Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Newsweek Culture Feature: "Slavery After the Civil War"

Newsweek is featuring a multimedia presentation on post-Civil War re-enslavement of African Americans, "Slavery, After Freedom." The presentation includes a photo slideshow and narration by journalist/writer Douglas A. Blackmon based on his recently published book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to WWII. This photo appears in the slide show, as well as on Blackmon's website dedicated to the book and the history it details. It shows men in a barracks cell in an Alabama slave camp where they lived when not working as slaves. Note that they are shackled together; they wore those shackles 24-7, and often developed infections where the metal dug into their flesh.

The audio isn't great (what's up with that, Newsweek?). It sounds like instead of getting him into a studio, they recorded Blackmon speaking on the phone with a cheap piezo mic. But still, it's an important feature. I blogged about Blackmon's book earlier this summer, here.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Audio Geek...the acousmatic world...

Acousmatic sound is sound "one hears without seeing their originating cause - a invisible sound source. Radio, phonograph and telephone, all which transmit sounds without showing their emitter are acousmatic media." (from FilmSound.org)

In the U.S. we don't have much access to the discussion of this idea, or related areas of sound such as phonography, which doesn't refer to the study of phonographs, or a type of stenography, but field recording. Field recording is the recording of ambient sound or "the technique for capturing the audible illustration of an environment, produced outside of a recording studio." (from Wikipedia.org)

Not surprisingly phonography has affiliates in the sound art, sound design, interdisciplinary art, and environmental activist arenas. There are whole libraries devoted to field recordings used by film sound designers and others. There are also festivals and organizations devoted to this field. One, The Elements: A Festival of Nature in Performance, is happening right now, August 20 - 23, 2008 on Gabriola Island, in British Columbia. Canada and Europe have traditionally provided a more welcoming home to sound arts than the U.S. (but that's another story). The festival features a host of artists' works developed from recordings of the natural world of Gabriola Island (pictured above right with Henry Miller quote). Fortunately you don't have to actually be there to hear, and in some cases visually experience, the work. If you go to the festival link listed above and click on the "artists' projects" link on the left-hand side menu, you'll see a listing of the work. Anything that's already premiered may have audio as well as video available. I just listened to Darren Copeland and Andreas Kahre's commissioned project, Fish on Air. Copeland and Kahre used a "Dolphin Ear" commercial underwater recording system to record the marine sounds at five coastal locations on Gabriola Island. My favorite is Silva Bay, where you can hear the air bubbles made by various small marine life such as crabs, and small fish, along with the human and marine sounds of this active port.

• Check this CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) excerpt from The Idea of North (original airdate in 28 December 1967) the first installment of acclaimed Canadian pianist Glenn Gould's Solitude Trilogy a "contrapuntal radio documentary" for the CBC. The trilogy's production represents a key moment in Canadian broadcast history, and provides a compelling marriage of audio documentary, musical composition, spoken word text (Gould's introduction), and phonography.
Article on the Solitude Trilogy and Gould's philosophy from Hermitary.com.
Video of Gould talking about The Idea of North, and relating its composition to fugue, and the work of composer Anton Webern)

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Audio Geek...Singer/Songwriter/Iconoclast...Betty Carter


I just wanted to get that out of the way.

Betty Carter was my favorite jazz vocalist when I was a kid. And still is.

Yeah, I listened to Cleo Laine, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Annie Ross of Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross, as well as the more experimental Jeanne Lee. I hadn't yet found pianist/vocalist Shirley Horne. I also listened to the more pop-sounds of Nancy Wilson (she could break my heart every time I heard her sing, "Guess Who I Saw Today"; no question mark needed (sigh...)) and Dinah Washington. I thought they were all wonderful in their own way.

But Betty Carter, aka ...But She's Betty Carter... (now out-of-print) blew my mind with her phrasing and arrangements. How she used her voice, worked a note and sang all around the meter, behind it, in front of it and "tight" on top of it (e.g. the classic, "But Beautiful, and her own, "Look What I Got"). Then there was Carter's work as a band leader, she also produced her own records, and ran her own label, Bet-Car when she got the reputation for being "difficult" i.e., knowing what she wanted, and couldn't get a label to release her work. She started with Lionel Hampton's band, their frequent disagreements being smoothed over by his wife Gladys, who was apparently a, if not the, major managerial power behind the band. Carter recalls that Gladys Hampton wanted the young singer to stay long enough to give her chops a solid foundation before she went solo. After going solo in the sixties, getting married, having two children and starting her record label she also she started mentoring young musicians, whom she recruited for her band. They called it, "The University of Betty Carter." Both she and Abbey Lincoln have been renowned for this mentoring over the decades, as well as their songwriting skills. As one critic noted, most jazz musicians are known for their compositions as well as their musicianship and performance work, with the notable exception of vocalist. Lincoln and Carter (and to a lesser degree Billie Holiday) have been exceptions to this during the 20th century. Younger jazz vocalists Rene Marie and Cassandra Wilson have both carried on this songwriting legacy in their careers.

