Sunday, February 26, 2006

Chewing the fat at the Pig


Sunday February 26, 2006

Chewing the fat at the Pig
* From Oscar nominees to struggling wannabes, these writers have got a hot spot.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

WHAT a bunch of poseurs, thought Josh Olson, when he first stepped foot inside the Bourgeois Pig. The screenwriter was visiting this Hollywood cappuccino bar with a friend, and all around were "punks sitting there with laptops," Olson says. "Pretenders. Jerks."

"But Josh," said his friend, "how can you be so sure that they aren't actually writing something?" OK, Olson admitted. It was curiosity, partly, that brought him back the next morning (with his own laptop), and the next. And soon he was coming not to gauge the poseurs but because days at the Pig were eight- and 10-page days -- good stuff too -- and five years after setting up shop here, Olson received an Oscar nomination for his script, "A History of Violence."

It wasn't until a few weeks ago, after the nomination, that a scruffy-bearded Olson spotted fellow best adapted screenplay nominee Dan Futterman ("Capote") sipping coffee at a nearby table. "Josh came up to me and said, 'I know who you are!' " says Futterman, who takes his reading to the Pig. "We talked, and now, since I have a new house to decorate, I'm going to go check out his girlfriend's artwork."

Futterman won't have to look far. Olson's girlfriend, Annie Kehoe, an actress and artist, often shows her paintings at the Pig. (Olson and Kehoe met here just over a year ago.) But Olson and Futterman aren't the only of this year's best screenwriter nominees interested in Kehoe and her work. Stephen Gaghan, up for best original screenplay for "Syriana," snagged a Kehoe portrait of a newborn baby off the wall at the Pig, and intends to purchase more.

Oscar-nominated patrons aside, there are no red carpets unfurled here across floors of chipped concrete, and Olson worries each day that his favorite perch -- in a corner between the wall and the baked goods -- will be commandeered by some unknown scribe. The Pig sits on a lively, funky block of Franklin Avenue plucked from the East Village, with cafes, a newsstand, a record store, the French bistro La Poubelle; but on either side is urban sprawl that's chromosomally Los Angeles, a shattered apartment windowpane repaired with tape, a man with exhausted eyes pacing the sidewalks hawking popsicles.

"If you come here for a long time, you're here for that grittiness," says Andrew Chadsoy, who has hung out and worked at the Pig since he was 18, and now is 31 and the manager. "It's part of what gives way to creativity. If you didn't have that, the writers wouldn't be here." The Pig is a reminder that while Hollywood and the Oscars appear to be about impossibly out-of-reach starlets and super-refined notions of glamour, in Los Angeles, Hollywood is just part of town.

"Character, life, people, it's what I want to absorb, no matter who they are," says Jeremy Donner, a screenwriter with shaggy red hair who works across the table from Olson every day. "You have to be a patient listener to be a writer." There is a tangible divide here between observers and the observed: Silent writers sprawl across all available table space while noisy regulars gab at the counter or on soft purple couches; at the row of tables outside, young men with beards suck on cigarettes and argue politics.

It's people-watching at its finest, and writing is the perfect excuse for voyeurism. On a recent morning, Michael Abel sits at the counter, doodling devil horns on a picture of Dick Cheney in The Times; next, his pen makes a mockery of Condoleezza Rice.

"More than one person has gone to sit outside because of my politics, I'll admit that," says Abel, a cappuccino caterer and Pig regular for some 11 years. After passing around the augmented newspaper to halfhearted interest, Abel leaves -- but returns later to show off a freshly handmade shirt that reads, "Dick Cheney Hunting Party," replete with birdshot holes and faux blood.

"The problem with this place," says Ed Mattiuzzi, a musician seated nearby, "is that I tend to come in and procrastinate. I got here this morning at 8:30, and I'm supposed to be at work by 9, but now it's what, 10:30?" Zin Chiang nods, smiling. "Most people who get their coffee in here are friends," says the writer for a Taiwanese music magazine. "I had a snowboarding injury once, and [Abel] is really good at deep-tissue massage, and he fixed it for me."


Coincidence, you say?

EXCEPT for the seated observers, this feels like a small-town coffeehouse along the lines of, well, the cafe in Olson's "A History of Violence." And there is a regular named Joey, which is the name of Viggo Mortensen's character in the movie. And the Pig, like the cafe in "Violence," has been robbed at gunpoint.

