Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Misread City at Festival of Books

THIS weekend your humble blogger will be around the LA Times Festival of Books at USC... That is, if I don't accidentally end up at UCLA.

I'll be there both days, and on Sunday at 3 p.m. will moderate a panel on authors with backgrounds in music. The panel -- I don't name these things, folks, is called "A New Chord: From Stage to Page."

My three panelist:

Nathan Larson was lead guitarist for Shudder to Think - one of the key bands on Dischord Records -- and has since written the scores to the films Boys Don't Cry, Dirty Pretty Things, and The Messenger. His novel, The Dewey Decimal System (Akashic), is tense, taught and set in a post-apocalyptic New York: It's been compared to Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn and the work of Philip K. Dick.

Rob Roberge is a longtime L.A. writer and musician; he plays guitar in punk pioneers The Urinals. The short stories in Working Backwards From the Worst Moment of My Life are often fragmented or defined by wild leaps. Steve Almond calls him "a modern master of the down-and-out-that-just-got-worse." He's also working on a memoir about his life in music: Excerpt here.

Kristin Hersh is known to many readers of The Misread City for her years in Throwing Muses, one of the key bands of the '80s alternative movement. (They played my alma mater the weekend I was a prospective student, in 1987, so they will always have a place in my heart.) Her memoir, Rat Girl, is based on diaries she took as a teenager and the year, as a bohemian musician, she was diagnosed bipolar.

Like her songs, Hersh's book is so vivid in its imagery it can be uncomfortable at times. "But Rat Girl is also a startlingly funny and touching memoir... a gripping journey into mental chaos and out the other side."

On that inspiring note... See you all at UCLA; er, I mean, USC!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cameron Carpenter, Classical Wild Man

THE young organist Cameron Carpenter is a thinker, a talker, a rebel and a nearly androgynous figure in white jeans -- I think of him as a cross between '50s Glenn Gould and '70s David Bowie. He makes other classical iconoclasts I know -- Jeremy, for instance -- seem middle of the road.

I spoke to Carpenter for the Los Angeles Times Influences column, which I am taking over for a while. When I told him I wanted him to talk about artists who've shaped him who don't play his chosen instrument, he said he was happy to stray from the organ, which he thinks is in the grip of a new kind of orthodoxy and conservatism. “I’m all about taking things out of the organ,” he says, “and the organ out of things.”

My interview with the be-sequined Carpenter, who is a very physical performer and feels more connection to silent-movie players than church organists, is HERE.

Here is Mark Swed's review from what sounds like a completely insane show in a church last spring.

Carpenter plays a recital of Brahms pieces next Sunday, May 8, at Disney Hall.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Composer Peter Lieberson, RIP

IT"S easy to recall the rude good health with which Peter Lieberson, a serene and gracious Santa Fe-based composer who was in town for a new piece with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, greeted me in 2005.

Peter Lieberson, 1946-2011
We spoke about the poetry of Neruda -- the inspiration for his latest piece -- his range of classical influences, the music of jazz pianist Bill Evans, his interest in Buddhism and his father Goddard's leadership of Columbia Records. The composer's wife, the heavenly mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, came to the door to say a brief but loving hello to him. Here, I thought at the time, is a handsome, cool guy with a searching mind and a wife of unparalleled talent -- he seemed to have it made.

In just over a year, Lorraine had died from breast cancer. Peter would soon be diagnosed with cancer himself, and he passed away Saturday in Tel Aviv, where he was undergoing treatment for lymphoma. He was 64.

HERE is my piece from the LA Times, just before the 2005 world premiere of "Neruda Songs." And here is an excerpt from my story:

Over lunch in an artist's suite at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Lieberson describes himself as a kind of conscientious objector in the wars that have long wracked the classical music world.
Pablo Neruda
"This is a battle that no longer needs to be fought," he says, describing the still-smoldering fight between academic 12-tone composers and the minimalists and other mavericks who oppose them. "There was something to it; there were a lot of people hurt in the '60s and '70s. But I don't think it's necessary to keep re-creating the struggle."
Rarely does an interview subject make the impression on me that Peter Lieberson did. I'm not the only one who will miss him.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Conference for Aspiring Musicians

NEXT week ASCAP will hold a conference dedicated to beginning and mid-career musicians and songwriters: The I Create Music Expo, held at the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel, will school them in the business side of things and in staying afloat during a very tough time in the industry. It's an especially tough time for aesthetes and introverts: The current climate requires a strong degree of self-promotion.

