Wednesday, January 31, 2007

In Pakistan, the Biggest Star is in Drag

NBC Worldblog
posted: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 7:49 AM
Categories: Islamabad, Pakistan

"Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali" host Ali Saleem in drag. [M&C note: visit original story for a VIDEO of Begum Nawazish preparing for the show.]

By NBC News' Hasan Zaidi, reporting from Karachi, Pakistan

Last year when a journalist from Indian-administered Kashmir asked me what the "story" was behind Begum Nawazish Ali, I was more than just surprised. The Begum (the term means "Lady" in Urdu) in question is the host of Pakistan's most popular TV talk show – "Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali."

I didn’t think Aaj, the fledgling television channel which broadcasts the show, was even seen outside the country. I asked him how he knew the name of Pakistan’s rising star and he said "Oh, we all watch her program off satellite!"

The talk show host making waves in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (and apparently Kashmir) is purportedly a stylish, middle-aged, socialite widow of an army colonel. Her monologues are often laced with sexual innuendo, she flirts openly with her guests, and sometimes embarrasses them with probing questions about their private lives. Her guests include some of Pakistan's most well-known personalities: the urban elite, film and television stars and even some top politicians. Most are nevertheless thrilled to be invited to appear on a program millions are watching.

Viewers are obviously fascinated too. Dinner party conversations here in Karachi are often peppered with anecdotes about her risqué banter and sly digs at Pakistani politics. Women call the television station to inquire about the tailoring of her sequined blouses and where to buy her glamorous saris.

The thing is, Begum Nawazish Ali is actually a man. Ali Saleem, the 28-year-old man who dons lipstick, mascara and a wig to Begum Nawazish Ali, has managed to break many taboos in conservative Pakistan through the character.

A strong, glamorous Pakistani woman
When I nonchalantly mentioned that the host was in drag to the Kashmiri journalist, his eyes almost popped out of his head. That was almost a bigger surprise for me. I thought that fact was obvious to everyone and was part of the show's success. Certainly no Pakistani woman on television could get away with the kind of double entendres she gets away with.

To the actor Saleem, there is little doubt about why audiences are tuning in – they’re all waiting to see what the well-coiffed, manicured character will say next.

Female guests often find themselves comparing wardrobes and jewelry with her, while male guests have had to bear the brunt of a suggestive proposition from her. "Some people compare her to Dame Edna's character on British television," said Saleem, "but Begum Nawazish Ali is much too sophisticated to ever be that crude."

So popular is the show that advertising rates during its weekend prime time slot are triple that of other shows in similar slots. Saleem is now one of the highest paid television hosts in the country and is constantly receiving offers from rival channels to bring the show to them.

During an arduous three-hour hair and make-up session before the recording of a show, Saleem was philosophical about the reasons why the show has clicked with audiences.

"I think Begum Nawazish Ali inspires women in particular because she is a strong, glamorous, opinionated woman who is unafraid of saying what she thinks and of flirting with men if she feels like it," explained Saleem. "Men, on the other hand, find her intriguing because she transcends all kinds of restrictions and plays with their imagination."

More open than outsiders think
So far, despite the thin line Saleem treads between the outrageous and the socially acceptable – overt sexuality of any kind is frowned upon in conservative Pakistan – his celebrity guests have also been good sports.

Surprisingly even Pakistan's firebrand religious leaders have never attacked the show. "We couldn't convince [the head of the main religious parties alliance] Qazi Hussain Ahmed to come on the show," said Saleem, "but he was very good-natured about it. He praised the Begum and said he would rather just watch the show on television."

Even a septuagenarian belonging to Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist political party, claimed that he did not know what he was getting into after appearing on the show.

Saleem got his first big break famously impersonating former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in theatre and on television, but says it's the Ali character that brings out the real woman inside him. "I am happy to openly accept my bisexuality because it does justice to the man in me and the woman in me," he said with a laugh. He claims he has "only received love, adoration and respect, never anything evenly remotely negative."

Then Saleem dropped a bombshell. "You are the first person I am announcing this to, but I have decided to file my papers for the upcoming general elections," he exclaimed. "I am going to run for a parliamentary seat as an independent from all over Pakistan and I am going to campaign as Begum Nawazish Ali!" The note of triumph and excitement in his voice is unmistakable.

"I want to be the voice of the youth and for all of Pakistan," he continued. "The idea was always to break barriers and preconceived notions, of gender, identity, celebrity and politics and to bring people closer. In any case, I think Begum Nawazish Ali is the strongest woman in Pakistan!"

Whether Pakistanis agree or not, the elections at the end of the year are likely to be one of the most uproarious in recent times.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ennio Morricone YouTube Western blowout

Here's a great concert clip of Morricone conducting his "The Ecstasy of Gold" from the film "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."

Here's a great clip from a BBC documentary concerning "Once Upon a Time in the West," including the influence of Morricone's music in the film featuring film critic Christopher Frayling. [spoiler alert]

The full introduction, presenting Bornson's theme/leitmotif on harmonica [spoiler alert]:

The amazing (my favorite) showdown from "Once Upon a Time in the West" [spoiler alert] If you have interest in watching the movie, don't watch this part of the ending!

And the showdown from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."

NYTimes on Ennio Morricone

January 28, 2007
The Maestro of Spaghetti Westerns Takes a Bow

Correction Appended


FOR many filmmakers through the years, a certain kind of pilgrimage to Rome leads to the opulent parlor of the composer Ennio Morricone. It’s the place where he has discussed grand concepts and crucial details, and often unveiled new themes on the piano, for the distinctive film scores he has written over the past four decades, from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” to “The Mission.” There are more than 400 of them, though he hasn’t kept count.

Next Saturday Mr. Morricone, 78, makes his long-overdue American concert debut with 200 musicians and singers at Radio City Music Hall. It is the beginning of a triumphal month in the United States that will also include festivals of his films at the Museum of Modern Art and Film Forum, and the release of a tribute album, “We All Love Ennio Morricone” (Sony Masterworks), with performances from Bruce Springsteen, Renée Fleming, Herbie Hancock and Metallica, among others. On Feb. 25 he will be presented with an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement, atoning for past omissions. After five nominations, he has never won.

Massimo Gallotta, the promoter who is producing the concert, has been working for more than a year to present Mr. Morricone’s American debut. “It was strange for me that Morricone had never performed here in the past,” Mr. Gallotta said. “He agreed right away. And then I was lucky about the Oscar, the CD, everything.”

Mr. Morricone has given concerts periodically in Europe, including a December performance that drew 50,000 people to the Piazza del Duomo in Milan. At Radio City he will lead the 100-piece Roma Sinfonietta orchestra, along with the 100-member Canticum Novum Singers.

Everyone except Maestro Morricone, as he is called in Rome, considers him startlingly prolific. Along with his hundreds of film scores, he has composed a sizable body of concert music like “Voci dal Silencio” (“Voices From the Silence”), a cantata he wrote in response to “the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and all the massacres of humanity all over the world,” he said. He will be performing that work on Friday at the United Nations, at a concert welcoming the new secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

“The notion that I am a composer who writes a lot of things is true on one hand and not true on the other hand,” he said in an interview at his home, speaking in Italian through a translator. “Maybe my time is better organized than many other people’s. But compared to classical composers like Bach, Frescobaldi, Palestrina or Mozart, I would define myself as unemployed.”

Maestro Morricone is a flinty, pragmatic character, but one who marvels at what he called “the strange miracle of music.” He looked like a bespectacled businessman, wearing a sport jacket, dark trousers, white shirt and tie. He greeted any generalizations about his work with a shrug, or a terse, “That is up to the audience to decide.” But through the years he has created music that is as memorable as the films it accompanies, and sometimes more so.

Audiences respond to the operatic sweep of themes like the ones he wrote for “Cinema Paradiso” and “Once Upon a Time in America.” Musicians prize the ingenuity of his writing: the unexpected harmonic turns, the odd meters (even in tunes that seem to be marches), the use of silence and wide spaces between instruments. Meanwhile hipsters and producers delight in the almost sardonic themes he wrote for films like “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” and the striking, sample-ready timbres he has invented.

For “1900” he wrote a score that encompasses Italian folk songs and dance music as well as symphonic arrangements. “He is someone with two identities,” said Bernardo Bertolucci, that film’s director. “One is the composer of contemporary music, and the other is this composer of big epics, this popular music for movies. All his life he has been trying to nourish one identity with the other one, and it is as if the two voices were enriching each other. He has a great capacity of harmonizing in himself.”

Maestro Morricone’s parlor, in a palazzo with a view of the Campidoglio hill in the center of Rome, is a Baroque room so large that the grand piano is almost lost amid the lavishly ornamented chairs, couches and tables. A small silver frame holds a family photo full of children and grandchildren. (He has three sons and a daughter; one son, Andrea, is a composer, and another, Giovanni, is a film director.)

At one corner of the room, a doorway leads into the office where Mr. Morricone writes his music. An unobtrusive movie screen, big enough for some multiplexes, can unroll down one wall of the parlor. On the other walls an antique tapestry of the abduction of the Sabine women is flanked by surreal, turbulent 20th-century paintings full of striking colors and brooding shadows.

The room’s mixture of elegant history and menacing modernity echoes the qualities that have made generations of directors — from Sergio Leone with “A Fistful of Dollars” to Terrence Malick with “Days of Heaven” to Roland Joffe with “The Mission” to Giuseppe Tornatore with “Cinema Paradiso” and “Malèna” — seek out Mr. Morricone.

He composes not at the piano or on a computer but at an imposing desk in his writing studio, amid shelves of books, LPs, CDs, tapes and DVDs. On a coffee table supported by a realistic rhinoceros is a neat stack of score paper with all the parts for an orchestra written in pencil: Mr. Morricone’s next batch of soundtracks.

His extensive background in classical music can be heard in his swelling love themes and in his meticulous orchestrations, which can suggest the stateliness of the 18th century or the eerie dissonances of the 20th. Unlike younger film composers who create their music as studio recordings rather than manuscripts, or who hand off their themes for others to arrange, Mr. Morricone writes full scores and conducts them himself.

