On June 16th, my piece Petit Mal, with text by Carolyn Amann, will premiere in Hohenems, Vorarlberg. It’s been a bit of a long and winding road getting here.Continue reading “Petit Mal: A brief history of a longish piece”
An uneasy feeling creeps among musicians these days: to do well, in these times, is to be envied – and it is a terrible thing to be envied by your friends and colleagues. It is to have one’s place in a foundering boat challenged: don’t you belong in that bigger boat just ahead? The one swamping ours?
This strikes me particularly hard when I think of my brothers and sisters in the United States; from that vantage point I share another, larger boat with my Austrian colleagues. While we go demonstrating because our country (I say “our” as a convenience, being neither fish nor fowl myself) has forgotten those of us who make art, I read the news daily from a country much further down the road toward to perdition than we, a country where the very idea of government support for the arts – and for more basic needs – is utopian (which, lest us not forget, means: no such place).
I attended a demonstration to appeal for help for the arts community on May 1st. Listening to the speakers, it struck me that there were marches and demonstrations happening all over the city (somewhere I read that 15 were registered in total) for the same things. Nothing more than was promised at the outset, really: “no one to be left behind, cost what it may”. Some of the speeches I heard had something of an exceptionalist tone to them – as if we artists were somehow special, as if our concerns and problems were in some way essentially different from those of others. Even dismissing my basic distaste for the idea, I thought from a practical standpoint, surely setting ourselves apart can benefit no one. I had to ask myself: we all need the same things; how is it that we are not all demonstrating together? So too with the divisions between the slightly more and less fortunate, at whatever level. Are we to feel ashamed? To hide our meager advantage as best we can, so as not to suffer the envy of others or the pangs of own own conscience?
To return to my own tiny corner of the world: I do what little I can. I buy (not stream) the things that my friends produce; I speak to others, I write a little now and then – because if I am a little lucky right now, that luck is founded on nothing at all. But much more than that: what affects any one of us directly affects all of us indirectly.
It’s been . . . interesting. I’m always struck by the universal small-talk question: so, where are you going on vacation? At the barber’s, when you see a casual acquaintance, whenever conversation lags for a moment. It’s kind of like the (to my mind endearing) Austrian practice – mostly confined to offices – of wishing everyone you see “Mahlzeit” (=bon appetit) between about 10:30am and 2:30pm. After which, I assume, they immediately start wishing one another “Prost!” or a pleasant weekend, even if it’s only Tuesday. I don’t spend a whole lot of time in offices.
In any case, I was kind of thrown by that this summer, seeing as it’s been something of a slog. A lot of work, both external and internal. What do you say to someone who’s so obviously and completely in another frame of reference? I had no refuge but the truth, softened only slightly by ironic delivery. Some were interested, most were a little thrown. It speaks to the state of societal grace in which a lot of people still live here. Tu felix Austria, at least for now.
So what did happen? Heat waves, some surprisingly long. I learned a trade, again: I am now a reasonably competent waiter – there’s a Google review to prove it. Besides that: got around to some practicing after a slow start. Went to Hungary…ah, Hungary: traffic like you remember from summer road trips when you were a kid. Hot, endless. 85º in the car, even with the air conditioning on. There’s something relaxing about it, if you can kind of settle into it. A concert in the (highly picturesque) middle of nowhere. Arriving and asking where the equipment was, and having everyone kind of look at each other in slowly mounting panic (priceless). I’m told one of the stage hands thought I smelled good. A pretty epic hang after the concert. More traffic.
What else? Got some practicing done, off and on. Some very late nights; a good party or two. A visit to Cabaret Fledermaus – highly life-enriching. I recommend it: like a David Lynch film playing out in real life. I went in the water once, and had one ice cream cone. I know, that seems wrong. Like I say, it’s been a weird summer.
