Tag Archives: generosity

On the Genre of “In Conversation”: David Byrne and Cory Doctorow, Authors at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, Sept. 19, 2012

(Picture swiped from Hazlitt.)

by Carl Wilson

There were some high points to the staged discussion this week in Toronto between musician/much-else David Byrne and author/Internet activist Cory Doctorow, on the occasion of Byrne’s tour for his terrific-sounding book How Music Works. But they didn’t stop the feeling that this conversation shouldn’t have taken place in this form  at all.

For example, Byrne recounted a conversation with his 22-year-old daughter about copyright, in which he said that under current rules his work would go on supporting her financially long after he was ­dead, and that he thought this was kind of a bad thing, both for the art (which would not join the public domain as it should) and (he implied) for her own autonomy. Sorry, honey!

For his part, Doctorow passionately made a case that the business model that evolved in the 20th century for musical cover versions – the original creators can’t prevent anyone from covering their songs as long as they’re paid a royalty – should in fact be a model for how all copyright, especially online, works. He elegantly argued that music as a human practice long predates the existence of commercial markets for it, and that the only sane way to develop systems of regulation is to make them true to the spirit of the historical norms that surround it, such as that anyone ought to be able to sing any song, in public, and that any reasonable definition of public in the 21st century includes, for example, YouTube.

But there were assymetries in their conversational style that made for an uncomfortable evening, and not in a particularly enlightening way. Byrne is an artist whose social awkwardness (although much mellowed by age) is part of his essential makeup, as is his logical but lateral thinking, and his kind of savant-ish gift for deriving abstract proposition from experience via free-associative rumination. (It’s how he finds himself a city, picks a building that he wants to live in – it’s over there – water flowing underground, into the blue again.) And while he’s a very savvy user of technology for someone of his generation, I don’t think he has immensely much to tell us about the Internet that any intelligent person who’s been paying attention doesn’t also know.

Doctorow, meanwhile, is a professional opinion-giver, a whip-smart advocate for strong positions on contemporary technology and society. Where Byrne conversates a bit like a chickadee lighting from twig to palm with a beakful of seed, Doctorow expounds like an eloquent atheist preacher at the digital pulpit.

Guess which one took up most of the verbal space? Not the person most of the audience was there to hear. As I joked afterwards, when a lot of the audience heard the publicity for a conversation between David Byrne and Cory Doctorow, they heard, “David Byrne and Mwah-mwah-blah-blah-blah.” (Insert Peanuts teacher voice/Far Side “Ginger” cartoon here.)

That’s no slight against Doctorow. The situation did him the greater disservice, making much of the audience turn against him, frustrated they weren’t hearing more from the better-known personality (at least in the demographic that is likely to attend a $25-ticketed literary conversation). No one was going to hold it against David Byrne.

Much beyond the specific miscasting of these two as conversational partners for an audience (I’m sure as conversational partners on their own they’d have a great time), there are general lessons here.

A while ago, I was very kindly brought out to Portland to do a presentation about my work to a university audience. Even more kindly, the organizers thought that since I’d come all that way, we should put on another public event in town. Who else should be on the bill? Portland has a lot of interesting personalities, and to my surprise after some casting about, Frank Black (aka Charles Thompson, aka Black Francis of the Pixies) agreed to participate.

Come that night, even though the themes of our conversation were organized around my book, of course most people who came to the show were there to see Frank Black (in the Q&A they kept trying to get him to sing songs). I was the “Mwah-mwah-blah-blah-blah” on that bill. The only real option for the relatively obscure critic-author on stage with the famous musician was to fall into the role of his interviewer. Charles was extremely gracious and I really enjoyed the experience on many levels, but ultimately, as an event purportedly about my book, it didn’t make much sense.

