Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some thoughts after reading another critical survey of 20th-century music

Dear composers:

In this season of "Ten-Best" lists, and year-end rankings, having recently read another taste-making book that sums up a whole century of music-making by lionizing a few "heroic geniuses," I offer a few thoughts:

If we read the histories or the newspapers, we might be forgiven for thinking that the most important thing for us to do is to get to be the one in the history book, in the newspaper, or on tv. We might be forgiven for thinking sometimes that what we are really supposed to be making is not meaning, but successes of ourselves.

All too often, it may come to seem that only by raising ourselves up above the people around us can we gain entry into the small group of artists who actually matter to our cultural institutions. Somehow our critical surveys and our peer reviews and our competitions make us believe that our true value will come to be known only when the determination is made about who gets listed in the biographical dictionary, the reference work, or the certified results of 100 years of critic’s-choice selections. It may seem that the best way to “matter” is to busy ourselves with becoming famous now. We make the mistake of trying to justify ourselves to institutions, instead of writing our music for people in a one-to-one exchange.

We might be forgiven this sin, the sin of constantly measuring ourselves and our work against some kind of projected external judgment, because the very premise of much of our interaction with institutions, and indeed of all criticism and scholarship is to tell us about which artists matter, which ones don’t, and why. Determining what is of enduring substance and what is faddish and empty, what is good and what is bad, what is worthy of our attention, and what is not, and then cobbling those conclusions together into a hierarchical belief system is the unstated project of much of our thinking, writing, and talking about art. I say we are deciding what is worthy, but when it comes down to it, we are really talking about who is worthy and who is not, since it seems to me that in both our elitist and our mass culture we lack the ability to distinguish between artists and their work. We may be asked what music we like, but we usually respond with a list of proper names: “I like Beethoven, I like Bj√∂rk, I like Berio…”

In fact, so much of what surrounds any act of creation, (once one bites the apple and seeks to share one’s creations with others) seems to be geared toward coercing us to participate in the race to the top of some imaginary heap. I have come to believe that the rock-bottom core-belief vibrating beneath that heap (and behind much of American culture) is that nothing matters unless it is validated with fame, prestige, money or marketing numbers.

If it can be made true that Art only matters if it is discovered and validated by the mechanisms of our commercial institutions (even the very marginal ones of the symphony orchestra, the critical survey, or the academy), then we will find that to follow out the logic of those institutions leads to a kind of dystopia where only the one or two most famous practitioners of any art are of any significance at all, since they have all the fame, prestige, and money that makes art important.

But consider, though, that if we allow the sick world of our own “official” values to hold sway, then the local folksinger whose heart-breakingly sad songs you overhear for free in out-of-the way places and who regularly moves you to tears would not count, and neither would your tears, since they are not money, and they can’t take the place of fame.

This is not what we aspire to in our hearts. One sincere tear must certainly be priceless.

According to the worldview of the New York Times, American Idol, or our Universities, your mother’s quietly wavering voice singing as she empties the dishwasher also would not matter, as she is not a professional singer, and we cannot buy her songs nor even find them on YouTube, nor will she ever receive a major award from the American Academy of Dishwasher Singing.

Yet we know that intimacy and vulnerability, even a certain kind of peace itself are learned from those unself-conscious songs, and spiritual poverty is the result of ignoring or devaluing them.

Similarly, the kids belting out “Down by the Riverside” in protest as bombs fall once more on the children of a foreign country would not matter by our perverse institutional logic either; not the local high-school band playing their hearts out, nor the regional orchestra, nor the amateur chamber musician. By our own clearly articulated institutional values, most of our absolutely essential expressions would be evaluated as insignificant.

The fact that we are implicitly encouraged to think such heresies ought to break our hearts.

I admit that I labor the point, but I believe that the point is an important one: if we follow the logic of the market or the institutions that presume to evaluate our musical offerings and rank them in terms of importance, then some of the most essential musical utterances around us are judged worthless. I am reminded again of something I learned from Salinger’s Franny and Zooey: that another word for what we call "worthless" is in fact "priceless": things that exist beyond exchange value are free from a limit on their value, and therefore can have a value that transcends marketplaces.

So when the institutional book of “Which Music Matters” gets written, (and it is written again and again in our press and our institutional lives) it can come to seem to us more like St. Peter’s book than anything else. But though the great ones listed in its pages do indeed get to enter into some kind of constructed pantheon, I believe that it will not be any kind of heaven.

That’s why my heart and mind are with the countless inspired people who spend their lives giving full voice to their humanity by taking the weight of feeling within themselves and breaking open into sound, helping us to enter the kingdom of heaven right here on this earth.

So let’s throw away the checklist of who matters, and find another way. Look, we can gather around in a circle, and sing our songs together. We’ve been doing it a long, long time as a species–I think we can remember how.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Paternal Teachers

I saw my old composer friend Dan Worley a good while ago, and he reminded of a conversation we’d had about the word “paternal” applied to composition teachers. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

His use of the word “paternal” in describing a composition teacher had outraged a student of his—I believe because it came too close to “paternalistic,” which has such a negative connotation, as “patronizing” seems to be lurking in there too close-by for comfort.

If we choose instead to speak of “fatherly” teachers, then that will mean (for some) "domineering and controlling", maybe even "abusive and violent." If you choose to speak of “motherly” teachers, then that will mean (for some) "smothering and overly protective" (and for others it might mean "domineering and controlling," maybe even "abusive and violent.")

“Parental” seems like an uncontroversial choice for an adjective to describe our caring older teachers, but why do we want to describe the student-teacher relationship in terms of generational family relationships anyway? The age difference between teachers and their charges often makes brother-sister parallels a stretch, and of course I’ve had students who were older than me too—am I then the son?

I think the answer lies in the operative truth that we all show up for our music lessons with pretty deeply ingrained reaction patterns to authority stemming directly from our relationships with our parents.

I saw another former student recently who wanted to apologize to me for some of his past behavior, explaining that it had more to do with his parents pushing on him as a child than it did to my teaching. I told him that this was par for the course, and that no apology was necessary, because while I could tell he was struggling in the lessons, and I certainly had to try to work with and around his resistances, he at least wasn’t rude. All the rest can be forgiven as normative.

I think it’s inescapable: many of us just need to work out some issues from our early lives that may be related very closely to our reasons for composing and making music in general. These motivations can be very sensitive to the ways in which we relate to authority however it may be expressed, and those sore points definitely come up in composition lessons. Sometimes I think that finding ways to modulate those relationships might be the real content of our study with a teacher, and that all the tips on how to develop craft might be secondary.

I simply don’t see any way for the process of teaching composition or performance to be a merely technical interchange. Feelings and reaction patterns are inherently involved. It may be that one of the main roles of a creative mentor is to help us break free from the way we were parented by offering a similar but safely different and less crucial relationship that is limited to our musical lives.

While its true that many of us could frankly use a little re-parenting, or perhaps a little continued parenting, there are others of us who might really need instead to enter the vast loneliness of ourselves to try to find something that can’t be coaxed forward with a parent, (even a supportive metaphorical one) standing there watching. (As a teacher, allowing this to happen could also be seen as helping to renegotiate an ingrained parental dynamic, of course...)

But once that something been discovered and coaxed out into the open, we could all use some help and support in creating a shape for that vision from a sympathetic and knowledgeable elder. Every one of us does truly live and work and make music in community, in relationship with others, and not solely in the isolation of the smithy of our souls…even if we might sometimes want to tell ourselves otherwise…

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Amateur Blessings

My wife teaches piano—this fact is a great blessing on our house. Our home is already blessed by a lot of music, since between the three of us who live here we have two song writers, a classical composer, two violinists, a fiddle player, and two pianists; the list of additional instruments we play goes on to include accordion, tin whistle, banjo, guitar, and bodhran. There also is a great deal of unrestrained singing of all kinds.

