Tuesday, December 03, 2013

You Need a Building Permit for that Tent

Things we used to do without a second thought while running a concert or a festival event are now subject to inexplicable amounts of red tape and compliance costs. Along with the now obligatory food handling certificates, bar licences, OneMusic licence and public liability insurance; we now find (after 39 years of doing the same thing) we need a building permit to erect and use our marquee. What follows is an open letter from Camp Mother as he set about the endeavour.

Seán Manning
December 2013

It was a surprise to discover that we needed a permit from the Council to put up a tent. Admittedly, it is a big tent. We were hiring it, as usual, for an annual music festival, as we had been doing for decades, and were going, as usual, to get it erected by the hire company at the Scout camp near the city for an event over New Year. On my first visit to the Council, on 28 November, I discovered that the regulations had not changed, they just had not been enforced in previous years. That was about to change.

A very helpful chap confirmed the need for a permit and gave me a neat package of forms to fill in, telling me I would need a fire siren and exit signs and emergency procedures. He also said that with an expected 20 working day turnover, I was out of luck if I wanted it before Christmas, and the Council were closed then until 6 January. I must have looked a bit odd at that point so he suggested that I fill in the form anyway and talk to C, a senior person who would help with any difficulties. I decided to talk to C before I left the building, so I asked the helpful receptionist and was invited to take a seat while C ‘came down’. I thought the fact that he lived upstairs was good. C was indeed helpful, telling me to get the application lodged and it would be alright. Someone would come and inspect the site beforehand. The forms, I discovered, were designed for builders, with lots of check - lists about compliance codes that made little sense to an amateur wanting to put up a tent. Nevertheless, I filled in what I could and returned to the Council office.

On the second visit I found that I had filled the form incorrectly – I was the ‘agent’, not the ‘owner’ – and had to come up with a figure for the value of the building work. I kept thinking, ‘It’s a tent, I don’t know what it’s worth,  we are hiring it’. The helpful chap suggested the cost of the hire would do, and also said I needed plans of the site. The site is enormous – 35 hectares – so we decided that a view downloaded from Google Maps might serve. I also needed to show the location of toilets,  permanent and temporary,  and indicate whether they were wheelchair accessible, and show where the nearest boundary was. I thought of going out to the Scout camp with a very long tape measure struggling through the bush to find the nearest fence, but I was calmed by the suggestion that I just hazard a guess. Off I went again.

On the map I found on the internet, I drew the tent as a tiny square in the middle of a small paddock in the middle of 35 hectares of bush. I used a Google calculator to estimate that the nearest fence was two hundred meters away. Back to the Council,  feeling pretty good, with form, map and EFT-­-POS card in hand. It was Friday at 2.30. I had an appointment with the dental hygienist at 3.00. I thought half an hour should do it.

The pleasant receptionist instructed me to sit on the bench – a couple of single-­- bed sized black vinyl covered surfaces. Maybe people needed to lie down sometimes, I thought. There were people in business-­-like conversations at all the desks. I sat down beside another chap who was waiting. ‘Musical chairs’, he said. I asked what he meant. He asked if I had one of these– indicating a yellow sheet he was holding. I said no, and he said then I had to go to that desk first, get my yellow slip, then queue for this desk (the one he was waiting for),then queue for the cashier. ‘Musical chairs’, he said again. He was very calm, and obviously had been here before, and I felt thankful that I had sat beside someone who knew what was what. The purpose of the vinyl beds was becoming clear. After waiting 15 minutes for the first desk, realising a lot more than half an hour would be needed,  I left, intending to return later.

After the dental hygienist had cleaned me up,  I returned to the Council for the fourth time, with a renewed sense of purpose. The first desk was free. I sat down and a very helpful lady went through my form and my map. She said it was good, but I needed two copies. Possibly noting a look on my face, she offered to make another copy. It was only ten pages. Then I learned that we would need a site inspection after the tent was erected, the exit signs and fire alarm installed. When I said we were putting the tent up during a holiday (I don’t know why it is strange to put up a tent in the holidays, but in this world, it is) there was a consultation with colleagues and I was informed that the inspection would go ahead but it would cost extra. I also learned that there would be a permit, another certificate when the site was inspected, and a third ‘Compliance Certificate’ when it was dismantled.

