Monday, November 10, 2014

Sean Michaels - Us Conductors

Most music writers aim for poetry in their prose; most, if not all, fail. Sean Michaels, on the other hand, is perhaps the only music writer from whom I would expect an exquisitely poetic novel. He and his comrades at the now-ancient MP3 blog Said the Gramophone use original short fiction, fanciful prose, poetry and sometimes just illustrations to accompany the music they’re excited to share with us. Not surprising, then, that Michaels has written a novel about music. But it’s not a thinly veiled autobiography about getting your heart broken by some girl who didn’t like your mixtape. Far, far from it.

Instead, Us Conductors takes as a template the very real, very strange life of Leon Theremin, inventor of the world’s first electronic instrument, and uses it to explore how a work of creation—a song, a novel, an invention—can be subject to the whims of history and circumstance, searching for an audience. Most important, it examines how all acts of creation are, in essence, unrequited love, and how the lies we tell ourselves can be what saves us in the end. If that weren’t enough, Michaels’s tale takes place amidst the shifting sands of the early 20th century—political, technological, philosophical—that comprise a period of momentous, turbulent change.

I first tried to read the book when it came out in April. I failed. I had seen the excellent 1994 documentary Theremin; I felt I already knew the strange-but-true story of Leon Theremin. I have a problem with historical fiction based on real people; I had a similar struggle with Ann-Marie MacDonald's The Way the Crow Flies, about the Steven Truscott case (is this part true? is this part made up?). I recognized that Michaels was a great writer successfully transitioning into novels, but I didn't feel I could dive into this particular book. 

But whatever—my loss. Because when I decided to get over my hangups and came back to it this fall, I was completely enchanted. Yes, the story is fascinating, but the real appeal of the book is Michaels's poetic economy, his beautiful language and his effortless evocation of larger philosophical questions into his narrative. It's a thoroughly satisfying novel, and I'm happy that the Giller nod means that it will find an audience outside of music fans (because it's about so much more than that) and first-fiction followers (because it's much more accomplished than that).

I wrote an extremely brief piece for Maclean’s about it, as part of their lead-up to the Giller prize gala (tonight, broadcast on CBC-TV at 9 p.m. EST); Michaels also wrote my favourite of the essays where we asked each nominee to talk about their writing life.

You set yourself a modest goal: choosing, as the protagonist of your first novel, a man whose story spans the history of the first half of the 20th century: revolution, freedom, slavery, innovation, the Cold War, racial relations, Soviet gulags, jazz, television, the dawn of electronic music.

It was a strange book to write, because the source material was almost too crammed with meat. It became a pressure: it was strange to leave stuff out because there was already too much meat. But it’s true. There was a bit of discomfort. I remember reading Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow, several years before writing this, and that was the counterpoint: I loved that book, which took this period of time and showed the disparate forces intersecting. Because they were: the ’20s and ’30s were one of those exciting times when the arts and political and economic forces were really all at the same parties, in places in Europe and North America and Asia. So why not visit that spot?

Did you go on tangents you later stripped away?

Yes. There were even more montage party scenes. And in the historical reality of Theremin’s life, there was an American ambassador to Russia, Averell Harriman, on whom, late in the book, Theremin is eavesdropping in the American embassy in Moscow. In real life, Harriman was on Theremin’s boat during his first trip to America 20 years before. I learned that detail, and thought: arrrrgh. I could have a scene early in the book with a line like, “Perhaps we’ll meet again, Mr. Harriman.” But it would be too much. I wanted to write a short book that said less rather than more, as often as possible. That becomes a hard obstacle when there are so many faces, so many rooms.

It’s often said, of incredulous events, that “if they wrote it as fiction no one would believe it.” And yet you chose to recast the strange, tumultuous life of Leon Theremin as fiction. Why?

Before I started to write the book, I was thinking about the experience of a lying, true love. It’s the weird sense of when people have relationships [with] a soulmate: they feel this connection and so on. Some of us have experienced this and then seen it not work out. I was thinking of how it intersects with ideas of destiny and identity and love and beauty. Reading about Theremin and seeing the documentary about him, I was struck by the fact that all these true stories of his life gestured toward this unconsummated true love with Clara Rockmore. I fundamentally did not believe that story, that it was unconsummated true love. They were both married to other people. But could I explore that idea of a lying, true love in a number of ways through the lens of this story? Not just the universe telling you you’re meant to be with this person, but what happens if you’re in a place of great darkness, and the only thing getting you through is a kind of lie?

That happens to a lot of us: we have these delusions, these fictions, that tug us through life. Theremin’s story became an interesting way to present this. However, I don’t know what Lev felt for Clara or vice-versa. I knew what I wanted to explore was an idea of this kind of relationship, that I could never know the interior of these people’s lives. I wanted to throw out the window the idea that I was trying to tell the truth of their relationship. Rather, I was trying to use the skeleton of their relationship to explore a larger set of notions.

