New website

As of July 2012, I will no longer be posting to this page. Instead, you can go here:

Ya been good, WP…

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Reflections on glass, so to speak

The first thing I noticed about Vancouver’s fairly modern downtown was that the buildings make extensive use of glass. From high-rise condo balconies to naturally lit public transport walkways to towering mall pathways, glass is everywhere, sleek and reflective and bright.

Hiding out here for a couple of weeks, I’ve gotten to thinking about building materials, and which are the dominant ones in a given period. In older cities like Quebec, Montreal, and Toronto, I noticed a lot of stone. Early skyscrapers contain stately Gothamesque ornateness, but where do metal, glass, and even composite fit in aesthetically? What do they reflect about the values of their builders?

Right now glass is getting a lot of attention in many areas. It is being engineered to be unbreakable and unscratchable. It is made to accommodate touch screens on ATMs and smartphone displays. Televisions and camera displays are getting constantly finer, and Apple’s latest MacBook redesign touts its biggest retinal display ever, promising never-before seen graphic detail. A lot of the products that drive the consumer and professional economy rely undeniably on glass.

But back to buildings. In a modern downtown center like Vancouver it seems also that glass is taking its turn. Glass reflects the focus on natural light and the open feel of lofts, offices, progressive homes, and other currently hip or desirable spaces.  Precious old warehouse condos get new windows to make them more efficient, leaving the raw space intact. I would like to think about what that says about the present time, as opposed to metal (maybe the main physical/aesthetic element of early Modernism) or stone (before that) or wood (even before that).

The use of glass seems to dovetail philosophically with current conditions of capitalism and society. Which is to say, it’s really complicated. Let’s compare it to stone. Stone is fairly unambiguous, and suggests constants: literal and metaphorical pillars of society. Wall Street, the U.S. Capitol building, factories, industry. There’s an implication of faith in the stability of these systems. They will stand forever. Even the little Christian Science Reading Room on North Clark in Chicago has a grand facade.

Metal, being lighter weight and more malleable, implies more flexibility and a new range of possible surfaces (dull/shiny, rough/smooth, &c). This flexibility could be seen metaphorically as a reaction to the expanding needs of the systems that have been put in place. This is also meant literally, as buildings get taller and machinery gets more demanding. It’s necessary to be flexible, to react to increasingly complex developments in systems, and meet an increasingly wide range of needs at an increasingly fast pace.

Glass has even more complicated metaphorical implications. On one hand it implies a desire to disappear or to be invisible. A building made totally of glass would seem to dissolve into its environment completely. Would this hide the activity inside, or make it completely transparent? Glass dissolves into modern systems, either ignoring or blending into them. But glass also stands out, calling attention to itself simply through its existence – the Farnsworth House, a Mies Van Der Rohe-designed house outside of Chicago, draws attention precisely because of its extensive but subtle use of glass. So it’s playing both sides of the game a bit.

Glass is also confusing because it’s not load-bearing like metal and stone – it needs other materials to support it, even though the glass itself may be the focus of a modern space. The role of the space or the structure is left unresolved, but the systems themselves are not called into question. The presence of glass presents a no-comment situation on what happens on the other side – it merely aims to facilitate the space, whatever its activity. It pretends to offer a contemplative barrier, like a wall, but does not. Except that it does.

Taking the metaphor further, even the origins of glass are far more obscure than those of stone and metal. Glass is divorced from the process used to produce it, whereas the quarry, mining, and steel refinery industries are more documented and understood, more tied to a specific geographic location. Glass, on the other hand, simply appears in our lives in stores, on trucks, and in purchasable items. It is symbolic of the confounding, increasingly tragic riddles of late capitalism – the barrier that hides in plain view. 

One wonders what will come next, especially with the easy-sell environmental arguments in favor of glass (natural light, &c.). Is there a material that can emerge to provide more direct, more constructive connotations of value, and what values would this new material have? Would it reflect a new desire for authenticity and process (i.e. reclaimed or recycled materials)? How would it be weighed against practical concerns, and how can it respond to (unreasonable) demands of scale?

