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?