Category Archives: Music

Sound City

Sound City takes its place among the  best music documentaries I’ve ever seen. A big part of it is Dave Grohl, who seems like a nice guy who just happens to be a great musician who was lucky enough to have been a part of rock history. Whether he’s in the studio or talking to the camera from the driver’s seat of his Tradesman van, he seems utterly unpretentious.

The movie is about Sound City, a rather junky studio in Van Nuys, California, that had two lives: in the ’70s and ’80s, it was where everybody recorded: Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Rick Springfield, Pat Benatar, etc. The hallways are lined with platinum records. And then, just as a new generation had started to go elsewhere, Nirvana recorded “Nevermind” there, which ushered in a new era of popularity, hosting Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, Slipknot, and many more. Studios are finicky places and the big room at Sound City was famous for its drum sound.

At the center of the studio is a Neve console, a tank of a 24-track mixing board that the engineers and producers love. It represented the pinnacle of analog audio electronics — just as the highly produced synthesizer and electronic drum sounds of modern rock began to not only become the de facto radio style, but it began to change how recordings were made. And that’s when the movie takes a turn: it becomes less about Sound City and more about the analog versus digital divide — which then segues into something very interesting: how the digital revolution has led to more people making perfectible recordings on laptops and how we’re losing the idea of a group of musicians with the talent and collaborative skills to play well when the tape rolls, working on arrangements and creating music live and in the moment.

The last and best part of the doc was the end section. Grohl buys the Neve from Sound City, installs it in his own 606 Studio West, and invites a number of Sound City musicians to lay some tracks down. Even if none of the songs is a hit, it’s maybe the best record I’ve seen of what it’s like to work out songs in real time. We see Grohl lay down tracks with Springfield, Jim Keltner, Lee Ving, Trent Reznor, Paul McCartney, and others, and these aren’t the pointless jams in It Might Get Loud, these are real, original songs and everyone is adding ideas, including the producer Butch Vig working in the booth. (Good line in the booth: “Go ahead, Butch, tell Paul McCartney what to play.”) The Paul McCartney section is particularly inspired, as his backing band is Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear: Nirvana without Cobain.

Highly recommended. Here’s the trailer.

Vi Hart’s 12-Tone Music

Vi Hart (a full-time mathemusician at Khan Academy) makes mostly short YouTube videos on a variety of mostly math and science subjects. She draws in a notebook while talking really fast, making insightful, surprising connections. She’s smart, funny, knowledgeable, and entertaining.

This brilliant video is, I think, a bit of a departure: a 30-minute piece explaining how 12-tone music works. Because of copyright law, she can’t play Stravinsky and Schoenberg, so she composes her own 12-tone versions of well-known tunes, with side-journeys into pattern recognition and the nature of art. By the end, she’s composed a four-part, 12-tone vocal version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” that she sings herself. It’s a tour de force of music, science, art, and explanation.

Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune

poster I watched Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, a 2010 documentary about the uncompromising and ultimately troubled protest singer, Phil Ochs.

It was worthwhile for a look at a voice I knew little about, and for a reminder of a particular scene in the ’60s, but sad as well, not just for Ochs’s decline but for the repetition of the evil of the ’60s (JFK, Vietnam, civil rights, the Chicago convention, MLK, RFK), with the overthrow of Allende thrown in. There’s also lots of good music in here, and interesting discussions of the one-sided rivalry he had with Bob Dylan, whom he idolized. Here’s a clip from the move, of Ochs singing “When I’m Gone”:

In one period, he decided to travel the world and went to Chile just as Allende (a Marxist) was elected, and be befriended the protest singer Victor Jara. He eventually got to Africa, where he hit on the idea of recording in Kenya as a way to write off the trip. The song, Bwatue, has Ochs singing in Lingala (I think) and English and playing with Kenyan musicians in 1973:

He was later robbed in Dar es Salaam, in a strangulation attack that damaged his vocal cords and which he thought may have been planned by the CIA. Later that year, Allende was overthrown (CIA, again) and his friend Jara was tortured and killed, and this seemed to trigger a psychological break that resulted in heavy drinking, a personality change, and eventually death by his own hand.

