Monday, March 30, 2009

Beggars Carn't Be Choosers

Last night, Jane and I stepped out on the town to watch the final performance of the San Diego Repertory Theatre's month-long production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, a piece of musical theatre new to Jane and a long favorite of mine. I seem to have a hazy memory of seeing a production of John Gay's original Beggar's Opera in Milwaukee or Chicago during some drama club road trip, but I honestly can't remember clearly. Rather, my appreciation for The Threepenny Opera comes from the G.W. Pabst film version from 1931, various soundtrack recordings (some featuring Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife and the original Jenny), and endless jazz variations on "Mack the Knife" (I first heard Bobby Darin's 1959 version on oldies radio and later came to fall for Louis Armstrong's incomparable version and Sonny Rollin's 1956 "Moritat" - I hear through the grapevine that some first encountered this song in a McDonald's tv commercial, ie: "Mac Tonight").

My appreciation for Bertolt Brecht has only increased in the years since I read Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage in a college drama course, and anybody who enjoys Tom Waits as much as I do can't deny the central role Kurt Weill has played in revolutionizing popular song, American and otherwise. I'm not sure if Brecht has ever been fully understood on American shores - Threepenny Opera remains his most accessible production, largely due to Weill's memorable tunes, but most stateside productions have muted the anti-capitalist thrust of the original work (eventually, Brecht's commitment to socialism would prove too much for even Weill, who ceased contributing to Brecht's plays by announcing he was "unable to set the communist party manifesto to music"). There is no denying Brecht's wit and the rollicking nature of the play, which makes for an often intensely enjoyable theater going experience, but much of what Brecht intended to be "epic" about his "epic theater" simply lends itself, in less sympathetic hands, to outlandish set pieces and busywork across the stage. What Brecht intended to distance the audience may actually draw contemporary audiences in - what he intended to echo or mirror film montage techniques may just make his plays seem livelier than, say, Strindberg (snicker...).

Last night's production seemed to play up the comedy and downplay the savage social satire, although there was no getting around the timeliness of a play centered around the question posed by Macheath; "Who is the greater criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?" The translation used was also more saucy and ribald than earlier versions, and seemed to capture the seedy underside of both Victorian-era London streets and the height of decadent Weimar Germany. It would have been too much to ask the troupe to tackle the work in German (when the announcement was made that this production was in English, an older woman nearby audibly announced, "Good"), and the numerous profanities inserted into familiar songs had a nice shock effect. There was an energy and good-spiritedness throughout the show that often only comes at a production's end, as Jane and I both know from personal experience. The drinks at the downstairs bar during intermission were appropriately overpriced and watered-down. We both gawked at several unfortunately-chosen outfits. All in all, an enjoyable night at the theater.

Friday, March 27, 2009

True Oddities

Being once again struck down by disease (seems to happen without fail roughly one week after climbing onto an airplane, given the inability of fellow passengers to cover their fucking mouths when coughing and hacking....), I'm mostly keeping close to the bed, but I happened to come across one glimmer of sunshine courtesy of the world wide web, and thought I'd share the news. It's once again the time of year in which The Bookseller magazine announces the winner of their annual Bookseller / Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year.

This tradition goes back to 1978, when publisher Bruce Robertson devised the contest as a diversion during the Frankfurt Book Fair, and Horace Bent of the British magazine The Bookseller created the award. It's a typically British type of competition, displaying an unabashed love of language and a healthy sense of the absurd. There are few rules to the contest, the major one being that publishers cannot nominate their own books (thus keeping the field free from purposefully odd book titles). Rather, the shortlist must be compiled from actually published volumes submitted by critics, librarians, booksellers and other publishers. The book with the oddest title wins.

