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Your Moment of Zen

“One popular new feature on the Net is AI’s Associated Press service. From anywhere on the Net you can log in and get the news that’s coming live over the wire or ask for all the items on a particular subject that have come in during the last 24 hours. Plus a fortune cookie. Project that to household terminals, and so much for newspapers (in present form).”

-Stewart Brand, 1972, in “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums”


I was rummaging online and found this photo of me and one of my oldest and best friends, Blake, at my house, the Cloud Club, in Boston a few months ago. Blake’s on the left, obviously, and I’m on the right, looking distracted:

Now I live in faraway Berkeley, and I’ll soon be moving about a dozen miles away to San Francisco. But I miss Boston often, and I miss my beautiful house.

Some new stuff.

A Mathew Jonson interview by me in Resident Advisor.  (Yes, the artwork is totally goofy. No, I did not choose it.)

And there are some pieces by me in the new book The Pitchfork 500, published by Simon & Schuster.

And today is my birthday: I’m now 29 years old. Hanging on to my twenties by a mere thread, but strangely looking forward to my thirties. I went to Vancouver for a few days last weekend to celebrate; it was cold, overcast, and raining the entire time. I spent a day walking through Stanley Park in ill-fitting silver shoes.  Lots of moss-covered trees with crimson-colored leaves, and rocks.  I’m a big fan of moss. In Maine, where I was a few weeks ago, I saw lots of moss-covered rocks in blue, blue water.

After shuffling through a bunch of different designs for this site, I settled on one of the simplest–just text, really. I spend a lot of time at work building fancy newspaper websites–bursting with videos, audio slideshows, and Web 2.0 flourishes–and when I get home all I want to see is a plain sheet of paper. It’s a bit McSweeney’s, I know, but I’m getting over it.

Enormous life changes have been afoot around these parts. I moved cross-country, from Boston to the Bay Area. I started a new job in academia–a full-time research and teaching fellowship at the UC Berkeley Journalism School. The intensity of work led me to decide, for the time being at least, to live within easy biking distance of my office. So I passed over the hustle and bustle of San Francisco for now and rented a quiet little cabin for a few months in Berkeley, shaded by a massive old oak tree. It’s a sort of isolation tank for writing and thinking–a small clapboard house that feels a bit like my beautiful old brownstone in Boston. The floors, walls, and ceiling are all hardwood–oak or maple, I guess–with lots of wrought iron, a clawfoot bathtub, and handmade cabinets. My landlord sewed me curtains, built a brick pathway through the garden to my front steps, and loaned me some of her antique wooden furniture. I’ve been spending a lot of time staring out the windows at the oak tree, thinking about generative music.

If you’re interested in reading some of my forthcoming Brian Eno book, the introduction was recently posted on the Continuum 33 1/3 series blog: here.

Phil Sherburne sounds off with a good piece on dark days in the music business, with a manifesto, of sorts, written by himself and others: here.

I can certainly identify with the sentiments expressed, and the economic side looks dim indeed:

Record sales are declining–labels that once could confidently move 1,000 copies of a 12″ single now struggle to sell 250–and legal downloads, while presumably growing, aren’t taking up the slack. In the U.S., a falling dollar and rising petrol prices have jacked the price of an import 12″ single to $12 or more– and that’s when you can find a record in shops (or, indeed, a record shop) at all.

I re-watched Feiern the other day, a 2006 documentary on the Berlin techno scene. I had forgotten about the dark side of the film; it’s actually extremely depressing in places. But there are moments, too, that are genuinely funny–there’s a scene where Ewan Pearson talks about playing the 12-hour Berlin marathons Phil refers to, and the sorts of people who manage to withstand them–“people who would just carry on dancing if you stood there banging a wooden spoon on a saucepan.”

But I really see a lot of bright spots in the music right now. The infighting and petty politics seems to be a constant, not something that’s steadily increasing. ILM threads have been descending into meaningless vitriol and ad-hominem attacks for years now, for instance. I would venture an alternate explanation for the ennui and exhaustion Phil refers to–there’s no easy way of tracking every unpaid download, but as 12″ sales decline I would say consumption is skyrocketing. Music critics are always drowning in new releases, to be sure, but there are too many tracks being released, too many mixes, too many downloads, too many things demanding urgent attention to at any given moment, too much shrill Internet hysteria. There’s so much noise that it has gotten difficult for me to hear any kind of signal in there whatsoever. If you’re constantly mired in it, with no rests, no breaks for air, it’s hard to see the music evolve. It’s glacial gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium–all you end up seeing is endless minute variations on a theme, instead of a larger picture.

One of the ways I’ve gotten inspired and intrigued again is by cutting down my listening drastically–by only listening to, say, one new single a week. The complaint about “too many re-edits,” for instance, only holds if you’re actually listening to all of those re-edits. I certainly don’t. The problem isn’t that too many re-edits are being made, but that they’re being released; it’s gotten so incredibly easy to make a re-edit in software, and releasing it digitally is nearly as easy as dragging the file to the trash folder. If something needs a re-edit, it’s the release process.

I saw Ewan Pearson at Sonar and admitted to him that I had stopped listening to new techno this past year. I said that I’d been listening to nothing but old records (vintage Eno for the book, electric Miles, Fela Kuti, Terry Riley, Can, etc.) He was encouraging, and told me that it was a good thing; it was always good to take a break, to get rejuvenated. Had a nice conversation with him about Eno and music-as-process (his favorite Eno record, “by a country mile,” is Before and After Science.) I also met some really lovely people at Sonar I’d never met before–Pantha du Prince and Efdemin from Dial, among others–who impressed me not only as musicians but as conversationalists, in tune with a wide range of music past and present.

One epiphany I had at Sonar was the Minus label showcase, oddly enough. Those hoary patron saints of minimal really impressed me. To be honest I’ve never had a great time at a Minus event before; I certainly don’t worship at the altar of Richie Hawtin or his crowd. But I really had a fantastic time watching Minus do their tag-team laptop lunacy in front of thousands of people. Really fun, danceable, a bit housey, constantly shifting and changing in unpredictable ways–certainly not painfully monochromatic oonce-oonce tedium. I wish I had photos to show you–the stage set looked really awesome, with massive arrays of programmed LEDs–but my camera was stolen backstage. Hawtin’s look these days is also something of a shocker up close; gone is the unfortunate new-wave haircut, in is long shaggy hair and a newfound dedication, as detailed in a recent issue of De:Bug, to being green (not necessarily in the Kermit sense, but in the carbon-offsetting sense). I eagerly anticipate his upcoming beardo-disco record!