Nu Disco

Dance music and I go way back. In England I listened to a lot of Punk and New Wave, and for a couple of years I got lost in the whole Jam Band thing in the US, but the garage ethos co-joined with the psychedelic side when I returned to Berlin and discovered the Techno scene. While most kids were still trying to figure out college, I actually started D’Vision Records, a dance label in Berlin in the early 1990s – an outrageous time in a crazy city. Case-study alert: being 22 years old, I made every business mistake I could, but as my father pointed out: it was better money spent than any business school tuition, and I got my investment back.

I absolutely love dance music, but it requires a certain amount of research, and some good guidance, to find exactly what you want. In Berlin, we are incredibly proud of our Techno, House, and Trance roots, but it’s always been very “underground” to a fault. It seems as though the entire scene expends a huge effort ensuring no one can join the fun. Admittedly, we fumbled it once before. What started as “our” movement, the first real German thing that wasn’t somehow trying to be American or English ended up growing really huge really fast. The Love Parade (as the most obvious symptom) grew from a few hundred dancers, to a really fun crowd of 40,000 ravers, to 1.5 million drunken hooligans before collapsing under a garbage heap of beer bottles and plastic rave wigs. Worse, no one in Berlin figured out how to earn any real money off it, while people from everywhere else made a killing. I guess the scene is intent on avoiding a version 2.0.

I recommend Tobias Rapp’s “Lost and Sound”, a book that nicely chronicles the current club scene in Berlin – a perfect storm of cool, available spaces, a ton of creative types focused on variations of House music, and the EasyJet-Set, which rolls in and out of Berlin every weekend for the kind of full-on fun that makes any experienced Hedonist blush with envy. The sound coming out of Berlin over the last three years has been dubbed Minimal, and for good reason. As the name implies, it’s pretty straight-forward, actually more focused on the after-hour set with reduced bass, and none of that hands-in-the-air rave favored by American aficionados of Trance House. Minimal is somewhat hypnotic, with its sparse loops and nuanced variations, and it’s easy to see how it plays gently in the background of a river-side concrete café in Berlin on a Sunday as people are slowly coming down from (and gearing up for another) long night.

If you want a taste, download three recent samplers that give you a TON of music for eight bucks each, including two hour-long mixes per compilation. Check out Sound of Berlin Vol. 1, Vol. 2, and Vol. 3

…or just check out Rodriguez Jr.’s track Kids of Hula by clicking below:

Record stores in Berlin have always been difficult. There are few left that have any expertise, and the really important ones don’t want to sell you anything, unless you’re part of the in-crowd. It certainly isn’t a friendly place to go and learn about what’s new and interesting. The big music retailers have left the playing field, and Amazon is great if you know what you want, but their recommendation system is too wide to help with the endless nuanced sub-genres. So where do I go for help? Beatport.com, an online retailer that focuses on dance music, and is a treasure trove of well sorted music. Most DJs nowadays just download music and play it back via digital devices. Check out what Pioneer just brought to market to see what I mean!

1256934317_discoLarge

Beatport also has great articles. One that really caught my attention recently was called 2009: The Year of Disco? It was a well-researched and cross-linked article about the Nu-Disco scene. Karen had made it pretty clear that she had hit the wall on Minimal House, and needed something more organic. Hand-claps and cow-bell to the rescue, baby! I strongly recommend the Horse Meat Disco compilation, as well as the Selected Works from Permanent Vacation. But what really blew me away was the three tracks from Tensnake’s recent EP called I Want You to Cry. Like any good dance number, it builds slowly, and it takes more than one track to close the deal.

Tensnake, In the End (I Want You To Cry)

…and of course, I have a vested interested in the scene, as I suddenly find myself back in the music business. Together with my old business partner Chris Zippel, here is one of the current releases, a Nu Disco compilation capturing the mood of my restaurant in Amsterdam. Get yourself a copy of the Park Hotel presents Momo CD, available now via Amazon and Beatport.

PH Momo CD

… and we even snuck in a Minimal track 😉 Hey, gotta wave that Berlin flag!

Maximus

Let the crazy online propagation begin!

If Tobias Rapp is right, then it won’t take much longer than a week or two before a song becomes a hit on the internet and, then goes into the clubs. In the day and age where every DJ downloads tracks, here’s a fresh one (with a phat video to boot!) It is unbelievable how fast music moves from city to city these days.

