Sally Tomato’s Pidgin

Severe Recordings

It seems like every century some composer decides he wants to take a crack at the solar system as artistic inspiration. Over the years this has gotten successively more difficult to create. In 1916 when Gustav Holst completed his orchestral suite, The Planets, Pluto hadn’t even been discovered yet. So his view of our little corner of the universe was decidedly incomplete and a tad bit smaller than our more enlightened satellitelian digital vantage point of today. In the past 90 years or so, Pluto has undergone the indignation of being batted about like a cosmic badminton birdie. Today it’s a planet, tomorrow maybe not. Actually, today it’s not a planet (I don’t think). However that is the topic of another story.

Holst crafted his planetary vision from an astrological standpoint, most likely owing to the fact that astronomy hadn’t really changed a whole lot in the preceding three hundred years since Galileo. Certainly William Hershel (a composer himself whose interest in mathematics actually led him to astronomy from music) livened things up at the beginning of the 19th century spotting Uranus and its two largest moons, Titania and Oberon—he had a thing for Shakespeare. But that was about it until 1930 when the new generation of telescopes allowed young Clyde Tombaugh to confirm “Planet X” at the Lowell Observatory in Kansas.


After a big contest it was decided that Pluto was its name-o. Now, after like twenty-five years spent searching for the damn thing throughout the early 1900’s, the International Astronomy Union has determined that Pluto should be demoted to the status of “dwarf-planet,” as if it were some asteroid like Ceres or Eris (granted, Eris is slightly larger than Pluto and even farther out there—but hey—maybe Eris should be a planet too! No, no, no. The IAU has its rules, even though they shift polarity every so often). There may be extreme pressure from the astrology lobby. Who can say?

So it’s hard to guess if Holst would have made a run at today’s solar system. Hell, at first he didn’t even name The Planets, The Planets. That didn’t come until late in the game. At first the suite was called Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra and referred not at all to the planets in play but only to their astrological presentations. Strange how these things evolve.

Carlos Severe Marcelin

That brings us to Carlos Severe Marcelin. Carlos has been playing around our happy little mizzle-stop for the better part of twenty years. In the ‘90s he was lead guitarist for intellirockers, Silkenseed. Then, in the early Oughts he married fortunes with Sally Tomato, whose eponymously named band has been the source for a lot of strangely inimitable artiness over the years—Carlos responsible for a great deal of it. As a guitarist especially, but also as a controller of keyboards, Carlos has consolidated his considerable talents for the formidable task at hand.


Carlos wrote “Earth” about ten years ago, as a stand-alone piece. It’s pretty obvious that most of us don’t think of Earth as a planet necessarily. It’s simply the only place we know. It’s just here. Planets are out there, out yonder. Look, there’s Venus in transit across the sun! Carlos had always admired Holst’s attempt at the subject. About three years ago, he started to launch various pieces into orbit. And from there things seemed to slowly fall in line. Voila. A concept album was born.

Eric Flint and Carlos Severe Marcelin

Thus Carlos created the planets and the firmament. But he didn’t do it completely alone (although he probably could have). He is joined in places by Ms. Tomato herself (as well as by a few other special guests). And longtime Sally Tomato drummer Eric Flint dispenses his usual spot-on sonic rocketry. But even by Tomato standards, this project is pretty impressive. In this configuration they call themselves Sally Tomato’s Pidgin. I don’t know why.

Andrew Latimer of Camel

Though he professes not much familiarity with the genre (and at age forty he is too young to have been around for the original manifestations) of prog, Marcelin’s work has much in common with the artistic leaning of many well-known prog guitarists—including, especially, Andrew Latimer of Camel.

Robert Fripp

But one can hear stylistic similarities to the work of Robert Fripp (King Crimson), Martin Barre (Jethro Tull), David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Robin Trower (Procol Harum and solo), John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra), Steve Hackett (Genesis) and the two guys from Wishbone Ash (Andy Powell and Ted Turner).

Steve Morse

Subsequent guitar heroes, such as Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple), Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Yngwie (of course) are also represented, it would seem, in one way or another. Carlos touches all the bases without being in the least bit imitative. He’s his own player.

Sun with Venus in Transit

In a display of acute astronomical awareness Carlos elects to begin our journey with the sun—old “Sol.” He could have, of course, followed Holst’s lead, which was astrologically Copernican in construct. But Carlos chose the more accepted course, unless you are among those yayhoos who believe that the earth is the center of the universe, and only six thousand years old, and man walked with the dinosaurs etc. If that is the case, you probably aren’t reading this masterpiece in the first place.

As might be expected, Sol is a rather bright and majestic object of real gravity in the musical construct. After a brief spoken prologue, intoned by Ms. Tomato, Carlos launches a fiery flare on guitar, evoking the prog-ish nature of Hot Rats era Zappa. Zappa would seem on the surface to be a touchstone influence—but that is hard to fully ascertain. I know for a fact that Carlos has never heard of Camel or Andrew Latimer. So there you go. In this context the theme is a soulful one delivered with great élan.


The next stop on our trek would be “Mercury.” Over Flint’s merciless polyrhythms, Carlos wields the sound of twin guitars (cue the Wishbone Ash reference), which soar in close precision. “Venus” is given a more exotic treatment—squishy guitar-synth driving the piece­—possibly elementally derived from somewhere around Discipline era King Crimson. The brief “Luna” could easily have been composed from random frequencies generated by the cold, cold orb. Talk about trickle down!

Terra Firma

A compendium of detritus is carefully inventoried (“Lepers, cartoons, and spiders. Men and women in intimate positions”) on “Earth.” Reverend Tony Hughes (Jesus Presley) delivers the benediction, sounding not unlike Fee Waybill of the Tubes: “Welcome to our not so humble abode in the cosmos—a flying chunk of dirt called Earth.” His observations are alternately punctuated by a chorus singing “We have it all” like an ad for an all-night convenience store. Reverend Hughes further elaborates. “It’s the human condition. Life after death: the ultimate mission. Black velvet paintings. Corn dogs and cotton candy. Mysterious scenes, novels, theater and TV in 3-D!”

The Reverend later returns, reporting “World of Now, twenty-four, three sixty-five. We all come back for a sigh or a laugh or something we lack. It’s the missing link. It’s hard core funky. Come on down and see the singular monkey.” From there the bugs come out and tell a tiny story of their own, while a disinterested voice injects, “Infinity is not a destination, it’s a state of mind.” Au revoir.


