Tag Archives: radio

Rock ‘n’ Roll, or Current Resident

radioWe are rocketing up the highway, driving as fast as our voices are loud, singing at the top of our lungs. (Why does no one ever sing at the bottom of their lungs? Don’t they contain air, too?) The songs we are singing are, maybe, ten years old (although, the way time and our minds are racing from us, like a tsunami down a steep slope, the songs might actually be 20 years old … or older), yet we know all the words, or most of the words, or, more accurately, all the vowel sounds – within the span of three minutes, the words “my pledge of love” come out different each time we warble them. We hit the high-note ending, pointing our fingers at whatever audience we think we are performing for (they adore us, they are undressing us with their ears), and then it is over, satisfyingly throat-ravaging, invigorating and youth-ifying.

The deejay intrudes, makes sure to tell us his patently fabricated name, and the call letters of the station, and the information that this obviously Podunk, 4-watt operation emanating from somewhere near a mountain and a swamp is “the home of rock ‘n’ roll.” What follows, then, is what begins to turn into about 8 minutes of strung-together 20-second spots, so we hit the scan button – no, no, maybe … no, absolutely not … and then yes, something we know, and we’re off again, howling to the adult-contemporary moon. Then another deejay with the same voice as the previous one, maybe even the same name, and the same speech-pattern and shtick, time, weather, the kind of call-letters that start with B or Q and end in numbers … and he informs us that where he is broadcasting from is “the home of rock ‘n’ roll.”  And we wonder: Rock ‘n’ roll has two homes, and in this flyover mudsplat corner of the world?

Over the course of the next hour, and several dozen impatient and severely judgmental excursions up and down the radio dial (it’s actually digital, but, come on, we still “dial” the phone, don’t we?) we receive signals from no less than three other homes of rock ‘n’ roll. We are puzzled: Just how many homes does rock ‘n’ roll have? How many does it need? I mean, OK, one in New York, another in Los Angeles, maybe a place in Nashville, a pad in London and, of course, one in the Caymans to hide the money and be close enough to Turks and Caicos to party with Keith. (And, sorry, Cleveland but, hall of fame or no, rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t consider you home. Ever.) But, really: Seven homes within 60 miles in the middle of nowhere? Isn’t that just a little bit strange … and piggy? And whatever happened to rock ‘n’ roll’s tradition? Crashing in other people’s pads, or in the back of cars after a gig where it didn’t get paid, or in a corner of a bus station – when did rock ‘n‘ roll get to be Donald Trump?

All those homes – consider the mortgages. The utility bills (rock ‘n‘ roll tends to leave the lights on at night, because it passes out before it has a chance to flick them off). The  lawn-mowing. The pizza deliveries – you could go broke on the tips alone. Trying to remember all the ZIP codes. Imagine the key ring rock ‘n’ roll has to carry around – you’d need a roadie just to lift it. And when rock ‘n’ roll sings “home, where my love lies waiting silently for me” – well, which home? Which love? Although, if there’s a love lying waiting for rock ‘n’ roll at every one of its homes, one can begin to understand the attraction of getting into that business.

And what does rock ‘n’ roll’s home look like? Split level? A nice two-story Cape? And what do rock ‘n’ roll’s rooms look like? Shag rugs? Posters on the wall? Black light? Is it something cool and clean and classy – someplace with museum-quality furniture that Sting might lay his lute on? Or did Keith Moon get to it, and that cool air we feel on our necks is coming from the broken windows and the punched hole in the wall? We can imagine the bedroom (there’s a love lying silently there … on sheets that haven’t been changed since who knows when), but let‘s not try to picture the bathroom, if you don’t mind. Or the kitchen. Maybe rock ‘n‘ roll’s homes have gardens, and one need not stretch to envision what is growing in it. Or, now that rock ‘n‘ roll has attained the level of filthy rich respectability, maybe some of the homes have a cool Mitt Romney-ish Republican reserve to them, or a Downton Abbey-like elitism that befits an art form approaching its reminiscence-filled dotage.

Rock ‘n’ roll is a lousy host, though. We have invited it into our home for years, but have we once gotten an invitation over to its place? We would be happy to come over to any of the homes, at any time, thrilled to lie waiting for it … but, since we know all the words, or at least the vowel sounds, it wouldn’t be silently.

