Category Archives: Music

“I am Om”

Occasionally, I perform under the DJ Techné moniker. My latest track, “I am Om,” is about finding inner peace in a world that often feels disconnected and sick. The vocal clips are from Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders (from Coltrane’s Om), the Dalai Lama, Louis Armstrong, and MLK. It is available for free download, here, or have a listen below:

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Some Notes Towards the (im)Possible: 3D Printing a Turntable

3D printing, which is also known as additive manufacturing (AM), uses successive layers of material under computer control to create 3D objects. The technological sphere of 3D printing is a space that excites futurists, scientists, engineers, inventors, pragmatists, and digital humanists. Given the relative infancy of this technology, it remains a truly improvisatory space where ample play (and a fair dosage of frustration) unfold in the process of creating and printing 3D objects.

Improvisation is the force by which we maintain the human, and yet it also foreshadows where the technocratic future will take us as we head further onto the ledge of the possible, or as jazz artist and creative icon Sun Ra writes, the impossible: “The possible has been tried and failed; now I want to try the impossible” (qtd. in Szwed 192). It is in imagining the impossible that we can create futures that at one time seemed only imaginable. There are concerns that 3D printing—which futurologist Jeremy Rifkin refers to as a third industrial revolution, following the production line—could replace the work of people, among a list of other concerns, such as unhealthy air emissions, a reliance on plastics, gun control loopholes, and 3D printed drugs. While these concerns need to be taken seriously, what I find particularly exciting about 3D printing is its relative accessibility, affordability, and the potential to inspire users to view themselves as creators and innovators.

In terms of pedagogy, 3D printing has enormous potential, and by introducing the technology into schools we can shift the paradigm of how young people view innovation and manufacturing. That is, we can get young people to see themselves as innovators, scientists, and futurists from an early age. The DJ in me sees a continuous loop of remixed potential, as users can control their own manufacturing as they see fit, printing household goods and responding to the enormous crisis of climate change by making conscious decisions to use biodegradable PLA plastic filament in printers like the MakerBot.

At the Innovation lab at the VIU Cowichan campus, we’ve printed a number of 3D printed prosthetic hands, which speaks to the massive potential of the emergent technology of 3D printing. Organizations like the Open Hand Project and Enabling the Future are reminders that technology can greatly improve the lives of those who are missing hands and arms and it can do so at a fraction of the cost. While 3D printers are not cheap (starting at around $1000), the material (filament) to print objects is incredibly inexpensive, which can lead to thousands in savings in terms of prosthetics or other printed objects such as instruments.

Case in point: Schools could print 3D ukuleles for less than half the cost of a traditional ukulele and have students assemble them, simultaneously learning two crafts. Working with the 3D printers at the Innovation lab at Vancouver Island University’s Cowichan campus presented an opportunity to print a hand-cranked turntable using an existing template—an appropriate meeting of the old world dialoging with the new. During the process, working alongside my work-op student Sam, who is truly an equal collaborator (and the creator of the video below), we utilized two 3D printers: MakerBot 3D and Lulzbot TAZ. You learn as you go, as there were challenging moments where printing suddenly stopped midpoint, or where we hadn’t heated the bed properly, or where we chose the wrong filament for printing. Through trial and error, and by making slight modifications along the way, we successfully printed a hand cranked 3D vinyl player.

Below is a video showcasing the process that eventually led to the finished and functional model. The fact that the completed player contains different colours than in the time lapse video speaks to the challenges of correctly printing a larger and multipart 3D object (especially when you are learning the technology). The video also puts a number of objects into juxtaposed conversation. For example, in the second part of the video we’ve chosen the backdrop of a pond with moving water to contrast the mechanical movements in the first part. You might also notice other objects that function as visual metaphor, such as a biography on inventor Alexander Graham Bell, or Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production.

