Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest at New Museum, New York

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I visited the New Museum in New York, which dedicated all its galleries to video works during this time. Three of the museum’s floors were dedicated to a retrospective of the Swiss video and media artist Pipilotti Rist. It is the first major retrospective of her work in New York.

The title piece of the exhibition filled most of the third floor gallery. The huge immersive piece consisted of hanging strands of resin beads with LEDs that gradually changed colors in a uniform synchronous manner.

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Viewers were encouraged to walk among the strands, bumping and even touching the surfaces which had a somewhat oily feel to them. There was a certain hypnotic beauty to the experience, even with the large number of other visitors wandering through. The effect was completed by water sounds throughout the space.

The floor below featured some of Rist’s earlier works, including some of her single channel videos. There was one that featured close-ups people people eating, but also growing vegetation and an appearance by a cat.

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But even these single channel videos were projected onto moving curtains which allowed visitors to move among the pieces, becoming part of the larger installation. A small set of elliptical laser lights also moved about the lower gallery.

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One corner featured a series of larger two-panel video works. I was particularly taken with this one featuring a nicely dressed woman smashing car windows with the stalk of a plant that was shown growing in a field in some clips.

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The top floor of the gallery showed Rist’s newest pieces, which placed video and media into architectural spaces. This sight-specific piece projected irregular aquatic video onto the ceiling while views lay below on beds. Nearby was another much smaller architectural piece featuring a bedroom and a model of the moon with video projection.

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It was quite adorable, but showed how the architectural focus of her most recent works could be done on multiple scales, very large and very small.


The ground floor gallery featured a series of video works by Chinese artist Cheng Ran. The exhibition, titled Diary of a Madman was based on Cheng’s three-month residence in New York with the New Museum. Based on a Chinese short story written in 1918, the videos were shot and editing in New York and feature a variety of locations, including an abandoned psychiatric hospital on Long Island. I found the combination of bleak spaces with musical elements to be quite interesting.

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A visit to the New Museum often includes a visit to the observation deck on the top floor. It was a cold but clear day which provided for a good view of the changing skyline of lower Manhattan.

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Overall, it was a good visit to the museum. But I was far from alone, as it was quite crowded with a line waiting to get in. I suppose on a dreary day when so many are running around shopping, a dark museum is a very inviting place indeed.

MoMA: Francis Picabia, Kai Althoff, and more.

For us at CatSynth, coming back to New York almost always means a visit to Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It’s a place that is always safe, inviting and inspiring. It’s also a change to spend time with some old friends, like Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, a painting that for me has an almost religious significance.

Mondrian Broadway Boogie Woogie

There are of course, many special exhibitions, and we discuss them below.


Much of the top floor of the museum was reserved for a retrospective of the work of Francis Picabia, one of the less-well-known of the great modern artists from the first half of the 20th Century. Though known for his association with the Dada movement, his oeuvre includes many other ever-changing styles. Indeed, the exhibition begins with his early works in an impressionist style. Though very well executed, they are not particularly exciting other than the provocative nature (for the time) of using photographs as sources. However, after this initial period, his work explodes with large abstract canvases.

Picabia,Francis (1879-1953)
[Francis Picabia. Udnie (Jeune fille américaine; danse) (Udnie [Young American Girl; Dance]). 1913. Oil on canvas, 9′ 6 3/16″ × 9′ 10 1/8″ (290 × 300 cm). Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne – Centre de création industrielle, Paris. Purchased by the State, 1948. © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Georges Meguerdtchian/Dist. RMN–Grand Palais/Art Resource, New York.]

The painting shown above, Udnie (Jeune fille américaine; danse) (Udnie [Young American Girl; Dance]) is exemplary of this period of his work. It is huge, almost 10 feet by 10 feet square, and features bright industrial colors with large curving lines. This painting had a colder and higher-contrast palette than its neighbors, so it particularly attracted me. There is also the fact that the title reminds me of the David Bowie album of similar name.

Picabia became a leading artist in the Dada movement, producing many paintings and drawings of industrial and manufactured objects, some featuring bits of text that he found from encyclopedias and other sources. They have the sparse, sometimes sad quality of readymades, but also show steady and disciplined hands at work to create these pieces.

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The centerpiece of the Dada sections of the exhibition was a recreation of one of his Paris exhibitions, with drawings arranged in a linear fashion and rugs along the gallery floor. The pieces were a mixture of Dada, abstraction and figurative images (mostly of Spanish women). These demonstrate the artist’s desire to not be stuck in one style or even just one movement.

