Category Archives: Uncategorized

A feature story by me on the German ambient musician Gas, also known as Wolfgang Voigt, for the October issue of a new British music magazine called Into. (Flip to pages 16-20 for the piece.) This piece was written in preparation for the Gas concert at the Barbican in London this week. I wish I could have been there.

New work.

On the monorail, heading to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
My book on Brian Eno’s Another Green World is being shipped to bookstores right now, and I’m told that copies should be at your friendly neighborhood bookstore next week. Amazon will also have copies ready to ship next week, so if you’ve pre-ordered the book already, you’ll be getting it in the mail very soon.

I wrote a piece on my top ten Brian Eno album covers for Print, the graphic design magazine. On a related note, here’s a piece I did for Print a few years ago about David Byrne. (He was a lovely guy to talk to. Music hardly figured into our sprawling two-hour conversation — it was all about different kinds of pencils, relative thicknesses of paper, the aesthetic importance of eraser smudges, neurobiology, and tree branches. I’m fired up to read his new book on long bicycle trips.)

What else has been happening?  I went skydiving for the first time, jumping out of a small plane in rural Massachusetts with some of my Boston neighbors. The feeling of freefall is not unlike the transporting experience of listening to great music, I found. I went to Los Angeles for a week, managing to put my formerly intense loathing of LA aside. I gave in to the weird, wild city, finding myself incredibly impressed with the range of contemporary art galleries and museums. I saw a few great shows in Boston — Dirty Three at the ICA, and Yo La Tengo in a downtown Boston theatre. And I just came back from a week-long trip back to New York City.  Highlights: The expansive Genesis P-Orridge retrospective, 30 Years of Being Cut Up, at Invisible-Exports on the Lower East Side; a performance by Krautrock legends Faust in Williamsburg; a sublime Dixon gig in a warehouse in Bushwick; lunches, dinners, and drinks with old friends (Simon Reynolds, Douglas Wolk, Paul Kennedy, Lauren Klein); nature walks down the High Line; the dizzying survey of contemporary Dutch art at White Box Gallery. I’m heading back to New York City for two more weeks at the end of this month for the 2009 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera. On the horizon: Lots of trips to Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and Avery Fisher Hall by night…and lots of intensive training in classical music by day.  Master classes with Alex Ross, Anne Midgette, Greg Sandow, Justin Davidson, and lots of other critics I admire. I’m looking forward to it.

Some new pieces by me that’ll be out soon: an essay on cybernetics and art for Rhizome; a feature on the shadowy German ambient musician Gas for a new British music magazine; and an essay by me on Bollywood cinema and Michael Jackson for a new anthology edited by Mark “K-Punk” Fisher.

Two new pieces.

An essay by me on Brian Eno’s 1983 album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, for the London Science Museum’s concert gala this week commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing.

Also: an essay by me on Brian Eno and cooking for the inaugural issue of Loops, a cool new music journal to be published biyearly by Faber & Faber. (You’ll have to buy the lush, expansive print edition to read the full piece.)

Paul Auster, Brian Eno, and ambient writing

It’s grey and raining in Boston today. My calendar says it’s mid-June, but the chill feels like November. So I sit in my beautiful and bizarre brick house (pictured above — well, that’s actually an 18th-century Piranesi etching, but close enough), drink tea, and read books.

I read the entirety of Paul Auster’s 1997 collection The Art of Hunger before I went to sleep last night. It’s a dense anthology of literary criticism, interviews, and hazy, enchanting recollections. The criticism is mostly of books and poetry of the French persuasion. Auster got his start as a writer by translating French books into English, and French figures loom large over his life.

This particular passage reminded me a lot of Brian Eno’s approach to ambient music, which grew increasingly minimal and textural as the ’70s progressed:

“The one thing I try to do in all my books is to leave enough room in the prose for the reader to inhabit it. Because I finally believe it’s the reader who writes the book and not the writer…

In reading a book like Pride and Prejudice, for example, I realized at a certain point that all events were set in the house I grew up in as a child. No matter how specific a writer’s description of a place might be, I always seem to twist it into something I’m familiar with … I think this probably has a lot to do with one’s relation to language, how one responds to words printed on a page. Whether the words are just symbols, or whether they are passageways into our unconscious.

There’s a way in which a writer can do too much, overwhelming the reader with so many details that he no longer has any air to breathe. Think of a typical passage in a novel. A character walks into a room. As a writer, how much of that room do you want to talk about? The possibilities are infinite. You can give the color of the curtains, the wallpaper pattern, the objects on the coffee table, the reflection of the light in the mirror. But how much of this is really necessary?”