What comes after glass?

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A reminder: I’m traveling and writing

For any readers who don’t already know, I’m traveling in Canada all this month, and writing essays about it on my long-running TravelPod site (since 2006, ancient history!) that you can find here :

So far, pieces about Montreal and its protests, Quebec City, and Toronto, among others. Enjoy!

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What Shostakovich left out

Last week in Toronto, I was fortunate to see the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in an excellent performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, entitled “The Year 1905.” (The show also took place at 10:30 PM – a daring programming move that totally paid off.) The piece was performed brilliantly under conductor and TSO musical director Peter Oundjian. Perhaps partially because the TSO recently released a recording of the piece, they knew it intimately and followed a clear, compelling, and deeply felt vision.

But in talking with my companion while walking home after the show, I tried to express a nagging feeling that I just wasn’t satisfied. Shostakovich is a composer who has been applauded so much by others around me in the past, and yet I wasn’t familiar with much of his music at all until recently. As I’ve listened in the past few months to the Symphony No. 11, Symphony No. 15 (performed by the Louisiana Philharmonic), and String Quarter No. 8 (on CD), a few impressions stood out at first. Obviously Shostakovich was a person who completely understood concepts of orchestration, and was technically a master of composing for orchestra. His originality and inventiveness was breathtaking. But with all these gifts, I’ve often thought there was something missing that kept me from really connecting with Shostakovich.

I recently read Alex Ross’ excellent book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century. It is more or less a history of the 20th century told through Western classical composers, whose attitudes and work generally reflected and/or shaped other significant historical trends and events. It’s a generally amazing book, but a lot of time was devoted to Shostakovich. It’s well known that he struggled with censorship throughout most of his career, first with Stalin and then with later Soviet leaders. Ross paints Shostakovich sympathetically as a supremely conflicted figure. On one hand, he is pursuing an artistic muse that is clearly a special and (as with any) a personal one; on the other hand, he’s trying to fulfill an official role and also stay alive, and so he sometimes makes personal and musical decisions that could be set down to spineless self-preservation if not for the fact that the alternative was so terrifying.

This division played out often in Shostakovich’s music, which frequently had to be interesting enough to win the audience’s adulation, but also conservative enough to avoid offending the wrong people. (Although Ross points out that Stalin censored artists for almost random reasons, this seems generally to be the necessary balance.) His pieces sometimes seem rather light on the surface, but are often extremely ambiguous, employing a complex array of coded musical messages of defiance, ambivalence, and individuality, sometimes even mocking his benefactors.

Symphony No. 11 is no exception. Written in 1957, it is meant to reflect on the 1905 “Bloody Sunday” massacre in which the tsar’s soldiers killed around 1,000 peaceful protestors, originally meant as a 50th anniversary commemoration of the event. Officially, Shostakovich would have been celebrating the fact that this led eventually to the revolutions that put the Bolsheviks in power. But there are clear indications that he was more critical, linking the brutality of the Stalinist regime to the hated Tsarist one.

This balancing act is maybe what kept me from connecting with the composer. It’s as though, as technically brilliant and inventive as Shostakovich was, he wasn’t giving his all; his heart wasn’t totally in it, and I thought this was somehow communicated through the 11th symphony. It sounded to me like he was deliberately hiding or avoiding some part of his musical self, or his actual self. And even though most artists are probably hiding from themselves in some way, I found it very sad in the case of the great Shostakovich.

But even during the conversation walking home, I wondered, especially in relation to the book, if this was just me projecting onto the music. After all, my reaction assumes that Shostakovich was just as gifted melodically as he was technically or structurally, and that in a freer life he would have written music that was even more dazzling than it often already is. There’s no guarantee of that, of course, and maybe it was just some obsession of mine with prettiness, wanting everything to sound like it came straight from Tchaikovsky. There is no other world than the one we’re in, though, and clues or not, Shostakovich only left us with the music and little else.

