Friday, December 30, 2011

It's All Fun and Games at MAGFest

 With his penchant for rapid-fire pop culture references, women and a gutter-level sense of humor, video game icon Duke Nukem has never missed the chance to enjoy himself while thwarting the alien apocalypse.

While pursuing a good time, Jon St. John, the man behind The Duke’s golden voice since the release of “Duke Nukem 3D” in 1996, resembles the character whose franchise launched his voice acting career. In the two years he has visited the video game and music festival MAGFest, St. John has become notorious for stalking hotel hallways in search of festivities. His record at last year’s event at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center was 32 room parties in two nights.

This year, MAGFest X will move to the Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center from Jan. 5-8. With last year’s score so high, St. John also says he may need to channel his party-searching energies elsewhere.

Jon St. John is the voice of Duke Nukem.
“I’m not sure how strict their rules are going to be,” St. John says. “I had an entourage of 40, 50 people with me for a good portion of the night, so when you invade somebody’s hotel room who are making noise and drinking, it could be disconcerting to neighbors.”

A broadcaster for 30 years, St. John now works out of his home studio in San Diego doing voice work. Although he has participated in recent and upcoming titles such as Recoil Games’ “Rochard” and Valve Corporation’s “DOTA 2,” he says video games are only a small portion of his efforts. He also covers commercials and character voices for theme parks, among other projects.

At MAGFest, St. John will present as a panelist, most likely fielding questions about how to enter the voice acting industry.
The key, he says, is to audition all the time, since many game producers or directors already have a voice in mind when hiring actors.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a better actor, it doesn’t matter if you have a higher or lower voice, when they hear the voice that fits, it’s like a crap shoot. So my job is auditioning constantly,” St. John says.

Other guests at MAGFest include Ellen McLain, who voiced GLaDOS in the popular “Portal” series, and Grant Kirkhope, composer of games such as “Banjo-Kazooie” and the upcoming “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.”

The festival also boasts a Local Area Network party room where players can join in games through their own computers, a tabletop game room, two music stages, a museum and a marketplace. Additional activities include a charity auction, videogame improv, MAGFest art hunt and art competition.

But at the core of the festival are the games, which Promotions and Public Relations Director Nick Marinelli says cover some 40 years.

“We have consoles that go all the way back to Atari 2600 [and] a little earlier,” Marinelli says. “It goes all the way up to the PS3. Same with the arcade. We’re going to have at least 150 cabinets all on free play and they go from ‘Pong’ all the way to modern music games.”
The Minibosses fuse video game music with progressive rock.
The first MAGFest, held in Roanoke, Va., in 2002, was created by Joseph Yamine, who now teaches writing and film at Ferrum College.

“[Yamine] wanted a place to play games and see some video game bands play,” Marinelli says. “It went pretty well, so I’m told, but it only had 250 people or something and after that finished he didn’t want to do it anymore so Brendan Becker — also called Mr. MAGFest — he purchased it off him … and Brendan started to build it up and brought more staff on.”
Over the years, MAGFest, now owned by the board of directors, has continued to grow, and after reaching the 3,000 person cap at last year’s event, Marinelli says a move was necessary. This year’s numbers have already surpassed its predecessor.

While the festival has enjoyed rising popularity, Marinelli says the event has “stuck to its guns” in spirit. Whereas many gaming conventions are flooded with studios promoting their upcoming titles, MAGFest features current games and guests with little advertisement.

“[Most gaming conventions are] all about … broadcasting, marketing everywhere, telling you about all the new games that are coming out… just trying to get you to buy things,” Marinelli says. “MAGFest is different because it’s all about celebrating gaming in general … and coming together as a gaming community and hanging out with each other.”

Video game tribute bands also will pack the stages, with acts including Austin, Texas, shredders Descendants of Erdrick, jazz fusion aficionados The OneUps and DJ Cutman.
Topping off the list is Nobuo Uematsu, a composer for the “Final Fantasy” video game series. Uematsu has been scoring games since the mid-1980s, but will bring his new rock band, Earthbound Papas, to MAGFest. The band’s first album “Octave Theory,” which gave a fresh rock approach to Uematsu’s past symphonic works, debuted in March.

“He’s like the John Williams of video game music,” Jace Bartet, guitarist of the fellow MAGFest band Bit Brigade says, “So for him to be able to appear in person, onstage, it kind of elevates the event from somewhere in this weird zone slightly above what it’s been in the past, which is a fan get-together, to ... [having] something intriguing for maybe a more casual video game music fan.”

Bit Brigade, which hails from Athens, Ga., first brought its multimedia style to MAGFest last year. The group performs in front of a screen displaying images from games such as “Ninja Gaiden” or “Megaman II.” Playing these games is Noah McCarthy, who quietly sits cross-legged in front of a small television at center stage. What makes the performance unique is that the musicians of Bit Brigade re-create the music of each level and cut scene.

