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Tom Pile - Running Dog Music

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Bored and Brilliant

I have to confess that Manoush Zomorodi often drives me crazy. Forgive me, but there is something about her that gets on my nerves. Sorry, Manoush.

With that totally unnecessary and negative introduction, I have to say that she is really on to something with her Bored and Brilliant project. I am struck daily by the way that people - me included - are dominated and enslaved by their digital devices, but she has done a deep dive into what the effects of our preoccupation are, and has actually come up with some skillful means to turn it around.

Give a listen to this excerpt from  On the Media - a podcast that has become like religion for me because Brooke and Bob are so often digging into what really matters about the way that information is delivered in this day and age.

 

 

Sergeant Pepper Turns 50

For me, as I am sure it does for many others, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band defines my g-g-g-generation.

Boldness. Freedom. Something completely new, yet mindful of and fully acknowledging its historical antecedents. Stretching the minds of listeners with challenge, inventiveness, awareness of the world we lived in, compassion, skill, and love. And above all: fun. The pure joy of being alive and sharing pleasure, playfulness, and adventure with others.

I clearly remember rushing home from the music store with my copy, putting it on my parents' console stereo system in the living room, and lying on the floor with my head between the speakers listening for the first time. By the time they hit that final chord with all those grand pianos playing at once, I was changed forever. 

Giles Martin is probably the only person on the planet who could attempt such an audacious endeavor, but I am so glad he has done so. I, for one, have been eagerly awaiting this new version of the classic album, and now that it's here, I'm soaking it up all over again.

Radish

Washing and trimming a perfect bouquet of radishes to throw into my salad the other day, I was overwhelmed by a sense memory. Maybe I was five or six, watching my Dad at the kitchen table, slicing fat radishes in half, dipping them into a plate of salt, and popping them into his mouth.

The bright red and pure white of the radishes, the sound of the crunch, the tactile pleasure of dipping into the salt - I had to try it. 

“Can I have one?”

“Sure.”

The blast of pungent radish and sharp saltiness almost knocked me over. I didn’t eat radishes for a long time after that.

Now, I’m ready for it. I got out a plate, threw some salt on it, dipped, and crunched.

Pure delight.

Thank you, Dad.

Go North, Young Man

About this time 131 years ago, young Eugene Hallock Pile, age 23, son of Benjamin Pile, left his home and family in Missouri to venture into the unknown. He and his buddy, Thornley Wells, packed up a few belongings and supplies, loaded a horse and a wagon and themselves onto the Great Northern Railroad, and headed north. They had heard about opportunities for homesteaders to grab a piece of land and make their fortunes growing grain to feed the hungry populations on the East Coast, and were ready to jump in and try their own hands.

The two young adventurers switched to the Manitoba line (later to become the NP) at Fargo, which was at that time a nest of snakes. Prostitutes, gamblers, tracklayers, outlaws, and speculators ran the town…well, perhaps not all that different from today. They rode a branch to the end of the line at Devil’s Lake, then took their wagon another 30 miles north on up to a spot that must have looked good to them. They were farm boys, so they were focused on the soil—there wasn’t much else to look at. Eugene and Thornley helped each other to set up on adjacent claims, where they erected sod houses and started the immense and daunting project of clearing and preparing the land for crops. 

Up in those parts, if you didn’t bring it with you, you had to go a long way to get stuff like wood, flour, salt, seed, and everything else. As one can imagine, life must have been pretty sparse those first couple of years. The winters were not any warmer in 1883 than they are now, and they had to travel a lot further than the distance from the door of the store to the door of a car in those chilly days. I don’t imagine their wagon had much of a heater, either. 

They survived. In a couple of years, Eugene was ready to stake another claim, returning to Missouri to marry Ida Dell Walker of Iowa City and bring her back on up to the homestead. “Come with me, darling, to a place where it’s freezing and hard and lonely. It’ll be an adventure!” Right. Ida must have been made of some pretty tough stuff, too. Eugene and his wife did at least have some family near Devils Lake where they could stay while they built a decent house. That house became the Prairie Home Farm, named by Ida, that we all know and cherish in our memories.