“He doesn’t have a piano in his studio,” said the director Barry Levinson, who commissioned Mr. Morricone for “Bugsy,” a soundtrack nominated for an Academy Award. “I always thought that with composers, you sit at the piano, and you try to find the melody. There’s no such thing with him. He hears a melody, and he writes it down. He hears the orchestration completely done.”

Mr. Morricone grew up playing trumpet like his father, who worked in jazz bands and opera orchestras; sometimes Ennio substituted for him at gigs. While studying trumpet and composition at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome, Mr. Morricone was also arranging and sometimes writing pop songs. His film scores invoke centuries of popular music, from tarantellas and polkas to psychedelia, lounge pop and avant-garde jazz.

Mr. Morricone has also experimented constantly with timbre, using surf-rock guitar or jew’s harp, panpipes or synthesizer, wordless voices or exotic percussion. For the beginning of “Once Upon a Time in the West,” he persuaded the director, Mr. Leone, not to use conventional instruments at all: just amplified ambient sounds, from the creak of a swinging sign to the screech of an arriving train.

He pushes instruments to the extremes of their ranges and dynamics, and voices too. For “Navajo Joe,” he drew yowls and shrieks from the singers he hired. “When they finished recording, they were crying because what had been done sounded so terrible to them,” Mr. Morricone said with satisfaction.

His approach, he said, reflects his education and his era. “I have studied the expressive methods of the entire history of musical composition,” he said. “At times I turn more toward light music, at times I turn more toward serious music. I mingle things, and sometimes I turn into a chameleon. We are living in a modern world, and in contemporary music the central fact is contamination, not the contamination of disease but the contamination of musical styles. If you find this in me, that is good.”

In the films that established his reputation in the 1960s, the series of spaghetti westerns he scored for Mr. Leone, Mr. Morricone’s music is anything but a backdrop. It’s sometimes a conspirator, sometimes a lampoon, with tunes that are as vividly in the foreground as any of the actors’ faces. The sound of an ocarina, the humble potato-shaped ceramic flute, made his name in the 1960s in the theme for “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

That theme was typical Morricone: a tenacious melody put across by an unlikely, unpretty, arresting combination of instruments. “I always follow an idea,” he said, “and if an idea tells me I’ve got to use strange combinations of instruments, then I do what works.” For Mr. Morricone the plan was simple. “I wanted to differentiate three timbres — the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said. “A silver flute, sounding sweet, is the good. The ocarina is the ugly. And the bad is the voices of two men singing together, off key.

“I should not be revealing this,” he continued. “These are family secrets.”

Metallica has been using “The Ecstasy of Gold,” from the same movie, as its entrance music since 1983, and performs its own version of the piece on the new tribute album.

“To me his music is just absolutely inspirational, corny as that may sound,” said James Hetfield, Metallica’s singer and guitarist. “He has taken so many risks, and his music is not polished whatsoever. It’s very rude and blatant. All of a sudden a Mexican horn will come blasting through and just take over the melody. It’s just so raw, really raw, and it feels real, unpolished. You hear mistakes in it, and that’s just great — if they are mistakes. Who knows? There’s so much character in it, and I appreciate that in such a polished world of soundtracks.”

After he became known for Mr. Leone’s spaghetti westerns, Mr. Morricone went on to write for every imaginable genre: crime films like “The Untouchables,” historical epics like “Burn!,” horror movies like “The Thing,” art films like “Teorema,” even an occasional comedy. He has worked with virtually every major Italian director after Fellini, as well as a long international list.

Mr. Morricone chooses his commissions based almost entirely on his trust in the director, he said. “Sometimes I read the script, sometimes I read the main part of the story, and sometimes I just watch the film when it’s done and that’s it,” he said.

“When you work in cinema, you can’t exclude anything,” he added. “Lately I have scored a film, and the film had not been shot yet. It was just being shot, and I just heard the director’s story of the film. This is not as negative as it seems to be, because it gives the composer the possibility to just express music — music and only music.”

Mr. Levinson said that unlike many film scorers, Mr. Morricone does not want to hear the temporary music many directors use while shooting. He watches a movie without accompaniment and takes notes, sometimes coming up with themes immediately. “They usually give you less time than necessary, but I usually ask for a month,” he said. “When I have to compose I have no holidays. I write every day. And Saturday and Sunday are even better, because the phone doesn’t ring that much.”

Mr. Morricone is wary of having too much music in a film. “It’s useless,” he said. “After a while the audience loses track, and you cannot appreciate the psychological idea and aim that the music has.”

He often presents himself as the servant of the director and the film. “Time is the element they have in common, music and cinema,” he said. “You have to take into account the actors, the plot, the intention of the director and the story you are going to score.”

But he is more than a functionary. His own personality, what he has called a “musical calligraphy,” comes through. “A composer is conditioned by the film, but he has to find a way to overcome these limits,” he said. “And how does he do this? Through his musical culture, through his great passion for musicians of the past. And doing it time after time, little by little it becomes a style.”

Is his own story in the music? “That’s a romantic idea of composing, that there is autobiographical inspiration in things,” he said. “Some composers, perhaps, they see a woman and say, ‘I’m going to write something extraordinary because I’m thinking of her.’ ”

And has that happened to him? He scowled. “Niente,” he said emphatically. “Never.”

Correction: January 28, 2007

An article on the front page of Arts & Leisure today about the composer Ennio Morricone incorrectly lists Enya among the performers on a tribute album to be released in February, “We All Love Ennio Morricone.” She does not appear on the album.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Bands that may turn you gay

This has been making the rounds, so I thought I'd drop it here for the archive. From the site lovegodsway, a list of bands to watch out for in case you fear that you or your child might turn gay. I'm wondering what the heck Ravi Shankar is doing on the list. Anyway, from lovegodsway:

"One of the most dangerous ways homosexuality invades family life is through popular music. Parents should keep careful watch over their children's listening habits, especially in this Internet Age of MP3 piracy.

Bands to watch out for

* The Spores (endorse suicide)
* Scissor Sisters
* Rufus Wainwright
* Merzbau
* Ravi Shankar
* Wilco
* Bjork
* Tech N9ne
* Ghostface Killah
* Bobby Conn
* Morton Subotnik
* Cole Porter
* The String Cheese Incident
* Eagles of Death Metal
* Polyphonic Spree
* The Faint
* Interpol
* Tegan and Sara
* Erasure
* Le Tigre
* The Gossip
* The Magnetic Fields
* The Doors
* Phish
* Queen
* The Strokes
* Sufjan Stevens
* Morrissey(?questionable?)
* The Pet Shop Boys
* Metallica
* Judas Priest
* The Village People
* The Secret Handshake
* The Rolling Stones
* David Bowie
* Frankie Goes to Hollywood
* Man or Astroman
* Richard Cheese
* Jay-Z
* Depeche Mode
* Kansas
* Ani DiFranco
* Fischerspooner
* John Mayer
* Angel Eyes
* The Indigo Girls
* Velvet Underground
* Madonna
* Elton John
* Barry Manilow
* Indigo Girls
* Melissa Etheridge
* Eminmen
* Nirvana
* Boy George*
* The Killers
* Lou Reed
* Lil' Wayne
* Motorhead
* Jill Sobule
* Wilson Phillips
* Lisa Loeb
* Ted Nugent (loincloth)
* Dogstar
* Thirty Seconds to Mars
* Lil' Kim
* kd lang
* Frank Sinatra
* Hinder
* Nickleback
* Justus Kohncke
* Bob Mould
* Clay Aiken
* Arcade Fire
* Bright Eyes
* Corinne Bailey Rae
* Audioslave
* Red Hot Chili Peppers
* Panic at the Disco
* Elton John(really gay)

As an added bonus, here's the list of "safe bands" from lovegodsway that won't turn you gay. But what a boring playlist:

"We know that it can be difficult to differentiate what is good or bad for your child. With that in mind Love God's Way has created this powerful tool to let you see some bands and entertainment that is safe for your children.

Safe Music:

* The Right Brothers (a roaring lamb!)
* Dresden Dolls
* UnderOath
* Cyndi Lauper
* Falling Up
* Flyleaf
* Disciple
* P.O.D
* Evanescence
* By The Tree
* Scott Reed
* Michael W. Smith
* Jars of Clay
* DC Talk
* Danielson

Thursday, January 25, 2007

"Requiem for Darfur"

January 24, 2007
Music Review | 'Requiem for Darfur'
Making Music Speak for Those Without a Voice

Aspiring classical musicians struggling to find work and established professionals with well-paying positions in major orchestras may seem to live in different worlds. But young or old, student or master, most musicians understand that the art they practice is capable of reaching, and even changing, people profoundly.

It was not surprising that so many musicians, both fledglings and stars, responded when George Mathew, a conductor on the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music, sought instrumentalists and choristers for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem at Carnegie Hall as a benefit for organizations providing relief to victims of the conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

The “Requiem for Darfur” took place on Monday night. Among the participants were Glenn Dicterow, the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, serving as concertmaster here; the violinist Eugene Drucker of the Emerson String Quartet; David Soyer, the founding cellist of the Guarneri Quartet; Timothy Cobb, the principal bass player of the Met Orchestra; Joseph Pereira, a percussionist of the New York Philharmonic; and players from the Juilliard School, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and many other schools and orchestras, even the Berlin Philharmonic.

The host was the actress Mia Farrow, who has visited the Sudan area twice as a goodwill ambassador for Unicef. She spoke of the devastation from the militia attacks and the killing of what is estimated to be about 400,000 people. Nearly 4 million have been displaced or adversely affected.

Photographs that Ms. Farrow took in Sudan were projected on the back wall of the stage: a refugee camp in a deforested desert holding 137,000; a group of children who had not eaten for nine days. Jan Egeland, a former United Nations under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, spoke next, reminding the audience that Darfur was not a natural disaster (“This is no tsunami”), but a man-made crisis that can be stopped.

