Monday on the stage with Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim joined us for an intimate spoken word event here Monday night. Well, it was “intimate” in the sense that it featured the legendary composer in a free-flowing conversation with KCRW’s literary luminary and admitted musical-theater lover Michael Silverblatt and not-so-intimate in the sense that there were about 1,600 fans watching it happen.

Sondheim was all charm, some self-deprecation and just the right amount of self-aware egoism. His piercing intellect and sieve-like memory played well against Silverblatt’s fanboy demeanor and played right into the audience’s expectations.

Good-naturedly and with the wisdom of hindsight, Sondheim plunged right into discussion of works widely thought of as flops, such as his first introduction to Broadway working on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s  Allegro and his collaboration with Arthur Laurents in Anyone Can Whistle, during which Sondheim said he discovered “the difference between being smart and a smart-ass.”

He talked about the joy and freedom that comes from working on off-Broadway productions versus the harsh audience- and producer-expectations from Broadway itself, sharing starkly honest opinions and recollections from his vast career, which are also peppered throughout the recently released book Finishing the Hat, the first of a two-volume anthology of his lyrics.

When asked about his writing process he said he tries to write “away from the piano,” especially as he gets older, because while writing at the piano is fun, “you’re limited by your own technique,” and often apt to fall into old habits, use the same chords out of sheer muscle memory.

Sondheim turned 80 this spring and during his appearance at UCLA Live, recalled how the New York Times helped commemorate his 70th birthday, with this article discussing a selection of songs Sondheim says he wishes he’d written.

Sondheim and Silverblatt had a chuckle of the inclusion of “Silverware,” on that list. It’s an incongruously themed ditty  from We Take the Town, a musical version of Viva Villa, based on the life of Pancho Villa. With lyrics from dentist-turned-songwriter Matt Dubey and music from Harold Karr, it is sung by a group of bandits.

“It’s one of the greatest songs ever written,” Sondheim replied to Silverblatt’s dubious question about why that song made the list. “It’s completely unique.”

” But, it’s a Mexican Salsa song sung by bandits on a raid” Silverblatt clarified with a chuckle.

“Yes,” Sondheim agreed gleefully. “It’s a happy song about killing.”

It’s more difficult to write a funny song than a dramatic one, Sondheim said later in the evening.

“It’s easy to write a clever song, but to get a laugh in a song, that’s hard.”

When pressed as to whether he’s been successful at that Sondheim said: “I say with no modesty at all, I can write a funny song.”

And he surely can, just like he can charmingly entrance a packed-house audience while  seated on a dark stage with just his ruminating mind and a fellow lover of musicals to bounce thoughts off of.

No accompaniment necessary.

There’s Power in a Union

Billy Bragg walked onstage Friday night in Royce Hall with a couple of guitars and a cup of tea and held us all right in his grasp.

Bragg’s penchant for rabble-rousing rhetoric is well known among his fans, as much as his thoroughly thought-provoking lyrics, hooky riffs, raw, aching and yet-subtly controlled vocals and his clear and absolute sense of his musical self and personal mission. Those of us who’ve known and loved him well for years were not disappointed. He peppered his songs with effortless soapbox interstitials on the political state of his and our country, the dangerous and polarizing effect of our sensational media outlets and their pundits–or “peddlers of hate” as he dubbed them in a new song titled “There Will Be A Reckoning”–alongside tongue-in-cheek criticism of American football and American tea.

Bragg has a political agenda, to be sure. It may not match your own, but even so, you have to respect the way he stays true to his own ideology–talking, writing and singing about it with great logic and more than a little wit, wisdom and warmth, all of which is truly inspiring to witness in person. Really, you would have to be a complete cynic to not have felt just a little inspired by ‘the bard of Barking’ Friday night.

And the man himself used much of his set to warn us all against the dangers of cynicism and exhort us not to give up hope in a time of political turmoil.

It’s human to doubt, and good to have healthy skepticism, but “our greatest enemy is cynicism,” he admonished us. “I battle my own cynicism every day, but I get to come out here in the dark and talk to you and you all cheer for me and it helps.”

Bragg admitted he’s always been a “glass-half-full guy,” and it’s easy to scoff at people like that.

But, he said…if you want to make things better in this world, “half-full is a damn good place to start.”

There’s Power in a Union, he reminded us at the end of his set. This battle-cry song has always struck a nostalgic and emotional chord with me, having grown up a Teamster’s daughter. And, it struck a chord with more than just me Friday night, judging by the immediate and immense standing ovation it was met with.

But I’ve always also felt the dual message in that song and I felt it again Friday night. There’s power in a union, but not just in the organized-labor-protective-group definition of the word. There’s also power in a union of people, in a meeting of the minds, in a union of purpose.

