Friday, April 30, 2010

Last Chance La MaMa

And though you probably know it already, I may as well mention that this is the final weekend for Post Modern Living at La Mama.

On Monday it'll be gone (and the link will be different,) but for now it's the Pick of the Week!

The People vs. The Loudness Wars

Here is a post I've been meaning to write for a while. Since I first saw this article, which covers the rather dry and (to some) utterly uninteresting subject of dynamic range compression in audio recording.

Let me walk you through the headlines, starting, as our writer Sean Curnyn does, with a disavowal of audiophilia:

At the outset, I should say that I am no extreme hi-fi buff, in my own estimation; perhaps not even a moderate hi-fi buff... I don’t spend thousands on speakers or other audio components. I own very basic equipment that works. I care about hearing music properly and I make an effort to do so, but there’s a red line of expense that I’d never personally cross in the pursuit of audio perfection, and that red line figure is quite low.

Additionally, I am no vinyl fetishist. I do not contend that the audio reproduction of a vinyl long-playing record is inherently better than that of a compact disc. Others may claim such; I remain agnostic on the subject.

The italics are mine, to emphasize that I do care pretty deeply about music, but I think it's important to distance ourselves (for the sake of this discussion) from the type of people who spend, say, $15,000 for a mono-specific phono cartridge. That being said, it has become clear that current recording and mastering practices are depriving us of the depth of recorded music in a profound and significant way.

Curnyn later writes:

My first conscious perception of a problem with the sound of Bob Dylan’s recent albums came with Modern Times (my CD copy being purchased in the U.S. at the time of release). What it amounted to was this: The album had some great songs. The musicians’ performances appeared to be excellent. Bob’s voice was great, and he was obviously putting a whole lot of focus and art into his singing. Yet, after the initial excitement of hearing the album faded, I found myself oddly less and less inclined to listen to it.
I had been well-hooked by his article before we got to this section, but it really grabbed my attention here, as it so accurately described my reaction to some of Dylan's most recent releases: these are great songs played by really first rate musicians - why don't I like this record more than I do?

Turns out that it has a lot to do with that aforementioned dry and uninteresting topic. Uninteresting unless and until you happen care about music, and have an interest in hearing it the way that an artist you appreciate intends it to be heard.

More from the article:

Intrigued now, I read up further on the so-called “loudness wars”. The more I read, the more that what I read spoke to me regarding the very problems I seemed to be having listening to the latest Bob Dylan albums. Dynamic range compression reduces the distinction between the quiet parts of a recording and the loudest parts, making every part of the recording sound louder. In some ways, this might seem a good thing, because it means you won’t miss the quiet parts.

A recording so compressed might even sound better and brighter to your ears on first listen. But, especially when abused and taken to extremes, what the process does is flatten out the entire recording, removing all nuance both at the upper and lower levels. What you’re left with is a recording that is stripped of its natural variation and complexity. It is, if you like, static, in the sense of being relatively unchanging, all the way through. It is as if every aspect of the recording is just blaring out at you with equal force.

Interested yet? Starting to see how this matters?

Here's Sean's account of what happened when he got the LP version in the mail:

Now, I do not want to risk overstating it, but, in all honesty, when I put the needle down on Modern Times, and heard 'Thunder On The Mountain,' a chill went up my spine. It went on and on, and into the delicate 'Spirit On The Water,' and in no small way I felt as if I was hearing the album for the very first time.
Mr. Curnyn does us the favor of sharing some graphic illustration of the effect.

This is the CD version of Spirit on the Water

And this is the LP version of the same song.

Let's be clear: we're not talking about an inherent superiority of vinyl over cd, or analog music over digital. Such a superiority may exist (I don't know), but that's not the issue at hand. Digital music is more than capable of handling wide dynamic ranges, and plenty of CDs demonstrate this. But if, as it seems, there is a widespread movement to flatten out dynamics to boost sales by grabbing people's attention with volume, the recording industry is selling us one thing (music created by an artist) and delivering something else (a smooshed-in, i.e. damaged, version of that music). This leads Sean to an interesting conclusion:

I think that there’s a heckuva class-action lawsuit waiting to be brought against the music industry on this issue. Realizing what is going on here makes me lose all sympathy for executives who complain about declining sales and what
online file-sharing is costing them.