The choice of the Billie Holiday record was twofold: one, the record was already scratched up and so the further damage our sewing needle stylus would inflict would be fine; and two, its initial pre-digital recording and iconic sound provides a useful reflective space to think about how recording technologies and musical performance borrow from the past while suggesting new ways forward. That is: the past and the present are constantly speaking to one another. In addition, the music in the video, which I composed under my DJ Techné alias, is mixed, cut, scratched, distressed, mashed, and recontextualized largely from fragments of different Louis Armstrong recordings (taken from vinyl in real time), and functions like the Poundian maxim to “make it new.”

While these juxtapositions create some cognitive dissonance, they suggest that experimentation is about finding new ways to understand the social contexts of cultural practice and production in relation to new technologies. At its best, 3D printing and other forms of digital engagement can help us understand technologically based learning, and provide critical tools for pedagogues both within and outside the walls of academia. While the final result is a 3D turntable that looks far better than it sounds, it is important to remember that it sounds at all. It sounds a kind of way forward, which for us, involves an echoing back as we decide where we want to go next. We hope you enjoy the video.



Works Cited

Szwed, John. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Pantheon, 1997.
Print.

Special thanks to George Farris and Sally Carpentier for their technical support and encouragement through the process.

Beyoncé in X “Formation”

I’m currently teaching the Autobiography of Malcolm X in a few formats, including the original text, the Spike Lee Joint, and a graphic biography rendition. It’s great to see his notions of “Black is Beautiful” (à la Steve Biko) and “By any means necessary” reach millions vis-à-vis Beyoncé’s charged Super Bowl performance. The performance, which featured dancers dressed as Black Panthers getting into the “Formation” of an X (an icon of identity, resistance, and the human right for self-identification), was a fervid Black Power anthem and a call to arms. The video for the song, “Formation,” is itself a resonant intervention into the popular imagination concerning the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and it unapologetically celebrates roots and history while disavowing white supremacy’s desire to control Black cultural narratives. It’s remarkable to see the intersection of aesthetics and politics taking place in popular music, as a nascent canon of new Black radical thinkers, activists, writers, and musicians provide the soundtrack for the current zeitgeist. Hopefully, people are listening. I leave you with a few words from X’s influential “The Ballot or the Bullet”:

“Now in speaking like this, it doesn’t mean that we’re anti-white, but it does mean we’re anti-exploitation, we’re anti-degradation, we’re anti-oppression. And if the white man doesn’t want us to be anti-him, let him stop oppressing and exploiting and degrading us. Whether we are Christians or Muslims or nationalists or agnostics or atheists, we must first learn to forget our differences. If we have differences, let us differ in the closet; when we come out in front, let us not have anything to argue about until we get finished arguing with the man.”

Check out the video for “Formation” below:

P.s. I’ve kept this post brief, largely because there are women of colour far more equipped to discuss why this video is so important. Here’s a list of “Six Beyoncé Pieces By Women of Color That You Should Read Right Now”: http://ww2.kqed.org/pop/2016/02/08/six-beyonce-pieces-by-women-of-color-that-you-should-read-right-now/

Top 5 Records of 2015

There was a lot of great music released in 2015. I could easily compile a list of the 50 Best Albums of the year, but instead I am keeping things simple and mentioning the 5 albums that made the deepest impact on my listening last year. If the list was longer, it would include such fantastic releases as Jamie xx’s In Colour, BadBadNotGood and Ghostface Killah’s Sour Soul, Panda Bear’s Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, Four Tet’s Morning/Evening, Max Richter’s Sleep, and Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld’s Never Were the Way She Was, among many others. Here’s the list of my 5 favourite albums of 2015 with a selected track from each record.

5. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear

Josh Tillman’s second release under the moniker Father John Misty tells the story of his courtship of his wife, Emma. This is a really fun record that reads like one long self-reflexive joke that we are let in on. This album is all about juxtaposition, placing caustic irony beside blunt declarations of love.