The night yielded one such union, when Billy joined the indefatigable Mavis Staples on stage to perform the gospel staple The Weight. Their union on that stage held a simple purpose, to generate a massive amount of joy and share it with everyone in the room.

Mavis and her band kept that pure joy flowing for the rest of the evening and by the end of her set, every seat in the hall was empty because we were all standing, hands thrust in the air, joining in the repeated phrase “I’ll take you there,” witnessing the great power of great music to join us all in a singular purpose.

Even if that purpose was simply enjoying a musical legend performing and manifesting pure hope and joy, well, that’s a damn good place to start.

Mavis and Billy definitely took us somewhere Friday night. It’s nowhere I’ve ever been before, and perhaps I’ll never get there again. But it was a heck of a visit, that’s for sure.

Were you with me? Share your favorite moment from the night.

Free (jazz) your mind…and see what follows

Ornette Coleman was here.

Such a simple sentence to write. But really my feeling while writing that sentence is more like the feeling you get when you see a name etched into a tree bark, a random piece of concrete or an ancient stone in a faraway  country…an evocative feeling, tickling at your brain, making you stop and take notice of that name, that etching, even if it’s not a name you recognize, not a person you know.

Someone was there. Someone was here. Wherever “here” or “there” or “someone” might be….

Well last night, that someone was Ornette Coleman.  And that somewhere was here. And, perhaps unsurprisingly to music lovers who know him well—to put it simply, watching and hearing his performance made me think. About a lot of things. I confess, prior to this UCLA Live season and all the promotion around last night’s event, I was not well-versed in Coleman’s style or repertoire, or really free jazz in general. How sad for all the music-loving years behind me, how fortunate for those ahead of me and how gloriously present that moment in time was last night.

For me, watching Ornette Coleman and his amazing fellow musicians, Tony Falanga on standup bass, his son Denardo on the drums, Al Macdowell on electric bass—was incredibly mentally freeing.

Perhaps that presentness is the intent of the genre itself. I found the unfettered instrumental voices so inspiring and surprisingly non-frenetic even in such a playground of improvisational experimentation, perhaps that’s due to the remarkable presence of the man leading the charge.

It made me think: “Wow this is exactly what’s happening right now.” The highlight for me was a lengthy riff on Bach’s flowing Cello Suite during which it was like each instrument on stage was speaking words from the same poem, but in entirely different languages and in an entirely different stanza order.

And, when Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea hopped onstage for the final few songs, he added not only another ridiculous bass line to try and wrap our heads around, but his own infectious energy, green hair bouncing in time to the cacophony.

Flea’s admiration for Ornette Coleman is well and widely known and after the show backstage, he let a little  endearing nervousness slip. “Were you guys out there in the audience? Did it sound OK? Man, I wish I’d gotten to practice with those guys first.” (Flea showed up well before the performance, but after sound check, clearly in a rush, but also clearly thrilled to get on stage with a man who’s a personal icon of his.)

Yeah Flea, it sounded OK.

It sounded way more than OK. It sounded like freedom of thought, of hope and of purpose.

I was already convinced after reading this interview with Ornette Coleman, that the man’s mind just doesn’t vibrate on the same level as most humans, mine included. But during and after the show, his skill set my mind reeling, thinking about music, about human nature, about art and love and hope and left me grasping for a way to describe that feeling.

“I seek to play pure emotion,” Coleman’s quote in the program notes reads. Mission accomplished.

Another quote popped in my head as I was thinking about the show just now…I think it will serve to encapsulate how this show made me feel. It’s something  that resonated with me when I first read it and has stuck in my head since, a comment made by Entertainment Weekly blogger Jeff  “Doc” Jensen in his recap of the final episode of “Lost.” (random connection, I know! What happened to my brain?!)

‎”The best we can do is live our lives with enlightened improvisation — to be so self-aware and fearless that we can live fully in the present and redeem our every moment and every human connection.”

Thanks to Ornette Coleman for reminding me of the beauty, emotion and magic in enlightened improvisation.

And thanks to any and all of you who shared in that with us last night.

Acclaimed author Dave Eggers Talks About Listening, Vigilance and the Power of One Family’s Story

Author Dave Eggers joined us here in Royce Hall last night as a sort of culmination/celebration of this year’s Common Book program. More than 6,000 incoming freshman and transfer students were given and asked to read and participate in discussions around Eggers most recent book Zeitoun, which chronicles the story of an American-Muslim family living in New Orleans when Katrina hit and their subsequent and eye-opening struggle within the maelstrom of what became an appallingly broken system of government.

There is power in a story, and there is power in truly listening to another person’s story, Eggers told an audience of UCLA students, staff, faculty and a smattering of UCLA Live patrons last night.

“If you give anyone your time,” he said. “You discover anyone is worth a novel.”

