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."