Sunday, April 27, 2008

RIP Bebe Barron

She's been called the First Lady of electronic music (by Echoes) and that's certainly an appropriate title for Bebe Barron who passed away on April 20th at age 82. She's known for helping John Cage create his mind-boggling composition "Williams Mix" (1949) and also for composing, along with her late husband Louis, the score to the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet, famous for being the first all-electronic movie score.

I had the pleasure of interviewing her in November 1999 for the OHM box set that I co-produced. Here's what she had to say about her work.

"Williams Mix"

"We (Louis and I) came out to New York from San Francisco to see a lecture that John Cage was doing. We met up with him and we talked to him about the experiments were doing and he was interested in this, especially after we played him some of the work we had done. He asked us to put together tape fragments of different sound recordings- sirens, animals, screaming in all different lengths. He was using the I Ching to figure out how to put all the material together. Once he was done, I was astonished when I heard the piece ("Williams Mix"). Some of the sounds would appear and disappear so quickly that you couldn't recognize the source- it made me wish that we hadn't spent so long on some of it."

Forbidden Planet

Initially, Barron was reluctant to speak about this because she didn't like how some sci-fi fans treated the film and anything surrounding it as a freakish occurrence. She wanted to be respected as a serious composer and I had ensure her that the OHM project would do just that. She later told me that she was pleased with the end result, which I was very flattered to hear of course.

"We heard about an 'open door' policy at MGM- they were willing to listen to any composer or animator or artist who approached them. Amazingly, he agreed to hear what we'd done. He listened to it later with his eyes closed and was enchanted by the whole thing. He gave us some stills that were from the movie and had us work on some background music. The studio loved the result and we found ourselves doing the whole soundtrack. It was a lot of work and took a lot of time to put that together. We were very proud of it when we were done. We had some people telling us that it sounded like what they would hear in their dreams! What was really amazing is that we were able to do this at all- you have to realize that the equipment we were using at that time was very primitive, nothing like what you have today. That's why it took so long to do this.

The 'Main Title Theme' was made very closely to what they wanted for the picture so we had a lot of instructions about what exactly should be happening and how it was going to be arranged when the credits appeared at the beginning of the film."

Composer Barry Schrader had been a long-time friend and supporter of Barron. I had also spoken to him in the fall of 1999 about her work.

"Forbidden Planet was the first commercial film to have a completely electronic music score. As a result, this score was the first experience that most people had with electro-acoustic music, and its dissemination was to a vast audience all over the world. The music for Forbidden Planet has been available, in one way or another, to the general public for forty-five years. Its continuing accessibility and popularity attest to its relevance. No other work of electro-acoustic music has had this kind of influence on the general populace.

From the point of view created by the Barrons' compositional philosophy, based on the ideas of cybernetics then being presented by Norbert Weiner, the music consists of a variety of gestalts, each resulting from the amplification of a particular circuit design. As in all musical gestures, each of these ideas can be described in terms of their musical dimensional information (pitch interval combinations, pitch contour, rhythmic durational combinations, timbre spectrum, timbre event-envelope, etc.). The sonic materials that the Barrons created were unique and original, as were the ways that they combined them. The resulting music carries their obvious signature."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Get Back Music- weirder than your average mixtape

Alright, what do Wire, Raincoats, Undertones, Barbara Streisand, Peaches and Herb, Dead Kennedys, the Police and the Bee Gees have in common? Get Back Music plays them back-to-back on their music website for 1979.

Admittedly, I was pretty skeptical when I read a Reuters story about a "a social network targeted at people over age 35" (i.e. me) but I had to check it out, at least for laughs. And while their flashback stories only lead to YouTube links, I was intrigued by the weirdest online stations that I'd run into in a while. If you skip to 1981, you get Devo, Blasters, X (which is part of what I was listening to and loving then), followed by disco babes A Taste of Honey and U2. 1982 gives you the Fixx (yuck), the Violent Femmes (yeah!), Elvis Costello (ditto), Missing Persons (yuck again), Willie Nelson (yeah), McCartney's/Wonder's "Ebony & Ivory" (yuck) and Roxy Music (hells yeah).

So basically, they give you the indie/alt heroes alongside some hit dreck (and some combinations of the two). You'd think that it would be better if they stuck with one or the other but the fact of the matter is that's the way it was then (and now, for that matter) so it's a pretty accurate gauge of the time, like it or not. I like it and for anyone who can't stand the dreck, the GBM people are nice enough to let you skip ahead to greener musical pastures.

As they admit, Get Back is still in its Beta format so maybe the vintage headlines will improve and maybe they'll have more of their own content to add but for now, I hope that they keep the year-by-year stations as bizarre as they are right now. At the very least, they're doing much better than the Filter, a hip-music tracking aggregator that's also in beta and looks like it's running at least a couple of years behind the times.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Nas- pushing the envelope with the N word

After getting plenty of fans peeved when he laid flowers on hip-hop's grave last time, rapper Nas is pushing buttons again by resurrecting the N word even after it seemed to get buried in the backlash against Michael Richards' racist remarks. His new single "Be A Nigger Too" takes off from the old Dr. Pepper ad ("wouldn't you like to be a Pepper too?"), with proudly anti-PC lyrics. Like Lenny Bruce before him, he knows the power of harmful words and tries to deconstruct them, even if it means he'll take heat for it (which he has already).

