Saturday, June 30, 2007

A petulant frenzy...

NYT: "The President's mojo is completely gone."

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He never had mojo. What he had was privilege, delusional entitlement, and criminal, sociopathic certainty. And an oligarchi cabal who needed a cardboard cutout they could prop up in front of their right-wing dictatorship.

Here's Zappa:

"[It's] a petulant frenzy!
(A petulant frenzy, this is a petulant frenzy.
I'm petulant, and I'm having a frenzy)

On the sofa she weeps
She weeps and she weeps
She weeps and she peeks
Through the curtain"

Honey, Don't You Want a Man Like Me?

Friday, June 29, 2007

Two great gentlemen of English trad music

John Kirkpatrick (accordion/concertina) and Martin Carthy (mandolin/guitar/voice): English music (song, Morris dance, political music, collecting, folk-rock) would be much poorer in their absence.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Blogging lite...

Laptop in shop for power-system repair. Working on a steam-powered Dell. Will try to maintain one-a-day, but it's slow.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

World's oldest car for sale

Serious steampunk...

Steam-powered 1884 car will be auctioned at Pebble Beach in August.

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There's a real and defensible appeal to this kind of technology. Like the 78, the push-lawnmower, the Model-A, and the Singer treadle sewing machine, it represents a moment when technology still represented individual tinkerers' idiosyncratic imaginations and practical building skills, the hope that technology could make life better/easier, and a sense that technology could be beautiful via functionality, rather than cosmetics or marketing.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Blogger personal inventory

In the spirit of this movie (currently playing on one of the cable channels, and certainly the best film ever spun-off from a Saturday Night Live character, because it actually tells a fuckin' story and says something important; e.g., "your family's trauma can screw you up, you can't change their behavior, but you have a responsibility to the universe to try to heal yourself"), as a result of an offline comment from Dharmonia, and in light of the fact that I've just rolled over the two-year mark (first post, on "Radical Pedagogy," on June 08 2005) here's an update/reclarification of the point and parameters of this blog. Like most, I started this blog before I had a clear sense of its purpose and point-of-view, but those have since come into focus, as follows:

Just as it says in the header, the topics emphasized are "Music, vernacular culture, radical politics, education, history."

To take them in roughly reverse order:


What I didn't know when I started writing but have been happy to discover in the last two years is that readers responded very favorably and encouragingly to the inclusion of "personal history"--principally in the "100 Greats" posts. Those readers suggested that there was a legitimate authorial voice in the blend of musical appreciation and personal memoir. I'm a professional historian, have thought a lot about the ethics, procedures, perspectives, and purposes of professional history--but personal history, at least as it relates to other topics in the subject header, seems to have been legitimated as well.


I'm a professional educator, now tenured, so I can speak more freely than formerly. Many great education bloggers are not tenured and are forced to be more circumspect than they should have to be--so I feel a certain responsibility to speak out, particularly on ways I see my job as impacted by or providing insight into public discourse. I've been involved in teaching since around 1974, have been engaged in tertiary-level educational institutions since 1977, was a graduate student for 12 years, and have been teaching at the college level since 1990. I've taught at institutions which exemplified the rigor, positive energy, ethics, and professional responsibility that education can provide--and at their converse. I've taught in a public-arts/ non-profit environment since at least 1987, and I have published extensively on music, public arts, and education. So I figured I'm entitled to express a reasonably thoughtful and well-reasoned perspective on public education. In practice, this can mean praising public or private policies, procedures, strategies or events that I think fight the goals of education--and hating on those that seem to countervail. I also take part in public discussions (virtual and meatspace) on these topics and feel entitled to do so.

What I don't do is diss my present colleagues. Partly that's simple ethics--back-door workplace gossip is counterproductive and is much better replaced by face-to-face negotiation and/or mediation. Partly it's simply grizzled age--I've been working and teaching in professional educational environments long enough to know that I see things a lot more clearly and objectively in hindsight than when they're going down. So why would/should I rant about current events in my current place of work? I don't know what the hell they mean (yet) anyway.

Radical politics

I have been a fellow-traveler in the world of Left politics since at least 1964, when my mother took me in the stroller to hear Rev King speak. One of my earliest memories is of JFK's funeral (and no, I don't think he was a Leftist; I do think that the perception amongst certain powerful right-wing factions in the USA and specifically TX and the military-industrial complex that he was a Leftist led to an assassination conspiracy and successful right-wing coup). But when I really became radicalized was when I became a formal student of history, around 1972. I don't believe that anyone, reading history objectively and without a preconceived and distorting historical model (cf Victor Davis Hanson), can escape an awareness of a few key points: the degree to which racism, nationalism, fascism, terrorism, and many other "Isms" have been used as masks, rabble-rousing demagogic points, or distractions from the fundamental reality, in all of world history, that the rich Want More and will do Anything They Need to keep the poor from changing their station. The rich prosper--the poor suffer and die. As a teacher, I do not speak about radical politics in the classroom, unless I am teaching a course (as I have done) with that as a specific part of the course description, and even there I engage with radical politics as an historical and philosophical phenomenon, addressing all ends of the political spectrum.

But my personal politics are unquestionably radical. I believe we live in a deeply unjust society, in which mass media, the political process, the economic system, are all extensively and intensively organized to benefit the rich and to mislead and exploit the poor.

I was poor for a long time-poor enough to not have the rent, to have to sleep in my car, to go without medical or dental care, to go without. I remember the days when a busted alternator in our sole, old, junker car was a disaster, because it would take 100 bucks to fix it. I will never forget that, I will never deny that I hold those views, and I will never unjustly take the side of the rich against the poor.

Vernacular culture

"Vernacular culture" just means culture that is learned, taught, passed-on, and/or retained through primarily aural/oral methods. It is not only "folk" culture, not only "traditional" culture, not (a grab-bag) "everything that isn't popular" or "isn't classical." Vernacular culture is the product of a particular process: the process of learning, teaching, remember, and passing-on culture (songs, tunes, dances, stories, recipes, remedies, skills of all sorts) by demonstration, imitation, and critique. I am specifically interested in vernacular musics simply because most of the musics that I love (see "100 Greats" for a sampler) and almost all of the musics that I play are so learned, taught, and passed-on. I believe these musics are important because (a) I love them and intuitively believe in their greatness; (b) because they are so ubiquitous: though they have been neglected by Western musicology, my chosen field, they represent the vast majority of the world's musics; (c) because they are so functional: because in most cultures, all this rainbow of beautiful musics accomplish crucial social business, helping people be born, mature, marry, die, celebrate, and mourn; (d) because they are constantly under attack by the forces of centralization, standardization, mass culture, and totalitarian governments. Individuality (personal or cultural) threatens mass-governments, and is victimized, persecuted, or outlawed by them as a result. I believe it is part of my job to stand against this "cultural grey-out." That is why I lecture, broadcast, write and teach about these musics, practice them myself, and pass them on to younger generations: because I believe in (a) through (d) above, and because such teaching is the most effective, yet ethical and non-demagogic, radicalizing skill I have.


Music saved my life. Not exclusively, and not completely (we all took a few wounds along the way), and certainly not without the offices of the myriad wonderful Boddhisattvas I met along the way. But music, before I met those people, before I could play it myself, Saved. My. Life--and continues to do so on a daily basis. In tandem with the people I love, music is what permits me to make sense of the world and whatever may be my place in it.

I have seen it save other lives as well. For the past 30 years of my life, I have been committed, By Any Means Necessary[1], to using music to save other lives. So those anecdotes out of my personal history that help me express that seem relevant.

Music expresses love. As Tony MacMahon said at the beginning of his earthshaking version of An Buachaillin Ban, "In the modern world, the loss of love is the greatest tragedy we face." Musicians believe that playing music is their best, most open way of expressing the Holy Yes of love.

A small icon of Manjusri, the warrior Buddha who wields a sword that cuts through ignorance, sits above my desk. I would die--or incur the unavoidable bad karma in taking up Manjusri's sword of discriminating wisdom--before I would let anything, anyone, from the universe to a fascist government, take away from me or from my students the ability to do this.

