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Monthly Archives: June 2011

Remixing History: Two Short Stories

The remix takes many forms. Music is remixed, but so too are videos, photographs, words, recipes, buildings, ideas. The remix is a means by which the past is made vibrant. It is the means by which the certitude of any form of documentation is probed and prodded until it loses its illusion of integrity.

The conspiracy theory is the remix of history. The conspiracy theory is the myriad variations on facts that threaten the foundation of those facts — that arguably threaten the idea of “fact” itself.

Maximilian I was emperor of Mexico for three years, from 1864 through 1867, a little longer than John F. Kennedy was president. Like Kennedy, Maximilian died a public death in broad daylight — by execution, not assassination — and like Kennedy’s his death, despite its public nature, yielded countless contradictory retellings. Numerous claims have been made that Maximilian wasn’t actually killed at all. The individual stories range from mundane to fascinating. The collected stories take on a truly kaleidoscopic appeal, for disorientation is the end result of the conspiracy theory, sometimes intentionally so.

I was asked to ponder the death, the deaths, of Maximilian for A Sors, a project developed by artists Julio César Morales and Max La Rivière-Hedrick, with Norma Listman, for the Warhol Initiative. Julio and Max have described A Sors as “a meal-as-art-project.” In more detail: “A Sors investigates Maximilian’s brief, tragic rule of Mexico, from 1864 to 1867, through the vantage of his most intimate and trusting relationship: the one with his imperial chef and confidant, a Hungarian known as Tudos.” The event was held for guests of a Warhol Initiative conference last Friday, June 24, in the Regency, a former Masonic lodge on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco.

For my part, I was asked to contribute some posts to the A Sors work blog, to tease out themes from the performance, and perhaps in the process help add to the mythology. The myth that A Sors takes as its basis is that Maximilian asks Tudos, the chef, to kill him. My efforts took the form of two short stories. I’m very happy with how they turned out. I write a lot of fiction, though I rarely share it with anyone. The two short stories are titled “Burying the Goat” and “A Change of Seasons,” and they’re both online at Max’s engine43.org website.

“Burying the Goat” focuses on the Masons, who are often associated with variations on Maximilian’s fate. I was trying, in the piece, to simultaneously add to and subtract from the Masonic legends by writing one more version, one that in turn provides an explanation for all the different stories that follow Maximilian in his fabled escape. The tone I was working toward was something along the lines of “H.P. Lovecraft minus the spiritualism.” It begins a year into Maximilian’s reign:

The Masons love their games, their plots, their symbols, their puzzles. History is itself a kind of puzzle, though two years ago Esteban Herrera did not know this. …

“A Change of Seasons” was an attempt to consider the events that history doesn’t record. In this case, that blank space is the dark carriage in which Maximilian rides from his prison cell to the hill where his executioners wait. The piece can stand alone, but also works to undermine the presumption of authority that hovers over the Masons’ secret meetings. It begins as dawn breaks on the day that Maximilian is due to die:

It is June 19, 1867. Summer has begun. With the change of seasons, the days will begin to get shorter as well as warmer. There is work to be done. There are fields to be tended, but today is a holiday. To the Catholics of Querétaro, Mexico, it is a religious festival, the Fête-Dieu. In a few hours, the date will become associated with another, more sorrowful occasion. …

I’ve served as managing editor on the A Sors project as well, and it’s been a great pleasure. Thanks to Max and Julio for the invitation, Norma for the food, and everyone else for the collaborative experience. More on the Warhol Initiative and A Sors at warholinitiative.org.

(Above photo for A Sors by Andria Lo, of andrialo.com; design by Brian Scott/Boon, of boondesign.com.)

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Euphonic Coordination ~ Music Supervision

Strategizing background music for an exhibit video by artist Paolo Salvagione

Back in April I shared here the essay I wrote (“Addressing the Competition”) for an installation, titled “Competitive Swinging,” by artist Paolo Salvagione at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County, just north of where I live in San Francisco. Following that project, Salvagione asked me to assist in adding a score to a video documenting an earlier exhibit of his also held at the Headlands, titled “An excuse to respond.”

The video is shot in a bright room and shows various works, most of which could broadly be described as sculptures, and all of which involve some sort of interaction on the part of the attendees. There are flip books, a kind of elevated hopscotch game, a pair of boots attached to large brushes, and, among other things, a kinetic sculpture about which I’ll have more to say in the future. All are infused with a wonderful mischievousness.