Maximus by Beni, featuring Sam Sparro. Berlin via Ghent via Los Angeles with pieces of Chicago and Melbourne.

Berlin Minimal with touches of House.

WHAT A GREAT TRACK! … and the kids are kind of cute, too. Betcha buck the thing was shot with a 5D Mk II and a 24mm f/1.4 L. The colors just look Canonesque, if you know what I mean….

Check it in HD and Full Screen, of course:

… and if you’re not seeing the video, click through to my blog and see it there!

Get up and DANCE, y’all!

350!

Another fun protest! Saturday the 24th of October is the International Day of Climate Action, and all over the world people will be raising awareness for the number 350, which… well, read the mission, freshly pasted from the 350.org website:

350.org is an international campaign dedicated to building a movement to unite the world around solutions to the climate crisis–the solutions that science and justice demand.

Our mission is to inspire the world to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis—to create a new sense of urgency and of possibility for our planet. Our focus is on the number 350–as in parts per million, the level scientists have identified as the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere. But 350 is more than a number–it’s a symbol of where we need to head as a planet.

To tackle climate change we need to move quickly, and we need to act in unison—and 2009 will be an absolutely crucial year.  This December, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen, Denmark to craft a new global treaty on cutting emissions. The problem is, the treaty currently on the table doesn’t meet the severity of the climate crisis—it doesn’t pass the 350 test.

In order to unite the public, media, and our political leaders behind the 350 goal, we’re harnessing the power of the internet to coordinate a planetary day of action on October 24, 2009.  We hope to have actions at hundreds of iconic places around the world – from the Taj Mahal to the Great Barrier Reef to your community – and clear message to world leaders: the solutions to climate change must be equitable, they must be grounded in science, and they must meet the scale of the crisis.

If an international grassroots movement holds our leaders accountable to the latest climate science, we can start the global transformation we so desperately need.

Unfortunately we are already way over 350 parts per million, which means we need to actually bring it back down – not just reduce the growth curve, actually reverse it. Check out this simple video, made without words so that everyone can understand it.

I don’t expect the onus for change to ride solely on the backs of consumers, but every little bit helps. There’s another major climate conference coming up, and hopefully people’s awareness will make it easier for leaders to come to a sensible agreement.

How can we make people aware? There are a number of activities planned in Berlin, but two sound particularly fun:

scp_logoThe Silent Climate Parade will be held at 2 PM in Berlin, but you have to sign up first. There’s only going to be 350 participants, each of whom will be wearing radio-connected headphones. Then these 350 protesters will make the ultimate sacrifice, which is having to listen to Dr. Motte DJ while they silently move through town… just like Love Parade 1989, I guess…

Afterward, you can join Berlin’s CarrotMob, who will be invading a willing Imbiss Bude and spending a lot of money there, in return for which the mobbed owner will voluntarily spend most of that money greening the greasy spoon. This time the “victim” will be eve&adam, which features lower-case spaceless spelling for extra coolness! Come to Rosa-Luxemburg Strasse 24-26 to be part of the fun and some really good food, whether you’re cool in real life or just on the internet.

Carrot Mob is a world-wide movement as well, take a look at their website.

Kutiman spins YouTube

I’ve written about talented Israeli musicians before, but thanks to Bobby Solomon I found Kutiman, who takes existing footage from YouTube and cuts it together to create cool new music. What makes it special is that he retains the underlying video in the sampling process, and cuts that into the mix, too. Usually the video snippets sit next to one another in the frame, so you see it all happening at the same time. It’s a audio-visual pastiche. The source material is of varying quality, but that’s what makes it so charming… which is a nice way of describing YouTube in general, by the way. Through other people’s music, he creates something new. Check out this one, appropriately called The Mother of all Funk Chords.

If you’re up for more of it, check out his site called Thru You. Take a look at Track 8 (About) to meet Kutiman.

Joe Jackson and his smoking diatribe

I couldn’t sleep last night, so around midnight I snuck to my computer for a little late-night browsing. I ended up at The Local, an English-language news site covering Berlin.

Imagine my pleasure when I found an editorial written by one of my favorite musicians, Joe Jackson!

Imagine my excitement when I read that he’s been living in Berlin for several years!

Imagine my disappointment when I realized the man is an idiot!

First off, allow me to quote his editorial in full. You can always click over to The Local, and read the article embedded in its home page… but it’s not going to make it any less crazy.

