Oct 27, 2011

Notes on Occupy Wall Street

Scene 1: in which we get off the bus from Great Barrington, plunge into the subway, and emerge right in Zuccotti Park.

Here I am, wandering the encampments of Occupy Wall Street with hands in my pockets, listening faceless with politesse as people fire off their views and opinions and myriad contentions around me. In the first five minutes, standing in the food line, I saw one man throw coffee in another’s face and stride away, simply quaking with righteous rage. Everyone around him in line (all men in bulky jackets, prepared to hunker down for the long haul) wanted to know, earnestly, what had happened, what the debate was. I went to the protests – like many people, I think – expecting to be swept off my feet by a sixties-revolutionary-style exuberance and collectivism that would incite me to… something. A smiling curly-haired boy handed me a freshly damp yellow flower and I smiled back at him, awed and taken out of context of my skepticism for a moment. Had I just felt an iota of peace?

While it’s true that this spontaneous collection of people, with their humane causes and armbands, is a beautifully unprecedented thing in America; this is not the sixties. The political issues are more indistinct, contentions are higher, there is much less violence and oppression… and then there is the issue of marked self-consciousness about it – the self-adulation of incessant tweeting and filming. It creates an atmosphere of ceaseless chatter, broadcasting absolutely everything to the point where it becomes more about the propulsion of the collective rather than the issues they are trying –  swipingly, abstractedly – to address.

Occupy Wall Street is obviously an expression of vitality that cannot be ignored, and I love that. What I do not like is that they seem to see themselves as perpetrators of change in American politics simply because they are all gathered together there in Zuccotti Park, simply being, simply showing themselves before the great faceless Moloch of New York City business and saying, Here we are, we the people without wealth or conventional social standing, we who do not buy into the capitalist system of success, we the 99%, here we are! Drop your Starbucks cup of capitalist gruel and listen to us breathe, here.

Scene 2: in which we assemble outside a Peter Seeger/Arlo Guthrie concert and follow the two fading folk balladeers down the streets of Broadway, singing.

Pete Seeger is smiling, doddling along with his cane and starry-spangled blue eyes, looking a bit dazed with happiness as masses of people around him tote acoustic guitars and iPads, singing Civil Rights-era protest songs that less than half the crowd knows. Seeger is 92 years old and can still hold himself up in the midst of social discontent. As I found myself pressed into the line of people, being pushed back onto half of the sidewalk by police (by “pushed” I mean that they asked us to move it over and we did), occasionally yelling out slogans I didn’t fully understand just to feel a bit more alive but quickly hating myself for it. It’s a strange thing to march for a cause that is not yours – at least not as you understand it. I hung back on a street corner with my friend to try to catch a glimpse of Arlo Guthrie’s gray clown mane bobbing through the crowd, but couldn’t find him anywhere. Apparently it all ended with the protestors and the sixties figureheads sitting in a circle singing songs into the night… I did not stick around for that possibly sublime moment of culture/era-shock, but was already on the subway rattling back into the bowels of the Bronx, thinking, feeling ashamed for wanting nothing to do with Occupy Wall Street.

Scene 3: in which I sit on the floor of the city, chanting and humming and straining my muscles towards enlightenment.

LOVE... IS... LOVE. LOVE... IS... LOVE. LOVE... IS... LOVE. LOVE... IS... LOVE. LOVE… IS… ringing in bodies around me, sitting stilled in the frigid wind of the city, traffic wheedling and drum-circle drummers bashing the lips of garbage cans, thudding away on overturned buckets, playing the railings… dancing, and we are still, sitting on the ground, meditating, in front of the Community Altar/Sacred Space (so denoted by a cardboard sign stuck to a tree). There is a thin man with bright, energetic blue eyes and a white beard pacing inside the circle, giving meditation direction. He has been saying things like: “The revolution will not be online. The revolution is in your heart” and “You are becoming a gem, feel the fire…” and “This is happening now. This has never been experienced before.”

This is warrior meditation, he explains, meant to make you internally strong so you can defeat your enemies. Quite literally… at one point I found myself tilting towards Wall Street itself, long beige buildings in the gray sky, with one arm extended, thumb pointed flat, and the other drawn close to my side like a bow-and-arrow. We rocked back and forth, leering toward the towers, chanting, “HAR. HAR. HAR. HAR. HAR. HAR. HAR. HAR.” The whole thing takes on a distinctly performance art atmosphere, especially with the rings of people gathered around us, watching… more than once, I felt a person pass a panning camera lens in front of my closed eyes. 

