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Posts Tagged ‘music’

Big, Bent Ears, Chapter 8: Surrender to the Situation, Part 1

September 9, 2015 | by


Photo: Ivan Weiss

Oren Ambarchi and Tyondai Braxton lead parallel lives in the world of experimental music. Ambarchi, an avid collaborator and one-third of the noise trio Nazoranai, played at Big Ears in 2014. Braxton, who has composed both avant-rock and classical music, played at Big Ears 2015. Ambarchi performs solo on guitar amid a nest of synths. Braxton’s latest project is an installation called HIVE, in which five percussionists and musicians playing modular synths sits atop honeycombed pods. Ambarchi and Braxton both play music that is durational and unpredictable, that depends upon instruments and sonic forms that are, as Ambarchi says, “inherently out of control.” Braxton calls it “impossible, beautiful music.”

Good documentary work is a form of barely controlled chaos, too. Opportunities can’t be forced or planned; once the work begins, scripts and proposals mean very little. Documentary process is one of experimentation—determined listening and watching and patience allow strange symmetries and unlikely affinities to emerge. There’s a reason we’re calling “Big, Bent Ears” a “Serial in Documentary Uncertainty.” In the last three chapters of the series—beginning here, in chapter eight—Ivan Weiss and Sam Stephenson do as Ambarchi and Braxton do: they surrender to the situation.

Read the latest chapter here, and catch up on the rest of the series:

Nicole Rudick is managing editor of The Paris Review.

The Waiting Game

September 3, 2015 | by

The first release of “September Song.”

One of my “parlor tricks,” if such you can call it, used to be performing the Kurt Weill standard “September Song” in the voice of Lotte Lenya. I can’t pretend anyone ever requested this, per se, but from the ages of fifteen to about twenty-one, I broke into it on the slightest pretext. Among other things, the rendition was very loud. No record exists of my performances: small mercies, et cetera.

“September Song” was famously written for Walter Huston’s limited vocal range, and his initial rendition—as an elderly Peter Stuyvesant in 1938’s Knickerbocker Holiday—remains, for many, the most poignant. (To anyone who would laugh at the thought of a seventeenth-century Dutch colonist singing one of musical theater’s great laments on aging, I would merely point out that “Memory” is performed by an anguished cat.) My grandfather always talked about first hearing the song when Walter Huston visited the radio program for which he was a writer in 1938. He cried, he said. When he died, it was sung at his funeral. Read More »

