V8N2: March 2002
Volume 8 Number 2
Table of Contents
In Austin, turn to Cable Channel 15 and you might catch a live performance by Soulhat or the Golden Arm Trio, a local hip-hop video or a profile on the Texas gospel dynasty Mighty Bells of Joy.
If digital art really shares something with hip-hop, then it follows that there must be a vast reservoir of untapped potential in this art form.
Of the countless anachronisms in the hyper-technological 21st century, Super 8 filmmaking is certain to make the top 10.
What makes a pop song a national hit, a culturally shared moment?
Any art that has been influenced in the slightest way by digital technology is digital art.
Guitarist Slim Richey bills himself as "the most dangerous guitarist in Texas" and has the credentials to back it up.
Martin Banks: "Every major black musician came to the Apollo. So I was able to play behind all of them and made records with them. We made all those things with Aretha Franklin and stuff. That was in New York, and everything was going good. I played with just about everybody."
Fancying ourselves as storytellers, we both are continually asking: what makes a good story?
All Signs Point to Austin Music by Tom Benton
The Austin Music Network
Wake up in any other major city in America, turn on the television, and your musical entertainment options are most likely limited to two: MTV and VH1, both owned by media giant Viacom and seemingly excising actual musical content by the day. At the moment of this writing, it's group showers on MTV's The Real World (id-fueled young people in an apartment), followed by Road Rules (id-fueled young people in a Winnebago), followed by professional wrestling. Some cable subscribers may find Canada's MuchMusic available, which is more generous in its weight towards music programming yet still devotes this time to the same pool of musical commodities as its American counterparts.
But in Austin, turn to Cable Channel 15 and you might catch a live performance by Soulhat or the Golden Arm Trio, a local hip-hop video or a profile on the Texas gospel dynasty Mighty Bells of Joy. You'll also find videos and live footage of national acts, but overwhelmingly, the Austin Music Network (AMN) adheres to its original mission plan of supporting the Austin music industry through the promotion of local, homegrown talent.
It's been a strange, rocky road for the AMN, which started in 1994 as a city project promoting the Austin music scene. Management was soon passed from the city to the private Music Management Group, who enabled the station to exist, for a time, as a commercial, self-sustaining entity. But arguments and discontent over content and inadequate fund raising activity (including at least one Austin band's calling for the network's demolition in song) reached a fevered pitch, and the Austin Music Commission (AMC), the network's advisory body, placed the management of the station back into non-profit hands.
Under the umbrella of the Kenneth Threadgill Musical Project and managed by Woody Roberts, the network, in this incarnation, had the promise of being a legitimate independent nonprofit organization rather than a city project or a commercial body. Yet, surviving on a limited budget and mostly borrowed equipment, it has been plagued by several bouts of unannounced dead air and a debatably unpopular reorganization of programming.
And though Roberts' plans to foster a stronger alignment with the Austin dot-com scene (as well as to broadcast on the Internet by March 2001) have not yet come to fruition, now at least the station has found its way to calmer waters, booking and broadcasting local acts known and unknown. For example, for a week of planned downtime in February, the station only broadcast psychedelic video art and music during a major refitting of its control room, hopefully a sign of better things to come.
The Austin Music Commission
The Austin Music Commission (AMC) is a volunteer advisory board of local musicians, promoters and other citizens with a deep commitment to the welfare of the Austin live music community. Like other city commissions, the AMC can provide recommendations to the City Council. However, the AMC is unique from other commissions in that it has a small budget which is earmarked primarily for the promotion of the city as a vacation or business convention destination. Nevertheless, the AMC has been responsible for the creation of the LINKS program, getting second hand musical instruments into the hands of children and initiating the Music Industry Loan Guarantee Program, which helps to provide small business loans to members of the music community.
The AMC's most recent and potentially most impacting project, however, is its completion of a study requested by the City Council that intricately details the economic impact of the music scene on the local economy. Unveiled in October of 2001, the findings put the music industry's contribution to the city's economy in 2000 at $616 million, which places the music industry within the top ten revenue-generating industries in the city, creating 11,200 jobs and $11 million in city tax revenue. To many, especially those who remember the Austin that claimed the title of "Live Music Capitol of the World," these numbers were hardly surprising.
However, these same parties have been able to isolate some of the problems with the local music industry, the most notable one being that the abundance of local musicians has turned Austin into a buyer's market for music. Given the sheer number of acts hoping to play on any given night of the week, club owners are able to pay musicians much less than ever before; consequently, the chances that your favorite Austin musician actually makes a living wage playing music is slim. Of course, this problem is closely related to the increasing financial pressure caused by the influx of high-tech presence into the city, which has upped rents and other standard of living or upkeep costs for both venues and musicians. And perhaps most controversially, the interaction between the music venues and the city government (including law enforcement) has been highly strained at times over issues ranging from noise ordinances to occupancy codes to parking downtown.
And though the national nightlife industry on the whole has suffered an overwhelming downturn since the September, the AMC continues to promote their study's findings. Their numbers should hopefully offer the government and the larger business community some evidence that the Austin music industry is worthy of investment and, in short, financial respect. In addition, they have proposed that economic development assistance be provided for live music venues, that further opportunities be created for local musical talent and that a mediation process between the music scene and local regulatory agencies be established.
The Austin Music Commission meets on the second Tuesday of the month at Threadgill's restaurant on North Lamar. To join them, to contact a commission member or to simply share your thoughts on what one still hopes is "The Live Music Capital of the World," check out www.ci.austin.tx.us/musicom. In the meantime, go hear some bands.
Tradition Projects Itself
The digital art of Peter Leighton is an art of contradictions. Dotting the red brick walls of The Hideout at Seventh and Congress, his PhotoShop manipulated photographs and collages, conveying a timeless spirituality, speak to serious issues about the past and present while simultaneously laughing at how much one can visually fabricate with computer technology these days.
Leighton's small, mysterious pictures look like Polaroid emulsion transfer photographs: rough, unpolished. You might be tempted to say that they are all about keeping it real, except that Leighton is more interested in keeping it surreal. In "Home for the Holidays," a man sits cross-legged on a simple chair in a dingy room contemplating the bright red star on top of a Christmas tree. The scene would just be a slice-of-life documentary if the man's head weren't the head of Christ, with crown of thorns radiant with divinity and eyes turned up in the agony of an implied, but unseen crucifixion. What's more, this head obviously is borrowed, collage style, from some other source: a Baroque painting that has been cut and pasted into a modern day realism with the seamlessness that only PhotoShop can bring off.