After starting out by announcing "Real niggers are back on the radio" (which is funny because something like this wouldn't be played on the radio), he pardons himself for Islam, brushes off criticism of the NAACP and frames the inner-racial conflict as: "Fighting in public in front of these arrogant fascists/they love it." Is he mad at Eminem for dropping the N word? Nope, he says "we all black within," which you can take to mean the hip-hop community or maybe even something wider about humanity.

Then comes the really un-PC stuff, which you can take in a number of ways. Nas talks about showing off his cars and bling and getting rich off the N word (and telling critics to pucker up at his crotch)- maybe he's spitting in face of the PC police or maybe he's also thumbing his nose at rappers who blindly spew out the N word.

But then after copping the Pepper theme ("I'm a nigger, he's a nigger, she's a nigger, we some niggers, wouldn't you like to be a nigger too?"), he ups the ante:

"To all my kike niggers, spic niggers, guinea niggers, chink niggers, that's right/you're all my niggers too"

If that's not pissing on political correctness, I don't know what is. And as much as I hate derogatory, racist terms like those (I'm Jewish myself), I also think that Nas is shoving our face in our own still-racist society to say that we're not over it yet and we still have issues to deal with, much like Barack Obama tried to tell the nation after the Reverend Wright controversy. Or you can take that as Nas trying to juice some controversy by throwing around racial epithets.

But to Nas's credit, he doesn't leave it there either. To anyone who admires hard-ass rappers and wants to be like them, he has a message too.

"They like to strangle niggers, blame the niggers, shooting niggers, hanging niggers/still you want to be a nigger too?"

The reaction to this single has been ranging from excitement that Nas is back to anger over his controversial lyrics and the feeling that he's trying to stir up trouble again. Even if you don't agree with everything that he's saying, he's not only got a right to say it but he's also brave for diving into the murky waters surrounding these controversies about race and semantics. It'll be interesting to see if fans follow him there and think about what he's saying too.

When he proclaimed "Hip Hop is Dead," there was a lot of anger, followed by a lot of soul-searching. Maybe the same will happen here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Young at Heart wanna be sedated

Hopefully, you've already heard about this 2007 documentary where a choir of Massachusetts seniors (many around 80 years old) cover modern rock and soul classics from the Clash, James Brown, Sonic Youth, Lee Dorsey and Coldplay among others. My favorite is their take on the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" especially since you get a real feel for the dire medical conditions outlined in the lyrics.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Bento boxes for music nuts

Courtesy of the Pink Tentacle blog, the insanely inspired folks at Jacket Lunch Box have these adorable Bento boxes crafted to look like famous album covers. Makes you hungry... too bad you can't play them...

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Death Cab goes noir and Skynyrd goes Ruskie

I was never much of a Death Cab for Cutie fan (though I love their Bonzo-inspired name and think that Ben Gibbard is best in Postal Service) but I love their video for "I Will Possess Your Heart" (as opposed to Wilco who just wanted to break your heart). Nine minutes of the band trapped in a meat locker and a sullen girl traveling to and wandering around foreign countries sounds like of duff but it's actually pretty compelling for eight-minutes-plus.

Then there's this wonderfully strange, bizarre video from the Leningrad Cowboys (who are actually Finnish). Musically, their cover of "Sweet Home Alabama" isn't too striking but it's hilarious to watch a bunch of guys with purposely bad new wave fashion do it well, backed by the Red Army Choir, once the pride of the Soviet Union. It's approaching one million views on YouTube so people are definitely getting the joke. Hopefully somewhere Ronnie Van Zant is getting a chuckle outta this too...

Monday, April 14, 2008

NYC area radio ain't dead

People love to complain about the radio and how it's all stupid, standard formats now and unlistenable. Also, when you have Pandora, Last FM and your own iPod, who needs DJ's and radio stations to program music for you? Even with the advent of streaming, if you hate your own local station, there's thousands of other ones to sample from around the world. But even with Clear Channel turning radio into standard mush, there's enough local exceptions in NYC that might give you some hope. What's more, many of them have been around for decades now.

I came to that conclusion as I rediscovered the joys of WKTU a great dance station that includes ol' classics plus new goodies- today's particular playlist included Beyonce, Kanye, Timbaland, Seal, new and old Madonna tunes, Donna Summer plus 80's classics like "Pump Up the Volume" and "Set It Off."

I also remembered a few of my other longtime favorites. Of course, there's free-form champs WFMU, which has been going strong for decades now. Along with a great stock of DJ's, they also have their unmatched annual record fair and some amazing blogs on their site too.

Though I often take them for granted as good background music when I need to work, the New York Times' classical station WQXR is alternately refreshing and bracing, plus you get good news updates every hour.

