Tuesday, July 7, 2009


I may have grown up in smalltown Canada at the edge of America; I may be a Gen Xer not an MTVer; and I didn't have black brothers, sisters or friends. [UPDATE: This last phrase sounds like a pathetic corollary to "some of my best friends are...," but there you go.]

But as much as 1983 was Michael Jackson's year it was mine. My birth father was an American of African descent and like him I am a musician. We are all somebodies.

I can tell you something about coming up a black man in a white man's world, and learning to perform whiteness to keep up. Learning to perform blackness to survive; learning to suppress it to stay relevant whenever blackness is no longer haute. The experience of being othered. And the feeling of grace when one can feel dualities and negations slipping away.

I can't tell you anything I know first hand about fame, but lots about crises of existence. About learning to let your voice sound even when no one is listening or hearing it the way you do.

I celebrate Jackson's music, even his later work that meant so much to others and nothing to me. I celebrate who Jackson was and the best of what he represents. He was a symbol of raceless harmony and a global culture, and damning evidence that the former doesn't yet exist while the latter perhaps does through corporate imperialism for the time being. The same culture that left him as a troubled balance sheet.

I don't need to lament what he became but to continue to recognize how a single human being can be exploited to suit the moment, the agenda. As we speak, Iran is still in crisis (though the media blinks), AIDS is still consuming Africa (though the media shrugs) and peak oil is on its way (huh?). We need our moment of grief for people and things that have passed. Let the mythology be what it will. It will be time to move on and focus again.

Off the Wall and Thriller represent canon for me. I bought my vinyl copy of the latter for two dollars in 1983. After a hundred-odd plays I sold it to my mother's friend for five dollars, so she could do aerobics and I could temporarily revise my canon. Short term gain, long term pain.

After 1987, I failed to recognize the man in his mirror, and maybe in a small way lost sight of the one in mine.

Today is the first last rite of passage for the MTV generation.

Today I'll remember Michael Jackson, who meant more to me than I can ever explain or essentialize, and also James Brown who passed 2.5 years ago. Rick James, five years ago. Curtis Mayfield, ten years. Minnie Riperton, thirty. And so on.

Today I am wearing black and my heart is in Gary.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Steve Reich wins Pulitzer Prize in Music

By Tom Huizenga

NPR.org, April 20, 2009 - New York-based composer Steve Reich has won the Pulitzer Prize for music with his piece Double Sextet. Reich composed the work for two identical sextets of instruments, each made up of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone and piano.

Hear an excerpt of Double Sextet.

"I'm very glad that this particular piece got it, because I do think it's one of the better pieces I've done in the past few years," Reich tells NPR's Tom Cole, who broke the news to the composer over the phone at his home in New York.

"The piece can be played in two ways," Reich says. "Either with 12 musicians or with six playing against a recording of themselves." That's exactly how the Double Sextet was premiered, in May 2008, by the ensemble eighth blackbird.

The concept of musicians playing against taped recordings of themselves is not a new idea for Reich. He used it in his "Counterpoint" series and Different Trains in the 1980s, and as far back as 1967's Violin Phase.

"It's the idea of writing basically unison canons," Reich says. "The same timbre playing against itself, so that when they intertwine, you don't hear the individual voice; you hear the composite. Now, if you have several composites going on at the same time, you really get to an interesting situation, and that's what's going on in Double Sextet."

It's About Time

Tim Page, professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California and himself a former Pulitzer winner for music criticism, says he was overjoyed to hear the news about Reich.

"It's about time the first generation of minimalist composers were honored," Page says, "because they changed American music. It could be argued they changed world music."

Page points to the generation of composers before Reich, with their penchant for an atonal, serialist style of music that left many listeners cold.

"And here comes Reich, and he's tonal and rhythmic," Page says. "He helped teach the world to listen to music in a new way. Also, it's music that has touched every other kind of music, from rock and jazz to hip-hop. He is a universal composer."

Anne Midgette, chief classical music critic of the Washington Post, agrees.

"This is a richly deserved award to a man who may be America's greatest living composer," Midgette says. "Double Sextet combines the probing intellectual rigor that's a Reich hallmark and the live-against-recorded-playing that he's returned to again and again throughout his career, with an autumnal richness of tone and timbre that makes it meditative — and even, in places, outright melodic."

Double Sextet was commissioned by eighth blackbird, an adventurous ensemble of young musicians who grew up listening to Reich's music.

