An Exuberant New Thing

Sly and Famly StoneA few months back, I found an old album by Sly and the Family Stone. They were a group I liked, but I never knew much about them. Next year marks fifty years (!) since Sly formed the multi-racial band, so now’s a good time to dig deeper.

By 1967, Sly (a boyhood friend misspelled Sylvester as Slyvester; the nickname stuck with him) was 26 years old, a San Francisco disc jockey on a soul station who played music from both Black and White artists. Sly had already produced several minor hit songs, formed and performed in several local band including the multi-ethnic Viscaynes. Times were changing very quickly—especially in the Bay Area—and Sly was well-connected because his influence via radio station KSOL was growing.

The first album by Sly and the Family Stone didn’t do much on the charts, but it’s clever, innovative, funky, and a whole lotta fun. The first single, “Underdog” starts out with a slow version of “Frere Jacques,” then rolls into a rap-like rhythm supported by power horns and a chanting chorus. There’s some gospel in there, too. Listen: this is fifty years old, but it sounds fresh, not at all dated. “I Cannot Make It” is the other popular track from 1967’s A Whole New Thing, and it opens with a vocal similar to “I am the Walrus” (same year). And then, the hits start coming—you probably know just about every one of them because they’ve never really left the world stage.

The fun begun with “Dance to the Music”—#8 on the Billboard Pop Chart and #9 on the Billboard R&B Chart—“listen to the voices!” with that screaming voice, the little bobbing a capella voices, the low down deep voice, the jumping back and forth between Stax, Motown, psychedelia, the big horn section, the get-up-and-dance, the complex jumping back and forth between musical ideas, in just three minutes. These guys are having such a great time making a new kind of music—and the public loves it! Black listeners (#9 on the Billboard R&B charts) and White listeners, too (#8 on the Billboard Pop Charts). The energy is so rich, so contagious—and still so free from the rigidity of corporate music production (that comes later). “Fun” from 1968 keeps the grove — “When I party, I party hearty, fun is on my mind, put a smile upon your face…there’s a sister there’s a brother having fun with each other”— driven by the kind of free-style audio production that looked beyond the traditional concepts of musical arrangements and formality. “ “M’Lady” sounds like a party going on. “Life” is a carnival that begins with a barker, then two, laughing at each other, big horns, a gigantic consciousness raising high—“Life – tell it like it is— you don’t have to die before you live!!”

Y4CDSS006The youthful exuberance is gone, the social awareness is increasing, the production is slicker by 1969’s “Stand” — “you’ve been sitting much too long—there’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong!” – “there’s a midget standing tall, and a giant beside him about to fall!” It feels a bit dated, a golden oldie, a solid memory but the controlled chaos and the crazy audio production is a thing of the past. From the same album (called Stand), there’s “Sing a Simple Song” and “Everyday People”— probably the group’s high water mark— and both of those songs bind the no-holds-barred past with the glossier, socially consciousness future. The same album’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” (same lyric, “Don’t call me whitey, nigger”) is a sincere push toward revolution.

And the hits just kept on coming: “You Can Make It If You Try”— the band’s optimism was always a joy— and “Hot Fun in the Summertime” are wonderful, timeless in their way. And now we’re having fun: “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and the anthem, “Everybody Is a Star.” That’s all pre-1970. A lot happened in just three years.

With the 1971 album, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On, The Family Stone reminds us of its roots with “Family Affair” — very AM-radio friendly, positive, bringing the community together in the best way: “One child grows up to be somebody who just loves to learn” “Newlywed a year ago, but you’re still checkin’ each other out” “Nobody wants to be left out” “You can’t leave ‘cause your heart is there” — a warm, cozy number that feels dated, but, it’s sincere. That song reached #1 on the Billboard Pop and R&B charts. There’s a similar song called “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” that’s more ambitious, kinda jazzy and bluesy, and although it charted, too, it’s not a song most people remember. In fact, I don’t remember any of the songs that followed on the charts from 1971 through 1975.

Those later songs are very good—some are vaguely familiar—but they lack the early energy. Instead, there’s a laid back funk, very appealing combinations of electric guitar and horns, a funky stoner groove that’s easy to enjoy time and again, decades after it was produced. It feels original, not at all derivative because the band always led, rarely followed. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the later material, and how nicely it has stood multiple plays while tooling down highways that did not exist when this music was made.

So what happened to Sly and the Family Stone? Trouble became evident as early as 1969 when a combination of influence from Black militants and the drug culture destroyed key creative relationships. By 1970, Epic Records gave up on the possibility of a promised (contracted) new album and released an early Greatest Hits album to keep the market alive. By 1975, the group’s fans had abandoned the possibility of Sly and his band actually showing up for concerts—a big show at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall left most tickets unsold. The downhill slide continued—the sad story is well-told in a Wikipedia article.

Certainly, music historians have written about the huge influence of Sly on several generations of artists, how rap and hip hop trace back to Sly and the Family Stone. That’s all fascinating, but the real story here is the freshness and magnetism of music produced fully a half century ago.

Can’t help but wonder. If it was 1967 today, and I was blogging, would I be writing about the amazing musicians of 1917? I’m guessing no. Sly was something special.

 

 

The Magic of Musicals, from the Inside

“Not every show has an ‘I Want’ song. Or a conditional love song, or a main event, or even an 11 o’clock number. But most do.”

The terminology may be unfamiliar, but the ideas are not.

A Broadway-style musical begins with an Overture, except when it doesn’t. Is the overture the lightning bolt that energizes the whole enterprise? Or is a divine spirit that visits a particular script, score, director, performer, ensemble, or theater?