The pacing of the rough cut of the video brought to mind a metronomic pulse, which was also the subject of the “Competitive Swinging” essay. It seemed that a steady-paced work that slowly built but never got above a murmur would suit the visuals. Such music would aid in the momentum, never overpower the images, and match the clockwork motion that some of the works display. I also wanted to use a recent piece of music, so whoever ended up supplying the background tune would gain some promotional benefit. After listening through a lot of work by musicians whom I admire, and listening back through entries in this site’s Downstream department, I contacted the UK-based Grand Canonical Ensemble to inquire after “Summer Clothes,” a track off the album Saying Goodbye, which I wrote about back at the end of January. Back when I first heard “Summer Clothes,” it already had struck me as a kind of score to a movie that didn’t yet exist (I likened it to a more upbeat work by Ryuichi Sakamoto). Thanks to Salvagione’s interest and their generosity, that movie now actually exists.

The video was shot and edited by Christian Schneider (of ideagarden.org), with titles by Brian Scott (of boondesign.com), the latter of whom will be familiar to Disquiet.com readers for his collaboration on such projects as Despite the Downturn; Anander Mol, Anander Veig (and its outtakes follow-up); and Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet.

Grand Canonical Ensemble consists of Josh Owen Morris and Sam Bradwell. More on them and their music at gce.tumblr.com and grandcanonicalensemble.bandcamp.com. Their third album and first ever to be released physically comes out July 18 at metersandmilesrecordings.com.

The video is hosted at vimeo.com. Salvagione humorously credits me with “euphonic coordination,” which is to say “music supervision.”

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A Little Turret Music (Portal 2 MP3s)

For all the benefits of free music, something celebrated here on Disquiet.com almost daily, it’s hard not to read some free offerings as a reflection on relative cultural status. The Grammy Awards, in its not uncontroversial recent revamp, finally added a video-game-score category, while doing away with numerous other genre-specific awards (the latter move having many calling foul). Yet it’s not like these scores are doing particularly big business — at least not as recorded standalone fixed artifacts. As part of the ensemble creativity that goes into video games, they are an essential and largely overlooked component of interactive media. But when a property like Bioshock puts its full score online for free, as it did back in 2007, and as now Portal 2 has also done, it’s hard not to sense that the companies doing so know that the artifacts are just that, shards of experience.

A formal game score release is as much a parody of a movie score as it is a parallel. Music in video games by and large doesn’t progress the way it does in a film — it shifts according to how the game play proceeds, and that is based almost entirely on decisions made by the player. Thus, the game score lacks not just the visuals, but the sense of user-directed flow, the manner in which play directs causality.

To listen to the Portal 2 score if you’ve played the game is, among other things, to laugh, to know the jokes that the cues coincide with, but also to know more broadly how the theatrical bombast and surveillance chic collide into an unlikely and singular form of entertainment. There’s much to enjoy in the Portal 2 score collection, titled Music to Test By, even if you haven’t played the game, but it is even further removed from the experience of the game than is a movie score. If the score to Star Wars is once removed from the experience of the theatergoer, the score to Halo is twice removed from the experience of the gamer. Music fans have not yet fully recognized the appeal of video-game music, but even video-game music fans have yet to fully comprehend what that music means when separated from the games it was intended to accompany.

The score is available, along with a handful of Android- and iPhone-ready ringtones, for free download at the official Portal 2 site, thinkwithportals.com.

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The Pulse Between Minimalism and Techno (MP3)

It is the sound that Pete Townshend nicked from Terry Riley, a trance that cut across and through cultures. It is the sound Underworld uses to signal dramatic pause, when the dance floor is both ecstatic and still. It is the sound of dozens of key scenes from Michael Mann movies, when the city reveals itself to be the central character. It is the pulse, the place where minimalism and techno overlap. Or, in the nimble hands of Saito Koji, it is the space where minimalism leaves off, and just before techno arrives.

There are three pieces on Koji’s recent free album, Luck. One, titled “Old Tape Magic,” is a lengthy drone. Another, the title track, is a kind of digital chamber music that is discernibly sweet in nature. They bookend a shorter piece, titled “Count.” The brief liner note at the releasing netlabel, restingbell.net, refers to “Count” as an interlude, but it might also be called the centerpiece (MP3).