Let’s derive a few rules of thumb from these stories. (I’m indebted to post-show conversation partners, Misha Glouberman, Chris Frey, Rebecca Payne, Emily Keeler and Charles Yao.) They may even apply to life beyond staged events.

a) When two people are going to be “in conversation,” in public, they ideally should be about equally familiar to the audience. Or something about the situation might mean that they each attract half a crowd, to whom one is familiar and the other is obscure and vice-versa, and your goal might be to introduce these two publics to one another.

b) The subject matter should be something in which they’re both fluent, though hopefully from different angles. (It also should be neither unhelpfully general nor smotheringly specific. A pointed question is a good starting point. The Harbourfront event’s question was “Wassup Internet?” Enough said.)

c) When that’s not possible or desirable for some reason, don’t play the less-well-known person for a patsy. The simplest thing might be to say upfront that they’re interviewing the better-known person. Bonus points: A very good trick can be to have the better-known person be billed as interviewing the less-known person. This can bestow a glow of generosity to the whole proceeding.

d) If that’s not what you want, there is a solution: a moderator, who relieves the speakers of visible responsibility (and blame) for guiding the conversation. A good moderator will help keep the share of time in balance. A really good moderator can also lend shape to a conversation that might otherwise ramble on endless tangents. A great moderator can do all that while seeming invisible.

e) If all else fails, you can alleviate a great many sins by bringing the audience into the conversation. At heart why should a question-and-answer period be so much shorter than the period speakers spend deciding the subject matter? The crowd is often much more dynamic. Obviously, again, a moderator needs to keep the Q&A on track, but I’d be as happy to go to a show that was all Q&A and zero meandering speaker as vice-versa.

In fact, the nicest moment the whole night was when a very young man came up and asked Byrne if he could repeat the name of the song he’d said he heard as a young man himself, whose sound “let him know there was something else out there.” Byrne paused for a moment, confused, and then answered, “Oh, you mean by the Byrds?” I think so, the young man said. And then very carefully copied in pen on his notepad, syllable by syllable, echoing Byrne’s answer out loud: “Mis-ter… Tam … bour… ine… Man?” In case we needed reminding that you can never assume worlds overlap. (People laughed, but it was just amazingly sweet.)

Ultimately, any form of entertainment that solely consists of somebody or somebodies speaking, if they are not just telling jokes, is dicey. It is only so much fun to listen to people talk and not to talk back, unless it’s very lively and engaging. There are a million ways for it to go wrong and the only way for it to go right is for someone to think through, carefully and conscientiously, “Just what is this going to be like?” Otherwise it is dubious that it should be done at all.

And this is worth talking about right now because these kinds of staged conversations and lectures and such have retaken a central place in our culture – the decline of print and rise of the digital-virtual somehow combining to generate a keener hunger for physical presence and non-fiction discourse than previously in my lifetime, like a return to the days of the chalk talk and Mark Twain. And, as it was then, it’s becoming one of the few ways writers can make a living. If that’s how it’s going to be, it should itself be a kind of art, not an afterthought.

PS: If you’re interested in this general subject, this series of video chats between Misha Glouberman and speakers’ agent David Lavin might be worth watching.

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Filed under books, carl wilson, events, lectures, music

Tuesday Musics: “Little Birds” by Neutral Milk Hotel (Jeff Mangum)

by Carl Wilson

I finally read Kim Cooper’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea book this week – the bestselling volume in the 33 1/3 series, and therefore in a dumb way a bit of a rival to mine (at least till Lethem knocks us both out?), which embarrassingly may be a subconscious reason I took so long to read it, along with my discomfort with the cultishness around that album.

But the book is an excellent work of oral history that dispels myths rather than feeding them – except perhaps in a couple of hard-to-avoid places, like this one: Kim describes the premiere of this song a while after the final Neutral Milk Hotel song tour and quotes one of the band’s circle of friends (who filmed a lot of their gigs), Lance Bangs, having trouble imagining the band playing it – “What you’re hearing is so much more direct and fucked up, that there’s not really room to take a step back and hear that. To me it was this weird delineation.” And the band never played together officially again.

That made me want to listen to it today – I’m not sure when this recording was made, but it doesn’t strike me as that unadaptable to the band, relative to the music they’d made before. It must have been the moment more than the song itself, I think.  People are very resistant to the argument that music is unstoppably social, that what we hear in a song is always made as much out of contexts as of rhythms and chords and timbres. The story of “Little Birds” seems like a good illustration. It’s certainly charged by being the last of its late-1990s NMH era, and no admirer can help being sad there were no more. But Kim’s book demystifies (perhaps even to a fault) the “mad dropout” story of Mangum’s withdrawal from music, which was also relieved in the past couple of years with limited tours, including a Toronto show I was very lucky to see last summer.

