Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Things I like: Bluegrass music

My musical upbringing was all over the place. An Iowa-born father and west coast mother brought the music of those two arenas together in our household. Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard intermixed with The Fifth Dimension, The Mamas and The Papas and Elvis. Growing up in small town Iowa, I was sheltered from more rebellious art forms like punk, so instead was exposed to a heavy dose of Kasey Casem Top 40 on my little transistor radio. Teen years ... New Wave, Duran Duran, The Police. In college, I finally got outside of the confines of programmed radio. Ministry, Skinny Puppy, Prong, Front Line Assembly and the real coming out party for college radio: REM, U2, The Smiths, Joy Division, The Pogues. Just as I was graduating ... Nirvana, Pearl Jam.

As I've gotten older, I still listen to most of those things but have developed a real appreciation for the most original of those American musical art forms: Jazz, Folk, and Bluegrass. Once you start listening to the older music, you understand that most of the later music that you like was greatly influenced by what came before. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were just giving their interpretations of American blues music. Country music largely derived from bluegrass, gospel, folk and blues. Now, I can't really stand what is now called country music, save for those few acts that seem to understand where it all came from.

I'm by no means a historian, but I know what I like listening to and my recent fascination with bluegrass music spawned from a singular angelic voice, that of Alison Krauss. Those elements of bluegrass that I most like and that comprise most bluegrass is the vocal harmonies, and the great instrumentation of the banjo and the fiddle. And you get that in spades with Alison Krauss and Union Station.

I understand the real progenitors of bluegrass were players like Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and I have listened to them, but they're probably a little too old school for even me. I prefer Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill, the music of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the college age groups like The Punch Brothers:

The Punch Brothers are unique in that they are ostensibly playing bluegrass but their song structure are more classical. Mandolinist Chris Thile's earlier band, Nickel Creek, is also very good.

Bluegrass is not for everyone, but I dig it. It may seem like hillbilly music, and to a large extent it is, but to write it off as such would be selling it short. There's a lot of history of our country in those sounds and many other places that originally influenced it, including Africa, the UK and Ireland.

Next up, tomorrow: Philosophy

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Things I like: Science Fiction

For regular readers here, this is no surprise. And I mean that I like science fiction in all its flavors: books, movies, TV, graphic novels. And it doesn't even have to be great science fiction. I've said this before, but I believe that even bad science fiction has merit. This is because even the worst science fiction is trying to make a point or send a message. It may fail miserably, but it's still trying.

Science fiction is allowed to address important social and political issues that traditional genres would not be able to without being considered preachy. Most recently we saw this with Battlestar Galactica, addressing torture, fundamentalism and terrorism, among other things.

My early beginnings in sci-fi were the novels of Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. As I got a bit older, Larry Niven became probably my favorite hard sci-fi author. It might be cliche, but for a brainy and shy teenager, the escapism of science fiction was one of the few things that brought me solace and joy for those tough years.

In my adult years, I gravitated to the cyberpunk of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. But, I'm still discovering authors that are fantastic, like Greg Bear and Iain M. Banks, and fantasy authors like Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman.

Obviously, as with all males of my age, one of the most formative experiences of my youth was seeing the original Star Wars movie. In those days, there was no Internet, no DVD's, and VCR's really weren't prevalent yet. Going to a movie theater and seeing something like Star Wars was an indescribable experience. It's so indelible that I remember that it was at a drive-in in Salem, Oregon and we watched it in the back of my folks Jeep.

It was through Star Wars, Blade Runner, the Alien movies and the books of my youth that my interest was cultivated. The 70's and 80's were, however, NOT the heyday of science fiction on television. You had the original Battlestar Galactica (which may prove wrong my theory of all science fiction having merit) and Space 1999, both unintentionally campy and embarrassing. I had no exposure to Doctor Who until I was in college. It's really just been the last 15 years or so that science fiction has come into it's own through things like the X-Files, the Stargate shows, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, the new Doctor Who, and many other shows. Something that was often an afterthought in programming now has a channel dedicated to it (SyFy) and just about every traditional network has at least one program that could be considered science fiction.