They lived. They worked the land. They prospered. They started a family. Ernest Walker Pile was born in 1894, and Ruth Ellen Pile was born a couple of years later in 1896. Prairie Home Farm would become the home base of the Pile clan for a century.

That spirit of adventure, that willingness to leave the safety of home, to roll the dice and take a chance seems to have been passed on through Eugene’s genes. Quite a few of his descendants seem to have the bug for uprooting themselves and heading off into the unknown, including Robert Eugene Pile, Eugene’s grandson and my father, who is 92 years old this very day. Dad’s path took him into World War II and the South Pacific. I’m still in awe of his willingness to risk the ultimate sacrifice for his country, and supremely grateful that he didn’t buy the farm on that journey, because, of course, I wouldn’t be here. He is my idol, and my model for what a good and rich life can be. I can only hope to stand in his footsteps.

We all go where life’s opportunities or our own particular fates lead us, and that’s both good and bad. Dispersal, separation, and disconnection are often the results of following a dream, but the family bond is deeper. We all are connected to the Prairie Home. 

Gratitude

...seems to be in short supply most of the time. Robert and I saw the Peter Tunney billboard on the Major Deagan the other day and it got me to thinking.

It isn't a sentiment that's often out in front. There's so much that can get in the way of a simple expression of thanks. Responsibility. Pride. Inattention. Worry. Regret.

We've seen more than the usual share of destruction and deprivation in our world lately. Disaster, hostility, and suffering are everywhere. And yet, a second look reveals neighbor reaching out to help neighbor, kind souls sheltering strangers, young and old lending their hands and backs to rescue and cleanup operations.

This time of year is special, no matter what else is going on in the world, because we're reminded to take that extra moment to say, "Thank you." To our families and friends who stand by us. To our partners and clients who help us keep a roof over our heads. To the men and women who protect us and defend us. To those who go out at any hour in all weather to save lives, fix what's broken, and keep watch when things get rough.

So again: Thank you.

Telegraph Avenue

Michael Chabon is an author whose reputation certainly precedes him, and I don't know how I've managed to go this long without digging in to his work. Certainly, there is a nagging concern that what you've heard or read is hype, and that the actual experience is going to be a letdown. 

This is not the case here. Telegraph Avenue is everything I want in a novel and more. It's a deep and thoughful reflection on the relationships between blacks and whites, the intermeshing of cultures, of gentrification and urban renewal. It's a detailed and insightful memoir of a time and a place, populated with a rich tapestry of characters who are fully drawn and completely believable. There's a compelling story that spins an intricate web around you and makes you care about what happens; that involves you in a complex set of relationships between people and their community and the conflicts between their personal histories, their aspirations, their families, and their limitations. Local politics, social responsibility, Black Panthers, kung fu, environmentalism, aging blaxploitation stars, midwifery, the impossibility of being 14 years old -- it's all there.  

And music. Telegraph Avenue pulses with music, both in the many references that become a soundtrack running in your head and in the detailed, lively descriptions of the incredible conflagration of funk, soul, R&B, rock and roll and jazz that bubbled up out of the American cultural melting pot beginning in the Sixties and continuing to this day. If you don't know what a CTI release was, go do some listening. It will add a layer of depth to the experience of this book that is priceless. 

Chabon delivers extremely realistic dialog that includes plenty of street slang and Clarke Peters handles the narration of the audiobook with superb attention to the personalities and characterizations. He gives a believable and authentic voice to a wide cast of characters that includes everything from a 14 year old gay white kid to a nonagenarian Chinese woman, and delivers the narrative in a style that is deeply sensitive to cultural and political connotations. His wonderful voice becomes the music of this experience. 

Dig it.

Let's Get Small

I'm all for austerity.

Spend less, reduce clutter, get rid of stuff that holds you down, take only what you can use, relinquish attachments—all are worthy objectives. These are guiding principles for my personal life, and also for my political views, since the personal is political. Like they say: think globally, but act locally. I vote for smaller government, less waste and excess, more responsible conservation of resources, and more caution when considering the rights of individuals to make up their own minds. Less is more. 