Scene 4: in which I spend my last evening in Zuccotti Park crouched on an icy marble bench, writing ceaseless notes and trying to make sense of it all.

Threads of mace, threads of weed, threads of chant through the primal drumbeat. This tenacity of this tiny human explosion on Wall Street is flavored with sex, felt through music and the luscious filth spreads of the tents. That insane, interminable, tribal drum-circle inundating everyone’s minds in pure rhythm… somehow the most eloquent expression of frustration and social contention I’ve witnessed here yet. I saw one sign today – cardboard, markered, leaning slanted against the ground – that said something like, “I don’t want money, I just want a girlfriend and some love. Occupy Wall Street forever!” Something like that.

It is early evening and the sky is bruising blue to black slowly above the glowering towers of Wall Street. Threads of B.O., bomb-shelter desperation, with some proud splashes of cologne here and there, cigarette tang, and the pure crushed-warm-leaves scent of human threading through the crowd. Sirens. Maybe I can still pass for a revolutionary, just sitting here… maybe the people around me think I’m writing brilliant, fluid anti-capitalist tracts of manifesto and documentation. I have felt the white-light flash of a few people taking my picture already. Believe me, conjecturers, I wish I could, but my brain is otherwise on fire. Under NYC sky, spiked with sky-scraping instruments of incisive capitalism. Helicopters provide a realistic atmosphere of civil disobedience. Girls tilted back, smiling and waving to the helicopters, hovering. Small conspiratory groups huddled surreptitiously around Burger King tables, getting warm and hi-jacking wi-fi.

A battle of emotions wages on all sides of me, a battle without any enemy except the towering landscape – the very TOWERS of capitalism! – around, and so it loops around and around in an endless drumbeat. So, middle-class America wants to feel human again. Hasn’t that always been the way? Despite the cool, drifting surrogate realities of their iPhones and scrolling Twitter feeds, these people want to feel like wet raging blossoming breathing singing breast-beating souls again, dancing to the primal blood necessities of drums and twisting their own minds outward to speak, speak, however indistinctly. MIC-CHECK! Mic-check. MIC-CHECK!! Mic-check! They are cocking back their heads and staring stonily into camera lenses, panning the crowd slowly to catch every face of contorted passion and that same stony revolutionary… stare…. The horrifying thing is that they are watching themselves act, watching themselves watch themselves, documenting every little detail and replaying… watching...

There are plastic Guy Fawkes masks bobbing around the air above my head, throwing off the sheen from streetlamps and rushing headlights. Guy Fawkes sits, a hunched iron statue with its pale plastic face crinkling mirthfully down at his lap. I sit next to him… I’m still amazed by how it is truly never dark in New York City – even the midnight sky is gray. How could you sleep even if you somehow madly wanted to? I feel myself sitting looking out the window of the bus tomorrow morning and feel numbing loneliness bestilling my brain like cruel, self-hating alcohol. Even if I don’t quite belong to this protest, this improvised collection of anarchism, socialism, good old kicking-and-screaming American individualism but mostly just anti-everything, I belong in New York City. Of course the first true American poet sang a song of himself – what else is there that can be sung, really? Francine Prose wrote a brief devotional for Occupy Wall Street, saying, “I kept feeling these intense surges of emotion – until I saw a placard with a quote from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’ And that was when I just lost it and stood there and wept." I just can't get close to this revelation, this beating vitality and blessed release that some people have felt at the hands of Occupy Wall Street -- when confronted with the very spectacle of it.

More importantly, what other single value can America agree upon besides individualism? It is what fuels this movement thundering around my ears this very moment and also what fuels the capitalist government they are raging against. Another placard, bobbing white and briskly joyful in the gloaming, sings Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gently into that good night – Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” A closing quote, a closing scene-snapshot... the couple sitting huddled in the cold next to me was basking in the whole weird wonder of the place, and the man said to the woman in a brotherly tone, “Listen, listen: tonight is all about you having fun with your friends and trying not to get arrested.” That's as good a slogan as any.

