Wednesday, September 14, 2011

MUSIC AFTER - the anti-9/11

Eleonor Sandresky and Daniel Felsenfeld, co-producers and artistic directors Music After is presented in association with the Joyce Theatre Foundation.
And in collaboration with Vision Into Art, September 11, 2011, 8.46am - after midnight
Joyce SoHo, 155 Mercer Si., New York City

Some people have short attention spans. Others incredibly long ones. Patience probably serves the latter best, but consider that, if of the former stripe, what could be better than something new every 15-20 minutes? If you have endurance, then it is then not a question of ADD as much as adding up.

As the St. Marks Poetry Marathon has been covered at some length here previously, it should come to no surprise that one might find a similar passion for the event above-captioned. If you have not noticed the date, you are among a very few. It ill behooves me, or even moves me, to comment on the national threnody associated with this; suffice it to say: having lived through it, here, I have no need to have my memories stirred, nor feelings repackaged with lap fades and so-mo-focus and lite arpeggios of mourning and renewal.

So this is something brand new, and guaranteed to please. And definitely not rehashing the past, as much as inviting it in and offering it a seat on the couch to have a bit of art and entertainment.

DISCLAIMER: At times in the past, there have been some unwelcome comments on the inaccuracy of items masquerading as “journalism” from this author. What the following represents is as much sense as can be made by someone who is a compulsive note-taker, scribbling in the dark on very cluttered handbills. Do that as thou wilt.

Set A: 8.46am - noon
At approx. 9:15am or so, totally delightful squee-scree-&-squawk set which was probably Daphna Naphtali on f/x and vocalisms and Hans Tammen (probably) doing Cage-like stuff to the guitar on the table)) doing her music…but it’s difficult to say, except the title “Mechanical Eye” seemed fitting. David Del Tredici’s contribution was “My God or Tres Gymnopedes” with Blair McMillen on piano, and did it remind of Erik Satie? Well, enough of Del Tredici does that so I’ll say so, without actual notation of same. Phill Niblock handed in a tape piece—which fit his oeuvre as well as the day: “Parker’s Altered Mood.” Ostensibly for saxophone, it might as well have been for a hundred harmoniums in the wash of single tones, only slightly interrupted by overlapping harmonics, which actually added a lot of texture for the listener, like trying to find the flaw, or even a brushstroke, in a monochromatic painting…and ended close enough to the feeling you get when the “all-clear” siren sounds.

Therein followed The Universal Thump (Greta Gertler and Adam Gold), who did one of the very few “rock” sets. I forgot to write down the name of the other tune, which was one by Rufus Wainwright, because I was so happy to hear “Information Rain” by Judy Nylon. And I was not the only one: co-producer Daniel Felsenfeld: “You know, we don’t hear enough of Judy Nylon these days. So I’m going to ask them to do an encore of it.” And they did! (Remember when a line from and Eno song could be so influential you’d make a whole number out of it?)

Not quite in the place of his name, David First went fifth, with Ahmed Abdullah (I think) on trumpet and Tom Chiu on violin. As soon as he picked up his guitar and laid on the e-bow, I recognized him from the old days; the somewhat American Eagle profile, though, wasn’t part of the memory. (Ah well, we all change.) That device on the fretted strings produced a semi-Frippertronic infinite sustain, aided by the organ-chord tremolo, and the ghostiest part came from the muted horn, like “Taps” from the fourth dimension.

This was the only set to end early. (Later, an explanation was offered that, due to the occasion, a lot of people were having trouble with trains. Including this reporter, who had to walk over from the East Village—a whole 10 blocks and 5 Avenues!)

Set B: noon-3pm
The notes are so scrambled on this set, only a few are dead certain, but best guesses are provided as well.

David Linton (‘80s drum luminary and tech-experimenter with so many bands I refuse to consider looking them up) kicked it off with a completely electronic piece (excepting a few strums of an autoharp, I believe) which was likely “from the Bicameral Research Project” (See? What’d I tell you? Math rock be damned.) as he warned us in advance “there’s going to be some flickering lights as part of this so if you’re susceptible to that sort of thing, you might want to step outside.” What was thrown up on the wall (the only one who used any visuals) was not dissimilar from old TV interference patterns of zig-zag jags when it was like a digital Rothko, and no—no one had any seizures.