Eggers immersed himself in the story of the Zeitoun family after encountering their plight through his independent publishing company McSweeneys ongoing oral-history project “Voice of Witness” in a collection of stories around the theme “Surviving Injustice.”

If you’ve read the book, you know why the story of Zeitoun relates to the idea of “surviving injustice.” If you haven’t, here’s the plot in a nutshell.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-born Muslim settled in New Orleans and married a New Orleans-native American woman who had converted to Islam prior to their meeting. Together they built not only a family, but an example of the American dream, with a thriving construction business in the city. He became well-known in New Orleans as a respected contractor and a devoted husband and father. When Katrina hit, his family evacuated and he stayed behind, paddling the flooded streets in an old canoe with a single paddle, trying to help fellow stranded storm survivors, feeding abandoned pets, sharing meager supplies with others, checking on his multiple properties in the town, until one day he and three other men (one a friend and fellow Muslim) were arrested for suspicion of looting and dumped in a makeshift prison at the Greyhound station that had miraculously sprung up just days after the levees broke, while most of the country was watching news reports  of bungled FEMA deployment of disaster aid and people with no access to water or escape.

The system was broken.

Zeitoun and his friends were not officially charged, arraigned, given a phone call, access to a lawyer or access to information. Eventually they were transferred to a maximum security prison in the area, Hunt Correctional. Zeitoun spent more than three weeks in prison on no charges, granted no access to the outside world and given no opportunity to inform his frantic family (which included not only his wife and children, but his ten very concerned siblings spread across the world), until a compassionate preacher visiting the jail to deliver books to the inmates took pity on him and passed along a message to Zeitoun’s wife Kathy, who had been grieving her husband as possibly dead.

The book centers on the storm and the appalling aftermath from the perspective of this one family alone, but it also illuminates the larger back story of this family in particular, in their faith, their pasts, their hopes and dreams, their love for each other and their investment in their own community.

Eggers said he was intrigued by the Zeitouns from his first meeting with them several years before the book ever came to close to being published, sitting in their rebuilt home, surrounded by the “beautiful chaos” of the children underfoot, the coming and going of employees and the plethora of rescued animals the family is wont to take in.

He knew this was a story he could dive into for some time, and he knew that that’s what it would take to do it right. He had just spent four years researching and writing his previous mostly nonfiction work What is the What, about refugees from the Sudanese Civil War and subsequently spent nearly that much time immersing himself into the Zeitoun’s story.

“I’m not fast,” he said, slightly sheepishly. “I want to know someone’s whole life.”

Eggers knew the way to tell this story was to tell as much of the story of the Zeitoun’s life as possible, even the parts unrelated to what happened after Katrina.

“A story has to work on so many levels,” he said. “It has to intrigue the reader on many levels; it has to have a depth and a scope that is emotionally rewarding. I didn’t want [this book] to be just about the victimization of this man.”

Eggers spent years interviewing the Zeitouns, their friends and family members, listening to phone calls between Abdulrahman’s wife Kathy and his  technophile brother living in Spain who had saved everything, effectively re-living the frustration and fear this family felt over the uncertainty around Zeitoun’s fate as he was cut off from them in prison. Eggers spent hours with the arresting officer who first picked up Zeitoun and his friends, finagled his way into visiting Hunt correctional facility and made periodic trips to the Greyhound station that served as a makeshift prison camp to get a visual image of the places Zeitoun was held.  He repeatedly canvassed the New Orleans city streets with Zeitoun, recounting the people and places the man encountered in his canoe in the early days after the storm.

Eggers’ storytelling tactic pointedly and purposely does not ever step away from the spotlight of the Zeitoun family and their experience. It doesn’t leap to other external perspectives from the time.

Shining the light on this family would automatically bring to light the larger themes and issues our country was facing of the time, Eggers said he hoped.

He was right. Several UCLA Live staffers, myself included, served as Common Book “ambassadors.” We read the book and participated in discussion groups with incoming freshman. Harboring my own indignation at this story coupled with my personal remembrance of the news reports around the events of Katrina and my indignant reaction then, it was so interesting to hear these younger perspectives.

For most of them, Katrina and the subsequent governmental failures were rather remote. They were young teenagers at the time; many had no idea the extent of the damage and system failures until they encountered the story of the Zeitouns. Many admitted they had not paid much attention to the news at the time Katrina occurred.

Eggers said the original plan was to change the name of the family and fictionalize some of the locations. He was worried that shining too bright of a light including specifics on business and home locations on a Muslim-American family that was (and still is) embroiled in lawsuits “with everyone from the local police up to George Bush” would bring persecution or retribution.

But Abdulrahman Zeitoun wanted his name on this story. Working on this book had become a catharsis, an “unburdening,” a place to funnel anger and frustration and perhaps heal, Eggers said.

