Archive for February, 2008

My TED rig

Friday, February 29th, 2008

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At TED this year I’m using a stripped-down version of my usual live rig. Here’s what it consists of:

-MacBook 2Ghz

-Logic Pro 7

-Nord Lead 3

-Yamaha Motif 8

-Novation XioSynth 25 (audio interface)

Most of the tunes don’t use a sequence, but I’ve created a Logic song anyway so that the relevant softsynth sounds will load up for me. I’m also using Logic’s Environment to do my keyboard mapping and switching, instead of my prorietary ZoneOut application. The Environment is more clunky and slower to set up, but this simplifies things because everything’s in the one program.

For some tunes I have live sounds coming out of the Nord or Yamaha, as opposed to softsynths. It’s refreshing to have zero delay, I guess I’ve adjusted over the years to the inherent delay when playing live synths in Logic.

Everything is mixed through the Novation XioSynth 25 that I’m using as my audio interface. It connects to the Mac via USB. Many people ask me what a good entry-level keyboard is; I would thoroughly recommend the XioSynth, which has excellent built-in sounds, mic and line inputs, and stereo audio outputs, and can be picked up for under $300. This is the one axe I always carry around with me and hooks up nicely with a laptop. They do larger versions of this keyboard as well if you need two-handed functionality at the expense of a little portability.

There is a Santa

Friday, February 29th, 2008

Holy Cow, there is a Father Christmas after all. No sooner have I complained on my blog that I don’t have a camera to take pics of TED, than a brand new 8.1 Megapixel Kodak camera appears in my hotel room!

Of course, I don’t know how to use it yet (properly) but here are a few early attempts.

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The band on stage—left to right, Mark Stweart, Rachelle Garniez, Rufus Cappacocia and yours truly.

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The lovely Vusi Mahlesela from South Africa. Incredible voice, and a kind soul.

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Me, Rufus, Rachelle, Mark. For the last session of Thursday there was no music. It was the TED Prize session. This is always heavily in demand with a long line of people waiting outside on standby. But I felt the band were entitled to skip the line so I snuck them in and we sat in the middle and enjoyed the show.

Two people have asked me to pass on a marriage proposal to Rachelle in the last twelve hours!tddavidhoffman.jpg

Here’s David Hoffman, who courageously got up on stage and told the TED audience the story of his studio fire. His wife Heidi has been photographing fragments of burned artifacts in the rubble of their home, and he projected some photos. I was collapsed in a bean-bag in the Simulcast Lounge, all choked up. David is putting a brave face on it.

First day: wow!

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

It was a pretty fantastic first day at TED. A buch of people are blogging from here and I’m sure they’ll describe the speakers in great detail—my own favourites were Patricia Burchat, a brain scientist who studied her own brain haemmorage and stroke as they happened, and Wade Davis, anthropologist and TED alumnus who travels the world studying indigenous cultures.

The band sounded great. We played two pieces, the first being a ‘Hot Club’ style instrumental called ‘Mocha Swing’, written by the amazing German tango quartet Quattro Nuevo, featuring solos by each of my musicians, and a special guest spot on kazoo by Sxip. The second piece was a lovely old Bonzo Dog Doodah Band lament called ‘Tubas In The Moonlight’. You can hear both the originals on iTunes, and after TED I will try to put our versions of them online for comparison. I sang the latter in my best aristocratic English accent, complimenting my green bowler hat and pin striped jacket.

Sxip also did a solo slot amidst the afternoon’s speakers, and worked his magic on the mic with harmonica, penny whistles, echo pedals and pitch shifters. The day was finished off in spectacular style by guitarist Kaki King, who has astonishing hammer-on finger technique and a winning charisma. I felt that the music provided the right kind of counterpoint to some very energetic and mind-expanding presentations, including one by Stephen Hawking, who sent a message to TED from Cambridge, discussing the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe!