Concluding our tour of the four “inner planets” Marcelin’s portrayal of Mars as less martial in intensity and more reflective of rivers of red dust and perhaps a civilization long ago gone by. Dense keyboard pads and Flint’s precisely complex drumming underscore Carlos’ ornate pointillistic riffs and staccato lead figures. For some reason the Denny Dias/Jeff “Skunk Baxter twin-guitar solo intro of Steely Dan’s “Bodhisattva” comes to mind. You be the judge.

Asteroid Belt

Next up: the asteroid belt. Honestly, I would have plotted the asteroid belt out farther, out around Neptune. But then, I have always thought Michigan lay east of Wisconsin and that Indiana and Iowa abutted, so what the hell do I know about geography, earthly or terrestrial? Anyway, the asteroid belt officially circuits between Mars and Jupiter. Deal with it.

As asteroids go, most of them are pretty damn flimsy and only of interest if we need to get one out of our way, or if there is some mineral or ice deposit worth going after. Profit motive, etc. But there are some (four) larger asteroids out there. They’re not that big—the largest being about a quarter the size of the moon (or of Pluto, for that matter). But Ceres and Pallas are two that often draw the most attention.


Ceres, the largest chunk in the asteroid belt—at six hundred miles across (Earth is about 8,000 miles in diameter)—was discovered in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazza and became designated as a planet not long after that. Assigning planet status was pretty much the only alternative to calling these bright objects in the sky comets or stars, until William Herschel coined the term (and concept) “asteroid.” And voila! Pallas was spotted in 1802 and was also given the planetary nod until the mid 1800s when astronomers cleared the deck—setting ground rules for planethood and the like. Always so formal, those sky guys.

All three brief “roid” sections interlock among the debris. Carlos introduces us first to “Pallas,” which can be found sort of in the middle of that spatial spread. The rest of the belt follows, en masse. Then “Ceres” concludes the excursion. All three pieces are quite regal and chipper in their own right, showcasing in spots Carlos’ more metalic persuasions.


As we journey on toward Jupiter, we stop off at Io, the largest of the “Gallilean moons” and nearest to the giant gasbag; the fourth largest moon in our solar system (vying with our very own moon). The volcanic nature of that orb is given ethereal treatment: a ghostly instrument—e-bow? sax? synth? all three? interprets the subtle colors of the clouds of dust and ash.


The scope of “Jupiter” befits the massive planet known since antiquity. A giant red spot of distorted guitar rumble lumbers across the sparse atmosphere of helium and hydrogen. It’s a big body with no density. Ephemeral. Somewhere past mid-point a whizzy fizzy synth comes in to effervesce the scene, before resolving into a pensive mist, which recalls Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony No. 41.

Onward we fly toward “Titan,” the largest of Saturn’s fifty-three known moons. It’s thought that life could possibly exist on Titan, speculation underscored by the stately dignity of Ray Woods’ keys on the short piece. Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s take on “Picture’s at an Exhibition” is reflected here.


Soaring intervals bound across “Saturn.” Endless guitar sustain (Ebow?) swirls and slides like a siren call, glissading from one note into the next. A second section chords its way through a little Pete Townshendish (circa Tommy) sort of endeavor.

Dione and Saturn

Leaving Saturn we pass by another of his many moons, “Dione.” As a compositon, the short piece is rooted in a sound-collage derived from signals sent back by the Cassini spacecraft in 2007. Again Ray Woods adds subtle keyboard support.

Slowly approaching the blue ice giant “Neptune,” we note in awe its windy surface. Carlos offers a pastoral depiction— indistinct as hydrogen and helium, sketching parameters upon a lighter than air acoustic guitar—evolving into a more orchestral pastiche augmented by synth strings.


Now, I know what you’re asking right about now. Why is Neptune portrayed here in planetary order before Uranus, when in actuality it lies beyond? I asked Carlos Marcelin this very question.

Some people think they switched about a billion years after the formation of our solar system. We have them in this primordial order on the album for thematic purposes—it was more fluid to have Neptune follow Jupiter before moving into the chaos and weirdness that is Uranus and Pluto.

In (what many will recognize as) a tremendous show of restraint, I will forgo my usual litany of Uranus jokes and just move along. Nothing to see here. Except Uranus.


With a short statement from our sponsors we fly swiftly by big, old, hard and chilly Oberon, the Uranian moon mentioned earlier, discovered by composer William Herschel. Uranus is atypical in that its axis is tilted sideways in relation to the sun. So its poles are where our equators are, and vice versa. Trying to work that out in your head will freeze it up pretty good.

Flint’s crazy, Phil Selway-influenced, cross-time drumming neatly sums up the arcane perturbations that comprise the planetry components of the coldest spot in all the solar system: Uranus. Carlos steers us with a strange, perky permutating theme. Overblown guitar skips merrily at times in the planet’s rarified atmosphere, before going all magisterial in the alternating passages. A schizophrenic piece, to be sure.

Approaching the outer reaches of our little corner of the galaxy, here comes poor, much-maligned Pluto. Pluto is a planet, a dwarf-planet, a plutoid, a plutino—or just a big ball of rock spinning around, way the hell out there, pick yer poison. Pluto’s orbit is so eccentric that sometimes it slides inside that of Neptune. I’m telling you: it’s a wacky galaxy. To capture Pluto’s mood (low self-esteem?) Carlos employs a music box scenario to back the other-worldly voice (text borrowed from the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet) that delineates the belief structure surrounding what used to be the ninth planet.  It’s very confusing out there.

Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud

Pluto spins around in the Kuiper belt. The Kuiper belt is similar in construct to the asteroid belt, but it’s quite a bit more massive. And it’s located three times the distance from Earth as Pluto! Way the hell out there. The belt is about as far from the sun as it gets in our neighborhood. Most of the stuff floating around out there is either ice balls, or chunks of planet-like items that got smashed up once upon a time, long ago. There are a few more “dwarf planets” drifting around out there too.

