San Francisco Silent Film Festival, June 1-4 with DJ Spooky & More

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, May 14, 2017 07:20pm | Post a Comment

SF Silent Film Festival 2017

Join Amoeba Music in celebrating the 22nd year of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF)! SF Silent Film Festival 2017This year's fest runs June 1-4 at the Castro Theatre and presents many restorations, including three titles SFSFF had a hand in restoring: Silence (with Cinémathèque Française), The Three Musketeers (with MoMA), and a fragment of the lost Wallace Beery/Louise Brooks film Now We’re in the Air (with the Czech National Archive).

All films at SFSFF are accompanied with live music by extraordinary musicians. Favorites Alloy Orchestra, Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, Frank Bockius, Guenter Buchwald, Stephen Horne, Sascha Jacobsen, Matti Bye Ensemble, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and Donald Sosin are returning, and DJ Spooky will be making his SFSFF premiere!

All in all, this year's line-up contains 18 programs, 36 musicians, 9 countries, three new SFSFF restorations, two women directors, plus Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Lon Chaney, Sergei Eisenstein, Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, Ernst Lubitsch, Anna Pavlova, Paul Robeson, Victor Sjöström, and much, much more!

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Early Days of the Classical LP

Posted by Rubin Meisel, October 11, 2011 04:05pm | Post a Comment
On June 21st, 1948, CBS engineer Dr. Peter Goldmark introduced the new Columbia long playing record at a press conference. In the previous 15 years, there had been attempts to make a commercially viable long play album with no success. As with the concurrent development of television, the post-war boom made the project commercially viable. 33 1/3 rpm was considered the optimum speed to play the 12 inch long play microgrove records. And being made of a new plastic called vinylite they were virtually unbreakable. For shorter pieces and recitals, there were 10 inch records, but these only survived till the 1950s.
The new LP was considered a huge leap forward for listening to pre-recorded Classical music. A pop song took, on average, two or three minutes to play, which was just perfect for a 10 or 12 inch 78 rpm record. A symphony required up to 5 or 6 records on 78 rpm and had to be changed 10 to 12 times with the music often interrupted in the middle of a musical phrase. There were automatic 78 rpm record changers, but they were clunky and could damage your records. You also had to account for the amount of storage space needed for the brittle, breakable shellac 78s. The most dramatic part of Goldmark’s demonstration was when he was photographed holding a few dozen LPs while the equivalent in 78s were stacked six feet high next to him.
The introduction of the LP was not without controversy. Columbia’s great rival RCA Victor was developing its own system of 7” short playing vinyl records that played at 45 rpm. RCA engineers insisted that quality control problems with LPs would doom it. This started what was to be known as “The War of the Speeds” in which both companies spent a ton of money on print ads to woo the public before RCA conceded and converted to LP. When it was settled, it set up the paradigm that lasted for nearly 40 years: LP for albums, 45s for pop singles.

The LP created a sudden demand for classical recordings. Columbia and RCA, besides putting their new recordings on LP, transferred their classic recordings from 78s. Retailers like Sam Goody sold LP turntable attachments that could be attached to an existing standard record player. Steel or fiber needles and heavyweight tone arms couldn’t play LP microgrove records, so you needed to buy needles with precious stones like sapphire or diamond tips and a tonearm that could track lightly.

RCA and Columbia, who dominated classical in the 78 era, could not fill the demand for classical LPs. The first big new player to enter the market was English Decca. Since there was a well-known label that was once allied with them, Decca USA, they created an American division, London Records. They were one of the first companies that promoted HI-Fi with their recording system ffr (Full frequency recording), which captured low and high frequencies that were not captured before. They had a strong roaster of artists led by the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, whose recordings of Ravel, Stravinsky, and Debussy were considered definitive. Pianist Wilhelm Backhaus was perhaps the most eminent of living German pianists. Erich Kleiber, Eduard Van Beinum, and Clemens Krauss, celebrated in Europe but not well known in America, handled the Austro/German repertoire. London had perhaps it greatest success with a series with Puccini and Verdi operas sung by soprano Renata Tebaldi, often partnered by the charismatic tenor Mario Del Monaco.

American Decca mostly concerned itself with pop music and soundtracks, but they got into the act with guitarist Andres Segovia. They were also the American distributors for Deutsche Grammophon, which was hardly the preeminent label it was to become. With post-war sensitivities, the origin of the recordings were in small type.