Unfortunately, the hall seemed to be about half full. Mr. Mathew had recruited four experienced vocal soloists: the soprano Alexandra Deshorties, the mezzo-soprano Sarah Heltzel, the tenor Scott Piper and the bass Morris D. Robinson. Last year Mr. Mathew presented a comparable benefit at Carnegie Hall, “Beethoven’s Ninth for South Asia.” He seems not yet the kind of skilled technician who can pull together a strong performance of Verdi’s challenging Requiem with limited rehearsal, especially with a disparate group of musicians and choristers, however willing and experienced.

But this was not a night for critical assessments. Verdi’s great work, presented not just as a prayer for the dead but as a call to compassion and purpose, came through affectingly. The apocalyptic Dies Irae (“The day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes”) is always chilling. But it is hard to describe the effect of hearing this ferocious music while seeing a photograph by Ron Haviv projected on the wall behind the performers: it showed a painting by a Sudanese boy (now a refugee in Chad) of his home village burning, with bodies on the ground and attacking militia on horses.

Review of 1938 Brazilian recordings

January 25, 2007
Long-Lost Trove of Music Connects Brazil to Its Roots

SÃO PAULO, Brazil, Jan. 24 — From the mid-1930s onward, the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax led expeditions into the Deep South, searching for authentic blues and folk singers. Thanks to those efforts, Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie made their first recordings and a template for American popular music was set.

Early in 1938, Mário de Andrade, the municipal secretary of culture here, dispatched a four-member Folklore Research Mission to the northeastern hinterlands of Brazil on a similar mission. His intention was to record as much music as possible as quickly as possible, before encroaching influences like radio and cinema began transforming the region’s distinctive culture.

Traveling by truck, horse and donkey, they recorded whoever and whatever seemed to be interesting: piano carriers, cowboys, beggars, voodoo priests, quarry workers, fishermen, dance troupes and even children at play.

But the Brazilian mission’s collection ended up languishing in vaults here. Only now, after nearly 70 years, is the registry of what Mr. de Andrade called a “prodigious treasure doomed to disappear” finally available, in the form of a six-CD boxed set that documents the roots of virtually every important style of modern Brazilian popular music, from samba to mangue beat.

“This is an important event because all of the main tendencies, whether European, African or Indian in origin, are represented and are detectable,” said Marcos Branda Lacerda, the director of the CD project, organized by the government here in Brazil’s largest and most prosperous city. “Everything is encompassed, and when you listen, you can hear the influences that would radiate outward” and make Brazilian music the global force that it is today.

The CD set, called “Musica Tradicional do Norte e Nordeste 1938,” consists of more than seven hours of music, drawn from the 1,299 tracks by 80 performers, totaling nearly 34 hours, that the folklore team recorded in five states in northern and northeastern Brazil during the first half of 1938.

Many of the styles documented on the records proved to be a major influence on the Tropicalismo movement, which emerged here in the 1960s and today has international admirers who include David Byrne, Beck and Devendra Banhart. The founders of that movement, mainly Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé and Gilberto Gil, currently Brazil’s minister of culture, come from the interior of the northeastern state of Bahia and openly acknowledge their debt.

“This is the music I heard as a kid in my father’s store, and it’s where all the richness and strength of Brazilian popular music comes from,” Mr. Zé said in an interview. “As sons of the Portuguese, Caetano and Gil and all the rest of us tropicalistas absorbed this folk influence, transmuted it and then took it to the world.”

Mr. Zé also noted that the music of the Brazilian northeast that came from Portugal was itself a result of cultural mixing, especially from the Arab domination there during the medieval era. The lyrics of some songs in the compilation date back to troubadours’ tales from that era, but the Arab presence manifested itself mainly in a vocal style characterized by a fondness for bent notes.

“That influence is still there in Brazilian popular music today,” he said. “I hear it most clearly and beautifully when Caetano sings. He has developed a sophisticated, inventive way to use these modulations that were quite common in the singers we heard there in the backlands of the northeast.”

Though the expedition’s main focus seemed to be on rhythms, guitarists are likely to be especially interested in the third and fourth discs, which include field recordings of duos known as repentistas. Like the blues, this guitar-based genre emphasizes call and response and often employs the mixture of braggadocio and insults that Americans know as “the dozens.”

Thirty years ago, after a visit here, a reporter played some recordings of repentistas for the American primitivist guitarist John Fahey. As someone interested in folk music around the world, Mr. Fahey expressed curiosity about the tunings and scales they used and pointed out that some of the gruff, raspy, somewhat nasal vocals reminded him of Son House and Bukka White.

“It gives me chills just to think of the similarities” between American blues and the music of the northeast, Mr. Zé said. “It’s like Mother Africa ended up with grandsons in Alabama and Pernambuco,” the state where the folklore team began its mission.

Of the three main cultural streams that have blended to make Brazil what it is, the Amerindian element is less represented on the discs than the European and African components, Mr. Lacerda said. But the collection contains songs performed by bandas de pífano, the fife and drum groups that are Indian in origin, as well as recordings of praiás, a largely Indian musical ritual that has all but vanished from modern Brazil.

The original project was the idea of Mr. de Andrade, one of Brazil’s most prominent intellectuals in the 20th century. A poet, novelist, critic, art historian, musicologist and public official, Mr. de Andrade had studied to be a pianist but in 1923 became one of the founders of the modernist literary movement, which dominated Brazil’s cultural scene for decades to come.

“By the 1930s, Mário de Andrade and others felt an urgency to register popular manifestations of culture before it was too late,” said Flavia Camargo Toni, a musicologist who wrote part of the liner notes for the set. “Most of the northeast had not received electrification yet, so life was completely isolated, and few people had traveled. So he felt he had to take advantage of the moment.”

During World War II, copies of the recordings were sent to the Library of Congress in Washington. A decade ago, Rykodisc released a single disc sampler, co-produced by Mickey Hart, drummer of the Grateful Dead, and called “The Discoteca Collection,” as part of the Library of Congress’s Endangered Music Project, but it was not until 2000 that restoration efforts began here.

“When I first saw the material back in the 1980s, the roof was falling down, water was leaking in, and I thought we were going to lose it all,” Mr. Lacerda said. “But I was greatly surprised when I found most of the 78s to be in good condition, and when they weren’t, we were lucky enough to find duplicates that we could copy straight to CD and then eliminate a lot of the hisses.”

During its travels, the Andrade expedition also collected musical instruments and other objects and filmed and photographed dances and festivals. The result of those undertakings have been put on display at the municipal cultural center here, including the team’s notebooks from the field, the Presto Recording Corporation equipment it used and transcriptions of interviews with performers.

At the time the recordings were made, Brazil was ruled by a dictatorship that had outlawed Afro-Brazilian religious practices. As a result, the folklore team required a letter of authorization from the police in order to do its work, and “a goodly portion of the objects they collected, especially the drums, came from confiscated material at police stations,” said Vera Lucia Cardim de Cerqueira, a curator at the center.

For all of Brazil’s musical sophistication and exposure to international styles of music in recent years, that heritage continues to be relevant. Mr. Zé referred specifically to “What’s Happening in Pernambuco: New Sounds of the Brazilian Northeast,” which will be released on Mr. Byrne’s Luaka Bop label on Feb. 7 and which he said was saturated with rhythms derived from those the folklore expedition documented.

In the past, Brazil “has not had a culture of preservation,” Ms. Camargo Toni said, complicating efforts to place the country’s musical evolution in its proper context. But with the mission’s recordings available at last, she said, Brazilians now have “the possibility of listening to the past thinking of the future.”

“We can show what we were, what we are today and how that came to be,” she said.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

MySpace as Interactive Tombstone

LA Times
Grief, comfort meet on MySpace
Online profiles linger as memorials when their owners die. Friends leave comments on the pages as a way to continue their relationship with the departed.
By Seema Mehta
Times Staff Writer

January 24, 2007

RIANNA Woolsey, a 16-year-old cheerleader, last logged onto on Dec. 6, 2005. She died the next day when her car smashed into a tree near her home in southern Orange County.

Her online profile is a snapshot of a young life cut short — her smiling face greets visitors as the singer Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek" plays in the background. There is a photo of her boyfriend, she calls James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" the "best book ever written," and the Trabuco Canyon resident wrote that she planned to have children "someday."

The one part of her page that has changed since her death is the section where MySpace denizens post comments. Since the accident more than a year ago, friends have written nearly 700 messages to the Tesoro High School junior.

i dont understand, i dont like it, i am completely and utterly selfish. i want you here, i want to laugh with you and see your shining face, i want to dance with you, i want to carpool with you, i want to talk about boys with you, .. i want to hug you. but i cant. cause for an entire year youve been happy and healthy and dancinng up in Heaven, and theres nothing i can do down here. was created in 2004 as an online community to meet friends or lovers, network, post pictures, listen to music and keep diaries, known as blogs. But it has also become a place for a generation to chronicle its grief — a high-tech extension of visiting graves, writing letters to the departed and journaling about sorrow. Woolsey's MySpace page is one of countless that have turned into virtual memorials.

Dead users' profiles largely feature teens and people in their 20s, who are most likely to use MySpace. Some killed themselves or accidentally overdosed on drugs. A few had heart defects that had gone undetected. Others were slain, some soldiers were killed in Iraq, and a young man was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Watts. Many died in car accidents.

Family and friends use other sites on the Internet to remember the dead in many ways, such as creating formal legacy pages memorializing their lives, or setting up guest books for people to log condolences and memories.

BUT the grieving on MySpace is unplanned — the dead person's page is a frozen moment, showing when they last logged on, their favorite books and movies, whether they were in a relationship, and photos of their best friends. After their death, their friends post messages to the departed that are akin to text messages between high school pals, stream-of-consciousness blurbs filled with slang, misspellings and abbreviations. The messages are sorrowful and sweet, angry and funny, routine and heartbreaking. They include reminiscences, pleas to watch over them, and updates on events the dead friend has missed.

This weekend was homecoming, and it was so weird to not have you there. I remember last year when you wore your cute polka-dot dress, and looked so pretty.

Linda Goldman, a certified grief therapist, said that writing on a dead friend's MySpace page is similar to visiting the cemetery, writing them a letter or praying to them. All are attempts to maintain a relationship with someone who has died.

"It's a diary to their friend that died," said Goldman, author of "Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children." "One common aspect of grief is [survivors] want to have an ongoing interpersonal relationship with the person who died. There's a strong need to keep communicating."

