical Mind of Iannis Xenakis

Iannis Xenakis (1922–2001) was a polymath, a man given to many disciplines including engineering, music, architecture and mathematics. Best known for his avant garde music, Xenakis used the mathematical rules of the natural world to explore the spacial texture of sound, color and architecture. Described by Milan Kundera as "the prophet of "insensibility," his musical pieces had the ability to both unnerve and enrapture his audiences. At the core of his work was his study of mathematics and science, disciplines that he used to explore the visual and sonorous origins of art. A collection of over 60 works on paper by Xenakis including pre-compositional sketches, architectural drawings and graphic mathematical notations are on display in the exhibition Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary at the Drawing Center in SoHo.

Xenaxis was born in Romania to a bourgeois Greek family. At a young age he was educated in European art and music, although his formal studies led him to a degree in civil engineering. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Xenakis joined the armed Greek Resistance. After surviving an injury that caused him to lose his left eye, he arrived as a refugee in Paris in 1947 where he became an apprentice in the atelier of Le Corbusier. Quickly rising to prominence in the studio, he collaborated with the famed architect on major projects in Chandigarh, India and Lyon, France, where he designed the undulating glass surfaces of Sainte Marie de La Tourette.

After establishing himself with some stability at the atelier, Xenakis began to explore a passion for creating music. Although his first compositions were originally met with disdain by the composer Arthur Honegger, he found a mentor in Olivier Messiaen who instructed a number of members of the musical avant garde including Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Just as Russian constructivist Kasimir Malevich rejected representation for geometric abstraction at the beginning of the twentieth century, Xenakis and his contemporaries looked to move beyond the serial harmonic framework of classical music. In 1954, after years of obscurity in the musical community, Xenakis completed his first large-scale work, Anastenaria. The final movement of the triptych, Metastaseis, was characterized by a completely unique approach. When performed for the first time at Donaueschingen in 1955, the piece created a "sound cloud" that consisted of an aural mass built with the strings in the orchestra so overwhelming that it was almost palpable.

In 1958, Le Corbusier, entrusted Xenakis to take charge of the design for the Philip's Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair. The structure, designed using hyberbolic paraboloids, inscribed the sweeping curves of Xenakis' early aural symphonies into actual physical space. Although successful as an engineer, Xenakis left the studio of Le Corbusier in 1959 to focus on music. He continued to write symphonies that attempted to express complicated mathematical ideas such as probability theory and Markov chains. His interest in the geometric mass of sound led to a fascination with theoretical spaces, including optical architecture. In the 1960s and 1970s, Xenakis started designing site specific spectacles known as polytopes that combined elements of sound, color and performance to transform sites, such as the ruins of Persepolis, into otherworldly electro-acoustic realms.

At the very center of Xenakis' work was his hand, the tool that he used to transform the flat surface of paper into the three-dimensional musical, architectural and optical manifestations of his multi-faceted genius.