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Favorite Articles of 2016

1. Pauline Oliveros: 1932-2016. Frieze, December 3, 2016.

I interviewed over a dozen composers and musicians as fast as possible to put together this massive Pauline Oliveros obituary for Frieze. The obituary is currently being translated into German and will be republished in the next issue of Musik Texte.

2. Tony Conrad: 1940-2016. Frieze, April 12, 2016.

I interviewed 15 of Tony’s friends and collaborators for this mammoth obituary, which was also written in record time. I wrote too many obituaries in 2016.

3. Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest. 4Columns, November 4, 2016.

A piece I wrote on Pipilotti Rist and ambient music.

4. San Fran-disco: How Patrick Cowley and Sylvester Changed Dance Music Forever. The Guardian, October 26, 2016.

I interviewed a lot of people for this article on disco in San Francisco in the freewheeling 1970s.

5. The Music of Bell Labs. Red Bull Music Academy, May 30, 2016.

A heavily researched article about the early days of computer music at Bell Labs.

6. On David Bowie, Part 1. Medium, January 15, 2016.

An essay I wrote on David Bowie while traveling in India, written shortly after he died.

7. Don Buchla, Synthesizer Pioneer, Dies at 79. The Guardian, September 16, 2016.

I wrote an obituary for Don Buchla while standing on a street corner in Los Angeles in two hours, after finding out he died, and then stayed up all night to fill in the piece with more interviews after it was published.

8. A Sense of Time: An Interview with Phill Niblock. Frieze, August 23, 2016.

A massive interview I did with Phill Niblock, who is now 83 years old.

9. Rites of Passage: the Pyramids. The Wire (UK), July 2016.

A six-page feature story I wrote for The Wire on jazz in San Francisco in the 1970s, the Pyramids, and Cecil Taylor.

10. Indian Summer: Nazia Hassan and Bollywood Disco. Sight and Sound, June 2016.

An article I wrote about Bollywood disco in the early 1980s and the late, great Pakistani pop singer Nazia Hassan.

11. On John Coltrane, and San Francisco. Medium, February 25, 2016.

A meditation on the closing of the great Church of John Coltrane, and gentrification in San Francisco.

12. The New Age of New Age Music. The Guardian, October 12, 2016.

A feature story on new age music, past and present.

Special thanks to my supporters on Patreon, who help make my writing possible.

Conor.

conor

I met Conor a long time ago–fifteen years ago or thereabouts. And though I didn’t know him very well, I knew of him for so many years that he was part of the architecture, part of the air.

My memories of Conor from the late 1990s are all hazy and indistinct, for various reasons. In Boston in 1998–well, Cambridge, to be exact–time seemed scrambled; everything moved too rapidly and too slowly. I was 18 years old then, and a sophomore at MIT. In addition to school, I was working two jobs, and running a magazine on the side. I befriended Theo, a tall, lanky waiter at nearby Café Pamplona, who cut a striking figure in head-to-toe black and a top hat. Theo was dry, sarcastic and funny; he was fond of speaking darkly, about dark things. The café had many good espresso drinks, but at the bottom of the menu–as a joke, perhaps–‘Sanka’ was listed. I would always try to order the Sanka. Theo would, on cue, tell me it was not available, but that there were many other fine drinks on the menu.

I also became friends with Theo’s good friend Noah. Noah also dressed in all black, and wore a trenchcoat. Noah looked and acted like a fellow MIT student; he tied his long dark hair in a ponytail and he knew his way around a UNIX command line. Like Theo, he was wildly intelligent, and somewhat obsessed with Oingo Boingo. Both of them were mostly self-taught. Neither Theo nor Noah were in school; Theo had dropped out of high school. Theo and Noah’s friends had names like Starchy (which was short for ‘Starchild’, from what I was told) and Scuba. Together, they represented a rough-and-tumble world hidden inside of stuffy, pompous Cambridge. Their world, and that red cobblestone pit behind the Harvard Square T stop, seemed more human than MIT, in all its brutalist concrete glory. MIT could often feel suffocating and strange, like a cold dystopian ’70s sci-fi novel.