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Finding placeness in a physical site can be stimulating, exhilarating, meditative, even awe-inspiring. But what about finding it nowhere? Does placeness have to be somewhere? Can it appear out of thin air? One of the great potential arslocii spots can be found in radio – if it is special. Theater of the mind. But don’t expect it to happen often. It won’t.

As we wrote previously, sound can create a sense of place. And we all have experienced music that, on first listening or after multiple encounters, transports us. It’s like time travel, returning us to a time and place where we first heard it. Music has that power of memory. The best bit, though, is how music can be transcendent, lifting our minds above our earthly cares.

But what happens when someone is so knowledgeable about music that he/she can program it to create placeness? There are a select few people on the radio who are painting or sculpting a place, an emotional, sensual and mind-engaging place that is formed by a masterful sense of their materials and built into an experience that we can share in a meaningful way. Creating a space out of sound waves. Thin air made solid.

This happy occurrence has made me a believer in the aural arslocii phenomenon on two radio broadcast programs. Luckily, both can be heard streaming online also.

One of them has been going on for thirty-plus years, offered by WXPN, a radio station originating at the University of Pennsylvania. It is called Sleepy Hollow, and it airs only on weekends and for just three hours on each of its two mornings, although in the past several years it has added a couple of hours on Sunday at the early side of the program. The mix of music is eclectic, spanning decades as well as cultures. The common thread is its tone: soothing sounds to awaken and delight the mind as the early-morning body shakes off sleep. It is not sleep-inducing but rather a gentle massage of the senses done with finesse by the three DJs – Chuck Elliott, Keith Brand and John Diliberto – each creating a show. And, especially, in a world of overformatted, focus-group-styled radio hammering away at your pocketbook and head, like so much television does, Sleepy Hollow is yippie radio – maybe, softly said, yippee.

Some of us are old enough to remember when, in the late Sixties, some unique, off-the-wall FM-radio stations insinuated themselves into the commercial mix and started a music revolution. Progressive rock was a kind of anti-programming, a free-form format that promoted albums over single releases and stayed away from top-40 rock. Sleepy Hollow follows that singular and lonely path to this day. To quote its own website: “ …from Miles Davis, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell to Chet Baker, Norah Jones and Nick Drake – Sleepy Hollow is a place where mood and music combine to create a warm and relaxing weekend morning experience.” Arslocii.

A babe in comparison, at not quite seven years old, is Radio Deluxe, which I bumped into on WAMC in New York state. Another personalized mix of jazz, stage, standards and surprises, it’s hosted and curated by John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, the husband/wife duo whose combined knowledge of popular-musical culture is an encyclopedic treasure trove. They also offer great banter from their lofty Manhattan  apartment, “high atop Lexington Avenue, here in the deluxe living room.” While Jessica, a singer, prefers vocalists and John, primarily a jazz guitarist, leans towards instrumentals, a perfect blend is the result. From their website, quoting Christopher Loudon, of Jazz Times: “Among radio’s greatest pleasures is each weekly installment of Radio Deluxe, two hours of great jazz and smart, sassy repartee from John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, the hippest husband-and-wife team since Louis Prima and Keely Smith.”

Each of their shows is a tribute to musicians and is a joy to be privy to. The adept team manages to create a physical space for us listeners, and while we are being entertained and enriched we are catching a glimpse of what it is like to be immersed in their musical world. Placeness. The thing is, they are both accomplished musicians and they have created a show to honor others who came before them as well as give glimpses of their own talents. They set the tone as well as the bar with their unique radio program and give us a little history lesson, to boot. Some weeks it is the two hosts, other times there are guest musicians giving the sense of a “live” component.

As listeners, we are brought into their living room, imagining ourselves seated around the piano or a blazing fireplace, enjoying the sounds, the conversation and, maybe even, the cocktails. In one show, you can actually hear one of the guests in the background asking John for more ice – and he actually answers. It brings us another tick closer to our imaginings of what the renowned parties at Gershwin’s must have been like, only this is more intimate, because we are guests, too. Jessica and John are serious about the music, and they make us laugh. Sound waves made palpable. Oh, yes, and they and their show are oh so deluxe and, through them, so are we.

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A City in Your Hands

Last time, we wrote about how the place in which a newspaper is put together – the newsroom – can influence the look, feel, sound, artfulness and even success of that newspaper, and that the current changes in newsrooms, and moves to new digs, might help account for or contribute to the medium’s general decline, at least here in the U.S.

