Sunday, May 25, 2008

Broadcasting Live From Our Block Party

Ran across the Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP), a collective of spirited WLUW castaways looking to nudge Congress into acting on some bottle necked legislation that would hopefully open the FM band to support a more localized, not-for profit form of community radio.

The Bill, the Local Community Radio Act of 2007 or H.R. 2802 for those keeping score, recognizes that the FM spectrum should be opened up to include low-power, community based radio services and programming. And by low power we're talking roughly 10-100 watts. The hope is that with the passage of this legislation schools, churches and other community-based organizations could, if they so desired, launch their own radio programming. Sure, the signal wouldn't reach very far, but I like the idea of having a radio station that only broadcasts out for a few blocks, and besides, what's the harm?

Big Radio is harmed, that's who! All those big, steaming slices of the FM spectrum under their carefully manicured control are going to get messed with by these ruthless upstarts. In fact, all these volunteer based, low-power FM signals coming out of churches, retirement homes and elementary schools are going to cause some serious "interference" on the FM band. Or so the broadcasters and their lobbyist have claimed. A two-year Congressional study concluded in 2000 (see Finding 14), however, that
"the broadcasters' concerns were demonstrated to be unsubstantiated."

The Local Community Radio Act of 2007 is currently languishing in subcommittee limbo amongst 73 other Bills. The
Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, itself encompassed by the Committee On Energy and Commerce (where they, no doubt, feel your pain at the pump), was referred this bill in June of 2007. Jan Schakowky, my own representative in the House, was one of this bills original sponsors, so it seems like a no brainer to contact her office and see what she can tell me about its current state. Even better to contact members of the Subcommittee itself. Two Representatives from Illinois, Bobby Rush and John Shimkus, are on it. Couldn't hurt to write them and see what the hold up is.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Creep, Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa, 31, leader of the Mothers of Invention, likes to call himself a "creep," and says his upbringing made him that way.

More here.

Lay Across My Big Brass Bed

After watching I'm Not There last weekend, Todd Haynes' joyous and playfully clever ode to the many lives of Bob Dylan, I've been, not surprisingly, on a bit of a Dylan kick this past week. I have roughly half of his catalog from the early 60's up through 1974's Blood On The Tracks, so I've been throwing myself and Abby a bit of a Dylanathon, or at least Dylan seemed to be on in the background while Abby and I raced around the house earlier this week.

It took me a long time to get around to actually paying any attention to Dylan. Certainly I was aware of his iconic status growing up, but I always thought of Dylan as a guy who wrote some decent songs that were at their best when covered by others (i.e., The Byrds Mr. Tambourine Man). I was wary. Dylan was such a seemingly ossified 60's touchstone, hallowed Baby Boomer ground. There was no man, just a tired, overly-trodden myth. There was that. And I feared his body of work. I worried that if I fell for Dylan's music and the tantalizing myths and associations that have sprouted up around it, then I'd , as comes inevitably to any music junkie, feel compelled to go about seeking out and listening to all his albums and reading up on the body of Dylan literature. Blood On The Tracks was Dylan's 15th studio album. I suppose I have or have heard roughly 10 of those first 15. I've only read one book about Dylan, and that was his own.

My brother Randy forwarded along a copy of a Dylan mix a friend had made for him not long after we moved back to Chicago back in the winter of 2004. I was ready for it, or at least to listen to Dylan with an open mind. My old friend Dave Walulik and I, back when we were both attending Ohio State, went through a bit of an old-time music kick, checking out old Woody Guthrie and old Smithsonian Folkways CD's from the mighty main branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. Dave owned a copy of Dylan's Nashville Skyline and would put it on from time to time around this same time. It fit in nicely with field recordings, union songs and Appalachian social music we were listening to at the time. I remember being shocked to hear how different Dylan's voice was on the album-- he sings with an almost Kermit the Frog like crooning sweetness unlike his infamous nasal sneer. My favorite cut is still the album's lead track, a new version of Girl From the North Country where Dylan shares vocals with Johnny Cash. The whole album is wonderful though, a mellow country-rock album, one of the first of that genre, coming just a year after the Byrds' own Gram Parsons helmed country-rock classic, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and just as good.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Mr. Microphone

I really want a quality, portable microphone for capturing sound in my documentaries. I've recently fallen under the spell of the Zoom H2 Handy 2 Track Recorder, which according to its product description, "is the only portable recorder with 3 mic capsules onboard for mid-side recording. A directional mic is in the center (mid) and two directional mics (side) are positioned left and right." Oh, that sounds nice!

I think, as a lot of newspapers making the leap to providing video reporting on their web editions are learning, it's ultimately the quality of the sound, rather then the footage, that matters to the viewer. The footage can be kind of crappy, a fuzzy talking head shot of the reporter, but if the sound is cruddy, if there's, say, an overbearing ambient hum of fluorescents buzzing throughout the piece or the person being interviewed is barely intelligible over the garble of the wind making hay of the reporter's microphone, then who really would be compelled to stick around and listen, right? Thankfully, some of the more involved video reporting pieces I've seen lately (and many papers are moving, albeit probably too slowly for their own good, away from simply putting up some lame accompanying video of the author's talking head giving a Cliff-Notes synopsis of their longer written piece) are beginning to demonstrate a more adventurous technical proficiency, complete with crisply composed shots, decent editing and a sometimes stunning overall sound design.