Oct 18, 2011

Beethoven Sonatas: Concert Review

In an endurance test through a career-spanning collection of Beethoven’s sonatas – from 1796 to 1815 – Peter Wispelwey (cellist) and Lois Shapiro (pianist) commanded a relatively full house of classical concertgoers in the McConnell last Sunday afternoon. Despite the overall seniority of the audience, the program notes seem to be geared toward Simon’s Rock students. In an overweeningly bloated run-on sentence to rival anything from a Soph Sem paper, it begins with: “Many consider Beethoven to have been a visionary – along with Freud, Darwin, and Marx – who significantly shaped our sense of ourselves as ‘Human’: i.e., beings endowed with a rich and complex inner life, and a Will, capable of reflection as well as action in the world.”  There follows a description of each piece, with intimate historical and structural anecdote, written by Shapiro herself. Her philosophical insights into the music are wonderfully perplexing; about Sonata in G min, Op. 5 No. 2, she writes, “The music is seemingly trying to come to terms with its somber destiny and, throughout, Beethoven exploits the protean potential of Classical sonata form to masterfully delineate a process of dramatic ‘becoming’.”

This level of emotional investment and excitement in the work is easily perceived in Shapiro and Wispelwey’s wonderfully subtle theatricality onstage. Wispelwey held growling low notes steadily sustained until the very end of his bow, dispelled at a touch with a jettison of brief, yipping high notes. He arched his neck, shook his head open-mouthed, and flung up his hands at the end of a particularly well-punctuating phrase. His partner, Shapiro, kept her eyes riveted to the music while the rest of her body gave little jolts, tensely crouched onto the piano bench, jerking and punctuating the phrases along with Wispelwey, both entranced and vibrating to the consternated moody indigestion of the great Beethoven.

There is a slow, heavy opium cloud of silence suspended between the music; hands fly up, arch, poise, and begin again. Arch, poise, retreat; the slow, liquid fall of arms retreating from the forefront of sound – the edge of the keys, the end of the bow. The end of a movement. The pair bow and smile, retreat offstage for a few moments, and there is that awkward circumstance of the page-turner left sitting alone onstage without any act to present to the audience. She smiles tensely and ducks behind a painted-black rampart on the stage until Wispelwey and Shapiro re-emerge. Wispelwey snaps a few hairs from his bow as needed, settles in, Shapiro nods to him, and they begin. This shuffle is played out between each sonata.

The program constituted the complete Beethoven sonatas, which are: Sonata No. 1 in F, Op. 5, No. 1 (1796); Sonata No. 2 in G min, Op. 5, No. 2 (1796); Sonata No. 4 in C, Op. 102, No. 1 (1815) [“ineffably luminous”, as Shapiro describes it]; Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2 (1815); and Sonata No. 3 in A, Op. 69 (1808). Shapiro’s characterization of the music truly cannot be matched for its enthusiasm and passion, and is a fitting epitaph to the concert: “What ensues – the sometimes grainy, even coarse, but ultimately radiant and exalted fugue that culminates the entire piece – is perhaps Beethoven’s music metaphor for a Phoenix rising up out of the ashes: the difficult and exacting, yet exhilarating, process of self-invention.” 

Sep 20, 2011

B.A. Seminar Lecture #2: Elissa Merder

The third lecture in the B.A. Seminar series (but only the second that I've covered) is by Elissa Merder, an academic emissary from Emory University. Her talk, delivered from the sumptuous Blodgett Oak Room last Friday, was entitled Criminal Jouissance: Baudelaire's Poetry by Other Means.

LL: First, would you say that Baudelaire wrote from the perspective of entend du mal as a form of protest? Do you think that the political tension was conscious or a natural by-product of his passionate poetry?

EM: Baudelaire certainly saw himself as in a position of "revolt" in relation to the culture, politics and mores of his time.  However, it is not exactly clear whether or not this position of "revolt" was politically reactionary rather than being politically revolutionary.  Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, wrote a scathing condemnation of Baudelaire as a narcissistic and reactionary figure.  For Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire is politically interesting because he tears the veil off a certain image of the nineteenth century.

LL: Social strife is glaringly exposed in sexual relations: do you agree with Baudelaire on this, and if so what does that indicate about the sex lives of people on both sides of the malentendu conflict Baudelaire found himself in?

EM: Baudelaire was extremely misogynistic.  He wrote some truly shocking things about women.  He also frequented prostitutes and contracted syphilis.  He never married and never had any children.  However, in his writings about prostitutes (and even other women), he does manage to offer some compelling and thought-provoking images of the commodification of sex and the pressures on love in the modern world.  In other words, by reading Baudelaire, we can gain a better understanding of how love itself has undergone changes in response to modernity.