No doubt Mitch McConnell is crowing today, and Democratic celebrations are a little muted: Ted Cruz is still a Senator and the Republicans have retained their majority. Andrew Gillum lost the governor’s race in Florida and in Georgia Stacey Abrams will very probably do the same. The highest-profile races, in other words, largely went to the front-runners. So there may be a bit of a sour aftertaste for some Democrats. But is that actually warranted?
We’ve gotten used to judging politics in ever-shrinking cycles; the constant blizzard of information and disinformation to which we are subject makes it increasingly difficult to think longer-term . . . but it’s long-term thinking that has held the Union together for 230 years, and only planning and perspective will succeed in doing so in this, one of the most politically fraught periods the United States has ever experienced. So here’s a brief stab at the longer view.
The Democrats have made great strides in a couple of key areas: They gained 7 governorships, for a total of 22 states to the Republicans’ 25. A lot of Democratic governors are going to have uphill battles in getting things done with Republican legislatures, but still.
The House of Representatives is now also majority-Democratic, which will allow it to suggest more progressive legislation. One can expect much of that to get slapped down by the Senate, but if that happens it will be a highly visible action on the part of the Republican party, and – considering that most Americans now support “progressive” ideas like a more comprehensive national health care system – politically dangerous. How Donald Trump will react to any progressive legislation that manages to reach his desk is anybody’s guess . . . but on the plus side, he’s likely to sign any legislation that seems broadly popular, since he is nothing if not concerned about his popularity.
Another effect of the House majority is that various committees can restart currently dormant investigations into Trump and his various dealings, foreign and domestic. The Democrats will have to walk a fine line, though; the impulse to wade in with metaphorical guns blazing will surely be powerful, but a feeding frenzy is not sustainable and could do much to muddy the waters. Republicans will likely decry and blockade such actions, especially if they appear overzealous and don’t lead much of anywhere – and their base will respond.
Here, intelligent people will also be thinking about longer-term strategy. The political divide between progressives and conservatives has been growing for decades, and the partisanship resulting from Trump’s presidency has only made it worse. The first job of Democrats will be to position themselves as the party with everyone’s best interests at heart; well-crafted, well-presented bills with bipartisan support – anti-corruption and health care, for example – should lead the way. If they succeed they will be thanked for it – and if they are defeated, by the Senate or by Presidential veto, everyone will know why.
But this positioning is only part of the story, and that’s why a Democratic sweep (besides being unrealistic) would not have been in anyone’s best interest – not even that of the Democrats:
When it works properly, opposition in government is a source of stability. A governing party needs a foil, someone to question their proposals and thus strengthen them. Unfortunately, that mechanism has ceased to function in any meaningful sense – and the rancor in American politics has necessarily been followed by the aforementioned fracture in the American populace. However, these days most people agree on at least a few basic ideas: health care should be affordable. American infrastructure is in dire need of an upgrade. Mentally unstable people shouldn’t have access to weapons. If Democrats can capitalize on these ideas, and get moderate Republicans to join them, a respect for consensus could gradually return to American politics, marginalizing those unwilling to compromise.
It is to be hoped that newly- or re-elected Democrats are thinking along similar lines today. The alternative – a further deepening of the chasm between the sides, and an ever wilder power struggle in government and civic life – hardly bears thinking about.
Most of us who are not ‘bots or people who write nasty, misleading, divisive or otherwise questionable material on open forums (because they’re being paid to do so or because they simply prefer sharing their opinions in a nasty, misleading, or divisive manner) are horrified on a regular basis by the things that people are willing to communicate to other people when they don’t have to confront them in person.
A lot of hand-wringing is being done about this and how it can be reined in, but I don’t see any way of stemming the tide: they are too many, too diverse in their means and their purposes, and we often don’t agree on who they are in the first place. Trolls seek to upset, to confuse, to provoke – and they will always win, for the simple reason that you and I care, and they do not.
