Lost in the [Sound] Cloud

b3fc32203f30dd86b68ba31fd7becf64_biggerSoundCloud, at first glance, would seem to be a sort of audio-only version of YouTube – a place where people upload music and other audio files to the internet.  But in the two years or so I’ve been using it, I’ve discovered that it’s as different from YouTube as a library is from a video arcade.  It’s the only “place” online in which I feel a sense of community. I use Facebook, Google Plus, and a couple of other popular “platforms,” but their populations and activities are too varied and diffuse to generate feelings of kinship in me. In the case of the ubiquitous YouTube, the pervasive nastiness that infects many of their comment threads triggers something akin to a gag reflex whenever I stray onto them.

SoundCloud is different. Almost all the people I interact with on it  are engaged in creative endeavors. They’re musicians, composers, sound designers, singers and songwriters. Some are relative beginners, others are experienced and accomplished. Anyone can post a “sound” on SoundCloud – a song, a piece of avant-garde electronica, a sound effect, a radio broadcast, your baby’s first words – anything that can be contained in a digital audio file.

According to a piece in the June, 2013 issue of Wired Magazine, “…the Berlin-based company now has 40 million registered users… and reaches more than 200 million people each month…”

SC cofounders Walforss & Ljung

SC cofounders Walforss & Ljung

Cofounder Alexander Ljung was quoted in in the same article: “We have some people who are into dubstep, some people who are into the sound of songbirds. People can find their own niches and participate.”

My SoundCloud icon

My SoundCloud icon

In the year I’ve been exploring SoundCloud, I’ve found a number of these niches populated, respectively, by songwriters in many different genres, jam bands, electronic composers, radio stations and record labels, print publications like The New Yorker, well-known jazz, classical and pop recording artists, sound designers, archivists and audiophiles of all persuasions.  I’ve found “clouds” (as individuals’ pages are called on SoundCloud) devoted to the sounds of Southern California history, sounds of explosions, genres of music I had never heard of,  NPR content,  and much more. A search of SoundCloud for the word “cosmology” brought up over 500 audio tracks, 57 “clouds” and 40 “playlists” (compilations of tracks).   SoundCloud hosts collections including parts of the Smithsonian’s massive audio archives, the Muzak archives; the archives of Killorglin, Ireland, the national archives of Georgia (the country) and hundreds more.

Like a Borgesian library of nearly infinite possibility, SoundCloud might, in fact, contain something for everyone. What effect its existence will have on the recording industry remains to be quantified, but it certainly seems to be another instance of how digital technology is changing everything about everything.

Since I started using SoundCloud, my music  purchases from Apple and Amazon have dropped significantly. SoundCloud is not only the place where I share my own music, it’s increasingly where I go to listen to music.  The fact that most of what I hear isn’t anything I could find on iTunes or  an internet radio app is telling.  Cofounder Ljung says that a relatively small group of “big artists” can no longer determine what music people listen to. While I still consider new releases by Dylan, Cohen, Simon, or the much younger Regina Spektor, noteworthy events, I no longer follow  a limited and well defined group of recording artists whose work I listen to and discuss with friends, the way we did in the last century. The distinction between “creator” and “listener” has become fluid. Everyone I know on SoundCloud is both.

I’ve been playing guitar since high school and writing songs since I was in my twenties. Until recently, my music took a back seat to my work as an actor, director and playwright. With the advent of a host of music-making apps for the iPad, however, I’ve been spending a lot more time composing music,   songs and spoken word pieces as well as venturing into new forms: remixes, mashups and beats. SoundCloud led me to an online class in songwriting and another in digital production from the Berklee School of Music. SoundCloud is now my most frequently visited site online.

At first it was simply a convenient way to share the music with friends. A number of music apps feature links for uploading directly to it. After a while, though, I began to make use of the website’s capacities for “following” the work of other members, commenting on their tracks and joining groups (“singer-songwriters,” “twelve-bar blues,” etc.).  I heard music that was as interesting to me as anything I could find on commercial venues: a guitar player from San Antonio, Tom Adams who plays traditional Chicago blues as well as anyone since BB King;

Laura Montenegro and Friends

Laura Montenegro and Friends

a woman from Buenos Aries, Laura Montenegro who sounds uncannily like Bessie Smith ; a French pianist, Laurent Guine, who improvises delicately beautiful solos; Jörn Schippera German Jazz trumpeter who now concentrates on provocative spoken-word/electronic music collages; Tony Bluestone, a singer from Detroit whose impassioned songs bring me to tears; Walter Paget, a modern Welsh bard who writes songs about his coal-miner father; Kathleen Martin, a singer/musician in Knob Knee, Indiana who records pristine versions of songs by Baez, Dylan, and other icons of the sixties; Mike McCoy, an Australian expat in Spain who plays world-class jazz guitar and sings standards in a voice that reminds me of Fats Waller.  And there are more. Sofia, A Parisian composer/singer who spins out hypnotic story-songs that at least one animator found compelling enough to base a short film around, and Iannis, a musician from Athens who plays blues and jazz on his oud.