Part of what made those concerts such happy events is that fans had gotten over that petty notion that an artist who’d given them something great somehow owed them more. Instead they could take the shows as acts of generosity, which is surely what the songs had always been, for the community of musicians and audiences alike, and what songs always are – along with being bracingly selfish things, which this song surely is too. There’s no contradiction there. And no contract.

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Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis at the Guelph Jazz Festival, 9/11/10

by Carl Wilson

“Three men enter. Two-thirds of the audience leaves.”

That was the outcome of the cage match Saturday night between three legends of Chicago’s avant-garde jazz scene and listeners at the palatial Riverrun Centre in Guelph, Ont., home of an annual jazz festival that’s extremely adventurous for one in a town of its size. Amid its atmosphere of almost ostentatious open-mindedness, they discovered limits.

The trio was the back half of a two-part headlining show in the festival. Before them came Sangam, another trio featuring the venerable Charles Lloyd, titanic Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain and hot younger drummer Eric Harland. Their sound ambled joyfully and contemplatively, sometimes goofily, through the fields of post-bop, “world music,” free jazz and more, with a strong sideline in esoteric spirituality, all to the rapture of the Guelph crowd.

Then Mitchell, Lewis and Abrams took the stage, looking respectively like a shrunken-suited character out of Samuel Beckett, a genial grandpa and a tough old cuss. You could imagine them together in rockers on the retirement-home porch. Sax, trombone/laptop and piano were their props. Stage positions were taken. An intake of breath. And then an incredible mass of noise.

The teenagers beside me began erupting in uncontrollable giggles. This made it hard to concentrate and find a way into the thundercloud of music that had just advanced at us. But I tried to sympathize: The thundercloud was what their laughter was defending against. I’ve been listening to this kind of atonal, free, chaotic whateverthehell for a quarter-century and I was having a tough time. What were they supposed to do? (They’d clearly been dragged along by the one friend who was listening with steady concentration. When they finally convinced him to leave with them, he rose and made a quick bow toward the stage, fingers steepled in prayerful respect. I wanted to shake his 17-year-old hand.)

I wondered if the programmers had known what they were in for. Usually music this far “out” is at a church hall, an art gallery or some sort of loft space. You’re not in a lush theatre with a state-of-the-art sound system. The result was that there was none of the usual diffusion of intensity by space. I was in a balcony not far from the speakers. At times I thought I might have a panic attack. With rare exceptions the performance was all about timbre and dynamics. Notes, chords or rhythms were rare visitors.

In other words, these three senior citizens were playing the kind of noise set you’d expect from bearded kids in a basement in Brooklyn. It was purist. It wasn’t humorous (except for a few of the sound effects Lewis generated from his Mac, I suppose). It did not have an arc that was building to an intensity, trying to “find the zone” as improvisers often say, because it started from there – as if these three men carry that zone around with them everywhere. Of course they’ve all played other kinds of music, but many audience members might not have guessed this. It was militant.

What it was militant about was, in a way, old-fashioned: It was modernist. It demanded the audience come on its terms. You had to decide whether this was music at all. You had to figure out for yourself, unaided, why anyone would consider it attractive. I had a couple of flashes of a joke Stephen Colbert has done a couple of times when John Zorn or Ken Vandermark have won grants or prizes, and he plays 30 seconds of skronk and starts grinning manically and snapping his fingers as if it were a swing tune.

When the remaining diehards had, defiantly, kept applauding for more, I considered calling it a night. But then Mitchell created a taut structure for the next improvisation – a harsh single note sustained, followed by silence, then again, and again. Abrams jitterbugged chromatic circuits around these poles, while Mitchell’s Mac generated complementary cumuli of static. Then he rose and picked up his trombone (I winced in anticipation of another existential workout), raised it to his lips – and put it down again, the encore falling dead after Mitchell’s stubborn conclusive note. I laughed with appreciation, but also relief.

At points, when the sound wasn’t driving down circuits of muscle and nerve that risked making me burst into tears, I thought it was a museum piece. I still think that if it had been three young guys doing it, it would have seemed absurdly retro. But from these three, who’d had to fight for their freedom on many levels and had built a practical and still-living artistic community on it, it moved me. Integrity trumped superficial artistic “progress.” Yet anger seemed the prevailing electromotive force. Did it have to do with the portentous date? The disappointments of Barack Obama? The yahoo pastor in Florida with his Koran and his lighter fluid? No, it seemed off, somehow, to consider this energy exactly political.