Goldman said MySpace was a valuable outlet for the dizzying emotions of teenagers, who may be dealing with the death of a friend for the first time. Seeing others communicating with the departed shows them they are not alone in their grief, even months after the death. Additionally, knowing they can click on the profile months or years from now allows them to keep a connection to their friend as memories fade, she said.

i feel like it has been forever and i am starting to forget the little things like the way you laughed and the crayon smell of your car even tho mine has the same smell i just miss you so much riri. life moves so fast and i feel like i never just have the time to stop and think about you and about life. life is so hectic right now and i find myself thinking and missing you most at night esp. cuz this is when i would normally call you up and we would swap stories from the night.

Nealani Lopez, a 17-year-old Temecula resident who had known Rianna Woolsley since seventh grade, said the site helped her maintain a link with her friend.

"I'll never forget about her, but sometimes I start to forget what she looks like, so I just go on her page to look at her," she said. "Even though I pray, it's kind of weird talking to a friend I've known forever [who is] in heaven. I can't really explain it, I just like to talk to her on MySpace. It feels like she's still here."

It's unknown how many of MySpace's 145 million users have died, leaving their online profiles alive in cyberspace. MySpace deletes them only at the family's request.

"We often hear from families that a user's profile is a way for friends to celebrate the person's life, giving friends a positive outlet to connect with one another and find comfort during the grieving process," according to the company.

Profiles of dead young people also have a macabre appeal to some Internet users., a website created by 25-year-old Michael Patterson more than a year ago, has links to more than 1,200 profiles of people who have died. It receives 200,000 hits a day.

"It's like rubber-necking on the freeway," said Patterson, a San Francisco resident. "People are going to slow down and take notice of that wrecked car on the side of the freeway. They don't necessarily want to see the body bag, but they're interested to see what happens."

ON MySpace, outsiders can view but cannot post messages to a specific profile; the only ones who can are users with their own profile who have been granted access.

saw ur mom the other day she helps me know that what happened was meant to be, she is such a strong lady and it helps me to know ur in a better place just talking with her. your sister is looking so much like you its weird it was hard to see her cuz its like looking at a lil you. as time goes on i forget the lil memories but by talking to ur mom i get to hear stories that i never heard about when u were little and the things that made you who you were.

Tania Woolsey, Rianna's mother, said the postings on her daughter's site were "a great way for her friends to express their feelings. We will leave it up as long as they are still writing."

Barbara Stogner, whose 24-year-old daughter China died in October of complications from an 11-month battle with cervical cancer, said being able to write on her daughter's MySpace page was especially beneficial for her male friends, who were hesitant to discuss their emotions. Although postings on MySpace are mostly public — unless the user chooses otherwise — the act of writing to the dead friend feels like one-on-one communication, she said.

"Guys can't always let their emotions out, and I think it was a place they could say what they needed to say in private and express themselves," said the Redwood City resident.

Jessica Folmer, whose brother Ryan died of an overdose of the pain-relief drug Oxycontin in September, checks his MySpace page every day. His comments, the music and the pictures on his page help her stay connected with his memory.

"I say things I would want to say to him if he was still here," said Folmer, the 21-year-old community college student who lives in Redlands. "It's like he can see it."

Stogner and Tania Woolsey said they checked their daughters' pages every two weeks.

"It is hard for me to look. Obviously, it brings everything back," Tania Woolsey said. But "what goes through my head is how much she impacted so many people. It's wonderful to see that she's still continuing to impact people and so many people still love her and think about her."

Rianna's friends are grateful that her site remains online.

"I would be so upset if her MySpace was gone. If they took that down, I would feel less connected to her," Karla Benefiel of Rancho Santa Margarita, a 17-year-old Tesoro senior who met Rianna on the song team nearly four years ago. "Even just looking at her pictures … seeing she put those up there, knowing how she obsessed over certain pictures, knowing it was actually her doing that, it helps me a lot."

Benefiel said she enjoyed sharing inside jokes and memories on the page. The friends shared a passion for Coach handbags, so whenever Benefiel buys one or sees one that she likes, she tells Rianna about it on MySpace.

"Every time I go in [the Coach store] I think about her," Benefiel said. "It's so much easier to write something out than just try and talk about it."

Hillarie Ralston of Mission Viejo, a 17-year-old senior at Tesoro who met Rianna two years ago, recalls that the pair would talk on the phone every night, and posting on her MySpace page reminds her of that. "I feel like I still get to have that conversation," she said. But "it's hard when I don't get a reply."


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Do You Believe in Magic?

New York Times
January 23, 2007
Do You Believe in Magic?

A graduate school application can go sour in as many ways as a blind date. The personal essay might seem too eager, the references too casual. The admissions officer on duty might be nursing a grudge. Or a hangover.

Rachel Riskind of Austin, Tex., nonetheless has a good feeling about her chances for admittance to the University of Michigan’s exclusive graduate program in psychology, and it’s not just a matter of her qualifications.

On a recent afternoon, as she was working on the admissions application, she went out for lunch with co-workers. Walking from the car to the restaurant in a misting rain, she saw a woman stroll by with a Michigan umbrella.

“I felt it was a sign; you almost never see Michigan stuff here,” said Ms. Riskind, 22. “And I guess I think that has given me a kind of confidence. Even if it’s a false confidence, I know that that in itself can help people do well.”

Psychologists and anthropologists have typically turned to faith healers, tribal cultures or New Age spiritualists to study the underpinnings of belief in superstition or magical powers. Yet they could just as well have examined their own neighbors, lab assistants or even some fellow scientists. New research demonstrates that habits of so-called magical thinking — the belief, for instance, that wishing harm on a loathed colleague or relative might make him sick — are far more common than people acknowledge.

These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history. But magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day.

The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior. This emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling.

The brain seems to have networks that are specialized to produce an explicit, magical explanation in some circumstances, said Pascal Boyer, a professor of psychology and anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. In an e-mail message, he said such thinking was “only one domain where a relevant interpretation that connects all the dots, so to speak, is preferred to a rational one.”

Children exhibit a form of magical thinking by about 18 months, when they begin to create imaginary worlds while playing. By age 3, most know the difference between fantasy and reality, though they usually still believe (with adult encouragement) in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. By age 8, and sometimes earlier, they have mostly pruned away these beliefs, and the line between magic and reality is about as clear to them as it is for adults.

It is no coincidence, some social scientists believe, that youngsters begin learning about faith around the time they begin to give up on wishing. “The point at which the culture withdraws support for belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer,” said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing can make things come true, and they’re just losing faith in the efficacy of that.”

If the tendency to think magically were no more than self-defeating superstition, then over the pitiless history of human evolution it should have all but disappeared in intellectually mature adults.

Yet in a series of experiments published last summer, psychologists at Princeton and Harvard showed how easy it was to elicit magical thinking in well-educated young adults. In one instance, the researchers had participants watch a blindfolded person play an arcade basketball game, and visualize success for the player. The game, unknown to the subjects, was rigged: the shooter could see through the blindfold, had practiced extensively and made most of the shots.

On questionnaires, the spectators said later that they had probably had some role in the shooter’s success. A comparison group of participants, who had been instructed to visualize the player lifting dumbbells, was far less likely to claim such credit.

In another experiment, the researchers demonstrated that young men and women instructed on how to use a voodoo doll suspected that they might have put a curse on a study partner who feigned a headache. And they found, similarly, that devoted fans who watched the 2005 Super Bowl felt somewhat responsible for the outcome, whether their team won or lost. Millions in Chicago and Indianapolis are currently trying to channel the winning magic.

“The question is why do people create this illusion of magical power?” said the lead author, Emily Pronin, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton. “I think in part it’s because we are constantly exposed to our own thoughts, they are most salient to us” — and thus we are likely to overestimate their connection to outside events.

The brain, moreover, has evolved to make snap judgments about causation, and will leap to conclusions well before logic can be applied. In an experiment presented last fall at the Society for Neuroscience meeting, Ben Parris of the University of Exeter in England presented magnetic resonance imaging scans taken from the brains of people watching magic tricks. In one, the magician performed a simple sleight of hand: he placed a coin in his palm, closed his fingers over it, then opened his hand to reveal that the coin was gone.

Dr. Parris and his colleagues found spikes of activity in regions of the left hemisphere of the brain that usually become engaged when people form hypotheses in uncertain situations.

These activations occur so quickly, other researchers say, that they often link two events based on nothing more than coincidence: “I was just thinking about looking up my high school girlfriend when out of the blue she called me,” or, “The day after I began praying for a quick recovery, she emerged from the coma.”

For people who are generally uncertain of their own abilities, or slow to act because of feelings of inadequacy, this kind of thinking can be an antidote, a needed activator, said Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard. (Dr. Wegner was a co-author of the voodoo study, with Kimberly McCarthy of Harvard and Sylvia Rodriguez of Princeton.)

“I deal with students like this all the time and I say, ‘Let’s get you overconfident,’ ” Dr. Wegner said. “This feeling that your thoughts can somehow control things can be a needed feeling” — the polar opposite of the helplessness, he added, that so often accompanies depression.

Magical thinking is most evident precisely when people feel most helpless. Giora Keinan, a professor at Tel Aviv University, sent questionnaires to 174 Israelis after the Iraqi Scud missile attacks of the 1991 gulf war. Those who reported the highest level of stress were also the most likely to endorse magical beliefs, like “I have the feeling that the chances of being hit during a missile attack are greater if a person whose house was attacked is present in the sealed room,” or “To be on the safe side, it is best to step into the sealed room right foot first.”

“It is of interest to note,” Dr. Keinan concluded, “that persons who hold magical beliefs or engage in magical rituals are often aware that their thoughts, actions or both are unreasonable and irrational. Despite this awareness, they are unable to rid themselves of such behavior.”

On athletic fields, at the craps table or out sailing in the open ocean, magical thinking is a way of life. Elaborate, entirely nonsensical rituals are performed with solemn deliberation, complete with theories of magical causation.