If there was a “star” of this set, it was Annie Gosfield, if only that she had two pieces performed. The first was Blair McMillen returning to the Steinway & Sons for “October 5, 1941”—titled after the first Subway Series (between the Yanks and the Dodgers) wherein, upon this date, a fatal error cost Brooklyn an out, a game and the whole shebang. Humorously enough amid the sturm-und-drang of the Rite of Spring-like forte, the full count came from him leaning in to caress the strings with a couple of horsehide pills before donning a mitt and bashing the keys with it. (Why are so many composers baseball fans?) As for what came next? Too many scribbles. It may be that there was a Carter Burwell piece entitled “On Judgment: Human and otherwise”, but whoever is the author, the MIVOS String Quartet performed it. (Probably.) All that is certain is that the rumble of car wheels on cobblestones outside meant that it was probably not a very loud piece…or that I like the sound of car wheels on cobblestones.

Somewhere in here was an unannounced gem. Jonathan Hart Makwaia (pronounced almost British, like “McQuire”) may have been on the front of the program, but he was most likely on a contingent basis. (Remember the trains?) What he does is play the piano and vocalize—and while the first one was possibly Swahili, it didn’t matter if there was any Randy Weston or Abdullah Abrahim in him—it was great: pseudo or voodoo. The second was too charming for words, literally. If you could label it Call-&-Response, it would be the piano setting the joke, and Jon laughing at it: trills, arpeggios, hammerstrokes and clusterchords all repeated in giggles to titters to guffaws to barks and howls. There was a third piece as well which may or may not have been notated as “sun ra w/better cartilage” but whatever; this guy could be a heliocentric Victor Borge, no lie.

It is certain that Lisa Moore played the music of Don Byron, also on the ivories. These were entitled “Mad Rush” and “7 Etudes”. I’m pretty sure Eleonor Sandresky, the other co-producer, did a Philip Glass piece…but she did one piano performance per set, at least, and so it might as well as have been her. There are no notes on what it was but if you’ve experience one Glass piece live, you will know it by how clean you feel after. There was a tape piece by Tim Mukerhjee called “Heat Multiplier”. And then David Lang’s interpretation of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” as a recital piece by Anne Hiatt and Kate Springarn on vocals and cello…which is in itself kinda stunning: late ‘60s NYC drug-nihilism retooled for a garden party?

Julie Heyward is fondly remembered as one of the leading lights of tech savvy performance artists who could make concepts into theatricals. (Think first time I’d seen her perform was with T-Venus on the Kitchen Midwest Tour launch party on the Staten Island Ferry. 1981? Memory does not always serve.) Here it was four songs. “This is the audience participation section and the question you have to answer is ‘Do You Believe?’”, and ended it with “please leave your questionnaires with the usher at the door.” Pretty cute still. The others were “Body on the Bayou” (“written 15 years before Katrina” she’d have you know), “My Mind Likes to Take Little Trips on Its Own” and the fourth passed by because the third title took too long to write.

Jon Gibson had two numbers performed but I only have a scrawl on the second, in which the composer himself came out to play an alto sax solo.

Set C: 3pm-6pm
It is fair to say that, by this time, it had occurred to me to not try to make all the notes on the same schedule, and instead, get a new one and mark that up…for the duration. For which I have mi espousa mousa to thank.

Laurie Anderson was sort of an open question; if anyone could perform a composition by her, who would it be? Well, seeing as how she lives 10 minutes away, and how she has been as generous as possible this summer with appearances all over town (see previous post)… She was in a chair, sitting, to read a short story/reminiscence, or parable—if you will—so suited to the mood of the moment as to be a tailor-cut, rather than a fitting. I hesitate to relate as to reveal would spoil other’s fun. Suffice it to say, in the world of today, we are all like confused terriers, watching for hawks.

The numbers are slightly off here so it is a good guess to say that Charles Waters and Sparkle Trio played the music of Matthew Shipp next, in more or less the only avant-jazz set of the event. (Which is confusing only in that without Charles Waters on tenor sax, Sparkle Trio would be just bass and drums…but what of it?) This is true olde Knitting Factory stuff—like from when it was still on Houston. Angular, jumping, and popping in so many directions, spontaneous applause broke out when the drummer flung a small cymbal onto the floor: not in frustration, but as an accent. It was that intense. Even mi mousa squeaked in favor.