“We don’t have a set list that we can cut from,” Bartet says. “We can’t skip through the game. It’s what we do. We play the game and it’s a defined period of time. The game starts and the game ends and in between that time, it’s going to be 40 to 45 minutes.”

Although the group went on tour this summer to cities such as Baltimore, Flint, Mich., and Chicago, Bartet says the enthusiasm of MAGFest attendees is hard to match.

“When you go to MAGFest, it feels like you’re at Woodstock ’99 or something,” he says.

For Bartet, MAGFest is an event with ample replay value.

“Every year there’s MAGFest and then you go home and you experience very heavy post-MAGFest depression,” Bartet says. “You’re back in the regular world and things feel just a little bit dimmer.”

Photos courtesy MAGFest; Jon St. John.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Blizzard of Beats: Winter Classic Tour storms the Fillmore

Justin Blau is a college student and electronic music producer.
Weekdays, Justin Blau, 20, is a finance major at Washington University in St. Louis. Fresh off a summer internship with Credit Suisse, he plans to graduate in 18 months by taking on a course load ranging from business to poetry classes.

But on weekends, Blau is 3LAU, an up-and-coming house DJ who during the last seven months has found his way off campus and onto stages in cities from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.
“I was getting ready to apply for internships this summer,” Blau says. “Now I’m getting ready to think about who I’m touring with.”

On Saturday, Blau will come to the Fillmore Silver Spring as part of The Winter Classic Tour. He shares the bill with producer Paper Diamond and live electronic trio Savoy.

A musician for most of his life, Blau first became interested in electronic music while visiting Sweden in the summer of 2010.

“It was my first exposure to real dance music and Euro dance music,” he says. “And [I thought] ‘Oh my god, this is amazing.’”

Blau returned to school in the fall, experimenting whenever he could with mashing together bits of pop songs from singers like Katy Perry over driving, synth-laden beats. With his first track “Children E.T.” that February, a friend recommended he post or submit them to college blogs. Blau cites the blogs as a major driver of his music, his Facebook page growing from 100 “Likes” seven months ago to more than 21,000 currently.

Still, it would be during the three weeks prior to his summer internship that Blau began working in earnest on the material that would result in his free-to-download album “Dance Floor Filth.”

To test his efforts, Blau would frequent the social DJ website Turntable.Fm. The site allows users to upload and play songs to others in the same chat room. What was once Blau’s testing grounds also became a major networking opportunity as it was through Turntable that he familiarized himself with other producers and even landed a sponsorship with Sol Republic Headphones.
“I would say Turntable has been, next to all the blogs, the other biggest help that I’ve had all the way, and the community is pretty close-knit and the regulars know who each other are. I’m on there quite often debuting new stuff and asking for feedback,” Blau says.

One of the connections Blau made through hooked him up with singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson. Blau will remix her song “Ghost” from her upcoming January release “Human Again.” He considers his work with Michelson indicative of his efforts to focus on producing original material. Two more original tracks are in the works.

“This mash up thing was always kind of a gate. and it was the easiest way for me to get any form of notoriety,” Blau says. “That was always the plan. It was never in the cards that I remain a mash up artist because at the end of the day, I like making music.”

The life of a jet-setting DJ may not seem compatible with that of a college student, but Blau says his professors understand his extracurricular activity. In fact, one of his classes next year, “Economics of Entertainment,” will put a scholarly perspective on his burgeoning career.

“[My professor] agreed that I could do some form of combined research on my career as a DJ and more industry-specific work and research and kind of combine it all into a research project,” he says.

Blau will share the stage with the electronic trio Savoy. The group is known for its high-energy live show, which features two DJs and a live drummer.

Alex Botwin performs under the name Paper Diamond.
The lineup is rounded out by artist Paper Diamond, whose real name is Alex Botwin. Botwin is a more seasoned road warrior than Blau and the gear he takes along when he travels has only become lighter as Botwin controls his shows via an iPad. Running through a series of programs including TouchOSC, Botwin uses the Apple device because he can dissect each song during his performance from a drum beat to individual effects. This allows him to craft unique sets based on the crowd’s reactions instead of spending time beforehand rearranging his shows.

“Its legitimately like ‘OK, I’m going to pick the first song, see what the people are vibing on that night,’”  Botwin says. “And then it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book or something. I just go from there. It makes it enjoyable for me because I don’t do the same thing every night.”

Botwin’s Paper Diamond project debuted in a string of New Year’s Eve shows featuring acts like Bassnectar. Shortly after, Botwin released his first EP “Levitate” through the Pretty Lights Music Label and his record label, Elm&Oak. Under its banner name, which stands for Exclusive Limited Merchandise and One of A Kind, the company acts as a record label, boutique and design firm. Botwin runs the company with partner Berk Gibbs.