And of course he makes the point that had hit me like a ton of bricks back near the beginning of the article, at the instant I realized that record companies are intentionally sabotaging the sound qualities of their own releases:

The most infuriating potential scenario is that, some years down the road, when this issue is more widely understood and accepted, and the era of the “loudness wars” is universally scorned, the record company will actually issue “remastered” versions with great fanfare, so inviting fans to buy the albums all over again. As if they’re doing us all a favor!

I'd say that's a virtual certainty, unless there's some widespread reaction (along the lines of that class-action suit: you can sign me up for that, by the way.)

One other possible conclusion is that all this is simply a sign that perhaps we should not bemoan the imminent death of the record companies after all: they have outlived their usefulness anyway.

I don't think I like that conclusion, but it's tough to deny that it's a possibility.

Baseball, Music and Movies

Three great tastes that go great together.

I just found out that Robert Pollard is scoring the Pete Rose documentary. Who knew? I didn't.

But it's pretty cool, no matter how you slice it.

(Oh, and when you click the first link up there, you can check out one of the songs they're using in the movie.)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Hollywood Love Story

Things are moving forward for A Hollywood Love Story, the short film that my good friend and artist-about-town Terence Donnellan made this winter/spring. As you may or may not remember, I did a short voiceover for this piece, and also helped out a bit with the casting and some general support.

Here's the trailer:

A Hollywood Love Story from Terence Donnellan on Vimeo.

If you look closely, yes, JP Driscoll is in there too (also of close friend status and repeated fame in these pages.) Look for the full version of this piece to show up at a Short Film Festival near you...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Checking In

Yes people, I'm still here. Busy as ever, keeping at least one hand on the wheel and keeping the show rolling. So, a brief recap:

Post Modern Living had its opening weekend (and is now 2/3 through its second weekend) which included the rare pleasure of my sister being able to attend the show and the opening night party. Think that has to have been the first time she has seen me on stage since, umm, high school.

The Red Sox have been struggling in a way that is odd for them for April. Many a year they have rocked the beginning of the season then let it crumble, so I'm taking the view that they are getting their sucking out of the way early on this time. Lately they have been finding ways to eke out one-run wins, often of the last-minute variety. A good skill to develop...

The dayjob plods on in its petty pace, which isn't always so petty these days. Lots going on and the stakes get ratcheted up more often than was their wont not long ago. So be it.

The television program 'Lost' (perhaps you've heard of it) is nearing its end, causing much discussion and headscratching and online research into arcane mythology. Also, we are planning an end-of-series viewing party for the finale. Make sure to let me know if you want in on that.

In the midst of all this, I find certain moments to be fascinated by discussions of equally arcane matters such as well-tempered tuning. Yes, it takes a certain amount of geekitude to get jazzed up watching an argument develop from: Pythagoras discovered, intervals are also mathematical ratios. If you take an open guitar string sounding E, stop it with your finger in the middle and pluck, you get E an octave above. The octave ratio, then, is 2:1. If you stop the string in the ratio 3:2, you get a fifth higher than the open string, the note B. The other intervals have progressive ratios; 4:3 is a fourth, and so on.
to, a few paragraphs later:
What all this means in practice is that in tuning keyboards and fretted instruments, you have to screw around with the intervals in order to fit the necessary notes into an octave. In other words, as we say, you have to temper pure intervals, nudge them up or down a hair in some systematic way. Otherwise, you get chaos.
and on to:
There have been some 150 tuning systems put forth over the centuries, none of them pure. There is no perfection, only varying tastes in corruption.
continuing through:
One of those tunings was already known to the ancients: equal temperament. Here the poison is distributed equally through the system: The distance between each interval is mathematically the same, so each interval is equally in, and slightly out of, tune. Nothing is perfect; nothing is terrible. So now it's all fixed, yes? The laughter of the gods has been stilled, right? Are you kidding? You fools: The gods never lose.
And going on from there for another two pages, including musical examples of course...

In moments like these, I envision a life in which I live and work in an artistic research-and-performance laboratory where people appear who play instruments from various historical periods and bring to life these matters of microtones, and we explore their theatrical possibilities. If you know someone who is looking for help at such a facility, please let me know.

Meanwhile, Cory and I got to play host to our friends Claudia and Valter from Rome. Remember them? We took them and a couple of their friends out yesterday to see one of Emily Faulkner and Jody Sperling's Tea Dance incarnations. Our Roman friends will never acknowledge that New York espresso can stand up to comparison with Italian caffe, but we did have a lovely afternoon walking the High Line afterward.