It is likely that this was followed by Laurie Spiegel, introducing her portion with the anecdote, “Most people who are aware of my work know it is primarily electronic. After 9/11, for several days, I was entirely without power so I went back to the banjo.” The piece, "New York November 2001 (for solo banjo)", played by Taylor Levine, managed to go from a music box to broken nickelodeon to John Dowland without being any of them, which prompted mi esp. to ask if same was available for the consumer. (Sadly, Ms. Spiegel split before I could buttonhole her.)

Eleonor Sandresky returned to the keyboards to render Nico Muhly’s “Hudson Cycle”. This is played twice, here and in Set D as well, but somehow, this one felt more rapturous, and that I can’t explain. This was either before of after very nice songs of Michael Friedman (of the Civilians, I gather) with Robbie Sublett (vocals, and who was on piano?...the ink is too smeared to tell).

This was likely the point of the other big name performer, who should need no introduction, but when you say “collaborator with John Cage, Robert Ashley and Merce Cunningham” then Joan La Barbara seems to be easier to see against those lights. About as good an advert for hot for a woman of years, silver hair and white lab coat makes her as stark as her mouth music. “The Gatekeeper” (possibly the title) is just her, accompanied by tape, in a performance as a textbook definition of “spellbinding”, weaving in the faintest aspirations of breath, clicks, guttural snatches amid sighing winds and babelogues, whispers and creaks, croaks and groans, until you end up in every jungle movie cliché you’ve ever heard, to resolve in some vast fog-bound harbor, having gone from the shore to the moor and back again.

Tough act to follow, so once more into the “rock” as Daniel Felsenfeld took to the piano with Rick Moody, vocals, to do Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”. And, for those of us who were there, the one sterling image of the hours between dawn and dusk was just how amazingly pretty it was. September in New York always is. And Moody’s crisp characterization fit that Big Apple tartness like a Granny Smith.

Here or there, returned The Composer Charles Waters, again with Sparkle, and augmented by piano, cello and violin, to do three originals. Stopping here to acknowledge the Herculean efforts of the organizers, he went on to explain how people had two moods about this occasion, summed up in “Fatalism, that’s bad; and Faith, that’s good,” before alluding to “hexachord analogue of Paul Auster’s name,” a Robert Creely 'lost poem’ he found again entitled “Night in New York City”, and expressing his ongoing astonishment at the skills of the bassist/composer William Parker (yup, ye olde skool Knitting Factory alum, again). And of the three, the Parker ode was about as close to a groove as would be heard in the whole, but mighty fine it was at that.

Mick Rossi played Joanne Brackeen’s “Picasso”, and the note says only that it sounded like cat’s steps into something vaguely recalling the early work of Eddie Palmieri—if that makes sense.

That the set ended with an operatic duo of piano and unamp’ed vocals by Paul Appelby (likely, with Thomas Sauer ivories—no apologies folks!) made it about as close to an afternoon musicale on as “Beautiful Ohio”—a song cycle by Harold Meltzer—as could be, if that particular river was rendered by Charles Ives.

Set D: 6pm-9pm
By this time, truth be told, attention to detail had begun to flag a tad. This was also the first set to start late. Some 20 minutes after the hour, Todd Reynolds, violinist extraordinaire, was part of a group doing a Roseanne Cash song, which name and other players’ names escape me (but might have been Rose Bellini included). However, the guest appearance of Ms. Cash did not. With her husband on piano, she did the kind of “500 Miles” rendition you wished everyone could, and few can.

The producers took another turn or two, the Sandresky reprise of “The Hudson Cycle” and Felsenfeld/Moody duo returned to do David Bowie’s “Five Years”…but that would not be Ziggy’s only appearance.

Eve Beglarian can be typified by the sly counterpoint of her titles. “I am really a very simple person” may have been nothing but a chorale sextet doing Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do, but when you do it so many times inside and outside up and around and braids and tesseracted…it sort of makes you dizzy…in a good way, like dervish dancing. Which is also how the “audience participation part” of “Did he promise you the universe?” also worked, with a “nananananana”-kinda Meredith-Monkish nonsense phrase in rising and falling ostinatos, repeated into oblivion.