I just don't find issues of science, philosophy, consciousness, religion, the environment, war, etc. being addressed in such an entertaining manner as I do in science fiction. I don't read a lot of fiction, but when I do, about 75% of it is science fiction.

Top 5 favorite science fiction/fantasy books, no particular order: Dune, Lord of the Rings, Snow Crash, Neuromancer, Contact

Top 5 favorite science fiction movies, no particular order: 2001, Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Matrix, Children of Men

Next up, tomorrow:  Bluegrass music

Monday, June 06, 2011

Things I like: Chess

Over the years, I've immersed myself in both the mythology and history of chess, which is endlessly fascinating, but also the actual playing of it. I probably own about 100 books on arcane chess theory and have went through entirely too many of them.

The main reason that I started reading so much about chess theory was that as a teenager I was tired of my dad handing me my ass on a plate every time we played. He'd never studied chess but is much more of a natural chess player than myself. Learning some theory helped me to level the playing field a bit.

An upcoming documentary on HBO on Bobby Fischer was what got me thinking about chess again. Fischer, a nut job and possessing of unforgivable opinions on many things in the real world (Jews among them), was, nonetheless, a genius and probably the best chess player of all time. Both his play and his unusual life made for great drama and the documentary should be interesting. Another movie that delves into Fischer, but more tangentially, is Searching for Bobby Fischer. It's the true story of chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin. It's a great movie with a nice cast: Joe Montegna, Joan Allen, Laurence Fishburne, William H. Macy and Ben Kingsley.

For all my interest in chess, I don't play a lot. The wife knows how to play but usually does not want to. My ingrained competitive nature does not make for an enjoyable leisurely game for her. My son seems to be developing a similar interest in chess and tries hard.

I'm not sure what fascinates me so much about chess. It's not a game or sport in the traditional sense. Chess prodigies have more in common with math and music prodigies than those that excel in other games.

The rules are relatively simple but the possibilities are endless. You could play all your life and never master it. Maybe that's what attracts me ... chess as a metaphor for life.

"That's what Chess is all about. One day you give your
opponent a lesson, the next day he gives you one." -- Bobby Fischer

Next up, tomorrow, Science Fiction

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Things I like: Modern Design

I'm going to start a new series of posts about the things I like. Nothing necessarily deep, but rather an idea, a concept, a movie, an artist, whatever, that I like. One a day for as long as I can stand it. I'm not going to overthink them. I'll just pick something and riff on it for awhile. Too often I use my blog to complain about something ... and that's definitely necessary and not something I'm going to stop ... but it's important to talk about those things we have a positive view of also.

Of course this seems incredibly narcissistic. Why, you would rightly ask, would anyone really give a shit what I like? And I would answer ... wait, I don't really have a good answer to that. Ultimately, it's an exercise to encourage me to write more often. Through exploring what it is in daily life that I truly enjoy, I might better use my time.

First up is Modern Design

And by Modern Design, I mean that architecture, art, furniture, etc. that rejects tradition. I'm certainly not an expert in any of those but I know that I really like the modern architecture as demonstrated in the works of photographer Julius Schulman and the design of architects like Wright, Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry. I like the furniture designs of Eames. Of course, I can't afford either. My tract home with Ikea furniture is a far cry. But the names aren't the point. The aesthetic is the point.

Modern Design appeals to be because of the practicality and functionality, especially as it pertains to sustainability. It's the classic "form follows function". In my own life, I try to get to what is essential and get rid of the clutter. We spend every day wasting time and money with those things that are not really essential to us.

My interest probably started with my interest in Frank Lloyd Wright. Growing up, my family lived in Oregon for a time and some friends of the family were architects. And they designed very much in the Wright style. I was hooked and well into high school, I thought I'd go to college for architecture, but life and finances derailed me into the more generic engineering. But, my interest never waned. Some day, when money is no object, I'll have that modernist house and that Eames chair:

For the 2nd year in a row, I'll be going out to LA for the Dwell on Design show. We go out to LA a couple times of year anyway because of having relatives in Manhattan Beach but the show is a compelling reason for me to go out at that particular time. We're hopefully going to get to the Getty Museum as well.

I've subscribed to Dwell Magazine for several years and it is a great source for ideas on modernist design.

Next up, tomorrow: Chess