The ever-growing wave of wonderful music from this online cornucopia has become almost overwhelming. I can spend hours browsing SoundCloud. Following a perceptive comment on one song might lead me to a new composer whose list of  “favorite” works by others will take me to the pages of still more musicians.  While all of them might not appeal, many will move, instruct or delight me.

After compiling a “playlist” (another useful SoundCloud feature) of tracks that I’d found most interesting,  I decided to contact each singer/songwriter/composer on the list. I wanted to know if their experience on SoundCloud was anything like mine. How did they use the service? Had it changed their approach to music at all? Did they share my sense of community?

I heard back from nearly all of the twenty members I queried, receiving emails from France, Germany, Australia, Great Britain (Leicester and London) and elsewhere. Americans who responded come from Oakland, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Indiana and Ohio.

Chris Okunbor

Chris Okunbor

Everyone who responded agreed that there was, indeed, a SoundCloud community.  Chris Okunbor, who lives on a mountain in Australia,   sings classic Delta blues and plays the kind slide guitar I used to hear on Folkways archival recordings from the 1930s, wrote:

“SoundCloud  is a very special community…..I’ve seen, on many occasions, when someone is struggling with a negative real-life event, all their friends and supporters hop onto a track and give them positive and kind support. I’ve had  over five thousand comments on tracks I’ve posted and only one of them was a bit strange – but I think that person was struggling with their mental health.”  Chris said that she has made “genuine friends” on SoundCloud and will be soon be visiting some of them in Europe where they’ve arranged a series of gigs for her. She hopes to do the same thing in the U.S. in 2015.

Ed McCarthy's Icon

Ed McCarthy’s Icon

Ed McCarthy, whose nom de musicien is “edro,” may not make a living from music, but, like many SoundCloud members, he’s been playing guitar for most of his life.  He noticed that his passion for music was beginning to ebb some years ago, after a close friend of his, musician Steve Rebbin, died.

Ed wrote to me:  “I really didn’t realize that I was grieving until I got back into music and that hole in my life was there. Once I started playing with other people again, I realized again that music was my center. Almost all of my close friends have some connection to music. I don’t consciously think of that when making friendships it just sort of happens.”

He has a number of friends on SoundCloud. “I consider it important to be there to help when I can. We stay in touch with each others’ new music. I like their music more than most commercial music out there these days.”

Idris Davies

Idris Davies

This last point was echoed in several responses I received. Idris Davies, a Welsh singer-songwriter living in London wrote, “Why don’t I play current music? Well – here I can, current doesn’t have to be X-Factor. It can be anything from any of the guys I’m following, whether it’s Roy’s kitchen parties or Anju’s jazzy vocals, Chris and Derek sliding me back on their dobros, Mark swinging away on his piano or Mick mixing up sweet electro-blues! Discovering and sharing their music brings me great joy!”

Walt & Vervain's Icon

Walt & Vervain’s Icon

Sofia, who lives in Paris and  records as “Walt & Vervain,”  creates wholly original “electronic pop” songs with vocals. She originally joined SoundCloud hoping it would be a way to get her music heard by record labels. It didn’t happen. But she began to receive hundreds of emails from listeners who loved what she was doing. Now, she writes, “I can’t deny the connection I feel with the people who follow me and whom I follow.”

For Chris Okunbor, this same sense of connection prompts her to give back to the community. “I enjoy supporting and promoting other musicians I feel are really good and are good people, especially some of the young ones…some are not living in the affluent West…and really struggle to be heard and recognized.”  Chris reposts dozens of tracks by other musicians on her “cloud.”  Thanks to her, I discovered Dwayne-Xtreme, a remarkable singer from Jamaica.

