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Monthly Archives: April 2010

Subterranean Space Music (MP3)

The duo of Margarida Garcia, on electric double bass, and Aki Onda, on a small set of electronics, produce subterranean space music. Her amplified cello saws deep, thick drones while Onda wrestles with intangible static and, at times, wrangles snippets of vocals captured thanks to technologically enabled eavesdropping. Garcia and Onda are heard here in a live performance recently held at Fotofono, an art space in Brooklyn, New York (MP3).

[audio:|titles=”Live at Fotofono”|artists=Margarida Garcia and Aki Onda]

According to a brief descriptive note at the Fotofono website, Onda’s tool set consisted of “one tube amp, a Line Six and a hand-held radio.” The result of his inventive machinations might be likened to ghostly appearances, but why limit oneself to the unknowable, to the mystical, to superstition? The bits of radio noise seem all the more trenchant when thought of as just that: windows to the sound and signals that hover all around us, all the time. Garcia’s cello roots the performance in the earthy world, while Onda plucks his source material from the aether.

More on Lisbon, Portugal-born Garcia at, and on Japan-born Onda at

Also featured that night was a solo set by Byron Westbrook (electronics), as well as a quartet featuring Tucker Dulin (trombone), Bryan Eubanks (electronics), Andrew Lafkas (double bass) and mpld (aka Gill Arno, on light and processed sound from slide projectors), all of which is at the original post:

Fotofono was previously featured here, back in mid-January (

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Ian Johnson at the Start of the Rainbow

Most drawings and paintings of legendary musicians, as with those of other public figures, are based on photographs. Whether you’re in an art gallery perusing graffiti-inspired pictures of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, or down in Tourist Town surrounded by secular iconography of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, there’s usually a photographic foundation to the image you’re looking at.

These drawings-from-photos generally aren’t examples of photo-realism. They’re something quite different: the practice of producing from photographs new images that suggest themselves to be fully original portraits (or, in another context, still-lifes). Photo-realism is about reconciling the pre-photographic traditional of painting with the documentary capacity inherent in photography. This other mode is about instilling photographic documentation with the expressionistic artistry of painting. The best of such photo-derived drawn and painted images transform the original photos into something that speaks to the artist’s own perspective. Individually they may “transcend” the source material, but that’s a broad term that suggests no single approach.

The end result is a kind of visual remix, the original photo an example of image-as-sample. These matters of artistic appropriation are particularly resonant in images that depict musicians, such as those by illustrator and painter Ian Johnson, whose dedication to his subject matter is apparent in numerous ways.

Here, to provide one example of his work, is his drawing of trumpeter Don Cherry and bassist Henry Grimes:

Johnson has a solo show currently up at the gallery/store Park Life in San Francisco, titled Of the Living Sky. It opened April 2. The show features two dozen drawings by Johnson of jazz legends, including the one of Cherry and Grimes, plus a sculpture (more on that later). There aren’t just the standard figures, like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, but relative (if nonetheless highly accomplished) outsiders, such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Jazz Composers Guild (great to see a young John Tchicai smiling proudly), and the avant-garde clarinetist and saxophonist Anthony Braxton, who is featured in not one but two drawings.

One marker of Johnson’s achievement is that the lesser-known figures are no less resolutely drawn than are the commonly recognizable ones. The firm, thin line with which he gives shape to the aged beauty of Chet Baker’s grizzled face is no less assertive, no less precise, than the line that traces the contours of saxophonist John Gilmore, shown standing in one picture next to storied bandleader Sun Ra. (The Park Life exhibit’s title is a nod to the Sun Ra track “Portrait of the Living Sky” — kudos to Johnson, or whoever named the show, to have thought to remove the word “portrait.” The Gilmore/Ra picture is on the exhibit’s promotional postcard.)

The source images may be familiar. In many cases, they appear in the very first page of a Google Image Search for a given artist — that’s the situation with Cherry/Grimes, shown in this photo, which clearly served as the template for Johnson’s drawing:

But no matter their provenance, all 24 portraits are part of a single, whole catalog — Johnson’s catalog, Johnson’s vision.