Picabia went through a period of more figurative painting in the years leading up to and during World War II, including a somewhat odd set of photorealistic paintings from soft-porn images that he created while living in under the Vichy regime in southern France. After the war, however, he returned to abstraction until his death in 1953. Many of these late works have a somewhat minimal quality, including a series consist of large dots on a monochromatic background


The other major exhibition on the top floor featured a full-gallery installation by Kai Althoff entitled and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern). The space itself was the artwork in which the viewer was invited to wander.

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[Installation view of Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 18, 2016–January 22, 2017. Photograph © Kai Althoff]

The labyrinthine installation is a seeming clutter of objects, looking more like a messy artists’ studio. However, on closer inspection, one sees that there are a lot of older works from the artist in various states of integrity among found objects like dolls and clothing. The artwork fragments included heads with strange expressions. Overall, it was one of the more confounding exhibitions I have seen. I am not one to necessary require “meaning” from art, but I do tend to look for lines, shapes and patterns. But being challenged by an exhibition is not a bad thing.


In addition to the hunt for old favorites in the permanent collection, an entire floor was dedicated to works from he 1960s, arranged one room per year. The detailed view shows just how rich and varied the art of that decade was, and how art transformed into what we think of as contemporary in the early 21st Century. Among the works on display was a set of photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher. We have discussed them before, as their work is very influential for my own art photography.

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The video work of Nam June Paik has also been a major influence. The exhibition featured a very minimal work of his, essentially reducing analog video to a single line.

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Yayoi Kusama is enjoying a lot of attention of late. This work, which appeared to be a chair of penises, was featured prominently. The description of the piece confirmed my phallic interpretation.

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The second floor also featured multiple special exhibitions, including the provocative “architectural” show on displacement and shelter, focusing on migrants and refugees in the modern world. It included a full-size refugee tent shelter, as well as overhead images of a sea of such shelters. There were images from camps that have been in the news lately, such as the large one in Callais, France. There were also some art pieces on the same theme, such as lightboxes with images of war zones by Tiffany Chung.

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[finding one’s shadow in ruins and rubble. Tiffany Chung, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art]

There was also a large world map with strings representing patterns of migration, along with sound and visual elements. Not surprisingly, a great many of those lines led to the United States.

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It’s a reminder that the U.S. has always been a welcoming country for refugees and immigrants, and will hopefully remain so.


There is always more that I saw and resonated with an I can fit in such an article. Please visit us on Instagram to see more of our latest visit to the MoMA.

San Francisco Symphony performs 2001: A Space Odyssey

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[Image courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony]

Today we look back at the live soundtrack performance of 2001: A Space Odyssey by the San Francisco Symphony. The performance featured the full orchestra on the direction of Brad Lubman along with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus directed by Ragnar Bohlin.

Kublick’s film is of course a masterpiece, as is the film’s score, which comes from a variety of sources, including Richard Strauss and György Ligeti (one of our musical heroes). Hearing it live in a concert hall with the movie on a big screen is a different experience. The orchestra seats did allow us to both see the film clearly and get spatial effects particularly from the chorus. Indeed, some of most powerful sounds was the choral sections featuring Ligeti’s eerie clouds of pitches. What was also particularly apparent in the live setting was just how sparse the score is. Much of the film has no music at all.

The scenes on the space station – overall an under-appreciated part of the film – popped out more strongly as a result of live score, contrasting the (Johan) Strauss music leading up the docking with sparse texture of dialog and machine sounds of station’s interior. Perhaps, however, part of the fun of these scenes is how dated they look, more like an idealized airport interior from the 1960s. By contrast, the scenes aboard the Discovery seem more contemporary. And the audience of 2016 had quite a bit of fun at HAL’s expense, as we live in an age where computers with both voices and voice recognition are becoming part of our daily lives (”Hey Siri, what do you think about HAL 9000?”).

2001: A Space Odyssey was presented as part of the Symphonies ongoing feature film series. Sadly, we were not able to attend the talk beforehand with professor of music Kate McQuiston, or the appearance by Keir Dullea on an earlier date.

Dollar Days, Blackstar, and Luna

David Bowie, Blackstar

A lot has already been written about David Bowie’s final album Blackstar. But it seems particularly poignant in a personal way at this moment in my life.

