And I’m pleased to announce that prolific Mexican producer DJ Javier Estrada will be my special guest on tomorrow’s radio show. The young powerhouse from Monterrey is one of the most interesting beatmakers around right now, and I’ve got a coupla thousand of words-in-progress on why… Coming soon.
Until then — tune in tomorrow to catch DJ Javier Estrada live from 8-9pm EST, on WFMU! We’ll be talkin in Spanish with simultaneous translation by Talacha so all you monolingual gorillas can enjoy.
The radio show comes on the eve of Estrada’s NYC debut. We’ll have some tix to giveaway for his Thursday event with A Tribe Called Red.
Cairo, Egypt. A few yards down from this graffiti lies the city’s best English language bookstore, and a few yards beyond that, the former British army barracks turned into traffic circle elevated into iconic revolutionary space. Tahrir means Liberation.
With Egyptian presidential elections getting very close, now’s a good time to listen to Cairo, its sounds & music, its clamor and dignity.
Last Wednesday’s radio show with Arabic translator Humphrey Davies, recorded on location in Egypt, is now streaming, and it’s fantastic:
In it he discusses the sounds of Cairo from car-horn honking Morse code obscenities to the changing ways of voicing the divine; nostalgia for the 1940s and brand new sha3by lyrics; Nancy Arjam’s class-bending single and Oum Koulsoum’s ongoing appeal. We also touch upon the world of Egyptian publishing and get insight about Davies work as a translator (I just finished his translation of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, and it is excellent. Highly recommended.) including a preview into the amazing 19th ct Lebanese book he’s working on right now (which includes lists of “well known locations in hell” and “17 types of medieval glue”).
Special guest next week: Monterrey Mexico’s DJ Javier Estrada! Info soon.
Everybody likes Italian dates, right? Well I got some:
First: on Wednesday May 16, I’m giving an artist talk in conversation with Simone Bertuzzi at the Triennale Museum in Milan. Right after that, Soundways Records boss Miles Cleret will spin some records, and I’ll close the night with a DJ set. This event is free, and the DJing portion of the evening takes place in the design museum’s backyard garden. It’s nice.
And on Thursday May 17, I’m heading to Venice, where I’ll be performing at the Teatro Fondamente Nuevo. Details. This will be my first time in Venezia, so come say hello!
Now this –
I just returned from Macao here in Milan — it’s a 32-story skyscraper. 10 days ago a crew squatted it, intending to transform the building (which had been shuttered for 15 years) into a ground-up contemporary art & culture center. This morning they got evicted by local police, which simply meant that everyone left building but the crowd on the street outside the Macao kept on growing… Fascinating moments over here. This Vogue Italia blog post provides background coverage and photos.
I have been talking about Sufi Plug Ins for awhile now… But before we get to the download of version 1.0, let’s start at the beginning:
What on earth are Sufi Plug Ins?
[screenshot from Sufi Plug Ins' clapping drum machine, PALMAS]
To understand where the project is coming from, we must rewind a bit: As a DJ, I’ve always been interested in the creative mis-use of technology. The Art of DJing began, quite literally, with kids in the Bronx using vinyl and record players in ways for which they were not designed. The Technics 1200 turntable was built to be robust enough to withstand constant playback at radio stations. Guys like Kool Herc and Grand Wizard Theodore used its toughness and transformed it into a realtime performance tool. Similarly, ‘finished’ songs pressed on wax were treated with a brilliant irreverence (doubling, scratching, blending, etc), accelerated and reshaped to become elements of an improvisational mix.
[Grand Wizard Theodore on left]
The genius of those early hiphoppers remains a huge inspiration. They took devices intended for playback only and taught kids all over the world to think of records and turntables as hackable tools, as fragments of a conversation, as ours to open up and tinker with. This participates in a long tradition of radicality in black American music – but we’ll save that talk for another time. When I started making music with a computer after years of DJing, I approached the software with very much a DJ mentality, that deep impulse to push the gear – as well as ideas about what a song or performance is – beyond its normal limits, to flip and extend the possible. Which brings us to the next stage…
[Nettle: Abdelhak Rahal on left, myself, cellist Brent Arnold]
When I lived in Barcelona, Spain, I worked a lot with Moroccan violinist Abdelhak Rahal. The 4/4 time signature that virtually all music software defaults to was not the norm for Abdel, steeped as he was in the rich polyrhythmic diversity of Maghrebi & Arabic music. I would try to bend the software towards these rhythms and he would attempt to make long, sliding violin melodies make sense over stuff like a looping hiphop beat – ‘monorhythmic’ the way the software intended. It was fun, rewarding work. Here’s an essay I wrote about music-making in those days, more than seven years ago now! I learned a lot about Moroccan music, yes, but I also learned a lot about the many assumptions built into music software, which is written almost exclusively in Germany (Ableton, Native Instruments, Steinberg) and the U.S.
