Monday, April 30, 2007

And Just How Busy a Lad Is Your Ned?

No, that's not a PhotoShop trick. That's a real screencap of my work mail account.

I've been watching that number rise since I got this Mac, early in 2006. When it hit 9,000 or so (last week, I think), I became curious to see if Apple Mail was actually capable of displaying a five-digit number in that slot.

God, the amount of pure junk in that account! I think that of those 10,000 emails, probably less than 1,000 are anything that actually meant anything important to my work life -- and I've actually answered maybe 500.) The rest is a monumental pile of sheer, time-wasting crap. Cc's I don't need to be cc'd on. Cancellations of meetings I'd never intended to go to in the first place. ListServs for products I don't touch. Schedules for projects I'll never be involved in -- just to "keep me in the loop." Announcements from cow-orkers I've never even met, who live in California, but find it important to let me know they'll be "working from home" today, tomorrow, and probably Wednesday too, if the contractors finish on time.

Ah, well. Now my curiosity is piqued: Can Apple Mail display a six-figure number?

On to 100,000!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Saddest Thing in the World

It's just so sad that I'll never be able to convince poor Ring Ting Ting that thunder is just Noises in the Sky.

That poor, poor, dog. She's so intrepid, so fearless in every other aspect of her life, so intelligent, so on top of things. Our running family joke is that she has a really filthy vocabulary in Dog, and curses fluently and with panache -- a Calamity Jane Cannary on four legs.

But thunderstorms just undo her. She tries to put up a brave front -- no involuntary defecation, no howling or panicking, as I've heard about with other dogs -- but no amount of hugging or ear-scratching or loving, calm words will still her trembling and panting, her desire to climb up inside my trouser leg to hide. I wish I could show her charts and graphs and Wikipedia articles explaining the sudden inrush of air that replaces a lightning-bolt with a powerful, bass-intensive cracking sound that seems to rend the sky.

But obviously that's not going to work. To her, a thunderstorm is always going to be the scariest, most dreadful thing imaginable. And there's nothing I can do about it.

The poor dog, having such a failure as a communicator for a Daddy. There, there, kid. There, there.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

This I Believe...

...That, if you work for a large corporation, voluntarily wearing a polo shirt to work that bears your own employer's logo makes you a twat.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The New Atlantis

(Crossposted at NudeCritics)

An article in the latest New York Review of Books, a review of a book on the creation of the Royal Society of London, one of history's premiere scientific bodies, had a passage that made me sit up and whinny. Under discussion is Francis Bacon:
After [Bacon's] death in 1626, his most imaginative work was published, a story with the title New Atlantis, describing a utopian society living on an island in the South Pacific and directed by an organization called the Foundation. The Foundation is a group of philosophers dedicated to scientific research and human improvement:
The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.
Permit me a brief chortle....

Does any of that sound, oh, you know... familiar?

Perhaps now all those characters with names of Enlightenment philosophes (Locke, Rousseau, Hume, etc.) make some more sense, eh? Or at least, the character-names point us in the direction of Bacon's New Atlantis...

Now, Bacon predates the Enlightenment by a good hundred years, but he's certainly a precursor. I certainly haven't read New Atlantis (its Wikipedia entry makes it look like a mighty rough slog -- as is the entry itself), but the parallels between it and Lost are far too clear. It's impossible the show's creators are unaware of what they're doing (taken from Wikipedia -- please don't blame me for the wooden prose):
  • "There are two instances in The New Atlantis that include miracles. In both instances the miracles are simply illusions and events that could be explained by science with information not known to the people experiencing the miracles."

  • [The miraculous arrival of Christianity to the island] "brings into question the legitimacy of the miracle and the Christian faith on the island. In a closer inspection of the event it appears as though the miracle is simply the product of the government and science."

  • "Later in the story when you learn of the technology in Bensalem it becomes clear the potential is there for the government to concoct the miracle."

  • "Bacon is making a significant statement in this miracle. By providing a scene that appears to be a miracle, but is not, he establishes the superiority of science to religion. In that, miracles do not exist, but rather are events that cannot be explained using the technology at the given time (in this instance, the technology released to the masses).... Bensalem is a society where science dominates the presence of religion; however, no matter how strong science is it needs and relies on religion in order to retain a functional society."

  • "After realizing the greatness of the island the captain exclaims 'it is a kind of miracle hath brought us hither: and it must be little less that shall bring us hence.'... As discovered later in the story the House of Salomon possesses control over the weather and is responsible for this supposedly divine path taken by the sailors. In both instances an act that appears as a divine miracle is in truth the work of science."
I think my point is made: As I've been suspecting all along, Lost is (among a great deal of other things) an allegory on the struggle between Reason and Faith. As we've seen over and over and over, episode plots hinge on one character's -- frequently a character named for an Enlightenment philosopher -- insistence on one extreme or the other. The most overt example is the conflict between John Locke and Jack at the close of Season Two, but the dealings between Locke and Eko and between Locke and Hume, have also been obviously concerned with these themes as well.

Compare the Hanso Foundation -- the mysterious enterprise that funds the activities of the Dharma Initiative -- with Francis Bacon's Foundation: Both ostentatiously beneficent in their self-presentation, and both up to the task of the "knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things." Both using science to mystify, and Mystery to further science...

It couldn't be clearer to me.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Just Below the Surface

My Stratocaster went south on me a few weeks ago. The neck pickup wouldn't put out any signal, and I couldn't work out why. Time to call in a pro.

I Googled "guitar repair Purcellville" and the first return was Fairbuilt Guitars, in Neersville. This is just over Short Hill from my place. I gave a call to Marty Fair, who runs the place (and who makes some just knee-weakeningly gorgeous guitars). He told me to drop on by with the Strat.

When I got there, I was thrilled to find that Marty's residence is partly an early 19th-century one-room log cabin, much like mine. We got to talking about it; I told him I thought I could find out who'd built his place, and he said he'd love to know.