No, no, no, says Olson. Coincidences, all. (Which makes sense; his screenplay was based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke.) Even so, it's easy to wonder if bits and pieces of this joint are smattered across the silver screen, by osmosis if not by intent.

"The women here are so beautiful," observes Ben Zolno, a twentysomething documentary sound designer, working on his first screenplay. "But [writers] aren't here because we're comfortable. You'll notice that music is playing, and that most people are trying to drown it out with their own headphones. It's like being at a Buddhist temple. We fight through resistance. There is something to being alone with other people."

Being alone with other people at the Pig is more complicated than you might expect; the subculture of writers here has developed its own unspoken code of conduct. It took Donner months of sitting across from Olson, for hours a day, before they acknowledged each other. "After we were both comfortable that the other person wasn't a wanker, we started with head nodding," Donner says. Then saying "hello" and "goodbye," and at long last trading numbers.

Olson usually stakes out the table first, then Donner arrives, followed by the third and newest member of their clan, Mishna Wolff, a comedian. "The most flattering moment at this table was when Josh called me and said, 'People are trying to sit at the table, do you want your seat?' " Wolff says. "That was after I had been sitting here for six months." The trio piles laptop bags, papers and jackets onto the remaining chairs until all appear taken.

Then writing begins, in silence. Earphones in place mean: Leave me alone. One earphone in, one out: I'll listen until you finish your sentence, then zip it. For Wolff, earphones are often just unconnected props.

They buy tea and coffee, sometimes lunch, and leave when enough work's done or whim moves them. The writers are not a cash cow for the Pig, to say the least. And business has been difficult lately, says Chadsoy. He's making changes to bolster the hipster nighttime clientele, many of whom are drawn to a back lounge perfect for making out; he plans to darken the ambience, add red lights, play louder music.

"The computer crowd has inundated the coffeehouse scene," says Jeff Zardus, who works nights at the Pig, open daily until 2 a.m. "People have forgotten that this is an alternative to bars. You feel resistance to it, people asking me to turn the lights up and the music down. I think that coffeehouses have gone soft."

Soft or not, this is just the way Olson likes it. "The day I come in here, and it's sold or closed, I'll have to find a new line of work," he says. "That's terrifying."

"We really should put a plaque on your chair now," says the waitress behind the counter, Amelia B., when Olson goes to order another double Americana. "No!" Olson says. "No, please. Please, just a 'reserved' sign."

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Less is more at a Carmel Valley retreat


Sunday February 19, 2006

Western Travel
Less is more at a Carmel Valley retreat
* Getting back to basics at Tassajara Zen center is made easier by gourmet vegetarian fare and dips in natural pools.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Tassajara Hot Springs, Calif. -- THE plan was simple enough: Pick up my girlfriend, Katie, rent a vehicle that could withstand an infamously bumpy dirt road, and leave the busy, gritty, noisy cityscape behind. Growing up near Berkeley, I had long heard of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a retreat in Carmel Valley's Ventana Wilderness as famous for its vegetarian cuisine as for its salve-for-all-ills hot springs.

Tassajara is one of the oldest Soto Zen training monasteries outside of Asia, but anyone, including non-Buddhists like Katie and me, is welcome to visit from April 28 to Sept. 10 -- if they can get a reservation. Rooms, cabins, yurts and dorms are doled out on a first-come-first-served basis; the most eager will mail in their requests this week, when the center begins accepting them. I sent ours at the first opportunity, and even then we didn't get our first-choice cabin.

But what ends in tranquillity always seems to begin with mayhem. I misplaced my car keys, then my driver's license, then my cellphone. It was already dusk by the time we began inching our rented SUV up Interstate 5 -- and we were both grumpy. The goal was to push through half the 300-mile trek that evening, stopping to dine at some charming roadside cafe. Instead, we grabbed burgers at In-N-Out, then slept in a smoky motel room decorated with a painting of a neon pink flamingo. Morning brought more greasy fare (Denny's) and more driving.

We stopped at a fruit stand and pressed on, spitting cherry pits out the windows. Finally we left the freeway and wound through brown-green hills, past cattle and horse pastures, rusty mailboxes and patches of yellow and purple wildflowers.

