Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Painting with Bug Blood, Week III: Blood Supply Dwindling

All that remains of my blood supply

I must have jinxed myself. Last week I wrote that I was overwhelmed with bugs, and this week they have vanished. Maybe it was the cold snap, maybe they have relocated, or maybe my neighbours started spraying. I supposed that’s good news, but I have to admit I was starting to enjoy myself. I feel idle, and I made a promise to the public I intend to honour.

Reconnaissance photo
Which has me searching for alternative blood sources. I now see the squirrel in my backyard with different eyes. In the past I saw him as a plump and incorrigible nuisance, but I have begun to think seriously about trapping him. He wouldn’t even necessarily have to die, if I could keep him in the basement and tap him as a sustainable blood supply. But he is wily, I know he is onto me and my plans. He laughs at the camera. I get a whiff of mockery every time I go to the backyard. This project could get expensive, not to mention slightly inhumane. The responsible thing is to look inward.

I was up until 3 a.m. last night, scheming. Not far from my house is the Canadian Blood Services, and I was thinking maybe I could convince them to go halvsies with me.  That seemed unlikely, and in any case I am too shy to ask. I looked in the kitchen for a solution closer to home.

1:57 am
I sat in the bathroom with the door closed for a long time. Things seemed to have gone too far awfully fast. I am prepared to suffer for my art, but not in such a way that I will have permanent scars or difficulty walking. I know I exaggerate, but I cannot overcome a basic squeamishness. I don’t menstruate and  I don’t use injection drugs, so there is no real way to get my blood short of a puncture wound. Besides, there is no way of knowing how the public would react, and I suspect it’s already been done. I put the implements back in the drawer.

Which left me with the dwindling supply of blood in my fridge. This week it has turned a disagreeable chocolate colour and stinks like fish oil. If I can’t come by fresh blood by next week, I may have to abandon the project. With a heavy heart I turned to page five of Chinese Brush and sat down to paint what might be my last composition.

2:21 am
According to Lucy Wang, “Bamboo is one of four plants in the traditional study of Chinese brush painting techniques, along with the orchid, plum blossom, and chrysanthemum. These four plants – called ‘The Four Gentlemen’ – represent the noble virtues of Chinese life, which include strength, beauty, honor, and longevity. The straight hollow bamboo stalks symbolize the Buddhist and Taoist ideals of an emptied heart and mind, cleansed of earthly desires and reflecting a modest personality.” I'll tell you about the other three later.

"Chinese Brush" by Lucy Wang, pg 5
Ms. Wang certainly set the standard high, and I quickly broke every rule of Chinese brush technique. My excuse is that blood does not behave exactly like ink, and it is difficult to get variations in darkness with a single stroke. This week I struggled with something every amateur painter surely does, the desire to “improve” on the existing picture until one arrives at a hideous mess. I suspect that after just two paintings I have lost my naive touch and am beginning to conventionally suck. Also, the painting is outright brown. Since I seem to be deviating anyway, next week I am going to go out of doors looking for inspiration. For now, here is the finished product:

Check back next week for more bug blood art!

Tuesday 29 March 2011

And the Grand Prize for Weirdest Performance by a Hip Hop Artist Goes to...

Brian Wilson! You know Brian Wilson is a master of harmony, that he has struggled with weight gain and mental illness. You can hum every major Beach Boys tune, whether you like it or not. You may have heard his late-career opus, Smile, or read the fictionalized biography Whale Music. Fewer people, however, are aware of his brief turn as a rapper. “Smart Girls,” though it may seem like parody, is authentic Brian Wilson and comes from the unreleased, appropriately titled album Sweet Insanity. The album also featured performances by Weird Al Yankovic and Bob Dylan, but “Smart Girls” takes the cake. Take a trip back to 1989 with Brian Wilson:

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Painting with Bug Blood, Week II

Last week's bug blood
Spring has sprung. I know because as I was walking past Little Lake, where I take my daily constitutional, I saw the little hockey rink was not where I left it. It had moved downwind about three hundred meters, powered by the folding canvas chair stuck in the ice that acted as a sail. To see that chair begin its journey towards the river, why, it almost made me wish I was sitting in it.

But oh, the bugs. Since the first day of spring they have more than doubled their activities, and I can catch in three days what I used to catch in a week. While that’s bad news for me, it’s good news for the Painting with Bug Blood series.