I'm serious. Let's get small. Really small. Let's take up less space. Let's let go of the idea that bigger is better. Let's give up on that old American dream of wealth and prosperity for all. It is not sustainable. It only works when there's a third world -- an "under" world -- to supply us with our gadgets and material wants. Guess what? The third world watches Dallas and Real Housewives and American Idol on TV, too, and they want what we have. Who's going to supply them? 

Yes, they've been watching. They want their MTV and their Starbucks and their KFC. They want their burgers and fries. They want their big houses and stylish clothes. Trouble is, there's no room at the table any more. If all 9 billion citizens of the world lived like the typical American family, we'd all be drowning in pig shit and choking on fumes.

We can't pretend that we can turn the clock back to a time of innocence when the future was all bright and rosy, and everything seemed possible. Those who look to reinstate the Glory Days are in for disappointment and disillusionment. The American Century is over. Anyone who has looked closely knows that it wasn't all that glorious anyway. 

We're in a new century now. Let's promote some different American values, some values for the future and for the world.

Let's start small: 

Share.

Try to be kind.

Say thank you more often.

Play more.

Talk to dogs and small children. You will learn something every time.

Honor your elders, but question authority every time.

Work hard. Eat well.

While we're on the subject, less meat is not such a bad idea.

Plan for the future, remember the past.

Live in the present.

Why I Am A Buddhist

Finally! My first audiobook production on ACX is out!

I truly enjoyed reading Dr. Asma's book, and I think it's a good listen. While I don't hold with everything he lays out in his "Chicago-Style" Buddhism, Asma's thinking is very broadminded and his approach is generous. He wants to bring everybody into the tent, and focuses on the practical aspects of Buddhist teaching. Very low on the mystical, hippy-dippy stuff, and high on the mind-focusing, ethical living side of the equation. I found the chapters on science and Buddhism and art and Buddhism particularly engaging.

So. Buy the book. It's worth it, and you'll be helping me get hired by more authors and publishers.

The video trailer is here and a special offer for the audiobook is here.

 

Just say no

Open letter to [insert service provider here]

Hello. I thought you could use some feedback on my recent experience with your company.

Ultimately, when it came down to the installers actually doing the work, your technicians were knowledgeable, affable, and expert. If only the same could be said for the rest of your operations. 

 

I spoke to 8 different people in various levels of Customer Care yesterday, and it seemed that each had different information. From the first contact at 8 AM, when I confirmed that all was on track and that I should expect my technician to show up between 9 and 12, to the 2nd, at 1 PM, who told me that my order was cancelled and proceeded to create a new order for me, to the last - who was the most competent and tenacious, and stayed with me on my mobile phone until the technicians actually arrived, not one could see the record of my most recent contacts in sequence, or could explain to me exactly why my order was in limbo.

Overall, there is an overriding sense that, particularly at the lower levels of customer care management, representatives are trained to limit customers' expectations, and to explain and apologize for what they cannot do rather than act on what they can do.

Clearly, [insert service provider]'s CMS must be incredibly complicated and managing customer care for an organization as large as yours is a daunting proposition. Nevertheless, when a company is in a position where so much power and control resides in one set of systems, the responsibility to attend to customer needs is magnified, rather than diminished. Look at Google. Look at Amazon. Other large 'monopolistic' corporations are succeeding by starting with the customer experience and building backward from there. If you don't know about it, go read up on how Zappo's dealt with their recent systems breach and ended up making better customers rather than losing any.

