Monday, September 29, 2008


"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex... It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction."
Albert Einstein

Over the past decade or so, on the odd occasion when the topic came up in conversation, I found that when I mentioned the inherent unsustainability of the “ownership society” as it was being peddled and the danger of allowing securitzed-debt and derivatives trading to become the engine or our economy, I was inevitably shouted down and told that I was incapable of understanding the complex nature of modern banking and that the smartest people in the country were working on Wall Street (which confused me, having been so often told that the smartest people in the country worked in advertising or for the CIA...).

Acknowledging my limited perspective as a hobbyist, I’d like to take a moment to try to boil this whole mess down to its failure on a conceptual level and explore some of the problems that economists and legislators (if there are any left whose devolution into mere politicians isn’t irrevocable) will need to deal with crafting into actionable policy as we move forward into the abyss.

The following four ideas are, in my opinion, ‘no-brainers.’ However, I have yet to come across a clear attempt at an analysis of the root conceptual problems succinct to my satisfaction. So here goes.

1. The relationship of banks to housing and real estate needs to be reexamined and reorganized.

The reason that the housing bubble became so fatally inflated was that home prices were based not on what people could afford to pay, but what people were allowed to borrow. They were encouraged to borrow these increasing amounts because their debt was securitized and given a re-sale value.

Once upon a time, working Americans could potentially save up and buy a house.

It rapidly got to a point over the last several decades where purchasing a home without the involvement of a bank became impossible for ninety-five percent of the population, and in that time, we saw the rise of mortgage-backed securities as a primary engine for the financial markets.

I'm not going to get into my moral problems with scumbag flippers, but they're not to blame for the inflation of prices, they just worked the system to their advantage.

Now, as far as blaming the borrower: I've had trouble with debt. I've had trouble with debt because I was convinced that if I could just hold on I would soon succeed in finding a job that would allow me to pay it down. As it is, I've been hanging on by the skin of my teeth from month to month, still looking for a living wage. Add to that corporate America's 30-day standard, in which they sit on what they owe and let it gain a month's interest before cutting out a check, and the death-spiral continues.

2. Supply-side economics just doesn’t work and never has

As these debts were bundled into triple-A financial products and bought and sold and covered in purchased swaps, tremendous amounts of the wealth generated pooled at the top of the system.

Sure, a big part of the problem is that this market-created system of buying and selling fancy IOUs only created imaginary wealth. But there were billions being paid out, and the inequality of wealth reached levels not seen since...1928. Funny, that.

If that wealth had been pumped back into the real economy in the form of taxes invested in infrastructure improvement or investment in private industry and used to create jobs (at least the dot-com bubble created jobs!), is it possible that so many people might not have defaulted on their debts and the cycle could’ve seen itself through?

As it happened, the only thing that trickled down was the opportunity to sink deeper into debt with no opportunity to ever pay it off. (I'm still waiting for someone to suggest a debtors' army to send into Afghanistan...)

3. If the United States is to survive as a capitalist democracy, some real thought needs to be put into the relationship between industry and government.

I know that sounds simplistic, even for a no-brainer, seeing as its been one of the core struggles we’ve been dealing with perpetually in our mere two-and-a-quarter centuries of doing this whole nation thing.

But the current collapse puts us in a unique position to re-examine some of the fundamentals of this relationship and gives us the opportunity to come out of this stronger. (Not likely if knee-jerk McCave-in and his idiot sidekick wind up in the White House. Obama-Biden ’08)

One of the greatest strengths of our constitution is its flexibility (interesting that the ‘structuralist’ school of constitutional thought often favors the interpretation of the 14th amendment that bestows the rights of individuals to corporations. Maybe time to revisit that one, no?)

Personally, I think we face a more immediate danger of slipping into corporate fascism than democratic socialism, but there is a middle road.

Essential to finding this middle road is a functioning legislature that puts governance before politicking (something that John McCain’s spectacular and unfortunate meltdown last week revealed him as incapable of doing) or ideology (some of these no-government-is-good-government Republicans’ zealous and ignorant adherence to dogma rivals the Taliban. I’m sorry if it seems like I’m picking on the Republicans, its just that from Reaganomics to Gingrich’s Contract on America to Bush-Cheney they’ve been behind so much of what’s gone so wrong.)

Anyway, here are my no-brainer ideas:

The labor leaders of the early twentieth-century had a valid point when they argued that industry should be in Washington lobbying for national health-care alongside them. Flash-forward to the late 20th century and what are all the big industries complaining about? The cost of health care.

