Talks from Cassettes from the Radio

Prompted by a suggestion to examine what “talks” I rate as favorites, I can think of a few that stand out. 2015 offers an overflowing river of talks and podcasts; for the most part I’ve not dipped a toe. At home, I’d rather read a physical copy of Harper’s Magazine, read through a never-ending Instapaper queue, read fiction or watch films.

In the Summer of 2001, my then-roommate Yong introduced me to a talk by anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldecott. We lived in Brooklyn, and Yong would drive us in his beat down Buick to far-off Queens destinations for Afghani sweets or fried vegan Caribbean foodstuffs. On these trip we listened to the radio, usually WFMU or WKCR, but occasionally Yong would reach into his glove compartment for a well-played cassette tape onto which he had, many years before, recorded a talk off WBAI. Over the next two years I listened to portions of this talk many times, often zoned, half-reading the street signs or watching the street lights blink by as Caldicott outlined the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. We subjected other passengers, friends & lovers, to this talk, but they often complained of the depressing nature of Caldicott’s message: she spoke of impending nuclear doom, of the mad men in control of humanity’s fate, of the chilling decisions society has made up to this point, and what we may have ahead of us if we continue down the path of “nuclear madness.” So it was most often just Yong & me, riding the streets, listening.

I never made a dub of this cassette and haven’t thought about it in a long time. Cursory searches turn up some potential sources on the Pacifica Radio Archives, but many of these carry the warning:

This recording is currently on a 1/4” reel tape and has not been digitally preserved.

I reached out to Yong to see if he still has the cassette, but haven’t heard back. He lives in Seoul, running an art gallery & bar called Satellite / 새틀라이트. He may eventually respond, and perhaps with a digitized version of his copy from the radio. I wonder if the exact provenance of Caldicott’s talk is less important than the memory of the actual cassette tape. And the memory of the cassette itself is subsumed by the memories of our decade-plus-old experiences of driving around the boroughs, listening, and convincing others to listen.

There's A Place For Us

I recall the easy way we slipped into shows in earlier days. Pre-purchasing tickets was something we almost never did: there was always room for one or two more. Though a part of me knew that the Grouper show at Swedish American Hall would “sell out” I also did not want to commit to leaving the house after 8pm on a Friday: the days start early in our house, and that Friday began before 5AM. So when I arrived and the gatekeepers sheepishly turned me away, suggesting I come back in an hour to see if there was room, I wasn’t totally surprised. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll just grab a beer and come back.” But strolling down Market and passing Lucky 13 and Blackbird, the smell of stale beer kept me moving. Across the way stood Aardvark Books and it had been awhile since I browsed there. 9PM and they’re still open, fantastic. The guy behind the counter barely looked up as I entered, and I was immediately attracted to the Staff Picks box with a paperback copy of Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. I’d never read Whitehead before, and I was drawn in to the first few pages. But the music playing in Aardvark continued to give me pause, a cast recording of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, especially “Somewhere” and the lead up to The Rumble.

Earlier in the week I read a few pieces on Ethan Iverson’s Do The Math blog that mention West Side Story in the context of Buddy Rich’s show-off drum virtuosity vs. the devotional music of free jazz players:

A story about Mel Lewis: Mel hated giving lessons, but finally a kid talked him into letting him come by a record session and watch Mel at work. During a break Mel gestured for the kid to sit behind the kit, and said, “Play me a snare roll.” The kid played a good, professional roll. Maybe not as good as the one that starts the movie Whiplash, but still, a good roll. Not easy to do. Mel took his sticks back and said, “See, right there is your problem. You shouldn’t be able to do that. I can’t do that. You gotta quit that shit and start becoming a drummer.” That’s a fun story, but truthfully drummers do need to learn how to roll. Mel himself surely learned to roll at some early point. However the point is clear. At least for Mel Lewis, devotion has precedence over chops. Another way to say it is: After you are good enough to learn your military rudiments, are you good enough to let them take a back seat to feel?