In addition to that firm line, Johnson introduces a prismatic color effect to almost all of this work. Bringing color to these images is a complicated affair, since so many of the original photos were taken, or at least broadly reproduced, in black and white. In most cases, the major figure in an image is shown as the originating source of a kind of radial halo of colored lines; the symbolism is part holy, part musical, though for Johnson those two may be one and the same. These prisms appear as hard, stiff, geometrically certain vectors.

Here are four more images from the Park Life exhibit, clockwise from upper left showing Braxton, Chet Baker, Braxton again, and Charlie Parker:

Note not only the consistent use of these colored lines, but the potential they have to suggest an editorial voice on Johnson’s part. Do the lines that intersect above Parker’s head suggest some higher purpose for the undisputed legend? Do the crisscross ones around the elder Braxton speak to the increasingly experimental nature of his vast output, in contrast with the calm, rich colors and pattern of his youth? Could the tragic figure that is Baker be placed in a manner that any more clearly telegraphed his martyr-like status?

The effect throughout is beatific, even if it can’t help but imply a hierarchy. For example, in the image of John Gilmore and Sun Ra (shown directly above), the lines clearly are centered solely around the latter, even though he stands in the background. In the image of Don Cherry and Henry Grimes, the majority of the lines emanate from Cherry, but some shoot out of Grimes, too — and the places where the lines intersect serve as a testament to their collaboration. These lines are as intrinsic to Johnson’s approach as they were to the late minimalist Agnes Martin’s, though of course with a very different impact.

All of which (sampling, symbolism, minimalism) leads back to the image of Cherry and Grimes, and to this detail of that image:

In the photograph that served as the source for the picture, Grimes is shown holding a piece of sheet music, dotted with notes. In Johnson’s transformation, the musical staff lines remain, but the notes have been replaced with all manner of colors and patterns, a synaesthesia that willfully confuses image and music. It’s a kind of jazz Fantasia. This is simply Johnson at his best — filling these once static images with the vibrancy of their subjects. It probably isn’t lost on him that the score he has created in the Cherry/Grimes picture looks very much like the sort of graphic composition that Anthony Braxton helped instigate.

This idea of music as color, notes as lines, prisms as symbols of all that is holy, if not sacred, finally escapes direct association with any particular musician in “No. 3,” a sculpture that one could easily miss if one doesn’t look up. It appears at Park Life above a pipe near the gallery’s ceiling, long poles painted in Johnson’s rainbow palette, each color splayed across the wall where an individual pole ends. Johnson thus treats his audience like he does Charlie Parker, making the music something to aspire to, whether we create it, listen to it, or pay tribute to it. That sculpture is the “living sky” of the show’s title:

More on Johnson at A monograph on him, Beauty Is a Rare Thing, has been published by, a project of Park Life. More on the Park Life gallery, which frequently has music-themed shows, at

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Images of the Week: Piano Etude for the Hive Mind

This is not Chris Ware’s rejected cover for the next issue of The Journal of Music Theory, nor is it a Christoph Niemann editorial illustration for music issue of the New York Times Book Review:

What it is is a diagram of “Piano Etudes” by composer-technologist Jason Freeman. Here’s a detail, for closer inspection:

Freeman writes about the project at He’s created a piece of music that is, more factually, pieces of music — pieces intended to be organized in any manner by anyone. There are four of these etudes, each consisting of multiple fragments of piano recordings. The approach to composition can be traced back to the “open score” mode of composers such as Terry Riley and Earle Brown, as Freeman explains. He has taken that approach and upgraded it for the Network Era, with the help of Akito Van Troyer:

In “Piano Etudes”(2009), I use technology to make the open score accessible not only to performers but also to audiences, inviting everyone to experience and participate in the work’s creative process. I notated these four short piano pieces as sets of musical fragments connected by arrows. The structure is reminiscent of a choose-your-own-adventure novel, of a flow chart, or of the hyperlinked structure of the Internet. Each version of the piece simply follows the arrows to create a unique path through the score. There are an almost infinite number of possible versions.