Katie is a city-loving sophisticate who appreciates nature -- from a distance. (This long weekend trip in May required more than a little cajoling.) She used the last reaches of cellular service to commiserate with her mother about the indignities to come: no shower or hot water in the cabin and oil lamps instead of electricity. Bring wine, her mother advised, and lots of it.

At a dusty convenience store somewhere on the outskirts of the Ventana Wilderness, we surveyed jugs and boxes and a bottle or two of wine. We chose a few and threw in a bottle of Thunderbird simply because the idea of taking it to Tassajara made us laugh.

The last leg of the drive, on an ill-maintained dirt road, lived up to its reputation as a harrowing experience; a precipice loomed to our right, we knew, but our tires kicked up billows of dust across the windshield, and I found it difficult to discern where land ended and freefall began.


Simple and quiet

I was glad we didn't die, if only for the food -- all cooked by Zen students and priests. But before eating anything we had to cart our luggage from car to cabin in an oversize wheelbarrow. The path led through a wooden gate welcoming us to Tassajara and past several priests dressed in simple black robes.

The property spans about 160 acres, and hiking trails traverse the shaded hills; trek far enough and you'll find waterfalls. Guests are welcome to join residents for chanting and meditation each morning and evening, but many choose instead to lounge on the soft grass outside the meditation hall or stroll through nearby gardens.

Our redwood cabin was an airy room with abundant light, a hardwood floor, twin beds that we pushed together, lanterns on elegant wooden tables and -- to Katie's irritation -- a bathroom shared with an adjoining cabin. (Our friendly but absent-minded neighbors faithfully locked the two bathroom doors but rarely remembered to unlatch the door to our side afterward.)

We crossed a wooden bridge to the dining hall, which overlooks the stream along which the cabins lie. Here we began eating and didn't stop for the next three days. The dining hall was empty except for us, but a passing priest assured us that the flan and fruit and tea were snacks for the taking. We downed three big pieces of flan between us, grabbed some fruit and headed down a dirt path to explore. The only sound was the tinkling of the stream, the mellow chatter of passersby and the click-clack of Katie's high heels.

The nearby swimming pool smelled of sulfur, but we took a dip anyhow in its warm, viscous, salty spring water, then dozed on chaise longues poolside, half watching black-yellow butterflies against the backdrop of green mountains. The butterflies were joined by horseflies whose bites proved surprisingly painful, so we dressed, borrowed a chess board from the communal game room and set it up on a smooth tree-stump table.

Lunch at Tassajara is a choice between a sit-down meal and a do-it-yourself buffet of gourmet salads, vegetables, fruits, beans, grains, fresh baked breads and variations on humus and tapenade. We chose the buffet both days and took our lunch on hikes. On our second day trekking downstream, we found a pool deep enough to leap into from overhanging rocks. The water was clear -- we saw several fish -- and shockingly cold. I managed to lose a sandal downstream, so I hopped the few miles back, reassured by the knowledge that, if I injured my city-soft sole, I could recuperate trailside while Katie kept us fed by spear-fishing with her high heels.


Hot springs bath

DIRTY and tired, we headed for the bathhouse, a Japanese-style enclosure with two wings divided by gender during the daytime, coed at night. On each side, natural hot springs poured into tiled plunges with window views of the stream below; outside, people struck yogic poses on a large wood deck or lounged in an outdoor tub or steam room. Brave folk alternated between hot plunges and the freezing stream.

The bathhouse is clothing-optional, but when I climbed into the steaming water wearing my bathing suit, a naked middle-aged man informed me, "The tradition is that we don't wear suits in here. It introduces a foreign element." ("Nonsense," a regular visitor told me later. "That man needs a good dunking.") In the evening, Katie and I visited the bathhouse together, and I ventured in nude, Katie in her Hawaiian-print bikini. What were the chances that a pal from college and his new girlfriend would show up, both nude? We laughed off the awkwardness but couldn't quite figure out where to put our eyes.

Many of the visitors that weekend belonged to a bird-watching group and spent their days wandering around staring through binoculars, apparently more interested in the far off than the nearby. They weren't much for conversation. But on Saturday evening, over a dinner of North African vegetarian stew, roasted carrots and couscous, and a delicious date almond torte, Katie and I befriended five delightful guys (mostly from Southern California, it turned out) with whom we've kept in touch.

The following afternoon, our new clan gathered on a porch near the stream, and out came nuts and fancy wines and ... the Thunderbird. Sure, there was laughter, but among aged Cabernets, it was exotic.

