Thursday, March 31, 2011

New Holy Other: "Touch"

Easily the most exciting act that I know of without an album yet, Holy Other are in a great spot between dubstep and "witch house" (or whatever).  I'm not sure this is quite as amazing as "YR LOVE", a track that still completely blows my mind - but more Holy Other is, like a gift horses mouth, not to be looked into.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Having the Time of Her Life: Dance/Display/Fantasy

I spent last night (literally, it was an overnight that ended at 7am) at a hip hop show, a benefit for earthquake relief put on by Pop Group Records. I got there quite early, saw Club Asia before the lights were turned down, before the large staff blended into the crowd, running around with clipboards and checklists through what still looked like a workplace but was about to become a playground. Asia is a fantastic club, really, like a smaller but Tokyo-polished version of First Avenue in Minneapolis – that is, a hipster mecca, elevating underground music to a professional level of polish for a select (read: small) number of devotees. Although someone with connections to the club once stated with certainty that it was a money-loser subsidized by Vuenos, the cheesy dance club next door owned by the same people. So maybe good taste doesn’t pay. But it was a great night – I saw my friend the writer Shin Futatsugi for the first time in months, and the chance to get to know everyone in the Pop Group circle a little bit better. The place was full, so though Hiroki (head of Pop Group) didn’t seem super impressed, I gather some money was made for earthquake victims.

Early on, when the club was still only about a third or less full, one audience member was dancing to the early DJs. She was really enthusiastic and really attractive, owning the hell out of a charming and unusual fashion sense. I was up towards the front, against a wall, leaning against a table and taking some notes. As I half-wrote and half watched her dance, I had an experience that is embarrassing, but which, if this post is to have a leg to stand on, is not unique. It was impossible not to, at least at the back of my mind, think that she was dancing for me. When I’ve had a few drinks, this sense can become explicit and make me act like a stupid (read: average) male, but even standing there clear-headed, I could sense the logic unfurling in the back of my brain – she had noticed the tall, nerdy-looking writer, and was trying to . . . well, you can imagine the train of thought only gets more pathetic from there.

Of course, this was just a girl having a good time, and she didn’t deserve to be the object of even my most subconscious narratives. But it wasn’t just me – she was dancing in a mostly empty club, and couldn’t have failed to be somewhere in the attention of most if not all of the dozen-odd other people playing the wall. This, of course only adds to the bathos of my fantasizing – I’m sure it was shared by more than a few of the other guys around. In fact, I realized, the girl was both an object of desire and, in a less direct but structurally similar way, a model of enjoyment that served a variety of purposes in giving meaning to the event. She was a non-romantic, fantasy object for all of the workers who had set up the show, for the staff and servers and even to some extent the musicians. They were all there for her, to create the enjoyment of which she was the model.   They certainly, in reality, were also doing it for those of us vaguely nodding our heads, enjoying the music and the feeling of being there in less expressive ways. But this explosively dancing girl required less interpretation.

I thought, particularly, of myself and the photographers, writing about or documenting the event. Her presence justified our activities, because she was the real thing – someone genuinely enjoying a party whose purpose was enjoyment. We, the watchers (professional and otherwise) needed her, because she enabled us to justify the fact that we weren’t engaged in a direct enjoyment of the event. To paraphrase Zizek’s formulation about laugh tracks, we needed that one girl to enjoy the even for us.

But even as I write this, I have to point out that it misses one dimension – that the photographer or the writer is not merely at a distance from the activity of ‘pure’ enjoyment, but is engaged in a ‘pure’ enjoyment of their own activity, one that the dancer in turn doesn’t know. The ultimate example of this is the musicians themselves, who I can guarantee from experience are having more fun than almost anyone in the audience, an enjoyment enhanced by, but not dependent on, enthusiastic audience members.