My friend Tom Bullock, who's working toward a degree in History, is engaged in an insanely detailed map of the whole region, tracing and mapping the original Fairfax land-grants in our part of the Piedmont and Shannondale districts. If anybody could come through with the name of the farmer who'd bought Marty's lot from Lord Fairfax in the early nineteenth century, it would be Tom.

And through he came: John Connard, Jr., who bought the lot in 1811.

Armed with this name, I began to poke around for information.

And here's where the story takes a turn toward the Seriously Weird -- and the More Than Slightly Creepy.

That cabin in the photograph at the top of this post stands maybe a quarter-mile north of Marty's place, on the western side of Short Hill. Its residents would have been the next-door neighbors of the people in Marty's place. I've known about it for a while, though I've never seen it in person; when I was researching my own place, I found an extensive Ph.D. thesis on that cabin written by one Christopher Fennel.

It was built on land owned by one Peter Demory sometime around 1803. But who built it? Well, therein lies a tale...

According to Fennel, in another, much shorter article about the place, the cabin was excavated by archaeologists some years ago, and among the usual detritus under the floorboards (nails, bits of crockery, buttons, glass, and so forth -- the usual things that literally fall through the cracks of an imperfect floor) was found this object, buried about six inches deep in the soil:

It's about the size of a marble.

Here's the back of it. The markings have been enhanced for legibility:

What a marvelously creepy little thing, don't you think?

Of the people who settled this land -- Scots-Irish and Pennsylvania Dutch, mostly -- I've always had the impression that they were rather upstanding Christian folk for whom this sort of thing would smack of idolatry. This isn't based on much hard data, just general impressions.

I have some serious rethinking to do.

Fennel's article, linked above, dismisses the idea that this might be a children's toy, a game piece, a lodge emblem that might be carried by a Freemason or an Odd Fellow, a family crest, or a memento mori. He's pretty much convinced it's voodoo. Conjure magic. The Dark Arts. Witching.

The symbology on the back of the skull is ambiguous at best. It could be an African conjuration symbol -- the Demorys, unlike most of their neighbors, did have two slaves. It could be the Cross of St. Andrew, mystically significant to the Scots-Irish who settled here. Or it could be a German symbol. But all three possibilities point to the notion that the little skull was placed there either to work a voodoo curse or to ward one off.

Fennel posits three possibilities:
  1. An African slave, somewhere between 1840 and the Civil War, snuck into the house with this talisman and hid it under the floorboards to bring bad mojo down on Massa. One can only approve his can-do spirit.

  2. The Demorys, believing their house to be cursed, contracted with a local conjuror to lift the mojo. The mage buried the skull where it would do most good. Can you even begin to imagine what that ceremony looked like?

  3. Fennel: "[T]he Demerys may have sub-leased the land to a German family who in turn built the house and then moved to another home site when the Demerys took occupancy. A member of that same group may have later targeted Harry or Mahlon Demery with this conjure item due to a subsequent dispute."
The last one is my favorite. Says Fennel:
The combination of an X symbol and the initials on the Loudoun skull could have served as a lethal curse or counter-charm, with the R and S on the skull figure invoking the sacred Latin text charms, and the H and D identifying the person targeted (perhaps Harry or Mahlon Demery). The symbol of the skull, and burial of the object near the target person, would have invoked the symbolism of death and fear of death.
Ja, Herr Demory, ve haff vays of making you die painfully und schlowly for running us out of our home on your miserable dirt-farm!

I feel a sudden deep-seated need to find out what happened to Harry or Mahlon Demory in the years after that talisman was buried. What was life in that particular house like? Not just, What did they eat for breakfast? -- more like, were they awakened in the night, night after night, by shit that makes The Blair Witch Project look like Goodnight Moon?

I'd also like very much to show this artefact to the upholders of the proposition that the United States is a Christian Nation, founded on pure Biblical principles by Godfearing monotheists who would never dream of hedging their bets with a little joojoo. I'd like to point out that just below the surface of the Salt of the Earth who founded this place, there beat a heart as pagan as Nero's.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Now You

Young Freddie's footie team is in Big Trouble this weekend.

The coach, a very amiable young man, the elder brother of the goalie, won't be able to attend the game. He's a student at Virginia Tech.

Oh, he's fine. Don't know where he was during the shootings, but he's physically unhurt.

But he's got some funerals to attend this weekend.

My kids informed me yesterday that while the shootings were going on, their teachers avoided talking about it in school, because many of the kids have older siblings at Tech.

I opened this morning's print edition of the WashPost and found a list of the victims, accompanied by photos. Here's the online version.

I tried, as dispassionately as I could, to look at each of the faces. I'd urge everybody to try the same exercise. Let your gaze linger on each face, all 32 of them. While you do this, say to yourself, as I couldn't stop myself from saying, Now you.

And you.

And you.

It takes a very long time.

I'm not trying to summon empathy for the miserable little solipsist who killed them -- I don't carry much fellow-feeling for mass murderers. And the idea that he took a visual style -- a visual style! -- from John Woo movies just nauseates me.

But the exercise of running through those faces, all those people who never expected to be cut down by amok nihilism, might help one to to gauge, to imagine, the depth of Cho Seung Hui's insanity.

And you.

And you.

Thirty-two times. Thirty-two times.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Little House We Used to Live In

The split-level we lived in in Reston for some years had a colorful past.

We bought it from a Vietnamese entrepreneur who'd made himself quite unpopular with the neighbors by running various unsuccessful businesses out of the place -- skirting zoning regulations by parking his cleaning-service vans in the driveway, trying to have most of the yard paved so he could park more vans in it. The basement was the office of what appeared to be an import-export business. In a musty little room off the windowless basement, there was a baby's crib, a rather depressing fact.

We got the place cheap, as Mr. Vu was what they call a "highly motivated" seller. He scarpered back to Vietnam as soon as the ink was dry on the contract. We got dunning notices in our mail for years.

When we got to know the neighbors a little better -- delightful people who'd lived there since the neighborhood was built in 1969 -- they told us stories of people who'd lived there before us. They were very glad that a relatively normal family had moved in, as some of the previous tenants had been pretty hair-raising. There were stories of the basement being used as a target-practice gallery, for example.