Steppin’ Out for a Smoke

Having lived in Berlin for the better part of three years, I’ve been asked to write something about my ‘right’ to smoke here. But I’m not sure I have one. The real question, I think, is: who has the right to forbid me to smoke, and on what grounds? Consider the following:

(1) Tobacco is legal in Germany.
(2) Smokers are adults.
(3) Smokers contribute enormous amounts of tax revenue.
(4) Pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants are private property.
(5) If some people don’t like smoke, this is a matter of taste and therefore for the free market to sort out, not the government.
(6) A decent modern ventilation system can render smoke virtually unnoticeable.
(7) ‘Second-hand,’ or ‘passive’ smoke hurts no one anyway.

This all seems pretty obvious to me, but the last point may need some explanation. Seven years of research has convinced me that the potential risks involved in smoking are currently hugely exaggerated, for reasons which have more to do with politics than health.

In the case of ‘second-hand’ smoke, though, anyone who really looks at the evidence – how the studies are done, who pays for them, what the statistics really mean – is soon reminded of the old story of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

You remember the one: the Emperor thinks he’s wearing a fabulous invisible costume, and no one has the nerve to tell him he’s naked because, well, he’s the Emperor! We’re not so impressed by emperors these days, or by priests or popes or politicians. But we seem to practically swoon at the sight of a doctor’s white coat. That’s why, more and more, it’s the uniform of choice for anyone in authority who wants to nag you, bully you, raise your taxes and generally push you around.

In Germany, the ‘official’ figure for yearly deaths from ‘passive smoke’ has been, for the last four years, exactly 3,301 – two-thirds of whom, incidentally, are supposedly over 75 years old and one-third over 85. This comes from a cancer research centre in Heidelberg. How do they know? Well, they don’t. They have just cherry-picked a few dubious statistics from a few trashy studies, and done computer projections from them. They can’t actually prove even one death.

I’m happy to say there seems to be a bit more (healthy!) skepticism about this sort of thing in Germany than, say, the UK. I’m delighted, too, that in the face of court rulings, fierce resistance, and half-hearted enforcement, smoking bans are unravelling in Berlin and the rest of the country.

Very few people, it seems, wanted them in the first place, and even most non-smokers favour some kind of freedom of choice. After all, a Berlin Eckkneipe, or corner pub, is typically a place where the owner, the bartenders, and most of the customers smoke. How far are authorities willing to go to stop them? The Nazis were fierce anti-smokers, but even they did not ban smoking in pubs.

There are bigger things bothering me than some nebulous ‘right to smoke.’ Basic democratic principles (freedom of choice, property rights, free enterprise, tolerance) are increasingly regarded, by politicians and lobby groups acting in the name of ‘health,’ as nothing more than obstacles to be scornfully swept aside.

People need to look beyond their personal prejudices and wake up. The phenomenal recent success of the anti-smoking movement is evidence not of the ascendancy of a noble cause, but of phenomenal infusions of cash. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been extorted out of the US tobacco industry in behind-the-scenes deals like the Master Settlement Agreement. Add to that punitive taxation and especially, the enthusiastic support of the pharmaceutical industry – which wants to sell nicotine products and antidepressants to the world’s 1.2 billion smokers. This is how a fairly small network of prohibitionist fanatics grows into a juggernaut which simply intimidates any opposition into silence.

Anti-tobacco in Europe is driven to a large extent by the World Health Organization – in an explicit partnership with three of the world’s biggest drug companies. AIDS, typhoid and dysentery are rampant in developing countries, and two million children a year die just from lack of clean water. Yet the WHO now prefers to bully the generally healthy citizens of prosperous countries over ‘lifestyle’ issues such as tobacco, alcohol, diet, obesity, and road safety.

Every aspect of our personal lives is being dictated, more and more, by unelected and unaccountable bodies like the WHO or various bit of the EU bureaucracy. If you don’t smoke, you may think it’s none of your business. But don’t kid yourself. If you’re a few pounds ‘overweight,’ or drink more than two government-defined ‘units’ of alcohol per day, or eat ‘unhealthy’ foods, then you’re next in line to be scapegoated and stigmatized, denied health care or insurance, denied jobs or housing, forbidden to adopt children . . . the list is growing daily.