Even in a much shallower way—it’s funny to describe it as shallow—but the way we ascribe meaning to life. It’s stories we’re telling ourselves. They may be made up or they may be true, but the best fictions often feel true.

Jesus loves me.

Yeah! Or, “I’m here for a reason.” Or, “My kids mean something.” Okay, that’s pretty dark. Some people who have read Us Conductors see it as this weird portrait of a beautiful relationship that was meant to be. Yet toward the end of the book, he finally tells the reader a conversation he had with Clara before he left America, that makes it even clearer that their relationship was not ongoing.

I love the word “conductor”: of electricity, of creativity, of an orchestra of people interpreting the work of others. Why did you use it in the title?

The working title was “In which I seek the heart of Clara Rockmore, my one true love, finest theremin player the world will ever know.” That was the voice that was carrying through much of the writing. Then when I decided to go with something shorter, I wanted to have a title that nodded to the way the book is addressed to someone. “You” and “we” are used throughout the book, and I wanted the title to nod to that tone, that era, kind of formal and regal. There’s something interesting to me that, in English, the word “conduct” means both to lead—and in this case, the conductor has his hands in the air evocative of the hands of a thereminist—and to be led, to have something flow through you. They seem to be opposites, but the same word carries it, and I found that interesting.

Also: is a thereminist someone who is making music, or channelling it? And we, as feeling human beings, are we making—well, not making—are we summoning love, are we creating or initiating love or is it something passing through us, out in the universe.

You’re nominated for a major Canadian literary prize. What, if anything, is Canadian about your book?

I was very surprised and very pleased, flattered, proud [to be nominated for the Giller]. Writing this book I was conscious of how little of Canada was in the book. I love Montreal very much. Part of me wonders why would I ever write a book that doesn’t take place in Montreal; it’s full of things that I love and that I find mysterious and beautiful and hilarious. The book has really very few winks to Canada. Canadian literature has a reputation for being centred around events in Canadian cities, but it’s always had this real international breadth: Michael Ondaatje, Robertson Davies, Rohinton Mistry. There’s always been a large variety of works coming out of this country. I’m glad to be a tick in the register that communicates the wide diversity of art that’s come out of this country.

How hard has it been to find thereminists in every city on your book tour?

That’s been a crazy adventure in itself. Some cities were unexpectedly difficult. Toronto has far fewer thereminists than I’d guessed. I had to bring one in from Guelph [Jeff Bird]. In Portland, Oregon, I thought there would be one on every street corner, but they were very hard to find. Even Asheville, N.C., which is where [Robert] Moog built theremins, we had to bring one up from Atlanta. The Moog corporation said, “No, we don’t know any talented, gifted theremin players.” Then New York, as you would expect, has this nice community of great players.

There are a few different types of people who are attracted to the theremin. One of the types are these incredible interpreters who just stumbled across this instrument, for whom this is the way they can best communicate their secret hearts. They are the kind of musician I love the most, with a certain virtuosity that is surpassed by the spirit with which they play.

Some of them are real engineers. They really understand the electrical element of it: how the amplitude and voltage interact. There’s a much more engineers’ approach to the instrument that I don’t see with other musicians. A lot of really gifted ones are like carpenters or violinists, where their instrument is just a tool to communicate sound. There’s something refreshing about musicians who play with such elaborate contraptions that can still just see it as, “Oh, this is just a thing that I manipulate in order to make music.”

Monday, November 03, 2014

Philip Bast R.I.P.

Philip Bast was one of the best.

The former arts editor of the Waterloo Record died peacefully in his sleep last night, age 63. The paper’s story is here.

He was a incredibly kind and generous and supportive man—and I’m not just saying that because he let me do whatever I wanted in the Waterloo Record column he gave me 15 years ago—which I still maintain, for reasons no one can figure out. I’m pretty sure no one there has even edited it since he retired. It’s the same column from which I repost reviews here.

I had just lost my job at a magazine for which I had sweat blood and invested considerable amounts of my non-existent savings while I worked for less than peanuts. It was my pride and joy, but I should have known that magazine—run on a shoestring and existing far outside anything that would ever add up to a real job—was never going to be my future. Philip Bast was the first person who called me to offer work, at a mainstream daily paper owned by Torstar. He wanted me to take over the CD review column and do whatever else I thought needed doing. Carte blanche, basically. To me, he was a man of a different generation and (largely) different tastes who recognized my worth as a writer—and that meant the world to me.

