I can’t believe its been more than 2 months since my last posting. I hope to make up for it by posting much more in the next few weeks.

I’m about to head off to Europe, which was the impetus for starting the blog in the first place almost 3 years ago. An early entry showed my pile of travel things laid out ready for packing. I’m going to have to stand further away for the matching image this time as I have LOTS more gear in tow.

I’m off to Iceland on Friday for a four week long residency at Baer – about 4 hrs drive north of Reykjavik.

I’m trying not too predetermine what I’ll do there but its a very isolated spot and it will be hard for me to get specialist supplies there. How to prepare for such an experience without schlepping tons of stuff with me?

To resolve this dilemma I’ve formulated some rules for myself!

1. Source only local materials and tools for all the work created.

2. Bring only recording and processing devices from home – cameras, sound recording devices, paper, pencils, laptop, etc.

3. Distill specific local experiences, culture, biology and/or  geophysiology in the work.

4. Be aware of the passage of time.

I’m wondering if that’s sufficient constraint?

My thought at the moment – just a starting point really – is to create several devices which respond to the local physical geography and diurnal changes by making sounds. Not music – as in preordained or culturally constrained melodic sounds. Just sounds. Perhaps of a particular sensory quality for me. I’ll record that sound in situ and then re-present the sound with the device in some way – seeking a resonance, physical or otherwise, between the device and the sounds it produced in situ. And I’ll keep within my constraints!

I’ll show you my gear for recording in a subsequent post. Its been quite a challenge sorting through all the possible technical recording solutions to find strategies which are relatively affordable, robust, versatile, and easy to handle for a newbie in the field. Stay tuned!

Some thoughts on Originality, Appropriation and the Origin of Teepees

I’ve been thinking a bit about the notions of ORIGINALITY and APPROPRIATION.

As you know if you’ve read my manifesto, I often use music as a model for thinking about art and design. I appreciate the relevance of the term ‘practice’ to both and I’ve always been enamored of the collaborative aspect of music making. The question of originality in music is also a very interesting one. I started thinking about this when considering the notion of ‘covers’ in music – especially popular music (from folk through rock to rap). The cover is a tribute, a test of one’s own ability and sometimes a kind of one-upmanship. A way to acknowledge your forebears and to strut your own stuff at the same time.

But in the fine arts this could be considered simply copying. Its been impossible to carve a version of Michelangelo’s David as part of an art practice for over a 100 years? For most of the 20th Century the avante-garde position has been to reject and deny the work of our forbears – not incorporate it. But since the 1970’s appropriation and sampling have become part of post-modern practice. I’m sure there’s some excellent analysis of the connections between originality, covers, sampling and appropriation with respect to music – I need Don Miller Jr.’s input here!

Perhaps in the worlds of craft and design the notion of ‘cover’ has been there all along. Lately I’ve been teaching one of my favorite classes at CCa – The History and Theory of 20th Century Furniture. It’s interesting the way some ideas keep reappearing and being reinterpreted in the recent history of furniture design. For example, studio furniture designers and makers post WW2 have had this thing about designing and making music stands – perhaps this reflects the parallels between music and craftsmanship.

Through looking at so many designers in the History and Theory class I’ve noticed another strange trope or design ‘meme’. So many 20thC furniture designers have embraced the vernacular be designing their own ‘cover’ of the three-legged milking stool. Here are some nice examples –

Aalto's Stool 60 - an 'original take' from the 30's

Charlotte Perriand came back again and again to this form in the 50's and 60's after abandoning chrome and bent steel.

Tage Frid's 'cover' from the 70's

Tom Dixon's 'Offcut' from 2009

Richard Hutten's one man improv - Stool Pants from the 90's

All this was floating around in my noggin’ when I listened to a great Radiolab show last week – the piece entitled ‘Patient Zero’. It was about tracing the source of things to their ORIGIN – they looked at the AIDS virus, Typhoid Mary, the High Five, and the Cowboy Hat. The last piece featured Jonnie Hughes who has written a new book entitled “On the Origin of Teepees: the Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves).” Get the pun!

In it the author expands on Dawkins’ concept of the ‘meme’. Dawkins believed that a meme was perpetuated by it being copied, duplicated and appropriated. Hughes hypothesizes another mechanism for the survival and, more radically, EVOLUTION of ideas through environmental, social and historical factors. In the example of the cowboy hat he proves that no-one invented it – despite Stetson’s reputation for having done so. Actually, it evolved to satisfy a very particular set of human needs determined by cultural and environmental factors – powered by the selection pressure of the cowboy’s choice. The cowboy hat wasn’t invented it evolved on the prairie – like buffalo!

