čtvrtek, října 05, 2006


Karaoke in Prague, or... OUCH my EARS hurt!

I wonder why I chose not to do pop music studies. Last night I showed a few visitors from California the joys of Karaoke in Prague. (I just felt Karaoke had to be Capitalized, especially in Prague!). I had been once before to Meloun, a little joint down on Michalská, that charges 60 Kc (about $2.50} for one entry and an evening of unlimited belting out of Czech and American pop tunes. I had wanted to choose (beware this supercomplicated website) Madonna's 'Like a Prayer' or No Doubt's 'Don't Speak,' but my recollection of the varied (failed) attempts of both songs on recent installations of Česko Hledá Superstar made me think otherwise. (See a comment I posted on my own entry about CHS). Both are really difficult to pull off, have certain high notes in tricky places... and are essentially tied to the identity of the voices portrayed by female protagonists.

First observation: the crowd was much smaller than last time I went, probably due to the lack of summer Czech language students who populated the scene during my first outing.

Second observation: At one point one of the patrons got up and sang 'Žizen lasky' (trans. as 'Thirst for love' redone in 1999 by
Leona Machálková) to the music of Flashdance's 'What a Feeling!' it's a real treat to listen to a song done in a foreign language that you're familiar with in its original language. Here are the lyrics to 'Žizen lasky'.

Two of the other patrons who seemed like regulars based on the ease with which they took the stage did end up choosing 'Prayer' and 'Don't Speak'; in my estimation a really really gutsy call. They did well under the circumstances.

My contribution to the evening was 'Lemon Tree' by Fool's Garden. I had only recently become acquainted with this song. A fair song to be sure... but easier than some others chosen. The song was taken by Jan Kříž (click here for a .wmv of his version) in last week's CHS semifinal. I think his version fared significantly better than my attempt. For one, I couldn't hear myself sing (a must ....), and, I don't have a big fat voice, confirmed by the d.j. who kept egging me to sing 'hlasitějši, hlasitějši!!!' (louder, louder!!!!). But I was able to keep my intonation, which is of utmost importance to me as a composer-musician. (I, like Milton Babbitt, really like pitch.) Sorry, that was a quote from Milton when I met him in Cincinnati in 1999. Incidentally, Milton's musical upbringing was rooted in jazz and popular music, music which has pervaded even his more abstract works. In 'Lemon Tree' there is a line that goes 'I'm turning turning turning turning turning around' which I wanted to enact on stage but couldn't because of the mic lines. Also, I wish there had been a real lemon tree on stage.

All in all a decent time, even if my musical training, self-consciousness, (and lack of alcohol intake) prevent me from having a typical all-out karaoke experience. And I managed to put Milton and Madonna in the same blog! Photos of me doing 'Lemon Tree' will be up soon in an updated version of this very blog.

pondělí, října 02, 2006


Review of Česko Hledá Superstar, Semifinal rounds

Many apologies for not blogging regularly, or even blogging at all. The weight of creating music constantly becomes more burdensome, weight in terms of responsibility towards creating a piece that provides myself the satisfaction of creating something meaningful, and weight in terms of practical issues like timelines (that lovely word deadlines) and I figured since that was my main reason for being in this Fulbright residency, and not blogging, that I should be doing that. Currently working on a piece for 2 flutes to be performed in Venice by Francesca Cescon and her colleague in Venice to be premiered December 10. Yikes, deadlines!

But there is one addiction that I cannot resist, and that is to watch the latest installation of Česko Hledá Superstar (hereafter CHS), which is the Czech version of American Idol. I was a bit of an American Idol addict when it first came out, so it's no surprise for me to waste two hours of each week of my life in the name of "language acquisition skills" and "inter-cultural understanding." When I say version, I mean that the producers seemed to have actually bought a license from Fremantle Media, the company that produces and holds the rights various versions of the original
Pop Idol. As such, the logos, music, and other aspects of brand formatting eerily resemble all other instantiations of the Idol series. The Czech series is currently in the semifinal stage (link to videoclips here) and what follows is a short review which also serves as a comparison the more familiar (at least to me) American Idol known and loved by American audiences.

First note that CHS splits up the 10 guys and the 10 girls into two separate nights. Guys compete against guys, girls against girls. I found this surprising; I'm not sure what this says about gender relations in this country, or about gender preferences applied to pop and rock singers.

I haven't observed the more recent installations of American Idol, but the quality of the
singing of the Czech pop stars, at least at the semifinal level, I surmise holds up well with the American contestants. All chose American tunes (list for guys here, list for girls here), or at least English language tunes (... can someone with more pop music expertise help me out; I knew I should have taken some seminars in ethnomusicology at Berkeley to bolster my interest in pop music) except for David Spilka who sang 'S tebou' by Lucie. I will point out particular performances that stood out.

On the right is 19-year old Zbenek Drda, (don't ask why these photos look like mug shots) who squeaked out a rather timid version of "If tomorrow never comes," by Ronan Keating. The judges seem to intimate that he was nervous, but that he had potential to continue further in the next rounds. His voice was unsure at times, and some of his notes faded in and out, but he conveyed a soothing sensitivity of tone that leaves us wanting to hear more. In the case of some of the others, a choice of a famous song impeded our ability to judge the performance on its own terms. I felt that while Robert Daniel's rendition of Sinatra's 'My Way' and Roman Lasota's 'Heaven' (orig. Bryan Adams) held their own, but one couldn't avoid being bothered by Daniel's overtly open vowels or Lasota's lack of support, as compared to how Sinatra and Adams conveyed the originals, respectively. Nevertheless both displayed big fine voices. On the girls' side, the Barbara Opplová's 'Whiter Shade of Pale' certainly shaded in comparison with the others.

The role of the 'porotci' (jury) differs strikingly from our favorite Simon, Paula, and Randy of American Idol fame. Instead of flamboyance, the Czechs actually deliver quality judges who are less interested in soundbites and actually evaluate the performers and state their cases for evaluation at the end of each performance. No more of Simon's cutting "I'm bored" or Randy's oft-applied platitude "You really got it going man!" The three Czech judges carry credentials. Ilona Csáková was former member of the famous Czech pop band 'Laura and Her Tigers', Ondřej Hejma worked as an AP reporter, and Eduard Klezla (shown below) is a professor at the Jaroslav Jezek Conseravatory here in Prague! A Professor on Idol! Elitist elements in pop culture, woohoo!
The comments, as compared to S, P, and R over in America, actually comment on specifics of intonation, tone, and presentation.

One of their comments heard with the greatest frequency was that a candidate's song would be 'docela slušně' which translates roughly as 'not bad'. It seemed as every finish to each song was folllowed by Ondřej's 'docela slušně' followed by a good comment, and then a slightly critical comment. There were no direct attacks on any particular performance, and most comments were at least slightly nuanced. Many time the judges wanted to see 'what else' the kids were capable of... some of them looked forward to hearing a Czech song (if they sang an English song), some of them desired a song in a different style, if they felt that the chosen song was not 'their type.' The judges did not critique the kids as strong as Simon Paula and Randy, and there was no sense of the jury harping on the fact that the competition 'is getting tougher and tougher' as Simon would often times do in the American version. Likewise, you didn't see any of the kids snapping back at the Czech jury, perhaps because in a public setting the youth here are more respectful of elderly expertise, or perhaps because this jury actually does demonstrate some expertise.

So we all wait in anticipation of the first cut, whereby two guys and two girls will unfortunately be voted off the show.

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