Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Review: Roscoe Mitchell,
Bells for the South Side

Roscoe Mitchell. Bells for the South Side. 2 CDs. ECM Records. 2017. Total playing time: 2:07.31.

Here are five pieces for trio performances, with Roscoe Mitchell joined by James Fei and William Winant, Hugh Ragin and Tyshawn Sorey, Kikanju Baku and Craig Taborn, and Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal. And another six pieces, with the musicians (all multi-instrumentalists) regrouped in “new configurations,” as the liner notes put it, leaving the listener to make educated guesses as to who’s playing what and when. The music that results, notated and improvised, is sometimes spare, sometimes dense, with a special emphasis on bells, drums, and gongs.

A few highlights: “Spatial Aspects of the Sound” begins with bells and pianos (keys dampened or struck sharply, strings plucked) and ends with the delicate interplay of glockenspiel, piano, and piccolo. “Prelude to a Rose” (whose title recalls Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss”) begins and ends with sinuous horn ensembles, with free-ranging communication among saxophone, trumpet, and trombone (Mitchell, Ragin, Sorey) in between. “Bells for the South Side” begins with sleighbells, a ringing telephone, and a siren; Ragin’s piercing piccolo trumpet enters against a ghostly thicket of percussion, suggesting a lament for those lost to violence on Chicago’s streets. “Red Moon in the Sky” evokes the Art Ensemble of Chicago in high gear, with horns and percussion blazing. And “Odwalla,” the Art Ensemble’s closing theme, is a final surprise: a slow groove, with Mitchell introducing each musician for a brief solo. These two hours of music travel by in what feels like much less time.

I have heard Roscoe Mitchell in performance with the Art Ensemble of Chicago (five times); with Thomas Buckner, Harrison Bankhead, and Jerome Cooper; with Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis; and with Jack DeJohnette’s Special Legends Edition Chicago. And on dozens of recordings. I’m grateful for the chance to open my ears once again.

These performances were recorded in September 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in conjunction with The Freedom Principle, an exhibit marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. As it’s an ECM recording, the sound is impeccable. Full personnel details, samples, and a video clip at the ECM website.

The program:

Spatial Aspects of the Sound : Panoply : Prelude to a Rose : Dancing in the Canyon (Taborn-Baku-Mitchell) : EP 7849 : Bells for the South Side : Prelude to the Card Game, Cards for Drums, and The Final Hand : The Last Chord : Six Gongs and Two Woodblocks : R509A Twenty B : Red Moon in the Sky/Odwalla. All compositions by Roscoe Mitchell except as noted.

Dream commercial

In last night’s sleep, a commercial for The Tonight Show: Johnny was welcoming Angie Dickinson, the United States Marine Band, and “a great deal of thinkers.” Make that a great many thinkers. Mass nouns v. count nouns.

I can fix usage problems, even in dreams. But there’s no ad-blocker to use while sleeping.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Organized squirrels

News from the cute-animal kingdom: “Like trick-or-treaters sorting their Halloween candy haul, fox squirrels apparently organize their stashes of nuts by variety, quality and possibly even preference.”

A related post
KNUT Winter Schedule

Sean Spicer at the Emmys

Spencer Kornhaber, writing about Sean Spicer’s appearance at the Emmy Awards:

The Hollywood establishment, in overwhelming part, likes to present itself as in opposition to the Trump administration. But turning the PR guy for that administration into just another character in the entertainment landscape, a lovable provider of quips and shticks, flattens the moral dimensions of the national debate. It says that, deep down, politics is just sport, just drama. Which then undercuts the anti-Trump stands made on the Emmys stage.
Seeing Colbert and Spicer last night, I had to recall the infamous (to my mind) remarks that CBS executive chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves made during last year’s primaries:
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he said of the presidential race. . . .

"Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? . . . The money’s rolling in and this is fun,” he said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going,” said Moonves.
The Emmy Awards aired, of course, on CBS.

Twelve more movies

[No sentence count. No spoilers.]

Hail, Caesar! (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2016). Hollywood in the fifties, with movies within the movie: an aquatic extravaganza, a biblical epic, a drawing-room drama, a Gene Kelly-esque musical, and a western. And in the plot of this movie itself, a vaguely Hitchcockian story of a politically motivated kidnapping. Great fun. “Would that it ’twere so simple.”


Max Rose (dir. Daniel Noah, 2016). Jerry Lewis as an eighty-seven-year-old jazz pianist, widowed after sixty-five years of marriage, wondering whether his wife was unfaithful and setting out to learn the truth. An unflinching picture of what it can be like to be old — a pill regimen, endless television, and the past and present blurring. The film jumps the shark (during a phone call to Max’s devoted adult granddaughter) but manages to recover. I learned about Max Rose only with the news of Jerry Lewis’s death.


Un peu de festival du René Clair

Sous les toits de Paris (dir. René Clair, 1930). A love quadrilateral, with a beautiful woman (beauty seems to be her only defining feature) and three male rivals: a street singer, his best pal, and a crook. The street-singing scenes are wonderful; the story itself is thin. The camerawork might make you wonder, even now: how did they do that?

À nous la liberté (dir. René Clair, 1931). A comic masterpiece about work and freedom. “Le travail, c’est la liberté” is a slogan that comes up in the film. To which Clair replies, Non. Prison is one form of prison. Work, as prison escapees discover, is but another. Chaplin shamelessly borrows from this film in Modern Times. I’m convinced that O Brother, Where Art Thou? contains a respectful tip of the hat.


