μ (sic)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


The International Sejong Soloists are a conductorless string ensemble founded by Hyo Kang, who named the group after the Korean king most revered for his devotion to culture and the arts. Based in New York, their members come from eight different countries, but there's definitely a certain Korean flavor about the whole organization, and they receive a lot of support and attention from the Korean community.

On Sunday night, I had the privilege of volunteering at their eighth annual benefit concert, held at Zankel Hall, Carnegie's jewelbox space for recitals. My role consisted mostly in helping to welcome the guests in various ways: guiding them to the coat check at the reception, pointing them to their tables for dinner, handing out gift bags afterwards, answering questions at the silent auction.

I was a little worried about bumping into my boss while serving as a valet — Ambassador Kim was scheduled to attend, though I believe he never arrived, and though the evening's honoree, Ban Ki-moon, was not in attendance (he was in Bali, helping to nail down the climate treaty), I thought I might bump into Mr. Yoon Yeo-cheol, his personal secretary and a former Counsellor at the Korean Mission. I didn't see either of them, but I did get chatted up extensively by an older woman who claimed to be a "UN correspondent" and wanted to know about the new ambassador's personality. I said little.

Probably the most interesting part of the whole experience (besides the music) was getting to wander around in the interior of Carnegie Hall. I've still never been in the main hall, but I've now been in a couple of the reception spaces, and also in the maze that constitutes Carnegie's vast backstage. There are hallways and more hallways, about as glamorous as government archives and similarly appointed with cheap linoleum and fluorescent lighting. The elevators have elaborate notes next to each button to help you figure out which hall's mezzanine or whatever you're about to land behind.

When it came time to move from the dinner space to the concert, I ended up lost with a young Korean volunteer and the event coordinator, and it felt very "Hello Cleveland" to be doubling back and asking security how to get to the hall. We finally found ourselves standing before a door that said "Mezzanine," and below that, "THIS DOOR MUST REMAIN CLOSED AT ALL TIMES." After a bit of hesitation — we were desperately trying to avoid walking out on stage by accident — I decided to take the plunge, and fortunately we wound up exactly where we were supposed to be.

The music is what drew me to volunteer — I had seen Sejong once before and been deeply impressed with their passionate intensity — and on Sunday they did not disappoint. After a bit of speechifying, hosted by TV journalist Paula Zahn, a longtime friend of the ensemble, the performance began on a conservative note, with Haydn's Notturno in F major. It's the kind of piece that too many ensembles are willing to sleepwalk through, but Sejong dug in with admirable vigor. Two Bach cantatas, "Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen" and "Weichet nur betrübte Schatten," bounced along nicely on Yousun Chung's jaunty oboe, though I would have appreciated less anachronistic warble from soprano Hyunah Yu.

Yu's performance was altogether more extraordinary on Gordon Shi-wen Chin's outstanding Haiku for Voice and Strings, a work that alternated between churning, engine-like rumbles and cascades of sliding notes that fell like tears. The vocals were less sung than cried out in a plaintive, repeating wail, as Yu recited three haikus, the first and third by Basho, and the second by Buson:
Oh Summer grasses
all that remains
of the warriors' dreams

I go
and you stay
two autumns

Turn this way
I too feel lonely
late in autumn
The performance was literally breathtaking, and I was literally moved to tears.

After the intermission, the Soloists came back with a couple more warhorses, but really good ones: Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, a blast of a technical showpiece, and then Dvořák's Waltz, Op. 54, No. 1, an utterly lovely Romantic confection.

And then there was Zahn. Paula Zahn fancies herself a cellist, and she would not be embarrassing as, say, a quirky addition to a rock band for a couple of numbers. With the Sejong Soloists, however, her shortcomings were painfully obvious, and it was all too clear that she was on that stage not because she has musical talent, but because she is a rich and influential woman whose vanity is worth appeasing. She and the Soloists performed an original work commissioned from Eric Ewazen, a schmaltzy and easy-to-play set of romantic clichés titled A Poem of Hope. I was reminded of a story I was once told, possibly apocryphal, by a composer and arranger who claimed that there had once been an annual tradition in which a particular wealthy madame rented out Carnegie Hall in order to sing, and that this was a major event on the social calendar, where the challenge was to get through the whole performance without bursting out laughing.

Fortunately the Soloists had one further trick up their collective sleeve: for Edward Elgar's Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47, they were joined by the Jilliard String Quartet, whose poise and feeling were a fine counterbalance to Sejong's fire.

I left that night with a gift bag and a smile, having met some fascinating new people, supported a worthy organization, and been touched by an extraordinary ensemble.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

[dizzy in frisco]

Dizzybam (MySpace)

Okay, so maybe you had to be there. Maybe you had to be packed into the Berkeley Square on a Saturday night, in a crowd that mixed university kids, cholos, skate punks, backpacker hip-hop kids from Oakland. Maybe you had to wait while the band set up their instruments — a couple guitars, a trap set, congas, horn mikes — dancing in the meantime to some song you'd never heard before, some kind of psychedelic masterpiece built around a broken Gene Chandler sample, while Japanese anime porn played on the screen in front of the stage. In those days, before the Web, these kinds of sights and sounds were something you had to travel for. And then the DJ would cut out, the screen would go up, and a crowd would pour onto the stage, as mixed up as the crowd on the floor, and led by Fredimac, a tall blond rapper who would whip us into a bouncing frenzy.