So we have no lack of musical joys.

And to cap it all off, most weekday afternoons there are children here for lessons, all between five and eighteen years old, all of whom are growing up with music as a companion.

My wife’s main goal as a teacher is not to turn out future soloists, or formidable technicians, or hot-shots of any kind; her teaching is aimed at helping people who want to make music for the love of it: true amateur musicians. She concentrates on developing a relationship between her students and music, between new musicians and the piano, working toward building a lifetime of love in making music with their own hands. It’s an entirely non-professional endeavor. Yes, she is being paid to teach, but she’s doing it for the love, and she’s passing that love on to her students.

I think that increasing love might be the most important thing that music offers us. I don’t mean that we should make ourselves more desirable or marriageable by being schooled in the finer points of cultured life, as in Elizabethan England. If music does make us more attractive, then it’s a side benefit achieved by making us kinder and more tender. There’s also a huge difference between love and monomania—an obsessive focus on music-making isn’t the same thing as cultivating through music a heart that softens and fills with emotion. Music can bring us into contact with our urge to share, to participate, and to open to those around us. Regularly engaging in music-love can help us learn to let the fire of enthusiasm rise up in us, to follow it into concentration, and then further into the disciplined abandon through which we can burst into sound.

That’s why I feel blessed by all those little ones tromping through my house and interrupting my workdays—it’s the fact that through the practice of music, love is being nurtured in our house, spread like seeds, and grown like a crop.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Telling Time by Technology II

Every time we use any technology, we are making a choice.

Using a computer, a cell-phone, a car, a television, or a dishwasher, all of these are choices with wide-reaching effects that reach into pollution, depletion of resources, and the exploitation of people and the earth. When we make choices without thought, we are at best being thoughtless. I’d say we are also being irresponsible, ceding our most important choices to corporations, and behaving in their narrow interest, which is of course to control us for their profit.

If you want to tell time by technology, you might imagine that technological time goes on and on, that the power coming through your wall will always be there, that world society and American civilization will continue as they are forever. But great civilizations fall and disappear with their technologies—only 300-400 years ago Mayan civilization just up and disappeared, and I guarantee you we will go the same way.

The conditions that pertain to our present moment, especially the high-technological ones, will vanish, leaving us with just our bodies and our effort with which to make a life. We would do well to remember that, and to consider the benefits of living as closely as possible to those limits.

William Blake wrote “if I only fly with my own wings I will never fly too high.” And yet we continually insist on flying higher than we are meant to, using the vast jury-rigged contraption of our power grid and our electronics and our combustion to extend ourselves into space and time. There is good reason to reflect on the story of Icarus.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Telling Time by Technology I

I was struck last year when I realized that some of my students were marking the seasons of their lives with technology. The most technologically-identified among them framed their childhoods with the progression of computer models and video game-box release numbers, identifying their age by how fast the processors were or how clunky those “old-fashioned” graphics looked. As someone who came to adulthood without a computer, it seemed to me that some of them actually viewed their life as set into relief and contextualized primarily by a parade of technologies that were always getting better and better, not merely faster and more expensive.

Many of them are still young enough to be entirely gripped by this delusion, to see this pattern of planned obsolescence engineered by hardware and software companies as actual improvement, rather than as a scheme for corporate exploitation. Several of them also explicitly expressed the conviction that it is our responsibility to stay on top of the latest technology, that we have no choice in the matter. People who don’t stay on top of the latest technology are losing out, in their minds, and are therefore losers. I think otherwise.

I’d like to refer back to Wendell Berry’s essay “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer” and assert that we do indeed have a choice. I’ve been using this essay with my Introduction to Electronic Music course since about 1993 as a way to try to open a space between what are perceived as technological/economic imperatives and considered ethical choices.

In a music technology course, presenting the idea that we might choose not to “buy in” to the latest technology on moral/ethical grounds often brings up strong reactions from the students, as you can imagine. But I’m with Wendell Berry when he asserts that we should choose carefully the limits of our participation in technologies based on the full dimensions of their effects on the world. We would do well to meditate upon the impact of our actions before we give over our faith to the agents of technology, lest we also give ourselves over blindly to unintended exploitation and evil.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A New Bottom Line

Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine (a Jewish and Interfaith Critique of Politics, Culture and Society) has put forth a list of ten commandments for progressives after tuesday's election, though there are two of those items I'd like to highlight that apply to us all, most especially his call for a New Bottom Line in American Society.

This one, I believe, is the essential shift waiting for us all, no matter what our political party or ideological bent:

"6. Build a unified political movement that calls for A New Bottom Line in American society so that instead of judging institutions, legislation or policies rational or productive only to the extent that they maximize money and power, they are judged by how much they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological behavior and awareness, and the extent to which they tend to encourage us to be more caring toward each other and the earth and more able to respond to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of being and consciousness and to experience true gratitude at being alive."

I've been findining that my ideas have been seeming less and less realistic to me in recent years–I'm becoming impractical, and disillusioned with narrowly defined instrumentality, so I was also quite heartened by the tenth item in Rabbi Lerner's list:

"10. Don't be realistic! The powers that be in the media, politics and economics define "realism." The most important changes in our country have come about because people were willing to fight for what everyone supposedly knew to be "unrealistic" (e.g. ending segregation, ending ten thousand years of unchallenged male supremacy and sexism, legitimating gay and lesbian lives, building an environmental movement, and the list goes on). 

Realism is idolatry -- believing in God is believing that there is some Force in the Universe (some of us call it God) that makes possible the transformation from "that which is" to "that which could and should be." Support a Global Marshall Plan to once and for all end global poverty, hunger, homelessness, insufficient education or health care -- and pay for it through a Tobin tax on all international financial transactions of over $1 million. End the domination of money in politics and challenge the irresponsible environmental policies of corporations -- through the ESRA -- the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution."

You can read the full article here.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

New Math II

Substituting Terms, or "freedom" = death

Of course, technology and greed are not the only factors in the larger equation that is presented to us as algebraic truth by our politics and our media, by our pervasive nonsensical “group-think”–

Consider the following terms in use this election season:

If:         freedom ÷ capitalism = “freedom” (since, as we are subject to the markets, our freedom is abridged by them)

And if:     “freedom” = no restraint

And if: “freedom” is equivalent to ‘“freedom” to do business’

It follows that: ‘“freedom” to do business’ is equivalent to unrestrained “freedom”to do

As we reduce the common term “freedom to do” from the equation, it becomes:

Business = unrestrained.

It then follows of course, that since “freedom” = no restraint, and since Business = unrestrained then:

“freedom” = business.

Continuing then:

If:         business = corporations, and business = commerce
Then:         corporations = unrestrained commerce.

And if:      unrestrained commerce = domination of the market

And:        the market = the world (since we routinely collapse all of life down to commodities and exchange value)

And further:         unrestrained = responsible to nothing but profit (remembering that profit = greed)

Then:         “freedom” = unrestrained corporate domination of the world responsible to nothing but greed.

Finally, since it is also true that:      

business = unrestrained commerce = profit = ”freedom”,

And since:     profit = technology x infinite greed, which equals death (see earlier post below),

then by the operations of the capitalist system as we now practice it:

 “freedom” = death.
We can do otherwise. We can create new equations that substitute meaning for profit, and care for the abridged "freedom" offered to us by our dependence on market machinations. We can substitute community for business and commerce, and the work of human hands for technology. Most importantly we can trade in our greed and replace it with love. If we base our economy on love instead of greed, we can all share what we have with open hearts.

