Sunday, November 20, 2016

Hamilton Plays Burr to Pence



Perhaps it is a queasiness that comes from having given numerous public performances, and feeling like the objective distance between the two is actually part of what makes it an art. Or maybe it's the lingering sense of awkwardness from recollecting political speeches from the stage of the Academy Awards. Or perhaps the feeling that a speech given at Broadway ticket prices of up to $199 a seat isn't exactly the voice of the masses. Or that while I am always happy to know there are still quality musicals being written and performed, the outsize reputation of Hamilton provides a sort of cultural bully pulpit that is not to my taste.

Or I could just be feeling contrary today. But my gut reaction is that it is not okay for performers to pinpoint a member of the audience and take the opportunity to make them the object of a monologue exhorting them to behave nicely. Even if that audience member is a rightwing, gaybashing, anti-abortion creationist whose most positive quality is the limited power he will have as VP.

It is not, mind you, that I have any sympathy for Mike Pence, who is not only a nightmare himself but was elated to be the running mate of boorish Neanderthal Trump. Had an audience member confronted him and asked him what the fuck he was doing bringing his unwanted presence to a show that celebrates diversity (which he falsely responded was just what he and Trump were about) I would have enjoyed it immensely. Had some passerby spotted him leaving the theater and lobbed a cream pie in his direction (anyone remember that other famous Aaron - okay, Aron - the pie-thrower?) I would have been elated. As the running-mate of the most disrespectful candidate who has ever appeared on the national political scene you should expect to draw the same amount of respect as you dish out.

In fact, the little 30-second sound bite directed at Pence was far more respectful than hundreds of emanations from the Twitter account and campaign speeches of Trump, who had the gall to demand an apology! Someone should take him up on that: you start, and keep going until you've apologized to everyone you insulted during your campaign, and we will apologize to your illustrious Veep-elect. It was also, according to reports, more respectful than a number of audience members were, as be was apparently received with loud booing, which continued after the show.

But the problem, in my view, is that it demeans the profession, because it opens the door to anyone who wants to use a stage provided for one purpose as a platform to expose someone they don't like. It is of course a judgment call where "not liking" someone crosses over into being personally threatened or insulted, and it becomes fair game to sound them out wherever they go. Much of what Trump and Pence appear to stand for is borderline fascism, which cannot be left to its own devices in any corner of society. But I still doubt that using the theater as a platform for that sort of confrontation is a good idea. Once you breach that distance; once you discard that form of etiquette; once you open that up as a partisan forum, you open yourself up as well, and release anyone who might find your views unacceptable from respecting the neutrality that was previously assumed. You can't take advantage of your privileged position, where you start with a presumption of sympathy from your audience, and utilize that to make a target of someone, unless you want to encourage others to do the same. 

That this could backfire badly goes without saying, since the impulse to do it in the first place is an acknowledgment of just how far the other side has been willing to push against the bounds of decency. Best not to take that bait. Let them be the ones to flout cultural norms; they will generally look disrespectful and lose what weak support they have from decent people if they do.

It is not as if there were some missed opportunity had the cast refrained from saying anything to Pence. What opportunity? To change the mind of the Vice President? To annoy Trump? To alter the course of history? Nothing important happened there, except potentially handing Trump an example of critics to his left (and who isn't to his left?) displaying bad manners and poor judgment.

Keep in mind this is not about the content of art; I have never believed in anything like a requirement for art to be apolitical or neutral. Neither have many of the greatest artists in every genre you can think of. That is not the question at all. It is about the dignity of the performance medium and the best interest of the arts. 

Our two worst choices for President have been a Hollywood actor and a reality show star. (Okay, GWB doesn't have any screen credits to my knowledge, so maybe it's 2 out of the 3 worst.) That doesn't make me hopeful that thespians will be the ones to alter our sad fate in the recent election. In any case, actors can say more with great acting than with political stage whispers.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Lamp-Post Mortem on the Election

Did we actually wake up Wednesday? Or are we in fact still in some Cartesian dreamland, where parrots dwell in Brooklyn, cars drive themselves, and Donald Trump has acquired a new piece of real estate at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? From the parrot's outpost above the ruckus, the first is not all that strange (sqwuaak!), and the second we will probably get used to in some century or other. But Donald Trump the 44th Resident of the White House? (Washington didn't get to live there, and come to think of it, it ain't so white anymore.) Is this some sort of reality show? Maybe the Broadway version of The Plot Against America?