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Delighted to discover that Malcolm X got this phrase from Sartre. Here are the relevant quotes:

“I was not the one to invent lies: they were created in a society divided by class and each of us inherited lies when we were born. It is not by refusing to lie that we will abolish lies: it is by eradicating class by any means necessary.” — Jean Paul Sartre, Dirty Hands: act 5, scene 3. 1963[1]

“We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.” — Malcolm X, 1965[2]

“Any means” is generally considered to leave open all available tactics for the desired ends, including violence. However, the “necessary” qualifier adds a caveat—if violence is not necessary, then presumably, it should not be used.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Coming up

I got nothin'. But here's what I'm working on, for future "100 Greats":

Von Schmidt and Rooney, Baby Let Me Follow You Down; Big Bill Broonzy; Blind Willie Johnson: Sweeter as the Years Go By; Blind Willie McTell; Charles Ives: The “Holidays” Symphony ; David Lindley with Henry Kaiser: Sweet Sunny North ; De Danann: The Mist-Covered Mountain; Fairport Convention – Fairport Live; The Four Tops:; Gnawa Musicians of Morocco: Night Spirit Masters ; Hamza El-Din: The Waterwheel; Jimi Hendrix: Band of Gypsies; Lou Reed: Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal; Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Hot Sevens:; Martin Grosswendt: Call and Response; Mick Goodrick: Biorhythms ; Miles Davis; Monteverdi: Orfeo (Savall/DVD production); Moving Hearts at Jonathan Swift’s; Noel Hill & Tony MacMahon: In Knocknagree; NWA: ; Oyster Band: Holy Bandits; Parliament-Funkadelic; Paco de Lucia; Patti Smith; Prince: Sign O the Times; Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet; Rahsaan Roland Kirk:; Richard Thompson: Watching the Dark (compilation); Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings; Shakti; Sly & the Family Stone; Sonny Rollins: The Bridge; Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town; The Minutemen: Double Nickels on the Dime; Thelonious Monk: Monk/Trane; The Wild Tchoupitoulas: The Wild Tchoupitoulas; Traffic: John Barleycorn Must Die; Trevor Watts and Moiré Music: With One Voice; Van Halen: 1984; Various artists: The Sweet Sunny North; Zappa: Zappa in New York;

Would welcome suggestions or votes.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

“100 Greats in 100 Days” # 057 and 058 (double entry): Mason Brown & Chipper Thompson, Am I Born to Die; Roger Landes, Dragon Reels

By 1998, I was a fucked-up mess. Nine years of therapy were starting to bear fruit, but, given that I was in graduate school at a conservatory notorious for its destruction of peoples’ psyches (more than one suicide a year and your administration should probably recognize that they are doing something wrong), and had been for 12 years, I was more treading water than making progress. I’d done a master’s degree and the coursework for two doctorates (actually, the coursework for two-and-a-half doctorates because this guy, disbelieving the validity of my candidacy, was doing everything he could to add coursework beyond the legal requirements), and I was within shooting distance of the finish line. But no-one survives graduate school without scars; that’s precisely why senior professors tend to pontificate reminisce through rose-colored hindsight about their own graduate work to miserable students—because it’s too painful to remember what it was actually like. I had only survived those years through the good offices of Dharmonia (who had her own graduate fish to fry), my revered therapist and brothers and sisters in music, and by repeating, like a mantra and on a daily basis, “If you can’t take it anymore, you can walk tomorrow. Just get through today.” After more than a decade of such emotional abuse and administrative road-blocking from a university notorious for its psychopathy, I had finally completed and passed the last of my doctoral exams.

That was also the year I met Roger Landes—and John Whelan, and Zan McLeod (three Desperate Gentlemen to be sure)—at a festival in Ohio. That’s where I saw John Whelan stride into a bar full of timid trad-music novices, Marlboro dangling, groupies in tow, and take over a pub session. He sat down, strapped into the box, and launched into a hyperdrive set of reels that must have lasted 20 minutes. He did it with such confidence, such certainty that he was serving the music rather than his own ego, that everybody in the bar recognized that same thing (there’s something about box-players and the degree to which the physics of their instruments demand that they stand behind the notes they play—there’s no way to hide on a box, the note is either full-on or full-off. I once saw Billy McComiskey take over a session in a rundown Irish pub in the Catskills with at least as bold certainty. Maybe it’s a New York Thing, too.). I learned the power and the confidence that chops can bring, that summer.

Anyway, Roger invited me to visit his inaugural Zoukfest music camp, so later that summer I got in a car with a back-deck full of instruments and drove west, across Indiana and Illinois and Missouri, to the banks of the Missouri and the first ZF home.

Weston was a pretty little town that was the original river landing on the Missouri for trappers, explorers, and settlers heading west. It had been a camp-site for Lewis & Clark in 1804 and beautifully evoked in its Gold Rush heyday in GM Fraser’s Flashman and the Redskins.

It’s also the site of the oldest brewery still functioning west of the Hudson, O’Malley’s, an 1842 building which was the original home-site for Zoukfest. It was an absolutely amazing building at the top of the main street that sloped, past white clapboard historic homes, down to the river: a modest timber structure above ground, but with three levels of stone cellars down below. You’d clamber down a flight of stone steps that would open into a beautifully barrel-arched cellar, built by slaves who were master-masons, and then down another flight into another cellar, and then down another flight into yet another cellar. It was absolutely magical—if moldy—and you could feel the shades of the slaves, trappers, brewers, Border guerillas, and stevedores who’d been there before you elbowing you aside as you went down the stairs or stepped up to the bar.

I was hired late, after the budget was already set, to come in mid-week and deliver a couple of lectures on “world-strings” for the bouzouki-fanatics. Roger kindly made me free of all the classes, and I stumbled around those few days, through the blazing heat and 90-percent humidity of the Midwest in July, almost overcome by both the meteorological and psychological intensity of what I was experiencing.

I sat in classes and the psycho-emotional competitive jungle in my own head made it almost impossible for me to even hear the brilliance and beauty of what was being conveyed, in words and music, by that first core community of teachers and guests. In that same week I met Chipper Thompson, Mason Brown, Steven Owsley Smith, Connie Dover, Gerald Trimble, Paddy League, Jean Denney, Stanley Greenthal, Joseph Sobol, Chris Grotewohl, and an extended cast of some of the most amazing and incredible musicians--and people--I had ever met. I was blessed beyond measure that I shut up just enough to restrain the sociopathy beaten into me over the previous decade, long enough to be able to experience the generosity and openness of that incredible cast of characters, and to be reminded of a way to experience community.

They were so kind, so talented, so open, so generous. It reminded me of a way of being a musician, an artist, and a member of an artistic family that I had almost forgotten—that I’d only previously known, 17 years before, at this place. I was so overwhelmed by the depth, kindness, and inspiration of the Weston experience that I had to leave after the closing night concert--I had to get back on the night-time roads by myself, just so I could begin to process the intensity and inspiration. I called Dharmonia at 4am from a truckstop outside Canton, raving to her about these people I had just met and the way they had reminded me of why I had first wanted to be a musician--because I wanted to be part of that kind of community.

They reminded me of the Guitar Workshop staff, who, as a 20-year-old, I had idolized and imitated. They were imaginative, endlessly creative, relentlessly individual. As musicians, they were overwhelmingly talented and idiosyncratic, curious about the world about them, and incredibly well-informed abut historical and artistic repertoires I barely recognized. After my twelve years of graduate school, these were people whose conversation, anecdotes, and off-color jokes humbled me with its erudition and creativity.

Also, many of them were also from the South or the West: foreign territory for me. Even after 12 years in Southern Indiana, which according to the linguists and geographers, and my own observation, is sociologically much more southern hill-country than mid-western plains, I still hadn’t had much contact with people who came from those very different places—I was “campus” and they were “townies” (or “cutters”: see Steve Tesich’s bathetic but nevertheless evocative portrait of Bloomington in Breaking Away). Sure, I had friends who had lived there a very long time, and lived in the “townie” west side, but they were still émigrés, and mostly hippies. And when I had contact with those locals who qualified as hillbillies, they were usually abusing their kids, neglecting their dogs, or threatening violence to my friends.

Growing up in the northern suburbs in a fairly radical household during Civil Rights and court-ordered busing, I had more-or-less been taught to believe the old, old canard about how it was only the South that suffered from racism, and that “people up North” weren’t like that. Like most of my generation, I didn’t know squat about what it was actually like to grow up poor, or intellectually curious, or skeptical, or creative, in the Deep South. And here I was in Weston, thrown in with a group of people who could have been Faulkner’s running buddies and down-home drinking companions, or characters from his stories. Or both.

These records remind me of them.

Roger’s Dragon Reels (there’s a bizarre and spooky story about the Dragon inlay on Roger’s SOS bouzouki, a surprise gift from Steve, and the simultaneous “coincidental” discovery that Rog’s own name was an anagram of the album title) came after 12 years in the trenches with his band Scartaglen of the 1980s North American “Celtic” touring circuit, during which they’d made some wonderful records that melded both the “American roots” and Irish-trad sides of their group personalities, but had also run up against something similar to what Dharmonia and I were encountering in Boston-Cambridge at roughly the same time: the fact that we loved the music, and worked hard to play it right, could not compensate for the fact that we were Americans playing “Celtic” music at a time when music audiences only believed “real Celts” could do it.

