Saturday, August 20, 2016

Hands-free

In The Mix. August 18, 2016.
The 1975, James Bay, Panic! At The Disco
Third Eye Blind, Elle King, Twin Pines
When Brendon Urie said, 'If you heard about my band the very first time, it was probably from this song,' I thought they were going to play Lying Is The Most Fun A Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off, because that’s the song that introduced me to Panic! At The Disco (it was my ringtone at one point in time).

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I kind of enjoyed Panic!'s set more, even though I mainly came for The 1975. My box was dancing silly when Panic! was playing. When The 1975 came out, most of them were glued to their phones.

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Girl on our right was screaming all the lyrics to all Panic! songs. ALL.

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Girl on our left only came to life when The 1975 took the stage. She had this one-dance-move-fits-all-songs going on. ALL.

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My favorite surprise was You (which light play was poetry). Didn’t expect them to perform it. When I was just discovering the band, I'd leave their EPs on loop till I fell asleep. You's chorus—the repetition of those simple words, 'It takes a bit more', and that hurried guitar-strumming against an andante tempo—would wake me up like a gentle but scared child, asking to be held in the dark.

It is the sound and song structure that I will always associate with the band.

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It was the best concert I've been to since working in the media industry. It feels great to buy tickets to support artists you believe in and not worry about framing the experience in a sellable story.

Most of all it feels great to throw both your hands up in the air.

But you can't take the digital jungle out of the girl. I had to have some souvenirs, so I took out my phone during the performances of my least favorite songs.

A video posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on


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Tiny downer: Thought of having dinner first while waiting for my friend. Rain poured and delayed things as it often does. When we entered the arena, Third Eye Blind was already wrapping up their set. (I was also looking forward to seeing them.) Glass half-full: I heard Jumper and Semi-Charmed Life live.

What did I miss? Did they perform How's It Going To Be, Losing A Whole Year, Deep Inside Of You, Never Let You Go, and other hits?

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My original companion had to cancel at the last minute. I was stressed out a bit because that might mean one wasted ticket (I could always sell it to scalpers or be a hero and give it to a desperate fan, but those were the last options).

Long boring story short, I managed to tag Nicole along. It didn't take much convincing on my part because she's a big fan of The 1975 and Panic! as well—and now a James Bay fan.

Classic case of things falling into place.

If I may quote her: 'Yesterday was just a blur of good surprises. The kind of day that just shakes everything up and reminds me a lot of good things happen, too.'

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Do you wanna dance, do you wanna dance, do you wanna dance, dance

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Road to Justice

1. The press release landed in my inbox May last year. “In 2007, Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay — better known together as Justice — released the single, D.A.N.C.E., which infectious beats captured a multitude of music fans… On May 14, 2015 the Parisian dance production duo will drop by the Philippines to heat up the Valkyrie dance floor,” it read. Why have these infectious beats not captured this music fan yet? I asked myself. So I searched for the song, which turned out to be catchy as fu…advertised (all those nods to Michael Jackson adding to its charm). I saved D.A.N.C.E. to my music bank then moved on with life.

2. The trailer for DJ film We Are Your Friends, starring Zach Efron, came out in the same summer. Included in the motion picture soundtrack was Justice’s remix of Simian’s Never Be Alone. Despite Efron’s good looks and my inclination towards EDM, other forms of distraction won my attention at the time. I neither saw the movie nor heard the OST.

3. YouTube recommended that I watch this Zedd interview, so I did. One of the questions was what got him into electronic music (he was a drummer for a metal band before becoming Zedd). His response: he bought Justice’s album, “Cross” and figured he wanted to make music like that. While metaphorically throwing my hands up, I thought, That’s it, I need to sit down with Justice.

