Thursday, December 26, 2013

ArtSpeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present

By Robert Atkins

Genre: Fine Arts

ArtSpeak is an essential book for the Fine Arts enthusiast. It is basically a encyclopedia of all the art movements and ideas from 1945 to the present and is currently in its third edition. This is one of those great books that serves well as a reference but is also a fascinating book to browse. Each topic is categorized in a who, when, where and what format. For instance, If we turn to the entree on Pop Art we find that its primary artists include Andy Warhol, Claus Oldenberg and other, it thrived in the 50s and 60s mainly in America and England, and the movement uses commercial symbols and icons as expression. Of course, the book says this in much more detail and more entertainingly. It is nicely illustrated with full colored photos but they tend to be on the small side. The text is what matters here. It also includes a nice timeline correlating world history with art history. Anyone who enjoys art will find this book worthwhile. As for me, I received mine from the publisher for review in a PDF format. I definitely plan to buy the real honest-to-god book.

In case you wondering why I placed this in my music book review blog, it just seems like music lovers and art lovers often go hand-in-hand. However, it you find that excuse weak, the book does reference some musical artists that intersect both fields like Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, and Pussy Riot. So there!

Background music: Laurie Anderson - Strange Angels

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dreadnaught: King of Afropunk

By D. H. Peligro

Genre: Punk, Rock

D. H. Peligro was the drummer for Dead Kennedys and briefly the drummer for Red Hot Chili Peppers. He later fronted the Band Peligro, which along with Fishbone and Bad Brains, became one of the few black performers in the punk rock movement. Peligro's autobiography, Dreadnaught, chronicles his work with these bands but also give good insight on what it was like being black in a musical environment that was predominantly white. His biography seems to be a basically honest account. Peligro doesn't hold back when he discusses his own personal issues. He speaks with frankness and isn't afraid to bring up his demons. For instance when he writes about being abused by his step-father , he communicates an uncomfortable mixture of terror and childhood vulnerability...

Sometimes when he was really drunk, he would wake me up out of a dead sleep and I would be staring into both barrels of his twelve-gauge shotgun pointed directly in my face.

"What yo' sweat? Are you a man?" he would ask me. I can still feel his hot alcohol breath on my face and hear his hoarse, sloppy whisper in my ear.

"Wake up! Are you a man?"

No, I'm a kid. I would think to myself.

He writes with this same frank honesty as he discusses his past drug use which resulted in 27 rehabs. He writes about his anger at his band mates who he blamed for his hardships while, in hindsight, acknowledging that he was essentially his own worse enemy.

The problem with most rock autobiographies is that the road to stardom to drug addiction to eventual redemption is so common most of us have memorized the tune. However, Peligro's account does have some unusual twists. I was surprised to hear that Dead Kennedys were very anti-drug. Also, Peligro had an unusual musical history compared to many punk rockers. Many, if not most, punk rock musicians got into the lifestyle first, then became musicians and learned music as they performed. The joke that the difference between New Wavers and Punk Rockers is that New Wavers can actually play their instruments has a ring of truth. However Peligro had quite a bit of musical experience before he entered the punk rock scene. His Uncle Sam, who played with the legendary bluesman Robert Nighthawk, was influential in Peligro's decision to learn drums and guitar and D. H. played progressive rock and metal before he gravitated to the San Francisco punk scene. It is these little bits of information that keep Dreadnaught from being just another rags-to-riches-to-rags rock tale. His outlook on the punk scene in the late 70s and 80's is a nice addition to the scores of other autobiographies out there and feels a bit more real than the glittery excesses of a Pete Townsend or Rod Steward. D. H. Peligro stayed in the trenches.

If you have any interest in punk rock, Dead Kennedys, or the Punk counter-culture, you should enjoy this book. Three and a half stars.

Background music:  Dead Kennedys - Plastic Surgery Disasters.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

How Music Works

 By David Byrne

Genre: General, Rock


I expected ex-Talking Heads front man and eclectic solo artist David Byrne would have some interesting things to say about music. But I was impressed by the scope and range of How Music Works. Byrne covers nearly every aspect of creating and enjoying music from the first steps of composing and to the nuances of performance to producing and promoting. Plus he puts it in sync with the world we live in never forgetting that music is a vital and ever-changing aspect of existence.

