Thursday, March 30, 2006

What I've Been Listening To Lately

It's now time for another edition in that least popular of my posts, the "What I've Been Listening to Lately" series. No one cares what a blogger is listening to any more than I care what's playing in a car in the opposite lane of traffic, but it amuses me to review my own CD collection and what the hell - it's my blog. So there.

Anyway, John Coltrane and Claude Challe have recently been bumped out of my CD changer by German electronic musician Pete Namlook. Namlook is a dizzyingly prolific composer who's steadily built an entire industry around his Frankfurt-based Fax label. At one point, Fax's release schedule was up to a CD per week for more than a year, and currently produces 24 per year, many of them Namlook's own, as well as numerous collaborations. But for all I know, Namlook may be the only artist on his label, and his "collaborators" merely alter egos - after all, who are Mixmaster Morris, Dr. Atmo, Tetsu Inoue, Geir Jenssen, Atom Heart, Jonah Sharp, and David Moufang? Granted, Fax has released a Pink Floyd-inspired "Dark Side of the Moog" series of collaborations with Namlook and Klaus Schulze (formerly of Tangerine Dream) and Bill Laswell, but the only other "collaborator" that I've ever heard of is Richie Hawtin, and I only heard of him from other Fax recordings.

Although Namlook got his start composing techno (such as the 4 Voice CD), he has since become synonymous with "new ambient" music. A "typical" new ambient recording combines droning electronics with, depending on the project or collaborator, ethnic instrumentation (tabla, tambouri, oud), environmental samples (rain, voices, arriving and departing trains, wildlife), sweeping electronic treatments, and minimal acoustic and electronic rhythms (jungle, electro, techno and trance).

Ambient music was more or less invented by Brian Eno, who originally conceived of a musical style with no hooks or beat that could serve as "background" or "aural wallpaper" for daily life. However, unlike Muzak, Eno's ambient music was composed to be interesting to listen to if you bothered to make the effort, but was also entirely forgetable; in fact, it invited the listener to ignore it. Namlook, however, seems to use ambiance to draw the listener in - he has recorded some of the most addictive, compulsively listenable instrumental electronica ever recorded.

Namlook's modes of recording are as varied as his recordings are prolific. In addition to his new ambient style, he has recorded CDs of ambient dub (Psychonavigation), ambient trance (The Fires of Ork), environmental ambiance, ethno-ambiance, space ambiance, industrial ambiance, dance, drum and bass, experimental, IDM, and even a type of "jazz."

For an introduction to this music, check out 2002's Ambient Cookbook, a four-CD retrospective of Fax recordings, or A View to a Chill, a two-CD overview. Or, to go to the source recordings themselves, start with Air 1 (1994), a set of French female vocal samples over lazy, brooding space music. The follow-up Air II adds ethno-ambiance through a didgeridoo and a rain stick. By the time we get to Air IV, the French samples almost overwhelm the instruments, but it's typical of Namlook to record albums in series, each of which builds on its predecessor. In addition to Air I-IV, we've got Dark Side of the Moog I-IX, Jet Chamber I-V, New Organic Life I-III, Outland I-III, Psychonavigation I-V, and so on.

I've got a pretty big backlog of Namlook recording to work through, so I'll probably be posting more reviews of individual albums in the weeks to come.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Lanikai Canoe Club

Driving to the zendo this evening, it noticed that it was now lighter at that hour of the evening than it's been for a while, and by the light of the gloaming, I could see the azaleas and dogwoods blooming in the neighborhood. Spring has not yet quite arrived, but it is very, very near.

I've been getting emails from my Dad lately, which is a little disconcerting because he passed away last month. But back on March 6, I got an email from "Hart, Bill" titled "Like the Beatles? - incredible juggling!!!!" It took me a while to recognize it as spam, and it has an attachment I dare not open. I suppose that the name was just randomly generated, but it was a bit of a spooky coincidence to find this in my Inbox.

Now I don't want to get started on the whole "spooky action" and "synchronicity" theme again, but I've received more emails, which you may find interesting (at least, I certainly hope so for the sake of this blog entry). My late father's life partner has sent me several emails concerning details of the upcoming Memorial Service, this blog, et cet. However, emailing them as she does from what I guess is Dad's old computer, they arrive here bearing the Sender name "William Hart." The first one, on March 20, stated in the Subject line "From Terry," so at least it was more-or-less immediately apparent that a.) it wasn't more spam, and b.) the internet's not haunted.

On the latest email from "William Hart," dated March 26, Terry told me that she and Dad visited her son in Lanikai, Hawaii just before Dad passed away. On one of those days, they sat in beach chairs admiring the ocean view, when along came a rowing team (she sent me the picture above). The interesting thing is, Terry points out, if you look at my picture that I posted for the blog's "About Me" column, and have left up since May 2004, the logo on my t-shirt says "Lanikai Canoe Club." (I got the t-shirt from an ex-girlfriend, a Delta flight attendant who was born and raised in Hawaii.)