4. Kasami Washington, The Epic

For those of us who listen to jazz, it’s exciting to see how the genre is being taken in new directions. Last year’s You’re Dead! by Flying Lotus drew on the spiritual jazz of Alice and John Coltrane to the progressive jazz fusion of Weather Report to the humourous and cosmic tones of Sun Ra. Kasami Washington’s The Epic, also on Lotus’s Brainfeeder imprint, builds on that format in a three hour jazz odyssey that digs deep into the past and pushes forward as a kind of generational intervention. The Epic features a 10-piece jazz band with augmentation from a string section and a full choir and holds its own with the best of fusion records. This is consciousness-raising music and it is getting lots of spins over here.


3. D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah 

14 years after the critically acclaimed Voodoo, D’Angelo returns with the militant, powerful, and funky Black Messiah. The album is incredibly layered with murky vocals, unsettled grooves, and fuzzy guitars, with deep roots in rock, funk, jazz, and gospel. It’s an album that recalls Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 funk album There’s a Riot Goin’ On. An unbelievable comeback record from D’Angelo.


2. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stevens’s beautiful Carrie & Lowell has been on repeat in our house since its release. The songs on the album are inspired by the 2012 death of his mother, Carrie, and the family trips they took to Oregon in Stevens’s childhood. For me, this album is up there with Seven Swans and Illinois. This album is Stevens’s most personal and mature and it is also his most stripped down record, which allows his abilities as a songwriter to shine through.


1.  Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly provides an Umwalzung—that is, revolution—through a complete overturning of prior mainstream hip-hop album templates, as Lamar enacts one of the most ferocious black chants ever to appear on a hip-hop record. The album’s unforgiving blackness is important, because it reminds white listeners that sometimes we need to sit down and listen to the conversation that is taking place rather than try to control or shape it. This is art and music that is both relevant and functional, showing that you can make music that is both rhetorically powerful and aesthetically pleasing. Without a doubt, Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is my favourite release of 2015. It certainly restored a lot of my faith in mainstream hip-hop. As David Jeffries puts it, “To Pimp a Butterfly is as dark, intense, complicated, and violent as Picasso’s Guernica, and should hold the same importance for its genre and the same beauty for its intended audience.”

DJ Phoenix (my son) getting into the mix. #DJPhoenixDailyRecord
DJ Phoenix (my son) getting into Lamar’s powerful record. #DJPhoenixDailyRecord

 

 

#DJphoenixdailyrecord: January

Along with the complex smell of spices from my wife’s cooking, a steadfast in our home is the warm sound of vinyl records: beautiful, and at times crackly, orbs of sonic prophecy. Over the years, I’ve collected nearly a 1000 records in all genres. Last April, we were gifted with our son Phoenix who will be 10 months old this month. Given I’ve been playing records and dancing, or playing, with him every day before or after work, I thought it would be nice to document the process (for a whole year) on my Instagram account (http://instagram.com/thevinylprofessor) with the hashtag: #DJphoenixdailyrecord. I’ll post a recap of the photos for each month here, but if you have Instagram, you can follow along daily at: http://instagram.com/thevinylprofessor

January 2015:

IMG_0636 IMG_0637 IMG_0638 IMG_0639 IMG_0640 IMG_0647 IMG_0645 IMG_0646

Jan. 3: Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill
Jan. 4: Wu-Tang Clan, 36 Chambers 
Jan. 5: Sufjan Stevens, Seven Swans
Jan. 6: Ramin Djawadi, Game of Thrones Soundtrack
Jan. 7: Caribou, Our Love
Jan. 8: Black Star, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star 
Jan. 9: Fela Kuti, Gentleman
Jan. 10: Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
Jan. 11: Vampire Weekend, “Diane Young” and “Step” (45)
Jan. 12: Bob Marley and The Wailers, Legend
Jan. 13: Tom Waits, Blue Valentine
Jan. 14: Esmerine, Aurora
Jan. 15: Charlie Parker, Boss Bird!
Jan. 16: The Smiths, Hatful of Hollow
Jan. 17: Flying Lotus, Los Angeles
Jan. 18: Boards of Canada, The Campfire Headphase
Jan. 19: Blue Swede, “Hooked on a Feeling” (45)
Jan. 20: Nirvana, Nevermind
Jan. 21: The Delfonics, “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide from Love)” (45) paired with The Fugees, “Ready or Not”
Jan. 22: Thelonious Monk, Monk’s Dream
Jan. 23: Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison 
Jan. 24: Max Roach Quintet, Conversation 
Jan. 25: Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes
Jan. 26: Krafwerk, TransEurope Express
Jan. 27: Afrika Bambaataa and The Soul Sonic Force, “Planet Rock” (RSD glow-in-the-dark vinyl)
Jan. 28: Bob Dylan, Greatest Hits
Jan. 29:  Snoop Doggy Dogg, Doggystyle
Jan. 30: Freddie Hubbard, Sky Dive
Jan 31: Paul McCartney, Ram