We can choose to wake up and step outside the terms of a system that is slowly robbing us of our humanity and killing our planet. If we succeed fully enough in changing the terms of the equation, we can change the result as well.

Monday, November 1, 2010

New Math

New Math I: Multiplication

 “Greed eats love.”   (local graffiti wisdom)

Sometimes it seems that everything in our society is multiplied by our one true American cultural imperative: greed. (Except love. Greed eats love, it does not multiply it.)

 Therefore consider the following verifiable mathematical truths from the bizarre world of supercharged capitalism:

If:     work=gain
And:     gain=profit
Then:     work=profit
If technology is a multiplier, then it follows:      

work x technology= greater profit

(This equation explains why we can’t seem to believe Wendell Berry when he says: “faster and easier is not better,” and we see no activity as true work if it makes no money. Of course, however, meaningful work is not the same thing as profit, but we routinely do our math as if it were when we use these words in capitalist terms.)

Further, if:     science x profit =technology,

And if we allow that in the capitalist system, there is a drive to make profit=∞,

And since greed is boundless as well, then:     greed = ∞,

It then follows that:     profit=infinite greed,
it also follows:  technology x greed=profit.

Considering that infinite greed stops at nothing, not even the preservation of life, then it also follows that:
technology x greed = death

We can see how, then, by following capitalist methodologies with profitable (and thereby ostensibly positive) results, we end up instead at the cosmic “Game Over” sign of our individual and our collective deaths, including the slow death of the planet itself.

It does not need to be this way, but these calculations do seem to inform a lot of our communal thinking about our society. In spite of all the explicit rallying cries in favor of greed as a positive motivating force, and the subliminal mathematics that underlies our language, Greed is not good. It eats love, which is the force that can save us.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Useless Places II

Last summer I was looking at an old children’s picture book from the 1960’s called “Nature” that kept talking about “useful” insects and “useful” animals—presumably all of the “useless” ones were the “harmful pests” that kept popping up in the text. This is an attitude that would bend the whole earth to our human uses, and classify all beings by their relationship to our technologies. And it runs so deep that we teach our children to parrot it before they can even fully read.

As we give in to our habitual ideological separation of ourselves from the world, we are prone to justify our destructions as being themselves akin to natural processes—the children’s book I mentioned above flogged the old imaginary equivalence of a Hoover Dam to a beaver, explicitly suggesting the rectitude of the ways and means by which we alter our environment by analogy with purposeful animal behavior. Leaving aside for a moment even the question of the scale of such alterations in considering the relative merits of that justification, it seems to me that there is a major difference in the set of assumptions that drive such behavior.

I’m no beaver psychologist, but we can make a solid guess that the animals around us do not suffer from the same chronic sense of separation from their environments that we do, and this artificial mind-trick we engage in allows harm to flow from us. We may talk of mother earth, but we somehow fail to give her credit for what we fancy we have been able to achieve with all our usefulness—we’re like a toddler when we point to our tottering constructions with pride, as if we had done it all ourselves, when of course our loving parent stood behind us so we wouldn’t fall, bought us the blocks, fed us the food that would give us the energy to make our tower, kept the tigers away while we did it, and repeatedly and surreptitiously righted our mistakes so that we could have a feeling of accomplishment.

Perhaps we should reflect on our own true position: are we “useful” beings, or are we “harmful pests?” Can we aspire instead to achieving the unstated designation in the center, and redeem ourselves by becoming “useless?”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Useless places

I’ve thought for some time that the most beautiful places are often the “useless” ones. Where I live, the productive properties are almost all ugly: quarries, industrial parks, commercial strips, giant mono-cultural factory farms, office-cubicle hives…all ugly and based on destruction, seemingly free from the vibrant organic flowering forth of life.

I want to sing a song of the beautiful useless places, the places that have no economic benefit. Because they are worthless and unwanted, they were either abandoned, or left alone. The swampy headwaters that no one bothered to drain, the too-steep slopes of the bluffs down to the river, the shifting dunes by the lake, or the poor land that could not support farming and was left to heal, slowly, ever so slowly. Wherever we thoughtless modern humans gave up on “getting” anything from the land and it could just tend to itself: those are the places we are drawn to in our hidden animal minds.

It wasn’t always that way. I visited my friend Keith Taylor on a huge tract of research land owned by the University of Michigan, which was itself “worthless” in the late 1800’s after its forest had been clear-cut, and fires had killed off most all of the vegetation and wildlife. Since it was worthless, the timber barons gave it to the state for cheap. Since it was useless, it was allowed to sit undisturbed until it became beautiful again. Keith told me about a site he found near there with the archeological remnants of an old Ojibway summer encampment on a lake, a productive place for fishing and hunting and gathering food. When he looked around the site, he thought about why they’d chosen that particular spot, and came to the conclusion that it was because it was the most beautiful one that they could find. They wanted to be in beauty even in the “production” of food. Every fall when they left, they buried their gear, and the place was no less beautiful for their habitation of it.

I wonder if we will ever learn to do that—to find the uses of a place and work with it so it can still be beautiful. Until we do, I give thanks for all the useless places and their worthless beauty.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tradition All Over Again

It's in the air, I guess--composer Ben Broening sent me Washington Post critic Anne Midgette's thoughts on tradition today; she's writing about opera singers, but I think the thought applies very well to music-making in a general sense:

"Tradition isn’t something to which you mold yourself. It’s something that you absorb in order to be able to express yourself more individually. It’s like a rhyme scheme for a poet: a framework, an organizing principle, or an inspiration rather than a straitjacket. Too often, I fear, the straitjacket is what ends up coming across..."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tradition is a Metaphor...

"Tradition is a guide and not a jailer."
- W. Somerset Maugham

A traditional musician I know (Jim Perkins, of Finvarra's Wren) has this quotation as his email signature; it identifies a burning issue for those who undertake to learn a tradition and to inflect it by carrying it forward into the present moment, and of course into the future. It's something to think about for composers as well: how much of what we take as given do we let imprison us? This question applies not only to those assumptions that seem to be actively imposed on us by authoritative sources, but also to the places in our minds in which we bend to common custom without reflection. We can be true to the singularities of our particular historical moment and also honor our cultural origins without overtuning them, or being imprisoned by them.

It made me think: What if tradition is a companion, so we don’t have to be all alone, and so that we can stand with our ancestors as we face the future? Can we come to see tradition also as the ground we stand on? We may choose to lie down on it in order to be in as close contact with it as possible, or we may try to leap off of it, but everything we do is launched from that soil, and we always come back down to it in the end.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Preach It Reverend Billy!

Reverend Billy is an activist/performance artist and visionary on a mission. He has recently been focusing on mountain top removal mining practices... visit his Church of Life After Shopping

from the Rev.'s facebook page:
Sept. 28

"Since I don’t have a television at home, when I’m in a motel I can’t help but surf around the channels. So I experience all those cop shows – with the manufactured evil that drives those stories toward the next commercial break. The evil is mostly meaningless, method actors with unshaven scowls...

This Appalachia Rising weekend in DC, oh - we got the underground explosive of actual Evil. Hair-raising wailing speeches by Larry Gibson, Maria Gunnoe, Dr. James Hansen, Debby Wilder – we felt the rocks flying over the trees, the selenium and arsenic and mercury rising from the interiors of the violated mountains… we felt the epidemics of children in the valleys. And then in the face of frightfully real evil the mountain people turn from their brave shouting and they start hugging. Lots of hugs, long slow hugs, and a steady rain of laughter - as if to steady themselves. They even hug people just arrived from the city.