I love this year's winner - The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-Milligram Containers of Fromage Frais, a statistical report selling for £795 - but find one of the runners-up to be equally wonderful, Dr. Brooks Cash's Curbside Consultation of the Colon. A glance through past winners and nominees suggests the plethora of abominations and oddities out there, such as:

Reusing Old Graves
Cheese Problems Solved
Highlights in the History of Concrete
Tiles of the Unexpected: A Study of Six Miles of Geometric Tile Patterns on the London Underground
Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers
Versailles: The View From Sweden
Lesbian Sadomasochism Safety Manual
Squid Recruitment Dynamics
A Pictorial Book of Tongue Coatings
Living with Crazy Buttocks
How to Avoid Huge Ships

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

belles lettres

Among the English-speaking peoples, at least, it would seem that the French novel ranks a distant fifth beneath the Russian, English, American and German novel, in importance if not in reach and scope. While I disagree wholeheartedly with such an assumption, I do understand why some may claim this to be the case. The French novel is often less showy, more economical, more inclined to calm understatement, than the above traditions. While Russian novels strain under the weight of their national soul and multi-layered characters; the English novel peppers itself with verisimilitude and broad sweeps of language; the American novel bursts off the page with barely-controlled enthusiasm at the prospect of tackling the psyche of an entire nation within its pages; and the German novel ponderously delivers nothing more nor less than inquiries into the ideas and passions of world thought (these are all gross oversimplifications, of course), the French novel tends to examine, with great delicacy and thought, the inner workings and personality shifts of the individual human being, in all our contradictions and imperfections. It would be sloppy to characterise these works as novels of "ideas", but there is a grain of truth to that - if by "ideas" we mean the building blocks of the human condition.

I was reminded of this tendency in French literature after quickly plowing through Benjamin Constant's 1816 novel Adolphe yesterday (well, and a little this morning - last night's call for lights out came a few chapters before book's end). At 125 pages, 34 of which are taken up with introductions and prefaces, reading Adolphe in one sitting is hardly a feat of endurance - Thomas Mann's Josef and his Brothers has longer digressions than the whole of this book. And yet this "miniature masterpiece," as translator Leonard Tancock describes it, is as devoted to detail and explication as any number of larger volumes. Adolphe is the story of a spoiled and moody young man who sets about conquering a beautiful, intelligent and older woman, only to find himself dissatisfied when she returns his love. What sounds in synopsis to be mere soap opera melodrama is transformed into a stunning investigation into Adolphe's mind as he teeters back and forth between raging passion and callous indifference. For 1816, it's far ahead of its time, and may be viewed as a distant yet nearly fully-formed predecessor of the psychological novel. Comparing Adolphe to other works of literature released at or about the same time - the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth and Shelley, Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, the adventurism of Sir Walter Scott, or the novels of Jane Austin - showcase the work's individuality. The close biographical similarities between the novel and the life of Benjamin Constant himself (including, most obviously, his tumultuous love affair with the older Madame de Stael) do nothing to damage the artistic qualities of the novel, and indeed only heighten the work's effectiveness.

After reading Adolphe, I'm reminded of the fact that many of my favorite novels are French in origin. Leaving aside the matter of Proust (recent subject of a blog post of mine), I'm thinking specifically of Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes (1912) and J.-K. Huysmans' A Rebours (1884). Both are barely 200 pages in length, and both deal primarily with the inner workings of two specific individuals. After that, the similarities end. Le Grand Meaulnes, the only novel by Alain-Fournier, who was killed in action at the age of 27 on the Meuse in 1914, is a mysterious and deeply moving account of a lost love during youth, but the novel is really more of an appreciation of the mental states of childhood, of how memories shift over time, and of the hauntingly magical state of youthful exploration. The novel shimmers like a mirage, and ends with as deeply moving a succession of events (or non-events) as I've found in all of world literature. The fact that it's known by so few is tragic (it's been variously translated into English as The Wanderer, The Lost Domain or The Lost Estate; "Good Old Meaulnes," especially given the Meaulnes - Moan unintentional rhyme, has been deemed unacceptable).

Huysmans' A Rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain) is an amusing and at times disturbing chronicle of the decadent Jean des Esseintes, who walls himself off from society to create an artificial world of pure aestheticism. A defiant move away from the dominant school of Naturalism towards an as-yet undefined sensibility that vacillated between Decadence and Symbolism, nearly nothing happens inside the pages of A Rebours. Des Esseintes decides to take a trip to London, but after overhearing two Englishmen in conversation decides he's plumbed the depths of English culture and turns around. He sets gemstones into the shell of a pet tortoise. He tries to invent his own line of perfume. He works at creating real flowers that look fake. There's much more.

