the original soundtrack

If you happen to be in Seattle today, come see my talk at 2 pm at the Pop Conference! The title of my presentation is "Shame on the Brain: Music, Guilty Pleasures, and Cognition," and the venue is the JBL Theatre at the Experience Music Project, 325 Fifth Ave. N.

04.28.06 @ 03:16 AM EST [link]

Way late to the party on this one, but Silverdollarcircle is back, and is attempting to blog about all of the music he hears each day. An effort of herculean proportions, but one he's fulfilling with panache, for sure.

04.24.06 @ 06:11 PM EST [link]

I'm going to be traveling a lot over the next few weeks--here's where you might see me, thanks to frequent flyer miles:

April 27-30: Seattle (EMP Pop Conference)
May 5: Boston (Steer Roast)
May 6: London
May 7-8: Glasgow
May 9-13: Berlin
May 13-15: London

04.23.06 @ 10:49 PM EST [link]

Interesting musings on music and food on Blissblog--including a footnote on serotonin's role in depression, eating, and anhedonia. The wrinkle in the theory here is that serotonin-acting antidepressant drugs don't suppress the appetite the way they suppress libido. In some cases they might, but more often than not, they promote eating and extreme lethargy; a common side-effect of serotonergic drugs like Prozac, Zoloft, and the like is weight gain. This doesn't seem to make sense, because we know that a lack of serotonin is implicated in food cravings. And we also know that part of the reason why cigarettes tend to keep hunger down is because cigarette smoking causes a brief spike in serotonin levels. But serotonin has a dual effect--it's implicated in food cravings, but it's also responsible for the feeling of satiety. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac, which inhibit the reuptake of serotonin at the synapse, act via a different mechanism than powerfully serotonergic drugs like ecstasy, and their effects on appetite are more unpredictable and very different.

The goofy corollary to the observation that marijuana promotes appetite is that if you could block the cannabinoid receptors that marijuana acts on, you could potentially make the anhedonic drug to end all anhedonic drugs. That is, if you could make the anti-pot, you could create a drug that suppressed appetite so well that it could be used as a weight-loss drug. That, in fact, is the idea behind a new medication called Rimonabant, which blocks the cannabinoid receptors known as CB-1, found in nerve tissue and in fat. Though this "anti-pot" apparently works extremely well in the weight loss department, the side effects are quite anhedonic as well--depression, anxiety, and nausea. (If this drug is the "anti-pot," what happens when music (stoner rock!) is played to someone who's on it, and in effect, anti-stoned? Would the anhedonic effects of the drug extend to music appreciation, or a lack thereof?)

And how does serotonin impact music? Or how does music impact serotonin? Well, there's evidence that soothing music can increase levels of a related compound called melatonin in your blood, but there's less evidence pointing to any effect on serotonin levels. There was an interesting Italian study recently that posited that music, and how loud the music is, could increase the effects of ecstasy--that loud noise could prolong and intensify the effects of the drug, as measured by total electrical activity in rat brains. Now, this struck me as more grist for the government-supported hysteria mill; also, the methodology struck me as suspect (rats were exposed to white noise for a period of three hours while on the drug; first of all, white noise at 90-95 decibels is not the same thing as, say, house music at the same volume, and rats don't seem to process and derive pleasure from music the same way humans do.) Any shock to the system is going to increase the effects of a drug; you could probably run a study showing that putting putting a rat under extreme stress while under the influence of Tylenol led to a longer recovery rate. My question is, what was happening to the rats' serotonin levels, and specifically to the action of the brain's serotonin transporters, which ecstasy ramps up to a warp speed? That might be a more interesting study.

