Sunday, May 31, 2015

Laurie Anderson: "The Language of the Future"

Laurie Anderson is one of the 20th and 21st centuries most outstanding talents. Avant garde musician, performance artist, monologuist extraordinaire, raconteur, illustrator, filmmaker, painter, video and film artist, and composer, Anderson has been at the forefront of art performance, creating technologies (along with several instruments like the tape bow violin, the talking stick, and voice filters which she uses extensively in her work) and stunning special effects to help realize her fantastic vision on stage and off. I have seen Laurie Anderson many, many times over the years (I even saw her legendary "United States I - IV" in the early 80s) and whenever she is performing near me, I make an effort to see her (previously here and here).

We had tickets to see her when she was scheduled to perform at the new SF Jazz venue in San Francisco in April 2014, but her husband, the legendary musician Lou Reed had died only six months before. The show was postponed until this year and we got to see her last night at SF Jazz. In the intervening year, Anderson dreamed up a flexible evening of theater she is calling "The Language of the Future," a title from one of her older pieces. The evening is a collection of stories both old and new (I am resisting the temptation to call it a "Greatest Hits" concert but about half the stories she told were familiar to me), and improv music with a different musician every night. She told Robert Hurwitt at SFGate, “I’m going to be improv-ing with several of my favorite musicians. The first time I did improv was with [composer, multi-instrumentalist] John Zorn some six or seven years ago. He said, ‘Let’s do a night of improv,' and I said, ‘Well, uh, who starts? What key are we in?’ I was thinking, this sounds like a very bad idea. But once we started playing, it was thrilling. It was like building a ship and watching it sort of levitate into the air and do different things. It was really fascinating to me.”

She shared the stage last night with bassist Rob Wasserman who has also played with other luminaries, among them Rickie Lee Jones, Branford Marsalis, and Elvis Costello. The two of them wove improv duets (bass and violin) around her spoken word pieces, which, as she explained at the pre-concert talk, were all centered on animals. I was pleased to revisit some of her older pieces like "Langue d'Amour" from her 1984 album "Mister Heartbreak" (an ethnic folkstory about a woman and man who live on an island but the woman falls in love with a talking snake) and the show's title track, "The Language of the Future" which was part of her "United States I - IV" performance and subsequent four-disc set. She performed a touching, poignant piece which I seem to recall from her previous performance piece called "Delusion" about her dying mother talking to animal hallucinations on the ceiling, thanking them for everything. I also really enjoyed her song "The Whale" from "The Ugly One With the Jewels," which is a story about John Lilly:

John Lilly,
the guy who says he can talk to dolphins,
said he was in an aquarium
and he was talking to a big whale
who was swimming around and around in his tank.
And the whale kept asking him questions ... telepathically.
And one of the questions
the whale kept asking was: "Do all oceans have walls?"

This is so emblematic of Anderson's style in which a piece may start light or innocently enough but unfolds to a very concentrated--sometimes devastating--point. And one of the most chilling pieces of the evening was her rendition of "The Beginning of Memory" from her 2010 release, "Homeland." The following clip was filmed a few weeks ago when she performed "The Language of the Future" at an arts festival in Argentina.

It might have been a bit of a Greatest Hits evening, but I don't care. Anderson is always hypnotizing, thought provoking, funny, wise and inspiring. No matter how many times I hear her stories. Thank you Laurie, for making life on this planet more beautiful and precious.

BEAUTY: Painting--Men of Antiquity, Part Four

In a continuing series, here are more portraits of handsome-ass men from long ago.

Top to bottom: Arnold Böcklin--Portrait of the singer Karl Wallenreiter; Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson--Portrait of Jacques Cathelineau; Frederic William Burton--Henry Tanworth Wells; Friedrich von Amerling--(Austrian poet) Nikolaus Lenau; Georgios Jakobides--Portrait of Pavlos Melas; Glyn Warren Philpot--Sir Oswald Mosley; Gustave Courbet--Portrait of the Artist’s Father; James Carroll Beckwith--Portrait of William Merritt Chase 1881-82; John Maler Collier--Sir Willoughby Heyett Dickinson (1902); John Singer Sargent--John Ridgely Carter (1901); Kazimierz Pochwalski--Portret hrabiego Tarnowskiego; Kazimierz Pochwalski--Self-portrait with Palette; Magnus Enckell--Listeners of Music (1897); Mentor Huebner--Self-portrait (1946); Nikola Mihaylov--Portrait of the writer Petko Todorov (1908); Richard Bergh--Portrait of Nils Kreuger (1884)

Saturday, May 30, 2015

"Le Petit Chef" by Skullmapping

Skullmapping, the artistic collective run by Antoon Verbeeck and Filip Sterckx used 3D projection mapping techniques and sound effects to create their newest project "Le Petit Chef." I would love to start a meal this way!