On the grinding fear that none of these suggestions explain what happened last week, here we go with 24 thoughts, in no particular order.

1. We could artificially extend our sanity for a couple of months by imagining some major medical event that relieves Trump of the need to fake governing the country. But do you recall the old buttons people wore during the Reagan administration: "Shoot Bush first"? In a FB post I referred to Mike Pence as an "innocuous Republican hack", but really he's no such thing. If I have to choose among anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-carbon-fuel, pro-business, anti-Muslim bigots then for sure I want the one who has absolutely no experience governing anything bigger than his penthouse.

2. Could there be some obscure tenet of domestic or international law that could rule the election results illegal? I mean, he's the one who said it was rigged, right? Isn't there some sort of penalty for vowing to scuttle international treaties? Can't global warming deniers at least be committed to a psychiatric ward? There is no reason the rest of the planet has to stand by and watch the seas rise because some maniac claims global warming is a "Chinese hoax".

3. So you say you are considering moving out of the country for a while? Here's a quick guide to the world. China is run by anti-democracy strongman Xi Jinping. Russia is in the hands of the aggressive KGB alumnus Vladimir Putin. England is wearing its xenophobia on its sleeve and is now led by Brexit champion Theresa May. In France, Francois Hollande, a putative Socialist, has lost virtually all popular support, and a victory next year by the far right Marine Le Pen is no more unthinkable than was a Trump victory in the U.S. Austria, never a bright light of democracy, may soon land in the far right column as well. From Poland to Denmark, rightwing governments are being installed all over Europe. So your choices are: Canada, of course, under the present liberal leadership of Justin Trudeau, and... Germany! Yes, the Germans suddenly look like the carriers of the democratic torch, under the conservative but practical Christian Democrat Angela Merkel. Her message to Trump on his victory: get with the program if you want to play soccer in our league.

4. The U.S. now joins the list of nations like North Korea, the Philippines and Venezuala where the leader is defined not merely as far "left" or "right" but as a complete loony bin who is off the chart of normal political behavior. Duterte has already expressed his admiration for Trump; can Kim Jong-un be far behind?

5. Lock him up! Possible grounds for sending Trump to jail immediately:
·      - Treason: conspiring with a foreign power to interfere with democratic process in a U.S. election.
·       - Criminal threat: suggesting that the "Second Amendment people"could take out his Democratic opponent.
·      -  Incitement to riot: recommending that his followers punch protesters in the face.
·      -  Tax evasion: claiming tax deductions for utterly worthless "partnerships" in his failed business.

Possible grounds for lawsuits to tie him up indefinitely:
·      -  Sexual harrassment: need I say more?
·      -  Unfair business practices: failure to pay employees and contractors in his failed enterprises while walking away with $millions.
·      -  Defamation: publicly stating that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. after his citizenship had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Surely some of these have to succeed? (I can't think of a crime associated with belittling veterans who gave or risked their lives in a war. It may be one of those perverse uses of free speech that has to be protected just because there are legitimate uses of speech that have to be protected.)

6. It is not clear what, in the opinion of 55 million people or so, is not acceptable for an American President to say, other than "here's a plan to provide affordable health care to millions of uninsured Americans". When the morally unthinkable loses its meaning, like a word repeated too many times, that is when a door is open for fascism to slip in.

7. Doesn't this feel a bit like watching a disaster film where the calamity unfolds in slow motion, the better to make your pulse churn while you await the horrible and entirely foreseeable conclusion, unable to warn those in danger?

