Thursday, July 31, 2008



MassMOCA July 27, 2008

I’d seen Bang on a Can at MassMOCA a few years ago, a twin bill of Indonesian wayang theater and Eno’s Music for Airports. I reacted as one normally would to a group that first played second fiddle to shadow puppets and then played some pretentious fake muzak. As a result, I haven’t been moved ‘till now to go to one of their legendary marathon concerts. Legendary minimalist composer and musician Terry Riley was going to be there, and they were going to play some Zappa compositions. Well, OK, let’s go.

The 6 hour show was comprised of 14 pieces, performed by 14 different configurations of BOAC veterans and a mess o’ talented students who’d been working with BOAC over the prior three weeks. It was a casual vibe; the audience was encouraged to circulate in and out of the Hunter Theater; there was a cook-out in the court yard, and food and drink were welcomed back in the theater. I learned that, contrary to popular belief, beer and ice cream do go together, if the conditions are right.

The program was already in full swing when we arrive; after a few quiet-to-the-point-of-being-ponderous selections, we were assaulted, in a good way, by a killer piece N’Shima by Iannis Xenakis, performed by two female vocalists, two muted trombones and two muted French Horns. It was tribal without the tribes, it was the sound of nature unhinged, with the horns sputtering and quacking while the vocalists blasted deep gutteral noise-syllables in perfect synchronization. It was shocking, it was in-your-face, and it was beautiful.

Next up was Terry Riley’s 1964 piece Olson III, in which a 13-piece ensemble played mesmerizing, shifting and contrasting quarter-note patterns in 3/4 time, demonstrating, almost comically, Riley’s overarching influence on Philip Glass, and again featuring the female vocalists, now numbering three, who sang aggressively and remarkably in one voice, even when they were harmonizing, like a post-modern version of The Lennon Sisters.

A little later came what was easily the highlight of the marathon: a performance of Shelter, a 7 movement piece written by BOAC principles Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Long, performed by a large ensemble, including three percussionists and a not-shy electric guitarist, with surreal and impressionistic film projected on the big-screen backdrop. The whole thing was just stunning. The first movement, especially, was riveting, with the women singers, who at this point were my heroes, now singing with flat voices in close dissonant harmonies, in the style of the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir.

Then came the two performances that drew me to the show, which were both disappointing. Terry Riley’s improvisation piece clocked in at a short seven minutes, and consisted of Riley noodling at the piano while throat singing, with four BOAC members, trying, and failing, to figure how they were supposed in improvise with that. Then the Zappa pieces were attempted by a large ensemble of the BOAC students, who simply weren’t up to the task of playing Zappa’s complex, demanding music. It was just a big mess.

No matter. If the program had consisted of the performance of Shelter, followed by 5 hours of ducks farting into a funnel, it would have been worth it. Can’t wait ‘till next year.



All eyes are on GirlTalk, a Pittsburgh DJ named Gregg Gillis, who just released his fourth album, titled Feed the Animals. It’s available on a “pay-what-you-will” basis at Go get it right now, I’ll wait. And do be a sport and throw the guy a couple bucks. Don’t be a freetard. And it’s worth it.

OK, be prepared to be amazed. Put it on and turn it up. See?

GirlTalk’s thing is sprawling dance tracks composed entirely of snippits, generally several at once, of recognizable hit songs. Lots of people have been doing this, and you can find thousands of mash-ups on the internet. Most mash-ups involve just a couple of songs, often the vocals from one song superimposed on the instrumental tracks of another. Hey, who knew “You Light Up My Life” and “Enter Sandman” fit together so well! The archytype of this was Dangermouse’s 2004 masterpiece “The Grey Album” which combined vocal tracks from Jay-Z’s “Black Album” dropped atop looped instrumental tracks nicked off the Beatles’ “White Album.” And of course the grandmasters of this are the guys in Negativland, who’ve made an entire career of constructing elaborate pieces entirely out of found sounds and appropriated samples.

Feed the Animals may set the gold standard for appropriated musical works. The tracks are not the simple mash-ups built on one or two ideas, but elaborate constructions, using dozens of samples in a single track. They’re incredible, cohesive works that stand on their own. What makes GirlTalk different from the rest is Gillis’s taste and his wonderfully broad reach of source material (a typical track, “Still Here”, includes recognizable samples from Procol Harum, Kanye West, The Band, Yung Joc, Ace of Base, Salt ‘N Pepa, Kenny Loggins, and about a dozen others) and his wickedly goofy sense of humor. Gillis isn’t making a point or delivering a punch line; like a good club DJ, he just wants to keep the party going, and have fun doing it. Feed the Animals is a kalidiscope of endless surprises, one of the happiest albums I’ve ever heard. And if I knew anything about hip-hop, which provides the lion’s share of the vocalizing, I’d probably like it twice as much. If that’s possible.