So now I’m wondering if ‘originality’ is in any way a valid or useful concept in such a rich field of cultural appropriation and ‘memetic evolution’. I’ve always found it a very problematic concept and a futile goal. The scientific model as aphorized by Newton in 1676 has always held more appeal – “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We can only make an (original? evolving?) contribution to a field by recognizing and working with all that has gone before.

I think it’s time I designed a three legged stool – though I know its not original!!!

Oblique Strategies

Oblique Strategies - 5th Edition

I have been a fan of Brian Eno since his Roxy Music days. I work to his ambient music, I play with Bloom on my iPhone, I am intrigued by the Long Now Foundation of which he was a founding member, and I’m always interested in his strategies as an artist. One of his most renowned strategies, which I have taken to heart over the years and use regularly in my own practice, is the tool called OBLIQUE STRATEGIES.

In brief, Oblique Strategies is a set of cards which contain aphorisitc jolts to kickstart, derail or otherwise inspire creative thinking. They were developed by Brian Eno and the painter Peter Schmidt in 1975 and have since gone through several editions. You can read about the various versions and their attributes on Greg Taylor’s comprehensive website. The current 5th edition is available from Brian Eno’s webshop. There are also various easily found javascript versions which are available for download to your computer.

I find the cards themselves the most satisfying format. Perhaps its the atavistic experience of handling cards – like consulting the Tarot or the iChing. I think though its connected to the visceral quality of the experience.  I’m ususally using the cards to help me asssess or change the direction that my studio work is taking. This is a very physical and often emotional experience for me, so the physicality of the cards ‘feels’ right.

Brian Eno said the following about Oblique Strategies –

“The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation – particularly in studios – tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results Of course, that often isn’t the case – it’s just the most obvious and – apparently – reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, “Don’t forget that you could adopt ‘this’ attitude,” or “Don’t forget you could adopt ‘that’ attitude.”

The first Oblique Strategy said “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.” And, in fact, Peter’s first Oblique Strategy – done quite independently and before either of us had become conscious that the other was doing that – was …I think it was “Was it really a mistake?” which was, of course, much the same kind of message. Well, I collected about fifteen or twenty of these and then I put them onto cards. At the same time, Peter had been keeping a little book of messages to himself as regards painting, and he’d kept those in a notebook. We were both very surprised to find the other not only using a similar system but also many of the messages being absolutely overlapping, you know…there was a complete correspondence between the messages. So subsequently we decided to try to work out a way of making that available to other people, which we did; we published them as a pack of cards, and they’re now used by quite a lot of different people, I think.

Brian Eno, interview with Charles Amirkhanian, KPFA-FM Berkeley, 2/1/80

Over the years I’ve edited the deck I use down to the most useful or most perplexing aphorisms and I have added several of my own. My current list of cards can be found under Oblique Strategies on the main menu to the left – the items in red are my additions. I encourage you to explore the cards too and please send me any additions to the deck which you think could be useful by commenting directly to this post. Thanks!

Terrible Noises for Beautiful People

A few months ago I joined the Long Now Foundation and I have been enjoying many of the activities of this engaging organization since.

I previously blogged about the Long Player event coming up on October 16th.

Last Tuesday, I enjoyed Pulitzer Prize winning writer Richard Rhode’s presentation Twilight of the Bombs at the Herbst Theater in SF. One of the most compelling parts of which was the animated infographic by Isao Ishimoto entitled 1945-1998, illustrating all of the atomic detonations of the 20thC – click on the link to watch it but before you do so answer this question – How many nuclear detonations were there in total during the 20thC?

Yesterday, I attended a truly unique event entitled Terrible Noises for Beautiful People organized and conducted by Toronto-based experimental artist Misha Glouberman. It was held at the spectacular Oliver Ranch just outside of Geyserville, North of Bayarea. Steve Oliver is a long time patron and supporter of the arts in Bayarea and has a wonderful sculpture garden with major works by many of the seminal artists of the 20thC which were specially commissioned for his property. You can read more about the Oliver Ranch here. I STRONGLY encourage anyone who happens to be in Bayarea to get themselves to the ranch as a member of a tour in the Spring or Fall. It as a unique art experience!

Terrible Noises for Beautiful people was held in the surprising and stunning Ann Hamilton designed tower. From afar this seems to be some sort of post-industrial architectural folly, up close it reveals a complex interactive environment which has been dedicated to a series of unique sound performances.

Ann Hamilton's Tower

40 members of the Long Now Foundation gathered on the property and then filed into the tower to enjoy, craeate and participate in an emergent sound event choreographed by the brightly enthusiastic Mr. Glouberman.

The tower’s interior has two intertwined spiral staircases leading from the ground level entry immediately above a dark reflective pool climbing with a subtle narrowing all the way to the top parapet which has stunning views across the Alexander Valley.

