Elaine, let’s get the hell out of here.

card_catalog_2I don’t like country music. The yodeling vocals, the whining guitars, the relentlessly predictable lyrics about faithless babes, abusive bubbas, pickup trucks, disreputable nightspots in the middle of nowhere … An hour of this, and a visitor from another planet would marvel that everything south of the Mason-Dixon line had not long since slid off into the Gulf of Mexico, crushed into slurry under the weight of all that drama and all those tears.

“Wait just a gosh-darned minute!” I hear someone shouting from the back row. “Yes, a lot of country music is like that, but it’s not all the same. You’re being unfair.”

As a matter of fact, you are absolutely correct, ma’am. I am being grossly unfair. Although the tropes that I’ve mentioned are common enough to have birthed the stereotype of the cowboy-hatted men and big-haired women that make up such a large part of the country music image, they are by no means the whole story. Isn’t it possible to loathe Porter Wagoner but love Willie Nelson? What do Jerry Jeff Walker and the Dixie Chicks really have in common except their Texas origins? Is Patsy Cline “country”? Is Kenny Rogers? Celine Dion has that breast-beating, sobbing delivery down to a science, but would anybody really put her on the same shelf as Tammy Wynette? Why is “Blue Bayou” a rock-n-roll ballad for Roy Orbison, a pop song when Linda Ronstadt sings it, but country when Martina McBride takes it on?

Elaine de Kooning once recalled a party where she and another painter, Joan Mitchell, were asked, “What do you WOMEN artists think … ?” Mitchell interrupted, “Elaine, let’s get the hell out of here.” Mitchell, de Kooning, and other female artists of their generation suffered mightily under that characterization by gender, which made it so easy for the male-dominated world of critics and collectors to dismiss them en masse, classifying them as nothing but muses or bedmates of the “real” artists: which is to say, of course, the men. Labels. Categories. Fences made of words.

In a previous life, I lived in Dallas, Texas, where there was, for some years, a Tower Records, where I could drop in and pick up a handful of CDs a couple of times a month. The store was carefully organized by genre: Country, World Music, Jazz, Pop/Rock, Classical (in the basement), Soundtracks, Children’s Music, and so on.

Even a casual perusal of the arrangement, however, betrayed serious shortcomings.

Take, for instance, the classic 1964 album Getz/Gilberto, with Philly native Stan Getz, Brazilian bossanova greats Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and vocals in both Portuguese and English by Gilberto’s German/Brazilian wife Astrud. Where did this music belong? Was this “Jazz”? Getz was, after all, a well-known tenor sax player in the New York jazz scene, and the album was recorded on Verve, a jazz-oriented label, in that city. Or was it “World Music”, as Gilberto and Jobim were already becoming legends in Brazil? Or maybe it was “Latin”, a category that embraced everything from mariachi to Andean flutes to Italian pop songs recorded in Madrid? All of the above? None?

According to music licensing service ASCAP, the most-recorded song in the history of copyrighted music is the aria “Summertime”, which appears a couple of times in Gershwin’s opera. ASCAP lists more than 25,000 different recordings of “Summertime”, by artists ranging from Billie Holiday and Sam Cooke to Janis Joplin and The Fun Boy Three. Operatic aria? Jazz standard? Pop classic? What difference, really, does it make?

Here’s another one for you: The first opera ever written by and about Americans was Porgy and Bess, with music by Jewish New Yorker George Gershwin and text by his brother Ira and poet DuBose Heyward. The work deals with love and death in Catfish Row, a dockside tenement in South Carolina; the characters are the children and grandchildren of slaves, and the style of the music is drawn from black worksongs, gospel, and other mostly African-American music forms. Critics for decades have wrestled with finding a convenient niche for this work: do we lump it in with The Barber of Seville and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, or do we call it jazz and stick it on the shelf between Ella Fitzgerald and Herbie Hancock? Is the music black, white, New York, South Carolina, jazz, pop, classical, lowbrow, highbrow … where the hell does it go?

Categories are the darlings of marketers, but the bane of creators. Nobel laureate Doris Lessing‘s five-volume Canopus in Argos: Archives is a vast and detailed analysis of a series of different social structures on several different planets, viewed over a span of millennia – nothing at all like her intimate, semi-autobiographical novels about life in mid-twentieth-century South Africa. Neither fish nor fowl, Lessing is impossible to place in any one category, but equally impossible to ignore. Charles Dodgson, better known to us as Lewis Carroll, the author of the immortal Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, was also the author of an comic poetry epic, a textbook on an abstruse branch of mathematical logic, and of a satire of Victorian English society disguised as a story about fairies. Is he a children’s book author, a poet, a mathematician, or a social commentator? Where do we put him, for crying out loud?

* * *

Let’s go back to the statement I began this essay with: “I don’t like country music.”

What I’m really saying is that because I don’t like certain music or musicians that happen to be classified within a certain (completely arbitrary) category, I can justify throwing out everybody else who might happen to end up in that same category without bothering to listen to them first. Since I don’t care for Travis Tritt, I can walk past that entire section of the record store without so much as glancing at what else is being offered. It’s like staying away from New York City because you once had a bad meal at a Greek restaurant in the East Village.