I'm not anywhere near capturing that "stunning overall sound design" in my own stuff, what little I have of it, but I'm really looking forward to exploring it more through some documentaries that I hope to get around to making. Operative words here are "getting around to making." But when I do, one of these includes a series of mini-documentaries, exploring favorite songs. I'd make some time to sit down and interview family and friends, get them to play me their favorite song and talk about it on video. They could do it in a single take (the length of the song, naturally) or a few if that suited them. We'll make it into a seamless whole. They could tell me a story they associate with the song, what the lyrics mean to them, how much the band or the singer or bass line meant to them or they could just tell me about the dinner they had this past New Years Eve.

I'd post them on a video-blog. Begin a series. They could be edited. Certainly I'd make sure that whatever song was being discussed sounded great in the final mix, sometimes in the background of the speakers reminiscence, sometimes in the forefront so as to punctuate a particular point in the narrative. When I'm really feeling the whimsy, I like to think that it might be fun to try and reenact one of the stories somebody tells about their favorite song. And come to think of it, maybe it would be better to stick to just asking one question, to have folks talk about a song and the memory they associate with it.

In any case, I'm attracted to Zoom's H2 Recorder not just for what seems to be its impressive sound capturing abilities (and the 100+ reviews on Amazon all seem to conclude that it's pretty great), but its portability. I like the idea of having the person talk about the song in an interesting place. It could be on a forest trail, along Lake Michigan or from the comfort of their favorite chair. I want to be able to conveniently, easily, capture the intimacies of the speakers voice and the ambiance of their environment. The microphones on most commercial camcorders, while decent, don't do such a good job of capturing this and offer few options for overcoming their modest sound capturing abilities. One of the things I love most about Dust-to-Digital's Art of Field Recording: Vol. I, a stunning collection of American field recordings made by the archivists Art and Margo Rosenbaum over the course of 50 some years, are the interview heavy selections, where you can hear the creak in the chair the interviewee is sitting on or some dog trotting by.

In any case, I'm kicking this idea down the road a ways.

Home Movie Love

My Dad shot some really great Super-8 home movies from roughly the late 60's through the early 80's. A couple hours of them were transferred (poorly, my Dad and I both think) to video for the occasion of his 60th birthday celebration 6 years back. The whole family got a huge kick out of seeing them, though getting a better quality transfer of this footage, especially while the actual 8 mm film reels are still in decent shape, is something I keep meaning to do.

But poor quality or no, I'm looking forward to toying around with some of this home movie footage sometime in the next month or two, putting together some short video essays exploring Breitenbach family folklore. Like a lot of folks, I'm fascinated by the Super-8 medium, the rich family history found in the scenes they depict (to say nothing of how these "scenes" can take on their own accumulative power over time and come to shape a family's own sense of history and shared experience, in a word, folklore) and the almost impressionistic quality of its grainy picture. Hell, I'm fascinated by how the grainy, color saturated moving images inherent of so many 8 mm home movie footage has been used in any number of Hollywood films over the years (sometimes gracefully, sometimes like a hammer) as a kind of shorthand for childhood nostalgia, authenticity and depicting the nuclear family at play.

Howard Jenkins gave a Patricia R. Zimmerman's Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film a shout-out in his own boundlessly enthusiastic Convergence Culture. I recently picked it and plan on cracking it later tonight. I can't think of a better way to ring in the Memorial Day Weekend.

Zimmerman's book, according to the declarative blurb on its back cover, "the first historical study of amateur film." Sounds good.

Update: And dadburnit if I didn't just come across that Zimmerman was co-editor of another book that I have perhaps completely unjustified high hopes for: Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories, a collection of essays exploring some of the more fascinating aspects of amateur film. I suppose it runs the risk of that dry, flaky prose some wings of the academy seem perennially onset with--though I almost find that with any collection of these kind of academic essay collections, you usually have the good luck of finding at one or two voices strong enough to follow further.

Monday, May 12, 2008

When Three Becomes Four

As Cathy heads into the second trimester, we're making the impending expansion of our family official. It's (we won't know the gender until the next ultrasound around week 20) due around November 20th.

