Erik Morse

Lee Friedlander’s lively American necrologies


REVIEW Throughout Lee Friedlander’s 50-year oeuvre, much of which is now on display at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the photographer has been lauded for his liveliness, optimism, and mobility. Yet his paean to modern Americana often resembles monochrome memento mori. Taken as a whole, Friedlander’s work has always seemed driven to two poles: the ephemeral and the haunting.

Heavily impressed by the avant-naturalism of European photographers Eugène Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson, as well as the post–World War II experimentalism of Robert Frank, Friedlander staked his claim at a moment in the 1950s when the photograph transcended the moribund category of journalistic tool and became its own art form. Modeling much of his working method around Cartier-Bresson’s so-called decisive moment, Friedlander’s timeless images still have a striking past tense about them. Now ossified on film, these thousand microcosmic moments, captured throughout the 1960s and ’70s, seem like lively obituaries.

While Friedlander first made a name for himself as a contractor for Atlantic Records — where he shot such musicians as Ornette Coleman — he was never a celebrity photographer. In fact, his most intriguing work resulted from a personal obsession with traveling and shooting the country, crisscrossing between New York and his home state of Washington. And so the images of nocturnal motel rooms, cycloptic TV sets, and storefront tessellations conjure the American dynamism and dread of Vladimir Nabokov or David Lynch. The plethora of windows and mirrors in his street photography admit countless apertures through which to see his subjects. But Friedlander’s playful sense of humor always appears just within the clutches of something inexplicably sinister — like the cartoonish shadows that often hover into his frame. Though his more recent work — in portraiture, nudes, and particularly in nature — may suffer slightly from the inevitable cooling of youth’s ambition, Friedlander’s baroque attention to detail and depth of field are unmatched. This is a definitive exhibition on one of America’s most ingenious, albeit conflicted, photographers.


Through May 18

Mon.–Tues., Fri.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5:45 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.–8:45 p.m.

$7–$12.50, free for members and 12 and under

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000

Years of Lead


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REVIEW Reflecting on his work on millenarian Europe, the autonomist and political philosopher Antonio Negri stated, "This is certainly one of the central and most urgent political paradoxes of our time: in our much-celebrated age of communication, struggles have become all but incommunicable."

Long an influential campaign in Negri’s native Italy, autonomia, or self-rule, has received little critical attention from the English-speaking world. Editors Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi’s Autonomia: Post-Political Politics (Semiotext(e), 340 pages, $24.95), originally released as part of the short-lived Semiotext(e) magazine series in 1980, proffers the first English-language introduction to one of the most controversial movements of postmodernity.

Developed in the vibrant Götterdämmerung of the late 1960s in reaction to the largely corrupt and co-opted Eurocommunist parties, the worker-inspired Potere Operaio and its immediate descendent Autonomia Operaia were a philosophical umbrella, or, as one government critic put it, "a veritable mosaic made of different fragments, a gallery of overlapping images of circles and collectives without any social organization." At its heart, autonomia was a rejection by individuals and marginalized groups of not only the capitalist state but also its traditional ideological enemy — Marxism and its central doctrine of class struggle — for a postideological and immaterial way of life.

Brokered in universities throughout Bologna and Rome but dedicated to labor activism and the street-level situationism of sessantotto (student unrest), autonomia was powered by a number of formidable philosophical proponents. They included Negri, Oreste Scalzone, and Paolo Virno, as well as French sympathizers and arch collaborators Félix Guatarri, Gilles Deleuze, and Paul Virilio. Autonomia collects the various polemics, letters, and récits of these authors in an attempt to again dramatize the revolutionary and sometimes violent struggles between neofascists, unionists, and the ultraleft during the ensuing "Years of Lead."

Semiotext(e) editor Lotringer prefaces this new edition with a short travelogue describing his interactions with the various underground factions of Rome and Bologna in the shadow of politician Aldo Moro’s assassination by the dreaded Red Brigades, or Brigate Rosse. Long associated with the neofascists and socialists as the armed division of the Autonomia Operaia, the Red Brigades began resorting to terrorist propaganda, bombings, and assassination in the wake of government crackdowns in the late 1970s.

Lotringer encounters a gaggle of activists, intellectuals, and simulationists who may or may not pledge loyalty to the Red Brigades and who live in compounds and squats hiding from the omnipresent carabinieri, who continue to surveil the streets. Some are in costume and others spin Velvet Underground records; still others may be government informants or simply thrill to the hip simulacra of espionage. According to Lotringer, this alternative and autonomist space may have accomplished, however briefly, the utopic "non-fascist living" of Deleuze and Guattari.

