Puppy and Horn

It’s been quite a two weeks! Been traveling a lot. In the upcoming weeks, I’ll talk about my adventures in Washington DC and NYC (yes, again). But I wanted to mention that my piece about puppy and horn was debuted at Third Coast International Audio Festival‘s Listening Event on Wednesday night as a local feature. I’m honored that they planned on playing it even though I couldn’t be there. I wish I could have been there but I was in NYC for a conference to present other work. Alas!


Here’s the link for those who want to listen: http://thirdcoastfestival.org/library/1646-what-happens-when-a-horn-and-dog-get-together

That’s all for now!

ShortDocs Challenge

I’ve talked about my love of Third Coast International Audio Festival before. Well, they are having their 2015 Short Docs competition where people are asked to produce stories with certain rules. This year’s theme is “Studs Rules” after the amazing Studs Terkel. Pieces have to be 2-3 minutes, the title has to start with a question word (Who/What/Where/When/Why), have either a cry of laughter or a shout of silence, and have the phrase “And what happened then?”

Here’s more info at their website:  http://www.thirdcoastfestival.org/competitions/shortdocs/2015

Here’s my submission. This is the second Short Docs I’ve participated in. I’m totally an amateur but I’m proud of this story: “What happens when a horn and dog get together?”

Horn players know what I’m talking about!



Nancy Updike

On Sunday, I had the opportunity to hear Nancy Updike of This American Life at the Third Coast international Audio Festival’s annual conference. I’ve always wanted to go to the conference but could never justify the fees or day off for the three-day conference. This year, they decided to open up the last session to the general public so I had to go.

Her talk was “Nancy Updike’s Favorite Things: Up with the Bad.” She explains: “Fearful people are drawn to scary movies. I’m drawn to stories about embarrassing mistakes, wrong-headedness and vice. Perhaps you see where I’m going with this?” She presented several examples of audio that explored the uncomfortable or relished in the mistakes. She started off with a clip from Steve Martin playing around with the microphone. He starts with some banjo music, then some singing in a possibly made up language. Ms. Updike loved how he basically did whatever he wanted on the mike. There was no obvious agenda. It was just fooling around. And then Steve Martin tells that he claims to aim at plumbers. He repeats that this joke is just for them. He tells the joke and everyone laughs at the punch line. Nancy Updike points out that no one really gets the joke and that is why people are laughing. We are all laughing at our lack of comprehension, seemingly lack of humor in the joke. That’s what is hilarious.

Nancy Updike also talked about this strange fairy tale by Tolstoy about a raven carrying his young sons over water. While flying, he starts to tire so he asks his sons one by one, “Will you carry me in your old age?” The first son lies and says, “Yes of course.” His father senses the lie and lets go. The raven falls to his death. The father picks up the subsequent sons and drops them all as they lie. However, the last one tells the truth: “No. I’ll be too busy with my sons” and the father lets him live. What a strange fairy tale! She talked about how she kept listening to it over and over again as a child, trying to make sense of it. Her best conclusion is that the story is about how terrible things happen in life.

She then talked about how she really loves the wonderful work coming from comedians like Louis C.K. and others. She showcased a clip from Amy Schumer’s show Inside Amy Schumer called “Awful People.” Amy plays a friend who is more concerned with her sandwich than her friend’s lengthy and not entirely relevant 911 story. What Nancy Updike loved about this sketch was how it captured our daily lives so well. All of us have been on both sides of the conversation. Sometimes we are the friend pretending to listen and sometimes we are the friend who is telling a lengthy irrelevant story that could be summed up in one sentence.

Nancy Updike then shared with us a clip from the WTF podcast with Marc Maron. From what I understand, it’s an interview show with other comedians. She talked about how he has a tendency to launch himself headlong into serious issues like race and politics. She shared this raw clip where Marc Maron makes an enormous gaffe where he mistakes Jamaica for Haiti. And it’s horribly uncomfortable for him. The comedian he is interviewing is totally riffing off of his mistake and it is hilarious. And one point, Marc Maron comments that he can’t even edit out this humiliation since it’s a live show. Nancy Updike’s response was “Thank God!” that he couldn’t edit it out.