Justin V. Bond, in a modest two-piece dress-suit tailored to compress the flesh into its best, strode out with her guitar accompaniest (in net dress and feathered brow-wreath) and proclaimed, “I was told not to do anything political in deference to the occasion. So if you hear anything political in this that’s your problem.” “Tomorrow is going to be the 22nd Century”, is Nina Simone's original but would not have been out of place on a Bert Brecht/Kurt Weill songbook, stridently slashing at the petty differences and tyrannies and prejudices of the 20th and 21st ones, Bond belting away like Ethel Merman on testosterone supplements. And with that, as Felsenfeld, said, “hey, how many opportunities am I going to have like this?” requested Justin to come back for an encore, “…as sort of my fee for putting this on” and accompanied on Bowie’s “Lady Stardust”.

Elliott Sharp, the man with a fractal guitar, watched from the seats with his daughter as JACK String Quartet played a composition whose name I neglected to get. But it would be hard to miss the impact of the piece. From a nearby vantage, one could se the precision of soldier ants marching across the score sheets, and the sound was just as extreme. Switching between three “bows”—the standard gut, what appeared to be a long machine spring, and (maybe) pins inserted in a dowel?—the tight coils scraped and the pins barely rasped, and the gut simply stretched. Time signatures? Motifs? I would hesitate to call this sherbet, but it served a similar function: cold and cleansing, it delineated that which had come before from whatever would come after. This is by no means a slam: I also enjoy the sound of car wheels on cobblestones, remember?

At eight o’clock, however, enough, and best of luck for the next group.

Oh yes, and why not look to the future?

22nd Century by Nina Simone

There is no our children in the air
Men and women have lost there hair
Ashes and faces and legs that stand
Ghost and god blends work in this land
When tomorrow becomes yesterday
And tomorrow becomes eternity
When the soul with the soul goes away beyond
When life is taken and there are no more babies born
When there is no one and there is everyone
When there is no one and there is everyone

Tomorrow will be the 22nd century
Tomorrow will be the 22nd century
Tomorrow will be the 22nd century
It will be, it will be, it will be, Ah…

21st century was here and gone
And the 20th century was the dawn
In the beginning of the end was the 21st
When the 20th century was at the end
1990 was the year
When the plagues flood the earth
1988 was the year
When men and women struck out for freedom
And bloodletting was the thing that was

People say there was no cause and
There was no reason and there was no cause
1972 was right all way

Drums and blessed all through the day
Right way, left way, middle of the road
And side wind, bench wind

Stockings,red stockings
Liberation of women, liberation of men

Tomorrow will be the 22nd century
Tomorrow will be the 22nd century
Tomorrow will be the 22nd century
It will be, it will be, it will be,Ah…

Liberation of animals
Men and beast,flying and on flying
Prevention of employ to animals
Flying things,revolutions of music
Portrait,love and lives
Sex's changing changing changing
Man is woman, woman is man
Even your brain is not your brain
Your heart is a plastic thing
And can be bought
There're no more businesses can be court

Man became the thing,that he wash up man
Every gone is god,that was the day
That man and woman truly became bored
Man became his eagle,man became his evil
Man became his god,man became his devil

Tomorrow will be the 22nd century
Tomorrow will be the 22nd century
Tomorrow will be the 22nd century
It will be, it will be, it will be,Ah…

Young women without money caught
Big dogs living in marble love
Young men die in the spring
Boys of seven falling in love
Give the lady wear a diamond ring

Wedding, wedding, wedding
You know all wedding ain' the thing
Don't want to know prayer,don't want to know man
Give me your hand,and take my hand
This is better than tanbobrs
Prayer men, yeah
The choose is now on pole
It says somebody else,soul and toe
Don't try to sway one over
To your day,on your day
Your day will go away
Tomorrow will be the 22nd century

Friday, September 9, 2011

...Summer's end, coming home...

The end of summer really needs a valediction of one sort or another. As season's go, it's value has an inverse proportion to it's brevity and its weight. Being light and short means all events within have more moment than most. And for city dwellers, who don't get to "winter" at anyplace we don't spend rent, the pleasures of the harbor (oh yes, and why not use Mr. Ochs, who was not immune to things beyond the political) like Governor's Island, concert evenings in Central Park or any of the other half-dozen outdoor venues, dinner at Del Posto and that long walk through humid waves and human seas, but, as well, those day trips to Fire Island (as Neil PAtrick Harris sang at the Tony Awards' show, w/r/t Broadway, "It's not just for gays anymore!") and the Sunken Forest/Sailor's Haven area--all feels about as close as you can come to the Florida Keys without passing through communities of bible-thumping, gun-toting reactionaries, or alligators. I look at these bathhouse curtains waving and I hear Brian Wilson, smell SPF 70+ lotion, see the drift-polished bits of nacre and shell glinting at the waterline where the wash withdraws. Empty mind and brilliant sun.

