Sunday, January 30, 2011

Folk Synthesizers

Between Trent Reznor’s endorsement and a recent New Yorker article (Nick Paumgarten, “Swarm”) the custom-built Swarmatron synthesizer is generating media buzz.

Recognizable as a key sound in the motion picture The Social Network, the Swarmatron is an analog synthesizer that plays a chord of eight notes arranged around a single note producing a beehive-type tone. Invented by two sound artists, cousins Leon and Brian Dewan, who are behind the Dewanatron business, this rare instrument (less than 50 are in existence) is just one of their many handmade electronic creations.

The synthesizer is an ideal instrument for both sonic and physical experimentation. Compared to traditional instruments, the synthesizer’s history is brief, beginning in the 1940s. According to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians a synthesizer is “an electronic instrument, usually incorporating a keyboard, capable of producing more complex sounds than other electronic instruments that directly imitate traditional acoustic equivalents.” One of the qualities of the instrumental type is that no standard form of the instrument has (or could be) developed.

The Dewans are advocates of a folk synthesizer movement in which un-standardized artisan instruments are individually produced and therefore "have a freedom of range in form, character, [and] choice of materials." Such an instrument, "created solely for the use of its maker," is a reaction against mass-produced, pre-set, manufactured instruments.

Their creations are as visually interesting as they are audibly so, and as a result have been featured in concerts as well as prestigious art exhibitions. They often including rotary phone dials, clock-like casings, suitcases or senior-citizen walkers in the physical construction.

The library has a number of books about making electronic music and designing electronic musical instruments.

Circuit-Bending: Build Your Own Alien Instruments by Reed Ghazala (Wiley Pub., 2005).

Electronic Music: Systems, Techniques, and Controls by Allen Strange (W.C. Brown Co., 1983).

The Electronic Musical Instrument Manual: A Guide to Theory and Design by Alan Douglas (G/L Tab Books, 1976).

Electronic Musical Instruments by Richard H. Dorf (Radiofile, 1968).

Electronic Projects For Musicians by Craig Anderton (Amsco Publications, 1980).

Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking by Nicolas Collins (Routledge, 2009).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tour:Smart: And Break the Band

Tour:Smart is a comprehensive, 562 page guidebook providing nuts and bolts advice for independent musicians who want to succeed at performing on the road. Author Martin Atkins is a veteran of the alternative music business, having performed with bands like Public Image Ltd., Ministry, Pigface and Killing Joke.

With the advent of digital music and the lessening importance of being signed to major record labels, performing and touring is more essential than ever for musicians trying to make a living. Atkins explains touring can lead to improved record store placement, more reviews, and better website traffic.

He details factors to consider when planning a tour like geography, climate, and distances. He further discusses the pros and cons of various forms of transportation, what to pack, and whether to bring scenery and stage decoration. He also gives pointers on how to interact with law enforcement while on the road.

Atkins explains how to work with promoters to get booked and whether to hire agent or go it alone. He further goes into information about contracts, choose an opening act, and selling merchandise. Touring provides a great opportunity to promote oneself. Tour:Smart gives practical information on how to get press coverage and how to handle oneself during interviews.

On a very practical level he gives warnings about sex, drugs and alcohol, and also provides health and eating tips while on the road. For women musicians there is also a chapter entitled "Being a grrrl on the road." Finally there are a few chapters on touring internationally.

The Library offers a few copies of Tour:Smart that can be borrowed as well as a copy for reference that is always available whenever you visit the Library.

Tour:Smart: And Break the Band by Martin Atkins (Smart Books, 2007).

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pictorial Webster's: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities

At first glance it's not readily apparent what to make of what the Pictorial Webster's actually is. At one level, it is simply, as the author writes, a collection of "fascinating little images." In some part it is an artist's book (it was originally published in this manner), but it is also a powerful visual reference and source of inspiration.

The Pictorial Webster's consists of illustratory images accompanying definitions in a number of nineteenth-century editions of dictionaries published by Merriam Webster such as the 1859 American Dictionary of the English Language or the later Webster's International Dictionary of the English Language. This was an era when the photograph had been invented but was not commonly or conveniently available in printed references. The original images were engraved on blocks smaller than an inch square and are very detailed with delicate lines and have an iconic quality.