As synchronicities go, it might not be the strangest one you've experienced, but it's at least a little odd: I set up a blog with a picture of myself wearing a Lanikai Canoe Club t-shirt - and a prediction that I'm going to die at 79 - and my father and his partner take a picture of the LCC on one of his last days in this mortal coil, and I receive the picture in an email sent in his name a month after he passes away.

I also realize that Terry reads this blog, which is great, but I hope that this post doesn't make her too self conscious about writing again. I knew I should have set up this blog anonymously. . .

Sunday, March 26, 2006

More Atlanta Beltline stuff. . . I spent Saturday morning on a bus tour of the proposed Atlanta Beltline put on by the Trust for Public Land. The Beltline, once again, is a plan to link up 22 miles of mostly unused and abandoned railroad tracks into one continuous mass-transit loop around the inner city, combining neighborhoods and linking parks, while creating new greenspace for the city.

It was interesting to take a guided tour of my own home town, and I saw a lot that surprised me, from new development along Moreland Avenue south of Little Five Points to the terrific views of downtown from the appropriately named Capitol View neighborhood. The stretch of the Beltline that comes through my neighborhood is the still-active portion of rail on the northwest side, and there is a significant gap between the inactive rail lines at Simpson Road and the active lines on the northwest, and no readily apparent route for the Beltline to follow. Since construction of the Beltline is estimated to take 25 years to complete, I'll probably not live to see it pass through my neighborhood, the most difficult portion to complete.

Later on Saturday, I went to a presentation by the Atlanta Development Authority at City Hall where they rolled out the community involvement plan for completion of the Beltline workplan. Yes, that's right - a meeting to talk about a plan to prepare a plan to build the Beltline. Sadly, someone had to plan for that meeting, or in other words, to plan for a plan for a plan to actually do something. It's no accident that I'm not in government.

Monday, I'll be going to a conference put on by Park Pride, a greenspace advocacy group, that will discuss, to your not-so-great surprise, the Beltline. But at least I get to watch The Sopranos tonight.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Minsk, Belarus

Today was a beautiful spring day - although unseasonably cool, the sun was shining in a cloudless sky and the azaleas are blooming in the backyard.

But life is not so pleasant everywhere. In Belarus, thousands of protesters were marching in Minsk to challenge the recent and discredited presidential elections there. The demonstrators were demanding a re-run of the election, which returned to power for five years a president accused in the West of pursuing Soviet-style policies.

While this is generally not a political blog (occasional teasing of Bush notwithstanding), and while I don't like to discuss international politics because I don't trust the American media which I'm forced to rely upon for most of my information, I came across pictures of the protest and its suppression on a couple of Belarusian blogs. I didn't understand a word of their texts, written in Belarusian with Cyrillic letters, but the pictures told the story well enough.The demonstrators were protesting peacefully and displaying the red-and-white flag of the opposition. As the crowd approached the capital's central square, riot police were lined up on an overpass to intimidate the protesters from marching any further.And then out came the tear gas.The riot police began marching toward the crowd, beating their batons against their shields, breaking the crowd into sections of several dozen each.
The police then began beating the protesters with clubs. The crowd, some of them bloodied, ran screaming from the scene.The police chased rally leaders down side streets of the capital, clubbing them to the ground when they were caught. Paddy wagons cruised the streets to round up detainees.Despite the presence of the media, police smashed one man's face into a security fence as they detained him.Bloodied, their victim was loaded into the paddy wagon with other protesters.And the goons were off in search of new victims.Life can be short, brutish and nasty, and it's easy to forget this on a lovely spring afternoon. The pictures of this incident, while not the only atrocity going on in the world right now and, unfortunately, hardly the worst, manifested the reality and impact of the events for me, and I hope that by sharing them here on this blog I can raise awareness of the specific situation in Minsk, and the general condition around the world.

I thank the Belarusian bloggers, whoever they were, for posting these pictures, and wish them the best of luck in resisting the oppressive regime responsible for this atrocity.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Right livelihood, continued: I'm back in the office after my day in Alabama, and got to have lunch with my friend and former co-worker Andrea. We hadn't gotten together since the evening she and her husband came over and my television died.

We caught up on some old times and new, and I got to tell her about some of the changes going on in Atlanta (they live in the suburbs). According to a recent article in the New York Times, and my own observations, after 20 or 25 years of the City's losing population to the suburbs, the trend is starting to reverse, and the suburbanites are starting to move back into the City. The traffic, the cost of gasoline and the lack of diversity in the suburbs are all cited as reasons for the reverse migration.

It's a more interesting town than it was a few years ago - the new Georgia Aquarium (biggest in the world - they have whale sharks in there), the new Atlantic Station development, and the proposed Beltline are all exciting quality-of-living changes. This evening, I attended a grass-roots community group seeking greater neighborhood participation in the Beltline planning process.