LL: In your opinion, to Baudelaire's prose-poems truly rupture the poetic harmony of his habitual form, or do they function just as well in their own right?

EM: The prose poems are amazing poetic works. They are innovative and haunting and shocking and beautiful.  They are, however, formally very different from many of the verse poems.  In the verse poems, Baudelaire uses traditional forms (such as the sonnet), but fills those traditional forms with very modern themes and images (such as: traffic, homeless people, prostitutes, the isolation of city life). Both poetic forms are innovative and worth reading.

LL: How does the message of "The Bad Glazier" and Baudelaire's general societal insurgence relate to other social, political, and artistic movements such as Surrealism, Existentialism, and Dada (you can pick all or none or some of these, by the way -- all just conjecture)?

EM: The movements you mention are all twentieth-century phenomena.  Those twentieth-century movements mostly came about in response to multiple assaults on consciousness and self-presence.  These include: the first World War, the development of psychoanalysis, the invention of the cinema. As I remarked above, Sartre was against Baudelaire as he felt that Baudelaire embodied a kind of anti-existential figure.  For Sartre, Baudelaire was self-indulgent and failed to act freely and in an engaged manner.  In short, Sartre believes that Baudelaire manifested "bad faith" in his life and politics and that this bad faith saturated his poetry as well.  Having said this, Baudelaire anticipated many of the radical changes in the modern world long before they actually became dominant.  For this reason, his writings enable us to see something about modernity in its emergence.

LL: You said that Baudelaire's poems are more like happenings or performance pieces than actual poems because of the shocks they inflict on the reader, as well as their visceral vivid quality. Could you explain that a bit more?

EM: My point about the “theatrical” nature of Baudelaire's poems refers specifically to the prose poems.  They are like happenings because they are not primarily descriptive: they are themselves "events" that make something happen.  Like street theater, Baudelaire's prose poems blur the line between the world created inside the poem and the world in which that poem is situated.  As I mentioned during the discussion, some people actually thought that Baudelaire actually beat up a bad glazier.

LL: How was your experience working with the students at Simon's Rock compared with other colleges and other academic arenas you've been involved with?

EM: I had a lovely time at Bard College at Simon's Rock.  I was impressed by all the students I met.  The atmosphere is very alive and crackles with intellectual energy.  It was delightful to speak to so many students who are eager to learn and crave intellectual challenges.  I would like to thank everyone I met for this wonderful experience.

Sep 13, 2011

B.A. Seminar Lecture #1: Kathleen Biddick

Post-lecture, still in an abstracted awed daze and without any notion of how to structure this article, I failed to snag the speaker for an interview. The following is the product of a late-night email exchange between her and I, to which she responded with adroit speed and enthusiasm. This interview is intended for students who either attended the lecture or are in B.A. Proseminar (or have otherwise read of Biddick’s theories before), because it would take far too long to explain the terms and context of her talk otherwise.
Kathleen Biddick starts her email (and in effect, this interview) with a word of caution: “It is late at night. I left Great Barrington at 6:30 am and I have taught from 2 pm -10 pm this evening... So I might not be making sense, I am sure you know this feeling. But here goes.”

LL: What, in your opinion, is the effectiveness of the panopticon structure in terms of creating a sustainable and effective system in which people become constructions of spectacles of abandonment? What are the logistics of this system of incarceration? Does the Inspector have to be ever-vigilant, living in the Center Eye? By sustainable, I mean how stable is this prison structure to stay functioning as it is designed to for an indefinitely prolonged period of time (or, as long as the prison sentence lasts)?

KB: You get at the heart of the LURE of the panopticon.... of course, the INSPECTOR is not always gazing and in-scripting the archive of the deadtime of the prisoners. The frightening genius of the panopticon as articulated by Jeremy Bentham in the late 1780's is this: the Panopticon is an illusionist machine. The Panopticon only needs to instill the fantasy that the inspector "might" be there, "might" be inscripting-- recording 24/7 that illusion is what forges the "panopticon loop" This loop is about desire, power, knowledge and the discipline of that loop. Yes, the panopticon was/is a highly effective system that is sustainable only in that feeds off spectacles of abandonment. For me the question is: how is the panopticon a ZOMBIE feeder and what does zombiedom have to with sustainability?

LL: Is the spectacle of abandonment something that people want to see, or is it a spectacle meant solely for the Inspector involved?