Featured Image is of Phoenix, the day after he was born. 

On Lower Frequencies: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

“Who knows but that on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
-Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man 581

Set primarily in 1948 tumultuous America, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is an evocative novel that deals with black identity, technological manipulation (Afrofuturism), social disillusionment, racial oppression, and invisibility. More broadly, the novel concerns individuality, tracing the numerous ways we sound our identities within political or communal networks. In the novel, an unnamed black man embarks on a Dantean journey from the South—where local white men mock him in the infamous “Battle Royal” scene and offer him a scholarship to a black college—to the basement streets of Harlem where the narrator finds a new brand of racism and where everyone he encounters, whether white or black, has an idea of who he is and what purpose he can play in their destiny. Invisible Man, which appears as one of the 100 Best English Novels (Time), is, as Lev Grossman wrote, “far more than a race novel, or even a bildungsroman. It’s the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century.”

Although published in 1952, Invisible Man remains as pertinent as ever, particularly against the recent backdrop of race riots and social unrest in Ferguson and all too frequent incidents of racial profiling, often with dire consequences as in the cases of Oscar Grant III and Trayvon Martin; within a Canadian framework, the novel’s theme of invisibility heartbreakingly relates to the general invisibility of First Nations people, specifically the disappearance and murder of Indigenous women. Beyond its continued relevance, Invisible Man remains controversial for its honest depiction of racist America, as well as its voyeuristic sexual content, particularly the story of incestuous rape told by the signifying blues singer, Jim Trueblood. In fact, last year the Randolph County School Board voted to remove Ellison’s novel from its library shelves. Aside from the graphic content, abstract language, and historical scope of the novel, Invisible Man is also a difficult novel to teach because of its sheer size—a robust 581 pages.

Yet it is for all these historical reasons and challenges that I recently taught Invisible Man and will continue to do so. In a course structured around Sonic Afro-Modernity and Social Change we used the theme of sonic Afro-modernity (a term that comes from theorist Alexander G. Weheliye) to examine how Ellison’s interplay between sound technologies (the phonograph) and Black music and speech produced new modes of thinking and becoming, particularly allowing for new ways to engage with identity, temporality, and community.

Ellison’s Invisible Man opens with the unnamed protagonist getting into the “grooves of history,” listening to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” on the phonograph—locating the music’s aura, as Wehelyie argues, “not in the original musical utterance but in the mode of mechanical reproduction itself, making him one of the foremost intellectual architects of sonic Afro-modernity” (47). Ellison’s unnamed narrator states: “Now I have one radio-phonograph; I plan to have five. There is a certain acoustical deadness in my hole, and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing ‘What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue’—all at the same time” (7-8). Ellison’s choice to foreground Armstrong’s performance of “Black and Blue” (initially composed by Fats Waller) in the prologue to his circulatory text highlights how one articulates one’s historical somatic experience through the performance of identity.

