Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Lost in the Labyrinth, Stumbling on Rocks, Banging Your Head on the Hard Place

These days a musician can be between a rock and a hard place. There is so much technology available to help with the music-making, from super-advanced and complex computer recording programs, to keyboards that practically write and harmonize the tunes for you, to sound-enhancements, and much more. The question I've heard bandied about is how far one should go before the technology swamps the music-making, which we all originally got into music for.

Here is a moral tale concerning that very issue.

For at least two years I played in a small, experimental band organized by the bass player--vibes, two saxes, bass, and drums, sometimes guitar, once in awhile trombone. Many good musicians came and went. I think now that the smartest and most efficient sized the situation up quickly as one that would never come to fruition, even though the playing itself was intense and exciting. We played mostly the leader's charts of his own tunes. And we got very tight at some points. In all that time, we had two gigs--one at a fund-raising marathon over in, I think, Irwindale (home of experimental jazz), another at a carnival out in the San Fernando Valley, where we were followed by a rock band. Our drummer filled in for the rock band, since their drummer somehow failed to show. Neither venue was right for this kind of band, but we never got into any suitable venue.

The leader knew we should do a CD in order to shop the band around for gigs, and each time we rehearsed at his house (we were doing three hours per rehearsal, almost every week) we began to notice an accumulation of recording equipment.

He (for the sake of not having to always use pronouns, I'll call him Jeb, though that's not his name--he's still working in the area) had always recorded every rehearsal, first with an MP3 recorder, then a small DAT recorder. Then the equipment became more sophisticated: a big Mac with Digital Performer, mikes for everyone, one mixing board, then another mixing board; then the house was being run with snakes and the musicians separated, the drummer in the original rehearsal room, the sax players off in a bedroom (many jokes about two guys in a bedroom together), me on vibes in the living room. We recorded and recorded. An engineer friend came on the scene--this man had great professional experience, he owned high-end pre-amps (I think--I tend to get lost in this equipment morass beyond a certain point), very high-end mikes, he had a great ear, he knew the mixing board (by this time a BIG board), and he knew Digital Performer.

We recorded and recorded. We got some great material.

That was two years ago (at least).

What has become of the all that recorded material? The CD?

To my knowledge, the equipment became a kind of quicksand. The leader and his friend kept "improving" the sound quality; we kept re-recording with each addition of new, enhanced equipment; the same music over and over.

Two years later, there is nothing. The last I heard, Jeb needed me to overdub 8 bars in one tune. Once, when the drummer came back for a visit from Phoenix, we all jammed, did a little recording, and he came out of the control room and said, "You should see those guys! They're like mad scientists in a lab. I got a group together in a studio for one day and had a good CD a month later."

And that's the way it can be--musicians get together, leave the technology to experts, make the music, do some mixing with the engineers, and voila! A finished product in a timely manner.

I'm in another group where something similar is happening. One of the members has Cubase on his computer, and we're trying to record one track at a time. We've bogged down in conflicting schedules, the weirdness of making music happen one instrument at a time. This is possible technically, but we haven't produced anything yet. Putting trust in technology is okay, but when you put all your eggs in that basket, you wind up with nothing.

I contacted Jeb recently to see if I could get even an imperfect (by his ever-more stringent standards) recording of what we'd done. I don't know if I'll hear back. I think he wandered into the labyrinth of technology and got lost. He's somewhere out there, as my sister says, in the "bewilderness."

And a big hi to all the musicians I met and enjoyed playing with in that phantom band, serious and talented people, tucked away in a plain looking house in the San Fernando Valley, rehearsing like mad for gigs that never happened and recording a CD that's still on the hard drive while perfectionists slave over it surrounded by empty Chinese-food containers and posters of Miles and Coltrane, and they take breaks at the pool table and drink from the cartons of Perrier purchased at Costco. Or, indeed, my two mad scientists could have moved on to some other sublimity by now.

God Exists!

This just in:

A man purchased a Mexican day-of-the-dead mask from a garden sculpture shop and wanted to hang it on the wall of his garage, where it could be enjoyed from the patio while he and his family repasted on their usual repasts. Here is his story.