Vanity House: Glaciers of Ice, a.k.a. Me

Just realized I haven't ever posted my own music here.  In one of the classic examples of my work life and personal life being indistinguishable, I record for my own enjoyment, but also as a way to learn about the creative processes and business of music.  I'm hoping to finish a Glaciers of Ice album within the next few months.  I've got two tracks up, still just demos. Check out the short and to the point beat-driven synth-noise of "Truth Serum," or if you've got a few minutes the epic sci-fi synth trip "Dylan's Chase." I hope the title of the latter adequately acknowledges its deep indebtedness to Dylan Ettinger.

Glaciers of Ice -Truth Serum by Glaciers of Ice

Glaciers of Ice - Dylan's Chase by Glaciers of Ice

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Information on Volunteering in Sendai with Peace Boat

I just got back from a meeting of the Peace Boat N.P.O. here in Tokyo. Starting this Friday and continuing for some time after that, they'll be sending groups of volunteers for week-long stints aiding in distribution of food and supplies to refugees in the Sendai area. If you read Japanese, a great deal of information is available at

This post is intended to provide a quick outline of this opportunity to help out. First it should be said that you might not be a good candidate if you a) can't speak at least passable intermediate Japanese and b) don't have considerable experience with camping or otherwise roughing it under extreme conditions. If after reading this you think you would be able to help, there will be a further orientation at the Peace Boat HQ in Takadanobaba on the 29th. The time hasn't been decided, but I'll update people via the Tokyo Quake Cleanup group and my twitter. The group going this Friday will be too soon for most people, in part because of the preparation needed.

The Peace Boat volunteer coordinators made it clear that conditions are pretty extreme. People, including rescue and relief workers, are living in cars and in the second floors of buildings whose first floor collapsed. Peace Boat volunteers are camping outdoors, on the grounds of an elementary school. It's also still very cold in Sendai, making this situation even tougher. Because of the difficulty of the conditions, as well as the possibly traumatic nature of seeing what's going on up-close, they're limiting most volunteers to one-week rotations, although they will be encouraging those able to go more than once. There is plenty of work to do in Tokyo for those who can't make it to the North, such as collecting donations and sorting and packaging relief goods (I gather most of the groups of young, cheerful kids collecting donations around Tokyo starting last week are Peace Boat affiliated).

Because there are still basically no services to the north (no power, very little petrol), anyone interested in helping needs to be able to be totally self-supporting for a week at a time. The last thing anyone needs are volunteers who themselves need help. (The one exception was water, which it seemed is supplied – but only a moderate amount for drinking). This is not a complete list, but you will need to have:

-Your own tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping mat (Obviously, groups can share)

-Heavy-duty footwear (Trekking shoes or boots) and multiple changes of clothes appropriate to the conditions (i.e. cold and dirty).

-Eyeglasses, Goggles, or Sunglasses – contact lenses can't be changed or worn under the prevailing conditions

-At least 20,000 yen in cash for one week

-One week worth of food, preferably that doesn't require cooking. If you bring dehydrated food or other stuff that needs hot water, please also bring your own camp stove.

-Eating Utensils

-Writing materials (notebook, ballpoint pen)

-Toilet Paper and Wet-naps – water for washing hands will not be available.

-Toiletries (toothbrush etc), Flashlight, and any necessary medicine

You may also want: work gloves, knife, screwdriver, pliers

-The Peace Boat people weren't explicit about it, but as I've mentioned elsewhere, I think it would be a good idea to get a tetanus shot before going into the area.

Peace Boat does also offer (and may require, I'm not sure) a health and life insurance plan for volunteers, running to about 2000 yen for a week.

Again, more information will be available at an orientation on the 29th. The best way to make sure you get the information is to either join the Facebook group Tokyo Quake Cleanup or follow this blog - I'll be sure to post it to both locations.  And again, they are (quite understandably) not particularly well-equipped to deal with non-Japanese speakers at this point. However, the trip leaving next Friday is expected to have at least some bilingual volunteers who would probably be able to help out a bit.  

Monday, March 21, 2011

Review - Peaking Lights - 936

Peaking Lights - All The Sun That Shines from Not Not Fun on Vimeo.

