Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In the meantime, the mean time.

A) Whoever arrived at this blog by searching for 'art for art's fucking sake', you're welcome back any time.

B) TimeOut visitors, I know you're out there. I'll be expecting the New Indie roundtable shortly.


So, what do I write about when I'm not seeing shows? Well, first I pimp the reason I'm not seeing shows:

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe opens in the Chopin studio a week from Sunday, emmereffers! Get you some tickets!

Also, on a related note, you might not have checked the Signal EnsemBlog in recent months. Nor would I blame you, as it had been dormant for nigh on a year. But we went and figgered out just how this blogging thing is supposed to go down, so swing on by! There's for real content goin' on and has been for a while; you've got catching up to do! Dramaturg Aaron Snook has plenty to keep you busy through the opening of Ballad (much of it already up there for you, but more to come), and then be on the look out for some meet n' greet on the ensemble, updates and insight from and about each of the company members, and plenty of Brian Jones/Rolling Stones build-up for the world premiere of Ronan Marra's Aftermath, coming this spring.

The blog. Read it.


Also in the meantime, I may as well turn to some product(-ion)(-ive) writing as well. At least two big projects in the woodwork right now, with a third trying to weasel its way into something resembling rationality. The first is, of course, SubUrbia, Part One of The Nine, which I'll talk about in more detail in a week or two when I've got a couple of things finalized. The third is still too much of an inkling to discuss much further, so we'll let that gestate for a bit. But the second! Oh, the second!

I've spent the last few days (the few hours not at work or in rehearsal) buried in mash-up culture. As one of those digital age questions that has shaken up the ideas of intellectual property and art ownership, I've been interested in the mash-up for a while. But now that I'm taking on the task of translating it to the stage in the next year, year and some change, it's time to delve deep. (The project t'ain't a secret, I'm just building to it. Deal.)

I'm skipping the basics. Anyone not familiar with the mash-up, click here and read, then come back.

Today's focus is DJ Earworm. I stumbled across Earworm not too long ago, but he's grown to one of my favorites. He doesn't have the bombast of Girl Talk or the sheer output of The Hood Internet, but I get a greater sense of purpose in his work -- a level far deeper than novelty.

Earworm's biggest (and most novel) hits are his United State of Pop mixes, a mashup of Billboard's top 25 hits of the year. The 2007 mash-up is passable, but 2008 is way hot, and a good case study in mash-up structure. Every quality mash-up has a good base and a good top layer. Whether it's A vs. B or glitch pop, you gotta build your foundation first. Earworm builds with Natasha Bedingfield and Rihanna (who he returns to with great effect), but settles into his most expansive option in Coldplay. It's a great choice (rather than his more beat-heavy alternatives) to provide an open playing field for the myriad of artists he's got to layer in over top. Which is the most impressive part -- not just the number of artists but how well the variety mix: Sara Bareilles' girl next door, Lil' Wayne's complete lack of tone, P!nk's fauxhawk punk, Alicia Keys' full belt, Usher's light-headed velvet pop, OneRepublic's whiny soar, they all meld so well you might think someone managed to round everyone up in one studio for some fucked up benefit hits compilation. I'd be curious to hear what others think, but for me the only sore thumb is Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" snippet. Even worse, I can't tell exactly what the problem is; whether it's Perry's vox, a poorly chosen (or timed, coming directly off of P!nk's similar style) sample, or my general feelings towards the woman that's causing the problem, though I imagine it to be a mix of all three. Then, after setting a chopped vocal rhythm, Earworm allows a couple of artists to linger: T.I. plays into Chris Brown & T-Pain, and as this releases into Chris Brown solo (underlined by a Rihanna build, of all things!), Earworm releases with a taper rather than an explosion, recalling the earlier chopblock, albeit a much more scattered version.

From a technical standpoint, it's a brilliant mix, especially starting with no easy challenge (a given set of songs to be mashed). It shows tonal differences as something to be embraced (with timing) rather than avoided, and it gives a nice two-act structure with a prologue and a callback epilogue.

But it is essentially a novelty. For a glimpse of the meta-bilities of a well-considered mash-up, point yourself to Earworm's No More Gas. Read the description first, then listen to the song. With No More Gas, DJ Earworm has created a critique of the 'Gimme More' culture by exploiting the very (and literally) "Gimme More" pop commercialism that is helping to feed the hungry zeitgeist. And you can dance to it! Go ahead, shake your hips to Danity Kane's taunting "How you gonna fix it?" and The Pussycat Dolls downright frightening "Be careful what you wish for" laid over Britney simply asking us to give her, give her more. It's either disgustingly catchy or catchily disgusting. Go ahead, bob your noggin to Lupe's "Superstar" confidence being completely undermined by the realization of the false bravado therein. But most effective of all, is the framework of Estelle's "American Boy" -- a very direct pointed finger, but one with a wink and a nod, unable to shake the charm and desire of the original. Estelle is the reason you can dance to it; she lets Earworm keep the subtle meter high and the agitprop meter low. Bastard pop is recycled, but never really reformed.