These things are already happening in nanny states like the UK, Canada and Australia, and Germany can’t be so far behind. Nevertheless there is some cause for cautious optimism here. Germany, at least, won’t be the first country to sleep-walk into a joyless, squeaky-clean, socially-engineered future. So light a cigarette, raise a glass, and drink to that healthy disrespect for authority which is still alive and well in the bars of Berlin.

This man borders on the paranoid. A grand collusion of the pharma industry to outlaw smoking… so they can sell nicotine gum? Die he actually use the phrase Nanny State? His juvenile Me-and-Mine approach to rights is reminiscent of the most primitive wing-nut Fox News watchers.

The Germans have a lovely Neu-Deutsch phrase called Fremdscham – it’s New German for being ashamed on behalf of someone else… like when you see someone make a complete ass out of himself without realizing it. This is a version of empathy I’m feeling for a former larger-than-life star in my personal pantheon of 1980s hipsters.

I’m a smoker. Occasional smoker in any case. I don’t mind people smoking in my house. I don’t even mind it in most restaurants, but after the ban came into effect I noticed the air got better. I like it, but I’m not militant about it. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a hard habit to kick. But with all the real problems in the world, Joe Jackson makes his grand stand on the barricades of the pro-smoking struggle. Cigarettes are a product marketed to 14-year olds, most of whom figure out relatively quickly that personal insecurity can be compensated through more effective ways than posing in the school yard like a member of the Sharks or the Jets. Grow up, and quit smoking. Don’t sell it back to us as an infringement of your rights and a conspiracy of NGOs.

Joe, unclench.

Live Dead

“If I told you ’bout all that went down, it would burn off both yer’ ears…”

This weekend The Dead played Madison Square Garden. Most of us have always called the band the Dead, but of course they were formally known as the Grateful Dead until Jerry Garcia died in the summer of 1995.

It’s hard to quantify what the band meant to me. In high school, and especially in college, I found myself sucked into a vortex that revolved around the music, the lifestyle, and the people in my life – a self-fulfilling cycle, to be sure. The more time I spent within its ban, the deeper I went into it. But I was happy there, and made a lot of friends. Tommy Rosen, a very good friend of mine, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post that describes it extremely well:

On October 15th, 1983, I went to the Hartford Civic Center to see the Grateful Dead for the first time. People were friendly, funny, silly, self-deprecating and loving. Life felt exciting. There was possibility and openness. The music was so different than anything on the radio. I danced with strangers as a sixteen year old boy that night in a way I had never before. To dance with others spontaneously, ritualistically was thrilling. We danced in sync with one another and it deeply moved me. Though I did not know it at the time, I had been searching for this my whole life to that point.

The only difference I can report is that my first show came two years later, in the Spring of 1985, followed by many more. It’s difficult (and possibly self-incriminating) to describe some of the most memorable moments… but let me just short-hand a few for those who were there: the week in Teluride, the Holiday Inn in Hartford, the highly-fueled drive to Red Rocks, the Mescalero Bandit, and losing our shoes in Boston.

At some point I drifted out of the scene… it was becoming a little unhealthy for me. After I moved back to New York I rediscovered other music, other styles, and realized that long hair was not conducive to my dating efforts. It is where I made the Big Change, and Tommy is one of the few people who knew me before and after, and someone who made the same Change.

It’s been seventeen years since my last show. A LOT has happened since.

I guess you had to be there.

yoram-at-gd-show

That’s me with the striped pants. Tommy’s top left.

I know you can never go back, but I would have loved be at the reunion. I know at least fifteen people who were at the show on Saturday, possibly even more. Everyone’s been posting pictures on Facebook, and it looks like a lot of good clean fun was had by all.

Yesterday we had some friends hang out with us at the house for a lazy Sunday. All the kids were playing Jedi Ninja around the tree fort, the sun was out, and later that afternoon Karen made her excellent whole-wheat pizza. Later, when I was in the kitchen cutting tomatoes for the Quinoa salad I put on some music. I was a little sad to have missed the show at the Garden (and the reunion of so many friends), so I picked a bootlegged Dead show from ’77,  one of my favorite years stylistically. As I lost myself in memories it occurred to me that none of my friends in Berlin, not even my wife, could know what I saw, what I experienced, what I felt back in those days. There is a part of me they will have never met. Not only would I not be able to go back, it was something I would never be able to share.