You can make your own version of any of the four etudes at The project also brings to mind the instructional scores of artists and musicians involved in Fluxus, and confirms that there is a direct lineage from the instructions-as-score of John Cage, Yoko Ono, and others, and the code-as-score of people like Freeman. readers with long memories will recall Freeman’s “Shakespeare Cuisinart,” which I wrote about back in July 2001:

More on Freeman at

Thanks to Mike Rhode (of for the tip.

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Past Week at

  • Latest favorite new-to-me word: "acoustemology" (i.e., acoustic epistemology): "a sonic way of knowing place" #
  • The sonar ping in "Early Winter (For Phill Niblock)" off Alva Noto's new For 2 album sounds eerily like The Listening Post by Hansen/Rubin. #
  • Up for some quick weekend copyleft sonic activism? If you make music from existing sounds, reply to this or get me at [email protected]. #
  • The restaurant I'm in admonishes against not only cellphones but also computers in the dining room. That's a first. #
  • Cover art for upcoming Oval album, Oh, appears to be one of those PETA-baiting birds-on-a-guitar-wire projects by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. #
  • Saw 2 headlines, thought they were related: "Lost iPhone Prototype Spurs Police Probe" "A State With Plenty of Jobs but Few Places to Live" #
  • Listening to forthcoming Oval album, titled Oh, due out June 15 from Thrill Jockey. #
  • In response to print request the printer across the room revs up; its monastic hum gently reassures that the tech infrastructure is holding. #
  • Location isn't everything. Tribeca Film Fest has $45 pass to 8 streaming films, plus discussions, panels & short films: #
  • Last week on Fringe: turntables & time travel. Tonight: out-of-phase tuning forks & universe-jumping. Like if Steve Reich played Doctor Who. #
  • Last week Fringe = genius. Whoever does dissertation on Turntable as Symbol of Quantum Nostalgia in Work of JJ Abrams please send me a copy. #
  • Pardon. It's the Society for the *Preservation* of San Francisco Scenery. Great art prank. Reminds me of DeLillos's "most photographed tree" #
  • Signs in Alamo Square attributed to Society for Protection of SF Scenery seem to bar, or alert to barring of, photography of Painted Ladies. #
  • I know "there's no such thing as streaming music" but when I'm on @soundcloud I spend less time on music I don't have the option to download #
  • Beep boop: how kids in third grade draw synthesizers: Who knew modular synths could be this adorable? #
  • Thanks to Brian Biggs of @mrbiggsdotcom & @robotdancerobot for drawing my new analog Twitter background. More info at #
  • RIP, Guru (b. Keith Elam, 1962), best known from hip-hop duo Gang Starr. Listening to nothing but him & DJ Premier today #
  • Remain fascinated that the vibration on my phone is considerably louder on most surfaces than is the phone's ring at the lowest volume. #
  • Pauline Oliveros is on Twitter @olivep … "Are you listening now?" … "The last sound that you heard – what was it?" #
  • RIP, James M. Brody (b. 1941), composer, teacher, student of Iannis Xenakis: #
  • Made yesterday another "no computer day," but a half hour with Listening Post @sjmusart by Mark Hansen & Ben Rubin may have been cheating. #
  • Commas are a true luxury on Twitter. #
  • RIP, jazz musician and author Mike Zwerin (b. 1930), veteran of Birth of the Cool”“era Miles Davis. #
  • From backyard the passing propeller plane emits two sounds: engine rumbling like old washing machine; thick whine coming in and out of focus #
  • Sunday morning = Alva Noto's recent album, For 2. #
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Quote of the Week: The Soundscape of New Orleans

From the essay “‘Under the Bridge’: An Orientation to Soundscapes in New Orleans” by Tulane Assistant Professor in Music Matt Sakakeeny, published in the journal Ethnomusicology‘s current issue, Winter 2010:

The “bridge” creates intimacy, enclosing parade participants, maximizing a sense of unity, and the concrete makes for spectacular acoustics, amplifying and multiplying the participatory sound, creating a sort of “unplugged” feedback loop: acoustic, but not shockingly loud, and made louder by the musicians playing at peak volume to compete with the sound of cars and trucks whizzing by above. Ideally, the sounds of the music, the crowd, and the environment work together to orient individuals as a collective occupying a shared space.