And in fact, when it came to public response to the book, the opposite of original expectations happened.

“All our fears were unfounded,” Eggers said, marveling as he recounted the outpouring of phone calls, letters, emails—even in one case, a personal visit from a Texas pastor—from so many average Americans expressing their disbelief, dismay and, surprisingly enough, even apologies for what happened to the Zeitouns.

It is a sense of responsibility, Eggers said. It was as though everyday people believe so strongly in the ideals of this country that, we feel responsible when the government  falls short of those ideals.

And, Eggers hopes there is something to learn from this story and the thousands of others yet to be told from this time and place in our modern history. He specifically cited the example of two high-school teachers from Ohio who were arrested the day before Katrina hit for public drunkenness, caught up in the storm and shuffled through the broken system, where they months in maximum security prison, simply because the normal process of paperwork and organization that would have freed them had become nonexistent. Just a few weeks ago, Eggers said, this couple was awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in a lawsuit. They are the first two people of many outstanding cases to find retribution from this broken system.

There are still “deep scars” in New Orleans, he says.  But the Zeitoun family is still there. They won’t leave. They are committed to rebuilding.

“You can’t budge him,” Eggers says of Abdulrahman. All proceeds from the book Zeitoun go to the Zeitoun Foundation, which spreads funds among nonprofits working to rebuild New Orleans.

Having this book be part of the UCLA Common Book program helps that effort, Eggers said. And he hopes it also just might  help us all become better listeners and more aware.

It is our job as humans to listen, to remain constantly vigilant over the maintenance of our ideals to ensure that one day there might just be a shortage of stories such as this to tell, Eggers said.

“We can’t ever assume that [the system] doesn’t require our constant attention,” he said.

And So It Begins…

Whew…We kicked off our 2010-11 season this week with two packed-house performances from wildly different waves of the music spectrum, vaunting Thursday night from John Cale, perhaps the most experimental rocker in the world (be sad if you missed his twisted take on Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel”), to Saturday night’s world music fiesta from the superbly talented musicians of Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano.

John Cale at UCLA Live photo credit Reed Hutchinson

Both performances also featured guest appearances from artists who have been influenced by the headliners.

For John Cale that was Ben Gibbard and Mark Lanegan. Indie/alt-rock fans and KCRW-types need no introduction to these two amazing musicians, but just in case, Gibbard is the Death Cab for Cutie singer (whose “Plans” vocals are the soundtrack to one of my past breakups) and Lanegan is the much-coveted singer/songwriter and Screaming Trees founder who’s collaborated with everyone from Queens of the Stone Age, Belle & Sebastian’s Isobell Campbell, UNKLE, and one John Cale.

Getting these two on stage with Cale was surprisingly easy. They are both huge fans of the pop icon who expressed interest in simply attending the show and then immediately jumped at the chance to join the show when Cale extended the offer. And, they were incredibly gracious and allowed us to tout their guest appearances leading up to the night. It all came together less than a week before the actual performance and I think it really made for a special UCLA Live evening.

Going over the set list with Cale’s manager before the show I was intrigued at the possibility of an encore featuring all three of these artists. Frankly I was wondering how that might work out. When it comes to vocal range and style things don’t get much different than Ben’s sweet purity and Mark’s dark,  loin-stirring bass (oh yeah I went there, listen to this song and see if you don’t agree).

But Cale’s “Chorale,” which closed out the show, featuring the trio in periodic a capella was simply one of the most beautiful and spontaneous music moments I’ve ever heard. I was backstage when the song started and had to run down into the house to get the full effect.

John Cale (R) with Ben Gibbard and Mark Lanegan at UCLA Live Sept. 30. Photo by Reed Hutchinson

As for Mariachi Los Camperos, the group’s guest stars were Los Angeles-native songstress Perla Batalla and also Angeles Ochoa, one of the most beloved voices in Mexican music, who joined Los Camperos in their second set decked out in traditional mariachi garb and with her amazing pipes on full display. Backstage, Angeles celebrated her birthday with cake and her friends and family who were in the house.

Speaking of backstage…Nati Cano is just as mischievous, ingratiating and full of mirth there as he is in front of the crowd. And, the exceptionally sharp 77-year-old doesn’t miss a beat when talking about his beloved mariachi music.

Friday morning, Los Camperos put on a special educational show for 1,000 Los Angeles middle and high-school aged students as part of our community program Design for Sharing.

Backstage after that event, I told Mr. Cano how much I enjoyed the music. I think I said the word “amazing.”

He looked me in the eye and said “Why? Why did you enjoy it? Why did you think it was amazing?”

It kind of took me aback and challenged me to verbalize what I meant. I told him how impressed I was at the group’s musicality, the sheer vocal prowess and incredible harmonies of all the singers and their stunning instrumentality.

