Believe the hype

Sunday afternoon, Mira grabbed me for the matinee performance by the LA Philharmonic. Classical music fans under the age of 50 are a rare breed, so I'm always glad when I can find a classical music buddy in each new town I move to. We didn't have tickets, the concert having been sold out long ago, and Craigslist prices were out of control, so we headed downtown to see what the classical music scalping scene would be like. I pictured some shady character resembling a homeless bum making eye contact with me, pulling me aside, and turning open one half of his jacket to reveal a thick stack of tickets in his breast pocket.


Having dealt only with those quick-witted scalpers I'd meet outside Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium over the years, I couldn't help but picture classical music scalpers looking and talking the same.


"What you want, brother? I got a pair, orchestra, third row. Face $120. I'll let'em go for a hundy each. Say what? Sixty? Get outta here, we talking Dudamel, man, I ain't no dummy."


We were lucky. The box office had some extras, and we snagged terrace seats. There isn't a bad seat to be had in the Walt Disney Concert Hall.


Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel conducted the orchestra in three pieces:



  • Salonen's Insomnia

  • Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1 (pianist Simon Trpceski)

  • Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique


Prior to this concert, I'd only read about Dudamel in the New Yorker profile of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the LA Philharmonic's current music director (whose most visible work is as conductor). This was Dudamel's first visit to Walt Disney Concert Hall since he was announced as Salonen's successor. So my opinion of Dudamel, as I walked out of the concert, was not based on anything other than his work on this afternoon.


And my judgment was this: Dudamel is the most exciting conductor of my lifetime.


In 2009-2010, Dudamel will take over from Salonen as the musical director of the LA Phil. Dudamel is 27. In tapping him, the LA Philharmonic snared the most gifted young conductor of this generation.


The orchestra sounded fantastic in a performance recorded for iTunes. Dudamel's conducting style is infectious, unmistakeable in its verve and passion, and no piece showcased it to greater effect than Symphonie Fantastique which he conducted by heart, without a score.


At times, he leapt off the podium, while at other times, he stood with arms at his side and let the orchestra just run with the music. His gestures are uninhibited and grand; his body appears to literally be a conductor of the music, all of its emotion erupting out through his hair, which from a distance reminded me of a cross between the coifs of Malcolm Gladwell and Sideshow Bob. He would've made a great horse jockey if you substituted a crop for his baton. It was the most electrifying conducting job I've ever witnessed.


It's not just on the podium that his enthusiasm comes through. In rehearsals, he must be able to communicate the emotion and musicality he seeks to musicians two to three times his age, and more than that, he has to extract that performance from them, show after show. Dudamel succeeds on both counts. Lest you think that all classical musicians are a polite and harmonious people, witness the strife in the Seattle Symphony between the musicians and their musical director Gerard Schwarz. Watching the orchestra, you could tell they love him and would follow him anywhere he leads, and video of him leading orchestras around the world seem to confirm that he's a born leader of musicians, a true prodigy in a world that's too quick to throw that term on any young, technically proficient practitioner.


When he's not conducting, Dudamel's body language is humble, boyish, and gracious. After Symphonie Fantastique, the audience erupted in applause, summoning Dudamel back out some four or five times. Each time he insisted on trying to pass the acclaim onto different members of the orchestra, never standing back on the podium but always hiding in amongst the orchestra, shaking hands with various soloists. But there was no doubt who the city had gone crazy for.


[Contrast Dudamel to Simon Trpceski, the Macedonian pianist who walked on stage wearing a cream-colored turtleneck under his sportcoat and who leapt off the piano seat at the end of his performance. Trpceski is good, but his every gesture speaks to his knowing it. Trpceski's favored response to the audience applause was to hold his hands up to either side of his head, about four feet apart, palms facing inward, and shake them forwards and backwards, as if articulating the size of his own ego. Look, you're either the type of artist who takes a promotional photo like the one below, or you aren't. Mira and I thought it was fantastic.]



On the way home, still giddy, I plugged into all the web had to say about Dudamel and realized I was hardly the first to go gaga for Gustavo. There are hints of the predictable backlash, various reviews of his albums citing him as just overhyped, more energy than nuance, and unable to carry an adagio passage to save his life. To those people, I say that we're more than delighted to have him here in LA.


If there is a Dudamel subscription package for the LA Phil next year, I'm buying.



NYTimes Sunday Magazine profile


Gustavo Dudamel on 60 Minutes (especially entertaining is this clip, "There Will Be Blood")


More good video available at the Deutsche Grammophon site for Dudamel


Time Magazine: "Gustavo Dudamel: The Natural"


Newsweek: "Gustavo Dudamel: Wunderkind"




Things I Like

* Modern Love, the weekly column in the Sunday Styles section of the NYTimes. I enjoy the introspective, confessional nature of each installment. This past week's column, "Mom, It’s Me, Your Son, Finally," was a good example of its tone. It's interesting to me how my tastes for various sections of newspapers and magazines has changed over time.