I got my yellow slip and the next desk was by that time free too, which I thought were good signs – I was reading signs by this time – and this was so that the application could be lodged. First inspection, then lodgement, two tasks, two people, two desks. This lady, just as pleasant and helpful as everyone else, calculated that the cost would $425. No, wait a minute,$435 – an extra $10 for the photocopying at a dollar a sheet. I thought, the library next door charges 20 cents, but I didn’t say that. I though it would not be useful. My EFT-­-POS card at the ready, I was directed to the cashier – ‘Just pop over there and say who you are and they will give you a receipt and then you can go.’ Three tasks, three people, three desks – inspection, lodgement, payment. Musical chairs -­- I was getting the hang of it. As it turned out, I knew the cashier and it was nice to be recognised and see a familiar face.

Actually, everyone I met at the Council was friendly, helpful and encouraging. I don’t have a bad word for any of them. The thing is, I agree with exit signs, fire alarms, all that. These things are useful, they really do make everything safer and sometimes save lives. I have no problem obeying a few simple rules. All I needed was information about what to do. The permit, however, does nothing to improve safety. By the time I left the Council office that Friday, I had spoken to 6 different people over four visits, and spent several hours getting information, filling in forms and waiting. None of this improved anyone’s safety. As to the cost, of course, the time and energy of all those genuinely helpful people costs money. I won’t carp about the copying or the extra for the inspection because it is a holiday. I don’t know why these regulations are now being so enthusiastically enforced – there has been a change in attitude. Maybe Christchurch has something to do with it. We live in an age of increasing regulation, and maybe that is a good thing, but really, 6 people, four visits, four hundred dollars, for what? Give me a list of things to do, by all means come and see that I have done them, but the permit, the certificates, the forms, none of that adds to anybody’s well being.

Having learned a lot I emerged from the building that Friday afternoon to find I had a $40 parking ticket. At that point it seemed the most natural thing in the world. As did another form – for public use of a building -­- which arrived by email the following Monday with a polite note saying I should have been asked to fill it in when I was there. I filled it in and sent it off, noting that it added no further information to what had already been supplied. I don’t yet know how much the site visit will cost.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Now is the Time for All Good Folk...

On the eve of the inevitable passing the GCSB and TIC Amendment bills, it's worth remembering, in the protest sense, we've been here before. We are poised to enter a new era of McCarthyism where investigative journalism is declared by our own defence force to be subversive activity, where to highlight lies that may be told to us by our government and its agencies is classed as "hostile" threats requiring "counteraction". It is only a matter of time before protest singers and songwriters will fall under the gaze, or worse, of the authorities. From Wikipedia:
On August 18, 1955, Pete Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Alone among the many witnesses after the 1950 conviction and imprisonment of the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress, Seeger refused to plead the Fifth Amendment (which asserted that his testimony might be self incriminating) and instead (as the Hollywood Ten had done) refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights: "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this." Seeger's refusal to testify led to a March 26, 1957, indictment for contempt of Congress; for some years, he had to keep the federal government apprised of where he was going any time he left the Southern District of New York. He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of Congress in March 1961, and sentenced to 10 years in jail (to be served simultaneously), but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction.
What he is talking about; associations, beliefs, votes and other private affairs, is what we are now calling "metadata".

Just as for Pete Seeger, a certain amount of bravery and sacrifice may yet be required to stem the tide. Let's be absolutely clear, this legislation is depriving us of certain freedoms we have hitherto enjoyed (supposedly) and infringes upon our human rights. Although Labour leader David Shearer has stated that a Labour government would undertake "a thorough review of the spying agency", he somewhat misses the point. Repeal the bill should be his bottom line. That he won't commit to this suggests there is something more at stake. What are we afraid of? It's time to put the taiaha in the sand as we did with our nuclear-free stance during a more gutsy political era. There's no celebration in being nuclear-free wimps.