Haumea and moons

One of those dwarves is called Haumea, a potato-shaped object with two irregular moons. Carlos gives “Haumea” an exotic voice—mystical. Yoko Ono-esque. Another of the dwarves is Eris, the final stop on our trip. Eris is bigger than Pluto, so for a long time there were astronomers who wanted to bring Eris into planethood. But that opened up the can of worms that eventually got Pluto kicked out of the club, so there you go.

Eris and moon Dysnomia

Anyway, Eris (formerly known as Xena) is possibly involved in the upcoming Nibiru cataclysm, accepted as gospel by Doomsday fans everywhere, and occasionally linked to the whole Mayan calendar deal on December 21st of this year. So Eris has been presumed to be lurking out there, just waiting for the big day so it can come on in and pop earth a good shot. At least that explanation would account for why the Mayans decided to cut things off at that date. “Oh yeah, that mystery planet’s going to smash into earth on that day, so why bother?”

But back in 2003, just when the typical American sense of mindless, groundless fear generated by some unfounded rumor was about to ramp up, grumpy Mister E.C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, stepped in to quell the hysteria.

In particular, several threads of irrational thought have created an internet phantom, the secret planet Nibiru. It’s the bowling ball, and Earth is the pin. There is no such planet, though it is often equated with Eris, a plutoid orbiting safely and permanently beyond Pluto. Some insist, however, that a NASA conspiracy is in play and that Nibiru, looming in on the approach, can already be seen in broad daylight from the Southern Hemisphere. It was supposed to become visible from the Northern Hemisphere, too, by last May, but like a fickle blind date, it stood up those awaiting it.

Class M-3 B9 Robot and Will Robinson

Damn fickle planets of Doom. If you can’t count on them, who can you count on? For Carlos’ part, he decided to go Lost in Space with “Eris,” lots of actual loops of the original Class M-3 Model B9 exclaiming. “Danger, danger, Will Robinson. Warning, warning.” Idiosyncratic guitar stylings, reminiscent of Adrian Belew, color the piece.

As ambitious as this project is, Carlos Severe Marcelin can only go outward if he wishes to continue along these thematic lines. The Milky Way.  Norma and Outer Arm. Perseus and Cygna. Although, one would suppose, he could go inward and explore theoretical physics or cells, molecules and atoms and all the sub-atomic particles. Quarks and Bosons and Hadrons. Oh my!

Mention must be made of engineer Diamond Dave Friedlander’s contribution to the sonic grandeur here. Clean and pristine, his mix is as uncluttered as space itself. The perfect complement—truly spatially open and expansive.

Carlos Severe Marcelin

Planets is certainly grand in scope. Big. Real big! Carlos combines the familiar with the futuristic in uncommon ways, approaching this mission with musical exuberance and lucidity, sounding as the culmination of forty years of progressive rock guitar exposition. He isn’t showy. But he is consistently diverse and ineluctably imaginative in embroidering each of the twenty tracks with a distinctive design, while maintaining a cohesive conceptual aggregate. Not easily done.

But he does it almost effortlessly. The fluid sureness of his execution, supplemented by Eric Flint’s always compelling drum accompaniment, makes for a robustly stellar experience—difficult to compare in a rock context. Far more comprehensive than Gustav Holst’s treatment of the subject, Carlos Marcelin finds the music in the spheres that astronomer/composers such as Herschel always sought. This is a worthy effort toward that aim.

Live Review: WaveSauce at BYTE ME 2012

A theremin

If you’re like me, you’ve probably been asking yourself “Why don’t more surf bands use a theremin in their act?” You also may be asking yourself, “What in God’s name is a theremin?” And for that you are to be forgiven. It’s not a common instrument in rock and roll. It’s not a common instrument in much of anything, but it seems to me like country music could possibly be a logical vehicle for such an apparatus. More on that later.

Oh, you know the drill. You’ve actually heard a theremin before, you just don’t know it. In essence, a theremin is a very, very primitive synthesizer. It generates that eerie siren-call you hear in old movies such as The Day The Earth Stood Still, Spellbound, and more recently in Ed Wood. The Beach Boys created a theremin sound for “Good Vibrations,” but that wasn’t actually a theremin they used. Some guy played a musical saw on a couple Neutral Milk Hotel songs. A musical saw sounds like a theremin, with similar creepy portamento and glissando. But a musical saw and a theremin have about as much in common as a hammer and a radio.

Leon Theremin invented the theremin in 1920 as part of a Russian government program researching proximity sensors. Soon thereafter, Theremin left Russia, touring Europe and the US, demonstrating to captivated crowds his new instrument. He received a US patent for his unusual creation in 1928. Remaining in the United States, he was apparently spirited away by the KGB in 1938 and taken back to Russia. There, he was obliged to work in a laboratory at a prison camp in Siberia for thirty years. He did not return to the US until 1991, two years before his death.

The best-known “thereminist” in the world is the late Clara Rockmore, who was originally a classically trained violinist, before physical problems forced her to abandon the instrument. She learned of the theremin and soon began working with the inventor to improve the sound and response of his device. She also developed the very subtle ballet-like technique of the hands and fingers required to actually play the instrument. You can check out a video of Clara Rockmore rockin’ the theremin here.

Michele “Cookie” Heile, a longtime percussionist and vocalist with Jesus Presley, first became interested in the theremin in 2005 after seeing the Leon Theremin documentary An Electronic Odyssey. She says she “became obsessed with the mystery, history, and beauty of the instrument.” She acquired one and slowly taught herself how to play.

In 2007, Cookie met Cleveland-transplant Pete Vercellotti, a musician since age thirteen and an avid collector of all things vintage Rock. Cookie and Pete hit it off instantly, personally and professionally. They formed the instrumental band WaveSauce not long after meeting—initially as just a duo. Pete already had in place the foundation of another band called Pale Blue Sky. Still in operation, Pale Blue Sky is a tough, eclectic quartet that plays a gritty combination of original songs and cover songs culled from Pete’s extensive LP collection.

Wave Sauce

Not long after WaveSauce formed, Pete and Cookie began to work with drummers and bassists. They eventually bonded with drummer Doug Powers. And about two years ago, longtime Pale Blue Sky bassist Joel Boutwell came on board and the quartet was set. They say they’ve “been influenced by ‘60s garage, pulp music, and B-rated horror, spy biker and hotrod films (which they refer to as spyfi-pulp). And surf.”