Form matters. That’s the mantra of Jack Viertel who wrote a book with the odd title, The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built. He’s the Artistic Director of Encores!, responsible for the simple re-staging of three musicals every year for Broadway-literate audiences. During the recent past, Encores! has produced and presented “1776,” Do I Hear a Waltz, Cabin in the Sky, Zorba!, Paint Your Wagon, Lady Be Good!, Fiorello!, Lost in the Stars and Where’s Charley—mostly shows from the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s. As for more recent shows, Viertel questions their meanderings away from proper form and structure.

He is a man who has helped to construct magic—his credits include Hairspray, Angels in America and After Midnight—so his opinions are both well-formed and well-informed. He has credibility. I learned a lot by reading his book, in part for professional purposes, but mostly because he’s an terrific teacher with a subject that fascinates me.
In his words: “How do you begin a show?” How does a musical greet the audience at the door? How do creative artists introduce the characters, set the tone, communicate point of view, create a sense of style, a milieu? Do you begin with the story, the subject, the community in which the story is set, the main characters?”

enmjW_the-secret-life-of-the-american-music....jpeg.220x0_q85_autocrop_crop-smart_upscaleSince overtures “have become a rarity today,” the opening number carries the weight. Originally, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum began with “a sweet little soft shoe about how romance tends to drive people nuts” but that misled the audience because the show was not about romance or charm, but instead, a boisterous vaudevillian take on three Roman comedies. Critics and audiences don’t enjoy mixed messages, so the reviews were lousy and the audiences stayed away. The creative team—a top-notch group that included Larry Gelbart, Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, George Abbott, and Burt Shevelove—didn’t know what to do. They asked director Jerome Robbins what he thought. He asked Sondheim (music, lyrics) to write something “neutral… Just write a baggy pants number and let me stage it.” Viertel: “He didn’t want anything brainy or wisecracking, but he did want to tell the audience exactly what it was in for: lowbrow slapstick carried out by iconic character types like the randy old man, the idiot lovers, the battle-axe mother, the wiley slave and other familiar folks. Sondheim wrote “Comedy Tonight” as a typically bouncy opening number, but he couldn’t resist his clever muse, and so, the “neutral” number’s lyrics go like this:

Pantaloons and tunics,

Courtesans and eunuchs,

Funerals and chases,

Baritones and basses,

Panderers,

Philanderers,

Cupidity,

Timidity…

You get the idea. (Go listen to the song! It’s terrific.)
Another show provides the textbook example of Broadway construction. The opening scene in Gypsy is a mirror image of the closing conceit—and both are built around the song, “Let Me Entertain You!” (Sondheim wrote those lyrics, too!)

Unknown.jpegAnother simulates the movement of a train pulling into River City, Iowa a century ago—serving to introduce the flimflam man named Professor Harold Hill—“Cash for the merchandise, cash for the button hooks, cash for the cotton goods, cash for the hard goods…look, whataytalk, whataytalk, whataytalk, whataytalk?…”to set the stage for The Music Man. Similarly Cabaret begins with the multi-lingual “Wilkommen” and Fiddler on the Roof begins with “Tradition.”

Some shows combine the traditional role of the opening number with the inevitable song that follows, called the “I Want” song. “Good Morning Baltimore!” provides a taste of what Tracy wants in Hairspray, but A Chorus Line is more direct in its use of I Want in its opening number:

Chorus-Line-Weston.jpg

God I hope I get it.

I hope I get it.

How many people does he need…

I really need this job.

Please, God, I need this job.

I’ve got to get this job!”

hqdefaultIn Annie, the I Want song is “Maybe”– the orphan dreams of her parents. In Gypsy, the “I Want” song is “Some People,” and in “West Side Story,” it’s “Something’s Comin’” In Hamilton, it’s “My Shot.” It’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” in My Fair Lady and “Somewhere That’s Green” in Little Shop of Horrors. Note the consistency of a place far away as a device to express desire—“ Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid follows the same pattern.

The conditional love song comes next—or follows shortly after. “If I Loved You” from Carousel, ”I’ve imagined every bit of him / From his strong moral fiber / To the wisdom in his head / To the homely aroma of his pipe..” sets up the unlikely romance between a gambler and a Salvation Army worker in Guys and Dolls.And now, things become complicated. (Heck, you could write a book about it…) There is “The Noise” — “a pure expression expression of energy” that’s intended to be, mostly, fun, without much consideration for story. Try, for example, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly. Then, the plot thickens, a secondary romance is introduced, unexpected obstacles, confusion that must be resolved within the next hour or so. The disappointment—a character has made an unfortunate choice. Tentpoles lead to expanded  audience expectations: “I had a dream / a dream about you, Baby! / It’s gonna come true, Baby! / They think that we’re through, but, Baby…” From at least one character’s point of view, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” but others in Gypsy have their doubts—and when the first act curtain falls, many of the characters are gone, never to be seen again.
b6d1048bcf323255f40fcaf41997abd7Gee, this is fun. Suddenly, every musical I’ve ever seen makes more sense than ever! I could go on about “The Candy Dish,” “The 11 O’Clock Number” and the construction of the ending, but that would make the whole blog article too long. Pace matters.

Buy the book. See the musical(s). If you’re in NYC, buy a ticket to “Encores!” — even if you  don’t know the show, will not be disappointed because now you’ve taken a glimpse backstage, under the hood, inside the dream. It’s all a glorious confection—characters in the midst of the most dramatic adventure of their lives stopping everything to sing their hearts out and dane a lot. Makes no logical sense. But it’s wonderful. And it’s been going on for the better part of a century. And there are people who are very, very good at this particular art form. Every once in a while, it’s nice to celebrate them.