Yet, the urban texture cannot be dismissed. You pay enough for living in this burg, once in a while it should offer you a favor or two in compensation. And while there are treasures to be plucked from the aether all during the sweating weather, a couple standout.

So then, one peek at a peak from this remove.

This summer has seen a phenomenal number of appearances by Laurie Anderson (frequently with her more famous mate, Lou Reed) in which young could have seen her ambient, noise-jamming, doing a spooky cover version of Shel Silverstein, but of all attended, the August 10 set at Damrosch Park one stands out head and shoulders. It was not as spare as a solo, with Rob Burger on a variety of keyboards and Eyvind Kang on viola, and long past the production values of "Home of the Brave", she has been doing a lot of minatures, and then a book like "Moby Dick" and even some improv. And it is all the best work of a mature artist who can carry her vision to any material, sure, but, for a lot of us old-time downtown followers, nothing has felt like coming home in a while. For someone--let's call this someone a fan of Dylan's amphetamine-fueled rock period when for three or four albums (depending upon your method of calculation) he could do no wrong--who can recall seeing "United States, Part II" at the Orpheum on 2nd and St. Marks, in early 1980, this was like "Blood On The Tracks".

The best reason for this is that the text she'd chosen was "The Real New York City".

And why?

The obvious reason is that cities of this sort deserve more than a cursory glance. As you will see below, what Ms. Anderson displays, above and beyond the musicianship, is a talent for observation comparable to few. Back in the last century, when in conversation with her, she said that, while she did enjoy narratives, she was more and more being drawn towards fragments, like Borges—and, like movies. Hers, then, is a prime example of the Editor’s Art. Set the scene in a snapshot. Advance this one more frame and you see someone entering Chaos Theory. Take it a few more, however, and you find self-organizing structures within the turbulence. And, for this reporter, that is what these fragments are: bits of napkin-written, back-of-the-receipt, envelope-scrawled flashes of insight into places, like a Beaudrillard Psychohistory done with tweets and camera phones. But, again, for this reporter, that’s just a fancy way of saying postcards. (And postcards are something well known here.)

A few too many metaphors in the mix? Ah well, more power to them whose road lead directly to the palace of wisdom. The rest of us will have to be contented with the excess off-ramp.

What follows then are the rapid snatches of meaning culled from her dream-of-consciousness spell, in her own voice (not that of her snarky vocoder buddy) that is as much a cunning seductress as a calming nurse, all in this ethereal suspension of light and air.

“…there’s this blimp…and it’s been circling the island of Manhattan…and it drifts right by this man’s open window…and on the side of it…in HUGE Helvetica letters…is the word ‘DELERIUM’…” This segues into a snippet about the strangeness of the San Genaro Festival being held on the streets of Little Italy every year, of carnival rides outside your window, “and the smell…of burning sausages…”

From here she glides into a few topical references on our post- 9/11 era, the reign of Bloomberg, Dominique Strauss-Kahn “now known world wide…as a chimpanzee…”as part of a general section called, one gathers “Life In The City/Hard Times.” Still even as she is saying “Tonight, they’re rioting in London, again” she can’t help but smile as the sound of the police siren comes not from her speakers, but Ninth Avenue behind her. She draws this to a close with “So there’s the good news…and the bad news. And the bad news is the Earth keeps spinning, spinning, spinning…trying to throw us off…And the good news is, as Willie Nelson says: 90%of all the people in the world, end up with…the wrong person. And that’s what makes the juke boxes….keep spinning…”

This dives into a ride on violin and synth that blends in with the dusk so well you almost don’t notice, “…night…the city…the air…and you can see…ghost trains…along the High Line…long, black limosines, and EMS trucks, carrying the drunk, and the dead…tourists descending from the Enterprise…” And as each bit unfolds, you have to wonder if she really does cruise the avenues at that hour, chronicling the changes wrought by time and temperature.

