Retrospective Notes on Three 2010 Shows: Introduction

IWTAS honored and humbled me with a request to write about my three favorite shows of 2010. The assignment has grown in my mind and on paper much too large and verbose, so I'll post the full of what I have written and am writing here and submit to IWTAS a Reader's Digest version.

Introduction: A Helpful, Albeit Silly and Overwrought Metaphor

After 2010’s shortest day I spend part of 2010’s tallest night sitting at the Hideaway bar. I contemplate my assignment: pick three shows and write about them. The man at the piano plays Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” with a feel as if we are drinking in an Old West saloon. He segues into “Blue Christmas” and maintains the saloon feel. Whatever the feel in which he plays does not really matter. The patrons pay only half-attention. The piano man knows that all we are in the mood for is the melody, and the piano man delivers that with minimal affect. The patrons on occasion sing along with a line or two, and it’s proven that Billy Joel knows what he’s talking about.

I think that were we, these bar patrons, at a show, we would be in the mood for more than a melody. We would pay more than half-attention. Most apparent and immediate for each of us as an audience member would be the moment - the ecstatic state of seeing and listening. I devise a silly and overwrought metaphor to guide me in my assignment. The moment is a pearl-headed pin pressed into thick woolen fabric. To step back; to see so many pearls upon thick woolen fabric; to fashion constellations upon topographies; to spot three bright pearls upon peaks of woolen fabric. (It’s a silly and overwrought metaphor, but it helpfully guides my arriving at the following three pearls of 2010.)

Tomorrow: Meredith Monk & SLSO at Powell Hall - 03/13/10


Deliberate Indifference

I went to high school at an all-male college preparatory school. If you're smart, Catholic and a male St. Louisan, then that is where you go. It was a good place, mostly. Students and families of modest means paid what they could afford. The school seemed to take (and seems to continue to take) affirmative steps to promote racial and economic diversity among the student body.

Coming out as gay in such an environment was absolutely out of the question. The supposed insults of "fag," "homo" etc. were thrown around among the students constantly. All of us ... students, teachers and administrators ... were deliberately indifferent toward it. There is a kind of default environment of hostility among an all-male high school as it is ... I hate to imagine what would have happened to the poor kid who was discovered to be gay.

I also regret my own deliberate indifference to all of the slurs. They contributed to an environment that too often ends up deadly. I was only in my teens, but I should have known better to try and confront this environment in some little way.

Here is a little way.



There are few better feelings than that which come from someone whom you admire offering a few kind words of interest and encouragement.


On the Proper Invocation of Infinity

I love Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. I know the screenplay by heart. On command, I can recite the dialogue of the entire film from beginning to end.

The movie came out in 1985. I was 8 years old. The following scene practically documented a rhetorical technique popular among me and my peers - the "I know you are but what am I/Infinity" technique:

"I know you are, but what am I?" has devastating potential far above that of the more retrograde "I am rubber and you are glue" in that it invites the person against whom it is invoked to further mockery. Couched in terms of an existential crisis of identity - but what am I? - it is actually a blunt instrument of schoolyard verbal jujitsu.

Francis: You [Pee-Wee] are crazy.
Pee-Wee: I know you [Francis] are [crazy], but what am I [Pee-Wee]?
Francis: You [Pee-Wee] are a nerd.
Pee-Wee: I know you [Francis] are [a nerd], but what am I [Pee-Wee]?
Francis: You [Pee-Wee] are an idiot.
Pee-Wee: I know you [Francis] are [an idiot], but what am I [Pee-Wee]?

Francis, deemed through this interchange to be not only crazy but also a nerd and an idiot, changes tactics by employing "I know you are but what am I?" against Pee-Wee. After five repetitions of tandem volley of the phrase, the coup de grâce:

Pee-Wee: Infinity.

Now and forever, Pee-Wee knows that Francis is an idiot. Devastating.