Botwin began producing independently in 2010 under the name Alex B. after parting ways with his live electronic band Pnuma, which also toured under the name Pnuma Trio. Botwin says the split was amicable, citing the desire to find a new artistic venture and sound as the reason for leaving.

“Honestly, the change has been the best. Everyone is super happy and musically doing what they want to do,” Botwin says. “We’re not closed off to playing more shows [as Pnuma].”

As Alex B., Botwin released the down tempo album “Moments” in April 2010. With his independent release out of the way, Botwin once again decided it was time to rebrand himself, this time as Paper Diamond.
Originally, he says he wanted to change his name so people would be more willing to accept his move into a
style that touches on more up-tempo sounds with elements of electro, hip-hop and dubstep.

“I think that people come to realize that at my shows, they’ll get a nice barrage of things,” he says.

Botwin debuted his first Paper Diamond release, the 8-track “Levitate” EP, in January. The follow up will be another 8-track EP titled “Paragon,” which, he says, is almost complete. The album’s name is a play on both the word for the perfect diamond as well as paragon’s standard definition as a model of excellence.
“Even though I’ve been able to make hundreds of songs over the past period, these are the favorites that I’m feeling right now, so it’s my personal favorite and my best of the best,” Botwin says of the upcoming release.

The album will also be free-for-download, which Botwin says is what the Paper Diamond project, down to its name, is about: getting the music out there.

“If you have a piece of paper and you’re folding it into a diamond, whether it’s simple or complex, it’s your form of self-expression and it’s your art,” Botwin says. “So for me, making music is like taking nothing and turning it into something, and whether that be simple or complex, it’s my form of self-expression.”

Photos courtesy Paper Diamond; Just Blau

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Fun in Funky: Primus plays The Fillmore Silver Spring

Love it or hate it, “Green Naugahyde,” funk rock band Primus’ first album in more than a decade, is a self-produced effort bearing only the touches of its machine gun-thumbed bassist and singer Les Claypool, guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde and drummer Jay Lane.

The September release and the tour that follows, including a stop at the Fillmore Silver Spring on Saturday, finds the band in a very different mindset from when they recorded their last record, 1999’s “Antipop.”

After constant touring and five studio albums starting with “Frizzle Fry” in 1990, the San Francisco Bay-area band was feeling fried by the end of the decade. Looking for a new approach, LaLonde says Primus broke from their tradition of self-producing albums with “Antipop.”

“From the beginning, we had record companies and people telling us, ‘Oh, you should use a producer,’ and we were always like, ‘Well, that’s not the way we work,’” LaLonde says. “That [‘Antipop’] was the one where we were like, ‘Oh, we’ll finally try this producer idea,’ but we kind of got away with it by saying, ‘What if we work on each song with a different person?’ That way if it doesn’t work out with somebody it’s only one song. So that whole thing, it was really crazy. We had been touring for so long and everything was starting to go in different directions a bit. So it wasn’t the greatest time for the band.”

Following a tour for “Antipop,” the band announced a hiatus and its members went their separate ways. LaLonde and then-drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia continued to work together, making avant-garde music under the name No Forcefield. LaLonde would later tour with System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian.

Claypool went on to explore the jam band scene, cutting albums with his group Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade among others. He also worked in two super groups, one with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and Stewart Copeland of the Police called Oysterhead and the other with Mantia, guitarist Buckethead and Parliament Funkadelic co-founder and keyboardist Bernie Worrell.

Primus would conduct a few more tours and some festival appearances throughout the decade, but Claypool later went on record saying that the shows were more nostalgic than anything else. With the five-track EP “Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People” in 2003, fans heard the last batch of new material from the band before a long silence. Still, LaLonde believed the band had not fully run its course.

“I had always hoped it was not totally done because when I was sitting around writing songs, nine out of 10 times, the things I write, I’m like, ‘That would be perfect for Primus. I need Les to finish this one off and make it cool,’” LaLonde says. “I’m sure I probably thought it was never totally done.”

Rested and reenergized, things started heating up for Primus once more in 2010. Seeing if the spark was still there, the group tested the waters and jammed in February of that year.

“After our first rehearsal,” LaLonde says. “It was the same day as the Super Bowl, probably the one before last, so that was the day that we jammed and were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’”

Filling in on drums in the latest Primus lineup is Jay Lane. Before working with Grateful Dead offshoot RatDog in the 1990s, Lane was one of Primus’ first drummers when the band got its start in California in the 1980s. He left Primus to pursue another project and was replaced by longtime drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander shortly before the group’s 1989 live album and demo “Suck on This” was released.

But ties were not cut with the Primus camp. Lane later collaborated with Claypool on his 1996 solo album and Sausage’s 1994 album “Riddles Are Abound Tonight,” a band featuring the 1988 lineup of Primus including guitarist Todd Huth.

LaLonde says Lane was a natural fit for Primus’ current incarnation.

“It was something we always wanted to try and see what it would be like to have Jay back in the band,” LaLonde says. “And he’s like the coolest, funnest guy too.”

