Monday, April 20, 2009

Post 6: Interstellar Overdrive

Last year Nancy and I saw Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a fabulous play with a great late 60s sound track that explores interactions between a fictional Cambridge family, the communist control of Czechoslovakia (wow, that’s hard to spell), and the the Velvet Revolution (the overthrow of communism by Czechs). Stoppard is Czech, though he’s lived in the UK quite a while.

The father and mother in the family are both Cambridge professors, he being an avowed Marxist and materialist (doesn’t believe in a soul), and she a classicist with a strong dualist bent (for her it begins and ends with the soul). Adding complexity to their positions, and fuel to her argument, is the fact that she’s dying of cancer. In spite of different parts of her material self having degenerated, and some removed, she feels she’s the same person. The discussions about the nature and meaning of consciousness in “Rock n Roll” are fascinating and subtle. Perhaps I’ll come back to that side of the play in a later post.

I participated on a panel at the Wilma Theatre in Philly about the philosophical, scientific, political, and musical themes that ran through the play last fall. Around the same time Tyler Volk (lead guitarist of The Amygdaloids) and I went to see the Plastic People of the Universe at Joe’s Pub in NY. The Plastic People were, and are, a Czech band inspired by The Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa. A subplot of the play was their apparently very significant, although somewhat unintentional, role in the Velvet Revolution, and their relation to the Cambridge family via Czech students studying abroad. Gigs at Joe’s are not easy to come by, and Plastic People very likely landed theirs because of their centrality to the play rather than any new musical achievements since they seemed to mostly play their songs from the old days, at least as far as I could tell. Interestingly, another one of the real characters from the play, the Plastic People’s manager from the 70s, as well as a couple of current Czech officials, actually came up on stage at Joe’s mid way through the show. They were a little tipsy and had to be chased off by the Plastic People, who, true to their rep, seemed really uninterested in political or social issues and instead were totally focused on cranking out their wonderfully out of control garage band sounds, all sung in their native Czech tongue.

Another subplot in “Rock ‘n Roll” involved a character either seen or imagined (with the aid of psychoactive substances) by the philosopher’s teenage daughter, Esme. The character she saw or imagined was a boy roughly her age playing a flute on her garden wall in Cambridge. We never actually meet this character, though the play is, in some ways, about him as much as anything else.

As the play progresses in time, and the characters age, the focus shifts to Prague. But towards the end, the story comes back to Cambridge. After living elsewhere during her late flower child years, Esme, now a grown woman (played by the actress who played her mother earlier in the play), has returned to Cambridge. She becomes fascinated with a man she’s seen riding a bike through town, and comes to believe that this man was the young boy on her wall way back when.

The man on the bike turns out to be Syd Barrett, the troubled (some say schizophrenic) genius behind such early Pink Floyd wonders as Interstellar Overdrive, from their album Piper at the Gates of Dawn (no wonder Stoppard portrayed young Syd on flute). Interstellar Overdrive was, coincidentally, a song we (thanks to our exec producer Tim Sommer) used as sonic inspiration for guitar effects on the title tune from The Amygdaloids new CD, Brainstorm.

Though Syd lived in Cambridge for some time before his death from cancer a few years ago, he is said to have led a reclusive life (other than biking around), and I don’t think he was involved in the music scene here at all. If we can believe the stories that have been written about his hibernation in his mum’s old house, I have probably heard more live music in my two weeks in Cambridge than he did when he moved back to after leaving (maybe that’s the wrong word) Pink Floyd.

I had been feeling that Cambridge has massive music scene. But my bubble has begun to burst, at least a little. I’ve started to run into the same people over and over again. I went to Miller’s Music Store the other day to get a guitar pick, and the guy behind the counter was one of the fellows who played in the acoustic jam at Haymakers the night before. Not too much of a coincidence I guess. But then one of the other guys who played that night was also wearing a store shirt, and obviously worked there. Still acceptable since it is a music store, and musicians tend to work in music stores.

Still, it’s starting to seem like a smaller world than I naively thought at first (how could it not be; Cambridge is a small town). For example, Saturday night I went to The Hopbine, where I had such a good time seeing Jack last week that I wrote quite a bit about them in one of my posts. The band up this time was the Fridgidares, who claim to be Cambridge’s oldest blues band (not clear if that refers to how long they’ve been together or how old they are—not that there’s anything wrong with old musicians). I noticed a number of people who were there last week as well. Then while waiting for the band to start, two of the members of Jack walked up and thanked me for the nice comments about them in my blog. Not only am I starting to recognize people but they’re recognizing me. That’s not bad. In fact it’s nice. There seems to be a lot of connectedness amongst people who like live music here. There’s enough of them to support a lively scene, but not so many that you stay anonymous long.

Speaking of connections, I gave a lecture Friday at the Autism Research Center (sorry, Centre here) (ARC). Run by Simon Baron-Cohen, this is one of the leading autism research centers (centres) in the world. I was invited to speak by Teresa Tavassoli. Teresa and another postdoc from ARC, Jill Sullivan, attended the Sensation to Emotion Conference and Rock-It Science Music Festival in NY last month. When she learned I was coming to Cambridge, Teresa invited me to lecture at the ARC. I arrived a couple of hours before the lecture and had a very interesting time hearing about their work on autism, and discussing some of the new findings from my lab about memory and its susceptibility to change when retrieved. We actually discussed a possible experiment that that they may do on autistic children. We then had a quick lunch and headed down to the small meeting room, which ended up being jam packed and hot as hell. But all went well, and Simon gave me a lift back to the University.

Simon has a blues band here in Cambridge, and he’s generously invited me to play a couple of songs at their gig next Saturday. Simon and his collaborator, Bhisma Chakrabarti, will accompany me on “Mind Over Matter,” also from our new CD, Brainstorm. Simon is a bassist, and Bhisma plays the tabla, a kind of Indian drum. Then I’ll probably do another song or two with Daniela “Sticks” Schiller, The Amygdaloids drummer dubbed the Israeli metronome by Jeff Peretz, the producer of our first CD. Sticks will be here for our NYU-Cambridge meeting, which I will report on later.

It’s a crisp spring night with the sweet smell of new flowers in the air. I’m going to drift off to sleep trying to connect with interstellar reverberations of Syd Barrett playing his flute on a Cambridge wall not unlike the one that separates my flat from the Downing College Green. In fact, I think I can hear the faint sounds of a piper at my gate right now.

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