But, there’s another thing we’ve been thinking about that has to do with newspapers and their future, and that has to do with the way newspapers look.

Obviously, the way a newspaper looks is important. Many millions of dollars are paid each year to high-priced designers and consultants to make newspapers more appealing to the eye. These professionals tinker with typefaces and white space, column width and story length, all towards making the product a clean and easy read, with the hoped-for result that this rehabbing will improve circulation and/or attract advertisers – and, all the while, restricted by the limits imposed by newspapers having to look like newspapers, having to be able to fit on and be run off on a printing press that can’t easily be customized, and requiring a limited universe of paper type to be its medium.

Too often, though, these designers shoehorn all newspapers into a one-size-fits-all construct, overlaying the project with a look that they prefer or are identified with, imposing the same typeface, structure and attitude to every newspaper they are hired to “fix.” There are, at any given time, certain rules of modernity that these designers cling to and proselytize about, and, soon, newspapers everywhere look like newspapers everywhere else, becoming the Holiday Inns or McDonald’s of the print medium; that is, they are cookie-cutter versions of each other, without individuality outside the masthead,  with the idea that that sort of conformity engenders a kind of comfortable familiarity that also boosts ease of navigability. It’s all about the ego of the designer and his certainty about the superiority of the current (or, rather, his current) favorite user interface.

These artistic attempts, though, aren’t working, at least not in the most important way – saving the newspapers from extinction by attracting more readers and keeping them “under the tent” – and, so, quite often seem like just some bit of graphical snake oil. Of course, no design, however wonderful, can overcome boring content poorly written, and flawed editorial direction. And such small portions: No design can hide the fact that misguided layoffs by management “geniuses” who believe that the way to a better bottom line is by slicing employees and filling pages with wire-service offerings, which leaves little or nothing to read. Ergo, lots of white space to fool the reader into thinking that she is getting just as much news as she used to for the higher per-copy fee she has to shell out in order to come into possession of an anorexic, anemic impostor of the newspaper she used to love to hold.

But there is another underlying problem, we think – indeed, a placeness-influenced problem – that may be at the root of the design and circulation-spiral “fail.”

Here’s what the newspaper I work for, and which is struggling to keep readers, looks like now:

And here’s what it looked like a generation ago, when it was a popular newsstand item:

The first difference, and one that you can’t see easily from these photos, is the page size: the old version was much bigger – inches larger on each side. This partly – but only partly – explains the second difference that is far easier to note: the number of stories in each version. The old newspaper’s pages are loaded with stories – in fact, on these two inside facing pages, 20 of them, including stand-alone photos – while the current version has maybe two stories and a photo on each. This is both a function of changing design ideas, but also reflects the sad reality that there are more stories on those old pages than there are reporters in our newsroom today. Not all of the stories were staff written, but many were. Today, we don’t have the luxury – or the people-power – to produce that many stories. Of course, now as then, there was wire-service copy available, and pages were and are filled with that readily accessible fodder. The point was, back then, that a good chunk of the mission of a newspaper was to give people lots to read for their dime (yes, it cost ten cents), with oodles of variety, and with what Paul Dacre, the editor of London’s Daily Mail, calls  the “human twiddly bits that make for conversations in the pubs.” So much of that fascinating, readable, quotable, water-cooler-ish type of story that made newspapers newspapers is gone these days. Some of that is because of changing attitudes in the newspaper business about what news is (although, when you look at what the Internet portal sites consider news, you realize that nobody ever lost money underestimating Americans’ level of sophistication), some because of changing layout considerations – but some because of a backlash against anything that isn’t “hyper-local.”

And yet, despite this feverish trend that sees the offering of a preponderance of local news as the key to survival – ceding breaking news and national and international reports to the ‘Net, radio or video media – the physical newspapers themselves do not look local; that is, they do not look like where they’re from. And that is a key component of readers’ alienation with the product – a newspaper, we believe, ought to look like the town it’s reporting about. But, as similar, clean and white-spaced designs become the standard look-and-feel of the printed news medium everywhere, the “nowhere-ness” of them will, we think, doom the newspaper. It’s not even just a matter of “face recognition” – that the newspaper you read has a different layout or typeface than the competition; it’s that the product you hold in your hands does not accurately reflect the place it purportedly represents … and it should.