That sounds reasonable. When you hear them, the instrumental turf they tread is pretty obvious. Other citations, such as Dick Dale, The Ventures, Devo, Clara Rockmore and Leon Theremin, are totally appropriate in an attempt to capture a description of the nuances of their sound. I guarantee you will never again see those five names linked in a single sentence. It really is a weird musical world in which we dwell. And this is how weird I am, I can actually understand the relationships of those references and I think they define the parameters of this band quite precisely. In other words: Wow!

WaveSauce play a lot of originals. But there is a distinct advantage in playing obscure material that lies genetically embedded in the recesses of all human brains. If you play original stuff that sounds very familiar, it is easy to convince the casual listener (in this instance: me) that it’s all cover songs. Mais au contraire.

The addition of theremin to Surf songs is not as unsettling as you might think (but it sure as hell would be for Clara Rockmore, you can bet on that). For some reason it seems to lend itself to the wavy motion of the typical surf tune. It’s too bad more (any) B-movies didn’t utilize the theremin in their surf-themed flicks or spy (a wailing woman sound) or biker flicks (police siren allusion). It could have worked. It does work. Does anybody still make cheesy biker B-movies like Glory Stompers, Wild Angels, Devil’s Angels, or Hell’s Angels on Wheels? Maybe Robert Rodriguez?

WaveSauce maneuver through several classics (known and unknown)—such as with Pete’s nifty guitar on the thick, chord-heavy “Deep Surf” by Jerry Cole and the Spacemen (of which Leon Russell was a member) from 1964, and Cookie’s swirly-whirly take on the Chantays’ “Pipeline.” They carry off the persistent cheerleading clap and windblown momentum of the Routers’ “Let’s Go” with spunky aplomb: Boutwell balancing the arrangement on solid fulcrum low-end.

Among their originals, “Phantom Strut” and “Sonic Who,” stand out. The cool “Black Cat Strut” is punctuated by Pete’s cat-in-heat moan, while his crazy cackle gives “Die Laughing” a certain “Wipe Out” maniacal sensibility. With Powers muscling through the turns and driving the main theme, WaveSauce’s rendition of the Reekers’ ‘60s nugget “Don’t Call Me Flyface” is actually more appealing than the original. Cookie zooms through the expositional sections like a crazed zephyr—assuming zephyrs can become crazed.

WaveSauce’s version of Hank Mancini’s “Peter Gunn Theme” is very innovative. Cookie leads the band through the familiar curves with a slippery solo, while Pete vamps out punchy chords behind her. Nice. And their take on the endless sunset of Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” is especially interesting. Those familiar with the song are doubtless keenly aware of the exacting steel guitar precision of the melody line. The theremin does not allow for Cookie to articulate the nuances, but she hits the high spots. When the day comes that she finally masters this piece, she can consider herself a true theremin master.

They also do a pretty sharp version of Stan Jones’ “Ghostriders in the Sky,” a piece possibly harvested from another of their acts: Panhandle Pete and Cookie. In describing that duo Cookie says “Imagine a long dark highway stretching out through the Southwest desert.” Again, with theremin and guitar, they perform “country standards that set the soundtrack for a spaghetti western directed by David Lynch.”

My brain’s all over the place with this theremin thing. The surf aspect is great. It’s an outlet, but certainly limited in scope. The other musical areas that Pete and Cookie are exploring seem like a good idea. I’d love to hear a version of “Apache” either the Shadows or Jorgen Ingmann’s (depending upon where your sentiments lie) rendition would be fine. And a retread of “Walk Don’t Run” seems like a good idea. I can hear Cookie going off on that.

But I’d also love to hear her take a crack at something like Duane Allman’s slide solo in “Layla.”  I guess that’s technically almost out in spaghetti western territory. Actually the theremin is more than a satisfactory replacement for those banshee soprano voices Ennio Morricone favored, such as for that movie named after this column. And what about country music? The theremin could more than satisfactorily replace a pedal steel guitar, at least in a single note capacity. Which brings us to bluegrass and the musical saw.

It will be fun to see where Pete and Cookie take this thing. There are many possibilities. A theremin is such a strange instrument, and rare to encounter, that it would seem there will always be occasional demand for such a curiosity. With WaveSauce, they have hit upon an unusual and successful delivery system. But they’ve got a lot of ways they can go, depending on the direction in which the trade winds blow.

The World of T,E.D. and How You’re Probably In It

Number 9 Guy

I have seen the future of art. I wasn’t expecting it and I certainly didn’t anticipate it coming from the mouths of talking teddy bears, but such are the cumulative quintessences of kismet and epiphany. Ephemeral. Ethereal. Evanescent. Temporal. All exists in the moment. Like a room full of talking teddy bears venting their deepest, darkest secrets.

Eighty of them. Eighty Teddy Ruxpin toy teddy bears offering sentiments and observations from a wide spectrum of emotional perspectives. Well, a spectrum twenty-four emotions wide, actually. And not wide so much as a conical vortex of colliding feelings and sensations. And then there’s the amorphously abstract dreamlike sound track.

The talking teddy bears are the stars of a project referred to as T,E.D.—which stands for Transformations, Emotional Deconstruction. It debuted as part of the BYTE ME 2012 exhibition at Launch Pad Gallery (, on January 6th. The press release describes the production as a “large work [which] features 80 customized Teddy Ruxpin dolls wired together, delivering real-time emotional content from the internet in discreet 1-minute ‘packages’ based on the Emotion Wheel developed by the psychologist Robert Plutchik. Additional interactive real-time input can also be received from text messaging or an on-site user interface.”

Whew! Okay, fine.

T,E.D. is the brainchild of conceptual artist Sean Hathaway, with Carlos Severe Marcelin of Sally Tomato providing the imaginatively unique soundtrack. The result of their collaboration is a technological achievement of some dense specific gravity, the ramifications of which extend exponentially throughout the art and music worlds, their impact not yet fully determined.

Teddy Ruxpin

It’s probably been 25 years since the real heyday of the Ruxpin empire. For those unfamiliar (and I’m no expert, to be sure), the Teddy Ruxpin line were the teddy bears of choice for discerning four-year-olds in the mid-80s. The cache was that the Ruxpin bears talked. They told stories. They moved their eyes and mouths as they told stories. With the mere slip of a cassette into the accessible backside port, the toys could change their stories, and ostensibly, change their limited range of facial expressions as well.

