Sunday, November 8, 2009

What dollars and notes can buy

Someone told me recently that Paul McCartney was busking on the subway not long ago, playing for change. Not because he needs it, but I would imagine it was one way for him to reconnect with what he loved about music in the first place -- the way voices and instruments together explore emotion and make connections that speech simply cannot. Why is it that lyrics are so much more than words and melodies so much more than the sum of their note parts? There is something timeless, primeval, and universal about music. Some of my most intense emotional moments have occurred in small rooms with live electric violins, or large, cold fields with guitars. Perhaps there is something about an upright bass or a bongo or a banjo that refuses to be pessimistic or cynical and playing them requires a degree of openness, generosity, even vulnerability that we are rarely willing to broach in public otherwise. One of the things I miss about Charlotte is the Tosco Music Party. Who can stay doubtful of the world when John Tosco organizes four hours of musicians who each perform one or two songs interspersed with hokey audience sing-a-longs? For those willing to play along, music unites us on ground that is virtually uncontestable.

The 'Playing for Change' videos and mp3s have circulated on the usual digital rounds. In the videos, musicians from all over the world, recorded in their home countries and often in their own languages, perform the same song in virtual collaboration. The mobile recording studio and crew traveled from Santa Monica, where the project started, to New Orleans, Barcelona, Capetown, Tel Aviv, Dublin, on and on to create a montage of global sounds, created live, typically outside, often in rural or poor locations, and compiled via the magic of digital editing. Their objective is "to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music." Regardless of background or birthplace, 'Playing for Change' believes that music has the ability to cross boundaries and break down barriers. What they realized as well is that the popularity of their viral project had an untapped potential to give back to those willing to share the generosity of their musical talents, which led the originators to develop the Playing for Change Foundation. Musicians involved with PFC now perform shows around the world to raise money to build art and music schools in underserved communities "in need of inspiration and hope."

This Friday, November 13th, Playing for Change performs in Los Angeles at Club Nokia. Yes, there's something slightly odd about this intimate, grassroots, heartfelt effort playing in a place like LA LIVE with 2300 of your closest friends. But in the non-cynical spirit, there's also something great about great music, great projects, and great causes supported in great numbers. After LA, there are shows in Anaheim, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. Each one of these twenty plus shows might just equal a new school. You can also donate on their website, if you so choose or add them to your social network page to spread the virtual word about the work and the foundation. In a slightly less global and less overtly activist way, you can also choose to support local live music or tip those poor guys on the street corner trying their best to be musically heard. Both build optimism through beauty and shared experience and value -- through action -- those magical notes and lyrics that say just the thing you could never say without them.

**image borrowed from the documentary Playing For Change: Peace Through Music

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I can only imagine what trends in Halloween costumes might say about the state of our union. I had heard that the 'Kate kit' (of the over-fertile reality show - John and Kate Plus 8, now sans John) was a sell out. Of the narrow sliver of the 500,000 people wandering West Hollywood last night that I saw, there was only one Kate. Peacock flared hair, sunglasses on her head, Day-Glo white teeth. In the dark and the chaos I couldn't see if she had somehow abstracted the talk show tears, the raging lunacy of her estranged husband and his train of girlfriends, or the little cake-eating 8, but she looked way happier than she ought to.

Halloween in West Hollywood is not so much a rebel rousing holiday as it is a photo shoot. There is no actual 'parade' from what I can tell, but there is a promenade, and it is full of wannabe actors seeking the artificial adoring attention of anyone with a camera. There is more posing than drinking, which says a lot for an all adult street party in Los Angeles.

So, what were the trends and what might they mean? One Kate is a good sign - she's out. KISS is most definitely back, as is Wonder Woman. There were many witty, complicated costumes I had to think twice about . There was an iPod touch and his friend, the Tetras square, in a dialogue about technology. There were the pigs in blankets, who this year also had swine flu. There were amazing twenty foot skeleton puppets with red and blue blinking eyes and creepy, reaching articulated fingers. One guy had half his body sticking through a large white board, and I can only imagine he might be that rat that appeared recently on YouTube stuck in a crack in the sidewalk in New York.

The costume of the year, though, was Kate's replacement - the silver balloon that had no boy inside. Luckily for branding's sake, it was an odd shaped balloon, more like a space ship meets a blimp, oval and bulbous with a tumor balloon attached to its belly in the shape of a basket. This was the Heene family hoax, where teary parents pretended their child had climbed aboard a weather balloon and floated off to 10,000 feet. An emergency personnel search ensued, planes were launched, cameras arrived and rolled, and, like Geraldo's opening of the tomb, the thing turned up empty, the boy in a box in the attic at home the whole time. It's an atrocious story of fame-mongering, and a Halloween costume that I wish I could've seen close up. Clearly, the unique shape of the balloon was a necessity - any plain silver balloon and the costume (and media stunt) would have been unrecognizable. I saw three of them from a distance, two floating and one headpiece of a balloon, but couldn't see the rest of the get up from where I walked. Was there a commentary on the insanity of media coverage? the lengths to which people will go for something that mildly resembles fame? the state of child rearing in America? the gullibility of viewers? This is LA, so I'm going to say there was. We are not shy here about having harsh opinions, and using our bodies and our holidays to broadcast them.

In costuming and otherwise, creativity is a platform. We say something about ourselves and our world whenever we put our creative efforts out for others to experience. Which brings me to pie.

Evan Kleinman, host of KCRW's Good Food radio program, has been baking a pie a day since the beginning of the summer and talks about them and other food-related issues each Saturday on her 11am show. This week, though, she talked about Pie Lab. Pie Lab is a place that combines pies with causes. They recognized the powerful combination of baking and community and started sharing pies to make relationships with their neighbors. As their tagline says, PIE + CONVERSATION = IDEAS ; IDEAS + DESIGN = POSITIVE CHANGE.

According to their website:

PieLab, an initiative of Project M, is focused on community development and engagement in Hale County, AL.

PieLab is a welcoming community space on Greensboro’s Main Street that provides delicious pie and coffee, as well as retail and hospitality job training for local youth through the YouthBuild Program. More than simply a pie shop, PieLab operates as a community design center focusing on community development projects and small business incubation in Greensboro and the surrounding five counties.

If your ears don't automatically perk up at the reference to Hale County, AL, this is Mockbee territory. This is the heart of the Rural Studio. This is one of the poorest counties in the country, where Walker Evans came to photograph for the FSA and William Christenberry captured decades of rotting barns.

At the end of November they will open a permanent location for PieLab in Greensboro. It will be one the first new businesses to open on Greensboro's Main Street in years. I've been to Greensboro, Alabama, and this is a great idea. This would be a great idea anywhere.

Project M, the umbrella organization, describes itself like this:

We just want to change the world.

Sure, we may not be known in the in circles. We may not fill the pages of design annuals. And we may never see our names in lights. But, we do know how to save the rain forest with a waterproof book. We do know how to build a park with a postcard. And we know how to bring water to a community with a few pages of newsprint.

We are part of a design movement. We believe that ability equals responsibility. And we are not the only ones. So, we built a lab where designers like you can make a difference. We are building the tools that will build the future. And this is where you come in.

I believe it too, and it sure beats pretending to lose your child to get on a reality TV show. I might just go there and have me some pie and, while we're eating, help these guys in Southern Alabama continue to change the world.