This segues into something more metaphoric before grounding again in that well-know slogan of our New York state-of-mind: “…If you see something, say something… But what, exactly, are you supposed to say? Officer, there’s something not quite right about that person there… OR…Officer, there’s something wrong about that bag in the middle of the station… OR… Officer, there’s something not quite right with YOU, you’re sort of slippery around the edges, like you just might melt down into an officer-sized puddle, right in front of me…” then, to slam the point home: “Did you know that 1,400 new spy agency’s have been started in the last ten years, in America?”

It is just these contrasts which bring the somnambulistic reverie into diamond clarity, like that sudden focus wherein a 2D picture snaps into a 3D relief, in some transfictive Playstation event.

“Uptown…downtown…countdown….&, in Midtown, the lights come on in the high-rises…the cleaning machines moving slowly…you can see the paper shredders shredding, shredding, shredding…the mist surrounds the tallest towers, until there is no escape…except for the heat, which rises up, rises up, rises up, in the jade-like night…”

And then if you wonder where you are going, a series of directions begin to trace a route down from Westchester, ending up in the Lincoln Center parking garage, and you realize you’ve been guided by the sexiest GPS module ever.

Lest you think this all apiece, it should be noted that without the aural component, this would be stand-up comedy with little chance of making it at Caroline’s past the first open mike, or an op-ed that wouldn’t get past the assistant at the copy desk. What give performance art the kick is this use of electronics and text: you can’t have one without the other. Hence, this poor approximation.

So when she and the guys slip into what, in—say—1985 might pass for a “dance” track, “Step Into The Flow” carries just enough data to give the feet a reason to beat there. Unless you notice, this ultra-rap-trip, in mild iambic-pentameter, seems to be one step ahead of you. And when it side-slips into a reverie on “Voila Paris”, you begin to feel like its no stretch to bring the other metropolii into the mix, finding the common thread in them all.

And should you THEN think it all impersonal distance of the detached adventurer, “the space…between…the beats….on 14th Street, the nightgowns hang on the racks…people in sturdy khakis, and pre-washed jeans…” and begins noting the number of names for polyester mixes and blends like discovering exotic sea-creatures, “…and I tell myself…if only I didn’t feel so lost, maybe I could…” as if drowning in these seas of fabrics.

A sequencer’s bell tolling as muffled alarm form a buoy on rough seas? “South Street Seaport…cars whoosh by…lights flash in the studios…of photographers…high rises, rise and fall… people fall off bar stools… Hard Times…give it the gas…I just keep falling behind …heat rises, people sliding …in a dream like mine, One World Trade rises, you can se it from here… heat rises…” The viola takes a solo here in a Middle Eastern mode which soon becomes saw-dense as it rips through a hornet’s nest and keens like a Yom Kippur shofar, Laurie waving him on to moan out another chorus of uncorked cellulose eerie.

And at the end of this fever-sweat, we drop back into context with “The United State is the oldest country in the world, because it has been in the 20th Century the longest. So said Gertrude Stein, when she said it…that’s what she said…” sounding a lot like Ms. “A Rose Is A Rose Is A Rose” herself, there. But if GS is forever enigmatic, Anderson can have her own propers as spin doctor, finding the whirl within a word. “…and on Wall Street, futures are being bought and sold, buying and selling…things, that don’t exist yet-have-not-been-made …thing that have only been thought about—they’re thoughts! …and that’s what’s for sale…and in this way…the city, start to grow around you …not the one you imagined, but one made of something else …adrenalin…delirium…”

Then shifts into telex signal mode, “We are always inventing people…maybe we need to lighten up… so we can travel---light!”

Almost too dark to make another note, her summation begins, as always, somewhere in the real. “The city has changed a lot in the last few years, and its replaced the former city. Fewer bookstores, but hey!—lots more cupcake shops! So that’s one thing. And also, lots of goofy talk about…texting and …tech conferences—and yeah!—plenty of gizmos—oh yeah!—plenty of apps, presented by a few good guys in button-downs and chinos …who’ll analyse us all, for the good of mankind…”

Any why do I feel compelled to write down everything I can remember? And here? Because, in times t o come, I may want to be able to turn my memories into cloud computerland, but right now, this is the best shot I got.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

“Much Ado About Nothing”

It is most satisfying to return from an hiatus and enter with another aside from the Bard, a tradition (if such exists) at this blog.