“I am hoping I do not change my clothes for the rest of the season, that I really start to stink,” said Tom Livatino, head basketball coach at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago, who wears the same outfit as long as his team is winning. (And it usually does.)

The idea, Mr. Livatino said, is to do as much as possible to recreate the environment that surrounds his team’s good play. He doesn’t change his socks; he doesn’t empty his pockets; and he works the sideline with the sense he has done everything possible to win. “The full commitment,” he explained. “I’ll do anything to give us an edge.”

Only in extreme doses can magical thinking increase the likelihood of mental distress, studies suggest. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder are often nearly paralyzed by the convictions that they must perform elaborate rituals, like hand washing or special prayers, to ward off contamination or disaster. The superstitions, perhaps harmless at the outset, can grow into disabling defense mechanisms.

Those whose magical thoughts can blossom into full-blown delusion and psychosis appear to be a fundamentally different group in their own right, said Mark Lenzenweger, a professor of clinical science, neuroscience and cognitive psychology at Binghamton, part of the State University of New York. “These are people for whom magical thinking is a central part of how they view the world,” not a vague sense of having special powers, he said. “Whereas with most people, if you were to confront them about their magical beliefs, they would back down.”

Reality is the most potent check on runaway magical thoughts, and in the vast majority of people it prevents the beliefs from becoming anything more than comforting — and disposable — private rituals. When something important is at stake, a test or a performance or a relationship, people don’t simply perform their private rituals: they prepare. And if their rituals start getting in the way, they adapt quickly.

Mr. Livatino lives and breathes basketball, but he also recently was engaged to be married.

“I can tell you she doesn’t like the clothes superstition,” he said. “She has made that pretty clear.”

Slave Folklore and Fact Collide

January 23, 2007
In Douglass Tribute, Slave Folklore and Fact Collide

At the northwest corner of Central Park, construction is under way on Frederick Douglass Circle, a $15.5 million project honoring the escaped slave who became a world-renowned orator and abolitionist.

Beneath an eight-foot-tall sculpture of Douglass, the plans call for a huge quilt in granite, an array of squares, a symbol in each, supposedly part of a secret code sewn into family quilts and used along the Underground Railroad to aid slaves. Two plaques would explain this.

The only problem: According to many prominent historians, the secret code — the subject of a popular book that has been featured on no less a cultural touchstone than “The Oprah Winfrey Show” — never existed. And now the city is reconsidering the inclusion of the plaques, so as not to “publicize spurious history,” Kate D. Levin, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs, said yesterday.

The plaques may go, but they have spawned an energetic debate about folklore versus fact, and who decides what becomes the lasting historical record.

The memorial’s link between Douglass, who escaped slavery from Baltimore at age 20, and the coded designs has puzzled historians. But what particularly raised the historians’ ire were the two plaques, one naming the code’s symbols and the other explaining that they were used “to indicate the location of safe houses, escape routes and to convey other information vital to a slave’s escape and survival.”

It’s “a myth, bordering on a hoax,” said David Blight, a Yale University historian who has written a book about Douglass and edited his autobiography. “To permanently associate Douglass’s life with this story instead of great, real stories is unfortunate at best.”

The quilt theory was first published in the 1999 book “Hidden in Plain View,” by Jacqueline Tobin, a journalist and college English instructor from Denver, and Raymond Dobard, a quilting and African textiles expert. It was based on the recollections of Ozella McDaniel Williams, a teacher in Los Angeles who became a quiltmaker in Charleston, S.C. “Ozella’s code,” the book says, was handed down from slave times from mother to daughter. Ms. Williams died in 1998.

According to “Hidden in Plain View,” slaves created quilts with codes to advise those fleeing captivity. What looked to the slave master like an abstract panel on a quilt being “aired out” on a porch in fact represented a reminder, say, to be sure to follow a zigzag path to avoid being tracked when escaping. In Ms. Williams’s account, there was a sequence of 10 panels to guide an escaping slave, beginning with a “monkey wrench” pattern meaning to gather up tools and supplies and concluding with a star, a reminder to head north.

The authors say that people have tried to make too much of the book, which they intended to be one family’s story. “I would say there has been a great deal of misunderstanding about the code,” Dr. Dobard said. “In the book Jackie and I set out to say it was a set of directives. It was a beginning, not an end-all, to stir people to think and share those stories.”

Even before the book was published, the codes in “Hidden in Plain View” got a boost from “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which had Dr. Dobard, a quilter himself, as a guest in November 1998. The show was rebroadcast on Martin Luther King’s Birthday in 1999, the day before the book was published, according to Janet Hill, who edited it and is now a vice president of Doubleday. That same day, Ms. Hill wrote in an e-mail message, the book was featured in USA Today. “The book seemed to take off from there,” she wrote.

There are currently 207,000 copies in print, she said. The codes are frequently taught in elementary schools (teachers have been eager to take up the quilting-codes theory because of its useful pedagogic elements — a secret code, artwork and a story of triumph), and the patterns represent a small industry within quiltmaking.

Algernon Miller, who designed the memorial site, said he “was inspired by this story line,” which he discovered in the library. His was a re-interpretation, he said, noting that he was “taking a soft material, a quilt, and converting it into granite.”

“Traditionally what African-Americans do is take something and reinterpret into another form,” he said.

The team of Mr. Miller and a sculptor, Gabriel Koren, were selected in January 2003, from six proposals in a competition organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem. While the project, which involves rebuilding roadways, will cost more than $15 million in city, state and federal money, the 15,000-square-foot plaza and sculpture were commissioned for $750,000. It’s unclear how much it would cost to redesign it now. The memorial, at 110th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, is expected to be completed in fall 2008.

Professor Blight raised his concerns shortly after reading an editorial column in The New York Times in November praising the project and treating the quilting codes as fact. He posted a message at an online discussion group for historians of slavery. “Unfortunately, this UGRR quilt code mythology has also managed to make its way onto the very permanent and very important Frederick Douglass Memorial,” he wrote, using initials to refer to the Underground Railroad. “Douglass never saw a quilt used to free any slaves in his day. Why do we need to pin this nonsense on him now?”

Dozens of postings later, one commentator this month posted a note cautioning that the discussion was threatening to “degenerate into an episode of ‘Historians Gone Wild.’ ”

“We are watching in real time an unfolding of belief in a story,” said Marsha MacDowell, a quilting expert and an art professor at Michigan State University. “It will take years to undo. It’s like Washington chopping down the cherry tree. It has finally been written out of the history books.”

Giles R. Wright, director of the Afro-American History Program at the New Jersey Historical Commission, rattled off the historians’ problems in a telephone interview: There is no surviving example of an encoded quilt from the period. The code was never mentioned in any of the interviews of ex-slaves carried out in the 1930’s by the Works Progress Administration. There is no mention of quilting codes in any diaries or memoirs from the period.

Mr. Miller responded to critics: “No matter what anyone has to say, they weren’t there in that particular moment, especially something that was in secret.”

John Reddick, who works for the Central Park Conservancy and helped shepherd the project through its financing and community board approval, noted that in less than a decade “Hidden in Plain View” had become “a touchstone to creative people” and compared the quilt code to the coded language in Negro spirituals. “Take ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ ” he said, “the slave master thinks you are talking about dying, and the slaves are talking about getting away.” He also noted the paradox of historians demanding written evidence when slaves were barred from learning to read and write.

On Ms. Winfrey’s show, Dr. Dobard appeared with the black descendants of Thomas Jefferson. That relationship was preserved in oral history across the centuries, even as historians of the past generally dismissed the claim. DNA tests published in 1998 are considered to have confirmed Jefferson’s paternity.

A spokeswoman for Harpo Productions, which produces the show, had no comment on the controversy.

A historian, Christopher Moore, who is research coordinator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, was consulted on the printed material in the memorial, which includes many quotations from Douglass.

In an interview, Mr. Moore said that as an unpaid consultant reviewing the project, he focused on the Douglass material, and gave cursory attention to the quilts.

When told of the historians’ objections, Mr. Moore said “it was a mistake” to include the text explaining the codes. He said he has since been asked to write a historically accurate text for the memorial.

Ms. Levin said she thought the memorial’s larger quilting theme was appropriate. “Something can inspire an artist that is not be based in fact,” she said. “This isn’t a work of history, it’s a work of art.”

Monday, January 22, 2007

On Music and Memory

It's an uneven article, but with some interesting items:

Washington Post
Same Old Song, but With a Different Meaning

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 22, 2007; A08

Another Saturday night and I ain't got nobody/ I've got some money 'cause I just got paid/ Now, how I wish I had someone to talk to/ I'm in an awful way . . .

It came to him unbidden, that song from his college days. Only now it meant something completely different. There was a man on a stretcher before him, draped in a poncho. Blood dripped off the end of the stretcher, the only sign of life from a lifeless body. It was 1967, but Howard Sherpe had already decided that the war in Vietnam was pointless, that the dead man before him had died for nothing.

Sherpe felt lonely, but not the same way he felt back in college when he didn't have a date on a Saturday night. He felt alone, existentially alone. In his mind, he heard Sam Cooke's voice, but the lyrics were different.

Another Saturday night and I ain't got nobody/ I got all bloody and feel some pain/ I just want to get the hell out of here/ I'm in an awful way. . . .

Nearly 40 years later, Sherpe needs to hear only a few bars of the song to be transported back to Vietnam, where he served as a medic attached to the 4th Infantry Division. The music brings the sights and sounds and smells roaring back. He can even see a cigarette in his hand that is splotched with blood -- the dead man's blood.

"What I feel is the sense of all of this was in vain, it was for nothing," said Sherpe, 62, of Madison, Wis. "That sense of loss. . . ."

Sherpe's experience is both unique and universal. That moment in Vietnam was highly personal, but the experience of having a tune bring to mind a powerful memory is something everyone can relate to. For neuroscientists, this raises a question: How is it that music connects people to faraway places and events from long, long ago?

Music hooks deep into emotions and memories in ways that words do not; in fact, Sherpe is contributing to a project that aims to get at a history of the Vietnam War through the music of the era. At the University of Wisconsin, scholar Craig Werner and Vietnam vet Doug Bradley have found that music is a highway into veterans' memories of the war.