Nonetheless, it’s nice to know that I’ve had experiences in my life that are so positive and memorable. I’ve had a fantastic life thus far, with no boredom in sight. There have been a number of life segments that are beyond description, and I have resigned myself to the fact that they are beyond sharing.

I moved to Berlin just as it stumbled out of the Cold War and became one of the coolest cities in the world, while being deeply embedded in Germany’s Techno music scene that happened in the 1990s. Not only was I a participant, as a founder of a record label I had the chance to shape it. But all the stories and pictures from that time still can’t let someone know what it was like – it was our music, our fashion, our parties that the world was trying to emulate.

From 1996 into the new millenium I found myself owning a software company in the heart of the tech revolution, a period that changed the world more thoroughly – and quickly – than any other development thus far. It’s where Karen and I met, but our friends that weren’t there can’t imagine the positive energy that swept everyone up at the time… and the insanity that enveloped everyone as it was reaching its bitter end for many of the late-comers.

I guess the ultimate personal experience is family and children. Though many of us face the trials and tribulations of parenthood, it is always a small and intimate circle that shares it with you. God knows it will never be entirely perfect. But if your vibe is right and your partner is kind, all you remember are the good times. Just like my time with the Grateful Dead.

And for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about… here’s a track called “Eyes of the World”. This one was recorded at the Winterland Arena in San Francisco, on October 19th 1974.

Fair warning, it’s nineteen minutes long, and may lead to dancing.

Dialoge 09

What a great night. There are events that reaffirm my love for Berlin, and the joy I feel living here again.

Sasha Waltz has built up one of the world’s leading modern dance troupes. The movements live from contact between the dancers, and the way the bodies move into one another and then break apart again. It is hard to tell how much of the work is choreographed, or whether it is improvised from of a certain physical language. Over the last 15 years she has had the opportunity to fill new spaces with original dance work, such as the opening of the Liebeskind structure for the Jüdische Museum in Berlin (in 1999) or the opening of her husband’s Radialsystem V (in 2006).

Last week was the opening of Berlin’s most impressive museum building yet. David Chipperfield has restored the Neue Museum, and it is a masterpiece. His resurrection of a 150 year old ruin into a modern building is perfect, and clearly visible in every room, on every surface. It is a flawless combination of Stüler’s original intent, evidence of room-by-room combat in the final days of World War II, and a flawless modern gallery space.

neue-musem-stairs

Tonight I got see Sasha Waltz and her dancers fill this awesome space with movement and music!

The picture of the staircase is not the best example of Chipperfield’s “complementary restoration“, but imagine modern expressive dance in such a space. Sasha Waltz’s dancers performed different repeating pieces in every room, accompanied by odd sirens, glass-bottle percussionists, thick tribal drumming, or string quartets performing music by a dozen different contemporary composers.

The dance was heavy and physical, and being amongst the dancers meant hearing their grunts, sensing their heat, and getting jostled occasionally. There were choirs reciting vocal cantatas that sounded like Gregorian monk chants, but rhythmic and modern, filling a space acoustically while dancers climbed up walled enclaves or hung from door frames.

Sometimes the dancers would come together in the larger rooms, the central atria, or the big staircase, and perform dances as a large group of 30 or 40 dancers, and then spread across the building again in smaller ensembles or as individuals.

This kind of evening – a new museum, cutting-edge dance, contemporary music – would not have the same quality in any other city. It felt natural and un-self-conscious. There were no VIP sections or sponsored bars, no roped-off areas, but also no artsy aloofness or pretense.

It’s going to be a good Spring in Berlin! And tonight was a great start into the season.

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.

Rock in the Red Zone

There seem to be a lot of people who don’t understand why Israel feels the need to go into Gaza and to root out Hamas there. Over the last eight years, terrorists have been sending missiles into the southern area of Israel on an almost daily basis. The city that gets targeted the most is called Sderot. The Israelis, being highly technical, have deployed a system which gives a 15 second warning to get to a safe place. Hamas in turn continues to build stronger and more accurate missiles.

Imagine, fifteen seconds in which to seek shelter. Sometimes 50 times a day.

