Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Alex Ross on Music and Noise

FOR my money, there is no more important and provocative essay about classical music over the last 10 years than an Alex Ross that begins this way: "I hate 'classical music': not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past." And he goes on: "For at least a century, the music has been captive to a cult of mediocre elitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority."
Ross's new collection, out this week

Hoarder that I am, I've still got the original 2004 New Yorker pages with that article. But those less obsessive than me can check back into this piece -- "Listen to This: Crossing the Border From Classical to Pop" -- and others on the enigma of Schubert, Radiohead, Bjork, classical music in China, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and the majesty of late Brahms. Even though I've read a lot of this stuff before, this new collection -- Listen to This -- is the most fun I've had with a new nonfiction book in ages.

Anyone telling the story of classical music over the last century or so would have to pay attention to composers, audiences, orchestras and conductors on the West Coast. Ross's first book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century took deep looks at Gershwin and Schoenberg's time in Los Angeles and the career of Bay Area composer John Adams. Listen to This gives us "The Anti-Maestro: Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Los Angeles Philharmonic." (The piece ends with the arrival of Dudamel.)

I spoke to Ross when The Rest is Noise came out. Here is that interview; the first question went like this:

Q: Why does classical music from the last 100 or so years -- unlike the visual art from the same period -- remain what you call "this obscure pandemonium on the outskirts of culture"?
A It's had a struggle to find an audience, especially compared to other art forms. The first blasts of Modernism in painting and literature and so on all caused scandals: Audiences rebelled at first, but they quickly caught on, and Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for $100 million a canvas. The esoteric has become popular in these other art forms, and that hasn't really happened in classical music.
And let me direct readers interested in the LA Phil to Sunday's excellent Reed Johnson piece about the Phil's  president, Deborah Borda. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Robyn Hitchcock and Joe Boyd at Largo

THURSDAY night sees one of the season's most intriguing bills: Joe Boyd, who produced folk-rock gods like Richard Thompson and Nick Drake and wrote a wonderful book about his early years, which I described here, will appear at Largo with neo-psych demigod Robyn Hitchcock. Both will appear -- with Boy's reading and telling stories, Hitchcock playing the songs described -- at the Largo at the Coronet.

(Both men have a pretty strong R.E.M. connection, as well.)

I've been into Hitchcock's surreal, chiming music since I was a teenager in the mid-'80s, and it was a pleasure to speak to him a few years back for this story:

"I tend to sing about things I like the look of," he says earnestly. "I sing about segmented creatures, like crabs and lobsters, wasps and bees, things with a head, thorax and abdomen -- that kind of thing."
"And imagining, if people were transparent, what their digestive systems would look like, or what it would be like seeing babies gestating inside other humans. Sometimes the whole thing horrifies me, other times it's rapturously beautiful."

Let me again commend Boyd's chronicle White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s. I concur with Brian Eno that this is one of the best books about music in ages, and its charting of the social rupture of the period is among the best I've ever seen.

Photo courtesy Yep Rock

New TV Legal Drama

THE lawyer show has become almost as ubiquitous as the cop show, and there are several of each in the  new fall TV season.

I've reviewed a new legal drama, The Whole Truth, which goes up tonight at 10 on ABC. I'd say the show is decent, needs to fine tune some things, including an off-putting main character, but succeeds at drawing you into the law's chess game.

Here is my Hollywood Reporter review, which begins this way: 

Emotions run high on "The Whole Truth," a legal drama about dueling lawyers who struggle, in the pilot, over a murder and sexual-assault case with possible racist overtones. It's a lot of baggage and cultural hot buttons for a show to take on in its first episode, but for the most part, "Truth" works.

To the right, of course, is a statue of Justice.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Grizzly Bear and Phoenix at the Hollywood Bowl

ON Saturday night I was lucky enough to catch these two bands at the Bowl. Both exceeded my expectations.

Grizzly Bear, a Brooklyn group with a bearded-hipster following and a knack for Pet Sounds derived vocal harmonies, has long been an enigma to me: I got their debut LP before it came out, and it literally destroyed my wife's car stereo even before we could hear it. But some of my most dedicated music friends kept urging me to check them out.