"I couldn't believe it!" he said. "Every time I tried to drive a nail into the garage wall, the nail bent! I must have gone through, gosh, two boxes of big nails, and after hitting them with the hammer just once, even, they bent. It's like that story in the Bible, you know, where Dagon falls on his face before the power of God. God did not want me to hang that devil-worshipping mask, and He showed his displeasure by bending my nails. I wanted to hang that devil above the headless statue of St. Andrew, see, to kind of balance things out--a little of the sacred, a little of the profane--but, God does not like jokes! I was standing on a ladder at first, and after about thirty nails, I thought I'd better get off the ladder--if God was causing those nails to bend, he could cause me to fall, and I could fall right onto that headless statue and injure myself in the you-know-wheres, and that would be a blasphemy to the statue. I mean, St. Andrew--the statue doesn't have a head, see--wouldn't be able to defend himself, and I would be desecrating him by God punishing me with a nasty jab in the you-know-wheres with St. Andrew's neck and shoulders. And St. Andrew is holding a baby child--that gets to be almost pedophilia if my you-know-whats fall on that baby child's head. And he looks so innocent."

But what did you finally do with the day-of-the-dead mask?

"Well, that's the weird thing. I was afraid if I hung it out there in front of God and everybody, the garage might get struck by lightning or something--doesn't stone attract electricity? I think I read that somewhere. God protected me by putting that article in front of me. Or I saw it on the internet, or something. But God didn't mind if I hung the mask in the bathroom so we can look at it while we take showers."

But won't you be punished there too? I would think God's idea is that you shouldn't hang such a thing anywhere at all. And you should probably find some kind of head to put on the St. Andrew statue.

"Well, so far nothing's happened in the bathroom. I mean, I seem to drop the soap more often, and it gets smushed on the side that way. Maybe that's a warning--I have to bend down to pick it up, you know, and if I ever have to go to prison . . . . And the bathroom mirror broke, and I stubbed my toe on the base of the toilet, and my wife's contact lens dropped into the drain, and God can make those things happen. But things like that always happen in the bathroom. Like n the kitchen when a spoon gets stuck in the garbage disposal. Those are the normal ways God messes with us. That's the price we pay for Eve's sin! (Adam was helpless there.) But, look, don't get me confused: I think my point is that I want everyone to know that God exists! God tempted me by suggesting that I hang that mask on the garage wall, and then when I did it, He let me know what he thinks of that idea. It's just like if he tempts you to go through a stoplight, and you do it, and your car gets totalled--see, you knew you shouldn't do it! God is Holy, God is Just. Or he tempts you to be a mono . . uh . . homosexual, and you do it. And you enjoy it, and you live a happy, satsifying life because you can be honest and straightforward about who you are. See, that's your punishment. Or having sex with your significant other--be it male, female, or consenting adult pet. And you enjoy it. See!

God bless!"

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Saint Dog

I have a Christian dog, and I'd like to propose him for sainthood.

What name does he answer to?

His name is Dexter (after Dexter Gordon, the be-bop tenor player who had the starring role in the film Round Midnight.

How do you know Dexter is Christian?

Because he is directed by God to perform acts worthy of sainthood.

What acts are these?

(Notice my catechistic format? Maybe I should propose myself for sainthood. For another writer who has mastered a sacred form, see James Joyce, who in Ulysses wrote a long penultimate chapter in catechistic form. I don't know who is my influence: the Pope or James Joyce.)

Ahem (you don't seem to be listening): what acts are these?

In our backyard, I have a statue of the Buddha. Dexter regularly treats this statue with holy disdain. No matter how many times I cleanse it with the hose, Dexter returns with the usual contemptuous baptism.

Why does Dexter do this?

He does this to extend his dominion, as we are instructed to carry the gospel to the hinterlands and bless non-believers with it.

Why else does he do this?

The statue is in his territory, and he ascertains that it is like Gog and Magog (though it is only Buddha, and Buddha is meditating, hardly aware of the golden showers befalling him) and he must try to make it fall forward on its face, and chip its nose. He must, like Samson, destroy the theaters of the Philistines.

But is there anything that redeems this infidel garden?

Yes, around the corner there is a statue of a saint.

Describe this statue.