We like organizing things, sorting everything – and everybody – into structures that allow us to rely on generalizations to determine our attitudes and our behavior, without requiring us to examine the component parts on their own individual merits. “Country”, “Jazz”, “Classical”, “Grunge”, “Rap” … With a single word we can accept or dismiss vast swathes of creative effort. No muss, no fuss; no need to invest a lot of time listening to anything unfamiliar.

Why not take this a step further, and add a few more labels to our shelves: “Abstract”, “Impressionist”, “Minimalist”, “Pop”? Or how about “Mystery”, “Poetry”, “Sci-fi”, “Thriller”? Or maybe still a few more: “Liberal”, “Trumpster”, “Intellectual”, “Evangelical”? Neat little drawers, each with its own label. So convenient.

The attractions of this approach are undeniable. Everything is so simple when you can reduce the entire messy, random circus of human existence to just a few convenient tags, and walk right by the awkward bits without even turning your head.

 

Journal: Tuesday, October 25

musicHave you ever wondered why we use the term “conservatory” to refer to a music school? The word conjures up images of greenhouses and environmentalist GoFundMe pages, but what exactly is being “conserved” at the Oberlin Conservatory, the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, or the Paris Conservatoire?

In fact, the Italian word conservatorio means “orphanage”, and in its day the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice was one of the most famous, largely due to the presence there of the Red Priest, Antonio Vivaldi, who joined the staff in 1703. The Ospedale took in orphaned girls and trained them to sing and play instruments; under Vivaldi the music program there became one of Europe’s greatest cultural attractions. The well-bred and the well-heeled flocked to concerts at which a nun, dressed all in white with a scarlet pomegranate blossom behind her ear, would conduct performances, often of music written by the flamboyant master himself, while the musicians and choir remained demurely hidden behind a screen that allowed the sound to reach the audience but kept the girls out of view. Continue reading

Journal: Monday, April 20

It always amazes and amuses me to see how a whole nest of unconnected obsessions can manage to circle around and overlap when you least expect it.

"Orithyia", 2015, by yours truly.

“Orithyia”, 2015, by yours truly.

I finished a painting a couple of days ago to which I gave the title “Orithyia”. The name refers to an incident in classical Greek myth in which Boreas, the god of the north wind, takes a shine to a woman (or possibly a nymph, depending on your source) named Orithyia. When his courtship — admittedly clumsy, as Boreas is the rough north wind, not the suave west wind — does not win her over, he simply carries her off in a whirlwind and has his way with her anyway.

Orithyia becomes mother to four children over the years, daughters Chione and Cleopatra (no, not that Cleopatra, although probably the source for her name) and sons Calais and Zetes. The boys take after their dad and grow wings; they eventually became Argonauts, members of Jason’s merry band of thieves determined to steal the Golden Fleece from the king of Colchis.

Now let’s skip from ancient Greece to Austria in 1914, where artist Oskar Kokoschka produces what many consider his masterpiece, “The Bride of the Wind”. The painting depicts a pair of lovers cuddled up in the midst of a violent storm, the woman asleep, the man looking harried. “Bride of the Wind” was my first choice for the title for my little painting, but then I decided it sounded a bit too sturm und drang so I opted for the more straighforward title instead. My painting does not refer to the Kokoschka picture in any way, but I knew that my first title had been used before and under what circumstances.

"Bride of the Wind", 1914, by Oskar Kokoschka

“Bride of the Wind”, 1914, by Oskar Kokoschka

While “Orithyia” is based on classical myth, “Bride of the Wind” is autobiographical: it depicts the stormy and destructive relationship between Kokoschka and Alma Mahler, who ultimately dumped the artist, sending him into a decades-long spiral of craziness.

If Alma’s last name looks familiar, that’s because she was by that time the widow of Gustav Mahler, in my opinion one of the greatest composers of symphonic music in the twentieth century. Like magic, we have the inevitable Mahler connection.

Interestingly enough, though, it goes even further: I have always been fascinated by the guiding principles of the Bauhaus, the design school founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. After being Gustav Mahler’s bride, but previous to becoming Oskar Kokoschka’s “Bride of the Wind”, Alma Mahler had had another lover: Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.

Greek myth, Gustav Mahler, and the Bauhaus. Whirlwind, indeed.

 

Unintelligible at any speed

Satan's little helpers? The Kingsmen, 1965.

Satan’s little helpers? The Kingsmen, 1965.

In my younger days, my father often expressed concern that I was becoming prey to a languid intellectualism that he feared would leave me ill-equipped for life in the Real World in the unlikely event that I should ever shamble into it. In retrospect, he was probably correct: fortunately, he had a plan to address the problem.

Jobs. Lots of jobs.

No job was too small, too filthy, or too ill-suited to my temperament (which was, admittedly, opposed to work in almost any form) as long as it paid. From the moment I was old enough to get a work permit, Dad was unsparing in his efforts to get the most out of the twenty-dollar fee. Loading hay, working on a garbage truck, cleaning offices, flipping burgers: I was a busy boy. Continue reading

The Play’s the Thing.

A friend recently pointed out a DVD of a new performance of William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and observed that she generally did not enjoy such “highbrow” entertainment, even though the star of that particular staging was an actor she adored. If Shakespeare could hear such sentiments, I think he would be both flattered and very, very surprised. Continue reading