Monday, September 29, 2008

A New Website

Some friends of mine back in Chicago have banded together to launch a very cool (and very new) website: Collision Detective. Think gaming, think music, think pleasant diversions. I'm not just vouching for them because they're my friends (okay, fine, I am), and the minds behind it should be turning out some excellent reviews, essays, and brainstorms.

I hope to contribute to it as well, in addition to my own blogging duties here. Stay tuned for more information, and keep checking out their site. It looks very promising.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Modern Spin

"A number of magazines devoted to the player--many of them put out by the manufacturers themselves--were stolidly enough written to convince any player owner that his was the most important instrument in the history of music and that he was its master (Gaddis 2)."

This quote is from William Gaddis, an excerpt from "Stop Player. Joke No. 4," a brief essay on the history of the player piano. While the piece was published in 1951, I cannot help but think how it could also apply to the video games Rock Band and Guitar Hero. More specifically, if he were alive today, would Gaddis see a possible connection? I can't think of a stronger way to ask that question, a way that wouldn't sound like an elementary school textbook (remember questions like "What would George Washington say about democracy today?").

"Although Gaddis had kept perhaps one hundred pages from earlier drafts and he anticipated (at this stage) a finished work approaching fifty thousand words...brief though it is, the essay is complete and it stands as the closest indication of what he had in mind for the player piano project (Tabbi 6)."

In his excellent notes on Gaddis's essay collection The Rush For Second Place, Joseph Tabbi mentions Gaddis's major unrealized project, a (social and chronological) history of the player piano, namely how technology helps or impedes the arts. While the available analyses don't seem to offer any explicit opinions, a reader wouldn't be faulted for guessing that Gaddis believed that the player piano impeded creativity rather than helped it. With the music rolls, the user of a player piano needed no musical knowledge or training, but could appear to be a classically trained pianist.

The connection to the video games came about after seeing Rock Band played at a party a few weeks ago and reading quotes in Entertainment Weekly both praising and criticizing its popularity. (A brief note on EW: If you follow this blog, you may have noticed two or three previous references to this publication. My sister-in-law has a subscription to it, and I tend do do a lot of deep thinking in the bathroom with back issues on hand.) On one hand, the games are fun at parties, especially after a few beers. Plus there are indications that they might steer people to actually learning musical instruments. On the other hand, some (children) might be led to believe that playing music is nothing more than pushing synchronized buttons.

While the games are wildly popular, there's no real reason to fear that they will overtake actual bands and instruments in popularity. When the player piano was in its prime, that idea was a definite possibility. Consider these notes compiled by Gaddis:
1.) "Their piano praised by: His Holiness Pope Pius X, the Sultan of Turkey, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Bros., Prince Tadashigo Shimedsu--and installed on 32 battleships (162)."
2.) "Decade 1900-10, rate of pianos increases 6.2 times that of human beings (163)."
3.) "As for the ultimate consumer of all this musical feast, the American music lover, he ate it up and cried for more. No longer did he have to exert himself even to the extent of pumping pedals or pushing levers. An electric motor now reduced his chores to zero. He merely sat back, relaxed, and dreamed, while his piano, entirely on its own, delivered performances by the giants of the keyboard, from Pachmann and Godowsky to Vincent Lopez, right in his own living room. No czar, sultan, or begum could command more [clipping] (165)."

Then again, what's to say that two current video games couldn't start such a revolution? There are websites that allow users to create songs with just a few mouse clicks. In the early 20th century, entertainment options were limited, so a novelty like the player piano could easily create a diversion monopoly. Today, music and games are just a fraction of the available hobbies and entertainments. Getting back to my original question, what would Gaddis say about something like Rock Band?

My guess is that the argument would be the same--entertainment and karaoke stylings are fine, but people need to remember that the notes and songs being reproduced electronically needed to be created in the first place. A video game can never supplant a live show, just as a book with novel-writing tips and "formulas" can never be a substitute for an idea and creativity. William Gaddis and Marshall McLuhan were two authorities on communications and technologies, yet it's fascinating how different their personalities appeared on paper. McLuhan seemed to be full of excitement and optimism, whereas Gaddis (to paraphrase Franzen) seemed to grow more bitter as he got older. One can only imagine how angry his player piano opus would have been. The notes left behind really seem to be the forming of a mental eruption.