While browsing the stacks, among many posters for various anarchist book fairs, Aardvark proudly displays a poster version of Chris Ware’s Penguin Classics cover of Voltaire’s Candide: Or Optimism. A thoroughly engaging and depressing piece.

Back to Swedish American, and the sleepy gate keepers were surprised and happy to guide me in to hear some music. I entered during Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s performance. Enchanting, haunting, bubbling.

And then Grouper. I’d prefer to leave Haunting as a descriptor for her set. She played sitting cross-legged on the floor, Paul Clipson films projected on the wall behind. I recall seeing her in Portland at Holocene in 2008 with a very similar vibe to her set. That rush of hiss and crackle, the sound of her guitar so “live” or “hot” you can hear the jangling of her bracelets through the pickups, the strings so open, so much room between them, but everything reverberating. A dream, surely.

The Rise of the Novel

As ruminated on by Jonathan Franzen while reading Robinson Crusoe on a “deserted” island that may be the one that Defoe modeled his novel after:

The most persuasive account remains the political-economic one that Ian Watt advanced fifty years ago. The birthplace of the novel, in its modern form, happens also to have been Europe’s most economically dominant and sophisticated nation, and Watt’s analysis of this coincidence is blunt but powerful, tying together the glorification of the enterprising individual, the expansion of a literate bourgeoisie eager to read about itself, the rise in social mobility (inviting writers to exploit its anxieties), the specialization of labor (creating a society of interesting differences), the disintegration of the old social order into a collection of individual isolates, and, of course, among the newly comfortable middle class, the dramatic increase in leisure for reading. At the same time, England was rapidly becoming more secular. Protestant theology had laid the foundations of the new economy by reimagining the social order as a collection of self-reliant individuals with a direct relationship with God, but by 1700, as the British economy thrived, it was becoming less clear that individuals needed God at all. It’s true that, as any impatient child reader can tell you, many pages of “Robinson Crusoe” are devoted to its hero’s spiritual journey. Robinson finds God on the island, and he turns to Him repeatedly in moments of crisis, praying for deliverance and ecstatically thanking Him for providing the means of it. And yet, as soon as each crisis has passed, he reverts to his practical self and forgets about God; by the end of the book, he seems to have been saved more by his own industry and ingenuity than by Providence. To read the story of Robinson’s vacillations and forgetfulness is to see the genre of spiritual autobiography unravelling into realist fiction.

From Farther Away - The New Yorker

Like crippled Hephaestus, hammering together his warped and magnificent books

Infinite Jest is, on its face, the most daunting of novels; 1,079 pages, 96 of them endnotes; text in small type pointing you constantly to text in smaller type, necessitating multiple bookmarks; an immersion in two subcultures, junior tennis and addiction recovery; a time commitment to be measured in weeks, not days — two months for serious readers, Wallace thought.

[...]

There was something in him that could absorb American language in all its registers and compound it into a voice that in its every deployment said more about the country than whatever Wallace himself happened to be saying. One of the most frequently aired complaints about Wallace was that he was a show-off, that his own voice drowned out those of his characters, that there was something self-indulgent about his massive forays into antic cultural comedy. But I think he knew, having the self he had, the only thing to do with it was to put it to work, like crippled Hephaestus, hammering together his warped and magnificent books.”

From The Rewriting of David Foster Wallace

No history, no metatext, no terroir

Even the other kids’ menu stalwarts have more history to them than the chicken tender, a relatively new addition to the gastronomic landscape that only reached deep-fryer ubiquity in the 1990s. (This itself is a fascinatingly rare phenomenon: when was the last time something truly novel hit the culinary zeitgeist that didn’t have a trademark appended to it?) It takes more than one generation to develop the intricate root system of nostalgia that anchors the ballpark pastoral of hot dogs or nachos, the picket-fence vignette of fried bologna sandwiches, or the dusty-road Americana of a burger and an ice-cold Coke. Chicken tenders have no history, they have no metatext, they have no terroir.

From On Chicken Tenders by Helen Rosner

All the notes Bird missed

From Thomas Pynchon's V. where McClintic Sphere plays a white ivory saxophone at the “V Spot.”

