Monday, November 29, 2010

when dolphins sound like horns...





pictured above, and in detail, is the first page of michael ondaatje's 1975 novel "coming through slaughter". the images and text were originally printed, i believe in this exact form, in joan macintyre's 1974 book "mind in the waters", and i recently discovered an image of the page via one of my favorite blogs: vertigo: collecting and reading w.g. sebald (and you can read terry's post on ondaatje's first novel here)... so clearly, these little dolphin sounds have taken quite a journey, before they arrived here...

here is the text, for those of you without a magnifying glass...

"three sonographs - pictures of dolphin sounds made by a machine that is more sensitive than the human ear. the top left sonograph shows a "squawk." squawks are common emotional expressions that have many frequencies of pitches, which are vocalized simultaneously. the top right sonograph is a whistle. note that hte number of frequencies is small and this gives a "pure" sound - not a squawk. whistles are like personal signatures for dolphins and identity each dolphin as well as its location. the middle sonograph shows a dolphin making two kinds of signals simultaneously. the vertical stripes are echolocation clicks (sharp, multi-frequency sounds) and the dark, mountain-like humps are the signature whistles. no one knows how a dolphin makes both whistles and echolocation clicks simultaneously."

this notion of re-presenting this text and image as the first page of a novel, was enough for me to seek out the book and read it.

coming through slaughter is a novel composed of small dreamlike episodes, written in poetic and narrative fragments, approaching the life of jazz great buddy bolden. what is super interesting is that, at least at the time the book was written (i am no jazz historian), there were no known existing recordings of beldon's playing - and yet ondaatje was clearly not afraid to approach his sound. certainly the author has gleaned a lot of beldon's life and musical history from various sources, but the book's power is strongest when ojdaatje suggests bolden's sound by association, as he does in his beginning of the book with images of a dolphin's squawks, whistles, and "echolocation" clicks. echolocation seems to be the operative term for so much of the book, as beldon seems to wander in and out of time, life, and music - feeling sometimes a gravitational presence and sometimes a faded drifting echo of that presence.

having spent the last 7 years working on a series of paintings, drawings, film, sound, and sculpture based on the score of a piece of music i've never heard, i humbly felt a bit of kinship towards the author of a book written about about a man and his sound that was never heard or known in person, by the author.

the book's form, mostly short pieces of prose, interspersed with a few bits of poetry and notations, as well as some of its seedier/steamier content, reminded me a lot of gerhard roth's winterreise, which was published 4 years later. roth's 1978 novel was only tangentially connected to music, in that its title was based on a cycle of poems by wilhelm muller that was famously set for voice and piano by franz schubert.

like roth's book, coming through slaughter contains a number of beautiful passages, none more compact and evocative than this, which appears on page 64:

the mystic privacy one can be so proud of has no alphabet of noise or meaning to the people outside.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

when music lies beneath the surface...

he looked into her eyes, which mirrored the whole rose-colored sunset and green shores. then they heard music, like a glass-harmonica, but in strange keys - such as only those dreamed who wished to do something new in the world! but it did not occur to them to seek outside themselves, for they thought that the music was within them.

august stringberg, the big gravel screen
translated by velma howard, 1912

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

when an albers or a shahn could be had for a song...





a few weeks ago i found this little brochure for the "la tausca art exhibition" held at the santa barbara museum of art in 1948. inclusion into the show was juried by guy pene du bois, adolf dehn, robert gwathmey, karl knaths, yasuo kuniyoshi, and others. awards were also given, by a different jury, which included ben shahn, bradley walker tomlin, and others. there are several interesting things about the show beyond the participants.

first off, instead of charging artists to participate, the brochure states that "all participants (except those who win prizes or make sales) will receive a rental fee of $100 for the use of their work - just as if the fine artist rated the same economic importance as the carpenter at $3.05 per hour or the metropolitan opera tenor at $2,000.00 per night. from any angle, cultural or industrial, this enlightened attitude makes sense..."

all of the work in the exhibition was for sale, and the artists and prices are pretty interesting... here's a bit of the best knowns of the 65 exhibited.

joseph (sic) albers "dark" $800
william baziotes "blue flower" $750
stuart davis "lawn and sky" $800
philip evergood "new york city susanna" $1500
charles howard "the ancestral mitre" $675
karl knaths "fighting cockerel" $1000
yasuo kuniyoshi "this is my playground" $3500
reginald marsh, "lackawanna ferry" $750
george LK morris "mechanical forms" $650
irene rice pereira "yellow square" $900
ben shahn "the boy" $650
raphael soyer "yadida hindu dancer" $1500
bradley walker tomlin "still life" $350

the stuart davis won second prize of $2000, the kuniyoshi won fifth award of $250, and the nicholas vasilieff still life pictured above won first prize of $3000 (more than the cost of any painting in the show). i love the charles howard painting, which won third prize.

i snooped around a little to see if any of these paintings were online in color, and or in museum collections, and discovered the blanton owns the stuart davis painting. you can see a small color image of it here.