"Thankfully, a lot of young musicians have not only played all kinds of my pieces, but have played them well," Reich says. "It's because they heard them when they were younger. This is the case in all music history. Composers have a real difficulty in that first generation when they are writing these works. But the following generations grow up with it as part of the furniture in the room. So eighth blackbird, and many other groups I'm happy to say, can not only play it, but play it convincingly and enjoy themselves."

photo by Jeffrey Herman

Steve Reich's Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, Double Sextet, is designed for six musicians to play against a recording of themselves.

An eighth blackbird Commission

Composition: Double Sextet

Composer: Steve Reich

Premiere: Modlin Center, University of Richmond, March 26, 2008

Performers: eighth blackbird

[The performance in the link near the top was recorded November 11, 2008 in Oberlin, Ohio. Performers: eighth blackbird, with students at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music: Leah Asher, violin; Eleanor Bors, cello; Esther Fredrickson, flute; Mark Cramer, clarinet; Thomas Fosnocht, piano; Jennifer Torrence, percussion.]

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

cold milk, cookies and a microphone

I reconnected over the weekend with Colin Halyk, an old friend and musical associate. Colin and I played together in years past, and his band Another 1000 Miles gave a cover of my song "A Story of Reason" a special place on their tours and on their 2003 CD Detach.

Colin is working at a furious pace on a new solo CD – to be titled Childish Things. He will have recorded 17 songs for it in only a couple of months! He diarized our meeting for his album blog:
The weekend's main event was Sunday's session at Bruce Russell's airy, meditatively calm digs in Toronto. Over milk and delicious cookies baked by Bruce and his daughter the day before, he learned, crafted and then laid down multiple parts for 3 different songs in under 6 hours of working time. Bruce also did some keyboard work on two of the a1000m albums and it is always a pleasure and surprise to see what he will bring to songs. He's also at work with the band he plays with at the moment on stuff, and I was very impressed by the DJ rig he has in his living room, and, of course, his usual amazing work.

Bruce was also a member of a band called Ernie's Coffee Shop, whom many of my friends will recall from the day, and I'm happy to say it looks like all three guys from that band may get to gather (albeit in separate times and places) under the appropriate roof of one of my album's songs with a barnyard animal in the lyrics, "On The Trail." I had a lot of fun hearing Bruce add melodica and balafon (kind of like a xylophone in sound, but with what seemed like resonating gourds underneath) to that tune. Mark Kuntsi will add his stuff next weekend, and Steve Mitchell will hopefully get a chance to ship his in...
As always, it was a great pleasure hanging out and collaborating with Colin. Can't wait to hear the results!

Saturday, March 14, 2009


You will believe a podcast can fly – the rebirth of the rebirth of the mixtape.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Somebody's Watching You

(S. Stewart)

as performed by Little Sister, produced by Sly Stone, and released on Stone Flower/Atlantic, 1970(#8, R&B chart)

vocals: whispered/hissed, with gospel-like chordal interjections (in italics)

instruments: organ haze, bass spasms, wah guitar dashes, distant guitar pulses

groove: slow, percolating, low-lying creep, fuzzy beat box – the first use of a drum machine (the Rhythm Ace) on a pop song


pretty, pretty, pretty as a picture
witty, witty, witty as you can be
blind 'cos your eyes see only glitter
closed to the things that make you free

ever stop to think about a downfall
happens at the end of every line
just when you think you've pulled a fast one
happens to the foolish all the time

somebody's watching you (4'xs)

games are to played with toys, et cetera
love is to be made when you're for real
ups and downs are caused by life in general
some are yours no matter how you feel

shady as a lady in a mustache
feelings camouflaged by groans and grins
secrets have a special way about them
moving to and fro among your friends

somebody's watching you (4'xs)

live it up today if you want to
live it down tomorrow afternoon
sunday school don't make you cool forever
neither does the silver of your spoon

the nicer the nice, the higher the price
this is what you pay for what you need
the higher the price, the nicer the nice
jealous people like to see you bleed

somebody's watching you (4x's and fade out)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Technical issues

Over the past few days, a bug has emerged in the software I use to embed music tracks on this blog. All the tracks viewable on a single page automatically play together when the page is loaded. This bug is a new discovery to the provider, and is being looked into.

In the meantime, you can pause the tracks you don't want to hear manually. Sorry for the inconvenience... or enjoy it if you're feeling experimental.

UPDATE: The autoplay bug has been worked out. Thanks for your patience.