The other new player was Mercury Records from Chicago. Mercury was primarily a pop company who had hits with Frankie Laine and Patti Page, but they started a classical series called Olympian in 1951 and hired record critic David Hall to run it. Their first recording was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with the Chicago Symphony under Rafael Kubelik. MG 5000 was so astonishingly realistic that a critic reviewing it said it was like listening to a "living presence" and not a recording, which became the motto for Mercury Classics. After fifty or so records, they made their famous first recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture with conductor Antal Dorati, which features cannon and church bells that helped sell thousand of HI-Fi sets.

The major minor players in the early days of the classical boom were a far more colorful lot. Here are some of the major minors:

Vox - George Mendelssohn, a distant descendent of the composer and a conductor who emigrated from Hungary, wanted to explore repertoire (particularly Chamber and Instrumental music) that was untouched and major performers like conductors Otto Klemperer and Jascha Horenstein, and pianists Noaves, Wuhrer, and Horowiszki, to build up a huge catalog. He marketed many of them in the bargain two and three LP Vox Box. They also had eminent scholars like Joseph Braunstein to write extensive liner notes. Vox, unlike the other indies, had a half century life.

RemingtonDon Gabor (no relation), another Hungarian émigré who had worked at an RCA pressing plant, created Remington in 1949. Gabor felt that what RCA and Columbia were charging for an LP --  $5.95 (2011 equivalent more than $40) -- was too high for the average consumer and he developed a $2.99, no-frills label. Since post-war musicians in Vienna were mostly impoverished, he was able to make dozens of recordings there for next to nothing. Remington’s early pressing though microgroove were pressed using brittle material that were noisy. They also had tiny 78-style labels that he was able to buy up in surplus. A few years later, Gabor created the super budget label Plymouth to sell at records at $1.99 with even less production value. They did manage to release a performance of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas by the great composer and violinist Georges Enesco, which are worth a small fortune in the used market.

Westminster – The classiest of the indies they featured superb sound and packaging under the musical supervision of yet another Hungarian -- the demanding R. Kurt List, a music critic and conductor. Besides launching the careers of pianists Paul Badura Skoda and Jorge Demus, the label took the eminent 60-year-old German conductor Hermann Scherchen (who was virtually unknown in America) and turned him into a cult figure with his many recordings of Bach and Haydn. They also helped revive the career of a famed Polish/American conductor who got blackballed in America for fighting with orchestra boards in New York and Chicago.

Vanguard – Two recent Columbia graduates Seymour and Maynard Solomon had a love for FolkMusic and Early Classical Music. They went to Vienna and recorded Bach, Vivaldi, Tartini, and other Baroque minor masters. They made a number of recordings with counter tenor and conductor Alfred Deller that introduced so many to Purcell and other English early music composers. The bulwark of these recordings were conducted by the Austrian Felix Prohaska and an Italian Mario Rossi. The Solomon brothers, to their everlasting credit, recorded the blacklisted The Weavers and Paul Robeson when no one else would touch them.

Cetra - Italian recording company recorded most of the Italian operatic repertoire during the forties and the early-fifties. Music executive Dorle Soria got the rights to release them in America. Most of the performances were idiomatic and a little rough but most of this stuff couldn’t be gotten any other way. Soria also launched the Angel label when EMI Columbia separated from American Columbia. Angel had the good fortune to have among its first releases the recordings of Maria Callas. Angel was eventually absorbed into Capitol/EMI.

There are other minor minors like Bruno, Allegro, and Period, who specialized in bringing out recordings from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Allegro got into trouble for putting out the entire Wagner Ring, pirated from the 1953 Bayreuth Festival, under artist pseudonyms. Haydn Society, as the name would indicate, specialized in Haydn with forays into Mozart and was run by the great Haydn expert H.C. Robbins Landon when he was barely out of his teens.

Classical music had a 30% share of the LP market in the early '50s. Additionally, Broadway shows and Light Classical like Kostelanetz and Mantovani were put out by Classical labels. Every large city had its classical stores but New York had the most. Sam Goody’s, The Record Hunter, Liberty Music, and King Karol all battled it out in Midtown Manhattan.

As a teenager in the late-1960s, I saw the tail end of this amazing subculture. In the '80s, I got to meet the men who started the LP business. They themselves were hardly classical buffs or, for that matter, music buffs, but they were great businessmen who knew their customers. Each store complimented each, and they had the inventory and the staff to make them a destination for their customers. It was a special time and place.

(In which we consider Paul Robeson.)