* New Balance 1220 running shoe series, of which the latest incarnation is the 1223. My flat, wide feet are thankful for shoes that, unlike Nikes, aren't made for people with perfect feet, narrow, high-arched. I guess that's to be expected from a shoe company named after a Greek goddess. The 1220's don't change too much from generation to generation, so when I walked into the store looking for a replacement for my 1221's, the saleswoman simply handed me the same size for the 1223s, and I walked out and was running in them fifteen minutes later. There's something to be said for product continuity in the shoe market.


I loved the Air Jordan VIII. It was the first pair I ever owned, and the day my mom bought it for me from a sports store in a mall is still a tactile memory. But subsequent models of the shoe changed so drastically that they just didn't fit my feet anymore.


* Runner's high (proof it exists?). I'd always thought runner's high was the occasional feeling that one could run forever without getting tired, but the definition in the article implies that it's something you always experience during running. Which may be why I have not experienced it in so long.


* Taco trucks. Seemingly an LA institution, the Hulu dev team seems to find a new one every week, each better than the next. I have yet to find one comprehensive listing of all taco trucks, though partial coverage can be found at The Great Taco Hunt and this Google Map.



Grizzly Bear, Walt Disney Concert Hall


I'd only really ever heard one song by Grizzly Bear, "Knife", but I really wanted to experience the acoustics of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in action, so last Saturday I attended a crossover concert composed of two halves: before intermission, the LA Philharmonic played three pieces that inspired Grizzly Bear, and after intermission, Grizzly Bear played a set on the same stage.


The 2,265 seat main auditorium is the most intimate classical music venue I've ever been in. The audience surrounds the stage, a contrast to the usual alignment in which the entire audience sits behind the conductor. All the seating is stadium style, so even seated behind Yao Ming you'd have a decent view of the stage.


The acoustics of the auditorium (designed by Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics) are stunning. Seated inside, with curved cedar sound panels like ribs on the ceiling, you feel as if you're in the belly of a whale carved by Gepetto himself.




The classical pieces on the program:

Boccherini (Berio) - Ritirata notturna di Madrid

Britten - Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes

Stravinsky - Firebird Suite (1919)


It's been a long time since I've been to a classical music concert, though in years past I've always tried to attend at least three or four shows a year. Hearing pieces I've played before reminds me of my childhood, and classical music in general recalls weekend nights home with the family, my dad reading a Chinese newspaper, my mom cooking, my sisters on the phone or playing, me buried in some book, a classical LP playing in the background.


At intermission my friend showed me around the hall, outside and in. Gehry's work doesn't always work for me, but this structure is gorgeous and alive. A series of pathways allow you to navigate between all the hall's shaped metal petals, with many sweeping views of surrounding downtown LA.


Grizzly Bear's music is difficult to describe, all vocal harmonies over dreamy sonic landscapes, psychedelically mesmerizing as transported by the crystal clear acoustics of the hall. Just a well-conceived concert.




Grizzly Bear - Yellow House


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Obama in LA

Monday night, I saw Barack Obama speak in LA at the Gibson Ampitheatre. For a contribution to the campaign, I received a ticket to hear Obama speak. As I stood in line to get in, I scanned a mixed crowd ranging of all races, from teenagers in high school to senior citizens. Was this crowd more or less diverse than that for other candidates? Was Obama a great uniter? I had no frame of reference.


When I reached the security check, the guard took one look at my Nikon digital SLR and shook his head.


"That ain't going in," he said.


I bristled immediately.


Several days earlier, I had called the contact number listed for the event and described my camera and asked if it would be allowed into the event. I'd had to run back to the parking lot to leave my camera behind one time too many. The woman on the other end assured me that my camera would be welcome. I recounted this story to the guard, but he was not moved.


While he held me back from entering the event, one person after another walked past with their cameras. I asked why those cameras were allowed in while mine wasn't. He declined to elaborate, which infuriated me even more. The likely distinction was that my camera was an SLR while the ones being allowed through were compact, but I wanted to hear him say it so I could explain to him how ridiculous the policy was. But he remained impassive and mute, like a bouncer at some trendy nightclub.


I was directed to a table and forced to hand over my camera. A black cloud floated over my head as I walked into the facility.


The short-sighted aspects of this policy are numerous. An SLR generally takes better pictures than a compact camera, but compressed for the web, the distinctions in photo quality would be lost on the vast majority of users. Most compact cameras actually have longer zooms than the standard SLR lens. What was I going to do, sell high-quality pictures of Obama, one of the most photographed people in news today? Once inside the event, I saw some other folks who weren't press members who did manage to get there digital SLRs through security. I couldn't get the bad taste out of my mouth the rest of the night.