I've always found songs like We Shall Overcome a little trite but I'm realising now that that's because they were songs out of place. I imagine to be singing the slow anthem en masse in the middle of the American Civil Rights movement would a powerful thing indeed. A simple message, simply stated. It's worthwhile remembering this as we pen our responses to becoming corporate America's puppet yet again. And put your protest songs in the Creative Commons. Copyleft. Then stand up and sing out. Because a hard rain's gonna fall.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

I Had to Leave a Little Girl in Kingston Town

Lord Invader
An occasional epistle from singer/songwriter, Phil Corfield.

This was the first line in a song, to capture me. Who was the little girl and why was she being left in Kingston Town? I felt sad. I couldn't work it out. The voice that sang these words was so beautiful. Was the girl his little girl, or was she someone he was looking after? Where was Kingston? I hadn't heard of such a place and I hadn't heard anybody who sounded like the man in this song. Harry Belafonte, 'The King Of Calypso', was born in 1927 in Harlem, New York. His mother was of Jamaican descent and his father came from Martinique, another island in the Caribbean. Between 1932 and 1940 the boy lived with his grandmother in Jamaica. In 1957 RCA Victor released Harry's album 'Calypso'. That was the year I first heard 'Jamaica Farewell'. I was six and I heard it on the radio.

'Calypso' was the first album in America to sell a million copies in a year and the first million seller in England. Calypso music developed in Trinidad in the 17th. century, combining African rhythms brought to the island by slaves and probably French medieval rhythms and harmonies. The slaves, separated from their families and banned from speaking to one another, used Calypso songs to communicate with one another and mock their slave-masters. Calypso has a long history as protest music and also speaks of sex scandals, gossip, local news, bravado and was used to insult other practitioners of Calypso music. Rap and Hip Hop, which came about 350 years later, cover the same ground. 

However the music on Belafonte's album 'Calypso' is not Calypso, it's Jamaican 'Mento'. Calypso was popular in America from about 1912, way before Mento. 'The Andrews Sisters' had a hit with the Calypso song 'Rum and Coca Cola' in 1944. This song was stolen from a Trinidadian calling himself Lord Invader (Rupert Grant) . Lord Invader brought a legal case in New York in an attempt to reclaim his song. He didn't get his copyright back but after seven years he received compensation. When Harry's first album was released the album was promoted as Calypso because Calypso was already commercially popular and therefore easier to sell. Mento is a style of Jamaican folk music typically played with acoustic guitar, hand drums, banjo and rhumba box ( you can sit on this box and play it with your hands to produce bass). The music was brought to Jamaica by African slaves and was influenced by the European songs slaves were required to play to their masters on European instruments. Usually written in a humorous style, the music often commented on poverty, poor housing and sex. Mento influenced Ska and Reggae. The Jamaican musician Lee Scratch Perry's 1976 Dub album 'Super Ape' includes pure Mento influences

Back in 1957 in Narrabeen (Sydney), my family was visiting a friends place. She lived in a house made of concrete. The rooms had thick, blue painted walls, unadorned, cave-like and in the day full of sunlight. The balcony overlooking Narrabeen Lagoon was also solid concrete. On a warm summers night looking over the water listening to 'Jamaica Farewell', Narrabeen became Jamaica.
Phil Corfield.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Of Cassettes and Kludges.

A couple of years ago a friend brought to me some much loved cassette tapes of original songs that her husband had recorded in the 80's.  She asked if I could transfer them to CD; she would make a cover and present the "album" to him for his birthday. Easy. I would knock it out that afternoon.

I do stuff like this quite often and have retained a Yamaha cassette tape deck as part of my rig for just such jobs. Actually, it's a dual transport tape-to-tape recorder which is significant, as we will see.