Such was our hands-off relationship that we didn’t have much of a real one. That didn’t preclude his face from lighting up the room whenever he saw me—or anyone, really—at the Jane Bond, with a slap on the back and a firm handshake and a greeting from a dulcet voice made for radio that, had it come from anyone else, might seem almost insincere. Philip Bast was nothing if not sincere. A good man. A real mensch. The last time I saw him was, sadly, seven years ago, when he drove from K-W to Guelph just to loan me a tarp to help my ladyfriend move to Toronto. I still have it. I'm a dick.

Everyone I know in the K-W arts community would tell me Phil was always at every opening, every CD release, everything arts-related that mattered in the town he loved—a town that loved him back.

He experienced a horrifying tragedy late in life; he soldiered through it with public grace and a seven-year trial. He was bought out of his job and offered a package to take early retirement—at the incredibly young age of 51 (if my math is correct). He started doing community television and became a videographer. He lived long enough to become a grandfather. On the night before his death of an apparent heart attack, he was out at a blues concert and a screening of a documentary he helped produce, on local bluesman Mel Brown.

He spent his final night editing video, saying goodnight to his wife of more than 40 years, and then falling asleep in his reclining chair watching the news.

R.I.P., you beautiful bear of a man.

October 2014 reviews

Highly recommended, reviewed earlier: Perfume Genius, Aphex Twin, Daniel Lanois

Recommended: Budos Band, Prince, Touré-Raichel Collective

As always, the following reviews first ran in the Waterloo Record.

Rich Aucoin – Ephemeral (Bonsound)

It’s September 2014: dozens of think pieces have been written about the fact Arcade Fire’s Funeral album is now 10 years old. Carbon traces of that album can be heard in much of today’s rock music, whether it’s the new U2 single or the piano-pulsing anthems by folkie band the Strumbellas or this entire album by Halifax techno artist Rich Aucoin. 

Arcade Fire, of course, took some disco detours on their latest album, Reflektor, with mixed results. Aucoin—whose voice bears an uncanny resemblance to Arcade Fire’s Win Butler at times—has made an album showing us what would have happened if that band had dove even deeper into discotheques, setting the stadium-sized choral choruses of Funeral to peppy pop music that sounds like Skrillex cutting up Katy Perry songs.

Like Butler on his sunnier days, Aucoin wants to lift listeners out of darkness and offer an escape: “In times like this I want to be a believer,” goes one chant. The best and worst thing about Aucoin is that he’s a musical motivational speaker: it’s one thing to make a consistently strong dance party record like he does here; it’s another to feel like your personal trainer made you a mix tape.

If you step out from Funeral’s shadow and surrender to the ecstasy Aucoin’s peddling here, Ephemeral is a rush of a ride, a carefully controlled 30-minute release of endorphins and dopamine. There are just enough dynamics to prevent it from being an all-out onslaught, and Aucoin knows how to write the songs that can make the whole world sing. Indeed, most of the choruses here feature what sounds like entire small towns singing along.

This is not music that wants to be stuck in an indie ghetto or confined to the small clubs of Canada. Aucoin creates a big tent and wants the entire world dancing in it. No doubt they will, soon enough. (Oct. 4)

Download: “City of Love,” “They Say Obey,” “Yelling in Sleep”

Budos Band – Burnt Offering (Daptone/Maple)

What if Curtis Mayfield had produced a Black Sabbath record in the mid-1970s? The Budos Band have obviously asked themselves this question while making their fourth album. Budos have always been the heaviest players in the Daptone roster—where they share company (and members) with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley, Antibalas, Menahan Street Band, etc.—but this is the first time the songs have been fuzzed-out guitar riffs, not Afrobeat horns or Ethiopian jazz melodies. The horns are in full force, of course: bold, brash and with the baritone sax providing maximum muscle. Budos boast the only headbanger horn section whose jazz chops are indisputable. This sound could easily be gimmicky, but there is conviction and power in every note here. Do not, under any circumstance, miss a chance to see this band live. (Oct. 30)

Download: “Into the Fog,” “Shattered Winds,” “Magus Mountain”

Goat – Commune (Sub Pop) 

When this band played Lee’s Palace in Toronto in June, as part of the NXNE festival, I ran into a music media mogul before their set. He couldn’t contain his excitement or anticipation. “You’re going to love this!” he shouted at me. “It’s like Led Zeppelin meets Fela Kuti!” He wasn’t far off.

Goat are neither British nor Nigerian nor, despite their recent signing to Sub Pop, American. They’re Swedish, claiming to reside in a tiny commune north of the Arctic Circle. The costumes donned seem to be cribbed from dozens of cultures at once. Feathers were involved. The two frontwomen started the set by lighting incense at each side of the stage. It’s a trip.