Through Theo and Noah, I met Conor. Conor was disarmingly handsome. He had a chiseled face and a devastating look in his eyes, like someone you’d see in a Calvin Klein ad. Except Conor was a total nerd, and a goth, and he looked ready for battle, in army-navy surplus camos and combat boots. His hair was dyed–all of us had odd-colored hair at the time, so I don’t even remember what color it was. On the surface, Conor seemed to have it all together. He was perhaps two years older than me and Noah, which instantly made him seem more sophisticated and worldly than we were. People looked up to Conor. They imitated his macho swagger, his facial expressions, his sardonic sense of humor. He reminded me of a rough cross between Cary Elwes in ‘The Princess Bride’ and Bruce Campbell in the ‘Evil Dead’ flicks. Women had impossible crushes on Conor. Anytime I saw him, it was as part of a group of people–maybe five or six of us–or I’d see him at a party at the Cloud Club, or at MIT, or in Central Square. At parties, Conor commanded attention by his very presence. A room automatically became cooler if Conor was in it. Like Amanda, who I also met at around the same time, Conor had a theatrical air about him; he performed well in front of an audience.

The last I had heard of Conor, sometime in 2002 or 2003, was that he was hanging out with sheep in New Zealand. This was mostly a joke, but he had traveled to Australia, and there was some business about llamas. I didn’t see Conor again, or much of anyone from that crowd, for a long while.

Fast-forward ten years, to December 2013. I’m at a party in San Francisco, my adopted home of two years. It had been a tumultuous two years in San Francisco, but finally things were starting to settle. I am at a party in a lovely house and Amanda is standing on a chair, and it’s like old times. And Conor is in the kitchen – who I hadn’t seen in over ten years.

San Francisco finally felt like Home, for the first time since I had moved here at the start of 2012. There was food and good drink and friendly people and there was Neil and Amanda and Conor. Conor didn’t recognize me at first–we all look different now–but he looked almost exactly the same. I talked to him for maybe an hour, in the kitchen, catching him up on news of lots of people he knew from his Boston days. Conor seemed to have it all together. He had a fancy job now, as an engineer at BitTorrent. He had a baby (!) and a wife. I was amazed and impressed. We talked about a lot of things. He texted me his number; we were going to hang out. If only I had sensed the deep sadness in his eyes, when he was telling me how great everything was.

“Conor’s eyes were always sad,” Scuba told me at the grim ‘after-party’ following the funeral yesterday, at an old church in Oakland. I half-expected Conor to saunter into the room, to supply a clever riposte. It all felt so surreal, and so strange. Some people were pouring themselves drinks. Some were talking to each other, in hushed tones. Some were crying hysterically. I was struck by how many people were there–Conor had a huge contingent of friends in California, who all seemed so wonderful and interesting and well-dressed. I didn’t recognize most of them, but I recognized Starchy and Scuba. Starchy was heroically fighting back tears until they finally flowed. It broke my heart to see him cry–in these terrifying, huge, gaping sobs that wouldn’t stop, the kind of sobs that make your throat and lungs hurt. I had a long talk with Scuba, who was morose, but more composed.

“Think of it like an overdose,” Scuba said to me. “Conor overdosed on sadness.”

His voice choked up a bit.

“Conor overdosed on confidence, too. Sadness, and confidence.”

I gave Scuba a hug. He gave me a hug. Then I went home, to San Francisco.

Sound art.

Is it possible to write about sound art without listening?

I wondered about this while reading a lamentable recent article in the New York Times on sound art. “Sound art has been on the rise for a decade or two, but it may have last hit the mainstream,” Blake Gopnik writes in his trend piece, bringing up the examples of the new MoMA survey of sound art, Soundings: A Contemporary Score, and the fact that “two major sound installations are to go up in New York in the fall.” (One of these installations, Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet, was first exhibited in New York in 2001, at PS1, and has traveled extensively around the world since then.)

Sound art! It’s the New Thing! Gopnik points to “the role MP3s and podcasts now play in our lives,” musing that sound art seems “less esoteric” now because of our “new comfort with the immaterial world of pure data.” This head-scratching interlude ends with the line: “Sound waves floating through air may not seem any more exotic than information flowing through cyberspace.” While sound might seem mysterious or ineffable, anyone who has felt heavy bass booming from a speaker or taken a high school physics class knows that sound waves are physical by their very nature.