Throughout Autonomia‘s 300 pages of densely translated text — from theorists and tricksters, reporters and members of the lumpen proletariat — the truly inclusive and sometimes circuitous worlds of the title movement become all the more apparent, yet never transparent. Negri’s contributions are particularly inspiring and frustrating in their brilliant opacity. Ultimately, in rejecting the verticality of hierarchies of power — textual, political, and economic — the autonomists opened up larger interpretative spaces: realms that existed beyond capital and beyond empire.

Great Scott!


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Though orchestra leader and electronics pioneer Raymond Scott may not exactly have been a household name, his sonic inventiveness succeeded in seeping across the larger social synapse of America’s television generation. Credited with founding 20th-century music’s dubiously named exotica genre — a kind of pop counterpart to art brut that included everything from Claude Debussy’s Javanese tribalism to Clara Rockmore’s theremin, Arthur Lyman’s vibes and chimes to electronic voice phenomena séances — Scott created a corpus that was as unique as it was bizarre.

In fact, Scott’s variety of assorted musical approaches was extraordinary: he composed everything from syncopated so-called cartoon jazz to proto-synthesizer radio jingles to ambient albums for toddlers. "The concept of electronic music for babies in the early 1960s usually strikes folks as either extremely clever and useful or totally insane," says Jeff Winner, aficionado, archivist, and coproducer of many Scott reissues. And truly, Scott’s role as a radiophonic designer and a thoroughly American surrealist in the autodidactic tradition of Joseph Cornell or Stan Brakhage is unparalleled in the almanac of recorded music.

It’s appropriate, then, that this new year marks the centennial anniversary of the birth of a man in whose absence the ether of the 20th century may have sounded radically different — or, at the very least, would have had fewer blurbs, blips, and zoinks. In celebration, the Raymond Scott Archive and Basta Records — the geniuses behind the comprehensive Manhattan Research Inc. (2000) and the 1997 reissue of Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby, Volumes 1–3 (Epic, 1963) — are planning a yearlong audio bacchanal that will revisit every major era in the composer’s 50-year career. According to Winner, this will include the release of a documentary by Scott’s only son, Stan Warnow; a series of electronic and jazz rarities recordings; and live tribute concerts on the East and West Coasts.

Born Harry Warnow in 1908 to a Jewish Russian immigrant family in New York City, Scott pursued his early passion for science and music by attending a local Brooklyn technical school before entering the Institute of Musical Art (later the Juilliard School) in the late 1920s. He began his professional career as an in-house musician at CBS, where he worked in varying capacities for the television and radio network — as a session man, orchestra conductor, and creative director — for decades.

In the interim, the always resourceful musician recruited five compeers and formed the Raymond Scott Quintette — so called because, according to Scott, using the correct "<0x2009>‘sextet’ might get your mind off music." Under Scott’s direction, the Quintette produced a striking oeuvre that blended the compositional and stylistic aesthetic of big band jazz, the amorphous motifs of soundtrack and sound effects records, and the playful narratives of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The song titles alone are surrealism in miniature — "New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House," "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals," "In an Eighteenth Century Drawing Room," and Scott’s most celebrated and oft-repeated piece, "Powerhouse." So successful were these instrumentals that within months of their debut the Quintette were contracted with 20th Century Fox to score major motion pictures. These songs would also become the adolescent soundtrack of Saturday morning after Warner Bros. secured the rights to the Quintette’s catalog in 1943 and Warner musical director Carl Stalling inserted huge swathes of Scott’s work into the immensely popular Looney Tunes.

Using the generous salary from his work at CBS, Scott bankrolled his own electronics studio — a sort of junior BBC Radiophonic Workshop — which he christened Manhattan Research in 1946. Though its initial function was to produce radio ads and jingles, the Long Island, NY, laboratory’s true purpose was to develop unheard and unimagined forms of electromechanical and synthesized tones. Predating the widespread use of integrated circuits and analog synthesis, the photocell tone generators and polyphonic sequencers constructed at Manhattan Research were completely unprecedented in sound technology.

"Given the amazing, tiny, and cheap technology that’s everywhere today, it’s a real challenge for us moderns to appreciate how difficult and s-l-o-w the process was," Winner explains. "It was always laborious, tedious, and extremely time-consuming. Designing, theorizing, soldering, then testing…. Wiring, rewiring, and testing again and again…. Hour after hour, year after year — literally — decade after decade."