Backstage on Broadway

“No film has ever banked $1 billion at the box office, but three musicals–The Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, and Wicked— have exceeded this benchmark on Broadway.” Globally, Phantom has earned twice as much as the most successful motion picture of all time, Avatar–$12 billion vs. $6 billion. The June 18 issue of The Economist goes on: “Hamilton may cement Broadways’s lead. For information about methodology–and this is fascinating–click on the chart below.

Well-tuned productions

These days, life on Broadway is sweet. Theaters are full. Shows are sold-out. Diversity is abundant. The situation is almost unimaginably different from the early 1970s, when a 60 Minutes report “showed a group of tourists from the South getting off their bus to see a Broadway show–and then getting right back on again because Times Square was so dangerous.” In 1972, Broadway’s largest producer was in a terrible way–J.P. Morgan turned down a $1 million loan, even thought all seventeen Schubert theaters were offered as collateral.

So what happened? It’s a story worthy of a Broadway musical. And it’s fun to read because author and theater columnist so relishes the opportunity to tell that story in his boffo book, Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway.

razzle-dazzle-9781451672169_hrThe turnaround story begins, as it ought to begin, with a pitch from a creative professional to a producer. The two remarkable people in this particular scene are Public Theater producer Joseph Papp and choreographer-director Michael Bennett. Reidel: “Bennett arrived at Papp’s office at the Public Theater carrying a bulky Sony reel-to-reel recorder and several reels of tape. He had nearly twenty-four hours of interviews with Broadway dancers. He thought there might be a show somewhere in those hours and hours of tape. He played some of them for Papp. After to listening to the recordings for forty-five minutes, Papp said, ‘OK, let’s do it.”

In fact, those tapes–the best of them recorded after midnight on January 18, 1974– are still around so we know what was said by Bennett to the other dancers: “I think we’re all pretty interesting, all of you are pretty interesting, and I think there is a show in there somewhere which would be called A Chorus Line.”

In April 16, 1975, the show played its first preview downtown at the Public Theater, a few miles from Broadway. “At the end of the opening number–“I Hope I Get It”–the audience of 299 stood and cheered and cried. In theater circles that night, phones rang off the hook with the news that the Public Theater had a massive hit. (BTW: Decades later, Hamilton was  developed at the same Public Theater.)

Since the Public Theater lacked the necessary funds to move the show to Broadway, they made a deal with the Schuberts. A Chorus Line opened at the 1,400 seat flagship Schubert Theater on July 25, 1975.

In 1974, Broadway theaters sold 6.6 million tickets. In 1976, the number was 8.8 million. Now, Broadway averages 12 million tickets per year–with annual box office receipts exceeding $1 billion. “The Times Square of Midnight Cowboy, of drugs, crime, and prostitution, of crumbling theaters and peep shows, is now one of the world’s leading tourist attractions.” The Times Square neighborhood contributed 11 percent of NYC’s economic output.

Michael Bennett and Joseph Papp are gone now–we lost Bennett to AIDS in 1987 and Papp four years later. Did they “save Broadway?” I like the version of the story where the answer is “yes”–a guy with an idea connected with guy who could raise money, and together, they saved Times Square and helped Broadway to find its heart and soul.

Last week, Broadway responded to the dreadful slaughter in Orlando, Florida by doing what it does best–performing like there’s no tomorrow. If you haven’t seen the video, now’s your chance:

In Praise of Sarah Cooper

I don’t usually post funny little graphics (okay, sometimes I do), but as a CEO of a nonprofit, I certainly recognized the truth in this graphic. It comes from a clever website called The Cooper Review.

I don’t usually repost cute little graphics, but this one deserved special treatment.

I became curious about what The Cooper Review was all about, so I found the source of this graphic and learned about Sarah Cooper. Here’s the start of her bio: “I was born a small blackish child in Jamaica. My mother is half German and my father is half Chinese, which is why I look Colombian. My family moved to Washington, DC when I was three. As soon as I learned to talk I was correcting my parents’ accents and grammar.”

No need to go on and on Sarah’s stuff when it’s only a click away. I did some exploring, and if every item from this former Google designer’s site doesn’t hit the mark, her batting average is really impressive. I especially liked her analysis of nodding behavior at meetings, a good place to begin.

Ms. Cooper’s first book will be published in October. I’m guessing it will become quite popular.

 

 

 

 

Being There

While I admit to not being here for about a year—apologies, but I’ve been having fun doing cool stuff—I tend to enjoy knowing precisely where I am at any given moment.

For example, about two weeks ago, I visited Bohemian National Hall on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It’s an impressive old building, one of the few surviving ethnic community halls that provided comfort and culture to ethnic communities on the island. BNH has become the New York home of the Digital Hollywood conferences. This time, the focus was Virtual Reality, and its kin, Artificial Reality.

NYT VRThe New York Times now employs a Virtual Reality Editorial Team. They have completed about five projects, each involving high technology and a cardboard box. For the uninitiated, the cardboard box is used to house a smart phone, which, in turn, displays oddly distorted images that can be seen through a pair of inexpensive stereoscopic lenses. To hear the soundtrack, ear plugs are required.