Friday, May 29, 2015

Chirs Hadfield on The Overview Effect

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has flown a space shuttle to Mir and stayed aboard the International Space Station where he created a series of popular YouTube videos, including one in which he sang David Bowie's classic song "Space Oddity." Hadfield is now retired but recently gave an interview to BBC Travel's Jim Benning. The most moving part of the interview was when Benning asked Hadfield if his time in space looking down on the planet has increased his desire to see more of the earth by traveling and visiting far-flung locales. Hadfield's beautiful, heart-felt answer references The Overview Effect, something I have written about several times here on "Oh, By The Way" (most notably here and here).

Astronaut Chris Hadfield conducts a "fit check" inside the Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft (Photo credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov)

"It’s not so much my wanderlust that’s changed, it’s more a respect for the absolute commonality of the human experience. Yes, there’s a strong local influence – our own history and culture and sets of laws – but when you go around the world every 92 minutes, the sameness overwhelms the differences. The repeated pattern of human habitation. How we set up cities. How that pattern looks whether it’s a city in Alberta or Africa or Australia. You’re passing over Canada and in 20 minutes you’re over Africa. You see the commonalities much more strongly than you see the differences.

I think that is actually the reality of the world – the shared common nature of our experience. We tend to exaggerate our differences and become extremely used to our own set of biases. But travel teaches you the shared nature of being human. And it’s extremely important, because so much of our bad decision-making – at personal, business, national and planetary levels – is driven by myopia and a lack of understanding of anything beyond our normal confines. The more people can see of the world, the better their decision-making will be."

Read the entire original interview at:

Thursday, May 28, 2015

"The Day After My Birthday"

The Day After My Birthday

Balloons, cards, cakes, candles, fireworks that won’t explode,
my mom and dad, aunt and uncle, alive again, returned to their childhood homes,
I can visit them if I remember, if I discover the way,
past the neon mall in Rochester where I sat on Santa’s lap when I was five,
strangers pass me on the street, wish me happiness, promise me gifts next time
like puzzling artifacts from dreams, a keyboard, a costume,
Tibetan monks swimming in a perfectly landscaped rock quarry,
the shotgun I told the detective to destroy,
a box of French lemons and Brazilian honey cake,
the sound of some party I can never find,
all tomorrow’s plans are cancelled,
the crossing of the river, the ferryman angel,
an evacuation, a journey.
This new life has begun.

©JEF 2015

"See You Fall"/"What Is This Heart" Director's Cut by How To Dress Well

How To Dress Well is the nom de musique of one Tom Krell who creates a genre-defying mix of soul, ambient, experimental, and electronic music in lo-fi splendor. This new video for his song "See You Fall" is a director's (Johannes Greve Muskat and Luke Gilford) cut of three much longer videos known collectively as "What Is This Heart?" (also the name of the album the song comes from). The story here has been condensed and does not suffer for it at all. We still follow a young man and his dying father, his rocky relationship with his sister, his deepening relationship with his girlfriend, the inevitable death of his father, and a visit to a mysterious holy man in the desert (played by Krell himself).

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Between our seemingly endless grey days here in Northern California and our drought, I am yearning for green...

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"The Rest Of Us" by Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld

I came across this spellbinding video the other day...I had seen Colin Stetson perform with Laurie Anderson a few years ago, but had not known of him as a solo artist. And I had not heard the work of violinist Sarah Neufeld. But what a wicked conflagration they make together!

Stetson plays the bass saxophone--well, play is not quite the right word. He wrangles it, he coerces it, he masticates it. Using the mindboggling technique of circular breathing, he is able to produce sounds, some melodious, but also use key clicks as layers of percussion. All the sounds heard in this video for the instrumental song "The Rest Of Us" were created by Stetson and Neufeld without using any delays or loops. The sound heard is the actual sound produced in the studio. And the piece is one of restrained is all rhythm, repetition, and flying notes. The visuals are remarkable as well, possessing the visual clarity and oblique narrative of a Matthew Barney film. Let your imagination weave together the three different threads...

The song is from their most recent collaboration "Never Were The Way She Was."

Monday, May 25, 2015

Just watched...

...the debut film from director and writer Alex Garland, 2015's "Ex_Machina."