KB: Wonderful question: this is a paradox of the panopticon... The spectacle of abandonment  is an OPEN SECRET (it takes place behind prison walls, detention center walls, security walls, refugee camp perimeters, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Grhraib. under highway overpasses, in the rural mobile home)... and that is the perverse pleasure of the spectacle of abandonment. The consumers of spectacle know that it is taking place... they don't even have to go see it. That being said, in Victorian England (19th century) panoptical-style prisons were open to invited reforming elite for guided tours, so that they could observe the "good work" of the new penal discipline… so, the spectacle of abandonment as a guided tour for donors.

LL: You said that the video installation at Mountjoy enabled dead time and events to merge for a single moment -- just a moment, and then it was gone. Did you find that the work was rewarding for that one moment, as fleeting as it was? This is not to disparage the value of your work at all, I'm just curious about your emotional reaction to all of this.

KB: This is a very beautiful question. Let's pause and think about the word “fleeting”, which is so acoustically and semantically rich (lovely to trip off the tongue). In the long-dead language of the Anglo-Saxons (who wrote in England from the 6th-12th centuries CE), the word “fleet” signified their meaning for floating. I want to use this rich temporal version of fleeting/floating to describe the Mountjoy Project. At one moment, many disparate human "ecologies" (prisons, public, fellowships, reformers, rock stars) floated together. Is floating fleeting? Perhaps we need to think of the possibilities of fleeting floating, which is slightly different from fleeting. To be continued on this suggestion. And there were many poets among the students I encountered. So have a newspaper poetic clash: Fleeting/floating and all its permutations...what a fun way to think about some of the strands of my talk.

LL: What are some differences that you have found between working with prisoners and working with college students in your academic work?

KB: Clelia, you pose a KEY question about teaching and I can only beg you, no matter what your area of passionate intellectual and artistic interest might be, that you "teach" it somehow, sooner rather than later. What can I say: at our Proseminar at Simon's Rock with faculty and students engaged in passionate critical inquiry, was my very same working assumption when I very shyly met for the first time the prisoners who had volunteered to join my proposed project, as well as the prison guards who were chosen by the powers that be to supervise the prisoners in the project. Yes, there were dramatic differences in reading and writing skills between my friends in the Simon's Rock Proseminar and the the Mountjoy prisoners. But as for "critical inquiry", the method was the same, because, critical inquiry is an engagement with the world that can carry on profoundly without conventional ABC's, but such critical inquiry also shapes a further engagement for "literate" critique. One of the Dublin prisoner-team, now ex-prisoner, is pursuing what we would call in the US, "community college courses" and we correspond by e-mail about his work....So our episodic correspondence also problematizes what and how “CELL” was/is fleeting.

KB: May I humbly suggest that you forgot one question? May I pose it for you?

            Yes, Kathleen Biddick. Yes you may.

KB: How do new things come into the world? How do they come to Simon's Rock? Here my answer would be: My home Temple University in Philadelphia is very poor right now. The Governor of Pennsylvania cut the higher education to only 19% of annual funding. We have a hiring freeze, a travel freeze, and a freeze on hosting scholars at Temple. In other words, if we would like to invite Professor A. Abbas or Anne O'Dwyer to speak to us there would be no funding for their travel or a modest speaking fee. You students at Simon's Rock, I hope will understand, the incredible gift of your administration, and the intellectual outreach of Prof. Abbas, who invited me to speak. I was so honored to receive the invitation to Simon's Rock from such a brilliant and engaged scholar as Prof Abbas. I remain deeply grateful to your intellectual hospitality for all that makes such a visit possible: Administration, Faculty, Staff, Students. 

Sep 12, 2011

Triplet DJ Twin Dance at the APC

Glowing white teeth on sets of strobe-lit legs… a whirling rainbow pinwheel arcing across the back wall… one sad balloon bobbing in the corner… the tepid level of stimuli at a Simon’s Rock dance isn’t enough to create the illusion of an ecstatic rave crowd. Navigating through these glowing teeth on legs gathered in sparse clusters, these minefield bursts of sound, it’s almost impossible to really lose yourself. I was at this Saturday night’s Twins Dance, wearing my self-consciousness plastered to my forehead like an old bandana. The only twins I saw were a pair of ‘80s girls – glinting glitter eyes, stripey thighs, ponytails on the side.