I should start by saying it’s a great album. I would even assert that it was his best since the classic albums of the 1970s. it mixes complex and dark elements with some catchy hooks like on Low. The jazz and fusion elements on Blackstar, which features a band led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, also take me back to another of my favorites, Station to Station, with its funky vibe. Indeed, some of the initial responses to the album that focused on his use of a jazz band seemed to leave out the connection to his funky bands of the mid 1970s. But coming back to the present moment, it’s the song “Dollar Days” on Blackstar that seems to stand out the moment. It is melancholy and its verses feature ballad-like chord structure, descending root notes resolving back on itself. The chorus has a simultaneously anxious and soaring quality. And the lyrics seem to be self-reflective and prescient of his coming death just two days after the album’s release, especially when coupled with the next track “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

Cash girls suffer me, I’ve got no enemies
I’m walking down
It’s nothing to meet
It’s nothing to see
If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to
It’s nothing to meet
It’s nothing to see

I’m dying too
Push their backs against the grain
And fool them all again and again
I’m trying to
We bitches tear our magazines
Those oligarchs with foaming mouths come now and then
Can’t believe I just run second, now I’m forgetting you
I’m trying to
I’m dying too

Dollar days ’til final checks, honest scratching tails, the necks, I’m falling down
It’s nothing to meet
It’s nothing to see
If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to
It’s nothing to meet
It’s nothing to see

I’m dying too
Push their backs against the grain
And fool them all again and again
I’m trying to
It’s all gone wrong for on and on
The bitter nerve is never enough, I’m falling down
Don’t believe in just one second round for getting you
I’m trying to
I’m dying too

Specifically, that line “If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to” hits home. Bowie died in New York and had probably not seen the English evergreens in a while, and was aware that he likely wouldn’t. One part of Luna’s decline that has affected me greatly is the realization that we won’t experience some of our favorite things together anymore. Some have already gone, such as playing with toys, clamoring for favorite treats, and running up and down the stairs at night. I have no way of imagining what this feels like to her, but it can’t be good. And that, too, is a painful realization. Sadly, cats don’t have the ability to express their feelings in words, let alone with the lyricism and eloquence of David Bowie. The sharing of his thoughts about his mortality is one of the gifts in Blackstar, along with the music itself.

Luna’s continued decline has good days and bad, and we are spending as much time together as we can, including sitting on the floor and listening to music, cuddling and purring.

Igor Stravinsky, Esa Pekka-Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London

On October 8 at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley California, the Philharmonia Orchestra of London performed a program dedicated entirely to the work of Igor Stravinsky. We at CatSynth were in attendance at this event.

Philharmonia Orchestra 6 March 2013 Esa-Pekka Salonen  Lutosławski rehearsal; RFH  commissioned by Alice Walton
[Photo by Benjamin Ealovega. Courtesy of Cal Performances.]

The second half of the program featured one of his most famous works, The Rite of Spring. But it was the first half that was the most interesting and inspiring, as it featured some of later and infrequently performed works, culminating in the masterpiece Agon. In fact, the concert opened with Fanfare for Three Trumpets, which was originally intended as an opening for the piece that became Agon. The fanfare puts many of the elements that characterized Stravinsky’s later music in a compact form, including more atonal and serial elements, and some of the sparse sounds and character from pre-Rennaisance European music.

The Fanfare was followed by Symphonies of Wind Instruments. I definitely enjoyed this focus on wind instruments, as it is more in my background than the strings that dominate orchestral music. But the piece also shows the combination and contrasts of musical style and discipline that cross both his middle and late periods. It has some of the elements that one might call “neo-classical”, and has a very systematic structure. It does pay homage to Claude Debussy, whom Stravinsky had known and admired when the two were together in Paris. But it also includes elements attributed to his Russian heritage (in particular, liturgical elements from the Orthodox church) and complex mixing of meters and tempi. The orchestration for wind instruments gives the overall piece a more austere quality.

The increased abstraction in Stravinsky’s later work in the U.S. after World War II in many ways culminates with Agon. The piece borrows elements from the serialism of both the Second Viennese School as later composers like Stockhausen and Messiaen, but especially combination of pitch and orchestration found in the work of Anton Webern. Indeed, characteristics Webern can be heard throughout the piece, including the use of mandolin in the orchestra. It was originally a dance piece, but an abstract “dance about dance”, and it worked even in a purely concert setting. It features strong rhythms and texture that pair with dance, but it mixes in complex counter-melodies in meters such as 5/16 or 7/16. The use of twelve-tone series is not orthodox, and mixed with folk and even jazzy elements. We can hear some of the ritual qualities that characterized Symphonies as well. It is indeed a very complex piece, but also a playful one and one that was great to hear performed live. It is unfortunately not performed that often.