The first thing I would've done with any photos of Obama would be to post the best one here and sing his praises, but instead I've wasted ten minutes of my life ranting about the restrictive policy at this event. It's a lose-lose situation. In this day and age, allowing people to snap photos and share them across Facebook or Flickr or weblogs is a form of free publicity. I hope someone at the campaign does the right thing and corrects it for future events. This persecution of SLRs needs to end.


I grabbed a seat two rows up from the VIP section around the stage (yes, a seat good enough to have snapped some great photos...I'll stop now). After sitting for about an hour, a series of introductory speakers came out to sing Obama's praises and fire up the crowd. Nick Cannon of Drumline fame served as the host of the evening, and Kal "Kumar" Penn came out and spoke of his work campaigning for Obama in Iowa.


Having musical guests play at these types of events has always seemed forced to me. It's difficult to imagine any presidential candidate having enough time to listen to music or keep up with the music scene, and the political endorsements of all but a few musicians hold little value to me. The first musical guest was Ne-Yo. The speakers to either side of the stage were cranked up. I could literally feel the sound waves hitting me in the chest. The other musical guest was The Goo Goo Dolls, an odd choice to me considering their last big hit was in...umm...


Sitting in front of me at the event was a familiar face, but not familiar enough for me to know by name. I knew he was an actor, but I couldn't place him. He left his seat early in the event, and the next time I saw him was on stage, as one of the speakers. It was James Whitmore.


There were plenty of movie stars in the crowd (the online web page for the event listed people like Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, and Olivia Wilde; it's good to know Obama has locked up the Hollywood hottie vote). But there was no doubt who the biggest star in the room was on this night.


Throughout the night and especially during Obama's speech, speakers hammered on several key message of their campaign.



  • Obama did not vote for the Iraq war, and Republicans will not be able to use that against him (the contrast to Clinton was unspoken, but only because it was so clear that she was the target).

  • The American people need someone to tell them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. This is part of Obama's conscious strategy to inform the electorate that he plans to run a non-traditional campaign, one in which he's not afraid to speak honestly about what the tradeoffs are. If certain policies require raising taxes, then he's going to tell it like it is. As a realist I find this refreshing, though I'm not convinced it's the optimal campaign strategy. I hope his instincts are right.

  • His is a campaign that embraces all people, of all races and sexual orientations and political affiliations. Over and over, he spoke of the need to dispense with red state blue state model of the U.S.

  • He intends to be the greenest President in history, and he plans to generate jobs through his efforts to aid the environment.

  • Universal health care.

  • Raise minimum wage, bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

  • He plans to restore the U.S. standing in the international community. He said he awaited the day when he can stand before the United Nations and tell the world, "We're back."


He displayed some humor during the evening, first in talking about his disappointment in finding out he was related to Dick Cheney, the second about the Clinton campaign's investigation into his Kindergarten papers. Of the latter, he noted, "We'll be releasing those papers on Monday. I tugged on a girl's ponytail once. And liked it."

It's dangerous to judge too much about a candidate's policies and qualifications for office at a rehearsed event like this. But whether you mean to or not, you assess a person's personality and character when you meet them in person, the same way you measure a person from the first moment you meet them in a job interview. Their body language, their words, their voice, their posture--all these feed into your perception of the person.

On that front, Obama is the most compelling candidate, either Democrat or Republican, in the upcoming election. He has a certain charisma that's difficult to teach. Clinton is polished and experienced and competent, but she lacks his inherent magnetism.


The other thing that struck me was how easy it was to garner huge support in this election just by promising not to be Dubya. Who thought that eliciting enthusiastic screams for a crowd could be as simple as saying, "I promise not to torture people in Guantanamo!"


Last weekend

If you ever want to experience what it would be like if there was a run on goods because of impending disaster, come to LA and go shopping at Costco or IKEA on weekend. I was with my roommates at IKEA this past weekend and a woman riding in one of those motorized chairs drove into the back of my right foot in an effort to get into a cashier's line. I hobbled around for a day with what felt like a contusion on my Achilles tendon.


***


Why can't DirecTV put another set of satellites in the North? I moved to an apartment on the north side of the building, and now I'm relegated to standard def because our complex signed a deal with Clear Bay Communications, and they're too cheap to rewire the building for high definition for DirecTV. My only choice is standard def DirecTV. In my previous apartment I could just get a view of the southwest sky from the balcony, on which I mounted a high-def DirecTV satellite. Now I can't see the southwest sky, but I can sure see the clouds...no, wait, those aren't clouds, those are the huge pixels of my crappy television image through standard def.


DirecTV has a great product if you can get it, but the "if you can get it" part of that is more of a catch than it should be.


***


I was unpacking more boxes this weekend, and I found my passport and an iPod nano that I thought I lost two years ago. I should unpack more often.