And so the technology slumbered for two decades, until 2005, when Backpack Toys produced Teddy Ruxpin 4.0, which finally exchanged analog technology for thum thar new-fangled digital ROM cartridges. But Backpack eventually discontinued production and the remaining dolls were left to languish in outpost warehouses scattered around the nation. There is nothing so inexpensive as load of unwanted Teddy Ruxpin dolls. But alas, there it is.

When Sean Hathaway was just a kid, Teddy Ruxpin was all the rage. He says he was “scared of those bears…for their vague and gross mechanical representation of a living thing.” Considering what he ended up doing with the bears, that’s a presciently fortuitous choice of words.

What inspired his experimentation with Teddy Ruxpin dolls, anyway?

“Having a palette of Teddy Ruxpins in my basement,” he giggles.

Well, yes. That would seem to be a determining feature: a basement full of teddy bears.

“There was this old surplus store called Wacky Willie’s—it went out of business. They’d had these for years. I’d been looking at them since I was a kid. And I said okay, I’ll give you twenty-five cents apiece for them. I got a hundred of them, so…”

A hundred. Sure. Who’d ever pass up the opportunity at a hundred Teddy Ruxpin dolls? A no-brainer. And so how long has Sean been working on this venture?

“Off and on for about three years. It’s just been my evening project. It started out like ‘what am I gonna do with all these dolls?’ But it started to take on a life of its own. I could make them talk. Okay, now that I can make them talk, what are they going to say?”

Yeah. Now that you can make them talk. Way way way…Wait a minute. “Make them talk?” “What are they gonna say?” Is this going to be like one of those stories you hear about where some Asian porn flick is coming out of the mouths of Ruxpins, or something like that?



“I was playing around with voice synthesis and realized I could get basic info about phonemes, which I could use to animate their mouths in sync with the speech synthesis. So now I have this creepy sort of animatronic puppet that’d speak any text I give it. Okay, that’s pretty fun but now what should it say? What’s worth saying? Then I remembered the excellent web site /online art piece by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, which aggregates emotional content out of people’s blogs in real time. They invite other artists to use their data and offer a mechanism to query it.”

Uh, aggregates emotional content? Gee…

“That part just came about on its own over time. At first I started with a bunch of bears that I wanted to make sing in some sort of chorus. I thought maybe an opera where the bears would burst into flames as characters died. But as I explored the bears and technology, and as I made some fortunate mistakes playing with them, they presented me with a series of decisions that led to the final piece.”

The site is a work of genius in its own right. Their manifesto states:

“Since August 2005, We Feel Fine has been harvesting human feelings from a large number of weblogs. Every few minutes, the system searches the world’s newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases ‘I feel’ and ‘I am feeling’. When it finds such a phrase, it records the full sentence, up to the period, and identifies the ‘feeling’ expressed in that sentence (e.g. sad, happy, depressed, etc.). Because blogs are structured in largely standard ways, the age, gender, and geographical location of the author can often be extracted and saved along with the sentence, as can be the local weather conditions at the time the sentence was written. All of this information is saved. The result is a database of several million human feelings, increasing by 15,000-20,000 new feelings per day. Using a series of playful interfaces, the feelings can be searched and sorted across a number of demographic slices, offering responses to specific questions.”

If you’re asking yourself, “Gosh, I wonder if this technology could be used for evildoing?” you and I are on the same page. And that’s just the tip of the creative emotional sno-cone in this particular case. There’s much more to the story. Robert Plutchik’s Emotion Wheel.

Robert Plutchik conceived of a system for exploring the full range of human emotions and how they are related. In 1980, he developed a twenty-four-color, two-dimensional, emotion “wheel,” as well as a three-dimensional conic version, to illustrate the complex inter-relationship between positive and negative emotions, demonstrating that human feelings were an intricate combination of emotions. A veritable rainbow stew.

Plutchik Emotion Wheel

In Plutchik’s system there are eight principal emotions, four pairs of polar opposites, found at the primary and secondary intercardinal points of the wheel: Joy/Sadness and Fear/Anger at the primary points. Trust/Disgust and Surprise/Anticipation at the secondary points. The three primary colors/emotions are: Red/Rage, Blue/Grief, and Yellow/Ecstasy. Everything else builds from there, I guess. Seems reasonable. Pretty much covers it in my world.

Though innovative, Plutchik’s union of emotions with colors was, obviously, not a novel idea. Red with rage, blue with sadness, and green with envy have been with us since…since colors and analogies, I suppose. Similar correlations to the western musical octave and the twelve-tone scale are certainly appropriate, although as yet not fully explored, as far as I know. And then there’s the Lüscher-Color-Diagnostic, of course. Put that all together and you’ve got a real concept, although I am unable to conceive of it at this time.

But with three intensities of eight spectral colors (there are two shades of green in Plutchik’s spectrum), all primary, secondary and tertiary colors and related hues are represented, twenty-four in all, twenty-four gradations of emotions, each within fifteen degrees of the next. There are a few specialty items, such as a very pretty, salmon-colored “Annoyance” and a verdant, meadowy, chartreuse “Acceptance.” But all the color/emotion combinations seem to fit, somehow. Pastels. Mix and match colors and emotions and you’ve got Freudian Feng Shui 101. Is that a thing? Sign me up.

How did the Plutchik Emotion Wheel come to play in Sean’s grand design?

“Close to the end of the initial concept development I knew I wanted Ted’s performances to be self-generative based on what was happening emotionally online at any given moment, but I found that just letting it run in a totally random way was really confusing and displeasing. I didn’t want to force or drive what the installation was doing as that would kill the generative aspect of it. So I needed a way to enforce a set of basic rules from which just the right amount of order would emerge out of an otherwise cacophonous mass of content.”

We all hate those cacophonous masses of content.

“Since I was working with emotional content an emotional classification system seemed a natural choice. And after reviewing a few different constructs, the Plutchik schema seemed to be the most natural and intuitive one. It allows for an infinite array of subtle emotional expression while still maintaining a simple and atomic foundation that worked very well for setting up a simple classification algorithm that would give the piece its randomness—its lacking sense of underlying order.”

Dude. What the hell are you talking about?