My favorite story also answered some puzzled questions that I'd had about the place. The master bedroom had a gigantic deadbolt lock on the door -- which I got rid of promptly -- and the closet door was a massive mirror, which made the fulfillment of our marital obligations a bit tetchy. We'd catch each other glancing at it to check our technique. Me more than Wonder Woman, I think. I've always been a visual guy.

Sometime back in the Swinging Seventies, two Englishwomen moved into the place. After that, cars would appear in the driveway at odd hours of the day. Never the same cars. But it was all quiet, nobody caused any trouble.

I imagine you can see where I'm going with this. One day, a visitor to the house forgot to set the emergency brake. The driveway was quite a steep slope, and his car rolled back into the street and took out a neighbor's mailbox. My neighbor, observing this, thought she'd do the friendly, and toddled over to tell of the mishap. The garage door was open, as was the door to the kitchen, and she poked her head in.

What greeted her eyes was a flurry of garter belts, push-up bras, stiletto heels -- and a very embarrassed john handing over the Nominal Fee.

Yes, the ladies were running a knocking-shop. In our quiet, mundane, bourgeois little leafy cul-de-sac, where children played in the street and mailmen whistled their way through their routes, Number 2406 was...a bordello. A cathouse. A brothel.

You just never know what's going on behind closed doors...

I'm reminded of this passage from Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"...
All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and grey roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amidst the light green of the new foliage.

"Are they not fresh and beautiful?" I cried, with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker-street.

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

"Do you know, Watson," said he, "that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation, and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there."

"Good heavens," I cried. "Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?"

"They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."

Monday, April 16, 2007


In light of my recent travails, this headline from certainly gave me a world-class double-take this morning:

I've always wondered what they did with it afterward! I'm thinking, Carolina BBQ? Larded with garlic and spit-roasted? Done up in a ghosht biryani and served with naan and a yogurt raita? I bet it was delicious.

Tales of Life in a Border Town

Lovettsville, my home, is the northernmost town of any significant size in Virginia. It was settled by Pennsylvania Dutch émigrés whose religion and culture abhorred slavery, and their orientation was always northward toward Philadelphia. During the run-up to the Civil War, in the statewide referendum on secession in the spring of 1861, the town voted in a ratio of 90% against it.

Some eight miles to the south, the town of Hillsboro voted in almost exactly the same proportion in favor.

The only military unit raised in Virginia to fight for the Union, the Loudoun Rangers, was mainly manned by men from Lovettsville and from Waterford, a nearby town founded by Quakers.

Their loyalty to the Union caused them great distress during the Recent Unpleasantness; seen as traitors by their neighbors, they were raided and hounded by John Mosby and his cohort. There are few barns older than 1864, because most of them were immolated during that year's Burning Raid.

All of this is by way of setting the scene for a couple of things that happened this weekend.

At my son's soccer game Saturday, I noticed a girl wearing a warmup jacket emblazoned on the back with a large soccer ball and the legend "The Lovettsville Freedom." Notwithstanding my distaste for sports teams named after singular nouns (the Utah Jazz being the most ludicrous example), I couldn't help wondering if the Lovettsville Freedom didn't perhaps have a fierce cross-county rivalry with their neighbors to the south, the Purcellville Slavery.

The other incident was more troubling. I helped out at a local event at which a raffle was held. As the winning tickets were picked at the end of the event, when many of the ticketholders had packed up and gone home, I volunteered to call the winners, who'd left phone numbers on their tickets. One of the folks I called wasn't home, and I left a message on her machine. Not long thereafter, her sister came and picked up the item.

An hour or so later, my cell phone rang. The voice at the other end had a Southern accent so thick and so quickly spoken that I couldn't understand her. She was quite agitated about something, but it took me a good long while to make out exactly what. After several requests for repetition and silences on my end while I tried to think, it became apparent that she'd been given an item that she hadn't actually bought a ticket for.

Now, why this would upset someone quite this much I don't know -- it seemed to me that winning a raffle item you didn't bid on would be something of a windfall, an unexpected gift; and if you don't like it, well, that's why God made trash cans.

I offered to come pick up the item -- I still don't know what the hell it was -- but she then demurred and allowed that she thought she'd keep it after all.

Then she became a little sheepish and apologetic, and regretted making the call in the first place. (I'm not prepared to swear that Demon Rum was a thousand miles away from this conversation.) Then she dropped the bomb:

"I swear, I bet when you hang up you're gonna call me everything but a white woman."




I mean, what the fuck!?

I suppose in these waning days of the Imus Incident it's just terribly naive of me to be shocked by someone's casual racism. That's always something that happens elsewhere, and not in my sheltered, bourgeois life. But it's abundantly clear that we are eons away from coming to terms with the ugliness of slavery. Having lived in other countries in my youth, I also know that other people are just as awful as we are: Some of the ugliest, most hateful language I've ever heard came out of the mouth of a lifelong resident of Stockholm. Then, of course, there was that whole Hitler thing.

But I think the thing that most shocked me was this woman's clear implication that I wouldn't be offended by something as casually ugly as that. She had no idea who was on the other end of the line -- I do have a Tragically White voice, it's true, but I could have been anybody.

See, this is why I don't like people, why I'm such a hermit, why I live in a clearing in a forest on the side of a mountain. You think you're prepared to deal with just about anything, and then suddenly bam! Somebody drops this shit on you, and you get depressed and angry and want to go hide under the bed.

Go away. I'm not home.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Dancing About Architecture

On the Chalkhills list, someone posted the following:
Here's an idea: Let's talk about music. Can we observe
one and only one rule?: There is no "right" or "wrong"
to questions of musical taste.
Below is my response. which I posted last night.

All right, I'll bite. This is a question that has interested me for years.

I respectfully disagree.

I think there is such a thing as good music and bad music, and that these values exist outside my subjectivity. I believe that the more you know about the technical aspects of music, the more likely you are to possess the language to express criticism -- that is, describe exactly why a piece of music is good or bad. Quite a few -- indeed, probably all -- "my-band-rocks-your-band-sucks" arguments arise from pure inarticulacy and nothing more.