***


James Surowiecki on the writer's strike. Both sides believe strongly in their positions. The studios aren't making much off the web yet (nowhere near what they make in syndication or DVD sales), so they don't want to strike any long-term deals now. The writers did not get their fair share on DVDs from their last agreement, and they don't want to get burned again if the internet takes off as quickly as DVDs did.


Given all this, the two sides should strike a short-term rev share % agreement and go back to the negotiating table after it expires. The money online really isn't significant yet relative to DVD and syndication, and a more just % deal will buy some time for the online market to mature.


But the smarter long-term view for writers and directors and producers and actors, in my opinion, is to look to the Internet as a way to bypass the network and studio system altogether and get more fair value for their work. It won't happen right away, as the theatrical and DVD markets are still quite lucrative marketing and distribution systems while the Internet is still in its infancy in this space. But it may happen sooner than people realize.


There's an entire new generation coming up that's used to watching programming on a computer, or getting content from the computer to their TV. Broadband penetration and web speeds will continue to increase to the point where getting high-def content through the Internet will be just as fast as getting it from a satellite or cable. At that point, for many creative types the equation will shift so that it's more efficient for them to go direct to consumer rather than through the studio system. It won't be worthwhile for them to cede so much of the profit to a middleman who probably can't market their product efficiently anyhow.


Blockbuster mass-market movies may still benefit from launching on thousands of screens opening weekend, but most other programming will benefit more from efficient Internet-driven targeting. Maybe no such mechanism exists today online, but it's not difficult to imagine a company like Amazon is for books arising on the web to help people find the film and television programming they'll love.


The last foothold for studios in this distant future may be the theatrical distribution space. It's not easy to replicate a network of thousands of movie theaters nationwide. That's just not a lucrative business. But even as much as I love the look of film, the advent of digital technology will lower the cost of distribution to the point where building a network of theaters that only downloads massive digital files of movies will be feasible, avoiding the massive cost of generating all those prints. Cameras like the Red One will enable indie filmmakers to shoot films that can be projected on a massive theater screen and look fantastic at a much lower cost than shooting 35mm film. These files can be edited on a desktop workstation, and the digital output can be distributed to theaters with digital projectors.


The other things artists have traditionally depended on studios for is financing. But even there, times have changed. I took a class at UCLA last year called Indie Film Financing, and every week a different type of financier came in to talk about some film project they'd funded. It's not just studios anymore. We heard from old-fashioned banks, private equity, ultra-wealthy individuals, and on and on.


We will get back to a world where the scarcity is not in theater screens or financing but something much harder to solve, and that's true creative talent.


***


Speaking of the future of content distribution, the stats from the Radiohead experiment in direct distribution of their album "In Rainbows" are fascinating. The average price paid among people who paid for the download was $6.00. Given that over 60% of customers chose not to pay at all for the download, the average price paid worldwide was $2.26 per album.


Sounds low? It's still more than Radiohead would have made per album if they'd gone through a studio. I think they could have easily gotten sales if they'd chosen to sell their album at, say $4.00 a pop, instead of letting consumers name their own price. But this turned out to be a much more interesting, and I think, successful experiment.


***


Last Saturday I went downtown and caught the Takashi Murakami exhibit downtown at the Geffen Contemporary at the MOCA. I love his massive prints and his appropriation of pop and high culture. His works seem to distill so many elements of Japanese culture.




I had hoped to buy a print there, but the museum only carried limited editions of 300 of a few of his prints, and they had all sold out already. I had to settle for a t-shirt.


Murakami collaborated with Marc Jacobs, artistic director for Louis Vuitton, on a series of handbags. On display at the museum was a luggage chest with about a dozen or so compartments inside, each holding a Louis Vuitton handbag. Out of curiosity, one of my friends asked how much the chest was. It turns out you can take that chest and all the handbags inside it home for the meager sum of $500,000.


Not for sale were these two NSFW scultpures.


Also playing at the exhibit was Murakami's music video for Kanye West's song "Good Morning" off of Graduation. I guess it hasn't released to the world yet as the only copy I can find online is at YouTube, some bootleg from the Murakami exhibit. Not the best way to enjoy it.


Swell

Last night I caught The Swell Season at The Wiltern (Martha Wainwright opened) with Mira and Jill. The Swell Season is headlined by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the co-stars of this year's indie film that could, Once.


The concert was, as my new roommate Hazel is fond of saying, lovely. I'd never seen The Frames in concert before (Hansard and a few others from The Swell Season play together in that band as well), but it's difficult to imagine the band drawing such an adoring following prior to the film's word-of-mouth success earlier this year.