The World Doesn’t Care About You, and Other News

August 31, 2015 | by

Bad Brains in 1983. Photo: Malco23

  • Today in reevaluations of problematic twentieth-century philosophers: Heidegger’s predilection for tragedy and poetry informed his yearning for a grand narrative, a story that could encompass all of history. That yearning, in turn, is part of what led him to Nazism. Even so, “Heidegger’s tragic, overblown interpretation of Nazism may have been unique to him, but he was certainly not the only twentieth-century philosopher to think that poetry and tragedy might preserve something integral to human experience that was in danger of being swallowed up by the forces of reason and demystification … Maybe academic philosophy today has conceded too much ground to demystifying argumentation, to judgment and quantification. Maybe we do need more poetry in our lives. Maybe films really do represent a last gasp for tragedy and grand-scale thinking in the modern world.”
  • Jane Smiley, whose Art of Fiction interview will appear in our Fall issue, discusses her cluttered office in Carmel Valley, California: “I have never objected to mess, since mess reminds me that I can choose to write or I can choose to clean, and I have always chosen to write … I have never liked privacy in a writing room; I have always preferred noise and traffic and phone calls and people walking in and out.”
  • Remembering New York City’s hardcore scene, some thirty years later: “The insight boiling up, across all of these records, is: the world doesn’t care about you. There are no merit badges awarded for normalcy and complacency for the likes of us in straight society. It’s a long slog, and some days you are just a piece of living meat unhappily compelled to work and eat and sleep and go through the motions of your relationships, just because it is too much trouble to do otherwise. Hardcore starts from the minimal, almost entirely swallowed-up spark of human life, maybe just the faint, unwanted heartbeat whose persistence means, ‘I have to go to work today.’ The young Marx thought that mankind would attain its ‘species-being’ in the free time obtained for human development after the attainment of communism. Hardcore says: our species-being is a pretty ugly thing, for now, but we have to own it. It—we—can’t wait.”
  • For the past several years, an experimental genre of creative nonfiction has been quietly thriving online: one-star Yelp reviews of national parks. Don’t let the unsophisticated and often ungrammatical prose fool you; these works have taken the pulse of America. Read on as our nation’s treasures and all manners of natural beauty are cast aside as garbage: Death Valley is “the ugliest place I have ever seen,” Yosemite needs more parking lots, and Carlsbad Caverns appeals only if “you find big caves and rocks overwhelmingly fascinating.”
  • Geoff Dyer revisits Raymond Williams: “Borders—how they are constructed and recognized, how they impede and are crossed—are central to his thought … [he] entirely reshaped my sense of life and literature and the way they were related … Before that, in a way that now seems hard to credit, I had no understanding of the social process I’d lived through even though it was, by then, a well-documented one: the working-class boy who keeps passing exams—exams that take him first to grammar school, then to an Oxbridge college—and discovers only in retrospect that there was more to all this than exams, or even education.”

Picnic Time

August 28, 2015 | by

Elizabeth Shippen Green, 1906.

In 1932, an Irish popular songwriter named Jimmy Kennedy penned one of the most sinister sets of lyrics ever composed. Kennedy—who had already had Tin Pan Alley success with numbers like “Barmaids Song” and “Red Sails in the Sunset.” Later, he would go to write “Isle of Capri” and “My Prayer.” But to the contemporary ear, perhaps none of his compositions is as memorable as that terrifying song he set to John Walter Bratton’s 1907 two-step.

I refer, of course, to “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” Read More »

The Gordon

August 24, 2015 | by

From a fifties-era Pan Am ad.

There was a time when I didn’t know Gordon Bishop, but that time’s not worth talking about.

I met Gordon in his shop, Tropics, sometime in the early eighties. I’d been walking through Soho and noticed a store I hadn’t seen before. Inside was a jumble of Javanese antiques—carved doors; four-poster beds; objects that seemed decorative, ceremonial, and incomprehensible—along with fabrics and wall hangings and kites and sculptures. It looked like Santa’s workshop, if Santa had a penchant for priapic statues of half-dressed men with enormous erections and wicked smiles.

No one seemed to be working there, but I heard flute and gamelan music coming from the back room. There was a curtain separating me from the music, along with the sort of velvet rope commonly seen in discos, and a hand-painted sign fixed to the rope: DO NOT ENTERRead More »

We Are All Sensitive People

August 14, 2015 | by

From the cover of Let’s Get It On.

On an uptown local train during the height of an August rush hour, an old man fell asleep in his seat. It should be said that the man in question probably believed his music was contained; he was wearing earbuds. But either he’d neglected to properly plug the headphones into the outlet or the mechanism was somewhat faulty. Because for whatever reason, “Let’s Get It On” started blasting loudly in the otherwise quiet car.

The average urbanite sees a few things in a lifetime of public transit. Kids fighting. Women screaming. Perverts perving. Madmen ranting violently. And the occasional eel, escaped from a shopping bag, writhing wildly down the length of a J-train car. On one occasion, a seven-foot schizophrenic caked in filth spent the better part of an uptown express trip berating a woman whom he claimed had grabbed his ass, threatening to turn her into the transit cops for sexual harassment.

And yet, I have never seen a trainful of passengers more uncomfortable than in the moment when the first four insinuating notes started to play, and Marvin Gaye’s sensuous, passion-roughened voice filled the car. Read More »