Many (but of course not all) qualities by which we judge music have a certain measure of objectivity. These include, but are not limited to, originality, compositional excellence, and skill in execution. (Go ahead; try it: Think of a piece of music you love, and one you hate. I bet the one you love succeeds on some combination of these criteria, and the one you hate fails.)

To apply an extreme example, if you regard with unironic admiration the self-deluded goobers that they trot out for laffs in the early stages of American Idol, you are exhibiting an inability to discriminate good music from bad. (As the father of a 14-year-old girl who loves some of the awfulest, most cynically exploitative Disney teenybopper garbage, and who utterly refuses to listen to anything else with any sympathy, I know from what I'm talking about. My own flesh and blood, for all love!)

Now, you will answer me back, Must I like all music that is original, skillfully composed, and played well? Must I dislike all music that is unoriginal, cliched, or incompetently performed?

Of course not! Chopin, to grab an example out of the air, does nothing for me. And I love the Shaggs. I freely grant that there is a highly emotional (that is, subjective) component to one's admiration or disregard for a particular music: William Hung rocked! But not because he was a good singer by any empirical measurement. We judge music by many criteria that have nothing to do with music -- such as the artist's attractiveness, political stance, sense of humor, and so forth. I'd urge everyone to try to strip away those nonmusical criteria before getting into arguments about taste. Most of the arguments will stop exactly at that point at which you decide what you're *really* arguing about.

Here's the crux of the biscuit: Because I've made a lifelong study of it (a casual one, to be sure), I know enough about music to recognize the qualities in Chopin's music that make others regard his works highly. We can't argue about Chopin's lack of emotional appeal to me personally, but we can judge such quantifiable things as compositional excellence, his place in musical history, and the skill it takes to perform his music well -- if we have in common the language to express it. Otherwise, it's "Chopin sucks/No he doesn't."

It would be very wrong of me to say "If you like Chopin, you've got bad taste." That's a pointless subjective judgment. But it would be equally wrong to, say, give a good review of an incompetent performance of a Nocturne because the pianist has a nice ass.

("Anna Maria de la Callipygia's performance of Etude op.10 in C Major at Alice Tully Hall was only slightly marred by the performer's audible breaking of wind, the omission of three entire pages of music (accompanied by a 45-second pause to "find [her] place again") and her incessant singing along at the top of her voice in what appeared to be adenoidal Medieval French. But great googly-moogly, the caboose on that honey! Hommina-hommina-hommina A-WOOOOO!")

I loathe the often-cited maxim "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." It is absolute fucking balderdash -- and a cowardly surrender. With the proper vocabulary, a great deal of careful thought, and a refusal to resort to distracting metaphor, music can be described and criticized accurately and well.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A Tinny Little Sputnik

This is crossposted, in somewhat edited form, at NewCritics. Below is the unedited transcript.

Andy PartridgeAndy Partridge, founding genius of popcraft masters XTC, has reunited with his old bandmate Barry Andrews, the leading light of Shriekback, and that band's drummer, Martyn Barker, to create a double-CD album of entirely improvised music. "Monstrance" was released in the U.S., on Partridge's label APE, yesterday.

The phrase "entirely improvised music" may possibly glaze over a few eyes, but I can attest that this record is accessible, very listenable, and not at all the sort of self-indulgent junk that often passes under that rubric. The music ranges from long, but entirely coherent, pieces to shorter, less trance-y, more riff-based tunes.

The real delight in "Monstrance" is how clearly it is possible to hear musicians thinking. It's rather like looking over a landscape painter's shoulder as the painting is being first outlined and then filled in: You can hear the decisions being made in a group context. Partridge compares the process to a "thrilling" conversation, and listening to "Monstrance" gives us a fly-on-the-wall's view of the erudite musical chat among three very fine musicians.

Andy very kindly agreed to let me bounce some questions about the album off him, and about his musical life in general.

As you read the interview, you might enjoy a full track from the album at Andy's label's website: Listen to "I Lovely Cosmonaut" Thirty-second samples from all the tracks are also available at the iTunes Store.

You can also watch a video of the improvisational process at work, from the same source: Watch the video of "Winterwerk"

And of course, no one will be even slightly upset if you should decide to buy your very own copy of Monstrance.

Monstrance, the band

Monstrance -- or "mons-trance" -- there's a bit of a naughty pun in that title, isn't there?

Umm, not intentionally, no. Barry wanted to call it something like "Happy Monsters." And for ages, we thought we were going to call the band "Ut" not realizing there was already a band called "Ut." That was quite a blow when we found that out, our little world caved in, because we were convinced that was a perfect name for us. I didn't quite like "Happy Monsters" and so I suggested "Monstrance," which, as you know, is a -- I kind of liked the mischievous thing of -- a monstrance is a clear receptacle in which a holy relic, or a relic for veneration is displayed. I thought, well, that's the CD case with the disk in it. So it was a sort of naughty thing of, yeah you can venerate our holy relic! So he was pleased because it had a sort of monster-y word as the title, and I kind of liked the sort of facetious, yeah, "eat our shit," a holy relic for you to worship. Or not, as the case may be.

Funnily enough, one site, I don't know whether it's Amazon or not, had "Other Links," and the only other link they put up was a page for a company that sold church equipment -- I'm not joking! And you can go and buy a Monstrance if you want! A real one!

What does it look like?

Well, they're usually gaudy and see-through, so you can see the supposed bit of the True Cross -- which if they put all the pieces of True Cross together around the world, the True Cross would be like nine miles by six miles!

And who's to say it isn't?

And the Holy Tea-Towel of Turin! [Laughs]

Now, Barry Andrews -- you parted ways in, what, 1978?

Errrrr, yyyyyeah! I think it was '78. Late '78 or exceedingly early '79. '78 I think -- God, who can remember back then? I mean, humankind wasn't even properly formed! We were still evolving! But sure, he wandered off then, took his Krumar electric organ and Lawrence piano with him.

And how did you come to work with him again?