Then Nancy Updike talked about an awkward scene from Love + Radio, a podcast about “all of life’s gray areas on an eclectic range of subjects, from the seedy to the sublime.” She talks about an interview with a man who ran a strip club from his apartment. It’s quite a tense situation; the man is constantly making comments about how the interviewers have no interest in hiring a stripper. It’s rather menacing at points; he even pulls out a gun at one point. Ms. Updike talked about how this work really brings you into the room so you too can feel the implied threat.

Finally, she ended her speech by talking about Serial. It’s a new podcast from the same people as This American Life. Sarah Koenig is the host and the executive producer and Ira Glass is the Editorial Advisor. It’s a podcast that follows one story week after week. It’s about 1999 murder case involving high school students. A young man was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend and has been in jail for fifteen years. It’s an incredibly compelling podcast. Sarah Koenig really makes you want to hear more. I can’t wait for the next installment. I go back and forth whether I think the young man is guilty or innocent of the crime. I love the ambiguity of the show.

Nancy Updike first prefaced her comments to explain that while the show is from the same folks from This American Life, she had nothing to do with the show itself. She walked us through the first few minutes of the first episode to explain how it was that Sarah Koenig drew us in. The first minute of the show explores the concept of memory and time. If you had to account for what you did in a specific period of time last Wednesday, could you do it? She then interviewed some teenagers and asked them what they did two Fridays ago. And the results were what you expected. Vague recollections, and contradictions. Because it’s hard to recall a regular day. Then Sarah Koenig points out: What if you had to account for an hour on a day six weeks ago? Or realistically 22 minutes if you had to? And that’s how she draws you into a 15 year old case. Those 22 minutes of time. Very neat.

Nancy Updike assembled a rather unusual selection of strange, even awkward, pieces. I think she suggests that we need to revel in the grey spaces, the in-between places. Radio/podcasts don’t have to just be polished and perfect; there’s value in the awkwardness, the ambiguous, the unsaid menace, and more. It’s about telling all kinds of stories, even if they don’t make sense all the time or are really embarrassing.

That’s all for now!

Battle of the Bands

Earlier this week, I went to the“Battle of the Bands and the Beers.” It was orchestral Chicago Sinfonietta facing off against punk marching band, Mucca Pazza, at the Chicago Symphony Center. There was also a beer tasting by Two Brothers Brewery.

I was there because of Mucca Pazza. I love them. I’m extremely fond of brass instruments (the tuba is my spirit animal) and love marching bands. Mucca Pazza is one of my favorite bands in Chicago. They compose their own music, wear mismatching band outfits, and they wander around the audience. You really never know what they are going to do in a show. I’ve seen them with My Brightest Diamond, a 100th birthday celebration for Studs Terkel. Wherever there is Mucca Pazza, good times are assured. And if that wasn’t enough, I also have a friend who is a cheerleader who wears the t-shirt “I heart scientists.” So I went to see Mucca Pazza on the Chicago Symphony Stage. This was a most excellent performance.

I had never seen nor heard of Chicago Sinfonietta before I got a random mailing about the concert. From its bio in the program, the orchestra seems to be an alternative to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I think it strives to be more diverse in music. They don’t stick to the classical repertoire but branch out into other styles. Hence the joint show with Mucca Pazza.

The set list was quite unusual. All the songs seemed to be based on folk songs. The first set of songs was “English Folk Song Suite” by Vaughn Williams. As the title suggests, he incorporated British folk songs into this orchestral piece. Florence Price, who was the first African-American female composer to debut on the CSO stage in 1933, composed the second suite: “Dance of the Canebrakes.” The conductor noted that this might be the third time this piece has ever been performed. It was quite lovely. Benjamin Britten composed the third piece “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 14.” The piece features various sections of the orchestra, like the violins, the brass, etc. They are supposed to battle each other. Apparently, while it’s intended to teach children about the orchestra, it’s really hard to play. I really liked the beginning and end, but I got lost in the middle. Alas.