All of his pictures are jarring juxtapositions of borrowed imagery from different times and different cultures, fused into unified compositions. Some lie well within the bounds of traditional realism, but most fly way out on the fringes of surrealism. Geisha Contemplates Her Past, for example, drops a pristine, traditional, Japanese style female figure into a stormy, technological backdrop that is both vague and terrifying. The unifying factor in his pictures is his process: Leighton achieves his special effects not through the traditional methods of staging, props and costumes, nor through darkroom manipulations, but through the digital technology that is the hallmark of today's black magic.
Peter Leighton is one of many Austin artists taking part in a worldwide artistic experiment loosely called "digital art." Its forms are as numerous as those who practice it; its definitions are nearly impossible to contain. While Leighton exploits the traditional mode of static art hung gallery-style in a well-lighted area, other digital artists use dark spaces for projecting moving imagery in their galleries of choice. And still others explore the possibilities of videotape or the infinite space of the Internet.
Take, for example, moboid, also known as Heather Kelley, whose digital creation "Grip" debuted recently at the Austin Museum of Digital Art. "Grip" represents the implosion of video game conventions into themselves. This abstract installation, projected on a screen high above onlookers, has all the quick movement of a video game. You recognize game-like forms and geometric structures, but nevertheless, there is no apparent game narrative. It elides the shoot-em-up ethos and dumps the win/lose paradigm in favor of pure vision and still somehow looks like a video game. It is abstract art that owes as much to Kandinsky as it does to Space Invaders.
Meanwhile, "An Exquisite Corpse," conceived by Heather McCabe and Phineas X. Jones, goes even further to explore the possibilities of digital art by using the Web as both its medium and gallery. Paying proper respects to the surrealists of the 1920s, the "An Exquisite Corpse" project is an art game played on the Web by multiple players all over the world. One "artist" (an artist can be anyone who signs up) creates a digital image and emails a 15-pixel high strip from the bottom of the image to the next player. That player uses the strip as a starting point to build a new image without knowing what the player before has built and then sends a strip on to the next player. It goes on like this through four or five artists until an image emerges that is entirely unique yet belongs to no single artist.
"An Exquisite Corpse" illustrates one of the most fertile possibilities of digital art: the possibility of moving beyond the metaphor of canvas and brush. As an art piece, it simply doesn't use the Web as a means of display; rather, it actually depends on the Web as part of its creative process. The Web and email are as much a part of the art as are the bits of imagery that make it into the final pictures.
In fact, a lot of digital art is designed so that the spectator can participate in the actual creation of the work. The line between the artist and the spectator is blurred. An example of this type of interactive art is Andy Deck's "Glyphiti." Like a massive digital wall in some global public rest room, the site invites its visitors to draw little pictures (or big ones if you have the patience) using black and white pixels via an intuitive interface. Every visitor's drawings, presumably from around the world, turn up on the same digital graffiti wall, which changes, albeit slowly, over time. The result is a chaotic kaleidoscope of ideas, high and low, sublime and ridiculous: bits of bumper sticker philosophy, delicately drawn portraits, scribbles and declarations of love. Oh, and of course, there is an ample supply of crudely drawn male genitalia.
Why That's Art
The Dadaists understood the power in ridiculous things. Andy Deck brings us a digital Dadaism in which anyone can participate. This is another reason why digital art, or in this case, 'Net art in particular, is so full of possibilities. From Leighton to "An Exquisite Corpse," digital art is almost always a collaborative art form. It almost always depends on the efforts of more than one person and sometimes on the efforts of an undefined and unlimited number of people. And the collaborations are often with complete strangers, defying the constraints of physical space by using email, the Internet and off-the-shelf software.
What's more, when you log onto Glyphiti, it is as though you've tapped into some larger global subconscious. Freed from the artist's personal hang-ups, "Glyphiti" is a direct window into a kind of ongoing social conversation happening everywhere at once.
And this is perhaps where the real expressive potential of digital art lies. Think hip-hop. Digital art, like hip-hop, has a way of scanning the cultural landscape and plucking out bits and pieces-a bit of input here, a random image from the continuum of technology there-to weave a higher vision. It's the exact opposite of what many of us were fed in art classes: that the artist must be a lone wolf, burrowing ever further into the caverns of our own psyches. Digital art maps a territory that is social rather than personal, external rather than internal. For the digital artist, artistry is as much about what other people bring to the table as it is about the vision of the artist him or herself.
It's not a utopian vision, however, and as politics go, digital art is still finding its voice. Relying on collaboration as much as it does, it's easy to think of these forms of digital art as truly democratic, open to all. At last, a non-elitist art form! But in fact, the oft-cited "digital divide," very much a part of the "real world" is not surprisingly reflected in the digital art world as well. In Austin, as elsewhere, digital art is still largely a world of boys and their toys and, more specifically, of white boys and their rather expensive toys. Any claim of social relevance has to take that fact into account. How does an art form look so global yet still exist mainly in a technocratic ivory tower? How does it seem so social yet remain so isolated?
If digital art really shares something with hip-hop, then it follows that there must be a vast reservoir of untapped potential in this art form. Digital art is still awaiting its own "Fuck the Police," that single statement that so seamlessly marries artistic technique with political fury that it becomes impossible to ignore. In the right hands, a social commentary that devastating still seems possible.
Gimme That Ol' Time Filmmaking by Andre Silva
A lone candle raises, as if to toast the darkness. Awakened by the glow, a gently clattering projector radiates a dusty beam of light. In the old days, when Super 8 screenings were still held at the Ritz, the candle-bearing sound-tech signaled to the projectionist that the next soundtrack was cued up, a ritual which offered a less obtrusive option to yelling, "Yo, sounds good! Roll 'em!" across terraces of lounge seats, ashtrays and neglected glasses of beer.
Such a passionate display of readiness was not out of place in this theater-in-the-rough setting, where films, although some dark or out of focus, all possessed a cutting edge spirit and garnered a depth of audience attention and interaction uncommon in most movie theaters today. Because many of the Super 8 filmmakers, as well as their friends and families who packed the theater, understood the proportionately large challenge that producing a film on this tiny medium posed, the charged ambient was expected.