Barbara Browning

Barbara Browning

After I’d finished a draft of this piece I found a  voice on SoundCloud that was new to me: Barbara Browning, a novelist who teaches at NYU and has recorded and posted covers of hundreds of songs, some well known, some obscure, in her lovely, evocative voice with simple ukelele accompaniment.  I discovered that she was not only a terrific singer with impeccable taste (that closely matched my own, naturally) but also a writer of graceful and insightful prose.  (I recommend her short piece about spam and Charles Trenet, I Wish You Love.) I immediately wrote to her and asked her to have a look at the draft and comment, if she cared to. Within hours, she responded:

“SoundCloud is so utopian – people are so kind and supportive. The one thing about your article that might irk some of my friends who are professional musicians (emphatically not me!) is that you’re buying less music. Of course the music industry is changing and musicians and composers need to figure out new ways of living with the changing economy. Myself, I’m paying for more music than ever. Because I have a fabulous day job teaching, I can afford to support musicians economically as well as creatively, so I do. If somebody has a “buy it” button on SoundCloud, I often do, and I buy the originals of the music I cover. Because I post all my music with Creative Commons licenses, some of my friends still think I’m helping contribute to the increasingly bleak situation where people assume music will be free. Deep down, I’m a big fat communist, so I have doubts about ALL private property, intellectual as well as material, but we live in this complicated world… As you know, I fall on the side of wanting to stimulate the gift economy – and the feminist in me wants us to pay special attention to affective labor and sentimental value. All of these things are intertwined in my mind.”

Her phrase, “affective labor and sentimental value,” continues to echo in my mind, evoking the possibility of a shamelessly utopian economic model. When I asked Barbara about the provenance of that notion, she wrote:

“if you want more on affective labor, a good Marxist feminist theorist to start with is Sylvia Federici, but of course you can always just talk to a waitress or a nurse or a mom about labors of love.”

For many members, including this writer, the greatest value SoundCloud offers isn’t  the space it  provides  to store and share  music.  It’s the  inspiration to our creativity and the nurture of our processes that count.   Axel Weiss, a jazz guitarist, composer and painter from Bavaria, wrote that some of his musical ideas would simply never come into the world without the supportive outlet that SoundCloud provides.  Justin Valente, a blues guitarist from New Jersey maintains that his past eight months on SoundCloud have been the most productive of his twenty-five year long career.

Alexa Weber Morales

Alexa Weber Morales

Alexa Weber Morales, an Oakland, California singer-songwriter who sang on the Grammy-nominated latin jazz album Bien! Bien!  and sings, tours and writes lyrics with Pacific Mambo Orchestra,  made an insightful connection between craft and community:

“If you believe in craft, and I strongly do, than a community like SoundCloud is inspiring. However, a lot of musicians do like I did at first: automatically post their tracks from CD Baby (you can just click a button), see zero comments/interaction, and let it lie fallow. I say forget Pinterest (tried it), LinkedIn, ReverbNation, MySpace (as if!) and FaceBook and enjoy a community purpose-built for musicians. So what if you don’t find many music fans there, half or more of the music business has to do with inspiration and collaboration with other musicians and who you know. This is a way to do all those things, without getting sucked into other time-wasters.”

Alexa, Axel and Justin, along with most of the people who emailed me,  frequently collaborate with other SoundCloud members, over considerable physical distances, sometimes without ever having met in person.  Idris Davies, in London  and Chris Okunbor in Australia created a haunting mashup of “death songs” from the black tradition, including chants, hollers and songs by Blind Willie Johnson, Charlie Patton and others. “musicaserj II,” a Paris-based composer-musician, remixed their work and added an electric guitar part.

telefan

telefan

Jim, a Philadelphia guitarist who goes by the name of “telefan” recorded and uploaded a traditional twelve-bar blues guitar track, “Two-Minute Blues”  and invited anyone who was interested to add a vocal track, a second guitar part or another instrument. After about three weeks, more than thirty musicians have taken him up on the offer  “It has been such an amazing success,” he writes,  “also very much a learning experience for me as a guitarist to hear other great players’ interpretations of the same piece.”

This sort of “song-swapping” reminds me of some of my earliest musical experiences when, from age eleven on, my family would spend summers in a small mountain town in Southern California where a folk-music “workshop” run by then-blacklisted Pete Seeger would take place. That was where I learned my first guitar chords and, later on, a few blues licks.  Besides Pete, folk-music virtuosos like The New Lost City Ramblers, Brownie McGee,  Sonny Terry and Bess Lomax Hawes would teach there, and hundreds of fans and amateur folkies would gather to learn and pass around songs, riffs and techniques.

In high school, college, and later, I stayed connected to the folk music community at  ashgrovevenues like the legendary Ash Grove in L.A., McCabe’s in Santa Monica and the Ice House in Pasadena. But, eventually, I drifted away from that world as other parts of life made greater demands.