Then it was on to the UES for me for a friend's wedding reception, then down to the East Village for the show. We crashed in the 'boken last night, as I needed to take Cory to Paramus this early morning so she could make a trek with part of her family to South Jersey for an MS walk. Now I'm enjoying some good ol' homemade coffee and telling you all about it. My Beatles phase (did you all know that I am currently going through a Beatles Phase? Well, I am.) has me on the mono master of the White Album this afternoon. I'll get some time with the Times and then head back to La MaMa for tonight's show.

And that brings us up to date on this rainy Sunday. I'll leave you with some visual stimulation courtesy of the Fab Four, and a bonus question:

Discuss visual and sonic collage elements in the Beatles eponymous 1968 "White Album" release. Extra credit: compare and contrast the dramatic results of the differences between the mono and stereo releases. Suggested starting reference points - visual: De Kooning, Rauschenberg, Rothko; audio: Cage, Ives, Wilson.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kosha Killa Krew


I am LOVING this Matthew-Lee Erlbach / Happy Sunshine Kung Fu Flower joint. Worked with HSKFF a while back. Last I heard, they were not active - hope that this viddy (which isn't all that current, but still) is evidence that the rumors of their demise are exaggerated...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Even Yet Still More Post Modern Living

Ok, here's the next installment in our seemingly endless stream of Post Modern Living posts.

This is a scene that happens early in the piece, with Chester (me) and Mitch (Richard Sheinmel) in bed first thing in the morning, and Mitch's "Spirit Guide" Louie (Chris Orbach) holding up our pillows. Now, maybe you'll be asking questions about the metaphorical nature of a Spirit Guide or guardian angel supporting us: pillow feathers representing angel wings? protective spirits as a cushion against the shattering blows of (post) modern life? If those are the questions going through your head, give yourself a hand: you're in touch with the finer points of performance art. But if you're like a lot of the people out there (including no small number of my friends and family members, and virtually all of my dayjob co-workers) your first reaction is apt to be "whoa - you're in bed with another guy?" Yes, it's true: in this show, my character is gay. Which isn't that radical. At ALL. But even in 2010, it gets a reaction. I've played murderers, rapists, incestuous lovers, but the response I get to those is pretty muted compared to the reaction people have when they find out I'm kissing a dude. For better or worse, there is very little in the way of a Katy Perryesque titillation factor, and a whole lot in the way of an "is there tongue?" recoil factor.

In any case, there is more to this show than man-on-man action: there is also some damned good music and acting, and a really bitchin band. Cue the Stephen Mosher photo essay (Stephen took all the photos in this post during a dress rehearsal):

Here's Joy (Wendy Merritt) checking out Mitch's situation.

Here Chris is playing the cabbie who takes Mitch to the doctor. One of Chris' friends had a fun insight to his character: "You're Snoopy! One minute you're the WWI Flying Ace, one minute you're Joe Cool, and when you're not any of those guys, you're one enlightened beagle."

This is Meg (Catherine Porter) and Mitch helping Gerrie (Briana Davis) get her bearings after one too many Run Run Rudolphs.

Here's Dr. Zappi (Frank Blocker) giving Mitch a consult about some post-op stitches that are about to come out.

Here is Grace giving Joy a consult. Hmmm... "Grace" and "Joy" - nothing symbolically significant about those names, is there? Wait a minute: what does that say about "Chester"?

Well, I'm doing the best I can. Here I am in phone conversation with Mitch. Don't worry - he's not cheating on me; his shirt's off because he's still at the doctor's office.

This is definitely the money shot. Joy is demonstrating - well, hell: come to the show and see what she's demonstrating.

And here's the lot of us bringing it all back home in the finale.

See you at La MaMa.

Post Modern Opening

Well, the performance art piece I'm working on opened last night at the Club at La MaMa after two previews - there are some production photos out there, and I'll get to posting them at some point, but for now, here are a few more shots from when we were still in the rehearsal room.

That's Richard and Frank onstage there as patient and doctor, and Jason Jacobs is in the center facing us, doing his director thing. I haven't gotten too many good shots of Jason yet, but I like this one.

Here's Wendy in an offstage moment of rest working on her knitting. She's a wonderful actress and a lovely person. And she knits. A lot. As she puts it, "Well, I don't read as much as I used to..."