8. There are really two countries here, two basic moral, cultural and political regions. One is defined by the broad swath of the nation from the Midwest to the Deep South, but is really rural America wherever it exists. This is the nation that elected President Trump. Look at an electoral map by county rather than by state and you begin to get the picture of what this country is about. For it is not as if Trump "lost" New York, for example; he, and every other Republican Presidential candidate in recent memory, overwhelmed the opposition everywhere but in a handful of counties dominated by big cities, primarily New York City. (Hillary barely won in Buffalo, which is much more like the industrial Midwest than like New York.) That's the way it is in Pennsylvania between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and in all the other so-called "swing states". A "swing state" is one in which, in spite of the guaranteed rural white vote in favor of Republicans, the Democrats have a prayer of gathering enough urban votes to dominate. As long as the demographics of the nation stay more or less as they are and have been at least since WW II this is never going to be a country that embraces diversity, change, environmentalism or gun control.

9. I too was busy congratulating myself for helping in some small way to create in a country that elected a Black President, twice, and was about to cast more votes for a woman than for her male opponent. Forget all that; as Michael Moore rightly said in his post predicting a Trump victory, I was living in a bubble, deluding myuself. One sign of that was the venom that has been directed at Obama even by some of my more intelligent and knowledgable acquaintances, a vile and bottomless outpouring of nasty, empty vindictiveness that only a Black President would be subjected to. I never hear a single word of thanks for his lifting the country out of the financial and military disaster left to him by Bush amd his cronies. No sympathy for millions of Americans who can afford health care for the first time in their lives. Not even a thumbs up for finally taking out Osama bin Laden, or getting ground troops out of Iraq; just vitriol and a flood of baseless accusations. ("Look what Obama has done to Israel!" a Jewish acquaintance of mine declared the other day – Okay, what, exactly, has he done to Israel? – "I don't know offhand but I heard....") This country was not ready for a Black President, it was simply a matter of getting someone to undo the damage of the Bush administration, and the alternatives were the ever-unpopular Hillary and a Black man. People held their noses and voted for the Black man, and immediately turned around and told him everything he was doing wrong. It's the same old country, we just had a temporary bubble of pseudo-enlightenment.

10. We are still caught up in the defective political experiment known as the "electoral college", which this week for the fifth time delivered to us a Chief Executive who most of the active voters do not want to be President. Is it any wonder that the world generally holds in contempt our claims to be a shining model of democracy for everyone else? The principle of one person, one vote does not exist in this country, and if it did we would not be looking forward to an infantile, lecherous, ignorant, foul-mouthed buffoon leading the country for the next four years. In the election of 1888 Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland by 55 electoral votes but narrowly lost the popular vote, after insisting on high tariffs to appease Midwestern and MidAtlantic industrial workers and business owners. And you thought Trump don't know much about history – though he sure don't know much biology or science books.

11. A great deal is being made of the fact that people in certain areas are hurting where it counts, and largely because of a loss of manufacturing and basic industry jobs. Therefore, the logic goes, they voted for Trump just to have something different, someone who promises them jobs and is not a Washington insider. Yes, as dimwitted fantasies go, that is up there with the best of them. Industrial jobs began disappearing with the Reagan-Volker recessions of the early 1980's, which turned numerous parts of the industrial heartland into ghost towns, not to mention helping to bankrupt millions of small farmers. Many objective factors contributed to this, factors which only increased over time (see #13 below). The Great Recession was like a mopping up operation on basic industry; it was brought on in part by the Republican-led Graham-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 which deregulated the banking system (not a good recommendation for Clinton either: Bill signed it into law). Later deregulations under George W. Bush also helped. Now, there is a huge demographic in the U.S. that would vote for any Republican who mouths some basic bullshit about the sanctity of life and the right to keep loaded weapons of every sort around the house. (See Trump's platform: "the government has no business dictating what types of firearms good, honest people are allowed to own".) So the logic of bringing back basic industrial jobs is at best a deciding factor in a few "swing states" in or near the Great Lakes region. Not even that – it is the logic of the even fewer swing voters in those states, the ones who truly are open to either a Democrat or Republican and just want to make sure they get a promise of future employment and/or better employment. These people are extraordinarily gullible to believe that the guy who managed a billion-dollar empire into the ground is the one who is going to help them. They easily forget the damage that one Republican after another has done to the industrial economy. But they are relatively few in number. Most of the Trump voters would vote for King Kong if he professed to be a fundamentalist Christian, promoted the illusion that guns provide personal protection, and professed to dislike the government in general. Let us have our fun with a gun and we will vote for you, son. The alienated unemployed are a very, very minor factor in the election; they have drawn focus because of the electoral college and their resultant role, but they are not the core Republican constituency.