Media coverage of this terror is low because fortunately the death toll has not been catastrophic. But it is terror, and no one can pretend it is a peaceful, civilized way of living. In what has become a well-rehearsed routine, Sderot’s residents run for cover when the Color Red air raid sounds. Every person in this close-knit community has experienced a Qassam exploding nearby, and has known one of the victims. Several thousand people are being treated for shock and other psychological effects. Sderot’s children, many of whom know no other way of life, show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. As the rockets continue unabated, however, “post”-trauma is not an accurate diagnosis, because these are not events isolated in time… it just goes on every day. Over the last seven years many people have died, many more have sustained life-changing injuries.

But here’s what’s so interesting:

Laura Bialis, a film maker from Los Angeles, moved to Sderot to document this life. But what she discovered was an incredibly vibrant music scene that has grown there. In some weird way Sderot turns out to be the Seattle, Washington or Athens, Georgia of Israel.. at least musically.

As Bialis explains:

Musical sounds and instruments from all over the world meld together in this place at the crossroads of East and West. As they try to live normal lives, and realize their careers, the musicians write about their daily struggles and the harsh realities of living in Israel and especially, Sderot. Their music captures their fears and challenges, the feeling that the world has abandoned them, the uncertainty of this place. Through Hip-Hop, Folk, Middle-Eastern, and Rock n’ Roll, they express their desperation and determination.

To many, the questions about Israel and the Middle East are abstract. But the people of Sderot are at the tip of the spear — they live the battle on a daily basis. To them, peace in the Middle East is not a question of roadmaps or diplomatic initiatives, it’s just a day that goes by when they don’t have to run for cover.

So check it out if you can. Below is the trailer, go digging around the movie’s website.

Zero 7 – The Garden

Time to make another musical recommendation.

Zero 7 has been around for a while. You’ve probably heard their music in every cool hotel lobby, beach club, and chill-out lounge in the last few years, but their most recent album is a step beyond Simple Things and When It Falls, their previous two albums.

The Garden has a certain elegance. It’s modern electronic music for grown-ups, and the production values are clearly audible. Occasionally they come close to sounding like Van Morrison or Crosby, Stills and Nash on their respective early work, but injected into the 21st century.

the-garden-cover

Two tracks, though obviously listening to them stream over the Internet makes them sound like elevator music…

Future – Zero 7

Today – Zero 7

Start wearing Purple…

I had a wonderful Sunday with the boys. Rob, his wife T, and their daughter took us to a great pumpkin fair out in Brandenburg, with carousels, pony rides, and a LOT of pumpkins. The Erlebnisshof Klaistow has attempted to reconstruct Noah’s Arc and to fill it with animals made of pumpkins (weird!) and the whole farm is populated with food stands and typical county fair activities.

We bought some really nice cheese, and a good truffle salami, which we carved pieces off with a knife once we got home. I am filled with some kind of glowing parental pride in the fact that my boys enjoy cured meats as much as I do.

After dinner/bath/books/bed I poured a glass of wine and cranked up some music. I have a large collection that I take great pride in – about 455 Gigs, 6,558 albums, 70,985 songs according to iTunes, but that includes content like my wife’s unused German language lessons and a sound effects CD for Halloween. All the music has been painstakingly encoded and categorized (58 categories) over the last seven years. I’ve also created three master playlists – Morning, Work, and Dinner.

Well, turns out K the Listmaker (who actually prefers streaming KCRW Music when I’m not in the house) had kept the Morning list playing all day. It tends to have more attention-grabbing upbeat tracks on it that don’t really work the rest of the day, but it’s perfect for Sunday.

One track that came on is a perennial favorite of mine. Not every song on the Morning list is a total show stopper, it would be unlistenable if it were. But this one always makes me want to rip my shirt off and start dancing on the kitchen counter.

I don’t know much about Gogol Bordello, but their sound is pretty well described by Phill Jupitus as “The Clash and The Pogues having a fight… in Eastern Europe.” They sound like a gypsy punk band with a fiddle and an accordion, two instruments that haven’t gotten this good a work-out since Flogging Molly left the pub.

So here’s my favorite Gogol track, called “Start wearing Purple”, and for good measure I’ll also throw in Flogging Molly’s “What’s left of the Flag.” Both are rippin’ bar stompers, but Molly’s “Flag” is definitely NOT part of my Morning playlist.

Enjoy!

Start wearing Purple – Gogol Bordello

What’s left of the Flag – Flogging Molly

Klassik Radio

I’ve got a number of radio stations programmed in my car, and pending my mood I usually try and underscore it with the appropriate music while I drive. I don’t always succeed though. There’s a number of good stations in Berlin, which is a lot less rigidly formatted than the U.S. radio market. But often I can’t get the right groove, or I just don’t find the available music to be intellectually stimulating.