This was the identification of the murderer Big Coal by citizens who do not accuse easily. These tragedies were not purchased by these people. This evil is not a media product. But we pay for these tragedies when we flip the wrong switch, turn the wrong dial – or leave the television on. We indulge our cheap evil, a different flavor evil and different cute-faced hero on each channel. Our little black-plastic gadgets are powered by living things the size of mountains exploded and scraped onto the vulnerable people nearby. It turns out that the disposable evil of everyday television has the oldest mountains inside, 280 million year old living beings are in the background of these cheapened stories. The mountains seem to be waiting for us addled viewers to recognize evil again for what it is, and then find our necessary goodness."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Calling for a Post-Capitalist Orchestra

In January of 2010, The University of Michigan hosted the American Orchestras Summit. I was a panelist on a session titled “Re-conceptualizing the Symphony.” Here are some of my thoughts, delivered as remarks to the group of orchestra administrators, musicians, and students in attendance:

A video is available here.

Calling for a Post-Capitalist Orchestra

When we ask questions like “what is the orchestra, and how will it survive in the 21st century” we have a tendency to frame the questions in terms of what we believe is given: most notably the repertoire, and economic problems. When we do so, we are very prone to search for solutions that fit neatly within the frame of a capitalist model and its cycles of boom and bust and its insistence that what matters most is what people want most to pay for. What matters most to me, on a cultural level is not the economic exchange value of the orchestra, but rather what an orchestra makes possible. An orchestra is a working model to teach how we can make many bodies come together to make one, to make a tremendous animal that can burst into synchronized sound. It’s a miracle, is what it is, and we ought to be treating it as such. I fear that our efforts to save the institution of the orchestra might focus on saving the organizations and kill the animal.

We look, in short for economic solutions that confuse means and ends. The true end is not merely financial survival, but more importantly a deep relevance to society while being true to core values. As long as we are framing our entire discussion with the marketplace and how to survive in it, we will be chasing a standard by which all things are turned into products. To paraphrase the great writer Wendell Berry, markets and products cannot be true, unless we make them so. The only way we can make a market true to our place and our selves is to make them subject to our values, rather than subjecting ourselves to the market. I think we should properly frame the question of the survival of the orchestra in political, spiritual, and ethical terms.

I’d like to exercise my artist’s prerogative to be both unreasonable and impractical and urge us to choose the means first, and then follow them to where they lead us. I’d like to encourage the imagination of a post-capitalist, post-corporate orchestra. Another way to look at this is to try to give people what they need and not what they want, and to strive to figure out what an orchestra could and should be, what social and spiritual needs it might meet, instead of simply how to get people to come to concerts in larger numbers, or how best to pursue the cold, dead perfection of execution that is constantly referred to under the euphemism “artistic excellence.”

If I imagine an orchestra of the future in the US, what I see is a handful of key shifts that would be desirable:

I: Regionalism should be a driving force. I would call for a divorce from the internationalist aesthetics and idealized Europeanism that characterize both the aesthetic and organizational focus of most organizations, and favor a move to fully embrace regional cultural and musical variations. Instrumentation would change from place to place, and local ethnic and regional music styles should be incorporated into the performances. If this were so, the style of playing would change from region to region, and we would gauge our programming and our performances as to how they related to our actual place…not only the imagined European cultural origins of our place. Allowing regional variation in instrumentation and repertoire would permit the creation of something that would reach beyond regional economies of scale and donor corporations, and into regional economies of meaning. Local environments, local issues, local people, local food, and local soil would be considered as part and parcel with the music that the orchestra was a purveyor of. A simple equation to implement as a start toward this goal would be to reverse the ratio of European to American content offered during the season, as well as reversing the ratio of historical works to modern ones.

II: I wonder about a more political approach to the role and justification of the orchestra. I do not mean that the orchestra should participate in partisan politics, but rather that it should be recognized as part of a community, and a full participant in the broadest notion of politics, in the search to define and achieve what is good for us as a people. We have seen a massive disassembly of civil society over the last thirty years; economic Darwinism and the values of unfettered supercharged capitalism have bred an overriding disrespect for the common good. I like to think of the orchestra as if it had the status of Central Park in Manhattan—no one who lives there wants to see that park abandoned or turned into apartments, even though it’s prime real estate, it is expensive to maintain, it makes no profit, and is very costly in material terms, useless as a profit-generator. Even so, no one advocates its destruction, and no one is suggesting that Central Park should be parceled up and sold, because we need it. Central Park is valuable and necessary because without it we would be less human and the city itself would be too completely inhospitable. We couldn’t live quite as fully as humans in Manhattan without Central Park, and the status of the orchestra in our society is not entirely dissimilar. Orchestras are a civic good, one that should belong to us all like Central Park, and as such they have no business behaving like corporations or seeking to dominate markets.

III: I believe that orchestras should directly address spiritual concerns. The orchestra is important not because it can behave like a corporation; its value does not lie in the ability to make money or move fast in order to glom on to the next lucrative trend. We’ve heard too many times that our citizens and our institutions are compelled to play the game of figuring out where the puck is going and get there first, but why on earth should classical music as a discipline aspire to chasing after the illusory trends and fads when we have so often seen that they lead nowhere? I am saddened when I see orchestras caving in to of cashing in on short-term cultural capital, of cash in on short-term cultural capital: Brand-name celebrities and the next hot thing have little to offer us beyond the short-lived thrill we get from being near the glow of fame or a gift shop transaction. This is not the road to true relevance.
Instead I have a desire to see the powerful ritual of the orchestra concert recognized as a ritual, to bend it toward liturgy and away from product and profit. This powerful ritual order could be used to address any number of serious cultural problems, to take on environmental issues, or to embrace an educational mission that reaches far beyond the standard “music appreciation” mission–that is–merely teaching our children and our audiences why the great masters are so very wonderful. This ritual could be used to deal instead with the real issues of life and death and how to be a human in these times. We can make music the veins and arteries and blood and connective tissue that ties together our understandings of the world, that takes our science, our sociology, our stories and our knowledge and wisdom and ties them together into coherent worldviews and then performs them for us, making manifest our deepest beliefs about life through time and gesture, bringing our understandings to life in the present moment so that we can be filled with and altered by them. (In more simply practical terms, community partnerships with the orchestra as a prominent local institution strike me as being widely under-imagined.) My wish for the orchestra is that it would become a purveyor of urgent meaning, not merely a storied re-imagining of cultural origins, or a parade of highly packaged products, but rather a burning inquiry into what it means to be alive.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Three Things

Earlier this year I appeared on Michigan Radio’s “Three Things” series, in which people offer three ideas to help our state in this time of crisis. Here is a rough approximation of what I said: my “Three Things We Can Do to Help Michigan” (or any other place, for that matter…)

You can hear the broadcast here

1. Michigan is defined by its waters, so one thing we can do is find out where our drinking water comes from and go visit it. Every single one of us lives in a watershed, so go find the headwaters of your nearest river, go Kayaking or canoeing, go for a walk along a nearby stream—if you do you’re sure to fall in love with it, and if we love the water we won’t want to pollute it.

When we come to understand that our lives are utterly dependent on the waters, we can begin to see that the rivers and streams are everywhere—not just between the banks and shorelines, but in the gutters and sewers under the street, in our sinks, and literally flowing through our veins. We can each immediately improve the heath of our waters by limiting our use of home toxics and not using fertilizers—if you live in an apartment complex or condominium talk to the management about cancelling the pesticide and fertilizer applications.