04.19.06 @ 02:50 PM EST [link]

satie -> mondrian -> eno -> food

I've been thinking far too much about this music-food thing. On Saturday night, I woke up with a start. There was a missing link in my Eno-Mondrian food connection, I realized, and that missing link was Erik Satie, the modern father of ambient music! How could I have forgotten about Satie and his tortured relationship with food? Yes, we all remember the Gymnopédies--so beautiful, yes--but Satie was a class-A crackpot. I mean, this was a guy who started his own church after quitting the Rosicrucians ("L'Eglise Métropolitaine d'Art de Jésus Conducteur"!) For a long time Satie subsisted on only white food (fitting, then, that one of his later works was titled Menus for Childish Purposes), which matched his equally weird penchant for wearing grey velvet suits almost constantly. White food and Satie's music makes intuitive sense to me somehow; there's this snowy sense of purity and a solemn, crystalline radiance to his music. Satie's most famous work is so tidy and elegant, too--there's this pearlescent plastic quality to it that's sort of Apple Computer in a way. But have you ever listened to Satie and wondered, well, this is all very nice, very pretty, but there's something sort of evil lurking beneath this music? Something deeply weird along with that refined sense of melancholy? So back to Satie's tormented dealings with food--he "never spoke while eating for fear of strangling himself." Even his famous explanation of "furniture music," the original foundations of ambient music as we know it, was framed in the context of dinner:

You know, there's a need to create furniture music; that is to say, music that would be a part of the surrounding noises and that would take them into account. I see it as melodious, as masking the clatter of knives and forks without drowning it completely, without imposing itself. It would spare them the usual banalities.

You could set up a whole Mondrian-Satie psychological continuum of eating in the context of Brian Eno's influences, though I'd say that Eno's attitudes toward food probably run more in line with another huge influence of his, the late Fela Kuti. I found this reminiscence by a Nigerian writer on his experiences at Fela's club the Shrine: "I also recall with great fondness, the savory piquancy of the excellent Jollof rice and stewed fried meat sold outside of the Shrine. I recall nights during my University of Lagos years when we visited the Shrine area just for the food."

But back to Satie's grim culinary universe. "My only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, moldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin)," he wrote in his Memoirs of an Amnesiac. Not sure about the amnesia, but Satie probably had at least three personality disorders that could be identified if I had a copy of the DSM-IV handy. This odd French site I found, which celebrates "Satie-inspired desserts" in a sort of proud French Amelie-ized version of the man (including a section titled "Satie and the Joy of Eating," which would make you think the guy was munching happily on pear galettes while frolicking down the picturesque streets of Montmartre), offers more choice tidbits: "For me, eating is naturally a duty--a pleasant, festive duty--and I really want to perform this duty with exactitude and due attention," wrote Satie. "My appetite is good and I eat for myself, without selfishness or the urge to wolf things down. In other words, 'My posture is better at a table than on horseback'--even though I ride rather well." Err.

"Exactitude and due attention" reminds me of Mondrian's strict attitude toward food, which I talked about in the post below with reference to Eno. Now Satie was French, of course, and Mondrian was Dutch, but it was in Paris that Mondrian had his massive mind-melting paradigm shift leading to the development of his signature rigid "Neoplastic" style. Interestingly, though, it was only after moving to Britain that Mondrian fully developed and refined his truly freaky eating habits! Which brings us back to Eno...

04.18.06 @ 01:28 AM EST [link]

discover the recipes you are using and abandon them, part II.
Here's the extended remix of the paragraph I wrote below.

To understand Eno's techniques in the studio, the worst thing to do is to read up on how records are actually produced. There are two recent books of note on the role of the producer -- The Producer as Composer: Shaping the Sounds of Popular Music by Virgil Moorefield, which devotes almost an entire chapter to Eno, and Echo and Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording, by Peter Doyle. Echo and Reverb is a lot more successful in discussing Eno because the author ends his story in 1960, sidestepping the question of Eno entirely. Moorefield is a professor of music; Doyle writes mystery novels. And so maybe it's not so surprising that Doyle is better at explaining the art of production.

Eno's best work is years behind him, but that doesn't stop the phrase "working with Brian Eno" from having an almost magical ring to it. Has-beens with deep pockets still turn to him to add interest and a bit of mystique to their flagging careers. To wit: Paul Simon's new album "Surprise" features Eno as producer. "Working with Brian Eno opens the door to a world of sonic possibilities," read Simon in a prepared statement.

So what's it like working with Eno in this world of sonic possibilities? You can imagine being in the sprawling English countryside somewhere, in a grand old manor with dark wood paneling and thick Oriental rugs. Eno asks if you want some tea, and slips into the kitchen. You sit on an overstuffed leather armchair next to a roaring fireplace. There's a big pile of "oblique strategies" cards scattered on the floor. Each one has a sentence on it, engraved on heavy card stock. You pick one up. It reads:

What is the reality of the situation?