“He plays all the notes Bird missed,” somebody whispered in front of Fu. Fu went silently through the motions of breaking a beer bottle on the edge of the table, jamming it into the speaker’s back and twisting.

RIP Ornette Coleman.

Online as an egoless cloud

The stable, midlevel urban creative type produces himself online as an egoless cloud, holier than the oafish net, feeling nothing as he tosses links into the ether. He studies the moment with unfeeling anthropological distance, but is not himself a part of the madness. To feel things online is to hang a degrading “Kik me” sign on your back. In the moments of weakness when we do succomb to digital release, we slam our screens shut in post-climax shame, clinging to the supposedly more real space of the IRL.

Not himself part of the madness, hmmm. From Negotiations at the IRL/URL Border.

Everyone who has a birth certificate

As for the electromagnetic spectrum, there are economists, like Peter Barnes, who propose that fees for that and other resources be shared with everyone who holds a Social Security card. I'd say everyone who has a birth certificate.

Phyllis Segura recalls the circumstances around the creation of the magazine Radical Software in Creating Radical Software: A Personal Account.

A Video Year in Review

I didn't shoot much video in 2014, and so I was able to take a few seconds of each clip I did shoot to assemble this Review. Marcello, as expected, is the star of the show. Also included are some Hyperlapse experiments. This little project encourages me to shoot more video in 2015.

2014: A Year in Review

While not officially the end of the Horse Year, I feel our gallop slowing as we end this Gregorian calendar year of 2014. Far and above, the pregnancy, birth and infanthood of our son Casimir Carr, born September 14, consumed this year for the four of us. But before his actual birth, Audrey, Marcello and I spent a fast-paced year, our last as a threesome.

We began by experimenting with renting out our apartment on airbnb while temporarily ensconced in the basement. Our thinking was that perhaps we would take a sabbatical to the western coast of Mexico, playing and working remotely from a beach town in Oaxaca. We found out Audrey was pregnant, scuttled those plans, and waited out the rest of the month in the basement listening to 45s on Marcello’s new record player and cursing our Norwegian airbnb guests.

Throughout the year, Marcello and I spent more and more time together, at first by necessity of pregnancy and then birth, but ultimately because we became closer as son and father. We developed daily routines, private jokes, physical games. A highlight of life thus far is to have initiated a morning ritual of crossing swords with Marcello, a delight for three- or thirty-six-year-olds.

Both of my parents retired this year, a coincidental big change for them. My mother took the opportunity to sell the family house and move with her sister to a beautiful little community in Delaware. In May, Audrey, Marcello and I visited New Jersey and the house where I grew up — the first time for the two of them, and the last time for all of us. We visited during that late Spring sweet spot of warm days and evenings without humidity, and spent our days relishing in child-friendly suburbia with walks along the idyllic Pennypacker Park and Cooper River, playing at the Erlton playground that abuts the old house and making Philadelphia day trips for eating, shopping and museum-going. The Barnes Foundation Museum was a highlight for Audrey and me, though it may be the most toddler-unfriendly museum we’ve yet visited: rooms full of toddler-sized chairs sitting on the museum floors below the walls of amazing paintings and nothing between actual toddlers and said chairs. Neither the museum guards nor Marcello were happy with the situation. We ate our fill of pizza, water ice and bagels and said goodbye to Sheridan Avenue and Erlton for the last time.

We enrolled Marcello in a wonderful, Waldorf-inspired preschool and he began attending Neighborhood Playgarden in September. He and I ride my bicycle up the considerable hill to drop him off, and I’m daily woo’d by the aesthetics, the cozy vibe, the imaginative play that welcomes us at the door. As we get to know the other children, their families and the teachers, we’re quite excited and enthralled by the community we’ve found ourselves in.

On Sunday September 14, after returning from our friend Harper’s birthday party and putting Marcello down for his afternoon nap, Audrey came into the living room to announce that she was in labor. Less than five hours later, Casimir entered this world in our bedroom on Page Street and our little family grew by one. From that first moment Casimir has proven to be a quiet, good-natured, strong and determined person. And as he awakes from his “fourth trimester” his smiling, goofy side becomes more apparent and we, all four of us, can just laugh and laugh. Marcello is an adoring big brother, loves to help where he can, loves to kiss and play with Casimir, loves to tell other people about “his” baby.