Byrne approaches music in what I call an ethno-centric view. Perhaps "Techno-centric" may be a better term considering how much he focuses on the modern recording aspects. Byrns uses the term "creation in reverse." He does not see music as arising from just the emotional interior of the creator's mind but through an interactive process that is affected by our surroundings; social, cultural, politically, technological, and physical. He discusses how certain types of music responds to certain surroundings. When you think of it, it makes sense. It is hard to think of punk rock rising from the symphony hall and much easier to see it coming out of dark crowded clubs such as New York's CBGB. His style of writing is fairly meandering but he structures those meanderings in chapters like Technology Shapes Music", "In the Recording Studio", "How to Make a Scene" (about performing live), and even "Business and Finances". By the end of the book you not only have a good sense what goes into that MP3 you just downloaded but how that music has changed from the day of live performance only before music could be recorded.

While not an autobiography, Byrne relies strongly on his own experiences, giving the reader an intimate look at his own creative process both in and out of the studio. He uses his own story to illustrate his various ideas of creation in reverse. One of the things I found revealing is his description on how the various forms of recording affects the way we perceive music. The limits of the sound and durations of the first Edison discs gave the early 20th century listeners a different experience than the LPs, cassettes and CDs we are used to, not to mention the revolution of digital files. Byrne's assertions about our expectations of recorded music vs. live music was quite insightful. We tend to think of the recording of a song as the "real" version in that we expect the artist to recreate it in his live performances. Yet the recorded version is a frozen moment of time aided by the technical constraint of the recording studio, whether analog or digital The artist's live performance may be different but just as authentic relying on all the cultural and aural surroundings of the moment.

Byrnes' impressive book is notable for the way it causes the reader to reassess modern music. He asks us to take in more than just sounds and pay attention to the way we receive the music in its social and natural settings. There's a lot to take in here yet the author manages to keep it exciting and relevant. I would recommend this book to anyone who cares about music.

Background music: David Byrne and Brian Eno - My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Human Chord

By Algernon Blackwood

 Genre: General (fiction)

Back when I was a music major in college, I took a class in chamber music. We formed a woodwind quartet and our professor was a stickler for tone. We would practice one note for an hour and a half every week, tuning and playing, tuning and playing. We were about to mutiny when all of a sudden as we played that one C note, another tone in perfect harmony (the third interval E for you musicians) resounded in our ears as clear at if it was being played externally. We knew we all heard it from the shocked looks on our faces. The professor jubilantly exclaims "Now that's what I was listening for!". We continued to play that one note for the rest of the session marveling in the harmonic sound. The realization that our ears could generate perfect harmony from the playing of one perfect pitch was like a spiritual of those mysterious yet enlightening experiences we rarely get.

So you must forgive me if I do not find Algernon Blackwood's assertion that sound is the key to the mysteries of the universe in The Human Chord all that far fetched. Chanting certainly has been used throughout history to find enlightenment and to become one with nature. Also, that one's true name is all-powering or that the true name of the gods hold vast powers if you know it and can harness it is another hypothesis resonating since ancient times. Blackwood uses these ideas in this enchantingly dark novel that pits the main protagonist in the choice between being like the gods or fulfilling more humble joys in the world as he knows it. Of the early 20th century writers of horror fantasy, I find Blackwood to be the most original because his horror is based on the secrets of the universe being awe inspiring and world-changing rather than the "Unspeakable horrors" of Lovecraft's ancient ones or Machen's ideas of nature as evil and decadent. Blackwood's own fascination with the occult plays heavily here but so does his love of nature and his interest in Zen and Cabalist thought. This is the first novel I've read of Blackwood's but I have read many of his short stories. As always, Blackwood relies on atmosphere rather than pure scare to disorient the reader's perceptions. The author's characterizations are also central to his tale. The three main characters embody different parts of our humanity. Spinrobin is the everyman who is dissatisfied with his reality but doesn't know why, Miriam is the embodiment of innocence, and the Rev. Skale (Scales?? I'm sure the pun is intentional) is a version of Captain Ahab, an obsessive seeker of a goal that can easily destroy him as well as make him equal to the gods. The Human Chord can work on many levels beside just being a good fantasy tale which is the very definitive of a classic in horror or fantasy.

Background music: Gregorian chants