Offline, from Carlos Zafon to Lady Gaga

I am drawn to people who are good at what they do. I don't care if they are artists, scientists, waitresses or the cleaners in my building. I respect people who care about their impression on the world and use their gifts to creative effect. That includes technical or social intelligence, I don't care. I just like to see honourable effort.

Perhaps it is for that reason that I take great pleasure in the entertainment industry when it succeeds in lifting up genuinely talented individuals, who herniate through the often pathological ceiling of formulaic production values in music and film. I don't find stuff I like every day, but I am fortunate to have broad tastes.

Of course, I like to read. Recently I have taken great pleasure from Zafon's Shadow of the Wind, and Yalom's Schopenhauer Cure, and I am sad (as a long time science fiction fan) to be disappointed in pretty much everything that is written as science fiction today. I had high hopes for Michael Flynn, after his excellent run of books leading up to The Wreck of the River of Stars, but his recent two offerings did nothing for me.

A relatively recent fascination for me as been with modern television drama. It began when I made the explicit effort to watch series 1-7 of The West Wing. I had caught glimpses here and there but had never seen more than a few minutes, but it was clear that there was something intriguing about a cast of talented actors with a great script. Perhaps TV drama was moving up a notch.

Something seemed to happen around that time in the US with drama. It seems almost as if drama was reinvented about the time that Star Trek, Next Generation was reborn. As the quality of script writing rose like the creature from the Black Lagoon from dire sitcom to erudite mystery play, and then subsequent series of the Star Trek franchise nose-dived into the depravity of special-effects wars ("We coming in peace, shoot to kill", as the song goes), other series with excellent script writers seemed to pop up. West Wing was the first one I noticed. More recently, there is The Wire, House, and Weeds, Dexter,30 Rock.

Seeing Hugh Laurie as House was a far cry from Black Adder and his other comic escapades with Stephen Fry, but it was less of a shock than seeing Stephen Fry himself in "Bones" (a series which started so well, and then succumbed to farce shortly after his appearance). Personally, I enjoy Stephen Fry in his role as host of shows like QI, and the excellent documentary series about depression that he hosted (being a fellow sufferer). I was more than taken aback when I received a "Happy Birthday GNU" email from him in my mail box a few years back. The world is smaller than you think.

Don't Fret (again)

Nothing pleases me quite like music though. I am always looking for something new, but I am not easily impressed. During the Nobel peace concert (for the conspicuously absent President Obama), I was shaken back into musical wakefulness from a general boredom by two popular artists in particular: Natasha Bedingfield and Esperanza Spalding. Intrigued, I ordered both CDs from Amazon while they were still singing. I love female singers -- from Joni Mitchell to Pink, so discovering two in one night was a plus. Natasha Bedingfield is horribly overproduced, but very special (perhaps partly thanks for great Norwegian songwriter Mads Hauge!). Esperanza was an instant hit with me.

I caught a preview interview with Esperanza Spalding earlier in the evening, and was enchanted by her magnetic personal charm, so I was anxious to hear her music. Little did I know that it was possible to sing like an angel while playing the bass like Jaco Pastorius. I loved the bass-work immediately, and felt sentimental about not having played the bass myself for such a long time.

My first thought was then that it was finally time to buy a fretless bass! Then I slapped myself in the face and pulled myself together. I have spent the past five years trying to get rid of guitars that I no longer have time to play, not buy new ones! So enough of that. However, something about her style reminded me of an old `hero', Percy Jones, and I wondered what he had been doing since the 1980s and Brand X. So I trawled the net for recent recordings and found a few, such as the live recordings in New York Tunnels. (And by the way, Donna Summer rocked at the Nobel concert night too!)

Fashion, turn to the left

I was discussing recently with a very lovely Australian fashion scout that I met in an airport lounge in LA -- who are the important people in society? These days I believe that entertainers are every bit as important as engineers. People who surpass their private selves to bring art into the world show guts, or moral courage. Actually I loathe the term "art", full of pretensions and moral judgements, some of which might be "not incorrect" but are still infuriatingly righteous. I prefer the term entertainment. The realization that entertainers are, like scientists and engineers, amongst the most important people in our society (inventors enhance the quality of our future, entertainers enhance the quality of present), is I believe the key to successful balance in life.