I saw him a few times since then. The first time I saw him again, somebody brought him into a TV studio where I was hosting some show, and they said, "Who would you want to interview?" and I said "Well, I'd love to see Barry Andrews" -- not thinking they would bring him in, and they found him and brought him in. Then, after that, because we had to sort of reunite live on air, it wasn't so difficult, I guess. And then I started to see him in the street here [Swindon], because he lived in London but he would come back here to visit his mother. And then his father died, and he came back here a bit more to see his mother. I would see him in the street, and I would say to him, "Do you fancy doing this improv project?" based on, loosely on -- this was about ten years ago -- loosely on the idea that Russia had invented rock-and-roll, an they were beaming it down to earth from a tinny little Sputnik and we were all hearing it under our bedclothes at night on crystal sets. Then he said, "Sure, I'll go with that!" And nothing more was said. And then he caught me up a year or so ago, and said, "Would you play on my Shriekback album?" And I said, "Yeah, I'd love to!" And I played on that. And he said, "Do you still want to do that improvised thing?" And I said "I'd really love to do that," and so it was just a case of "Let's do it!" There was no kind of planning or anything, it was just Let's see if it's gonna work.

After one day, we thought Hmm, this could be good! So we took two further days when we could get some space in the studio.

And Martyn Barker was in on this from the beginning as well?

Sure, I said to Barry, "Do you know a great drummer who can improvise really well?" Because I didn't want to involve anyone who couldn't improvise. I mean, I know some good players, but they're not improvisers. And he said "Yeah, the old Shriekback drummer, Martyn Barker, is great, he'd love to do it, he comes really highly recommended." And you know what, he was perfect. He was really in there with very, very tasteful playing.

Yeah, you can really hear the improvisational spirit in his playing.

His drum kit was recorded with four microphones, nothing more! All the drums and all the percussion are just four microphones. It was all the studio had! It was like, we can't use any more because we haven't got the tracks!

Where did you record it?

Because we couldn't spend a lot of money in case it was a terrible failure, Barry said, maybe I can get us into the Swindon New College, which is, you know, a college, and they've got a beautiful little studio in there -- for the kids, for Chrissakes! And they let us have it dirt cheap, the only price I had to pay was my hearing!

Oh -- this was when you damaged your ears?

No, it was actually the last day of mixing that my ears were damaged. I was just being overdramatic. [Laughs]

I've heard you talk at length about the relationship between music and architecture. How does that work when you're doing improvisation?

I think that improvisation is nothing like architecture. I think that songwriting and well-constructed, balanced music is very close to architecture, but I think improvised music is closer to conversation. With three players all talking to each other , you find a rhythm, you find the spaces and you find the subject matter -- it's like a three-way conversation, three people in a conversation, all shooting good points to each other -- "Oh, that's interesting, did you know dah-dah-dah..." I find it's very much like a thrilling conversation. I don't think it's very related to architecture, but I do think that good song structure and good, how shall we say, not necessarily classical music, but sort of well-thought-out instrumental or vocal music is very akin to architecture. This is much more conversational. Another thing it might be, imagine three people making a clay sculpture simultaneously, with no plans what it's going to be. So you're all squeezing and pushing and prodding, and a kind of an ant-like social conscience comes in or something. You find the best bits are when you're all tuned to the same wavelength, all squeezing and pulling and making something very gorgeously abstract that you never knew you were going to make. It's almost as if you're communicating in a different way.

I heard exactly what you're taking about in "I Lovely Cosmonaut," somewhere around nine minutes, you can hear everybody go, Oh, yes -- this! simultaneously.

Yeah. And there were no edits in that -- in fact there are very few edits in all these things. Very few. Mostly what you hear, all these pieces, are how they fell out. When they break down and end, that's when we felt it should break down and end. When we change gear, that's when we all felt we should change gear. I don't think anyone was leaping in the air going "Now, you bastard!" The successful pieces were where we clicked into a higher place.

When you were talking about architecture, you were skirting around a question that I had intended to ask you. There seem to be two extremes to your musical personality. There's the Andy Partridge who can knock off three "Mayor of Simpleton"s before breakfast, and then there's the Andy Partridge that we got to meet more fully in the "Fuzzy Warbles" series, the experimental, aleatory Andy...

Yeah, he doesn't get to come out in public much! He was there right from the start! You know, there are things on "Monstrance" that wouldn't be out of place on the "Takeaway" album, and vice versa. The twin tracks of my musical upbringing are straight-songs-with-funny-noises-attached -- and that means novelty songs, which then mutated later, in the Sixties, to psychedelic music, which is still pretty much straight songs with novelty noises attached -- or show tunes, that worked in that thread as well, because the only decent thing on British radio when I was growing up was either show tunes or novelty songs, pretty straight-up songs with sped-up voices or too much reverb or a section would break down and there'd be some talking or a little backward something or crazy sounds... I loved all that stuff as a kid, and when I got into my teens and psychedelia hit, really psychedelic music is novelty music, it's the same thing! It had sped-up voices, and too much reverb, and echo, and backwards stuff. So just substitute novelty records for psychedelic music, and it's just the same thing, really.

And then, in my teens, I started experimenting with tape recorders -- before I could play an instrument, I got into -- I think I know how I got into it -- what you would term musique concrete first of all, although I didn't know they did it by chopping up little bits of tape -- I would experiment for hours with my tape recorder, and be recording me hitting things and putting the backwards, or turning them at different speeds, or hitting stuff from the kitchen and making it feed back, then punching in other sounds. So it was like making primitive musique concrete as an early teen. I loved all that experimentational side of it.

And then in my later teens, a friend of mine called Michael Taylor -- everyone called him Spud, I've no idea why, if you're called Spud your name is usually Murphy -- he was a couple of years older than me, and he had a really eclectic musical taste, and a weird taste in literature. He would get me to read Burroughs' books, William Burroughs, or he would recommend Genet or, or, just really out-there literature stuff... And then he would come around and he'd bring Albert Ayler albums, or Hans Benninck records, or Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, or Alice Coltrane, you know, the more out-there stuff -- Pharaoh Saunders, that sort of stuff. First of all, I didn't like that kind of thing, because I thought, ohhh, I don't know if I can get into this, I kinda like my own experiments because I'm in control of them, and I don't know if I can take to anyone else's. And then suddenly, the coin dropped and I really got into it in a huge way. And so the other rail of my musical railway was added in... And so I had one rail that was pretty straight songs with novelty noises attached, and the really out-there experimental end of jazz, as far as you can go...