Not that they don't deserve it. Hansard is a gifted songwriter and a winning stage presence, humble ("Tanks, tanks!" he said over and over again in response to adoring screams) but impassioned. Listening to him trade easy banter with the crowd, I imagine that if I ever visited Ireland I'd meet garrulous raconteurs like him in pubs everywhere, each of them spinning stories and songs on their guitars deep into the night while I nibbled on various preparations of potatoes.


Marketa is less comfortable on stage. She forgot the lyrics midway through her first song, and the rest of the time she said little when she wasn't singing. Hansard guarded her with an avuncular presence, the rumors of their romance leaping from screen to stage hovering over every one of their hugs, glances, and whispers.


During the show, a portly, disheveled, middle-aged man wearing an untucked white undershirt pushed his way past us and shoved an unmarked pair of CD-Rs in a white paper sleeve into Jill's hands. Great...another promo for some neighborhood hip-hop band.


But after the concert, Jill glanced at the CD and found a note scrawled in ballpoint pen. It turns out it was a bootleg of The Swell Season in Chicago. We popped it in the CD player on the way home. Damn if it wasn't one of the higher quality bootlegs I've heard. So thank you, portly disheveled middle-aged man in untucked white undershirt, for the digital memento.


During a break in the show, someone screamed "Oscar!" Best Original Song for Glen Hansard? There's a good chance, though Mira thinks he'll have to contend with Eddie Vedder for the Into the Wild soundtrack.




She's Got You

Last night, after a good meal at The Bowery in Hollywood, I saw Cat Power (aka Chan (pronounced Sean) Marshall) at the Avalon. She performed with the Dirty Delta Blues.


She's got a second Covers album taxiing on the runway for Jan 2008 liftoff, and many of the songs she performed seem destined for that release. Two highlights: a couple songs into her set, a cover of Patsy Cline's "She's Got You," and later, one of my favorites, "Dark End of the Street." I can't find an MP3 of Marshall covering either, but if anyone has one, I'd be greatly indebted if they could pass it along to tide me over until the CD hits next year. In the meantime, you can find the Patsy Cline at any number of places like Amazon or iTunes, and there are a gazillion covers of "Dark End of the Street."


I wish I could list off all the other songs she covered, but one of the things that makes her one of the best cover artists around is also the thing that makes her covers so difficult to identify: Chan makes the melody and tempo and cadence of the songs her own (though still preserving their emotional marrow). Making song identification even trickier last night was the inconsistent sound mix. At times, I had no idea what she was saying because her voice was drowned out by guitars, and a few times her mic just plain cut out. Someone with sharper hearing and an encyclopedic knowledge of musical lyrics may have her full set list. If I find it I'll link to it here.


But back to that Cat Power voice. That voice. It's a gift, and it works best with minimal dressing, simpler arrangements that let it carve aural contrails in the air. Maybe just a piano, a dollop of guitar, and a small serving of bass on the side.


The keyboardist, some guy named Greg who Cat Power introduced as "Mr. Beautiful," was another stage distraction. He looked like a cross between Tommy Lee and Criss Angel and played the keyboards with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Every time Marshall threw attention his way, he preened. How could a keyboardist have so much attitude? I kept hoping he'd hiccup and swallow his smoke.


Pinkberry

The dessert chain Pinkberry is all the rage in Southern California. They serve "frozen yogurt" in a clean, minimalist store with Philippe Starck furniture and sell designer accessories like $60 dog bowls.


I put quote around frozen yogurt because the Pinkberry Wikipedia page links to a now pay-blocked archive article in the LA Times in which they sent samples of Pinkberry to a lab that found that it did not contain enough bacterial cultures per gram to qualify to call their product "frozen yogurt" with all its attendant health benefits.


I think it tastes fresh, with more of that sour true yogurt taste than stuff like TCBY's in the 80's, but at $5 for a medium (8 oz) 3 topping yogurt, it ain't cheap, and the lines at the stores during peak hours are more than it's worth.


I don't know which store inspired which, but a whole host of frozen yogurt competitors have sprouted up, all clustering around similar sounding names. Besides Pinkberry, there's Red Mango, Kiwiberri, Snowberry, Yogurberry, IceBerry, and Berri Good. Straight from Korea to LA, it's the frozen yogurt revival.


Eric and I have discussed opening a business selling toppings right next door to Pinkberry locations. Customers could save the $0.95 they charge per topping by ordering their yogurt plain and then walking next door to choose from our even larger and cheaper selection of toppings. $0.95 for a teaspoon of Fruity Pebbles?


Earthquake?


I think I may have just experienced my first LA earthquake, but I'm not sure. It felt like a giant just leaned against the outside of my apartment and shook it the same way I'd shake a vending machine if my bag of chips failed to drop down into the receiving bay.


UPDATE: Not the most intuitive map, but I see a big red square on this earthquake map indicating seismic activity in the last hour. Judging by eye it looks like around a 4.0 magnitude earthquake. Ah, wait...here it is: a 4.5 earthquake at 12:58AM.