By the 1980s the bouzouki had made an effective entry and achieved a solid role in the worlds of “Celtic” musics, notably in the hands of seminal players like Johnny Moynihan (De Danann, Planxty), Donal Lunny (Planxty, the Bothy Band), Andy Irvine (Planxty, and solo), Ciaran Curran (Altan), Brian MacNeill (The Battlefield Band), and Dave Richardson (The Boys of the Lough), but the instrument was primarily accompanimental and contrapuntal. Having migrated from the world of eastern Mediterranean folk musics (Greek, Turkish, and Central Asian) and under many names, it was almost inevitable that it would be borrowed by “Celtic” musicians, as, of all the plectrum instruments (guitar, mandolin, banjo), it had the greatest harmonic-versus-melodic capacities and, arguably, the most beautiful and complex tone. First essays in use of the bouzouki as a lead instrument, however, had to await the Green Linnet records of Kansas City’s Gerald Trimble, a restless, roving intellect, but one who had early grasped the instrument’s melodic potential.

It was left to Roger Landes, a deeply focused, disciplined, methodical and (though he’d kill me for saying it) scholarly musical intellect; a bandleader; and an uilleann piper, to solidify the instrument’s legitimacy and give it, finally, a distinctive lead voice. A former classical guitarist who came to traditional music through the back-door of medieval repertoires (and a love of the music of Tom Binkley, which was later a powerful bond for us—I only wish Roger had ever been able to meet Tom, and Tom him), he’d used bouzouki throughout the history of Scartaglen (one of my very favorite moments on any of those records is his balls-to-the-wall riffage behind Kirk Lynch’s yowling pipes on “The South Bend Reels” and the army of mandolins on the “Day After Christmas” polkas), but had never before placed the burden of a whole record on the instrument.

Dragon Reels, Roger’s first solo disc, a beautiful record, and establishes its distinctive sound, character, and goals from the first track, the jigs “The First of October/Johnny the Jumper” (with the added bonus of the first being a C. Thompson composition). Roger’s SOS bouzouki is front and center in the mix, pacing every step of the way with Whelan’s casually commanding button box. Overall, the dance sets are massively powerful: the starkly-accompanied “Barrel of Knives”/“Tone Row’s”/“Leg of the Duck” set showcasing Roger’s roots as a piper, in tunes he got from Eugene Lamb; the “Master Crowley’s” reels where his ‘zouk is matched by Chris Grotewohl’s astonishingly idiomatic 5-string banjo; the Metallician “primordial ooze” of the “Slopes of Sliabh Luachra”/“Price of the Pig”/"Kitty's Wedding" jigs (with the added bonus of the heartbreakingly-beautiful Sufi/Dervish ascending counterpoint line behind the final tune); the “Murphy’s Nails”/“Parallel Polka” set, whose mandolin/bouzouki interplay recalls the classic polkas played by Andy Irvine and Johnny Moynihan of Planxty on Cold Blow and the Rainy Night. Even when he’s playing guitar, on the “Farrell O’Gara” reels, his piper’s ears, phrasing, and power are front-and-center. The disc closes with a wonderful Cape Breton-style set of march-strathspey-reels in the “Jerry Holland Set”, with takes us out with a suitable house-party feel. It reminds me of how much I loved playing music with those guys in that hot Weston summer of 1998, in the caverns and cellars deep below O’Malley’s. It was a privileged time.

Before I got to Weston, I learned this whole record. Even before I ever visited Zoukfest, I understood, just as I had 19 years before at the Guitar Workshop, that knowing the music these men made might open doors for me to know them—and that knowing them could make a profoundly positive impact in my life. I didn’t know then, only partly understood at Zoukfest, how right I was. Looking back, I can barely believe my own good fortune.

The Chipper Thompson/Mason Brown Am I Born to Die disc is the kind of record that makes you believe in good fortune; to believe that the stars might have had to align for it ever to occur—it has that sense of atypicality, and unpredictability, and, paradoxically, of inevitability; of the whole of any artistic collaboration being greater than the sum of its parts. Who would have thought that a self-taught Alabama guitarist/historical re-enactor/singer/songwriter and a Zen priest/ banjoist/ double-bassist/ carpenter would ever meet, much less collaborate? That kind of synchronicity is indicative of the kind of one-off partnerships that can only happen in an arts town like Taos—or Bloomington, for that matter—which can yield great art but, in a fallen and failed world, seldom any money.

The disc highlights Mason Brown’s astonishing facility on banjo and fingerpicked guitar and “high-lonesome” singing, and Chipper Thompson’s grainily-evocative Alabama voice and infallible sense of Southern Gothic. The aura of synchronous, felicitous timing and compatibility is throughout the production, even down to the Zen uniqueness of Chipper’s free-hand album design and the daguerreotype-style photos of the two taken by Lanford Monroe (I always insisted to them that they should have added one more round of photos in that set—showing them propped up in their coffins a la executed “badmen”; an idea that recurs in modified form on the cover photo for the hillbilly surrealism of Chipper’s Penny Dreadfuls, another fantastically-titled disc).

What would in anyone else have seemed affected or pretentious just came naturally to these guys: this record—packaging, photos, artwork, sound, songs, arrangements, focus—was who they were, up to and including larger-than-life. They called their music “Appalachian Murder Ballads and Celtic Songs of Love and Death”—which certainly captured the content. But what it, and the Old West/Art Deco design of the cover, and the hilarious solemnity of the period photos of the two, don’t prepare you for, is the sheer beauty which emerges from these tracks.

It’s all here: the lovely instinctive counterpoint of the guitar/bouzouki parts on “Pretty Peggy-O;” the “Appalachified” take, driven by Mason’s masterful frailing banjo, on Scots border ballads (“The Verdant Braes of Skreen”); the wild freedom with which they find the links between Old- and New-World songs, instruments, and techniques (the slide bouzouki which opens “Jesse James”); the Arthurian darkness of “Lady Gay,” which tropes the story of the Scots siblings Gawain and his brothers; the droning doom-laden ballads of blood, incest, and murder (“Bruton Town”) and, conversely, the beauty of others equally dark (“Banks of the Ohio”—as the old joke has it, “There are only two kinds of Irish songs: fast sad songs and slow sad songs”); the loopy, idiosyncratic, and hilarious minstrelsy Mason learned in medicine shows (“Rove Riley Rove”) and the swampy Jungian modality Chipper unearths in his own songs (“No Man Can Hinder”); the iconic, totemic songs of hillbilly symbolism (“The Pesky Sarpent”—sung by Mason, with a particularly frightening—and brilliant—fiddle obbligato from Chipper) which Chipper would later explore in his novel of snake-handling religion—best line: “Molly had a rotten tooth, and so the p’ison killed them both”. And, throughout, there is the stunning beauty of their intertwining voice parts, Mason’s “high lonesome” voice out of Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb; Chipper’s instinctive, distinctive, inimitable North Alabama roar, heard to possibly best—and darkest—effect on the album’s closer, the droning, spooky Shape-Note-styled title cut, which comes across as some kind of mutant scary out-of-body minor-key offspring of “Amazing Grace.”

And am I born to die?
To lay this body down?
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?

A land of deepest shade,
Unpierced by human thought;
The dreary regions of the dead,
Where all things are forgot.

They sound like hillbilly Khazars (the semi-mythical Turkic warriors, converted to Judaism, reputed to have retained a medieval culture in the high hills and deep valleys of the North Caucasus, later explored in The Janissary Stomp); you looked at these men, and listened to them, and you could imagine two siblings, marooned in some Appalachian holler, singing the songs that their mamas and grandmamas and great-grandmamas had brought across the water. The record sounds that old; that rooted; that timeless, inevitable, and eternal.

Also recommended: the later Landes/Thompson collaboration The Janissary Stomp (itself subject of a future “100 Greats” post), which in addition to having one of the great album titles ever, perfectly evocative of the (at least two) worlds that meet in its tunes, locates a similarly-inevitable meeting point of their two idiosyncratic greatnesses. The Stomp is the only possible soundtrack for the movie that should be the lives of these two larger-than-life characters.

I wrote to Roger a while later, when I’d come down a bit from the over-oxygenated high of being at Zoukfest, and thanked him for the chance to be a part of it. Though I didn’t quite confess to the vicious attitude I had brought to Weston, I was able to acknowledge how grateful and fortunate I felt to have been involved, and to begin to lay that stupid burden down. As I said at the end of that note of thanks, “It healed me.”

Years later Chipper, Mason, and Lanford came through Bloomington together just one time, just before Dharmonia and I departed there for the last time to a place we’d never been and another life. At the show we promoted for them, they closed with a song off of Am I Born to Die, and dedicated it to us: “Going to the West.” If there was ever an apt and loving metaphor for the life that Dharmonia and I were once again leaving, and the open frontier to which we were heading, this was it.

In this fair land I’ll stay no more
Our labour is in vain
I’ll leave the mountains of my birth
And seek the fertile plain.
I’m going to the West.

In recognition of how much they taught me, here are three poems that came out of that Weston summer.