Have a further look around, see what else you can uncover at DJ Earworm's place, and let me know what you like (I especially recommend the nervous energy of Just Dance To New Order and Reckoner Lockdown, in which a half beat shift on Kanye's original makes all the difference). And check the videos as well, although video mash-up is a topic for a whole 'nother day.


I recently placed a decent sized order on AbeBooks and have since had a steady flow of vanguard art books to the homestead. Paging through this one today, I had a random moment of clarity:

"You have to know the rules in order to break them." -- it's one of those commonalites that has always rung of bullshit to me. I've been applying my frustration to the wrong place, it's not the sentence that's bullshit, it's the implication. In order to explore the artistic structure and the various ways out of it, you do have to study up on it. But if the implication is that this study must be an internal process, I suggest an external. Rule-breaking artists, rather than beating your head against a wall until the plaster cracks and lets in the light, spend some personal time with the darling motherfuckers teetering on the ladders outside and shoving the structure in on itself. You can learn how to be normal and then learn how not to be, or you can learn how others have not been and find out how that applies to yourself.

Study up, but do it from an angle you'll appreciate. Piero Manzoni can teach you what the rules are just as well as anybody that follows them to the letter.


How art has destroyed science, part 3 (a follow-up to the forgotten but not lost part 1 & part 2):

Sleep research:


Sleep Research:

You tell me who's made more progress.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Conduct Of Life

Oh boy, all kindsa random tangents to talk about!

I was pointed to an "Indie culture roundtable" at TO:C last week, although eulogy might be a better word than roundtable. Indie culture is apparently on the skids and TimeOut rounded up the most morose bunch of motherfuckers they could to mourn it.

Far as I'm concerned, it's a pile of crap: as has been pointed out elsewhere, the mean age of this roundtable is 38. The representation of indie culture is an average of 38 and certainly no younger than 33. With that knowledge in hand, it's not as surprising that the roundtable sounds a bit weathered around the edges and entirely unexcited about the prospect of indie culture, but is this really what we're going to roll out as a feature on the subject, TO:C?

Let's break it down:

The panel starts out with both feet on the brakes by refusing to even fall under the heading 'indie'. Three of the five panelists flat out refuse to use the word in their organizations and a fourth makes a very strong distinction against it, all touting the horrors of 'indie' becoming a marketing term/genre/style as opposed to the politically engaged 'independent' (though I would argue against the idea of crowing about oneself as an "economically independent, noncorporate venture" as being tremendously political anymore, but that's an argument to be taken up in a few minutes). The point of the roundtable is set-up quite soundly in this first question: Indie is a dead, corporate-riddled corpse, let's bemoan the fact we are still associated with its name. It's a sad, tired argument that any minority cultural movement either dies by or slogs through at some point.

There's an underlying case of refusal to adapt in this discussion. J.C. Gabel, the youngest and thus most disappointing of the snarkers, in between quips about Urban Outfitters, makes a comment about the discussion really being 20th century vs. 21st century. I agree, but what we have here is a panel of 20th century representatives, with perhaps the exception of Shawn Campbell, who seems less jaded but doesn't get a substantial word in edgewise. When a question on whether it's possible to be 100% independent anymore gets raised to this group of people, I would expect a resounding yes and a discussion about the drastic drop in production and distribution costs in the internet age, that anyone can make their own music, film, etc. and provide it to a potential audience of millions at the drop of a hat. And that they can pull a Thom Yorke or a Trent Reznor and do it with what I'm convinced will be the starting point of a new 21st century business model: free at the baseline. Instead, what I got was hemming and hawing that boils down to one bitchy complaint: "People don't give away free money anymore." Are you fucking kidding me? This is our indie... excuse me, independent culture? We're so goddamn independent that we won't even use the word indie and our primary complaint is that corporations are no longer giving us free money? If that's the case, I'll welcome the death of indie culture and we can find something new to call what's happening now.

For real though, read the responses to the last question in the article -- can anyone make heads or tails of what exactly is going on? On the one hand we have ('s!) Scott Plagenhoef saying that there is no nationwide delivery system, one of which -- and it isn't drastically far from being an independent version of the dreaded Clear Channel -- many would argue he heads. Of course, I understand that he's more concerned that there's not a single delivery system that hits every household. What I don't understand is why he has a problem with this. The entire panel seems to be ruing the (possible) loss of a monoculture, sorrowful that there is an arrival of more diversity through more outlets, which I read as less of a solidified 'mainstream'. Is our indie culture really mourning the cracks in the walls of mainstream distribution, or are they attempting to speak towards the loss of some sort of independent monoculture? Has there ever been an independent monoculture? Did they just drop all pretenses by the last question, throw up their hands and admit that the darn internets provide too many options (most of them tres independent)? How does one justify saying that the world is no longer wired to have a shared reaction the likes of the one caused by Michael Jackson's death mere weeks after the world had that exact shared fucking reaction? What the hell does Michael Jackson have to do with indie culture anyway? It makes me really fucking upset, it does, because it's a wasted opportunity to explore the new independent on TO:C's part. If anyone from TimeOut happens across this, I sincerely ask you to do a follow-up comprised of twentysomethings. See if you don't get more conversation, more ideas, and more ingenuity. And a lot less pissing and moaning.