Practicing my bone stroke
While the bug blood I kept in the fridge had thickened and turned a rusty colour, I still doubted whether it would be enough to get a rich hue on first stroke. Believing I had watered down the paint too much last time, I vowed to be more careful with the second batch. I followed the same procedure this week, but it proved difficult to extract any blood without using at least a modicum of water. I wondered if next time I would have to resort to the more labour intensive method of pricking the bugs individually with pins. For the time being, I produced another dish of thin soupy paint. After a moment’s hesitation, I mixed the fresh with the old and swilled them together.

Sample brush strokes from "Chinese Brush" by Lucy Wang
Encouraged by the positive reception to my Canadian flag painting, I returned to my copy of "Chinese Brush" by Lucy Wang for inspiration. The temptation was to leap straight into painting plants and animals, but Ms. Wang insists on practicing basic strokes. Recognizing this step as necessary if I were ever to produce real paintings, I dutifully began the exercises on page four. Apparently there are two methods of holding the brush, the first being at a ninety degree angle from the page and somewhat counterintuitive. This method produces the “bone stroke,” which takes its name from the knobby ends on either side. The second method is the water-drop stroke, which allows you to hold the brush at an angle to the page. Above you can see Ms. Wang’s examples.

I tried all eight strokes myself, and I believe you can see an improvement even in reading from left to right. I still have to work on my bone strokes, but I felt ready to tackle the next challenge.

 Ms. Wang suggests Chinese characters are an ideal way to practice brush strokes, and luckily she provided me with an ideal symbol for late March. Purists, I admit to going over the image a second time to darken the colour. Chinese readers, I apologize if I have inadvertently written something else. Remember, it's about process not product. Here it is, and not bad for a first try, my approximation of the Chinese character for “Spring”:


Check back next week for more bug blood art!

Monday 21 March 2011

Angelic Organ, or Infernal Machine? A Brief History of the Glass Armonica

In my article on Hans Reichel’s Daxophone, I happened to mentioned the glass armonica, and to promise that instrument an article of its own.  That day has come, and I present to you a brief history of the glass armonica.

The Glass Armonica
Recall that the Daxophone and the musical saw are “friction idiophones,” meaning sound is produced by rubbing. The glass armonica may be less common these days than either of those comparatively rare instruments, but you’ve all heard something of the sort if you’ve ever daubed your finger in a wine glass and rubbed the rim. People have been doing that for as long as there have been wine glasses, and before there was the glass armonica, there was the glass harp.

Also known as the angelic organ and the ghost fiddle, the glass harp is what you get when you tune a number of wine glasses, either by grinding them like bells or filling them with varying levels of water, and let a talented musician have a go. Irish musician Richard Pockrich is considered the instrument’s inventor and first virtuoso. Thanks in part to him, the glass harp was popular by the mid-eighteenth century. Not content with a successful musical career,  Pockrich also ran for Parliament, prophesied the development of metal-hulled boats, and promoted the belief that life could extended indefinitely through the use of blood transfusion. He died in a coffee house fire in 1759.

Leaving Benjamin Franklin to carry the instrument forward. In 1758, Franklin saw a performance by a glass harp artist and was inspired to perfect the design. Three years later, in collaboration with an enterprising glass blower, he produced the first glass armonica. Instead of an array of glasses, Franklin arranged a series of thirty-seven glass bowls horizontally on a spindle. The spindle was turned by means of a foot pedal, much like a sowing machine. This left both hands free and placed the bowls close enough together to engage all ten fingers at once, a technique not possible with even the cleverest glass harp arrangement. The rims were colour-coded by note, and Franklin suggested playing them with chalked fingers, just as violinists would rosin their bow. Europe loved it.

Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart, among others, wrote works for the glass armonica, and Marie Antoinette started taking lessons. Franz Mesmer incorporated it in his practice of mesmerism. The instrument’s popularity proved shortlived, however, after rumours began to circulate that the seemingly-heavenly sound of the glass armonica drove both performer and audience insane. Spasms, melancholy, and miscarriages have all been attributed to the malign influence of the glass armonica. Method books of the period advise against playing when one is upset or otherwise off-balance. The instrument was shunned, and in some cases banned. Scientists have attempted to explain the phenomenon by noting that the frequencies produced by the armonica fall within a range which is difficult for the human ear to place spatially in a room, which some may find unsettling.