VR is not 3DTV, but it shares some characteristics with that dubious invention. You are a camera with perhaps sixteen lenses. As you turn your head, the stitched-together video imagery simulates reality: you can turn from side to side, up to down, all around, and gain a sense of what’s all around you. (One of the new VR production companies showed off a home-brewed VR camera setup: 16 GoPro cameras set in a circle the size of a frisbee, with several more pointing up and down, all recording in synchronization, collectively requiring an enormous amount of video storage.)

VR provides is a wonderful sense of immersion, and a not-so-good sense of disorientation.

When there is something to explore, immersion is a spectacular invention. For example, diving in deep water and seeing all sorts of aquatic life. Or, walking in a forest. Or being in just the right place at the right time at a sporting event or political convention—you know, being there.

But where, exactly, is “there?” And precisely when should do you want to be there? I never thought about it much before, but the television or film or stage director makes that decision for you—“look here now!” And after that, “look here.” With VR, you can explore whatever you want to explore, but you are likely to miss out on what someone else believes to be important. There is freedom in that, but there is also tremendous boredom—that’s the point of employing a director, a guide, a writer, a performer—to compress the experience so that it is memorable, informative, and perhaps, entertaining.

Tidbits from the NY Times panel: “VR film is not a shared experience—each audience member brings his or her own perspective”…”the filmmaker must let go of quick cuts, depth of field, and cannot control what the viewer may see”…”how do we tell a story that may be experienced in different ways by different people?”…”there is far less distortion imposed by the storyteller”…”much of what would normally be left out is actually seen and heard in VR.”

In some ways, letting the viewer roam around and reach his or her own conclusions is both the opposite of journalism and, perhaps, its future. In an ideal sense, journalism brings the viewer to the place, but that never really happens. Is it useful to place the viewer in the observational role of a journalism, or does the journalist provide some essential editorial purpose that helps the viewer through the experience in an effective, efficient, compelling way?

Is all of this a new visual language and the first step toward a new way of using media, or a solution in search of a problem?

After a very solid day of listening to panelists whose expertise in VR is without equal, I left with a powerful response to that question: “who knows?”

Jenny Lynn Hogg, who is studying these and related phenomena, might know. “Imagine if the Vietnam War Memorial could speak.” Take a picture of any name on the wall, and your smart phone app will retrieve a life story in text, images, video and other media. Is this VR, AR, or something else? Probably not VR, not in the sense of the upcoming Oculus Rift VR headset, but probably AR, or Augmented Reality. What’s that? In essence, turning just about everything we see into a kind of QR Code that links real world objects with digital editorial content. Quicker, more efficient, and more of a burst of information that a typical web link might provide, AR is often linked to VR because, in theory, they ought to be great friends. As you’re passing through a VR environment, AR bits of information appear in front of your eyes.

Although AR was less of a buzz than VR, I think I could fall in love with AR—provided that I could control the messages coming into my field of view, I really like the idea of pointing my smart phone at something, or someone, and getting more information about it, or him or her.

VR, not so much, at least not yet. I’m not enthralled with wearing the headgear—even if it reduces itself from the size of a quart of milk to the design of Google Glass—but that’s not the issue. VR is disorienting, a problem now being deeply researched because the whole concept requires that your perceptive systems work differently. I certainly believe VR is worthy of experimentation to determine VR’s role in storytelling, journalism, gaming, training, medical education, filmmaking, but mostly, to discover what it’s like to be there without being there. We’ll get there (which there? oh, sorry, a different there) by playing with the new thing, trying it out, screwing up, finding surprising successes, and spending a ton of investment money that may, in the end, lead to a completely unexpected result.

Through it all, sitting in that beautiful building, I couldn’t help but wonder what its original inhabitants would have made of our discussion—people who were already gone by the time we invented digital, Hollywood, radio, television, the movies, the internet, videogames and, now, virtual reality. Wouldn’t it be fun to bring them back, to recreate their world, to allow me to walk down Third Avenue in 1900 and just explore? Yup. Fun. And in today’s terms, phenomenally expensive. Tomorrow, maybe, not so much.

 

 

 

In the future, we’ll watch TV

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.26 AMSure, there’s been a lot of hubbub about how television has changed and will change, but I think the conversation is over-rated. For seventy years, people have watched news, sports, comedies, dramas, movies by pressing a button and staring at a screen. We’ve added stereo, color, lots and lots of TV channels, on-demand viewing. Ask the average person about the revolution in the television industry and they’ll tell you that that they thought The Tonight Show was kind of funny last night. They probably would have said the same thing in 1954.

What has changed is the industry that provides the programs. Once, there were three or four. networks Now, the number is uncountable because nobody’s sure how to classify Netflix, YouTube, or HBO NOW. Kudos to Pamela Douglas for trying to make sense of a very messy industry. She wrote a book—a very good book, in fact—entitled The Future of Television: Your Guide to Creating TV in the New World. We got to know one another, and talked about why she took on such an impossible project, how she approached the subject matter, and what she learned along the way. I should explain that Professor Douglas works at USC, that she has done her share of writing for prime time television, and that she is the author of a popular book entitled Writing the TV Drama Series for the same publisher (Michael Wiese Productions, a publisher also active in the production world).

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.34 AMMoving from the old world of traditional broadcast networks through hybrid innovators including cable networks then into the new world of internet services and alternative funding models, she covers the waterfront. There are interviews with knowledgable leaders from Netflix, Kickstarter, HBO, and other companies whose work matters a great deal in 2015.