This resource provides the reader with small, clean, simple images of all manner of miscellania. The author, John M. Carrera, describes the process of bringing the images together as one of discovery, assembly, cryptography, and archeology. His aim is for the reader to experience a “personal resonance” with the images.

Although the book has a largely alphabetic arrangement, the author has tried to arrange the images so the reader will try to form their own story. The result at times is almost reminiscent of dadaist collage.

At the end of the volume, Carrera has written a history of Merriam Webster dictionaries and their illustrations, and a section about the printing process. A small number of color photographs of the actual wooden blocks used to engrave the images in the book.

Pictorial Webster's can be used as a practical visual resource or a clip-art book. It is also a look back into history, a musing into the nature of image and story-telling, and a work of art in itself.

Mr. Carrera has a personal website that describes this project in some depth.

Pictorial Webster's: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities with additional dissertation by John M. Carrera (Chronicle Books, 2009).

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Rediscovery of Artist Fang Rending [方人定]

Returning from a Hunt, 1932 by Fang Rending

Internationally known in his lifetime, Chinese-born artist Fang Rending (方人定 - 1901-1975, sometimes know as Fan Jen-Ting or Fong Yan-Ting) contributed to the modernization of Chinese painting through published writings, teachings and international art shows beginning in the mid-1920s.

Throughout the Twenties and Thirties, his painting met acclaim as he exhibited in China, Japan, France, Brussels, Germany, Britain, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Living in the United States from 1939-1941, Fang added solo exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco to his growing list of international shows, and participated in both the Golden Gate International Exhibition and the New York World’s Fair. Most significant to local art historians, in 1939 Fang was the first Chinese artist to receive a one-man exhibit at SFMOMA. (At the time both he and the museum were working under different names; he, Fong Yan-Ting, while the museum was named the San Francisco Museum of Art).

Stepping on Snow, 1931 by Fang Rending

Today few people in the United States are familiar with the name Fang Rending. While auction prices for his work are in the thousands, collectors in Hong Kong and China remain his primary audience.

Join us on January 15th, for the rare opportunity to learn about the life of the artist, directly from his granddaughter, Tanya Fang. In addition to showing a selection of his finest paintings, she will discuss his beginnings as a law student, his artistic development and philosophies, and the effect of his ‘re-education’ during China’s Cultural Revolution.

The Rediscovery of Fang Rending will be presented Saturday, January 15, 2011 from 3:30-4:30 PM at the Latino/Hispanic Community Meeting Room at the Main Library's Lower Level. This program is co-presented by the Chinese Center and is free and open to the public.

On a Leisure Day, 1931 by Fang Rending

There are two-length books in the Library's collections written in Chinese:

方人定评传 [Fang Rending ping zhuan] = Biography and appraisal of Fang Rending by Li Rulun 李汝伦 (花城出版社 [Hua cheng chu ban she], 2001.

方人定 [Fang Rending] by 郎绍君 [Lang Shaojun] and [云雪梅] Yun Xuemei (河北敎育出版社 [Hebei jiao yu chu ban she], 2003).

The Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon, volume 34 (K.G. Saur) provides a single-column German language overview of his life and works as well as a short bibliography.

Modern Chinese Artists: A Biographical Dictionary by Michael Sullivan (University of California Press, 2006) provides a short biography. The Benezit Dictionary of artists (Gründ, 2006) includes a short biography and some auction information.

Fang Rending is also listed in An Index-Dictionary of Chinese Artists, Collectors, and Connoisseurs with Character Identification by Modified Stroke Count by Nancy N. Seymour (Scarecrow Press, 1988). An Index to Reproductions of Paintings by Twentieth Century Chinese Artists by Ellen Johnston Laing (University of Oregon, 1984) provides citation to reproductions of Fang's work in Chinese language sources.

Art and Revolution in Modern China: The Lingnan (Cantonese) School of Painting, 1906-1951 by Ralph Croizier (University of California Press, c1988) includes a couple of black and white reproductions of Fang Rending's work as well as a discussion of his important to the Lingnan School of Painting [嶺南畫派的繪畫藝術].