By transferring the costs of health care to government, private industry will be in a position to maximize their profits, a percentage of which would then be channeled into the national health-care infrastructure in the form of progressive taxes which, to insure quality, could be allotted according to performance. (Why aren't the smartest people in the country working on this?)

As it is, market-based health care and insurance aren’t working out for anyone. Their costs are too high for either corporations or individuals to bear, and the result of competition in the field has had the opposite of its intended effect: rather than receiving the highest level of care for the lowest price, we get the crappiest care at the highest price, which profit-based insurance companies (which makes no sense to me whatsoever) don't want to pay for. (Again, I’m sorry, Senator McCain...but a $5,000 tax credit for health care? When’s the last time you looked at a medical bill??? Why not give me a nickel for a matinee while you're at it?)

The alternative, of course, is no health care for anyone and a Republican-endorsed return to third-world status. But hey, it's not a problem if we don't say it is! U-S-A! U-S-A!

But I digress...

Conversely, there have been some interesting success stories involving the leasing of public infrastructure to private industry. But don’t take my word for it. Give Pennsylvania’s Ed Rendell a listen.

And of course also under this umbrella is the issue of CEO pay. How is it considered acceptable that in a publicly traded company such a high percentage of profit is allowed to be concentrated in one individual rather than channeled to the stockholders...let alone paid in taxes? This seems like one of those things that a healthfully functioning market should have been able to correct, but hasn’t. Anyone who tries to tell you that CEO pay caps are antithetical to free-market economies is a con artist and probably a CEO.

4. The problem isn't globalization, it's centralization

Civilizations have lived in globalized economies since the first Phoenecian jumped into a canoe. The effects of global trade don't become detrimental until the profits from that trade become centralized (Rome didn't last), leading to the unfair exploitation of labor, which brings about stagnation in the mildest cases, civil unrest and violence in the most severe.

When I hear Newt Gingrich and his ilk argue that taxes need to be kept low to make the U.S. an attractive place for multinationals to do business all I can think is, great, we won WWII and became the anchor for the world's economy and now we're supposed to aspire to pimping ourselves out as cheap labor? Asshole. What kind of American exceptionalism is that?

On a national level, one answer is for a strong federal government to foster and oversee regionally based micro-economies. What happened to those thousand points of light? Apparently, they're all pulling in minimum wage at Wal-Mart.

Seems like a completely overlooked advantage of our civil infrastructure.

Anyhow, if the smartest people in the country happen to come across this post, maybe it'll give them some conceptual fodder to translate into numbers by which they can devise a sufficiently complicated numerical apparatus capable of stopping the country from blowing itself apart again.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Friday, September 19, 2008

Vanina Marsot in Cambodia

(click image to enlarge)

bas relief, turtle biting man's ass, the Bayon

copyright, © 2008 Vanina Marsot

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New photos by Wyatt Doyle

"An Industry Folds Its Arms," photos by Wyatt Doyle. Now on New Texture.

Click on the title or on the image below to view the whole series.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Still the lights

So, I like the lights.

The twin columns of light they project into the sky from where the towers used to be on the anniversary.

I like them.

Most things related to 9/11 I dislike.

I dislike the politicization of the whole thing. I dislike Rudy Giuliani. I dislike the conspiracy theories. I dislike the fact that it could have been avoided, or at least altered, if a few men on watchlists had simply been held off their flights. And I severely dislike the fact that innocent lives were lost, that it's led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of more innocent lives, the deepening of hatreds and the waste of wealth (at the very least, how does it cost the Pentagon $10 million a year to maintain a memorial? There's the DoD for you...Minerva my eye.)

And I'm not nostalgic for it. That day sucked. The smell of death and burning metal that hung in the air for a month and a half after sucked. The feeling of imminent dread that bled into the terrible glacial dread of history sucked (sucks).

Anyway, the L train skipped First and Third Avenues so I walked from Union Square down to Arlene Grocery on Stanton to see the reunited Mommyheads and Johnny Society.

And there were the lights. Around every corner, at the end of every street towering over the still-freshly-scrubbed college kids and unwashed krusty punk squatter-wannabes and invisible homeless and European tourists and Sex and the City fans.

Autumn makes me nostalgic. Can't help it. It does. They didn't write a song about autumn in New York for nothing. The lights were a ghost reminder that this isn't the same city I moved to in October '96. Giulianiism was in full swing then, but the cauterization of character and independence wasn't yet complete. That took a businessman to pull off.

I first heard of Johnny Society within a week of moving here, having seen their name listed at Brownie's (gone) while perusing the Voice looking to see what bands were around. The name struck me. But I didn't go. I stayed home and watched the World Series.

Their name would subsequently come up over the next couple years when I'd ask folks what New York bands were around that I should check out. "Johnny Society," I was told.