Great segue... I brought to "Monstrance" a preconception that it was going to be like free jazz, when it was described to me as an improvisational album. I've always found free jazz to be rather monochromatic in the sense of not too many changes of texture....

Yeah, free jazz to me is very little conversation going on, it's everyone shouting. And I find with more of a conversational state of mind -- not everyone can do it, you know? And out of the eight hours' worth of recording that we did, we really had to throw away about six and a half hours, because it just wasn't up to scratch. So not everyone can do it, and even the people who can do it can't always do it. It's so elusive.

Monstrance CD art

I was surprised when I listened to it at the variety of textures and timbres that you achieved. Parts of this records are very trance-y, very spacy, and other parts of it you can dance to!

Sure! I don't know why -- I don't know why either of those, it just seemed to be the way that the clay was getting squeezed, and if you go with it.... Just the slightest noise can send it spinning off in another direction. That's what conversations do -- you can put one word into a conversation, and suddenly Bang! and the conversation goes off in a right angle somewhere...

Which is why I'm sitting here amused at that thought because I'm trying to interview you!

And you're also there in a ballet tutu and [laughs] a Robert Mugabe Fun-Mask!

One thing I noticed about the way these improvisations seem to work, is that one player, and it's not always the same player, takes a rhythmic, repetitive pattern, it might be you, it might be Martyn on drums, and the other two provide the swirling textures around it...

Well, kind of combinations of all sorts of things. For example, the opening four minutes of "I Lovely Cosmonaut" there is an unspoken rhythm, where nobody states it, and all the little bloops and all the volume-control things on the guitar, or the little scrapes and bumps and stuff from the drums, they all skirt around, trying hard not to fall in the holes in this cheese, you know, the holes are kind of rhythmic, Nobody was playing the rhythm, but you can feel this rhythm in it, which generally congeals to a more staged rhythm later on.

That's what I was talking about at around nine minutes, when you hear everyone just kick in...

And nobody jumped in the air, or there wasn't an edit made there or anything like that, it just happened. Or, say, for example, the last track, "Priapple," where for about two-thirds of it I play these two chords, these two sort of wah-wah chords [demonstrates vocally] -- I'm the only one regarding the rhythm, and it seems as if Martyn and Barry are sort of attacking me, like two beasts, and I'm trying to keep on that path of walking up that mountain, and that's what creates the tension, that lonely pilgrim with his two chords keeping at it going up that mountain, and these evil demons making terrible noises coming at me! And for me, that's how that one works, it's the sort of stolidity of "I'm gonna get to the top of that mountain, I'm not gonna deviate from my rhythm," and yet the drums and keyboards are doing their best to attack me... And that's how that one works.

Now, something like "Torturetainment" works because Martyn and myself are in quite a strong rhythm, like you say you could dance to, and then Barry sounds like he's doing the most evil dentistry ever, over the top of that, and that basically comes to a massive conclusion where you can't torture any more, and either the person dies or they stop the torture -- and then you have a sort of sublime second half where Barry just drones, and I play these delicate little pieces on the guitar over the top of it. There's lots of ways of -- oh, God, I'm gonna sound like a seminar on how to improvise! -- there's lots of ways of achieving that conversation... We're not always creating a rhythm -- not all of us all the time are creating a rhythm, if you see what I mean. One person can be while the others are doing something else. Two people can be, one can be doing something else. I don't know if there's any important part where we're all creating rhythmic things.

That brings up a good question: Did you have no preconceived notion of what these things would sound like when you sat down to play?

No, we never -- maybe foolishly, maybe we should have done! -- we never discussed anything like sort of atmospheres or anything, we never sat down and said "Okay, let's do one that's gentle," or "Let's do one where the first half is loud and the second half is quiet." There was nothing like that... We never even spoke of keys -- or very rarely. I think one of the pieces that we did we actually said "OK, let's try something in C." And we ended up not even using it. All the pieces that we used, there was no discussion of keys; it was a case of "Is he rolling in there, in the control room? OK, he's rolling, go!" And we just let the music dictate totally. As I say, there was no jumping in the air to say "OK, stop, you bastards," or "Change!" It was totally a musical conversation.

And when it worked, it worked. And when it didn't, we threw it out. I don't know if an hour and a half out of eight hours is a good percentage for improvised music. I don't know how much music Miles Davis threw away. Dave Gregory bought me the "Cellar Door Sessions" for Christmas; it's like six CDs, and I've got to be honest, not a lot of it works. But the bits that do work, really, really work. Those are the bits that they chopped out to make -- was it "Bitches' Brew"? Or "Live/Evil"? I don't remember which album it was that they diced it up to become.... But there's an awful lot of "The Cellar Door Sessions" that don't work. That's the nature of improvised music. When it all clicks, it's -- sheesh! -- it's kind of god-like, but when it doesn't click, it's just monkeys wandering around in the mire!

Monstrance at the Swindon New College

I think my favorite piece -- I gotta say, I love this record, by the way -- I think my favorite piece has been "Chain Gang," which reminds me of some of the more sedate parts of the late Captain Beefheart, "Ice Cream for Crow" or "Doc at the Radar Station."

Right -- probably my guitar tone. It's just a kind of twangorous tone. For some reason, my hand just fell onto a little rhythm thing, I wasn't even thinking about it, it just happened to go in 7/4 time. And Martyn was -- because we never discussed it -- he just kind of started something up in 4/4 time. The tension is this, you know, this -- whatever it is that resolves itself every 28 bars or whatever, it never rests, because he's basically playing fours, I'm basically playing sevens, and it never rests. The two rhythms are constantly looking for each other, there's this seesawing searching going on, guitar looking for the drums, the drums looking for the guitar. They very rarely come together, but it's that continuous chase that makes it exciting. And then over the top, Barry is really just commenting on the chase, like a mother saying "Come on, catch him up, now you tag him," you know...

