Sunday, April 26, 2009

Revelations, and More

The Alvin Ailey Company kicks up some spirit ...

Let me say first that I don't dance myself, personally. I have in fact a long history of not-dancing, stretching all the way back to elementary school when they tried to teach us a wooden fox-trot in Phys Ed class. Not even the advent of rock and roll got me moving, despite some abortive practice sessions in a sort of alley between portable school buildings. Perhaps the closest I have come was participating in some "creative movement" classes with local dance diva and gestalt therapist Poldi Orlando.

However, my own ineptitude only increases my appreciation of those to whom bodily movement is an expressive language that surpasses words and music. For example, when is the last time you can remember the audience giving a standing ovation at the intermission in a performance of anything? That's one measure of how much we were pleased by last weekend's performance of the Alvin Ailey Company at the Ziff Opera House in Miami.

The work that produced this enthusiasm was not even one of Ailey's own pieces but rather Festa Barocca (2008), choreographed by Mauro Bigonzetti. There was plenty of meat for the whole cast to get its teeth into, as the various movements, all set to the music of Handel, progressed from ensemble to solos and duets and mixed pairs.

It was a visual feast as well, with gem-like colors and dramatic but understated lighting. Everyone was in skirts, and let me just add that it takes a real man to wear one with the panache exhibited by these guys. On the men the style evoked the sarongs favored in the South Seas, and allowed them to experiment with costume manipulations normally reserved for prima donnas.

After the aforementioned standing "O" and a pause to stretch, the program resumed with Solo (1997) by Hans Van Manen. Interestingly, this piece was danced in turn by three of the men despite the name. It also provided some light, almost comedic, relief as the dancers experimented with a variety of ways of entering and leaving the stage.

The finale was reserved for Ailey's landmark work, Revelations (1960). This piece, which has received the honor of a permanent endowment for its continued performance, manages to encapsulate the entire history of the African diaspora. From the opening tableaux, in which the wing-like arm motions of the dancers manage to evoke both ocean waves and the flight of the spirit, it evolves through suffering and sin to joy and redemption.

I also noted how the dancers were using even their fingers to communicate with us -- a dozen dancers, two dozen hands, one hundred and twenty fingers all splayed and individually visible.

At the end, after another ovation got us to our feet again, the cast went into a reprise of the final number, "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham," this time with our clapping added to keep the time. I feel sure the opera house has never rocked like this to Puccini. Somebody say Amen!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The View from Down South

What President Obama probably did not see on his visit ...

Those of us who live in the complacent affluence of the United States of America often find it hard to remember that we share the continent with a different United States, Los Estados Unidos de Mexico. Though increasingly entwined with this poor relation both economically and culturally, we scarcely give a thought to the lives and struggles constantly going on south of the border.

Confronted with the problem of immigration, both legal and otherwise, we are content to consider thousand mile fences as a possible solution, and to look the other way when Texas vigilantes decide to defend their own property the old fashioned way, at the point of a gun.

We need someone like photo-journalist John Sevigny to be our eyes and ears, as well as our conscience. John, whom I've known since he was born, used to cover Mexico and the American border towns for the Associated Press. He learned his Spanish on the streets, and his Mexican wife says he speaks it "like a thug." Now he's out there on his own, snapping the shutters of his film-loaded non-digital cameras to capture the sights, the faces, the textures, and very nearly the smells of that "other" America that supports us like an overloaded beast of burden struggling under the weight of a bloated master.

As you can see for yourself on his photo-blog, Gone City, he has walked the tracks and dusty roads, descended the stairs into basement brothels, traced the passage of the migrating poor, recorded the faces of the lost, the abandoned, the homeless, and those who simply survive. All of this is done with the sensitivity of Steinbeck and the unflinching gaze of Walker Evans -- and I think also a touch of Jack Kerouac's love for what he called "the fellajin," the good natured simple souls who just slug away at living and do the best they can. If ever anyone has captured an image of the hooker with the heart of gold, it is probably to be found in these pages.

Some years ago he traveled to a small Mexican town to interview the families of some migrant workers who had died as they tried to get across the border. His purpose amazed the people there -- no one from the USA had ever expressed an interest in anything but drug smugglers before. It is just as true today as it was back in the 1940's when Woody Guthrie wrote his song about it that such people, when they die, are "called by no name but Deportees."