I never managed to get to a show.

By 2002 I'd met Brian Geltner, who was playing in Nervous Cabaret (now that Elyas Khan's fled to Berlin, on hiatus as my favorite band in New York), and subsequently met Kenny Siegel and Gwen Snyder when I tagged along to shoot some of the recording of their first album up at Kenny's Old Soul studio in Catskill. I met Brion Snyder (if America made sense, at least three songs off "Build Another Empire" would be all over the radio) when Geltner signed him up to play the Rhodes on and record the original music for "Every Dog's Day."

The best and hardest-working people around aren't the best known or the richest.

Corporate meritocracy is as much of an oxymoron as fascist meritocracy. Welcome to Republican America.

But, acknowledging redundancy, this city ain't dead yet.

There are still the lights.

Friday, September 12, 2008

New work from Moby Pomerance!

Continuing from his most recent post, "It Has to Mean Something," Moby Pomerance brings us along on a visit to "The Black Triangle of Death and Unbearable Humiliation," now on New Texture.

To savor the unbearable humiliation for yourself, click here or on the title.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Dixon v. Dixon

Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra

17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur

One of the really great things about being a "music writer" is getting copies of CD's before everyone else. You really feel like a someone--a real part of--when you are in a position to generate meme about artists you dig before the great unwashed horde of consumers chime in with meme of their own.

Such was the case with the Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra. In fact, somehow I got two copies of that in the mail--seemingly seconds after it was recorded.

Such was not the case with the 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur recording. Until such time when I am a fully vested member in that hallowed fraternity of music writers, I will buy mail order like any other decent unwashed God fearing consumer horde member.

The wait, as well as the disparity in promotional styles, though an entirely extra musical concern, didn't go unnoticed. No judgement inherent in that, I'm just noticing. Besides, the world of music capitalism has always been cryptic one. The time it took (for them) to release and (for me) to get a copy of the Darfur recording versus two copies of Exploding Star makes that world all the more cryptic.

Yet everything happens for the best of all possible reasons at all times, or so the saying goes. The time between receipt of Darfur and hearing it live at the Vision festival has been a really super help in cultivating dispassion: the live event was so staggering, to have written about it then, to put it on the rack and get all critical about it so soon after the performance is the kind of buzz kill I try and avoid. Even if I had gotten the CD immediately after the performance chances are I still would have waited until now to write about it.

My excuse for not writing about the Exploding Star release is that it and Darfur are conceptually pegged to one another in my mind due to their chronological proximity. Has anyone else written a comparison of the two recordings? Could it be despite my epic tardiness I'm still first in line?

+ + +

Naturally I immediately listened to Exploding Star as soon as it arrived in the mail. When it arrived in the mail a second time, I immediately listened to it again. At that juncture, the memory of the Vision festival was still fairly fresh. I could still feel J.D. Parran's bass saxophone.

When (invariably and uncontrollably) compared to my memories of the Vision Festival, the gestalt of Exploding Star recording (which chronologically came *after* Darfur, despite the release order) was that of exhalation, of expansion after contraction.

Though the inclination is there, I am rue to use the term "lite" when describing Exploding Star. That said Darfur (as the name implies) comes off as being the "heavy" one. So I guess in that sense, Exploding Star recording is the "lite" one.

Why am I rue to use the term "lite?" Is "lite" necessarily a pejorative? Is all music equal? Is there not a place for and unique function to "lite" music? Is "lite" always a distillation and softening of a "heavy" (or "dark") predecessor/antecedent? Can "lite" be of its own conception, entirely unbeholden to a heavy, dark predecessor/antecedent? (These are questions, not taunts.)

My Faux Synesthesia: Exploding Star--bright, bold primary colors. Ample use of pastel, yellow greens and pinks. Darfur--darker colors with emphasis on black and red brown and purple. More inky and oily. Exploding Star is a slightly off dry Reisling. Darfur is veal gravy. Exploding Star and Darfur are the difference between Mondrian and Rothko. Not better, not worse, just separate realizations of different (though quite similar) energetic signatures. Both love them some squares, neither can be mistaken for one another.

I have to admit it was a real surprise--startling even--to hear a guitar and Bill Dixon on the same recording, let alone a "jazz guitar tone" like the one employed by Jeff Parker. Not that my surprise and startled reaction should be the universal one, but when was the last time you heard Bill Dixon and a guitar on the same recording? That in it self sets Exploding Star apart from the rest of Dixon's recorded output.