Although still relatively quiet and damnably fragile, the glass armonica's reputation is beginning to improve. It has appeared on numerous soundtracks and on albums by artists such as Tom Waits, Pink Floyd, and Björk. Perhaps the most prominent of contemporary players is French artist Thomas Bloch, who by no coincidence is also the most prominent player of the Cristal Baschet and ondes Martinot. I’ll let you investigate those later – better get listening to the glass armonica... if you dare.

Since the odds are against ever touching a real one, why not give the virtual glass armonica a try here:

There are plenty of videos of glass armonica players, but here’s one to get you started:

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Painting with Bug Blood

Boisea trivittata, in my kitchen
I got bug woes. In the summertime masses of red and black insects sunned themselves on my eaves, before winter drove them into the wall of my office.  Now that the warmer weather is coming, they have begun to emerge again, this time in the house. Although harmless, they are a particular nuisance because they cannot be squished without leaving a long bloody smear on the wall or bookshelf.  On first look you wouldn’t guess they are so chock full of blood. In order to cope with the problem I began to collect them in plastic cream cheese tub and chuck them out in the snow. Even so, the frequency with which they appeared discouraged me from going outside every time, and my collection grew.

My bug collection
A couple weeks ago I was over at a friend’s house, and he was sharing his squirrel woes. Apparently he can hear them knocking in the walls at odd hours, driving his Siamese cats mad. “I can sympathize,” I said. “I’ve got a container full of bugs on my shelf right now.”

Without hesitation he said, “You should paint with them.” It hadn’t occurred to me, but of course he was right. I did a little research first.

I have an infestation of Box Elder Bugs, also known as the Maple Bug or the Zug. Boisea trivittata in scientific nomenclature. The tree in my backyard is their summertime host, and they winter inside my walls where it is warm.  Although they are not a threat to the tree or the house, their sheer numbers are unsettling. I went to the art store.

Art supplies
I am a musician and a writer, not a painter. With my hands full practicing those crafts, I have never bothered to explore the visual arts. Bug blood is just the thing to get me started. Until the infestation goes away, I should have enough blood to paint my way through a beginner’s method book, at the rate of one painting a week. At first I was thinking watercolour, but the books I found on that subject were complicated and required a sophisticated palette. I settled on Chinese Brush Stroke style, which focuses on simple, often monochromatic arrangements. I picked up a manual, paper, and some bamboo brushes.

Settling into position
A brief note, lest you be inclined to call me morbid.  The cochineal, an insect native to Mexico and South America, is the source of carmine dye, which is found in everything from artificial flowers to cherry pie filling. British artist Chris Ofili uses elephant dung in his compositions, and has been exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  The colour purple is associated with royalty because of the rarity and expense of Tryrian purple, a dye manufactured from the “mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several medium-sized predatory sea snails found in the eastern Mediterranean” (Thanks, Wikipedia).

The smell was unexpectedly rich
It was time to get painting. I have heard painters insist on natural light, so I choose a seat nearest the window. I brought with me my supplies, including mortar and pestle. I have never made paint before either, but I figured simply by mashing the bugs and diluting the product with water I would obtain a passable red. I set my brushes in a cup of water to remove the sizing from the bristles and turned my attention to the container. As quickly as I could, I lifted the lid and shook out a handful of bugs.

The unstrained mixture
They were eager to escape the mortar and pestle, and several got away before I could mash them. I tried my best to round up the stragglers while mashing with my other hand. The smell was unexpectedly rich. Looking in, the bodies were so dense I could not see any liquid at the bottom. Reluctantly, I added the rest of my bugs and ground them in as well. I added a splash of water, swilled, and poured it into a dish.

Paint, after straining through a teaball
The mixture closely resembled Campbell’s tomato soup. I was disappointed the red was not so vibrant, and feared I may have added to much water. I dried my brush, dipped it into the paint, and made my first experimental stroke. Too soon – the paint still had traces of grit. I took a teaball from the kitchen and strained the mixture.

Making the first stroke
This was more what I was after. My book advised me to practice my strokes before attempting  a composition, but the container of bugs had produced too little blood, and I was reluctant to waste it on practice. Luckily, I had discussed the idea at a dinner party, and friends had given me some great ideas for things that are white and red.

Again, I was worried about being labeled macabre for wanting to paint with blood. I needed an idea which would appeal to the lady on the street, an idea my countrymen could get behind. I wanted the kind of idea you can bring to school. Here it is, because I am a loving patriot:

Stay tuned for the next installment of “Painting with Bug Blood!”