It has no head, and it carries a babe in its arms, symbolizing the saint's tenderness toward little children.

Is the babe a male or a female?

The statue is stone, so it is impossible to determine the gender of the child in the usual way.

What happened to the head of the statue?

Mysteriously broken off--perhaps doing battle with the statue of some pagan deity. There were several at the shop.

At that shop, were there headed saints, besides this headless one?


Why did you not purchase a saint with a head?

My wife made the decision.

Hmph. Adam's excuse. What were her reasons for preferring headlessness to headedness?

She is a former Catholic. Though I do not inquire into her motivations, I suppose that her background gives her an especial insight into the nature of sainthood.

Does Dexter pee on this statue as well?

No, he genuflects.

What is your religion?

I suppose that my background is Protestant, though my grandmother carted me off to Episcopal church, and I'm not sure that really qualifies, since it began as the English flip-of-the-finger to the Pope over Henry VIII's divorce. Catholics, Protestants of all stripes, and Anglicans duked it out for quite awhile in England, and with much loss of life, which often seems to accompany the most devout religious commitment. To my credit, I have participated in no burnings at the stake of people whose beliefs disagreed with mine, nor have I assented to torture, or burnt any heretical books. This disqualifies me, perhaps, from belonging to any religion.

So, you and your wife are quite compatible because your religious backgrounds are similar?

We are compatible because we have left our religious labyrinths behind and bask in the garden of no religious belief.

Has Dexter had the requisite visions for sainthood?

He sometimes moves his legs frantically in his sleep.

Is his character saintly, worthy of emulation by all who adopt him as their guiding spirit?

He is mellow, modest, humble, cheerful, and companionable. The only possible chink in his saintly armor is this: he is not above lying and manipulating when it comes to food. Though I have fed him, if there is any chance at all that my wife, when she gets home, will fall for his scam, he will not hesitate to act starved.

Is Dexter kind to children?

He adores them and does not molest them.

Is he kind to his fellow creatures?

We have a blind dog named Punky. Dexter delights in trying to pull her out of the van by her ear.

Is Dexter temperate in all ways?

Yes, except for food, and the mailman. And sometimes he strains at the leash, if he sees a skunk, a possum, or a coyote.

Dexter has many commendable qualities, but his most outstanding regards his respect for the headless saint, and his disdain for a mere stone idol.

But wait, the saint is stone too.

The stone Buddha is a sacreligious idol; the stone saint is a holy image, even without its head. The Headless Horseman was still a terror.

Here is an analogy: some bread is just bread--other bread is holy flesh. Some wine (or grape juice) is just wine (or grape juice)--other wine (or grape juice) is blood. The attitude you bring to it is transformative. God did not make Reality to be Reality: He made Reality to be everywhere and at all times a test of Faith. You demonstrate your Faith by denying Reality wherever and whenever necessary.

Dexter understands this. He is saved. You are lost. Dexter will be submitted for sainthood. As for you, things are grave. You too must go out and pee on the Buddha.

Monday, August 13, 2007

In Memoriam

I haven't often been asked to attend a funeral, and the last one was, fortunately, some six or so years ago: a colleague's wife, who had died of breast cancer after trying everything--the broccoli, surgery, etc. She was only in her forties. Before that, I attended the funeral of a colleague, not that old, who died of generally miserable health--he weighed in the vicinity of 400 pounds, and the last time I saw him before his death, he could barely walk up the slight incline in the campus auditorium without wheezing loudly.

The funeral I attended last Saturday was for a drummer, Steve Sykes, who died at 51 of colon cancer. The news of his death was sudden, though he had been ill for some time. I had only heard about the illness a month or so previous. I hadn't seen him for over a year, but I thought of him fondly, and I loved being in a group with him.

Others stood up at the funeral and offered comments about their experiences with Steve, which were all positive, though he had a reputation in some circles as curmudgeonly.

If I hadn't been too shy to say my piece at the time, here's what I would have talked about.

