Music Noir

Film noir is a style of cinematic expression that is not always recognized as a bona fide genre. Nevertheless, a sufficient body of film noir work exists to substantiate its place in the discussion of modern filmmaking.

Those acknowledging the art form generally apply film noir to only “Hollywood crime dramas,” but the term may be used more liberally to describe movies representing the darker, brooding, disturbing or melancholy side of life. The Maltese Falcon (1941) is a textbook example, but works such as Vertigo (1958), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Mulholland Drive (2001) fit the broader definition. Continue Reading

Advertisements

Never Too Late to Croon

A professional drummer since the age of 18, I have friends who are world-class musicians and others who have never touched an instrument. The sociological differences between the groups are not significant, but the talent and dedication needed to be a stage performer adds a major degree of separation. Consider, then, my surprise when two of my closest friends decided to pursue music on a performing level later in life. Their actions aroused my curiosity and ultimately inspired this writing. Join me as I delve into their challenges, routines and dreams.

Richard has wanted to be a crooner since he was in his 20s. He grew up in Los Angeles where his father, Danny Baxter, was a sports radio icon. Perhaps intimidated by his father’s celebrity, Richard waited until his 40s before acting on his passion for singing. “I watched Frank Sinatra in concert during my early 30s, and saw how much fun he was having,” says Richard. “Over the years, many people have complimented my speaking voice, but it took me a long time to build my self-confidence about singing.”

Carol Taiko 2Carol enjoyed success in collegiate theater and dance, but never uttered a word about learning an instrument until recently. Apparently she got the “music bug” while watching the taiko group Kodo (see video), and has been mindful of taiko classes after hearing the Pasadena group Makoto Taiko perform in 2008. “Seeing Anglos and women in Makoto Taiko inspired an interest that transcended just listening,” says Carol. She now rehearses with the North American Taiko group Naruwan Taiko in San Diego, and recently attended a workshop on Japanese Taiko along with members of Makoto Taiko.

As a “community class member” of Naruwan Taiko, Carol attends a two-hour rehearsal on Monday evenings, and practices about an hour each week at home. She has been invited to perform at two concerts with the A team — one at UC San Diego and another at the San Diego Obon Festival. Carol listens to every genre except pop country, metal and hip hop, and is inspired by instructor Diana Wu of Naruwan Taiko and other female performers from North America.

Richard has been the quintessential “garage band musician” in recent years. He was with a quartet that rehearsed for six months, but the group disbanded to pursue individual interests. Richard spends at least 20 minutes per day on vocal scales to improve his resonance and pitch. He also sings behind the wheel and studies recordings by artists who inspire him such as Sinatra, Steely Dan and Stevie Ray Vaughn. I listened to a couple of his recordings in 2012, and was very impressed with his phrasing and pitch, especially since I knew he had minimal experience.

Looking ahead, Richard would like to bring the music of Sinatra to life. “A lot of people have never heard Sinatra sing or have forgotten how many great songs were in his repertoire,” says Richard. “I see myself with a very tight band in front of a large audience. … My hunch is that I can get them to smile.”

Meanwhile, Carol is having a lot of fun playing taiko drums, and appreciates the mental and physical challenges that they offer. With more experience, she would like to be a bona fide member of Naruwan Taiko. “There’s a primal nature to taiko that mimics the human heart,” she says, “and I feel a spiritual component while playing the large odaiko drum.”

Courage: a New Paradigm

Opinion

A few modern dictionaries have at least one definition all wrong. Dictionary.com defines the word “courage” as “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.” I respectfully disagree.

Courage is not about facing danger without fear, but about facing danger in spite of it. To be fair, other dictionaries define courage with greater insight, but a more sensible definition of the word is in order, especially as used by mass media.

Foundations

My current concept of courage evolved over time as I considered the emotions of individuals such as the firemen who entered the burning towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. News reporters portrayed them as people conducting heroic acts without fear, but in my mind, something was very wrong with that paradigm. Veteran firefighters are not naive; they know an extreme situation when they see one. I believe they knew the dangers, but entered the buildings in spite of fearing they may never see their families again.