Of the countless anachronisms in the hyper-technological 21st century, Super 8 filmmaking is certain to make the top 10, though this practice of crafting films the old-fashioned way is far from extinction.
First of all, what the heck is Super 8? More than just a motel chain, this miniature movie film and grandfather medium of the ubiquitous camcorder is the grainy stuff that 70's home movies are made of. Introduced in 1965 by Kodak, Super 8 film was neatly packaged in near bulletproof, ready-to-load plastic cartridges, which saved the amateur filmmaker the trouble of having to un-spool film and thread it through the camera (as was the custom with the earlier amateur format, regular 8mm). Furthermore, like vampires, film never really takes well to excess light and since Super 8 was encased in a black, light tight cartridge, a minimum of film was exposed, during loading and unloading.
So, if Super 8 is so groovy, what happened to it? Remember the slightly scratched up moving pictures of a family on vacation and the "dialogue" in those old home movies, which was relegated to the realm of sign language (since most Super 8 film was silent)? Well, in the 80's, that grainy family bought a camcorder and seemed to evolve into creatures with vocal chords and smoother complexions. As for the family's Super 8 camera, it evolved into a reclusive attic tenant, who slept under ever thickening blankets of cobwebs, or became an inhabitant of pawn shops (the half-way houses of small-gauge film equipment).
And who wouldn't shelve this super sideshow at garage sales in favor of instant playback and not having to mail cartridges off to the lab? The limitations of the medium were many. Super 8 cartridges were only 3 1/2 minutes long: so before you could get the kids to do anything cute, the dang cartridge had run out of film and there went your stinkin' 12 bucks. Yeesh! And then, after the film had finally arrived back from the lab, you'd coax the head of the filmstrip through the cogs of a cranky projector and attempt to enjoy the fruits of your labor while about 25 tiny dust hairs would wiggle in the film gate and project on the screen like a chorus line of uncoordinated twigs.
Despite the apparent inconveniences of the miniature medium, Super 8 continues to cast a spell over audiences in the post Y2K era. Perhaps it is the organic, vibrating nature of film grain, the brilliant color saturation or the gift Super 8 has of transporting viewers back to that proverbial "simpler time." While video cameras capture hours worth of daily life footage, most of which will be fast forwarded or neglected altogether, at some later date, Super 8 forces the filmmaker to condense the same hours of daily life into just three minutes. Thus, the filmmaker shares with the audience those few moments that he or she felt were most important.
There are several organizations throughout the U.S. -- and at least two in Austin -- which keep the spirit of Super 8 alive. Flicker Austin invites local filmmakers to submit a 15-minute-or-less film shot on any medium, including Super 8, for one of its screenings. During each screening, an audience member is randomly chosen to draw an idea out of a hat and manifest that idea onto a roll of Super 8 film provided by Flicker for the next Flicker festival. Flicker also awards one $100 film grant at each screening, which incidentally, can pay for enough film stock and processing for an eleven minute Super 8 film. One particularly positive aspect about Flicker Austin is that, because it is linked with other Flickers throughout the U.S. as well as a Flicker in France, it freely trades ideas and locally produces short films with its brothers and sisters. Thus, Austin filmmakers have an opportunity to tour their short films throughout the U.S. and reach a collectively much larger audience. In addition, the Austin Cinemaker Co-op, one of the staunchest champions of this celluloid linguini with sprocket holes, hosts four Super 8 mini-festivals each year and is open to anyone with an idea. No film? No camera? No earthly idea of where to find the "on" switch, even if you do have a camera? No worries. Cinemaker rents Super 8 cameras, sells film and offers workshops on the basics of Super 8, animation, lighting and film painting. Aspiring filmmakers have everything they need to make their very own short film for one of Cinemaker's festivals.
Each of Cinemaker's quarterly festivals has a distinct theme, but perhaps the most popular is the MAFIA ("Make a Film in a Weekend") festival, which visits Austin each spring. The festival carries somewhat of a running-of-the-bulls urgency to it when, on the eve of this predetermined weekend, 50 or more Mafians show up at Cinemaker's doorstep to pick up a mystery prop for their film. The mystery prop is often chosen by one of Cinemaker's board members and revealed the night MAFIA begins. Cinemaker provides one prop per filmmaker, and all filmmakers have identical props. This prop can be a plastic honey bear, a child's alphabet block or a flyswatter. With prop in hand, the small-gauge artist must create a film, using the prop somewhere in it. And then comes the hard part: filmmakers have only 48 hours to create a completely in-camera edited film which they will not see until the night of the screening.
By Sunday evening, the weary cine-warriors trudge back into the Cinemaker office with one or more cartridges of exposed film. And during the following week when Cinemaker assumes the daunting task of sending these 50 or more films off to the lab, filmmakers must create soundtracks for their films, which can be a little difficult when they can't actually see the films. Then, two weeks after the madness began, a small, darkened theater packed with nervous excitement and rustling programs glows with films that have never been seen before.
This sort of screening epitomizes the spirit of Super 8. Unlike erasable video, Super 8 doesn't forget. So once the image and unexposed film meet, never the twain shall part. Festivals like MAFIA are as much documentaries of Super 8 filmmaking as they are celebrations of diverse filmmaking styles. There is no guarantee that the Super 8 lottery will bestow a winning image upon the cinematographer. Super 8 cameras have always possessed a blunt nature and have no reservations about disclosing what the filmmaker could have done differently to achieve a more perfect shot. To the audience, however, these imperfections become testaments to the creator's struggle and allow viewers a glimpse into the process. But, as creatures of pride, humans prefer that others of their species respect the quality of their work rather than gain too much of a glimpse into the process. Thus, having to mail film to the lab and wait a week or longer before seeing the results becomes a ritual of suspense. For many small-gauge artists, there are several Christmases throughout the year and the postal delivery worker assumes the role of Santa Claus: "Will he bring me a present or a lump of coal?"
Let's suppose that Postal Claus does bring a lump of coal. "Everything's out of focus! It's ugly! I hate it! I wish I'd never picked up a stupid Super 8 camera." If the filmmaker finds him or herself saying these words, then he or she has the perfect opportunity to practice film manipulation through techniques such as bleaching, scratching and/or painting the filmstrip. Projected, the result of this camera-less filmmaking vibrates with colorful images, which pop and sizzle on screen as if cooking in a giant frying pan. Many Super 8 filmmakers utilize this opportunity to directly manipulate the filmstrip. Some add a few subtle scratches to enhance the already existing images, while others bleach, paint and/or sand the entire strip.