GirlTalk hasn’t gotten permission for any of the samples of other people’s recordings on Feed the Animals. The law, the way record companies want it to work, would render Feed the Animals an impossibility. There’s hundreds of samples on the album, and each would require two licenses: one from the record company and another from the publishing company. Each company would likely demand to hear the context in which the sample is used. Many would then simply deny permission, or not respond at all; the rest would charge thousands of dollars for the usage. FTA would be DOA.

So, the big question is: will Gillis get sued into oblivion? On one hand, he’s been doing this without interference since 2002, Feed the Animals has been out for two weeks. On the other hand, he’s getting a ton of attention; Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and pretty much the entire music media is raving about Feed the Animals. He’s got to be moving hundreds of thousands of tracks.

Feed the Animals is the work that sits squarely in the middle of a collision of murky legal principles and conflicting court decisions. A very bad decision out of a Tennessee federal court a couple years ago said that any sampling of a sound recording was infringement, no matter how small, and even when the use was unrecognizable. As this decision has not been adopted in any other federal court circuits, I’m guessing think that if GirlTalk’s gonna get sued, it’ll be in Tennessee. On the other hand, there’s been an increasing recognition by courts, particularly in cases involving the visual arts, that appropriating existing copyright material for a new work is OK if the new work is transformative. And Feed the Animals is nothing if not wildly transformative of the works it borrows. I mean right now I’m hearing Ahmad rapping “Back in the Day” over a groove from Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks” and in a few seconds it’ll move seemlessly on to something else. If that’s not transformative then I’m Rick Astley.

If the “music industry”, hobbling and decrepit as it is, comes out of its spider hole and goes after GirlTalk, watch out. After high profile gigs at major festivals and increasing large venues around the world, Gillis has got millions of die-hard fans, most of whom I’d guess understand, to some degree, the legalities involved here. The push-back from this legion of happy lunatics if GirlTalk is sued will be immediate and probably devastating. And Gillis doesn’t need to worry about representation, either. If he gets served with a complaint, dozens, even hundreds of legal organizations and free range attorneys, including me, will be lining up to help defend him for free.

It would be that important.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

What Day it This? Daryl Hall

Daryl Hall
The Mahaiwe Theater
July 6, 2008

Oh my my. I think everybody wanted this to be a great show. One of the first big shows in the Mahaiwe’s foray into popular music, a big ol’ star, and a neighbor (Hall lives 30 minutes away in Millerton, New York). Which makes the disappointment all the more acute. And it was all so avoidadable.

First, the sound. There was a massive monitor system on the stage, significantly bigger, in fact, than the front-of-house rig (the Mahaiwe’s a tiny, 700 seat hall). And that’s pretty much all we heard: muffled, indirect vocals coming from speakers pointed away from us, with no presence or definition. Hall’s singing has a ton of nuance, and he works the microphone like a musical instrument, but whenever be moved off-mic even a little, his voice disappeared in the house. I imagine it sounded great on-stage.

And it wasn’t an equipment problem—the opening act, a sweet-voiced folksinger with nothing to say, sounded superb through the same system.

Second, Hall seemed to be trying to recreate his excellent “Live from Daryl’s House” webcast concerts, which feature casual, acoustic sessions. He tried, and he failed. There was a massive, hideous, and unnecessary stage set that looked like the inside of a post-and-beam barn; one expected Miss Kitty to pop her head through one of the second story windows and waive to the crowd, which would be pretty weird for a neo-soul concert. But critically, Hall and his trusty side-kick, the terrific T-Bone Wolk, played acoustic guitars throughout the set, mostly while sitting on stools. Which would have been fine, but nobody told the ham-fisted rhythm section to lay back, and they played like they were in an arena, and they were stiff. The result was a muddled, bottom-heavy din; T-Bone appeared to be taking some big-statement solos from time to time, but they were inaudible. The overall sound was monolithic and annoying, a long way from the palpable intimacy of the web concerts.

Which was all a damn shame, because Hall seemed lit up (at one point I think he said “Hey, I shop at Guidos, too!”), in good voice (from the little we could hear), and ready to play all night. Wolk is always on, and set-list was schweet indeed, with minor ear-candy hits dominating: “Everytime You Go Away,” “When the Morning Comes,” and an evening closing “You’re Living in Dreamtime.”