The surreal hallucinatory episode of listening to the nodes of music via Armstrong’s own listening and discord of identity (with the aid of some reefer) becomes the act of improvised identity-performance for the narrator. The Invisible Man’s reimagining of the performance through a recorded performance—with a desire for simultaneous recordings—is the “authentic act” (in the non-authentic sense: that is, the performative nature of identity resists closure), where the grooves take the narrator inside and outside of history. Ellison—like a DJ mixing records to navigate a murky topology—creates a “mix” and becomes an innovator of “sonic Afro-modernity.” I use this example to show how there can be a politics at work in the DJ’s mixing (that “the mix” can articulate the layered nature of history, identity performance, and racial politics), and to emphasize that the DJ mix—certainly for Ellison—is an act of citizenship.

Through music I was able to index many of Ellison’s signifying strategies and show my students how identity—much like community and society itself—is a process that is always changing. As Ellison writes in his work Shadow and Act, “because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it” (234), suggesting that Black identity, or any identity formed within improvising principles, is continually in process. Hence, jazz and, more ubiquitously, improvisation are about finding alternatives to dominant modes of being, which is why Ellison’s nightmare of living as a black man in America is also filled with possibility and hope.

There are moments when we realize (along with the narrator) that freedom can be as simple as walking down the street in our own skin proudly displaying our cultural heritage. For the narrator that comes in one moment (there are others) where he eats a cooked, syrupy yam on the streets of Harlem: “I walked along, munching the yam, just as suddenly overcome with a sense of freedom—simply because I was eating while walking on the street” (Invisible 263-64). No longer compelled to hide his Southern Black identity, the narrator ponders the connection between food and identity, feeling a profound sense of self-determination and autonomy—a sense that comes with progressing forward while simultaneously embracing, confronting, and remixing the past.

In this way, Ellison’s novel is prophetic (and Afrofuturistic): it speaks of change and resistance while acknowledging the cyclical nature and echo effect of oppression. History, as a metaphorical record, is distressed, scratched, and in need of a DJ (and an audience) to make it sound. Ellison, as a sonic architect, is an early progenitor of Afrofuturism: a movement that lets us know where we’ve been (from griot traditions and Egyptian pyramids and astronomy) to tell us we are going (mixing culture, technology, liberation, and imagination). As Afrofuturist Ytasha Womack writes of the movement, “It’s a way of bridging the future and the past and essentially helping to reimagine the experience of people of colour” (Guardian). Combating visions of tomorrow that view blackness as the failure of progress and technological cataclysm, Ellison shows that through the manipulation of technology, Black culture actually helped create modernity and notions of subjectivity, temporality, and community. History as remix, as a cyclical boomerang, allows Ellison to dig into the crates of the past to explore and expose the effects racism has on both victims and perpetrators.

Invisible Man deals with an entire “unrecorded history” (471) that is open for (re)interpretation and (re)examination, particularly by and for those groups of people who were once relegated to historical footnotes. We are thus challenged, as Robin D. G. Kelley argues in Race Rebels, to “not only redefine what is ‘political’ but question a lot of common ideas about what are ‘authentic’ movements and strategies of resistance” (4). Politics, as a “history from below” (5), also functions by what Kelley defines as “infrapolitics” (8), a term he uses to describe the circumspect struggle waged daily by subordinate groups who function beyond the visible spectrum. It is from “the lower frequencies” (581)—those subtonic bass notes—that the unnamed narrator (as a representative of the oppressed) continues to speak to a contemporary North America still recovering and living with the legacy and malaise of slavery, reformulated in some respects, under the guise of capitalism. Under this lens, we cannot trivialize contemporary acts of resistance by political youth movements like Occupy, Idle No More, or the Egyptian Revolution (2011, Tahrir Square), which effectively connected various people and global media outlets together to enact change—however grand or relative in scale and action. The recent First Nations Idle No More movement was the result of legislation (most directly Bill C-45) introduced by the Harper government, which violated treaty and land rights. Again and again: the record of history continues to spin.

Ellison’s Invisible Man remains a multifarious DJ mix of apposition and amalgamation. We encounter characters that personify actual historical figures like Booker T. Washington, Emerson, and Marcus Garvey and cultural references and influences that include Dante, Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, Melville, and Louis Armstrong. It is in this mixing, between Western classical and Negro Folk traditions (Shadow 190) that Ellison creates a polyphonic dialogue, displaying that Black music, literature, and culture are never fixed or stable, but rather layered and complex: the novel, like Brother Tarp’s chain, “signifies a heap” (388). Invisible Man matters because race and culture still matter. On a more global level, especially in the age of information and censorship, art still matters.