A tolling bell meant meditation time for the resident monks and nuns, and a monk-in-training invited Katie and me to try it. We followed him into a large room with rows of cushions facing walls or raised wooden panels. A gong rang out in rapid succession. We took off our shoes, Katie discarding her lime-green pumps. (A nun stopped to chide her for the shortness of her mid-thigh smock-dress.) Then we were seated, legs folded beneath us, listening to silence and to natural sounds we hadn't noticed before. Forty minutes of stillness flew by, then a peal of the gong, and we walked out into warm air and mosquitoes underneath an expansive sky.

I can't really speak for Katie, but I could swear she seemed sad to leave. For the fun of it, she hopped in the wheelbarrow alongside our luggage, and I pushed us all uphill to that dusty SUV. It was a long haul home inching along the coast, but neither of us got the least bit grumpy.



Zen and the art of rest


From Los Angeles, it's about 300 miles to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. The last stretch, a 14-mile dirt road, is bumpy; if you don't have a high-clearance vehicle, you might want to rent one. Or park your car in nearby Jamesburg and board the Stage, a rugged shuttle that ferries travelers that last leg of the journey. It's $35 per person; arrange when making Tassajara reservations.


A range of lodgings is available, including large family-size cabins and dormitories suitable for the solo traveler. Stone rooms (Friday-Sunday, $145 per person; single occupancy $265) feature wood stoves and a view of the creek. Redwood yurts (Friday-Sunday, $154 per person; single occupancy $283) include private decks and two single mattresses that double as a king. Rates are less on weekdays. There is no electricity in any of the cabins (kerosene lanterns provide light), and all bathing is done in the communal bathhouse.


All meals are included in the cost of lodgings. Tassajara serves gourmet vegetarian cuisine. The kitchen is often willing to accommodate dietary restrictions.


Tassajara Reservations, 300 Page St., San Francisco, CA 94102; (415) 865-1895 or A reservations phone line, (415) 865-1899, opens March 20. Until then reservations are accepted by mail (print out a form from the website).

-- Steven Barrie-Anthony

Saturday, February 4, 2006

The halftime coach


Saturday February 04, 2006

The halftime coach
* Don Mischer draws the plays as the Stones and the rest of the Super Bowl show team near game day.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

IT'S only a few days before Super Bowl Sunday, and the guy directing and producing the pregame and halftime shows would like to know, please, which songs the Rolling Stones will perform. But the Stones aren't ready to decide yet. And so Don Mischer, who is reprising this role from last year and has also produced opening and closing ceremonies for two Olympics, eight Emmys and the 2004 Democratic National Convention, is sitting in his temporary office in a converted locker room in the bowels of Tiger Stadium, guessing.

It's an elaborate game of pretend. Numbered pieces of paper taped to lockers represent some 20 cameras awaiting Mischer's command at neighboring Ford Field. "Keith and Mick often make great moves away from the band," Mischer tells Gregg Gelfand, the show's associate director. "But I'm assuming that Keith will always start on the left side of the stage." This isn't a blind assumption; Mischer took in four Stones concerts in the last year and has reviewed countless hours of tape. He knows their lyrics, their moves. Everything except their darn set list.

"What if they sing 'Get Off of My Cloud,' " he says, pressing buttons to find the song on a CD. And in an instant he's on his feet, chair flying backward, calling out camera switches in rapid fire to best capture the essence of these imaginary Stones. Gelfand sets cues -- "ready camera five on Mick" -- and Mischer waits, waits, waits: "Take!" he shouts, fists pounding the air. Take, take, take!

Mischer can appreciate secrecy. When Muhammad Ali was chosen to light the torch in the 1996 Olympics, Mischer sent nearly all staff and security packing and practiced with the boxer late at night with a flashlight. But secrecy has a different tilt to it after Janet Jackson bared a breast -- the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" -- in the 2004 halftime show, prompting a flood of viewer complaints and a Federal Communications Commission fine of $550,000 leveled against CBS. This year's halftime show will be on a five-second tape delay for the first time in Super Bowl history; it wasn't deemed necessary for last year's show, perhaps since the more staid Paul McCartney wasn't likely to go off script (he turned in his final set list months before the game).