The records spawned from these contraptions — the Clavivox, the Electronium, and the Circle Machine — often consisted of limpid pools of sustained sound multitracked with sharp sine wave helices and processed glitches. The almost childlike primitivism and free-form tonality that template Scott’s work bely its enchanting subtlety, prefiguring the kraut rock pastoralism of Brian Eno and the lush microtones of contemporary digital artists Christian Fennesz and Nobukazu Takemura. In fact, Winner recalls that when a colleague introduced Eno to Scott’s music years ago, Eno "was indeed impressed. He agreed that some of Scott’s electronic music is similar to some of his own."

Though his success as a producer and inventor was subordinated to his very popular role as an orchestra conductor and jazzman — creating a kind of night-and-day personality that alternated between the smiling TV bandleader and the dial-twisting mad scientist — Scott continued his nocturnal research unabated. Along the way, the once-gregarious musician became more obsessive and secretive regarding his unwieldy instruments, some of which extended wall to wall with their untranslatable, blinking consoles.

The fruits of his labor only became clear later, as the impact of Scott’s brilliance was measured in the younger technologists and musicians who joined his mission in the ’50s and ’60s. Budding musical technician Robert Moog began working with Scott long before he invented the first modular synthesizer that bears his name. Motown impresario Berry Gordy was so impressed with Scott’s mysterious Electronium that he recruited the inventor to the label’s expanding R&D department and bankrolled Manhattan Research’s 1971 move to California, where Scott would spend his final professional years toiling unapologetically on the apparatus.

"During [those years,] among the very few who were thinking about electroinstruments, no one foresaw a consumer market for hardware," Winner explains of Scott’s lifelong work. "Almost no one wanted those kinds of sounds yet." With this centennial celebration — and a bevy of new studio discoveries — Scott’s work may finally be recognized for its uncompromising beauty and understood as the revolving soundtrack for a century of technology and dreams, human and machine.

Year in Music: Bliss you


"It was definitely Kevin Shields — it was his playing that made me want to play guitar in a different way," explains Mark Clifford, former guitarist and studio mastermind of United Kingdom electro innovators Seefeel. "I saw My Bloody Valentine every time I could around ’88, right after ‘You Made Me Realise.’ And it was amazing, the kind of noise they could make: one sound, one chord that was this long, sustained wash of noise."

If Shields’s Valentines were the guitar experimentalists of the shoegaze era, then acolytes Seefeel, a Too Pure acoustic turned post-rock turned electronic group, were the six-string geniuses of the post-rave era. The Brighton band’s 1993 debut, the much-lauded Quique — rereleased this year — was a vital piece of electroacoustic art, so defiant of the conventional boundaries of techno, indie rock, and the dubiously termed IDM genre that it forced critic Simon Reynolds to invent a new descriptor: post-rock.

"When we started up, we were pretty much labeled in every genre — rock, dub, techno, electronic," Clifford recalls. "And it just seemed silly, really. I remember we were getting compared to bands like [labelmates] Disco Inferno. To be honest with you, I couldn’t see any similarity in our music whatsoever." In fact, Quique — in many ways the equal of its inspiration, Loveless (Creation, 1991) — remains less a timely "rock" record than a series of liminal compositions whose meanings shift and decay like glaciers or isotopes according to some inexplicable molecular clock. The album’s concoction of guitar drones, buzzing keyboard loops, and cooing vocals — courtesy of bassist Sarah Peacock — has a narcotic vastness that might very well induce a century-long slumber. So it might come as no surprise, then, that Seefeel’s oeuvre would draw the attention of somnambulists Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards of Canada, and yes, even Radiohead.

Criminally remanded to the record store dustbin since Seefeel’s demise in 1996, Quique was finally given the full-on two-CD treatment in April by Too Pure, and, as in ’93, it’s one of the best listens of the year. Few new bands experimenting with tones and drones have managed to match Quique‘s blend of infectious creativity and instrumental minimalism. Rather, the noughties’ profusion of laptop technology and easy-listening soundtracks has caused increasing schisms between electronica’s subcultures and an attendant creative stagnation. "There seems to be something extremely decadent about electronic music, which it didn’t have in the ’90s," Clifford says. "It had something fresh and virginal then that it doesn’t have now."

For all of his accomplishments in genre bending and musical innovation, Clifford, now producing work under the Disjecta and Sneakster monikers and running Polyfusia Records, remains modest and somewhat aloof. "The thing about electronic music is a lot of stuff you hear sounds new, but when you listen to people like Tod Dockstader, who was doing it 40 or 50 years ago with just tape and found sounds, you realize [technology’s] just enabled us to do that kind of thing easier," he says. Fifteen years on, Quique still makes sonic brilliance sound easy.