Take the New York Times, for example – it looks like Manhattan, or at least the Manhattan of its readers’ imagination, the Central Park West Manhattan, with its glorious old buildings interspersed with modern skyscrapers, and a peppering of people and tiny swaths of color and greenspace.  Then look at the New York Daily News – also New York, but not the same New York; this is the messy, teeming, crowded, slightly out-of-control New York, and the New York that includes all five boroughs. Each is New York, or, rather, the New York that its readers identify with. And each of these papers is successful because they not only speak to their publics but, in a way, also hold up a mirror to them, and make the readers feel that they are holding their city in their hands. Newsday, though a fine paper, and a tabloid (which would normally appeal to city dwellers and public-transportation riders), never quite gained a foothold when it introduced its New York Newsday because it still looked like Long Island.

More to the point at hand, look at the two versions of the paper I work for. The old format looks like the place it came out of: a congested, gray, gritty urban place, with lots happening in it.

The city itself is no less busy or crowded these days, yet the current paper looks far more homogenized and lacking a distinctive personality: a placeness. 

Big city newspapers are dying because they have been made to look like the wrong place – they look like the suburbs and not the metropolis. Just as one-size-fits-all does not work in the design of papers, there is no one-city-fits-all, either. Each city, each town has its own personality, and the newspaper of that town should have that same personality or, in the case of competing papers with different circulation publics, the personality that fits that population cohort.

What differentiates a newspaper from, say, a web-based news site is that there is, when it is working properly, a personal relationship between the newspaper and its reader that is, in a way, akin to the relationship that sports fans have with their home teams. Teams are composed of many different elements (the athletes) from many parts of the world, but they come together and wear a unique and identifiable uniform, with cherished logos and colors, that fans recognize as mirroring themselves, in some strange empathetic sort of way. Newspapers must never forget that they are the home team, and should dress the part.

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Sound Tracks

Every once in a while, here at arslocii, we have to check in with our original definition of placeness. The eve of our first anniversary is upon us, and so, perhaps, this reassessment has even more meaning, as we cross the threshold into the first annual revisit. Or, maybe not. It is odd, though, how perspectives and definitions alter over time. Our original vision was likely more rigid – to explore the nature of a site, a real place that has a far more meaningful experience beyond its physicality. (See our sites arslocii and Sculpturehead.) What we have discovered in the past year is that it isn’t always so clear-cut or tangible, that it can be anything that possesses this quality of placeness, or even a confluence of multiple things. And it also can have no substance or location at all.

We have realized, too, that placeness as art is still a valid and welcome concept, and is probably much more difficult to define than we previously thought. It has appeared in likely as well as unlikely places: it can be found in the public realm and in our innermost thoughts, in a book, in art and architecture, in sad moments or ones of extraordinary exuberance. As we move forward with these writings, we hope that we have produced or will soon create some moments of placeness for you, our readers.

One thing that we have not mentioned thus far is music. We have talked about sound but not music. Music was a huge presence in my life: my mother sang when she was happy, but usually sad songs: “Yellow Days,” “Que Sera Sera,” “Girl From Ipanema.” My father played piano and sang a little, in German mostly; his mother, too – “Black Hawk Waltz,” over and over on her spinet – and she was a great hummer, as well, almost as if it were a nervous habit, humming songs of her day: “What’ll I Do?” “Who’s Sorry Now?” “Always.”

My brother and I had record players as far back as I can remember and we nearly wore out the grooves of the Nutcracker Suite and movie themes from the mid-fifties to mid-sixties: “Magnificent Seven,” “The Great Escape,” “Exodus.” We also listened to some of our parents’ favorite dance records, like Arthur Lyman’s “Taboo” and “Bahia.” We both played autoharp, and then piano, and vocally performed in school choruses. But my brother kept with it, becoming a bit of a classically-trained piano virtuoso. I was steered into dance, which happily always involved music and movement.

Once when I was a teen traveling on the West Coast with my parents, we had been out and about for several days and stopped into a university cafeteria to eat lunch. There was music playing on loud speakers, and I realized that I had been without any music for all that time. I was so happy to hear it that tears came into my eyes, and I’m not sure I knew why at first. There had been a lack, and now music filled the hall, giving me a sense of place in an otherwise unknown territory.

Apparently, I never forgot that moment of rediscovery of the familiar soundtracks of my life and how comforting they were. Now I see, too, that music can create space as well as emotion, and an absence of it can create a void. And there you go, an ephemeral collection of sounds generating placeness: no thing, no site necessary, just music filling the space around me and the space inside my mind, drawing pictures, making pleasant tones, conjuring memories – making an archive of time and place based on music, and carrying those feelings into the present while carrying you back to those places.