For me, the most positive feature of the so-called “digital revolution” is the unparalleled access to music – as a listener and a musician – I now enjoy.  Until my own experience on SoundCloud, I had remained skeptical about the heralded “democratization of art,” that the internet has reportedly brought about. But the truth is that, these days, almost all the music I listen to is written, performed and recorded outside any commercial structure, mostly offered for free, by people who are, in terms of celebrity, unknown.  Could it be that – at least in this one area of life – we have stumbled our way into the gift economy that Lewis Hyde wrote about so compellingly in his classic book, The Gift?

The people I’ve gotten to know on SoundCloud – though many would not fit in any sort of “folk” category – have brought me back to a sense of participation in music as an activity that is intensely personal and, at the same time,  collective. Whether listening to music that moves me with its beauty, power, sense of history or its humor, or in giving and receiving help in songwriting or music production, or in philosophical conversations about music, and everything else, I sometimes feel that I’m taking part in a never-ending global hootenanny – the kind of spontaneous group sing- and play- along that was once a vibrant part of American culture. Maybe it still is.

What We Talk About When We Talk About SoundCloud:

I’ve found SC has been a way of getting a little of the same joy I get from gigging back into my life without the live nerves etc. I’m not saying it replaces it but I find the feedback I get has driven me and it’s just been such a joy and sense of completion to post a song and have it heard…

“The SoundCloud  community is a little eco-system of groups of individuals sharing music, ideas, advice and just life. I suppose other social platforms are ways of sharing what you ate for breakfast or what you’re watching on telly, SC is a platform for sharing music – and I don’t need to tell you how provocative, leading and rich a subject that is, do I!”

– Idris Davies, Singer-Songwriter, London, UK

Riny Raijmakers

Riny Raijmakers

I think there are more communities within Soundcloud. It’s like living in a small town and you just pick the ones you feel comfortable with, the ones who are on the same wavelength. It’s a microscopic world in a way.

– Riny Raijmakers, Singer-Songwriter, Eindhoven, Netherlands.

SoundCloud has replaced my old 4track.”

– Robin Thomas Martin, Singer-Songwriter

I find you can quickly see through to people’s hearts and intentions…through their music/lyrics/comments, and watching the way they treat others of all genders. SC is a very special community

– Chris Okunbor, Singer, Guitarist, Blue Mountains, Australia

Katja Tennigkeit

Katja Tennigkeit

“There’s that part of SC where people really listen to one another’s music, comment and like (or not). These people often do real collaborations, where each invests some time, someone does the mix and master etc…so yes, there’s a community with a real interest into the others. Mostly, they also make this typical handmade music, play real instruments, write songs with lyrics etc. Then there’s another world, where people just repost and comment (mostly standard blabla) and like other peoples music just in return for the same being done to them. Thus, their tracks quickly collect lots of plays and likes, but it doesn’t really mean anything, it’s just a deal. maybe they think that makes their music better, that this is a career starter, but I don’t think so.”

– Katja Tennigheit, Seeheim-Jugenheim, Germany 

I am pleasantly surprised by the lack of nastiness among commenters at SC. I’ve often wondered if someone goes around and deletes anything too untoward! It presents the other problem, though, of never getting helpful feedback or 100% honesty from fellow users. Early on I actually tried being more truthful — still not unkind, but recommending minor adjustments that could be made — and I’ve had mostly very good reactions to that. OTOH, I’ve lost some followers as a result, too. My approach to every interaction in life was / is / and always will be applying the Golden Rule: Would I want to see / hear such a note in return?”

– Kathleen Martin, Singer/Musician, Knob Knee, Indiana

Tony Bluestone

Tony Bluestone

Music is a personal thing. To share that is beautiful, man!  Creating music puts me in a special place… Music pulls people together where as politics, religion seems to pull people apart.”

– Tony Pappas (Tony Bluestone), Singer, Songwriter,  Detroit, Michigan

“For me SoundCloud was a life saver when I came upon it

Phutz' Icon

Phutz’ Icon

several years ago. It opened up a whole new thing for me, and I have been quite (happily) surprised by the responses I have got from others (all unsolicited).”

– Phutz, Singer, Songwriter, Sound Artist, Western Massachusetts

Corey Fischer

Corey Fischer

Links my own music:

songs and spoken word pieces 

my Smithsonian Remix Competition entries

all instrumental compositions

From Joseph Chaikin: Notes to the cast of The Dybbuk, 1977-78

In 1977-78 I acted in Joe Chaikin’s production of The Dybbuk (in a new translation by Mira Rafalowicz) at The Public Theater in New York.  It was a life-changing, career-changing experience for me and was an important step toward co-founding Traveling Jewish Theatre not long after The Dybbuk closed in January, 1978.  Shortly before the play opened, Joe’s chronic cardiac problems caused him to be hospitalized. A case of rheumatic fever in childhood had damaged his mitral valve, which had been replaced with a prosthetic one. But that surgery was followed by recurring cardiac illness.