By contrast, the Rite of Spring, which followed in the second half of the concert, seemed quite tame and familiar. In addition to being one of Stravinsky’s most recognized works, it also has an overall sound that influenced (directly or indirectly) orchestral film scores in the coming decades. As such it has a comfortable quality even while being forceful and intense. It has hard in 2016 to imagine what about this piece would cause concert-goers to riot in 1913.

Conductor Esa Pekka-Salonen has been quite the noted interpreter of Stravinsky’s music, conducting many of his pieces with the Philharmonia Orchestra (and the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra before that) and presenting a year-long Stravinsky series. It is great to hear these interpretations, especially of the later and less-known American period. Hopefully some in attendance at Zellerbach Hall that night left with more curiosity about these works.

SF Symphony Celebrates the Music of Steve Reich

This past September, the San Francisco Symphony celebrated the 80th birthday of composer Steve Reich with a week of performances, culminating in an all-Reich program on Sunday, September 11.

Steve Reich
[Steve Reich. Photo by Jeffrey Herman. Courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.]

The diverse program features a variety of works from his oeuvre. It began with Six Marimbas, a piece originally scored and titled in 1973 Six Pianos. It has the classic Reich sound of repeated but slowly evolving patterns that form a continuously moving harmony throughout the piece. I thought it was particularly well suited to the marimbas, which provide a percussive texture for the lines and a lightness for the harmony. I have not heard the original for pianos, but I can imagine it was a bit heavier.

Six Marimbas was followed by Electronic Counterpoint, featuring Derek Johnson on guitar. In addition to Johnson’s live performance, the piece includes multiple pre-recorded lines to form the counterpoint texture. It is also broken up into movements and involves the development of melodic and harmonic themes that give it a more traditional quality despite the unusual orchestration.

After the intermission, Steve Reich joined Michael Tilson Thomas (aka “MTT”) for an impromptu performance of Clapping Music. This is a fun piece, and it was great to see him perform it. In some ways, this piece formed the center of the “celebration” aspect of the concert, with a long ovation following the performance.

The formal program resumed with Different Trains, performed by the Kronos Quartet with pre-recorded voices. This is a much heavier piece. It combines the sounds of trains with the live quartet and vocal recordings. It starts somewhat nostalgic with reminiscing of train trips across the United States, including New York and Los Angeles, but takes a darker turn as the voices and sounds turn to memories of the trains carrying Jews to the concentration camps during the Holocaust. It then returns to the U.S. in the final movement but with the awareness that the memories of train rides have starkly different meanings depending on time and place.

Interestingly, the original program featured WTC 9/11, a powerful piece that would have had additional resonance and symbolism coming on the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was replaced by Different Trains – both pieces were originally written for and performed by the Kronos Quartet. There wasn’t any official mention of why the switch occurred. WTC 9/11 is a dark and difficult piece, even more so than Different Trains, and perhaps it was felt the anniversary was a distraction from the celebration of Reich’s full life and work.

The final piece of the evening was Reich’s Double Sextet, a piece that features two identical sextets – flute, clarinet, violin, piano, vibraphone, and cello. For this entirely live version, members of the SF Symphony were joined by Eighth Blackbird. The two groups formed the dueling sextets that played similar but different parts that proceeded a variety of interlocking rhythms and harmonies. The mixed instrumentation also gave it a more complex timbre than Six Marimbas (which sounded like a single instrument). It was also a more recent piece, composed in 2008, using the contrapuntal techniques he had developed in the earlier works.

I am glad that we were able to attend and be part of this event. I had studied Steve Reich as a composer and music student, and heard some of these pieces before, but not in a single unified symphonic setting. It was a fitting tribute.

Vinny Golia Large Ensemble

To mark the composer, multi-instrumentalist and band-leader Vinny Golia’s 70th year, over 70 musicians gathered together for the largest of Vinny Golia Large Ensembles. The event took place at the Finnish Kaleva Hall in Berkeley, California.

Vinny Golia large ensemble
[Photo by Charles Smith]

The ensemble was arranged into sections based on instrument group, e.g., percussion, guitars, winds, brass, electronics. I was in the “piano” group rather than the electronics, since I had opted to read standard notation rather than graphical scores. None the less, I brought a tiny setup to this “yuge” ensemble: a Roland “Boutique” JP-08 and a Moog Mother-32.