I knew she was on the right track when I read this sentence, part of an interview with longtime Writer’s Guild executive Charlie Slocum: “…some writers are introverts and they don’t want to deal with all the people who are production managers, accountants, location scouts and so forth. Fine, so partner with a producer who loves all that and doesn’t have the patience to sit down with a blank page. That’s the path to being an entrepreneur in a partnership.”

He goes on: “On broadcast, the priority is to be similar….The classic example…what they have on at eight they hope is compatible with what they have on at nine so they keep the audience. It’s audience flow programming strategy.”

And here’s the important point that informs not only the conversation, but the whole book: “…individuals pay for HBO and Netflix. So if your base is subscribers, your goal is to have as many different subscribers as you can. That means when you have one show like House of Cards, you want the next show to be as different as possible [italics mine]…On subscription TV the goal is to get as many different people as possible to be happy to pay the monthly bill. One series, maybe two, can lock you in for the whole 12 months.”

The strategy comes to life in a conversation with Dan Pasternak of IFC. “…our brand is silly and smart. Our tagline is ‘Always On. Slightly Off.’ I said let’s not try to be Comedy Central. Let’s not be Adult Swim. Let’s program content that feels uniquely like IFC. So one of the first shows I helped to develop was Portlandia. And fortunately it became brand-defining.”

(In the 2010s, brand definition is the major challenge for every cable network, and every subscription service. It’s the most effective way to rise above the competition.)

He goes on: “(Portlandia) doesn’t belong anywhere else. Sketch comedy has evolved in the era of the digital short. Essentially each episode of Portlandia is eight little movies. But it’s really one unified perspective, voice, look, and feel.

The philosophy that drives an IFC is vastly different from the strategy that drives NBC’s prime time schedule. Often—and this is the reason why Pam wrote the book—it’s about the writer’s vision. That’s confirmed in her interview with HBO’s Michael Lombardo, who explains, “HBO starts with great writing. There’s no cheat to it…that has been our mania since early on.”

In the new world, the starting place is Netflix. Pam writes, “My writer friends and I love Netflix because it provides (a) place for our best work. But this isn’t our first romance. At the dawn of the 21st century, we were sweet on HBO for Oz and The Sopranos; in the first decade of the century, we had a big crush on AMC for Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Now we welcome Netflix into the second decade.

If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re beginning to understand why Pam wrote the book. It’s all about the writing, the stories, the characters, the writer’s vision, and, of course, a place for all of that creative energy in a well-defined marketplace.

Netflix’s Ted Sarandos: “It’s about the product. Netflix was the only way to see House of Cards.”

So that’s the key for the subscription services—the only place to watch. This is a vastly different strategy from the one employed by A&E or TBS in order to achieve their current success (they used reruns to build audience).

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.21 AMNowadays, most cable networks are coming to the same conclusion: their future is going to be defined by original programming (scripted and unscripted, both have their place), and by events (which tend to work only sometimes, in part because they’re expensive and also because they’re difficult to construct with any frequency). So there’s the conundrum for the deeper future: as each cable network, and each subscription service, develops and markets their own unique programs, the audience becomes that much more fragmented. The pie slices become smaller, the ability for any individual player to make an impact becomes that much more challenging.

If you’re a cable programmer, or you’re responsible for one of the growing number of subscription services, your job relies upon your ability to generate programs that can be seen and heard above the crowd. If you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, you now need to understand the nuances of the programming marketplace in ways that were never required in the past. Everything is more complicated. And it’s not.

In the end, nothing has changed. A writer has an idea, pitches it, somehow survives the development and production process, and connects with an audience. That fundamental formula has been around for a century (longer, if you dig back to the days when John Wilkes Booth was widely known as one of America’s most popular stage actors).

The message: be a diligent student, but spend most of your energy dreaming up great stuff.

A Spectacular Thousand-Year Journey

Wayfaring StrangerEvery once in a while, I’ll catch an episode of The Thistle & The Shamrock on a public radio station. Seems to me, the show has been on forever, but I’ve never thought much about the program’s title. Of course, it refers to music from Scotland and from Ireland, but that’s a very small part of the story that its host / producer tells in her new book, Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. (From the start, I should point out that this is a fabulous book, a work deserving of all kinds of awards and many quiet hours of reading accompanied by many more spent listening, preferably to live music.) In fact, it’s not just Ms. Ritchie’s book: storytelling and scholarly research duties are shared by an equally talented music lover, Doug Orr, whose Swannanoa Gathering is, among many good things, the place where the idea of the Carolina Chocolate Drops took shape: “they have helped revive an old African American banjo tradition that was fast disappearing.”

The authors of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.

The authors of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.

Beginning in the 1600s, long before America became a nation, there was an African American banjo tradition in Appalachia. Mostly, the musicians were slaves brought to America to work on the plantations.  The “banjar” evolved from stringed instruments played in West Africa, and eventually became known as the banjo. The instrument lost its luster when it was adopted by musicians performing in blackface in minstrel shows. That’s why the old African American banjo tradition found itself in need of revival.

Of course, the term “minstrel” is rooted in a much earlier tradition. They were dancers, mimes, jugglers, wrestlers—all-around entertainers who wandered Europe, from backwoods village to royal court. By the time Christopher Columbus voyaged to the new world, that minstrel tradition was fading. By 1700, minstrels were hard to find, but the idea of a traveling musician, accompanying himself (sometimes, herself) on a stringed instrument (very portable) was taking hold. It was enabled by new technology: the printing press. Broadsides (single sheets) were printed, then sold. They covered news and opinion, and often, featured lyrics to songs meant to be sung by groups of people in public, for fun. The most popular type of song was the ballad: “a narrative poem that tells a story meant to be sung.”