The Beltline is a proposal based around the presence of old abandoned railroad tracks around the city - by connecting various segments, one can create a loop around the inner city connecting several of the more unique neighborhoods, including Collier Hills, my neighborhood. It also connects the few parks that the city has. Putting some sort of mass transit along the tracks, along with a hiking tail/greenway, would create a neighborhood-to-neighborhood alternative to the downtown-to-suburbs mass transit currently provided by MARTA, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, and create what civic boosters call "an emerald necklace of parks" around the city. Together with planned mixed-use, new-urbanism, live-work-and-play "development nodes" strategically placed around the Beltline, the plan is a whole new lifestyle concept for the city that almost sounds too good to be true.

Because it is. Too good to be true. The reality is that developers have already rushed in and bought up the choice portions, and are planning outlandish, gargantuan, high-density, high-rise developments to maximize the return on their investment. And the transit planning - the way to tie the whole thing together - has gotten caught up in bureaucratic red tape and at times almost seems to be the forgotten part of the Beltline concept. And because the developers are guiding the plan, the already congested northern portions of the Beltline, where a profitable return on investment is pretty much tried and true, are being proposed for yet even more development, and the underdeveloped southern portion of the Beltline, which could really use some new infrastructure, is generally being ignored.

So the northern Beltline neighborhoods, already reeling from rampant development, are calling for a building moratorium and wondering what happened to all of the promised parks and transit, while the southern Beltline neighborhoods, economically distressed and tragically underutilized, are calling for some of the development dollars to come down there way.

Hence, the Beltline Neighborhood Coalition, an amalgam of civic associations and activist groups (i.e., Sierra Club). The city planners are saying that they want "community involvement" in the Beltline plan, and the BNC intends to deliver exactly that.

This Saturday is the big day - there are no less than five different forums for the "community" to provide input on the Beltline plans, and tonight we planned on how we will be heard at all of the competing venues. Saturday morning, I will attend a tour of the Beltline being put on by Parks Pride, a group representing the City Dept. of Parks and other greenspace stakeholders. In the afternoon, I will attend the "Community Engagement Framework" kick-off meeting being put on by the Atlanta Development Authority, the designated agency for realizing the Beltline.

So, of course, the weather forecast is for a mixture of rain and snow that day. In 25 years, I have not seen snow in Atlanta in March, but once I have a full day out-and-about planned. . .

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Right livelihood: This morning, I checked out of the Marriott and picked up my client, a Birmingham attorney, and together we rode up north on I-65 to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Muscle Shoals is one of the four Quad Cities, the others being Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia.

Muscle Shoals is known as the site for recording many hit songs in the 1960s and 70s by artists such as James & Bobby Purify, Arthur Alexander, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, the Osmonds, Alvin and the Chipmunks, 2 Live Crew, Clarence Carter, Otis Redding, Duane Allman, Mac Davis, Paul Anka, Ronnie Milsap, Jerry Reed, John Michael Montgomery, Reba McEntire, Blackhawk, and Shenandoah. In 1967, Etta James recorded "At Last," perhaps her most enduring song, along with "Tell Mama" and "I'd Rather Go Blind", in Muscle Shoals.

The South has soul - Wilson Pickett was born in Prattville, Alabama,192 miles south of Muscle Shoals, and grew up singing in Baptist church choirs. Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis, 150 miles west of Muscle Shoals. Otis Redding was born in the small south Georgia town of Dawson, 350 miles southeast of Muscle Shoals. At the age of 5, Redding moved with his family to Macon, where he sang in the choir of the Vineville Baptist Church, and became something of a local celebrity as a teenager after winning a local Sunday night talent show 15 weeks in a row.

In the song "Sweet Home Alabama," Lynyrd Skynyrd sings that "Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers." The "Swampers" were studio musicians who were available if backup was needed. They were given this name by Mick Jagger during a recording session because of the swampy land around the Shoals area. The "Swampers", also known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, were Donny Short (lead guitar), Jimmy Johnson (guitar), Roger Hawkins (drums), David Hood (bass), and Barry Beckett (keyboards). More recently, Florence native, Patterson Hood, son of "Swamper" David Hood, has risen to fame in his own right as a member of the alternative rock group, Drive-By Truckers.

Although Muscle Shoals has receded somewhat from its 1960s and 1970s status as "Hit Recording Capital of the World," as a sign near the airport says, it remains an important and enduring landmark location for the American recording industry. The famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studios recording studio closed its doors in January 2005 and has been purchased by a film production company. The equally famous FAME Recording Studios continue to operate out of Muscle Shoals, however.

My work in Muscle Shoals had nothing to do with any of this, but all day long I kept hearing "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," "Try a Little Tenderness," and "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" in my mind.