Reading List: The Business of Music

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I’ve been bingeing on books about music lately, partly because there have been so many big, critically acclaimed releases by musicians in the past year or two, and otherwise fueled by my ongoing email correspondence with my dog walker/local musician on the topic of music books—a correspondence that initially took shape as comments scribbled back and forth on the notes he leaves after every walk. (My life is adorable.)  Below are some of my favorite recent reads on the topic.

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How Music Works by David Byrne

Byrne’s book lives up to the title by examining how music is created, performed, recorded and distributed to explain the influences that shape types of music and how we experience them. I was most interested in the sections on how music recording and distribution has changed in the last 10-20 years. Now that technology makes recording software available at a relatively low price and bands can sell their music on their own websites or directly through digital services like iTunes, there’s less and less incentive to pursue the traditional recording contracts. This may open up the door for projects creatively unhampered by a label’s profit demand, but it also creates a less financially stable system for the artists.

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How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt

Witt compiles a history of music piracy and its impact on the music industry via interspersed stories of some of the most influential people on each side of the battle—the creator of the MP3 format, the head of the largest record label in the world, leaders of online file sharing collectives and one CD factory worker responsible for stealing and leaking most of the pirated music on the internet. It’s a compelling story of the [near] end of an industry continually outsmarted by nerds on the internet. Record labels have suffered mightily, but they’ve passed most of the strain onto the bands themselves.

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The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper
Hopper writes about [predominantly female] musicians from Courtney Love to Miley Cyrus, covering 90’s Riot Grrrl rock to the current pop landscape. My favorite pieces were an oral history of the production of Hole’s Live Through This that proves once and for all that Kurt didn’t write Courtney’s album for her, and a piece on the consumerism of music festival culture. Relevant to the books above, touring is an increasingly important revenue stream for labels and their bands in the digital music economy, and music festivals are at the pinnacle of this development, making for a crass experience for discerning fans.

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Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein
Besides being a funny and engrossing portrait of the making of an unlikely rockstar, Brownstein’s memoir also provides an intimate look at the life of a working band whose success was more critical than commercial. She describes a band as a small business, and contrasts the humble, scrappy, all-hands-on-deck Sleater-Kinney tour experience alongside that of Pearl Jam, who traveled with what sounds like a small city in tow on a tour where Sleater-Kinney opened. It’s bands like Sleater-Kinney that suffer the most from fluctuations in the economics of the music industry—they’re not popular enough to pull tricks like withholding their music from streaming services in order to maximize sales, but they’re popular enough to demand everything from their members, making ordinary life impossible. We might all be surprised to know how many rockstars we admire who are supplementing their income as substitute teachers, like Brownstein did for awhile.

Nick Cave’s “Here Hear”

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Over Labor Day weekend I took a trip back home to Michigan which nicely aligned with Nick Cave’s months-long exhibit at the Cranbrook Art Museum. Unfortunately, none of his live performances were being staged while I was in town, but the exhibition included video from several of his performances around the city. I’m supremely jealous of anyone who has gotten or will get to see a performance in person. (There’s one on the River Walk coming up that should be amazing.)

Continue reading “Nick Cave’s “Here Hear””

A Voyage to Mars, Real and Imagined

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The Martian had been on my reading list for a while and when the trailer for the movie came out I knew I was running out of time to read it, because there was no chance I was not going to see the movie on the big screen, and I knew this was the kind of book I wouldn’t read afterward. I don’t have the patience to spend hours on a book that’s mostly plot-driven when I already know the plot and it’s outcome, so it’s rare for me to read a thriller or sci-fi novel after seeing the movie.

It’s a captivating book—highly technical, but engaging enough that you aren’t (usually) tempted to skim. I have, perhaps, a higher than usual tolerance for the nerdy technicalities of space travel, but Weir has created a charming hero and let most of the story play out through his voice, so I think most people will stay hooked even through the longest stretches of scientific exposition.

What the story lacked, for me, was emotional weight. Watney is pretty calm and collected throughout his sojourn on the Red Planet. Astronauts are selected as much for their emotional strength as much as their scientific knowledge and physical prowess, and they’re trained for this kind of stress. But even the most well-adjusted man of science has to come away from this kind of experience with some kind of revelation or insight and I’m not sure Weir’s hero did.

The closest we get to moment of philosophical clarity is a brief monologue on the instinct all humans have to retrieve a lost soul (it’s in the trailer too), but I wanted more—a glimpse of how someone [SPOILER ALERT] returns to life on earth after more than a year stranded alone on another planet, how the experience colors our image of our species as intrepid explorers, and how the world’s attention waxes and wanes throughout the process. I’m interested to see how the movie adds–or doesn’t add–that emotional depth, but in the trailer it appears they decided to give Mark a wife and kid, which is the laziest way to go about it, so I’m preparing to be unimpressed. One of the things I liked about the book is that it avoided giving the hero the typical accoutrements of a Man Worth Saving—the dependent wife, children who will be too young to remember Dad if he dies now, a family dog. That a single man with only elderly parents to mourn him was worth a multi-billion dollar worldwide rescue effort is just a little bit revolutionary in a popular culture that generally views a single person as more expendable—but that’s a rant for another time.