For Roger:


It's all there:

Skirl of pipes,

Chatter of mandolin,

Curlicue of istampitta and geometry of Bach,

Wail of the nyckelharpa and knotwork of the sean nos,

Smoke of the rebeticos in the hash bars of Smyrna and Athens.

It’s all there:

Flaked Etruscan frescoes, shouting horsemen under Central Asian skies, tea-houses on the Silk Road; Mughal courts and Katak sacred dancers, poets in perfumed Iberian gardens; Turkish asiks riding muddy Anatolian streets, singers lifting makams in Damascus studios; Berbers chanting verses at star-lit oases; black-porter poets puffing cigarettes in the back parlors of Gaeltacht pubs;

From crossroads dances, RTE broadcast studios,

Bronx tenements, Chicago kitchens,

To a river landing on the Missouri:

It’s all there.

For Chip:


Breeze out of the hills;

whisper of fiddles and banjos.

Smell of woodsmoke and pork chops, pine and red dirt.

Voice of creek water, crackle of muskets, call of jay and redtail hawk.

Cockleburs in the mane, hounds at heel.

Fringe on the buckskin.

Dim blue riders on misty slopes above the hollow;

creak of leather;

smell of gun oil and black powder.

This is my home.

For Mason:

Zen Banjo


Mallet strikes board.

Tok. Tok. Tok-tok-tok-tok-tok.

Sound of banjo: “East Virginia Blues.”

40-watt bulb against blackness.

Shiny floors, dusty roads.

Ice on the bell and the forge.

Smell of incense and ganja.

Gaijin carpenter beard; Zen robes.

Border ballads, Delta blues, mountain music, the medicine show; cold pickles, rice gruel, burritos, beer, Mexican weed, cheap cigarettes; Milky Way night sky, horses stamping in the corral, Taos Mountain; Dogen’s Instructions for the Cook, a sofa to sleep on, the wisdom of the Patriarchs, a trailer in Sun Valley, the thumb of a leper, the teachings of the Dharma,

Whatever falls in the begging bowl,

Accepted with gratitude.

These records remind me of how much I owe these men. And how much I love them.

This entry is dedicated to the memory of Lanford Monroe (1950-2000), who, in her single painting of a grizzly bear on a burned-over hillside, called Surveyor, taught me more about my totem animal—and myself—than in all my millions of words. We loved her and we miss her.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Feudal monsters

Around 1992, I was playing in an 8-piece (5 rhythm, 3 horns) funk/R&B band while working my way (interminably) through graduate school. On the side, the trumpet player would lead Dixieland jazz gigs for extra cash.

"Dixie" (really, New Orleans-style jazz) was hugely popular in Indiana, going all the way back to Hoagie Carmichael and his contemporaries. On some of those gigs, I even got to play with elder musicians who had known Hoagie and played with him. When in doubt--and generically--event organizers would decide that, if their event needed music, a Dixie band would set up the right mood. There was a strong "bunting-and-boaters" vibe to those gigs, but it's where I learned to play the music. The tunes were just harmonically complex-enough to be interesting for improvisation, but the changes were sufficiently architectonic that you could hear them, and thus memorize them, without the intervention of charts. It was a great education in the fundamentals of jazz harmony, because those changes (reharmonized, but fundamentally the same) were the basis for swing and bebop tunes as well. So, while studying bebop, to go back to "Dixie" tunes was a way to learn the harmonic foundations of the later musics.

I also loved playing Dixie because it represented a wonderful meeting ground between the funk and the ears required by the blues (and the wonderful, "behind-the-behind-the-beat" time feel), and the harmonic and improvisational challenges of jazz.

But you'd wind up playing for a lot of people, and events, with which you might not otherwise have a lot in common. I don't know why the wealthy and powerful assume that musicians will just grin-and-bear-it, no matter the abuse the W&P dish out, but they do. I've never been treated better and more respectfully as a musician than at blue-collar Portuguese fishermen's weddings in Gloucester, Mass--and I've never been treated worse than by the jumped-up new-rich bowtie-wearing Ivy League assholes of my own ethnic background.

One time in 1992, I got a call from the trumpet player, to say that he'd been contacted by the re-election campaign of Daniel "potatoe" Quayle--prior to Darth Cheney, the greatest embarassment to the office of Vice President since Dick Nixon and Gerald Ford. Grant said the Indiana Re-elect Quayle committee had contacted him asking for a Dixie band to play at a campaign event, and Grant was calling around to find out who in the band would be willing to do the gig. I thought hard about saying "no," but decided I would rather Republican money was siphoned off to a radical Quayle-opponent than to some dickhead musician who would brag about having done the gig. So I said "yes."

Grant got back to me a few days later, to say that the gig was off. I was relieved, and asked why. He reported that he'd been speaking to the local events organizer, some Indiana Young Republican who was obviously all hot-and-sweaty about his future political career as a factotum for Little Danny, and had asked what the organizer was planning to pay the musicians for the gig. Young Republican said, "Oh, we weren't planning to pay the musicians for this...we just figured that they would be honored about the opportunity to play for the VICE PRESIDENT" (obviously, Why-Pee knew as little about musicians as human beings as most of his class). Grant demurred, saying, "Well, I don't think that's gonna work. Musicians are accustomed to being fairly paid for their services."

To which, Why-Pee replied, "Oh yeah, that's right. I forgot what kind of people you're dealing with."

It was worth having my head nearly explode at that story to have it confirmed for me why no musician, no one who cares about the arts, about quality of life, about democracy, should ever do their art for the feudal monsters in power.

I was reminded of this story, when the Commander-Guy hosted a bunch of New Orleans greats at a summer bash on the South Lawn. Here he is talking to bandleader Kermit Ruffins:

THE PRESIDENT: Kermit Ruffins and the Barbeque Swingers, right out of New Orleans, Louisiana. (Applause.)

MR. RUFFINS: Thank you. Thanks for having us. We're glad to be here.

THE PRESIDENT: Proud you're here. Thanks for coming. You all enjoy yourself. Make sure you pick up all the trash after it's over.


This from the sociopath-in-chief who is responsible for this:


These people are monsters. Anyone who votes for them, or plays music for them, who makes excuses for them, is enabling them. I regret that Kermit Ruffin and his comrades had to be subjected to such sociopathy.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Fox News and "spam, spam, spam, spam..."

Hilarious and apt analogy from Nation Books and Alternet:

But Fox can be frustrating, too, because its employees are so unswervingly dedicated to denying their true nature. If your local weatherman dressed up as a Viking every day, called himself Hjørt Bjornsen, and told you there was a 60 percent chance of snow flurries and a 30 percent chance that Thor would rain fire and canned hummus from the sky during midmorning rush hour -- all the while claiming he absolutely was not dressed as a Viking -- eventually it would stop being cute. That's essentially what it feels like to be sane and reasonably intelligent and tuned in to Fox News. It's hard to look away, because there's a guy on TV making a complete ass of himself while saying obviously untrue things. But it would be nice to get the forecast every once in a while.
This is why I don't watch any network news anymore.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"100 Greats in 100 Days" #056: Bela Bartok, Mikrokosmos

Around 1981, Dharmonia and I were living in a rent-controlled fourth-floor walkup apartment in Cambridge Massachusetts. The street door’s lock was broken for the entire tenure of our lives there, we’d find winos asleep on our landing, and big chunks of plaster fell out of our ceilings—but the apartment had been “in the family” (e.g., with the same family surname on the rental agreement) since around 1971, when my brilliant Senior Brother was an underage undergraduate at Harvard, and the rent was $247 a month. It’s a good thing it was so low, in fact—the guitar studio where Dharmo and I had both worked, and where we had met (and there’s a story for another day) had gone belly-up with little warning and, despite assurances to the contrary, we were out on the street without even access to the student lists we’d been promised (kinda like the record company who tried to include rights to our masters, which we’d leased-not-sold, in their bankruptcy settlement—fortunately, we took ‘em to court and won that one). So we were poor and scared.

That guitar studio had been a fantastic place for me, first as a student (where policy let me sign up for one class/night and audit as many others as I wanted) and then as a staff member. I didn’t have a music degree, could barely sight-read, and felt terribly handicapped. So I’d get up early in the morning, and ride the old Boston Green Line from Brookline downtown, working my way through various basic-theory books, get to the studio 3 hours before they opened, and sit there in the empty, dusty rooms above Boylston Street, trying all on my lonesome to construct the fundamentals of a basic musical literacy. I was greatly facilitated in this by the generosity and genius of the stuff there: Mike Bevan, Dean Magraw, Larry “Guitar” Baeder, and many others. I even met Dharmonia there—God help her, I was in her ear-training class. As students, in the intervals between classes, Larmo and I would sit in the lobby and play fiddle tunes (to which Dennis Horvitz would crack “The ever-present threat of Irish music rears its ugly head”); as a staff member, I’d sit behind the desk and drive people crazy playing scales, arpeggios, and chromatic approaches. I even took voice lessons and piano lessons, bartering for guitar lessons and home repairs. It was a great, great time--and I felt like I was fortunate, catching up on missed opportunities.