for those of you design minded folks, the cover and catalog were designed by milton ackoff.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

when instruction for construction is beautiful...


mid 1960's marx toys animal cage box back, very small, fits in the palm of one's hand...

and the box front is a nice bit of concrete poetry:


a-ni-mal cage,





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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

i am a dj... i am not what i play (or maybe i am...)


today i will be guest dj on no coast of nebraska on kspc, the pomona college radio station tonight from 6pm - 8pm california time. i will be playing a gaggle of 7" records from my collection including: african highlife, 70's soul, 60's turkish and malaysian garage psych, mexican cumbia, musique concrete, 80's post punk, indonesian and vietnamese folk music, camaroon disco, etc... you can listen to it live here, more info here

Friday, November 12, 2010

when 2 non-musicians make music...



i recently discovered these images in different books.

the top image is film director yasujiro ozu playing a mandolin at age 19, from a japanese book on ozu and his work.

the bottom image is designer george nelson playing the japanese sho, from a japanese trade magazine in english, circa 1955.

since i don't read japanese, i can't tell you much more about the context of the ozu image, but the nelson image is from his first trip to japan, accompanied a somewhat lackluster article he wrote regarding the preparation and serving of tempura (nelson was a fantastic writer, but this was clearly a fluff piece).

when i discovered the nelson image several weeks ago, i was completely obsessed with it for a number of reasons. i've written before about how nelson's design-work and writings inspired me to immerse myself in mid-century industrial design; but i'd never really come across any reference in his writings to japanese music.

the sho is probably my favorite sounding instrument in the world, and the fact that someone captured an image of nelson blowing through one, leaves me wishing there was an audio recording to go along with the visual. it might be my favorite image of sound and architecture colliding...

the image of ozu was also a surprise, as i'd never seen an picture of him playing an instrument either. of course, ozu used a ton of music in his films, most of it relatively straightforward sounding japanese film music, the earlier films infused with a healthy dose of folk songs, children's school chorus, etc.

music was clearly important in ozu's films, and he used it kind of like the way he used trains. both are always present, and both create atmospheric situations and suggestions - the trains tending to always take one away or bring one back home (for what else can trains really do...); the music usually more grounding than emotional, repeated motifs occurring less as transitions and more as reference points - more of a grounding presence than music usually is in films.

of course, more than anything, i wonder what sounds, melodies, musics, were played at the moments these two photographs were taken, and of course, they also lead me to wonder what kind of music these two might have listened to (i'm guessing ozu probably listened to folk music, while nelson most likely listened to jazz).

to tweak this duo into a trio, i would include one of the early photographs of strindberg playing guitar... but perhaps that is best left to another post...

a month or so ago i went on the MAK center's annual architecture tour, and one of the stops was the home of julius shulman (designed by raphael soriano). shulman passed away last year, and it was a bit strange to visit his house under the circumstances. it seemed as if some family still lives there, but the house is for sale, and a lot of the furnishings are gone, and it feels like life has moved out of it... not to mention his studio being entirely empty.

when i walked into the living room, the first thing i did was take a few pictures of the speakers that were embedded within the walls, thinking about shulman sitting in this room and listening to music or radio emanating from certain locations. then i noticed the hi-fi near the couch, and next to it several records... i had my phone camera with me, and so i snapped a pic of shulman's record collection - one more collision of architecture and music...


the strange thing is that i did a post a few years ago related to a photograph of the living room i was standing in. in the old image, featured on the cover of a sunday newspaper magazine, there was an LP visible on shulman's end table containing the sound of famous architect's speaking about the future of architecture. i have the LP in my own collection, and at the time, loved the idea that shulman and myself had both listened to the LP, although of course, in different listening spaces.

when i got home from the tour, i pulled out the image of shulman's living room and compared it with my own experience of being there. it felt incredibly odd to look at an image of a space 50 years before i visited it. the room was emptier now of course, but it still looked the same, even the light in the space was similar, and it was nice to know the room hadn't been remodeled since it was built. while we were walking around, looking at the emptied space, i couldn't help but think about putting one of shulman's records on the turntable, to give back to the space a little more life...

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Monday, November 01, 2010

when land and sea merge in mind and longing...

"blank stillness would for hours reign unbroken on this prairie. 'it is the bed of a dried up sea,' said the companionless sailor - no geologist - to himself, musing at the twilight upon the fixed undulations of that immense alluvial expanse bounded only by the horizon, and missing there the stir that, to alert eyes and ears, animates at all times the apparent solitudes of the deep. but a scene quite at variance with one's antecedents may yet prove suggestive of them. hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to john marr a reminder of ocean...

... john marr's shipmates could not all have departed life, yet as subjects of meditations they were like phantoms of the dead. as the growing sense of his environment threw him more and more upon retrospective musings, these phantoms... became spiritual companions, losing something of their first indistinctness and putting on at last a dim semblance of mute life; and they were lit by that aureola circling over any object of the affections in the past, for reunion with which an imaginative heart passionately yearns."

herman melville, from john marr

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