So, in just over 500 pages, three French authors from a 100-year-span offer as sturdy a defense of the supremacy of French literature as any other. It's foolish to compare world literary traditions, but that's what we do. It's hard to dispute the mastery of George Elliot or Ivan Turgenev, but when it comes to psychological explorations....Vive la France!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Two Trips to the Emerald City

A late-winter storm has swept through the Southern California area, dumping moderate but much-needed amounts of rain around the county and leaving behind it chilly temperatures, clear skies and strong winds. Last weekend, I was up in a much windier and colder Seattle, and this week Jane is up in the Northwest conducting her semi-monthly ship visits. We had planned to make the trip together, but when several ships changed their port schedules, I decided to keep my separately-bought ticket and spend the weekend with my cousin, currently living in the heart of downtown. Then, too, I had already purchased tickets for the Cinematic Titanic (aka, Mystery Science Theater 3000 Part II) Seattle performance of /riffing on Blood of the Vampires, and didn't want to cancel those as well. So, once again, I made a quick trip up to one of my favorite cities, and left once again wondering why more cities can't have the charm, complexity, cultural density, creative pulse and natural beauty that Seattle does. Even the seasonal rains and constant gray couldn't get me down....too much (the San Diego sunshine has finally, I think, made some serious inroads into my psyche).

The Cinematic Titanic program was held at the downtown King Cat Theater, a 1970s era cinema that turned to hosting concerts (including early Nirvana and Pearl Jam shows) back in the grunge days. Now fully restored and suitably grand, it was a fine venue for the sold-out show. This is the second time now I've viewed the Cinematic Titanic team live, and their comic timing was even better this time around. Blood of the Vampires was a horror film set in 1850s Mexico and played entirely by Filipino actors dubbed into English. It was horrible, which is to say, awesome. Afterwards, my cousin took me around to several Belltown watering holes, including The Whisky Bar on 2nd Avenue, home to over 200 types of whisky and an appropriately seedy / celebratory atmosphere. The crowd belting out pornographic country songs eventually moved on, but a steady stream of ne'r-do-wells shuffled about during our stop. My cousin ordered up the house whisky and a PBR, but being a newcomer here (and a bit snobbier) I had to try something slightly more complex, which ended up being something stuck far up on the top shelf, requiring use of the step-ladder. The tobacco-reeking woman standing next to me gave a sharp elbow dig and commented, "So, you're that asshole". She, too, ordered the house whisky and a PBR. Seems I missed the orientation.... At any rate, my whisky had hints of smoke and brown sugar - delightfully complex and rich.

Over the next few days, my cousin gave me an excellent tour of Seattle's finer points, including breakfast at Coastal Kitchen in Capitol Hill, with a revolving menu showcasing various ethnic cuisines (currently Tunisia); Third Place Books in Ravenna, home to a wide variety of books and an excellent in-house restaurant; a French-themed bar advertising 6 types of absinthe, of which I sampled one (no green fairies, and Jane was very displeased when she found out I'd tasted the once-illegal brew; perhaps more on that later, although I'll add that having recently spotted a rack of absinthe in a Huntington Beach BevMo, its days as the forbidden drink are clearly numbered ); excellent browsing time in EveryDay Music, with a Jimi Hendrix statue outside that was constructed before the place was even a music store; and time at the Pike Place Market, where I had the luxury of picking out what I'd make my hosts for dinner that night.

Anyway, it's clear that Seattle is my type of city. I'm finally beginning to recognize what makes San Diego unique from other similar areas in Southern California, and while I think it's far preferable to both Los Angeles and Orange County, it can be a lonely place for somebody not addicted to sunshine and beach volleyball.

Little by little, I feel myself edging my way north.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

When Copyright Goes Wrong

Charles Dickens published his travelogue American Notes, For General Circulation in 1842, after a somewhat unsatisfactory visit to the United States during that same year. His excitement at touring the young country, visiting its cities and glimpsing the untouched prairie (outside St. Louis, Missouri, which should give all of us pause) was quickly dampened by three particular outrages he faced upon exploring the country. One was southern slavery, which sickened him and which he denounced consistently throughout his travels and writings. The second outrage, nearly on the same level, was the proliferation of tobacco chewing and spitting. Dickens' disgust and horror at Yankee spitting reaches epic proportions in American Notes, making for some truly amusing reading. And a final outrage, and the one he took most personally, was the rather lax nature of American copyright laws, which were quite poorly enforced and led to a great number of low-quality bootlegs of Dickens' work being published throughout the United States. Dickens took this matter seriously, lamenting both his loss of ownership and the fact that such pirates were making money off of him. Time and again, Dickens called upon his hosts to subscribe to the notion of international copyright, but he was to be frustrated in this regard - such a law would not come to pass until the late nineteenth century.