But such great times end: the owners of the studio were so anxious to live up to family pressures for “success” that they tried to expand to franchise-size too quick, and eventually had to file for bankruptcy. And, as so often happens (and as it happened again in our escape from the clutches of Dorian Group Records), when the chips were down, the collegiality went out the window (you know who your friends are not when things are good, but when things are in the shitter), and they reneged on a bunch of promises. So we found ourselves, broke and free-lancing, in a run-down rent-controlled apartment in North Cambridge. We were scared—and it wasn’t working.

I remember standing on a bridge in Halifax, Nova Scotia, near the end of a short road trip we’d taken with family, via ferry from Brunswick ME all the way to the peninsula. It would have been a great visit—and I wish I’d known more at the time about the beauty, richness, and ubiquity of Cape Breton Music—had we not been so very scared. I stood on that bridge with Dharmonia, and finally said out-loud “this isn’t working.” I’d come to the realization that I couldn’t make it just as a working musician, and that I was going to have to go back to school and become a teacher. I felt like I’d been gut-shot. But I didn't feel I had a choice--I had to make a change.

So I did: I enrolled (for a total of $76 a semester, as a commuting, in-state student) in the nascent music program at U. Mass Boston, getting on the Red Line five mornings a week and riding it south to its other end in the old Irish-American ghetto of Dorchester.

That place saved me: it was one half of one floor on the poured-concrete slabs (vertical and horizontal) of U Mass, but the half-dozen music faculty members included a few people who were going to have absolutely crucial impact on my sense of my own possibilities. As I labored through the core classes outside music (including almost coming to blows with a weeny psychology professor because I’d argued that the notorious Stanley Milgram experiments were deeply wrong), Dianthe Myers-Spencer (jazz), Joe Dyer (musicology), and my great mentor Robert Prins (orchestration) helped me start to think about the possibilities of a career in music that could include, rather than avoid, the academic. I remember when Bob Prins (an Indiana graduate who’d studied there, via the GI Bill, under the legendary Bill Adam), said “Have you ever thought about graduate school?” “NO!” Have you ever thought about Indiana?” “NO!”—which shows how much I knew. Those folks on the top floor opened a lot of doors for me.

I’d come home in the afternoons from U Mass, carry our ancient and hip-displaced Black Labrador down four flights for her afternoon constitutional, and, if I didn’t have to teach a private lesson, sit down to practice. I was working on developing a basic keyboard proficiency, because I knew that any graduate program I tried to get into would have either a required proficiency or required courses—and required courses meant extra money that we didn't have (if I’d known in 1986 that I would be in graduate school twelve years I might very well have given up and tried to get a job in my elder brother’s consultancy firm). Having no childhood musical training beyond a few guitar lessons, and thus having escaped the Arban/ et al piano methods, my entrees into the world of classical piano were Stavinsky’s Les cinq doigts (wonderful ironical little teaching pieces dating from 1921, in the midst of Stravinsky’s snarkily imaginative neo-classical period), and Bartok’s lovely, funky, infinitely compassionate and infectious Mikrokosmos (1926-39).

Bartok had been born in 1881 in Hungary, at a time when young Eastern European composers had a tendency to be interested in both musical and political progressivism. Coming to manhood in the decadent world-ending twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire, passionately interested in the causes of nationalism and ethnic rights (Bartok understood totalitarianism’s aversion to unique cultural expressions decades before Alan Lomax coined the term “cultural grey-out”), he was the 20th century’s first and maybe greatest ethnomusicologist.

With the other late-19th/early-20th century nationalists, he also understood, like Dvorak, Debussy, Vaughan Williams, and Charles Ives, that a composer’s greatest contribution to his own nation’s or people’s sense of self might be to create a music that both reflected, celebrated, and expanded upon the expressive capacities of the indigenous musics. Unlike almost all 19th and all but a few 20th century composers, Bartok realized that to write a music that truly reflected that love and respect for indigenous traditions, he needed to get out there and discover the music amongst the indigenous peoples. So, very early on (no later than 1908), he donned “peasant costume,” loaded his baggage and manuscript books (and later, his early Edison phonograph) on the back of a donkey, and went up into the hills to find the music and the people that it came from.

That experience would inform the balance of Bartok’s life: providing the musical language for expressionist masterpieces like Duke Bluebeard’s Castle; the huge collection of settings, adaptations, and inspirations he derived from folk tunes; the harmonic and rhythmic implications of the folk musics which he built into one of the two or three greatest musical languages of the 20th century (only Stravinsky, Ives, and possibly Debussy or Schoenberg even come close in terms of their innovations, the scope of their musical insights, and the breadth of their musical influence); and, most relevantly for this story, the beautiful set of graded teaching tunes that make up Mikrokosmos volumes 1-6.

I loved this music so much—not only because it was beautiful, idiosyncratic, infectious, and uniquely sensitive to folk-music’s spikiness, but also because I could play it. I had been taught from childhood that I had little or no musical talent, that I had to work extra hard to accomplish anything, and that despite that extra work it was unlikely that anything would ever work out. But Dharmonia handed me the first two volumes, in their beautiful, Art-Deco inspired brown-and-yellow Boosey & Hawkes editions, and told me that I had to at least try these pieces. She was wise, and she knew me, and she was right.

So I sat in that rent-controlled apartment with the chunks of plaster falling out of the ceiling, at Dharmonia’s beat-up old studio upright, which some lunatic house-painter had stripped and refinished in a matte black sand texture and which we paid a crane company a lot of money to move in and out of two 4th-floor apartments, and I played “The Village Fair”, a wonderful spiky bit of pentatonic counterpoint, over and over again, struggling to play it up to tempo and with the gutsy character I thought it demanded. I didn’t know anything at all about classical music—was very slowly filling in the gaps at U Mass—but that piece from Volume II seemed to occupy something of the same territory as the wonderful “Shrovetide Fair” opening movement of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, something I’d encountered in an old LP performance conducted by Monteux, who had led the premiere, on a record I’d picked up as a child at a yard sale for a quarter.

And I felt unnervingly fortunate. I would never have believed, sleeping in my car in Midland Texas, left on an East Village street-corner at 17 to fend for myself in college, hypnotized by the beauty and seductive power of the musicians I heard as a child, that some day I would be able to make these sounds myself. That I would have Dharmonia in the next room. That I would have even the possibility of a lifetime in music on the horizon We were broke, and cold, and scared—but I could feel, if not quite trust, that my luck had already turned.

Buddhism teaches you to leave things behind and to accept that events change. Life does this also. If you’re smart, or receptive, or not too psychologically beaten-down by a world that exploits the poor and favors the rich, you learn lessons from the suffering every life brings. You beat yourself up over things you can't change, and then you can't change them, and then next time, if you're lucky, you remember to beat yourself up a little less.

Buddhists are taught to accept that they are “homeless”—that the very fact of samsara (the physical world of birth, experience, suffering, and death) means none of us will escape suffering, or find our way home, in this phenomenal world. This is not a pessimistic but rather a profoundly liberating realization. If we are homeless, then we can learn to focus not upon material possessions but rather upon the less concrete but much more real experiences of beauty, imagination, and creativity; of connection, compassion, and love. I felt that sense of connection, compassion, and love, in the music that Bartok wrote to remember and to celebrate that land he remembered that was now gone.

We left that piano behind when we left the East. We were moving west, into the wild blue yonder, with bridges burnt by others behind us, and on the day we loaded the rented truck, it was pouring rain. We had no money to hire yet another crane company, and we left the piano, and an heirloom dining table, behind, in the hands of another friend who was inheriting the apartment. That day, Dharmonia and I said to each other, “we’ll come back for them.” But we knew we wouldn’t; that wherever we were going, we would not be returning to the same place in the future.

Franz Ferdinand and the Nazis taught Bartok about being homeless. World War I destroyed the old Transylvanian culture he loved, and the Nazis destroyed the Hungary which was his home, and he went into exile in the west, and eventually in America, where he struggled, in the midst of bad health and colossal disregard by the mainstream of classical music, to feed his family and continue writing. In his quiet, understated, Mittel-Europaerisch fashion, he created one of the greatest bodies of work by any 20th-century composer. He continued to work at transcribing recordings from his fieldwork days, he published articles arguing with great precision and passion the value of “peasant” music as a source of inspiration for new music, he wrote music on commissions from Koussevitsky, Menuhin, and Benny Goodman, and he never, ever gave up. In his great works; in his life; in the literally thousands of tunes which he collected, recorded, transcribed, and built into his compositions; he both accepted his own exile and fought to remember the place and people he had loved. And in so doing, he conquered imperialism, fascism, genocide, and death itself. The fascists were defeated; the music survived. And he left a legacy that, forty years later in a rented apartment, helped me survive my own exile.