Reading (and making space to teach Invisible Man) remains an act of allowing one’s own identity position to be moved by the lower bass registers of sound. We are called to listen to those deemed to be on the lower registers of society. Ultimately, identity and, by extension, community involve the precarious act of yielding to others’ voices, which is at the crux of genuine multiculturalism and, often, interesting literature. I have an original first edition of the novel (3rd printing) and I can only imagine how people felt reading the novel for the first time in 1952. As I leaf through its taupe and textured pages, I realize that in spite of much change in terms of citizenship rights in North America, many of the power structures in the novel remain entrenched in our current society. When we finish the novel, a long endeavour, we (as the narrator does) are challenged to leave our holes of hibernation, “shake off the old skin and come up for breath […] even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play” (581). The landscape might have slightly changed, certainly our understanding of the world via technology has, but our responsibility to make the world a better place remains as pertinent as ever. No wonder the highly visible want the book taken off the shelves.

Works Cited

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International Edition, 1995. Print.

—. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964. Print.

Kelley, Robin D. G. Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class. New York: The Free Press, 1996. Print.

Weheliye, Alexander. Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity. Durham: Duke UP, 2005. Print.

Sex Mob Plays Fellini

Sex Mob is a New York City jazz group, which initially began as a way to feature the slide trumpet of leader Steven Bernstein. Since then the band, as Bernstein’s website states, has developed an overarching mandate: “to put the fun back in jazz music.” The band is comprised of Bernstein on slide trumpet, Briggan Krauss on alto sax, Tony Scherr on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums. The group first formed in the 1990s as part of a residency at the Knitting Factory, and their early material consisted primarily of Bernstein originals. That changed when Sex Mob played Bond Themes as part of an evening of film music, such as “Goldfinger” and “You Only Live Twice,” which eventually culminated in a 2001 album, Sex Mob Does Bond. To Bernstein’s surprise the crowd went wild, and Bernstein realized that the audience was more in tune with their adventurous music if they could recognize the tune. And so their songbook expanded to feature everything from Prince, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, to The Grateful Dead, and even the “Macarena,” although you’ve never heard the “Macarena” like this before.

The guiding principle to their song selection is that the tune would have to be recognizable enough that it could withstand some serious compositional and improvisational destruction. The group still plays many Bernstein originals, although their sets now feature a great deal of covers given a humorous, yet sophisticated avant-garde reworking. As Bernstein unapologetically states in Jazz Asylum, “I realize that’s what jazz musicians have always done. That’s how Lester Young got popular; it’s how Charlie Parker got popular; it’s how Miles Davis got popular; that’s how John Coltrane got popular. They played the songs that everyone knew and because they could recognize the song, then that invited them into their style.” In many ways Bernstein is right, as the jazz tradition has always included space to take familiar songs and reassemble them with your own unique spin.

Since their 1998 debut, Den of Inequity, Sex Mob has released a diverse oeuvre of radical, yet accessible material. Their 2000 release, Solid Sender, continues their bold prewar jazz spirit through another mix of covers, everything from Nirvana to ABBA, with a dose of Bernstein originals. The same year saw the release ofTheatre & Dance, part Duke Ellington compositions and part Bernstein originals written for a renewal of the 1926 Mae West play “Sex.” Sex Mob continues to defy expectations, and their 2006 release, Sexotica (Thirsty Ear) is a homage to the soundscape of Martin Denny (the “father of erotica”), receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.