Work Cited:
Gaddis, William. The Rush For Second Place. Copyright 2002 by the Estate of William Gaddis. Introduction and notes copyright 2002 by Joseph Tabbi.

Thoughts on David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

Like all admirers of his writing, I was deeply saddened to learn of David Foster Wallace's suicide this past weekend. Making it even more troubling was the fact that last week, I was immersing myself in his essays from A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. There was going to be an essay posted on here about those writings, but I'm holding off for now. Usually I shy away from writing remembrances and tributes to deceased artists, since there's simply nothing to say that hasn't been more eloquently touched on by other writers. It was this logic that made me scrap plans for an essay on George Carlin a couple months back. However, I felt such a deep admiration for Wallace, and I don't think that any writer today can deny his importance.

What I loved the most is that he was the best living writer period in two genres: fiction and non-fiction. I didn't start reading his works until roughly four years ago, and his balance of fictions and creative/critical essays was literally refreshing, in the sense that it made me fall in love with reading and writing all over again. Whenever I reach the apex of my writing skills in the future, I will not have 1/50th of Wallace's talent and seemingly instinctual way with word crafting. This is not an ode or personal self-deprecation in the face of his death; it is fact, plain and simple.

Of course, the news reports of his passing also mentioned that his books were seeing an increase in sales since last weekend. This could be a post in itself, the fact that it always troubles me when an artist/writer/musician dies: the interest in his/her work doubles and triples. Why does that always seem to happen? For example, more Frank Sinatra CDs were sold in May 1998 than ever before. Do these sales increase because of the actual death, the increased media attention, or a combination of both? It bothers me because a person's talent doesn't change because they've died--Wallace's books should have been selling at their current rates before, regardless of his death. However, it's not bothering me as much with him. If it means that more people happen to discover his works because of these sad circumstances, that's worth it. In due time, if not already, David Foster Wallace will be placed among the best ever. Period.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Diet Coca-Cola and Unlit Cigarettes

This essay might steer in a different direction than usual, since I've tended to avoid memoir-type writings on this blog. However, I did get positive responses to my James Dean work (written awhile back for Culture Snob's Self-Involvement Blog-a-Thon). A friend of mine e-mailed me saying that he would like to read more essays in that style.

I love music, but I don't pretend to know everything; in fact, the number of classic albums that I've not listened to is probably staggering. On the flip side, that can be strangely comforting. Every entertainment website, television channel, and magazine loves to put out lists, categories, and best-of compilations: "The Top 100 Albums Of the 90s," "The Top 500 Albums Of All-Time," "The New Classics," and so on and so forth. My comfort comes with knowing what I like to listen to, everyone else be damned, plus the perverse fun of usually guessing what albums make said lists, since they're usually all the same. Key word: usually. For instance, Pitchfork named Radiohead's OK Computer as the best album of the 1990s, whereas Entertainment Weekly placed it at number 62 of the albums released since 1983. I mainly turn to friends for music recommendations, but it was sort of by chance that I picked up Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the winter of 2002.

That spring, I had joined my college newspaper as a film critic, a tiny campus office filled with music writers. As I sat in on those first meetings, I was always quiet when music discussions came up, since I simply didn't know much about it. Film and literature were my specialties. That winter, the other writers put out their year-end compilations, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was at the top of every list. One cold afternoon, on the way home, I stopped into a little record shop under the train tracks and bought it.

In the first paragraph, I mentioned the phrase "life-changing album," and it's meant without hyperbole. I listened to it once. Then twice. Then everyday for a solid two weeks on my way to class. Up to that moment, I had no idea what I had been missing. Never had I been fully aware of the combination of lyrics, music, and mixing. Jeff Tweedy's voice was (and still is) not the best singing voice, but it's never been about being pretty. Glenn Kotche's drumming is probably the most artful in the music world today, evident yet never overpowering. And one can only wonder how Nels Cline would have contributed to the album had he been in the band at that time. Thankfully, the live shows are evidence. Every Wilco fan knows the story of Jim O'Rourke's influence on the album, as heard in the slight static and harmonies that bridge song gaps and appear in various points in every song.