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Secret Spoon Show


I lucked out and managed to snag two tickets to the Spoon "secret" show (if it was really a secret I wouldn't have gotten tix for it) on Monday night at Little Radio. Spoon was out in support of their new album. The venue is a cool little warehouse near downtown LA. It's an intimate space, and apparently they broadcast concerts live over the web. The place looked to hold about 300 people tops, standing. If I'd wanted, I could easily have been five feet from Britt Daniel and his mates on stage. In addition, there was an open bar (at least if you wanted the drink of the day, Dewars and Ginger Soda),.


There was just one problem. In this long, rectangular space with a giant bar jutting out in the middle, there was no air conditioning and only one opening to the outside world, the entrance. Within a few minutes of being inside, I felt like I had worn a snowsuit into a sauna. Under such conditions, the space might have been able to put up with about 100 people and still feel comfortable, but instead I sweated off about a pound during the show.


We managed to find a semi-tolerable temperature zone around us against a wall near the end of the show, when the heat had dissipated the crowd. It didn't do much to dissipate the cigarette smoke, though. If they had a way to open up the back then at least the air could move over us from one end of the place to the other. Even Daniel commented on the oppressive heat at one point during the show. The one standing fan in the entire place was pointed on stage, but I still have to imagine that Daniel had to wring himself out after performing in a long-sleeve black shirt and pants all night.


Spoon was great. Their new album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is excellent. And Little Radio, if they ever install some A/C, would be the perfect intimate venue at which to see your favorite bands perform.




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Rodrigo Y Gabriela


I went to the KCRW Sounds Eclectic concert last night at the Gibson Ampitheatre in Universal City, an entertainment complex that sprouted up around Universal Studios sometime since my last visit when I was just a wee lad. The lineup went:

Bitter:Sweet

Breakestra

Cold War Kids

Rodrigo Y Gabriela

Travis (this year's unannounced guest)

Lily Allen

The Shins


Each group played about 7 tunes or so, a format that seems to encourage artists to play the biggest 2 or 3 new tunes off of their latest album plus a retrospective of their greatest hits.


The group that got the largest ovation was the Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela. They were electrifying. You can hear samples at their Myspace page (try "Diablo Rojo"), but this is one group you have to see live. If you have speakers worth a damn, compressed audio won't do justice to their sound, and seeing their fingers and hands working into a frenzied blur will drop your jaw.


The propulsive pace of their first song got everyone's heads and feet tapping, and then they wove in a sweet cover of "Stairway to Heaven" that brought a hush down across the crowd. At one moment they even snuck in the opening cue from Metallica's "Enter Sandman"; it was there, a subtle flourish, and then they were on to the next bit. Not only is the music good, but they've got a flair and a sense of showmanship that really works. You don't have to take my word for it; more credible music names have already paid their tribute.


Here's a link to their latest album. A CD this good deserves a mongo image:




Rodrigo y Gabriela (with Bonus DVD)


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Gridlock


Google Maps finally added real-time traffic info for many U.S. cities to its online site (this feature was previously available only on their mobile version). Living in LA, I have to check traffic maps almost every time I leave the apartment.


Google is no longer the child that can do no wrong. Looking at the LA traffic map, for example, you realize that their traffic overlay obscures the actual highway numbers. That's a severe interface bug. It's not noticeably superior to sigalert, the most commonly referenced LA traffic site. The one thing Google has going for it is that the traffic data is combined with its map site so you can everything in one place. Trafficpredict.com is also useful in LA as it allows you to look up historical time slices.


Some useful mobile implementation of traffic with a GPS device is what we ultimately need here in LA. There may be such a device already, but I haven't come across it. The problem is that traffic data doesn't exist down the the local street level here in LA, and residents here all hop off of the freeways when things get ugly. I don't know how many times I've been trying to drive with an LA Thomas Guide in my lap, trying to find any possible shortcut through the endless stretch of gridlocked metallic coffins we call cars. The LA Thomas guide for LA and Orange County is the size of most world atlases, but it only covers part of LA.


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Loadkill


Consider this the white flag on, among other things, my e-mail inbox. I used to try to return all my fan mail within a day, but then this matter of my first quarter of film school came flying in like a defensive end from my blind side annihilated me. I feel as if someone tied a rope around my waist while I wasn't looking and then attached the other end to a giant parachute that they tossed up into a raging gale. One minute I'm standing there, and then suddenly I'm yanked off my feet and dragged through the forest, struggling the whole way to detach myself, to no avail.


I moved to LA and had about three days to unpack and settle in before school started, and the rest has just been a blur. For some reason, perhaps stupidity, I didn't anticipate the first year of film school being so packed wall-to-wall with class. Morning, afternoon, evening, even Saturdays, we all seemed to live at school. I've never lived in a city for so long and seen so little of it. I've worn a deep path between my apartment and the school parking garage, and that's about it. I don't even know the entire campus; the only portion I'm really familiar with is the section where the film school is.