With the lineup cemented, Primus began touring once again, moving through the country with its mini-festival The Oddity Faire in 2010. By November, the group entered Claypool’s Rancho Relaxo studio in California to begin recording what became “Green Naugahyde.”
LaLonde says they took their time recording the new album and finished in March. With Lane’s drumming anchoring “Green Naugahyde,” LaLonde says it has hints of the group’s first album “Frizzle Fry.” Primus’ quirky rhythms, biting lyrics and oddball atmosphere have not been lost, but there is an evolution in the music as well. Claypool’s solo experiments with jam sensibilities, squishy effects pedals and dead-panned choruses also bleed through on tracks like their single “Tragedy’s a’ Comin’” and “HOINFODAMAN.”

LaLonde says some of the tracks on “Green Naugahyde” — including “Moron TV” and “Eternal Consumption Engine” — had been saved for quite some time.

“I think I’ve been trying to get [‘Eternal Consumption Engine’] on a couple of Primus records before,” LaLonde says. “It was something that me and Les kind of goofed around with before. We just never really got around to finishing it off, but this time around, I kind of threw it in there as one of the first things, so it would maybe get finished.”

Since “Antipop,” the landscape of the industry has changed, and LaLonde says he is unsure if album sales will serve as a barometer for the band’s success as they once did. On their recent tour, he has seen Primus’ fan base continue to thrive and, for now, it’s nice just being back at square one.

“That’s sort of how we started, too,” LaLonde says. “It wasn’t about, ‘Hey, how many of these can we sell?’ or, ‘How much money can we make?’ We just figured make the best stuff and the rest will come.”

Show is sold out.

Photos by Tod Brilliant

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Politics of Art: VisArts shows controversial murals

Judy Taylor in her studio.
When Maine-based artist Judy Taylor created an 11-mural panel depicting the state’s labor history for the lobby of the Department of Labor headquarters, communist propaganda was the last thing on her mind.

But an anonymous letter making that accusation was the firing salvo Governor Paul LePage used when ordering the mural’s removal in March.

Taylor, a figurative artist who has lived in the state for nine years after moving from New York City, learned the news shortly afterwards via a phone call from a reporter.

“I was really startled. I was kind of shocked,” she recalls. “I didn’t believe it would actually happen.”

Through Sept. 20, VisArts in Rockville will feature a reproduction of the controversial mural, including additional works of Taylor’s, in an exhibit called “Celebrate Labor: Where Art and Politics Meet.”

Although it had been hanging in the building since 2008, LePage ordered the removal of the mural after citing anonymous fax he recieved in February from an individual who likened the murals to North Korean propaganda and claimed it only served to further the Union movement. His office claimed to have recieved additional complaints.

For Taylor, who spent a year collaborating with one of Maine’s labor historians after earning the mural commission in 2007, the intent was to capture important moments in labor during the past 150 years.

“It’s history so it never had the agenda to take one side or the other,” she says.

The first panel depicts the apprenticeship stages, before moving into social issues such as women and children working in mills. Other pivotal moments depict the first Labor Day, when workers were allowed to vote anonymously and a panel showing women working in the shipyards during World War II.

“There are two episodes that deal with strikes and labor issues, but those were big turning points in labor history in Maine. They had to be included,” Taylor says.

One panel features Francis Perkins, Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A Department of Labor conference room bears her name, but Governor LePage hopes to change that, too.

“They wanted to eliminate her name and name it after something else like a mountain or a tree,” Taylor says.

The final panel speculates on the future of Maine’s commerce.

“We have different kinds of businesses that Maine is attracting,” Taylor says. “Like medical research, laboratories like the Jackson Lab [research facility], tourism. Where in the future is Maine going to go? It is kind of a business panel.”

In April, some Maine citizens demanded the mural’s return by filing a lawsuit at the U.S. District Court in Portland. The suit claims that LePage never saw the mural and that his Senior Economic Advisor John Butera found it “overwhelming and pro-labor and anti-business.”

Taylor is not associated with the lawsuit and privately wrote a letter in June to the attorney general’s office asking if she could check on the mural’s condition and take some photographs for her portfolio. Her request was denied. She is currently unaware of its location.

For Taylor, the controversy touches on several issues.

“How labor unions are treated, how artists are treated, censorship. Everyday people have expressed their desire to see their history and those people have nothing to do with politics, labor or art,” Taylor says. “It spans so many generations of people and types of people, really despite the their political leanings.”

Taylor will be present at a reception on Thursday, as will AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and the folk duo Magpie will perform. On Friday, Taylor will give a talk on the mural and answer questions.
VisArts Gallery Director Brett John Johnson says the exhibit is relevant given its proximity to the nation’s capital, but he has a hard time seeing what about the work could be objectionable.

“They are not terribly shocking murals,” he says. “If you were to see them, you wouldn’t hide your child’s eyes.”

The exhibit was guest-curated by Nancy Nesvet, a local painter who earned a master’s degree at the Maine College of Art. Nesvet agreed to help orchestrate the exhibit after hearing about a petition to restore the murals.

Also featured in the exhibit is “Twelve Labors of Hercules,” a mural depicting the Greek myth by University of Washington State Art Professor Michael Spafford. Nesvet says Spafford’s work was included to show another example of politics affecting art. The mural of the Greek myth was hung in the Washington State House of Representatives during the 1980s.

“His idea was that the labors of Hercules are akin to the very hard struggles of legislators to make laws for the people of Washington State,” Nesvet says. “And whereas the labors of Hercules were in a sense violent, sometimes the birthing of a state stems from violence.”

The black and white silhouettes of the mural were controversial, even being covered up during their stay.
Upset that his work was to be removed, Spafford claimed that he would rather have the works destroyed than displayed anywhere else and proceeded to sue the state in the late 1980s.

Henry P. Kirk, former president of Centralia College, offered to take the murals. When Spafford refused, Kirk came up with a new tactic.

“For $2 million, which at the time was a lot for money, he built a theater building to accommodate the murals,” Nesvet says. “The federal judge went out there to see the building and he saw that there was absolutely no difference and he said to Michael Spafford ‘I cannot condone the art being kept out of that building.’”

For Nesvet, Spafford’s trials had a happy ending as the work now can be seen publicly. In contrast, Taylor’s remains hidden during litigation.

Nesvet hopes “Celebrate Labor” opens a dialogue on where the right to control public art lies.
“I want to come out of this show with a discussion of what should happen in this nation when public art is displayed, when public art is contracted and when it’s displayed,” she says. “I think this nation needs to have that discussion.”

Photos courtesy Judy Taylor

Friday, June 17, 2011

Film for Thought: Silverdocs Features Local and World Stories

Learning something about the world is among the risks of attending the Silverdocs documentary film festival. From the shifting Iranian political climate during the 2009 presidential elections in “The Green Wave” to the unique Dublin hair salon in “Blue Rinse,” there is no shortage of films that go beyond the scope of the United States.

The festival kicks off Monday and runs through June 26, with some 108 films being shown at various locations including the AFI Silver Theatre and the Discovery HD Theater in Silver Spring. Running alongside the festival is The Silverdocs International Documentary Conference from Tuesday through June 25.

For all its eclecticism, some of Silverdocs’ films also hit upon local stories and issues, such as the tale of Silver Spring resident Gus Goldberger in the film “The Rescuers.” Directed by Michael King, “The Rescuers” follows official Winston Churchill biographer and renowned historian Sir Martin Gilbert and Rwandan anti-genocide activist Stephanie Nyombayire as they explore the stories of non-Jewish diplomats who helped save thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

In the film, Goldberger travels with his brother Leo Goldberger to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he spent much of his childhood. He grew up in a family of six in a three-story flat and his father served as a cantor in the local synagogue.

Still, 1943 marked a turning point for Denmark and the Goldbergers. With a growing resistance movement and the government’s shutdown, Denmark was put under martial law. The change in power gave the Germans an opportunity to round up Denmark’s Jewish citizens and they planned to do so on Oct. 1, 1943.

George Ferdinand Duckwitz was among the Germans informed by Werner Best, who organized the Gestapo, of the plan in September. An attaché, Duckwitz tipped off Danish politicians, who in turn alerted the Jewish community.

With news of the roundup, the Goldbergers had no choice but to flee. It would be the second time they would attempt to escape the Nazis since six Gestapo officers came to the Goldberger’s door in the early morning of Aug. 29.
From left, Sir Martin Gilbert, Stephanie Nyombayire, Gus Goldberger and Leo Goldberger.
Goldberger’s father heard the noise and instructed Goldberger and his two siblings to hide under his bed. His mother and youngest brother were away in the countryside.

“He figured there was only one purpose and that would be to come after us,” Goldberger recalls.

Fortunately, the Gestapo’s noise awoke an upstairs neighbor, who upon walking downstairs demanded to know the cause of the ruckus. She told the Gestapo all the Goldbergers were away.

On Oct. 1, with roundup imminent, the Goldbergers tried to escape with another family, but their house was empty by the time the Goldbergers arrived. Twenty-four hours after that plan fell through and aided by a chance encounter of Goldberger’s father with a woman on a train who knew his work as a singer, the Goldbergers left Denmark in the hull of a fishing vessel en route to Sweden. The Goldbergers, including 9-year-old Gus, arrived in Sweden after switching to a Swedish boat mid-water and eventually settled in Gothenburg. Thanks to Duckwitz, nearly 7,000 Jews escaped.

Goldberger’s story is one of many in Michael King’s film. The Emmy-award winning documentarian came up with the film’s concept after producer Joyce D. Mandell mentioned having seen photos of some of these diplomats in an exhibit at Ellis Island. While filming, King traveled with those spared by the rescuers to places such as Rhodes, Greece. In many instances, the rescuers were breaking the policies of their own countries.

“There was no parade or marching band waiting for them or promotions,” King says. “There was a price to pay in making a choice for humanity.”

Stephanie Nyombayire and Michael King with Prince Charles.
King also found Stephanie Nyombayire. The young activist lost 100 members of her family during the Rwandan genocide and King felt her prescence in the film was necessary in showing a link between past and present.

“We needed a young voice that could talk to young people about the tragedies of the Holocaust. … And also make it a contemporary story, not just a historical story,” he says.

The film will be screened at Silverdocs on June 22 and 23 and is presented in partnership with the United States Institute of Peace.

“This film really embodies the real essence and mission of the USIP and showcases how powerful documentary can be in shining a light on critical issues around peace building,” festival director Sky Sitney says.

Sitney has worked with Silverdocs for the past six season, and as festival director for the last three. This year, she also has been heavily involved with the conference. With more than 60 panels, master classes, pitching forums and workshops conducted by individuals from every facet of the movie industry, Sitney says a handful of the talks can even intrigue those who are not filmmakers, but have curious minds.

“We have a doc talk that is looking at how these films are trying to intervene in various ways in the judicial process, or how they could be used almost as testimony or another form of witnessing,” Sitney says.

Silverdocs also distributes surveys each year to ask patrons what they want to see improved in future conferences. This year, Sitney says the focus of the conference has been shifted, too.

“While we are certainly not going to ignore our entry-level filmmakers, what we did hear in our surveys was that there was an absence of really great content for the mid-career filmmaker,” she explains.

One such presentation will take place at 10 a.m. June 23 in the Fenton Room of the Silver Spring Civic Building. Titled “A Behind-the-Scenes Guide to Capitol Hill for Filmmakers,” the talk will be moderated by Will Jenkins, a staff member for Virginia Senator Jim Webb. The goal of the speech is to show documentarians how they can access legislators and use their films as vehicles for change.

Director Rachel Libert hopes the film “Semper Fi: Always Faithful” will act as just that when it screens at Silverdocs on June 21 and 25.
Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger.
The 76-minute documentary shows the plight of former Marine drill instructor and Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger as he investigates a long history of contaminated drinking water at the Marine training base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Ensminger and his family moved from Lejeune in late 1975. Ten years later, Ensminger lost his 9-year-old daughter to leukemia. Only years later in 1997, while watching the news, a story broke on the contamination, and Ensimger saw the first signs of an answer to his child’s untimely death. Since then, Ensminger has collected a substantial amount of evidence indicating several guilty parties in the contamination case through official Marine documents and outside sources who worked at the camp. With a number of child-related deaths and high rates of illnesses including an amazingly large number of male breast cancer victims with those connected to Lejeune, Ensminger believes his cause goes past a case of paranoia.

Ensminger has been appealing to legislators and speaking everywhere possible on the matter. The film shows the lengths he has gone to including participating in Congressional hearings and attending meetings with the EPA to discuss the harmful effects of chemicals such as PCE, which was found in the water in high levels, but has not yet been classified officially as a “known” carcinogen.

Despite his fortitude, Ensminger is still facing the hard truth that the organization he served for some 25 years has refused to talk with him about his findings or help the soldiers who have suffered as a result from their time at Lejeune. A sense of betrayal strikes deep for Ensminger, but the motto “Semper Fi” still guides him.

“We take care of our own. I know that’s alive and well down at the operating and union level, but I’m not dealing with them in this situation,” Ensminger says. “What is really scary for me is that the people who hold the entire rank and file of the Marine Corps to those lofty standards can’t live up to them themselves. It’s a scary damn thought.”

As shown in the film, Lejeune is not unique, and there are other sites where contamination on military bases threatens the surrounding areas and civilians, including Kirkland Airforce Base in New Mexico and even Fort Meade in Washington, D.C.

Libert first started filming Ensminger in 2007 after meeting his sister while researching another project. Since their last recording session in December, Ensminger has seen strides with allies on Capitol Hill and two pieces of legislation are currently being discussed in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Still, she hopes her film shines a light on the accountability of the Department of Defense, which Ensminger says is the nation’s largest polluter.

“Ask the EPA to really hold the military to the same standards they’re holding private industry and to really enable and support the EPA to have the teeth to go against the Department of Defense,” she says.

With stories like Ensminger’s and Goldberger’s, Silverdocs seems to have captured the weight of the world on film.

Silverdocs Film Festival runs from Monday to June 26. The Silverdocs International Documentary Conference runs from Tuesday through June 25 at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place.

“Semper Fi: Always Faithful” screens at 4 p.m. June 21 at AFI Silver Theater 1, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, and 4:15 p.m. June 25 at AFI Silver Theater 3, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring.