I set up a project folder on my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation - a fancy name for an ordinary desktop computer that's set up for recording) and using an old version of Steinberg Wavelab, started to record the analogue tracks. Side one, first tape. Sounds very odd in the monitors. A low frequency, grinding rhythm track. Aha, I thought, turned the tape over and had my suspicions confirmed: a deep, bassy set of backward vocals. Literally backwards. Like a song being unsung.

I realised that these tapes were the multi-track originals from a four-track recording device popularised by the likes of Teac and Fostex in the 80's - before digital recording was an affordable proposition for us mere mortals. Although they used a standard cassette tape, their format was (usually) to run the tape at twice the normal speed for better fidelity and use both stereo tracks in the same direction, giving four individual tracks. This enabled the layered recording of 4 individual instruments or vocals. With judicious planning, you could even record 3 tracks and mix them down to the 4th track and record three more! It was a clever, if inelegant use of a less-than-ideal medium and offered the creative musician the ability to explore arrangements and make demo tapes, albeit a low-fi and often frustrating affair.

I quickly ascertained that the source machine had long since been put out of its misery, rendering these tapes rather useless. Unless...

I mentioned that my cassette deck was a tape-to-tape machine. It offered something called "high speed dubbing" - essentially recording one tape to another at twice the speed, to halve the time it took. Although I hadn't used this facility in several decades, I remembered that you could monitor the Chipmunk-sounding audio as it dubbed. I hatched a plan.

I dug out a surplus C90 cassette as a dummy to record to: not to use, just to allow the high-speed dubbing feature to work. Sure enough, the A-side audio now sounded "normal". I recorded this stereo (or more correctly, 2 track) output to Wavelab on my computer. When this was done, I turned the tape over and recorded tracks 3 and 4 - which, of course, were backwards.

One of the hitherto fairly useless tools in Wavelab is the ability to reverse audio. This I did to tracks 3 and 4 and, voila! I now had four tracks of audio, prettymuch as they would've sounded on the original machine. (In fact it wasn't quite that simple; they sounded all compressed and "woozy", then I remembered these machines often used a filtering process known as Dolby C to help with tape noise and deteriorating trebles. Fortunately my deck has Dolby C. I switched it on and did it all again and the wooziness was fixed.)

I was amazed at how complex the original recording was: beds of percussion and synthesizer, guitars and vocals with cathedral-like reverbs. Remixing this was going to be rudimentary at best; instruments that were "bounced" to the same track could not be separated and aggressive effects could not be ameliorated. (Actually, there are tools that can do this sort of thing now, but it's way outside of my domain.) I chopped up the audio into separate songs and split the stereo pairs into individual tracks, normalised them (made them the same volume), added some equalisation and noise reduction (to reduce the inevitable tape hiss), repaired one or two glitches then saved all the files.

Next I pulled the files into my multitrack software (I use Reaper. You should too.) and aligned the four tracks with each other for each song. I spent the next few days mixing all the tracks down and while I was quite chuffed with the fact that I'd achieved a modest result with the help of a few unorthodox kludges, it was nothing compared to how stunned the recipient was when he heard his long-abandoned endeavours of 20 years before in full digital glory!

Dedicated to Andrew and Anna.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The New Old School

The folk club is losing its traditional domain. And by traditional I mean folk club, not music. "Folk" is the new hip word bandied about by pop singers and talent shows. Mostly it seems to mean a rock band with a banjo in it. It probably started with The Pogues and has arrived at Mumford and Sons - both excellent bands in their own eras (I discount the earlier folk-rock bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span because their repertoire was folk music but they were true rock bands). This is a bit of a Brit-centric view, I admit: American culture seems to have no need of a folk uber-category as blues, country, old-time, bluegrass and more have always transcended traditional boundaries and remained relevant and contemporary in the mainstream American musical culture (or so it seems to me from my antipodean armchair). I also suspect that the "folk club" is largely a British contrivance whereas the American genesis seemed to be the coffee house.