That's one of the straighter -- actually, my favorite pieces on the disks are the longer ones that actually go on a journey. The shorter ones, which possibly a little more groove-based, I still like them, which is why they're in there, but my real favorites are "Cosmonaut" and "Priapple," the ones that go on a long journey and keep mutating into something else.

I noticed in "Pagoda Tailfin," you're doing something that you've done before, which is to use your delay unit as a musical instrument. There's a point, I don't remember how far in, where you start playing a rhythmic thing, and you've got it set on a very long delay -- I don't know if you actually played with the delay or not --

What you hear is, any effects that we applied are really an amplification of any effects we're using on the floor. So, I was playing through a Pod, and I would dial up a long delay. And then in the mix, what we did, "Oh, let's make it sound a little more stereo," so what we did was actually put exactly the same delay on it again, and then pan it over on the other side, so the guitar has an element of stereo about it. So all those reverbs and echoes were basically happening from the floor.

Yes, so it's me tangling myself, you know, knitting a cats'-cradle of live guitar and echoed guitar.

Yeah, and what's fun for the listener is to hear you not only create that, but to almost be inside your head as you realize that that cats' cradle is possible...

Yeah, you have to really listen out when you're playing with such a long delay, because you're walking on very spiky ground! If you stumble, and play something awfully wrong, awfully not conversational to the other instruments, it's gonna get repeated...and...repeated...! [Laughs] It's like you let a fart escape -- it's not gonna be just one fart, they're gonna be really loud, and lots of them, and then all over again, and all over again... So you have to be very careful when you're playing live with a delay! [Laughs] Hey, it makes you want to play the album!

Do you know, I don't think, apart from mixing it, I don't think I've heard it on headphones since it was mixed. I've had a bit of a phobia about headphones since then -- and you can't blame me -- but I really ought to play it on headphones and get back into the sort of 3-D space of it. It was created in a very small studio, and I'm stood about three feet away from the drums, with my amp behind me, and Barry's stood about three feet in front of the drums, with his keyboard stuff in front of him, so it was all very intimate, you know? There's no separation, you could just put up the drum mikes and you'd hear all the other instruments perfectly. It sort of mixed itself.

That's interesting... There's a real conversation going on between your right and left ears when you hear it in headphones.

Oh yeah -- well certainly on that track, because the copy of the delay that we put on in the mix is the same as the copy that was live; it's panned on the other side, so anything seems to pull through your head every time the guitar hits, it sort of pulls through your head, if you see what I mean.

For being made in a small, student studio, it sounds really good.

Yeah, it's a tiny studio. The studio is pretty small, but we actually only used one little half of it, because we wanted to be close to each other, to make sure there was utmost communication; should somebody play something you don't want to think "Oh, I'm not hearing it correctly." I never played with headphones -- I don't think any of us played with headphones; we just played listening to each other because we were all in such a small radius.

Do you intend to carry on with this project? Will there be more Monstrance?

Oh, I'd love to, yeah! I guess to some extent, it's depending on if we make our money back -- or if I make my money back. It didn't cost too much money to actually record and mix, but the mastering was expensive because we wanted to take it to a good mastering studio, I guess to compensate for the rather cheap studio that we did it in. And of course there's no bass, so you've got to go careful mixing and mastering so it doesn't sound too light and powerless. So I guess really the money was spent on mastering and the sleeve art , getting my concept made up by Andrew Swainson, and then advertising and getting these things produced. I guess if we make money back, if we don't lose money doing this, that'll be nature's way of saying "Do you know, you should do some more!"

Really, I have a fantasy that this will kind of allow me to escape the beautiful gilded prison of song for a bit. Because I think I need to. I think I've kind of built a prison for myself with songwriting. And personally, I'm in a very unusual mental place where I'm finding it difficult to imagine writing better stuff than the material that came out on "Apple Venus." So it's almost as if I've taken my one rail of my musical influence as far as I can, so maybe I should take the other rail as far as I can.

As I say, it's nothing new. People are going to think [sneering tone] "Ah, he's trying something different," you know. But this experimental side has always been there, from early teens, and like I say, a lot of the records I really liked were not a million miles away from what I'm doing on "Monstrance."

And in the interest of making that money back, where can one acquire this album?

Well, it actually gets a domestic release in the United States on the seventh! [of April].

And it will be distributed to retail stores?

Yeah, dammit! We have Ryko/Warner's distribution power behind us, so you should be able to get it in stores, and if you can't find it in a store, don't go in that store again because they obviously have no taste! Go immediately to! Actually the whole APE catalog is coming out in the States on the seventh.

Oh, that's great news!

Yeah, it's the first distribution deal we've ever had in the States. I'm excited, because it'll double the market, and double the amount of people that'll get to hear the APE label, and hopefully make some money for us, because right now it's losing money, and it would be nice if it made some money, because I can't afford to keep throwing money at projects that I really believe in if we don't sell enough to cover the cost of manufacturing them. We want to become a label where people see the APE logo and they say "I know that's gonna be good stuff on there!"

Friday, April 06, 2007

It's Nice to Be Wanted, I Suppose...

I'm being pursued by a headhunter for Microsoft.

I haven't actually spoken with him yet -- it's been importunate emails, invitations to connect on LinkedIn (that is not a way to win points with me) and, this morning, a voice-mail message that I have no intention of returning.

The idea of packing up the family at this point in our lives -- kids just about to enter high school, with Betty set to attend a very good private school we've just found out she's been accepted at -- is utterly laughable. Seattle. As if! And leave Jingo Acres...! Sorry, Chuck. Not gonna happen.

And us as Macintoshed-up a family as exists. If Apple called, I might have some trouble living with myself. But not Microsoft.

I suppose I should take it as a sign that things are looking up in my profession (user-interface design)....
Viva Seattle-Tacoma,
Viva-viva Sea-Tac!
Viva-viva-viva-viva-viva Sea-Tac!
They've got the best computers and coffee and smack!