Even though McCartney was a safe choice, he was an odd fit for an audience fueled by beer and adrenaline, and even Mischer, who directed the show, admits that the stadium didn't reverberate. There must be some middle ground between McCartney and a naked breast, and in late spring 2005, the National Football League began a dialogue with the Stones about "a season-long platform," says Charles Coplin, vice president of programming for the NFL, which has kept a closer watch on the halftime show ever since a breast marred its family-friendly spectacle. "They agreed to play a few songs at our kickoff show, and ABC used one of their songs, 'Rough Justice,' for Monday Night Football, and it will all culminate in those 12 minutes at halftime."

Not only did the Stones agree to participate, they agreed to do the halftime show for Super Bowl XL (40 for you non-Latin speakers) gratis, even paying for some of their own special effects. At a news conference Thursday, Mick Jagger noted that "America has changed since we first came here, it's almost unrecognizable," as has Mick, who's a long way from his bad boy days. But maybe not that far. He ended his comments with his own mini shocker, turning to a bank of TV cameras and saying, "Network television, they're always worried about how many times you're going to say [expletive] on the air." Then, to soothe NFL nerves: "They needn't worry about it. Calm down more and take life as it comes."

Halftime conundrum

The question is, does anyone really care about the halftime show? Millions of people watch the Super Bowl, sure, but at some point they've got to get off the couch to use the loo and burn some more nachos. Commercials used to serve that purpose, but who wants to miss the Bud Bowl? "Of the three parts of the Super Bowl -- the game, advertisements and the halftime show -- the halftime show is the least evolved, the least thought out and the poorest," says Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "It remains an ancient anachronistic remnant of the Ed Sullivan era." Not so, says Coplin. "People perceive the halftime show as big entertainment and spectacle."

Whether or not the halftime show matters to a worldwide audience, it matters in Detroit. Aretha Franklin, who with Stevie Wonder will appear in the Super Bowl pregame show, made headlines in Michigan when she criticized the NFL for failing to showcase Motown at halftime. "We thought it was a little bit remiss that they came to Detroit and didn't use at least one artist from Detroit," she said at a news conference. (The invitation for her and Wonder to play in the pregame mollified her somewhat.)

Regulars at the Sweet Water Tavern, a few blocks from Ford Field, hear Franklin loud and clear. There's a sense at the tavern, amid smoke and liquored good cheer, that Super Bowl XL is in Detroit but not of Detroit. The Steelers and Seahawks are playing rather than the hometown Lions, and recent cutbacks at General Motors and Ford mean that many Detroiters are more concerned with paying rent than buying Super Bowl tickets.

"What they should've done is have the Motown theme for halftime," says Johnny "Cheese" Petracci, the tavern's manager. "The Stones are 60 years old, man. They're dead." A friend at a nearby table raises his beer in agreement. "People would've liked to see the Temptations or Diana Ross," says Darryl Powell, an assistant manager. "It should've been another act. The NFL is just another elite group of people. Everything has to go their way."

Mike Kunik, a 26-year-old musician wandering by the tavern with a friend, disagrees. "I think Detroiters just need something to [complain] about. Motown is not a current thing. People don't listen to it. And anyway, during the halftime show I'll probably be getting another beer."

Regardless of the halftime snub, locals are pitching in to make halftime happen. About 300 unpaid volunteers spent long hours the week before the Super Bowl learning how to pitch the Stones' massive stage (117 by 100 feet), which on Sunday they must do in a matter of minutes. Meanwhile, Mischer and various ABC producers joined dozens of volunteers on Wednesday before the game to rehearse part of the pregame ceremony honoring MVPs from all the previous Super Bowls.

"We want to thank you guys for doing this," Mischer told the group of mostly twentysomethings assembled at nearby Wayne State University's basketball gym. Cue music, cue announcer, and here come the MVPs. John Elway has lost weight, he's wearing dangling earrings, and -- wait, that isn't Elway. It's Summer LaViolett, a 23-year-old Detroit native, waving to imaginary fans, carrying a picture of Elway before her face.

Mischer, again, is guessing. The real MVPs don't arrive until Saturday, and they'll likely walk and act a little differently than these Detroiter stand-ins. "Do you think we should have them stop in the middle?" he asks Fred Gaudelli, a producer at ABC. "No," Gaudelli says. "Some guy might want to milk the moment because of his ego."