Recently John's interests have turned back to Florida, where he comes from, because of the increasing incidents of slave labor here affecting workers largely from Mexico. That this issue has raised its ugly head again within miles of our homes is a powerful reminder of how intimately our nations are bound together, and how culpable we are in our ignorance and negligence.

So I'm glad to note John Sevigny's updates as they come in like postcards from the edge. They keep me in touch and remind me, as we all should be reminded, to remain human. Buena suerte, amigo. Keep up the good work.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Message Received

I think I must look like someone who is looking for a spiritual message, because people keep giving them to me. Last year, for instance, something reminded me of my grandmother's rosary, then two days later a rosary arrived in the mail, prompting me to explore the history and use of this religious artifact. What are the odds?

Several years ago I had a brief meeting at work with a carpenter about possibly doing some work for our company. Apparently giving him my business card was enough to get me added to his Christmas card list, because for the next two years I received cards from him that were beautiful reproductions of early Renaissance triptychs, with little paper doors that opened up to show the inner panels. Even though they are Catholic images I have kept them atop my piano because they're just too good to be thrown away.

One day I was helping one of my coworkers with her computer when I noticed a Biblical chapter and verse on a little note attached to her monitor. That sent me to look it up because I was curious what was so important to her that she would want to be reminded of it every day.

Sometimes on Saturdays we are visited at home by the Jehovah's Witnesses, those quiet and earnest people whose main concern seems to be giving their good news to as many people as possible. I used to just smile at them and say "thanks anyway" before closing the door, because there was no need to be rude. But now I have a grandchild who likes to talk about God and doesn't get the chance often enough. On his behalf my wife has invited the Witnesses to sit on the porch and show him their pretty pictures of paradise on Earth, while she stands by to make sure he doesn't get the wrong idea.

What do I mean by that? Well, for example, there is a long leap from saying God loves you to saying that the world is only six thousand years old. While the first statement can be considered at least metaphorically or poetically true, if not literally, the second is so patently false that it drives me to climb walls to get away from it.

This is why I don't sit in on these discussions myself. Once my wife alluded to "millions of years ago when the world began," and one of the sweet ladies in white protested, "Oh, it ain't no millions." At which point I throw up my hands and say, Here we go again. It's back to the Scopes trial and Inherit the Wind and the recent confrontations with creation Creative Designers in the public schools. If only they could just content themselves with the God-loves-you part. So I guess there are some messages I still refuse.

But what I really want to talk about is the most recent example. While I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room a woman came up to me, handed me a card, and said "God bless you." Now, it used to be when someone came at me that way I would get defensive and say "no thanks" to their offer. But these days I tend to accept the gift and give thanks for it. So I found myself holding a little card about the same size as one of those Chance cards that you pull from the deck in the game of Monopoly, and this one came up "Forgiveness."

On one side was a Biblical quotation on the subject. On the other was one of those melodramatic religious paintings designed to induce a Thought. In this case I found an intriguing puzzle. The painting shows a fairly young, well-built man holding a mallet in one hand as if he has been pounding away at something. Evidently that thing was so difficult or so frustrating or so impossible that he has collapsed from the effort. Jesus, standing behind him, has caught him in his arms. You can tell that Jesus is really strong, because this strapping young man must weigh a good 170 pounds and Jesus has no trouble holding him up.

I still have the card, and I still haven't figured out how to take it, but I'm enjoying contemplating the mystery and the questions it evokes: What was the man doing that was so difficult that he had to give up, to surrender like that? If I tried it, would someone catch me? Do I need forgiveness? Who can grant forgiveness? What would it mean to be forgiven? Somehow I'm enriched just by having the questions on my mind.

I'm sure I'll be keeping this card, too, along with another one that I found one morning lying on top of a hedge near the sidewalk, just waiting to be plucked like a bloom. I don't remember the message on that one -- something in Spanish about a Saint -- but it must have been intended for me because I'm the one who picked it up, and put it in my pocket, and took it home, as if it were a seashell from the beach.

Such things must be coming at us all the time, not always clad in religious garb. It's up to us to accept them, and accept, and accept.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

INTERNET AUDIO - The Ultimate Solution

The lengthy debate over music distribution on the Internet may be nearing its end.  