Legend has it that one filmmaker aluminum-foiled her film and submerged it into a mixture of condiments and cleaning products. She then let the film hibernate for two weeks before cleaning the excess residue off and projecting the creation. To the dismay of the disgruntled projectionist, remnants of the stinky mixture "cooked" every time the film passed in front of the hot projector bulb.
There are filmmaking methods besides direct film manipulation that enhance the organic properties of Super 8. For example, some filmmakers choose to hand process their films rather than sending them to the lab. This primitive process often involves hammering open the cartridge in a darkened closet and blindly stuffing all 50ft of Super 8 in a silver developing tank, no bigger than your average coffee mug. Five hours later, after pouring photo chemicals into and out of the tank, the gloved filmmaker births a film that has been freshly washed in a storm of randomness. Tiny scratches and fibers freckle the filmed images, while sections of film that stuck together during the developing process appear as negative.
Super 8 filmmaking techniques such as direct film manipulation and hand processing magnify the organic nature of the medium. This organic nature, inherent in the tiny particles that make up the film image, provides a unique alternative to digital media. Just ask any Super 8 enthusiast what he or she finds appealing about the Super 8 format and "film grain" will most like most likely enter into the response. Like snowflakes, no two grains of film are identical in shape or size. And, because a Super 8 image must be magnified roughly 16 times the size of studio films to fit on a same-sized screen, the randomness of millions of dancing film grains becomes a more apparent part of the overall composition. Though digital video offers nice color saturation, impressive resolution and more easily accessible effects, pixels, the cells of the digital image, possess a sort of monotonous uniformity. Thus, in comparison to larger film formats, Super 8 remains relatively inexpensive and accommodates experimentation and impulsive filmmaking. While this tiny medium may not be capable of showcasing flashy effects in all of their technological glory and won't yield instant gratification, it will always possess a certain vitality not present in the electronic media.
The History of Jazz by Daniel Davis Clayton
Jazz is the kink in my grandmother's hair
I brush and that Jazz is still there
Jazz is her high yella golden saxophone song
not quite as dark as the Blues
long since gone
When we walk she hears a tune unknown to me
Perhaps I am just too young to hear it
She leads me in our Jazz dance
After three rounds we rest
Jazz is her soft skin
its notes written in the wrinkles
When I kiss Jazz's forehead into tight configuration
Have you ever woke Jazz up in the morning with sunlight and fresh air
Bathed the Jazz Clothed the Jazz
Kissed Jazz on the cheek with your masculine lips
Walked with Jazz Talked with Jazz
Let Jazz lead you in its own dance to a tune you couldn't even fathom
I even washed Jazz's dirty draws
That's that's that's
Loving the Jazz Loving the Jazz Loving the Jazz
Hugging the Jazz Hugging the Jazz Hugging the Jazz
Needing the Jazz Needing the Jazz Needing the Jazz
Feeding the Jazz Feeding the Jazz Feeding the Jazz
oatmeal and bananas for breakfast
Good morning sugah you are my child now
blue black Blues gave birth with its yella Jazz gene pool
(my grandfather's coon and my grandmother's womb)
I return to you when
ever I'm weary
haven't you noticed that Jazz
I came home when I was weary
couldn't you see the blues in me
your Big Band did she even cooked me rice
You once said I favored the Blues that caught your eye
with whom you harmonized nightly
Gave birth to two Swing Dancers
and a Big Band being my mother
the second of three children
Three rounds then rest
a tradition indeed
Jazz, Blues, Bands, then me.
We are a generational peoples
Some of the other musical forms
Even the Swing Dancers
have forgotten that without you...
as if their own creations were immaculate
Baby, everybody ain't got Jesus
everybody ain't got Jazz
and so they honor the Jazz in pass over
passing over responsibilities
Birthdays and Christmas are great times to play the Jazz
dust off that wax and
spin but those are scratches on our records
As your record
skips and repeats
skips and repeats
skips and repeats
You see, Jazz don't recognize the blues quite so often
Nor Big Bands or the Swing Dancers which prance around the Jazz
As if Jazz owes them something
Jazz is so cool it doesn't even know when it's being played
or should it
Now days Jazz comes in small increments
I pieced together it's partial songs
and sometimes brush its hair
I cherish the Jazz Put the Jazz to bed
Wake it up in the morning
Play it and play it and play it and play
until I knew the Jazz
Gave Big Bands short rests when I formulated my own song
spending time learning the saxophone
the bass in the Blues is long since gone
I guess I'll be the new bass of my own bit of blues
I be Hugging the Jazz Loving the Jazz
Ensuring my nephews respected the Jazz
taking its fragrance on my masculine lips
I pass it along to your pregnant hips
as I tell my incubant ovarian child within you
this history of her music
Everything feminine is Jazz baby
There's even Jazz
There's even Jazz
There's even Jazz in me.
One of my favorite topics is the idea of cultural renaissance, and one of my favorite rants is the problem of cultural hegemony. Now I know I'm basically a bricolage of beatnik/hippie/counter-cultural attitudes and aspirations, but I always try to see things at least two ways at the same time, if not more. So I can see how one man's renaissance is another man's hegemony. Yet I cling to the belief that there are underlying objective cultural realities which distinguish the two, no matter how much we dial back our critical judgment with the buffers of freedom of expression, cultural relativism and just plain old couch potato soporific passivity.
Let's take music as a for instance. What makes a pop song a national hit, a culturally shared moment? What makes a pop singer a national celebrity, a persona that crosses over from concerts, to recordings, to television, to movies, to product endorsements? A friend of mine summed it up succinctly: MONEY.
But is that the final equation? Corporate hegemonic control over mass culture? It often seems so. Who among us has not turned on the radio and cried, "This talentless cretin has certainly sold their eternal soul to Satan"? How many times has a vacuous pop song become a hit, a doltish movie broke box office records or an irritating Johnny One Note become a celebrity personality? And now all of these examples of celebrity commodification can occur simultaneously through the magic of post-industrial capitalism; coordinated mass marketing has been honed to an exact science in the 21st century.