And then it was the second act. Mucca Pazza crept on stage from all sides. Musicians shielded their faces from the audience with their horns, drums and pom poms. And then the music began to play. Half the band emerged from the piano elevator in the middle of the stage. What a lovely entrance! They played their classic “Holiday on Ice.” It was full of vim and vigor. It was great to have the band and orchestra both play. It added to the majesty and silliness. The cello section actually spun their cellos during the piece. Kudos for that! Then the cheerleaders began a falsetto version of “Brother John” or “Frere Jacques,” which was a fantastic bridge to Mahler’s “Excerpt from Symphony No. 1 in D Major.” In the piece, he turned this children’s song into a funeral dirge. Lovely. Then Mucca Pazza came back and played my favorite song “Rabbits and Trees.” Again, the stage was filled with dancing brass players. The song ended with someone’s head in a tuba. Who could ask for anything more?

And then there was the finale. It was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The Sinfonietta played the Russians, and Mucca Pazza was the invading French. I had not known that I wanted to see this but I’m glad that they met this unrecognized need. It was positively brilliant! The orchestra played their section, inspired by Russian folk songs, while Mucca Pazza members periodically appeared in the wings, on the balcony, even in the seats. During one vignette, members of the band traveled across the stage as if they were soldiers on their way to Russia. Or the bandleader, who has magnificent muttonchops, appeared randomly and glowered menacingly at the Sinfonietta. Several times a random band member ran across the stage holding a tiny canon. It was so wonderful that you should be sad that you missed it. Sadly, history was against them. Mucca Pazza all died at the end of the piece, falling down on stage and the balcony. But I believe that they won this battle regardless.

What a show! I can’t wait to see what Mucca Pazza has in store for us next.

That’s all!


Listening Room with Nate DiMeo of the memory palace

On Thursday night, I went to another “Listening Room” hosted by Third Coast International Audio festival at the Logan Theater in Logan Square. This was a special Listening Room since it was a conversation with Nate DiMeo of the memory palace. I’ve only heard Memory Palace once or twice before on 99% Invisible. Basically, it’s a podcast about true stories in history. But it’s really more than that. Nate DiMeo creates an entire world with each piece that you become part of. And it doesn’t matter what it’s about. He’s just that good of a storyteller.

The first story “Distance” that they played was about a young artist in the early 19th century. He receives a commission to paint Lafayette in DC so he left his pregnant wife. After several days of travel, he sits waiting for this important person, when he gets a knock at the door. When he answers, he finds an exhausted messenager who has a short message: “Your wife is convalescent.” The artist immediately gets on his horse, rides non-stop for several days. He arrives to find that not only has his wife passed away, she was buried during his time of travel. Heartbroken, he decides to invent something to prevent these things from happening again. So he invents the telegraph. This was Samuel Morse.

Another piece they played was “Picture a Box”. It’s one of the host’s favorite pieces on radio. It’s the incredible story of a slave who mailed himself to freedom. Go check it out because you have to listen to the story to do it justice. It’s not the story you think it is. It’s about the true meaning of freedom in a way that few think about it.

When the host asked about how much embellishment Nate DiMeo adds, he explained that he tried to stay away from playing fast and loose with the facts. He explained that his background as a journalist makes him want to focus only on what is known. And if he does take liberties, he bases it on fact so that he can defend the choice.

In addition to the memory palace, Nate DiMeo has been working on the miniseries about astronaut wives. So since he was spending a lot of time on the subject of space, he recently did a piece called “The Glowing Orbs.” It’s about John Glenn’s experience with glowing orbs as he orbited the earth. Out of nowhere, he finds himself surrounded by these beautiful orbs that reaffirms his faith in God. The piece is a beautiful meditation on belief. In the Q&A, Nate DiMeo explained that he’s more of an atheist but you had to think about other people’s beliefs seriously. However, he thinks that the beauty of the moment is even heightened when you do find out what the glowing orbs turn out to be.

My favorite piece of the evening was “Dreamland.” It’s about a Coney Island amusement park by the same name. Nate DiMeo creates this beautiful image of the park, describing all of the wonders it contained. You felt like you were there for a few minutes. Such powerful radio. He told us that his five year old daughter loves this piece and would go to sleep to it for awhile. It’s made her understand what her father does even for a moment.

And he apparently wrote some episodes and the book for Parks and Recreation. That’s just icing on the cake.

So I have a new podcast to check out. Huzzah! I love Listening Rooms.

That’s all for now!