When they played Disney Hall a few years back, I was all set to go, but our babysitter fell through and we missed the show. I picked up their latest LP, which came out last year, and have found some of the harmonies interesting, but there's something sterile about it.

But those vocal tapestries, outdoors at the Bowl on a cool late-summer evening, had far more emotional directness, without losing their mystery. And the guitars and other instruments were edgier, dirtier, than on the overly smooth Veckatimest LP. Grizz is not just neo-psych with a Radiohead swoon, but something fresh and weird.

Phoenix is everyone's favorite French band since Air. They've got a knack for catchy melodies, slinky, funk-inspired basslines, and really cool haircuts. I expected a high-energy performance and they pumped it up a bit higher without losing their shy charisma. Members of the group came into the crowd a couple times -- once about 10 feet from where I was sitting -- and somehow it didnt feel cheesy.

As with many bands, especially from other countries, the group was quite clear about how excited they were to be playing the legendary Hollywood Bowl.

Parking was the worst ever -- especially getting out -- but my wife and I were reminded that the Bowl is one of LA's greatest institutions.

Let me update this blog to the recent Echoplex show by one of our favorite bands, the folky British group The Clientele. I've seen them twice and admired the perfectly crafted, delicate Arthur Lee-meets-Nick Drake songs, but this show brought the Television-inspired, high-on-the-neck guitar playing to the fore. This was folk rock without the delicacy, played by a kickass live band. They're touring on a fine EP called Minotaur: I hope it's not the last time we see them.

At right: The gentlemen of Grizzly Bear

Two New Cop Shows

THE new television season is starting, and there are a lot of new cop shows. So far the best I've seen is the mellow, low-key Terriers, which I reviewed for The Hollywood Reporter last week. Two new shows try a lot harder but achieve less. 

Here's my review of the Hawaii Five-0 reboot, which begins: 

By the time the shooting begins in earnest on "Hawaii Five-0," about halfway through the pilot, the action comes across well-directed, the camerawork crisp, the pace just right. But it took half an hour to get to this, and it just wasn't worth it.

And here's Chase, and its lead:

"Chase" begins with a fit blonde in tight jeans and a sharp leather jacket chasing a criminal through the streets of an unnamed city, brow furrowed in concentration. Pretty soon they're in a stockyard -- this turns out to be Fort Worth -- then a rodeo. We're all over Texas in this hourlong drama from NBC, and by show's end we'll be everywhere from Houston's skyline to a cowboy bar in San Antonio to a border crossing into Mexico.

In short, Chase seemed to me formulaic, but it has potential and the lead is quite good. Hawaii Five-0 -- which has some serious talent behind it -- only shines during the action scenes. The original is much smarter and cooler. Maybe they'll both get better. 

I'm sure some people will like both shows, and many critics like Five-0 quite a bit. But here's the thing: We are supposedly in a golden age of television, and shows like Deadwood, The Wire, Sopranos, The Office, etc., have shown how good TV can be. Does every new show have to be as good as those? Of course now. But they've gotta be better than this. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Casey Affleck Comes Clean

I DON'T think anybody's terribly surprised. But Casey Affleck just admitted to the New York Times that is bizarre documentary on Joachin Phoenix, I'm Still Here, was a piece of performance art.

From Michael Cieply's piece in today' NYT:

His new movie, “I’m Still Here,” was performance. Almost every bit of it. Including Joaquin Phoenix’sdisturbing appearance on David Letterman’s late-night show in 2009, Mr. Affleck said in a candid interview at a cafe here on Thursday morning.
“It’s a terrific performance, it’s the performance of his career,” Mr. Affleck said. He was speaking of Mr. Phoenix’s two-year portrayal of himself — on screen and off — as a bearded, drug-addled aspiring rap star, who, as Mr. Affleck tells it, put his professional life on the line to star in a bit of “gonzo filmmaking” modeled on the reality-bending journalism of Hunter S. Thompson.
Of course, the rumors were already swirling that the Phoenix film -- which involved the actor-cum-rapper ordering hookers, snorting what seemed to be coke, etc. -- was a mockumentary or something Andy Kaufman-esque. When I wrote about Affleck in June -- here's my LA Times story --  I asked him about this directly. Affleck -- who I found smart, engaging and sometimes very uncomfortable -- seemed a bit offended I would question his motives like that, and answered in his most sincere voice.
"There's nothing 'mock' about it," Affleck asserts, adding that speculation has grown "strange and twisted" because of his silence. "It's just a film about a real man who had a period of his life that was pretty dramatic. In order to make the film I had to reveal certain private things and put them in the 
proper context. JP feels this will correct certain misperceptions."
Affleck told Cieply:
“I never intended to trick anybody,” said Mr. Affleck, an intense 35-year-old who spoke over a meat-free, cheese-free vegetable sandwich on Thursday. “The idea of a quote, hoax, unquote, never entered my mind.”

Confused? Me, too. But we are talking -- after all, folks -- about an actor.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Common as Air"

THE scholar and poet Lewis Hyde is a fascinating figure whose ideas about the unease of art in a market economy have developed him a cult following that includes figures like Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon and artist Bill Viola. (David Foster Wallace was also a big fan.)

Hyde's most famous and influential book -- with the possible exception of Tricker Makes the World -- is The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern Word. His new book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership, is, says Gary Giddins in the new Bookforum, similar:

"It too, is concerned with creativity, sharing and communal property; it, too, is repetitive and larded with academic setups; it, too, peters out (Hyde has no gift for climax); and it, too, is indispensable."

I spoke with Hyde when the 25th anniversary of The Gift was released. I found him a very smart guy though I don't agree with him completely: We discussed the ideal bohemia, market triumphalism, and the marketplace friendly art of Andy Warhol. Here it is.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Slacker Noir in San Diego

THERE'S a pretty good TV show that's just made its debut on FX. Terriers -- don't know about the name -- is like a Ross Macdonald novel crossed with The Big Lebowski. Or something like that. Either way, the casting and storytelling are quite fine. (The second episode goes up Wednesday.)

Here is my review, which leads this way:

The protagonist in FX's "Terriers," Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue), is two parts the Dude from "The Big Lebowski," one part '70s Kris Kristofferson. He works as an unlicensed private eye with a young partner even more naive than he is in Ocean Beach, a slightly hippie-esh San Diego neighborhood that recalls both "Jackie Brown" and Thomas Pynchon's latest slacker-noir novel. Hank, a recovering alcoholic, was fired from the local police force; we've heard that one before, too. So originally is not one of the great virtues of this show.

This is the first of occasional television reviews I'm writing for The Hollywood Reporter, which is under new management.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Classical LA

ANGELENOS don’t need to be told that they live in one of the nation’s best cities for classical music, but it may still be news to much of the rest of the world.

On that count, I wrote a piece for the fall issue of Listen, the classical music magazine, that looks at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Hollywood Bowl, local chamber music series, and oddball programs like Classical Underground.

The whole story is not online, but I encourage everyone to pick up the new issue, which has pianist Maurizio Pollini (!!) on the cover. There’s also a very fine piece on how the city of Louisville reinvigorated itself during the torpor of the Great Depression – and after a major flood, no less -- with the creation of the Louisville Orchestra. (It’s timed to a new documentary, Music Makes a City, which could have easily served as the title of my article about L.A.)

Here are a few sentences that begin my article:

Los Angeles is the heavenly chime of the Byrds, the woodsy self-absorption of Laurel Canyon, the horn counterpoint of Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, the boy-girl nihilist crunch of X, the rhythm-driven rage of gangsta rap.

These are some of the high points: The city, which is regularly and gleefully destroyed in disaster movies, has also long symbolized everything ephemeral and cheap in popular culture and pop music.

But other sounds have come from – and to – this place. John Cage grew up here. Stravinsky and Schoenberg lived here for years, as did thousands of German-speaking intellectuals fleeing fascist Europe, keeping alive a powerful literary tradition and sustaining an audience for chamber music.

And while neither the local orchestra nor the opera are as old as those in our sometimes-stuffy elder brother San Francisco, these operations have often been livelier and less predictable.