2. Keep art local: I’m a musician, so I often think about local art the way many people are starting to think about local food—it should be as fresh and locally grown as possible. We want our art it to taste like our own soil. One of the really great things about our state is the incredible number of local arts organizations that we have—for example there are so many regional orchestras in Michigan—this is something quite unusual about our state that we have to find a way to maintain. We can participate as performers, audience members, donors--Think about going to a live concert or play instead of renting a video, or join your local civic band. We all have the opportunity not only support local art, but also to make it ourselves. If we are all working together to build community organizations at the same time we are striving to make beauty out of everything around us, that cannot fail to improve our lives.

3. In these tough times you’ll hear politicians talking a lot about making Michigan competitive again, but I believe one of the most important things we can do is to think ourselves to a new metaphor that we can use to understand our relationship to each other. Maybe we could replace the idea of competition with collaboration. When we compete, someone always loses, someone is always suffering, even if we win. The truth is, we competed ourselves into this recession; we might have to do something else to get out. Competition is the game that led us to this catastrophe, so setting our determination to play the same game only harder is a nonsensical response. Competition tempts us to engage in a kind of ruthless self-interest that denies our responsibilities to each other.

If we can focus on stewardship of the natural beauties that surround us, and look to the arts as a model for how to cooperate to make meaning in our own communities and out of the stuff of our own lives, we might look around and see friends and neighbors instead of winners and losers. We might come to see the project of participating in the life of our state as a creative and cooperative one.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Eat Your Trash

When we die and are herded into purgatory to work off the sins of this life, we will first be required to eat all of the non-biodegradable trash we have generated in our lives: all the Styrofoam ™ cups, plastic bags and packaging, all the batteries and televisions, all the car parts, refrigerators, computers and printers and phones, electronic gadgets of all kinds.

They won’t be easy to swallow, but to wash it all down, we will have the sum total of the gallons of jet fuel, gasoline, and toxic chemicals we’ve been responsible for using. Then, when we are done re-generating with our own muscles every kilowatt of energy we thoughtlessly spent by plugging into our wall-sockets or flipping our light switches, we’ll still have to re-grow all the trees we chewed into oblivion with pulp fiction, useless reports, non-diary desserts, shopping lists, tissues, and toilet paper.

With the gnashing of our teeth we will grind to dust all the concrete from our roads and our runways, parking garages and shopping malls; we will die and decay over and over until our wasting bodies create enough earth to fill our hollow mine pits, and replace the soil eroded from our factory farms. After the mountaintops we’ve blown to bits for their coal have been rebuilt with our bones, be prepared to hold your breath until the carbon dioxide you emitted from tailpipe or furnace has been offset. For the grand finale, we’ll be asked to melt back to ore with the heat of our contrition all the steel from our cities and ships and tanks and trains and bombs.

As to the radiation, well, there is just no punishment sufficient to atone for the radiation from our missiles, medical equipment, or our nuclear waste, but we will be forced to live out all of its half-lives in torture witnessing the deformities and death visited upon generations upon generations of our descendants and upon the creatures of this earth, while our own bodies shine black with cancer, twisted and burned as matter itself disintegrates and passes through us endlessly.

These are the torments of the hell-realm we’ve created.

But let’s go back to the beginning. When we arrive there in purgatory, stripped naked of our advantages, the bill for our extravagance come due, and with the horror of what lies before us slowly dawning in our clouded minds, we will begin to understand that all of those scruffy “backward” people in the world we’ve been looking down on for living in dirt and in poverty will suddenly be far ahead of us in achieving release from the weight of their human incarnations. We’ll finally see the truth of our privileged American lives: that all of our unjust comforts and technological diversions are in fact the most insurmountable barriers between us and our entry into union with the divine. This is what Jesus meant when he said that the poor were closer to the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for the reign of God is yours…But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:20)

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Wages of Sin

"The Wages of Sin is Death"

I have been baffled by this pronouncement for many years. Because I was raised without the benefit of religion, my beloved high-school orchestra teacher would quote it to rib me for being godless: "The wages of sin..." he'd say, pausing to leer significantly at me, "is Death." To my young moral-relativist and decidedly un-Christian mind, the nature of sin remained very much an open question at that time. And since Death is inevitable, wouldn't the wages of sin properly be eternal damnation, and not the demise we all have coming to us anyway?

Well, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has finally clarified this issue for me in a way that thirty years of occasional meditation on the mystery and a succession of Christian girlfriends had not. I now believe the continuing environmental disaster that constitutes our way of life is what the statement refers to: "The wages of sin is Death."

All possible damning adjectives have been used to describe our arrogant, childish, and careless waste, but what else can we call our plunder of the earth without regard for consequence but sin? When we ceaselessly grab for profit to fuel our ease and our unjust comforts, engaging in a blanket disregard for the fragility and interconnectedness of the biological system that we inhabit, Death is born of our actions and from our hand.

Death for the marshes of Louisiana, and death for the Niger delta in Africa. Death for all the turtles and whales and fish and plants that live there, as well as for the humans, and a larger and unfathomable death for the subtle balance that keeps us alive as well. Death is spewing like a vast pall from the depths of the oceans and breached pipelines.

The small harm we can do to our bodies and our relationships with the seven deadly sins are paltry compared to the progeny that issue from the adulterous mating of technology with our desire. We have seen those seven deadly sins perfected, super-sized, and turbocharged by technology and capitalism, unleashing monsters the size of which no one ever dreamed: the pthalates in our plastic, phosphates and plutonium. When we dominate and try to steal Nature’s power instead of living in accordance with it, when we plug our sins into the power grid, thus do we multiply their breadth, and thus do we magnify the spreading slick of Death that is born of them.

The real deadly sins surround us, in our cars and coal plants and air-conditioning, in our mining and manufacture and our monocultures. There is Death in the child's toy, in the grocery bag, and death in this airplane inside of which I currently sit and write: death issues from its metals and its fuel, from the can of Coke and the plastic cup, as well as the seat-back and tray-table that bear them. There is sin in the Doritos, in the tarmac, and the cell phone, and it is giving birth to death all around us whether we see it or not. In our lust for power, we rape the earth, killing our souls and ourselves and everything else.

“Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity, if gives birth to death.” (James 1:13)

Our sins and their wages flow through the oceans and rivers, as well as our mother’s milk and our bloodstream—they glisten in every cell of the frogs and fish and freshwater mussels. We are sowing them like the true seeds of our passage on this earth.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Wisdom of the Day

"Where is the literature which gives expression to Nature? He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service to speak for him; who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring, which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them—transplanted them to his page with earth adhering to their roots; whose words were so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring, though they lay half-smothered between two musty leaves in a library—aye, to bloom and bear fruit there, after their kind, annually, for the faithful reader, in sympathy with surrounding nature.

I do not know of any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the wild...In short, all good things are wild and free. There is something in a strain of music, whether produced by an instrument or by the human voice—take the sound of a bugle in a summer night, for instance—which by its wildness, to speak without satire, reminds me of the cries emitted by wild beasts in their native forests. It is so much of their wildness as I can understand. Give me for my friends and neighbors wild men, not tame ones."