It has been an odd week; some might say ‘biblical’, were they inclined to be overly melodramatic as, it seems, the entire broadcast Media is wont to be. The earthquake, a 5.9er I am told, was weak enough to provide comic relief for anyone from Japan, or our West Coast. (My Tweet? “Has anyone seen Chicken Little running out of the Capitol Dome screaming about the debt ceiling?” One thing about electronic haiku: it forces the prolix to become tidy.)

These lamentably feeble comparisons aside, however, they are nothing in light of the East Coast weekend weather event. Our region suffered a far greater physical impact from the political effects of shifting winds than any in the atmosphere.

But first, the actual atmosphere surrounding this should be noted. From this outpost in the East Village, the humidity alone was a telling point. When flesh sticks to everything, your thinking becomes tacky as well. Just envision a world without air-conditioning: would it ever have been possible to ship tech sector jobs to the tropics? Then there was the darkening skies. Watching this come in was the textbook definition of ominous. Outside of this, the number of conversations one hears impending towards the immanence of the eschaton falls quickly into absurdity.

WOMAN ON CELL PHONE IN ELEVATOR LOBBY: …I’m as prepared as I can be. I’ve got my batteries, my water, my Jack Daniels…

WOMAN ON BUS ON CELL PHONE: …Trader Joe’s is cleaned out…Just things like capers, cocktail olives, and pickles…Why all the canned goods? Like how long is this going to last?...

Food forays being paramount though, on my last rip out Saturday morning, I wanted to put something on the iPod suitable for impending doom and found “Atom Heart Mother” by Pink Floyd quite fit for the occasion. Brooding, slow, almost grimly pompous with trombones and French horns heralding the apocalypse. Which was, in this case that not only was the woman on the bus right, but both Trader Joe’s AND Whole Foods were already closed. Unless it was only meant as an augury of the first rain bands coming in once I’d gotten out of the last L train before the system began shutting down at noon. This was a city primed for DRAMA! (…or dharma? Never could remember the diff…)

Which brings up the rest of the evening’s score: a mp4 disc with 15 albums of the soundtracks from Godzilla movies. “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)” (by Akira Ifukube) hit the perfect note to follow Floyd’s bombast. We often overlook this aspect of the package in our youthful passion for daikaiju (Japanese name for Japanese monster movies), more excited by the conflict between two or more manifestations of the battle between Ego, Superego and Id, or Anima and Anime, if you’re Jungian than springtime. The beauty of the recycled themes is recognizing that the way the best noise comes from brass: the trumpets blaring on a four-note alternating leitmotif while tympani pounds and booms, the symbols hissing, all ending with a gong!!! This is all a fair example of the production values of telejournalism.

Which is what I meant by political, of course, and spin control, inflated rhetoric, photo-op positioning, etc., and its attendant battles for our consciousness and attention. But it is not the MSNBC/Fox kind. It is the policy of panic.

The central theme here is our complicity in a pact with fools: a/k/a—our media.

All those preparations and all those warnings and press conferences—it seemed like we had to pay attention because, at any moment, things might turn ugly, quickly. Perhaps it was necessary, in some way, to make us feel calm and secure and content, but certainly all the better to make mandatory evacuations work, to empty the streets for better passage of emergency vehicles, and aid in getting service back on line faster. This is good for the public service sector who need this kind of cooperation and hat’s off to them. And wouldn’t it have been nicer and in the interests of full disclosure, for Mayor Bloomberg to have said, “I am on top of this situation…because I fumbled the ball last winter”?

Dream on.

It’s just that all these things would be more laudatory were they not also part of a massive con. Say what you want about New Yorkers; they know a shell game when they see it. It may have had the desired effect of making the world safe for democracy, but make no mistake: a benevolent dictatorship is still a dictatorship.

This nothing new in the news. There will always be a few out there who still carry the torch for investigative journalism, but they are giving way too much to the same sweep of events that brought infotainment to the fore of all the major outlets. (This phenomenon was noted by Tom Brokaw as beginning with the O.J. Simpson trial and the 24-hour-a-day coverage that it generated.) Those who promulgate this waste of our attention will argue that an overload of data and live on-air standups and “BREAKING NEWS” crawlers are empowering. They will say the great thing is that they offer so much choice, and if you don’t like it, you can always go somewhere else. Yes, and when everything looks the same and sounds the same and says the same things, where is the choice? Offer a menu to a herd of cows.