A small startup company called TheFix, based in Wowee, Oregon, has come up with the ultimate proposal for resolving this contentious issue. Apple Mott, CEO of the firm (and no relation to the computer manufacturer or canned fruit company of the same names), says the whole problem comes from the misguided attempt to distribute music in a purely digital form. This is what allows pirates to reproduce perfect copies of stolen material, while also causing innocent consumers to inadvertently exceed their rights under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 

The company's slogan, “Put the Analog back in Audio,” hints at their simple but radical solution: open the Internet to good old-fashioned “analog” signals.

Their proposal hinges on the adoption of a device called the New Analog Router Chip, or NARC, that would be installed in all new Internet routers to allow a special set of analog audio channels to be carried over the same digital packet switching network as normal Internet traffic. In the home, a set-top box or expansion card in the computer would act as a receiver for the special analog signals. The whole system, known as the Remote Audio Device Interface Online, or RADIO, will revolutionize the way we listen to music, according to Mott.

Since analog files are only approximations of the digital originals, they can be listened to, but will produce imperfect copies if recorded. “With digital files,” says Mott, “you can never stop piracy, because if you can decode it to listen to it then you can steal it. But analog gives us a whole range of tools we can use to discourage illegitimate copying.”

“By limiting the number of available channels, we can control who is authorized to broadcast,” says Mott, who goes on to point out that the FCC might regulate such broadcasters much the way television stations are regulated. “This way, a direct chain is created between the content creator, the distributor, the broadcaster, and the end user. The broadcaster has the ability to receive files in digital form, but then processes them into analog for broadcasting while adding a variety of copy-discouraging features.”

How would these features work? For one thing, the broadcaster remains in control of not only what you listen to, but when you listen to it. This eliminates the chaos of file-sharing services that let users grab anything they want from a list, whenever they want it.

“Not only does this discourage copying,” says Mott, “but it means distributors can have a say in what they want to distribute.” For example, by charging broadcasters less for songs on a preferred list, a distributor could encourage the playing of such material, while providing a hidden revenue stream for the broadcasters. This Play-At-Your-Option Licensing Agreement, or PAYOLA, is currently under legal review by the RIAA for inclusion in potential RADIO broadcaster contracts.

Users, of course, will have to pay for the material they listen to in order to support the infrastructure. Rates are not yet set, but one proposal is to bring back the nostalgic “nickel juke box” of 1950's fame by charging as little as 5 cents per song, which might add up to only $1.00 per hour of listening for an average set of songs. The industry remains flexible, however, and will probably offer deep discounts for “favorites” that you would like to hear over and over again. For example, a mere $20 might buy you lifetime rights to a particular song that you could listen to as many times as you want.

Mott sees no reason why advertising couldn't provide additional revenue for broadcasters – in the form of analog audio streams, of course. Such material could be inserted unobtrusively in the pauses between songs. Eventually such advertising might even be considered a benefit to listeners as it could be used to provide valuable public information or news of sales events of which the listeners otherwise would be unaware.

Other copy protection features are more subtle. For example, broadcasters could insert audio labels giving the name of the artist and title of the album, and this information could slightly overlap the beginning and end of the songs. This would serve to readily identify a pirated copy while providing information about the source of the copy. And it would be impossible for pirates to strip out without clipping off part of the song.

The analog signal can also be made more difficult to copy by the introduction of High-frequency Injected Sibilance Signals, or HISS, into the broadcast channel. This technology works by adding a nearly undetectable layer of so-called “white noise” over the normal audio. Beyond the range of normal hearing – particularly the hearing of the fans of most contemporary popular music – these signals become more noticeable when copies are made.

What about the impact of all this on sales of music CD's? Simple - just stop selling them. “Sales are falling anyway,” Mott says. “Once our new system is in place, and the content creators and distributors see that they have a safe alternative way to get the music out there, then there will no incentive to keep those old discs in circulation.” Eventually, he believes, manufacturers would no longer make CD players any more than they make players for 8-track tapes, and this would effectively eliminate the copying of older digital material which is already in circulation.

Of course, there will always be some listeners who prefer to buy their music in a physical form instead of getting it online. For them, TheFix plans to provide a new storage medium based on their patented analog technology and a mechanical reproduction technique. This product, known as the Retail Enhanced Consumer Oriented Read Device, or RECORD, would be too expensive for pirates to manufacture. It is also said to promote sales by having a limited life span.

[This was written a few years ago but it is still timely, and I find myself thinking about it again each year ... right around April first.]