Sufi Plug Ins grew out of those experiences. After more than 10 years of working with music software, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what values the good folks in Berlin, Hamburg, and Silicon Valley believe is important in music software. But what about other groups, people whose music has inspired me from traditions far from the Eurocentric / Western norm?
[screenshot from Sufi Plug Ins' BAYATI synthesizer]
What if you could make music software with *different* assumptions, limitations, and beliefs built into it? For example, if West African griots were to design music software, what concepts and functionalities would they be most concerned about translating into the digital? Or a Berber muezzin, who performs the call-to-prayer beautifully but frowns upon music – could one make music software for him? This is not a rhetorical question – we did. It’s called Devotion, and it’s one of 7 different plug-ins we built and are giving away for free. They include 4 unique synthesizers, a drone box, and a clapping drum machine. Here is the Instructional Video for Devotion:
So – with all this in mind, let’s return to the question
What on earth are Sufi Plug Ins?
I can offer at least three answers:
The Big Picture Answer. Sufi Plug Ins is a an interdisciplinary project dedicated to exploring non-western & poetic notions of sound in interaction with alternative interfaces. (When we say ‘alternative’, we mean it.) I’m hoping to return to Cairo to do some music software teaching and take requests for further Sufi Plug Ins from some of the talented kids over there. Listen to them, figure out what kind of tool could be useful to their very specific circumstances, then build it.
The Immediate Answer. Sufi Plug Ins v1.0 is a suite of seven free audio tools for Ableton (Max for Live), including include four distinct synthesizers hardwired to North African & Arabic maqam scales with quartertone tuning built-in, a device called Devotion which lowers your computer’s volume 5 times a day during call to prayer (presets include Agnostic, Fervent, Devout), and a drone machine. The interface is written in the Berber language of Tamazigh, using their neo-Tifinaght script. Roll-over info texts provide fragments of Sufi poetry (plus a little Jean Toomer).
The Answer In Which you Find Yourself. As tools, Sufi Plug Ins are what you do with them. We make the synth, you make it sing. Connect it to whatever else you’ve got going on in your toolbox… Plug-ins, by definition, are about interdependency.
The plug-ins themselves have been available individually for over a week, but today we’re doing the full official launch. Ableton Live users equipped with Max For Live, head here to download. Not a producer? Don’t use Ableton? No worries: Even if you don’t make music, you can show your support of Sufi Plug Ins with a nice t-shirt.
White logo on black cotton. $20 for U.S. orders includes shipping, $25 includes airmail shipping to rest of world.
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I also made artist print versions of the Bayati synth and Palmas drum machine plug-ins, available in an edition of 7.
Let’s close with the Instructional Video for Drone. This should explain everything you need to know about this particular Sufi Plug In, and helps voice the project as a whole:
For this month’s Mudd Up Book Clubb, we have a very special selection — Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx. It is the only novel I’ve ever read which is both laugh-out-loud funny *and* has given me nightmares. Amazing.
Some people call it a dystopia, and true – The Slynx does take place in Moscow about 200 years after an unspecified Blast has knocked everyone back to Stone Age level amenities – but Tolstaya’s prose is luminous, alive, bursting with a belief in language’s power to create worlds, which is precisely what this book does. Textual pleasures surround the tale of a quasi-literate copyist in the era of Degenerators…
What is The Slynx concerned with? Food, catastrophe, body jokes, gorgeous prose, xerox machines after the apocalypse, social hierarchies, books, melted canonicity, mice-as-currency, etc.
You might recognize the translator, Jamey Gambrell, from a previous book clubb selection, Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy. Her Slynx translation is another impressive work, as the novel is peppered with malapropisms, mutant references to Russian literature, and conversations in a range of voices. These two novels are some of the best I’ve read in a long time, but I should mention that Sorokin and Tolstaya are extremely different writers; all the more power to Gambrell for articulating each into English with such elegant specificity. (While we’re talking translators, tune in to Mudd Up! this Wednesday for a special show with Arabic literature translator Humphrey Davies, recorded in Cairo last month)
The Mudd Up Book Clubb (<– go here to sign up) will meet on Sunday May 27th at 5pm for lively discussion followed by micemeat pies.
Here’s an excerpt from the opening pages:
Benedikt pulled on his felt boots, stomped his feet to get the fit right, checked the damper on the stove, brushed the bread crumbs onto the floor–for the mice–wedged a rag in the window to keep out the cold, stepped out the door, and breathed the pure, frosty air in through his nostrils. Ah, what a day! The night’s storm had passed, the snow gleamed all white and fancy, the sky was turning blue, and the high elfir trees stood still. Black rabbits flitted from treetop to treetop. Benedikt stood squinting, his reddish beard tilted upward, watching the rabbits. If only he could down a couple–for a new cap. But he didn’t have a stone.
It would be nice to have the meat, too. Mice, mice, and more mice–he was fed up with them.