HERE is my story from The Hollywood Reporter. It's only online for subscribers, but that may change this week. (Here's the conference website.)

Speakers, panelists and so on range from hacks to middle or the roaders to eccentric talents like Van Dyke Parks and Pharrell Williams.

My story, which includes an interview with diminutive songwriter Paul Williams, who currently heads the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers begins this way:

Music and song- writing typically attract idealists who love melody, harmony and the creative process. Navigating the business, however, requires pragmatism and discipline, and in these unstable times, striking the right balance can be a challenge.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" on DVD

EVERYTHING was nicely lined up -- and then the sky started falling.
“The week before the filming was about to start,” Sofia Coppola recounts, “the studio changed the deal, and it fell through. And my dad came to the rescue; our French distributor got involved… But it was really nerve-wracking. It’s stressful enough, already, making your first film.” Who needs a funding disaster on top of it?

Luckily, the nightmare that preceded Coppola’s debut, The Virgin Suicides, did not repeat itself with, her latest, the ethereal, intimate Somewhere, which comes out on DVD today.

The new film, about a reckless, disoriented actor (Stephen Dorff) who drifts through life at the Chateau Marmont before a restorative visit from his 11-year-old daughter, went much more smoothly.

“It often requires a star actor,” the film’s producer Roman Coppola (and the director’s brother) says of funding for indies. “But in Sofia’s case, she has an identity and a fan-base and a cachet. So there’s a core group of people she’s worked with before, and there was a lot of loyalty.” (It didn’t hurt, of course, that Roman and Sofia co-own American Zoetrope, the San Francisco-based studio founded by their father, Francis Ford Coppola.)

“I think it’s always a challenge, especially if you don’t have a huge star,” Sofia Coppola says. “But luckily I have strong relationships with our French distributor and our Japanese distributor.” Foreign presales – along with initial funding from Zoetrope -- gave her money to get the production going, and she  later landed Focus, who had distributed Lost in Translation.

Securing early financing overseas was a natural strategy for this film: “It has more of the pacing and feeling of European films,” she says. “So it made sense that we started with a French distributor because it’s more connected to their film history.”

Says producer G. Mac Brown: “I normally do rather large budget features, filled with complexities, stress and ego. Somewhere was the opposite.  From the beginning, Sofia's wish was to have the most intimate and pure film making process possible.  There was no studio, no boss, no distractions. It was a dream.”

For all the deserved praise earned by Elle Fanning, who plays the visiting daughter, the heart of the movie is Dorff, a longtime friend of Coppola’s and someone who came to mind very early in the film’s conception. “The starting point was this portrait of an actor,” named Johnny Marco, who’s had an international hit with a generic action film called Berlin Agenda.

“I felt like he had been really successful doing some movie he didn’t care about,” she says. “So he wasn’t feeling that good about himself as an artist. He’d had his success but was indulging – so his life was out of balance.”

Getting a bigger name – Dorff is probably best known for Blade, from 1998 despite a more than respectable career that also includes Backbeat and Public Enemies -- would have allowed her to draw a larger budget, but she was dedicated to him playing the lead role.

After the sumptuousness of Marie Antoinette, this one is pretty stripped down: Many of the shots comprise either Dorff alone in the hotel or Dorff with Fanning. “My starting point is always to try to make it as small and low-budget as possible so we can keep creative freedom -- and get it made. Everybody says it’s harder and harder to get unusual movies made.”

“Sofia’s film is kind of an anomaly,” says Roman Coppola, who points out that it’s taken two decades to get the adaptation of On the Road, directed by Walter Salles and produced by Frances Ford Coppola, ready for the camera. “It’s a very tricky climate,” he says, “and it’s a matter of finding partners who are in sync with you.”

“It’s rare – and I think it shows,” in his sister’s new film, he continues. “There’s a lightness. The mood in which a film is made imbues itself into the movie. There wasn’t tearing your hair out the night before.”

The soul of an artist is rarely entirely smooth, and Coppola says she had moments of doubt. “It’s always stressful, waiting to hear from financers, or from actors. I’m sure there were things I blocked out, like childbirth. We needed to forge ahead.”

Overall she says, “Every time I start a movie it’s scary because I’m doing something I haven’t done before. But now I have enough experience to know you get through it. It always looks like it won’t come together. But it does.”

Friday, April 15, 2011

Record Store Day 2011

TOMORROW, Saturday, is dedicated to an endangered species that had an important role in raising yours truly: the humble record shop. Record Store Day was launched in 2007 to recognize and help preserve independent shops, which have taken a serious beating from the economy, predatory chains and the music's shift online.