No more pics yet. I found a cheapo prepaid mibile phone at Walgreens but it has no camera. Tomorrow I’ll have to find out where the up to the minute TED photos get posted and cut and paste some for you. Now I’m off to the first of the week’s parties, in a giant tent outside in Portola Plaza.

Gentlemen, start your green engines

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

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I’m up on stage here at TED, and the show starts in a little under four hours. I’m surrounded by Hydrogen- and biodiesel-powered cars, tactile displays and dozons of plasma screens. Everything looks very beautiful this year. The main stage has been transformed into a private library thanks to Jay Walker who loaned us his fabulous collection of old books and oddities, including—wait for it—a real Sputnik! I’ve never seen one in the flesh before. He bought it on eBay. I wish I could take more pics but right now I am without any camera or cameraphone, as my Sidekick has refused to work in the US after seven months away. I’m going to nip out in a minute and pick up a cheap one with Bluetooth, then I’ll be able to add some more pics.

Mark and Rufus had a horrible flight out—two plane changes, each time being told they would probably miss their connection and they certainly couldn’t bring those big instrument cases on board. Rufus is coming down with a cold, and by the time we finally got to soundcheck at about 8 last night he was wiped out. But we struggled through a few tunes, and it’s great to be on a nice stage with decent foldback and lighting, after rehearsing these songs in Rufus’ attic! Everyone is feeling confident and though 11 pieces is a lot of info to keep in your head, we do have the luxury of a dressing room with a practice amp where we can run each piece before we play it.

Bumped into Mike Rubin in the lobby, my friend who just had the stroke. Glad to say he looks remarkably well and is only numb down one side of his body. I have yet to see David Hoffman, but I understand he’s going to give a 3-minute talk about the fire that destroyed his studio. He’s making a documentary film about it! Typical. The man is unstoppable. As for me my leg is feeling a lot better and I’m trying to walk without a limp, as instructed by my physio.

Quite a mash-up.

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

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This is quite surreal—as I’m writing, Peter (from Peter, Paul and Mary) is in the very next room, singing ‘Puff The Magic Dragon.’ For real!

How did this come about? Rufus, my host, has a musical duo with Peter’s daughter, and he came by Rufus’ studio today to add some last minute touches to a new kid’s CD he is making, which involves re-recording some of his old hits.

Of course this song, as Ben Stiller’s character in ‘Meet The Parents’ would be quick to point out, is not really about a magic dragon.

The TED band is sounding pretty good. Mark Stewart was unable to rehearse with us today as he has a gig at Carnegie Hall with Bobby McFerrin. (Now HE’d be a cool guy to get to TED.) We were working out a Cajun version of a very famous Led Zeppelin song. This old Brooklyn brownstone was rocking today!

New York, NY

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

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(Photo: Robert Leslie)

I’m in SoHo, New York. Today I’m shooting an interview for a PBS piece called The History of Recorded Music, followed by a few days of rehearsals with my TED house band. The TED Conference begins in Monterey next Wednesday, and I’m really looking forward to it. I realise that the majority of people reading this will not be able to experience TED first hand—it takes $6000 and a referral from an existing TEDster, and it’s nearly sold out through 2009!—so over the next few days I’m going to tell you a bit about the event, about the music I play there, and about the other guest musicians who we bring in.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. It’s a four-day conference that has taken place every year in Monterey, California since the 1980′s. Roughly 1200 people attend, of whom 50-60 are speakers or performers. In recent years we have started putting TEDtalks online for free, enabling millions of people to hear the amazing speakers for themselves. It’s great that this event can now be shared with anyone who’s interested. But nothing is quite like being there in person.

At TED, there’s a constant stream of stimulation. It begins at registration with an amazing rollaboard ‘goodie bag’ stuffed with cool books, Martini miniatures, glider kits for your kid, and vouchers giving you free membership to subscription-only web sites; occasionally even a snazzy PDA or cell phone. The sense of being pampered continues through the whole four days, with beach parties, receptions in the Monterey Aquarium, and delicious lunches sponsored by the likes of Nokia and BMW. This cushy treatment is perhaps the residue left over from TED’s early days when it was primarily a very exclusive, hedonistic meeting of rich Silicon Valley types and speakers who were lucky enough to be invited by TED’s founder and previous owner, Richard Saul Wurman.