The essay, which is highly recommended, draws on soundscape pioneer R. Murray Schaefer’s idea of a “soundmark” (“a community sound which is unique or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded”) and Steven Feld’s extension of that idea, “acoustemology.” Sakakeeny quotes Feld defining “acoustemology,” a reduction of “acoustic epistemology,” as follows: “local conditions of acoustic sensation, knowledge, and imagination embodied in the culturally particular sense of place.” Feld has provided a more succinct definition: “a sonic way of knowing place” (

Sakakeeny writes about traditional New Orleans music without being beholden to tradition — that’s something many musicians in the city manage to do without getting much credit for it, but people who study the music often fall short. In the article’s second graph, he notes that members of the New Birth Brass Band played bits of rapper DMX’s “Shorty Was the Bomb” (actually “Shorty Was da Bomb”) during a second-line parade for a woman named Adrienne “Shorty” Chancley. (The second-line parade is the tradition in which brass bands play dirges to a funeral, and then celebratory music afterward.)

But what distinguishes Sakakeeny’s article isn’t that he can hear the hip-hop in the jazz — it’s that he hears that jazz in the real world, and how the sonic properties of the world shape the music, not just the audience’s experience of and participation in the music, but the way the music itself sounds. His understanding of music’s role in life in New Orleans helps him hear the music not as sound that takes place, but as sound that makes something of the place, acoustically, in which it occurs. Music isn’t merely a message transmitted from performer to audience; it’s a space-defining invisible-yet-physical force that interacts with (helps define, yet is defined by) the space in which it happens.

The “bridge” he’s writing about is one of the most tragic urban-planning actions in the history of New Orleans, when the construction of the I-10 highway forced the removal of a stretch of a historically black community alongside Claiborne Avenue, lakeside of the French Quarter. As Sakakeeny puts it politely, “by design or default” the construction separated the tourist-friendly Quarter from the primarily black neighborhoods on the other side of Claiborne. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, that socio-geographic history helps explain why this broad stretch of concrete remains, to this day, a place where celebration, such as the one Sakakeeny writes about, takes place frequently and naturally. To take a second-line parade under the bridge is to reclaim that territory, not just physically but, as Sakakeeny writes, sonically.

He covers a lot of ground in the piece, including the proper tempo for a second line (around 100 to 124 beats per minute — anything slower loses people’s interest, and anything faster is too tough to keep up with), and the noise-abatement issues in the Tremé neighborhood, long home to musicians: “differentiating between what constitutes ‘noise’ or ‘music’ in New Orleans has everything to do with the way one is oriented towards sound, and those who hear music as noise have been effective in enforcing silence.” (Recent readers of this site will likely draw a comparison to George Prochnik’s new book, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, which I’ve written about a few times:,

Here’s an image from the article, ragged in its reproduction but still useful in setting the sense of place, showing the Rebirth Brass Band alongside the bridge in November 2006:

Full article at (and as a PDF). Read either version carefully, as some of the pages are out of sequence.

More on Sakakeeny at and at his blog.

In related news, my thoughts on the debut episode of the HBO series Treme (a series that Sakakeeny notes in his essay) at

More on the journal at This essay in the current Ethnomusicology issue also looks quite interesting, in regard to the cultural roots of copyleft, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet: “Composition, Authorship, and Ownership in Flamenco, Past and Present” by Peter Manuel.

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