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Archive for June, 2010

Advertisements are a nuisance.  The giant ones plastered on billboards and buildings all over major cities – those are eyesores.  However, in the new short documentary “Up There,” director Michael Murray may have just articulated a compelling reason for their existence.

“Up There” follows a group of commercial painters as they work on an ad campaign for Stella Artois.  Their livelihood — hand-painting giant pictures on the sides of buildings — has been decimated by the ubiquity of hanging vinyl ads, which are cheaper, quicker, and less dangerous to put up.  Factoring in competition from electronic signage, it’s easy to understand why these guys are a dying breed.

If you’re like me and thought it’s been decades since advertisements were painted on buildings, you’ll need to start reexamining the advertising that towers over you.  Look at the glass of beer against a brick façade.  If you didn’t know, Would you ever guess that someone painted that?  That it isn’t just a massive photograph hung up there?  The idea of a couple of guys suspended high above New York City on ropes, painting only a few square feet at a time, is like pointillism a la Gulliver’s Travels, with Lilliputians on platforms gradually completing a work of art that will ultimately dwarf them.  As one of the painters in “Up There” observes, it’s actually like what Michelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel.

It’s already a bit surreal that we treat our buildings as if they were rock formations to carve messages into, or naked landscapes begging to be clothed.  Seeing it happen is even weirder, and the film evokes a startling amount of sympathy for these painters and their impressive, totally-ignored craft.  The story is almost heartbreaking and the work is amazing.  Sure, it’s just advertising; but for all the gaudiness of huge commercial images, somehow these don’t make my eyes sore.

– Stephen Reader

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The first thing that comes to mind when you think of the jazz piano are probably smoky late night bars and cool cats in fedoras.

But would you think of quilting?

Jason Moran does.  Along with critical acclaim for his technique, this jazz innovator is gaining recognition for his more avant garde compositional sensibilities, taking inspiration from unlikely sources, including modern art and ballet.

Moran was recently commissioned to write a suite for “The Architecture of the Quilt” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an exhibition celebrating the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

Last week, Moran visited Studio 360 and played one of his songs for the exhibition, “Blue Blocks.”  He explained to Kurt how he composed the tune by re-imagining the striking colors, patterns, and shapes in the quilts.

Quilters of Gee's Bend, Alabama

We’ll broadcast more of Kurt’s conversation with Jason Moran soon.

– Britta Conroy-Randall

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(Photo by Flickr user Axel Bührmann)

The 2010 World Cup is in full swing. And while the eyes of the world are trained on South Africa, not everyone in the host nation is sold on the event.

On this week’s show, South African novelist Marlene van Niekerk was in to discuss her new novel Agaat. But she and Kurt also got to talking about the Cup and she said, unlike many South Africans, she’s not convinced it’s benefiting the country.

You can hear more of Kurt’s conversation with van Niekerk here.

– Britta Conroy-Randall

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Last week, Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery announced that they’d be commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Miles Davis’s singular fusion album Bitches Brew with a beer of the same name. In addition to being “the ultimate partner for chili or spicy curry chicken,” Dogfish founder/president Sam Calagione suggests it pairs well with the actual album. Bitches Brew will be released in August to match the timing of Columbia’s re-releases of the classic album.

Really, no one came up with a “Bitches Brew” until now?  Dogfish’s creation of a beer to celebrate the anniversary of a beloved cultural icon got me curious about how common the phenomenon really is. New Yorkers will know that Brooklyn Brewery’s Pennant Ale came out five years ago to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers’ only World Series title. And West Coasters remember that San Francisco’s Anchor Brewery came up with its well-known Liberty Ale to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride.

And sure enough, 2010 has already seen the release of a number of hilarious commemorative beers – and it’s my pleasure to share three of them with you:

1. In Astoria, Oregon, two local brewers joined forces to celebrate of the 25th anniversary of The Goonies. Filmed in Astoria, the movie is an iconic adventure flick that involves a pack of kids, a trio of hapless criminals, and a race through a series of booby traps to reach an ancient pirate ship filled with treasure (which the kids hope will save their parents’ home from foreclosure). The resulting commemorative brew is the Truffle Shuffle Stout, which indeed contains some black truffles but is actually named after a hilarious scene from the movie.

2. The Canadian Navy is celebrating their 100th birthday this year, and as part of the nation-wide tribute, the Vancouver Island Brewery released the Sea Dog Amber Ale. Although the private brewery created and distributes the beer, the name of the ale and the images on its packaging were chosen by a committee of Navy personnel. And while the Canadian Navy discontinued the traditional daily rations of rum in 1972, Navy Commander Tony deRosenroll assures us that “we have never lost our taste for the amber ale.”