Too bad we couldn’t hear it.

Friday, July 04, 2008


Metroland infringed a bunch of copyrights last week!

Last Thursday an artist / friend / client left a message on my voice mail: “Take a look at Metroland and then call me.” I could tell by the tone of his voice that something was definitely up. So I grabbed a copy and immediately saw what it was—it was the summer fashion layout.

Every shot involved a piece of public art. Models in summer duds were splayed around sculptures by local artists like Leigh Wen, mi Chelle Vara, Jim Lewis and Peter Barton, all part of the Downtown Albany BID’s “Sculpture in the Streets” exhibit. And every shot infringed the artists’ copyrights in their sculptures.

So you’re probably thinking “Hey! Wait a minute! Those things are out on the street! You mean we can’t take pictures of them? This is silly!”

I agree it’s silly, and that’s part of why Metroland won’t get in trouble, but here’s the deal: each sculptor has a copyright in his or her work, and that means each has a bundle of exclusive rights, including the right to display the work, the right to make derivative works, and the right to make and distribute copies. By submitting the sculptures to Downtown Albany BID, the artist impliedly gave BID permission to display the work. But that’s about it. The artists didn’t give Metroland, or anybody else, the right to create or reproduce two-dimensional versions of their three-dimensional works. In other words, they didn’t give you permission to take pictures of the sculptures, or use them in fashion spreads.

In public art contracts that I’ve dealt with, there is usually an explicit grant from the artist to the sponsoring entity for the entity’s use of photographs of the work for promotional or fundraising purposes. But I’ve never seen a grant like that to the general public.

This certainly didn’t occur to Metroland before running the spread, and that’s not surprising. Metroland even credited all of the sculptors on page 23 of last week’s issue, which doesn’t excuse the infringement, but it shows at least an intent to try to do the right thing. I wonder how many of the sculptors even batted an eye at this use of their work, given that the purpose of public art is to engage the public. It’s not like my phone was ringing off the hook, and had there been a big controversy, I’d have heard about it from the artists, or from Metroland, or both. The artist who called me mentioned being perplexed as to whether this was even an issue, and just wanted to discuss it with me.

I suppose if the sculptures had been used in advertising or something tasteless, the offense would be a little more obvious. But folks tend to assume that art that’s out in public belongs to the public, and that’s not an irrational thing to think. I mean, how many local bands, looking for a change to the usual urban street / old brick wall promo photo, have come down to the Empire State Plaza and done photo shoots around the sculptures there? Like, maybe, every one? And the “Sculpture in the Streets” exhibit makes for a nice backdrop for a fashion shoot. But it’s still infringement, if the artist wants to get porky about it.

What makes this even weirder is that the law allows the non-advertising publication of photos of people shot in public places without permission. This means, yes, the sculptures have greater rights than people! Strange but true! The law says folks don’t have an “expectation of privacy” when they’re out in public, so it’s OK to photograph them and publish the photos. The sculptures are protected by copyright, and one can’t copyright one’s own image, not that people haven’t tried.

What would happen if one of these artists got all lathered and lawyered-up and decided to make a federal case out of this? Other than the artist looking pretty dweeby, not much. First, the sculpture would have to have a registered copyright before this thing could go to court, and the registration would have to have preceded the infringement for there to be any possibility of a significant damage award. Then, unique sculptures like these aren’t the sort of thing artists rush to get copyright registrations for, it’s just not necessary. Second, it’s hard to see any court being terribly moved by the gross injustice of having a work used in a fashion shoot without permission, so the likelihood of a big damage award is pretty slim.

So, if you’re one the sculptors and you’re all PO’d about this, don’t call me. Besides, I’m a little conflicted out. Ya think?

7.3.08 SPAC Jazz Fest

I really felt bad about bailing on this; any criticisms thrown my way are likely deserved. Guilty! But then if I'd stayed, I wouldn't have written this:


SPAC Friehoffer’s Jazz Festival

Saturday June 28, 2008

The reunion of Return to Forever at the SPAC Jazz Fest was the only must-see show for me so far this year. In 1974 my college mates and I poured ourselves into the SUNY Ballroom after the usual 1974 pre-concert ablutions and RTF came out, grabbed us collectively by the throat, and didn’t let go for an hour and a half of the most bodacious display of ensemble virtuosity, in any musical genre, the world has ever seen. I’m still not right from that experience. And I’ve always wanted more.