Inside the tower

Tower abstraction

After taking up positions on the spiral stairways we were drawn into a series of simple vocal ‘games’ that encouraged us each to find our own individual voice while responding and contributing to a group dynamic. The results varied between zoo-like cacophony and transcendent choral symphony.

The most interesting game we played was all of us starting at a cacophonous chaotic state trying our best to make noises that actively didn’t correspond to what any of our neighbors were creating and then to slowly work towards a consensus where we were all making the same sound. The consensus wasn’t determined in advance, we just moved towards it by either responding to a sound we fell into accord with or actively working to create a different sound which we thought might provide a kernel for  consensus. The resulting emergent harmonies reminded me of whale song and I wondered whether these incredibly complex and lasting harmonies sung across oceans are derived in a similar way. Our sounds didn’t carry meaning but the act of making them and having them come into harmony definitely did! Here’s a sample!

We left the tower in time for a golden sunset highlighting Robert Stackhouse’s Russian River Bones.

Russian River Bones

Longplayer – live in San Francisco

Longplayer – The Long Now


1,000 years in three simultaneous acts.

Saturday October 16. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. 7am – 11.30pm

Longplayer is a 1,000 year long musical composition by musician and artist Jem Finer that has been playing since 1999.

This performance of a 1,000 minute excerpt will be played by live musicians using 365 Tibetan bowl gongs.

Longplayer will be presented with the Long Conversation, an epic relay of one-to-one conversations among some of the Bay Area’s most interesting minds. At the Contemporary Jewish Museum from 3pm-9pm .

Click here for more information on Longplayer.

Carolina Chocolate Drops on Fresh Air

Carolina Chocolate Drops: Tradition From Jug To Kazoo : NPR

Carolina Chocolate Drops formed after all three members — Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson — attended the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C. The annual event brings together folk musicians, student musicians and African-American folk-music enthusiasts at Appalachian State University for a weekend of music and classes.

After attending the festival, Giddens, Flemons and Robinson decided to sit in on a weekly jam session with Joe Thompson, an 86-year-old country fiddler well known for his distinctive style.

“First of all, Joe’s bowing is really, really interesting … which is something common among fiddle players, at least around [North Carolina],” Justin Robinson tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross. “Sometimes it’s called the double shuffle … I’ve heard fiddlers call it sewing cloth. It’s sort of this forward-and-back motion that is going forward all at the same time that’s making this really great rhythmic kinda thing that you have to really work very hard to get. And also, Joe plays notes that are not in the Western scale, which is actually kind of great.”

Thompson inspired Giddens, Flemons and Robinson to create Carolina Chocolate Drops, a band which combines traditional string-band elements with several modern twists.

The group’s newest album, Genuine Negro Jig, features a series of traditional instruments, including the banjo, fiddle, kazoo, bones and jug. Its other albums include Dona Got a Rambin’ Mind, Sankofa Strings and Heritage.

Lhasa de Sela

I just heard that Lhasa de Sela who was one of my favorite singers, and someone whose music I had only been recently introduced to (thanks Isabella), died on New Years Day.

If you haven’t discovered her music already then pay tribute to the passing of a great talent by getting your hands on one of her 3 outstanding albums.

From Nova Scotia’s Amherst News –

Acclaimed singer-songwriter Lhasa de Sela dies in Montreal at 37
The Canadian Press

Globally acclaimed singer-songwriter Lhasa de Sela, who grew up as a semi-nomad in a travelling school bus and ultimately made Montreal her home, has died after a battle with breast cancer at age 37. The Mexican-American musician was known for her trilingual lyrics and folk songs infused with fantasy, magic and fairy tales. She died in Montreal on New Year’s Day.

“Old stories, adventure tales — although they can be very violent and scary — they don’t traumatize me the way modern stories do,” de Sela told American National Public Radio in 2005, explaining how she grew up with fairy tales, and developed a lifelong love affair with their styles and imagery.

De Sela was born in 1972 in Big Indian, a small town in the Catskill mountains in New York State, to an American mother and a Mexican father. Her early life was spent criss-crossing the U.S. and Mexico in a converted school bus. The experience instilled in the singer a wanderlust that led her around the globe.
At 13, she began singing Billie Holiday classics and Mexican tunes a cappella in San Francisco cafes, where she developed her voice and singing style. She moved to Montreal in the early 1990s, playing in bars for about five years and developing songs for her debut album, the Spanish-language ’La Llorona’.

In a 2004 magazine interview, she recalled her early years in Montreal’s watering holes. “I had to work hard to be heard,” she said. “I learned in those years how to reach people, even people who were there for beer and conversation.” Those lessons ended up garnering de Sela critical acclaim in 1998 for her debut album, which won a Juno for best global album that year. But burned out from two years of touring — including time with the Lilith Fair festival — she fled to France where she joined her sisters’ travelling circus, performing as a musician and helping assemble and dismantle the big top.