“Ohh, he said,” with a smile and a little glint in his eye. “You are new to mariachi….we are going to spoil you.”

Another staffer told me she had a similar encounter with the mariachi maestro. He told her that he always asks people “why”—when they offer compliments, inspiring them to really think about their experience with the music.

In honor of Nati and all those experiences he has instigated over the course of a half-century, Perla Batalla, with her effortless charm, warmed up Saturday night’s audience with groovy, jazzy takes on several traditional Mexican and Latin classics. She told stories of growing up in Los Angeles listening to Los Camperos’ mariachi music with her record-store owning parents–what she called “the soundtrack of her childhood.”

“Let’s show Nati how much we love him,” she said, encouraging the audience to sing along to a rousing Batalla-style version of “Guantanamera.”

And we did…oops I mean “they did.” (Aww what the heck, I admit it, I sang along too.)

One cool thing about both of these performances for us was being able to have UCLA student musicians as part of the events.

John Cale’s appearance here was the West Coast debut performance of his seminal album Paris 1919, which he recorded in Los Angeles in 1972 backed by some USC music students. Weirdly, somehow, all those years ago, the record label credited the performers on the album as the UCLA Orchestra.

Oops.

Obviously, the label execs were clueless as to the extremely important distinction between Trojan and Bruin. 🙂

Well, we were able to officially write UCLA back into the story of one of Cale’s most critically acclaimed solo albums last Thursday, by having members of the UCLA Philharmonia on stage with the legendary artist.

John Cale with members of the UCLA Philharmonia at UCLA Live Sept. 30. Photo by Reed Hutchinson

Most, if not all, of the students on stage that night were not even a glint in their parents’ respective eyes when that album was recorded, but they did an incredible job. Watching them from backstage I was very impressed, especially during a truly lovely arrangement of Cale’s “Secret Corrida,” which does not appear on the Paris 1919 album, but that Cale has been including on this tour with this arrangement because of the access to the orchestra.

I was watching the concertmaster and was struck at how truly fine these musicians are. They are already professionals in their own right with many years of concert halls in their future. On a personal note, 20 years ago, I was going to college on an orchestral-music scholarship. I know how much it would have meant to me to be part of an evening like that. I think (I hope) it’s something they will remember for their entire careers.  I think we should all take advantage of their performance schedule this year.

And on Saturday night, we had the opportunity to involve more student musicians.

Did you know UCLA has its very own mariachi group?

Well, we do! They’re called Mariachi de UCLAtlan and they’re GOOD. (But, perhaps that’s to be expected, after all their teacher/director is Jesus “Chuy” Guzman, who is also the musical director/violin player/vocalist in Mariachi Los Camperos.)

We were thrilled they were willing and able to join the party Saturday night, but I think they might have even been more thrilled to be included.

Mariachi de UCLAtlan at UCLA Live Oct. 2. Photo by Romeo Guzman

And it became clear very early that the audience definitely was thrilled to have them there.

At first the, UCLA Mariachi group delighted the crowd playing in front of Royce, and while it was quite a beautiful sight to see them spread out making music in the quad, with the glow of Powell Library’s clock tower beaming down like a halo, we very quickly discovered the crowd was so delighted to listen to them that people weren’t moving inside for the actual show.

We moved the UCLAtlan onto the patio outside the West Lobby to lure patrons into the house. I couldn’t help but smile as the crowd sang along. And, even though  they were about to go inside and hear MORE mariachi music from some of the world’s best purveyors of the art form, perhaps hear even some of the same traditional songs, still, after every song the student group played, the crowd cried “Otra! Otra!” We had to pull the performers away to get the crowd inside the hall.

Mariachi de UCLAtlan at UCLA Live Oct. 2. Photo by Romeo Guzman

Once inside, though, Los Camperos did not disappoint. I think we were all a little spoiled that night!

It was a great way to start the season. It’s true, as an organization, UCLA Live is in the throes of transition. It’s definitely a transitional year for us as we move forward with this season as simultaneously the University searches for a new director to lead UCLA Live.

Transition brings change and challenge, but it also brings hopefulness and opportunity. Change isn’t bad. It is the thing that inspires growth and thought and we are looking forward. We’re proud of the role we play in the cultural life of UCLA and the greater Los Angeles community and are committed to the role we know we will continue to play.

We think, and we know UCLA leadership shares this belief, that performing art is important to the flavor, language and experience of life in any city, but especially here in this enviable environment (meaning both the UCLA campus and Los Angeles at large), where we are so demographically diverse, so inspirationally creative and so open to new experiences.

And honestly, if these first two performances are any indication of the vibe that our performers, donors, subscribers, patrons, UCLA students, faculty, staff are going to bring to Royce Hall this year, then we are all in for a treat.

I know it’s my job to be perky and excited about our performers and our program, but believe me, it’s also my sincere pleasure.