4. Played “Cross.” TTHHEE PPAARRTTYY, with its relaxed, almost-bored cadence, instantly appealed to me. But it was the vocalist’s affectation of coolness and tongue-in-cheek lyrics that sold the song. Imagine Paris Hilton playing dumb blonde — it’s so easy to be annoyed by it if you take it seriously; but take it as an act and you’ll enjoy the ride. DVNO also stood out as a sing- and bop-along tune that has a sense of humor about it (part of the hook goes, “No need to ask my name to figure out how cool I am”).

5. Went on a stalking spree. What are Justice up to now? Are they touring? Do they have new music? Research led me to this Euro 2016 ad, which features Genesis, the first track on “Cross.” Maybe it was the setting of the video, but watching it made me realize what I liked about Justice: theirs is the kind of music I would leave in the background — not overbearing, not boring — and before it could fade in the subconscious, a soaring phrase will suddenly grab you by the collar, demand that you return to listening. Like classical music, only electronic.

6. Played “Cross” again. Tracks sans lyrics highlight how rhythmically engaging Gaspard and Xavier are, and how thoughtful their musical decisions are. Let There Be Light is particularly rewarding. It opens with fast drum beats, then by the fourth bar a distorted sound drills through and grows coarser every eight measures. At the three-minute mark your grandma might already condemn the noise; but let it run for a few more seconds and the notes shall gracefully fall into a quiet, pleasant version of the distortion — there’s the light and we discern the supple skeleton of the song.



7. I wanted more. Listening to their discography was imperative. Listening to what they listen to was sheer pleasure. I checked out every available mix they made and stumbled upon Jamelia’s Something About You and The Paradise’s In Love With You — songs I just knew I’d play for ever but wouldn’t have discovered if it weren’t for the French duo.

8. Justice released Safe And Sound last month. For some reason the single reminds me of Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus — perhaps due to the choir singing, the dream-like vibe, and the fact that I can’t immediately make out the lyrics. Jenkins is said to have utilized the human voice purely as a musical instrument and thus created “words” integral to the sonic experience. I’m not one to read much into a song’s lyrics, but I think Safe and Sound’s work both on the sonic and, however cryptic, semantic levels. In short, I like it.

9. I regret not catching their show when I had the chance (the pain is aggravated each time I listen to their live album, “Access All Arenas”). But I’m not too late a fan. Justice confirmed that they’ll soon release another studio album. I’ll be waiting, stalking, and — negative reviews aside — watching We Are Your Friends till that moment arrives.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

Saturday, July 9, 2016

I love your work so, so much

After years of underlining bits of text I deem too beautiful to forget from whatever reading material I get my hands on, this particular year proves the utility of the practice.

The internet and the nature of my job increase the likelihood of me interacting with people whose works I admire. Visual artists, musicians, writers. Just last week, I probably had the biggest small exchange of my life.

I posted Alice Fulton's 'What I like' on my Twitter, and she thanked me — and even said my name [EXCLAMATION POINT]



So I had to say something in return, it was my chance to, not out of the blue, tell her what I've always wanted to tell her, how brilliant I think she is, but of course in a very dignified manner. And, but, all I came up with was:



Since then this passage about what we truly mean when we say we love an artwork, that we think it's beautiful, was floating in my head. I knew I've highlighted that in one of those theory books and I knew it was either Ann Lauterbach or another female writer (Anais Nin, maybe; or Jeanette Winterson; hardly Sontag, coz I remember the prose being very lyrical and, um, kind). So I picked up 'The night sky' and saw that it was mildly annotated.

But there it was. What a pleasure to know exactly what you're looking for and then finding it, and then finding out you're getting more than what you expected. Rereading the lines plus the entire argument behind it lent me a new clarity.

A young poet friend remarks, "The divine part of humanity is its capacity to see the interconnectedness between all things. To be that interconnectedness." If this is so, then the Divinity we wish to resemble is testing us in subtle new ways, asking us to worship at the Temple of Information, whose Disembodied Oracular Source (who is speaking?) is lost in a thousand transcripts flying through the stratosphere, like pixilated ghosts, each with its particle of fact. To see connections in this, to find in it the syntax of the heart, to invent compelling stories and stunning images: to impose on this astounding influx form?