12. People are tired of political insiders (read hacks) so they want an outsider - like Mike Pence, Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, for instance. These folks are really going to shake things up in Washington! Of course, people knew about all of them during the campaign, even if they didn't know that after his victory Trump would immediately hire numerous corporate lobbyists (Washington insiders by definition) to help staff his new administration. The wolves will be guarding the chicken coop at every single federal agency – as always during Republican administrations (but only usually during Democratic administrations).

13. Hillary Clinton and her sidekick Bill are also responsible for some of the worst legislation and regulations for the working class, including the Welfare Reform Act, the anti-crime bill, the NAFTA agreement and the "Don't ask don't tell" policy in the military. Bill Clinton signed into law the aforementioned banking deregulation act. Hillary's support of not only NAFTA but its successor, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is rightfully galling to displaced workers, and is as good a reason as any for her not to have been elected. But these workers are in la-la-land if they think that the decline of many basic Midwest and Mid-Atlantic industries is just about NAFTA. There are some basic economic realities like the declining efficiency of U.S. manufacturing in general, the availability of cheap labor elsewhere, the relative cost of coal as a fuel, the need to reduce carbon fuel consumption, the ability of foreign automakers to produce better and/or cheaper cars, the growth of the steel industry in South Korea and elsewhere, the automation of many factory jobs, and other secular factors. Globalization is here to stay, and though we don't have to help it along in ways that destroy American jobs eve more rapidly, many of those jobs are going the way of all flesh sooner or later, free trade or no free trade. I am not being unsympathetic, but refusing to face reality is no kind of political strategy. Some of those jobs will come back, in the form of retooled, more automated and less unionized manufacturing facilities; this will have nothing to do with Donald Trump, though a good industrial policy would help. But they will not come back in a way that makes use of old labor skills, nor at the wage levels that were briefly enjoyed thanks to our industrial dominance and a strong union movement. By the way, who led the charge against those unions?Anyone remember PATCO? Arise ye wretched of the earth and vote for more reactionary "make America great again" Republicans like Ronald Reagan, that will surely bring about change in Washington!

14. Hillary and her email server. What? How can an email server have anything remotely like the weight of these major economic and global environmental considerations? The answer to that is that most people barely understand the concept of a "server" at all, unless it's the person who brings them coffee in the morning at the local diner. But what they do understand is the power of metaphor: the "private email server" is simply a way of recognizing that Hillary is for Hillary, she is about Hillary, she would play fast and loose with national security because she's an insider and can do what she wants, she thinks she's better than everyone else who has to follow the rules. The fact that she trots off to Wall Street to give speeches and earn millions of dollars only cements the perception: she is about herself, and secondly about them, and not us.

15. Hillary has been Secretary of State of the most powerful nation in the world. The world has continued to fall apart and is arguably worse now than when she started out. That's a recommendation to make her President? Don't expect people to understand that an entire army of Hillarys could not put Humpty Dumpy together again after the rise of Islamic extremism. But more broadly, other than her carefully chosen words, what accomplishments of hers did anyone have to go on? What has she done? Two terms as first lady, two as Senator and two more as Secretary of State, and what is her calling card? What does she have to offer as a memorable accomplishment? An act that expanded childcare? Give us a break; she has been around forever and doesn't have a single thing to brag about, just a lot of promises. She flip-flops on one thing after another. How was she ever supposed to mobilize anyone other than by being not-Trump?