Alog, Amateur (Rune Grammofon)

Caribou, Andorra (Merge)

Leonard Cohen, Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room, Songs of — Love and Hate (Columbia/Legacy)

Dean and Britta, Back Numbers (Zoë)

Fennesz, Hotel Paral.lel (Editions Mego)

Fire Engines, Hungry Beat (Acute)

Grinderman, Grinderman (Anti-)

PJ Harvey, White Chalk (Island)

Seefeel, Quique (Redux Edition) (Too Pure)

Robert Wyatt, Comicopera (Domino)

Bubblegum and barbed wire kisses


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Somehow it seems morbidly appropriate that a band like the Jesus and Mary Chain would reappear in a year that has witnessed the sad demise of country tunesmith and pop maverick Lee Hazlewood and the grisly murder trial of überproducer and pop maverick Phil Spector. Siblings straight from a David Cronenberg film, William and Jim Reid had an obsession with classic pop music matched only bya lugubrious death drive. From their earliest three-song sets in Tottenham Court clubs to their studio squabbles at the aptly titled Drugstore to their final onstage collapse in 1998, the Reids always closely chased the black shroud of Thanatos.

"The Mary Chain used to regularly get their heads kicked in at that time," Creation impresario Alan McGee recalled, half boasting and half lamenting the group in a recent Q magazine interview. The JAMC "just brought out the violence in people." Whether with the premature effects of Vox guitar feedback or the cheap lager and drugs overrunning their native East Kilbride, the Mary Chain seemed almost religiously intent on martyring themselves like their titular messiah.

To paraphrase the Nicene Creed, the brothers Reid suffered, died, and were buried in 1998, but at Coachella 2007 they rose again in fulfillment of the scriptures and ascended onto the desert stage. They were seated at the right hand of nubile starlet Scarlett Johansson, who sang backup vocals on "Just like Honey." Thence they shall come again, with glory, to judge the noisy and the acoustic. And their distortion shall have no end.

But enough of the requisite Catholic allusions. Though the barbed wire–and–bubblegum magnum opus that was 1985’s Psychocandy (Blanco y Negro/Warner Bros.) may well have ossified their legendary status in the underground pantheon, the JAMC released a half-dozen albums’ worth of blistering pop — some absolutely classic (1987’s Darklands, 1992’s Honey’s Dead, 1994’s Stoned and Dethroned [all Blanco y Negro/Warner Bros.]) and others of lesser beauty (1989’s Automatic [Blanco y Negro/Warner Bros.] and 1998’s Munki [Sub Pop]). Their sonic palette grew more nuanced than that of the screeching distortion of their debut. It was as rich and varied as those of forebears Spector and Hazlewood, metamorphosing from the girl-group rhythms on "Just like Honey" into the brittle balladeering of "Almost Gold" and the stoned country bliss of "Sometimes Always." Their evocation of ’60s psychedelia, twisted with an insouciant outlaw pose, launched as many garage-punk imitators as did the Velvet Underground. Along the way the Reids incited onstage riots and nearly killed each other in countless drunken scraps, but the notoriety only increased their popularity in the press, bankrolling the fledgling Creation label and inventing the quintessential ’80s genre of shoegaze.

Most critics cite the end of the band as the effect of a fraternal enmity equaled by the brothers Davies or Gallagher. But all of the excesses born of the ’80s — stormy collaborations with shady promoters, narcotized scenesters, and the maddest label bosses — seem immaterial compared to the ’90s alternative rock takeover that finally relegated the Mary Chain to a side-walking anachronism.

A cynic might wonder if the sudden reconciliation between the brothers might not have money as the bottom line. Neither Jim’s solo work as Freeheat nor William’s as Lazycame has garnered much critical or commercial attention, and in the intervening decade both men have settled down to marry and raise families. The new Mary Chain appears to be a matured set of blokes, complete with receding hairlines and bloat, not given to the temptations of lager binges or pissing matches — possibly a reason that Primal Scream hell-raiser Bobby Gillespie wasn’t redrafted on the snare. According to early word, set lists have included tracks from the band’s 21 Singles collection (Rhino, 2002), which seems equally sensational and innocuous. Is the Mary Chain cashing in on the latest wave of rock nostalgia or is there still a violence simmering in the Reids that snakes like the whine of William’s fuzz box? If they promise to dust off "Kill Surf City," all will be forgiven. Amen. *


Fri/26–Sat/27, 9 p.m., $40


1805 Geary, SF