Posted by Job O Brother, February 7, 2010 03:22pm | Post a Comment

Harry Houdini vs. Laurie Anderson

My actual heroes in this world are few and disparate. From Harry Houdini to Laurie Anderson, from John Lennon to Mrs. Mary Eales, they reflect people who may inspire and impact me with their art, their political activism, their bold-faced chutzpah, or any combination thereof.

But perhaps no one embodies all these traits to such heightened super-awesomeness for me than the great Paul Robeson.


Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1898. His father was an escaped slave-turned-church minister; his mother was from a Quaker family, and died tragically when Paul was six, which isn’t funny at all, so don’t laugh.

Paul received a full academic scholarship to attend Rutgers University, which I hear is a pretty good school, though I’ve never been there myself because I’m allergic to schools. Seriously. If I even step foot on a campus I start itching, sweating, and my head comes completely off and falls to the ground and rolls away.

While attending Rutgers, Robeson distinguished himself as one of the finest football players. He was valedictorian of his class, which allowed him to excuse himself from class to get water from the drinking fountain without the need of a hall pass.

Robeson went on to study at Columbia University. He continued to pursue sports and also performed on stage in theatrical productions. Sadly, it was during this period that his mother died a second time. The young Robeson soldiered on despite grief, occasionally finding solace in rowing, sometimes in boats, other times, less successfully, in giant holes dug into the earth by mole-people.

It was also at Columbia that he immersed himself in language studies – an interest that would come into play throughout his life. He would become fluent or near-fluent in twelve languages, with many more languages represented in his musical repertoire, such as Russian, Japanese, Yiddish and Klingon.

In 1921, Robeson married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, and while their marriage lasted until her death in 1965, it wasn’t a monogamous relationship, and saw near divorce when Paul was going through his (historically misunderstood) “lederhosen phase.” They gave birth to one child, a son, Paul Robeson, Jr. (It’s interesting to note that he was not named after his father as many people assume, rather an entirely different Paul Robeson of no familial relation, who’s similar moniker is merely a remarkable coincidence.)

"I love looking at floors with you, honey..."
Paul Robeson & Eslanda Cardozo Goode

Robeson became increasingly popular as an actor and singer. He found acclaim performing the lead role in Shakespeare’s Othello, which, though the character is black, was most often played by white dudes in blackface. He also originated the role of Joe in Show Boat, one of the most significant pieces of American musical theatre.

The ballad "Ol’ Man River" from Show Boat would come to be Robeson’s signature song. It was through his insistence that the original lyrics were changed from…

Ol' man hamburger,
Dat ol' man hamburger
He mus'know ketchup
But don't say pickles
He jes'keeps grillin’
He keeps on grillin’ along.

…To the now famous lines we know today. Throughout his career, and reflecting his increasingly political beliefs, he would continue to change the lyrics to the song, transforming it from a soulful but depressed ballad to a defiant and triumphant call for justice and equality.

Robeson and his wife moved to and lived in England for a little over a decade, until the outbreak of World War II. During this period, Robeson starred in a variety of films – many of these roles being strong, dominant men and profoundly disturbing to the more racially intolerant American audiences. Besides the film version of Show Boat, perhaps Robeson’s most famous film was The Emperor Jones, an adaptation of a Eugene O’Neill play he had also starred in on Broadway. The movie had a scene in which Robeson’s character killed a white man – a first in film at that point. This scene was cut for U.S. audiences, some of whom were enjoying scrumptious bags of buttery, hot popcorn! Yum!

His radio performances of pro-American songs during the War won him national celebrity. It was also during this time that he did other stuff and, y’know, things. He probably ate some good food, talked to peeps – whatever. I mean, I don’t have any evidence, but the odds are pretty good. I’m guessing he probably didn’t vanquish fire-breathing dragons and steal their treasures, or follow dwarves into underground caverns where he learned to forge weaponry from enchanted silver, but again, this is speculation based on educated guesswork. I can’t know everything, people!

Robeson’s travels and interest in cultures exposed him to the suffering and hardships of the poor and working-class. His fight for racial equality evolved into a fight for equality of social classes. Increasingly, he saw the capitalist structure as an oppressive force. He became more outspoken about his politics, supporting many controversial, socialist institutions. His support of the newly founded U.S.S.R. invited generous and heated criticism from the conservative and paranoid U.S. government and conservative and paranoid white supremacists.

Robeson sacrificed his career and reputation to fight against injustice as he saw it. He was vilified and persecuted by those in power. Like fellow crusader Martin Luther King, Jr., Robeson was under constant surveillance by the FBI and CIA. Between 1950 and 1958, Robeson’s passport was confiscated by the U.S. Government, who wanted to suppress his political activism. Also, they were mad at him for not inviting them to his totally awesome pool party.