During the remaining days of rehearsal and for the length of the run, Joe sent a number of letters to the cast. I kept five of them. I don’t know if there were others that went astray over the years, but these five capture Joe’s “voice” as one of the last century’s most  deeply reflective theatre-makers. Many of the questions he takes up were ones he first posed in his book, The Presence of The Actor. I’ve scanned the five letters and embedded them below. They are clearly meant to be shared.

In the mid-1980s, while undergoing a surgery to replace the mitral valve a second time, Joe suffered a devastating stroke which left him with aphasia and other deficits. He overcame the aphasia to a remarkable degree and returned to the theatre, acting, directing and creating new works, including a collaboration with TJT and Mira Rafalowicz in 1987. (See an article from American Theatre by Misha Berson)

Joseph Chaikin

Joseph Chaikin died in 2003, at age 67, of heart failure. His last words  “I don’t know,” were spoken, according to his sister, Shami (who is an incredible actor in her own right and was also in The Dybbuk),  “…questioningly, almost analytically, as if trying to understand his role.” (as quoted in Joe’s NY Times obituary)

Dybbuk.notes.1977-78.01

Dybbuk.notes.1977-78.02

Dybbuk.notes.1977-78.03

Dybbuk.notes.1977-78.04

Dybbuk.notes.1977-78.05

Why I am not in China

It’s been a strange year, so far. The excitement of Obama’s reelection last November gave way to frustration and severe disappointment as Republican intransigence imposed an increasingly unlivable status quo on the country. In spite of nearly ninety percent of the population favoring at least some sort of regulation on the sale of anti-personnel automatic weapons and some sort of meaningful background checks on gun purchasers, absolutely nothing has happened legislatively. Obama’s defense department, and/or the CIA assassinates targeted suspects with remote-controlled aircraft. Polarization of attitudes on race, the economy, religion, the status of women, gay marriage, keeps being exploited by right-wing demagogues. Guantanamo remains open for business. And now we have this counter-productive instance of magical thinking with the non-sequitur name: The Sequester. Sounds like a comic book anti-hero. A new nemesis for Batman, maybe. Anything really valuable is sucked into his force field and rendered worthless

As if mirroring these “outer” events, my own life has become rather surprisingly constricted lately as exciting plans, made months ago, had to be cancelled last March. As many of you who read my blog know, I had been invited to Beijing, Shanghai and Wuzhen, China, to observe rehearsals of an eight-hour long play, A Dream Like a Dream, written and directed by Taiwanese director/playwright Stan Lai whom I’d met in August, 2012. I posted that story with a video of Stan telling how, unbeknownst to me, he had seen TJT’s The Last Yiddish Poet in 1982, while getting a PhD at U.C. Berkeley, and the remarkable effect it had on his work when he returned to Taiwan the following year that.  Meeting Stan, his invitation to spend time with him in China, and a grant from TCG to support the trip all happened soon after Traveling Jewish Theatre, the company I co-founded, closed down after thirty-four years of continuous creation and production.  At the end of 2012 I took what turned out to be an all-consuming and very satisfying job directing Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan at Cal State East Bay.  So I was much too busy to let myself feel the full force of the grief that came with TJT’s closing.

About three weeks before I was scheduled to fly to Beijing I noticed that I was literally seeing double. In 1995, I’d had the same symptoms which an MRI scan revealed were caused by a tiny cluster of non-functional capillaries in my brain stem known as a cavernous hemangioma, which I’d apparently had since birth, but which had just bled a bit, for the first time. The very small volume of blood, not actually needed by my brain, wound up putting just enough pressure on a nerve to impair the movement of my right eye, causing the diplopia, or double vision. At that time, I was told by neurosurgeons at UCSF that the brainstem was far too delicate and vital an area to risk any sort of surgical intervention.  After about six weeks the blood was reabsorbed and the diplopia disappeared.