 

Further impressions:

  • Low level representatives generally want to help, but cannot because they are not properly supported by training and systems - this must lead to feelings of uselessness and powerlessness, which cannot be good for morale or employee retention

  • The experience of being on hold with your company is excruciating because of the extremely poor sound quality of the hold music employed - I was much happier when agents put my call on mute, rather than sending me to 'hold hell'

  • transfers from one group to another are very poorly supported - there is degradation of the signal from one transfer to the next, and CSRs inevitably failed to provide a direct number in case the call was disconnected

  • there is no way to call back and pick up a conversation with the same agent one has dealt with earlier or to bypass the annoying IVR when one is calling for the seventh or eighth time

  • Speaking of IVR, I have no philosophical objection if it improves the quality and speed of service, but to force someone through a phone tree, then collect information that does not result in connecting with an informed agent is a demeaning waste of time for both customer and agent. If your system is going to ask me for account number or incident number or trouble ticket number, then the agent I connect with had better have my account on screen when she picks up.

I have taken the time to provide detailed feedback because I know that those of you at the top of the food chain at [insert service provider] would not accept the poor quality of interaction that I experienced when you are the customer. I hope my frustration can translate into better care on the front lines. 

It was a different world

Just finished Herman Wouk's Winds of War and War and Remembrance. A monumental effort, but well worth the investment of time and attention. 

You think you learned the history in school, but if your education was like mine, you only skimmed the surface. I read these books to gain a deeper grasp of my father's generation, of the sacrifices they made, and of the events that shaped their world view. I came away with so much more than that. My faith in humanity was restored.

One door closes, another one opens

So I asked:

"Five elements. Two versions of each element. How many possible combinations are there?"

The question arose out of seeing Cunningham's Split Sides at BAM last night. The final NY performance of the world's most celebrated dance company was bittersweet - profound and earthy, mysterious and straightforward - in typical Merce style.

Split Sides is one of the more popular later works, partly because of the collaboration with Radiohead and Sigur Rós on the music score, and partly because of the way that the chance operations that were so fundamental to Merce's approach are brought right out on stage. The official video is available on Netflix and Amazon, and contains several possible sequences. It works like this: the sequence of the dance, the music, the costumes, the sets, and the lights is determined just before the dance starts by five tosses of a die. In other words, when the die is thrown for the dance, and even number means the 'A' portion of the dance goes first, and an odd result means that the 'B' portion goes first. And so forth for the sequence of the rest of the elements. 

The program told us that 32 possible combinations existed, but we didn't have the math skills to prove this out, so I asked for help from people who actually might understand the math. Henry punted [it was Saturday night after 11 pm, after all] and Robert responded at 3:00 in the morning with a series of cogent questions, pointing out how incomplete my framing of the question actually was:

1. How many elements per "combination"? 2? And saying five elements with two versions of each is really just saying 10 elements, mathematically speaking.

 2. Also, is element1 + element2 counted as a different combination from element2 + element1?

 3. Also, can two of the same element together be considered a combination?

To be fair, Henry actually responded later with the correct mathmatical formulation of the problem, which is 2^5, or 2 to the fifth power. Seems so simple when you know what to ask. Robert has graciously pointed out that I should be embarrassed that I could not put 2 and 2 together, as it were. He's right, of course, but I'm profoundly glad that my son is smarter than me. I probably learned this in 8th grade algebra and promptly forgot it. Use is or lose it.

Since I was losing sleep over the question, I got up early and spent a couple of hours working it out visually for those of us who are slow learners. Below is a picture of the 32 possible combinations [click to enlarge]. By the way, other than Robert Swinston's failure to take the bow he so deserves, the version that we experienced last night seemed absolutely perfect. The Cunningham legacy will live on, thanks in no small measure to the way he opened the eyes and ears of so many people around the world. Always looking ahead to see the future before the rest of us could even imagine it. Always living in the present. Always listening carefully to the sound of silence.

 

 

"Where do you come up with the ideas for your music?"

I got this question from a middle school student whose teacher is an old friend who had shared my Murakami promo with her class.

I thought I would share the answer with you.


Fantastic question, Cameron, and it's the all-important one. I could get all big-headed and say that I'm only the medium, and that I just allow the universe or the spirits or God to speak through me, but I won't :-)

It's really much more practical than that.

Music is a very special language, because anyone can understand it. Babies in the womb understand it. Everybody, and I mean everybody, values music in some way. The sources are infinite, and there are innumerable ways that people use this special language to express things that words cannot say.