“The Rescuers” screens at 10:45 a.m. June 22 at the Discovery HD Theater, 1 Discovery Place, Silver Spring, and at 5:15 p.m. June 23 at the AFI Silver Theatre 2, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Tickets are $11. Visit

Photos courtesy Michale King Productions; Photo by Hope Hall; Courtesy Rachel Libert

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Asanga Domask shakes up Strathmore with Sri Lankan styles

If all the world is a stage, then Sri Lankans are its choreographers. Through the centuries, folk dances have captured even the smallest aspects of life on the Southeast Asian island and are still performed today.

This weekend at the Music Center at Strathmore, CityDance Ensemble will present "Nruthya Pooja: An Evening of Traditional and Folk Dance of Sri Lanka by Asanga Domask." Choreographed by Asanga Domask, a Sri Lankan native and CityDance's director of administration, the two sold-out shows will feature Domask as well as CityDance's pre-professional group and members of Domask's Sri Lankan Traditional and Folk Dance program.

The show is a blend of folk dances and traditional dances that are rooted in Sri Lankan cultural beliefs and customs.

A pooja, which is an offering in some manner — in this case, dance — that opens a celebration or religious event, will start the evening.

"The pooja in the concert, in the dance aspect, is it's a blessed dance to get permission from gods, from teachers, from the audience," Domask says.

Domask's pooja, which she will perform solo, is in a style of traditional dance called Kandyan. Dating back to the 4th century B.C., Kandyan is believed to have been danced for seven days and seven nights in order to rid an ancient Sri Lankan king of a nightmare that made him ill.

Vannama is one form in the Kandyan style the dancers used to remove the nightmare. These vannamas imitate the behavior of animals. This weekend, Domask will perform the usuka vannama, the eagle's dance, and six of her 23 dancers will perform the the mayura vannama, the peacock's dance.

The colors of the dancers' costumes — which were handmade in Sri Lanka — reflect the animals they are invoking.

"For example, the peacock has to be blue and green and red and orange because that's kind of the colors of the peacock," Domask says.

The attire consists of a jacket, ornate jewelry, an exposed midriff and a long skirt-like bottom.

The other traditional dance Domask will perform is of a low country style called pahatharata. The dance pays tribute to the wife of a demon who brings protection from evil spirits and disease.

Domask's young students will perform folk dances that celebrate day-to-day activities such as fetching water, harvesting rice paddies in the fields and children at play. Among these performers is Domask's niece Ana Harmsen, who began taking classes last year.

A former ballet student, Harmsen was interested in learning more about her cultural background.

"I really enjoy it because I love the songs and the drumming and the movements," the 11-year-old says.

She feels her aunt, who recommended her program, has taught her well.

"She's done it for a long time, too, so it's really good to learn the movements exactly as they were. She's very patient," Harmsen says.

Dance is an essential part of the educational system in Sri Lanka and Domask has been taking lessons since first grade.

In Sri Lankan culture, it is customary to perform these dances with a drum or other live musical accompaniment. Recorded music rarely accompanies shows.

Domask says every movement has a corresponding word so that performers can sing the steps, in essence creating their own music when a drum is not available.

Kandyan dance consists of 12 basic foot movements called "paa saraba," and 12 foot and arm movements called "goda saraba" that, similar to techniques found in African and Indian dance, are used as a foundation.

"It's like in ballet," Domask says. "You have to learn certain movements before you do a high jump or leap."

Outside of school, Domask studied these dances with Sri Lankan masters until she came to the U.S. in 1993 to attend school at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va. As an economics major, she intended to follow in the footsteps of her mother, a banker. Still, she could not resist her roots, and earned a master's in dance from American University in 2006.

Much of Domask's work with CityDance is business oriented and this is the first performance Domask has helmed since joining the organization in 2005. A sense of urgency convinced her to propose the show to Paul Gordon Emerson, CityDance's artistic director and founder.

"Over the years, most of our ancient dance masters of Sri Lanka have passed away, and only a few are there to fill the gap. So I think it's important to train young dancers so we keep these cultural traditions alive," Domask says.

Emerson says producing work like Domask's has been one of the core values of CityDance since it began in 1996. When he started the company, Emerson left behind a career on Capitol Hill. In addition to having worked on more than 20 federal campaigns as well as liaison to the House Armed Services Committee, Emerson served as legislative director to the late House of Representatives member and U.S. Ambassador to Italy Thomas M. Foglietta.

With support from the State Department, Emerson's outreach now exists in movement, and he and his staff are constantly in motion. Since December, his professional company has worked in Israel, Italy and Algeria. This May, Emerson worked on a performance piece with a dance company in Kazakhstan, and CityDance will visit Peru and China in the summer.

"As somebody who believes in the framework of cultural engagement, especially as it applies to international relations," Emerson says, "there are days when I feel like I've been able to accomplish more by being out on the road as a dancer and a choreographer and a head of a company than I was ever able to accomplish as a foreign policy aide."