But, this spring, eighteen years later, it was back. Now an MRI scan showed that the hemangioma had grown as well as bled again. And this time, the neurosurgeon I saw as soon as the MRI results were available felt that surgery might now be possible. In any case, he said that I should not think of going on a trip as arduous as seven weeks in China.  As it turned out, a more experienced neurosurgeon, one of the country’s leading specialists in cerebrovascular surgery, pointed out that the hemangioma was still too far from the surface of the brain-stem to make any surgical intervention possible. His view was that the risks of doing nothing were much less grave than the risks of damaging crucial parts of the brainstem if surgery was attempted.  But the hemangioma has moved closer to the surface of the brain stem since 1995, which is why Dr. Arora – the first, younger neurosurgeon – thought that surgery might now be a possibility. Now the plan is to have MRI scans every three months to monitor the hemangioma.  Meanwhile the diplopia continues.  I wear an eye patch when I drive so that I don’t see two roads and twice as many cars.  But it’s still a strain, as are a range of activities I’ve taken for granted for most of my life.

I’m still learning the boundaries and limits of this condition.  A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a public reading of a new play by the Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, for San Francisco’s Golden Thread Theatre.  I read a major role in The Admission, a fairly long play that’s extremely dense with history, ideas and competing Palestinian-Jewish narratives.  We rehearsed for two four-hour sessions before the reading. Though I found the first day energizing and engaging, by the time we finished the reading at the end of the second day, I felt as tired as I remember ever feeling after several weeks of full-on rehearsing.

On the other hand, I recently attended a day-long retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center given by Norman Fischer, poet, Zen Priest, former Abbot of SF Zen Center, and old friend.  I’ve known Norman for over thirty years, since I moved to the Bay Area, but it was the first time I’d been to a teaching of his.  What an amazing gift to discover an entirely new and inspiring aspect of someone you think you know well.  I knew Norman was a gifted poet with a unique voice. I had once conceived and directed a theatre piece for TJT based on Opening to You, his translations of the Hebrew Psalms.  I also knew he was a great father to his twin sons and a loving husband to his wife Kathy, with whom I used to scuba dive in the kelp forests south of Monterey.  Nevertheless, I  had no idea how powerful, clear, funny and moving a teacher of Buddhism and Buddhist meditation practice (Zazen) he is.  The retreat was based on the processes he discusses in his newest book, Training in Compassion.  Since the retreat, my meditation practice has found new life and consistency with no sense of effort on my part.  Reading a few pages of Norman’s book and then sitting simply makes me very happy.  Had I gone to China as planned, I would not have been at Norman’s retreat.  In the phrase Kurt Vonnegut made indelible, “So it goes…”

Though I wasn’t able to visit Stan Lai to begin discussing a possible collaboration, as planned, TCG has extended the  grant period and I hope to catch up with him somewhere in the world by the end of the year.  His eight-hour long A Dream Like a Dream has completed its run in Beijing by now and the review from the China Daily was glowing.

a moment from "Dream"

a moment from “Dream”

Reflections on the Occupy…Movement

I’m heartened to see people of my generation (Robert Reich, Robert Haas, Vincent Harding, Cornel West and more) in solidarity with the students and other young Occupiers. I only wish that some of the abundantly creative young folks in the movement would explore ways to effectively calm and soothe the police when they are ordered to clear the real estate by the powers who pay them. Rhythmic, continuous chanting of “Shame on you!” though certainly apt, can only raise the adrenalin level of those being addressed. I would hope that the values and goals of the movement, as expressed in the phrases projected on the brutalist slab of Manhattan Verizon building“LOOK AROUND / YOU ARE A PART / OF A GLOBAL UPRISING / WE ARE A CRY / FROM THE HEART / OF THE WORLD / WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE / ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE … OCCUPY EARTH / WE ARE WINNING / IT IS THE BEGINNING OF THE BEGINNING / DO NOT BE AFRAID / LOVE” — could prevail and redirect any confrontational, angry energy that only divides people into one that could reveal how much the police, say, and the occupiers actually share. Singing to the police might be worth a try. Even if it doesn’t change the behavior of the corporate security forces, it might be a lot more fun than chanting a three word admonition.

"Occupying" the Verizon building.

"Occupying" the Verizon building

To paraphrase the brilliant George Lakoff, we need to reframe the narrative that “America is broke” and that “Big Government” and social programs like Social Security, Medicare etc. are the problem.  We need to find effective ways of telling a different story: American values include caring for each other, creating community, empowering all citizens. Government’s job is to protect and nurture.  All these values don’t make sense unless people understand and feel empathy for others in wider and wider circles.  We must not fall into the trap of creating an “other” who is the “enemy.”  To do so is to become exactly what we don’t want to be.  Yes, I consider myself part of the 99%, for sure, but I was speaking to someone yesterday who is a bona fide member of the 1%.  His pain at feeling judged and attacked was no less real than my own pain at feeling marginalized and excluded.  But the problem is systemic. No one thinks of themselves as “bad.”  To blame and accuse only provokes defensiveness and aggression.  As Cornel West would say, our beloved brothers and sisters in the 1% must be encouraged to enlarge the circle of those they can empathize with.  Until one realizes that sharing and cooperation are in one’s best interests, they won’t adopt those values.  Easier said than done, yes. But I sense a tremendous creativity dwells in the “Occupy” Community and I encourage us to tap that energy to tell a new and powerful story of interdependence between all beings, including the beleaguered planet itself.  Stories can change feelings, attitudes and beliefs, all of which inform behavior more powerfully than  either rational argument or coercion ever will.