Form, after all, is chosen limits.

Limit, as a formal characteristic, is the expression of choice in the service of the possible.

The possible is the indeterminate futurity of meaning.

Form posits the optimum conditions for meaning to occur.

. . . .

When limits, or choices, are displayed in the service of the possiblity of meaning, in the making of art objects, we call the result beautiful. That is, we stand before a painting by Vermeer, or we read a poem by Paul Celan, or we listen to Shostakovich's Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues for piano, and we say this is beautiful. But what we are really announcing is our pleasure and gratitude in the fact of the choices the artist has made [emphasis mine]. We recognize something in how one stroke of the brush brushes up against another stroke of the brush; how one note moves toward and away from the next in an astounding sequence; how one word attaches itself to another and to another and to another until something that has to do with all the words separately—the history of their meaning—gathers into a nexus which allows us, which invites us, to experience something like the meaning of meaning.

. . . .

Art is not entertainment, and it is not decor. It is one of the rude fallacies of our time to want to reduce all art forms, and in particular literary arts, to their most facile and elemental role, and so deny their potential to awaken, provoke, and elicit our glee at being agents in the construction of meaning.

So the next time I meet one of my creative heroes, I'll show my appreciation by slapping them with Ann Lauterbach's 'The night sky'. Kidding. Will tell them, Thank you for making these creative decisions.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Keep creating

There is a scene in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood where divorcée Olivia tells her college-bound son Mason that it is the worst day of her life. Asked why, she replies, “You know what I’m realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones — getting married, having kids, getting divorced… getting my masters degree, finally getting the job I wanted, sending Samantha off to college, sending you off to college. You know what’s next? It’s my fucking funeral! Just go and leave my picture!” Confused, Mason tells her she’s jumping way ahead, to which she answers back with resignation: “I just thought there would be more.”

This scene hits a chord and resonates with me until now, for it highlights my suspicions about success — our definitions of it (an accumulation of goals being one) and if it, as we seem to believe, enables happiness. Because I’ve been there and heard the same confession from others: getting what you want and still feel lacking.

What I do know is when people recall their happy stories and assert their identity, they rarely speak of “getting” but rather of “doing.” At least this job reveals to me as much. Interviewing artists, writers, and musicians — picking their brains about their craft — affirms the pleasures of creation (an occasion to be truly in-the-moment). It’s the one constant source of joy for them.

—Full story on GIST.PH

Sunday, July 3, 2016

'You're a man'

And of all the capitulations in his life, this was the one that seemed most like a victory. Never before had elation welled more powerfully inside him; never had beauty grown more purely out of truth; never in taking his wife had he tirumphed more completely over time and space. The past could dissolve at his will and so could the future; so could the walls of this house and the whole imprisioning wasteland beyond it, towns and trees. He had taken command of the universe because he was a man, and because the marvelous creature who opened and moved for him, tender and strong, was a woman.

—Richard Yates. Revolutionary Road. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2008.

I like stories where I can relate with all the characters. I am both Frank and April. I am even Maureen.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Gateway theater

I.

On the car ride home, right after watching a stage production of Green Day’s American Idiot, I thought of cats — the musical: on the one hand lambasted for its nonsense, if non-existent plot and sheer silliness (cats dancing and singing and fighting for a place in The Heavyside what?); and on the other hand loved by many, including me, for the playful poetry set to catchy tunes that can put today’s Top 40 to shame. American Idiot is quite the same: it’s less of a musical; more of a musical event.

Where the two shows dissociate is in tone, setting, intention, and everything else. The former is built in a fantastical world where you’re invited to have fun, while the latter is anchored in real life, in the now, and asks that you take it seriously.

Right off the bat it makes a statement. News reels and advertising clips flash on TV screens. The cast open their mouths and express aversion: “Don’t wanna be an American idiot.” Then we’re acquainted with lead characters Johnny, Will, and Tunny, who seem to be in their late 20s and are frustrated with the state of the nation, as well as their own lives, that they opt to leave for another city. Because maybe things will be better from thereon.