I've never been that good at writing about music (I think I contributed maybe 3 music articles to my college newspaper, none of them very good), so I'm not going to attempt to get into technical analysis. The point is, we all have albums that have literally changed us and veered us into new directions. As eclectic as my music tastes can be, every album that I love can ultimately be traced back to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I'm sure I would have come around to it eventually, but my discoveries have all stemmed from that moment.

I'd love to hear your picks. The albums don't necessarily have to be your favorites, but like I said, I'm sure everyone has that One Album where they cannot remember what their listening was like before it.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Good Saves?

Note: With the baseball season entering its final month before the playoffs, I thought I'd start off my September posts with a light baseball essay, to ease myself back into longer posts, since its been over a week since my last one.

As of Tuesday night, Francisco Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Angels has 54 saves, three shy of the single-season record set in 1990 by Bobby Thigpen of the Chicago White Sox. Normally, when a baseball record is close to being broken, sports readers and viewers are subject to quite a bit of media analysis, with the player/team in question being either applauded or scrutinized, especially if the baseball record has stood since at least the 1970s. If Rodriguez gets 58 saves (which is all but guaranteed, barring injury), it will be the biggest broken record since Barry Bonds hit his 756th career home run last season. As everyone knows, Bonds' scrutiny came from a suspicion of steroid use. Rodriguez is also being scoffed at a little, but through no fault of his own. He's merely pitching in the wrong era of baseball.

Baseball has, for a long time, been plagued by the rise of "purists:" fans and commentators who resist changes to the game, whether those changes are the lengthening of the season (Major League baseball expanded the 154 game season to 162 in 1961), Astroturf, night games, and the designated hitter rule, among other things. Baseball is usually referred to as a conservative game, and purists harm it by trying to make it even more conservative. The change to the game that affects Rodriguez is the fact that modern closers (pitchers responsible for getting saves) usually only pitch one inning per game, whereas in the past they were responsible for two or three innings, thus making their job even harder. Granted, most baseball players will agree that the final three outs of a game are the hardest, but that doesn't stop critics from complaining that Rodriguez is having an easier path to the single-season save record. As of late, I've been torn, debating whether or not I agree with that assertion, or whether it's just a fact, a testament that baseball has changed since 1969 (when the save became an official statistic).

I did some very basic math, trying to figure out the average number of innings pitched per game for Rodriguez, compared to older relief pitchers. The game numbers and innings pitched totals are courtesy of Baseball Reference, a needlessly addictive baseball website. Keep in mind that these numbers are not totally precise, since I rounded off the innings totals, and the numbers included some games started. However, these players were primarily relief pitchers and closers:

Francisco Rodriguez (2004-present): 397 Games/443 Innings Pitched/Avg: 1.1 IP/game
Bobby Thigpen (1986-1994): 448 Games/568 Innings Pitched/Avg: 1.26 IP/game
Lee Smith (1980-1997): 1022 Games/1289 Innings Pitched/Avg: 1.26 IP/game
Bruce Sutter (1976-1988): 661 Games/1042 Innings Pitched/Avg: 1.57 IP/game
Rich Gossage (1972-1994): 1002 Games/1809 Innings Pitched/Avg: 1.80 IP/game

Compared to some of the older pitchers, Rodriguez isn't pitching nearly as much on average, but is that his fault? It's a fact that baseball teams worry constantly about over-working and possibly injuring a highly paid pitcher, but part of me would like to see a return of an older style of baseball where pitchers worked more in games instead of being immediately pulled out due to trouble or high pitch counts. After this season, Rodriguez's record might stand for awhile, but I don't think that it will be as respected as other baseball marks. Sadly, the save isn't considered as sexy as a home run or a strikeout.

Yes, I've been defending him a lot so far, but in his mind, the single season save record will be an achievement: for his bank account. I lost a lot of respect for him when he started discussing his off-season free agency in July, with so much of the season left to play, with his team in the best chance to clinch a playoff spot. Of course athletes are going to go for the biggest contract, but most of them at least wait until the end of the season to talk about it.