The holiday includes various live events, sales, cookouts, and so on. (Check out that website and the ones run by your favorite store.) Here is a post by an old friend about Providence-area record stores.

Anyone who loves a record store -- and these days Amoeba Hollywood, Rockaway Records in Silverlake and Pasadena's Canterbury are some of my favorites -- knows that the experience of visiting one is much richer than calling up iTunes or dropping into a typical mall store. One of the key differences is the clerks at a good record store.

Two of the favorite pieces I've ever written are these two, about classical and pop music clerks. One of the stores I wrote about -- Tower Classical on Sunset, which had some of the spirit of an indie spirit despite being part of a chain -- has since closed.

I'll see you at the record store...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Sitar and Abstract Art

RECENTLY I spoke to Anoushka Shankar, daughter of sitar legend Ravi Shankar, about her influences across the artistic genres. Some of her answers did not surprise me -- she mentioned her father, saying,   "Having taught me from my very first day playing the sitar, he's shaped my technique, style and sound." Others, like abstract painter Mark Rothko, were less obvious: She talked about the connection between color and spirit.

Anoushka is part of a The Disney Hall concert in honor of her father's 90th birthday; previously scheduled for next week, it has been postponed to September. 

HERE is my piece on the younger Shankar -- half-sister to Norah Jones, by the way -- in today's LA Times.

Friday, April 8, 2011

British Sea Power invades the West Coast

JUST a quick note to say that I remain convinced that British Sea Power is one of the best live bands from the dreary isle. Your humble blogger has caught the Brighton band on all three of its Los Angeles appearances -- two at Spaceland and now last night's at the Troubadour.

The goofy faux-military costumes are gone, but their blend of early '70s Bowie and early '80s is stronger than ever. The band's propulsive rhythms are matched by disciplined, precise guitar playing (except for in the proggy, overlong finale.) Every member of the group really pulls his/her weight. (Is the violinist, whose instrument seems tuned to the intonations from My Bloody Valentine's Loveless LP, a recent addition?)

Their best songs may still mostly be on their debut record, The Decline of British Sea Power, but the live show, I think, has just gotten better. Can't wait to see the lads again.

Here they are playing "Carrion."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

USC Historian Discovers Witches (and Vampires)

WHEN I heard that a USC professor had written a bestselling vampire novel I thought, This sounds like what the English call a train-jumper -- someone who latches onto a trend, half-heartedly and after the fact.

Boy was I wrong. Deborah Harkness is the real thing, and her novel, A Discovery of Witches, comes out of her scholarship on the shift from the supernatural medieval period to the rational, Newtonian Enlightenment. The book is set in contemporary Oxford, but has this -- and many other -- currents running through it.

HERE is my LA Times profile of Harkness, who is working on the second book of what's conceived as a trilogy. Lovers or Tolkien and Pullman, don't say nobody told you.

Her wine blog, Good Wine Under $20, worth checking out too.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Is Gen X an Afterthought?

THE new issue of MOJO magazine has a cover story on the 25th anniversary of the Smiths' The Queen is Dead LP, an article on the 20th of Primal Scream's influential Screamadelica record, and another on a reunion tour by Mick Jones' Big Audio Dynamite.

It's a great issue, of course, of our favorite music magazine. But it also feels like the Gen X teenage years have now been fully commodified and sold back to us.

Perhaps the most rabid and persuasive generational warrior I know is SoCal-reared journalist Jeff Gordiner, who I've interviewed on subjects ranging from contemporary poetry to the Pavement reunion to the novels of Bret Eason Ellis.

Gordinier's book X Saves the World is well worth a look: HERE is my interview with Gordinier, who has recently stormed the New York Times Dining section with a batch of witty, intelligent stories including a memorable piece on veggie burgers.

Here's how my story begins:

These days, with a recession on the way, housing prices tanking, the Dow out of control and an unpopular war that won't seem to end, a lot of Americans are feeling uneasy and confused. Recent surveys show a majority think the nation is on what pollsters call "the wrong track."
For Jeff Gordinier, the author of the new book "X Saves the World" and an editor at large for Details magazine, it's actually kind of reassuring. "I find a strange degree of comfort in it," the writer said serenely at Pasadena's Pie 'n' Burger, a legendary diner near his hometown of San Marino. His Generation X origins, he said, make it hard for him to trust the good times.
And here is Jeff on his book: