As I deliver lectures and courses for various organizations, including Penfield Rec’s DEAR program, I post stuff here that might be of interest to students and attendees.

So Bad They’re Good – We’ve all seen movies that are widely regarded as great movies, like Casablanca (1942) or Singin’ in the Rain (1952). We’ve also all stumbled into movies that were terrible, like North (1994), about which critic Roger Ebert wrote, “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.” Some movies, however, are so bad, they’re fun to watch – they kind of wrap around bad and come out good. From grade Z Sci Fi like Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) to Shirley Temple and Ronald Reagan in That Hagen Girl (1947), we’ll plum the depths of hilariously bad films in 7 installments.
The films are:
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957)
Reefer Madness (1936)
That Hagen Girl (1947)
The Horror of Party Beach (1964)
The Conqueror (1955)
Jail Bait (1954)
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Jazzed about Jazz: Making Arrangements – Jazz is defined by improvisation, but the settings in which great improvisations occur can be noteworthy as well. In this installment of Jazzed about Jazz, Al Biles will focus on four of the greatest composer/arrangers in jazz history: Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn, Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, and Maria Schneider.

Outsider Music Lunch Lecture – Al provides a sampler of outsider music. What is Outsider Music? Outsider music are songs and compositions by musicians who are not part of the commercial music industry who write songs that ignore standard musical or lyrical conventions, either because they have no formal training or because they disagree with formal rules. There is a niche market for outsider music, and such musicians often maintain a cult following. You’ll hear The Shaggs, Bingo Gazingo, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Shooby Taylor (the human horn), Swedish Elvis impersonator Eilert Pilarm, one-man band Luie Luie, and the grandmother of them all, Florence Foster Jenkins, subject of the 2016 biopic starring Meryl Streep. Given on Ground Hog Day, 2023. Here’s a link to outsider guru Irwin Chusid’s website.

Musicals, More or Less – The movie musical is a genre that brings to mind Astaire/Rogers, Gene Kelly, and Judy Garland in feel-good movies like Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain, and Meet in St. Louis. However, there also are films that are musical without being musicals in the traditional sense, and that is the focus of this series. From backstage musicals to rock movies, with stops in jazz-opera and under-represented artists, we’ll sample musicals, more or less.
The films are:
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Stormy Weather (1943)
The Red Shoes (1948)
Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
All that Jazz (1979)

Still Jazzed about Jazz – Continuation of the previous class described below. This series will focus on 3 trumpet players with contrasting styles from the mid-century modern period. Chet Baker quickly became the icon of cool in the early 1950’s with Gerry Mulligan’s quartet and had a long, if troubled, solo career. Lee Morgan (shown at left) was the quintessential hard bop soloist, both with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and with his own groups. Booker Little was a brilliant modernist whose writing and arranging skills matched his innovative improvisational style.

Great Films, Great Scores – Scoring music for films is fundamentally different from composing “art” or popular music. A good film score must fit the film and is not intended to stand on its own. That said, some film scores accomplish this goal so admirably that they deserve attention on their own. This series presents 9 films with notable scores by 9 different film composers. Before viewing each film we’ll point out things to listen for, and after each film we’ll discuss why the score and its composer are significant. Note: the last two films were added to link to the last two sessions in Jazzed about Jazz below. This series occurred at DEAR in spring, 2022.
The films were:
King Kong (1933) – The first great score
The Sea Hawk (1940) – Wall-to-wall music
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) – Greatest movie theme
Forbidden Planet (1956) – First all-electronic score
Sweet Smell of Success (1957) – Jazz X 2
Vertigo (1958) – Best of Herrmann & Hitch
Chinatown (1974) – Jerry Goldsmith’s masterpiece
French Connection (1971) – Don Ellis scores
Elevator to the Gallows (1958) – Miles Davis improvises

Jazzed about Jazz – Jazz has been called “America’s only true original art form.” While this likely overstates things a bit, it is undeniable that jazz emerged in America and is a vital creative medium. In this series we’ll use great jazz recordings to survey the history, styles, personalities, and cultural impact of jazz. Join us to experience the joy of getting jazzed about jazz! No musical experience expected. Note: the last two sessions were added to link to the last two movies in Great Films, Great Scores. This series occurred at DEAR in spring, 2022.
The sessions were:
57 Varieties – So many different styles of jazz
What Is this Thing Called Jazz? – How they do it
Blue Note – The essential record label
The Best 9 Days of the Year – Sounds from the RIJF
Don Ellis – Exotic time, electronics & quarter tones
Miles Davis – Simply the greatest

Film Noir Series – Film noir is one of the most aesthetic and fascinating genres in cinema. Film enthusiasts will enjoy this series as we dive into the rich history of classic film noir and learn the creative and technical aspects that set it apart from the standard Hollywood movie. I showed this series at DEAR in the fall of 2021.
The films were:
Maltese Falcon (1941)
Laura (1944)
Out of the Past (1947)
Lady in the Lake (1947)
Gun Crazy (1950)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Touch of Evil (1958)

Royal Game of Ur: A truly Ancient Game – Humans have been playing games for thousands of years, as evidenced by game artifacts found from virtually every civilization. This class presents a brief historical survey of games, describes what makes a game a game, and dives into The Royal Game of Ur, the oldest intact game for which rules exist. We’ll explore where this game came from, how it was recovered, and how to play it. To cap things off you’ll actually play the Royal Game of Ur. Please bring three coins to the class.

Music from the Garden: Butt Music from Hell – Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights has fascinated viewers for centuries. The Hell panel of this triptych features music notation inscribed on the backside of an unfortunate soul being crushed by a giant lute. What did this tune sound like and what could it possibly mean? Al will explore Bosch’s use of musical memes and focus on how he transcribed and rendered the Butt Music from Hell as an asset in a video game inspired by the Garden’s Hell panel.

The Lewis Chessmen – Discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis off the Scottish coast and carved in the 12th century from walrus tusks by Norse craft people, these chess pieces have charmed millions in the British and Royal Scottish Museums and have become part of popular culture (Harry Potter, Dr. Who, Walking Dead, Agatha Christie). This presentation examines the Lewis Chessmen and their place in the history of chess, and it explores their competing origin stories, which include Margret the Adroit, the greatest ivory carver in Iceland.

Friday Forum Fractal Fun – Join Al Biles as he does live coding in p5.js to generate fractals and other animations before your very eyes. Fractal fans will recognize the logistic map and Mandelbrot set (see zoom at left), along with the Gumkowski-Mira fractal. No programming experience is expected, but Al will start from scratch in p5 to hopefully entice some converts to what is likely the most accessible programming environment in existence.

Artificial Intelligence – Artificial Intelligence (AI) is everywhere in your everyday life, from driving your car to using your credit card, not to mention doing anything on Google, Amazon or Facebook. AI is also a loaded term whose meaning and impact are highly controversial. This 6-part course will explore what AI is and, maybe more importantly, what AI isn’t. We’ll chronicle AI’s history from the origin of the term in 1956 by focusing on four application areas where AI has achieved some notable successes: game playing, vision, human languages, and creativity. Each application area will introduce us to AI techniques that try to mimic what people do, and we’ll shed light on how those techniques actually work. The primary goal of the course is to disentangle what AI actually is and can do from the dense jungle of popular culture, which often overhypes, demonizes, and otherwise distorts AI’s accomplishments and potential. No mathematical, computing, or other technical skill or experience is expected.

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