16. 20-20 hindsight is good enough to see that by collaborating with the DNC to deprive Bernie Sanders of the nomination Hillary essentially handed the country to Donald Trump. Sanders had better numbers against Trump all along, had none of her baggage and had enough of a reform aura to avoid the "insider" label. No, I did not believe he could pull off many of his platform positions any more than Trump can do everything he says; in fact, Trump has a better chance, with a Republican Congress. I simply did not believe Bernie would do anything evil. Perhaps Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the DNC were not the deciding factor in whether Hillary won the nomination, but they helped in their little ways to drive America into the hands of Trump. Imagine: right now we are anxiously awaiting the inauguration of President-elect Bernie Sanders, the first Jew and first Socialist ever to assume the office, while Donald Trump is already half-forgotten as he lands on the trash heap of American politics along with George Wallace and the like. How does that sound? Thanks, Deb. Thanks, Hillary.

17. Hello, President Putin, Sir? This is your faithful manservant Donald. Is it okay if I speak English, since I have at best minimal facility with that language much less am I fluent in Ukranian, I mean Russian? Thanks. Well, I just wanted to thank you for your help. I appreciate that you are a man of fine, upstanding moral character, a democrat with a small "d", and you wouldn't want to see Hillary win unfairly. Yes, I know, Sanders is a Socialist, there could be a conflict of interest there, but you guys have mostly gotten over the socialism thing, haven't you? Give Julian a big bear hug for me too, will ya? He and I have to have a talk about women some time, I think there may be a lot in common there.

18. Nothing energizes the left like a good kick in the pants. This should do it. We thought with Obama we had finally reached the seat of power. Partly correct, though he leaves a negative legacy in a few areas: failure to presecute the torturers from the Bush regime, permitting and expanding the collection of phone and email data (a program that will now be placed squarely in the hands of the most reactionary elements in American politics), and largely leaving in place many of the conditions that led to the financial collapse, among other things. We thought the same about Hillary – well, some did, though for reasons already stated I seriously question that. But now there is no question we are once again out. Forward ever, backwards never – don't get depressed, get active.

19. Does the name Joe McCarthy ring a bell? He came from one of our beloved "swing states", Wisconsin. "The State Department is infested with Communists" said McCarthy in his famous Wheeling (WV) speech. "Lock her up!" says Trump of the Secretary of State. November 14 would have been McCarthy's 108th birthday, but he had the decency to drop dead of hepatitis at age 48. Trump is a bit late in following suit, but as I said, January 20 is a good two months away.

20. Trump's support is paper thin and will wash out very quickly with those "swing voters" in those swingin' states. Many of them have been quoted saying they already view him with skepticism. But they hope he will bring back prosperity to their depressed industrial regions, make America "strong"again, "shake things up" in Washington. At the same time they hope he will not act on his ideological agenda of anti-immigrant bluster and anti-abortion rhetoric, or take away their newfound health care coverage. Too bad; he will act on exactly what they hope he won't, and he will fail to act on what they hope he will. But it will be too late by then to get rid of him, and the damage will be done.

21. Of course you can't be too politically astute if you voted for Trump because you didn't like Hillary, which means you could not be thinking seriously about things like the terrible impact of having Trump rather than Hillary nominate the Supreme Court justice with, yes, the swing vote. We will have to eat that one for a long time to come. Though Supreme Court justices occasionally disappoint their sponsors and fail to act consistently as tools for the ruling class, there is no reason to hope for such a benign outcome. The Neanderthal majority in the Court will be preserved now for decades.

22. I had thought that maybe the underappreciated cause of our electoral disaster was Bill, not Hill. She will always be Billary to most people, the one who stood by her man, not only his policies but his sleazy defacement of the oval office. So, perhaps the issue is that people don't want Bill as the first First Gentleman, a very reasonable consideration! But then, look what they chose as an alternative! Somebody whose sexual comments should be an embarassment even to his wife and children; and a first lady who does nude photo shoots with some light lesbian and bondage content. Well, admittedly it would be more pleasant to have to look at Melania than at Billary for the next four years, if only you could forget the proto-fascist politics she is there to put a pretty face on.