3. And the award for Most Puzzling Commemoration goes to: The Olde Peninsula Brewpub in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which released its annual iteration of the Tornado Ale this May to “celebrate” the city’s devastating 1980 tornado. The twister ravaged downtown Kalamazoo, destroying many of the city’s landmarks– including a portion of the building which now houses the brewery. Doesn’t seem like the kind of occasion you’d want to toast, but compared to Kalamazoo’s second most interesting historical event (the establishment of the nation’s first outdoor pedestrian shopping mall)… bottoms up!

Cheers,

– Becky Sullivan

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Two years ago, celebrated jazz pianist Fred Hersch was in the throes of a life-threatening, A.I.D.S.-related dementia.  He’d been living with H.I.V. since the mid-’80s – but when the virus spread to his brain, he suffered hallucinations, paranoia, and fell into a coma.

Perhaps the only thing more miraculous than his survival was his recovery.  Two months later, he came out of the coma, but ultimately had to re-learn how to eat, how to hold a pencil, and eventually how to play the piano.  There’s not a trace of those setbacks on his new record.

Whirl is Hersch’s first outing with his trio (filled out by bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson) since before his hospitalization.  Yet the characteristic expressivity of his playing remains unchanged: Hersch’s technique is always understated, personal, and beautiful.  These compositions employ a certain Bop melodicism articulated with the same delicate charm as Erik Satie’s early piano works.  McPherson’s drums are a quiet force on the record as well, darting along tight, acrobatic lines that barely ever rise above mezzo forte.  At times he unmoors himself from the tempo, lending an even more airy quality to Hersch’s piano, which already sounds as if it’s floating somewhere above your head.

“Skipping” is the most energetic and appropriately-named cut on Whirl.  It finds the band bouncing across meters with a lightness and ease that makes every transition seamless.

[AUDIO=http://audio.wnyc.org/studio/Blog062310_FredHursch.mp3]

Hersch stopped by Studio 360 back in 2002.  He told Kurt how the concept of harmony works across a variety of forms of expression: from music, to visual art, and even design.

– Stephen Reader

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Benjamin Walker in the title role of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" (Photos by Joan Marcus)

Part history lesson, part satire, part blood bath — a lovely night at the theater, no? “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” (now up at New York’s Public Theater) is a singing, dancing, punk-rocking rollick through the 7th presidency by Les Freres Corbusier, a company that delights in re-imagining well-known historical figures. They’re known for turning said figures on their heads and, in this case, winning some of the highest praise of the season doing so.

This Andrew Jackson is the opposite of what you learned in high school. He’s bold, haughty, fearless, and damn cool. One moment he’s conquering the West. The next he’s mouthing off to the stuffy clowns running Washington. Sure, his politics are complicated: we see Jackson battle, befriend, buy-out, and ultimately displace Native Americans (all in cartoony slapstick). We also see him strain under the weight of popular rule — the ideology on which he rose to power.

Not to be underrated is the pleasure of sitting in a theater transformed into a hipster, steam punk hunting lodge: chandeliers and baubles hang from the ceiling, taxidermy litters the walls — including an entire horse at the end of an aisle!

After passing 100 performances, the show has to close this weekend. There’s buzz that it could move to Broadway — which would be great, of course, I’m all for inventive and timely musical theater getting a big audience. But there’s something about this larger-than-life world that reads so well when it’s bursting at its own seams. Just like the upstart for which it is named, the show rings truest when it’s resisting The Man — we can’t help but be cynical when Jackson becomes just that.

UPDATE (7/15): “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” will, indeed, rock Broadway beginning September 21, 2010.

– Jenny Lawton

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This weekend saw the opening of “I am Love,” an Italian film directed by Luca Guadagnino and starring Tilda Swinton (performing in Italian). It’s beautiful to watch, but what’s really exciting is how beautiful it sounds.

Pulitzer prize-winning composer John Adams is the source for the film’s sublime score. Ranging from urgent minimalism to modern romanticism, it perfectly reflects the unraveling of the Recchis, a Milanese family in crisis. The score may sound familiar to you: it’s comprised of nine previously released works, including the gorgeous “Desert Chorus” from the opera The Death of Klinghoffer and the aria “Some Men You Cannot Satisfy” from Act III of Nixon in China.

As it happens, Adams was initially reluctant to sign on to the project. It took star Tilda Swinton years to persuade him to do it. Lavish, bold and passionate, Adam’s opera scores ultimately seem like the perfect and only match for a film Swinton calls “a kind of opera in the cinema.”

– Britta Conroy-Randall

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