Mother 32 and Roland JP-08

The two-hour long performance consisted of 25 or so pieces composed by Golia, a mixture of standard notation, graphics and instructions. He conducted the ensemble quite closely, selecting pieces, encouraging sections to emerge, and singling out folks for solos. Musically, the sound has a film-score-like quality. Given the length and duration, there was the hazard of the ensemble degenerating into a loud morass of free improvisation. Golia’s conducting – which he was quite meticulous about with us during rehearsal – and the various solos punctuating the sound helped prevent that from happening.

Golia himself performed during the set, using his trademark array of reed instruments, including the multiple saxophones and the visually striking contralto clarinet.

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[Photo by Charles Smith]

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Not surprisingly, the woodwinds were featured prominently. But he also made extensive use of the guitars – something I was able to experience up close given my position behind them.

Overall, it was quite an experience to be part of and to hear this ensemble, which brought together so many familiar faces from the Bay Area new-music scene, and some new artists I had never met.

Here is the official list of musicians from the program. It includes some who were not there, and unfortunately misses a couple who were.

Composer, Director:
Vinny Golia

Saxophones:
Aaron Bennet, Beth Schenck, Collette McCaslin, Dan Plonsey, David Slusser, Henry Juntz, Isaac Narell, John Vaughn, Jon Raskin, Joseph Nobel, Josh Allen, Joshua Marshall, Kersti Abrams, Phillip Greenlief, Rent Romus, Steve Adams, Tom Weeks.

Woodwinds:
Frances Rodriguez, Jaroba, Michelle Hardy, Phillip Gelb, Rachel Condry, Tom Bickley

Brass:
Ben Zucker, George Moore, Heikki Koskinen, Ron Heglin

Drums & Percussion:
Aaron Levin, Donald Robinson, Jason Levis, Jordon Glenn, Mark Pino, Tim DeCillis, Vijay Anderson, William Winant

Strings and Basses:
Henry Kaiser, Kelley Kipperman, Matt Small, Neal Trembath, Steve Horowitz, Gabby Fluke-Mogul, Tara Flandreau, Shanna Sordahl

Guitars:
Alex Yeung, Amy Reed, Aaron-Rodni Rodriguez, Bill Wolter, John Finkbeiner, Leland Vendermeulen, Myles Boisen, Peter Whitehead, Robin Walsh, Roger Kim, Ross Hammond

Other Instruments:
Amanda Chaudhary, Andrew Jamieson, Andrew Joron, Bryan Day, Cheryl Leonard, David Samas, Derek Drudge, Gregory Scharpen, Jake Rodriguez, Philip Everett, Scott Looney, Soo-yeon Lyoh, Tania Chen, Thomas Dimuzio.

SFEMF Night 3: Arcane Device, Thea Farhadian, Alessandro Bosetti

Today we look at the third night of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF), which took place on September 10 at the Brava Theater in San Francisco.

The evening opened with a set by Alessandro Bosetti, who performs with spoken-word vocals and electronics.

Alessandro Bosetti
[Photo by Pamela Z]

His texts are not traditionally lyrical, indeed they can be awkward or even absurd at times, or parts of imperfect translations. But he challenges himself and the audience to find the musicality within them. Most of what the audience hears are that result from the live electronic processing. The language remains audible, but it is transformed in a complex mixture of inharmonicity, noise and other types of musical sound. The performance was intense – and must have been physically exhausting for Bosetti, who is known for his work on radio.

While Bosetti’s set was intense and frenetic, Thea Farhadian’s performance was something altogether different. She performed a set featuring violin and live electronics.

Thea Farhadian
[Photo by Pamela Z]

Without straying into too-conventional territory, Farhadian’s sounds were lyrical and haunting. The harmonic qualities of violin were of course featured, but also the percussive sounds, which when combined with the electronic processing created rhythm and motion to the piece. Although there was no visual element other than the performer herself, the music had a visual quality, with long curving lines like brush strokes with thick paint punctuated by dots.

The final performance featured Arcane Device (aka David Lee Myers) on modular synthesizer with live generated visuals.

Arcane Device

He is known his creation of music from feedback and other noise sources, and so we were expecting a noise-centered performance. And we weren’t disappointed. But it was really the visuals that made this experience unique. The output of the synthesizer was fed into a special two-dimensional oscilloscope that was projected behind the performer. At first it was small, squished round elements as the sound started simply, but quickly grew complex creating chaotic textures that matched the sound. This was indeed a fun set to both watch and hear.

