About Tyler

Geographer who likes comedy and records and probably you.

Gamelan Returns to Tennessee

f92c67f05a31705d021f7c97bebb9770-rimg-w720-h479-gmir

The UTK Gamelan Ensemble (with electric guitar), in performance in Fall 2017, the semester prior to me joining.

Last Spring, I had the pleasure of joining the UTK Gamelan Ensemble, led by my friend, colleague, and erstwhile committee member Leslie C. Gay. The band (so to speak) was composed of an eclectic mix of students and community members ranging from the musically gifted (e.g. David Webb, Kali Altintasioti) to the less so (Tyler Sonnichsen). I was excited to continue with the ensemble this Fall semester when I received a disappointing email from Les saying that there would be no Gamelan until the Spring. This was nobody’s fault; our Gamelan had been borrowed from some institution in California, and the music school’s term of lease had expired. The good news was that an all-new Gamelan contracted for UTK was in the works somewhere in Bali. The bad news was that it wouldn’t be ready on time to ship and arrive in Knoxville anytime this Fall. As the saying goes: cheap, fast, or good… pick two (and even two is often pushing it).

I should have anticipated how much I would miss the Gamelan, considering how busy last semester was. Last Spring, it became a perfect break from my routine: two hours every week where I crossed campus, unplugged from the matrix, and played music that I never had to feel guilty for not practicing because I couldn’t practice it (unlike those childhood piano lessons for which my mom essentially set her money on fire…sorry, Mom). This semester, being back on the full teaching schedule, highlighted the Gamelan-shaped abyss in my life.

First, What is Gamelan?

I’m going to pretend we’re having a conversation, and you just asked me this question and that you’re not reading this on the internet with the ability to open up a new window, scroll through dozens of articles explaining it, hundreds of photos, and thousands of hours of streaming video of people performing it better than I ever could. But, since that’s the first question I get whenever I tell anyone in person that I was in a Gamelan ensemble, I’ll answer the question here as I would in person.

The Gamelan is a coordinated set of percussive instruments intended to be played (often, but not always) in syncopation. It’s associated with Southeast Asia, predominantly Indonesia, though different islands have differing styles and approaches to performance. I’d be loathe to call it a “performance,” too since the islanders willed it into existence as something more spiritual and communal.

Spiritual AND Communal? Tell Me More!

Gamelan

via FactsofIndonesia.com

This is my favorite thing about Gamelan. Everybody in front of a set of chimes or the gong (the one Indonesian word that sneaked its way into English) is equal. Almost any of the instruments can be foregrounded in performance. Anyone can sit down and play. Of course they would improve the more time they spend playing just as with anything, but it’s a percussion ensemble that encourages everyone to play, not just the handful of people who can shred. That being said, the Gamelan can integrate an electric guitar and nobody would complain. This Spring, Jorge Variego sat in on bass clarinet to debut what could only be described as an avant garde art piece (free-Gamelan, in other words, like free jazz), and the audience ate it up.

An epiphany I had at our first practice was that this was an approach that much Western popular music had forgotten. I know that trained musicians (or musicians in general) in countries like the States have been gradually disappearing in an age where STEM has conned its way into near-hegemony in our schools and funding for music programs is being slashed. Still, music cannot fully shed its promordial function as a group activity, not something reserved for a privileged few. Prior to the modern phenomenon of music publishing and copyrighting (less than 200 years old in the United States), music had enjoyed a long history of user-friendliness and root populism. Broadside ballads like “Barbara Allen” were meant to be sung by inclusive groups of revelers in parlors, as seen here in one of my favorite movie scenes of all time.

Arguments do exist that music predates language; humans are born with a variety of potential instruments on their person. Tuvan throat singing styles clearly mimic sounds of nature. Hamboning, an autopercussive song-and-dance style, worked its way into the Southern legend via slave traditions. Even some 80’s dream-pop songs with non-linguistic, non-lyrical vocals could be argued to be instrumentals.

So, Why Is It Important?

Obviously, in the handful of communities (mostly Universities) lucky to have one available, the novelty of Gamelan is one reason for its surging popularity in the United States as much as its accessibility. You know it’s novel enough for Fred Armisen and IFC to cart one in for a joke in the Documentary Now! series. But, novelty breeds fads, which gamelan clearly isn’t. The syncopation, timbre, and democracy all form a trusty foundation through which to expand the music’s appeal worldwide.  In so much Western music, percussion is relegated to the background of the band, and percussionists (well, rock drummers) become the butt of jokes.  Even in bands where the drummer is the best actual musician (e.g. Fugazi, Manic Street Preachers), fans tend to take them for granted. It’s always gratifying when percussionists get the respect they deserve, and even better when Gamelan foregrounds all the different ways, usually several within the course of one performance, someone can simply be a percussionist. To put it most bluntly, it sounds gorgeous, and most importantly, it’s just really, really cool.