Henry David Thoreau Walking

Monday, May 17, 2010

Graveyard Meditation

Elizabeth O
dau of
Samuel and Mary E.
Emory Died
Feb 13 1845
ae 4 yrs

farewell thou lovely little girl
gone to the realm above
where shines the everlasting sun
and all is peace and love.
We would not call thee back again
from thy fair spirit land
but flowers thy early grave shall declaim
shown by a sister's hand

Friday, May 14, 2010

Hourglass Admonition

My Glass is run & so must yours

Erected in Memory of
Mrs. Ian Harper (wife
of Mr. Andrew Harper)
who departed this life
Nov.r ye 29th 1777
in the 65th year of her age

Death like an overflowing Flood
Doth sweep us all away
The young, the old, the middle Aged
to death becomes a pray

I believe that the last word should actually be "prey," though the misspelling brings about an interesting shift in meaning.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tombstone of the Day

I recently returned to the Old Burying Ground in Jaffrey NH; this is the cemetery that my song cycle The Old Burying Ground is based on. I was once again very moved by the messages about life that are carved into the stones there.
The compact disk of the orchestra version of the piece is due out in June, and I'll be sharing a tombstone every couple of days or so until then.


Memento mori
HERE lies the Bodys of Two
Children both Named John
Sons of Mr John and Mrs
Allice Gilmore
The Second | The first Born
Born son died | Died Oct ye12th
Feb 24th 1781 | 1778 Aged 6
Aged 21 weeks | years wanting
and 3 days | 6 days
Who lived desired and died lamented

Friday, May 7, 2010

What we do not want

“I don’t want to bleed now.”

I heard a little girl say these words as we waited to get off of the big boat from Dublin to Swansea, in 1992, after a sleepless overnight trip across the Irish sea at the end of a long trip through Scotland and Ireland. Suzanne and I were still young, newly married, and traveling on the cheap, so the boat-and-bus route back to London for the flight home seemed reasonable. But we were exhausted and getting over a flu we had come down with in Belfast, and more than ready to blink ourselves home if we could've. We had absolutely had it.

The whole process of boarding the ship was confusing and overwhelming and chaotic—after finding the right docks, then waiting and waiting for hours and worrying and wondering where to be and what to do, we were finally crammed onto the last shuttle bus that would take us to the ship. A little boy strapped into a folding stroller was so far gone by that point that he cried and cried until he threw up at our feet. There was nothing to do for him, and everyone just looked at each other. I think we all felt like he did.

The sun was down by the time we went up the gangway, and after an almost romantic slow-motion silhouette of Dublin disappearing, a vision of the mouth of the Liffey fading over the stern, with the ship’s wake glowing faintly in the last light, we resigned ourselves to our long night of wanderings, looking for some place of quiet, for some relief from noise and cigarette smoke and the constant blast of the engines.

There was a session in the pub space on the ferry, but we weren’t good enough players to participate. I remember a piper ripping away at tunes so fast and impenetrable that it made me feel bleak inside–I couldn't even imagine keeping up with him at some possible future time, after years of practice. It was music that didn't even seem to have room for a listener in it.

Every nerve I had was raw. Nauseous and anxious, every system on overload, it was a constant battle to keep trying to calm myself and sleep. Rattled and buzzing, at once numb and agitated, I would momentarily succumb to fatigue and drift into semi-consciousness, only to be shocked awake by some sound, a roll of the ship, an inner upwelling, or the weird sparking of my frazzled brain.

When we finally approached land, everyone rushed to grab luggage, then crowded into the exit corridor, standing uselessly prepared to disembark for the longest time. A little girl got her finger stepped on or smashed between suitcases in the crush, and blood was gushing from what should have been a small wound. They held her hand over her head for her—she was too big to pick up, perhaps six years old.

Things got really quiet all of a sudden. She said “But I don’t want to bleed now” so simply. It became clear that bleeding was a familiar but unwelcome activity for her, that she must have been a Hemophiliac, and that this small mishap could become a grave problem. I offered them my pathetic wad of napkins and tissues from my pocket, a cache I’d been saving to protect myself from…from who knows what? From some kind of need.

We all waited while she bled, and no one talked. There was nowhere to go. Someone else offered clean handkerchiefs, and my chest constricted and my skin became hot with the weight of emotion for this family who were quietly waiting with us, matter-of-factly helpless till we reached the shore.

I wanted to cry for them, for the simple hopelessness of it all, for the beautiful little hurt girl and her illness that would eventually kill her and the death to come that was suddenly made manifest for us there in all that mess of humanity. She and her parents were brave and still, but I imagined the weight they carried for so long with no relief from the demands and the worry. I could feel her brother’s burning guilt and resentment at not being the one who was sick.

Most of all I think I felt the ache of seeing a hurt that could not be held—there was no one to hold this suffering family and to care for that pain in any way that would help. We were all just there to witness their plain human drama of incurable illness and ordinary but life-threatening mishap juxtaposed with a child’s heart-breaking wish for things not to be so.

I think they were probably spared disaster in that moment, in retrospect—I believe I saw them heading for some trailer in the darkness once we landed. Presumably there was first aid there for them while the rest of us all resumed our self-interested ways and scrambled to find the right bus to London, and they got left behind on the forlorn coast in the middle of the night.

But it makes me cry now, too, remembering, for that innocent little girl, and all the poor sad hurt children who are too big to be carried, and for all of us with sorrows that we did not choose and cannot change. There is no love that can really hold our pain, and all of us, all the poor children who are beyond help, all are alone with our suffering, though we might wish it were otherwise.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A text message from 1845

May 4, 2010

In the Old Burying Ground,
Jaffrey Center New Hampshire;
Among the wild strawberries (blooming),
and the blackflies (biting),
A text message from 1845:

wife of
Joseph Cutter Mass
Aug 8 1845
AE 21

How vain is all beneath the skies
How transient every earthly bliss
How slender all the fondest ties
That bind us to a world like this

Friday, April 16, 2010

Wisdom of the Day

A fool is happy
Until her mischief turns against her.
And a good woman may suffer
Until her goodness flowers.

The Dhammapada

Thursday, February 18, 2010

wisdom of the day

Ego thinks it is much more powerful than it actually is. In this way it defends itself against the realization of its true condition...which is fucked.

Robert Hall
quoted in A Hell of Mercy, Tim Farrington

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Diamonds, gold, roses and chocolate

It's a long way from a Roman fertility rite turned feast day for the martyrdom of a defiant priest to the holiday of Valentine's Day as we now celebrate it, with the required expenditure of 14 billion dollars to prove our love to our demanding partners.

So many lands and so many souls have been enslaved to our desire for diamonds, gold, roses, and chocolate...Do we need to show our love through such violence?

Let's spend next year's 14 billion on commodities less destructive to our planet and our social structures, like shelter for homeless people and environmental clean-ups, with some of the dollars set aside to convert our hydocarbon economy to solar, wind, water and human power.

If we really do truly love each other, that would be a better way to spend our might not get us laid, but then maybe we could change our courting rituals. If that sounds far-fetched, remember that our noble ancestors the Romans believed that striking women with strips of bloody goat hide was an effective prelude to sucessful mating, so perhaps the idea of inclding ritual offerings in our professions of love that would care for our fellow humans and the planet isn't so crazy after all.

Monday, February 1, 2010

wisdom of the day

We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate
in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied
by millions of people, can transform the world.
~Howard Zinn

(Please read "The People's History of the United States" as soon as possible; it will break your heart and make you want to save our country.)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What Are Orchestras Going to Do?

And the answer is....retrenchment. At least the big organizations. After the University of Michigan orchestra summit, it sounded to me like the large urban orchestras are retreating to "core audience" values, which is another way of saying that they are responding to the fiscal crisis by reverting to the most conservative repertoire, 19th century and European music. "Special projects" such as partnerships with civic arts initiatives and commissions are out of the question for them in light of huge deficits.

The word from the medium and smaller orchestras was that they are making moves to become relevant to their communities as a nexus for K-12 music education, private lessons, and "community enrichment" activities.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The music is not the notes...

The music is not the notes. The lattice-work of dots is only a set of instructions for creating the music, which itself carries the fluid substrate of feeling intention and gestural energy instilled by the composer and performers.

