Back, and badder than ever…

Badder in relative, but that’s all we got. The word for the past 6 months is “incremental”. It has incrementally warmed here in the northeast of the U.S. We had a historic stretch of bitter cold, dry cold, occasional winter precip, and it just. would. not. end. I know that last Memorial Day (informal harbinger of summer) it was 52F and spitting rain. This year it was marginally warmer, but still cold and a little wet. That’s it for my weather recap. Weather. Better than having no weather at all.

My exploits with my band fuchsprellen have been likewise, incremental. We had a pair of shows in early May. The first was at Best Video in Hamden, CT, a reprise of the quartet from the previous gigs: Me on Animoog synth; Peter Riccio on drums; Richard Brown on sax and guitar; Steve Chillemi on soprano sax and percussion. That is a really fun lineup. Everyone gets the basic concept and can play with power while listening to the ensemble and still controlling their volume. I’ll have a link to the audio soon, but suffice it to say it was a good time. My memory is of looking up after 15 minutes and we had not lost any of our audience. Great feeling.

The second gig was the result of a comic string of communication problems. The Outer Space in Hamden, CT was the venue, and the Sunday early slot is the Sunday Jazz slot, booked by Nick DeMaria (trumpeter and all around jazzy impresario). Nick asked me if fuchsprellen could play the Sunday set. I said yes and then had the bright idea to ask Jeff Cedrone to play keys with us. His response: I can’t, I’m playing at the Outer Space with Light Upon Blight! Which is both coincidental and not coincidental since Nick Never said it was all fuchsprellen. The upside is that Peter Riccio plays drums in both bands. In the meanwhile both Steve and Richard begged off the gig. What we ended up with was back to back trio sets with the same lineup, but different concepts and execution. I love this kind of thing and we made the most of it. As with the BV gig, audio links will be forthcoming.

The core of these shows was a very/totally improvised concept and a totally open sonic palette. All three sets had a tendency to get heavy, but they also had a lot of dynamic range and harmonic variety. Tonal, composed, and form-heavy music is everywhere. I love much of it. But I could not be happier than when making something else. Fuchsprellen is decidedly “something else”.

Long Time, No Blog…

I have been very busy doing things, hence I have not been blogulating or otherwise documenting things. Since this is site is relatively solipsistic, I don”t think it has caused a problem with the public at large…

First, a follow-up on the ACA bruhaha that has been percolating since my last post in October: Anti-ACA folks in government, industry, major media, etc… have one thing in common. They all have or seem to have no worries about the availability or cost of their own healthcare. I’m sure it isn’t 100% but I am also sure that Rush Limbaugh is not paying $1300/mo for shit coverage, or getting denied coverage for his many pre-existing conditions. On the far far far far right (I hope) are the people who think that ACA is “government-run healthcare”, is “worse than hitler, stalin and pol pot”, or is somehow making things “worse”. No. Just like Medicare and Medicad solved actual problems for the poor and old, this solves problems for everyone else. I feel like any further attempt at rationality is futile here, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Item 2: The simplest explanation for the rapid climate change the planet is currently experiencing is proving to be more likely each day. Take all that carbon that the geologic cycle had the good sense to “sequester” under the ground, pump it back into the atmosphere at a supernatural rate, and bingo: climate change. Unfortunately for us humans, the climate may very well be changing back to pre-human conditions. Bad news, meatbags.

Item the Third: Dear Hartford, Connecticut. City Hall will never make your city better. You have to do that yourself. Once you start doing that, City Hall can give you a push. Look around at cities that are fighting their way back an winning. They have active communities, taking pride in them, and working to solve problems. While that happens in Hartford, I think the residents have to give up on any tangible help from their city government. It is a snake pit, and is in no danger of getting any less snakier any time soon.

More hot blog action to come. Maybe something not filled with so much snark, but filled with a little more subtlety.

Great Expectations, etc…

In an ideal world I would move forward with music projects and finding ways time to spend quality time with my family and friends. That’s about the scope of what i fit under “ideal”. Nothing fancy. No private submarines, Tibetan mountain retreats, million dollar hyper-cars…

But I also read my share of news, and keep up on some politics and current events. It gets tedious because I am dedicated to improving systems and building better mousetraps. When I see the statistics on the US healthcare system, I cringe. Really, anyone with a soul should cringe, even if they have excellent insurance and a high level of confidence that their personal situation delivers positive outcomes. We have the highest costs and in return we get outcomes that are the laughingstock of the developed world. Industrial nations can and should do better, and most do.

We have two major throttles to healthcare access in the US: The insurance industry, and the Pharmaceutical/Devices industry. the actual doctors/hospitals situation is merely a functional layer. We have good doctors and good hospitals. in fact. we have some of the best in the world. So that is not the problem. Do they profiteer? Sure. But it is chump change compared to the profiteering by the insurance and pharma industries. My opinion is that the foundational resistance to making healthcare more afforadable in the US comes from the insurance and pharma lobbies. They like the system just like it is. Insurance companies like small pools of insured individuals, just like a casino likes good odds (legalized odds-rigging). Pharmaceutical and med device companies like to make sure that they hold patents as long as possible and reap huge paybacks for as long as possible. The only possible obstacle would be government mandates to cover large pools of people and provide them with affordable care. That would put a dent in their very comfortable bottom lines.

As a result we see a small group of members of the US House of Representatives convincing the Speaker of the House to refuse to bring a vote to the floor on a seemingly unrelated issue: Spending and Spending cap. The bulk of the spending has absolutely nothing to do with health care. But what it does is shut down a big chunk of the government, creating a lever to gain traction they otherwise failed to muster when the Affordable Care Act was voted on in both houses of Congress, passed by both houses of Congress, and then found constitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States. The members of the house who are driving this bus had the opportunity to vote, did so, and failed. This current ploy of causing a government shutdown was certainly choreographed at that time. Otherwise we would have seen the usual riders, alternative language, markup… you know… the process as we know it. But just like the non-existant republican jobs plan, manufacturing plan, foreign policy plan, international trade plan (this list really does go on for ever), there was never a republican health care plan. Well, except for the part where the ACA is based on the health care system introduced in Massachusetts by Mittens Romney (back when he was Governor of Taxachusetts, before he was nominated by the RNC to run for President in 2012). But Mittens is a horrible republican! Really! Horrible! Just ask the people who held up Romney signs at the 2012 RNC Convention.

The skinny is that there are a lot of moving pieces here: political posturing; table setting for the 2014 and 2016 election cycles; a rallying cry to enhance the flagging reputations of the hard-right of the republican party… but the real driver might just be the republican version of “American Idol” where the winner gets a big chunk of campaign finance from the insurance and pharma industries. The kind of backing that differentiates winners from losers in the next two elections. That is the kind of thing that we see tons of in American politics. Don’t buy the headline, and certainly don’t buy the lead stories from partisan news sources. Go long on corporate influence. You will never regret it.

Fox Tossing, and other musical concepts

Over the past two years I have been pursuing my musical goals with more focus, specifically on my commitment to “free music” and improvisation. I caught the free jazz bug early in life and it has continued to be a fundamental force in my musical life. One of the things that has become more clear as I continue to perform music is the gradation within any artistic medium or genre.

An example is “painter”. You meet someone, it turns out that they are a painter. Once you determine that it is “artistic” painting, not house painting or interior painting (an art in itself), what do you really know? Do they work in oils, watercolors, acrylics, natural pigments…? Do they paint people, landscapes, futurist fantasy, naturalist tableau…? Are they working in an established tradition, or school? Otherwise all you know is that they apply paint to a substrate and consider it to be their art.

Music is the same, and might be even harder to pin down. When people hear that I play music they first ask if I am in a “band”. At any time that answer could be “no”, “several”, “yes, kinda”, or “I am a band”. Either way, it is almost never the kind of band they are thinking of, rocking out Mustang Sally to beer-soaked Hartford fratboys. Even if they have a broader conception, they might not get that my band does not have “songs”. In many ways each artist can be considered their own genre. Even if I have been highly influenced by Zappa, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra, Last Exit, and Charles Mingus? Those artists have produced an incredibly broad variety of musical art (OK, maybe not Last Exit :)

I have made this statement as a idee-fixee regarding musical influence: “I love what Mingus was doing in 1964, but he never had to worry about being influenced by Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix”. And he didn’t. I do. All the time.

As a result I spent most of my life playing improvised music and avoiding those influences. Starting in the late 90′s I began to examine and embrace those influences, and act out on them in live performance. I took advantage of an opportunity to play the music of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), and that led to opportunities to delve into the music of Frank Zappa from the performance end of the operation. In there was the opportunity to play “indie rock” with The Sawtelles, and get exposed to a huge array of “indie rock” music that was incredibly diverse. All through that period I was digging deeper into my early influences. The huge array of “unreleased” and “re-issued” Sun Ra recordings continues to be a wonderland of freaky jazz. Getting my ears around the music of Kawabata Makoto and his various Acid Mothers Temple projects was equally revelatory. Stuck in the middle of this period was a seven year string where New Haven Improvisors Collective was my primary outlet for improvisation and structured chaos in music.

I also found out that I have certain skills and priorities that can conflict with musicians at the more “laconic” end of the spectrum. One way in which I have found myself separated from my peers is in my insistence on urgency and timelines. I will literally lay out rehearsals in terms of “we have X rehearsals, totaling Y hours, until date Z to prepare this band”. I believe that results do not happen accidentally, especially when learning to play the work of other composers. Nailing a version of a Frank Zappa composition is not done by accident. Jamming and getting “close” will not suffice. It is my inner Project Manager reaching into my artistic life and getting all pragmatic on the process.

As well, I am aware that each musician I have met and worked with has a very personal set of motivating concepts. Some want to be “the guy”, in the spotlight performing technically difficult material with seeming ease. Some want to validate their love for the party lifestyle. Some want to control others’ actions and occupy the head chair of their personal musical fantasy land. Those motivations are always underlain by other needs, experiences, compensations… And, for better and worse, exposure to those people has allowed me to better understand my own desires and motivations.

That decade of self-education was the densest and most exciting I have experienced. It allowed me to expand my performance opportunities and abilities, and develop a small but exciting network of like-minded muso nutjobs. It allowed me to do something I have done on a regular basis since I was a boy: throw it away and start over.

Not unlike the abstract painter, I feel like there are plenty of other people to participate in the music equivalents of hyper-realism, landscape, portraiture, pop-themes, etc… I have the desire to make music “on the spot” and leave the world of highly structured compositions to other musicians. Following this approach is not easier, at least not in my experience. Just as a Motown band needs a bass player versed in Jamerson, a free music ensemble needs to have members who are versed in the confidence of their ears and reflexes. That is much easier said than done. It is definitely not “easier”.

My current attempt at this musical pathway performs under the name “Fuchsprellen“, an old German word for “Fox Tossing”. You can look it up, or take my word for it that it was a blood sport of 16-17th Century royalty in which small woodland creatures were introduced to a walled compound where royalty would use cloth straps to launch them into the air. This was typically fatal for the animal. But the sheer absurdity of it struck me in a way to use it as a name for my band. It also sounds bad-ass.

Lazy or Persistent? Still not sure…..

[I published ths post with the intent of finishing it the same day. Two weeks later, I finally got to it. P]

One thing that should be obvious from a quick tour through my Flickr page is that I hammer on similar compositional elements from familiar/repeat locations. One reason is habit. I habitually walk in the same locations and often have a camera with me. Those locations provide a similar arrangement of terrain/water/sky and I am tweaking my use of them as positive and negative space (or tellimg myself that I am). But another side of the process is the challenge of revisiting the same compositional elements and finding new subtleties in lighting, atmospherics, optical effects from lens/camera choices, and encountering other users of the same space. Ragged Mountain in Southington has been a regular haunt for something like 36 years, and I keep finding new ways to view the same terrain.

Ragged is the slice of cliff seen northeast of Hart Pond, and east of Wasel Reservoir.

The most prominent feature seen from the summit of the Ragged Mountain main cliff is Meriden Mountain. The view is directly south, down the spine of the “Hanging Hills” of Connecticut’s traprock ridge complex. As I developed a better organized digital photo collection I was able to assemble a calendar-sequenced series of photos of that view. Click on it and you can see it as a slideshow and watch the seasons progress. While a true photo-nerdlinger would have taken all the shots with the same equipment from the same spot, I am not that nerdlinger. I probably have enough photographs in my collection to create similar sets for a few other locations. They would be similarly “similar” but not forming an exact time-lapse. But it does raise the question of “process”. I am not sure if I revisit the same spots for any specific reason other than enjoyment and convenience. That would make the collected photos more of an artifact than a conscious work. But I don’t carry a camera around for my health either. What started as a way to combine  photography time with a hike with my dog or walks with my wife and friends has definitely evolved into a search for interesting clouds/skyscapes and flattering lighting of the landscape. A midday hike may be invigorating, but sunrise or sunset (more likely sunset) provides something closer to “golden hour” lighting and more vivid dimensionality.