The science seemed pretty sound—improbable at times, but not impossible—but I got, like, a C in high school chemistry so…who knows? I’d love to know how much time Weir spent researching the science behind a hypothetic Mars mission and what his sources were, because it is a highly technical book. Andy Weir was a computer programmer before he became a writer, but his parents were a particle physicist and an electrical engineer, so maybe some of the science know-how runs in the family. It’s to Weir’s credit that I was rarely tempted to skim the more technical passages. That said, I can’t claim this is my favorite book about a voyage to Mars.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach is a non-fiction exploration of the various preparations and experiments that space programs around the world have been going through in anticipation of a manned mission to Mars, and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Something she talks about several times is our inability to anticipate how the human mind will respond to space travel. Once upon a time, people thought that journeying into the vast, dark nothingness of space would literally drive astronauts insane, and early space flights were largely used to test the impact of the experience on the psyche.

Major Mars simulations, like this one, are already underway. But the thing is, no matter how realistic your simulation, or the lengths you go to to cut your test subjects off from contact with the outside world, there are no conditions you can create on earth that can test how a person will respond to the knowledge that they are absolutely beyond rescue. Test subjects always know there’s a way out of the simulation. Even on the Space Station, astronauts are only ever a few hours from home. They have escape pods. There’s a shuttle on the ground ready and available for a rescue mission should anything happen.

In The Martian, Watney’s options for rescue are few and far-fetched, but there are options. And in that way it seems Weir avoids answering in fiction the question that we can’t answer with fact, and that’s where I feel the novels fails, if only slightly. Throughout his time on the red planet, Watney remains focused on the the task at hand and despairs only at the lack of entertainment options. It seems a little hard to believe that he wouldn’t  be more consumed by his total solitude, but given that astronauts have usually shown themselves to be far more resilient than anticipated in the face of space’s psychological effects, perhaps it’s not so unrealistic at all.

Last fall,  I went to a panel on commercial space travel at the New Yorker festival with Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One, Adam Steltzner, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Bill Stone, CEO of Stone Aerospace, and Wally Funk, who participated in the Women in Space program and was in contention for the Mercury 13 program. As part of the program, Wally underwent extensive and grueling tests intended to determine if women were fit to be astronauts—both physically and mentally. The tests included time in a sensory deprivation chamber designed to make participants hallucinate by floating them in water with absolutely no stimuli to simulate the nothingness of space. She set a record for spending the longest period of time in the chamber (10+ hours) without hallucinating and scored higher on her tests than John Glenn, but the final phase of testing was canceled and the women were never assigned to a NASA mission. Different types of isolation tests are conducted now in preparation for Mars, but these are more about testing emotional isolation over the long term, which is the real challenge of Mars, since the missions will necessarily be years long.

Wally Funk never flew in space, but commercial space flight is now introducing that possibility for more people to take part in space exploration, whether part of a government space program or not. She was enthusiastic about her chances of finally making it to space now, and I hope she will.

The difference between private plans for Mars colonization and the fictional NASA program of The Martian is that programs like Mars One are one-way trips. Bas spoke about how many people with families signed up—some of them with small children—knowing they would never see them again. And I’d like to have seen Whatney, family or no, confront that kind of permanence, to be stranded completely without hope of rescue. It would be a different story, but one we could use.

“If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception.”

The cost of Whatney’s rescue comes up a few times and it’s another area I wish was explored more. The world pulls together for his rescue—both fiscally and in sacrificing existing space missions—and keeps tabs on him via a daily news segment on his status once it’s know that he’s alive, and it would be interesting to see how this attention plays out over time.

The financial cost is just part of what plays into our idea of whether a manned voyage to Mars is realistic or necessary, and Roach addresses that in her book:

“The nobility of the human spirit grows harder for me to believe in. War, zealotry, greed, malls, narcissism. I see a backhanded nobility in excessive, impractical outlays of cash prompted by nothing loftier than a species joining hands and saying, “I bet we can do this.” Yes the money could be better spent on Earth. But would it? Since when has money saved by government red-lining been spent on education and cancer research? It is always squandered. Let’s squander some on Mars. Let’s go out and play.”

But I think Aaron Sorkin said it best:

Philippe Arreno’s H{N)YPN(Y}OSIS

 

I finally made it to this show at the Park Avenue Armory on the very last day. I had been excited to see it for a while. since I’d read so many rave reviews, but I also like to nap on the weekends, so, you know.