In fact, what with computer animation, there often doesn't even need to be an actual celebrity to commodify. You can get your Disneytronic character figurine at Burger King; watch its animated antics on the big screen; rent the video; and buy the soundtrack, comic book and video game all in one afternoon! One could argue that such a cultural milieu qualifies as a renaissance. Certainly for each celebrity/commodity there is a team of talented and hardworking artists behind the scenes: songwriters, musicians, photographers, graphic artists, copy writers, choreographers and possibly every other type of craftsman who has ever surfaced since the Neanderthals started banging rocks together around the campfire.
A period of renaissance connotes not just a rebirth of artistic endeavor but also an interconnection among the arts, a gestalt or zeitgeist, so that one can characterize the period through themes shared by the various arts. We take pride in the zeitgeist of previous periods: the American Revolution, the Harlem Renaissance, the Psychedelic 60's. But as technology has sped up most aspects of our lives, maybe it has sped up periods of renaissance to months and weeks, rather than years. Can a renaissance actually be built around the marketing of a single commodity? Or is that just a bunch of crap? Maybe we're just talking about fads and trends and cold-bloodedly calculated massive ad campaigns. That is my left-leaning gut instinct. But maybe post-modern culture is not so easily summed up. It is definitely a gray area in which we live, where the difference between renaissance and hegemony is often not clear. Artistic products may be execrable and mass-produced, but they still may reflect the spirit of our time. Personal taste and aesthetic judgment may be our ultimate measuring sticks, but are these objective enough? Please let me know, and keep those cards and letters coming.
Reeling by Jodie Keeling
Digital Display: A Visit to AMODA
zero... one... It's Tuesday night, February 26th. The Austin Museum of Digital Art (AMODA) is having its monthly showcase at Texture (505 Neches). The club is crowded. Xingu Hill, the featured musician for the hour, is on center stage. His instruments- a laptop, a keyboard, and a mixer, sparsely decorate the table before him. A minimal setup, maximum sound. His music delivers a mixture of deep, down tempo rhythms with expansive atmospheric soundscapes. It's danceable. Yet most everyone in the club is sitting, grooving in their chairs as a captive audience, listening and watching the screen just behind him.
Ben Hodges, a graduate student at the Americo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, is one of the visual artists featured for the night. His work is a blend of multiple media- still photography, Super 8, 16 mm, and digital video. He warns me that the particular technology he is using for tonight's projection is very outdated- two VCR's stacked upon each other. From the joystick of a mixing board he cuts between the two decks, phrasing images. He says he's interested in seeing the way people move through unfamiliar territory. A female figure makes her way across the screen in extreme slow motion. By digitally slowing the speed of her movement, her natural gait becomes a ballet of subtly punctuated, emotionally charged movements. We see in her walk, nuances of anticipation and hesitation about that which she is moving towards, emotions that likely would go unnoticed if it were projected in "real" time.
Over the course of the hour, Hodges demonstrates AMODA's inclusive approach to programming. There is room for most visual media at these monthly showcases- music, illustration, painting, sculpture, photography, film, and video. What then is digital art for AMODA? Digital art is defined on their website as any art whose final form is digital in nature. It is art that uses digital technology at some stage in its creation, and art that addresses and discusses digital technology. Any art that has been influenced in the slightest way by digital technology is digital art, a very broad encompassing definition.
This broad definition and the pervasiveness of digital technology in art and music, has some conjecturing about a faraway day when the brush will be rendered obsolete, celluloid film dead, and musical instruments a thing of the past. Much of the same attitude was spoke when photography came about in the late 19th century, so I've read. Photography was going to be the death of painting. For up until that time, painting was wedded to realism. Now, reality could be captured in a moment's flash, with unprecedented accuracy. But rather than killing painting, photography liberated the brush to move from reality into a hundred new directions spawning a creative renaissance.
Most of us are resistant to change to some degree. I know many of my friends who feel defensive of themselves as digital artists, and their tools as a legitimate artistic medium. I also find myself on each side of the coin, both questioning and defending them and their art. Lately, when I'm on the flip side, my friends remind me of how they are like Steiglitz and others who had to put up a considerable fight to defend the legitimacy of photography as a continuum of art. At the Armoury Show, he deliberately hung photos next to Georgia O'Keefe paintings to make the visual comparison between photography and painting as two equal but different forms of art. The truth is though the folks down at AMODA are already making their own strong case for themselves as digital artists and the computer as an expressive medium. Their assimilation of other formats combined with the capacity for creative digital manipulation serves them similarly to Steiglitz's bold comparisons...and the creative renaissance? Keep it happening.
Reminiscing with Slim Richey by Paul Klemperer
Guitarist Slim Richey just celebrated his 64th birthday, which makes him something of an elder statesman in the Austin jazz scene. He bills himself as "the most dangerous guitarist in Texas" and has the credentials to back it up. He's toured in Europe and Japan and worked with big names like Maryann Price, Marty Stuart, David Amram, Ricky Skaggs and Ray Price. He divides his time now between teaching and playing with two groups, the Jazz Pharoahs and Slim Richey's Dreamband.
Born in Atlanta, TX, Richey first played in Austin in 1956 as part of gubernatorial candidate Ralph Yarborough's campaign band. In those days politicians would draw crowds by having musicians play in the street. When enough people were drawn to the melodious sounds, the candidate would step up to the microphone and unleash his own performance. "We played four or five times a day," Slim recalls. "We'd show up at the designated spot, and there would be a flatbed truck for us to use as a stage."
Slim spent some time in Dallas and moved to Ft. Worth in 1967, where he spent the next 25 years. There he formed his own company, Ridgerunner, which specializes in various music related products. Still running the company today, Slim notes, "I've sold a lot of things over the years, including my own brand of mandolins in the 1970's. Now it's mostly music, instructional books and videos. We did an instructional video with jazz guitarist Herb Ellis, for example." Distributed by the Mel Bay Company, these books and videos offer instruction on how to play string instruments such as the bass, mandolin and fiddle as well as Slim's own creation, the "Instant Jazz Guitar." "Mel Bay's company distributes to retail stores, but if people want particular items they can go to our website, which is www.ridgerunner.com," he adds.