So what to do? One thing, at least, suggests itself: there are trolls in real life, but they are fewer by far, and their behavior generally disqualifies them in a way that it never can in cyberspace. Thus, the time we spend reading and agonizing over other people’s opinions (condensed into, at most, a couple hundred words) would surely be better used by meeting people, donating our time, money, energy – whatever we can spare – to helping fix the things we feel are wrong. In essence, to do that which trolls by definition cannot.
When we sit before our screens for long enough we feel weak, ineffectual, as if the world is closing in on us . . . and as long as we remain in our places, those things are true – and regrettably, many of those who shape our lives these days are happy to have it just so. However, when we do something – participate in the world, in however small a way – those feelings immediately lose their validity. We may never win a battle, we may never achieve our goal, but when we can say that we did what we could, it’s enough.
10.12.2017 | 8:00pm
Wien 7., Burggasse 97
A year ago, it was still just a few blocked-out days in the calendar…and now we are just as pleased as punch to invite you to the HUNTER LISTENING PARTY!
•There will be surprises and special guests.
•There will be a chance to check out the record in advance of the full-on release in Porgy & Bess.
•There will be refreshments, both youth-friendly and otherwise. •There will be tear- and wine-soaked encomiums to everyone who has helped us get this far.
• There may well be elephants, dancing girls, fireworks, we’re not sure. But it’s all going to take place at
•one of Vienna’s coolest watering holes, with
•some of Vienna’s coolest people.
Hey Vienna! The hot weather’s back and it’s time to enjoy all the wonders our little metropolis on the Danube has to offer: swimming in a river that smells like a wet dog, a seemingly endless succession of cultural festivals (JazzPopFestWochenTreiben- IntoTheImpulsTanz), countless opportunities to drink outdoors. And then there are the little everyday joys: fellow public transit guests with liberal views on personal hygiene (or who apparently bathe in stale beer) …air conditioning controlled by overmotivated public transit employees…hour-long lines for organic ice cream…fighting your way through mobs of tourists like salmon on their way upstream…the list goes on and on.
But what to wear when you’re out enjoying this aestival paradise? Here are a few tips for keeping cool and looking stylish while maintaining Vienna’s rep as Europe’s Worst-Dressed City…
Plaids, especially for men, have made a strong comeback in the last couple years and they’re still going strong – the perfect look for Schottentor. We like light-colored patterns with huge logos splashed over the top. And what goes best with a plaid shirt? Plaid shorts, of course – particularly when the two patterns bear no conceivable relationship to one another. We also recommend stripes.
Vests are also making a strong showing for men. Here we see plaids again – but also pinstripes, tweeds, and perversions of classic patterns that would cause riots on Savile Row. We suggest completing this sartorial statement with a tasteful Ed Hardy t-shirt and jeans, or with an untucked dress shirt and Hawaiian shorts. Wear it to the concert hall, wear it to the Heurigen, wear it at 3am while passed out in the U6!
Neons, neons, neons! The late 80s/early 90s are back, folks – be sure to take advantage. Sherbet orange is the new black.
Always a classic for ladies: the crop-top or tummy-tee. The perfect accent for an early-stage beer belly!
Hipster girls! We know you felt left out during the MC Hammer years. Thankfully, what once were called “fun pants” (and are now apparently called “harem pants“) are here! Those light cotton pants in outlandish prints are taking over the 4th, 7th and 16th Districts – don’t be left out.
Still stumped? Simply go into H&M – or better, New Yorker – close your eyes, and start grabbing. Then step out into our new favorite recreational construction site – the Mariahilfer Strasse – and start bumping, grinding and exchanging foul looks with your fellow fashionistas. Ready, set, sudern!
There’s an article by a gentleman named Dyske Suematsu making the rounds at the moment. It’s largely the usual sort of American-bashing but there are other elements to it that have been bothering me.