Give black rabbit meat a good soaking, bring it to boil seven times, set it in the sun for a week or two, then steam it in the oven–and it won’t kill you.
That is, if you catch a female. Because the male, boiled or not, it doesn’t matter. People didn’t used to know this, they were hungry and ate the males too. But now they know: if you eat the males you’ll be stuck with a wheezing and a gurgling in your chest the rest of your life. Your legs will wither. Thick black hairs will grow like crazy out of your ears and you’ll stink to high heaven.
Benedikt sighed: time for work.
Next Wednesday, May 16th, award-winning translator Humphrey Davies (The Yacoubian Building, Naguib Mahfouz, Elias Khoury) will be the special guest on my weekly radio show. Davies is going to share some of his favorite sounds from Cairo and the Middle East — everything from spellbinding Quranic recitation to a surprisingly convincing defense of Nancy Arjam. We’ll also discuss his process of literary translations from Arabic to English. We recorded this episode at Humphrey’s apartment in downtown Cairo last month, and I have to say, you are in for a treat! Eloquent insight from a man who has made Cairo his home for more than 35 years.
As always, you can subscribe to the Mudd Up! podcast for downloadable versions, issued about a week after FM broadcast: . Also useful: WFMU’s free iPhone app. We also have a version for Android (search for “WFMU” in the marketplace).
Tomorrow I’m DJing an *all-ages* party at 285 Kent in Brooklyn with Prince Rama, Eva Aridjis, Weird Magic, and more. FB invite. dance dance explode dance.
I spent today working on a mix, which meant that by the time the radio show rolled around, I was all beat-ed out, so it starts off on a classical/float/peat-bog tip. Now streaming:
Podcast subscribers: We’ve been a bit behind on getting the last month or so out, but things should be back on track shortly. Maybe already? The podcast version gets trimmed a bit, so tune in live or catch the stream for maxximum mudd.
[Philip Glass photo by Gabriele Stabile for The Fader]
I interviewed Philip Glass for the current issue of Fader magazine. You can read it here. We talked at length about the importance of artistic & economic independence, ideas on digital language underpinning his work, driving a cab to cover health care for his collaborators, and how many hours of sitting-at-the-piano composing constitute a good day for him. What can I say? The man is an inspiration.
Philip is the coverboy for this, the Icon issue, so Glass fans will find a lot more in the magazine — but even if you’re not familiar with his music, the interview shares some powerful insights about autonomy & integrity, especially in wake of May Day #OWS.
Dressed in a long sleeve black T-shirt and blue jeans, Philip Glass eases onto a couch in a corner room of his spacious Dunvagen studio. A few blocks away are the SoHo buildings where, nearly 50 years ago, Glass staged concerts in derelict lofts to air his maddeningly beautiful ideas about sound and rhythm. His venues have grown but still there’s a feisty independence and curiosity about him.
Running a hand through his trademark rebellious curls, Glass says, “We’re stealing this office for the afternoon. But it’s okay. I pay the rent.” The joke rings true: Glass is the boss around here, he just doesn’t act like one. The soft-spoken composer often slips from “I” to “we” while talking, the habit of a lifelong team player. Listening to him feels like hearing a cabbie hold court—naturally social, disarmingly unpretentious, happy to share observations on a pathway that is more important than the destination.
How many hours a day do you work on music?
Well, it depends. A good day for me is eight to ten hours. An excellent day for me is 11 hours. A bad day is three hours. My bad days are most people’s good days. I go much further than them. Like, I was up this morning early, I took my kids to school, I spent two hours working, I’m talking to you, I’m going to go home, I have another meeting, then I’m going to work probably three to six, then I’ll be up to five hours, and then it’s six o’clock, then after dinner I’ll work another two or three hours. So this will be a seven or eight hour day.
As things become more financially difficult for someone of your stature, how applicable is your pathway for a younger generation?
In terms of the physical ways of working, there are a lot of new things that have happened in my lifetime. I’m talking about the digital technology that is available. I’m still writing with pencil and paper, let’s put it that way. A lot of composers are now working directly with computers. There’s a big change, both in music and in other areas too: in photography, projection, performance. We’re living in a digital world. However there are many things I do which are applicable. For one thing, develop an independence of work. I’m not connected to institutions, I’m connected to live performance and to working collectively. This is very much a part of my generation. We were not what you call “the establishment.” This independence made it possible for me ?to do things that were unusual, that people hadn’t done before. The idealism that was part of the way I worked—working really and truly for the development of a new language of performance, of music, without regards to a successful career or a commercial career of any kind—you can still do that!
I had wonderful parents. My mother was a school-teacher and my father had a small music shop—he didn’t make any money. So I didn’t have a family fortune behind me. I had my energy, and I had other people. When young people today ask, “How do we get started?” I say, Look around and find people your own age. Work with your own generation. Make alliances among artists of your own time and these will be the people that you’ll work with. Don’t expect help from the older ones, they’re not interested.