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The Long Tail of music

Wednesday, 26 November, 2014 0 Comments

In the early days of 1993, Elton John was forced to end a concert in Melbourne half an hour early when a swarm of grasshoppers invaded the stage. During that same year, Steve Albini exposed the rottenness at the core of the popular music industry in an angry, derisive article titled The Problem With Music. The same Steve Albini delivered a 10,000-word address to the Face the Music conference in Melbourne last weekend and it’s a significant update on where the business is going. Unlike many in the music trade, he regards the internet as a force for good and he’s very enthusiastic about its Long Tail potential for small bands and obscure artists.

Speaking of that Long Tail, it can be seen at work in the current popularity of Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose, a pre-New Age masterpiece by Jordan De La Sierra. No one bothered much about it when it was first released in 1977, but now it’s all the rage. De La Sierra’s two-hour recording took place in a small studio in Berkeley, and he then recorded that recording while it was played in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, to capture the building’s spiritual reverberations. It’s a long tail that has no ending.

It is true that the Vikings pillaged and enslaved. But…

Tuesday, 25 November, 2014 0 Comments

There’s always a but, isn’t there? In its blurb for The Vikings by Anders Winroth, Princeton University Press points out that the Norse warriors “also settled peacefully and developed a vast trading network.” When Tom Shippey reviewed Winroth’s book on Friday in the Wall Street Journal he had a go at the modern academy, which works hard to present the Vikings as “explorers, traders, founders of urban life, contributors to civilization.” Uncomfortable fact is, says Shippey, that when the Vikings managed to “stimulate the economy of western Europe,” they did it “by selling slaves to the Islamic world and stealing church treasuries from the Christian one.”

The thing that made Viking culture different, notes Shippey, “was all that academics dislike in the word ‘Viking.’ … Vikings would not be welcome in the faculty lounge.”

Viking axe

The mortal dread that the Vikings could inspire was captured in this ancient Irish poem, as translated from the Gaelic by Kuno Meyer:

The Viking Terror

Bitter is the wind tonight.
It tosses the ocean’s white hair.
Tonight I fear not the fierce warriors of Norway
Coursing on the Irish Sea.

By the way, the second line of the John Montague translation of that anonymous poem is especially evocative: “Bitter the wind tonight/ combing the sea’s hair white.”

A Tax on Bunny Rabbits

Monday, 24 November, 2014 0 Comments

“I’m a hands on director who loves to experiment with different techniques,” says Nathaniel Akin of Riotsquad.TV. This is excellent in so many ways.

Love’s austere and lonely offices

Sunday, 23 November, 2014 0 Comments

What are the chances of having the word “blueblack” appear here twice in one week? On Wednesday, we had Sylvia Plath describing “The night sky is only a sort of carbon paper, Blueblack with the much-poked periods of stars”, and today Robert Hayden recalls his father dressing “in the blueblack cold.” Hayden’s beautiful acknowledgement of “love’s austere and lonely offices” is a reminder of this tragic truth about human affairs: love isn’t always articulate, and it’s often expressed too late.

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden (1913 — 1980)

My good shoes

The family that picks together sticks together

Saturday, 22 November, 2014 0 Comments

Why does the world’s greatest banjo player have the forenames Béla, Anton and Leoš? The story is that he was raised by his mother in New York City and never met his father. In her wisdom, she named him Béla Anton Leoš Fleck after the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, the Austrian composer Anton Webern and the Czech composer Leoš Janáček. Nomen est omen as the Romans used to say and Béla Fleck got a banjo when he was 15. Four years ago, he married the clawhammer banjo player and singer Abigail Washburn. Together, Fleck & Washburn make wonderful music.

The provincial view of things

Friday, 21 November, 2014 0 Comments

Irish Times

Despite the Irish Times headline, the only immigrant nation, apart from America, mentioned in the “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Immigration” was Mexico. The Atlantic, the Pacific and the Rio Grande were name-checked as well.

