Playing for Time

1. Marcia and I recently took a little weekend getaway trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico (a city we had most seriously considered as a residence before we settled on Sedona) to catch three nights of the 35th Annual Festival Flamenco Albuquerque. The event’s organizers describe it thusly:

Every summer, the National Institute of Flamenco and the University of New Mexico host Festival Flamenco Albuquerque, bringing the finest flamenco artists in the world to Albuquerque. For eight days, the city is filled with the pulse of flamenco, and is transformed into a cultural epicenter for the art form. This tradition celebrates flamenco, the incredible art form that UNESCO declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The lure of flamenco is its ability to explore the full range of human emotion with an intense, vibrant quality that leaves audiences and students alike, captivated.

We have really enjoyed seeing flamenco live in Spain, most especially when it is presented in the tablaos where Spaniards actually go to see shows, rather than in the more theatrical venues that cater to tourists. The virtuosity of the form when performed by masters is truly breathtaking, and it provides a fascinating insight into the cultural history of Spain, with rhythms and vocal styles that incorporate the breadth of traditions and peoples who have built the modern incarnation of that storied nation. The ABQ Festival features such masters, all singing, dancing, playing guitar and offering the distinctive body-based percussion that define the form. Truly wonderful, even if the Spanish late-night traditions had us staying up until 2am most nights, well past our normal bedtimes. We highly recommend this event to you should you be able to find your way to Albuquerque some summer!

Click the image to see some videos of performances we caught in ABQ this year.

2. When we returned from Albuquerque, our home air conditioning was, thankfully, fixed after nearly three weeks of stifling interior heat. We also finally got our car back from the shop just in time to make the road trip, though we are still waiting for a couple of trim pieces to arrive from the apparently endless back order log impacting the auto industry of late. It’s very discomforting and dismaying to not be able to enjoy such basic everyday necessities as home and auto, so we feel much better not having those constant reminders of our remote home location in our faces every day. First world problems, yeah, but that’s the world we live in, so we do feel them.

3. I’ve been hiking every Monday morning for the past couple of months with a group of folks who share my own personal proclivities when it comes to back country exploration and adventure. I’d define those proclivities as a desire to get an intense workout, to climb things that not many people climb, to explore trails that not many people explore, to be bold in letting the lay of the land dictate the route more than the path on the map, and to do advance research to ensure that each hike has some tangible payoff along its route. This past week, we did a fairly strenuous route that took us up to one of the finest pictograph sites that I’ve yet seen, outside of National Park Service protected areas. Here are some images of what we saw in a cave recess high up on a butte above the forest:

This region’s human and natural histories are both deep and extraordinary. I’m more than willing to put in the work to experience them, even if I come home with regular scrapes, scratches, bruises, strains and contusions from doing so!

4. Our son-in-law, John, is an exceptional artist, in both traditional and digital idioms. On one of our visits to see him and Katelin in the past year or so, he shared some work he was doing using an Artificial Intelligence (AI) art processor called Night Cafe. I found it fascinating, in the same ways that I was fascinated by Holly Herndon‘s 2019 album PROTO, which deployed an AI named Spawn that was trained with a traditional folk/gospel chorus to interpret and process vocal and musical sounds. It also reminded me of some of the fun I had in the primordial days of the Web, when emergent (yet still deeply flawed) technologies like the earliest language translation engines produced freakish, poetic magic that would never emerge from the minds of humans. Here’s a piece I wrote about that, with a sample of “translator poetry,” all the way back from 2000.

For my birthday this year, John got me a subscription to Night Cafe and I have been having a good time exploring its capabilities and outputs. Be clear up front: I’m no visual artist, beyond perhaps an ability to capture and process interesting photographic scenes. So whatever “art” emerges from my dabbling with Night Cafe is not my work, but the AI’s. When I first started using the program, I was uploading some favorite photos that I have taken, and then using the AI to process them. That produced some interesting images, but I then decided to give up on visual inputs altogether, instead submitting fragments from poems I’ve written over the years, giving the AI a list of styles or artists I like, and then letting it rip on its own. Here are some of the outputs from that approach that I’ve enjoyed the most (you can click the images to see them in full size formats):

I find it fascinating to see what an AI “thinks” that my words mean, and how it “chooses” to interpret them visually. (As I typed those qualifying quotes around those key words, I found myself thinking: “Hmmm . . . am I being unfairly meat-sack-centric here?”) But even as much as I enjoy these and other similar images as interesting and pleasurable things to look at, I also find myself wondering: Are these my images? And are they art, in any way, or just pictures? Lots of interesting questions there about intention and creativity and skill and attribution and intellectual property, for sure. As it turns out, around the time that I was first fiddling with Night Cafe and thinking about these things, an artist and critic who I quite respect, named Eric Wayne, wrote and posted what I consider to be the best essay on this topic I’ve yet encountered. I encourage you to read it at the following link: Will AI Replace Human Artists?

5 thoughts on “Playing for Time

  1. Pingback: What’s Up in the Neighborhood, July 2 2022 – Chuck The Writer

    • The flamenco vocals are really anchored in the Muslim/Moorish traditions . . . a lot of the vocal lines sound almost like Calls to Prayer. The rhythms remain a mystery to me . . . in most ensembles, there are two or three people providing handclaps (I’ve never seen cantanets used outside of the “tourist” flamenco venues), along with a box-styled hand percussion piece that the player sits on. I’m reasonably musical, but I often find it impossible to count the beats in any “normal” 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 way. They almost seem chaotic, but every member of ensemble hits the same beats at the same time, so they’re clearly counting something that I cannot!! And the dancers definitely have similar elements to Irish stepping, since the footwork is also a key part of the rhythm, and the best dancers we’ve seen are amazing in how hard and fast they can dance. Another interesting cultural piece unlike most American dance: the female dancers don’t seem to age out, and some of the very best performances we have ever seen have been older women, just dominating the stage!

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  2. Your #3’s when you were in the 518 always fascinated me – I knew about where you were, but not the discoveries. Always a “huh !”

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