Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory

The Song Machine is a survey and explanation of the changes in popular music over the past 20 years.  Although these changes have been driven by technology, through the increased use of computer software in creating songs and the new forms of music sales and distribution through the internet, author John Seabrook also gives due attention to the creators, artists and audiences of contemporary popular music.

The most striking insight I obtained from this book is how much pop music has become IKEA.  A whole corps of Swedish songwriters and producers lie behind much of today's sound.  These songwriters and producers have, through experience and research, developed an effective assembly line that produces sleek and seductive pop confections that can be, as the author notes of himself, hard to resist.  In one telling passage, Seabrook notes how the emphasis on music and the arts in the Swedish public school system prepared Max Martin, born Martin Karl Sandberg and the author of 21  number 1 singles (as of this writing) since 1999, for his amazing success.  One senses that America needs to likewise invest in arts education to achieve parity with Sweden's pop music success.

While the meticulously assembled audio design of these song can sometimes be overwhelming, performing artists (lead vocalist / vocalists) are still need to be imprinted upon the final product.  Seabrook's book presents a parade of popular music celebrity, European and American, who are ubiquitous on the airwaves and in the tabloids (mostly online these days).  He also tracks the exploitation of these young stars and describes how their creative wishes are cut short by producers who better understand how to exploit their talents and personalities for profit.

There are chapters on the origins of the Swedish sound and approach to hit-making, the boy (and girl) band phenomenon, the compositional process of the contemporary hit, music streaming through Spotify, and on K-pop.  K-pop is an even purer distillation of this singer and song manufacturing process.  For cultural and economic reasons, Korean pop producers have a tighter control over their performing talent who must practice for many years to reach the top and who must accept rigid restrictions on how they conduct their personal lives.

At the outset of his investigation, Seabrook had a low opinion of this assembly line pop.  He came, however, to have a respect and appreciation for the extreme attention to detail and craftsmanship of all involved in the enterprise.  He also places today's music in the context of prior systems of manufacturing popular songs like Tin Pan Alley, The Brill Building, and Motown.  It is easy to argue that the new hit producing infrastructure has outdone its predecessors -- at least in terms of impact in the musical marketplace.  This is, nevertheless, music designed to manipulate the listener and it's hard not to feel manipulated by these carefully designed sonic products.  But one hopes that there can also be a similar renaissance of hand-crafted sounds in the pop music world.

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015).

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Most Requested Art, Music & Recreation Books - December 2015

 The year-end list of the titles with the most holds is topped by music memoirs, especially by women (Carrie Brownstein of Sleater / Kinney, Patti Smith, Carly Simon and Grace Jones).  Eight months earlier memoirs by Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth) and Viv Albertine (The Slits) were near the top.

One surprising title on this months list is The Arab of the Future, a graphic memoir of life in the Middle East.  There were two history books by noted rock historians - Peter Guralnick's biography of Sam Phillips, and the revised 6th edition of Greil Marcus' classic Mystery Train.

Works on architecture and interior design are popular.  Tiny House Living is a natural fit for 21st century San Francisco and is the only carry over from the April 2015 blog list of requested books.

Two of the more unusual books on the list are Ivory Vikings, an investigation of a set of walrus ivory chess pieces more than a millennia old, and The White Road, a history of porcelain penned by the author of The Hare with the Amber Eyes.

While there may be a queue of people awaiting their holds to be filled on these books, we frequently order extra copies to meet demand, so go ahead and place your holds on these popular new books.

1. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir by Carrie Brownstein (Riverhead Books, 2015).

2. M Train by Patti Smith (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015).

3. The Arab of the Future: A Graphic Memoir: A Childhood in the Middle East (1978-1984) by Riad Sattouf, translated by Sam Taylor (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2015.

4. Boys in the Trees: A Memoir by Carly Simon (Flatiron Books, 2015).

5. I'll Never Write My Memoirs by Grace Jones as told to Paul Morley (Gallery Books, 2015).

6. Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello (Blue Rider Press, 2015)

7. Styled: Secrets for Arranging Rooms, From Tabletops to Bookshelves by Emily Henderson with Angelin Borsics (Potter Style, 2015).

8. Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' roll by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown and Company, 2015).

9. Tiny House Living: Ideas for Building and Living Well in Less than 400 Square Feet by Ryan Mitchell. (Betterway Home, 2014).

10. Love Style Life by Garance Doré (Spiegel & Grau, 2015).

11. Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern by Francine Prose (Yale University Press, 2015).

12. The Kinfolk Home: Interiors for Slow Living by Nathan Williams (Ouur/Artisan, 2015).

13. Becoming by Cindy Crawford (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2015).

14. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' roll Music by Greil Marcus (Plume, 2015).

15. Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art by Julian Barnes (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015).

16. Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman who Made Them by Nancy Marie Brown (St. Martin's Press, 2015).