English vs. Chinese

Thursday, 20 November, 2014 0 Comments

Sarah Fay interviews Ha Jin for the Paris Review. His books are banned in China because he writes about “taboo subjects”. And there’s another reason he’s unpopular with the authorities: “I write in English, which is viewed as a betrayal of my mother tongue.” Talking of language, here he compares Chinese with English:

“English has more flexibility. It’s a very plastic, very shapeable, very expressive language. In that sense it feels quite natural. The Chinese language is less natural. Written Chinese is not supposed to represent natural speech, and there are many different spoken dialects that correspond to the single written language. The written word will be the same in all dialects, but in speech it is a hundred different words. The written language is like Latin in that sense; it doesn’t have a natural rhythm. The way people talk — you can’t represent that. The accents and the nongrammatical units, you can’t do it. You can’t write in dialect, like you can in English, using a character to represent a certain sound, because each character has a fixed meaning.

When the first emperor wanted to unify the country, one of the major policies was to create one system of written signs. By force, brutal force, he eliminated all the other scripts. One script became the official script. All the others were banned. And those who used other scripts were punished severely. And then the meanings of all the characters, over the centuries, had to be kept uniform as a part of the political apparatus. So from the very beginning the written word was a powerful political tool.”

Read the whole thing and give thanks for the freedom that allows you to read it.

Blueblack, bonewhite light

Wednesday, 19 November, 2014 1 Comment


“The night sky is only a sort of carbon paper,
Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars
Letting in the light, peephole after peephole —
A bonewhite light, like death, behind all things.”

Sylvia Plath

Vape? There’s a magazine for that

Tuesday, 18 November, 2014 0 Comments

vape, verb: “Inhale and exhale the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device.”

vape, noun: “An electronic cigarette or similar device; an act of inhaling and exhaling the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device.”

Those are the definitions advanced by the Oxford Dictionaries in explaining its International Word of the Year 2014. Vaping is so cool that there’s a magazine all about the trend. There’s an app, too, of course. Among its selling points: “unlock achievements at important milestones” and “keep track of your progress with the Vape homescreen widget.” Talking of words, TIME will release the results of its “Which Word Should Be Banned in 2015?” poll tomorrow. The only four-letter word on the list is “kale”. Our money, however, is on an eight-letter word winner.


The Vimeo deal with the Weed Guy

Monday, 17 November, 2014 0 Comments

The New York-based video-sharing website, Vimeo, is ten years old this month. Different yardsticks can be used for measuring its tenacity and its success. The 170 million unique visitors a month, for instance, and then there’s the reaction of the censors. Vimeo is blocked in China and in Turkey, too. In May, Tifatul Sembiring, Indonesia’s Communications Minister, announced the banning of Vimeo, citing the country’s anti-pornography law. Coincidentally, the ban followed a global wave of acclaim for Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing.

With 70 percent of Vimeo’s audience residing outside the US, the company is rolling out new feature to enable filmmakers “subtitle their work in dozens of languages,” says Bloomberg. And it’s taking a jab at the Netflix behemoth. High Maintenance is a tentative step towards capturing a sliver of the streaming audience. In essence, Brooklyn immigrants and natives call upon the services of the Weed Guy to help them manage the stresses of borough life. Ecologically correct, he delivers by bike and helps his clients handle their crises, with an air of Stoicism and an eye for the main chance. Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, the pair behind the series, have the talent to advance Woody Allen’s observations of neurotic New Yorkers to the gluten-free, hipster level.


Sunday, 16 November, 2014 0 Comments

“November always seemed to me the Norway of the year,” wrote Emily Dickinson. The “No” in the month’s name arouses wintry, Nordic feelings. The fog is dense, mornings are raw and the air bites at the ears in this 11th month. Thomas Hood, who suffered from ill health through most of his short life, summed up the negatives of November.


No sun — no moon!
No morn — no noon.
No dawn — no dusk — no proper time of day.

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member.
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds!

Thomas Hood (1799 — 1845)