Footnote: For many the word “Occupy” has negative, militaristic associations. A conquering army “occupies” the land of a defeated enemy. Occupier is often synonymous with oppression. I believe that this movement will need to gain traction among the middle-class and across generations before real change can happen. If it’s seen as simply a vehicle for the venting of anger and frustration, I’m afraid it will have a hard time building those essential alliances.  For these reasons I support non-violence, empathy and respect for small business people, working people, public employees (including police), indeed, for all persons and property.  Tactics that rely on disruption and destruction  create resentment and polarization and rarely change anyone’s attitude. On the contrary, actions that involve shutting down traffic or the everyday transactions of life are invariably used by the powers-that-be to justify repression.

new chapter, new blog

thursday's sky

In the Maze of Our Own Lives, which I’ve written about in previous blogs, closed last Sunday.  My days seem to move much faster down time’s greased slide,  now that they’re no longer packed with the myriad tasks of putting on a show.   I’ve finally moved my blog over here and given it a new name, Story Passage.   I’ve uploaded a review of a remarkable work of dance-theatre I saw a few weeks ago, Night Falls, by Julie Hebert, co-directed by her and Deborah Slater. Find out why I feel it was the most satisfying theatre work I’ve seen in years. Either click here, or scroll down to the bottom of the “page.”

I’ve created some “pages” on Story Passage. One is about In the Maze of Our Own Lives and the closing of TJT. You can get there from any part of the blog by clicking the link at the top left part of the header that looks like this:

TJT, The Group Theatre and In the Maze of Our Own Lives

There’s also a page of links to press and media about the production and also a gallery of photographs by Ken Friedman and myself. If you saw the play, I invite you to post comments about your experience.

Night Falls by Julie Hébert. Co-Directed by Deborah Slater and Julie Hébert. Choreographed by Deborah Slater

ODC Theatre, October 30, 2011

When Lee Strasberg, long associated with “psychological” acting in its most extreme expression, traveled to the U.S.S.R in 1933, he became fascinated by the work of the Russian icon of physical Theatre, Vsevolod Meyerhold. According to some accounts, Meyerhold admitted to Strasberg that his actors had no understanding of the psychological dimension of their work, that they moved as they were directed to, based on Meyerhold’s system of Biomechanics. Nonetheless, Strasberg was gripped by the powerful physical theatricality he saw in Meyerhold’s work, more so than he had been by what he saw at Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, in fact.  The two director/teachers agreed that if their methods could be integrated by a single group of actors, something completely new could be achieved.

I thought of this story after seeing the marvelous Night Falls,  a collaboration between playwright Julie Hébert, choreographer Deborah Slater and an ensemble that included two master actor/movers, Joan Schirle and Bob Ernst as well as the luminous  and subtle actor, Patty Silver, two gifted, younger physically accomplished actors, Stephen Buescher and Jessica Ferris and the compelling singer-dancer Patricia Jiron.Bob Ernst, foreground; Jessica Ferris and Joan Schirle, background, in "Night Falls"

Hébert’s eloquent and understated script follows one woman, Peregrine – a  respected filmmaker who is neither rich nor famous, about to turn 60 – through a sleepless night as she agonizes over the unwritten speech she must give the next day at an awards ceremony honoring her work. Peregrine is embodied prismatically by Schirle as what might be called the ego, persona, or that part of Peregrine who lives in the material world; Silver as the “old” woman inside her;  and Ferris as the puella – that part of her psyche which is a perennially adolescent girl.  Ernst appears as Peregrine’s ex-brother-in-law, summoned by a cell-phone call to the wrong number.

The narrative is wonderfully specific, filled with surprising and quirky details that ground what could, in less skillful hands, become heady and abstract. Hébert, Slater and company clearly understand that it’s the concrete particulars that allow a story to become universal.  This rigor exists in both the narrative, with its knowing allusions to filmmaking, both avant-garde and commercial and to the dilemma of the aging artist, as well as  the movement vocabulary shared by the ensemble, pulsing dynamically through the piece.

