The Rest is Noise

I have gotten myself completely lost in orchestral music over the last few weeks.

I read a lot, and usually have several books going at the same time. That sounds a little pompous, but it didn’t happen on purpose. After the move to Berlin I just couldn’t find any television shows I liked, and without TiVo I ended up using the big screen for the PlayStation and an occasional DVD. Karen is still frothing at the mouth about something called SlingBox, but I can’t say I miss TV that much.

That leaves a lot of time for reading, but I have found that I need to mix it up and can’t just read one book at a time. I still need to change the channel occasionally. There’s usually some fiction, some kind of book about politics/economics/history, and then I like to read something about the arts. I try to keep some creativity in my life, but it can’t just be photobooks all the time.

I just read a book by Alex Ross called The Rest is Noise. Cut-and-paste Blurb:

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is a voyage into the labyrinth of modern music, which remains an obscure world for most people. While paintings of Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for a hundred million dollars or more, and lines from T. S. Eliot are quoted on the yearbook pages of alienated teenagers across the land, twentieth-century classical music still sends ripples of unease through audiences. At the same time, its influence can be felt everywhere. Atonal chords crop up in jazz. Avant-garde sounds populate the soundtracks of Hollywood thrillers. Minimalism has had a huge effect on rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward.

The Rest Is Noise shows why twentieth-century composers felt compelled to create a famously bewildering variety of sounds, from the purest beauty to the purest noise. It tells of a remarkable array of maverick personalities who resisted the cult of the classical past, struggled against the indifference of a wide public, and defied the will of dictators. Whether they have charmed audiences with sweet sounds or battered them with dissonance, composers have always been exuberantly of the present, defying the stereotype of classical music as a dying art. The narrative goes from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties, from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia to downtown New¬† York in the sixties and seventies. We follow the rise of mass culture and mass politics, of dramatic new technologies, of hot and cold wars, of experiments, revolutions, riots, and friendships forged and broken. The end result is not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century through its music.

I love music, but a person call only learn to love something that he interacts with. Ross covers all the music I’ve always heard of, but never listened to. He tells the story of Schoenberg and his Second Viennese School, the way Stravinsky shocked Paris, Sibelius losing it in the forests of Finland… you name ’em, they’re in there. Dvorak, Debussy, Berg, Webern, Shostakovich, Ashkenazy, all the way to Britten, Copland, Adams, and the music being written right now somewhere nearby… where most of us will never hear it or know about it.

What makes the book really fun is that Ross is modern enough to provide us with the music to appreciate what he’s writing about. Some things are easy to write about – murder-mysteries and the Penthouse Forums seem to need little multimedia help – but other topics cannot be covered in words. Food writing is attempted by few and mastered by none, and describing a musical piece – especially an atonal orchestral piece – is virtually impossible. Thankfully, Ross has provided us with excerpts to every relevant piece on his site, and an abridged playlist is available via iTunes. I ended up buying a lot of the music (via Amazon’s brilliant collection of DRM-free download section) but you should check out Ross’s exhaustive set of samples.

Alex Ross: Chapter Guide, with musical samples

A simple iTunes Playlist

Simply put, The Rest is Noise is a rare opportunity to be taken on a tour of unknown territory by a gregarious and eloquent guide. It’s a chance to delve deeply into a topic that is virtually inaccessible.

He doesn’t really answer the final question: “Why bother?” To some degree, orchestral music, like Richard Strauss, seems to have outlived itself. Almost any mood, no matter how complex, can be musically sketched with a different set of tools nowadays. Dissonance, atonality, and the interweaving and repurposing of ethnic and multicultural sounds is so common as to have become part of the global musical vernacular. We hear jazz, hip-hop, bangrha and sampled sounds everywhere we turn. But I think of composers like Sean Shepherd or Dan Visconti, both fellows at the American Academy, and they remind me of photographers working with Large Format view cameras. Yes, it’s arcane, and you can fake almost anything with one of the new pro-level DSLRs… but it’s never quite the same. There is distinct pride in having mastered a complex, antique piece of equipment. The process is much more deliberate, and the final image can be breathtaking in a way that could only be born of its tools. Or to complete the circle, Ansel Adams, the father of landscape photography, taught us that the image is the score and the print is the performance. But if you write small, you’ll sound small.

Read the opening pages of The Rest Is Noise.

Other People’s Images

There’s a couple of sites that I visit daily. It is hard to explain why, because I can’t say that I “learn” something there. Nonetheless I feel compelled to spend a little time there everyday, just to catch up on the newest posts. One example is FFFFound!, an image blog where members re-post interesting images found across the internet.

I scour these sites for the same reason I shower every day, sometimes twice. I don’t feel complete otherwise, and I need to immerse myself, however briefly, in that kind of beauty. I feel better afterward. I’ve occasionally posted odd images or pieces of art on this blog, and chances are I found them on one of these sites.

But recently I found an image that took my breath away. I had a visceral response to it. I can’t explain it, but I am certain most people won’t share how I feel; some things are just too personal. Maybe this triggers something from a previous life, or aggregates archetypes into a melange of hope and desire. I don’t know who these people are, but it seems like a perfect moment, captured as a self-portrait. At this age I know the difference between youthful love and the true love that comes later in life… but I remember the invincibility of Sunday morning in bed, with the rest of the world beyond the window.

So even though it feels like I’m invading an extremely personal moment, I like looking at it… and decided to share it with you.

the photo

I wish them all the luck in this world.


I don’t know what posessed me, but I decided to join Facebook last week.