If the upside of revisiting the same locations on a regular basis is allowing deeper compositional analysis and targeting better lighting and weather, the downside might be working on the fly to make the most of a visit to a new locale. Recently I was on a drive with my wife and we stopped at a pier across from Galilee/Point Judith, RI. It provided a very different view to the north than you get from the east side of the inlet (Salty Brine/George’s), where buildings obscure a lot of the horizon:

Jerusalem, RI

That is a location that might very well be worth revisiting, though it isn’t all that convenient. It might not be the most photogenic, but it does have a good view of a rare South County perspective, the northern horizon. This is one of the shorts where I am tempted to use Photoshop to knock out the clutter on the left side. There is great detail in the clouds but the wide shot and the fiberglass boat are not helping show it off.

The skill that I hone while working with DSLR gear is getting a good digital negative, and improving my skills at manipulating exposure and focus on the fly. That can include looking for an improvised camera support to allow a better HDR series (since I rarely carry a tripod/monopod) or using spot metering to evaluate the range in a scene before choosing a metering method. I have also become less dependent on auto focus and auto exposure. Aside from occasionally forgetting to set the AF/MF switch on the lens back to AF , I feel like I am better able to hit the intended values on the digital file.

In the upcoming weeks I’ll post a few more example images with detail about the conditions and challenges of the shot. Thanks for reading.

Obligatory Trayvon Martin blog entry

…obligatory in both the sense that everyone seems to have an opinion, is sharing that opinion, and why should I not throw two cents into the e-fountain?

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First, my deepest condolences to not only the Martin family, but the families of all the victims of gun violence. It is easy to be blinded by the media circus and forget that kids are dying at gunpoint every day in staggering numbers. The fact that certain state jurisdictions have made it legal is the subject of this brief personal opinion piece:

When I first heard about the death of Trayvon Martin I was thinking I must have gotten some bad info. Wait? It isn’t until 45 days after the shooting when they charge the shooter? What is the language behind this “Stand Your Ground” law (SYG) in Florida? Did this guy really have 911 on speed dial, as well as the police dispatcher? The shooter had domestic violence priors, yet maintained his carry permit? His daddy is/was a judge? That is pretty fucked up. Cop wannabe’s are everywhere, but they typically refrain from pursuing people based on their gait and wardrobe and starting shit. (Maybe they don’t refrain from that, come to think of it) Well, they might refrain from starting shit unless their daddy is a judge and they had some professional training on SYG from a law enforcement training program. George Zimmerman had both.

…and the details that came out as the public side of the matter unfolded didn’t help me make any sense of it. But I did some reading on the SYG language, and that really freaked me out. It is so broad, and leaves so much latitude in both terms of defining engagement and terms of legal interpretation that I can’t believe that these things aren’t happening several times each week. (it turns out, by one counting, that I am being optimistic) It looked to me like you could basically kill anyone you want, and if you stuck to your story that you felt your life was threatened you would never be held accountable. It STILL looks that way to me. More so.

And not just me… HERE is a recent piece from The Atlantic. Ta-Nehisi Coates sums up what I had been understanding from my own reading on the matter:

Effectively, I can bait you into a fight and if I start losing I can can legally kill you, provided I “believe” myself to be subject to “great bodily harm.” It is then the state’s job to prove — beyond a reasonable doubt — that I either did not actually fear for my life, or my fear was unreasonable.

Proving that the shooter acted one way, or felt another way, is an impossibility. Not only was there no way that George Zimmerman was ever going to be held responsible, there is no way that anyone in Florida will ever be held responsible. Open. Season. Pure and simple as that.

I was near enough to a television on Saturday the 13th to watch some serious gloating and immediate revisionist history by Zimmerman’s defense team. When asked if they thought that the outcome would have been different if the races of the two men were reversed, the answer from attorney Mark O’Mara was “Things would have been different for George Zimmerman if he was black for this reason: he would never have been charged with a crime,”  Which means that in the fantasy land that attorney Mark O’Mara lives in, young black men are discharging firearms and causing deaths of unarmed civilians without legal repercussions. That seems to be the whole George Zimmerman strategy: Hire your legal representatives from a parallel universe.