"I know you are, but what am I" is, as previously stated, a blunt instrument. The invocation of "Infinity" is more of an art. How many tandem repetitions of "I know you are, but what am I?" should there be before the invocation of "Infinity"? There are no hard-and-fast rules, but surely after one or two repetitions "Infinity" would not be appropriate. Perhaps after three, under certain circumstances. The danger of waiting too long is that your opponent may validly invoke "infinity" before you do. Fortunately for Pee-Wee, his adversary seemed unaware of the "infinity" aspect of the "I know you are, but what am I?/Infinity" technique.

When I was eight years old, I rarely was that fortunate.


Tripping the Medieval Epistemic

This Saturday night July 31st at the Old Rock House, the Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra present their original score to Chapter 2 of Benjamin Christensen's Häxan (1922). Saturday night's presentation represents the first of a series of "sneak previews" of the R&P MPO's full score of the film that will culminate in a full presentation of Häxan in late fall of this year. This Saturday night's show opens with Black James (aka Jennifer McDaniel), whose set will cast a macabre and supernatural mood by way of angular, often menacingly amplified banjo and high-lonesome lyric. Theodore headlines the evening, back in town from sowing spectral seeds of heartache and despair upon this persistently fertile soil of the American Midwest.

Given the tone and tenor of the evening, Häxan's Chapter 2 presents itself as the ideal fit. The setting is the European village of 1488 where, as an opening title card explains, the pervasiveness of folk beliefs and superstition as to the existence of witchcraft make its existence "true." By virtue of this title card explanation, Häxan's ostensibly scientifically rational documentary posture has license to present a wholly incorporated Medieval worldview: Chapter 2 oscillates between a realist depiction of the miserable material condition of common medieval society and a near-equally "real" depiction of a supernatural reality overlying these material conditions.

Amid the squalor and sickness of the medieval village are witches, sorcerors and demons. They offer promises of carnal pleasure and fantastic experiences transcendent of the sexual discipline of the Church and the oppressive misery of the village. The transcendence offered is fantastic, but at the price of bringing only further disease and famine upon the village. Moreover, the transcendence of the tempted individual later proves itself to be a trap. The soul is irreparably debauched and therefore damned. The stakes in this world, then, are high - both for the already-precarious health and safety of the village and for the individual immortal soul. As the old song goes, "The Devil is Real."

The R&P MPO's original score for Häxan picks up in several aspects from where the ensemble left The Last Laugh, Nosferatu and Strike. At varying times and degree, Häxan's visual narrative is a psychological drama of escapist dream and delusion, a documentary of an earlier era both eerie and grotesque, a fever-dream spectacle of the diabolical and profane, and a consciously provocative commentary on the social transaction of violence and torture. The R&P MPO's score for Häxan weaves similar musical threads in service of Haxan's visual threads. Echoes of The Last Laugh's sense of alienation and escapist dream, Nosferatu's eerie and atmospheric foreboding, and Strike's provocative muscularity each have in turn imprinted themselves upon Häxan. Unlike these previous scores, however, Häxan's substance and affect is near-totally "classical/modern." Häxan's score evokes more of the Romantics, Bartók and Glass and less of folk traditions or 20th Century "popular" music. The idea, more than ever, is to "play it straight" in complementary service and support of Haxan's visuals. The idea is to think, feel and travel in a world where the Devil is real - to trip the Medieval epistemic.

Theodore w/ The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra and Black James
Saturday, July 31st
Doors at 8, Show at 9. 21+, $7
The Old Rock House
1200 S. 7th St., STL MO 63104


Pops Palette

This Saturday night, my group the Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra play a new kind of show for us. In addition to serving as a kind of "house band" for a burlesque revue, we're playing a new original score for a short film that we ourselves did not compose. These past few weeks' practices and rehearsals for Saturday night's show have been really different from what we as a group have been accustomed - instead of taking cues and direction from ourselves, we've taken cues and direction from performers and composers with whom we've never worked before. It's been a pleasant and very new experience for us, perhaps not unlike when visiting composers and performers work with an established "symphony orchestra." I like to pretend it's not unlike that, anyway.