For me, at least, being in a gamelan ensemble provided the grounding experience for which so many people turn to yoga, meditation, prayer, or some combination of the three. It was great to have in my life for a semester, and then it was difficult getting used to not having it. Today, however, I got a message from my old friend Konstantine, who will be stepping in for Les and leading the UTK Gamelan Ensemble this semester. Our first meeting/practice/jam session is next week, and I can’t wait. I’ll announce it again as it gets closer, but make your calendars for April 17th.

cengceng

Ceng Ceng (pronounced ching-ching): the single hardest instrument (for me) to play (well) in the Gamelan.

 

Advertisements

The Irving Postcards: Louisville, KY

1218181438_HDR

The United States Post Office, Court House, and Custom House in Louisville, KY (1936 Postcard Image, and December 2018). 

Last month, I spent a few days passing through the lower Midwest, including one of my favorite cities, Louisville. Not only is Louisville an overwhelmingly cool city with a great musical history (and according to Ethan Buckler a consistent threat of twisters), it’s also rich with history. Like its counterpart up the Ohio River Cincinnati, I imagine Louisville was a major crossroads during the antebellum era and reconstruction. It also gave us Muhammad Ali, quality baseball bats, and Elliott.

The two postcards I had on hand, like many items in the Ben Irving collection, were of newer landmarks the city was trying to show off in the WPA era. The Post Office and Memorial Auditorium both foreground Greco-Roman elements in their architecture. Only the Post Office postcard had any information about the building; it reads “Cost $3,000,000.00. Covers block on Broadway between 6th and 7th Streets.” Pretty straightforward. According to one inflation calculator, 3 Million dollars in 1930 would convert to $44,848,829.59 in today’s currency.

The more interesting building, for me, was the Memorial Auditorium. This postcard had absolutely no information on it, but according to the Auditorium’s official history, it opened in 1929 and was designed as a deliberate Greek Revival throwback by Thomas Hastings.

1218181417a_HDR

Louisville Memorial Auditorium (1936 Postcard / December 2018 in Background)

Though it looked like there were some city offices inside the building (I saw a security guard wander out one of the side doors and leave shortly after I took the above picture), nobody appeared to be home, so I couldn’t go inside. I did wander around the building to get a more detailed look. My favorite part may be the bas reliefs, which you can see pretty clearly on the 1936 postcard image.

Thank you for reading. Coming soon: a failed attempt at an ambitious vista re-creation in West Virginia!

Syndrome 81, Montreuil, July 2015

Happy New Year, everyone! Classes start in one week, and I have a mountain of items to catch up on after being out of town for so much of December. Two of these items include posts for this website, one of which is long overdue and another was inspired by a stops I made on the road in the Midwest last month. One of the most pressing, however, is putting the finishing touches on a project over three years in the making that I look forward to announcing soon.

I thought I would share this video I found of a SYNDROME 81 gig I attended in Paris in the summer of 2015. This was the night I met Fast Fab (the vocalist), who became a good friend and great informant for my dissertation. I wasn’t able to spot myself anywhere in here (probably hiding off to the side, snapping photos), but I had a good time.

IMG_2599

Syndrome 81 headline a gig in Montreuil, France, July 2015.

Fab later told me that the moniker Syndrome 81 is a joke (much like the name of his old band, Thrashington DC) that makes fun of how people think it’s completely insane (“syndrome”) for somebody born in 1981 to still be making music like this. I could probably ask myself the same question and rename half of this blog “Syndrome 83.” Regardless, Syndrome 81 have released a solid brief catalog of music over the past few years to solid critical acclaim from blogs and zines that appreciate the classic style.

Anyway, 2019 – how about that? More posts and announcements very soon.

Nathan Jurberg

Happy Birthday to Nathan Jurberg on what would have been his 100th. I became aware of his existence during a trip to Florida on March 8th, 2000, four days after he died:

NathanJurberg

I know next to nothing about Jurberg, other than that he was Jewish, was born on December 12, 1918 (cf. public data sites), and lived on the 4th floor of Jade Winds when he passed on. I assume that he migrated to Florida to spend his retirement like my great-grandparents, but I have no way to know that for certain (unless you knew him and can tell me more).

Who is this Street Musician? (San Francisco, 1999)

Go ahead and file this entry under the alternate title, “Yet Another Reason I’m a Music Obsessive.”