All the same, I know what I felt when I heard the 11th symphony. I knew that it could have been more.

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More! Foxy Digitalis reviews from May.

Aaaaand, the Foxy D. reviews from May – 

Mandom, “All The World Loves A Lover”

The Neutron Stars, “Ambient Remixes EP”

Evan Caminiti, “Night Dust”

Geoff Geis, “Princess”

“Provocative Dramas in Digital Audio and Cinema” feature

Matt Bartram, “The Dreaming Invisible…….”

Keiji Haino/Jim O’Rourke/Oren Ambarchi, “Imikuzushi”

Sonore, “Oto”

Greenhouse, “Tired Forever”

Karantamba, “Ndigal”

Fear Falls Burning, “Disorder of Roots”

Lunar Miasma, “Arrival”

Lost Harbours, “Leaf Decay”

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April Foxy Digitalis reviews

Collected reviews from the second half of April on Foxy D. – 

Amber, “Pearls of Amber”

Rivulets, “We’re Fucked”

Dillon, “This Silence Kills”

Dakota Suite/Quentin Sirjacq, “The Side of Her Inexhaustible Heart”

Beequeen, “Port Out Starboard Home”

V/A, “Air Texture Volume I”

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Field recordings downloadable

Field recordings available for free download here –

The accompanying text:

“In May 2011, I assisted with projection at the Media City Film Festival, a very tight-knit, mostly avant-garde festival taking place in cozy downtown Windsor (just across the river from Detroit’s techno festival occurring on the same weekend). The programming was stellar and was augmented by several filmmakers accompanying their work from Europe and North America.

But there was another component to the festival that was slightly separate from the rest – an installation by the French filmmaker and sculptor Silvi Simon. Set up in a darkened corner of the art museum a few blocks from the theatre, the reputation of Silvi’s piece grew as, one by one, patrons made the pilgrimage and came back in awe. Due to the busy screening schedule, it wasn’t until the day of our departure that I was able to make the trip myself.

It was worth the wait. Silvi had two separate rooms projecting what she calls “filmatrucs,” roughly translating to “film things.” The word “thing” is surprisingly useful in this case. It connotes the physical object of the installation, and also its dual film and sculpture components, which may be difficult to describe, somehow separate and overlapping at the same time.

But when I arrived, it seemed obvious to me that the filmatrucs fit quite gracefully in this unexplored territory between film and sculpture. In the middle of each darkened room was a pedestal with a 16mm projector, a row or cluster of suspended pieces of glass, and a small fan. Each room played a 16mm film on a loop lasting a few minutes, projected through the few-dozen pieces of glass, each suspended by wire and waving slowly in the breeze created by the fan.

The effect was as if dozens of mirrors were reflecting the projected image all over the room, each one waving back and forth at different angles and sizes, backwards and forwards, in addition to the original blurred image that reached the far wall. In room one, black-and-white found footage created ghostly human portraits, and in the second room birds massed and dispersed, periodically exploding throughout the room in a breathtaking light display. The whole idea was incredibly simple and elegant in concept and execution.

I noticed immediately that, in this darkened room, the sound of the installation was also striking. The projectors chugged continuously, shuddering periodically as the splice slid through the gate. The fan whirred, and the glass pieces tinkled magically against each other. It was absorbing and beguiling, especially along with the mysterious nature of the images.

So with Silvi’s blessing, I returned just before leaving town armed with my field recorder. After surreptitiously tripping the motion sensor so the projectors would run continuously, I set up the recorder and sat with each room for thirty minutes. The sound environment was mechanically steady, precise, and yet very organic and uninterrupted by man, giving the impression of reaching the heart of a cinema forest.

Both recordings are unaltered save for beginning and end edits, and although they reflect the limitations of my built-in Edirol mic setup, to some degree they still capture a very unique sound environment.

-Travis Bird, New Orleans, 4 May 2012”

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