So I end up listening to a lot of talking radio. I purposely don’t use the phrase Talk Radio, a uniquely American media product in which angry people talk about issues without consideration of facts, in an effort to get other people just as angry. No, I listen to Info Radio,  a 24-hour German news station, or to NPR World-Wide, which broadcasts here in Berlin. I try BBC periodically, but I just don’t need that much information about African politics. The question of whether I listen to English or German programming is really only driven by whom I’m having a meeting with next – I speak both languages throughout the day, and sometimes it helps me get my linguistics oriented before entering the room.

Occasionally, I will also listen to one of the two local classic music radio stations. Much like Los Angeles, we have two stations in this market – the rather high-brow Kulturradio, and the more plebian Klassik Radio. Both these stations are well programmed. Kulturradio doesn’t just do classical, they’re actually quite close to the U.S. NPR-style mix of programming. They have some good talking radio, but like a lot of mid-market Public Radio stations it features a solid block of classical music as part of its repetoire.

The other station is the aforementioned Klassik Radio, a guilty pleasure for me. I know it is considered low-brow, and I have to admit their breathy slogan spoken in that quasi-sexy spa commercial voice “Bleiben Sie entspannt” is a real turn-off. Sometimes they make it seem like classical music was the original New Age hot tub music.

There’s a lot that a true classical music fan disdains about the station. Forget for a moment that they pick-and-choose their pieces. They won’t play entire symphonies, but instead only the Greatest Hits movements – those minuets or allegros that are well known and loved. And then there are pieces like Ravel’s Bolero, which gets a work-out more often than is comfortable. Worse, they’ll only play accessible composers, none of that difficult stuff or over-complicated arrangements.

But their worst transgression in the mind of an aficionado – and the ultimate reason I like them – is because they play film soundtacks. I hear my dear readers gasping as they reel at the implication of what was just written. John Williams mixed in with Josef Haydn? Danny Elfman intermingled with Franz Schubert? Michael Kamen on the same playlist as god ol’ Freddy Chopin? What is the world coming to?

It’s actually not that far fetched. Allow me to take a personal detour here: It begins with a curmodgeonly record store guy with hairy ears, back in the late 1970s. As an adolescent boy I had recently begun buying music, and was at the Europa Center in downtown Berlin, trying to buy a certain record at Bote & Bock. Let’s forget for a moment that I was trying to find the rather embarrassing “Hooked on Classics”, a remix of everyone’s favorite orchestral pieces as nightmared by Niles Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, resulting in a treble-intense mash with hints of David Shire’s “Night on Disco Mountain”… So, with a wave toward the wooden racks at the center of the store, the hairy-eared musicologist manning the manual cash register explained to me that calling “all of that” Classical Music was a mistake – you can’t just bunch several centuries of non-Pop and non-Jazz onto one long shelf, and declare it a genre.

He had a point. There are infinite variations, and Renaissance music (for instance) has little to do with the large complex music being created by Russian composers at the beginning of the 20th Century. And his classification stuck with me over the years. What frustrated me about classical music was how seemingly stagnant it appeared. In some way, a certain segment of the listening audience obsesses over playful nuances the way two Grateful Dead tapers might discuss a Garcia solo – these are differences virtually inaudible to a casual participant. Dealing with a grey crowd of grown-ups was somewhat daunting, too. My father helped a lot when he decided to kick-start that particular part of my education by buying me a copy of Who’s Afraid of Classical Music.

On the flip side of the usual crowd, you have music being composed by contemporary musicians that is really hard to listen to. I had dinner with Sean Sheppard a few months ago. He had just conducted a series of pieces here in Berlin that he had written, and in one of the program notes he poked fun at himself – he wrote that he “might commit the ultimate taboo, making the music pretty.” Well, God knows he managed to avoid that particular trespass successfully, but he never told me exactly what would be so terrible about writing pretty music.

So on one side you have stagnant repetition being listened to by the geriatric set, and on the other you have music for the intellectual in-crowd that eludes the rest of us.

