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25 August 2011

Snapshots of Denniston Hill: Work & Place

As any overly attentive internet followers may be aware, I’ve spent the month of August in residence at Denniston Hill with a hand-picked group of music-types. Here are some pictures of the work that’s gone on here.

First the most substantive happenings of the indie rock variety, a recording session by Steven Reker’s People Get Ready group which wrapped up last weekend. You can still contribute to the Kickstarter campaign funding the session. Please do!

No less ambitious is the construction of the barn on the Denniston Hill grounds which began simultaneously with People Get Ready’s recordings. Site manager John Letourneau and his young charge Levi (sorry, no last name!) have been making nice progress. Earlier today I watched them put the roof on.

If there’s one aspect of this place that’s been both most enlightening and most mysterious to me has been the overall relationship between resident & land. Close to the house is a garden that provides a small but steady amount of produce for the residents; next door is a new farm with farm stand sitting out on the street; and, last but not least, in the near distance, just past John’s home, there is a meadow which he has generously donated to a local farmer for this season’s sheep feed. Note the llama coming out of the sheep’s blue tent. He serves as an appropriately nonconformist shepherd. It is not uncommon for artist residencies to be housed in such a bucolic setting. But of the few that I’ve visited, I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered a place where there is a more direct engagement between visiting artists and native setting. Perhaps because of the residency’s small size, it’s intimacy, the discouragement of deep cocooning, contact with nature is unavoidable.

That said, the real work that gets done here is overwhelmingly creative. Pictured, is People Get Ready’s extremely colorful scorp list. Translation for normal humans: a grid of completed tracks. (Apologies for the inside jokes, but to get even more obscure, you better get ready for some funky Twin Peaks.)

Despite the lovely portrait I’m painting of this place, let it be said that it’s not without neighborhood tensions. For example, this particular part of upstate New York, once the the heart of the Borscht Belt, a vacationing hotspot for New York City’s cosmopolitan Jews, has been long abandoned by it’s more reformed visitors. In their place, the region has been overrun by Hasidics & and other more orthodox sects of the faith. This means a certain subliminal…discomfort…between that community and a more liberal variety of New York City escapee. Pictured below is a sign posted by Denniston Hill’s neighbor Mo David North just up the hill — a frequently vandalized sign that says “God Loves Fags” in English & transliterated Hebrew. It’s been visible the entire month I’ve been here but the official opening is September 2nd. Plan your trips!

To focus on either the tensions of rural living or the mysteries, however, would be to miss the point. Mostly Denniston Hill has offered a focused opportunity for research & a more abstract kind of peace.

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21 January 2011

The problem with American religion…

…is, among other things, a lack of music like that. Below, a quote from the music’s composer Arvo Pärt, excerpted from a recent profile. (It’s good.)

    “There is a good rule in spiritual life, which we all forget continually,” he said, “that you must see more of your own sins than other people’s.”

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30 April 2010

The energy of a Void: some lessons on hardcore, faith & what not

Recently I had reason to reminisce about hardcore, a music very close to my heart. Want proof? Pictured above is the wall of my bedroom. Below: framed cover of Void/The Faith split 12″ (Dischord, 1982) Above: a copy of the etched side of The Locust’s “Well I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle” double 12” (Gold Standard Labs, 2000). A pictorial detail here:

One of the problems with explaining an appreciation for this music is its obscurity, its inexplicability compared to most of what people would consider music, and — the topic I’m going to focus on in this post — its energy, an energy so untidy and chaotic it doesn’t translate well into adulthood which, if you define adulthood like most people do, means that it does not translate well anywhere that is considered polite society.

Now for some Void videos, sorted by YouTube popularity:

LESSON #1: ENERGY – 58,000 views

So, yes, energy. It’s less like music than a rolling storm. The guitar player Bubba Dupree’s sway and lean is trance-like, masturbatory in a zen way, completely focused. The singer John Weiffenbach displays a weird athleticism all the weirder for how it’s mixed up with a weird rage. Imagine for a second if the jocks were the biggest weirdos in your typical American high school and you get a sense of the threat to the social order someone like Weiffenbach represents. He’s a punk but he’s proudly wearing short shorts, simultaneously upsetting both the actual weirdo peers (for the way he’s dressed) and the more straightforward kids (for the things he’s doing in those shorts). If only he replaced then with 80s-era running shorts maybe his band would have been more popular. But no that’s an innovation he left for Henry Rollins to master.

The drummer Sean Finnegan will not stop playing when the band does. It seems like whatever he is doing is only half-coordinated with the actions of his bandmates. He’s going balls out and won’t stop. It would be too clever to say that only death could stop this guy — or that he had an energy which seems too much, too much, which was destined to make him expire at a young age. But when you hear that his death in 2008 came via a massive heart attack, and that he was only 43 years old you might think those thoughts were correct & appropriate after all.