NPR produced an audio documentary of almost a full hour's length, Betty Carter: Fiercely Individual, narrated by the singularly voiced Nancy Wilson. They recently re-aired the documentary(airdate 14 August 2008). Betty Carter was seriously fierce, and a true original. Check it out.

Verve Music Group's Better Carter page.
Betty Carter page on JazzSingers.com.
Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead Music Residency program for young people at Kennedy Center.
BBC - Radio 3 Jazz Profile of Carter.
Tim Cramm's Unofficial Betty Carter page.

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Audio Geek...Fiction...week of August 18

A few gems from NPR...

Junot Díaz interviewed by Terri Gross in 2007 (airdate 18 October 2007) regarding his debut novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Gross starts off going the autobiographical conflation route which is somewhat problematic, but Díaz navigates it well. Eventually, she begins to approach the interview from the perspective of fiction writing, and Dominican Republic history, as well as the complicated history of individual Dominican's and Dominican neighborhoods in Santo Domingo in relation to the Trujillo dictatorship. As usual Díaz's love of history comes through in this part of the interview. There's also a thoughtful response from Díaz regarding language, the immigrant experience, and speaking in a multiplicity of idioms in relation to the language of the novel. Includes Díaz reading a selection from the book. (pictured above, Junot Díaz; photo credit: Lily Oei)

Chris Abani interviewed by Farai Chideya (airdate 19 May 2006) about his novella Becoming Abigail. Abani explains the impetus behind the work, the experience of writing from the point of view of an adolescent Nigerian girl who has immigrated to London, the Nigerian (specifically the Igbo) obsession with and silences concerning the dead, and questions of displacement and recovery. Includes a link to Abani reading an excerpt from the work.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

More Audio Geek out...Poetry

This is and older bit of audio, but I wanted to be able to track it. It's ~ QUEST ~, edited by poet/scholar Evie Shockley as a special 2007 issue of MiPOesias Magazine. Artwork by artist/poet Krista Franklin.

The list of guest poet-readers is:
A. Van Jordan
Aracelis Girmay
Brandon D. Johnson
C. S. Giscombe
Camille Dungy
Carl Martin
Cherryl Floyd-Miller
Christian Campbell
Christopher Stackhouse
Derrick Weston Brown
Douglas Kearney
Duriel E. Harris
Ed Roberson.
G.E. Patterson
Geoffrey Jacques
giovanni singleton
kim d. hunter
Kyle G. Dargan
L. Teresa Church
Lenard D. Moore
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon
Marilyn Nelson
Meghan Punschke
Mendi Lewis Obadike
Opal Moore
Raina León
Reginald Harris
Reginald Shepherd
Tara Betts
Thylias Moss
Tonya Foster
Treasure Williams
Tyrone Williams

By the way, even though Shockley's work doesn't appear in this collection, you shouldn't pass it by. Check out her 2006 poetry collection, a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006). Definitely worth any extra leg-work you have to do to get to it...

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Nigerian Writer Chris Abani on TED

Chris Abani, I'm beginning to think he's a genius--not opined lightly. Nigerian writer, poet, publisher (and occasional saxophone player?), currently living in the U.S., creator and editor of Black Goat the Akashic Books poetry imprint.

TED is? For those who don't know TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It was started in 1984 with the intent of bringing together people from those three arenas but since then its "scope has become ever broader. The annual conference in Monterey, California now brings together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes)." The TED site makes the best of these talks available for free on their website. I've known about TED for a while but only occasionally check their site.

gave a talk in February 2008 that was posted 22 July 2008. (Thanks to Abdel Shakur via Tayari Jones for hipping us all to this talk). TED must have really liked Abani because there are at least two talks up on their website!

• Here's Abani talking about African narratives from August 2007, ending with a poem from Yusef Komunyakaa.

• Here is Abani telling stories about our shared humanity from February 2008, ending with a poem by Lucille Clifton.

A little bit of why TED says you should listen to Chris Abani: "Chris Abani's first novel, published when he was 16, was Masters of the Board, a political thriller about a foiled Nigerian coup. The story was convincing enough that the Nigerian government threw him in jail for inciting a coincidentally timed real-life coup. Imprisoned and tortured twice more, he channeled the experience into searing poetry.

What is Black Goat? The poetry imprint is dedicated to "publishing well-crafted poetry and will focus on experimental or thematically challenging work. The series aims to create a proportional representation of female, African, and other non-American poets." (Abani is also a generous mentor/advisor to emerging artists.) Among the current Black Goat imprint publications are: Karen Harryman, Auto Mechanic's Daughter; Uche Nduka, eel on reef; Kwame Dawes, Gomer's Song; Gabriela Juaregui, Controlled Decay; and Khadijah Queen, Conduit.