23. Predictions: Parrots are not very good at predictions, as they are better at saying what was just said than what will be true a few days or years from now. So with that thought in mind, allow me to make several predictions, which I hope will meet the usual fate mine tend to do:
·      > The economy will take a nose dive, as it typically does in conservative Republican administrations. Interest rates up, business investment down, the unemployed will have a lot of new company.
·      > Terrorist attacks on U.S. soil will dramatically increase; Trump will be a magnet for terrorists.
·      >  Social programs, health programs and the arts will be defunded.
·      >  Military spending will increase dramatically and there will be no more than a token effort, if that, to reduce wasteful expenses by the military, contrary to Trump's feeble comments on this subject.
·      >  Russia and China will expand their influence considerably, while the U.S. drops off the chart as a world leader. (After eight years of Bush and four of Trump who could take the U.S. seriously as a global leader? The periodic infusion of a Clinton or Obama White House is not enough to make us a reliable partner.)
·      >  Congress will turn over to the Democrats in the mid-term election, leading to an even more complete stalemate in Washington than will be the case with a narrow Republican majority. But this will blunt the impact of some of Trump's worst ideas.
·      >  Those displaced, unemployed, alienated, forsaken swingers will still be displaced, unemployed, alienated and forsaken in two years, three years, four years, and will return to their former instincts to vote for the lesser-evil in the Democratic Party.
·      >  The only people who even try to emigrate to Canada will be those who need health care coverage and expect to lose it here. No guarantee they will be welcomed there.

24. Ways to get through the next four years:
·      * Look forward to electing lots of Democrats 2 years from now. I know this is not very exciting but it is the best reality we can foresee right now. There are even a few who are more appealing than Hillary Clinton.
·      * Buy stock in all the companies that will profit from Trump's largesse – I'm thinking coal, and in general any regressive form of energy, real estate for sure, banks, biopharmaceuticals, and since you will already be morally corrupt at that point, why not short some healthcare stocks? Though you may be late to the game in all this, as Wall Street traders had this figured out before the end of last week.
·      A steady diet of soothing or cheerful classical music – I might recommend for starters any of Bach's Brandenburg Concerti or Handel's Concerti Grossi Op.6, the Clarinet Quintets by Mozart and Brahms, Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata for violin and piano, Schubert's Die Schone Mullerin song cycle, Elgar's Enigma Variations and Sea Pictures, Sibelius' 2nd Symphony, Borodin's String Quarter #2 and Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring. (Note that I have not selected any Trumpet concerti.) For those who have already heard all these pieces 100 times or more I can also do a slightly more challenging list for you, or, if you prefer folk, jazz or rock I'd be happy to provide those too. I am convinced that frequent immersion in sounds of unparalleled beauty is the only antidote to the ugliness that will be streaming from every media device for years to come.
·      * Organize a protest at least once a day. Nobody will come to most of them, but who knows, one of them just might be the spark that starts a prairie fire, as Chariman Mao put it, sending people by the thousands to camp out in Washington until the Trump Empire crumbles into dust.
·      * Medical marijuana. A doctor can prescribe some for you. It may be no different from what you get on the street, but it feels like it's relieving pain better than what you get in a nickel bag.

What a world. Sqwuaauuck.

[Note: edited #3 for typos, #8 for clarity, #11 for an incorrect reference, added a hyperlink in #12, #15 for a typo. In #24 I really meant Handel's Concerti Grossi Opus 3, which I love even more than Opus 6, but since Opus 6 would hardly be an inappropriate choice in this context I'll let it stick.]

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize, and the Parrot Wins Prescience Prize


Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature! This was worth getting up early for!

Dylan, who already won a special award from the Pulitzer Prize committee, has been mentioned before in connection with the big magilla of literary prizes. So it would not be especially interesting if I had squawked it again. But on September 19th I sent a letter to the editors of Poets and Writers magazine in response to a reference to Dylan in one of their features. Since they have not responded, much less shown any sign that they would publish it, I'm reproducing the entire text here:

Dear Editor,


Poets and Writers is a source of essential advice and deep insights into the writing process - the reason I have subscribed almost continuously since the time I first thought about trying to publish my creative writing. But as with any forum that dispenses literary advice it is also sometimes a source of narrow-minded prejudices. Such dubious views are sometimes found, for example, in "The Aha! Moment", where agents, editors and others point to what they did or didn't like about a story, a query letter, or in the latest (Sept/Oct) issue, an MFA admissions essay. Commenting on a candidate's use of an alleged quotation from Bob Dylan - "The purpose of art is to stop time" - Kate Daniels of the Vanderbilt University MFA program writes: "...I'm thrown off a bit by the reference to Bob Dylan at the end of the paragraph - why didn't she find a poet's quote on this rather frequent topic in literature[?]..." This comment just about stopped my breathing, if not time. First I had to find the source of the alleged quote, which, as far as I can tell, is an interview conducted by Allen Ginsberg in the journal Telegraph (#33, Summer 1989) on the subject of Dylan's film, Reynaldo and Clara. Ginsberg begins by asking Dylan, "What attracts you, as a poet, to movies?". Well, there's "a poet's quote", if you will. The Dylan quote itself does not actually exist, though it is a close paraphrase of some things Dylan had to say about his film. Next, I wondered if Daniels is simply ignorant of the existence of Tarantula, Dylan's 1971 collection that interleaves experimental poetry, micro-fiction and memoir; though an even greater worry is that she may be implying a  critical judgment of that book that would end up removing the label "poetry" from an awful lot of work whose poetic credentials we take for granted. Furthermore, is Daniels judging prospective (and current?) MFA students on a definition of poetry so narrow that verses like Dylan's do not count as poetry? That would be a pity, for I strongly suspect that history will not sustain her view. The "extraordinary poetic power" of Dylan's "lyrical compositions" has been cited by the Pulitzer Prize committee; his writing has been the subject of an in-depth literary analysis by Christopher Ricks and various philosophical works and the like. In the end, though, whatever may be the status of Dylan as a "poet" in some formal sense, the notion that he is not a sufficiently respectable literary artist to be a fine source of a quote on the purpose of art is very hard to accept. I should think there are few people on earth more qualified to offer their two cents on that subject than Bob Dylan, who is not only considered one of the greatest musicians and lyricists of all time but has also published six books of drawings, many of which have been exhibited in galleries and museums. No offense to Tennyson, Baudelaire, Stevens or whoever Daniels might be thinking of, but few people in the history of the arts carry quite the same authority as Bob Dylan.

No, I did not sign it "Sincerely, Parrot". I guess they don't need to publish it now anyway, since the good old Swedes have said it so elegantly for me.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Glenn Branca Ascends in Brooklyn



The New York Downtown arts scene – the music side of it in particular – is something I've touched at a dozen different points without ever grabbing hold of it. Like a leitmotif it keeps showing up on the edges of my life, and I keep resisting the idea of making it my scene. This is usually followed by regret, years later, when I see how rich and enduring it is and how lovingly its true exponents and fans embrace it.

Still, not really feeling a part of the scene doesn't quite explain why I have never been to a Glenn Branca concert until tonight, though I was aware of his music almost from the time he set foot in New York in the late 1970's. I suppose I have told this story before, but since most of the readers of this blog won't have heard it why not give it one more chance. When I was a student at the Mannes Conservatory – now a college of the New School – in the late 1970's, my brother and I formed a rock band. We quickly outgrew the Upper West Side bedroom we had converted into a music studio and started looking for rehearsal space – one that was all but free, since we had very little money. I can't recall how we found it – probably an ad in the Village Voice – but we managed to locate someone who wanted to share a basement rehearsal studio at 262 Mott St. That someone was Jules Baptiste, who founded the band Red Decade. At that time Jules was performing with Glenn Branca; that's how I heard of him, and his "symphony for 100 guitars". It sounded like a crazy idea, not to mention probably too loud for my tastes. Besides, since Jules was playing landlord – and, we assumed, having us largely subsidize his studio – we sometimes just barely got along, so running out to see him play wasn't a top priority.