DSC_0019-crop-webFast forward to 2007 when my ex adopted Delilah, a bulldog-beagle mix. Lulu, as we call her, was about 14 months old at the time, and had already been through the trauma of being placed in an dark overnight deposit box (like the ones used for donating clothes), giving birth to a litter of puppies while institutionalized in a shelter, and in our best estimation, physical abuse as a puppy at the hands of one or more young women. Watching Lulu transcend one challenge after another with trepidation was a lesson in life.

I recall, for example, her reluctance to using the doggie door. After a week of being left outside during the day, she overcame her fears and triumphantly burst through the doggie door late one afternoon. Feeling quite proud of herself, she conducted a brief “victory trot” around the house in celebration.

In 2009, Lulu had reconstructive surgery on a rear hip joint. Doctors’ orders were for her to be walked every day following surgery to keep the joint limber, and I was the designated physical therapist. Her leg was black and blue, red and purple, and still quite swollen.

We started with a modest 100 feet the day after surgery. Lulu followed slowly as I led her just past the house next door before lifting her head and looking at me with a facial expression that was simultaneously trusting yet pleading. Despite her obvious pain, she reluctantly took a few more steps because she wanted to please me, and in that instant, I recall thinking my little bulldog was one brave little girl.

Affirmation

imagesFinally, my concept of courage was cemented in 2010 when I saw the movie Gran Torino. Character Walt Kowalski is telling neighbor Thao about receiving the Silver Star in the Korean War for taking out an enemy machine gun nest. “Here, I want you to have it,” said Walt as he pins the medal on Thao’s shirt. … “Why?” says Thao. … Walt: “Because we all knew the dangers that night, but we went anyway … and that’s the way it might be tonight.” I could not have said it any better.

Per dictionary.com, the 13th century origin of the word “courage” is attributed to the roots “heart” and “age,” so it is unclear how and why it became defined as action without fear. Perhaps the tough and “fearless” male warriors of that era played a role. In any event, the existing definition of courage was already a media constructed reality by the time I started watching television as a child, but I believe most people would agree that the fearless denotation of courage has no basis in human emotion because it reduces its meaning to the mindless actions of a detached individual.

Descending the Labyrinth: Cataract Trail

Mt. Tamalpais State Park

Situated in one of the most beautiful places on earth — Mt. Tamalpais State Park in Marin County, California — the Cataract Trail drops from the ocean side of the West Peak down to Alpine Lake, some 1,300 feet below. Making the trek from top to bottom is like descending a wooded labyrinth of waterfalls, rocky facades, and winding staircases that will engage your senses and test your endurance.

The starting point of the trail is near the Rock Springs parking lot (see map below), a rather picturesque location with panoramic views of the brooding Pacific Ocean, from the Farralon Islands down to the misty shores of the San Mateo County coast. This perspective of the Pacific always give me the chills even though I’ve seen it dozens of times. The trail essentially points north as it hugs a cliff above and immediately east of Cataract Creek, but its true personality is all about dropping ever so swiftly into a heavily wooded canyon.

Modest Beginnings

DSC_0015After crossing through a modest grassy meadow surrounded by a plethora of pines, the trail begins to take form as it parallels the infantile beginnings of the creek, a rather skinny four to five feet across at this stage. Fragrances of dried brush and bay trees satisfy the nose while wildlife, wooden footbridges, and an under-story of ferns and other foliage provide eye candy. The elevation changes little as it meanders for about a mile and a half through rocky outcroppings and the occasional uprooted Douglas fir. The level of difficulty at this point is generally moderate, but all that is about to change with a dramatic drop in elevation.

Soon, the trail begins to point downward as it maintains its position on the edge of the canyon above the creek. With the drop in elevation comes some deviation in trail surface. Parts of the path are 100-foot patches of wavy granite while others are reddish clay or bona fide staircases chiseled into the mountain by rangers and volunteers of yesteryear. The stairs are composed of either rock or wooden railroad ties, with some originally cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the middle of the Great Depression. The creek is now starting to gain some “teeth” as the slope works in tandem with gravity to create rushing white water.