Sean Hathaway and Carlos Marcelin

“It was the music Carlos composed that really brought this part to life. I had originally intended to have a series of several five-minute-long background musical pieces to accompany the speech, but with the Plutchik scheme this rapidly evolved into a set of twenty-four one-minute pieces on a single theme that represent each of the twenty-four foundational emotions in the Plutchik schema.”

So it’s like a real-time play. But, I’m not sure how that differs from real life. Isn’t life a real time play, after all?

“The product is a generative installation that drifts about through whatever emotional states are most pervasive at any moment but presented as an endless stream of doglegging one minute sets where not only the content within the set is relational, but so is the underlying musical theme backing it up.”

Okay: it’s real life with a musical soundtrack, then. Obviously, Sean comes from an extensively hardwired electronics background, right?

“I didn’t have any experience with electronics in the beginning, but learned what I needed to in order to put the project together. My education is mainly scientific and technical in nature and I think that puts me at a slight advantage to be able to pick-up on new technical skills at a fairly rapid rate. Over the past few years, I have been greatly inspired by sources such as Make Magazine and that provide a venue for sharing knowledge and skills. There’s a growing collection of open-source software tools, and collective skill-sharing clubs.”

Stephen Hawking

Sean makes it sound like pretty much anybody could fill a room with inanimate teddy bears, make them talk, give them facial expressions and emotions culled from some bunch of guys “harvesting human feelings” and make it work in real time with an unusual music soundtrack in accompaniment. Really?

“It’s possible for any novice hobbyist or artist to do vacuum forming, 3D printing, physical computing or in my case designing a circuit board that could be sent to a fabrication shop for production. Just click a button to send the files, and two weeks later, you have a hundred circuit boards showing up in the mail ready for you and your friends to start soldering parts to. It really is an amazing time to be a maker of things.”

Vacuum forming? 3D printing? What’s “physical computing?” Circuit board design? You bet. Sounds like no big deal. Just make things. No problem. Run it. But, what does it all mean? What do all these emoting bears say about the human condition?

“To me the piece represents a celebration of a global level of human emotional expression that would not be possible without the technological age in which we live. These are tough questions. Our species is on a steppingstone of the evolving Information Age. Each of us has the ability to broadcast and share every part of our lives with nearly the entire world community. Like Dylan said, ‘ten thousand people talking but nobody listening’, but it’s really more like a billion people talking. I guess that’s a big part of what I was trying to say with this. I wanted to pull pieces of this collective state-sharing out of the void and give it a real presence and audience.”


Doesn’t it all seem sort of lonely and impersonal?

“Everything you hear in the installation is something that somebody somewhere in the world wanted you to hear. Right at this moment somebody in Montana has lost a love and someone in New Jersey has found one, and they want you to know about it. Isolation of one form or another is universal human truth. But how is that truth altered by such complete and intimate connectivity? That’s a question I ponder quite a bit when thinking about this installation.”

Well, the world has changed pretty dramatically over the past 20 years. There’s no denying that. It’s hard to say where it might go from here.

“I constantly contemplate the notion that my one-year-old daughter will never know a world where she can’t share how she feels about the bowl of soup she’s eating with people in New York, Paris, Bangkok or Tokyo—before it has a chance to get cold. But what does that mean exactly? Will anyone be listening or care? I do feel pride and a greater sense of connectivity to humanity knowing that when someone’s daughter somewhere in the world was pleased with her bowl of soup, for a small group of people on a Friday night in Portland, Oregon, that message was received loud and clear and for at least a moment acknowledged.”

Picture a darkened room, maybe about the size of your living room. On two adjacent walls eighty teddy bears are hung in neat rows, all linked by a network of thin wires. Suddenly a spotlight shines on one of the bears, and it opens its eyes, begins to move its lips and to speak, sounding a bit like Stephen Hawking. It expresses some vague feeling of distress in that robot-voiced monotone, then the spotlight is extinguished to light upon a different teddy, where the voice of, say, Australian Karen GPS lady conveys a gathering sense of anxiety. A British-voiced male teddy bear, like the Beatles’ “Number 9” guy, makes a brief, succinct statement and vanishes. HAL enters the scene and registers to any “Dave” his wary apprehensions. It’s a familiar cast of characters. The juxtaposition of cheery Ruxpin faces and morbid human sensibilities makes for a jarring experience among all who witness.

Meanwhile, Carlos Severe Marcelin’s cinematic soundtrack whirs and whines enigmatic dejection in one instance, orchestrates desperate symphonic alienation in others. The experience is very much like being inside a Luis Bunuel film, with Federico Fellini directing. Even though they are lifeless bears whose eyes and mouths are responding to mere electrical impulses, their sentiments are all too human, desperate for contact and intimacy. To stand among all those bears baring their souls—like a Ruxpin AA meeting—is a surprisingly wrenching encounter. Hypnotic. Haunting. It’s nearly impossible to walk away from the exhibit without having a visceral response.

Out in the vast expanse of world, at any moment, millions and millions of people are transmitting their impressions online, to be culled and categorized into segmented channels like an emotional Pachinko machine. It would never occur to anyone to think that their random introspections might be transformed into the script for two walls of talking teddy bears. But as Sean Hathaway said:

“For a small group of people on a Friday night in Portland, Oregon, that message was received loud and clear and for at least a moment acknowledged.”

Find me dimstricken. Where next? Okay, all right then, so what color would Sean be on the Plutchik wheel? What would his bear say?

“I would have a blue-green color [Surprise and Apprehension, perhaps?], and my bear would say: ‘I feel humbled that my work was as well received as it was’.

A Day At The Races

It was Mark Twain who eruditely said something like: “It’s a difference of opinion which makes a horse race.” That mobius strip of an assertion draws people from all strata of society to the horse track. Some come simply to watch the magnificent horses sprint around an oval track, some come lured by the possibility of winning the mortgage on a parlay of the perfectly placed superfecta wager. Some come to be seen, a faction of distinction, to be sure. Some come to watch those who wish to be seen.

I guess I fall into the latter category. On a chilly Sunday in December I ended up at the Portland Meadows for “Oregon Championship Day.” The horseracing season in Oregon runs from the middle of October to the middle of March. I’m no authority, but if I were a horse, I’m not so sure how much I would enjoy sprinting in the neighborhood of a mile through the miserable chill and the sort of slop an Oregon fall and winter might dump on a racetrack. It seems like those months would be better spent down at sunny Santa Anita. If I were a horse, I certainly wouldn’t mind galloping around a track every once in a while with some hobbit on my back under the Oregon June sun. No problem.