Alex Garland, novelist (THE BEACH), screenwriter ("28 Days Later" and "Sunshine"), and now director dreamed up this engaging science fiction story about the inevitable coming of Artificial Intelligence, or AI. It is told with a sparse cast of four in a single setting but it sure packs a wallop.

Surely by now, we are all used to the idea of Artificial Intelligence. It has occupied a place in pop culture films for quite some time with Hal 9000 from Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey" to "Blade Runner" to Sky Net from "The Terminator" films to the stunningly brilliant "A.I." by Spielberg to "I, Robot" with Will Smith to name only a few. The idea is that we as a species will eventually create a computer or software, or wetware as it is referred to here in "Ex_Machina" that will not only act and interact with us exactly as a human being would, but will be able to act volitionally...that is to think and feel for itself as well. Ultimately this would mean that the AI would develop beyond its programming as a machine and synthesize original thoughts, ideas, emotions, and actions--it would be sentient.

This film takes this as a given and does not concern itself with the hows and technicalities of AI although we do get some pretty convincing laboratory shots and schematics for the actual robot. No, the film concerns itself with the ethical, moral, emotional, and psychological aspects of the existence of AI. Surely thoughts give rise to feelings. Feelings give rise to thoughts. And feelings, even for us humans, can be both enriching and destructive.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) works for the biggest search engine in the world called Bluebook (a stand-in for Google). Nathan is the creator of the algorithm Bluebook runs on and CEO of the company. Nathan (Oscar Issac) has invited Caleb to his isolated retreat in Alaska to perform the Turing Test on an AI robot Nathan has created. The Turing Test (named after genius mathematician and cracker of the World War II Enigma Code, Alan Turing) is an assessment of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. When Caleb encounters the robot for the first time, he is met by Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid form made of carbon mesh over hardware and wetware but with startlingly lifelike feet, hands, and face.

Part science fiction and part psychological thriller, "Ex_Machina" explores a tight, tense, uncomfortable, claustrophobic scenario. The special effects are just jaw-dropping. Ava is beautifully designed and rendered in a spectacularly flawless way which is all the more amazing considering that the effect was achieved without green screen or motion capture technologies. Everything was created in post-production. The small ensemble cast delivers flawless performances as well...subtle and pitch perfect characters from each actor. But the dilemma comes from the idea that, once AI arrives, and in this case, in the form of a human being, how do we treat them, what do we do to and with them?

If an AI is indistinguishable from a biological human being, how can we say that is still "just" a machine? If it tells us that it think and feels and has emotions, who are we to say--and how dare we say--it does not? How do YOU prove that you have thoughts and feelings? You tell me you do, and I believe you because you act like me. By the same token, how would an AI "prove" such a thing? Is there a difference between identically replicating sentiency and actual sentiency? And if there is, how do we tell? Emotions have positive and negative poles and creating an AI that can feel love means it will naturally be able to feel hatred. If it feels admiration it will naturally be able to feel jealousy. The film leads us--or at least me--to wonder what the point is of making something that looks, thinks, behaves, and feels like a human being if it is only going to be treated like a vacuum cleaner or a laptop..."just" a machine. And ultimately, how one treats a humanoid AI really will have nothing to do with the AI itself but will actually be a kind of "Turing test" for us, testing our very humanity. The film ends up in a very dark place that was quite disturbing to me, just as Garland hoped, I am sure.

Recommend? An enthusiastic yes for the concept, acting, special effects, cinematography, and art direction. A yes with reservations for the emotional fallout. I was and still am fairly burdened by the implications of the story and behavior of characters in the film.

BEAUTY: Painting--Joël Penkman

Oh, how I love donuts. Joël Penkman's Cakes & Biscuits series portrays in a romanticized realist style, delicious cakes, donuts, sweets, and cookies.

Top to bottom: Biscuits In A Line; Dougnut Dozen; Fondant Fancy; Jam Tarts; Krispy Kreme Dozen; Pair of Wafers; Party Ring

Sunday, May 24, 2015

BEAUTY: Clothing--Scarves

It is the end of May but here in Northern California, we are still having some cool, grey days and quite chilly nights (well, the nights are usually chilly so nothing new there, but the days...that is a different story). I usually bust out my linen shorts around this time of year, but I find myself still wearing things to keep me a little warmer, and nothing beats a scarf. I am a huge fan of this wonderful accessory and have two storage bins of them in my closet. But a few of the scarves in this post look to be made of lighter cotton and could be a summer scarf as well (I have several thinner cotton scarves that do well in warmer weather!). Take a look at what a scarf can do, no matter what the season!