Of course, my follow-up to this is the fact that there was no theatre representation on the panel. For that, I don't blame TO:C, I blame us. Theatre doesn't really fit the indie culture bill. I don't know that theatre even has a subset that fits the indie culture bill. Which is ironic because there's a ton of 100% independent theatre work being done in the city, primarily because no corporation in their right mind is going to fund a venture with such little commercial potential. Some of the problem as I see it is we ain't moving much in either direction. We aren't finding ways to make ourselves prone to more commercial potential, but we also aren't saying 'fuck it, we're not a commercial venture' and letting that free our work up. It's this midpoint limbo that's killing us, this sense of following the right way of doing things to be financially successful without any actual promise or payoff of the financial success.

My unfortunate example is the last show I saw: Tooth & Nail's The Conduct Of Life. (The link is to a review; as far as I can tell, Tooth & Nail doesn't have a website.) It seems as though director Marti Lyons has plenty of ideas about this script: from the omnipresent live band to the accompaniment Butoh usage, Lyons is attacking this beast (and thematically, it is a beast) from a number of angles. But the whole thing still ends up as a very presentational, very just outta the gates, very we got the Viaduct now how do we use it, very serious play that our friends and family can still appreciate product. I don't think I particularly liked it. But I also don't know, because I don't get the sense that anyone bringing innovative ideas to the table ever really cut loose with them. In the long run, I'm not really sure what was a choice and why or what wasn't and why not.

There was some of the most stilted acting I've ever seen on the part of Elizabeth Olson that I like to think, for her sake, had to be intentional. Couldn't tell you for certain, or the reasoning behind it. There were some sections of stage combat that were so horrendously slapdash that I would love to hope might have been a choice, either in comment towards the violence of the script or as a counterpoint to the use of Butoh. I'm doubtful, but again couldn't tell you for sure. Even the obvious choices didn't seem fully fleshed. For me, a big part of the intrigue of the production was the use of Butoh, which ending up being a sidebar accompaniment to monologues rather than actually incorporated into the show -- honest work, it seemed, but tremendously limited and happily so.

And then there's always the 'why?', because I think Marti had one. It seems like there was a reason behind this show, an intended message. But I'm mixed on what it might have been. When the script and imagery were allowed to speak for themselves, it becomes an exploration of the power and appeal within violence. When onstage violence is used, it becomes an exploration on what begets violence. And the final song choice shifts it all into anti-violence gear. Maybe all of these were choices, maybe none of them. But as it is, all my messages got mixed.


A certain Mr. Ed Rutherford has brought up an interesting marketing quandary this week that I'd be curious to hear some further opinions on. Hubris Productions' Bent is running right now, and the show trailer they've created for it mixes production and backstage footage with actual Holocaust footage. (You can see it here, but be warned, it's not for kids... or work.) Where does the ethical line fall on this one?

I personally don't take a lot of umbrage with the use of the footage, but that the footage was used in such a trite manner. There are a number of ways to use this imagery in an effective marketing campaign. Hubris took it and inserted it into a paint-by-numbers "serious" trailer. They could have replaced the footage in question with happy bunny rabbits and still offended my sensibilities as an audience member. Instead they've both offended my sensibilities with an unimaginative campaign and tried to play the "how can you not respect this and therefore our work?" card. It's a guilt trip trailer and that is probably what I take issue with the most.


So, I found that elusive great modernist playwright I was looking for a few weeks back in Michel Vinaver. I just got done with the shortened version of his Overboard. Shortened is a very relative word, because this thing is still a monster, but what a monster it is. You'd still be looking at something nearing a 3 1/2 hour run time with this version, but the world Vinaver creates is so instantly solidified and manages this among such a varied set of characters and situations that it truly flies. He's one of my new favorites, especially in his use of interweaving scenes. I'm trying to hunt down a copy of the full 7 hour version; does anyone have any info? Could point me to someone with some info?

As much as I love you, Chicago Public Library System, I would appreciate a little more interest in my tastes...


There was more stuff. But it's late and my brain has forgotten it. It'll have to wait for the sequel. Or for you to remind me.


Thursday, July 9, 2009


How many posts in the last month have I left abandoned by my own little good intentions-paved garden path? I don't rightly know, but it's more than two, I'll tell you that much.

It's summer and I'm smack dab in the midst of rehearsals (as the infamous 'Crazy' Merlie Ryan) for The Ballad Of The Sad Cafe with Signal; it also happens to be my first production as an offical ensemble member over at Signal(!). So, y'know, busy times have struck. Appy-polly-logies, darlings.

But stay tuned for a shortly forthcoming annoucement about The Nine -- and by announcement I mean dates, location, and audition/collaborator call for Part One: SubUrbia. Here's a hint: at this time six months from now, we will be rehearsing this bad boy. Rawk.

And hey, maybe I'll write about the few things I'm managing to still see as well. Wouldn't that be novel?