Copyright can be a funny thing. I don't claim to understand all the nuances of the law, but I do know that once a book falls out of copyright, one can expect the market to be flooded with multiple releases of often poorly translated classics from countless publishing houses. It's the reason I've had at least three copies of The Brothers Karamazov on my shelf at one time or another, due to supposedly varying levels of translation quality (the 1990 Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation is the one to keep), and it's the reason searching for a copy of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe on Amazon will offer you literally hundreds of identical yet different objects. This kind of glut actually does a bit of a disservice to an author, or at least an author's legacy, because it takes a notable work of art and reduces it to cookie-cutter mass production. On the other hand, anybody familiar with how many great artistic legacies have been snarled for years in the morass of exclusive copyright protection or family / spouse meddling will agree that sometimes opening up a work to the market can have positive results.

Which brings me to Marcel Proust and Sonny Bono - bet you'd thought you'd never read that sentence. Proust's copyright protection expired over twenty years ago, in 1987, 65 years after his death, and with that expiration the French company Gallimard lost their long-held exclusive rights to publish his works (a legal battle shortly after his death led to a decision to award Gallimard this right for 64 years and 274 days). This expiration led to a flood of new editions, translations and commentary. When it comes to Proust's monumental 7-volume masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu, we English speakers have been stuck with C.K. Scott Moncrieff's quite old translation, originally composed between 1922 and 1930. I don't mean to slag off Moncrieff's version - indeed, his Remembrance of Things Past (Moncrieff's title, by the way, not Proust's, courtesy of Shakespeare) is a classic of its own and probably one of the main reasons for Proust's solid reputation and relative familiarity to this day. But there's a general rule of thumb about translations that holds a major work should be updated and/or re-translated every generation or so, if only to reflect changes in the language so that a work continue to seem fresh and natural, not trapped in the feel of the past (and by the past, I mean the past in which the book was translated - a little dense, I know). Moncrieff's translation, wonderful as it was, is now nearly 90 years old, and a work of such magnitude as À la recherche du temps perdu clearly deserved an update.

The UK publishing company Penguin set about rectifying this situation recently by hiring six different authors to offer new translations of the multiple-volume work. Apparently feeling that one Moncrieff equaled six others, Penguin grouped the seven novels into six (by combining The Prisoner and The Fugitive) and had a different translator tackle each one. The results, by all accounts, have been rather glorious, with Proust's epic coming alive once again in versions that are lively, fresh and respectful.

Except that if you walk into an American bookstore or peruse Amazon for the entire series of published volumes, you won't find them. Or, you'll only find the first four, published by Penguin / Viking. The final two volumes have been published and circulated in England, but they won't be allowed into this country until....2019, when our copyright on the remaining volumes expires. Whether or not Penguin /Viking will even be around at that time is a question I've asked myself several times. The reason for Proust's epic being split into two different copyright eras has to do with the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998, also known as the Sonny Bono Act (a sponsor of the bill) or the Mickey Mouse Protection Act (thanks to the enormous amount of lobbying put forward by Disney). The act changed American copyright law to better protect corporate interests, such as the ubiquitous Disney Mouse, by freezing the advancement date at which an item enters the public domain. Works made in 1923 or afterwards will not enter the public domain until 2019 - the terms have been expanded to the life of the author plus 70 years or a 95 / 120 years agreement for corporations.