The term “sound art” dates back to the 1980s, but sound art existed long before then. Was Dada sound poetry sound art? Could Erik Satie’s “furniture music” be thought of as sound art? Were Russolo’s Futurist noise-making intonarumori devices sound art? The recent MoMA show “Inventing Abstraction” included a reading of Russolo’s 1913 classic “The Art of Noises,” and ample evidence of the interplay between avant-garde music and painting (Schoenberg and Kandinsky, in particular.) The recent MoMA exhibition on Tokyo and the avant-garde displayed inventive graphic scores by composers and artists like Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yasunao Tone–scores typed and drawn by Fluxus exponent George Maciunas. If you walk a few blocks away from MoMA, to Broadway between 45th and 46th, you’ll stumble into a public sound installation: the late sound artist Max Neuhaus’ Times Square, first installed in 1977 and reinstated in 2002.

Contending with “sound art” means contending with a fundamentally interdisciplinary field. It means delving deeply into the history of experimental music–a history that hasn’t been written into most art history textbooks. Is Pauline Oliveros–who was part of the exhibition that coined the term “sound art”, “Sound/Art” at the Sculpture Center in New York in 1984–a sound artist, or is she an experimental musician and composer? Or can she be all of these things? Is she, to use Gopnik’s lamentable language, a “honk-tweeter,” compared to “art-trained figures” like Susan Philipsz and Janet Cardiff? Here’s where the article really stumbles.

“Aligned with experimental music rather than visual art, the honk-tweeters are interested in strange beeps and buzzings for their own sakes,” Gopnik writes.

The language here–“strange beeps and buzzings for their own sakes” — side-swipes entire histories, thousands of artists and composers, a massive body of creative inquiry. If we talked about abstract art this way–let’s say, Pollock’s “strange drips and splatters”, or Twombly’s “weird scribbles”–it wouldn’t just seem dismissive; it would be reactionary.

Gopnik appears to admire more accessible, conventionally musical pieces of sound art; works like Cardiff’s crowd-pleasing ‘The 40 Part Motet’, based on a recording of a 16th-century choral piece by Thomas Tallis, are easier to digest than many overtly abstract electronic works–those “strange beeps and buzzings” he refers to. Gopnik paraphrases Australian sound scholar Caleb Kelly, writing that “[Kelly] believes that pieces like Ms. Cardiff’s “Motet,” or the riffs on Hollywood soundtracks by the Swiss art star Christian Marclay, will still matter in a century, whereas today’s honk-tweeters (“dial twiddlers,” Ms. Philipsz calls them) will likely disappear, if they keep doing retreads of John Cage’s postwar innovations.”

One can only hope that Kelly didn’t actually say that, because every part of that sentence seems misguided. Let’s put this talk about what will “still matter in a century” aside, because it’s too ludicrous to even contemplate. Are these so-called “honk-tweeters” simply “doing retreads of John Cage’s postwar innovations”? There seems to be a basic lack of understanding here of Cage, his work, his impact, and what his “postwar innovations” really were. David Tudor, to give one example, was most definitely a “honk-tweeter”–a brilliant musician, composer, and artist in Cage’s camp who blazed his own very impressive trail.

Let us not forget that the “Swiss art star” Christian Marclay spent much of his long career as a “honk-tweeter”; I witnessed many of these Marclay concerts myself in little venues like the late Tonic on the Lower East Side. Pay attention to those “honk-tweeters” and “dial-twiddlers”; sometimes those people alter the course of history. But most of all, listen with open ears.

I recently came back from snowy Berlin, where I spoke at the CTM Festival — the music counterpart to Transmediale, which was celebrating its 25th anniversary. I moderated a panel on Conrad Schnitzler’s life and work, with the talents of Thomas Fehlmann, Wolfgang Seidel, and Jens Strüver. (The panel took place in the former Zodiak Free Arts Lab.) A few days later, I did a two-hour conversation on stage with Dan Lopatin, also known as Oneohtrix Point Never, and James Ferraro. Then I went to New York for a day, to Columbia, to speak on a panel. Then back to San Francisco, where I live now.

Photos and text to come.

And – I’m about to make a big announcement, in the next week…

A new review by me in Frieze d/e, in English and in German.

I’ll be starting a new column for Frieze about the history of electronic music. The first installment should launch this coming week, and I’m very excited about it. It was a huge amount of work, as these pieces generally are, but worth it.

Also stay tuned for big pieces in Cabinet and various upcoming issues of Frieze, a guest spot at Ubuweb, and more.

And some big news: I’m moving back to San Francisco on January 1st.

Some new pieces:

There’s a review by me of the recent Angus MacLise retrospective in New York, in the October issue of Frieze.

And there’s a big review by me of the book Sound Souvenirs, in Current Musicology, an academic journal.

No links to either, I’m afraid–print-only!