And that is where I believe the racial issue comes in to play. Would Trayvon Martin have been assumed innocent for 45 days by the Sanford PD? Would he have been given the broad benefit of the doubt if he had pulled the trigger? And I don’t belive so. Aside from the delusional (at the least “delusional for pay”) Mark O’Mara, nobody believes that Trayvon would have been given such gracious treatment.

I won’t belabor the point, but I will say that when the easy reader version of Stand Your Ground comes out in Florida, there will be some serious bloodshed. The use of deadly force has been reduced to a “he said, he’s dead” proposition. As a good friend of mine once said about self defense in the home: “Only one of us will be making any statements”

That approach served Zimmerman very well.

Electric Bass Baggage

Back in 2011 I had what I saw as an “apex moment” as a bassist. My weird little network of connections in the freak music, Zappa, and Beefheart world led to me getting asked to play at a festival in France. The primary motivator in this was the unavailability of former Zappa/Mothers bassist Roy Estrada, and my limited but real connection to former Zappa frontman Napoleon Murhpy Brock and his band The Grandmothers. Two weeks after being asked, I was preparing for Rochefort en Accords 2011 at a house outside Paris.

I have already blogged about the while experience, but this little post is about what I feel now that I have some time, distance, and perspective on the situation. The short of it is that I paid a price for not having strong reading and transcription skills. My forte of having a voice and an ear of my own was trumped by me not being very good at playing like someone else. My ability to play Zappa and Beefheart music is based on my ear, and at times it was clear that my ear was not true enough. The way I hear the part was not going to cut it, especially standing next to people like Napoleon, or Beefheart alums like Jeff Tepper and Eric Drew Feldman. Add in my somewhat odd take on blues standards, due to not having played that stuff in a while, or my inability to play note-for-note off Jeff Tepper’s solo efforts, and the reslt was some competent playing, some fun playing, and one train wreck that I could have avoided by saying my least-favorite word: “no”.

The eventual result was me taking a break from bass, and putting time into synth and electronics. One big reason was to let the bass “rest” for a bit. But the thing that became clear with some time away was that there is a huge amount of baggage that comes with an instrument. When you play bass there is a feeling among other musicians, and other bassists, that the “easy” stuff must be easy for you, when in fact the easy stuff is not easy. If I walked on stage at your typical blues/rock open mic, I couldn’t get through Angie, or Wild Horses, because I don’t practice it, never have, and the intervals and harmony are alien to me. OTOH, play enough Zappa and you learn certain things that keep you on track and make it look “easy”. If someone called “Bamboozled By Love” I might very well nail it. Like most things in life it isn’t easy, but practice is one way to reduce the appearance of effort.

I have taken a hiatus from my instrument of choice before. Variously to play guitar, mandolin, harmonica, synth, dulcimer… or to focus on recording and composition. This time it is the same , but different. I feel that I may have run afoul of the bass-gods by not holding up my end on the basics. The road back from that can be hard, as I know, and it will involve some work that I have avoided for a long time. I expect that I will come back stronger and more versatile, but even if I don’t, I will come back wiser and more willing to put my foot down for myself and my muse. Bass is a cruel mistress. People expect you to hold down the bottom and stay out of the way. The depths to which that offends me are considerable, and I realize that I have to abandon much of what I have done in the past to achieve a clean break from some of those expectations.

I wont go as far as calling my Rochefort gig “Pyrrhic” since I don’t consider the aftermath to be devastating. To the contrary. It was what I said it was: “apex”. It was the apex of a journey started more than 10 years earlier when I put my bass up for consignment and took off on a vacation to Italy with my wife. I have learned many times that you might have to divest of everything before getting a clean start. You might have to say “never again” to have the opportunity present itself, again.

The new journey began much like the last one: a project with my friend Peter Riccio, with a goofy band name and no particular expectations. I don’t expect this journey to be easier, harder, better, or more fruitious. But it will be a journey, and with any luck it generates something I can look back upon with pride, and maybe it has an apex on par with that week in France, and maybe I will have learned enough not to worry about apexes by then.