 It was a three-DJ lineup of Moses Sukin, Kali Malone, and Clara Liberov. The Snack Bar was rumbling like a hungry hive before the doors opened, but dances always start slow -- an over-calculated exaggeration of the Simon’s Rock Time phenomenon (basically, if you show up on time, you’re showing an uncouth amount of desire to be there). During Moses’ set, the first one of the night, I met two girls who were walking out smiling and laughing uncertainly: “It’s scary…”

Well, it’s certainly twitchy -- machine-heart blips shot through with samples (Pixies, M.I.A., Rebecca Black), and some Dubstep whub-whubbing. There were many points where the music would jolt to a halt, then ooze slowly into a tectonic-paced grind that no one wanted to attempt. General disorientation of hesitant movement... a few earnest dancers were still bopping along to each jilted half-beat while the rest stood still waiting, trickled out the door, or reclined on the back wall watching that rainbow pinwheel of lights circle behind the DJ himself, hunched intently in the ghost-glow of his Macbook. This is not to say that there weren’t genuinely danceable moments in the set; but with too many beats artfully skipped in the remix for people to get their own heartbeats revved up to it.

The ensuing sets garnered much larger crowds. John Snyder made an appearance; sitting on the sidelines in a knot of friends, basking wide-eyed . In one unlikely, magical, fleeting moment, Corey MacGregor walked through the thundering room spinning juggling sticks, smiling meditatively. Kali herself was looking effervescent in a high-piled ponytail and a high-waisted jungle-print spandex outfit.

Dancing in the half-dark from cluster to cluster, sneaking from one tendril of ghost-strobe flesh to another, just when I began to lose myself, something would come crashing in – literally, in the form one of one energetic epileptic ragers running through the crowd – to remind me where I was. Between dipping out for breaks and chatting around the water cooler, the crowd volume undulates like an amoeba as the dance goes on. Clara’s set closes out with a real shot at transcendence, which I catch on the wind as I’m walking back to Hill; the sound of Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky”, soaring moaning into the night…

Sep 11, 2011


It’s Friday night in the Student Union, and outside Miles Wilcox’s Ask a Tranny (And Why You Shouldn’t Call Us That) panel, a table of loudly chattering students circles around from chair to chair every five minutes, facing a new partner across the table with each oscillation. This process is called speed-friending -- the aim is to get to know as many new people as possible while under a time constraint. It’s like a version of arbitrary Facebook friending set on the concrete plane of reality. Jeff Landale, senior, commented that it was a good way to meet freshmen and people that he ordinarily doesn’t talk to.

“So, how awkward was it?”
“… Are you trying to write it as awkward?”
So there you are – it wasn’t awkward.

Sep 6, 2011

Simon's Rock Alumn Brings Carnegie Hall Fare to the McConnell

Lizst's Ballade no. 2 in B minor, S. 171, is filling the McConnell Auditorium with those same sinister, thrilling, cacophonous chords that Horowitz banged out at the Met in 1981 with such memorable passion. Right here, right now, in real life, right in front of me, Manon Hutton-DeWys is wielding this fat axe of sound and battering at all the edges of this theater, sending off sparks. She is a slight, small, poised woman in a dress printed with shimmering silver disks. She pumps the pedals in tiny heels that occasionally squeak against the floor.

Hutton-DeWys has a dazzling record simply rolling with credentials (...CARNEGIE HALL...), but because she attended Simon's Rock College she returns periodically to grace Great Barrington with her mastery. I am used to being the only young person at classical concerts; even here on a college campus, the audience is almost strictly senior citizens. There is a handful of students, mostly all banked on the left side of auditorium where we can watch her hands play in the light. Hunched over and serious, she follows with her eyes one hand scuttling across the slippery-glossy keys in a run of sparkling notes. Her arms are reflected in the piano itself, the most majestic and indisputably tuned one on campus -- it has been shined so vigorously that you can see the copper strings reflected in the underbelly of the open lid.

She closes out the show with a Chopin sonata, also in B minor, and emerges after persistent applause for a Chopin nocturne encore to complement its predecessor. It seems like the audience cannot stop clapping and "mm"-ing with pleasure, with all that pent-up admiration kept bottled inside in the aftermath of previous movements. We stay still in our seats, corseted by decorous silence.

A few of students headed straight to the dance after the concert -- straight to a hothouse of sweat, bumping & grinding red-faced in the ecstatic seizure drone. I tried, but didn't stay long. I ended up walking home still lost in the calm of Chopin, in the repressed state of passion that classical music instills in me. Obsessed with those carefully contained segments of precarious sound structures flashing their temporal sublime beauty in the sun of your immediate attention, the revelation of your conscious mind latching onto something undoubtedly sublime, before falling away into splinters and nails to build the next structure, the next phrase, of precarious instantaneous beauty. 