"Words are tied up in politics," said Werner, who is chair of the Afro-American studies department. "When we talk about wars, it becomes an issue of liberal ideology versus conservative ideology, hawks versus doves, you are for it or against it. . . . For the guys who were there, the words don't fit the complexity of the experience."

"What music does is reach down into parts of our brain, it opens networks and pathways that you can't get to via language," he added.

For neuroscientists, the power of music poses a puzzle.

McGill scientist Robert Zatorre once hypothesized that because music is abstract, it must activate parts of the brain that process abstract ideas -- areas that developed relatively recently as humans evolved from apes. But when Zatorre asked people to listen to their favorite pieces of music as he ran brain scans on them -- people selected whatever kinds of music sent chills down their spine -- he found that music activated very ancient parts of the brain.

"Because music was abstract, we thought it would activate higher levels of cortex," he said. "Instead we got this very ancient system which is usually involved in biological reward. . . . What we found in a nutshell is when people experience chills, there was a huge range of activity all over the brain. It lit up like a Christmas tree."

Music seems to activate pleasure networks that are typically activated by food, water and sex. Why would music have the same effects on the brain as biological experiences integral to survival?

Zatorre hypothesized that the capacity to appreciate music might be an accidental outgrowth of other abstract human skills. But Mark Jude Tramo, a neuroscientist at Harvard University and a songwriter, said that notion sells music short -- and overestimates the importance of words to survival.

"Some of the most emotionally laden sounds we hear and make are non-speech vocalizations, like moans and groans and oohs and aahs and laughing and crying," Tramo said. "If you believe music does not have evolutionary significance you are in a very small minority."

Tramo argued that the sounds and grunts widespread in the animal kingdom set the stage for the human brain to appreciate music. If music grew out of nonverbal communication, and nonverbal communication is essential to survival in much of the animal world, it would make sense that music should hook deep into the brain. For social species such as humans, Tramo said music can bind groups together.

"In a tribal courtship dance, the other members of your group who share that same experience can also relate to it through music," he said. "So music is iconic. There are wedding songs and funeral songs. You would never play a wedding song at a funeral. . . . A culture depends on such associations."

Werner, who was part of a band that used to play at Colorado's Fort Carson base during the Vietnam War, said the issue of music always comes up around veterans. But as he started researching his book, which is to be called "We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Music and the Experience of Vietnam Vets," he found that songs popular among troops in the field were not always the ones popular on the home front.

Music by the Doors, for example, was huge on campuses back home and even in Saigon, but not out in the field where the battles raged: "Some of the psychedelic music was more popular in Saigon than in Khe Sanh," Werner said.

Credence Clearwater Revival was always popular with vets, as was that old sailor's anthem, the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." Martha and the Vandellas' hit, "Nowhere to Run," and the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" were others. As with Sherpe and Sam Cooke's "Another Saturday Night," Werner said the vets often took away their own meanings from songs. The lyrics of "Sloop John B" -- why don't they let me go home / this is the worst trip/ I've ever been on-- came to be about wanting to leave Vietnam.

Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" was about a relationship gone bad -- f ive long years I thought you were my man/ but I found out I'm just a link in your chain. But for many vets, especially blacks, Werner said it became a song of disillusionment after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Why, these soldiers asked themselves, were they being asked to fight for freedom in a distant land, when their own country had allowed a leader who fought for their freedom to be murdered?

"The lyric is, ' one of these mornings, the chain is going to break,' " Werner said. "One guy said he thought the song was about the chain of command and how it was going to break."

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Conflict in the Orchestra

L.A. Times
A classic coup
Conductors once ruled orchestras with an iron baton. Now, some ensembles are downright uppity, getting in clashes with no sign of grace notes.
By Mark Swed
Times Music Critic

January 21, 2007

WE'VE heard a lot lately about the death of a tyrant. No, not that one. Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of the passing of Arturo Toscanini, one of the most famous conductors who ever lived. And, no, he wasn't that kind of a monster, either. We, in fact, revere him in part for his honorable political convictions, his refusal to remain in Mussolini's Italy or conduct in Hitler's Germany.

But he did not rule over his orchestras with kindness; he was never known to invite players to participate in a democratic process. The Maestro was demanding, brusque, temperamental, formal, formidable. His withering glances inspired terror. No one called him Artie.

Toscanini was not the last dictatorial music director. There were, at the time of his death, still the scary George Szell in Cleveland and the frightening Fritz Reiner in Chicago. But the last 50 years have witnessed a steady empowerment of orchestral players.

Perhaps it is symbolic, but the year Toscanini died, Leonard Bernstein was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic and took up the post in 1958. Before long, he was Lennie to everyone, even those who didn't know him. Today, it's Simon and Esa-Pekka.

Unionized and feisty, orchestra members now wield significant power. When the longtime Montreal Symphony music director Charles Dutoit angrily resigned in 2002 after a public letter by the Quebec Musicians' Guild accused him of favoritism and abusive behavior in rehearsals, he was seen as an anachronism. Few Canadian tears were shed, even if that meant four precipitous years for the orchestra, which is finally said to be coming back into its own now that it has Kent Nagano as its gracious new music director.

With power, of course, comes its misuse. No one wants to go back to the old orchestral days of part-time employment, miserable pay and little or no benefits; the days of sexism, racism and exploitation; days of imperious conductors doling out abuse. Still, a couple of uppity American orchestras have gotten out of hand.

As in families, orchestras tend toward dysfunction. There are members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who complain that Esa-Pekka Salonen is a too-cold conductor and those in the Berlin Philharmonic who think Simon Rattle too hot. Impatient San Francisco Symphony players find Michael Tilson Thomas self-indulgent. No conductor will please a hundred musicians all the time, most of the time or even some of the time. But L.A., San Francisco and Berlin are great success stories, and a disgruntled minority has found a way to fit in. Even Bernstein had his detractors in the New York Philharmonic.

A few problem spots

THUS the Baltimore Symphony, financially failing and artistically irrelevant, did itself no favors two years ago when players publicly insulted the appointment of Marin Alsop. Not only had this been the historic hiring of the first slated woman to head a major American orchestra, but Alsop has proven popular with audiences and other orchestras. Her recordings — whether of Bernstein, Brahms or Philip Glass — are top sellers.

Things seem to have been smoothed over. But Alsop doesn't assume her post until the fall of this year, so we'll see.

The situation in Seattle is more shocking. In October the local press began reporting alleged instances of "orchestra terrorism." It appears that a majority of the orchestra feels it is time for Gerard Schwarz, now in his 23rd year as music director, to step down. And supposedly Gerry's supporters (yes, he's Gerry to all) in the orchestra are getting the treatment from his detractors. In this little mafia, if reports are to be believed, attacks have included scratched cars, threatening phone calls and a cup of scalding coffee being left in a French horn player's mailbox in hope he might burn his hands. These allegations have been denied by the anti-Schwarz faction. But the airing of such laundry in leaks to the press, which the players knew would be sensationalized, is bad behavior in itself.

The players may have a point, given the current sense of stagnation in Seattle. Schwarz's career has lost luster of late. But the orchestra owes him. Over the last two decades he increased its profile enormously, made many recordings and played a major role in building Benaroya Hall, which opened in 1998.

He is, moreover, still making useful recordings in Seattle. A new disc on Naxos of music by William Schuman includes his most important symphonies, the Third and Fifth. The Third was recorded in 2005 in Benaroya, the Fifth in 1992 in the old, acoustically awful Opera House. The improvements in playing and orchestral sound are dramatic. A graceful exit for Schwarz needs to be found, but the orchestra has now made that all but impossible.

The most disturbing situation is in Philadelphia. Just as word of the hot-water warhead leveled against Seattle's first horn came out, Christoph Eschenbach announced that he would not renew his contract as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra when it expires at the end of next season, after only five years with the orchestra.

Three weeks later, Peter Dobrin reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Eschenbach announced to the orchestra his reasons for leaving. Management told him that 80% of the players left concerts "feeling great anger" and that the orchestra was a "ticking time bomb."

Eschenbach is not the problem, or at least the main problem. He is one of the world's finest musicians and widely recognized as such. He has ideas. He has sophisticated tastes. He is cosmopolitan. He is an exciting interpreter. Colleagues speak of him warmly, and he is a favorite accompanist for singers. With a wide knowledge of arts and culture, he makes a good interview. He is hip. He is social and a willing fundraiser. I'm told in Paris — where he is music director of the Orchestre de Paris — he has a lavish, authentic Art Deco apartment that's to die for. I last saw him conducting three Wagner "Ring" operas in Robert Wilson productions in Paris last April. The cast was uneven, the Orchestre de Paris proved a little too French for this repertory. But it was a great occasion full of unforgettable moments, and Eschenbach had much to do with that.

Under the orchestra's previous music director, Wolfgang Sawallisch, a revered aging German conductor with an Old World connection to Brahms and Dvorák, the Philadelphia Orchestra pretty much dropped out of the modern world. While recordings by such stellar previous music directors as Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy and Riccardo Mutispread the orchestra's fame wide, labels lost interest in Philadelphia during the Sawallisch years.

Eschenbach's presence changed all that. Three live commercial recordings have been released on the Finnish label Ondine, and they are glorious. Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra is gorgeously tinted, the famously colorful Philadelphia sound retained and updated. Eschenbach offers a strikingly rhythmic interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.

Just out is a deeply affecting, dramatically incisive, brilliantly played performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony. Recorded in super-audio CD, the sound on the series has an immediate presence. Listen to these discs and you might be lulled into believing that Eschenbach and the orchestra are a marriage made in heaven. Dare I say that Philadelphia hasn't come across this dynamically on disc since its brilliant live recordings with Toscanini made in 1941 and 1942 and now effectively remastered by RCA to coincide with the anniversary of his death.

So what's wrong? Just about everything. It is well known that the orchestra opposed the hiring of Eschenbach. He hadn't conducted in Philadelphia for five years when the appointment was made, and a memo was leaked to the press with 75 players' signatures asking management to hold off any decision until the orchestra got a chance to work with him. From the beginning, the relationship started off on the wrong foot.