Review: Live Welcome to Night Vale

On Saturday, we had the pleasure to go see the Welcome to Night Vale live at the Athenaeum Theater. I have mentioned previously that Welcome to Night Vale is one of my favorite podcasts; it’s the only fictional podcast that I listen to. When I heard it was coming to Chicago, I was so excited that I marked my work calendar so I could buy tickets the second they were available. We ended up front and center, which was pretty great.

I can’t go into great detail about the show since they asked us not to. (The episode is neat). But I’ll talk about the experience. The best thing was to actually see Cecil Gershwin deliver his radio. We were about 10 feet from him so we got see all of his facial expressions, his hand movements, and other body language. It was marvelous. Unsurprisingly, he brought a lot of energy to the show. There was also wonderful back and forth with various special guests that he had on the show.  The musical guest was pretty cool too.

But as much as I am happy to have gone, I felt something was lacking. I haven’t seen a lot of live broadcasts of radio programs but I can’t help to compare it to live RadioLab at the Chicago Theater in 2012. Now, I enjoy RadioLab but it’s not part of regular podcast rotation. Not sure why, but it’s not. The show was brilliant because they really worked with visual aspect of the show. The creators acknowledged that there were 1000 people in the audience and worked to make it interesting for them to see and listen. The episode focused on the eye so they had some wonderful pieces around it. They walked us through the evolution of the eyeball using a giant model and light. And there was a dance of the eyeballs, which was splendid. At the beginning, the theatre handed out little lights to all the audience members. At a designated time in the show, they turned down the lights, and we all turned on our little lights. It was a theatre of stars. Unforgettable.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with sitting and listening to audio collectively as an audience (Listening Rooms are incredible) but I think I expected more from live Welcome to Night Vale. They did do a nice job of bringing the audience into the show but I think they could have worked on the visual aspect. I’m not asking for a lot but I think the creators could have made it more interactive. There were posters outside the theatre about the dog park, the mayoral campaign, and the Sheriff’s Secret Police, which was a great start. But I think they can push the live experience.

Maybe with actual throat spiders or something.

Anyway, I’m happy I went and I’ll go again if they come back. I just hope that it’s a little bit more complete of an experience.

Review: The Girls in the Band

Last night, I went to see The Girls in the Band, a documentary about female jazz musicians at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It was absolutely inspiring. It focused largely of the women in the golden age of jazz in the 1930s and 1940s but it talked about the present day.

Until I read this amazing review in the Chicago Tribune, it hadn’t even occurred to me that I didn’t know the name of a single female horn player or a drummer. Not a one.  And I love jazz and play the saxophone. I know that there were some pianists and definitely singers. And that’s a damn shame. And here’s just a few incredible woman mentioned in the documentary: Rox Cron, saxophonist; Melba Liston, trombonist; Marian McPartland, pianist; Clora Bryant, trumpeter; Vi Redd, saxophonist; and Mary Lou Williams, pianist and composer. And many more.
This documentary was a wonderful mix of the lives of various musicians working in all girl bands or mixed gender bands. The film contained lots of amazing footage of these bands and the individual musicians rocking out in their solos. They detailed their highlights, like when Roz Cron was invited to join the interracial band International Sweethearts of Rhythm or when the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival got Melba Liston to start playing trombone again. They also mentioned the importance of Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis Armstrong’s second wife, who played a pivotal part in his career. She was a great pianist and composer in her own right, and even died in the middle of a concert in memory of her late ex-husband.
The women detailed their low points, like when the International Sweethearts of Rhythm went on tour in the Jim Crow South. The band was particularly dangerous since it had two white women in it. Interracial anything was considered taboo and dangerous. They talked about the double standard of appearance. Men could be old, graying, rotund and/or wear glasses. Women, on the other hand, were expected to look like movie stars. Promoters would ask for girls to be removed if they weren’t pretty enough, disregarding their talent. Sometimes they’d be forced to wear ridiculous outfits like pink frilly dresses.
My only comment is that the documentary did a lot to discuss race and gender, I wish it had spent some time talking about sexuality. It briefly mentioned how women were not allowed to wear saddle shoes since it was considered a sign of homosexuality. But that’s as much as it got. It would have been nice to have talked about gender norms and sexuality of the musicians.
So if you like women’s history, jazz history, or just great music, check out this documentary. Help make future generations of musicians know the names of the foremothers!