Yesterday I threw out about five-foot tall stack of unread Sunday NYTimes, only to discover another stack of equal height behind it. The newspaper stack is flanked by two towers of magazines, the whole thing resembling a sort of Petronas Towers of print media. The good thing is that if there's a nuclear winter, I should be able to keep warm for months by using it as kindling.


This last week, my classmates and I have grown more and more exhausted as hour upon hour of editing on the flatbeds have begun to take their toll. I can't recall another week in this century when I've strung together so many nights with just a few hours of sleep. The other day, I wandered from the sixth floor of my parking garage down to the third before I found my car because I couldn't remember which level I'd parked on. I couldn't even remember parking it at all.


Editing on 16mm film on a flatbed is one of those experiences which we'll speak of fondly in hindsight, but when in the midst of it, more than one of us nearly succumbed to frustration and despair. More than one of us has had to field a phone call from a crazed classmate and to talk that classmate back from the ledge. Having learned to edit on a computer, I had an especially hard time getting used to the idea that cutting in a single piece of footage could take ten minutes as opposed to 20 seconds.


This is how nearly all major motion pictures were edited for years and years! It's almost as difficult to fathom as the stories my dad used to tell me about programming a computer by feeding it punch cards. I hadn't thought about how slow the editing process would be when I wrote my script consisting of back and forth dialogue for about three minutes straight. As a result, I had to make nearly 40 cuts. You bet I looked on with deep envy at those folks who had films consisting of four or five long takes spliced together.


At the same time, I now understand why certain filmmakers, like Scorsese and Spielberg, held out as long as possible before moving to digital non-linear editing (in the case of Scorsese, it was his editor Schoonmaker who made the switch, but he went along begrudgingly). For one thing, there's a certain discipline and care that working with actual film engenders. Being in a dark room with a trim bin filled with hundreds of feet of film, working on a flatbed machine the size of a compact car, feeling the film run over your fingers...at no other point this quarter did I understand as clearly that filmmaking is a craft as much as it is an art. Sure, a dish prepared in a microwave oven is going to be ready faster than one baked in a real oven, but you also taste the difference.


Making a cut that works is much more satisfying on the flatbed. By the time I finished cutting my film, I'd gained an intuitive sense of how many frames I needed to add in or pull out to get the timing I wanted. You can build a similar sense of timing on a computer, but with film, the relationship between time and linear distance (the length of film in your hand) is fixed.


That bright semicircle of light? That's the end of the tunnel. Thursday we screen our movies on the big screen, Friday we meet with faculty for the end of quarter evaluation, and Saturday I fly back into the arms of NYC for the holidays.


Yesterday I spent a couple hours capturing foley for my film. The clicking of a woman's heels on linoleum, the scraping noise of a wooden chair being pushed back or pulled forward against the ground, the rustling of a woman searching through her purse, even the chafing of fabric against fabric as jackets are put on or removed. I projected my movie on a large screen and sat in the recording booth while a classmate outside would walk in heels in time to the movements of the actress on screen, or sit down and stand up while putting on or removing jackets of various fabrics.

Professional foley artists have one of the most fun jobs around.


When I went back in to add the foley to my sound mix, every sound that matched the action on screen gave me a silent thrill. The engaging sense of hyper-realism that comes from watching a Hollywood narrative film comes in large part due to the clean sound from foley, something that's difficult to capture with the mics on location or on a camcorder.


Today I finished my sound mix. I had to go back to my Nagra tape and recapture a take because my actress's lines got clipped when I transferred to CD-R. The Nagra is an old sound recording device, analogous in age to the flatbed in editing. We used the legendary 4.2, pictured below. I believe it was in the third episode of season one of The Wire when McNulty or one of his peers complained about still having to use a large, clunky Nagra taped inside his shirt to do surveillance when the FBI had moved on to stealthier, more compact, wireless recording devices.




The Nagra is bulky and heavy, but it has one thing going for it. No matter how hot the sound, it's nearly impossible to cause the Nagra to distort. It has an amazingly wide latitude and forgiveness and can capture the most dynamic ranges of sound with ease. But transfer to CD and you bump heads with the lousy dynamic range of digital sound. A shouted line that sounded beautiful on the Nagra clipped when I transferred it to CD, and so I had to recapture with a lower input level on the CD Recorder to remove the distortion in the line reading. Digital sounds has its conveniences, but it's still trying to catch up to analog sound in quality.


Thursday all of our movies will show on the big screen at school. I'm excited to see everyone's work projected large. The improvement in home theater technology this past decade has been great, but I'm not one of those who prefers watching movies at home just because of the cost or inconvenience of going to a movie theater, dealing with lines and rude people talking on cell phones. Seeing a face projected twenty feet high fundamentally changes your experience of the movie, and so does seeing it in the company of others.