Sunday 13 March 2011

5 Songs You Can't Understand

Okay, you might get one, two would be impressive. If you can understand all five of these songs, I owe you one hundred dollars. I intend to profile each of these artists individually someday, but for now, groove on this little playlist I made up for the polyglots out there.

Kaizers Orchestra -  Songs from a Norwegian Junkyard

This wild band evolved from an outfit called Blod, Snått & Juling, which formed in the late eighties. They take a cue from Tom Waits junkyard stomp and add a distinctive taste of Norway. I have the albums Ompa til du dør and Evig Pint, and both come highly recommended. As for the video, if you stick around at least until minute four you're in for treat. If they ever come to town, I'll see you there.

Islaja - For When Bjork Is Not Enough

When a friend of mine first played me the album Meritie by Finnish artist Islaja, I thought it captured fairly accurately the sound of having a fever. That's a compliment. Islaja's sound has evolved, but I still can't get enough. This track makes me want to split firewood, dance around the bonfire, and have sex with a werewolf. Here goes:

Os Mutantes - Tropicalia Par Excellence

Time to leave Scandinavia for sunny Brazil. Tropicalia music was born in the sixties out of the fusion of Brazilian rhythms with American and British psychedelic rock. The result speaks for itself. "Panis et Circenses" by São Paulo's Os Mutantes is such a joyful tune, the first time I heard it I asked my roommate to replay it three times in a row.

Ros Sereysothea - Cambodia Rocks 

Speaking of psychedelic music, Cambodia's version is second to none. Many of the pioneers of this style were murdered under the Khmer Rouge regime, but the music survives. LA band Dengue Fever has picked up the tradition, but I think we'll go with some classic Ros Sereysothea (just close your eyes and ignore the slightly strange video).


No idea where this came from, and not what I was looking for. But I always thought this song would be better in Yiddish.

St. Patrick's Day Bash Poster

The Hulk is green, and so are the Irish. I think that's where they're going with this one. Look through the older posts or follow the "live" label to find out more info. Remember, for my set I promise prize giveaways, free fan club decoder rings, and the public unveiling of my all-new "Painting with Bug Blood" project! Not to mention music.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Eerie John Southworth

I was backstage on the Internet and found this little gem sitting on the prop table. John Southworth was born in England but currently lives in Toronto. His other material that I have heard is overtly influenced by 70's sounds, but this is the one that really blows my socks off. Enjoy! -M

Hans Reichel's Daxophone

Hans Reichel's Daxophone
I'm a sucker for homemade and experimental instruments, but they're often more exciting in concept than execution. Hans Reichel, however, is at the top of the heap when it comes to inventors. His music is as weird as you please, but he retains a good grasp on the innovation-to-listenability ratio.

Based in Germany, Reichel first became known as an improviser on the prepared guitar. I like "The Death of the Rare Bird Ymir," which showcases his guitar work, equal parts organic and spacey. But for my money, you can't beat the Daxphone.

Daxophone tongues
The thing in the picture above is a daxophone. It belongs to the "friction idiophones" class of instruments, which includes the musical saw (which I play myself) and the glass harmonica (which deserves it's own entry - remind me to do that). On the right, you're looking at various tongues you can use to modify the sound. Rumour has it their shape was influenced by Reichel's work as a type designer. The tongue is fretted with a separate block of wood with frets on one side, and then struck or bowed to produce a huge range of pseudo-vocal sounds. The word "Dachs" is German for badger, and the name is somehow apt.

Reichel has provided schematics for musical carpenters who want to make their own daxophone. There may be a growing number of daxophone enthusiasts, but I have only heard Reichel's own recordings. The one I return to constantly is Yuxo, an operetta for daxophone. The songs are lush and full of humour, performed by Reichel using overdubs. The album has a vaguely tribal feeling, though it has no clear reference to anywhere geographical. I imagine children would like it as much as I do. Hands down, it is the most soulful experimental music I have ever heard.

