Saturday, February 16, 2008

Day 28 "In the trenches" (jiggity-jig edition)

Home today. One last breakfast with old Indiana friends (after massive sushi-and-sochu feast last night), check out of hotel, twiddle our thumbs at airport until mid-afternoon flight.

Our Uni Symphony absolutely smoked last night (Strauss Don Juan and Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition); our University Choir had been featured in a workshop earlier in the day, along with multiple other Lubbock groups. These performances at TMEA were the culmination for both groups of their short spring "tours" (does it count as a tour if it only takes 3 days?), giving clinics and short informational sampler performances at various high schools in various metroplexes: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio. These tours, like the performances at TMEA itself, wind up costing us a lot of money (the number I heard bandied about, just for the TMEA stuff, exclusive of the other shows, was $100K), but they are essential: Not all, but a good chunk, of our incoming student population comes from Dallas & Houston, and to a lesser extent from Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, and similar cities on about a 6-hour radius. Those large-city kids, with the addition of the west-of-I-35 kids from the small towns of West Texas, represent most of our intake. And maintaining and expanding that intake from those cities is an essential part of our continuing recruitment. So the orchestras and choirs (and to a lesser extent the jazz bands and my own little Celtic band) go out on these tours because it's a way of maintaining or raising our profile in those communities from which most of our students come.

Maintaining and raising the profile is also the point of the (ultimately very costly) performances at TMEA: we had clinics, master-classes, lecture-demo's, panel discussions, workshop performances, and major performances by various groups from our Uni--all of it aimed at those high-school kids from Bandera and Harlingen and Abilene and Tulia and Dallas-Fort Worth and Cedar Oaks and all those other Texas towns who are here to sing or play, and run around on the Riverwalk, and maybe--belatedly--think about where they might want to go to college for music.

For me, a panel-discussion and three clinics in 2 days. I chaired the panel, led one of the clinics, and was host/presider for two others. By the end of the day yesterday, my voice was shot: the organization does not choose to supply any kind of sound-reinforcement in the cavernous lobby where the "lecture-demo's" are held, and so you either TALK VERY LOUDLY or deliver the thing as mime. I opted for the former, which is why my voice is shot today.

But, the boss, and the assistant-dean boss, and various other muckey-mucks were present, and they saw us (me, and my guys from the Celtic Ensemble, and a raft of undergrads who I knew from Lubbock and could summarily press-gang into participation) take over that whole space--all 5000-square-feet of it. Taught 'em the Siege of Ennis (Irish ceili dance) and a Breton an-dro (line dance); I'm no dance teacher, but if the alternative is both inaudible and stationary, I'll pinch-hit as one.

100 years ago, the street-corner-speakers of the IWW (the Wobblies of blessed memory) made a specialty of that kind of rabble-rousing top-of-the-voice outdoor oratory. They even developed the ability to deliver an entire stump-speech espousing the One Big Union in under 90 seconds, so as to remain within the time constraints the Draconian public-assembly laws of the period permitted. There are still just one or two audio recordings of those guys around, and the power, volume, speed, clarity, and adrenaline-pumping visceral rush of their public speaking is still there (the great Bruce "U. Utah" Phillips, Wobbly singer and historian, is one of the few remaining exponents).

Anymore, in George W Bush's incipient police state, there's something really transgressive about that kind of top-of-the-lungs vocal power in a public space. People don't expect it, and when you blast out "LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR BEING HERE!" it surely shocks them (you can see people jump, flinch, and double-take) but it also energizes them: their body language changes, their spines relax, their faces brighten, and they start grinning. At that point, you've got 'em--the job is to hold 'em. If you can make enough noise, and generate enough sonic and visual energy so that people across the gulf can hear and see you, you can take over that whole room, such that everybody in the space gets sucked in.

We did it: my Celtic Ensemble guys and my band-and-choir-disciplined undergrads were game, up for it and in there punching, and by the end of 40 minutes, we had around 20 people up and dancing. By the end of the hour, when we closed with the dead-simple left-right-left RIGHT of the Breton an-dro, we had a line of about 60, led by my stalwart assistant Kim, dancing in a huge circle that virtually encompassed the whole room.

And that was pretty cool, because it meant that not only sonically and visually, but also physically, we turned that whole room into one giant fest-noz dance party--when there's a line of folks, all ages, shapes, and sizes, dancing directly through the crowd (left-right-left RIGHT), the boundary between performers and audience, between participants and observers, and between Us and Them, is pretty much gone. And as I was weaving through the crowd, playing bouzouki and backing up so that both the accompanying musicians and the dancers could hear me (100 feet between them and it's pretty easy for the tempo to drift), I was watching the surrounding faces, and the laughter of the dancers, and the applause and grins of the surrounding crowd, and thinking of those battle-scarred and callous-knuckled old Wobblies on the Seattle docks and in the Anaconda Copper Country and the hobo jungles and the turpentine and lumber camps of the last century, and I was still thinking, "yes, we ARE 'building a new society within the shell of the old'."

Even if it's too late.

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