As a movie, it’s a well-done documentary (by his brother, Michael Ochs) with lots of footage from the news of the time and words from many of the usual suspects: Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner (who has not aged well), and Ochs’s daughter, Meegan, who gives Ochs some redemption. In addition, Jello Biafra, Christopher Hitchens, Sean Penn, and Billy Bragg show up to say pithy things for largely unknown reasons. Bragg is al least his moral descendent, and Biafra covered Ochs’s cynical “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” and only made a few changes to make it current.

Searching for Sugar Man

While the Academy Awards show played, I decided to skip it and watch Searching for Sugar Man, a marvelous film that I later learned won an Oscar for best documentary. The movie is about the musician Sixto Rodriguez, who made only two albums, in 1970 and 1971. Though the songs were great, and the people behind the album were top-notch, Rodriguez failed to catch on nationally and eventually left the music business, working manual labor jobs in Detroit.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, records and tapes of Rodriguez’s songs became among the most-played music of a generation. More popular than Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, or anyone else of that time, Rodriguez got played at every party and gathering. His songs often contained themes typical for the time, commenting on social issues and the evils of “the establishment” — themes that resonated greatly with the youth of South Africa, which was at the height of apartheid. The government (especially under P.W. Botha) violently suppressed political statements and controlled the media, and SA resembled a police state, with little news coming in or out.

Because of this, no one in South Africa could learn anything about Rodriguez, and most believed that he had died luridly, killing himself onstage, either with a gun or in flames. In addition, Rodriguez never knew that a generation of a whole country had his music as their soundtrack. Eventually, in the ’90s, a journalist in SA decides to learn how he really died, and eventually discovers he hasn’t, and that he lives (seemingly contentedly) at poverty level in gritty Detroit.

The movie becomes practically a fairy-tale: Rodriguez comes to South Africa for a series of triumphant concerts, comfortable playing onstage in a large venue to screaming fans despite the years of downtime. And, we learn at the end, he is completely unchanged by the experience. A postscript tells us he gave away most of the money he’d earned, though he continues to visit and perform SA — one of his daughters even met, married, and had a child with a musician she’d met on the first trip there.

The movie itself is well-shot — amazingly on 8mm and iPhone — with subtly animated sections and B-roll helping to piece together the contexts of Detroit and Cape Town, and the interview sections are terrific: there’s the enthusiastic South Africans, the perplexed and nostalgiac US record company pros, the dumbfounded (and surprisingly philosophical) coworkers, the grateful if wary daughters, and Rodriguez himself, unsure what to do with all the attention but genuinely happy while it lasts.

Woody Guthrie’s Songbook

IMG_0000Somewhere in the late 1940s, Woody Guthrie gave his mimeographed 25 Cent Songbook to Charlie Weiner, my late father-in-law. Typewritten and decorated with Woody's cartoons, the songbook contains ten songs, including "This Land Is Your Land," "Grand Coolee Dam," and others. It's pretty fragile, so I made a quick scan of the whole thing here. (This German site has kindly typed it up already.)

Charlie knew Woody well enough to report riding trains with him, though they were 19 years apart. When Woody printed this in 1945, Charlie was 13 or 14. He left home a few years later, so I suspect it was 1949 or later when their lives intersected. 

Anyway, I'm glad to have this little slice of time. Happy 100th birthday, Woody.

IMG_0006  IMG_0013

Charles Irwin Weiner, 1931-2012

Charlie+susan2011My father-in-law Charlie Weiner died on Saturday. He was 80, and having an extended stay in the village of Eyeries, Ireland with his wife, JoAnn Hughes.

Charlie was a remarkable guy, and I'm deeply sad that I won't get to spend more time with him. We only met in 2007, a few months after I met his daughter, Susan Weiner. I liked him immediately – he was funny, and engaging, and a great person to have a conversation with, because he loved to hear and share stories.