I suppose I have relatively little in my life to regret. None of the ‘big’ decisions I’ve made (where to move, what career to pursue, relationships to develop) can be changed, so whenever I do get a pang of regret, it’s usually something arguably small: a concert I didn’t attend (e.g. Dillinger Four in DC this October) or a record I didn’t buy (e.g. that Brainiac reissue in New Orleans). Though, to be fair, Dillinger Four haven’t played their final show (just wait for them to get drunk enough and find the right bar in Minneapolis) and according to an old colleague Oliver Wang, those records will eventually find their way back to you if you’re paying attention.

So, here’s an anecdote about something almost twenty years ago that I regret to this day. In April 1999, my family and I flew out to San Francisco on a trip with my sister’s youth jazz band. Being an aspiring filmmaker at that time in my life, I hauled my little camcorder around the city with me. My sister’s band had a gig at Ghirardelli Square one afternoon, and I decided to film my walk down (what I can only assume was) Beach Street beforehand. I stopped for a moment to film an old man with an acoustic guitar, singing a wonderful rendition of “Georgia on my Mind.”

SF_Bluesman_1999

I glanced down at a small case of cassette tapes he had on the ground next to him, wondering if I had the cash in my wallet to buy one. I’d already spent most of my trip allowance (or conned my parents into spending their money) on CDs and I’m sure a small assortment of embarrassing souvenirs teenagers buy on trips to any big city.

Before I could act on that impulse, my Mom yelled for me to come join them over in the Square, since the show was about to start. I reached into my pocket and threw some change into the bin next to his tapes and left, already feeling pangs of regret for not buying a tape.

I have no idea what his name was, and no amount of video technology that’s been coded this century could focus and zoom in on the grainy video I shot of him that afternoon. Honestly, I’d have to go back to the tape in order to even see whether I’d even caught a glimpse of his merchandise case, but its doubtful. Not that having one of his tapes would necessarily answer these questions, but even at that age, I was incredibly curious about the stories behind his music. At any rate, I wish I’d been able to capture more than 15-20 seconds of him playing that one song.

So, I just figured it wouldn’t hurt to throw this out into the ether to my San Francisco friends or anybody who sees this that may have lived/worked around Ghirardelli Square at the time: does anybody know who this old man is? I would be amazed if he was still alive, considering how this was almost two decades ago and he already appeared to be well into his seventies. I wonder whether any of his tapes (I vaguely remember him having more than one different release) circulated locally, or whether any wound up in thrift stores after his patrons downsized? I recognize how unlikely it is that anything would come from this, but crazier things have happened on the internet. Come on, global village – redeem yourself!

 

Thanksgiving

freedomfromwant_1789517i

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

It feels strange to be posting this so far away from the land of Norman Rockwell (Western Massachusetts, where I traditionally spend this holiday), but I’m grateful nonetheless to be able to spend the week with family and friends. No matter where I am in the country, this is always my favorite part of the year.

Considering how 2018 has been a tragic year for so many and difficult for most, I hope that this holiday (still my favorite one) gives you all an opportunity to take stock of everything good in your life and prepare for whatever you have coming up in December. At the very least, I’ve got a few posts sitting in my drafts that I’ll hopefully get up before the Winter break.

Take care of yourselves and each other!

 

Mic Nite at Relix Theater this Thursday

5a987b7bf2b3f-image

I’m looking forward to represent UTK Geography at the UT Faculty Fall Mic Nite this Thursday! It will take place at Relix Variety Theater (1208 N. Central Street). Doors are at 5:30pm, and presentations begin at 6:30pm. It’s free to attend, but they’d like for you to RSVP here so they can stock the pizza and bar appropriately.

This will be my second time presenting in the Pecha Kucha format and my first time presenting on what I’m referring to as “symbolic gentrification,” so it should be interesting, at the very least. I feel like Mic Nite, since it’s interdisciplinary, will provide a good forum for unpacking such a broad subject. I’ll paste my abstract from the program here.

Monitor_KnoxCollege_Sonnichsen

Symbolic Gentrification and Learning from Pop Culture

Gentrification has been a concern of sociologists, geographers, and urban dwellers at large since the sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term to describe changes in 1960s London. Critical geographers have long assumed much of that mantel, particularly Neil Smith, whose “The New Urban Frontier” remains a cornerstone. However, understanding gentrification solely a process of city development leaves out much of the story.

My research argues that gentrification is not simply a process of what Smith calls “revanchist urbanism,” but is, at its core, a greater dynamic that weaves geography together with multiple other fields within the humanities. Specifically, my experience teaching American Popular Culture has inspired me to approach what I call “symbolic gentrification,” a critical understanding of the relationship between urban space, capital, and the arts.

The last time I presented in this format (20 slides, 20 seconds apiece) was for the Pecha Kucha Night Knoxville in November 2016. I presented on Ben Irving publicly for the first time; you can watch here. I’m such a fan of the timed-slides format that I’m employing it in one of my classes this semester for the first time.

Hope to see you Thursday!