Maybe instead it had to do with the drunk driver who, not long before, had spun out in the rain and plowed into the back of the “jazz parade” that a genial Quebec oom-pah band had been leading from the festival tent downtown, and injured five people (none critically).

Or … not a protest, nor a mourning. No referential content at all. Perhaps it was instead a technique not that far from Sangam’s meditation-and-oneness concerns – a means of fully inhabiting a moment. Can you really let go of suffering, or do you turn on it and annihilate it? Think of shamans who reach higher planes not by dancing or chanting but by whipping themselves, even slashing themselves with knives, or returning from the forest starved and hungry. Not everything worth having comes gently. It is not always generous to be easy on people. You can ask a lot if you’re giving everything.

In the end, while not a lot of fun, it’s a concert I’ll remember, unlike most. It’s a memory burnt black and rain-battered and space-race (race-space) gold as a saxophone in a spotlight. In the “sonic eye” of my mind, it’s the colour of nothing but itself. Itself, and a mountain that can never truly be climbed.


Filed under carl wilson, events, music

Title Track

by Carl Wilson

An email group that I’m on – let’s call it the Nerd Mafia – got into exchanging favourite song titles this week. Someone offered up Don Caballero’s “A Lot Of People Tell Me I Have A Fake British Accent” and “Why Is the Couch Always Wet?” and then came Half Man Half Biscuit’s “Architecture, Morality, Ted And Alice.” Inevitably, someone raised with Guided By Voices (“A Contest Featuring Human Beings,” “14 Cheerleader Cold Front”) and doubled down with Jim O’Rourke’s “Halfway to a Three Way.”

The Minutemen (“Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”), Smog (“Dress Sexy at My Funeral”), the Fugs (“I’m Gonna Kill Myself Over Your Dead Body,” “I Command the House of the Devil”), Love (“Maybe the People Would Be The Times or Between Clark and Hilldale”), Curtis Mayfield (“We the People Who Are Darker than Blue”), Captain Beefheart (“Neon Meate Dreams of an Octafish”), and even calypso godfather Lord Executioner (“Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard,” ”How I Spent My Time at the Hospital,” “We Mourn the Loss of Sir Murchison Fletcher”) all got their due respect. I felt I crowned the lot with Charles Mingus – pretty hard to outdo “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers” or “All the Things You Could Be Right Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Were Your Mother.”

With a few exceptions, those are jokey titles, but most of them do stand up, even without hearing the songs they name. The conversation got me thinking about this relationship between artwork and title. I adore titles, and pride myself on having a good ear for them, but the hours of intense conversations I’ve had with friends when they’re in the titling stage of a project strikes me in retrospect; likewise the number of friends who seem to have many more titles than they do projects, or who need to begin with a title.

It speaks to a conceptualist orientation, but it’s also to be a child of the marketing age. I sometimes wonder if it betrays a preference for the idea of a thing over the thing itself, a self-accusation that quickly widens its net over the rest of my life and hauls it in for questioning. I’m prone to idealize the mind of the artist who rejects titling as too restrictive, and goes with “Untitled #2” or “Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major.” But such an artist offers a certain impersonality to the audience, too. Especially in abstract forms, the title is an opportunity to offer the audience a starting point, a weather-vane to swing round in the imagination and point in a rough direction. A sonata or a jazz instrumental or minimalist sculpture on first encounter can be, to swipe my favourite Modest Mouse album title, “a long drive for someone with nothing to think about.” A title can supplant that nothing with something that then evolves of its own accord in the listener’s mind. Or it can simply help you focus on the more helpful detail among all the elements of a work. There’s a generosity in that. It doesn’t presume that the audience has nothing better to do with its time than search your work for a clue to what you’re on about.