So, I say thank you to everyone involved in these first two performances and thank you to everyone who turned out and danced, sang along and marveled at the incredible and varied musicianship in Royce Hall this weekend.

There’s definitely more to come.

What are you NOT listening to?

That’s a weird question to ask right? I mean, how do you know what you’re not listening to? But as a music lover, do you ever wonder about all the great music you have yet to encounter? I know I do.

As we get ready for a season of great music here at UCLA Live, I’ve been digging around getting more informed on our lineup–which I admit, includes a wealth of artists I’ve not encountered before–educating myself on all that music I haven’t been listening to.

I found this article from last spring from NPR’s “All Songs Considered” program.

Music You Should Love But Don’t

The article specifically mentions a couple of artists UCLA Live has been proud to present, including the up-and-coming guitarist from Mali, Vieux Farka Touré, who is appearing here with blues legend Taj Mahal Oct. 22

This NPR piece also highlights Allen Toussaint, who was on the bill at UCLA Live last spring. What an amazing show that was. If you’re a music lover with varied tastes, you’ve probably encountered Toussaint’s influence  at some point– he’s written songs for or collaborated with just about everyone, including The Meters, Elvis Costello, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Band, Paul McCartney, Aaron Neville, Dr. John, Jerry Garcia, Phish and so many others.

But if you caught him here at UCLA Live last season you were lucky. And, if you ever get the chance to see him perform live again, grab it.

Toussaint is incredibly slick, smooth as silk in person, and an gracefully warm and gifted presence on the stage, effortlessly sliding from storytelling to consummate vocals, his hands never missing a chance to caress music out of the keyboard in front of him.

Allen Toussaint at UCLA Live March 6, 2010

I had been loosely touched by Toussaint long before I ever really knew the man’s name, thanks to an old boyfriend who introduced me to The Meters, which has become a perennial favorite.

So now, I’m asking all our music lovers out there, how do YOU discover new music? And what do you love that you think everyone should be listening to?

What are the most trusted go-to sources that consistently inspire new music discovery for you? (Hopefully UCLA Live and other quality performing arts organizations are a part of that for you.)

For me, I have a handful of friends/music lovers in my life whose taste I trust so implicitly that I will listen to anything they tell me I should, no questions asked.  That’s not to say I like everything they like, but I never feel like I’ve wasted my time by checking out one of their recommendations.

Often I will listen to KCRW, especially “Morning Becomes Eclectic” with the day’s tracklist open on my computer. That way when I hear a song that makes me go “Oh wow, who was THAT?” I can make a note of it.

I’ve made a lot of pleasant new discoveries that way.

I’ve discovered my mind and soul are like super-absorbent sponges when it comes to music. I am built to consume as much as possible.

Tell us what we should be listening to! And, we’ll do our best to return the favor on stage in Royce Hall this year, I promise.

A Matter of Poetry

OK people. It’s official. Individual tickets to all our events are now on sale. Woohoo. We can’t wait for everything to get going around Royce Hall. Check out the calendar if you haven’t in a while and see if anything strikes your fancy.

And…speaking of fancy, we’ve added a fancy new spoken word event to the lineup this year—an evening with not one but TWO–count ‘em, TWO–former U.S.  Poets Laureate. (Oh that’s one of those fun word pairings like culs de sac). Two of America’s most lauded poets, Billy Collins and Kay Ryan join our spoken word slate April 23, just in time to celebrate National Poetry Month. (We’ll be calling on you the audience to share some of your own poetry with us around this event as well. More on that in the near future).

I love the way poets wield language, especially poets like Billy Collins who often do it with a slightly tongue-in-cheek style.  I love the way they can inspire us to look at so many different things in a poetic light.

Here’s a fun one from Collins…

Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark

that he barks every time they leave the house.

They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

I close all the windows in the house

and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast

but I can still hear him muffled under the music,

barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,

his head raised confidently as if Beethoven

had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,

sitting there in the oboe section barking,

his eyes fixed on the conductor who is

entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians

listen in respectful

silence to the famous barking dog solo,

that endless coda that first established

Beethoven as an innovative genius

I love the musicality of his writing, and how a sense of music often comes into play or directly into the style of the poem. I feel like the world is like that, or at least it SHOULD be like that. Perhaps we should all be listening for those songs, those melodies in all of our moments whether those are moments of quiet and contentment or moments of frustration and hopelessness.

Collins again….

I Ask You

What scene would I want to be enveloped in

more than this one,

an ordinary night at the kitchen table,

floral wallpaper pressing in,

white cabinets full of glass,

the telephone silent,

a pen tilted back in my hand?

It gives me time to think

about all that is going on outside–

leaves gathering in corners,

lichen greening the high grey rocks,

while over the dunes the world sails on,

huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.