Well, ok. What all this means is that Disney can continue to hawk pricey reproductions of Steamboat Willy and keep Michael Eisner armpit-deep in Dom Perignon for at least a few more decades, while I'll be forced to check out to smuggle in a clandestine copy of Le Temps retrouvé if I finish the preceding volumes anytime between now and 2019. I remain amused that it took Mickey Mouse and Cher's husband to accomplish what the greatest Victorian novelist could not.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

póg mo thóin

The steadily growing gangs of yobs clustering outside the bars along Newport Avenue, dressed in cartoonishly-oversized tweed caps, bedecked in neon-green sports jerseys, and clutching twelve-packs of canned Guinness, tells me it's once again Saint Patrick's Day, in which the frat boys of America celebrate an ancient, noble and mysterious culture by pounding down pints of green-tinted Coors. A repressed and wind-swept island, and one that gave us such gifts to the world as W.B. Yeats, the Abbey Theatre, the bodhrán, Van Morrison, colcannon, The Book of Kells, Samuel Beckett, cashel blue, Gulliver's Travels, The Ulster Cycle, the Easter Rising, James Joyce and, yes, ok, Guinness and whiskey, is reduced to - well, Guinness and whiskey. And pools of vomit. My admiration for Arthur Guinness' 18th century dry stout, fondness for the whiskey that flows from the oldest official distillery in the world (Old Bushmills, 1608), and moderate interest in Bailey's Irish Cream isn't enough to convince me that Irish culture deserves to be celebrated primarily through the ordering of Irish car-bombs at local sports bars. No other ethnic culture that I can think of gets such an inappropriate and offensive celebration for its allotted holiday.

So if you admire the Gaelic peoples and wish to raise some kind of toast to their heritage that doesn't involve demeaning 6 million people as inebriated sots, why not try a plate of colcannon, a Seamus Heaney poem, a spin of Astral Weeks. I'm whipping together a dinner of Dublin Coddle and Whiskey-Glazed Carrots myself. And for anybody who suspects I'm being too much of a curmudgeonly old sobersides about this whole thing - well, let me quote one of my favorite Irish poets, Shane MacGowan(and an actual alcoholic at that!): póg mo thóin!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Trends in the Glass

There's an interesting article in the New York Times this week on the well-marketed hype behind the acai berry, a purple fruit found on a South American palm tree that has been awarded "superfood" status by a small group of advertising executives and online peddlers of miracle foods. I first became aware of acai a few years back, when the Brazilian-run smoothie stores in downtown Ocean Beach started plastering their walls with glossy posters trumpeting the perceived benefits of this antioxidant-stuffed berry. I seem to recall a magazine article in which the acai berry was used to explain why "all Brazilians look so hot and athletic" or something along those lines - a puff piece clearly written by somebody whose knowledge of Brazil stems less from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and more from Adriana Lima photo spreads inside the pages of Victoria's Secret. I've tried acai juices a few times from our local co-op - tasty, in a grape cough-syrup kind of way, and hardly worth the $3.95 for a little over 1 serving's worth. But it seems that others have been taking the claims made about acai far more seriously, with hopes that the antioxidants inside will extend their lifespan, shrink their waistlines and remove their facial wrinkles.

The NYTimes article states that in 2004, 4 products could be found stateside incorporating the wonder berry in some form. By 2008, that number had grown to 53. These included not just beverages like juices and smoothies, but supplements and facial creams. The rather high prices, it seemed, did little to counter the extravagant claims being made. Even that old huckster Oprah Winfrey got into the act, loudly braying the benefits of acai both on her show and prominently on her website until some negative publicity led to her just as forcefully denying any endorsement of any acai product. The linked article goes into the reasons for this, which seem to have something to do with the sudden explosion of fly-by-night acai operations suckering wide-eyed consumers into enrolling in "free trial" acai weight loss programs that actually ran balances every month. Despite the fact that only a few studies on acai berry benefits have been conducted, and that even those few have been determined inconclusive (and none have suggested weight loss or increased life span benefits), the hope of a liquid miracle - the fountain of youth available through a straw - dies hard.