Aug 28, 2011

An Apology to the Pi Clowns

I like you guys too much to write a story about you.

So all I am going to post are my polished-up notes -- snap-shots, bits & pieces of this transcendentally silly clown troupe from San Francisco and their singular show. They were the artists-in-residence at the Berkshire Fringe for this season.

A brief note to explain my perspective: I was on tech duty for this show, so I saw everything from the gridwork above the theater. The pi clowns mostly handle all their own props -- all that I had to do was stay perched up there waiting for my cue to drop two toy parachute men down onstage when Bruce sends a paper airplane crashing into the wall.

 - The Pi Clowns are: Andrew (Quick the Stick), Leah (Miz G), Tyler (the Juggler), Jon (Macho. Manly. Fuzzy. MONSTER-STRONG), and Bruce (Bruce).
 - The Thrust: the clowns' pre-show ritual... in which they huddle up, settle into the moment with a sigh, tilt back pelvises and crush them all together simultaneously while making silly wheedling & animal-happy sounds. From above, it looks like a red and black sunflower ruffled with hair, white faces popping out like petals. The point is not to make an orgasm noise, exactly, but to expunge all stress out in noise (as silly as possible, of course)
 - Pre-show atmosphere: I'm sitting here in the burlesque glow of pink lighting above an empty stage, an audience humming with anticipation below, marinating in that old squeezebox carnie music... and then Andrew steps out onstage -- slowly, alone, staring down the audience.
 - The Pi Clowns definitely utilize their environment to create a new show every night -- its structure is constantly changing and evolving and flying off the seat of its pants. They listen to their audience, climb all over them, steal their purses (only to give them back with a shame-faced grin), and crawl into their arms to die heroically. This is all literal, by the way.
 - At a talkback after one of the shows, someone asks where the troupe got its name and Andrew (who studied math along with theater at UC Santa Cruz, where all the Pi Clowns met), jumps in: "Pi is irrational and transcendental, and we thought, well... that's perfect."
 - Another pre-show ritual: sliding down the sloping concrete hallway backstage in rolling office chairs, whooping and yahoo-ing.
 - Tyler's final juggling solo is pure magic. All the lights are out, and he is juggling with three glowing balls -- two orange, one blue -- that look like frolicking planets as he tosses them around wildly to an Irish step jig that accelerates into ecstasy and then dissolves into a violin strain that drifts off into space.

You can follow these lovely fools and possibly become their groupie by going here: www.piclowns.com 

(will write more later... when I'm not drowning in a hurricane and basting in humidity)

Aug 25, 2011

NYC notes, #4: Alexander McQueen

July 8
The savage ghost of Alexander McQueen has kept museum-goers at the Met up past midnight for the first time in the museum's history. According to Time magazine, 66,509 people visited the exhibit during its run (May - August 2011); making it the 8th most-attended event in the museum's history. Clearly something extraordinary was going on inside that dark twisting labyrinth of rooms that constituted "Savage Beauty", a retrospective exhibit on his avant-garde fashion concoctions.

Alexander McQueen. Buddies with Lady Gaga. That was only shred of pre-existing knowledge I took with me to the exhibit; besides the facts of the obituary. He hung himself in his closet full of cocaine, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills. His mother had died nine days earlier, and her funeral was that evening. He left a simple note that read: "Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee" (a nickname). He was forty years old.

McQueen was a self-described romantic schizophrenic; therefore, this exhibit was constructed around the theme of romanticism. McQueen's particular brand of romanticism consists of uneasy pleasure, incredulity and revulsion, wonder and terror blending together to create the sublime. The show was divided into further segments based on further themes: individualism, historicism, nationalism, exoticism, primitivism, and naturalism. It was all very academically-plotted, but that couldn't stifle the raw power of McQueen's creations.