This has already been reviewed back at Tinymixtapes, but I've been listening the hell out of it, so I thought I'd chime in.  This band has been with me for a while, since they were great friends with the Night People crew back in Iowa City, and would come through a couple times every year between 2007 or so and my departure.  When I first saw them, they were still a fairly sprawly, lo-fi psych act in some sort of Pink Floyd vein, but they quickly got more and more beat-oriented. 936 is the culmination of this - culmination in the sense that it's hard to imagine anyone doing the particular thing Peaking Lights do any better than it's done here.  If Pocohaunted eventually turned into a raging Afrobeat band fronted by teenage girls, Peaking Lights is the Upsetters of American Underground Psych - they lay deeeeeep in the cut, from the ruthlessly minimal Linn drum patterns to the lo fi recordings to the utterly deadpan lead vocals.  If you love analog warmth, tons of reverb and delay, and a steady, relaxed pulse, this is your record.

They have a decent sense with hooks, particularly on the track here, "All the Sun that Shines," but I can't say that's their real attraction.  This is, for better or for worse, a 'background record,' one that I put on while I'm reading, one with a deep atmosphere but not a lot of foreground.  Live, Peaking Lights is one of those bands made for closing your eyes and swaying gently from side to side, and right about now is the time when they have to decide if that's what they always want to be.  But in this moment, listening to this record, I wouldn't want it any other way.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Tokyo Waits for the Other Shoe

Things are extremely odd in Tokyo right now.  On the one hand, many people have returned to work, trains are largely running again, the projected blackout was postponed, and the streets are completely calm.  On the other hand, retail stores are full of people stocking up on water, batteries, flashlights, and candles.  Shelves in convenience stores and places like Don Quixote (sort of like Wal-mart) are emptying of perishables such as bread.  Even smaller stores are getting raided (and by raided, I mean "politely queued up to").  My local butcher is quickly running low.  I got the last pack of tea candles at Tokyu Grocery, which is rationing all drinks to 3 PET bottles per customer.  It seems most people are still unsure what the ripple effects of the quake are going to be.

Crowdsourcing Safety Information: Twitter and the Japan Earthquake

I've spent most of the last three days perched in front of my computer, watching Japanese news, trying to sort and filter the various streams of information coming in via the internet and TV.  Much of this is obviously self-interested, as I've needed to make sure I wasn't about to get poisoned with nuclear fallout or crushed in a particularly heinous aftershock (still not out of the picture).

But I would also like the think there's an element of service to it, as Twitter has become an important new channel of news, and it relies on the participation of a lot of informed people to shape the narratives that emerge from it.  While I'm still not quite able to provide instant and accurate translations of the news coming to me over Japanese TV, I am still in a somewhat privileged position - the U.S. media, with the safety of distance, seems to be getting a little hysterical, while the Japanese news is engaged in a constantly updated filtering of crucial information.

Weirdly, though, the best example of how Twitter can work both positively and negatively has come from someone within Japan.  At about 3pm Japan time on Sunday, Jake Adelstein, mostly known for his fantastic reporting on the Yakuza, started posting claims that elevated radiation levels had been detected in Tokyo, and encouraging people to take precautions including iodine dosing.  He claimed this information came from a well-placed inside source whose identity he could not reveal, and he has sustained a drumbeat of warnings since then.

Adelstein is claiming that the Japanese government has a track record of deception regarding public safety threats - certainly true.  He's also claiming that it's better to be safe than sorry - "I'm posting what I consider the equivalent of O-ring warnings. There is a possibility of disaster. People should know that it's there." But there's a hitch - he's been pushing the iodine thing pretty hard, and at least as far as I've been able to tell, iodine tablets are actually pretty difficult to get in Tokyo.  I'm never in favor of ignorance, but in this case it seems there is no "safe" in the "better safe than sorry" argument, short of a mass evacuation that would probably itself cost lives.  When Adelstein cites unnamed, shady sources claiming hazardous radiation flowing into Tokyo, even if he's right, he's potentially sending people into a panic that can't actually lead them to greater safety or peace of mind.