Kevin O'Connor is the visiting composer (and our visiting conductor, for that matter). Kevin plays drums in the band 7 Shot Screamers. They're a rockabilly band that's been around quite a while as bands go, and are quite well-known around the country. You may have heard of 7 Shot Screamer's lead singer's alter ego, Clownvis. Anyway, Kevin wrote a score for us to accompany Buster Keaton's One Week. In addition to the regular R&P MPO lineup, Kevin plays the drum kit (and conducts us) and Kevin's 7 Shot band mate Chris Powers plays upright bass.

Kevin composed a percussively kinetic and melodically freewheeling score to One Week that's perfect for the action on the screen. One Week was Keaton's first release on his own as a filmmaker. One gets the feeling when watching One Week that Keaton threw in dozens of sight gags and set pieces that he had been saving up for quite a while. With One Week, Keaton finally had the opportunity to film them. The visuals are non-stop action, and Kevin's non-stop score complements the action wonderfully. What better composer for such a complementary accompaniment than the drummer for a high-energy rockabilly band?

Kevin's score to One Week also is heavily jazz-inflected, the effect (and affect) of which works wonderfully both for the film and for this Saturday night's overall program. R&P MPO mostly know classical, but we gave it a shot. The result of us playing the jazz inflections sounds pretty close (I think) to a pops-style "jazz" of the 1920s ... classical squareness swung.

The 1920s pops-style continues in our accompaniment of the burlesque portions of the program. We've arranged three songs to perform with Lola Von Ella and friends: "Button Up Your Overcoat," "Smile," and "He Needs Me." Two are from the 20s and one is from the 80s, but we're performing them all in that 1920s pops style. Hopefully we'll musically complement the evening's theme: "The Golden Age ... Live on Stage."

Given the R&P MPO's conscious avoidance of "period" music when accompanying "period" films, it's been a new and sometimes challenging experience to rehearse and to arrange consciously "period" music. It's also been a lot of fun. Every song and every style has something to teach you as a composer and as a musician. No doubt our work in rehearsing and arranging the music for Saturday's show will inform our future and less consciously "period" music. Some of that 1920s pops style surely will be part of our future compositional palette.


Take a gander at my guest column at the Super Arrow blog.


Nostalgia Times Two

If I remember correctly, it was early Fall of 1999. My friend Tom and I had been feeding each other a steady supply of new and interesting music. This was back when you still often had to special order CDs and records through the hip record store, or order out of catalogs. There seemed to be a real sense of discovery to every new album ... you had to kind of work for it. Tom was getting me into some really great music. I hope that I did the same for him.

That early Fall we drove from St. Louis to Columbia, MO to see Olivia Tremor Control at the Blue Note. At the time he was dating a girl who went to the University of Missouri and was involved with the college radio station there. We rolled into town and tuned in the college station. They were playing Elephant 6 stuff all day long in anticipation. The show that night was one of the best I ever saw. For the next several years it was practically all Elephant 6 all the time for me. That whole Elephant 6 "Magical Mystery Tour" ethos remains a big part of me. There was something sort of Millenial about it ... like a big pot of 20th century popular music and images all juxtaposed and mixed around. I always go back to it when I feel bored or dissatisfied with whatever I am listening to at the moment. It's nostalgia times two, I suppose.

And so why haven't I seen this yet?



I ratcheted-back my Facebook activity a couple of weeks ago. My reasons are not unlike the reasons of the author of this essay.

Instead of filling that Facebook void with contemplation or productivity over the last two weeks, too much of my energy has been spent here. My experience with internet Scrabble was turning into Lisa Simpson's experience with crossword puzzles. So, today I deleted the ISC interface from my computer. It was like flushing cigarettes down a toilet.