Of course, with the advent of iPods, one never has to be without music again. There was a time, though, when driving across country could involve vast tracts of music-less-ness, being out of range of radio antennas. It’s frightening to ponder now, when there is so much connectivity, that we don’t know what to do with it, and because of that fact, no one again will experience the eureka moment I did that summer. But lack of music seems to me a kind of deprivation of one of the keen senses, one that can activate all the others. It is the kind of placeness you can have on a moment’s notice, with the push of a button. Instant placeness. Or you can sing.


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Air Space

Exploring the concept of placeness, one finds – as do those who dig deeper into the intricacies of physics or medicine or philosophy or any other science, art or craft – that the ideas get bigger as the scope gets smaller. Atoms, at one time, seemed miraculous enough as a micro building block of what we perceive as existence, but attempts to make even finer points of it have turned up gluons and other particles that have made matters (and matter) even more complex, and have sent us off on new directions via twisty paths, with the understanding of everything as the goal. Good luck with that.

Similarly, in pondering placeness, and placeness as art, and art itself, we here at arslocii have gone to places and seen things, and felt things, and recorded them, and so have come up with descriptions, skirted and homed in on definitions, and evolved questions, which in turn have generated more questions. Sometimes, clarity has been the reward; at other times, it’s been like trying to scoop up light in our hands and sip it.

On the radio this morning, music started playing, and then the deejay began speaking while the song continued at a somewhat lowered volume, and he said, to identify the tune, “Behind me you’re hearing …” and we thought: “Behind”? Unless the show’s host had actually turned his back on the CD player in the studio, there was nothing literally “behind” about it. But, in terms of placeness, it was a fascinating jumping off point: thinking of a diminished sound as being “behind,” as if radio waves were a place with directional coordinates. (Sometimes, intriguingly, “behind” is referred to instead by radio professionals as “under,” and the announcer is said to speak “over” the music.) It’s not location we’re dealing with here, really, nor physical layering, but representative abstract depiction, a metaphorical component to placeness.

And it got us to thinking (or, actually, rethinking) about where placeness resides; that is: Does or can a place contain “placeness,” in and of itself, as an essence of it, or is placeness just something in our head that we superimpose on a site, for some reason or need? Is it there, or do we bring it with us? And what is “it”? And where is “there”? And, as with radio, do you need to have an actual, physical place to have placeness?

Of course, something like radio is easily the topic of a placeness discussion in and of itself. Anyone lucky enough (i.e., old enough) to have heard Stan Freberg’s power-of-radio commercial (“Cue the maraschino cherry!”), or Jean Shepherd’s intimate and rollicking latenight monologues, knows that these artists of the air did more than just paint pictures with their words and sounds – they created places we were in, and today we have memories of being there. We can not only describe what we “saw,” but tell you how it smelled, or how big things were. They were magicians of placeness – they took us someplace else: behind, under, over. And no matter whether you were listening to them in the dark of night or the light of an afternoon, in a room, in a car, in the park, the placeness was there. And we were in it.

Is placeness an objective, universally grasped trait or aspect of the “personality” of a locale? Or, if placeness is not objective, and does not reside per se in the places we deem as having placeness, then it is a subjective thing, a personal preference, as much nurture as nature. A need in search of a vessel to hold it.

Or maybe it’s neither. Or maybe it’s both. (We’d sort of like, in a philosophical-cum-romantic way, for placeness to be an entity that exists in a place, just waiting to be discovered, like a new element, or a treasure in an antique shop, or a new sense, like umami.) Or maybe it is something we are meant to perceive but never quite understand – like great art, to know it when you see it, but never to have the tools to explain how or why, but to know when you are in the presence of it.

The direction of our future “digs” into the stratified soil of placeness – including our continued visits to and descriptions of places that we contend have that quality, that  “soul,” if you will – will be to continue trying to determine what it is that gives places that are universally regarded as possessing placeness their “placeness,” to split the atom of it, to see the particles and attracting/repelling forces that give it its substance and shape – to get down to the indivisible, irreducible, ineluctable core. It’s a journey that may take us into places we cannot imagine that we will go, or that we ever knew existed: to dwell in places where music being “behind” or “under” or “over” is more than just a convenient expression but, rather, a signpost.

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