For my part, I was never sure what I wanted to do. My earliest wish was to play the guitar, inspired by David Bowie and The Sweet on British Top of The Pops. Then I wanted to join Kirk and Spock on the Enterprise, and have such toys to play with. For many years, playing the guitar was the thing that I did best. It turns out, I am not very good at anything, but can make a passable attempt in a few areas. I have always been creative (first with Lego). My dabbling in various fields is more of a compulsion to get ideas out, like emptying my bladder, than a need to follow a path.

Realizing that I will probably never meet my own expectations for much longer than a passing instant, I have mellowed to a certain unfocused pragmatism. Try to enjoy the execution and variety rather than specific results. Despite my own limitations, I love the more singular talent and dedication of individuals on shows like "So you think you can Dance", and even the trials and aspirations of "America's Next Top(less?) Model", and the Project Runway etc etc shows that highlight talent. Conversely, while I have no particular moral qualms about hedonism, I am revolted by the ugliness of shows like Big Brother and Paradise Hotel, which take pretty empty shells and encourage and parade them to behave poorly.

All we need is...

But my main love is still music. I share with my friend Joe LaCasce, the conviction that it is absolutely natural to compare Sonic Youth or Serena Maneesh to Schostakovich and be passionate about both. In the mean time I currently oscillate between Benjamin Brittain (from the Spring Symphony to the beautiful Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings) and Lady Gaga.

Mostly my friends shake their heads. What could he be thinking? In fact, I didn't really notice Gaga in the beginning, as she arrived amongst a run of god-awful European Summer Dance hits, but my instincts gnawed at me for a year before I summoned the wherewithall to buy her records. I was sick of everything else, and so (as I often do) I shot out a tentacle to taste something new. Now I am completely gaga.

Lady Gaga has that rare genius for creativity, full of playful humour, thoughtful content, sporting multiple cross-references. She has exquisite timing and superb instinct. The last time I had the same feeling was listening to Swedish pop icon Robyn. Gaga is a musician's musician, I think, as you have to appreciate the subtlety of the expression along side the mastery of style and dynamic range.

But there is melancholy in her flash too: "I am as vain as I allow" - or need to be. This is surely an insight into succeeding in the public eye. The two Lady Gaga albums are full of musical references to Madonna, Gwen Stefani in No Doubt (which themselves pay significant homage to Pat Benetar), and others that I can't as easily put my finger on. She is definitely more than just a wig with lovely eyes, although she is that too.

Music can be so surprising. There is more music and drama in William Shatner's voice in his excellent album Has Been than in a lot of songs, and who would have guessed that Milla Jovovich had a magical but little-known album The Divine Comedy and a beautiful voice. I remain envious of those who are able to make outstanding music. I never even got close to making the kind of music I wanted to in my own musical escapades. As my friend Alva Couch was visiting Norway last year, we saw a concert finalist in a Norwegian School music competition who played so beautifully and with a right hand classical technique that I have never possessed. I started me playing classical guitar again.

Science is Culture, Technology is Art

I have sometimes wondered why so few scientists can make the same kind of impression on me as entertainers. I sample as much science as I do entertainment, reading about just about anything I can get me hands on. But in science I am rarely impressed. We expect less of science, because like the Emperor's New Clothes, we are taught to expect that we will not understand. It is a tragedy for our future that there are so few guiding stars in Science and Technology to steer by. The few we point to like the `Googles' of the world are corporations, not scientists. The spirit of discovery has gone commercial. But as I wrote back in 1996 for a multimedia CD project for schools, `Science is Culture, Technology is Art'. Science and Entertainment are closer than we think.

Of course Science has its own languages which are not always as accessible as entertainment, though there are excellent popular classics like The Selfish Gene, The Unfolding of Language, or Godel Escher, Bach,.... But, today, science is mass produced like any other commodity and if you compare it to music, I think that a far smaller proportion of what is produced has any real impact on the world. So what about all this entertainment? Sometime people tell me that it is less important than all this Science and Technology stuff that I do. Do I care whether any of this is "important"? No. I don't know how to judge that. The bottom line is simple, I am intensely grateful for the pleasure all creative people continue to bring me.

Some other things I am listening to this month:

  • Bat for Lashes (Two Suns) on CD
  • Grace Jones (Hurricane) on CD
  • Stanley Clarke (School Days) on LP
  • Genesis (Seconds Out) on LP
  • David Bowie (Heathen) on CD
  • Stevie Nicks (Trouble in Shangri-La) on CD
  • Serena Maneesh on MP3