Well, a few years ago, when I was still living in Los Angeles, a friend made a rather bold late-night wine-fueled argument that LA is the most important city in the world for classical music. Oh really? His argument was simple – most classical music nowadays is the large orchestral kind, and nowhere in the world are there so many working orchestras as in Hollywood. Why? Well, they’re scoring all the feature films and big TV series. And further, he argued, that Hollywood is the only place where a composer can stretch his creative wings and really write some interesting music.

So I began listening to soundtracks differently, and with newfound respect. I’m not sure whether the need to underscore a story provides the greatest creative opportunity, but the chance to conjure up an original work within certain confines is always a challenge. I have to admit I’ve come to love certain pieces, and would gladly go to see some of them performed live. A family favorite has always been Michael Kamen’s Don Juan De Marco score, and now that the boys are so deeply into the Star Wars lore, I have found new affection for John William’s score. “The March of the Emperor” is now the ring tone reserved for calls from my wife.

Go dig out Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator score, and see what I mean. It’s pretty cool.

Muxtape down

Those of you of a certain age probably remember the mixtape. If you’re younger than me you probably only had CDs, and if you’re older chances are you didn’t have the MC – the micro-cassette. It’s what we now call tape, but of course it’s a small version of those cool reel-to-reel systems that were such a difficult mess to use.

Like a lot of boys back in the late 70s and early 80s, I slaved away over my cassette deck (hooked up via my amplifier to my turntable) and cranked out carefully composed mixtapes. They served as every conceivable soundtrack – cool tracks to listen to while getting dressed for a “night” out on the town, angry or sad music for general teenage angst, and of course a series of loving tracks supposed to convince various girls that I’m tough, sensitive, cool, clever, and good-looking all at the same time. Sometimes these particular mixtapes were handed to the adored girl in question, but just as often they simply stayed in my Walkman… Either because I liked the tape too much, or the girl was no longer interesting to me, or because I expected rejection anyway, so why bother give up a tape that took me hours to compile.

Of course, in the internet age, everything is different.

You could dump a bunch of MP3 files on to a CD-ROM, but that is sooo… nineties.

No, nowadays you can go to any number of Mixtape sites, upload your songs, and send the result as a link to the girl in question. Then she can listen to it anywhere, including streaming it off her iPhone. Now that’s good technology! I think I would have handed over a lot more mixes would it have been as easy as clicking Send to get the mix into her hands.

These sites, like Muxtape for instance, are pretty much illegal of course – you’re using someone else’s Intellectual Property to create content without compensating the various parties that own and control it – the musicians, the record label, and the publisher.

And of course, the RIAA shut it down fast.

Who is the RIAA? The record labels and music publishers are represented in the US by the RIAA, the Recording Industry Association of America. They’re a lobbying group that is the de facto representative of the world’s music industry. These people – and more importantly, the companies they represent – have been unable to come up with a single new way of earning money in the internet age. Instead, they have focused all their energy on shutting down anything that doesn’t lead to CD sales. Apple was too big for them, or they’d try to shut down iTunes as well.

Believe me, I am the great defender of Intellectual Property rights. I’ve owned a record label, I own film rights, and I’ve built a software company. I know all the arguments surrounding content distribution. But shutting down Muxtape? The RIAA already has the reputation of a thick-skulled mob enforcer.

Of course, a mixtape was always “illegal”, even 30 years ago the average Joe was not allowed to redistribute music without consent. We all did it anyway, because the law was unenforcable. No one was making any money off these tapes.

The music industry needs to figure out a new definition for “fair usage”. There has always been a disconnect between the rights of the creator and the owner. Theoretically, I’m not even allowed to play a song at a party without prior consent from the publisher.

As Navneet at Scrawled in Wax writes:

This question – of how copyright either enables or restricts cultural expression – is both ubiquitous and tricky. After all, in some sense ‘copyright versus culture’ is a false dichotomy: the ideas that underpin copyright law – ownership, private property, accreditation and individualism – are cultural linchpins as much as they are legal ones. But Muxtape’s intuitiveness, the simple fact that it ‘just works’ in both a technical and a cultural sense, renders the question in a somewhat different light. Though the disjunct between content providers and users is clear to anyone who has ever heard of DRM, to what extent does Muxtape highlight the contradictory, even antagonistic relationship between intellectual property laws and what people actually want to do with media and art?

The music industry would be better served by letting sites like Muxtape flourish, and to study how their customers use music. Then it will be easier for them to weave a revenue model into these new technologies, rather than trying to emulate a pre-existing ways of doing business.