Whenever they're in range, I always love to tune in WBGO in Newark, who are tireless keepers of the jazz flame. For most of their daytime programming, it's bop heaven and though they have a few too many pledge drives, they're of such high quality, I find myself opening my wallet for them again and again.

WNYC, as the call letter tell you, represents Gotham well, covering a wide range of arts and related issues. Much as I love the NPR content, my favorite is always New Sounds featuring the inimitable John Schaefer, who's as much a champion of modern classical music as the New Yorker's Alex Ross.

Last and definitely not least is Columbia University's always eclectic WKCR, another bastion of great classical music as well as jazz flagwavers and supporters of numerous underground, eccentric styles.

Now if we could only get a good country and roots station here...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Record Store Day

Mark your calendars. April 19 = Record Store Day. Yes, it's a day to pay tribute and buy physical objects from a great musical resource which is dying out. Details about which stores in your area are participating can be found at the RSD website. In addition, the site has testimonials from Paul McCartney, Henry Rollins, Chuck Berry, Flipper, Deep Purple, Joan Jett, Del the Funky Homosapien and many others, including my favorite one from Shelby Lynne ("You can't roll a joint on an iPod - buy vinyl!").

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Manuel Göttsching coming to America

Yes, it's true... the Krautrock legend (Ash Ra Tempel) will perform in the States for the first time ever. Here's the details from his MySpace site.

New York, August 15 (Friday), 9 pm, Damrosch Park @ Lincoln Center, as "closing ceremony" of Worldless Music: US-premiere of E2-E4

Philadelphia, August 16 (Saturday), 8 pm, Church Sanctuary of St. Mary's Hamilton Village, located on the campus of the Universtiy of Pennsylvania: DIE MULDE & GREATEST HITS released under MG's name but also under the name of Ash Ra Tempel & Ashra

New York, August 17 (Sunday) midnight: Surprise Concert; location to be announced soon...

For those who would like to learn more about how all started, there is a myspace site (made by fans) dedicated to MG's early work with the band but also as soloist performing under the name of ASH RA TEMPEL or ASHRA. Check it out at: www.myspace. com/ashratempel

And those who want to know it all, check MG out at: or visit his official myspace site to meet his friends worldwide.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Breeders preview

As nice as it was to have the Pixies back, I also missed the Breeders. It's been six years since we've heard from them and even then, it was a skeletal album that had to keep us going. Now they're returning with a fuller sound, new album and a tour. Life is good. Want a pre-release preview of the new record? You can listen to three samples from Mountain Battles courtesy of the nice folks at Rough Trade.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Fred Neil- rockabilly guy?

He's known as a songwriter's songwriter and a folkie icon (for some details, check out this PSF article on him) but early on, he had other ideas about his music. Before the pop music world knew him for writing the sad, beautiful classic "Everybody's Talkin'" (the Harry Nilsson hit featured in Midnight Cowboy) as well as songs for everyone from Jefferson Airplane to Roy Orbison, Neil had the same idea in mind as Conway Twitty and Charlie Rich did early on- he wanted to be a rock star or at least a rockabilly hit-maker.

This relatively-unknown side of Neil's career is coming to light again thanks to a recent compilation of his late 50's/early 60's singles on Fallout Records called Trav'lin Man: The Early Singles. Though his voice isn't equipped to lower the boom on some baritone crooning (especially on the ballads), he makes a convincing case otherwise that he could have stuck with rock. "Listen Kitten" sounds like a great Everly Brothers song, "You Ain't Treatin' Me Right" could have been a Gene Vincent out-take (though he wouldn't have had as much fun with the vocals as Neil does here) and "Heartbreak Bound" is great enough as a title alone (though "You Don't Have To Be A Baby To Cry" is a runner up for best song title) while "Trav'lin Man" itself sounds like a ready made for Johnny Cash. In all those times, the artist gets overwhelmed by his already-expert songwriting abilities but who cares when you have prime material to croon? In any case, it's a weird, interesting fun little piece of musical history.

Hear some clips from each of the songs at the Barnes and Noble website.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Yo! MTV Raps anniversary

These two goofballs are heroes of mine. Not only did they help to keep me sane through the late 80's and early 90's but they also made musical history. Ed Lover and Dr. Dre (not the NWA guy) hosted Yo! MTV Raps and brought the then-young art form to the airwaves and helped to make it a mainstream music. Except for a sad, memorable show at the time of the L.A. Riots, these two clowns were a joy to watch, bringing infectious fun to show- they never told jokes per se but they like other great comedians, they had great timing. Rap wasn't the household staple it is now but it was starting to seep into mass culture and these two guys helped it get there. The show featuring not just videos but also guest spots from legends like Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, Slick Rick, Beastie Boys (who Dre used to DJ for) and plenty of others. MTV is now honoring them and their co-host Fab Five Freddy with a website full of old clips that you need to see. Oh and by the way, you can now catch Lover and Dre on Power 105.1 FM.

Need more? Here's Freddy schooling you on some hip-hop history.