Further on Those Sixteenth Notes

According to Geoff Emerick, the sound-engineer who sat in on many of the Beatles' sessions, and who witnessed the recording of "A Hard Day's Night," George Harrison was a pretty lousy guitar player. Here's from his (utterly wonderful) book, Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Beatles, cowritten with Howard Massey, and raved about by Bobby Lightfoot here:
Then we were ready to attack Harrison's solo. George must have been having a bad day...because he was having real difficulty nailing it. After some discussion about having Paul play the part instead (McCartney was a fine guitarist himself and seemed always ready to jump in and show up his younger bandmate), George Martin finally decided to instead employ the same "wound-up piano" technique he had done the year previous on the song "Misery." I was told to roll the tape at half speed while George [Martin] went down into the studio and doubled the guitar solo on an out-of-tune upright piano. Both parts had to be played simultaneously because there was only one track [left on the tape; the other three had been taken up with the original take, plus double-tracked vocals, an acoustic rhythm guitar, cowbell and bongos], and it was fascinating watching the two Georges -- Harrison and Martin -- working side by side in the studio, foreheads furrowed in concentration as they played the rhythmically complex solo in tight unison on their respective instruments.
Emerick is rather scathing on Harrison's often lugubrious guitar playing on other recordings too, and says that sessions would grind to a halt when it came time to record the guitar solos. Describing the session for Harrison's own song, "Taxman," he says,
There was a bit of tension on that session, though, because George had a great deal of trouble playing the solo -- in fact, he couldn't even do a proper job of it when we slowed the tape down to half speed.

After a couple of hours watching him struggle, both Paul and George Martin started becoming quite frustrated -- this was, after all, a Harrison song and therefore not something anyone was prepared to spend a whole lot of time on. So George Martin went into the studio and, as diplomatically as possible, announced that he wanted Paul to have a go at the solo instead. I could see from the look on Harrison's face that he didn't like the idea one bit, but he reluctantly agreed and proceeded to disappear for a couple of hours.... Paul's solo was stunning in its ferocity -- his guitar playing had a fire and an energy that his younger bandmate's rarely matched -- and was accomplished in just a take or two.
As I'm as expert a name-dropper as anyone besides my excellent friend Paul Newman, I'm pleased to report I've had an email conversation with Dave Gregory, the former lead guitarist and keyboardist of XTC and no stranger to a Rickenbacker 360-12 himself. Here's what he said about That Chord:
More significant is your re-appraisal of the opening chord. I now realise that for the best part of 30 years I have been playing it wrongly! You are correct, [Neddie] - there is no 'F' in the chord. However, I must disagree slightly with your published diagram and refer you back to "Beatles: The Complete Scores" because for once, I do believe they've got this one right.

The instrumentation I think is correct comprises 2 Rickenbacker 12-string parts and a high bass note. There is no piano or snare drum, as some have suggested, which came as another surprise to me after all these years!

Rick part one plays (low to high) (muted Es), open As, open Ds, open Gs, Cs at fret 1 on B-strings and Gs at fret 3 on high E-strings.

Rick part two plays a barre of Gsus4 at fret 3. Bass plays a D either at fret 12 of D-string or fret 7 of G-string.

What sounds like a snare drum creating the attack is actually the Altec compressor slamming in to attenuate the initial impact, only to slowly release the decaying chord, magically exposing those wayward overtones in the process. Try doing that with a plug-in!
I'm particularly tickled that he says he's been playing it wrong, as one of XTC's early hits, "This Is Pop," quite self-consciously quoted the chord... Says Dave,
We used the Andy Summers "Walking On The Moon" shape, of course. Or rather, Summers used Andy [Partridge's]'s...
Not a whole lot of love lost between those two rivals....

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

What Is Sexy?

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue?

Yawn. Supermodels writhing in the surf. Bleah.

Victoria's Secret Catalog?

Tfoo! Blow-dried, Photoshopped steel-bellied airheads in ridiculous lingerie that would look awful on anybody who's not a steel-bellied airhead with legs six feet long and a waist the girth of a pencil.

But when the Land's End Spring Swimsuit Catalog hits the Jingo mailbox?

Spread the beach-towel and break out the hand-lotion... That publication, my friends, is sexy.

It's simple, really: I can actually imagine having a conversation with these women. And really enjoying it.

Dude, they're selling to women.

Well, yes, exactly! They're selling swimsuits to women -- women who are self-conscious about their imperfect bodies -- and the swimsuits are designed to mask those imperfections: low thigh-openings, high necklines, underwires, panels to "control" bellies that may have borne children. The models are lovely women, but lovely in a way that a female shopper might actually realistically aspire to. No heavy makeup, no gigantic bolt-on hooties, just women who happen to be particularly attractive, wearing swimsuits. Unthreatening. Real.

I find that unbearably sexy.

They're also slightly on the older side, which I find in my encroaching dotage to be a major
plus. They exude intelligence and experience. They might actually take my Dadaist sense of humor and give as good as they get. I hate it when, after a nonsequitur joke, a woman looks at me like I've just crawled out from under a rock. High-school was one long, nightmarish series of girls looking at me slantendicular and always saying exactly the same thing: "God, you're so weird!"

It's precisely the imperfections that are so intriguing. The smaller breasts, the wider hips, the thicker waists -- these are in fact the very things that make me imagine them to be actual human beings rather than fluffed and Photoshopped wank-objects.

I understand I'm being trite, toeing the feminist party line. You just want to talk. Yeah, right.

No -- I'm trying to be honest. I can't get exited about an image of a sexy woman unless I can also imagine that the woman would be real enough -- human enough -- to hold an actual conversation with me. The Land's End catalog, aimed as it is at women insecure about their bodies, presents to me images of women who are unthreatening to other women. This woman-to-woman appeal, I think, is the key: I need an idealized image of female sexuality that is acceptable to actual living, breathing, menstruating, micturating, defecating, farting, spider-veined, small-breasted, square-assed, potbellied, thunder-thighed women who think that getting sand in the intimate bits of their swimsuits is funny.

Is that so weird?