Here are some stories I heard him tell about himself and believe I remembered correctly:

He grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. In 1946, he hit the road to explore the South with a friend. Among his better documented stories is his encounter with Fiddlin' Bill Hensley, an old-time musician he searched out who lived in a ramshackle cabin near Asheville, North Carolina. This was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with music, and Charlie's music experiences ranged from New York jazz clubs to Gullah singers in the Georgia Sea Islands. He had a great ear and memory for melody – at 80, he could still sing Japanese songs he'd learned in Tokyo during his brief military career in the '50s.

In the late '40s he rode the rails and played songs with Woody Guthrie, who gave him one of his hand-drawn, mimeographed songbooks. He attended get-togethers at Pete Seeger's Greenwich Village home, and was present the night Lee Hays brought over his friend Ronnie Gilbert and the Weavers were born. Charlie acted as impromptu security for Paul Robeson and other musicians as the 1949 civil rights and music festival in Peekskill, New York deteriorated into a racist and anti-Semitic riot. 

His mother was a socialist who ran for office in New York, and Charlie remained a staunch supporter of those ideals his entire life. He distrusted and questioned authority, and always fought for basic human rights. In the '50s, he spent time in auto plants in Ohio, working on the line but secretly organizing for the union. He took part in civil rights marches in New York and Washington DC, and Susan got to see Martin Luther King when she was a young girl. He worked on campaigns for Henry Wallace, Eugene McCarthy, and George McGovern. 

He met his first wife, Shirley Marks, in Cleveland, and they brought forth Susan Weiner, my wife. Their marriage didn't last, but he and Shirley remained cordial friends until the end.

Charlie entered college at Case Institute of Technology, eventually earning a PhD in the History of Science and Technology in 1965, the subject that became the focus of the rest of his life. From 1965 to 1974 he was director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in New York, where he applied his earlier interests in talking to people and recording the results. In 1970, he used a Guggenheim Fellowship to move his family to Copenhagen so he could document the life of Niels Bohr, and many of his oral histories, films, and papers can be found online in AIP's Niels Bohr Library.

In 1975, he joined MIT as professor of History of Science and Technology, and was founding director of the MIT Oral History Program until 1986. He was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and, in 2002, he was named the Arthur Miller Lecturer on Science and Ethics at MIT.

Charlie_0003His work collecting interviews, letters, and other papers resulted in four books: Exploring the History of Nuclear Physics, History of Twentieth Century Physics, The Legacy of George Ellery Hale (with Helen Wright and Joan Warnow), and Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections (with Alice Kimball Smith). This doesn't include the many interviews with prominent scientists Charlie made available to others. Notably, his interviews with Richard Feynman – the first time the famous physicist had agreed to discuss his work – were quoted and credited in James Gleick's Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.

Sadly, his magnum opus, on which he worked for over twenty years, will remain incomplete. It was to be a book on (quoting his MIT page) “the history of social responsibility in science from the atomic bomb to contemporary genetic engineering. It uses archival and oral history materials to document scientists' complicity in and resistance to nuclear and biological weapons, their connections with citizens' groups affected by environmental toxins and by fallout from nuclear testing, and anticipatory concerns about ethical limits to human genetic manipulation.” 

Charlie never left behind his great love of music. Though he lived in Cape Cod with JoAnn, his wife and partner of many years, he kept a Greenwich Village apartment so he could see live jazz in the many clubs where he was well known to everyone from the owners and staff to musicians. Among his close friends, he counted guitarist Jim Hall (who gave him guitar lessons), trombonist Roswell Rudd, and pianist Bruce Barth, but the many, many people Charlie loved and who loved him back may be numberless. 


In February 2010, Susan and I came to Cape Cod, because Charlie had landed in the hospital with congestive heart failure (which continued to plague him for the next two years). It was not entirely a sad trip for us, as he was able to come home and he and JoAnn toasted our Valentine's Day engagement, which had occurred in the restaurant across from their home. By July, Charlie was healthy enough to come to California for Susan's birthday and he and JoAnn came to our wedding in October.