Nor did it work that he came to Philadelphia with a broom to sweep away musty tradition, a musty tradition the audience and players maintain a worrisome fondness for. Indeed, a highlight of the season will be a special concert conducted by Eschenbach and hosted by Tom Brokaw on Saturday celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Academy of Music. The new Verizon Hall may be acoustically far superior than the Academy, but nostalgia still seems to be strong enough in Philadelphia to sell even sight-restricted seats at the top in this bone-dry hall for $150.

A documentary most revealing

SOME answers for the Philadelphia problem can be found in "Music From the Inside Out," a documentary about the players in the orchestra that was released in theaters last year and now available on DVD.

One banality after another comes out of the mouths of very good musicians. They're asked: What is music? They answer: It's a mystery. It's just whatever. It's something about intense personal experience. It's everywhere. It tells a story. It takes you on a trip. It's like riding a motorcycle.

I'm sure these regular-guy-and-gal players are sincere, and my guess is that they have been manipulated by the filmmaker. But watching them play second-rate bluegrass, jazz or salsa is painful. Listening to them grapple with the notion of noise and music without a background in musical aesthetics is just plain embarrassing.

And where's the edge? This can be one angry orchestra. In 1996, a bitter 64-day strike over wages, benefits and media rights left a lasting riff with an unresponsive management. At the end, the film strings together Brahms' buoyant theme from the last movement of his First Symphony with snippets either performed by individual players on their instruments or sung. Each musician tries to give his or her bar or two something personal. The result is saccharine.

Then we see Eschenbach conducting the orchestra in a decent chunk of the movement. All the sentimentality is suddenly gone. He is rapt, intense, concentrated. This is the essence of Brahms. These Philadelphians are the Fabulous Philadelphians once more.

But the players don't like Eschenbach, and there is nothing to be done about it. He is considered a fussy interpreter. Sometimes he does exaggerate. But if I compare the laser-like Ondine recordings with the kind of trivia in "Music From the Inside Out," I can only come away with new awe for Eschenbach and the superb playing he inspires despite orchestral animosity.

And more evidence of interesting music-making can be found on performances from Eschenbach and the orchestra now available for purchase as downloads at, the ensemble's website. The downloads are overpriced. They are offered in lousy sound as MP3 files or, for a buck more and a lot more computer hassle, in decent sound as FLAC files. But they are also worth the trouble and expense. A Beethoven symphony cycle from last year is quirky (OK, fussy but an interesting fussy) and excellent.

Eschenbach has also given Philadelphia its first significant look at contemporary music since the Stokowski days. This is the orchestra that in the '80s commissioned Milton Babbitt's "Transfigured Notes" and then found the music too difficult to play. A year later a student orchestra in Boston premiered and recorded the score. Now you can download a sensational performance, conducted by Eschenbach, of Magnus Lindberg's Chorale.

But the Philadelphia orchestra has not been exactly transformed by Eschenbach. I've been hearing reports of players looking bored onstage. Audiences walk out during performances. Even two years ago, at my last visit to Verizon Hall, the atmosphere was palpably unpleasant.

And now there is Fredrica Wagman's little novel, "His Secret Little Wife," as the final insult. It concerns Otto Von Ochsenstein, "the world-famous composer, pianist and famed conductor of the Philadelphia Philharmonic, then, the greatest symphony orchestra in the world." The egocentric conductor is a mean-spirited, grotesque parody of a larger-than-life Bernsteinor Stokowski-like figure who begins a sexual relationship with his 12-year-old neighbor.

What offends me is Wagman's description of the elegant Ochsenstein, who lives in a lavish home to die for and who is "bald as an egg — not one hair on his long shiny head." The name, the house, the elegance, the head are all too humiliatingly close to Eschenbach's for comfort.

A novelist is, of course, free to invent as she pleases. But given the sourness in Philadelphia right now, I'm not surprised that is where she found her inspiration. Not surprised. But saddened.

Theramin recording reissue

January 21, 2007
From the Archives, Just for Theremaniacs

IN 1927 The New York Times reported from Berlin about an astounding recent invention: a box with a brass rod and ring that, when the inventor moved his hands around them, produced a violinlike sound of “extraordinary beauty and fullness of tone.”

“He created music out of nothing but motions in the air,” the article said.

The inventor was Leon Theremin (born Lev Termen), a young Russian scientist whose fascinating life would later include spying for Soviet intelligence, serving time in a Siberian labor camp and inventing a host of things, including electronic bugs, an early television and an electronic security system at the Sing Sing prison in Ossining, N.Y. But his legacy lives on principally in the device named after him: the theremin, which introduced the age of electronic music.

Though it bombed as an instrument for the masses, partly because it is so difficult to play, Hollywood embraced it. The theremin, with its otherworldly, sliding woo-woo sound, was prominent in science fiction movies like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and in other films, notably Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” and Billy Wilder’s “Lost Weekend.”

It captivated Robert Moog, who began building theremins before inventing his pioneering synthesizer in 1954. A well-received 1994 documentary, “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey,” revived interest, and the theremin has since had renewed popularity in pop and rock bands.

But early on, the theremin also had a life in concert halls, thanks mostly to the woman considered its greatest virtuoso, Clara Rockmore, who died in 1998 at 88. Ms. Rockmore, a former violin prodigy, created a whole technique of playing. She performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, played Town Hall, had works written for her, toured with Paul Robeson and gave recitals — many with her sister, the noted pianist and teacher Nadia Reisenberg.

Mr. Moog persuaded Ms. Rockmore to put her artistry on record. A recording session in 1975 led to her first album, “The Art of the Theremin,” released on LP in 1977 and containing 12 numbers. Three decades later 13 previously unheard cuts from that session are available in a new release on the Bridge label, “Clara Rockmore’s Lost Theremin Album.”

The original theremin, first sold by the RCA Corporation, looks like a small wooden lectern with a vertical antenna on one side and a horizontal loop antenna on the left. Hand movements cause changes in the electromagnetic field around the antennae. The right hand moving near the vertical antenna controls pitch; the closer it moves, the higher the tone. The left hand, next to the horizontal loop, controls volume; the closer it moves, the softer the sound. (About half of the original 500 RCA theremins are believed to have survived, according to the Web site, which has a registry of instruments and fascinating stories about their survival.)

With nothing but air to touch, there is no independent guide for where pitches lie. The body must remain still to avoid disrupting the tones. “You have to play with butterfly wings,” Ms. Rockmore is quoted as saying in the booklet notes. “Playing the theremin is like being a trapeze artist without a net underneath.”

The new CD will captivate theremaniacs (there are plenty out there) and anyone open to a cool musical sound. But it will also appeal to classical-music lovers. Ms. Rockmore’s playing is deeply musical, and she performs with all the expressiveness of a violinist trained in the Romantic school of Mischa Elman and Jascha Heifetz, as she was.

Ms. Rockmore, admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia at 5, was a student of the great violin teacher Leopold Auer, who also taught those future virtuosos. Muscle and joint problems forced her to give up the violin in the mid-1920s. Around then she met Leon Theremin in the United States, studied with him and became his friend and dancing partner. Theremin even proposed, unsuccessfully. In the 1930s Theremin made a special extrasensitive instrument for her, which she plays here. The sound is less electronic than on other theremin recordings, and the human presence is clear.

In Bach’s “Air on the G String,” here called “Celebrated Air,” the portamento, or carrying of tone, is lush but tasteful. At the end of the long first note Ms. Rockmore makes a caressing diminuendo. In Villa-Lobos’s “Bachiana Brasileira” No. 5 the theremin takes the soprano part and sounds hauntingly human. (The eight cellos are overlaid in a remix.) In Dvorak’s “Humoreske” you can almost hear the lilt of a bow. She begins Schubert’s “Ave Maria” with great delicacy, and each note afterward is carefully placed.

The theremin has a number of soloists now, including Pamelia Kurstin, Barbara Buchholz and Lydia Kavina, a relative of the inventor, who recently released a theremin album called “Music From the Ether” on Mode Records.

But Ms. Rockmore towers above them all.

“She converted her musicality, all of her strong Russian background as a musician, into this incredible technique on this new space-age instrument,” Albert Glinsky, Theremin’s biographer, said recently. “It also didn’t hurt that the inventor was in love with her.”

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Nice Norah Jones story in NYT

January 21, 2007
Norah Jones, Now in Her Own Words

A LOCAL musician couldn’t ask for a more appreciative audience than the petite, black-haired woman in blue jeans who was one of about two dozen people at Marion’s Marquee Lounge on the Bowery a few Mondays ago. As the guitarist Tony Scherr led a trio through his bluesy, slightly skewed songs, she tapped her foot, giggled at his stage patter and vigorously applauded his solos. Every few tunes, she whispered, “I love this song!”

Between sets she walked over to hug band members and chat about gigs. She’s part of a circle of New York singers and songwriters who play one another’s songs and swap backup musicians. Sometimes she visits Lower East Side karaoke bars and belts out songs by Shakira or Guns N’ Roses. She’s also a member of various bands — the Sloppy Joannes, the Mazelles, the Little Willies — who show up as opening acts at no-cover-charge places like the Rodeo Bar. But she’s far better known by her own name: Norah Jones.

In a few days Ms. Jones, 27, would resume her main career: the one that has sold millions of albums and made her almost too popular for the 3,000-seat theaters she prefers to arenas. Her third solo album, “Not Too Late,” is due for release Jan. 30, and like her first two it offers the intimate sound of a handful of musicians in a small room, the sound of places like this one.

“Not Too Late” is also the first full album of her own songs, and it is darker, thornier and sometimes funnier than the albums that made her a star.

“On the first album I was saying, that’s just one part of me,” she said. “And then I was thinking, well, am I going to hide the rest of me now just because I’m afraid of something? No. I’m just going to be myself.”