One of the reasons this video has so many more views than the others is that it’s the one bloggers gravitated toward when running his obituary — making him, perhaps, the single biggest means by which this pre-internet band has been embraced in this medium.


This next video gives a better sense of what makes the band exciting. The camera never moves. The singer has a fearful, will-to-power like intensity. You understand the appeal the group might have to a heedless young person, an appeal much like the original creator of the will to power concept seems to hold on precocious young people — at least in my experience.

For the most part the band is absent entirely from the shot. But if you’re like me you don’t much care. There is plenty of visual interest here besides them, and the point of what they’re doing up there on stage, finally, is to incite a movement, a violence, a creative spark & persistent impact that goes far & above the music they’re making in real time. So yes, a shout out to 19th-century German classical philologists everywhere straight from 1980s era Washington, DC.

LESSON(S) #3 & #4: CHAOS & COMMUNITY – 19,000 views combined

Here’s the point to put a finger on it. Watch the second video, where an audience member for a second grabs control of the mic; where singer John Weiffenbach tells the crowd “Stick your fingers in my gizzard” and you’re not sure if it’s a lyric or a request; where you can barely tell where the band stops and the crowd begins.

Unique to this music is a sense that there is no line between audience and performer, between the chaos of the crowd and the creation of something new, between the artist and the community that supports them. That’s what made hardcore punk so inspiring to so many kids that would, eventually, leave the actual music and aesthetic of that culture behind. I recall the Passover Seder I attended a few weeks back at the home of a particularly forward thinking Lubavitcher rabbi in Boro Park. I, myself, neither observe nor practice any religion but I was taken aback by the guy seated to my left at the table — a Catholic hardcore kid from Connecticut that had recently converted to the Jewish faith and was dressed in the full-out Hasidic outfit — beard, side curls, black hat, etc.

It made me wonder, was hardcore punk a kind of religion in and of itself?

And finally…

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31 March 2010

Customer value & other virtues one might not expect in an avant-garde(ish) music festival: a particularly short attention span essay about Big Ears Festival & a trip down South I just took

Above photo of Nico Muhly and Mr. Doveman courtesy of the New York Times. All the rest except for the rockslide by me.

Apologies for being somewhat slack on the blogging front these last few weeks. Exciting activities among the family of musicians I’ve been working with the past few years have kept me away from computers more than usual. I spent much of the last week hanging out in the American South — a part of the country I rarely get to see — on the occasion of Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you want a more traditional & informative take on the festival I’ll point you to this New York Times review and then, perhaps, to the press & internet chatter on Brassland’s Twitwire.

To frame things a bit my way, though, I’ll lead off with some pictures from the trip. (Excuse the shoddy color correction. I’m trying to get this post up in internet speed.)

First the inside of God’s Storehouse, a food pantry and thrift shop I stopped at somewhere near Greeneville, Tennessee.

And here’s a bit more local color from the same. Read more »

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14 October 2009

Too much, too much, too much: A short attention span essay about Sufjan Stevens & Liberace


Maybe you heard about Sufjan Stevens’ recent US tour. Maybe you read my braggadocious post about the (tiny) role I had in kicking off this latest round of shows.

Last Wednesday I saw the last gig of the run, one of four sold out New York shows. Let’s take advantage of what the internet has to offer and kick off this discussion with one of the new tunes he debuted. I’ll start with my favorite, the relatively straightforward “Age of Adz”:

Now let me admit, I came away from the show feeling both intrigued and baffled. As one of my fellow concertgoers said to me that night, the music borrowed all the signifiers of rock but contained no actual rocking. Add to that a liberal dose of spacious textures from electronic music and jazz. Another friend left early, complaining that the music was a tepid mess.

And, well, I sort of agree with these sentiments. My befuddlement can best be expressed by a series of comparative thought experiments.

– Imagine if James Taylor aspired to sound like Miles Davis
– Imagine if Cat Stevens took a greater interest in Frank Zappa than the prophet Muhammad
– Imagine if there was a male equivalent to Joni Mitchell’s experience of getting lost in a jazz hole
– Imagine if Erik Satie decided to compose his take on jock jams, more or less missing the point of what jock jams are

In case you’re mistaking these comparisons for disses, here’s a last one:

– Imagine if there were more young(ish) musicians making music so strong & brave you felt comfortable namedropping them alongside such heavyweight peers

Let’s go deeper into this with a second song, “There’s Too Much Love,” which reminds me, alternatively, of Prince and…
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