Commune commences with solemn ringing of a solitary bell; each stroke rings out for about ten seconds before decaying into silence. Finally, a trance-like West African guitar riff begins, followed by the singer exhorting you to “call my name when you talk to God.” Guitar solos are played with distortion and wah pedals. The women push the upper registers of their vocal limits. The drummer has a jazzy touch. The percussion and keyboards are welcome textures, but the guitars rule. The formula rarely changes; you wouldn’t want it to during the 40 minutes you spend zoning out to Commune.

For obvious reasons, it’s nowhere near as mind-blowing as this band’s live show, but it successfully captures the essence. (Oct. 18)

Download: “Goatslaves,” “Words,” “Talk to God”

Kiesza – Sound of a Woman (Universal)

Calgary-born Kiesza has already landed on the 2014’s top singles of the year, “Hideaway,” thanks to a viral video and a sound that tones down the crushing “bro-step” sound of modern EDM pop and returns to the joyous, diva-driven, soulful house music of the early ’90s. Kiesza was born in 1989, and, like Taylor Swift, is enamoured with music in the year of her birth: Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry, Cathy Dennis (credit to Toronto Star's Ben Rayner for reminding me of this), Crystal Waters, etc. Retro or not—and a cover of Haddaway’s What is Love provides further context—Kiesza has some fine pop songs under her belt, even if most of them involve her reaching for the exact same notes in her register. No matter: she’s a stunning singer, and there is more than enough material on her debut album to suggest she’ll be more than a one-hit wonder. (Oct. 30)

Download: “Hideaway,” “No Enemiesz,” “Losin’ My Mind” (feat. Mick Jenkins)

Prince – Art Official Age (Warner)
3rdeyegirl – Plectrumelectrum (Warner)

Why do we expect new Prince albums to be good? Why?

There’s the small matter that he was the decade-defining creative force that dominated the 1980s, continued to release great music well into the 1990s, and then—well, and then we all keep waiting for a Prince album to thrill us as deeply as his live show does consistently. After an uncharacteristic four-year absence, Prince returns with both a solo album and a new band.

Rock critics remembering that it’s the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain have longed for Prince to show off his guitar heroics once again—but be careful what you wish for. Plectrumelectrum is interesting only in the way that eavesdropping on a jam by Prince’s garage band might be. The fact he occasionally surrenders lead vocals to his female bandmates doesn’t help matters any. The songs are weak, the arrangements are bland, and the guitar solos aren’t even that great—shocking, really, when you consider that Prince is the greatest guitarist of his generation. Also: he’s done tossed-off garage rock before, and much better, on the underrated 1996 album Chaos and Disorder, an album lost in the shuffle during a time when he was itching to get out of his Warner contract. If it’s hard to imagine the Purple One fronting a crappy grunge-blues band—well, it’s not that hard anymore.

Thank God, then, for Art Official Age, a pop/R&B album made for any fan who hasn’t bothered with Prince since 1996’s Emancipation. There are sonic nods to 1999, Parade and Sign O the Times, and even if there’s no song here that would ever catapult onto a future greatest-hits comp, yet there is ample display of everything at which Prince has ever excelled: the tight funk grooves, the unbelievably elastic voice, the jazz harmonies, the sultry slow jams, the unconventional instrumental voicings. When he was his creative prime, Prince’s B-sides were where he really stretched out his creative impulses—and so to say that those B-sides are what Art Official Age most resembles is in no way a slag.  

Now: let’s have a tour, please! (Oct. 4)

Download Prince: “The Gold Standard,” “Clouds,” “Breakfast Can Wait”
Download 3rdeyegirl: “Pretzelbodylogic,” “Tictactoe,” “Funknroll”

The Touré-Raichel Collective – The Paris Session (Cumbancha)

There are no formal diplomatic relations between the governments of Israel and Mali. So there are obvious political undertones when two musicians, Jewish Israeli pianist Idris Raichel and Muslim Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, collaborate and cross-pollinate so effectively, as they do here, on their second time together in the studio. Their 2012 debut was recorded in Tel Aviv; this was to made in Bamako, Mali, but the country was deemed too dangerous in which to record after an Islamist uprising last year. Instead, they relocated to Paris. Both men are subtle players; Raichel often takes a back seat here, while Touré’s tiny bursts of Malian blues leads recede as quickly as they appear. Nothing here sounds remotely like a collision of two cultures; perhaps that’s because Raichel’s appreciation of Touré and his father, Ali Farka Touré, runs deep—he says there was a time when he listened daily to the elder Touré’s landmark collaboration with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu (they cover that record’s “Diaraby” here). Considering the chemistry heard here, this might even be the better album. (Oct. 30)

The Touré-Raichel Collective plays Toronto’s Koerner Hall on Nov. 21.

Download: “Tidhar,” “Hodu,” “Debo”