Slim's abilities on mandolin and fiddle brought him bluegrass gigs, and he found himself playing with David Amram at the Kerrville Folk Festival in the early 1980's. "David Amram liked the fact that I had a jazz background. Even though I wasn't as good as some of the other bluegrass fiddlers, my triplets had more swing to them, which he liked. I told him I was really more of a guitarist, and he must have told (festival organizer) Rod Kennedy that, because in 1985 Kennedy called me to be the staff guitarist up in Eureka Springs, Arkansas."
Back in Ft. Worth, Slim started a jazz rehearsal group and ran a regular jazz jam at the Hop through the 1980's. "It was a swinging club back then, but it's changed now," Slim reflects. In 1992 he moved with wife Francie, who plays upright bass with Slim, down to Hays County, south of Austin. "That's when I started sitting in with the Pharoahs. I just started playing in Austin more and more." Slim and Francie have land down in Hays, which they fondly refer to as "Eternal Camp Peckerwood," and also have a getaway place out in Terlingua near Big Bend, where a number of former Austin musicians have relocated.
Slim loves Austin and its musicians but doesn't hesitate to say that "it's a scrambling town" because he certainly doesn't play here several days a week for the money. (The Jazz Pharoahs play regularly at the Elephant Room and Jazz.) "Since last fall it's been worse. Nightclubs are good places to advertise and stay in practice but not to make money. The money is usually in corporate parties, but they have really dried up. Hopefully that will change. Mainly I like the jazz scene, the music community in Austin. The players are competitive, but they're not cutthroat or back-stabbing."
Slim started the Dreamband as a way to break out of the mold of traditional jazz. The band blends the torch/cabaret singing of Alice Spencer with a Count Basie style rhythm section and the more modern solos of trumpeter Martin Banks and saxophonist Larry "D.C." Williams. "It's a weird concept to explain, but we blend a lot of different jazz styles. Still, it's very danceable music. We mix a pulse with stretching out, and try to pick the best of each period."
I asked Slim to assess the Austin music scene. After a moment's thought, he said, "For a medium-sized town, we've got one of the best music communities. But there isn't enough support for national class musicians. It seems when players get to that level, they need to leave. We do have a lot of support from fans, but we need more. And we need more than one good venue, a bigger concert venue. There needs to be a support network, between clubs, media, booking agents, publicists and so on."
I also asked him if he had any advice for young players. "I'd say that there are three elements every gig has: fun, learning experience and money. If two of them are strong, then it's a good gig. You can have fun, learn something, and the money doesn't matter so much. But if two of them are weak, one of them had better be damn strong!"
Up All Night by Harold McMillan
This is another installment from the Blues Family Tree Project Oral History Archive. This month we continue with my interview with Martin Banks, from 10 years ago. Here Martin talks a bit more about his life in the jazz scene in New York, his stint in the house band at the Apollo, and his advice for young Austin players who want to breakout onto a larger stage. I hope you enjoy the read. And be sure to check out Martin playing around town with Slim Richey's Dream Band and the Jazz Pharaohs. 'Till Next month.
HMc: Tell me more about New York.
Martin Banks: I had to get to have a base, so I had to stay in New York, Living there and playing there. And every major black musician came to the Apollo. So I was able to play behind all of them and made records with them. And also, another guy from Texas, King Curtis, I was in his band. We made all those things with Aretha Franklin and stuff. That was in New York, and everything was going good. I played with just about everybody.
HMc: Was King Curtis connected to Austin?
MB: King Curtis was from Fort Worth, and I met him in New York. He was over [at] Atlantic records and we made all those records. In fact, the guitar player just left Austin, Cornell Dupree; we were all in the same band. Cornell and Eric Gale and Bernard Purdy -- and Chuck Rainey, he's from Texas too.
HMc: This was the Apollo band?
MB: No, this was King Curtis' band. By me playing in the house band in the Apollo, we worked like three weeks a month and we were off a week. So during that week off I was able to play with any band that came through there that wanted to augment, like B.B. King. All those things. Plus, they had a jazz show once a month. I was able to play with all the singers. In fact, when I was in Los Angeles I played every summer in Las Vegas. I played down there every summer for four years! The first time I played behind a girl from Austin named Donetta. She used to be with the Redcaps. She lives in Baltimore now.
See, she was older than I. I didn't know her here in Austin. She was older. My mother knew her. My first trip to Las Vegas, by me being able to read music out there and playing around, well, I got the job to go. Well, I would go to Las Vegas every summer to play behind all the black acts that the Flamingo would have. I played behind Herb, Brook Benton, Della Reese, and my favorite was Sarah Vaughn. I played with the great Billy Mitchell Sextet; they hired me in California. That was another reason I knew I had to get to New York. I had to do it. I said, "Hot Dog!" Just standing next to Sarah for six weeks! Yep! But when they got back to L.A., I was still trying to get...that was before I joined Ray's band. There was music out there. But in New York I was able to play at the Apollo. And during that time people [were] making records, everybody was making records. Singers, you know, everybody. I was on staff at Atlantic Records, plus all the other record dates around there. I was on call all the time! I was playing lead trumpet too, because I played lead with Lionel Hampton's band, and able to work.
HMc: So, you got busy pretty much as soon as you got out of here?
MB: Yeah. Well, the kind of music I had in my ears that I wanted to try to play wasn't here. And I wasn't old enough, like 14, I wasn't old enough to go nowhere by myself. We used to sneak around to Georgetown; that was a long way, in high school. But I went to Houston a couple of times, but I wasn't old enough to go in no clubs or anything. But I used to hear a band...they had two colleges here, one named Sam Huston and Tillotson. Okay, Sam Huston had a very good jazz band. Bert Adams -- he's still here -- he was over there. I have a lot of respect for him. He had the best band! Oh, they had a band over there! I couldn't go in the band rehearsal, but I could stand outside on the little cliff and look over at the auditorium at the band rehearsing. And I remember some of the names of the guys in the band, like Leroy Cooper playing baritone in the band; Leo Wright was playing alto -- he later played with Dizzie Gillespie you know -- in fact, he just passed too.