The accompanying ultrasound picture is from this past Thursday. The baby is doing great and, as you can see, is almost all head. At one point he or she ("it" sounds so alien) began to wiggle their arms as we watched the monitor. Seeing this helps to wash away the surreal veneer that accompanies bringing a new life into the world. It's not detachment so much as it's coming around to the ontological gravity of that expanding bump around Cathy's midsection
Here's Abby improvising a nice little song on the mbira about becoming a big sister, with a some riffing on Three Blind Mice. I recorded it with our digital camera, hence the crackle in the sound.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Da Capo's Best Music Writing 2007

I suppose a good deal of the success of any one of these yearly "Best Music/Sports/Political/Food/Business Writing anthologies, and there are many, is due in good part to whoever happens to be editing it that particular year. So, after neglecting it the past several years, I was pretty happy to pick up Da Capo's Best Music Writing 2007 on the strength of seeing Robert Christgau in the guest editor chair. I've always enjoyed reading Christgau's music criticism, especially his expansive, championing coverage of Afropop. And as a nice bonus, Christgau "as the only full-time rock critic, experienced music editor, or that matter professional journalist ever to assemble one these books," as he's right to point out in his introduction, had "something to prove and only one way to prove it." He wanted the anthology to include representatives of the best music writing of the year. And having read at least three of this anthologies predecessors, it's definitely been the most consistently enjoyable.

Halfway through, two pieces have really stuck out- Jonothan Letham's astounding summation of James Brown and his gift of funk, Being James Brown, and Erik Davis's Always Coming Home: Joanna Newsom, a beautiful account of the making of Newsom's sophomore album, Ys. I'm about midway through Elisabeth's Vincentelli's affectionate, personal essay on the long running chessefest Eurovision Song Contest, Bulgarian Idol, which has inevitably leads me, out of garish curiosity, to YouTube.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Adult Conversations, Toddler Shenanigans

I. How many conversations have I had over the last couple years where my attention is split, about evenly, between what my fellow conversationalist is saying and what Abby is getting herself into?

Talking with Jason tonight, I found our conversation wonderfully emblematic of this early stage of parenthood. Abby and Sean happily playing at our feet while both of us took turns putting our conversation on pause while we told our respective toddler that toys were not to be thrown and stairs were for walking down, not playing on. You're not a referee really, but something close. Parental responsibility demands some measure of your attention be given over to that creature, that Mary Poppins with a little bit of monkey in her (as I've been calling Abby lately, much to her approval) and whatever mischief they're up to. At this age, they're ripe with shenanigans. Your job, then, as a parent, is to constantly negotiate the space your toddler is in--what's possible within it and what's not.

II. Listening to The Meters' 1974 gem, Rejuvenation, some fine gumbo-pop funk and a perfect way to keep my thoughts on good friends enjoying the soggy fairground fields (it's been raining) of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. In his ArtsBeat coverage for The New York Times, Jon Parales posted this gem today:

In a conversation with Quint Davis, the producer and director of Jazzfest, he mentioned a startling statistic. One of the festival’s marketing surveys found that people who visit Jazzfest for the first time return as regulars for the next five years. That’s serious recidivism.

Funny, because just yesterday I posted about my own five year Jazz Fest run from '96 to '00. I'm looking forward to boosting my recidivism rates in '09.

That's Abby in the accompanying photo above, sporting a hat I bought from a vendor in Congo Square.

Friday, May 02, 2008

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Reading Joe's Twitterings and the Times' ArtBeat blog coverage (Jon Pareles and Nate Chinen, having too much fun and posting ecstatic updates about it) of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this morning has been wonderful. I was lucky to go Jazz Fest 5 years in a row from '96 through 2000, though any number of events have conspired to keep me away since. Given that it's hands down one of the best music festivals you'll ever have the pleasure to experience, with amazing music, food and some of friendliest crowds around, I've really missed it. Doubly so since Katrina did its devastating best to drown New Orleans.

It does me right to know Jazz Fest, unlike so much of New Orleans, has bounced back post-Katrina. But it is, as Pareles points out in one of his posts, "precious...because it represents New Orleans’ cultural persistence–which is by no means as easy or as secure as it might look–despite all the changes wrought by Hurricane Katrina."

I'd love to see Jazz Fest broadcast more of its proceedings online. With over 10 stages playing what's almost always guaranteed to be great music, I can't help but think it wouldn't be difficult to make live streams of each of these stages available online. Currently, the local New Orleans Jazz Fest radio affiliate, the amazing WWOZ 90.7 FM, hosts 32 live broadcasts from Jazz Fest over its 7 day, two-weekend run. You can listen to those broadcasts online. But WWOZ is only broadcasting from one tent at a time, and that may not be the tent you'd be enjoying your crawfish etouffé and shuffling your feet in if you were actually at the Festival. You may be catching some high school gospel choir approaching liftoff with the help of the mighty tambourine lady in the Gospel Tent or resting your weary feet over at the Economy Hall Tent catching some old timers stirring up some Dixieland. Why not offer streams from off the boards of each stage?

I can't imagine it'd be too difficult to get some telecom to sponsor the whole set up, to put the necessary infrastructure in place and make sure it ran smoothly. Going online, the user could check out the schedule for the day, pour over all the amazing musical acts simultaneously performing on one of those 10 Jazz Fest stages, and stream whatever caught their fancy. If they liked the performance well enough, they could buy one of the CD's or downloads of the performances that Jazz Fest conveniently makes available. Everybody wins, right?