When I was a child, I had a guitar-strumming, open-concept-school teacher who played us songs like “One Tin Soldier,” the cheesy anti-war anthem first recorded by the Canadian pop group Original Caste in 1969, remade first by Skeeter Davis (whose “The End of the World” from 1963 – a good title, though not quite as good as Willie Nelson’s “I’ve Just Destroyed the World” – was named the 177th greatest country single in my friends David Cantwell and Bill Frikiscs-Warren’s book of the best 500 country singles) and then more successfully by Coven for one of the Billy Jack movies. I vividly remember getting laughed at by my classmates for requesting it by the name “Listen Children,” based on the first line, “Listen, children, to a story that was written long ago…” Somehow I missed the resonance of the key chorus line, “On the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away.” No doubt I was narcissistically overrating the importance of the invocation of children. In any case it left me careful to get titles right.

One of the practical purposes of a title is for a fan to call it in to a radio show or shout it out at a concert, but often you might know a song without knowing its title. Especially when the relationship between the two gets looser. This is a point against the title that stands independent of the work. My mind’s never really been able to maintain the link between the words “Lady Marmalade” and the Labelle hit that seems to want to be called, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”

But several of my favourite songwriters use titles as almost a cryptogrammic guide to underlying themes in their work. I love the “hymn” series by Hefner: “The Hymn for the Cigarettes,” “The Hymn for the Alcohol,” “The Hymn for the Postal Service,” “The Hymn for the Coffee” – in one fell gesture it indicates the whole approach to beauty that the band takes: elevating the abject, losing to win, mocking to worship and worshiping to mock. It may be that titles now are what we have instead of manifestos, to state our aesthetics without going to the obnoxious lengths of making an “artist’s statement” out of it.

One of the more outré approaches to titling of late (well, outside metal, Anthony Braxton, the likes of Autechre and the highly ambivalent case of Fall Out Boy) has come from The Mountain Goats, a.k.a. John Darnielle, who for years not only worked in series (the “Alpha” series, in which all the songs using that word in their titles depicted the same imaginary doomed couple; the “Going to _____” series, which featured characters who mix up geographic plans with life plans; more), but titled most of the rest of his songs with various historical, mythological and geographical references, so that if I want to hear one of my most-loved songs about burning jealousy, infidelity and loss, for example, I need to call to mind what I think is a grammatical mode in Sanskrit (“Raja Vocative”), or if you want to hear the one about robbing the candy store, you’ll have to recall the classical-dramaturgy/psychoanalytic term “The Recognition Scene.” Is this a less generous, more self-indulgent approach to titling? Here’s what Darnielle said in a Believer interview in 2004:

“I always preferred album titles that weren’t named after a song on the album. … Why is the album called Get Lost? That’s a great example, because it’s The Magnetic Fields Get Lost – it’s a sentence. But divorce it from the band name, and it’s an imperative: Get lost. When I was a kid, when I was developing my record-collector disease, those are the types of records I liked best because when I exhausted the songs and the lyrics I could still think about that aspect and I wanted albums to have as many possible points of scrutiny as they could. From the time I started writing songs, I thought it’d be better if the song title had to be in some way connected to the song. Then I got perverse about it and thought if I titled them in ways that no one could possibly make the connection I’ve made, they’d be even more interesting because anybody who’s like me and wants to make the connection would have to fabricate their own or conclude that it can’t be done. If you’re a record collector, you won’t conclude that it can’t be done. You’ll just go ahead and do it.”

So there’s another, more playful kind of generosity there, a game being played with the listener, based on the kinds of games the artist himself likes, which again is a hint of what kind of artist this is: “Here is everything I know, and here is how I put it together, but I’d be delighted if you would pull it all apart and put it back together differently. Also, I think meaning is contingent, how about you?” (Perhaps with the settling calm of maturity, perhaps because “record collector” is a pretty imperilled category, more recent Mountain Goats albums have used song titles closer to the content of the lyrics – even the latest, on which all the songs are titled with chapters and verses from scripture, is a relatively low-difficulty-level challenge.)

It’s refreshingly bracing sometimes when a song’s just called “Love Song” or “Divorce Song,” but all the additional pointers and tags make for a richer experience. Indeed, perhaps the question should be why we use the same general names for so many different things in life, like loves and divorces, rather than inventing unique titles for them. Or perhaps we already spend too much of our precious time in those deepest realms of our lives searching for the caption instead of listening to the music.

P.S. Here are some of the rejected potential titles for this website:
Triple Nerd Score
Ergo the Living Planet
The Potato Barn
Big Head
Blind Chess
Zionist Time Conspiracy
The DeLorean of All One’s Born Days
Viva la Quinta Brigada


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