And I'll wrap up for now with this group shot - from left: Chris on Guitar, Jason directing, Frank and Richard as Dr. Zappi and Mitch, and Heather bringing up the right in Stage Managerial glory.

We had previews on Friday and Saturday at 10, and our Opening Night was yesterday at 5:30, followed by a cast party at a nearby bar. Each show had its own quirks, and we learned a lot from all of them. The performance for press opening was the strongest of the bunch, in my estimation, which is a good thing. We had a full house, there was good energy in the room, and it seemed like people had a good time.

Let me know if you'd like to come to the show and I'll get you all the details you need (oh, and most of them are in the sidebar - off to the right, up top, see?)

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Birthday at Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Much to share. Not much time. SO - I'll put together bit by bit as I can, and post it when it's some kind of finished.

Last weekend was Cory's birthday. Which is, of course, one of the most festive occasions of the year. How fun that it coincided, this year, with Passover and Easter. AND the Final Four!

So we did all kinds of things, the grandest of which had to have been our trip to Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Which was, in a word, amazing.

I'll start with a shot of my three lovely companions. Yes, I felt pretty lucky to be traveling in that company. Someone mentioned that this shot has a sort of Sex in the City vibe. Or maybe Sex in the Country is more apt, since we were on a farm, after all.

The restaurant is set up on the grounds of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, and Dan and David Barber grew up near the original Blue Hill farm in the Berkshires. The intent is to provide astounding food, expertly prepared from natural/organic ingredients and served in a beautiful setting by people who know how to take care of you. And that's what we got.

First we took a walk around the farm, which operates year-round, partly thanks to a vast greenhouse which provides yields throughout the year. This shot is a little still-life from within that greenhouse.

And here is a shot of some of the denizens of the pig barn.

And one of the chickens who was strutting her stuff. This barn had egg-laying hens; the barn with the roasters wasn't open when we were there.

Nice profile of the lovely Miss Kim.

The light in the back blows out this shot, but who doesn't like a sheepdog and his sheep?

Now this photo does not do justice to this sow. The hugheness of that animal just does not translate. We saw a number of these hogs on our walk through the woods.

Kristin and Kim laughing beatifically.

When we finished our walk we stopped by the gift shop and made our way to the restaurant, which, as promised is a (beautifully) refurbished barn.
I have been insanely busy with the show I'm working on (opens next weekend, ladies and gentlemen) so I don't have it in me to write the food porn that this meal deserves, but I'll paint some broad strokes.

We were met by the hosting team, who showed us into a spacious, airy room, where we were attended by a crew of the best servers I've had the pleasure of experiencing. As far as we could tell, every single one of them had seed-to-plate knowledge of the food, and took their jobs very seriously without being overserious in their attitudes. In addition to the general knowlege, flashes of true expertise came through as well - for instance, the Captain was a trained somelier; he isn't the somelier of Blue Hill, but his knowledge is such that he handled general and specific questions in a way that someone who isn't a real oenophile (like, say, me) knew what he was in for, and was better able to appreciate it as a result. Across the board, the service was very formal and precise, but without any touch of the pretension or snobbery that can sometimes take an otherwise excellent meal to a place that's less comfortable than it wants to be. On the contrary, everything that happened while we were there seemed designed to increase our comfort level, from the space, to the pace, to the seasonal cocktails, to the knowledge and demeanor of the waitstaff, to the wine, to the food.

To the food:

Omigod omigod it was good. Everything local, everything fresh, everything amazingly delicious.

I'm not going to break it down course by course (there were many courses), but believe me, this was a meal I'll remember for a long long time. Rather than present a traditional menu, they give you a list (updated daily) of dozens (hundreds?) of ingredients and then follow up with a series of questions - about preferences, allergies, sensitivities: the Captain knows what to ask and how to ask it, and having done so, works with the kitchen to bring dish after dish of just what you want, whether you knew you wanted it or not.

When we mentioned to the waiter during one of Cory's trip to the ladies' room (this meal took well over 4 hours, without dragging for a second) that we'd like a candle placed in her dessert to celebrate her birthday, he looked at us with patient tolerance and explained that of course he'd heard us wishing her happy birthday and everything was taken care of. As it had been taken care of all along.

Kim grabbed this shot of the candle moment. It's a train wreck by real photographic standards, I suppose, but I really like it.

So there that is, at long last. More birthday fun to come...