The films were wonderful, the light sculptures great, the music atmospheric and the live child actors creepy, but I did wish the overall effect was more immersive.

Continue reading “Philippe Arreno’s H{N)YPN(Y}OSIS”

Station Eleven and California: Hope and Despair in Apocalyptic Fiction

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To say that apocalyptic literature is a trend is a little misleading, unless your idea of a trend is rather long term. Impending apocalypse has been a source of special interest for literary writers since the birth of postmodernism, and it certainly wasn’t a new idea even then. That being said, I have seemed to gravitate toward apocalyptic novels in the past year or so, like The Age of MiraclesSuper Sad True Love StoryStation Eleven and California. But the two which seemed to me both most similar and most disparate from each other were the latter two, which I read pretty much back to back.

For Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven) and Edan Lepucki (California) that world end looks pretty similar: natural forces (disease and killer storms, respectively) ravage mankind in ways that seem pretty possible, leaving only occasional encampments of survivors, and driving some survivors to become their worst selves. But where these stories differ is in their hope for the future.
In California, Cal and Frieda’s attempt to join a nearby community is fraught with danger, and their final decision (no spoilers) seems unlikely to result in a happy outcome for themselves, their unborn child or anyone else in these stitched-together civilizations. Ultimately, the people of California are practical realists, the type to face adversity by protecting themselves first, to be happy to survive at any cost, and to aspire to little else. As a reader it’s easier to root for characters who want something more. A character’s motivation is central to any story, and survival is the basest motivation of all.

So the traveling theater troupe of Station Eleven, who perform Shakespeare for a series of survivor communities in a circuit around the Great Lakes region, are more inspiring heroes of the fictional apocalypse. By resurrecting the art and beauty of a lost culture they’re trying to create, in some small way, a society where people could find joy again.

Apocalyptic novels may be everywhere, but few of them venture very far into a vision of what comes next, which is what set Station Eleven apart in my mind, and made it a more satisfying story in the end. It’s not hard to see how the world might come to an end, or how people might be forced to survive in the immediate aftermath of a societal collapse, but it’s much more difficult to imagine how a society might begin to come together again, and in what form.

Dlectricity 2014

 

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House by Osman Khan

Dlectricity is one of my favorite Detroit events—a biannual festival of illuminated art that takes over Midtown for two nights in September. I was happy to make it this year, but since I had to squeeze it in between packing for a move and farewell drinks with friends, my trip was a bit rushed. I didn’t make it to half of the exhibits, but I still got to see some gems.

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Photographers on Film: Vivian Maier and Bill Cunningham

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The saga of street photographer Vivian Maier and her posthumously discovered photographs culminated this summer in the release of Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary piecing together whatever could be discovered about her life and work from interviews with the people who (hardly) knew her.

It’s a difficult business to extrapolate the artistic process of someone so fiercely private as Maier from such limited sources—many of the interviewees are middle-aged adults who only knew Maier as their childhood nanny. But the resulting film is a fascinating character study that fully acknowledges its limitations and is, perhaps, better for them.

But if John Maloof could have had the opportunity to meet Maier before she died, he might have produced something similar to Bill Cunningham New York, a charming 2010 documentary by Richard Press that follows the legendary fashion photographer around the city as he goes about his daily work. Some of his favorite subjects—including my spirit animal Iris Apfel—chime in along the way, but the film’s greatest strength is Cunningham himself, who is eloquent in speaking about his life and process, and clearly one of the kindest people you could ever imagine running into on the sidewalk with a camera in hand.

Cunningham and Maier were contemporaries—both born in the 1920’s to humble, working class families—though Maier died in 2009 and Cunningham is still living and working in NewYork City, hitting the streets every day to shoot for his New York Times columns. The greatest difference between these two careers, of course, is that Cunningham has enjoyed artistic success during his lifetime, while Maier’s fame comes posthumously. But Cunningham is also hesitant to call himself a photographer. His greatest talent is his eye for fashion, and he says himself that he doesn’t consciously practice the craft of photography—he simply tries to document what he sees. Maier, on the other hand, had an exceptional eye for composition, and her work takes full advantage of street photography’s potential as an art form.

What these two photographers do have in common are their ascetic lifestyles and monk-like devotion to their art. Maier worked as a nanny for 40 years, occupying cramped rooms in her employers’ homes where she hoarded newspapers and rolls of film. Cunningham has spent most of his life living in a tiny artist studio in Carnegie Hall that’s filled with file cabinets. There was no kitchen in his studio; the bathroom was in the hall. Even after the remaining artist-tenants at Carnegie are relocated, he has the kitchen in his new apartment gutted to make room for his files.