We composers work by being truly open to experience (cultural, personal, physical, emotional, spiritual) and reflecting upon it, then distilling that field of experience, thought and feeling into understanding, and finally translating all of it back into an experience for the musicians and the audience through music.

We work by drawing music into what we think, into our worldview, into our understanding and our personal wisdom experience, and letting it steep there, not by pushing what we think and feel out into sound.

The true material we composers work with is all that knowledge, sensation, and feeling–not the notes. The notes merely carry the music, and the music carries this distilled understanding-life-energy-experience as living, immediate and urgent action.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bad News and Killer Carp

Bad news loves bad news. This week, the earthquake deaths in Hati mount, and confronting the breadth of human suffering brings us face to face with a misery we know we deserve as much as anyone else. Democrats lose their supermajority in the senate to a nude centerfold with a fancy pickup truck, and are ready to throw in the towel and stop trying to do what is right. The supreme court guts campaign finance reform, making the world safe for corporations to fully express themselves by purchasing our government.

But 100 pound fish are invading Lake Michigan? And we're not allowed to close off the canal that is their entryway? This is a joke, right?

The supreme court has refused to issue an preliminary injunction to close the canal that is allowing the asian carp into the great lakes from Chicago's waterways. The Obama adminstration is also against closing the canal, as it would presumably be "bad for business." Bad for the shipping business in Chicago, that is. But if it stays open it will be bad for the living business in Michigan and Wisconsin, but I guess they are throw-away states at this point.

The carp eat up to 1/5 of their body weight in plankton each day, and kill off all other fish species by eating all the food. The carp grow to up to 110 pounds, and are attracted to swimmers and small boats, often leaping onto them, causing serious injury. So if they invade the great lakes, there will be no commercial fishery there, no sport fishery, and tourism will go to hell. The state of Illinois has responded to Michigan's court cases by dumping unprecedented amounts of poison into the canal in the hope of killing all the fish species in the waterway. Of course those dead fish are eaten by birds, and passed up the food chain, and the poisoned water itself is flowing into Lake Michigan, but no matter...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Free the Huron River

If there were any kind of newspaper left in this city, the following would be an opinion piece or a long letter to the editor...

A very vocal group of citizens in my town (many of them my near and much-respected neighbors) has become very vocal in their support of leaving the aging Argo dam in place. This dam is at the end of my street, so it hits pretty close to home for me, as I kayak the waters behind the dam a few times every week when the pond isn't frozen. The state of Michigan says the city has to remove or repair it, and and the local watershed council has strongly recommended removal. My neighbors have framed their position on this issue with yard signs that say "Save Argo Pond."

By doing so they directly reference many other similar campaigns we have become familiar with: "save the whales", "save the Hudson", "save orchestra hall" each of these cases, though, there is a natural feature or a historic building or a community asset that is perceived to be threatened by destructive forces that are in the wrong, and there is a call for us to step up into individual responsibility to protect something that should not be destroyed. In this case however, there is a reversal I find ironic--the "save the" argument is being used in the service of the preservation of an aging dam that is proven to be bad for the health of the river, and at great expense to the city.

The city council is not meant only to make decisions based on the desires of narrowly defined economic elite, nor even on the basis of their perception of what the majority of their constituents want. Still less are they [you] meant to develop that perception based on who seems to be shouting the loudest, though it seems that that is often the most politically expedient thing to do. You [they] are also meant to serve as stewards for the all the lands of the city, the whole environment that those lands entail, the same environment that supports our human lives, and countless others.

If a group of people got signs printed saying "more toxic waste dumping," even if they seemed to be in the majority, even if they included the past president of the Downtown Development Authority or the chamber of commerce, it would be incumbent upon you [us] to say "no, that is not in the best interest of the whole community, and not in the best interest of the environment that supports our community."

In this way, the Huron river itself is like one of your constituents, or rather, like one of your charges--something that needs to be cared for and preserved as an essential part of our lives (it literally flows through the veins of everyone in this town)--but it can't speak for itself. Though I'm all in favor of recreation and cardiovascular health, I don't think the rowing team's reluctance to relocate, or the desire to keep Barton pond clear of rowing shells for the rich folks is enough reason to insist on going to great city expense to keep the river sick.

The Huron river is sick. It is sick because of what we have done to it. We cannot expect to keep making the environment upon which we depend for our existence sick, and somehow expect to be well ourselves. I urge you [everyone] to act as stewards, and to do what you know is right, even if it is hard: we must free the Huron river.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sound of Life

I was asked recently "What is the sound of life?" I noticed that the questioner did not say "human life."

One truth is that we live surrounded by countless non-human presences and the sounds of their beingness.
(please read The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram.)

I've often wondered if bees can hear the sound of their own buzzing–the constant thrum and disturbance that accompanies their activity. It makes me wonder if we have our own buzzing noise imprint that accompanies our going and our doing in the same way–a disruption of the sonic world we might be too engaged in pollen-seeking to notice, to perceive. At least, there are the vast buzzing sounds of the technology we've extended ourselves into. But below that there are the patterns of energy in space that we make with our activities (doing email, rushing to appointments, driving). The flashes of electrical energy in our brains are also similar energy-traces, of course, and by acting on them and perceiving, we both create and are affected by their shapes and vibrations in the world. We make patterns of energy in space just by being–and of course, that is exactly what sounds are: patterns of energy in space.

If we can still ourselves, stop croaking our names like Emily Dickenson's famous frogs, and quiet our external buzzing, we can begin to attend to the many other kinds of non-human being-energy around us: the foxes in the woods over there, the deer and hawks and the milkweed–they all have their pattern of energy in space. Even each place along the earth has its own rate of vibration, resonance, and being-texture.

If we can still ourselves, and quiet our pollen-gathering buzz, we can become attuned to the sound of life and being of the natural world in our own place, that which we are part of. And one of the oldest human activities is to fill ourselves with the wonder of that experience, then open our mouths and hearts and bravely sing our own song.

Wisdom of the Day

Martin Luther King Jr.
Excerpts from Letter from the Birmingham City Jail

You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.


How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.


We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.


So I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.


Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason."

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Rockets' Red Glare

"And the Rockets' red glare, the Bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our Flag was still there

I know I'm not the first person to notice this, but our national anthem is a war song. It enshrines violence at the heart of our national symbolic representation of ourselves. Though the melody comes from an English gentleman's-club song referencing Anacreon, the greek poet of wine, women and song, the whole poem from which The Star Spangled Banner comes is phrased as a series of questions which are all answered by flag-waving.

It is the first verse that has been most often sung since the song was adopted as the US national anthem in 1931, and in that verse, the continued existence of our country is in grave doubt. The uncertainty is underlined by the form of the verse, as it contains only one statement (quoted above) framed by two questions. The only direct affirmation in the text sets up a condition: it is only the bombs going off that prove our flag is still there. The rockets' red glare tells us that our country still exists.

This is how an historical trauma becomes a performative fact about a people--every time we meet formally as Americans, we symbolically re-enact the anxious night in 1812 that Francis Scott Key spent as a temporary prisoner on an English ship. Every sporting event, every Irish Dance competition, and every school assembly begins with us reliving the battle of Baltimore and our last-ditch redemptive victory: our fragile and feisty fledgling democracy battered but yet somehow managing to hold off the mighty forces of the nasty old English Crown. At that time, everywhere we turned lay a threat to our new freedom, but as long as the bombs were bursting in air, we knew our only recently-declared independence as a country still existed. As long as we were fighting, we knew we were alive.