The scene at Wayne State is jovial and lively and feels like summer camp; in contrast, Ford Field, with its layers of security and metal detectors and thousands of workers with badges milling about, seems more like the Pentagon. On game day, Mischer and his team will race between a trailer across the street stuffed with video monitors and controls and a skybox in the stadium. Thursday evening finds Mischer in the trailer watching Stevie Wonder, Joss Stone and John Legend rehearse the pregame show on the field, and practicing cues and cuts.

Mischer is on his feet as Wonder sings, scanning all available camera angles and yelling -- Take! Take! -- until Wonder waves a hand and halts the number. He can't hear Legend, he explains. And "my ears keep popping," he says, fiddling with an earpiece. "These are valuable ears. I need them."

At 9:45 or so, rehearsal ends and the musicians pack up. And Patrick Woodroffe, the Stone's lighting designer, drops by the trailer to say hello to Mischer. The Stones have still not set a playlist, but what's "really interesting," says Woodroffe, is that the NFL will allow the band to sing the word "come" even if it can have another spelling and meaning.

Mischer laughs nervously, but smiles.

"As long as everybody's happy," he says.


'NFL Super Bowl XL'

Where: ABC

When: Pre-game, 11:30 a.m.; Game, 3 p.m. Sunday.

Ratings: Unrated

Friday, February 3, 2006

That Song Sounds Familiar


Friday February 03, 2006

That Song Sounds Familiar
* An online service helps users find new music through a 'genome project' that maps tunes' traits and spits out matches.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND -- In the beginning, there was music. Childhood and young adulthood floated by to a soundtrack of lyrics and rhythms and searing guitar riffs that consumed you, became you, constituted your identity, galvanized your intent, spoke your soul.

But time passes, classrooms fade to cubicles, and a vast landscape of new music turns foreign and unexplored. For Jeff Hersh, 31, the stereo came to double as Proust's madeleine, its purpose to invoke memories rather than create them.

"Finding music was easier when I was younger," says Hersh, a vice president at Smith Barney in New York. "In college I lived in a fraternity house with 70 guys all around me at all times, listening to various kinds of music. But as you get older, you work more, you get isolated."

Then in November, a friend told Hersh about, an inventive "Internet radio" website that generates music streams -- "stations" -- based on one's favorite artists or songs. He started his own private thread of music that was a combination of Neil Young and Pearl Jam, Hersh says, and in an hour he heard more new music he liked than he had in the last decade, much of it from obscure bands that shared musical traits with Young and Pearl Jam.

He fine-tuned the station, giving a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to certain tracks, and soon he was loving nearly every song it threw at him. He started new stations, jotted down song names -- and barely left his apartment that weekend.

Since the free version of Pandora made its debut in November (you can listen with no ads on the screen for $3 a month), 8 million stations have been created, and record label and radio executives and technologists are aflutter with interest.

Pandora is more than just a fad; its unusual methodology, which marries traditional musical authority with the wisdom of a group of experts, raises philosophical questions about the shape of Net culture.

Customizable Internet radio such as Yahoo's has been around for years, but Pandora is a twist on the concept: Instead of relying solely on computer software to spit out playlists, Pandora draws on its Music Genome Project, a 6-year-old effort by a group of musicians to identify the hundreds of traits and qualities that form the building blocks of music -- and then to map out each individual song within this framework, or genome. Genre disappears, and every song is at once relatable, however closely or distantly, to every other.

"This raises the bar significantly," says Ted Cohen, senior vice president of digital development for EMI Music. "For the moment, it's the coolest thing out there. The whole idea seems to be to give people just enough interaction so that the listening experience gets better -- and it works. When I plugged in the Raspberries and Todd Rundgren, it came back with Dwight Twilley. That's it! If Eric Carmen and Todd Rundgren had a child, it would be Dwight Twilley."

The operation's hub is in a nondescript building in downtown Oakland, where on a recent afternoon a dozen or so "music analysts" sprawled in front of rows of computer monitors, wearing headphones, tapping out rhythms and humming. They get paid $15 to $17.50 an hour to listen to music, and set their own shifts to accommodate gigs and recording sessions.

"This is an ideal job for musicians," says Rick Higgs, 55, a senior analyst who found the company through a "help wanted" poster in a record store. "They pay me for skills I never thought I'd use in a commercial context."