Exploding Star features two compositions by Bill Dixon with a Rob Mazurek composition in the middle. The Mazurek composition is larded with tertial harmony, cadences and, yes grooves. Real live extended periods of cleanly demarcated metric time. Is it for this reason that Exploding Star has been so well received? Is Exploding Star the "best" answer to "I'm new to Bill Dixon's music what should I get first?"

In one sense, it might be. I can plainly recall as if yesterday being a freshman at that 75 year old dried up bag of a college, trying to get my mind around the music and musical methodology of Bill Dixon pronto. Oh how I longed to hear Dixon play atop a little bit of that ol' chang changa chang--something familiar, something ubiquitous to help me place Dixon among the music and musicians I had heard up to that point. Exploding Star does just that. Dixon glides as effortlessly and intricately over carefully considered chord changes and metric pulse and does so with the same Dixon-esque tone and phrasing. Dixon is still Dixon, no need to worry about that.

Then again, Exploding Star might be the worst answer to said question, as it finds Dixon in a musical setting so starkly different than those he creates for himself on Darfur and all that he, Dixon, has generated for himself for (conservatively) the last 30 years. Not that I know anything, but if pressed I would characterize Dixon's music as one without tonal, metric, stylized or mechanized realizations of a musical/social cantus firmus. While that characterization is probably entirely incorrect and shallow, the fact remains that if you're looking for other recordings in Dixon's catalog that sound more and not less like Rob Mazurek's composition on Exploding Star, brace yourself for feelings of disappointment and confusion.

Either way, juxtaposed against the overwhelming majority (if not absolute totality) of Dixon's output, Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra wins 1st prize for strident individuation, even if that individuation is the result of a small amount of occasional compositional and ensemble retrenchment on track number 2.

As for tracks 1 and 3, it is a pure and familiar Dixon. Dark, unpredictable, asymetric, demanding, thorough. Listen to the endings of both tracks if you don't believe me--pure Dixonia.

Ultimately as with all Dixon ensembles and recordings, my hope is that the same group will continue to rehearse and will record again. In that hopeful instance, what would a second recording by this group sound like? Where would it go? Would it go free-er, further retrenched or would it stay exactly the same?

+ + +

Dixon plays more trumpet on Exploding Star recording than he does on Darfur. In fact, Dixon really does not spend all that much time on the trumpet on Darfur at all. The time he does spend is quite stunning, if for no other reason than its aesthetic/antecedent relation to solos played by Stephen Haynes, Taylor Ho-Bynum and Graham Haynes.

Exploding Star is, at times, connected to Jazz in an obvious and audible way. The same is not true for Darfur. In fact I think I can go so far as to say I did not hear any clearly obvious connections to Jazz at any juncture on Darfur. Perhaps the argument can be made that functionally Darfur is linked to Jazz and it is absurd to put Darfur in the "jazz" section of the record store (or web page, as the case may be.)

Much more so than Exploding Star, Darfur encourages us (me anyway) to ask those familiar questions that have surrounded Dixon's work from the start: what if Dixon was white? What if Darfur was recorded by an all white ensemble (wearing tuxedos with white ties) somewhere in Luxemberg as part of a special edition Deutche Grammaphon release? Would it be considered Jazz? If no one knew any different, would it automatically be considered improvised music? Who else would be writing about it? What venues would be made available? Would there be more or less grant money available?

After seeing Darfur at the vision festival I had a vision of peace--one where Dixon would, as a treasured and respected American composer, have access to real live Beethoven and Bruckner playing orchestras. All the strings, all the horns, all the percussion--over 100 people at his disposal. Dixon's way of organizing and directing ensembles combined with the uber chops of your average salaried symphony orchestra. Gigantic symphonic improvisations combined with symphonies of Mahler, Schnittke and Bruckner. (As an aside, this vision of peace was vivified at the 2008 VCMI in a talk by Barry Guy's wherein he described working with the Hillard ensemble.)

This begets the question if Dixon did have 100 extra symphonic musicians, would Darfur sound more exciting because, at last, Dixon has access to the full palette of western instrumental sound or would the music sound less exciting because the players weren't the hand picked ensemble (many of whom have long relations and close connections with Dixon's music) as heard on Darfur?

Is there any way to make the whole greater than the sum of it's parts? Is that even interesting to anyone anymore?

Happily, there has been follow-up to 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur--The Bill Dixon Recording Residency. You can read more about it here. In light of these recordings, perhaps I should have waited until they were released so as to compare all three.

Hopefully those recordings will become available sooner than later. In the mean time, get thee a copy of both Exploding Star and Darfur and compare them for yourself (if you haven't done so already.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

New photos by Wyatt Doyle

The Knitters live at the 1st Annual Dog & Pony Show, photographs by Wyatt Doyle. Click here to view the full series.