There's something interesting happening on Twitter around Adelstein - people are studiously ignoring him.  There seems to have been no secondary confirmation of his claims, either from official sources or from any Japanese twitter source that has crossed the language barrier so far.  This is particularly notable given the stew of overstatement that has surrounded the nuclear situation in the English twitterverse.  There are two forces at work here, in real time - those of fear, caution, isolated rumor, and worst-case scenarios, arrayed against those of sanguinity, trust in authority, false security, and even-headedness.  Obviously, each can be characterized as either positive or negative, and only time will tell whether Adelstein is being prudent or alarmist, and whether those ignoring him are being sensible or delusional.  The bigger question is whether Twitter is helping sort this out better than traditional media, but again, I don't think we'll really be able to figure that out until a little ways down the road.

The 2011 Great Touhoku Earthquake: Civilization and Enlightenment Triumphant?

UPDATE: As the New Yorker has pointed out, early casualty estimates have turned out to be vastly short of reality.  This piece was written back when we still thought we'd dodged a bullet, and I'm going to let it stand as evidence of that moment.  More commentary on the process of unfolding knowledge, however, will be forthcoming.

Three days ago I lived through what has now been confirmed as one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history.  Luckily, I was a small but crucial distance from the epicenter, in Tokyo, but the ground here still rolled and tumbled in a way that even Japanese people had never felt before.  For the two or three minutes of the quake, I stood in the doorframe opening onto my porch, watching the tangle of power lines passing along the street sway crazily.  It seemed not just possible, but probable that one or more of the complicated systems that sustain this mass hive of human life would come crashing down, its shards spreading death and destruction.
Tokyo 1923

That didn’t happen – Tokyo stands now almost as if the quake never happened.  Just a few crumbled facades, quickly covered with neat tarps and scaffolding, remain to indicate what happened.  For the moment, we’ve been lucky – by the time it got to Tokyo, the quake was only about a 6.0 magnitude.  But there’s no guarantee that a quake of equal or greater magnitude won’t hit Tokyo more directly, within the next couple of days.  This means we could all be in a new, unpredictable situation with little or no warning.

But what exactly is that situation?  The last major Tokyo quake, the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, struck a much different society.  Compare that quake, a magnitude 7.5 which killed between 100,000 and 140,000 people out of a regional population of 7 million, and the 1995 Kobe quake, a 6.8 in which 6,000 people died out of a total population of something like 1.5 million (That’s the 2006 census number, as I couldn’t quickly find data from the mid-1990s).  The earlier quake killed something like 2% of Tokyo’s population.  The latter, less than 1/10th of 1% of Kobe’s. 

There are too many variables to make the comparison airtight, but it’s obvious that many things changed in the intervening years.   The New York Times did a good job of summing these up – they include training and preparedness, but most important of all is a dedication to buildings that can withstand major quakes.  For anyone who felt Friday’s quake, the fact that Tokyo is standing now is nothing short of a miracle – the way the earth kicked, it seemed like a power pole would have little chance to withstand it, much less a ten-story building.  Even since 1995, the government has stepped up regulations and pressure, which means that unless something pretty extreme hits Tokyo almost dead-on, the damage, while significant, is unlikely to be as cataclysmic as it was in 1923.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a fair amount about a fundamental question – is civilization itself a good or bad idea?  Much prodding has come from my (still pretty limited) reading of Jonathan Zerzan, a major figure in the movement of ‘green anarchists’ who advocate, very broadly, the reversion from advanced capitalism to some modified form of hunter-gatherer society.  As I sit here, waiting for a disastrous quake that could come at literally any second, I’m turning this idea over in my head, still unsure what the quake might make clear.  On the one hand, most of the risk of death in a quake comes from collapsing man-made structures.  More generally, we have built up such a complicated, crowded, and delicately balanced system that it is easier than ever for something like this to cause dramatic losses.  Think about what northern Japan would have been like on Friday if there were no factories, no buildings, and only a few thousand people - it’s clear there would have been nothing like the mass destruction we’ve witnessed.  Quite simply, the level of suffering would have been much, much lower.
Kobe 1995