Analysts begin their shifts by selecting a CD from nearby bins and choosing a song, then they log on to the computer system and, using about 400 scales, identify and define the aural traits that make each song unique. They isolate and analyze each vocal thread and instrument, discern melody from improvisation. How lyrical or angular is the principal melody? Does the drummer tend toward sticks or brushes?

The result is that when a Pandora user seeds a station with Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," a message pops up informing the listener that the playlist arises from "folk roots, mild rhythmic syncopation, acoustic sonority, major key tonality and melodic songwriting." Song selection will always differ from user to user, but a certain "Mr. Tambourine Man" station began with Dylan's own "Farewell Angelina," Arlo Guthrie's "I'm Going Home" and Doc Watson's "Nashville Blues."

Technical complexity aside, Higgs doesn't care much for computers and says he has tried Pandora only once or twice. But like most of his colleagues, many of whom are struggling musicians, he feels strongly that Pandora will help obscure performers find an audience. After all, a user listening to Pandora is just as likely to hear an unknown garage band as the Rolling Stones.

And any musician, whether signed to a label or not, is welcome to send in a CD to be auditioned for inclusion in the database.

Many do. Pandora headquarters is overflowing with about 40,000 CDs: in crates, on desks, lining dozens of bookshelves around a pool table and a raised stage with a drum set, guitars and keyboards (for when analysts feel like taking a break and jamming). The majority were purchased by Pandora or sent by labels looking to publicize artists, but a steady stream of hand-addressed packages arrive from amateurs.

In the last decade, cheap personal computers and software such as ProTools have turned bedrooms into professional-quality recording studios. But the laissez-faire vision of a million musicians quitting their part-time jobs is thwarted by the reality that labels and commercial radio stations remain the stern gatekeepers to wider audiences and their wallets.

A handful of networking websites such as connect musicians directly with friends and fans.

"Pandora and MySpace are the best things that have happened to music in the last five years," says Adam Leiter, lead singer for Boston alt-rock band Sad Marvin, who recently sent an album to Pandora. "I like being able to stay independent, to market ourselves and manage ourselves. There's an absurd number of bands out there, but now if someone is using Pandora they can put in a band like Pearl Jam and out comes us."

Of course, there is the flip side. A hipster music lover who seeds her Pandora station with indie jewels may end up listening to some mainstream pop; the electroclash band Le Tigre, say, may spawn -- among equally hip fare -- Lindsay Lohan and Ashlee Simpson.

Included in the hundreds of e-mails that Pandora receives each day are complaints that the mainstream infringes on the counterculture, as well as an occasional admission that, umm, I guess maybe I kind of enjoyed it. "I just found out that I apparently like Enrique Iglesias," writes one user. "It was a really good song. Shameful."

One high school teacher is taking advantage of this cross-pollination to teach cliquish teens an appreciation of diversity and difference. "High school students use the style of music they listen to to define themselves," Michael Osborn, an English teacher in Broomfield, Colo., says. "I had been using Pandora, and I noticed that it tested some of my preconceived notions of music I thought I didn't like.

"So I built a lesson around Pandora. I have each student create a station, write an essay about what kinds of music they like and don't like, and then trade. It works, it catches their interest, and it's a great way for them to learn to respect each other, which helps when we move on to more sensitive subjects."

Yet some wonder whether Pandora's basic scheme is reactionary.

James McQuivey, an assistant professor of communications at Boston University, enjoys Pandora but notes that it "runs counter to the democratizing trend of the Internet." Instead of using "collaborative filtering" software pioneered by and Apple's iTunes ("customers who bought this album also bought these albums"), Pandora "puts the power of the recommendation in the hands of an expert system," McQuivey says. "Pandora will succeed only if its centralized system proves superior to the wisdom of the crowd."

Pandora founder Tim Westergren is delighted by users' enthusiasm. After all, five years ago, Pandora was an anonymous and struggling start-up, and now Westergren's workdays are punctuated by about 300 messages from users. He responds to all before falling asleep at 3 or 4 each morning; when his fingers ache from typing, he switches on voice recognition software and dictates into a microphone.

Westergren is 40 and looks 30, though at day's end his eyes are tired and the gray creeping through his brown hair appears more pronounced. But even on a few hours' sleep, he's boyishly enthusiastic about the possibility that Pandora will change the music world. He yearns, he says, for the day when "growing up wanting to be a musician is like wanting to be a teacher or a doctor," instead of the impractical journey it is today.