I played “The Village Fair” at my graduate keyboard placement exam in 1987—and it’s part of what got me into IU. Forty-three years after his death, he opened doors for me too. Sixty-three years later, I'm recommending Mikrokosmos to my own students facing keyboard exams—and I am profoundly grateful.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Zoukfest, Day 06

"How do you pick up the threads of an old life?"

Aftermath Day, Saturday of Zoukfest, and Bloomsday.

The (remembered) events of Dublin in June 16 1904, seen through the eyes of alter-ego Stephen Dedalus, and co-narrator Leopold Bloom, form the backbone for the swirl of associations, perspectives, digressions, allusions, and verbal/textual games that comprise James Joyce's world-changing novel Ulysses. A kind of trope upon Homer's epic of the hero's departure and return (which was troped again in the Coen Brothers' masterful O Brother Where Art Thou?--a particularly apposite trope given the ZF community's love for that hillbilly masterpiece) Bloomsday is celebrated annually around the world (but especially in Dublin) by those lives, readerly and otherwise, were changed by encountering the book. Participants walk, ride trams, and read aloud their way through the events of that mythical June 16, and there are spectators, but eventually all are swept into participation. We cannot be present for Bloomsday without becoming part of Bloomsday.

Joyce's great genius was to recognize that the act of writing fiction was both a way of getting at deeper truths and of inventing a world; of telling the story not as it was handed to us--not as participants or passive consumers, but as active co-creators in the narrative drama of our own lives. Part of the attraction of Bloomsday, and of the novel itself, is the way both permit every reader or participant to become part of the story.

Zoukfest is like that too. You can come as a participant (audience member in the evening concerts, gawker at the Saturday instrumentarium going on at this very moment, casual passers-by who gets swept up into the carnival) but you'll stay as a participant. You can't read Ulysses (or at least get all the way through it) without surrendering to the possibilities and letting go of your own limitations. Ulysses demands surrender--and so does Zoukfest.

Such surrender yields generosity, openness (and the occasional meltdown), and a great sense of shared adventure. We arrive on the Sunday before (see previous posts) not knowing how it will all shake out, but we hope--and trust--that we will go someplace worthwhile, and together. And we go many, many places--but we hope it will be accomplished together. In order for that to happen, we have to say "Yes": to new experience, altered expectations, challenging emotional states, and so on and on.

The surrender of expectations that enables that holy "yes" is throughout the music, the personalities, and the community of ZF.

To speak personally for just a moment: I was a fucked-up mess in 1998 when invited to the first Zoukfest in Weston MO, Roger's then home town. After more than a decade of emotional abuse and administrative road-blocking from a university notorious for its psychopathy, I had finally completed and passed the last of my doctoral exams. And then I got in a car with a back-deck full of instruments and drove west, across Indiana and Illinois and Missouri, to the banks of the Missouri river and the pretty little river town that was the first ZF home. I sat in classes and the psycho-emotional competitive jungle in my own head made it almost impossible for me to even hear the brilliance and beauty of what was being conveyed, in words and music, by that first core community of teachers and guests. In that same week I met Chipper Thompson, Mason Brown, Steven Owsley Smith, Connie Dover, Gerald Trimble, Paddy League, Jean Denney, Chris Grotewohl, and an extended cast of some of the most amazing and incredible musicians--and people--I had ever met. I was blessed beyond measure that I shut up just enough to hold in the sociopathy beaten into me over the previous decade, long enough to be able to experience the generosity and openness of that incredible cast of characters, and to be reminded of a way to experience community.

They were so kind, so talented, so open, so generous. It reminded me of a way of being a musician, an artist, and a member of an artistic community that I had almost forgotten. I was so overwhelmed by the depth, kindness, and inspiration of the experience that I had to leave after the closing night concert--I had to get back on the night-time roads by myself, just so I could begin to process the intensity and inspiration. I called Dharmonia at 4am from a truckstop outside Canton, raving to her about these people I had just met and the depth to which they had reminded me of why I had first wanted to be a musician--because I wanted to be part of that kind of community.

9 years later, at the annual iteration of ZF and on the closing day, I am aware of how far ZF has come, and (personally) how far I/we have come, together, through the medium of this artistic community. Some are away, some have Gone, some return. Things begin, flower, and end. Life departs.

But the reality of the experience, if we surrender and open to it, never fades. Some threads continue; some are raveled; some are sundered. If we are wise, and generous, and brave, and kind, and if we travel in a fellowship of friends, then we pick up some thread, repair others, spin new ones, accept (and mourn) those that are lost, and recognize that we are all part of a much, much bigger weave.

Ulysses ends with such a holy "Yes". At the time of its serialization and publication, the book was castigated and indicted for obscenity, because Joyce had the "temerity" (really, the artistic courage and conviction), to imagine himself in the most sympathetic and compassionate way possible, into the mind of his female protagonist at the moment that she says "yes": to an orgasm, to a sexual encounter, but also to an emotional commitment, to a human connection, to a release of control, to the real risk and incalculable possibilities that flawed, messy, smelly, joyous, transcendent human life make possible. Because it is made up of people, with all such flaws, ZF is all those things, too.

Surrender is what makes new possibilities real. The ZF community, those who have come to love one another through the medium of loving new and old musics, have realized that--have brought it into being--through this shared experience.

And so, on this the last day, this Bloomsday, as some Remain, some Depart, and the threads of the life that was ZF are rewoven into a new pattern, forever changed by the warp and woof that have gone before, our hearts are indeed "going like mad," and we can say, with Molly Bloom in the novel's closing lines (which mirror, like the world-snake biting its own tale or the ancient Irish poetic tradition in which last words reverse first words) in reverse order the opening words--"My End is My Beginning"--

"...and yes I said yes I will Yes.'"

Goodbye. God bless. Safe home. I love you.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Zoukfest, Day 05

Morning of the last "full" (class) day.

Zoukfest, like any music camp (and also like the Buddhist retreats, backpacking trips, or other emotion-packed "out of the world" experiences referenced in previous posts), is many things to different people. And that makes sense: every individual (students, teachers, staff, visitors) comes to ZF with a different background, a different set of experiences, and hence a different sense of expectations. But, overwhelmingly, it's about learning: learning about music, learning about the world, learning about others, learning about oneself.

And that means that ZF is about teaching, great teaching, teaching that operates from Right Intentions and seeks to realize Right Goals (I joked in the Celtic Backup class that accompanists ought to have a version of the Hippocratic Oath: "first, Do No Harm"). One of Roger Landes's great talents, one of the many things that make ZF the extraordinary experience that it is, is his ability to recruit staff members who are not only great players but Great Teachers, who operate from right intentions and seek to realize right goals--and help students to do the same.

But of course the teaching and learning are not one-directional: the teachers give to the students, but the students give back to the teachers, the students to one another, and certainly the teachers to one another (it's no coincidence that many, many ZF staff members have been faithful and regular attendees at one another's classes and one another's evening showcases). In this kind of total experience, where the possibilities for new, mind-expanding experiences and immersive learning come thick and fast, why wouldn't you take in all you could?

Well, there are some things that get in the way: expectations about what we should be deriving from the experience, about the value we should be receiving in return for the (financial or personal) price we've invested, about the style of teaching in which we should be receiving that value. But those "shoulds" get in the way: quoting Dainen Katagiri Roshi, again in class, I said "sitting back and looking at how you're getting the insights and whether you're getting enough insights in the fashion you anticipate is like putting a saddle on top of a saddle on top of a horse--it's impossible to just ride."

Fortunately, all the staff and many of the students understand this about learning--that it will come in unexpected forms, at unexpected times, in unexpected ways. We can welcome it or not, but that is a choice. Last night I was honored to be asked to inscribe a student's copy of my book, and, without really thinking about it, "To _____...Always in service to the music." I believe this student--all ZF students--at some level understand this: with the modeling of our great teachers, we can understand that the experience is about the music, and that the "selves" we inhabit are mutable, impermanent, and (here, this place, this week) are here to serve the music. Egos can stay home, at least for a few days.

At last night's concert, Doug Goodhart put it well. Doug is a fantastic musician and teacher, but part of what makes his particular fantastic-ness is his insistence that, to play a particular music with the insight and clarity that made us love that music in the first place, we need to be rigorous with ourselves. Are we playing in the fashion in which we are playing in order to realize all the unique expressive beauty that a given music can provide? If so, why wouldn't we be rigorous, conscientious, and selfless in learning to play the music right? There really are ways to make West Virginia fiddle music, or Eastern Mediterranean vocal music, or African percussion music, or Irish dance music, or every other music that came from unique human experiences, "right".