TED Talk—actually a performance—by Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. Another link in the chain.

TED Talk—actually a performance—by Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. Another link in the chain.

The serious journey begins in the North East region of Scotland known as Aberdeen. Separated from the rest of Scotland (and England beyond) by the Cairngorms to the west and the Grampian Mountains to the south, its culture was much affected by sailors who came across the North Sea from Scandinavian, Nordic and Germanic people; the trip was only a few hundred nautical miles, less than the distance from Aberdeen to London. Although this history is more than 800 years old, some of the music survives, not as museum pieces but as traditional repertoire in the Appalachian hills of the U.S., in Ireland, in Scotland, and on my stereo system. Often, the fiddle (imported to Scotland from Italy) was the instrument of choice because it was portable and versatile—but it was not without controversy (by the time it reached the Appalachians, some Baptists called it “the Devil’s instrument.” There are so many styles of fiddle playing, each broadly associated with a region: the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, Highland fiddle and its kin heard on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, which would be the Acadian fiddling that makes its way down to New Orleans with the corruption of the term Acadian now called Cajun.

“Connecting hollow bones and sticks to an animal bag…” begins in primitive times. Nero played the bagpipes. It’s been traced back to early Egypt, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, and India, used by shepherds and herdsman who had easy access to the necessary materials. The troubadours of France and the minstrels of the Middle Ages made bagpipes part of the traveling show. “By the 15th century, the bagpipe had displaced the harp (!) as the instrument of choice especially in its role as a call to battle.”

The trail of connections extends over an extremely wide portion of time and space. These contemporary Swedish musicians play on the nyckelharpa and harp. The connection between Sweden and North Carolina is, perhaps, not so far as anyone might think.

These contemporary Swedish musicians play on the nyckelharpa and harp. The distance between Sweden and North Carolina may not be so far after all. Click to watch a performance video.

About 8,000 years ago, people began traveling the narrow channel between Scotland and Ireland. Of course, they brought their music along. “Common language, common culture, the whole fiddle tradition, and the whole music tradition is all very, very similar and connected. The history and the geography have all played a part in it. You know the shamrock, the rose and the thistle—meaning the three—England, Scotland, and Ireland—all contribute to what we know call the Ulster song tradition…,” explained Irish traditional singer and song collector when he was interviewed by the authors at the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina.

Some had heard of the land far across the Sea of Green Darkness, the Ocean Sea, the Western Ocean, the Sea of Perpetual Gloom. Some knew of the early Viking passages to to Vinland, now Newfoundland. In 1717, Ulster Scots (Scots who had migrated to Ulster) were beginning to migrate to Boston, and in 1729, the first Highland Scots were arriving in Cape Fear, North Carolina. In 1745, Andrew Presley travels from Aberdeen to North Carolina; 190 years later, his family tree would include the birth of Elvis Presley. In 1768, James Ritchie and his five brothers set sail from Liverpool and eventually settle in Tennessee, North Carolina and Texas; in 1922, Appalachian singer, song collector and scholar Jean Ritchie is born to a branch of the family well-established in southeastern Kentucky. In the 1770s, Doc Watson’s Scottish ancestor Tom Watson leaves Edinburgh for North Carolina. As they travel, and when they settle, they sing melancholy songs about parting ways with the family left behind, sing about the hardships and the good times. Parts of their stories are reassembled by the song collectors who travel to learn them by heart, write the songs down, perform them, and record the elder folk before they, and the memories, pass.

DIVI077The authors have done just that, and so, in their way, have Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and dozens of others whose names may be less familiar. But the authors have accomplished more. They’ve managed to weave a very complicated story together, a saga of migration and evolution, Viking travels and minstrel shows, song fragments that survived for nearly a millennium, wonderful artists from Scottish poet Robert Burns to Kathy Mattea. There is so much love and passion for the history, the music, the instruments, the people, the land. There’s a CD bound into the back cover so you can hear the music, with every track explained in fascinating detail. There are dozens of handsome full page photographs that provide a sense of the land, plus illustrations of the instruments. Every time I wanted to know more about an interesting concept, I’d turn the page and find a very comprehensive briefing on, for example, “The Ceili, or Ceilidh” (a social event with music that originated in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in Scotland and Ireland); the dulcimer; “Child ballads” (Scots and Irish ballads classified by Harvard Professor Francis James Child, and often referred to by their numbers). I had never heard of The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. but now I understand its importance. Before Ellis Island, Philadelphia was the American point of entry for most immigrants from Ulster. They’d travel this early highway west and then south, ferrying across the Susquehanna River to Winchester, Virginia (home of Patsy Cline) and the Shenandoah Valley and on to the Yadkin Valley terminus in North Carolina (think in terms of today’s Boone, NC); Daniel Boone extended the trail to what became the Wilderness Road out to Kentucky’s Cumberland Gap.

When I first noticed this book, I figured I’d learn something about music history. Certainly, the authors covered that territory with great skill. That was only the starting point. I’m reminded that there is no such thing as music history, just as there is no such thing as art history or political history. Everything is intertwined. It’s an unbroken circle.

Here’s a good look at a sample spread. On the left, several string band instruments with a story of a North Carolina mill owner whose factory was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. He hired a local musician to entertain employees during breaks and picnics. Apparently happy employees were less likely to unionize. These days, the town is home to the Swannanoa Gathering, a large festival and workshop celebrating Scots, Irish and traditional music. On the right is Mike Seeger, who “dedicated his life to singing and playing southern traditional mountain music…He discovered and assisted many old time musicians."