You're not sure. You take a look around the room. Everything is melting.

Eno comes back with a teapot and two dainty teacups. He takes a synthesizer out of a cupboard and doodles a bit on it. "Tell me what's on your mind," he says in a soothing tone. You try to say something, but you realize that all your thoughts have been vaporized. Eno smiles serenely. Panicking, you pick up another oblique strategies card.

Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them.


How do you understand a producer who has generated reams of words and yet claims that words are meaningless, who says he doesn't like to talk about the past but can't help referencing it in his rhetoric about the future, who fades to the background as easily as he rushes to the surface? In the liner notes for Music for Airports, he wrote that the record was designed to be "as ignorable as it is interesting." Eno, too, is as ignorable as he is interesting. It seems like a fool's game to construct a narrative around someone whose entire modus operandi seems based upon denying any threads of narrative structure.

Frustrated by this, I put on Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy), and as "Mother Whale Eyeless" was spinning these lyrics flew out:

"Take me--my little pastry mother take me--there's a pie shop in the sky..."

The proof was in the pudding. The answer was suddenly crystal-clear: I had to see how Eno worked. Not in the studio, but in the kitchen. (Not The Kitchen, the Manhattan art space that Eno frequented in the late '70s.) This was not without precedent. In one of the most revealing and trenchant pieces of music journalism ever written, the late and great Minneapolis zine Gourmandizer ran a interview with producer Steve Albini in which he divulged the bonkers eating habits of the bands he worked with. The article ended with Albini's personal recipe for mayonnaise. On German television, there was a popular ongoing cooking show in which musicians were invited to make their favorite foods. For one episode, Blixa Bargeld of Einsturzende Neubauten dourly constructed an entire meal in black, centered on a squid-ink pasta with squid-ink sauce. This tells me more about him as a person than his most recent record did.

"I'm starting to think that all the world's problems could be solved with either oyster sauce or backing vocals," wrote Eno in his diary A Year with Swollen Appendices, published in 1995. In Eno's interviews and personal writings, there are repeated references to food and to cooking. There are also references to cybernetics and gardening, among other things, but the food references are the most interesting. He writes again and again about cooking in his diary, and a few themes keep popping up. Noticed: a definite tendency for making improvisational, intensely flavored (but not terribly spicy) dishes with odd combinations of ethnic ingredients, and a blatant disregard for recipes or notions of authenticity. He is liberal-perhaps too liberal-with his use of garlic. He displays a penchant for using thick bottled sauces, particularly black bean sauce and oyster sauce, in dishes that don't seem to call for them. References abound to eating rich truffle-based dishes, especially truffle risotto, with U2 and being nonplussed. "I'm sick of restaurants, and more sick of what they cost," wrote Eno. "Decided to take a more creative approach to eating from now on. Four clues: (1) less, (2) cheaper, (3) faster, (4) more portable." His own risotto methodology is bonkers insane. After all, this is a man with a certain passive disdain for rules. To this day, he is possibly the only art-school graduate to take a leak in Duchamp's urinal and get away with it.

In 2000, Eno wrote:

"I'm quite a good cook! But my style of cooking is let's see what's in the kitchen, and think of something imaginative to do with it. Which is exactly the same idea one has as a producer. So as a producer you say, let's see what is in the studio, who's there, what they can do, what tools we have available, and let's see what we can do with it. The other way of being a chef or a cook, which is not the way I like, is to have a recipe, to get all the things that the recipe suggests. To carefully measure them out, follow the program, and then to end up with the expected dish. That's sort of the opposite of what I do. Both as a cook and as a producer."

Some of Eno's most memorable musical moments in the '70s were created with the aid of the wily Robert Fripp. Fripp, of course, was an ace guitar player and a total muso; Eno was a dabbler and an avowed non-musician. Some of Fripp's best guitar solos on Eno tunes came out of Eno goading Fripp into making sounds that Fripp protested would clash dissonantly with the song, according to the conventional rules of music theory. But Eno insisted that they try it anyway, and Fripp found to his amazement that his odd guitar lines fit the song's lines perfectly. In a way, Fripp was the oyster sauce in Eno's green-bean-and-balsamic-vinegar recipe--the element that shouldn't quite work but did.