…as though my prior forays into Social Networking were so successful…

The first few days are overwhelming. I am suddenly in touch with hundreds of people, many of whom I haven’t seen in thirty years. I attended a number of schools, which means I have a much larger circle of people to reconnect with than most others I know. Add in the various online communities I participate in, and it becomes a wide circle of people.

It’s great fun to surf through the players of your own personal history, and see what everyone else has been up to. Most won’t admit it, but the first thing people do when they join Facebook is to see what various ex-crushes and high-school sweethearts look like. The next thing is seeing whom they still might be friends with from the old days. It’s one of the great guilty pleasures of the internet. It’s even more fun if you’ve managed to keep your looks, and can show off a good-looking family and a successful career.

Some of the people are difficult to recognize… I think Facebook ought to develop some kind of forensic app, an age regression software that will show the middle-aged men staring out from their poorly-shot profile picture as the young teenagers in uniforms they once were. Even worse are the members who are unwilling to show themselves at all, and instead post pictures of their toddler, or a favorite cat.

I have to admit it’s a joy to reconnect with some old friends. I find that my instincts were right. Some are living interesting, engaged, and involved lives, whereas others… are posting pictures of their favorite cats. There are some I always thought were a little “thick”, and lo and behold, their hobbies and affiliations bear out what I had already suspected. But in most cases the common ground that made someone my friend has remained in place, and we have moved along the same trajectory over time.

Much more difficult is the Friends of Friends phenomenon. Every time you reconnect with someone, their friends see the connection. Well, many of them will then send you a Friend Request as well… At first I accepted all of the requests, and my network grew exponentially. Size may matter to a teenager, but it has become quickly apparent that I value quality over quantity. I am now “Friends” with people I barely know. It’s these people that are often the most active… they enjoy their network action, and will comment on everything incessantly. Some of it is funny, occasionally it’s stupid, most of it is irrelevant, and all of it is a huge distraction.

I’m not above this kind of behavior, by the way. You can only see someone’s profile if you’re Friends with them… well, I’ll send a Friend Request to people I didn’t know that well back then, but I want to see what their lives are like these days. I figure I can “cancel” the Friendship later (Facebook won’t tell ’em) but in the mean time I get to see if they’re still as cool (or artsey, or sporty, or intimidating) as they were back then.

But I am ruthless. I will begin “unfriending” people by next week. I’ve already started turning down various invites, especially those of teenage kids. Some of my friends have offspring with their own internet accounts, but I have no interest in filtering what I say… and I am even less interested in what they did last weekend. I have now moved my Facebook link to Internet Explorer. I use Firefox for serious work, whereas the other browser is reserved for spare time activity and frivolous surfing.

Nonetheless, the final verdict is positive. It is proving to be a fun way of staying in touch, and Facebook is well-written… the granular privacy settings that allow you to grant different types of access to virtually every member you’re Friends with ensures that you can have some fun, and still look like a serious business person at the water-cooler on Monday morning.


Lloyd Philipps at C/O

Friday night Lloyd Philipps opened his show at C/O Berlin. He is not a professional photographer, in the sense that he actually makes his living as a film producer. But his pictures prove that he started professional life as a photojournalist. He’s been in Berlin for a long time, shooting The International together with a friend of ours, which just opened the Berlinale Film Festival. He’s still here, now producing Inglorious Basterds, Quention Tarantino’s next exercise is timeless juvenile cinematic wank.

Phillips usually captures images during a production, and then gives them to the cast and crew after the shoot as a book compilation.

The photos were taken during the production of The International and, to counterpoint the film’s rapid-fire action sequences, they are a mostly serene and atmospheric look at locations in Istanbul, Milan, New York and, of course, Berlin.

Stephan Erfurt, the founder of C/O, said that Lloyd’s work could keep up with masters like Sebastiao Salgado. I think that might be reaching a little, but I do agree that his images were very strong. His images are a good example that a simple subject with tense composition can create a serene picture.

Why do I bring this up? In some way it makes me feel a lot more comfortable about my own work. I’m trying to find the time to put together my own first series, though it’s still tough to find the time to shoot. I’m jealous of his opportunity to shoot in exotic cities with an entire crew there to clear and clean up the location… or getting to rebuild the best parts of New York’s Guggenheim at a Studio here in Berlin.

So because I can’t find a good shot of his series from The International, here’s an image from a series I’m working on called “Arrivals and Departures”, about airports, bus terminals, and train stations.


Inflatable Bag Monsters

New York is actually pretty clean these days, but one thing that is unavoidable are the flimsy plastic bags that blow through the city, and get caught up at the subway airshafts and the big air vents of large office buildings.

Joshua Allen Harris noticed the bags dancing around in the hot air, and saw something very different. Check out the video:

Peter Funch sees Manhattan

I’m in New York for 48 hours, so I thought it was apropos to point toward Peter Funch and his Babel project.

It’s a novel approach to classic work. Street photography has been around since Leica invented a camera small enough to carry around, but in recent times it’s become rather monotonous. It seems every college student with a beat up AE-1 is out there snapping black + white images, slightly grainy, in an effort to capture urban grit.

Well, at least that’s what I did back in college…

Funch uses Photoshop, a modern graphic editing software, to insert characters shot over time into one location. He will combine people to create a surrealistic scene… like the large group of yawners seen below. What’s even more fun, many of his images show New York in bright sunshine and daylight, which adds to the odd setting.

On a personal note, I also like the choice he makes by using such a wide aspect ratio… it lets the eye focus on the characters, and wander through the image. They definitely need to be seen larger than is possible on the internet.


Click on the picture to be taken to his gallery. They are wondeful images. I really like “Suspecting Suspects” and “Memory Lane”. Check out “Doppeltganger”, it’s a tour de force of the technique. On the other hand, “Diverting Diversions” seems easily plausible.