At Marion’s Marquee Lounge she wore no makeup and had no entourage: only her boyfriend and songwriting collaborator, Lee Alexander, with whom she traded grins through the evening. They had rushed over after a long day of rehearsals to hear the night’s opening act: Jason Crigler, a guitarist and singer-songwriter recovering from a 2004 brain aneurysm. Ms. Jones had headlined a benefit concert for his medical expenses, and she watched his set with sisterly concern and increasing relief. Between sets she pointed out the other musicians in the room, offering praise and updates on their albums in progress. While she’s by far the best-known musician from this circuit, she’s still immersed in it. Here she was just another working musician among peers, the exact opposite of a diva. She has little interest in high-profile celebrity, and the tabloids generally ignore her. “I think I just never interested people that way in the beginning,” she said. “I don’t think I’m that boring, but I think, to an outsider ‘O.K., she’s in a stable relationship, she’s not a drug addict. She wears clothes, she wears underwear.’ ”

She shrugged. “There’s no facade,” she said. “I wish there was sometimes.”

Back onstage Mr. Scherr eased into an unhurried vamp, and Ms. Jones almost purred with pleasure. “I love slow music,” she declared.

Of course she does. She has thrived as a ballad singer, alternately celebrated for her finesse and dismissed as bland. Many listeners, she admits, consider her albums “background music.” On “Not Too Late” the instruments are still mostly unplugged, and the tempos stay moderate; its first single, “Thinking About You,” is a soul-flavored love song Ms. Jones had hesitated to record because it was “too pop.”

Yet her newer songs don’t always provide the comforts of her first two albums. The change is clear in the album’s first song, “Wish I Could.” It’s a gentle guitar waltz, and as it begins, the singer frets about how she can’t bear to go into an old favorite place “without you” — the kind of situation listeners might expect in a Norah Jones song. But then a girlfriend pulls her in, grieving that her man, a soldier, has been killed in the war. The song deepens from plaintiveness to irrevocable sorrow.

Ms. Jones wrote it, she said, while thinking about a soldier she dated soon after she arrived in New York City in 1999. She recently tried to find information on him, with no results. “I’m worried about him,” she said.

“Wish I Could” is followed by “Sinkin’ Soon,” a banjo-plinking, New Orleans-tinged shuffle with touches of Tom Waits and Kurt Weill. As Ms. Jones tinkles piano tremolos and allows herself a sultry rasp, it warns, “We drifted from the shore/With a captain who’s too proud to say/That he dropped the oar.” Later in the album comes “My Dear Country,” a song she wrote after the 2004 election: “Who knows, maybe the plans will change/Who knows, maybe he’s not deranged,” she sings.

“I’m not a very dark person,” Ms. Jones said. “The darkness on this album comes more from just being aware of what’s going on around us.”

Much of “Not Too Late” was recorded in the home studio at the loft Ms. Jones shares with Mr. Alexander. They met when she was looking for a bass player for a brunch gig singing jazz at the Washington Square Hotel, where she was also a waitress. Adam Levy, who’s still the guitarist in her band, gave her a list, “and I lucked out because I think the list was alphabetical,” Mr. Alexander said. He had just gotten a cellphone; Ms. Jones’s call was the first to come through.

The studio’s big windows survey the Lower East Side; there are guitars in neat racks overhead and two elegant antique pianos — a baby grand and an upright — among the keyboards. The doorway into the studio is flanked by vintage concert posters for members of Ms. Jones’s musical pantheon: Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Ray Charles and Patsy Cline.

Jazz, country and soul were all folded into Ms. Jones’s 2002 debut album, “Come Away With Me.” In a pop universe full of whiz-bang electronic bombast and frantic vocal acrobatics, she arrived like an emissary from some subtler dimension. She sang modestly, with discreet jazz syncopations, accompanied by a few hand-played instruments.

“It’s not that things are left out very carefully,” she said. “It’s just that we never thought about putting them in.”

The songs, most of them written by her band members, were filled with wistful longing and, tucked behind it, the serene assurance that she’d never have to shout for attention. Or so it seemed. Actually, in three years singing on the New York club circuit, Ms. Jones had tried showier styles and decided she couldn’t pull them off. “I sang in some bad blues band for a while, and I heard a recording of myself,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘God, I’m oversinging, and I don’t sound like Aretha Franklin, so I shouldn’t try.’ And I think I scaled back a little bit more than maybe I meant to.”

MS. JONES has a musical pedigree; her father is the sitar master Ravi Shankar. Norah’s mother, Sue Jones, and Mr. Shankar broke up soon after Norah was born, and Norah was raised in Texas, in touch with Mr. Shankar but not close to him.

“I didn’t really grow up with much of a relationship with him,” she said. “Now that we’re in a good place, I think: ‘Wow, he’s 86. I should ask him all these questions about music.’ I was just interested in having a dad for a long time, and I was almost annoyed that he was a famous musician. And now I’m like: ‘Oh, my God, John Coltrane came to him for a lesson. Forget George Harrison. I want to know about his afternoon with John Coltrane.’ ”

Drawn to jazz, she majored in piano at the pioneering jazz studies department of the University of North Texas before dropping out and heading to New York City. “I used to be a jazz snob, believe it or not,” she said. “I sort of turned my nose up at anything more commercial.”

She soaked up music theory and developed a limpid touch on piano, though not the sheer velocity of musicians she admires. “I’m not lazy, but I’ve never been a lock-myself-in-the-practice-room kind of girl,” she said. “I don’t have chops. I can’t play fast.”

In New York she found herself at the intersection of two social and musical scenes: jazz musicians, who were fond of musical complexities and structural experiments, and singer-songwriters, aiming for concision and elegance. She regained respect for the basic three-chord songs of country, soul and folk.

“I’m admitting it: I don’t make jazz really anymore, but I’m very heavily influenced by it,” she said. “I had to reprogram myself. That’s why I started writing more on guitar in the beginning, because I only knew three chords, and it was easier, it just made my life simpler. And on the piano it took me a long time to realize I could play a triad” — an unembellished major or minor chord — “and it doesn’t have to sound really simple. I finally learned how to do it.”

Her reticence became her gift. Although “Come Away With Me” wasn’t what Top 20 radio stations defined as pop, it caught on almost by word of mouth and kept selling, eventually reaching 10 million copies in the United States alone, ratified by an armload of Grammy awards. Her slightly more upbeat 2004 sequel, “Feels Like Home,” has sold four million copies in the United States, and last year Ms. Jones released an album with her casual, countryish side project, the Little Willies (named after another hero, Willie Nelson).

Popularity brought a backlash: from jazz aficionados grumbling that Ms. Jones’s pop didn’t belong on the hallowed Blue Note label, from rock and pop listeners who found her music too tame, and from people who grew tired of hearing her albums everywhere as, yes, background music.

“I have a real big fear of being overexposed,” she said. “On the first record I was everywhere and it was like the worst time in my life.”

She was grateful for success, she quickly noted. “I’m appreciative of everything. But it was the most unhappy time for me.”

“I’m very much not like my records in person,” she added. “They expect me to be very girly, very romantic, very melancholy, and I’m not any of those things. So it’s funny. I don’t know where this side of me came from, this ballad-loving, quiet, simplistic, all that stuff. That’s very much from me, and I’m not sure where I got that or why I held onto it so tightly.”

She knows her albums can be lullabies. “People always tell me how: ‘Oh, my god, my son listens to your album every night to go to sleep. He went to summer camp last summer, and he couldn’t sleep, so I had to give him his Norah Jones album.’ I’m like: ‘Oh, that’s so sweet. Thank you.’ I put people to sleep. Putting people to sleep, one child at a time.” She laughed.

“It’s funny, with every album, I’m like: ‘Oh, this is way different from my last album. This is so much not as mellow.’ And then I’ll listen to it and I’m like, ‘Wow, this song’s slow.’ ”

Ms. Jones wrote only a few songs on each of her first two albums. (Her Grammy-winning hit, “Don’t Know Why,” was by Jesse Harris, who’s part of her studio band.) As she was gearing up for her third album, she said, “I was kind of depressed that I hadn’t been creative in that way.” So despite the complications of life on the road, she decided: “I’ve got to figure out how to just do this. This is my life now.”

After the tour, Mr. Alexander left her alone for a month while he produced an album for Amos Lee. “I was staying up late by myself in the studio playing, which is something I never do when he’s home,” she said. “We had been together for five years, and it was the first time we’d spent that kind of time apart, where I was the one alone and not busy.”

What came out, along with political reflections, were songs about loneliness and breakups. “It’s my journal, not my diary,” she said. “We realized we’re in a good relationship. We don’t want to cause turmoil just for a good song, so we’ll just have to get it from other people. I did have some good friends who were going through a pretty rough breakup at the time. And I definitely looked towards that for a lot of these songs. I finally started looking outside myself for ideas.”

A sense of mortality flickers through the album’s apolitical songs. In “The Sun Doesn’t Like You,” she sketches a love song in a stark prison landscape, complete with dogs and razor wire; “Someday we all have to die,” she reflects. Amid eerie, Minimalistic plinking and an aura of guitar feedback, “Not My Friend” starts as a plaint and turns far more sinister: “When I back away,” she sings, “I’m gonna keep the handle of your gun in sight.” Even “Little Room,” a droll, countryish bounce about a tiny apartment from her early days in New York City, notes that with the bars on the windows, “If there were a fire we’d burn up for sure.”

The music on “Not Too Late” stays poised; its edge is turned inward. “I know that to some people it might sound the same: ‘Oh, it’s quiet, therefore it’s the same,’ ” Ms. Jones said. “But I don’t mind being misunderstood anymore, that’s the thing. I realize that it doesn’t matter if people don’t understand me or what something means to me. If it doesn’t translate then that’s O.K., I don’t care anymore.

“If people enjoy the music, great. And if they don’t like it, and they think it’s boring, fine. They don’t get it. But it doesn’t matter anymore if I’m completely understood. Because you’re not going to be. And you’re never going to please everybody, so you shouldn’t try.”

A few nights later Ms. Jones had a formal performance: a Webster Hall show for television cameras and an audience of friends, the news media and music-business contacts. At the sound check she was a working musician again, making last-minute adjustments to details: deciding, for instance, that one song needed the quiet rustle of a shaker instead of brushes on a snare drum. She started the concert not with a ballad, but with the sardonic barrelhouse strut of “Sinkin’ Soon.” After the applause she smiled knowingly. “I promise we’ll play some quiet slow songs,” she said. “Eventually.”