Overall it was a good night for this year’s SFEMF. And it was well attended. Other obligations kept we away from nights 2 and 4 this year, but I am looking forward to the festival’s return next year.

SFEMF 2016: IMA and Gen Ken Montgomery

Today we look back at the 2016 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, which concluded two weeks ago. The opening night took place at the Kanbar Forum of Exploratorium here in San Francisco. The large rounded space featured an immersive multichannel speaker system designed by Meyer Sound, and both acts that day took full advantage of this.

The evening opened with a set by IMA, the electro-­percussion duo of Nava Dunkelman and Jeanie Aprille Tang (aka Amma Ateria). They performed with an array of percussion instruments and live interactive electronics.

IMA at SFEMF 2016

Their sounds range from quite sparse to large clouds, often mixing in bits of vocals with the heavily metallic percussion. For this set, they played with space as well, spinning sounds around the room using the speaker array. There were moments when the individual sounds could be heard as a single point in space, others that were on the edge of a noise wall. I also appreciate that their sets are quite embodied, not simply standing on stage behind their gear but moving around as the sound and space suggest.

The second set featured Conrad Schnitzler’s Cassette CONcert, performed by New York musician Gen Ken Montgomery. Cassette CONcerts are boxed sets of cassettes that Schnitzler composed with the intent that others could perform and listen without his presence. Montgomery has become a primary interpreter of these pieces, “conducting” the eight-channel work on a variety of speaker systems. It fit quite well in the space, which was darkened except for projections on the main screen.

Gen Ken Montgomery

In many ways is the opposite of IMA’s set, completely disembodied, with long stretches of sound, and made from pre-recorded materials. One could even call it sculptural or a sonic painting. But it fit quite well in the context of the SFEMF concert and was a fitting second act to this first night.

Overall, it was a good start to this year’s festival, and a more casual setting ahead of the next three concerts to come. We will have more to share on those in an upcoming article.

Herbie Hancock: Possibilities

Healing after a major medical procedure leaves one with quite a bit of time for reading. This was the case for me in July and August. Today we look at the first of a few books I completed during that time.

Herbie HancockPossibilities is Herbie Hancock’s autobiography released in late 2014, not long after I saw him accept his lifetime achievement award at the SFJAZZ gala. Like the gala event, the book attempts to weave together the earlier (and in my opinion best) work with his continuing to be vital and creative artist. It didn’t change my over all assessment of his music – I revere what he did in the 1970s with The Headhunters and Mwandishi as close to musical perfection, but shrug at what most of what he did in the 1980s through the end of the century (with notable exceptions like Rockit).

Throughout the book, Hancock and his co-writer Lisa Dickey weave together personal life with several different aspects of music – the music itself, the engineering, the business, and relationships. It is the mixture of all of these that makes for an interesting read, especially when placed in the context of the music. Hancock’s Buddhist practice permeates the entire story. One sees how it was a beneficial force for him personality and also affected his music, particularly with the open structure of Mwandishi and then in Head Hunters and Thrust. One of the fun anecdotes here was the naming of Actual Proof, and a discussion of how the piece got its confounding rhythm. The language is detailed enough that it gives me insight into the musical process – but not so overly technical that non-musicians should be able to get something from it as well.

He also goes into great detail about his dive into music technology through synthesizers; and his collaborations with engineers to push the instruments. I of course knew the story of the Fender Rhodes entering his music via Miles Davis; and the use of the Arp Odyssey in Head Hunters. I didn’t realize just how much he was involved in customizing the instruments for his live performances, taking advantage of his own electrical-engineering background and numerous long-time collaborations. I was particularly intrigued by the story of the vocoder (a Sennheiser VSM201) and prototype “keytar” featured in Sunlight. I also have seen that some of these sounds and elements are used by critics against him as “selling out” or some such thing. Such criticisms have long bothered me because it dismisses is best work, and the work I most love. Hancock himself seems unbothered by that and focuses on his need to explore new musical styles, ideas, and technologies – like Buddhism, this a theme that keeps recurring throughout the book. After delving into deep technical and musical detail about one song or one performance, he then simply moves on to the next.

The personal details are of course part of the story, but sometimes difficult to read. There is tragedy in his family. And he struggled at various times with drugs – the candid story about his being a closeted crack user in the 1990s was unexpected. But it is primarily the music and “story of the music” where my attention settled, and where I got the most from the book. It has in a way added to my enjoyment of the music.