But there is another way of looking at it, particularly if we shorten the time scale a bit.  Whether you’re talking about a feudal castle, a one-story hovel, or an early-modern brick train station, most of the structures humans have recently called home are horrendously prone to complete collapse in the face of a serious quake.  The past century has finally seen genuinely successful attempts to achieve some safety from this awesome force of nature.  This isn’t just a matter of buildings, either – we’re also now enmeshed in global networks that allow both communication and direct relief to flow into devastated areas.  This can’t save everyone, but it has already saved tens of thousands in the past few days.  And then there’s education –as the Times poignantly points out, many of the dead in the southeast Asian tsunamis of a few years ago were swept out to sea because they failed to evacuate to safety, even though they had plenty of time.  In Japan, evacuation was not complete, but it was still incredibly effective.

Obviously, we’re still far from secure (either on a day to day basis here in Tokyo, or on the larger scale of society as a whole), and it seems unlikely we ever really will be.  But it also seems undeniable that the large-scale organization of human beings, in an explicitly hierarchical way, has produced huge gains in our collective safety.  It’s also important to point out that this isn’t one of those situations where human beings are struggling to solve a problem that they themselves caused.  Tectonic activity is simply something the earth does, with or without our influence.  And while, all other things aside, the growing density of settlement makes the problem progressively worse, where do you draw that line?  Again, a primitive dwelling is at least as prone to kill its inhabitants as a more ‘civilized’ structure, as the comparison between Japan and Haiti makes tragically clear.

Sendai 2011

I’m sure that anarchists of all stripes have answers for what their ideas would mean for the long-term developments of science, of architecture, of organized education, and of communication and mutual support networks.  (And I don't mean to politicize this in some petty, short-term way - dealing with these real issues is why politics matter in the grandest possible sense, and I can't think of a more important time to talk about them).  But having (at least for now) lived through a true existential threat to one of the world’s great civilizations, I find myself comforted by the embrace of Enlightenment.  Maybe it’s the secular version of a deathbed conversion, but I would not have chosen to face the earthquake in a society less advanced, well-organized, and disciplined than Japan.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Japan Quake Update

For anyone who might be checking, I'm fine and things in Tokyo are relatively stable for now.  More soon.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Plato on Music as a Threat to Order

I'm teaching Mladen Dolar's excellent book A Voice and Nothing More, and came across a passage that I had unforgivably forgotten, in which Dolar joins with Plato in laying out the fundamental reason I study music - because it has profound anti-authoritarian potential.  Remember, of course, that Plato himself is rather a Machiavellian apres la lettre.

A change to a new type of music is something to beware of as a hazard of all our fortunes.  For the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions . . . it is here, then, I said, that our guardians must build their guardhouse and post of watch.

It is certain, he said, that this is the kind of lawlessness that easily insinuates itself unobserved.
Yes, said I, because it is supposed to be only a form of play and to work no harm.

Nor does it work any, he said, except that by gradual infiltration it softly overflows upon the characters and pursuits of men and from these issues forth grown greater to attack their business dealings, and from these relations it proceeds agains the laws and the constitution with wanton license, Socrates, till finally it overthrows all things public and private.  (Republic IV, 424c-e)

As Dolar demonstrates, the greatest risk of music comes (according to Plato) when it doesn't match the words, when its meanings are ambiguous or its tone feminine.  Plato elaborates on what follows unregulated music:

So the next stage of the journey toward liberty will be refusal to submit to the magistrates, and on this will follow emancipation from the authority and correction of parents and elders; then, as the goal of the race is approached, comes the effort to escape obedience to the law, and, when that goal is all but reached, contempt for oaths, for the plighted word, and all religion.  The spectacle of the Titanic nature of which our old legends speak is re-enacted; man returns to the old condition of a hell of unending misery. (Laws III, 701 b-c)

Right on, brother.  Right on.