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Wordloaf


Among the many cool-sounding shows I haven't had time to see recently is "All About Walken," a show featuring a bunch of Christopher Walken impersonators.


The Adobe Photoshop CS3 beta releases this Friday. Rumor has it that the Universal Binary will "scream" on the new Intel-based Macs.


Monthly upload bandwidth lifted from 20MB to 100MB for free accounts at Flickr. I though they should have lifted those a while ago, but better late than never.


I was fuming mad at the world today, well, mostly Bank of America for their shoddy (read: nonexistent) integration between branches in different states, and then I went back to watch episode 6 from this season's Simpsons, and by the end of the episode I was smiling again. Go grab a torrent. With guest appearances by Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen, and another comic turn by J.K. Simmons reprising his J. Jonah Jameson from the Spiderman movies, it's an instant classic. And yes, I don't watch much TV anymore which is why I'm recommending an episode that aired sometime during the Kennedy administration.


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A little bit of that


James Surowiecki writes about how the powerful illusion of housing as a guaranteed investment winner persists. Some of the economic errors he points out in rising housing price statistics are so basic that you'd think they'd have been corrected long ago. Two examples are not adjusting housing prices for inflation and failing to account for housing improvements. Sample bias is another problem: data on housing prices comes only from houses sold and don't reflect houses that don't sell because the owners aren't happy with the market price.


A collection of links to blog posts apologizing for not having posted in a while. Funny. People probably overdo it on the blog absence apologies. People can probably figure it out: you're too busy, too lazy, or on vacation.


Soundtrack.net has song by song previews from the new Casino Royale score. Some tracks evoke early John Barry, and many of those early Bond cues from Barry evoke my childhood like no other movie themes. My dad loved James Bond movies, and I used to hate it when ABC or another network would air a Bond movie late on a weekday night because I'd always have to go to bed early for school and miss the ending. I don't know why so many people are down on the new Bond movie before it has even hit the big screen. It's arguably the most successful and durable film franchise in Hollywood history, and the mythology is still alluring: play with the most advanced gadgets, travel to the world's most exotic locations, save the world from the craziest of megalomaniacs, and bed the world's most beautiful women. It's just a twist on the superhero movie genre, one that surmises that if such a super spy existed he probably wouldn't be the shrinking violet that is Clark Kent or Peter Parker but rather a somewhat sadistic, cocky SOB who'd want to indulge in all the perks of the office. If the perks weren't there, who'd take the job?


David Lynch's daily LA weather reports return. I listened to it this morning and felt unusually happy about the good weather having heard about it from Lynch.


Clive Owen will play Sir Walter Raleigh opposite Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth I in the sequel to Elizabeth, The Golden Age. Both are actors I love. I saw Blanchett from the first row in a production of Hedda Gabler at BAM in Brooklyn, and she was awe-inspiring. I saw Clive Owen walking out of the Mercer Hotel in Soho about a year ago, and he confirmed what I suspected, that wherever he is, he's the coolest character in the joint. But it's not entirely coincidental that we'll have the bonus of a bit more heat from our modern incarnations of Sir Walter Raleigh and Elizabeth I. Sure, standards of beauty change over time, but come on. I think natural selection and the passage of time are working in our favor here. But judge for yourself:






The Magic Castle


For Mark's birthday, a big group of us joined him for dinner and performances at The Magic Castle on Sunday. It's a restaurant, performance venue, and home to The Academy of Magical Arts, Inc. It's a sort of trade association for practicing magicians. There are about 2,500 members who put on shows and share tricks of the trade. To become a Magician Member, you have to perform a magic routine in front of membership reviewing committee.


The dinner, pulled from a steakhouse-like menu, was pricey and not so magical, but built into the price is the opportunity to watch practicing magicians performing in various venues around the mansion. The first performer was 28 year old Danny Cole, twice voted "Stage Magician of the Year" by members of the Magic Castle (perhaps if I keep writing the words Magic Castle enough times, the impulse to snicker will subside). Cole's show was very impressive, in particular because of his smooth stagecraft.


Downstairs, an invisible ghost, Irma, will take requests while holding court on a grand piano. You just say your requests towards the empty seat, and Irma will begin playing (read: the piano begins playing itself) if she knows the tune. Her repertoire is surprisingly vast. From obscure national anthems to contemporary hits and everything in between, Irma rattled off one tune after another.


Neddy finally stumped Irma, though, with this request: "Irma, do you know 'Sexy Back' by Justin Timberlake?"


Irma responded with a three dissonant descending notes, like the disappointing sounds they play when you choose poorly on a TV game show. Someone else jumped in, "How about Britney?"


Irma quickly banged out a rendition of "Oops I Did It Again."