Pandora was born in part out of Westergren's attempt to eke out a living as a keyboard player in acoustic rock bands and his conclusion that "the music industry is broken."

"There's so much good music out there that ought to be supporting people," he says. "Instead of having 12 artists turn the corner, there should be 12,000."

He gave up touring and spent the late 1990s as a film composer in Los Angeles. The routine was always the same: "A director would say to me: 'Here's a couple of pieces of music that would work for this project. Now write me something new,' " he remembers. He was, essentially, functioning as an unconscious version of the Music Genome Project he went on to devise.

In January 2000, Westergren and two pals found investors, set up in a studio apartment in San Francisco and began listing the 400 or so variables that define their pop genome. (Other genomes would follow: hip-hop, electronica, jazz, world music.)

They hired analysts, but no average musician would do. Every analyst must have the equivalent of a four-year education in music, pass a music theory exam and complete 40 hours of training. Even then, 10% of the music is analyzed a second time by a "senior analyst," and any difference of opinion over a point on each of the hundreds of variables is flagged and reviewed.

They licensed technology to Best Buy and AOL, but the resulting recommendation engines -- Like that? Try this! -- didn't seem to harness the project's full capabilities.

In July 2004, newly arrived Chief Executive Joe Kennedy suggested that the company concentrate on delivering music as well as recommending it.

Although iPods are extremely popular, research suggested that users tire of the rigmarole of uploading new music and end up listening to the same playlists ad infinitum. At the same time, a large number of people have flirted with Internet radio (an estimated 45 million in 2004), but Pandora found in its study that few people are satisfied with the experience. The market seemed primed for a solution that walked the line between familiarity and exploration.

In short order, Pandora users created millions of stations -- all without the company spending a dollar on marketing. Instead, employees respond to every comment, insult and inquiry they receive, and watch Pandora propel itself across blogs and podcasts and the physical world. This kind of viral marketing, which Google used to lure millions of users to its e-mail service, takes for granted that a retired janitor who blogs from his sofa might have as much marketing power as a full-page ad in Newsweek.

And then there's ye olde conventional word of mouth. Hersh, the vice president at Smith Barney, says he has "personally turned on at least 50 or 60 people to Pandora. I've even used it as a pickup line with girls."

Despite its popularity, the company has not turned a profit. Licensing fees to play music over the Internet are higher than on terrestrial radio, about a cent and a half per listener per hour, and the ad revenue from the Pandora homepage, combined with commissions from Amazon and iTunes whenever a user clicks to buy an album or a song, isn't enough to cover expenses.

Westergren and Kennedy think profitability will come, and in the meantime they are in talks with cellphone, cable and other companies for the next step: snipping Pandora from the Web and making it portable.

That would be awesome news to Kelsey Schultz, 17, a student near Ann Arbor, Mich. "These days, a lot of people turn on MTV to find out what's popular," she says, "but with Pandora you can really expand your musical library and experience what's out there."

Still, if she finds a really fantastic new band, she might not tell her friends. "I like to keep my own secret music stash without people getting in on it." Then, when it pops up in somebody else's radio station, she can say: "That's my favorite band. I found them first!"


Compatible music

Pandora creates personal "radio stations" by matching users' selected artists or songs with "songs and artists that have musical qualities similar" to their choices. The matching music selections are different each time a user inputs an artist or song, based on the aural characteristics of that particular search. Here are two examples:

Original selection: Radiohead

* "Dollars & Cents" by Radiohead

* "Stay Awake" by Dishwalla

* "Your Skull Is Red" by Team Sleep

* "Lonely Dirges" by Paul Michel

* "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" by Radiohead

* "The Last High" by the Dandy Warhols

* "Will You Tell Me Then" by the Faunts

* "Treefingers" by Radiohead

* "God and Mars" by Days Away

* "Station in the Valley" by the Sea and Cake

* "If" by 13 & goD

* "No Surprises" by Radiohead

Original selection: The Beatles

* "Hung Upside Down" by Buffalo Springfield

* "Lady Luck" by Journey

* "I Me Mine" by the Beatles

* "My Destination" by Boston

* "For Pete's Sake" by the Monkees

* "Hot Child in the City" by Nick Gilder

* "Dream Away" by Afterglow

* "Starman" by David Bowie

* "Old Brown Shoe" by the Beatles

* "Caroline" by Jefferson Starship

* "Sleeping With the Television On" by Billy Joel