With Domask's performance, Emerson says the school is fortunate to be able to bring a foreign tradition to American audiences. He has tried his hand at some of Domask's basic traditional techniques, which he says can look deceptively easy.

"After we both stopped laughing so hard that it hurt, she came to the conclusion that it wasn't a style that I was going to acquire anytime soon," Emerson says.

"What I would suggest to any audience member who comes, if you think what you're seeing ... can be picked up in a few hours, think again," he adds, "because this woman has trained her entire life to do this kind of work."

CityDance Ensemble presents "Nruthya Pooja: An Evening of Traditional and Folk Dance of Sri Lanka by Asanga Domask" at The Music Center at Strathmore, Education Wing, Studio 405, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Both weekend performances are sold out. Call 301-581-5100 or visit

Link to the Gazette

Photos by Paul Gordon Emerson; Courtesy CityDance Ensemble

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Game On: University of Maryland's Gamer Symphony Orchestra

Call it beginner's luck.

The first video game Grant Kirkhope helped compose music for was the blockbuster "GoldenEye 007" for the Nintendo 64 game console in 1997.

With more than 10 million copies sold and an enduring spot on Top 10 lists, "GoldenEye"was a game changer that redefined its genre. But, Kirkhope's maiden voyage almost didn't set sail.

"The game actually got canceled by Nintendo during development because they thought it was so bad," Kirkhope recalls. "But Rare [the game's developers] kept paying us and said, ‘No, it's going to be great.' Literally, in the last month of development, it sort of became good. Before that, it was dreadful."

After "GoldenEye," Kirkhope went on to compose for other top-selling Nintendo titles such as "Banjo-Kazooie" and "Perfect Dark." He now works on next-generation console games with Timonium-based developer Big Huge Games, but his past endeavors have not been forgotten.

One of Kirkhope's songs from "Banjo-Kazooie" will be part of the repertoire the University of Maryland's Gamer Symphony Orchestra (UMGSO) will perform on Saturday afternoon at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
UMGSO president Robert Garner invited Kirkhope to attend the concert. The two met earlier this year at the Alexandria, Va.-based MAGFest, a convention devoted to video game music. With the "Banjo-Kazooie" piece in the works, Garner says the timing couldn't have been better.

"We had just happened to luck out that the piece was ready at the same time that Grant was in the area," he says.

Garner, a library information sciences graduate student, says that between its chorus and instrumental section, the student-run symphony consists of 120 members.

In addition to "Banjo-Kazooie," the evening's set list spans more than a decade, featuring selections from the "Warcraft" series to "Portal," which was released in 2007.

The concert also will feature a performance by the Col. Zadok Magruder High School Gamer Symphony Orchestra, which Garner says the UMGSO inspired. The high school orchestra will play the "Chocobo Theme" from Square Enix's "Final Fantasy VII."

With such a large orchestra to consider, many of the pieces the UMGSO arranges are re-imagined with additional parts. For example, on Saturday the orchestra will perform a medley combining the themes from the 1995 title "Chrono Cross" and its sequel "Chrono Trigger."

"That gives our arrangers something of a challenge to take and expand it and broaden it into something that's well suited for an 80-piece orchestra and a 40-piece choir," Garner says.

For the "Banjo-Kazooie" number, Mark Cromer of Big Huge Games will join the UMGSO onstage to play the banjo. Cromer was asked to perform after Garner encountered Kirkhope at MAGFest.

"Being the ensemble that we are, we couldn't in good conscience do a piece called ‘Banjo-Kazooie' without having a banjo [or] a kazoo," Garner says. "We were able to handle the kazoos without problem, but the banjo was a little harder to track down."

Kirkhope recommended Cromer. The two, who are currently putting the finishing touches on the multi-platform title "Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning," have worked together since Cromer joined the company in 2008.

Cromer has been composing in the video game industry for 15 years. For 12 of those years, he worked for Firaxis Games, the developers behind some of Sid Meier's "Civilization" series. The series covers history and cultures from the past 4,000 years and, as a result, Cromer says he began learning any type of instrument he could get his hands on — including the banjo.

"Everything but the kitchen sink," Cromer says. "I've been known to use an egg slicer as an instrument."

Cromer and Kirkhope, along with fellow composer Ian Smith, are responsible for creating not only the games' sounds, but also the layering of sound effects. The trio believes that the best game soundtracks are those with a distinct melody.

Cromer and Kirkhope agree that the methods of video game composers have changed greatly since their first endeavors. What once was a job that could be easily accomplished in the studio now finds veterans like Kirkhope flying to Prague to record with full orchestras.

Still, Saturday's performance with the UMGSO will give Cromer a new experience with a game he knows well.

"This is my first opportunity to play banjo with an orchestra," Cromer says. "Who could pass that up?"

Photos by Mark Noble; Michael DeFlippi