I'm wondering if there's any way to spin the beverage I tried yesterday into some kind of superfood advertising campaign - a sure-fire protection against hyponatremia, for instance. I met with Jane and our friends Sean and Chris at a locals-only Vietnamese restaurant in one of the less-sketchy areas of National City yesterday, and upon flipping to the back of the menu to scout out the authentic specialties came across something called Soda Xi Muoi, or, as they helpfully translated it, "Salty Plum Soda". Having no clue as to what a "salty plum soda" might taste like, I ordered it. What arrived at the table moments later was a tall glass of semi-sparkling water with a brown collection of lumpy flakes hovering near the bottom. Sean wondered aloud if that was some kind of rotting egg. I suspected somebody had dipped a mason jar into a nearby stagnant pond. But after swirling the spoon around for a few minutes, I determined that the briny brown matter was actually some kind of fermented plum, and so I gave the concoction a taste.

I can report to you now that a "salty plum soda" tastes exactly like it sounds - fermented plum in a glass of salt water. Looking around the Internet, I see that Soda Xi Muoi is quite popular in Vietnamese restaurants and even some Malaysian restaurants, and one fan posted their homemade recipe for the drink online, incorporating store bought umeboshi. I'm of the opinion that I get enough sodium throughout my day already, and thought my "salty plum soda" tasted a bit like something sitting on a counter after being halfway cleaned using a biodegradable soap. But it was a lot cheaper than any acai juice. Somebody alert Oprah.

Monday, March 9, 2009


Vegetarians, avert your eyes.

The last week has seen a flurry of Greek cooking. Jane's sudden inspiration to experiment with filo dough recipes led me to take down my massive Culinaria Greece cookbook and join in the fun. Greece ranks high on my list of favorite ethnic cuisines, utilizing such beloved core ingredients as olive oil, lemons and dill, and so we've been enjoying authentic spanikopita and baklava, both handled expertly by the other cook in the family. I set about trying other recipes from throughout my book, especially those standing a bit outside the "traditional" realm of Greek dishes made famous through mainstream American outposts. From the mountainous region of Thessaly came khirines brizoles me mila, or pork chops with apples (the apples were cut into rings and sprinkled with cinnamon before being added to the white wine-doused chops). The isolated area of Epirus offered moskhari me melitzanopoure, or braised beef atop an eggplant puree. A white cabbage salad, finely grated and dressed with garlic / lemon / oil sauce (lakhanosalata), was a pleasant vegan / raw surprise. But it was yesterday's chance happening upon fresh rainbow trout at a downtown fish market that led me to tackling pestrofa tis anixis - "springtime trout".

Fresh, organic, whole trout are a must for this dish. Jane's still a bit uncomfortable with "head-still-on" presentation, but she bravely rallied. Dressed with only a few vegetables and olive oil, this preparation allows the freshness of the fish to dominate. Wrapping in foil keeps the moisture intact. Finishing off with a small glass of ouzo would be the perfect touch.

Pestrofa tis anixis ("springtime trout")

4 medium whole trout, cleaned
juice of 1 lemon
olive oil
2 carrots, diced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 sticks celery, sliced
handful of fresh dill

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Clean and wash the trout. Rub the fish inside and out with salt, pepper and lemon juice.

Brush aluminum foil with olive oil, place the fish on top, and arrange the vegetables and dill around the fish.

Season with salt and pepper, seal the foil, and bake in the oven for about 30-40 minutes.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Electro-Acoustic Realm

Papers and random assignments are starting to pile up left and right around here, with an archives finding aid description due Saturday and a wider government documents scavenger hunt (not as fun as it sounds, believe me) following close on its heels. Still, I have managed to escape the house a few times this week, and this past Sunday found me slipping inside the dark confines of the groovy Kava Lounge, once the original home for legendary San Diego indie concert hall The Casbah. The vibe is a little mellower now, with plenty of couches, sake-based mixed drinks and fine local craft beer. As for tunes, we were there to check out a musical meet-up between saxophonist Byard Lancaster and local musician Brian Ellis and his proggy contingency, which included David Hurley's percussion ensemble and other local musicians such as Preston Swirnoff (Habitat Sound System), Zach Hogan (PEA) and Rasaan Davis.