(Interestingly, in his talk on humanity Abani notes that the voice of the goat sounds like that of a human being, and its eyes are that of a human child. I don't know if that has any relationship to the name of the imprint.)

• I've just finished reading Abani's novella, Becoming Abigail, (Akashic Books, 2006) and still am unsure what to think of it. I was riveted; pissed off; caught up in the beauty of his language; frustrated with his repetitions of the word "loam"; riveted again with visceral evocations of his language; with his ability to acknowledge the absolute messiness of life and allow you to simultaneously feel the profoundity, revulsion, despair, awe, and relief that messiness can compel; and again ultimately felt disquieted, and unmoored by the work. I read the last lines at least three times while walking. I had read the last pages walking outside because I couldn't be still, or out of the day (the trees, and the sun) while reading them. I wondered that I somehow came out of that work feeling a sense of hope of all things, alongside my frustration.

I want to read more Abani.

• If you'd prefer to watch Abani on the TED website here's the link for the humanity talk and for the African narratives talk.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Jerry Wexler R.I.P.

Jerry Wexler January 10, 1917 - August 15, 2008

A friend was just telling me how the the energies of the world are changing, things are opening and shifting. I keep wondering if with these amazing creative talents passing on if we aren't being asked to lead ourselves into a different manner of being cultural producersto the world. Not that their was not powerful and meaningful, but we have to move on from looking to repetitions of what was.

The music industry has been undergoing major changes and continues to do so. Jerry Wexler, former executive at Atlantic Records (aka "the House that Ruth [Brown] Built"), and legendary music producer created the term "Rhythm & Blues" in 1949 while a cub reporter at Billboard Magazine. At the time an editor charged Wexler and his colleagues with finding, over a weekend, an alternative to "Race Records" then the name for Billboard's "black music" chart, due to the number of "people beginning to find it inappropriate."

But new folks coming up now hardly call themselves R&B artists anymore, ironically the term has become a stand-in for race. So the only people who can call themselves R&B singers musicians and still expect to have a career are white artists for whom the label confers or infers authenticity and/or the presumption of the black music historical knowledge of the singer said white musician. Irony upon irony, Wexler is often credited with having originated the form rhythm and blues, as opposed to having coming up with name "Rhythm & Blues" as an alternative name to "Race Records" the category in which all recordings by black artists were lumped. In other words, "rhythm & blues" was just another name, another box, actually a working euphemism. As such it wasn't really actually challenging the notion of what constituted "black music," instead it simultaneously obscured and reified the notion of race in relation to the recording industry. Check the Rolling Stone obituary which bears the title, "Jerry Wexler: The Man Who Invented Rhythm & Blues."(What?!) Wexler certainly was an innovator in the form as a producer, but often there's a too comfortable confusion conflation of that legacy with the mythos of his having originated the form itself. Wexler grew up a music lover, and obviously had an excellent ear for talent and was a uniquely gifted producer. He produced Aretha Franklin after she left Columbia for Atlantic Records, as well as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan, among others. However, he wasn't a musician, and he wasn't among the creative artists who originally developed and pioneered the early African American musics that often crossed and merged genres of blues, gospel, country, and provided the roots of both what came to be classified as R&B and rock 'n' roll.

Now black artists are neo-soul singers, or hip-hop/neo-soul singers, and R&B is an historical reference, and as such has become a fixed category with a specific legacy with requisite reference points. We should be able to honor what Wexler contributed to U.S. music as opposed to having to erase the history of the artists who proceeded him, in order to grant him a greater role than he actually had. It's a disservice to what Wexler did achieve to act as though it isn't enough to secure his place in music history.

Interviews and portraits of Wexler:
New York Times obituary.
New York Times review of Wexler's 1993 memoir, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, written with David Ritz.
Salon.com's 2000 profile of Wexler the producer.
Rolling Stone obituary.

(revised 8/17/08)

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Audio Geek Out...

So recently I've been letting my audio geek flag fly, and finding out there are more like-minded folks around me than I realized. The kind of folks who can sit around talking about different mics and compressors (outboard gear, not just digital plugins), the infinite challenges of EQ, and experiments in mic placement in the recording process while the hours fly by, and not even notice it the passage of time. But if you've popped in here from time to time you've noticed postings of video interviews with sound designers. I've been focusing on film sound designers, and realized I've been neglecting other areas of interest: radio, music, sound art (though I've added a "Sound/Sound Art" links panel to keep track of various sites).

Here are some sites that feature people talking about sound from different perspectives....