Dizzybam never went anywhere. Most of the bands from those days didn't — Fungo Mungo, MCM and the Monster, Blüchunks, Aztlan Nation — but that was never the point. And the demos never seemed to do justice to the experience of standing there at the edge of the stage as the horns hit and the singer started jumping and the crowd pressed in from behind. Dizzybam's no different in that respect: the record that remains is a shadow of what was. But I'm glad I found it out there to remind me of those amazing Berkeley nights when Dizzybam rocked the house and for a moment the world felt real.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Friday, November 16, 2007

[countries: afghanistan]

Shakeela Naz

Fawad Ramiz

Kandahar Prince

There are 192 countries in the world. Today begins my alphabetical musical journey through all of them. Some, like the United States and the United Kingdom, will be overwhelming in their wealth of material. For others, like Kiribati, it may be hard to find anything at all. Nevertheless, here we go.

It's fitting that we begin with Afghanistan, which is more or less in the middle of the vast landmass that is Eurasiafrica and has long been a global crossroads. It's fitting, too, that the music has a rhythm that throws us off balance. Indeed, it's not just the rhythm: the music itself is a disorienting cross between Greek bouzouki music and North Indian light classical, tied together with the plinky-plinky sound of Central Asia. The merging of Greek, Persian, Central Asian and Indian influence is more or less the story of Afghanistan in a nutshell.

"Morad e Dil," by Fawad Ramiz, has more of a pop sound to it, but still that whirling rhythm that sounds like it's from everywhere: the Balkans, North Africa, Pakistan.

The last track, "Muslims 4 Life," is by the rapper Kandahar Prince, aka Hamid from Upstate, who likes to name-check Schenectady from time to time. I acknowledge that he's not very good, and one could quibble about whether a rap in English by someone living in Schenectady is genuinely the music of Afghanistan. But as we set out on a musical journey around the world, it's good to remember that borders are fictions and that cultures are malleable and endlessly overlaid and intermixed — as they have been in Afghanistan since the dawn of time.

I am grateful to Mastana.net for its vast collection of Afghani music, which is provided in an easy-to-browse interface that I thoroughly recommend checking out.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, November 9, 2007

[happy diwali]


Old Telugu Songs

Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson
Nirali Magazine

Tonight begins the festival of Diwali (or Deepavali, or Tihar), the South Asian festival of lights. This seems like a perfectly good excuse for digging up a few Indian songs from various corners of the web. I don't know much about any of these songs, but here goes.

"Diwali Di Rat Deevay," by Bhai Kanwarpal Singh, is part of Gurmat Sangeet Project, "a grass-roots level effort dedicated to the preservation and propagation of the Gurmat Sangeet tradition, which can be traced all the way back to Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of the Sikh religion."

"Deepavali Nee" is on a website called TamilBeat.com and seems pretty contemporary, but I couldn't find anything beyond that. Info is welcome.

"Deepavali Deepavali" is a mournful song, which seems odd for the holiday, but it's part of a movie and presumably has something to do with the plot. Sung by Balasaraswati, a famous South Indian dancer (or at least I think it's the same Balasaraswati; for all I know, finding Balasaraswatis in Hyderabad is like finding guys named Anthony in Brooklyn).

And finally, we come to The Office and its loopy celebration of Diwali. Have a happy, happy, happy, happy Diwali!

Labels: ,

Thursday, November 8, 2007

[the origins of g-funk]

Ohio Players

Frankie Smith
Children of Tomorrow

Let's start this off right!

Welcome to my new blog dedicated to music. The Ohio Players' Pleasure is a good place to start, since pleasure is at the heart of my love of music, and few forms of music give me quite the gut level of pure pleasure that funk does.

"Funky Worm," from 1972, is narrated by Grandma and tells the story of "the funkiest worm in the world." Naturally. What makes the song really stand out, though, is the astonishing synthesizer noise that takes off at 0:45, from which the entire edifice of G-funk was built. I only recently discovered this track, but it demonstrates definitively that Dr. Dre owes his whole career to about 10 seconds by the Ohio Players. As Grandma says, "Like nine cans of shaving powder: that's funky." A statement like that brooks no argument.

While we're at it, that whole wacky Snoop Dogg "Izzle" language also has a point of origin: the proto-hip-hop song "Double Dutch Bus" by Frankie Smith, from 1981. The Izzle kicks in at around 1:51.


Labels: ,

Previous Posts

[dizzy in frisco]
[countries: afghanistan]
[happy diwali]
[the origins of g-funk]


November 2007
December 2007
Music Blogs

Locust St.
music (for robots)
SoundRoots Misc