What makes it worse, worst, is the fill of cant over real intelligence. The meteorologists and hurricane experts go on and on describing the physics of the formation of Irene, its dimensions, speed, millibars of pressure…and still manage to avoid one essential fact. Once an ocean-born vortical storm leaves its native element, warm-to-hot water, it begins to die. By the time it finished wreaking havoc on Kill Devil Hills (a name to conjour with, if any there is) in North Carolina, the eye wall was collapsing even before it reached Washington. All the worries about the storm surge were not going to be realized, that was certain; coasting flooding, yes, but rain does enough to New Jersey on a regular basis to make calls for disaster relief routine. Common knowledge, and yet no one bothered to take that bite of that apple. Instead, more lip service to the party line: we are in DANGER, DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!

The reference to the “Lost In Space” robot, cliché tho’ it may be, isn’t just for effect. The difference between arm-waving wildly and hand-wringing intently is negligible. However, this is the same fact that emerged from my musical box: you want people to respond emotively, you hit them with every iota of sentiment and experience you can, and—the key factor—in bite-sized chunks. The cuts on the Godzilla albums are no longer than 3 minutes, tops, most just cues under 2, and—equally important—repeating key themes. In this instance, rapid-fire cut-aways one after the other, with almost no one staying on talking head in the rain, to notice that all he or she was getting, really, was wet. If anything else, it was usually being the object of derision by screen-hungry teenagers, out in the blow to have bragging rights about anything, which a major portion of their existence. Then comes the radar, then the graphics, then, the commercials, then the bumper intro with the stacatto motif of the event: omninous, breathless and, most assuredly, the augury of a monster…not, this time, in a wobbling laytex costume.

The meaning is clear: the sum total of its scope couldn’t hope to live up to the noise generated by it. This isn’t a reference to the damages, which are significant, as much as it would ill become this blog to refer to this as the Lemming Factor; especially for those who had property damage and the loss of loved ones. It is all very well and good to insult those who deserve it, but not those who don’t. Yet when you stop and think about it, the “better safe than sorry” attitude of civil administrators and FEMA officials, it becomes trite, if only in retrospect. Which also where today’s graphic comes in. This is a brochure distributed to all downtown office building lobbies…on Wednesday. Yes, talk about closing the barn door after—and how much did it cost to print up these little bundles of paranoia? Like we needed to be told Manhattan is an island?

What was the ostensible reason for hating Communism? Totalitarianism, rule by one voice: the State. What they called “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” and…like what do THEY know about running a government, eh? Well, what should be shunned as well is the dictatorship of the Dictationists, the Telepromptarians, the People Who Speak With One Voice. And what is that?


Yes, trivialites and aesthetics—this is what this boils down to isn’t it? Well, when faced with the melodrama of the Media, why not? What we are left with, then, is a script written to turn reportage on an exceptional storm condition into something between a war and a World Cup match. You doubt? Listen to the verbs—thundering, crashing, blustering (and that’s just to describe the on-air talent)—and the widely-vaunted “team coverage”… To hear them talk you’d think that nothing could be greater or worse than this beach, that surf, those winds, and them interviews with passersby who are asked questions like “What is your greatest fear?” and never a one with the wit to answer: “Dying penniless, alone and unloved,” trying to make them into sage examples of native wisdom when they best they can offer is a chuckle and shrug: “Naah. I just wanted to see what it looked like out here.” All one can do in the face of such dull responses is to further exhort for more extempore panting prose of the moment’s portents in those hyperinflated tones to punctuate every line with a punch. Didn’t anyone ever tell them, when they were Communications Studies majors, that the only place you can add crescendo upon crescendo is in music?

If all this sounds like an overreaction, it is. Then again, when you’ve spent that much time absorbed on one topic, everything becomes enlarged, much like the subject matter itself. This text itself (talk about "meta") is an example of the kind of hyperinflation that occurs when a heated discussion boils up from beneath the quiet surface and explodes in furious gusts across a set path. For all the bombast, it will have little impact. Hence the Bard up top, who knew a thing or two about "sound and fury/signifying nothing".

Still, where's Inshiro Hondo when you need him?