[audio:http://www.archive.org/download/rb098/02-Count.mp3|titles=”Count”|artists=Saito Koji]

It is a slow steady pulse, and a complicated one at that. Not because of counterpoint — it lacks the rhythmic play of, say, Steve Reich. And not because of some sort of intensely demanding rigor — it is not techno by any means. No, it is its own music, derived from drone, with its centerlessness, and its lack of concern for being regarded as a song, at least by any traditional measure. It is a steady stream of pulses that shift subtly, like the way the shapes vary on each set of passing car lights on a freeway after dark. The way the tone of each pulse shifts from the preceding pulse and begins to suggest the contours of the next is endlessly enjoyable to witness.

It’s hard to make pulse music that isn’t merely the sonic equivalent of op art. Perhaps “Count” really is merely an interlude between drone and melody. But we could do with more of “Count,” more playful pulses. It’s nice to imagine a near future in which someone can say that the pulse is the new drone.

Get the full release for free download at restingbell.net. More on Koji at soundcloud.com/saitokoji.

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Recent Pieces: Genre Orthodoxy, Countrified DX-7, Comics, Podcast

I wrote three pieces that appear in the current issue of the magazine Sactown: two brief entries in its annual best-of-the-city coverage, as well as a lengthy interview with producer/musician Charlie Peacock. Peacock is best known as a figure from the Nashville-centric world of contemporary Christian music, but he got his start in Sacramento bands that channeled electric-era Miles Davis, and he’s brought musicians like John Zorn associates Joey Baron and Marc Ribot, as well as John and Alice Coltrane’s son, Ravi, aboard for his two most recent solo albums, Love Press Ex-Curio and Arc of the Circle. Peacock’s story is a fairly intense one, not that you’d know if from his amiable demeanor. By the time the 1980s got underway, he had overcome a severe addiction to drugs and alcohol, which went hand in hand with his religious conversion. That conversion delivered him a new audience, and in time that audience delivered him to Nashville. Eventually, he came to question the orthodoxy, religious and aesthetic, that ruled the scene he had entered, to the extent that he even wrote a book about its inherent contradictions.

Peacock is a great conversationalist, and the discussion he and I had — as well as the many emails we traded subsequent to our talk — made it clear the extent to which his critique of the self-containment, the self-ghetto-ization, of “contemporary Christian music” stems in large part from his admirable abhorrence of the whole concept of “genre.” In other words, issues with spiritual orthodoxy run side by side with issues of stylistic orthodoxy. It’s a heady parallel, to say the least. And the genre matter alone has applications far beyond country and pop music.

This tidbit didn’t make the final cut of the story: Peacock, whose most recent hit is the deeply sublimated folk-country of Civil Wars’ Barton Hollow, told me that the ambient bed of that album involved playing the Yamaha DX-7, Brian Eno’s favorite synthesizer, through an Echoplex tape delay. (Researching stories such as this can take you down unexpected paths — should take you down unexpected paths — and I ended up writing a separate, brief piece about the Denver-based rock band the Fray for its local alternative weekly, csindy.com, after Peacock introduced me to Fray singer Isaac Slade. Aside from touching on the orthodoxy matters, the Fray piece is pretty far afield from standard Disquiet.com coverage, but I include mention of it here out of thoroughness. The Sactown article is not online, but the Colorado Springs Independent one is.)

Also in the Sactown issue: I had the opportunity to praise the long-running Sacramento comics store World’s Best Comics, founded and run by Dave Downey (no relation to Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr., but long ago a member of the band Pounded Clown), which was the first store to ever sell mini-comics by Adrian Tomine (whose work I edited in the music magazine Pulse!, beginning when he was in high school, and who graciously provided a quote about Downey for the article).

And I wrote up the excellent podcast Phoning It In (based at phoningitin.net), which features live performances by musical acts who (you guessed it) play via a phone line. Host Elisa Hough (who runs the show from KDVS 90.3 FM, Davis, California, where I was a DJ many years back) answered some questions for the piece, and shared the following technical advice: “I try to tell artists it definitely has to be a landline with a cord. Cordless phones pick up interference. I’ve never even experimented with cellphones. That’s a no-no.”Phoning It In episodes have been occasional subjects of this site’s Downstream department.

More on Sactown at sactownmag.com.

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