Yeah, and playing around all those bands, I was in Count Basie's band six times. I was trying to live in New York, I didn't want to go on the road, see. Fact, now I know really I was a prisoner in New York. I didn't really find that out until Duke Ellington hired me, and I found that I couldn't go out of town. So, that's when, I don't know, I had drinking problems and all kind of stuff through hanging, you know, but that was during -- those were heydays in New York. Play with or behind just about every black artist you can name. Frank foster, he was just here. In fact I used to sit in with... George Benson and he used to have a group, him and Ronda Keywood and them. During that time New York was live. Sugar Ray Robinson had clubs; there was clubs all over Harlem. 'Was really jumping, then all at once it seemed like somebody threw a bomb in there and just blew it all apart. Five years, it was gone.
HMc: Mid '60s?
MB: In the 1960s, yeah. '60s it was happening. And then all at once everything just kind of shut down. And also while I was at the Apollo, I couldn't work the show as a permanent person, so they had to hire three trumpets, for one to take each other's place when they out. So by me playing at the Apollo, I was able to play that show half of six years. I made all those Hair records. It was happening during that time. I got to meet all those musicians. Went to Europe a couple of times back then.
HMc: When you were doing all this, what did you think about Austin?
MB: I never came back to Austin until now. See, from Los Angeles I went straight to New York. From here to San Francisco to Los Angeles to New York. And I was in New York for 25 years non-stop. And any band that I played with never came here. One time Lionel Hampton came here. But I had already left his band when he came to Austin. But nobody ever came this way! They'd go to Europe and all up and down the East coast and even California, nothing ever came...
HMc: Didn't come to visit, not even holidays?
MB: I never had time. I didn't have time. I did, I came once from Los Angeles in the '50s, because that's when I came here and come to find out that Fred Smith that I went to college with in San Francisco was teaching school here in Austin, in my home. That's when I met James Polk. He was here, see. He was here. I think Bobby Bradford...I got to meet him then. I think he was here. But he left right after then and went to California. I missed him because I moved to New York. But I've seen him since then, I believe.
HMc: That's Carmen's father?
MB: Yeah. Helluva trumpet player! He and Ornette Coleman hook up together all the time. Bobby, I think, is teaching.
HMc: Let me backtrack just a little bit. When your father was playing, was he playing with the Johnny Simmons Orchestra?
HMc: What years was that?
MB: I was a baby, so I guess it was...I was born in 1936, so it must have been '38 or '40, about '40-something. Mother's got a picture, and I remember it too, when my dad was on the road with one of those bands then. He came through and I took a picture with him. My mother has a picture. I was on a bicycle, and Johnny Simmons died during that time I believe. His wife and my mother, they were good friends. Josephine. I haven't seen him. Supposedly he was the piano player around here during that time.
HMc: What was your father's name?
MB: Martin, Senior. He just passed...how long have I been, I've been here three years. I guess he passed last year. He was living in San Antonio; he didn't play anymore.
HMc: What do you think the state of black music is in Austin right now?
MB: If there is a state, it's the worst. "If" there is a state. It hasn't been really focused on in the black community, see? And`the media, you can't...you hear jazz two or three times a week for an hour. Or like kids coming up, they can't be up at no twelve o'clock at night to listen to no program. But then I believe it's a thing in your ear, too, that you really want to do something. But if you heard it all the time, maybe you would want to more, but I don't know. There's something in you, I believe, that wants you to play a particular...you like a particular kind of music. 'Cause I played first trumpet in Anderson High School band the whole four years, well, three years I was there. The last three years I played first trumpet in the band. There was three of us. Due to segregation it was the only high school, and we had the largest band. We had a 150-piece band, and we won, yeah, we won the state champion contest every year from the time that my father was in the band. See, they won the contest. But they had just black schools.
HMc: They went to Prairie View?
MB: Prairie View for the contest, yeah. I went there at least three times. I remember, I was put out of the band one time or a couple, for trying to play jazz, you know? You hear something and you go to play it. The band teacher, well, he didn't know anything about that, and he couldn't show it to you. But he showed you the rudiments of reading. Then from reading you've got to try to put stuff together for yourself. Fred and all them...Fred, he would go to San Francisco. He was from Bryant, Texas. His father lived in San Francisco. So he was able to hear coming up, but there wasn't any jazz played hardly. Lavada Durst would play some sometimes, you know, but it was strictly like blues-type show because Lavada Durst is a piano player. I don't know...I remember his son, Lavada Jr. He was on the radio before Tony Von. See, Tony Von was a latecomer to me. 'Seemed like Tony Von came here after I left or shortly before I left.
HMc: His name has been brought up in the '50s, late '50s.
MB: Yeah, see I left here in 1953. First day out of high school, the next day I was on the Katy train to San Francisco. Boy, going from Austin to San Francisco, I couldn't find my house! I'd go to the store and come back and couldn't find my house! All of them looked the same and they all tied together. We lived in the middle of the block. All of them painted the same color. Boy, I had problems trying to find my house! 'Finally found my way to Fred Smith and Johnny and them. But then we lived in the Fillmore district. We all in the same community. We had a little theater called the Ellis Theater. That's where I played with Fred Smith and them. We won the contest there, Frank Roberts playing bass. He's a friend. He's still out there. Merle Saunders was playing piano, but he got drafted. No, he joined the Army...he joined the Air Force. He left. And we used to play down at Black Hawk on Sunday evenings. They had a little jazz thing down there, I guess, a little jam session.
HMc: I'm just interested to know: how did you suddenly get to San Francisco and have such a great time?
MB: 'Wasn't no great time!
HMc: Austin wasn't such a bad town was it?
MB: I was too young to really even know. I remember...see, Leo Wright and them, they were older than me, and I couldn't go in nightclubs. The only thing I used to hear was George Alexander. He's another trumpet player that was here in the band. I think he teaches in Oakland now. They used to have a band down on 11th Street. Leo Wright, George Alexander, and another guy named Blue out of Houston, James Clay, Leroy...well, it was the Sam Huston band, you know? And they used to play down there, and they were playing the kind of music I wanted to hear. That's when I really got to hear it, when they were playing down there. Then again, I was so young I had to sneak out then. The policeman, Juan Jones, lived around the corner from the house. So, if he sees me out there...yeah boy! If he sees me out there, he's sure going to tell my mother!
MB: But, I got put out of the band first thing, see? My mother and them sent me out there. They knew that I wanted to try to play. I guess she talked it over with my uncle and things, you know, because I was trying to play licks. And every time I'd hit a lick, POW! Mr. Joyce would put me out of the band.
HMc: If it ain't on the paper, don't play it?