But hey, I’m no aficionado. My guess is the horseracing associations around the country reserve the spring and summer seasons for the important races: the Derby, the Belmont Stakes, the Preakness and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, etc. I don’t think a lot of attention is paid to the racing stables of the Northwest. So, if you want to see horse races in Portland, you better bundle up.

I was in attendance only because my girlfriend, Lesley, a true horse lover, was researching an article she was writing about women jockeys, and there just happen to be a couple of pretty good ones who ride in Portland during the season. I don’t necessarily share Lesley’s passion for horses. Ever since I was five, when one bit me on the leg attempting to wrest sugar cubes from my pants pocket, I have had a primordial fear of the equine species. And, like dogs, horses can smell or intuit or suss out your fear of them. They’re pretty smart.

I know this to be true, because when I was a kid, my family used to head down to the Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon to visit friends, who had a modest farm—a couple dozen cows and maybe ten horses. The rest of my family was always hot to trot on those horses, ready to ride up into the hills, the dry summer wind blowing warm balsam in their faces and all that horseshit. I was not so enthusiastic. For one thing, it always seemed as if the horses were flipping coins to see who would get to take me for a ride. Apparently, I was an obvious mark.

Our friends knew of my issues with horses and always proceeded to set me up with Feathers or Buttermilk: some passive horse whose most aggressive gestures so far had been whipping at flies with a practiced tail. But, by God, put me on the back of Buttermilk and all of a sudden she thinks she can do six furlongs in a minute flat.

The outcome of these episodes was invariably the same. Buttermilk or Feathers or Cloudy, or whoever, would throw me. From my experience, getting thrown from a horse is no fun at all. I find it comparable to playing defensive end in football and being afforded the grand opportunity to knock down a pulling-guard and two running backs on an end-around.

Horses were never a big part of my life. I went to the dog races once, with Lew Jones and a mutual friend—with the express intent of gambling. Our buddy knew the dogs and was reasonably certain that we could come out ahead. I think we bet, like, two or three bucks on each race. That was twenty or thirty bucks. We were broke back then. Just like now. We did end up coming out ahead, a little bit, enough so that we paid for all our bets and beer—which was a considerable tab on a warm spring afternoon. I had a hangover for three days, and eight dollars, I think.

But I didn’t accompany Lesley to the Oregon Championship to wager. I’m too easily distracted by number combinations like 1-4-5, or by prime numbers, a Fibonacci sequence, birthdates or phone numbers, to be able to satisfactorily bet on a horse race with any real effectiveness. As Mark Twain implied, betting on the horses is no easy matter, especially at the Portland Meadows level. You’ve got to get to know the horses and the trainers and the jockeys and the track. And then show up every Monday and Wednesday for six months for the actual races. It’s a science. And then there’s always the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Not really. Maybe.

No, I went to the horse races because I was curious. I suspect it is this unbridled curiosity of mine that leads me to write arcanities such as this uninformed blather. If you’ve learned something (or think you have) or have seen something (voila!)—(apparently) unique or unusual, it is only human nature to wish to expound upon that discovery for as long as the human attention span will allow (140 characters). In that regard I must admit that I may have already overstayed my welcome. But I’m not finished yet. Say what you will.

So, there we were at the Portland Meadows at 11AM on a cold Sunday, grey cumulus clouds dappling the sky. The Meadows are located in a non-descript light industrial part of town, near Delta Park just east of I-5. The pleasant surprises began almost as soon as we walked through the doors. It’s certainly not the environs, which resemble most the prototypical ‘60s high school football stadium. But admission is free! I guess they figure they’re going to get your money on bets and beer, they don’t need to saddle you with another five or ten bucks just to get in.

We entered the building, and, it was weird. There were hip representatives from the illustrious Voodoo Doughnuts franchises providing complimentary confections, perhaps tamed down a tad for the non-sequitur occasion. Ristretto Roasters served complimentary cups of coffee as well. An unexpected festive atmosphere hung in the air. I think that’s what it was.

The layout of the premises was rudimentary. To the right, outside swinging glass doors was the paddock where the nearly eighty horses incrementally awaited, in groups, their turns to run. A rich variety of humanity encircled the fenced area. Some had the knowing look and vague manifestation of the gambler’s breed. Others appeared to be horse guys and their horse families. As might be expected, there were a lot of horse girls. Girls who love horses. They spring abundant.

From a distance, the horse girls all looked alike. As a fashion statement for horse girls, aged 12 to 25ish, the preferred mode of attire appeared to be a dark hoodie sweatshirt and those jeans that have the ornate embroidery all over the back pockets. I always wondered who bought those. I’d seen them advertised in Fred Meyer flyers and stuff. I figured it was probably mostly junior high girls. But after my day at the races, I am convinced those jeans are the stylistic preferred choice of a large demographic swath of horse girls. I did not further pursue the subject to ascertain as to why this phenomenon existed. Just one of those mysteries left to the ages.

Next to the paddock were the stairs up to the grandstands. Directly in front of us was a bar with a whole passel of tables strewn about for ostensible patrons whom at that time of the day had yet to arrive. To the left, beyond the coffee dispensary table was the inner sanctum. That was where the real gamblers hung out. They didn’t come to the Meadows to view the races. This was obvious from the fact that all the benches in the auditorium faced away from the track. There was an enormous bank of television monitors stretched out across the room, suspended about twelve or fifteen feet in the air.

On the array of television screens were broadcast the feeds of horse races from all over the known universe (including, coincidentally, the Meadows’ races occurring just out back), all football games, basketball games, jai alai games, rugby and soccer matches, Keno numbers and stuff that I haven’t the slightest idea what it was, but it was contentious, therefore someone among the rabidly comatose crowd of onlookers most certainly had some money on the outcome.

Behind the Church of Wager was a vast expanse facing the track where disinterested people sat amidst a sea of tables waiting for something—though it was entirely unclear as to what. They didn’t seem to be particularly aware of those herds of horses stampeding just beyond the concourse outside. Most of them just sat talking, watching various football games being broadcast on the in-house feed, not doing much of anything. I considered that maybe some of the people were, like myself, new to the horse racing game and didn’t realize there was live entertainment outside.