17. Cabin Porn: Inspiration for Your Quiet Place Somewhere, collected by Beaver Brook, edited by Zach Klein (Little, Brown and Company, 20150.

18. The White Road: Journey into an Obsession by Edmund de Waal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

International bibliography of comics literature

Charlie Chaplin in his forward to The World of Lil Abner, writes of this comic strip, "it embodies playful pain, which Max Eastman, an authority on comedy, says is the basis of all humor and drama."

I only came to know that Chaplin wrote these bon mots by perusing the International Bibliography of Comics Literature.  Coming across these names of Chaplin and John Steinbeck (who wrote the introduction) in the index of this bibliography led me to the Lil Abner book that the library owns as a part of the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit and Humor.

It is sometimes assumed that printed indexes and bibliographies have been superseded by the web.  They certainly have not been published in the same quantity since the internet has become popular.  Yet they provide an avenue of exploration and group together a subject around a theme.

A print bibliography from 40 years ago, like the International Bibliography of Comics Literature (which has the dual title of Bibliographie der internationalen Literatur über Comics) can bring together unexpected information and resources on a given topic.

This reference work is especially helpful for anybody researching the early history and reception of comic literature.  In 1974, when it was published, there were relatively few graphic novels or reprints of comic strips and they certainly were as lavishly produced as they are today.

The International Bibliography of Comics Literature is divided into sections about their history, structure, commercial aspects, readership, effects, educational value, as well as their censorship and condemnation.

The work is very international in scope including literature from 19 countries (we don't always realize how global the phenomenon has always been).  For the contemporary student, the two most useful sections would "The use of comics for educational purposes" and "Judicial and other limiting measures against comics."  Here there are articles that give a historical dimension to the for and against arguments that society has been making about the social and educational value of graphic story-telling.

The serious researcher should go beyond the web or the database search and discover what bibliographies have to offer.

Bibliographie der internationalen Literatur über Comics: International Bibliography of Comics Literature by Wolfgang Kempkes (R. R. Bowker Co., 1974).

The World of Li'l Abner by Al Capp; with an introduction by John Steinbeck and a foreword by Charles Chaplin (Farrar, Straus and Young, 1953). [part of the Schmulowitz Collection]

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

"Quotation Marks"

There is a new exhibit to see in the Art, Music and Recreation Center!

Saturday, 11/07/15 - Thursday, 1/28/16

Art, Music & Recreation Center
Main Library
100 Larkin St.
SF, CA 94102

"Quotation Marks"

The members of Plexus Art Group make art that sheds light on social and political issues.  Their goals are multifaceted in that they hope to heighten the value of books, stories and words to the patrons of the library, as well as show that art, inspired by books and quotes, can highlight important social issues, such as literacy.  Art-inspired quotes can stimulate new ideas and creative thinking for all ages.

This show, "Quotation Marks", was approached from two different, but related angles: Each member chose an individual quote and created an artwork inspired by it.  Additionally, using one particular quote as inspiration, "BOOKS ARE A UNIQUELY PORTABLE MAGIC" by Stephen King, each artist picked a specific book about which they made a  12"x12" art piece.  Utilizing a multiplicity of techniques and materials, including thread, fabric, wire, paper, re-purposed objects, photographs, etc, they create two and three-dimensional artwork, reflecting varying interpretations from personal to metaphoric.

The group was formed 7 years ago and all of its members reside in the Bay Area.

Dirty Laundry
Pamela Leith
Vintage tablecloth and napkins, embroidery, metal plates
"Who has the highest incarceration rate?  America."
The Days of Yay are Here!  Wake Me Up When They're Over"  by Jared Kintz

Forever Free  
Juline Beier
Thread, wire, paper, beeswax and found objects
"Once you learn to read, you are forever free."   Frederick Douglass

Books from the San Francisco Public Library you may enjoy:

Adventures in mixed media : collage, stitch, fuse, and journal your way to a more creative life / Jane Davies. 

Art journal art journey : collage and storytelling for honoring your creative process / artist, Nichole Rae.

The art of whimsical lettering / Joanne Sharpe.

An artist once said : an inspiration book / Hannah Rollings.

An artist's book of inspiration : a collection of thoughts on art, artists, and creativity / compiled and edited by Astrid Fitzgerald.

The cloth paper scissors book : techniques and inspiration for creating mixed-media art / [edited by] Barbara Delaney.

Creative lettering and beyond : inspiring tips, techniques, and ideas for hand-lettering your way to beautiful works of art / Gabri Joy Kirkendall, Laura Lavender, Julie Manwaring, Shauna Lynn Panczyszyn.

Journal fodder 365 : daily doses of inspiration for the art addict / by Eric M. Scott and David R. Modler.

Lutradur and the new fibers : creating mixed-media art with spunbonded materials / Wendy Cotterill.