The first 15 minutes of American Idiot set up an expectation for a riveting story, as if telling the audience, Listen, we will discuss important matters — the personal, the political, love and war — it will be visceral. When Johnny and Tunny (Will has to stay behind after learning his girlfriend is pregnant) take the bus ride to The City, we hop along. But once they alight, their stories proceed in unclear directions, and we’re lost.

This gap in narration — or perhaps finding out in the end that it’s a simplistic narrative we’re following after all — weakens the emotional parts of the performances. Storytelling-wise, the characters haven’t gone through enough to earn their anger. It’s up to the actors, the creative team, and Green Day’s music to elicit sympathy from the audience.

II.

Theater advocates in the past few years have been on a crusade to develop the theater community — to produce diverse and quality shows, establish new outfits, and most of all attract more theater-goers. 9 Works Theatrical and Globe try a different approach by bringing theater to the people. The two companies are staging American Idiot to christen the Globe Iconic Store at Bonificaio High Street in Taguig City and showcase the strengths of the venue — huge HD billboards, impeccable sound and light systems, and accessibility.

The Globe Iconic Store is right at the BHS Amphitheater, flanked by rows of stores and restaurants. As an open area, passers-by and non-ticket holders can catch the show — something that both 9 Works Theatrical and Globe encourage. Because the goal is to engage the unengaged and keep them hooked. The ambition recalls the concept of gateways in popular culture (gateway bands, book gateways): that which lured you into diving into the unknown.

Despite its shortcomings, American Idiot is the piece that can do the job for theater. Who wouldn’t stop upon hearing the impassioned drum beats of Are we the waiting? And linger because even though it’s been overplayed on the radio (and over-memed on the internet), they’d like to hear Wake me up when September ends once more. I won’t dare call it an attempt at nostalgia, for that’s a cheap trick and American Idiot is not pulling it. Instead, the show reminds everyone the genius of Green Day.

To listen to the band’s music is to ride a horse on a run: it’s fast, proud, and wild; but somehow you know you won’t fall and you’ll gladly go wherever it goes. Where it slows down and gaits, it proves that punk rock is no stranger to elegant melody — something that the stage adaptation has successfully brought out.

The different voices and arrangements reveal a whole new dimension to the Green Day songs. It must help that the cast is composed of professional actors and musicians. Wolfgang frontman Basti Artadi fit the bill as the charismatic but dangerous St. Jimmy, the alter-ego of Johnny (played by former Rivermaya frontman Jason Fernandez). Also in the mix is Chicosci lead vocalist Miggy Chavez, who plays Will and sings with clarity and pathos.

A clear standout, though, is Yanah Laurel, who — and I will be crucified for this — steals the rockstar crown from Artadi. With her voice and stage presence, she powers through the loud instruments and cacophony of lights. When she inquires, “Where have all the bastards gone?” you feel like scrambling for answers.


III.

Before the show started, Globe presented a short film communicating its foray into live entertainment. Sounds blasted, digital images swim in the billboard screens on each side of the stage, and laser lights danced in the dark (did I just describe the last EDM party you attended?). All this technology was employed in American Idiot.

The mood was festive and for a time I was convinced that I was in fact watching a concert; and that’s enough to keep someone like me arrested. Director Robbie Guevara and the actors admit that performing outdoors — exposed to the elements and a hesitant crowd — is a challenge. But they’re on a mission to win audiences and they won’t have it any other way.

If there’s one thing 9 Works Theatrical and Globe are truly pioneering in this production, it’s undermining the snobbishness associated with theater. Here, theater is just among the visitors’ many distractions, outright competing for attention. It’s funny when you think about it, but that’s the reality, and we can rest easy knowing how distractions can escalate into passions.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Thinking inside the black box

It’s very exciting for artists to see an empty space,” said Ed Lacson Jr. after recounting the diverse, if not divergent productions that came to life at the barely one-year-old Power Mac Center Spotlight, where he serves as theater manager.