Suddenly I find myself reunited with my vinyl records, for the first time in nearly a year. It’s like Christmas! I forgot I owned half this stuff! I just found the amazing mini-book that came with the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense LP. I tranced out to all four sides of Metal Machine Music. And I started scanning some of my favorite 12″ cover designs. This particular single is as good of a place to start as any. The arty minimalism of early ’80s new wave meets the neon bonanza of mid-’80s pop, in the crazy, crazy year that was 1984.

In support of arts criticism

I’ve had a few recent conversations with friends in San Francisco about arts criticism, in which I invariably find myself having to rush to the defense — rather passionately, I might add — of criticism as a discipline. I quit my technology-related teaching job recently, choosing to focus, once more, on the quixotic quest of being a journalist and writing more books on obscure subjects.

San Francisco is not a town that’s overflowing with critics, the way that New York City always seemed to be. The news outlets that are still solvent in the Bay Area seem to focus on tech reporting. The big fish around these parts are hometown heroes like Yelp and Twitter (their headquarters are just down the street from me), Facebook, and Google (an hour’s drive away, in pleasantly sterile Mountain View.)

In comparison, arts criticism seems like small change, both literally and figuratively. There’s nothing more humbling than having to defend your chosen profession to your friends on a regular basis. According to some of the software engineers I know, reviews are something that can be automated by recommendation engines; music criticism is a charming anachronism ready to be supplanted by playlists on social networking sites. Among the “hard news” journalists I know who still have jobs — from the embittered City Hall reporters to the elite foreign correspondents — arts criticism is considered fluff, an ethereal sort of candy-floss hardly worthy of its own seminar at a journalism school. Many of the humanities academics I’m acquainted with don’t take criticism in the popular press very seriously either. They’re likely to tell me that the grasp of theory is weak, if there is any theory to begin with; that it’s too commercial; that the argumentation lacks rigor and depth. To cap it all off, the artists I know, by and large, hate art critics, evincing only a grudging, vestigial respect for larger-than-life figures (mostly dead) like Clement Greenberg. Critics don’t get much love these days from anybody, which is part of the reason why I love criticism. Continue reading

This one-hour documentary on John Cage, directed by Peter Greenaway in 1983, is a lot of fun to watch. Take a look:

Taking John Cage [by strategy]

I’ve long been fascinated by John Cage’s voluminous writings; they span a dizzying list of topics, from music to art to cooking. I read a lot of Cage while I was working on my Brian Eno book; I spend several pages in the book talking about Cage.

In an anthology of “b-sides” of less famous Cage writings, which I found for cheap during a visit to the Strand bookstore in New York, I came across a little scrap of text titled “Art and Technology.” It’s a short piece, written in 1969. I was struck by a few prescient statements that Cage made in the piece, and how they seemed to connect with how we live now.

John Cage predicts Wi-Fi (1969):

“We need for instance a totally wireless technology. Just as [Buckminster] Fuller domes (dome within dome, translucent, plants between) will give impression of living in no home at all (outdoors), so all technology must move toward the way things were before man began changing them: identification with nature in her manner of operation, a complete mystery.”

John Cage predicts the rise of a global open-source software community (1969):

“Computers’re bringing about a situation that’s like the invention of harmony. Sub-routines are like chords. No one would think of keeping a chord to himself. You’d give it to anyone who wanted it. You’d welcome alterations of it. Sub-routines are altered by a single punch. We’re getting music made by man itself: not just one man.”

Back to the future.

I’m winding down my time in San Francisco. At the end of next week, I’ll be moving back to the East Coast. I am looking forward to it, for many reasons. San Francisco was an interesting year — I met some lovely people; I learned some new things. And I’ll miss having a bountiful and endless supply of Meyer lemons in my yard. But it’s time to go back.

I want to devote myself to writing and thinking for a while. It helps that I have a beautiful 170-year-old living sculpture of a house in which to work, full of artists and friends who inspire me. I have an apartment crammed with vinyl records and super8 cameras and ancient Singer sewing machines. I have friends who miss me, and I miss them too. I miss Brooklyn. I miss Boston. I miss Berlin. There aren’t many Meyer lemon trees to be found in the Northeast, nor much in the way of exotic tropical foliage, but we do have a grand old apple tree in our rambling garden. The garden, you see, has a mind of its own.

Here are a few snapshots of my house:

Research and development.

I snapped these quick shots with my phone, which is why they’re sort of hazy and indistinct. But you get the idea. “Hazy and indistinct” is a good way to describe my brain, too, after writing this book.

Pile of books on my bed.

Bedtime reading.

Oblique strategies cards on my table. The top card reads 'Once the search is in progress, something will be found.

Oblique strategies cards on my table. The top card reads 'Once the search is in progress, something will be found.' Not pictured: the detritus of assorted book drafts