Most New Zealand folk clubs are not significantly different today from the club I joined over 30 years ago. Important aspects seem to be that local performers are enjoyed and respected and they provide a platform for visiting artists from time to time. With an ever-increasing cohort of touring artists on the road at any one time there's stiff competition for audiences and well run venues. It's not unusual for highly polished acts to be playing tiny venues to small audiences. This more intimate atmosphere is not without its charm - it's certainly better than playing an old style booze barn with nobody listening. Most folk clubs (with the notable exception of Devonport and its legendary Bunker) operate out of such a venue; a cafe or bar, or occasionally a community hall or sports club. Some run house concerts. But whatever the format, the club always consists of a willing bunch of volunteers who organise and facilitate these events.

Apart from the mainstream appropriation of "folk", the folk club is also losing its traditional domain insomuch as it is not the only game in town where acoustic music is concerned and, conversely, benefits from being part of the big loose network of small venues and acoustic artists throughout the country. Acts for whom once the very thought of performing at a folk club was anathema to them are now engaging comfortably with clubs that once might have thought the same of them too. And both are better for it in my view.

However, it remains to the folk club to uphold the tenets of music, tradition and community that keeps it a parish of appreciation and endeavour: to provide the opportunity and encouragement to beginning and aspiring players and singers. Only by cultivating the culture of folk music (whatever that is) do we ensure that there will be audiences worthy of the artists they bring, banjo or not.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Negative Feedback a Positive Thing

I've long been fascinated with the concept of negative feedback since my my technician training days. Wikipedia tells us:
"Negative feedback occurs when the result of a process influences the operation of the process itself in such a way as to reduce changes. Negative feedback tends to make a system self-regulating it can produce stability and reduce the effect of fluctuations."
 In short, by applying a percentage of the output of some system or process in a negative or subtractive way to the input, you get a smaller but more useful result. In electronics (bear with me) for example, it is possible to achieve amplification levels of many thousand times the input signal, but at a single, limited and unstable frequency, making it unsuitable for, say, audio. Take some of the output and apply it out-of-phase (cancelling out) to the input and you have a modest amplification level of say, ten times the input and a useful frequency range.

Negative feedback is used routinely in mechanical systems around your house: thermostats, ballcocks, daylight switches and more. It occurs everywhere in nature too. Diabetes, for example, is the failure of the body's negative feedback loop to control glucose levels.

Another Whare Flat Folk Festival is behind us and by many measures, a most successful one. Weather near perfect, good turnout and above all, great artists and music. If we think of the people coming in to the festival as the system input and the smooth, satisfactory consumption of music and dance as the output, one area in which we have developed a massive, potentially unstable peak is in teenage attendance which this year was the largest ever, close to that of all other ages combined. The vast majority of these teens are delightful contributors to the life of the event but, of course, there are always one or two spoilers that have a disproportional effect on the output, especially from the point-of-view of the organisers. So, what of the output can be looped back into the input to good effect?

The burgeoning teen attendance is largely due to the positive feedback elements of word-of-mouth and social networking. It has been through monitoring social networking that we have learned of security loopholes that some have been taking advantage of. Negative feedback applied. Various vagaries in our our publicity material has lead to creative interpretations of the rules for attendance. Review and clarify. Negative feedback applied. The trick is to suppress the peaks that cause instability while reinforcing the mainstream flow. In an ideal system the fluctuations in the input are regulated in real time by the application of the feedback elements - a bit tricky in a three day festival event without disruption to all involved.

Filtering at the input (say, rejecting teens with alcohol) is one way of suppressing an undesirable element but it needs to be acknowledged that while the output elements of audience satisfaction and operational smoothness are improved, it is at the expense of festival profit.

Like any system or process, elements constantly need fine tuning for smooth running. This is why the best organisations have robust complaints procedures. Complaint resolution is not just for the satisfaction of the complainant, if used correctly it is the negative feedback loop that suppresses further complaints and enhances the organisation's effectiveness. The corollary to this is the Roadrunner/Wyle E Coyote approach where each failed attempt at snaring the bird is abandoned in favour of the next fraught methodology. I've seen a lot of well-meaning organisations abandon perfectly good initiatives instead of adjusting the process for a more refined result. Negative feedback is a truly positive thing.