But beyond this table

there is nothing that I need,

not even a job that would allow me to row to work,

or a coffee-colored Aston Martin DB4

with cracked green leather seats.

No, it’s all here,

the clear ovals of a glass of water,

a small crate of oranges, a book on Stalin,

not to mention the odd snarling fish

in a frame on the wall,

and the way these three candles–

each a different height–

are singing in perfect harmony.

So forgive me

if I lower my head now and listen

to the short bass candle as he takes a solo

while my heart

thrums under my shirt–

frog at the edge of a pond–

and my thoughts fly off to a province

made of one enormous sky

and about a million empty branches.

But of course, we can’t all express those thoughts and sounds quite as well as Collins and his cohort Kay Ryan. That’s why we spend evenings listening to people like them, to help us identify the sounds and rhythms inherent in the written word….to open our eyes and hearts and ears to something our own brains might never be able to spontaneously produce in that way. As arts lovers perhaps just experiencing it can be almost as profound as creating it.

Perhaps, just perhaps, poetry matters.

Photo courtesy athena via Flickr.

Truisms and Truthiness

With all the buzz around Wikileaks this week and the recent passing of Daniel Schorr–one of the last real “newsmen” of his kind–I’ve been thinking a lot about journalism, its evolution and its role in modern culture.

I took my first news reporting class in the mid-1990s at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Email and the internet were still emerging, still dial-up based and still something of a novelty. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever reported a story by digging up information on library microfiche or sitting behind those awful monitors at the courthouse that dulled your eyeballs with a greenish glow).

I distinctly remember the ah-ha moment when my professor (a Pulitzer-Prize winner by the way) said: “Never use the attribution ‘according to the internet.’ That’s like saying ‘according to the telephone.’” He followed up with tips on how to decipher how legitimate internet sources were, much like we were taught to do with a human source.

Seems absurdly obvious now, but think back to 1996—the internet was all very new (and regrettably, still just as grammatically challenged.)

Still, then and now, there are a couple of basic logical truisms when it comes to absorbing information:

“You can’t believe everything you read” and “Consider the source.”

We live in a largely sourceless, hyper-opinion-driven climate of news dissemination. It’s exciting and scary at the same time. Exciting because for we news junkies it’s cool to have so many ways to absorb information and so many voices to consider and scary, well, for obvious reasons.

The explosion of the blogosphere, the rapid dissemination of any and all newsworthy topics, the rise of pundit status among people who’ve never had to adhere to a three-source rule, pour through the pages of a phone book trying to find an expert source, pound the pavement, develop on-background contacts—this reality makes it increasingly important and yet often difficult to check off those aforementioned truisms.

And I’m not saying anything new or clever when I use the “infotainment” moniker to dub our current media climate, but really that’s what it is–Infotainment.

Put simply, even given all the myriad outlets and information sources our current journalism climate offers, we basically like getting information from places we like. We flock to media and blogs and outlets that adhere to our highly personalized appetites and it’s easy to insulate ourselves from anything, any opinion that runs counter to our own. And it’s equally easy to perpetuate stories and blogs that align with our own ideologies. We can create our own truth around pretty much anything these days, and that’s kind of scary.

I’m not exempt from this. In full disclosure, I am a card-carrying member of the Stewart/Colbert militia. Their tongue-in-cheek, nothing-is-sacred satirical methodology appeals to me, partially because it’s so skillfully delivered and partially I admit, because their politics and ideology pretty much line up with my own.

Still, it makes me think.

If you hold to the adage that you can’t believe everything you read then does that imply the only things you might actually be able to believe are being perpetuated by people who don’t actually expect you to believe every word they write or say? Is Stephen Colbert perhaps the truest journalist of our times if you embrace the  Bizzaro World idea of journalistic truth?

Is Colbert-style  “truthiness” really the best we can hope for in our current media climate? And does it in fact offer us more actual truth than straight journalism? What is “straight journalism?  It’s an interesting conundrum to ponder, whether you are a casual reader, middling information hound or total news junkie.

To that end, I’m looking forward to having The Yes Men here at UCLA Live Oct. 14.

The tagline for The Yes Men’s documentary The Yes Men Fix the World is “Sometimes it takes a lie to expose the truth.”

The Yes Men—Andy Bichelbaum and Mike Bonanno—stretch the truth for sure, lying and posing as executives from government agencies and multinational corporations in an effort to ferret out often more-salacious untruths. Their methods are extreme and, well, fabulously funny at the same time. Still, their cunning legerdemain, however comically or altruistically motivated, hasn’t left the duo unscathed.

Whether or not you agree with The Yes Men’s tactics or motivation, you have to admit, what they do is thought-provoking.