Their latest release, the 2013 Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti (Sex Mob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota), contains Sex Mob’s idiosyncratic arrangements over Nino Rota’s memorable scores. The title comes from a quote from Italian director Federico Fellini, who said, “My films, like my life, are summed up in circus, spaghetti, sex, and cinema.” The same could be said of Sex Mob’s exuberant music. Sex Mob Plays Fellini, like their earlier albums, will certainly offend jazz purists. I assume that’s part of the point. Love or hate their brashness, Bernstein summarizes the Sex Mob ethos as about having fun: “Jazz used to be popular music. People would go out to clubs, listen to the music, go home, and get laid. Simple as that. We’re bringing that spirit back” (All Music Guide). Sometimes it’s nice to simply get lost in the music, dance, and go out and enjoy la dolce vita.

Call for Papers: “Cyphers: Hip Hop and Improvisation”

I am guest-editing a special collection of essays on Hip Hop and Improvisation. The Call for Papers is below.

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Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation invites submissions for a special issue with the theme “Cyphers: Hip Hop and Improvisation,” guest-edited by Rebecca Caines and Paul Watkins. This special issue of CSI will draw together artists and academics to investigate the crucial role improvisation plays in the international field of Hip Hop, and in the related field of critical Hip Hop studies. We seek contributions from artist/practitioners and from scholars working across the disciplines.

Derek Bailey’s notion of improvisation as being the most practiced, yet the least understood, of all musical activities, is particularly pertinent to the immense and constantly burgeoning field of Hip Hop praxis from around the world. Although most scholars are aware of the integral nature of improvisatory practices in Hip Hop, few critically explore how improvisation is a viable form of analysis in Hip Hop, as well as a model for social change. Improvisation plays a central role in African-American, Hispanic, and Caribbean based Hip Hop practices in the US, and continues to be a core element in Hip Hop music, dance, and visual art across the globalized forms of this interdisciplinary art practice. We encourage contributors to pursue new conversations, interventions even, about how we think of improvisation vis-à-vis the larger milieu of Hip Hop. Critical academic essays are encouraged, and the editors also welcome for consideration artist statements, commentaries, reviews, interviews and experimental textual forms. We intend to showcase a variety of live artist performances and invited papers at a launch event for this Special Issue. CSI/ÉCI encourages the submission of audio and visual content to accompany texts. It is the responsibility of the author to ascertain copyright and gain permissions.

Potential topics include:

• How do Hip Hop artists combine idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvisation in their work?

• What artistic, social, and economic pressures face Hip Hop artists who foreground the improvisatory in their work?

• How does improvisation in Hip Hop reflect, develop, or contrast the social practices and pressing political issues of the communities in which it appears?

• What role does improvisation play in the creation of academic disciplinarities and “Hip Hop pedagogies” both inside and outside educational institutions? How might the ubiquity of improvised DJ performances inform knowledge formation, and provide critical tools for pedagogues?

• How does scholarship in Hip Hop studies respond to the improvisatory nature of the practice?

• What role does improvisation in Hip Hop play in the recontextualization of cultural and intercultural identity?

• How do Indigenous communities across the world improvise, translate, transform, and indigenize the US form of Hip Hop arts practice?

• Since Hip Hop has often traditionally been described as “noise” by many conservatives and academics who uncritically profile Hip Hop artists and fans of all genders, races, and classes, might dissonance compel us to think about how disruption can function as a model for critical practice?

• How are the five primary elements of Hip Hop—dance (notably breaking), urban inspired art (markedly graffiti), deejaying (turntablism), beatboxing and emceeing (rapping)—negotiated under improvisatory practices and amalgamations?

• In what ways are orality and textuality (what we might think of as recording) tied to Hip Hop and how might either form limit or broaden the art?

• Houston A. Baker Jr. argues, poetry, like rap, is intended to be a “disruptive performance […] as an audible or sounding space of opposition” (Rap 96). In what ways are Hip Hop and poetry related?

• What are the relationships between technology, accessibility, and Hip Hop culture?

• How do DJs improvisationally rework archival material that is often dormant, thus creating new repertoires from the past?

• While misogyny is bigger than Hip Hop, we welcome papers that explore how gender is improvised and performed in Hip Hop.