Doug, who's both a true scholar of the music and a true virtuoso, spoke about being recruited by his old friend Roger Landes to teach at ZF 2007, for the first time. He spoke about the uniqueness of the experience, about the intensity and quality of the music, and about the extraordinary emotional environment which ZF creates. Doug said "I believe it's what you people call love." People laughed, but, in my own heart and, I suspect, a lot of hearts around the room, there was what Robert Graves called "the spear of poetic insight." If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit (to ourselves, more than anyone else), that what we experienced at ZF, what made the experience so intense, so overwhelming, so "over-amped," so productive of breakdowns to quote Kaila Flexer, was love.

Doug and Mason Brown played a fantastic set focusing on Doug's West Virginia fiddle repertoire: beautiful, subtle music; seemingly simple and repetitive on the surface, but, in Doug's fiddle and Mason's masterful accompanying guitar and banjo, deeply expressive music. The focus, precision, and selfless passion with which they played brought us to a place which was rooted, as Doug said, in a "much older time"--and helped us understand the brevity and transience of our own time here.

They also manifested a little bit of that carnivalesque unpredictability that great music should manifest--that sense of "Oh my God, we're going someplace I (in the audience) can't control." That's why we have to trust great musicians, and why great musicians in many cultures have been seen as potentially dangerous tricksters. Because when they are up there weaving that spell, we in the audience are not in control. We have to trust those musicians to take us someplace we could not take ourselves. And that takes Big Trust.

One such moment came in Mason's brilliant rendition of a medicine show "pitch", the sort of thing formerly used for selling snake oil and liniment, but in the delivery Mason learned touring in a medicine show in Japan, used to sell Doug's CD. It was absolutely hilarious, cataloging the long list of physical, emotional, and mental complaints (including "female weakness"), and it took us to another, older, carnivalesque place--that place that Greil Marcus called "old weird America." It reminds us of the place that's faintly captured on the scratchy 78's and aluminum discs from which Doug and Mason learned a lot of their music, and to which (if we let them) they can take us.

The poet, teacher, and Zen student Natalie Goldberg, a long-time Taos and Santa Fe resident and author of the wonderful spiritual biography Long Quiet Highway, which details both her personal history and the history of her encounters with great Buddhist teachers Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Dainen Katagiri Roshi, closes her book with a realization, which she reached while sitting zazen on the plaza at Santa Fe less than a mile from where I'm sitting. Bereft at the death of Katagiri, for too young from cancer, heartsick at the stupidity and suffering of Gulf War I, she resolves to do what Katagiri taught her to do, to "sit down and do no harm." So she begins a daily practice of sitting zazen in the Plaza for 30 minutes, under a sign that says "Sitting for Peace." As Natalie says, "No one could argue with peace."

And on a rainy midday in the Santa Fe plaza, with pigeons walking around her and rain dripping off her nose, she comes to accept the truth that all things--even the lives of and her contact with her beloved teachers--end. And she says

It was so simple. He was there. He was there with me. In my heart and my ribs and my lungs and my chest and my hands.

It was so simple.
On today, last full day of Zoukfest, it is so very simple:

We are part of each other.

And we are grateful.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Zoukfest, Day 04

When a music camp is really going well, people begin to experience things together: great music, challenging (and/or hilarious) conversations, fantastic performances, overwhelming experiences, great joy.

And, sometimes: exhaustion, frustration, emotional overload, and so on. It's six days of massive input, in which (most) participants are completely out of their familiar environments, activities, behaviors, and experiences. This is a good thing--it reminds us that becoming attached to environments, activities, behaviors, or experiences (attached in the sense of "This is what I always do and the time I always do it and the way I always do it") is a recipe for frustration. Because all things end: good times and bad times, joy and sorrow, great performances, deep friendships, and life itself. All things will end, and if we attach to them--if we kid ourselves that they will be permanent, we are setting up ourselves, and those people around us, for even bigger pain when those things we most cherish also, inevitably, end.

We're now in the downward slope of ZF: it's Thursday, we're past the fulcrum day of Wednesday, and the end of this aspect of the experience is actually in sight. Some percentage of staff and students are thinking "There's today, and tonight's concert, and tomorrow, and tomorrow's concert, and then the last breakfast, and then the last jam sessions, but then some people will leave, and then (for some) John Carty and Roger Landes's concert, and then some other people will leave, but maybe we'll stay over Saturday, but then on Sunday the last people will leave, and this is all going to be over." If they're honest with each other, most people will admit that the prospect of it ending is a little bit of a relief ("I can go home and see my family and sleep and rest my brain") but, a lot more, it's a heartbreak. For those who've been to a camp (or a backpacking trip or a Buddhist retreat; see yesterday's post), the experience isn't entirely new, and they can prepare for it.

But in the case of those for this is a first camp, or even more, a first ZF, the prospect on this downhill slope day is also overwhelming: "how am I ever going to retain the musical insights I've been exposed to this week?" Or, even more deeply and honestly, "how can I let go of how this environment feels, and how I feel as a person when I'm here? How can I let go of the color-saturated hyper-realist intensity of this experience?"

In fact, we can't. But what we can do is allow ourselves to be changed: to Accept that our lives after ZF will not be ZF, but at the same time that (if we're prepared for it), our lives after ZF will also be forever changed. ZF ends; experiences end; relationships end; lives end. But the transformational power of such experiences can endure, particularly if we make the commitment to share that transformation. The Buddhist metaphor of the Net of Indra, in which all elements of the existing world are Jewels connected by invisible connections, and thus impact upon one reverberates upon all, is a true metaphor for what ZF's transformative experience can be. We are all, inevitably, going to be affected by it--the world is best served if we acknowledge that and work with the positive energy that such a realization makes possible.

Concerts last night brought that home. Stanley Greenthal is a magnificent musician, and, joined by spouse and musical partner Kip, and old friends Polly Tapia Ferber (frame drums) and Paul Brown (bass), he makes fantastic music. But at a deeper level, Stanley's music is about deeper things than just beautiful sounds. He is a marvelously open person, and he makes marvelously open music: songs with the courage of articulate the joy, sorrow, compassion, and pain of being a human person. It is wonderfully inspiring--and, for a musician, deeply empowering--to encounter a fellow musician who is both that open as a person and that honest as a musician. Kip, Polly, and Paul matched him every step of the way, playing his songs with the same openness, selflessness, humility, and passion with which he writes them.

Second set was the bowed-string virtuosa (and ZF workhorse--she is teaching three classes daily, plus private lessons--what we call in academia a "triple load") Kaila Flexer. Kaila's music is both personal and deep, both "traditional" and "contemporary": she writes instrumental music based in the procedures of Turkish, Balkan, Macedonian, and other Eastern Mediterranean musics, but that reflect both her own free-spirited (and, again, for a hide-bound "traditionalist" musician like myself, courageous) engagement between the tradition and her own musical and personal inspirations. The tunes are beautiful, and their modal and metric complexities, though challenging for a rhythm section, are, equally as in Stanley's music, in service to a more profound and personal goal.

Kaila also spoke about the emotional rollercoaster that ZF can be, insisting that she "wouldn't cry tonight" on stage--because so much emotional input can only be processed or emerge so many different ways. It was brave of Kaila to speak about that--and in fact to joke about it ("OK, out there in the audience, how many people have had their emotional breakdown yet?"), and even to elicit honest responses from audience members about that (many hands went up).

The music last night was beautiful, but it was even deeper than beautiful--it was honest, it acknowledged the joy and the sorrow of impermanence, and it helped us all accept that the transformation we're undergoing is worth it.

That's what makes us human.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Zoukfest, Day 03

Early morning (7:30am) of the mid-point day.

There's a kind of biorhythm to every music camp: certain patterns, phenomena, concerns, or breakthroughs that seem to manifest themselves on a reasonably consistent schedule at each annual iteration of that particular camp.

On the arrival day (here at ZF, last Sunday), there's huge excitement, and maybe some trepidation for first-time attendees, that tends to manifest in mammoth partying after the official business is done--big sprawling sessions, lots of hanging-out, maybe extensive intake of Potable Beverages. The more hardy, experienced, or mordant types may opt out of the Opening Night sessions, husbanding their stamina for the week ahead.

At First Day classes (here at ZF, Monday), there is a lot of window-shopping and you can see many of the students mentally rearranging the dominoes of their own schedules: Do I take just the one class that I initially came for, and spend the rest of the time practicing, or seeing the sights, or (if accompanied by family members) seek to avoid turning my spouse into a "session widow"? Or, having seen the amazing people teaching and playing musics I know nothing about, and given that this is one week out of 52, do I fill in my schedule blocks with all this other amazing stuff that seems just too cool to pass up?

So Second Day classes (Tuesday) are when attendance and enrollment tends to settle down--that's when you tend to see the list stabilize and when you can begin to count on people being there for the balance of the week.

Balance of Tuesday was terrific: great followup in Doug Goodhart's WV fiddle class--and participants who hung tough in the face of those second-day struggles. Doug's a wonderful teacher: incredibly meticulous; very thoughtful and articulate about what makes the music work the way it does, but also very clear in his insistence that some things have to be learned by rote, by hearing, and by imitation--not be explication. This can be tough for students, particularly those who have lots of experience and accomplishment at learning in a more verbal, linear, incremental, or "talky" way.