And isn’t that essentially what any information-consumption should be about? To inspire you to think? To process…to not just swallow something whole simply because it comes from someone who looks just like you, who thinks just like you, who shares your worldview or your methods of information gathering and dissemination. What an idea. Maybe I will watch Fox News tonight. (Maybe not).

I’m sure we’ll examine the idea and phenomenon of “truthiness” a couple of times here in Royce Hall this year, first with The Yes Men and later in February with The Onion Editors.

In the meantime, don’t believe everything you read. Unless it’s good stuff about UCLA Live of course. That you can take to the bank.

Photo note: Front page of the fake New York Times The Yes Men printed and handed out. If only some of THOSE stories were true.

Connect Four

Hello friends,

Today is the last day of our 2010-11 subscription drive, woohoo!  TONS of you have taken advantage of our amazing new deals for subscribers – THANK YOU!

For everyone else, you have a few more hours to pick up any one of our series and save a HEFTY 20% or choose your own series with ANY FOUR SHOWS and save 15% before tickets go on sale to the general public on Monday, August 9th.

If you’re on the fence, we highly recommend the Choose Your Own Series, because it allows you to sample something of everything by picking any 4 shows while still getting the advantages of subscribing:  priority seating, big savings and ticket exchange privileges.

We realize it can be tough to navigate all the cool stuff on the season, so we asked our friends over at the Hammer and Fowler Museums for their picks. Check ’em out…

Jennifer Gould, Marketing Manager at the HAMMER Museum recommends:

Helios Dance Theater: Beautiful Monsters
Helios is an LA treasure, and with an original score by Paul Cantelon (The Diving Bell & Butterfly), it’s going to be an incredible evening. Some examples of their previous works: http://www.heliosdancetheater.org/media.html

Yes Men Live
Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are my heroes. They’ll be yours too.

The Onion Editors
I’m so excited about this! The Onion editors were featured in an episode of This American Life a few years back, which documented the process of narrowing down 600 potential headlines to the hilarious 16 that actually appeared in the weekly edition. Check it out:  http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/348/Tough-Room

David Sedaris
An obvious choice. He’s so amazing in person.

Stacey Ravel Abarbanel, Director of Marketing and Communications – Fowler Museum at UCLA recommends:
Dengue Fever: The Lost World (1925)

A little-known Dengue rocked the Fowler amphitheater in 2006 at the party we held to celebrate the opening of our long-term exhibition Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives. We had a hard time prying people away to the dinner going on upstairs, so enchanting was the lovely Chhom Nimol and her Cambodian-inflected rocker cohorts. I’d love a chance to see and hear how they’ve matured as artists.

Richard Thompson featuring Harry Shearer, Pete Zorn & special guests Cabaret of Souls
Just one week after Dengue Fever, but I can’t resist this combo of legendary musicians and impresarios in what sounds like a funny yet thoughtful musical theater reckoning.

Ghazal: Kayhan Kalhor, Shujaat Husain Khan & Samir Chatterjee
A couple of years ago my brother sent me Ghazal’s CD Rain, and I was smitten. This music is so intricate, at times measured and soothing, then pulsing with excitement. See these masters live? Absolutely.

Stephen Petronio Dance Company
I Drink The Air Before Me sounds like a stirring new production.  I can’t wait to check it out.

So head on over to the calendar, connect the dots and pick your four today!

Happy Summer and What’s Your Favorite?

Happy Friday!

It truly feels like summer has arrived and it should be a great weekend in Los Angeles! We’re spending the summer in the basement of Royce Hall gearing up for the 2010-11 season, planning ahead for the appearances of truly amazing artists on the lineup this year.

Summer’s great, but we can’t wait for fall when the halls and theater above us will be filled with music and dancers and creative thinkers—and well, hopefully YOU.

Side note: I was watching “Family Guy” the other day and a few scenes of the episode took place on some unnamed college campus. Guess what building/area was the iconic image immortalized in cartoon form to signify “collegiate-looking space?” Yep. It was the front of Royce Hall and surrounding quad area.

Anyway, we UCLA Live staffers have been talking amongst ourselves about our favorite shows on the season and we decided to film a little video about it—also using that iconic Royce Hall backdrop.

Take a little peek into the minds of the people who help make performing arts come alive in Royce Hall. Don’t be scared, we’re mostly sane.

So, what do you think? What event are you most looking forward to this season? Better yet, get out into the sunshine this weekend and film your own video telling us about your favorite pick of the UCLA Live 2010-11 season. (For ideas, peruse our calendar here).

And, if you see a few shows you like, consider taking advantage of our Choose Your Own series offer. Pick four or more events and save 15%.

Post your video and send us a link at info@uclalive.org. You might just find yourself with a special prize!
In the meantime, keep those summer vibes rolling and we’ll see you in Royce Hall in September!

Jessica

Thoughts from the staff of CAP UCLA