It was in Marseilles, where she later settled for a period, that the groundwork was set for her second album, ’The Living Road,’ recently named by the Times of London as one of the 10 best world albums of the decade.
In her brief career, the singer was named best artist of the Americas by the BBC’s World Music Awards in 2005, and she received a slew of Quebec and Canadian awards.

A multilingual artist who sang in English, French and Spanish, she collaborated with Montreal musician Patrick Watson, U.K. indie band the Tindersticks, and French performer Arthur H. Her final album — simply titled ’Lhasa’ — was released last year. De Sela postponed her European tour and a string of concerts this past summer as she battled breast cancer.

It has snowed more than 40 hours in Montreal since Lhasa’s departure.

Istanbul – not Constantinople

The last leg of our eurotour was Istanbul. We kept the best till last! We had the extra pleasure of sharing our last week or so with my brother Chris who lives in Vienna and was able to join us on the Istanbul trip.

Chris boarding the train to Istanbul

I’ve always wanted to come to this city lying at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. It is the most ancient city I’ve stayed in and it’s amazing how so much of it’s 2000+ year history is still clearly present and legible. There are significant buildings on the skyline of the old part of the city dating from almost every century starting from the 6thC Ayasofya. It’s great detective work teasing apart the various cultural and historic layers, trying to understand what is Byzantine, Ottoman, Christian, and Muslim – like the sticky pastry layers of an ancient baklava.

Sunset from the Golden Gate

East meets West

You can see lots of images of the city on Sandra’s weblog.

The main reason we came to Istanbul however was to experience the music here. We were fortunate in our timing to be able to join in on the first week of Dore Stein’s Tangential Turkey Tour. Dore is the mastermind of Tangents which is far and away my favourite radio program – 8pm-12am every Saturday on KALW – you can stream it live if your not in the SF Bay Area.
Tangents has been a huge influence on my musical tastes since moving to SF. I was excited to be able to spend more time with Dore and to get a chance to experience the musicians he has gotten to know in this richly musical city.

Our first tangential musical encounter was the amplified chorus of the muezzin’s calls to prayer blaring from every mosque in the city 5 times per day. To strangers it’s evocative and poetic The changing chorus as you move around the city and different mosques take the lead has a haunting Steve Reichian quality.

Looking to Allah

As part of our tour we enjoyed a series of concerts over several days at great, intimate venues all over the city.

The first night we say Turkish jazz with percussionist Engin Gürkey’s 5 piece band featuring violinist Turay Dinleyen and a great assortment of guest artists at a cool little jazz club called Nardis, just below the Galata tower.

The next afternoon we visited the studio of famed percussionist, drummer and instrument inventor Okay Temiz.

Okay Temiz

OK! Sandra!

The next night we caught a ferry to Kadakoy on the Asian side of the Bosphorus to dine with and then enjoy a performance by Sumru Ağıryürüyen accompanied by the versatile and sensitive guitarist Cenk Erdogan at a great little club called Guitar Cafe that opened just for our group. You can see a movie of a song from the performance here (make sure it loads fully before you begin the playback!)

Sumru and Cenk at the Guitar Cafe

And finally Roma clarinetist Selim Sesler (featured in Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul) with his incredibly energetic and accomplished band, in another tiny dinner club overlooking bustling Istiklal Cadessi.

Selim Sesler and band

Selim Sesler and band

We also visited Faradan, a well known traditional instrument maker, in his tiny apartment which was essentially a museum of instruments from Asia Minor, many of which he had created from research into historical miniature paintings. I was tempted by a beautiful juniper wood balağmathat he had made but decided to continue researching my options before committing. We spent some time in his tiny, hole-in-the-wall workshop. It’s amazing how such immaculate instruments can be built in such cramped and seemingly chaotic conditions.

Faradan playing the balağma

Faradan's tiny, cramped, seemingly chaotic workshop

Faradan's miniscule machine shop

A coopered Oud body under construction

No musical tour of Istanbul is complete without a visit to Galip Dede Caddessi which winds it’s way up from the monumental Galata Tower. This street is literally crammed with instrument stores.

Our first stop to load up on CD’s was Laleplak (Galip Dede Caddessi no 1, Tünel, Byöglu). Then we drooled down the hill enjoying all the little boutique music stores (stopping for Turkish coffee and baklava of course) until coming to Barok Musik 2 (no. 64) where I had an introduction to the charming and enthusiastic multi-instrumentalist and great salesman Berkant Kaya. Berkant spent ages with me explaining and demonstrating lots of different instruments while fielding constant interruptions by customers from all over Turkey looking for specialty instruments. I finally settled on a beautiful, locally made, long-necked balağma made from olive wood. I’m looking forward to levering open the door to traditional and contemporary Turkish music with my new balagma in the new year.

Thank you Dore and Berkant!!