Waterfalls

DSC_0044What follows is a series of cascading falls, long gradients of packed trail, and winding staircases that will “burn” your leg muscles. As expected, the waterfalls steal the show. If you are lucky enough to be here following spring rains, the creek is full and the falls are at their most profound.

There are railings along the trail and especially the staircases, but there are no rules preventing you from becoming more personally acquainted with the clear, cool water. I should caution you that engaging the creek at this stage is not for the feeble since there is a certain amount of danger in leaving the safe confines of the trail. Nevertheless, I encourage you to find one of the less challenging “side roads” down to the creek to capture its power.

Destination | Alpine Lake

1024px-Alpine_Lake_10160Finally, the falls give way to a gradual softening of slope as the elevation levels off near 650 feet above sea level. Cataract Creek is now about 100 feet across, and it soon merges into Alpine Lake, one of the many reservoirs in central Marin County that supply drinking water and additional breathtaking views. Here, the trail is west of the lake where there are picnic tables, shaded embankments, and exposed rock to rest upon while wetting a fishing line. You will also encounter hikers who parked along the lake and are working their way up the trail. After taking a break, you follow them for a reverse view of the mountain you just descended.

I count the stairs from time to time, but always come up with a different number — was it 450 or 472? … In any event, I encourage you to make your own count as you discover the treasures of the Cataract Trail.

Consumer Demand Still Rules Media Expression

Opinion

While new media has taken over the world of public expression, the centuries-old marketing principle of supply and demand still rules most modern communication channels. Those channels include popular media monsters such as Google News (a menu of traditional and new media), Twitter and Facebook. Prior to the advent of new media, the editors of traditional media outlets (mostly newspaper section editors) were often the decision-makers, and their choices usually favored stories that their readers were interested in. Section editors continue to follow those same principles today.

Conversely, the new media writer is simultaneously the reporter, editor and publisher, but the viability of his/her work is still a function of the subject matter’s popularity. If no one is interested in the author or their chosen story, then there is a good possibility the new media expression will simply not make it to Google News, Twitter or Facebook.

Many of today’s new media channels are dependent upon Google News or Yahoo News. Facebook Friends often post links to news stories within seconds of their appearance on either of those sites, and this process has added a turbocharged dimension to the fast-paced channel of tradition media on the web. A few years ago, sending links to friends entailed copying the web link and emailing it to a select group of contacts in one’s email address book. And looking back even further, sharing news items meant cutting out newspaper clippings, photocopying them on office equipment, and hand delivering or mailing them to our friends and business associates. (Readers under 25 years of aged just groaned at the thought!) We have progressed at an incredible rate during the digital era, and there is every reason to believe the process will continue to accelerate.

Twitter is a wonderful medium for disseminating breaking news, but a Tweet won’t “travel” very far if the author has a limited number of followers on their Twitter account. This condition holds true even if the user has their Twitter account linked to Facebook.

Celebrities, some with millions of Twitter followers, have the edge as new media “publishers.” For example, one Tweet from Justin Bieber (44M followers) or Katy Perry may be read by millions of primary followers who in turn have the option to re-Tweet or post to other social media platforms such as Facebook. To reiterate, the demand for such information is the driving force behind the power of the message rather than simply the new medium.

And then there’s Facebook, the most popular social media platform on the planet. While pre-teens are already rejecting Facebook for other social media platforms such as Instagram, Tumblr or Pinterest, Facebook still rules among new media users from 20-somethings on up. Why does Facebook command the largest market share? The answer seems to lie in its user-friendly nature and its ubiquity among traditional media outlets. For example, most online versions of traditional newspapers allow readers to quickly post story links to Facebook (or other social media platform such as Google+ or Twitter) by selecting a social media icon near the story that they are reading.

In closing, new media is certainly changing the way we receive our news, but the dynamics of supply and demand are still in control of what we see, read or hear at the company water cooler. This is especially relevant to Tweets since many originate from the growing number of mobile devices. Today’s new media “publishers” may very well become tomorrow’s old news, but only if the demand for their media expressions wanes. Some seem to have loyal readers who follow their posts long after their celebrity star has extinguished. They are the exception. Beyond that, the airwaves of new media are often controlled by and subject to the popularity of the latest celebrity icons and the demand for their messaging.