1. Bold As Love Vimeo Channel
Rob Fields puts his energy out there to engage people in, evangelize on, and document the subject of black rock in its various permutations. Lucky for us. Recently he put up some new video interviews with three music artists: Monica Arrington (aka Nerdkween), TreZure the Empress, and Maya Azucena. These artists have markedly different sounds, with the quiet, "ethereal," sometimes ambient sounds of singer/songwriter/guitarist and electronic musician Nerdkween; the vocal-based rock funk of TreZure the Empress, who sings with the easy knowledge of her title: she knows she doesn't have to explain; and the rich folk/soul/rock, afro-latin jazz inflected melodies of Azucena with her thoughtful instrumentation and fruitful musical collaborations. (pictured above, Bold As Love's Rob Fields)

2. WNYC - Radiolab: Making Radio Lab
Co-producer and co-host Jad Abumrad calls Radiolab "a science-y and ideas kind of program. Basically what we do is look for big ideas that are percolating up in the sciences, and we try and humanize those ideas..." This is a podcast from 9 November 2007 about the sound design for the show which is unusual for its level of production quality and innovation. Abumrad, the conceptual audio geek behind the show's sonic design, talks about it's technical particulars, while the other co-producer/co-host Robert Krulwich talks about the content editing issues that arise in relation to the sound design. You can also listen to Abumrad talk specifically about the use of music on the show as means to inact the humanizing of those "big ideas" at "Music A Force for Good (and Sometimes Evil)" one of the breakout sessions at Chicago Public Radio's 2005 Third Coast International Audio Festival. Listen to that audio archive here (scroll down to get to Abumrad's session). (pictured above, l-r: Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad; photo: WNYC Radio)

3. EM Cast: Producer/engineer/musician Joel Hamilton
Originally, I only knew about Joel Hamilton from his work with his band The Book of Knots, and then only because of violinist Carla Kihlstedt who I know from her own work. OK, but the thing is that The Book of Knots is made up of people who have worked as studio and performing musicians with Tom Waits, Pere Ubu, Bob Mould, Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, John Vanderslice, They Might Be Giants, Fred Frith. Hamilton has worked with many of those artists, has engineered and or mixed for too many artists to mention including, Ludacris, and Soulive, and is co-owner of the Brooklyn-based Studio G. For a full listing of artists he's worked with click on his name above. (pictured above, The Book of Knots; photo from Obscure Sound.com music blog)

The Book of Knots started out as a studio project, an opportunity for the musicians, producers and engineers involved to "do everything as wrong as we possibly could in the studio, it'd be our chance to go outside 'session musician' or 'producer' that's doing things the right way, and just start recording the entire band with one microphone in a corner, or three broken microphones on a three piece live in a small living room. Just going way outside the perimeters that people usually want to see in the studio." He also talks about experimenting with throwing out the rules in the mixing process. Definitely an interesting interview, and worth listening to The Book of Knots on their MySpace page to get a sense of the results.

4. Third Coast International Audio Festival//Chicago Public Radio - Conference Archives
The Third Coast International Audio Festival (TCF) conferences started in 2001, and they've archived conference sessions from that year to the present. This is a rich archival offering and worth the time to work your way through, if you have an interest in audio production and radio.

The next TCF Conference is October 9-11, 2008 in Evanston, Illinois, just a little north of Chicago. If you are a young person of color, 18-25, and have an interest in radio and/or sound this year the Conference is offering Minority Student Scholarships the deadline is August 15, 2008. Click on the previous link for complete info on the scholarships, below is the text description without links:

We're pleased to announce that the TCF is offering scholarships to help eight young people, members of ethnic or racial minorities, attend the 2008 Conference. Our hope is to encourage diversity in the radio profession among the up and coming generation of producers. Applicants must be 18-25 years old. Those selected to receive scholarships will have their registration fees waived and will receive a $250 travel stipend. They'll also have the chance to share their work and thoughts on the radio universe, during the session College: A Hotbed of Emerging Producers.

Complete and return the TCF Minority Student Scholarship Application (right-click to download PDF) by August 15, 2008. You will also need to send a work sample and a teacher/mentor reference, both are described in more detail on the application.

The TCF will make scholarship decisions based on application forms, potential abilities demonstrated in required work samples and personal recommendations. We'll let applicants know on a rolling basis if they’ve been selected.

Mail the application, work sample and reference to:
Third Coast Festival
Chicago Public Radio
848 East Grand Ave.
Chicago, IL 60611

Or fax it to 312-948-4899.

Please email us with questions, or call 312-948-4652.

(pictured above, shot of the all-important (SM58?) mic from a TCF Conference; pictured right, Public Radio Host and Producer Ira Glass offering a free consultation during the 2007 Conference's Audio Doctor Sessions; photo credit: TCF website)

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