music, technology & life in pasadena, california

Harper Lee Responds!

A few weeks ago I wrote of the fact-forging and truth-bending which marked the movie Capote, in relation to its depiction of editor William Shawn (see Capote Lies). I ended the article with a snide comment (“Maybe next week we’ll hear from Harper Lee’s family…”). Surprise! Harper Lee herself has responded in her own letter to The New Yorker! She concurs with Shawn’s sons and calls his depiction in the movie, “weirdly off”, and contributes two more inaccuracies to ponder.

Harper Lee is the author of To Kill A Mockingbird.

April 18, 2006 | Link to this entry

A Park for Downtown LA

In the continuing effort to remake Grand Avenue, home of the Music Center and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, there now comes talk of a plan to demolish the existing Stanley Mosk Courthouse, located on the corner of First and Grand, to make way for a park that would combine with land already set aside for a 16-acre park in the corridor between the Music Center and Los Angeles City Hall. In addition, the County of Los Angeles is considering demolition of the Hall of Administration, adjacent to the proposed park area, to provide additional open space in the city center.

This would be a good move and add considerably to the attraction of downtown, which is currently undergoing a revitalization that includes the conversion of many older buildings into lofts and other residences. The proposed park would come to the edge of First and Grand, diagonally across the intersection from the concert hall and provide a perfect setting for it that doesn’t exist right now. Frank Gehry has said in the past that the courthouse and surrounding buildings are close to the end of their useful lives (only 40 years!) and with their seismic and asbestos problems they’re ready for the trash heap.

Now all that’s left to do (and it is a major and difficult step full of bureaucratic red tape) is for the city and county to figure out the land swap deal and deal with the costs of moving the courthouse and county administration. I don’t have any doubt that it can be accomplished since Eli Broad is in charge of the major plan. He has transformed downtown already by being the lynchpin in the building of Walt Disney Concert Hall, which has been the vital first step in making downtown Los Angeles into an exciting and vital place to live, instead of a ghost town devoid of any life after 6pm.

April 18, 2006 | Link to this entry

Capote Lies

When does the fictionalizing of a true story by Hollywood become the equivalent of the James Frey fiasco, the writer of the best-selling, Oprah-hawked, A Million Little Pieces? For years we’ve known that writers of screenplays will insert little fictions into a story to help it along, to gloss over a sticking point or just make it more entertaining. For the most part, we’ve come to accept these venalities and allow Hollywood a little leeway, but now comes news of the gross mischaracterization, in the film Capote, of William Shawn, Capote’s editor at The New Yorker, in the form of a letter from Shawn’s sons. And now I have to ask myself, why all the fuss over James Frey and his “enhanced” memoir if the movies can get away with it as a matter of fact?

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I believe that what Frey did was wrong and subsequently will hurt and question the credibility of memoir writers, possibly other non-fiction writers as well, far into the future. If a written work is labeled as a memoir or an autobiography, it better be the truth without reservation. Period. So, why aren’t moviemakers held up to the same standards as other media? Why is Hollywood always given a pass?

There are many examples of biopics “playing loose with the facts” throughout movie history. One early example that comes to mind is Houdini starring Tony Curtis, in which the magician dies trapped in his Chinese Water Torture illusion, unable to escape a watery death. Actually, Houdini died of complications from getting punched by a fan. He always prided himself on his physical condition and would regularly challenge men to hit him in the stomach. On this occasion a fan let go before he had a chance to prepare himself and he died a few days later. Not as dramatic a death as the movie, but certainly a major liberty was taken in changing its circumstances. Can you imagine the outcry if Oliver Stone had changed JFK’s death in his movie of the same name? (Of course, Stone hypothesized and fictionalized every other aspect of that film, but then again, that was the whole point.)

So, along comes a letter from the Shawn boys to The New Yorker declaring that the filmmakers invented the William Shawn character “out of whole cloth”. They write that their father never organized a book reading for Capote, never spoke in public, did not arrange for Richard Avedon to take photographs of the killers or publish them, found editing “In Cold Blood” very disturbing, did not go to Kansas to visit Capote and never flew in an airplane; all of which happen in the film. Minor points, you say? Maybe…but it paints a totally different picture of the actual man being portrayed, a man whose reputation was built on getting the facts straight.

Frankly, I thought that Capote was a good movie. Philip Seymour Hoffman was brilliant in portraying Capote even when he just stood still and didn’t say a word. The story took a slice of the writer’s life and was able to show us his talent as well as his weaknesses, but now I’m wondering what else might not be true, what else may be stretching the real story, and that’s the stuff that poisons the well. Maybe next week we’ll hear from Harper Lee’s family…

April 5, 2006 | Link to this entry

LA Phil on iTunes

One of the most amazing experiments in music downloading history happened in the past year when the BBC offered all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies, one per week, for free downloading on their website. Nearly 700,000 downloads were recorded during the time they were available. It showed that people were eager to download music that was legal and free, and it pointed to a telling new interest in classical music. No classical recordings had ever made that kind of mark before in retail sales and of course, a large part of the downloads could be chalked up to the price, but what about the obviously huge group of people who were exploring this music for the first time, the newcomers who may have found that Beethoven had a lot more to offer them than they were led to believe their whole lives?

This week, the Los Angeles Philharmonic took a huge step forward in reaching out to new listeners (as well as satisfying longtime fans) by partnering with Apple’s iTunes to offer recordings of their live concerts from Walt Disney Concert Hall. Now, that might seem like just another smart marketing idea on the surface, but what makes this a groundbreaking cutting-edge move is the fact that the concerts will be available from the iTunes Music Store within a few days after the performance!

All music fans know about the incredibly long lead times that have become standard in the recorded music business. Whether you’re a pop or rock act, or a symphony orchestra, it usually takes up to a year (and sometimes longer) to get your CD in stores after you’ve put the final touches on it in the studio. Now, this experiment will put the music in your hands almost immediately. The ramifications of this could be great for composers who write new works. Music fans all over the world will be able to hear world premieres in an almost-real-time delivery. And classical music isn’t the only music that should be able to benefit from it.

The first iTunes concert, from the Philharmonic’s current Minimalist Jukebox festival, is a pairing of compositions by Arvo Part and Louis Andriessen. The second concert features music by Steve Reich. I haven’t loaded them on my iPod yet, but they sound great just listening at my desktop. I played electric guitar on the Andriessen pieces and although I wasn’t thrilled with the music itself, which I found to be uneven and laborious at times, there were a few wonderful moments and I had a lot of fun playing them in concert. The four woman vocal group, Synergy, was a marvel to listen to and a joy to work with. The conductor, a sly Dutchman named Reinbert de Leeuw, kicked up the already fast tempo of De Staat by about 12 metronome markings for the first concert which had us scrambling to make the incredibly fast unison lines intelligible. Think Chick Corea Elektric Band meets Phillip Glass on crystal meth and you get the idea.

Two months ago, NY Times music critic Allan Kozinn wrote that the center of the classical music world had shifted 3,000 miles to the west. In 2006 Los Angeles finds itself with an incredible world-class orchestra which is truly excited to be a part of the fabric of a great modern city, a crown jewel of a concert hall as notable for its acoustics as its stature as an architectural icon, and a music director/conductor who may well be the most talented and exciting musician/composer of his generation. That’s saying a lot, but audiences are proving it true as they continue to fill Disney Hall for a dazzling variety of programs by the Philharmonic.

April 1, 2006 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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