Because the weather all week had been so uniformly skeevy, I checked the NOAA Albany radar reflectivity composite loop (highly recommended, btw) online that showed a skinny band of bad weather maybe a half-hour away from SPAC, with nothing behind it. As I live an hour and a half away, I figured “perfect.”

I figured wrong. Driving up the Northway we got hit around Clifton Park with the kind of serious rain that makes everybody slow down to 30, put on the 4-ways, and wish they were home. This continued all the way to SPAC, and we sat in the VIP parking lot (I had the coveted Metroland parking pass, but there was no one out in the downpour to check it) for 20 minutes ‘till the storm passed. Despite the storm passing, the air was heavy, fetid.

We got inside, and the usual Jazz-Fest happy-vibe was seriously on, and even though folks were soaking wet, they were joyous and chillin’. Nothing was happening in the theater so we worked our way back to the Gazebo, where The Maurice Brown Effect had taken over. Maurice is a happy, dread-locked New Orleans trumpeter, leading a young, killer quintet, playing aggro-post-bop with a splash of Miles and N’Awlins strut. They were special. A song and a half in, raindrops started falling on our heads so we headed to the theater, where the “sax summit” was getting started.

As we didn’t put in for seats ‘till Friday, we were WAY in the back corner of the theater, under the overhang, where the sound is notoriously dead. Our fault, not SPAC’s, but the sound was still dead. I was watching Joe Lovano, Dave Liebmann, and Ravi Coltrane “doing battle” in some kind of tribute to Michael Brecker and John Coltrane. It wasn’t happening. They took turns bleating, then they’d all bleat together. Then they’d take turns again. The rhythm section (Cecil McBee and Billy Hart) noodled in a decidedly non-grooving non-groove. No one seemed to be looking at each other, and sure as shit nobody was smiling. It sounded, more than anything else, like a duck gang-bang in a freight-yard. I snuck down to where another writer/friend was sitting, way up close. I listened for a few minutes and said to him “They sound less like they’re jacking off into their hats than they did back there. But they still basically sound like they’re jacking off into their hats.”

As a good pal and serious jazzbo recently told me, these guys and their self-absorbed ilk are going to be responsible for the death of jazz. And that’s a crime. I mean, just listen to Maurice Brown! Or Brain Patneaude!

Despondent and uncomfortable, we wandered back towards the Gazebo. The rain ramped up a notch, then another. In a food tent near the Gazebo we got some decent overpriced Mexican food, which tasted perfectly fine eaten standing up, with one of those styrofoam boxes and a plastic fork, in a very crowded tent, while the rain outside built and built and the air simply pressed down. It was hot. It was really no different than standing in stinky hot water. We were sweating into our shoes while standing still eating decent overpriced Mexican food.

Nearby, Jenny Scheinman (who I also really wanted to see) and her band were gathered on the Gazebo stage, looking around. A few folks with umbrellas sat on the benches in front of the stage, looking back. The rain bumped up some more, and one by one Scheinman and her band trudged off, instrument cases in hand, for places unknown.

The mood was turning sour. Over a $5 bottle of lemonade, under a different crowded tent, we weighed our options. The only sane alternative was heavy survival drinking, a solution to which many around us had clearly already turned. But we hadn’t brought our own hootch, and “premium beers” were $9, god knows what an honest drink would cost, and besides, it’s a long road back to Housatonic. We were soaking wet, hot, and after less than two hours, miserable. This was no freakin’ fun and there was absolutely no conceivable set of circumstances that was gonna make it fun. I thought about the long drive we made to get here; my journalistic responsibility to Metroland; my need to see Return to Forever one more time; mostly, I though of you, dear readers, who no doubt have been fervently wondering what I might think about the performances at this festival, so much so that you’ve had trouble sleeping, eating, and playing with others.

I looked at my wife and said “let’s get the fuck out of here.”

In any relationship, there are moments of perfect tumescence, where one says or does the perfect thing, moments that live forever in the scrapbook of one’s mind. This was one of those.

As we hit the Northway, the rain again went bat-shit, we slowed to 20 and put the flashers on, and thought, while listening to Garrison Keillor live at Tanglewood on AMC: (a) those poor bastards back at SPAC are getting whooped again; and (b) why didn’t I put in for Garrison Keillor at Tanglewood?

Right now it’s 8:15 Saturday night, I’m sitting comfortably in front of a fan, an honest drink next to me (that cost me, like, nothing), and I’m missing Return to Forever. I’ll bet they’re fabulous.