Un pequeño festival de Pedro Almodóvar

The Flower of My Secret (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 1995). A romance writer and her discontents. Tired of formulaic plots, Leo Macías (played by Almodóvar regular Marisa Paredes) writes something much darker. What kind of plot will now develop in her life? Intertextuality alert: Leo’s dark fiction becomes the stuff of Almodóvar’s Volver (2006).

Talk to Her (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 2002). Two women in comas, one a bullfighter, the other a dancer. Two men, each devoted to one of the women. A friendship between the men. A compelling story of fidelity and its evil twin obsession. To watch the elements of this complex narrative begin to fall into place is pure delight.

All About My Mother (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 1999). A bereft mother leaves Madrid in search of her past life in Barcelona, where she makes a new life in the company of a transgender prostitute, a young nun, and two actresses. All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire figure heavily in the narrative. A further intertextuality alert: a scene from The Flower of My Secret becomes a crucial element here. Of the eight Almodóvar films I’ve now seen, All About My Mother and Volver are my favorites.


Down Three Dark Streets (dir. Arnold Laven, 1954). An FBI procedural. When a fellow agent is killed in the line of duty, Broderick Crawford takes over his three cases, hoping that one of them will lead to the killer. Some genuine shocks and surprises, some good Los Angeles location shots, and a great turn by Marisa Pavan. And there are telephone EXchange names. At YouTube.


Borderline (dir. William A. Seiter, 1950). Fred MacMurray and Claire Trevor as drug smugglers, sort of, and Raymond Burr as a drug kingpin and something of a poor man’s Laird Cregar. (There is only one Laird Cregar.) With a weirdly comic overlay of sexual attraction between MacMurray and Trevor, à la It Happened One Night. “Noon in front of the monkey cages — have you got that?” At YouTube.


Manhattan Tower (dir. Frank Strayer, 1932). Pre-Code life in a tall office building, with adultery, financial speculation, leering clerks, spunky secretaries, one sugar daddy, many wisecracks, and Art Deco interiors. Ira Morgan and Harry Reynolds take us from floor to floor with inventive camera work and editing. At YouTube.


The Big Bluff (dir. W. Lee Wilder, 1955). Do you remember Martha Vickers, who plays young, damaged, sexy Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep? Here is Vickers with only two further efforts remaining in her film career, playing a wealthy, terminally ill woman who falls for and marries a con man (John Bromfield) who soon has her drinking, smoking, and staying up till all hours. You can guess why. An alarmingly low-budget production (the director is Billy Wilder’s brother), the kind of movie in which dialogue is unintentionally funny, shadows and patches of light move around on walls, and a corner filled with two or three tables signifies nightclub. But with an interesting twist at the end. At YouTube.


The B-Side (dir. Errol Morris, 2017). A portrait of the photographer Elsa Dorfman, best known for portraits made with a Polaroid 20×24 camera. Dorfman appears to be an entirely untortured artist: her comments on her life and work often end in a happy, unself-conscious giggle. But this film, even at seventy-six minutes, feels endless: it’s mostly Dorfman holding up a rejected (“B-side”) photograph and talking a bit (she makes two exposures per sitting; the customer chooses one); then another photograph; then another. We never get a really good look at the rare camera she uses, much less an explanation of what makes that camera or her photographs distinctive.

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)
Fourteen films : Thirteen more : Twelve more : Another thirteen more : Another dozen : Yet another dozen : Another twelve : And another twelve : Still another twelve : Oh wait, twelve more : Twelve or thirteen more : Nine, ten, eleven — and that makes twelve : Another twelve : And twelve more : Is there no end? No, there’s another twelve : Wait, there’s another twelve : And twelve more : At least eleven more : And twelve more : Another twelve

Zippy mall

[Zippy, September 18, 2017.]

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Zip ties and grout

Kim Tingley recommends zip ties:

Certainly, the evolution of humankind hinged on innovations like the chisel, the bow and arrow, the wheel. But sea otters whack abalone shells with rocks; octopuses build fortresses by stacking coconut shells. What defines our species is not the hammer or the trowel but the nail and the grout. Tools respond to an immediate, even primal need; fasteners are our dreams for the future.
I share her enthusiasm. But as the son of a tileman, I must point out that grout is not typically understood to be a fastener. Grout fills gaps.

[My dad always quietly enjoyed hearing a householder mispronounce the word as /groot/.]

“The important thing is handwriting”

[Chus Lampreave, Ángel de Andrés López, and Juan Martínez. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 1984. Click for a larger view.]

Three generations: grandmother, father, son. Dad is asking about how school is going. Dad is a cabdriver. Also a forger.

Related reading
All OCA handwriting posts (Pinboard)

Saturday, September 16, 2017


OCR App (LEAD Technologies) is a Mac app for optical character recognition. The results are not perfect, but the app is free. The app icon: T as in text.

I tried OCR App with a recent piece of writing. A scan of an image file of the first page began:

It was a beautiful morning on the Martin farm. Sun streamed into the kitchen, where Paul and Ruth Martin and Uncle Petrie were enjoying a second cup of couee. Lassie was drinking from her water dish. The sunlight made her coat glisten. Timmy Martin was just finishing his milk when his mother noticed a small story in the Calverton Herald.
Almost perfect. Small glitches with apostrophes and quotation marks were the only other problems. A scan of a PDF of the whole story was better: OCR App missed a couple of dashes, misread goin’ as gain’, and turned a quotation mark into the numeral 11. Be prepared to proofread carfully.

Anyone who makes significant use of optical character recognition will probably require an app with greater accuracy. But for occasional use, this free app is perfect.

[If there’s any doubt: carfully is a joke.]

Friday, September 15, 2017

“Like all gamblers”

Stefan Zweig, Burning Secret. 1911. The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig. Trans. Anthea Bell (London: Pushkin Press, 2015).