Neither of them was ever in a romantic relationship, and while they both came from pleasant enough families, neither remained particularly close with them. They both spent most of their lives on city streets—Chicago and New York. It’s pretty clear that Maier’s decision to become a nanny was a pragmatic one, not motivated by a special fondness of children or a desire to be a part of a family. And she spent a period of several months traveling the world alone and recording her journey. For two people who found their inspiration in strangers on the street, home life seems to have held little appeal.

Cunningham speaks of intentionally distancing himself from his work by not “wining and dining” at the society parties he’s photographing, and not taking part in the fashion culture he documents—he wears the same practical uniform day in and day out. Maier’s subjects are regular people, many of whom she catches, unaware, in the ordinary acts of life. Perhaps the extreme privacy for which Maier is now known, and which defies the efforts of even the most dedicated biographer, was her own way of distancing herself from her subject: ordinary people.

Last time I looked, Finding Vivian Maier was still available On Demand, and Bill Cunningham New York is streaming on Netflix. Check them out.

Kodi Scheer’s Incendiary Girls and other fantastic fiction

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I recently finished reading Incendiary Girls, a collection of stories by Kodi Scheer. The book first came to my attention because she’s a local Ann Arbor author, but it ended up on my bookshelf because Scheer’s stories occupy a space between fantasy and magic realism that I consistently gravitate toward in my reading and in my own writing.

In Scheer’s stories, the protagonists confront any number of spectacular events; a woman’s boyfriend turns into a camel, a beauty pageant contestant is literally torn to shreds by the competition, and an army wife finds the body parts of her imperiled husband hidden around their house.

Medicine is a common theme, and it’s no surprise that Scheer once planned on a career in the discipline. She’s also the writer-in-residence at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, and that experience shines through in this collection, where several characters confront the specter of cancer or other life-altering illnesses. In “Fundamentals Law of Nature” a woman considers a possible breast cancer diagnosis after becoming convinced that her mother has been reincarnated as a horse, and in “Transplant,” a patient undergoes extraordinary physical and spiritual changes following an organ transplant.

By the end of the collection, I grew a little weary of the fixation on bodily crisis, but each story on its own investigates this common thread in an interesting way. And the final story is such a brutal and tragic semi-departure from the theme that it will make you appreciate the gentleness with which the preceding stories treat the body in its most delicate states.

A couple other favorite story collections that fall on the spectrum between the fantastic and the magically real:

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The Secret Goldfish by David Means

In my favorite story, the protagonist is stalked and repeatedly struck by lightning. These stories step in and out of the realm of the fantastic, but the collection is as notable for its fantastic qualities as for the author’s spectacular turns of phrase—they’re gorgeously written tales. Coincidentally, Means is also from Michigan—at least originally.

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Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz

In Budnitz’ stories, correlations to real world issues are often strong enough that her tales read as modern fables, with something fantastical to say about our literal lives. In “Where We Come From,” a hopeful immigrant mother extends her pregnancy by several years, as she tries again and again to cross the border so that she can give birth to the titular American baby. And in “Sales,” a family traps a traveling salesman in a pen in their living room. Flipping through the book now is making me want to read it cover-to-cover again.

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Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta

Technically a novel rather than a story collection, Dasgupta’s riff on the Canterbury Tales finds an international group of travelers stranded in an airport together. Like Chaucer’s travel companions, these characters launch into stories of their own, some of which crossing over into the truly surreal.

FestiFools and FoolMoon: Ann Arbor’s Weirdest Tradition?

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If there’s one thing Ann Arbor-ites love, it’s a weird event. I imagine it would be difficult in most other small cities for an art professor to launch a large-scale papier-mâché puppet parade and see it thrive as FestiFools has in Ann Arbor. FestiFools has only been around since 2007, after University of Michigan professor Mark Tucker returned from a trip to Italy with a big idea—to get art students and artsy locals to build their own oversized puppets and parade them around town on an early spring Sunday afternoon. The FoolMoon luminary parade is even younger—in 2011 festival organizers added the luminary parade on the Friday night before FestiFools. And it’s not just luminary parade, it’s a block party complete with live music, snacks and performance art.

Continue reading “FestiFools and FoolMoon: Ann Arbor’s Weirdest Tradition?”

Can We Talk About How Much I Love Tim Walker?

If you’re into Tim Burton movies, you’ll appreciate Tim Walker, a fashion photographer who’s aesthetic is as surreal and macabre as Burton’s. He’s even photographed the director, so it’s no secret that they’re cut from the same cloth.

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My favorite Walker photographs are so artful and high concept that I’m sometimes surprised they make it into magazines like Vogue, except I guess that dying mermaid does wear Marchesa.

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Walker’s style is so cinematic it’s no surprise he’s also made a short film, which I haven’t seen yet but hopefully will be able to track down soon.

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And here’s a self portrait of Walker eating a lot of cake:

Tim Walker - self-portrait with eighty cakes