MB: Yeah. Yeah. But just so happened out there, just wasn't no reason to come back here. When I did come back and Polk and them were all playing, I really did think about staying. But I had to go back to Los Angeles; I was married at the time and had a kid. And before I could really think about coming back here, they were out there, see? So, New York was the place. So I got to play with everybody I ever dreamed of. Duke Ellington was really the thing, and it just happened that he hired me. Like after Hair, there used to not be no black shows and all that, see? The shows were at the Apollo Theater. After Hair they started hiring and having black shows on Broadway, and that's when Harlem started going down.
HMc: 'Seems to be a common thing. One of the things that we've been talking about...
MB: Vicious circle, it's a circle.
HMc: James Polk and Pat Murphy talked about it a lot, how times were hard 25 or 30 years ago in the black community, but there was some amount of community.
MB: Yeah. Well, integration tore all that up, see? And integration is just a word. It's no such thing as no integration! How you gonna integrate with somebody with money and you don't have no money? And everything is run off of money, so anybody that print money has a say-so over you, you know? And so, communities can go up...like New York. It went from sugar to shit in five years, you know? All of a sudden cocaine was dropped into the middle of there, and people around there couldn't afford no cocaine. So where did that come from? All of a sudden, BAM! You know?
HMc: It's not a mistake?
MB: No, it's not a mistake! No! No! It's just...I don't know. Urban removal, that's what I call it. Things start happening.
HMc: The time period you're talking about is mid '60s or so, when you feel like Harlem went into another decline?
MB: 1970s. Yeah, about like 1972. That's when it really, it really slumped. Well, I came here. That's right, I came here in 1971. I came here in 1971 and stayed two years. And 1973, before I went back to New York, I took my kids. I went back to California. And while I was in California, that's when I got a job with Disney. And Disney hired me and shipped me to Florida with Disney World. So I stayed in Florida five years. From Florida I went back to New York. And when I got back to New York, it was entirely different than what it was in the '60s.
HMc: I wonder if the same story happened in all the major cities in the U.S.?
MB: Yeah, yeah, look like it.
HMc: Black folks were thinking post-integration, everything's going to be all right.
MB: Oh, man! Look, how long have you been fighting for civil rights? Traveling through Europe and East and Africa, you really see another kind of life. It's like music here. I tell kids coming up to come by and talk to me. I told him [Chris Searles], "Say, you have to leave here and go somewhere else to hear something, because you are really not hearing nothing here." What you hear is off of a record or something, so you have to play it just like that. But something like, as far as playing drums and the kind of drums he wants to play, go to New York and listen to some guys play, since you like that kind of music. Go there and just listen.
HMc: And find a gig?
MB: Naw. No! It's a multitude there. If you don't like this, you can go here. And [there are] people practicing all the time. Living music. Might not have no limo or nothing like that, but you have an instrument and subway fare.
Verites by Meghna Haldar and Annie Reid
Film director Meghna Haldar and writer Annie Reid are both narrative filmmakers who created the film Revival together.
Meghna and Annie: Fancying ourselves as storytellers, we both are continually asking: what makes a good story? And as we continue to look for good stories while reading screenplays or watching films, we often notice that screenwriters and filmmakers employ a three-act structure as a skeleton for telling their stories. We see this type of structure used in nearly all of the films that we watch. Yet, as artists, we find something slightly, well, repellent that a single structural concept should govern an entire discipline. Does structure, specifically the three-act film variety of Hollywood and, incidentally, most Independents, limit the imagination? Or, does it liberate by simply formalizing some fundamental -- even primal -- notion of story?
AR: For me the question of quality is totally wedded to that of structure. We go to see a movie and we say, that was good. Why? Because it was moving or clever or exciting or challenged our ethical standards. Or we say the movie was bad. Why? Because it was sentimental, boring, predictable, plotless, too violent. The moment you talk about good and bad, you imply standards, criteria, aesthetic principals -- which is a good thing. Isn't that what helps us recognize quality, help those of us who aspire to create something that might one day be called art figure out how to attain excellence?
MH: I agree with you about what might make a bad film. But to wed quality only to the skeleton of structure is to say that the basis of a good story is a good structure. Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Hiroshima Mon Amour, I agree. But have you seen a totally inane Hindi film with no idea of structure which is entirely satisfying? I have.
AR: The simplest way to begin a story is this: get your main character into trouble. Make him or her want something. Make that something be very hard to get: money, love, power, revenge, justice, solitude, to know God, to remain married, to have sex without consequences, to make a monster, to kill without conscience, to revel in the blood of innocents, to get sober, to have a good time, to become whole again, to just get Dorothy the hell home. The character has lots of problems getting it. Things don't go as he or she expect or want. And then either they get it, or it becomes very clear that he or she will never get it. The story is over. And that's also a simple way of describing the three-act structure. Some Hindi -- and plenty of American -- films might not make logical sense, but they still follow that basic story pattern. Sense is not the same as structure. And don't we impose this structure on our own lives?
MH: Life imitates the movies and television, I imagine. It's almost like the reality we live in is so dull that we have to manufacture a reality, which is really all learned behavior from the movies and television. But romances really end after that walk into the sunset. No one stops to wonder what it would mean to wake up and make coffee everyday for Julia Roberts. And yet, lives are narratives, just a million narratives simultaneously unfolding. Our lives are the sum total of our histories: past, present, future, imagined, real and beyond, right? It's like Bakhtin's heteroglossia, a babble of voices clamoring to be heard. So life in some sense lacks the structure we seek from the movies. Would you agree?
AR: I think you just said that so you could say "heteroglossia." Imposing stories on the random nature of reality is how we discover -- some would say manufacture -- meaning. Isn't that why we tell stories? And we look for that in narrative film, as artists and viewers. We don't like stories from which we cannot discern a meaning or a pattern. We feel misused by the filmmakers. We feel they are being self-indulgent or condescending. So, yes, we have standards -- and structure. But sometimes I wonder if my own idea of standards can potentially compromise my imagination. What if I see something so outside of my ideas of what a film should be that I can't even recognize something new?
MH: That's the crux of the issue, isn't it? In art, imagination needs to be unfettered. And yet, we all adhere to standards so that our imaginations can be better understood by others. All of us are playing to a gallery. Where else would we get the money to pursue our art? Somewhere there has to be a middle line. Like it or not, there is always a compromise.