Under TED’s current curatorship—Chris Anderson took over the conference in 2001—it’s subtly taken on a new personality. TED remains a delight for the senses, with its trademark eighteen minute talks by some of the most innovative and brilliant people around. Often these are the men and women of the moment: you saw Al Gore there giving his ecology speech right before the release of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, and ‘Freakonomics’ co-author Steven Levitt, before his book hit the top of the bestseller lists. What’s changed is the way speakers and content are selected. Chris’ editorial skills come from his years as a journalist, editor, and then owner of a stable of paper and online publications. Without imposing his own morality, he’s managed to inject TED with a sense of purpose that was missing before. This has not been universally well received by long-time TEDsters. Inevitably, a handful felt they shouldn’t be paying the hefty registration fee just to jump on someone else’s philanthropic bandwagon. But these people have tended to drop away, and their seats taken over by a new generation of TEDsters who are very keen to find ways to make a difference. And TED offers myriad ways to do that, not just during the four days of the Conference, but in the intervening months. A big part of this is the TED Prize, which is awarded each year to three people seen to be doing something worthwhile to change the world. The winners are selected by a very esteemed committee, and as well as a cash grant, they are promised the full leverage of the TED community to help make a wish come true. Take a look at the list of past prizewinners (including Google fellow Larry Brilliant, Bono, and architect Cameron Sinclair) and follow the history of what happened to make their wish come true with the help of the TED audience’s resources. It’s remarkable how much can be achieved by a strong will and the support of a community, without any help from governments, churches or corporations.

So what’s the role of music in all of this? Well, imagine this: the TED program is so jam-packed with mindblowing ideas and intellectual stimulation that it’s easy to get a migraine. A day at TED is a rapid-fire barrage of brilliant speakers with eye-opening ideas. You need to take a break every now and then to process what you’re hearing, and to allow your own brain and body to formulate a response to what you hear. It’s not practical to offer 10 minute shiatsu massages to 1200 people, so we try to do the same with music. Each year we find three or four outstanding musical performers, both unknown talents and world renowned stars, and give them each a slot in among the other speakers. We don’t have the time or the stage real estate to put on fully electrified performers with drums, amps and so on, so we tend to look for people who can delight the audience with just a piano or guitar, their own voice, and their storytelling. We favour artists who write interesting songs with lyrics the TED audience can relate to, perhaps with some oblique relevance to the rest of the proceedings; but we hold short of using the music slots to bombard the audience with yet more opinionation. Politics are a no-no for speakers as well as for musical artists. But the best TED musicians, as well as the best speakers, are able to captivate the audience by letting their defenses down, taking the lid off what they do, and singing simply from the heart.

What makes this event so special is that the performers and the audience find common ground. Even people from completely different walks of life find so much to reflect on their own experience, mirrored in that of someone else up there on the stage. And at the breakfasts, lunches and parties, or lining up for a cappuccino at the Google Cafe, I often find myself rubbing shoulders with one of the speakers I just saw—a National Geographic explorer perhaps, or a private-sector astronaut—and guess what, they are more interested in hearing about how I got that drum sound in the last intro piece I played, than in sounding off about their own subject.