When did Eno start thinking the way he did? My guess is that his path to lifelong weirdness began at age 11. In the archives of a defunct '70s rag about synthesizer technology and hairy prog bands called Synapse that I've talked about here before, Eno talked about his kooky uncle:

At the age of 11, I had this uncle--a real uncle this time--who's like the eccentric of the family, very nice man, and he had spent some years in India. So he had these kind of strange Indian ideas about things. He's quite eccentric, very strange, always trying out weird experiments at home, building ways of distilling liquor and stuff like that, and taming the strangest animals, like rooks. He was very important to me, because he represented the other half, the sort of strange side of life, and he was to me like all that music was as well. And I would think, "Where's he coming from?" as they would say now. I used to go and visit him regularly, once or twice a week, and he used to talk and introduce me to ideas.

At around this time, his uncle showed him a book of miniature Mondrian reproductions. Eno was instantly captivated by Mondrian's coolly intersecting lines and clean rectangles in primary colors--so much so that he enrolled in art school to study painting. But it was the world of cassette tapes that fascinated him in school, the gooey analog quality to them, the ability to record and re-record and create small, contained messes. To this day, I don't think Eno has ever quite created a record with Mondrian's flair for simplicity.

Composition in Red, Yellow, and Blue (1930)

It so happens that Mondrian had severe issues with eating. "He was terribly thin, and seemed to live mostly on currants and vegetable stew, because he followed the Haye diet," recounted fellow artist Naum Gabo after his death. Mondrian attempted to eat scientific combinations of food, adhering to a rigid grid of what he could and could not eat. Eno, in comparison, can't even make rice without dousing it in black bean sauce and sunflower seeds. Even Eno's most spare ambient records display an abundance of layers and a baroque sense of eccentricity. But not too abundant--as he complained once in 1983 about the overblown pomp-rock of the '70s, "rock became grandiose and muddy, like a bad cook who puts every spice and herb on the shelf in the soup."

It's all about balance and knowing when to stop, I guess. "If you're an intelligent cook, you'll abandon the recipe at a certain time. You taste the dish and you realize there's the seed of an interesting new taste. So you work on that and forget you were making chicken Kiev, or whatever. You make something new."

04.11.06 @ 01:39 PM EST [link]

discover the recipes you are using and abandon them.

I've been going through reams of old Eno interviews and writings and picking out every reference to cooking. Why? Don't ask. Noticed: a definite tendency for making improvisational, intensely flavored (but not terribly spicy) dishes with odd combinations of ethnic ingredients, with a blatant disregard for recipes or notions of authenticity. Gobs of garlic. Lots of rice. A consistent use of thick Asian sauces, particularly black bean sauce and oyster sauce, in non-Asian dishes. Mixing oyster sauce with balsamic vinegar! Continuous references to eating rich truffle-based dishes, especially truffle risotto, with U2 and being nonplussed. An odd risotto recipe of Eno's which involves non-arborio rice, and the use of a rice cooker (?!) instead of the traditional constant-stirring technique. Drop scones made with "cinnamon, peanut butter, vanilla, pumpkin seeds, sultanas, poppy seeds." His appropriation of African culinary ideas into his cooking is a little too Laswell for me--a "West African composite with roast chicken and peanut butter sauce" sounds a little dull to be honest. His famous quote "I'm starting to think that all the world's problems could be solved with either oyster sauce or backing vocals" is a good one. But if it was up to me, I would rewrite it into "I am starting to think that all the world's problems could be solved with either crunchy peanut butter or a disco beat."

04.09.06 @ 03:34 PM EST [link]

I'm speaking on a panel next month at the annual literary festival of the South Asian Women's Creative Collective. The topic is "Supporting Your Habit: Making a Writing Life." Ha ha! Now I'll be damned if I know much about that as a perpetually broke music journalist, but I'll do my best. The best tip I can give to any any fellow writers, artists, and musicians out there--and I'm being totally serious here--is to learn how to cook. No joke! If you can cook, you can live on almost nothing and live well. My other tip is to develop the skill of being able to pick out good and cheap wine. Best advice I ever got from a Gang of Four song.

04.05.06 @ 10:47 PM EST [link]

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