Live Music

A strange year for me in my consumption of live music: I may have seen/heard fewer shows in 2014 than when I commenced my years as a live music lover. Perhaps 2011 competes and then I can chalk it up to a birth year. However, another interesting thing is that I believe I did not step into one club this whole year. I've long appreciated and preferred "alternative" music venues to the staid rock clubs of much of my listening career and this year may have been one of the first where I stepped foot into not one of them. The shows that memory recalls:

  • Tim Hecker at the new Gray Area space in the Mission Theater. I don't think I've ever felt as totally immersed in sound as I did that evening. I'm in the milk and the milk's in me, indeed.
  • Terry Riley closing out the music season and life at BAM/PFA. Enchanting, thoughtful, playful as the other occasions I've seen Riley at BAM, this video from a few years back gives a hint. The L@TE series at BAM/PFA have been an important part of my music-listening life in the Bay Area, and I will deeply miss the cavernous reverberations of the main hall.
  • Bill Orcutt twice at Steven Wolff Fine Arts, an excellent series put on by Superior Viaduct records. The second time accompanied by Sir Richard Bishop. Orcutt is a local treasure. Bishop has a deep talent that mesmerizes and surprises every time I see/hear him play. I sincerely hope Steven Wolff continues to host music at his gallery. Intimate and inspiring.
  • A Xenakis/Scelsi performance by the sfSound people at San Francisco Conservatory of Music Concert Hall. Its a rare treat to hear Twentieth Century composition performed in SF, and this evening was a treat.
  • The Garden of Memory Summer Solstice music celebration, most especially Henry Kaiser filling a beautifully sunset-lit room with pleasing bubbles of just-intonation and drones. I lost my family as I stood in rapture. This is a unique experience, housed in the columbarium of the Chapel of the Chimes, musicians spread out in various nooks and crannies, echoes of one bleeding into tones of another, names known and unknown, children and adults wandering, smiling.
  • Matmos at the San Francisco Art Institute on a beautiful SF evening, preceded by a barbecue on their terrace with astounding views. Reconnected with old colleague Hesse, now the Vice President for Exhibitions and Public Programs at SFAI

Recorded Music

I continue to "scrobble" music to last.fm and that service reports that my top listened-to artists of the last year were:

  1. Bedhead
  2. Tim Hecker
  3. Stereolab
  4. Fennesz
  5. Azusa Plane
  6. Fantastic Palace
  7. The Clean
  8. Unwound
  9. Glenn Gould
  10. Actress

The Numero Group Bedhead reissue garnered lots of playing over the last few months which pushed that group up to the top. The same can be said of Numero's Unwound reissue campaign. Hecker, Stereolab, Fennesz & Actress make a good soundtrack for my working days. I ordered that Fantastic Palace LP at the very end of 2013, but it made it on to my turntable often in 2014, and apparently on my Rdio playlists as well. I listened through the entirety of the Azusa Plane discography over the course of a few days and I've a story about that which may come into being in early 2015. I didn't have much time to listen to vinyl this year, but on the few chance times that I opted to listen in that format, the records that stood out included Bill Orcutt's contribution to VDSQ. O Platitudes! Silkworm's Libertine 2XLP lovingly reissued by WPRB's John Solomon & Comedy Minus One. Also, two Brigitte Fontaine reissues on Superior Viaduct: Brigitte Fontaine Est...Folle and Comme À La Radio.

Books

Part of the way through 2014 I realized that almost all of my reading was happening in digital form, and that translated into a never-ending Instapaper queue of long-form articles. I had a few paper-based books lingering in a partially-read state when I decided that if started actually using my Kindle, perhaps I would read more novels. The list of books I read:

  • Memoir from Antproof Case by Mark Helprin. Not as engaging as Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War, though thoroughly enjoyable most especially for the numerous rants against coffee and its ill effects (which had me questioning my own intake) and the wonderful passage describing the narrator's passion for and horse trip with Constance.
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Loved the descriptions of gentrification and post-collegiate family-making juxtaposed with a devotion to artistry and what two friends on opposite sides of that divide make of it in conversation and silence. Patty is an incredible character, and I relished in celebrating and squirming along with her decisions throughout.
  • Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders. Saunders seemed to explore more of the heavily emotional content that is often buried among his more post-modern fractured realities. The title story is heavy.
  • Forming II by Jesse Moynihan (An expanded mind of a nap time.)
  • My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgård. On recommendation from lots of folks known and read. I was alternately drawn to and repelled by the nauseating episodes of self doubt and long lists of mundane objects and ideas. And perhaps that was part of the point in determining how (and how much) I, as a reader, either identified with or sneered at those passages.
  • The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. Masterful as I feel most of Bolaño’s work is. Even in the passages where I couldn’t believe they continued for as long as they did, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I deeply wanted to inhabit the world of the Visceral Realists, riding endless busses to endless cafes to discuss endless poetry.
  • Blindness by José Saramago. One of the heaviest books I’ve read, most especially the descriptions of what this society must endure and ultimately how we can overcome as communities vs. individuals. I often wanted to give up on this due to its depressing descriptions of humanity at its worst, but glad I pushed through.
  • Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon, finished just into the New Year in anticipation of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation. I recall criticism around the time of its publishing of this being his "pop" novel, though I can't recall whether it was meant as complimentary. But what I can say is that the novel is certainly complementary to the rest of Pynchon's oeuvre, regardless of his intended audience. The prose does not seem dashed off, or "easy", and while I don't feel like it hits the heights and depths of Gravity's Rainbow or Against The Day, the book had me enthralled in its characters, explorations of paranoia, musical side numbers, offbeat sex and descriptions of various levels and skeins of power and control.
  • The Circle by Dave Eggers. Put it down earlier in 2014, but willing to give it a second chance and finish in 2015. Something about the prose itself was unsettling to me, but the ideas seem relevant to now and worth fully digesting.
  • The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. Aa tough slog for the first fifty pages, and I put it down in favor of Savage Detectives. I wasn't in the right frame of mind, Casimir recently born, semi-sleepless, heavy emotions. Will definitely push through in 2015.

Film

Again, a year of limited viewing, but dominated for me by a few heavy films:

  • Snowpiercer was so unbelievably intense, beautiful and somewhat horrific. Every Frame a Painting did an excellent analysis of how a filmmaker can show character choices visually.
  • Guardians of The Galaxy was an extremely entertaining film to see in the theater, especially with my father and brother, recalling a childhood of summer blockbuster science fiction films.
  • Only Lovers Left Alive, with a gorgeous soundtrack by Jozef Van Wissem, was a strange mediation on and appreciation of Jim Jarmusch’s dark aesthetics.
  • I came across In the White City while trawling Karagarga late one night. A haunting film of love, sex, death, music and walking around the city of Lisbon. A wonderful soundtrack by Jean-Luc Barbier. Later that week, my coworker Reuben was recommending this film to me as we drove down to see Jonathan Corum, Bret Victor, Mike Bostock, and Edward Tufte speak at a conference. Strange coincidence, that.
  • Audrey and I thoroughly enjoyed the very charming Grand Budapest Hotel.
  • Audrey discovered the film Café de Flore which has a haunting quality about it, entwined lives, mother-love, destiny and the soul-penetration of music.
  • I introduced Marcello to My Neighbor Totoro this year and we’ve subsequently watched this magical, enchanting film several times together. The Catbus is a frequent topic in our household.

The Year to Come

2015 is shaping up nicely, stolen bicycles on January 2nd aside. Marcello and I have a resolution to floss and brush our teeth and wash our faces every morning when we wake up and every evening before we go to bed. He loves to talk about our resolution, and to attempt to talk me out of it. But we’ve been doing quite well. And I’ve resolved to use this space to write more regularly, this post a first shot.