The thesis is, put very simply, that the American listener is getting progressively lazier and thus jazz is dying out. Now, both of these things are basically true; that’s not the problem I have with the article. The problem is, a number of highly questionable assumptions are made, about the nature of music and what dictates quality (or lack thereof) – and stated as fact. If the point of the article weren’t so valid it wouldn’t bother me – but I actually agree with it, to an extent – and I hate to see it so poorly argued.
Mr. Suematsu is clearly an avid listener (at least to some kinds of music) – but not a musician himself; he makes no bones about his indifference to lyrics. Fair enough; I tend to pay more attention to the instrumental aspects of music myself. Over the course of a couple paragraphs, though, he moves from describing his personal stance to making some rather more adventurous statements.
Bear with me here: his reasoning is that Japanese listeners (including himself) are more attuned to instrumental music because of the omnipresence of American music in Japan; since the lyrics are – for Japanese listeners – largely incomprehensible, they hear the music primarily as instrumental, thus explaining the continued popularity of jazz in Japan.
Now, quite a lot of jazz has always been vocal and the popularity of jazz in Japan stems from a time when American music was (I suspect) not so prevalent there – but we’ll let that go for now.
He goes on to claim that instrumental music is more abstract than vocal music (what, then, of centuries-old instrumental folk music traditions? Or, if you prefer to look at it from the other side, the songs of Anton Webern?). Then the following:
“For Americans, music is a background element, a mere side dish to be served with the main course. If they are forced to listen to a piece of instrumental music without any visuals, they don’t know what to do with their eyes, much like the way a nervous speaker standing in front of a large audience struggles to figure out what to do with his hands.”
Um. I guess my man’s never been to a club where people habitually listen and dance to music – sometimes completely without visual aids! Also, the pen-in-hand simile would seem here to be poorly chosen, since sensory input to the brain on two channels is difficult to compare with the venting of nervous energy. I grant that human culture (calling this a strictly American phenomenon is disingenuous) is predominantly visual – but what of it? I’m not sure that’s a product of “our times” and this statement certainly hasn’t convinced me of it.
A few more sweeping generalizations follow, such as: “Most Americans do not know what to do with abstraction in general,” illustrated with the age-old complaints about Philistines in a modern art museum. He asserts that people “…are unable to let the abstraction affect their emotions directly; their experience must be filtered through interpretations.” This may be true, if entirely subjective – but are we not all to a very great extent the sum of our life experience, do we not filter everything through that prism?
But then comes the bomb:
This is why songs with lyrics in your own language and paintings with recognizable objects are easier for most people to appreciate. They give their minds something to do. It is like holding a pen in your hand when you are speaking in front of a large audience; you become less nervous because your hands have something to do.
OK. Lyrics, then, are simply something to occupy your (metaphorical) hands, not an integral part of music. We’re obviously not a fan of Dylan, or of any poetry ever set to music: language, it would seem, is separate from – and inferior to – music. It simply interferes with the “pure absorption” of it by our restless brains. It gets better: “If the song has any musical substance, it can be played on a piano alone.” There goes all percussion music – in fact, there goes everything not based on the Western tonal system, including Japanese folk music. And most of 20th century Western art music. (I realize I’m waxing a bit rhetorical but in comparison to these wild flights of unsupported bombast – fair’s fair.)
He goes on to advocate the teaching of more instrumental music in schools and other such measures. Great! But unfortunately he’s long since lost any credibility for me. He winds up on a dire note:
The dominance of words and visuals in the American culture has lead people to believe that listening to Rap or watching music videos is the full extent of what music has to offer. If this goes on, they’ll be missing a huge chunk of what life has to offer.
Well . . . the immense popularity of iPods and other devices which only play music would seem to call this into question. On the other hand: music, as far as we can reconstruct, has always been a part of ritual, always been coupled with other media. Text, to be sure – but also dance, theater and anything else you can pack into a ritual. It’s the nature of the thing. And on the other other hand – anyone claiming to distinguish between “high” and “popular” art automatically sets themselves up as an authority of which is which – and ignores the very long history of the latter turning into the former. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I wouldn’t presume.