I first met Steve when he subbed on a gig for another drummer. I was playing vibes. Within four bars of the first tune, I knew we were going to have some exciting times that night. Steve was a really fine, swinging, drummer. When I wasn't playing, I watched him (I'm also a drummer) and began to understand things about playing drums I had never understood before. Steve played easily, naturally, musically. When it came time to do some recording, I wanted him on the gig, and he was great. I suggested doing "Well You Needn't" (Monk) as a funk tune, and Steve was into it instantly--he laid down a cooler funk than I had imagined, and we all fell into the groove. That version is on the cd "Live at the Balzac."

Another time, I got a combo gig near Cal Tech in Pasadena, playing for someone's garden party. I kicked off "Just Friends" at a medium tempo--warm-up tune, you know--and Steve pushed the tempo up to something really swinging. I didn't mind, though I was grimacing inwardly--I was used to playing it down. But Steve swung, and made us swing. I had this inner sense of excitement when he was at the drums, like being in a new reality.

We did a gig with the pianist Dave Mackay. I paid extra money to get Dave for the gig and had Steve on drums and Mike Flick on bass. We played a couple of tunes, and Dave Mackay was smiling and swaying, and turned around at one point and said, "Hey, you guys are great! How come I've never heard of you?" Both Steve and Mike were too modest (I guess) to explain that that's often the situation in LA--there are literally thousands of great players who don't get heard on the radio or are buried on CDs that don't get too much play, or who just job around, playing professionally as sidemen. What can you do? A career in music is pretty tough.

One night at the Balzac, the bass player didn't show up. We called him at the hour the gig was supposed to be starting and he had just woken up from a nap and was getting on the freeway an hour away. I told him to stay home. But Steve had his little black book out, and we combed through it for other bass players. He told me never to call that guy again. Steve would show up plenty early for any gig, wheeling his equipment in on a cart--"It goes with the territory," he always told me placidly. I wished I had more gigs so I could hire him more.

I'm really sorry that Steve died. I loved making music with him and hanging out during breaks or before or after the gig. Every other speaker testified to his always being positive about life, and one said Steve would take his own time and come up to talk to his college Jazz History class without any compensation. He just liked doing it.

That's the kind of guy you really miss--he seemed to make life better for people, and he certainly made playing a joy for me.

'Bye, Steve. You were cool. I wish we had had more gigs, and I wish there could be more in the future.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Packing for Baja California, Mexico

These are the essential supplies for a gig in Baja....

Monday, August 06, 2007

Reading: an aberration

As an English teacher, I've heard many times that students' attention spans are being ruined by the rapid pace of events in the new technology. Films used to be more slowly-paced, people stuck it out to the end of a book. People Magazine articles don't tax the mind the way a New Yorker article does. Of course, people still read New Yorker articles. Or at least they look at the cartoons.

But what if technology is not destroying our attention span, but returning us to a more natural state of being? Humans did not evolve reading books--they are a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of humanity. The ideal of universal literacy is even more recent, barely a century old. To sit still for long periods of time with one's eyes moving minutely--and little other activity--across a page of small characters is a highly counter-intuitive act for an animal that for almost all of its history hunted, gathered, made artifacts, music, danced--all physical activities that engaged many parts of the body. The attention could engage more physical capabilities--not just the eyes and brain. Reading would naturally make the reader impatient, unless the book is so exciting that a degree of imaginary kinesis is aroused. I.e., the reader imaginatively runs through forests with Harry Potter, or is caught up in suspense. This may be why "popular" fiction is popular--there is action, and action is what humans evolved with. It feels more natural to be engaged that way. "Intellect" is touted by many as a higher form of humanity, but where did that judgment come from? From people interested in the intellectual life.

I heard an interview with the maker of a new computer game that involves the whole person in interactive music making online. I don't know why one wouldn't just buy an instrument, practice it, and get into a band. But this computer phenomenon is becoming wildly popular, and physical, interactive gaming is the new wave for computer games.

So, how do we promote reading when other activities can be characterized as more compatible with our human nature? It is not terribly cheering to argue that we must be able to read: unnatural as reading is, it has become necessary to survival. Moreover, intellectual activity had to drive all other activities, since we we are slower, smaller, and weaker than so many other animals.

We are in the early phases of new evolutionary directions--we must somehow combine the ability to interact intellectually (which is what reading should be) with physical activity, set aside time for each, cultivate both.