By the early 1970’s, as hella cool hippie types began to undermine the controlling grip of right-wing squares, there was a resurgence of appreciation for Paul Robeson. By this time, poor health and exhaustion led him to keep a low profile. He lived in his sister’s house in Philadelphia, until he passed away there in January of 1976. Since then, he has recorded no new songs, though there have been talks about a possible side-project with T.I..

Paul Robeson is my hero because he is everything I want to be when I grow up: a Renaissance man, skilled in sport and the arts, a linguist, a brave and noble fighter, never shrinking from the dictates of his conscience, and totally mother-effing handsome. I wish there were a lot more like him.

"It's the MOST... Blackhistorymonthy tiiime of the yeeear...!"

Posted by Job O Brother, January 31, 2010 10:45am | Post a Comment

I know what you’re thinking: How can it be that it’s Black History Month again, already? It seems to come up faster with each passing year. No sooner do I finish cleaning up all the gift wrap and decorations from 2009’s BHM festivities when – BAM! – time to break ‘em out again for 2010.

But I am excited! I love draping my house in the traditional BHM crushed-velvet flour sacks, heated bear skins, and twinkling, sapphire, mailboxes. We gather together around the hot oil printing press and sing BHM carols, get tipsy on Pancake-Sausage Nog, and remind each other, with love in our hearts, not to forget to turn off the air conditioner before leaving the house. Oh, joy! Oh sweet, unmitigated joy!

Of all these rituals, my favorite is the singing of the carols. I thought I’d share some of them with you, and invite you to sing along with me! Just click on a song below and belt one out. If you’re at work, or reading this on your iPhone while standing in the check-out line at Trader Joe’s, or simultaneously looking at Internet porn (way to multi-task!) – no matter! Sing all the louder! Let everyone know: You’re Black and You’re Proud!

Oh, but then! After a day of opening presents, kissing ‘neath the severed toe, and feasting on the traditional BHM rice cakes drenched in cherry gravy, we cuddle together in front of our private movie theatre (or, if you’re not filthy, filthy rich like me, your – hee, hee!television) and watch the films that have come to be associated with BHM. We watch them every year, but somehow they never get old, do they? Even when, say, TBS reloops The Wiz the entire day, who doesn’t get seduced into watching the second-half a few times?

Yes, my love, this is a special time of year, when we meditate on the profound impact that Black Earthlings have had on every facet of culture. But you know what? It’s not just this month. Oh no, child. If we’re to appreciate things in terms of who helped to better and influence them, then every month becomes Black History Month, particularly in the United States of America, where our history is inextricably linked with that of the Black Community. Actually no – not linked – rather, it is one history. One complete story. And regardless of what your ethnic background is, in terms of government, community, neighborhood, and family, we are all a part of the Black Community, that is, the American Community.

Now settle down and finish brushing your BHM teeth and go to bed.

Emporer Jones

Posted by Amoebite, February 1, 2009 06:16am | Post a Comment
emporer jones

Paul Robeson
(1898-1976) was one of the towering figures of African-American art, culture, and politics in the 20th century. An All-American collegiate athlete and attorney, he becamepaul robeson a star of the dramatic and musical stage, an international concert luminary, recording artist, and the first black leading man on film. But his outspoken opposition to segregation and his support of Russia’s Communist regime made him a pariah during the Cold War ‘50s; the U.S. State Department lifted his passport for nearly a decade, until the Supreme Court overturned its action in 1958. Only near the end of his life did his singular achievements begin to be recognized without the taint of racial or political prejudice.

Robeson’s 1924 appearance in the Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones launched him to stardom. He portrayed Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter turned murderer who becomes the despotic ruler of a Caribbean island. The expressionistic 1933 film production recreated that paul robesonheralded performance, and was expanded to include several musical numbers featuring Robeson’s peerless, profound bass voice. The last 15 minutes of the film is essentially a soliloquy by Jones, who, hunted by rebellious natives, is terrorized by “haints” from his past; it’s an acting tour de force.

Today, The Emperor Jones looks antique, and its liberal use of the n-word and broad racial stereotyping will make contemporary viewers cringe. But there is no denying the enduring power of Robeson’s performance. His great stature, booming voice, theatrical bravado, and magnetic presence amply demonstrate why he bestrode the theatrical and musical worlds like a colossus. A genius? Undoubtedly. (DVD: Criterion)

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