We found seats in the stands upstairs where every other space was afforded a small television (a necessity for viewing the races in their entirety). And while Lesley ran off to talk to the jocks and arrange for further interviews, I checked out the racing program and surveyed the track.

First off, it’s a mile around the damn thing. The near side of the oval seems far enough away, probably a couple hundred yards. But the distant arc is way the hell down there, maybe five or six hundred yards. At that distance, to the unaided eye, the horses look like blurry, dark smudges gushing forth, like an onrushing flood of muddy water steeds.

The view in the stands was greatly impeded by the elaborate metal framework of windows that adequately protected from random inclemencies of the elements, but in a lot of ways rendered pointless the experience of witnessing the entire race (or most of it) from a decent vantage point. Just the same, one could catch a reasonable view of the homestretch, if positioned properly up in the stands. We had properly positioned ourselves.

There was much to see. A lot going on. Hustle and bustle. Many, many horse girls and hay boys, mostly wandered around, or congregated in pockets. Next to our table, a party of older adults was gathered, having drinks and munching on food from the grill, occasionally placing bets at one of the self-service terminals. For them, the afternoon seemed to be a sort of low-key party. I was never able to tell if any of them won or lost any money. They just seemed to be having a good time.

From my vantage point the aforementioned grill, located behind us in the “clubhouse,” was turning out some nicely prepared sandwiches and baskets. The 15 piece breaded shrimp basket for $7.25, looked especially appealing, as waitresses whisked by with orders for various tables. There’s even a garden burger (!) and a chef’s salad on the menu. The food is nothing astonishing, but it’s a good value for the modest prices.

But the food is just gravy on the biscuit. The real meat of the matter is horseflesh. In the case of the horses trotting out onto the track, those were spectacular specimens. In their brightly striped silk outfits, the jockeys looked like ornately decorated marshmallows on the backs of those massive animals. Here again, Twain’s “difference of opinion” weighs heavily in the equation. Because it’s hard to understand why a horse would even bother going through with the whole race thing unless it kind of liked it.

The bugler guy in the red uniform with the long horn knocked out the familiar call to post, wrapping it up with a nice Christmas song reference at the end. Sweet. At the sound of the clarion call, Lesley reappeared, just in time for the first races, a couple of preliminary 350-yard quarter horse dashes whose purpose seemed to be mostly to get the people strolling around the grounds to sit down and pay attention, which they more or less did.


Eliska Kubinova

The two women Lesley was interviewing were rated as among the Top Five in both the Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse jockey standings. Deborah Hoonan-Trujillo served as the wizened veteran, shrewd to the techniques of the sport. In the role of impressionable rookie, was Eliska Kubinova—recently arrived from the Czech Republic—a tiny, young blond with bright features and an impish smile.

But, in a betrayal of her seeming delicate ingenuousness, she currently ranks as the number two jock in both breed types. She’s skilled and tough in her own right. In fact, it’s noteworthy that in only one race out of the nine in which they competed did one or both of the women jockeys not finish in the money.

After the sprints, the remaining eight races were a mix of distances. Several were six furlongs—about ¾ of a mile—and the rest were in the neighborhood of a mile, give or take. Most of the horses participating in those longer races came in at well under two minutes. Isn’t that, like, thirty miles an hour? I think it is. Yikes!

It’s gotta be a real trip for the poor horses. First they’re stuffed into those weird starting gate contraptions. Some of them are so startled when those gates slam open and the bell rings, that they practically fall sideways out of the chute. The jockeys seem aware of that propensity, and redirect the startled creatures into more or less the proper direction. A snap of the rein, a jab of the heels and a flick of the whip, and off they go. It’s pretty amazing to watch.

Coming down the homestretch, some of the horses exhibited an unexpected intensity. They were really competitive. Sure, the jockeys were doing their best to encourage their charges, imparting their own motivations into the mix. But there were horses that clearly wanted to win. They wanted to win bad. You could see it.

I always thought horses just wanted sugar cubes. It never occurred to me they had that whole horse eat horse instinct thing going on. Thought provoking. Horses radiate a handsome, dignified pride that’s strangely disquieting, though decidedly warranted. God knows I respect the beasts.

Once a race had finished and the brief ceremony for the winner that followed was wrapped up, there was about a half hour of down time. That was when the waitresses fired into warp drive, filling orders from the grill. In addition, people began to wander, to migrate, in search of something. Hard to say what that might be at a horse track, besides money. But I’m naïve to these things.

Of special note, and actually the inspiration behind this whole fiasco, was a contingent of eight or ten well-turned hipsters who were treating the Oregon Championship as if it were the Kentucky Derby—dressed in their finest vintage finds. I was charmed by the sense of Felini-esque grandeur they lent to the festivities, as they paraded by from time to time. They seemed coolly bemused at the attention they were receiving as they tramped up to the second level to hit the “clubhouse,” and back on down to the track level, when the action started winding up again.

I thought what they were doing was cool. I would suspect that their appearance was special to the “event,” and that they do not attend every meet on the schedule. I could be wrong. Perhaps there was a Voodoo Donuts connection. Who knows? I liked the direction they were heading. Good stuff. I approve. C’est si bon!

It got me to thinking that the Meadows could pump new blood into the place by featuring rock bands in the “clubhouse,” on some nights. Maybe they don’t want new blood at the track and don’t want a bunch of broke hipsters wandering around trying to bum enough money for a schooner of PBR. I suppose they know their clientele better than I. Just a thought.

Lesley went back down to the jockey’s dressing room to interview her subjects during the 9th race, the only one in which neither was riding. After about twenty minutes or so, she returned. We went downstairs and outside to the concourse to stand at the finish line for the 10th race.

It was incredibly impressive to see those determined horses hurtling toward us down the home stretch, the muffled rumble of their hooves moaning the loam. Down there at ground level, you get a definitive idea of what’s going on, how much, uh, sheer horsepower is involved. It’s an awe-inspiring display of pure living energy.

I must say that attending the horse races at the Portland Meadows was far more enjoyable than I had anticipated. It’s possible to get many hours (four in our case) of very unusual fun entertainment for absolutely free—if you’re really on a budget. But take $20 to bet and another $20 for dinner and a coupla beers and yee-haw, pardner, you’re ridin’ purty high in the saddle.