Well, almost 200 years of nearly continuous war later, our flag is still there, and we are still rehearsing the mindset of a righteous and threatened country defined by war victories that can only know it exists if the bombs are going off. This is how we come to mistake the mass murder of a diffuse band of religious fanatics for something the size of the hand of the old British empire: we rehearse that substitution in our song. We take that condition of threat an insecurity redeemed through victorious war and apply it to our present almost daily by singing our song. Though the actual existence of our state is threatened by no one in the world (except maybe ourselves), we still react to all threats by regressing to the reactive state our national anthem has taught us.

I just recently looked up Key's full text for the first time in my life, and I have to admit I was surprised at how current it is. In addition to establishing active war as a condition for knowledge of our continued existence as a country, the poem equates religious salvation with military victory so powerfully and so insidiously that it could have been commissioned by a contemporary political operative with a war to sell. (Did you note that in the first verse the words "Rockets," "Bombs," and "Flag" are all capitalized, the way the word "God" usually is?) The last verse of the original poem, The Defense of Fort McHenry, is particularly telling, and relevant to our current mindset. This is the verse that brings it all home and tells us what we're really about as a new nation; our "heav'n rescued land" has a responsibility to the God that saved it:

Then conquer me must, when our cause it is just

And this be our motto "In God is our trust;"

And the Star Spangled Banner in Triumph shall wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

To triumph, one must triumph over someone, who then lives in defeat and subjugation. To live in triumph, one must be always in conflict, always defeating adversaries. Is this what we really want?

I know that national anthems are often militaristic, that nationalism frequently relies on defining ourselves against others and uses fear, religious fervor, and good old team spirit to exalt violence and war, but I thought that this kind of exaggerated nationalism had been discredited due to the bitter fruits it had borne in the world wars of the last century. Must we still practice exactly that brand of violent nationalism in our core national symbols?

I'm helping a friend of mine, the musicologist Mark Clague, who is doing a big project on the anniversary of the national anthem for 2011-2012, commissioning new interpretations of the song and engaging scholars on the subject. I know I'm ready for a semiological analysis on how a hymn extolling a merger of the virtues of Venus and Bacchus becomes a nationalisitic war song. We could certainly use a major taking-apart of the layers of encoded meanings of the text and music, in addition to the shifing meanings in performance and the song as a site of contested identity poitics that I believe Mark himself has embarked upon.

Right now, I'm feeling like it might be time to start thinking about a new anthem as well. How about an anthem
without war? How about an anthem, heaven forbid, with a little humility? If we really are the leaders of the free world, how about an anthem that is a bit more self-assured and kindly, an anthem that might lead us to better behavior, a touch less national narcicism--one that speaks of the responsibilities of privilege, maybe, or perhaps says something about how beautiful our land is, like America the Beautiful? (That song would be fine with me as long as we ditch the last verse about the Pilgrim's feet trodding all over the natives). While we're at it, could we have a song that took a verse to somehow express some regret at the destruction of the Native American societies we perpetrated? Or maybe some sorrow over all the damage to the environment we've caused? I nominate This Land is Your Land as a candidate--every single verse of it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Friday, January 15, 2010

This Land is [Not] Your Land

I woke up this morning to the news that a new nickel mine in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan has been approved, thus guaranteeing that another part of our state will become a slagheap, and that poisonous mine tailings will be leeching into the waters of the great lakes for many years to come. Moments later, I heard again that the power company, with the aid of the state legislature, is fighting hard for a new coal plant, thus guaranteeing that Michigan will continue to do its part to support blowing the tops off mountains and filling the streams with mud in Kentucky and West Virginia, helping to turn our planet into the overheated toxic bathtub it was apparently meant to be.

It made me remember some alternate verses I wrote to "This Land Is Your Land" when I was a kid:

As I have travelled across the nation,
it seems to me it's one big corporation--
it's all a resource for exploitation:
This land was made for industry.

You've got the soil rights, but I've got the oil rights,
where wolves ran barking, now it's for parking,
straight from the gas pump to the toxic waste dump:
This land was made for industry

At the time, these words were meant to be an exercise in bitter sarcasm, written as I watched them uproot the old woods next to the Mennonite church for a shopping mall. The euphemism of the time was that that stretch of road was being "improved," and I remember hoping in my ten-year-old mind that satire might have some kind of power to show what was really being done. Certainly if we opened our eyes to the ridiculousness of the whole enterprise, I thought, we could look at what we were doing and be ashamed.

I was wrong. We have no shame. Three decades later, the scale of the second phase of suburban sprawl in my town seems quite quaint, more like child's play. By now, the Mennonite church itself has been bulldozed for a drive-through beer store, and we've tipped so far into bizarro-world that even wild exaggerations meant to make a point about the excesses of the 1970's seem to be a statement of the obvious, more like an actual manifesto for unrestrained commercial development than an ironic inversion of our real values meant to prick our conscience. We've gotten used to feeling that the corporate juggernaut can't be stopped, even when all indications seem to be that the cost of that rampage is the very life of our planet. It's become the status quo.

Outrage doesn't seem to work, and satire has been rendered moot. Shall we go on living in complicty with this system, and take it as a given?

Monday, January 11, 2010

One Small Thing

A poem can take a very small thing and show you how it resonates through an entire world of experience. I’ve always thought music should do the same thing: to have as its goal making everything radiant, and to take the light that is focused on that one small thing in a poem, and to make it shine everywhere in our attention.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Monday, January 4, 2010

Note to America

These days, we think power comes from money. Instead of "God willing" we say "let the markets decide." But tonight, as I was walking in the cold, with Orion hanging over me in the southwest, and blue bands of cloud passing before the upturned horns of the setting crescent moon, I thought it might be good to remember that the only real power comes from the turning earth itself, and that all the miserable creations of our human-centric world mean nothing if they do not honor the great forces and energies of the natural world that move through us and all around us and that we have come to ignore amid our many constructions and distractions.

If we have to chase after something in this life, let it not be money and its false power. The good earth will still be spinning when the markets have crashed ten-thousand times...

Wisdom of the Day

To be equal to our age, it is not sufficient for philosophy to retreat from spiritual vision to economics or become simply an apologist for technological innovation and investment in artificial intelligence. We need a human intelligence to express a culture equal to our present condition.

William Irwin Thompson

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Inviting the gods

After yet another night of very accomplished music that was utterly free from yearning, I find myself thinking about Bali. I was taught that in that part of Indonesia the gods are the true audience for music, not people. I learned that musical ceremonies exist to invite the gods to be present, and to call forth and satisfy the needs of invisible powers.

I go to a lot of concerts, so I listen to a lot of live music that is well-made and beautifully played, but I find that there are far more crowd-pleasers than god-pleasers. So much music seems to be made merely for the people, and I become convinced of one thing: for me, music that doesn’t somehow strive to invite a sacred presence just isn’t enough. All the technique and titillation aimed at garnering a standing ovation just seems empty without a sense of courting the sacred—it could be hilariously sacred, dark cathedral sacred, ecstatic sacred, deep-in-the-woods sacred, oddly sacred, but geeze-louise, so often it seems like not only was the music not written for the gods, but they aren’t even invited to come listen. So often it seems as if no one on stage wants anything from the music but their own mastery and our admiration.

So here is what I’m asking: what if we all agree not to waste our wild and precious lifetimes with the blank nonsense of merely desirable, semi-automatic, or even technically perfect-but-safe art? Could we musicians individually or collectively decide to reject a culture that constantly tempts us to orient our whole expression toward empty accomplishment? Could we please just pause in our busy days of achievement to call the gods forth into our homes and our concert halls, and to beseech them with every breath of our music-making?