Submissions should be 4000-6000 words (shorter essays may also be considered at the discretion of the editors). Please submit completed essays to the journal website by April 16, 2014. Information on the submission process and examples of previously published work can be found at www.criticalimprov.com. Inquires can also be directly made to csi-eci@uoguelph.caCritical Studies in Improvisation/Études critiques en improvisation is an open-access, peer-reviewed, electronic, academic journal on improvisation, community, and social practice housed at the University of Guelph.

Cypher photo by AFP from here.

Improvisation as an Act of Faith

On December 6th, Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (ICASP) presented a symposium (“Spirit(s) Improvise”) on improvisation and spirituality. “Spirit(s) Improvise” brought together distinguished scholars, musicians, and spiritual practitioners to explore the relationship between improvisation and spirituality. One of the primary questions asked was how can improvisation and spirituality, broadly defined as frameworks through which people imagine and enact alternative ways of being in the world, contribute to our understandings of imagination and creativity, community and space, and transcendence and hope?

Held at and co-sponsored by the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, the well-attended event sparked animated conversations and debates about the relationship between improvisation and spirituality from a variety of perspectives: musical, political, social, and theological.

For speaker bios and abstracts, click here.

Below are some photos from the event.

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Gerard Yun (Music, University of Waterloo) and Luke Burton (Wilfrid Laurier Unviersity) “Beyond Traditions: Yogic Chant and Shakuhachi in Contemporary Improvisation.”
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Ajay Heble introduces the keynote speaker.
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Anglican Priest, Jamie Howison, delivers a keynote entitled, “Improvisation as an Act of Faith.”
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There were lots of engaged questions from the audience.
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Lauren Levesque (Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice, University of Guelph), “Protest Music Performances as Methodological Frameworks for Re-envisioning Engaged Spirituality: Implications for Improvisation.”
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The event concluded with a fully improvised performance.
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David Lee.

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Adapted from a write-up by  Lauren Levesque.
All Photos by Paul Watkins.

DJ Techné, Dedications

I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants. You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you’re doing, even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.
-Thelonious Monk

Techne Banner

Lots going around on pauldbwatkins.com (Riffings) these days. You might have noticed the new look to my website. It’s still a work in progress, but take a look around. The other big news is that I’ve finally finished my DJ project, DedicationsDedications is an experimental jazzy hip-hop remix project born out of a love of listening to records. The album mixes, mashes, samples, spins, cuts, signifies, rhapsodizes, poetizes, layers, collages, remixes, breaks, distresses, archives, remakes, reshapes, and re-edits pieces of recorded history to create a sonic audio homage to a host of musicians and styles with a nod to the avant-garde. There is a lot of poetry on the album because, as a literary scholar, I have also always understood that poetry is musical, and that music is poetical.

Dedications takes various phonogrooves (from jazz, hip-hop, and spoken word, to unusual recontextualized samples) and mélanges them together to create polyvalent dedications to a host of musicians and poets. If you listen closely you will hear William Blake (with Archie Shepp), Sun Ra, Glenn Gould, Pharoah Sanders, Ravi Shankar, Inspectah Deck, Jack Kerouac, Ella Fitzgerald, The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Charlie “Bird” Parker (with Ontario songbirds), Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane (with Michael S. Harper), Louis Armstrong (with Gwendolyn Brooks), Fats Waller, Earl Birney, the poetry of The Four Horseman, Tom Waits, John G. Diefenbaker, Ginsberg reading Howl over Horace Parlan’s keys, A Japan Airlines record chopped up, Thelonious Monk accompanied by Amiri Baraka, MF Doom, and Mutabaruka dubbing over The Zombies, among a myriad of other sounds, samples, echoes, and cuts. At times I add a live-recorded layer of chant, singing bowl, or beatbox. I played almost all the drums on an MPC, and most of the samples are recorded live from vinyl. If I made a mistake in a recording, I usually embraced it as part of the process.

In short, I hope you enjoy the album. It is available for streaming below, or for free download (name your price), here.