Here’s a good look at a sample spread. On the left, several string band instruments with a story of a North Carolina mill owner whose factory was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. He hired a local musician to entertain employees during breaks and picnics. Apparently happy employees were less likely to unionize. These days, the town is home to the Swannanoa Gathering, a large festival and workshop celebrating Scots, Irish and traditional music. On the right is Mike Seeger, who “dedicated his life to singing and playing southern traditional mountain music…He discovered and assisted many old time musicians.”

 

 

Return of the Teacher

uc-book
Scott McCloud is on my short list of heroes. If you work in media, or education, or you’re curious about storytelling, you should read Scott’s book, Understanding Comics, at least once every five years. And if you happen to notice that he’s speaking nearby, change your plans and spend the hour watching his on-stage presentation (he posts his schedule here). During the past several years, Scott has been phenomenally busy—we’ve gotten to know one another a bit. He’s been writing, drawing and otherwise building a rather massive graphic novel (487 pages long) called The Sculptor. This is one of those one-person creative enterprises that completely dominates a professional life, where the plan is clear but the day to day execution becomes a kind of parallel universe. It’s a remarkable life: to be completely wrapped up not only in story but in visualization, too. No other medium demands this level of commitment from an artist, and no other medium affords so much creative control.

ScottIn book, lecture and conversation, Scott McCloud has taught me a lot. But it’s one thing to be a teacher and another to be the creator of the material. The expectations become unreasonably high. The student wants to see every lesson incorporated in exquisite elegant prose and picture. The story must be perfect. The storytelling, better than perfect.

His new book is not perfect. That’s an unreasonable demand. It is a very good book, well worth the $29.99 cover price (a lot for a graphic novel) and the two-and-a-half pounds of paper and binding (it’s a heavy book, both physically and metaphorically).

At the start, we meet the character pictured on the cover, the plainly-named David Smith, an artist who seems to have burned out early, speaking with his favorite uncle, Harry. They’re sitting in a coffee shop. David is miserable. His life is not working at all. He says, “My dreams keep growing, Harry, even while my options keep shrinking. It’s like they’re demanding that I make them, demanding to be seen, demanding to exist…and now I’m scared that I’ll never finish a single one.”
sculpt-bookAs David tells his story, the evidence of Scott’s visual storytelling skill propels the sense of reality. There are extreme close-ups and wide streetscapes, frames without dialog that communicate more than those with words, and an interesting isolation technique in which David is fully inked against a world that is rendered only in sketch form. There’s a girl, of course, an angel of sorts, and as in the second act of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, a difficult-to-fathom big city art scene (Scott and Stephen wrestle with some similar themes.) Main character David tells us that he hates parties and by extension, the whole scene, but those pages are among Scott’s very finest: a crowded multi-page sequence where you can feel the energy of a noisy large-scale party and the frustration in coping with the idiots who won’t leave you alone while you’re trying to keep some girl within your visual range, while you’re trying to chase her before she’s gone forever. (Gee, he does this well!)

In time, the world becomes malleable. David, the sculptor, can sculpt whatever he wants. He can reshape roads and bridges. He shouts, with truthful glee: “I am the master of the universe!” Physically, that’s true, and the graphic novel form is ideal for showing us what he can do. It’s not long before he reshapes everything in sight, and becomes one of our most prolific artists (the process is astonishingly fluid, and fast). The room is filled with sculptures of giant hands, strange totem poles, the girl (a girl, that girl, which girl?)—unbelievable creative output! But along the way, his soul may not emerge intact—a deal with the devil that every creative person somehow encounters and, to some extent, masters (or doesn’t). He may be running out of time—another deal with the devil (in this case, Uncle Harry).

If you’re getting a sense that Scott’s latest work is cinematic in the scope of its story and deeply personal in a way that only a hand-drawn graphic novel can be, then I’m interpreting what he did with a degree of accuracy. Sure, there are scenes of sex and violence, trippy explorations of time and space curving around one another, gut-wrenching sadness, extreme anger (nothing like a graphic novel to screech and blast anger with words, pictures, abstractions). And a ticking clock—actually, a ticking calendar marking the number of days that David has left in his life. Or so it seems. There’s no requirement for closure—the book is more interesting because it doesn’t quite lend itself to a complete understanding of what happened or why. It takes about two hours to read, maybe three, and after complete immersion, your mind is likely to be so connected to David’s mind, it’s okay to think in terms of possibilities, not a singular ending.

photo-texasFor me, that’s the treat, same as reading Understanding Comics, same as watching Scott lecture, same as spending time with him. We’re living in a world filled with stories and ideas, and clever ways of communicating. If it’s all as simple as A-B-C, then the magic isn’t so magical. Life’s more complicated than a straight series of logical events—and that’s the beauty of a well0-crafted graphic novel. No shopping mall cinema audiences to satisfy with a clearly articulated happy ending. No need for extreme helicopter crashes or uncomfortable explosions punctuated with graphic violence. The story can be personal, it can be told by a single storyteller (provided the storyteller is willing and able to spend several years writing and drawing his epic), and it can be somewhat nonlinear. With that, a reader’s note: do it in one day. That is, find yourself a good stormy day, turn off the cell phone, and just lose yourself. Don’t think too much—just allow the storyteller control your mind for a few hours. We do this for movies all the time—with this book, you don’t want to disengage. You want to pay attention, and grab the ideas as they’re unfolding, then return to study the craft. Last weekend, I read the book. Today, a Saturday, I returned to study the construction of the visual sequences, the use of characters, my favorite scenes and how they were put together.