Much of what is most important about music--what makes it beautiful, unique, and distinctive--cannot be put into words; or, perhaps better stated, cannot be assimilated through the medium of words. As I said in a casual conversation last night, you can't "think" your way into playing something. You can think about playing, you can be reflective and self-critical and verbal and analytical about why something sounds the way it does. But music is ultimately and inescapably a product of the body, the ears, and the heart--not the cerebral cortex. You have to hear and feel the music right, before you can play it right. So opening the ears and the heart becomes very very important, even if it is alien to your "comfort zone" approach to learning. It's OK to be a beginner--and open.

Beautiful inspiring solo concert by John Carty last night: fantastic Sligo-style fiddling, with Carty's signature variation approach (the man has an astonishing ability to improvise from within the heart of the fiddle melodic vocabulary), topped with great subtle banjo playing, and (an unexpected bonus), a couple of tunes on the flute, for which he was joined by ZF's "go-to hillbilly," Chipper Thompson, on bodhran.

Second set was a magnificent high-wire act of bluegrass and country duets featured two mandolin virtuosi, Steve Smith and Sharon Gilchrist, reprising their ZF 2005 duo performance. Fantastic bluegrass singin' and gittar-pickin', and absolutely blinding, blazing mandolin duets. One of the great joys of hearing great musicians who share a common musical language is hearing them improvise together, putting together music on the bandstand and "off the cuff" as Steve was heard to say. Two players who've almost never played together (Steve and Sharon) or who come from different countries (John and Chipper), but who share a common musical language, and the confidence, command, and facility to let us in on the beauty of their moment-by-moment artistic conversation.

Today, Third Day (Wednesday) is often the "hump day", when the late nights, potable beverages, extensive engagement in class-sampling, incredible music, and just overall extensive input can begin to be overwhelming. Last night, I made the analogy to Chipper Thompson that it's like circuits being over-amped: there's so much fantastic stuff coming in, so many new ideas and tunes and musics and insights and inspirations, that the mental-emotional circuits get saturated. We react to it, and that psycho-emotional saturation has to come out somewhere: sometimes in joy, sometimes in tears, sometimes just in nervous energy. Chipper said "yes, it's like riding that wave between 'I'm going to practice the mandolin for the rest of my life,' and 'I'm never going to play the mandolin again.'"

Fortunately, if you've attended or taught at a summer camp before (or, for that matter, been on a Buddhist retreat or a high-effort backpacking trip), you recognize these psycho/bio-rhythms, and you expect that at a certain point you'll freak out, or start laughing hysterically, or burst into tears, or stay up all night playing. So you're not blind-sided by the experience when it happens, and you know to be patient and ride it out.

And if you do, there's a kind of serenity that emerges. There's only so much time in this hour, this day, this week--in this life; there's only so much input you can take; there's only so many tunes to learn or notes to play. So however much you experience, however much you can take in--it's enough. In the words of St Julian of Norwich, words of great spiritual comfort, if you think about them:

"All shall be well
and all shall be well
and all manner of things shall be well."

Or, of the old gospel hymn:

"Everything gonna be all right. This mornin'."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Zoukfest, Day 02

Morning of the second ("the morning after the night before") day. Great stuff yesterday afternoon, many very happy students. Food continues excellent in the "Bon Appetit" cafe--service hours are short but the service is great, and there's a lot to be said for having all the "resident" (e.g., "non-commuting") campers in the cafe for that 30 minutes, rather than the trickle-in/trickle-out syndrome.

Very heavy cloudbursts yesterday afternoon--weather we associate more commonly with the Taos/Santa Fe "monsoon" season of mid-to-late July. But, middle of June, here it comes: overcast in the morning, clearing to blue skies and hot sun by midday, then clouding up and raining heavily in the mid-afternoon, followed by a much cooler and clear evening. Makes for nice walks back from late-night seasons, and great New Mexico stargazing.

Concert last night was a split bill: Connie Dover, Mason Brown, and Doug Goodhart playing a program of cowboy and Appalachian songs, with a wonderful song setting of a Shoshone poem by Connie, some great fiddle/frailing guitar duets from Mason and Doug, and great bit of Beat-inspired buzzword-spewing comic poetry from Connie's new book. Dharmonia and I batted cleanup and took advantage of the legendary ZF receptivity, critical discernment, and welcome to eclecticism to present a program of medieval Italian laude spirituali (sacred songs), Irish and English trad song, Scottish marches and reels, and Piedmont and Delta blues. O Shaughnessy performance space (affectionately referenced as "The Garage" by CSF folks, for its quasi-"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" remote-controlled wall which opens to expand setting) is a great, intimate space with good acoustics, and so the ZF instrumentarium, from lavtas to lutes and gambas to National steel guitars, could all be heard fine.

After the concert, sessions popping up around and about the campus, and some of the most pleasant sort: some folks playing, some listening, and some, in the corners of the room, "visitin'", as we say in Texas. The nicest sessions are those in which everybody present is glad for the music, but no one is anxious about whether they'll get to play or whether they're playing enough. ZF sessions are friendly enough (and frequent enough) that nobody need feel anxious--everybody will get their tunes in eventually, and instead of anxiety we can all just be glad of each others' company.

Off to breakfast and Class Meeting No. 2!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Zoukfest, Day 01

Beautiful partly-cloudy and mild weather here on the morning of Day 01 of Zoukfest. Turnout for both last night's orientation/instructor-showcase was excellent--no doubt in part because the "commuter" student population (that is, those who live in the area and are driving in to the College of SF each day, rather than traveling from afar and staying in the dorms) is much higher than in past years. All of which is great: Roger Landes, Lisa Wright, and the ZF Board have made some excellent policy decisions which go to encourage interaction b/w commuting and visiting staff and students--all of which in turn go toward a really nice shared/communal experience. And all present were treated to an absolutely astounding (and, for a musician, humbling) performance by Char and Robbie Rothschild of Round Mountain.

Classes are scattered around the campus and quadrangles, meeting not only in the music building--which, like so many other fantastic resources, has been made available to us by department chair Steve Paxton--but also in the lounges of student dorms and the "Sub," the small free-standing student pub/cafe. That classes are scattered around the site is actually a very good thing, as it encourages staff and students to walk a lot, interact not only within the classroom and buildings, but also as members of a temporary but very real artistic community.

Accommodations are fine--dorms are a little bit like church camp, with communal showers and with men and women on separate floors--but they're clean, comfortable, secure, and with attentive staff. Blessedly, the food is excellent--any church-camp visions of spaghetti, tapioca pudding, or chipped beef on toast thankfully banished by the superb vegan- and vegetarian-friendly menus and preparation.

For me as a teacher, it's great to have 14 people walk into a class at 9am, given how late some of the nights (and early mornings) will be, and all seem to feel they're in a place where they can accomplish the goals they hope for. Nice folks, attentive and open-minded, and not too badly afflicted with stage fright. As I said in class, and will say again, ZF is the safest possible place to both make friends with your limitations as a musician and to find mentors who will help you transcend them.

Dharmonia's Early English Song class is full-to-the-brim with a Santa Fe folk choir who've enlisted en masse, and all reports are that things proceed apace.

Bit of a break now, before the (much-anticipated) lunch, and then Doug Goodhart's "West Virginia Long-Bow Fiddle" class--an under-examined tradition which, according to Doug, seems to reveal particularly direct connections with Irish ancestor traditions.

We're glad to be here.

Eve of Zoukfest

Most of these posts will also be duplicated over at the Zoukfest blog.

Quick late-night post before turning in in anticipation of 9am classes, when Yours Truly is s'posed to be coherent. College of Santa Fe is a great venue, with a great cafeteria (top-notch food always makes a music camp much more pleasant), helpful staff, fantastic advocacy from CSF faculty Polly Tapia Ferber, Paul Brown, and an my old friend and colleague Steve Paxton (head of the Contemporary Music program).

Good turnout of those both local and traveling-from-afar, good indications for enhanced enrollment, followed by a series of cameo class-introductions and capsule performances from John Carty, Doug Goodhart, Chipper Thompson, a fresh-off-the-plane Sonja Drakulich, Luke Plumb, Robby Rothschild, Angela Mariani, Connie Dover, Stanley and Kip Greenthal, followed in turn by a fantastic set from the unbelievably talented sibling duo Round Mountain. Not only did the two play about 12 instruments between them, but at any given time, there were three instruments being played by two people. Wonderfully inspiring eve-of-the-camp performance, with the College's performance space open to the crickets and the night.

Some dove immediately into sessioning, but others, perhaps anticipating that early wake-up, opted for a restrained night.

First class opens tomorrow at 9am.