In December of 2010, Charlie and JoAnn had a long stay in Eyeries, a small village on the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland, so JoAnn could work on her art and Charlie could work on his book. Originally planned for three months, they had such a good time they extended their visit by another month. The people there welcomed them completely, and they made many friends. On their return home, Charlie played us recordings he made of community music sessions held in a nearby pub – a long and terribly sad song sung a cappella by an angelic-voiced young teen was a standout.

They returned to Ireland a year later. Despite misgivings about his health, Charlie was the biggest champion of the trip and refused to stay home. He looked forward to seeing his new friends and diving back into the book, where he'd done his most productive work in some time. After arriving in Eyeries, however, he never fully recovered his strength, and declined rapidly.

He is missed tremendously by all who knew him, and the idea that the world goes on without him – and his continuous, shameless puns – is hard to imagine. Sláinte and l'chaim, Charlie, we'll sing a song for you in loving memory.

Charlie_0002UPDATE 1: Susan and I were just talking, and I remembered one of Charlie's most endearing, entertaining, and frustrating traits: his love of good food. I once came to Boston for business without Susan, before we were married. I said I would have a car and I wanted to drive down to the Cape to have lunch before my flight home. The first thing he asked was, "What do you want to eat?" Well, I don't know, we can figure it out when I get there. "No, I need to know. We'll figure out what you want, and then work backwards from there." (For the record, we ate at Sesuit Harbor in Dennis, a great, low-key place to get a lobster roll and sit next to the water that we returned to often.)

Eating out with Charlie meant enduring a ritual of joking banter with the waiter or waitress, who had to endure a pop quiz of their menu. "So, tell me, the sole — is that sauteed in oil or just how is it prepared?" As much as he enjoyed finding new restaurants he loved sharing his favorites with his friends. 

UPDATE 2: Thanks to all the visitors who are leaving personal remembrances of Charlie. They mean a lot to his family, and help reveal a side of Charlie we didn't know directly. It is quite moving to hear the impact he had on others. Please encourage others!

MIT has published its official obituary

UPDATE 3: Will Thomas says kind things about this post and writes about oral history and the extent and importance of Charlie's work on the history of science blog Ether Wave Propaganda.

14 Bach canons visualized

Just love this: 14 J.S. Bach canons of increasing complexity built around the first eight fundamenta notes of the Goldberg Variations, lovingly displayed in an animation that both translates Bach's original manuscript page into English and readable notation and explains how Bach mirrored, inverted, repeated, and otherwise made his melody lines sit up and do tricks. 


Michal Levy, “One”

Michal Levy is "a designer, a musician, a filmmaker, and a bandleader" who has made a couple music visualizations. She seems to be a synaesthete who visualizes music in terms of shapes and colors, and experiences visual art as sounds. I really like the animation of large-ensemble jazz by Jason Lindner, especially after it leaves its cityscape; be sure to visit her site to see Coltrane's "Giant Steps" (it's on YouTube, but it did not play smoothly and ruined the effect.) (And, yes, we've seen Giant Steps animated before!)

Found on Brain Pickings.

OurGlass of Cockington

Here's another short film on craft and passion, OurGlass of Cockington, marvelously filmed by Danny Cooke (who did the short on David Smith, ornamental glass blower, I'd blogged earlier).

OurGlass of Cockington are a trio of glassblowers, a practice that demands quick work and complete concentration. Cooke captures the beautiful details of their art, from the intense fires to the molten glass to the hands of the artists, which are always in motion, spinning, swinging, cutting, and more. There's a wonderful choreography, as they seem to work instinctively and silently together. 

I also enjoyed the soundtrack by Tony Higgins, and the village of Cockington in Torquay looks worth a visit. 

The Heavy, “How You Like Me Now?”

Hoooooyeah, The Heavy, baby. Stay to the end to see Letterman do something he’s apparently never done before: ask for more.