The 400-sqm. black box theater was built to complete Ayala Land’s hip lifestyle and entertainment district Circuit Makati and complement the 1,500-seater performing arts theater soon to rise within the development. “A black box is basically an empty space that any artist can use, whether for performing or visual arts. It’s a canvas that they can transform however they want to,” explained Lacson. “Its difference from a proscenium type of theater is the seating, which can be adjusted in whatever configuration you want.”

And like the blank page, the limits of which are defined by the writer, Power Mac Center Spotlight has been utilized by creative minds in various disciplines. Other than the expected plays and musicals, the venue has hosted talks, product launches, even Christmas parties in the past. Power Mac Center Spotlight has seen artist Christina Dy celebrate her birthday with a live performance; poet Juan Miguel Severo recite verses to an army of spoken word and OTWOL fanatics; and the Manila Symphony Orchestra play unplugged.

“There’s no limit to the type of event; we even had a graduation,” added Lacson. Small and flexible, a black box theater inspires freedom while allowing intimacy — something that both performer and audience relish. Its very structure invites experimentation and forces attention that even Filipino rock band The Black Vomits chose to stage their modern rock opera The Gray Ground here.

At The Gray Ground rehearsals
Created by writer, artist and The Black Vomits bassist Igan D’Bayan, The Gray Ground follows Jan, who’s in the throes of writer’s block while desperately writing a literary masterpiece; and features a song cycle described by D’Bayan as “the band members’ love letter to the rock opera and the concept album.”

“To be honest, I wanted to stage The Gray Ground in a bar or in a small dingy space — with beer, eerie green lights, and patient ears. The play, for lack of a better word, is more dialogue-­driven and our music moves the story forward. But once I started developing the protagonist Jan and rethinking the Kafkaesque, Lynchian, Black Mirror-­like world that he lives in, we decided to stage the play in a proper black box theater, a decision that led us to Circuit Makati,” shared D’Bayan.

“The venue is a tabula rasa,” he continued. “It’s up to director Bianka Bernabe, stage designer Marco Ortiga of The Crucible, Ruel Caasi of TWA (The Working Animals), and the students of the College of Saint Benilde (CSB) School of Design and Arts to transform Power Mac Center Spotlight into Jan’s weird and wonky world. Ayala Land and Circuit Makati were very open to our ideas and have been really supportive.”

“We’re supporting The Gray Ground because it’s a unique project,” said Mel Ignacio of Ayala Land. “And we also like it when the students are involved. CSB is very near; it’s the community that we want to cater to. We want the people to stay, live, work, and play in Makati. We want the people in the area to know about the venue and that’s what Igan’s show can do.”

How the team behind The Gray Ground will make the workings of a writer’s (blank) mind a compelling drama and at the same time bring rock opera into the local audience’ consciousness, we have yet to find out. But Lacson couldn’t wait for the ride: “I was looking at their designs. It was very forward, very avant-garde. They have a mosh pit together with the regular seats. I think it’s an exciting way to use the space.” he said.

“If we had a proper budget, we’d aim for something like Faust (2006) — something ordinary infringed by something gothic with lots of shadows, masked figures and supernatural reds,” shared D’Bayan. “Now, it’s more of an ‘imagined space.’ If we do our jobs, the audience­ members would really be transformed into the Gray Ground, with an area code between everywhere and nowhere.”

It’s easy to say the opposite of Lacson’s previous statement and still be right: It’s very scary — frustrating? unappetizing? — for artists to see an empty space. And this dichotomy between emptiness and creation, sharing (if not coming from) the same space is what makes Power Mac Center Spotlight and The Gray Ground quite a match. As D’Bayan explained, “What The Black Vomits will present in The Gray Ground is just one story swimming in a sea of stories. But in our tale, the devil is a blank computer screen for a man suffering from writer’s block — and space is where the next story is coming from.”

—Originally published in The Philippine STAR