Well, there it stood, for, um... about 37 years – until tonight. Today, the stars just aligned – thanks to my wife taking my daughter and mother-in-law on a cruise to Halifax (the purpose of it, lest there be any confusion, was not specifically to allow me to see Glenn Branca). Having that rare, momentary notion of myself as a "free man" from around 2:30 p.m. today until a few days from now, I was already more open than usual to the concept of an evening adventure. The notice of a Branca concert this very night – at Roulette, an easy trip on the R train from my remote Bay Ridge location – somehow slid beneath my eye as I leafed through the NY Times. Even more enticing, the premier of a memorial piece for David Bowie, with whom Branca had briefly collaborated and who was an admirer of his music.

So there I was at the stroke of 8:00, complimentary earplugs in hand, ready to experience my first Branca concert. What did it feel like? Well, not very different from the day I sat in a different Downtown room (The Kitchen, I think) waiting to hear my first (and last) Cecil Taylor concert. Expectations of an immersive but not terribly easy experience. Nothing I can take out on the street and hum as I head back to the subway. A feeling of obligation – to myself, to St Cecilia, to some spiritual link that I can only place by thinking of a lot of vague connections. I look around, and imagine everyone over 50 to be someone I either know, or should know, but can't recognize after decades of hair style and body weight changes. Patrons of the Downtown circuit who have either had works performed here or at least smoked dope with Phillip Glass, if not Andy Warhol. Feeling oddly at home, like I belong here, even though everyone knows everyone else, or so I assume.

The first item on the program was a set of six pieces called The Third Ascension, a recent work for four guitars, bass and drums. Each piece had a slightly different impact. The first, "German Expressionism", seemed to have more open sounds and events than some of the others, though it also featured a bit of energetic improv, not to say wilding, by Reg Bloor (who is Branca's wife). Next was "The Smoke (Guitar Concerto for Arad Evans)", hardly a concerto in anything remotely like your usual sense, and featuring smoother and more tonal sonorities than the first. After a change in the guitar tunings, the next two pieces also featured the trance-like continuities that make the Downtown music scene what it is. I found both of them too loud to enjoy, even with the deeply appreciated earplugs. (I did not wear them through the whole concert but for these two pieces they were hardly out.)

Another tuning change preceded what turned out to be my favorite piece of the evening, "Twisting in Space", a mutating cloud of appealing soundscapes that reminded me a bit of something Robert Fripp and Brian Eno might have come up with. The last piece, "Cold Thing (La Belle Dame Sans Merci)" is, I suppose, appropriate to its subject, though once again I found the sonorities a bit harder to take than, say, the sound of two Boeing 767's landing on either side of you.

Finally at the end of the concert, with no special announcement or fanfare, came The Bowie tribute, "The Light (for David)". This I have to say was a complete success, for me at least: I felt transported, mesmerized in the way this kind of music is supposed to achieve, and had no inclination to reach for the earplugs in spite of the volume. In fact I was sorry it ended, as I was about as close to feeling stoned as I have ever been without drugs. (Okay, one bottle of Brooklyn Lager – does that count?) Bowie, I think, would have been pleased.

As for Branca, he "conducts", after a fashion; at least he signals changes of sonority to the performers. His music is oddly metrical, sometimes even sporting a heavy backbeat on the drums, and with the energetic drumming of Owen Weaver behind the ensemble there is no real need to keep a beat. Instead, Branca sways, bends his knees and swoons, extends his arms like St. Francis receiving the stigmata, and sometimes ushers the performers towards a change of volume or tempo. When he speaks (with some difficulty) he offers comments that suggest he is well aware of how challenging his music is – "We're only just getting started!" (three pieces into the concert); "we have another tuning change, so go get yourself a drink – you may need it".

Well, that's one down on my list of obligations. I see four upcoming Rhys Chatham concerts in the NY area – will I manage to get to one? That would be after, not 37 years, but let's be honest, more like 47. Rhys was my classmate at the Third Street Music School back around 1969 or so. Our teacher, Tom Manoff, kept close tabs on the new music scene, and took the class to visit Morton Subotnick's studio, where he demonstrated an early Buchla synthesizer. Manoff was the first person to encourage me to compose music. I don't recall seeing Rhys again after a went to college and left the Third Street settlement. I should pay him a visit.

(P.S. - Why no pictures or video clips? They were recording the concert and asked us not to take any pictures.)