The above-listed ensemble have a cd coming out this year on jazz label Porter Records, and if the results are going to be anything like the concert we witnessed (for free, I might add, if you don't count what we paid for beverages), it will be a memorable and churning slab of noise-improv-funk. Byard Lancaster is best known for his
alto saxophone work with artists like Sunny Murray (heard on the awesome and recently re-released 1966 ESP label Sunny Murray LP), Sonny Sharrock and Sun Ra's Arkestra. He's also maintained a steady interest in funk and electronic music, and his pairing with Brian Ellis, David Hurley and others reflected this interest. This was open-ended electronic improvisation with a dedication to rhythm and pulse, one that found inspiration in both Miles Davis' late-60's fusion innovations and the sprawling space rock of 70s artists like Ash Ra Tempel and latter-day followers Acid Mothers Temple (the similarity in names is no coincidence).

There's still plenty of discoveries to be mined in this realm of electro-acoustic improv. Fusion's bad reputation stems largely from the disastrous approach taken by many jazz artists as the 70s progressed, with the order of the day soon becoming flute-driven melodies bouncing atop Fender Rhodes tweedle. The dark, swirling, lengthy non-compositions of Bitches Brew turned into the abbreviated and gadget-obsessed jazz-lite that dominated the decade. Sunday's concert had plenty of groove but little concessions in the way of stated melody or theme, and that's the way I like it. At times, Lancaster's role seemed diminished by the activity of the band surrounding him (he spent much of the second set sitting in a chair, with head down, listening), but overall, the project seemed to be a successful attempt at merging jazz improvisation with experimental rock. It had a good beat - you could dance to it. Several hipsters even did.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Notes From a Fanboy

I've been known to draw attention to the geeked-out behavior of others, both on this blog and in my everyday life. It's fun to stumble across the enthusiasm of others and smirk a little bit, and I've certainly done my fair share of that, whether it's some random guy dressed up like a Tron action figure or my own wife at a Star Trek convention. But this is not to suggest I don't have my own dorkish fanboy tendencies, and in the spirit of democracy, I'm going to offer up a painstaking (and painful) step-by-step walk of shame through my own recently completed private project - the DJ Shadow 4-Track Era Bundle keepbox.

Some months ago, I came across an enthusiastic and well-written review on Pitchfork for a 4-disc box set containing the early works and mixes of the great DJ Shadow, including entire sets from his Bay Area radio station KMEL guest mixes. The review made a compelling case for this limited-release set as a major addition to Shadow discography, as well as a precious insight into Josh Davis' growth as an artist. Trouble was, the set was nearly impossible to find. Tossed out among his rabid fan base with a printing of only 200 sets, the box went out of print almost immediately and began fetching ridiculously high prices from online retailers.

There are other ways, of course, to get one's hands on rare items, and so I found myself with 4 discs filled with the set's music. The trouble is, I'm finding it harder and harder to rest easy with music isolated from some sort of physical and aesthetic presentation - the music file and iPod track just doesn't give me the same jolt. As I also find myself drawn more and more to the handcrafted, the unique and the personal, I decided to set about creating my own little container to house the discs in - to craft a personal and one-of-a-kind vessel, made from detritus and household items. I decided to geek out.

Step one was to find a container. I haunted a few Ocean Beach antique stores before finding a classy wooden Leon Jimenes cigar box from the Dominican Republic.

Leaving the box front free of any markings, I set about lettering a tiny label for the back. One cramped-hand session later, I came up with this noble attempt at setting down a unique cartoonish font.

I glued the original Pitchfork review to the inside compartments of the box - liner notes being a must for box sets these days.

I then outsourced the skills of my wife, who pulled out her vintage Singer sewing machine and produced two gorgeous sleeves, each with a dual pocket inside.

The discs easily slipped inside (one can see my creativity ended with the discs themselves - plain Fuji fronts they will remain), and a sturdy track listing for each disc went in front, also in cartoon font.

And the finished product - a limited-edition-of-one reclaimed cigar box with handcrafted fabric sleeves.

Part of my justification for such an absurdly overblown project is a desire to continually opt for creative methods over product consumption. Another is the belief that far too few households contain handmade objets d'art. And a final reason is DJ Shadow's own fascination with the tossed aside, the one-off, the culturally unique. With one of his finest albums named The Private Press, in reference to individually-released, non-record company albums (particularly home-pressed records of family greetings), I hope that Mr. Davis would feel that my act of piracy and co-optation was in the spirit of his adventures on the wheels of steel.
So, have at me, folks. My fanboy tendencies are hereby offered into the public record.