Below is a link to Hans Reichel's website. It's a trip - visit and you might not come back. Unfortunately I wasn't able to find any quality videos of Reichel performing live, but the song attached is taken from Yuxo. Cheers, -M

Not for the faint of heart:

Catfish Willie and the Buckle Busters

This a well-known fact to Peterburgers, but for the benefit of anyone passing through town, I thought I'd send out a recommendation. Catfish Willie and the Buckle Busters have a Wednesday night residency at Ossia (Peterborough, Ontario, 231 Hunter St. W). I'd never seen Western Swing performed live by a full band before, at least not with such panache. When I'd just arrived here and took a stroll downtown, I happened to see them framed in the window, packed onto a cozy stage swinging in full costume, and it gave the heart ease. They're one tight unit, musically speaking, but they also understand theatre, thanks in part to the presence of the great Washboard Hank. I happened to be there one night when two Japanese ladies dropped in, and after Catfish conferred with them in Japanese during the set break, the band launched their third set with Sukiyaki. Now that's professional. Here's the lineup:

Catfish Willie - vocals, rhythm guitar
Washboard Hank - dobro, tenor banjo
Diamond Dave Russell - standup bass
Sean Conway - lead guitar
Matt Watson - mandolin

Check out some tracks here:

And because I looked it up while I was writing this:

Monday 7 March 2011

The Incomparable Don Coyote

     While I was living in the Yucatan, I was exposed to a lot more surreality on a daily basis than I am in Ontario. One day while lounging naked under the fan, I heard a shouting outside my door. I threw on some pants and saw a scrawny hobo at my front gate.
     I went down the steps to meet him. He was holding out a length of filthy blue rope. It was about three feet long, frayed at both ends, and looked like he had found it in the ditch, which doubtless he had. He asked me if I would like to buy it.
     "No," I said.
     He accepted my decision magnanimously. People often thought we were rich because we lived in a giant concrete A frame, coincidentally called the Canadian House, which belonged to the ex-wife of the former mayor. But we were only renting the upstairs bedroom. I turned to go back up, but hesitated to watch as the hobo knocked on my neighbour's door. Chucho came out and leaned on the gate. I did not hear what was said, but Chucho took out his wallet and handed the hobo two hundred pesos.
     "Are you that desperate for rope?" I asked. The hobo moved off down the street.
     Chucho looked shocked. "No sabes quien es? Es Don Coyote!"
     Apparently, that hobo had an illustrious past. He had once been the greatest musician in Valladolid, perhaps Yucatan. These days he drank cane liquour from a Pepsi bottle and sold objects he found in the street, but he was still accorded a great deal of respect. So much so that it instantly rubbed off on me, and whenever I saw Don Coyote in the street I experienced a sensation of awe and deference.
     Once, while on my way to work, I saw the Don drinking in a doorway. He filled the bottle cap and extended it. "Toma!" he implored me, but I was riding my bicycle and I didn't stop. Another time, while I was walking to rehearsal with my band Los Tomates, the Don saw the guitar on my back and held his hands out greedily. He was tiny, wore a moustache, and had the longest fingers I have ever seen. His nails were long and ragged, he played with a shambling rasgueado but when he opened his mouth his voice was sweet and endearing.
     He played three songs. All traces of rhythm were gone, but he had retained his charisma. It was fascinating to see how his talent had obviously decayed, but the burning will to play still kept audiences rapt. The essentials, whatever they were, were intact. As luck would have it a cement mixer was running in the background, and a construction worker stepped down from the truck and took up the cry: "Es Don Coyote!"
     I paid the Don fifty pesos for the recording I made, and was much aggrieved when two of the songs didn't turn out. Los Tomates went to rehearsal and carried on with their day.
     Leaving Yucatan was hard to do. By the time our last week came around, I felt more familiar with it than the province where I grew up. I also fancied myself more extroverted, more adventurous and therefore luckier than ever before. It meant there was something I had to do before we left.
     We got in our friend Tey's car and cruised the town looking for Don Coyote. I had two days left and I felt that if I didn't find him today, I might never get to give him my guitar. It was given to me by another Canadian passing through and only proper that it stay. From the passenger's seat I spied Don Coyote at the licoreria getting his Pepsi bottle filled.
     I leapt out of the car, addressed him with the formal usted, and presented him with the guitar. He did not seem at all surprised. In fact, judging by his reaction you would think it happened fairly often. He took it graciously, strummed it once, and tuned the D string.
     He said that he would be honoured to play for us, but he was having trouble with throat and would need a drink. I said I understood and waited as he wet his whistle. Then he launched into Summertime Blues by Blue Cheer, in Spanish translation. It was better than the original.
     After the customary three songs, and posing for a few photographs, Don Coyote thanked me again and wandered down the street. The guitar had a strap made of twine, so he could sling it over his back. The chances he pawned it that same day are good. Someone will give him another one. He will play great lurching music until he is dead, and his legend will grow.

     The recordings I took do not give an accurate impression of Don Coyote's genius. The photos do a better job conveying the soul of Don Coyote, and I have attached them below. Enjoy, -M