My next step: start recommending The Sculptor by Scott McCloud to others. That process has now begun.

Unknown

 

Watch, Smile, Watch, Read

Brawley GirlfriendThis is going to take about fifteen minutes, but I think it’s worth the time.

First, you’re going to watch a very nice music video that was shot with Olympus’s just-announced OM-D E-M5 Mark II (several of them, in fact). It’s a fine piece of work by DP John Brawley. It’s here.

Second, you’re going to watch a making-of video.  It’s a behind-the-scenes video with a music track, so you can see what he did without getting lost in the details. It’s fun to watch, and it’s here.

Finally, read the detailed article about Mr. Brawley’s impressions of a camera that he likes very much. If you’re intrigued by the video potential of the still cameras, this essay will help to clarify your understanding of the state of the art.

It isn’t often that a creative professional reveals his process so completely—and so joyfully! It’s a fun read—and don’t be surprised if you go camera shopping immediately afterward.

Enjoy!

Beyond the Decisive Moment

Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson was one of the great photographers of the 20th century. Best known as a prolific street photographer (for whom color was a commercial concession, not an aesthetic option), HCB’s life story is no less compelling than his lifetime of images. His career and personal commitments were well-described last year at an extensive exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Happily, the exhibition has been packaged as a coffee table book by Clément Chéroux and published by Thames & Hudson. It’s expensive ($75) and it’s worth the money, in part because Mr. Chéroux curated the 2014 exhibition.

Students of photography associated HCB with “the decisive moment. Just as Martin Luther King (okay, “MLK”)’s life work far exceeds the brief period of his “I Have a Dream” speech, Cartier-Bresson’s infatuation with the precise instant when a photograph ought to be made is only part of an expansive range of artistic and journalist expression.

Born in 1908, Cartier-Bresson grew up in a comfortable Parisian household; the family owned a large cotton and thread manufacturing company. 1908 was also the year that, in England, Robert Baden-Powell published “Scouting for Boys” to support his new progressive approach to education known as the Boy Scouts. The organization’s combination of an active life for boys, with ample freedom and discipline, was a good match. At age 14, as a Scout, Henri began to experiment with photography, but only as  hobby. The family’s plan for Henri was all business—he was sent to the best schools so he could, sometime, lead the large family business. Of course, things didn’t work out as planned. Instead, with the blessings of his family, he studied art. Mostly cubism. Which he found “boring” because it was “too systematic.” He preferred the more expansive world view offered by surrealism. In October, 1930, by now free from both his formal education and military service, Cartier-Bresson followed Europeans curious about “the Dark Continent.” He spent nearly a year in Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroon, the French Sudan, Togo, and along the Niger River, he photographed children on the streets and people at work—avoiding the exotic and tribal imagery, just focusing on the day-to-day. Over the next few years, his casual interest in travel photography became a passion, then, a career. He traveled to, and photographed street activities in, Paris, Marseilles, Milan, Florence, Sienna, Trieste, Madrid, various parts of Mexico, and more.

Along the way, he learned by copying the styles of Eugene Atget (streets of Paris, store windows); European photographers intrigued by the geometry of city life (mostly); the golden section that is key to classic composition; various less-than-compressible surrealistic sketches and distortions. In time, he worked out his own style. Before he turned 30, he had created enough distinctive images to display his work in a successful exhibition.

The story becomes more interesting as HCB moves from travel photography and street work (often one and the same) to work with a more specific purpose: often, related to his attachment to the ideals of Communism. Stories of the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini, and the utter transformation of Europe are among the best stories—supported by some of the best images—in this book. He becomes concerned about poverty and tells his visual stories so they will provoke attention. He attends to the facial expression and behavior of crowds, often ignoring (and needing to caption) just what they are looking at. He documents free time—a relatively new idea in 1938 France, at least for the working class—and this is probably my favorite selection of his work. For example, a Sunday on the banks of the Seine from that year:

sfmoma-hcb-03-near-juvisy-1938

In truth, what I love about this book is the arc of the creative story. It begins with a smart teenager who decides he likes art and photography better than college and business, who grows up quickly as he travels and makes stunning pictures. Then, he finds his political and social conscience, and plays a very active role, using his photography as a very effective tool. Then, he realizes that his political affiliations will become a career problem, so he co-founds Magnum, a journalistic photo agency with Robert Capa and several other extraordinary photojournalists, and becomes one of LIFE magazine’s active contributors. Then, he explores topics that interest him: the growing connection between people and machines (a project for the IBM of the 1960s, for example), icons of power (very powerful—and decidedly odd—image of a giant Lenin in front of the Winter Palace in Leningrad as a man and his small child stroll in the foreground), and the ways that crowds behave. And then, in this 60s, he begins to slow down, to take images that are more focused on the feeling than the moment. And he begins to draw, picking up on something he loved to do as a child. He visits art museums, and spends hours sketching great works. He takes pictures of the family with his legendary Leicas. It’s a lovely life story, wonderfully punctuated by his pencil on paper self portraits from 1987 and 1992. One of the better free bios on the web is here. And there are a lot of smaller books filled with specific HCB projects that you can find on Goodreads, along with the compendium Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image and His World, also from Thames & Hudson.

Henri-Cartier Bresson was born in August, 1908 and died in August, 2004—he lived, and documented, the better part of a century. And nobody did it better.

On the left, a picture of an American woman in 1947. On the right, “Giant Effigy of Lenin” from 1973.

american_woman-and-lenin

 

 

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