The masterful integration of the narrative and psychological realms with the physical, gestural life of the piece makes Night Falls a rare and wonderful event.  That’s what brought Meyerhold and Strasberg to mind.  I experienced this sense of super-dense reality most powerfully in the interplay between Schirle and Ernst.  Late in the piece, for example, these two wounded and well-defended survivors of failed loves, meeting by “mistake,” begin to see each other – and themselves – differently. What could be rendered as either a conventional “scene” or as a “poetic” movement duet becomes a stunning, layered, complex exploration of the necessity for and the impossibility of authentic connection. I’d need to see the piece a few times in order to begin to adequately describe what these two brilliant actors do, how they manage to play together in so many different modes at the same time. Their voices and words do one thing, their faces another, their gestures a third. Rather than illustrating what’s being said, the physical interaction arises from a different, parallel dimension so that we experience not only what is but what isn’t, what might be, what is longed for and what is feared. I’ve only experienced such expressive abundance a handful of times in all my years of seeing theatre.

It’s essential to point out that what was being expressed – the pain, frustration, fear, disappointment, wonder and acceptance of mortality; the courageous insistence on knowing self and other – was, to this audience member, vitally important.  That the questions raised were equally urgent to all concerned – actors, writer, director, design team  – was never in doubt. All the collaborators were burning with a shared passion and the result was incandescent.

My only regret is that I saw the piece at the end of its brief run and won’t be able to return several more times and bring everyone I love and care about.  Night Falls proves, once again, that live performance is life-changing. I know this intuitively, subjectively, in my cells.  My entire adult life has been dedicated to making theatre with similar aspirations, so I don’t feel that my praise is in any way exaggerated. The fact the piece had a run of only a few performances, that no venue seems to exist locally that could give work like this a real home for six or eight weeks exposes the shameful state of support for the arts in this city, this state and this entire nation. The fact that such work is being made anyway, is a testament to the very spirit the work so movingly expresses.

David Mitchell: Hope and Genius

Most reviews of Cloud Atlas start by discussing David Mitchell’s dazzling narrative surprises, his “Russian-doll”-like use of nested or linked  stories that form a larger, over-arching, meta-narrative blah blah…Sorry, I don’t mean to get snarky and I’m really making fun of myself, since I say things like that all the time in all sincerity. But I think that this line of reflection misses Mitchell’s essential greatness which, imho, greatly transcends, though is certainly served by, his technical brilliance, namely, his profound engagement with that oldest of human stories: the struggle to free ourselves from the cruel, oppressive – and usually literal – enslavement to which we subject  our fellows and ourselves. 

In Cloud Atlas, he plays variations on this theme, first, in its mercantile and violently racist forms in the nineteenth century colonial South Pacific, and then through the corporate greed of the recent past and present, a hellish future bio-tech-enabled slave society,  an finally, and even further post-apocalyptic future where small communities try to protect the fragile remnants of human culture from stronger predatory tribes.
What amazes me is that I finished reading Cloud Atlas  feeling stirred, hopeful  and invigorated; not at all what the description of the content in the last paragraph might lead you to expect. But that’s Mitchell’s genius. His vision is so deep, so inclusive and his love of language and people so palpable that in his work, hope trumps despair, no matter how difficult the truth he tells may be.

His earlier novel, Ghostwritten, reads like an previous incarnation of Cloud Atlas Even though I read it after reading the later work, I found it compelling in its own right as I did Mitchell’s recent, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which made its way onto the New York Times Bestseller List and a number of best of 2010 lists. It’s a more formally contained work that stays in a single time and place for the most part. Given that they happen to be the port of Nagasaki in the late eighteenth century and that the central characters are a repressed Dutch clerk working for one of the world’s first multinationals (the Dutch East India Company) and a beautiful and brilliant Japanese midwife disfigured from burn scars creates challenges of the kind that Mitchell seems to thrive on.  The Dutch merchants were more or less quarantined by the xenophobic Japanese of that imperial era to a tiny, artificial island in the Bay of Nagasaki and only permitted to set foot on mainland Japan by special permission. The  tension between two different peoples energizes Mitchell’s story of the consequences of encountering an “other” with love or with fear, with curiosity or with a need to subdue.
I don’t believe that his work is all that “difficult” or “not for everyone”  any more or less than any other distinct piece of art, which is always subject to personal taste. But good storytelling is simply that. And if you hang in with Cloud Atlas. beyond the first two sections and begin to trust that Mitchell is not just messing with you (he isn’t!) the powerful current of his storytelling will carry you away