A friend of mine James Horner, composer of the amazing scores for ‘Titanic’, ‘Apollo 13′ and ‘Braveheart’, came to speak at TED a couple of years ago. He sat through two days of other talks, then came to me rather distressed, wondering what on earth these brilliant people could possibly see in what he described as his ‘little backwater’ of the entertainment world. An hour later he was up there on the stage, with the audience in the palm of his hand. He showed a clip of the famous love scene on the prow of the Titanic, but without the music. He told us this was how a film looked when it first came to him. Then he wandered over to the piano and started to noodle around with melodies, explaining what he looks out for in the picture and how he punctuates it. He pointed out that the most romantic moment was not the kiss itself, but Leo’s hand cupping the back of Kate’s hair. And as he noodled, the familiar love theme started to emerge. He described how he had to conduct a 96-piece orchestra while movie studio executives nagged him to make it ‘less syrupy’ or ‘more sexy’. He was deconstructing a legendary piece of modern culture, right in front of our eyes; and when he then showed us the completed scene, an audience of brain surgeons, investment bankers, and politicians found something in James’ process that resonated with their own daily experience.

Take for example Cameron Sinclair, a 2006 TED Prize winner whose innovative architectural group has helped build disaster housing in multiple continents. Often Cameron has managed to convince local communities that the funding provided to them by disaster relief organizations can be put to much better and more productive use if the community itself gets involved in the designs. Cameron has established a Wiki-style web community the Open Architecture Network where architects from around the globe contribute and add to each others’ designs on a creative commons basis. For Cameron Sinclair as for James Horner, the challenge is to make something beautiful and lasting despite the efforts of charlatans to dilute their efforts.

That’s the essence of TED: a cross-fertilization of ideas, that adds up to something greater than the sum of the parts. You leave at the end of the conference with a strong sense that a committed group of people actually can make a difference. I’m very proud that music plays a part in this process, as a way to ‘cleanse the palate’ in between the sumptuous dishes on offer over the four days of TED.

Now I’m at Rufus Cappadocia’s brownstone in Brooklyn. Tomorrow we’ll be joined by Rachelle Garniez and Mark Stewart, comprising my House Band for this year, and we’ll start to rehearse the musical intros for the twelve TED sessions that take place between February 27th and March 1st. I’ll let you in on some of the details over the next few days!

By the way Chris Anderson was interviewed two nights ago on Charlie Rose, and does a fine job of setting out his vision for TED.

Life has its ups and downs…

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

I’ve torn a ligament in my left calf. It’s pretty bad and I was only able to hobble around on crutches for the first week. It’s improving a little now and I think I’ll be okay to fly to NY this week to rehearse with my TED house band, before the TED Conference proper starts on Feb 27th.

But I got off very lightly. My longtime friend Mike Rubin (whom I met at Lucas FIlm in 1985) had a stroke a few days ago while at Sundance. He is ok but it seemed touch and go for a while, and he still has little feeling in his left side. He’s only in his early 40′s.

Then two days ago another friend, David Hoffman (creator of the Sputnik movie I borrowed clips from) had his house and studio burned down. Mercifully his family all got out safely. David’s a fanatical collector and eBay power buyer, and along with those collections he had 35 years of film archives destroyed in the fire, plus stuff belonging to his grandfather and great grandfather, which was earmarked for his own kids. If the same thing happened to me it would be nowhere near as serious, because I feel most of my work is out there in the ether already, and I’d be quite stoic about losing some junk. But I feel for David because his studio was really a crucible for all his creativity.

Sorry for the downer blog entry. I hope to see both these friends at TED and I must remember to tell them how happy I am that they’re both alive. On the plus side the TED music is sounding good and I’m feeling excited. My daughter Lily (aka Harper) has helped me out singing demo versions of a couple of hilarious duets I’ll be performing with Rachelle Garniez. Also in the house band are a brilliant electric cellist Rufus Cappadocia, and multi-instrumentalist Mark Stewart, who came last year as one of Paul Simon’s backup musicians and sat in with me and the Jazz Mafia Horns. A couple of the JMH will make it down from San Francisco for an afternoon, and join us on stage with this year’s TED guest solists, Vusa Mahlesela, Sxip, Nellie MacKay and Kaki King. I am too lazy to link to all these names but please go check them out, and you’ll realise what an amazing musical lineup we’ve got in store for the TEDsters this year!