I recall riding to work one morning many years ago on the back of my friend's motorcycle, in a sleepy daze, when suddenly everything in my ears - the garbage truck's crusher, the traffic, the subway train passing beneath, the wind, the motorcycle, the radio in the car next to us - all at once, I realized that every single sound belonged there, and that I was experiencing a symphony, and it all made perfect sense. At that moment, I finally understood what John Cage was trying to get at when he wrote his famous and controversial piece, 4'33". Music happens always, everywhere. You just need to be able to stop and tune in.

Here's a picture of my studio. I spend a lot of time in that chair just tuning in. There is no end to ideas. You can see the all-important coffee mug on the right.

 

When I sat down to write the music for 1Q84, I remembered that motorcycle moment, because the opening scene of the book, where Aomame is trapped in a traffic jam on a Tokyo expressway and needs to escape to get to an appointment, reminded me of that magical sense of possibility. The rest was easy.

Software and tools. Much less important than learning to work with what you've got [you've got everything you need to make music in your own body] but here's what I use:

ProTools, GarageBand, Audio Recorder, Super Looper, Jack Pilot, WireTap Studio, and XO Wave for mastering. CamelCrusher, CamelPhat, and Alchemy for sampling and processing.

cheers

 

Tom

Class Warfare?

There's nothing wrong with making money. I believe in capitalism, because we don't have a viable alternative, and because markets usually balance out opposing forces. One of the underlying assumptions of capitalism is that every member of society gets compensated in some fair way based on the value of their contribution to that society, as judged by the market. 

What's the value of making money off of money? What's the value of protecting investments - of creating a hedge against the uncertainties of the future? Of speculating on which way markets will turn tomorrow or next year or next decade? Yes, we all benefit from the free flow of capital. Yes, there is value in creating security. Yes, we all have to think about and plan for the future. But imbalances in the distribution of wealth in our world today have led us to an unbalanced view of what activities have real value.

How does the value of a risk manager stack up against the value of a pre-school teacher? Is the profit margin of the commodities speculator balanced fairly against the salary of the sanitation engineer? Is a good poem worth as much a a share of AAPL?  A hundred shares?

All of us, inflamed by our constant media diet rich in consumption, are driven by desire. We want the stuff that's flaunted in our faces daily, and our wanting makes us misplace value. Money takes on value on its own, without any connection to real activity that benefits society.

We're out of whack, and we know it. The barons of Wall Street know it somewhere deep down, that their positions are morally indefensible, and that their hearts are bankrupt.

OWS is just trying to put the brakes on -- to get more of us thinking about the inequities that currently fuel the markets. It's working.

Uniform Motion

Fantastic! Independent artists with a vision, a plan, and metrics! Too many young artists approach the creation of their work as something completely separate from any other kind of business venture, as if they don't really want to make money from their endeavors, as if passion were enough. This band's approach takes passion as a given, and layers on carefully considered elements of communication, clarity, care for their fans and for the larger community of artists and creators, and immense generosity of spirit. 

The old Balinese saying on my homepage applies here: We have no art. We do everything as well as we can.

 

 

Did I tell you how much I love audiobooks?

I posted 40 new reviews to Amazon today. I admit, that's a bit excessive, but they've been accumulating for awhile. Here's the latest:

Nobody's Fool, by Richard Russo - narrated by Ron McClarty

Richard Russo writes tales of rundown and overlooked people living in places that saw their best days long ago. Empire Falls, That Old Cape Magic, Bridge of Sighs -- they're all variations on the same themes that animate Nobody's Fool. That takes nothing away from their power as stories, because Russo is such a great storyteller. He makes you care about his characters and want them to win in a game where it seems the odds are always stacked against them. Their transcendence beyond their own sad circumstances reminds us that life goes on, that we can and will survive, and that each one of us can rise above our own mistakes and bad choices. 

This very human story is brought to life masterfully by Ron McClarty, whose narration is pitch-perfect, evoking time, place, and the full cast of characters that populate the town of North Bath, NY. Forget Paul Newman. Ron McClarty's Sully is the one that will stick with me.

 

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