Image smash, first impressions (because the thing is a sensory overload):
 - eerie electronica droning over the crowd
 - a dripping blazer with blood lining and human hair
 - space whores & frothing burlesque ballerinas. Angels of the postmodern denarrative world
 - gorgeous gloom -- black marble & mirrors
 - the Spine Corset: aluminum and black leather, bondage of the human form. Skeleton frames for flesh.
 - wings and feathers, talons and fibulae. Plastic bones.
 - Joan '98: a red-draped model dancing in a ring of fire, becoming a gyrating priestess
 - gold thorns down the arm, crowning the head, face-mask of bright-red dripping blood -- deadly beautiful
 - rotating girls in purple flowery football bodysuits
 - silver barbs stabbing cheeks, hair covering face in a smooth mask, petticoat of glossy shells: masochistic
 - nature, aliens, bondage, rot, fire, lace, gauze, flowers ("I used flowers because they die"), heartbreaking fluttering beauty, the rolling mud dirge of time

I'm circling in tight lines of people passing in front of these clouded, bombed-out old mirrors in the gaudy gold of old art frames lining the walls. People's reflections bob up briefly, confusedly. I overheard one man telling his companion, "It's actually very beautiful. Actually... gorgeous, isn't it?... Beautiful...", very surprised. People were very excited and talkative at this exhibit, and Gaga's name was repeated through the crowd like a hypnotic helpless tongue-tripping virus.

One of the rooms is a hall with scarlet and bloodied devils lined up along stone castle walls glowing with fire like a royal court at attention, facing the oncoming crowd. The most dramatic and beautiful classical soundtrack is bathing the awestruck hordes. These halls of bloody gentry all have gold-studded masks, and the finery is truly spectacular. This is the Nationalism room, filled with pieces inspired by McQueen's Scottish heritage (all black, red, and white -- lots of plaid, checkers, lace, patterns orderly and disoriented by turns).

Just to give an example of the performance art style of these fashion presentations... There was a dress called Highland Rape; hanging synthetic lace with spiderweb twine, autumn-flower colors torn apart, a gaping hole at the plump white mannequin crotch. An electric guitar "Star-Spangled Banner" plays overhead. Exhibit background of rough, brutalized barn wood walls. Spectacular terror. There are sobbing violins in the next room... A cluster of people is jostling around a box in the wall. It's... a tiny matted-hair Barbie whirling in white gauze ruffles of swan feathers, suspended in a glass pyramid until she melts into a glowing ball of life that blips away into space. The atmosphere was heartbreaking, entrancing, like watching a flower grow in fast-forward; violins falling apart sweetly, suffused with tears. This kind of occurrence in Alexander McQueen's work is what makes it so hard to pin down in a critical mindset -- how could this kind of thing ever be considered shallow? As art, it is magnificent, unexpected, fresh, raw, lavishly lovely. As fashion, a product and market line, it is extravagant and almost painful to consider wearing. These clothes all have fantasy personalities, and occupy the realm of the alien other -- where beauty is daring and absolutely free.

Like Lady Gaga, one of McQueen's passions seems to be the thrill of the chase to grab the public's attention and slay them with art. He wants them to see the possibilities inherent in the human form, the logical extreme of lust and romance, by brutalizing it (somewhat) and putting it on display. Near the end of the exhibit is a video being shown inside a glass box. In slow-motion, the walls of a box standing in a bare industrial room fall and smash, sending sparkling glass flying in flurries. Inside the box is a fat model lounging on a couch, swarmed with butterflies, a gas-mask on her face. We watch her gently heave as she breathes, staring abstractly down at the floor. The film ends, and the audience's reflection surfaces in the glass box the video was shown in. A rapid-fire series of realizations occur: they see themselves staring, they see themselves, and a few women automatically send up fidgeting hands to fix their hair.

On a placard mounted on the wall beside the glass box, McQueen says, "In this collection the idea was to turn people's faces on themselves. I wanted to turn it around and make them think: Am I actually as good as what I'm looking at? The show was staged inside a huge two-way mirrored box, whereby the audience was reflected in the glass before the show began and then the models could not see out once the show had started. These beautiful models were walking around in the room, and then suddenly this woman who couldn't be considered beautiful was revealed. It was about trying to trap something that wasn't conventionally beautiful to show that beauty comes from within." Unfortunately, Lee wasn't able to hang onto his inner beauty long enough.

Alexander McQueen, the brightest star in the fashion world just snuffed out.

Aug 21, 2011

NYC notes, #3: The Carnie Glory of Coney Island

July 11: I wanted to go there & write Ferlinghetti-style odes on picture postcards to every strange little nook of life I saw amid the screaming neon marquee madness, but we ended up just spending a day at the beach instead. While my friends were in the water, I sat in the sand and watched families unpack their lunches, couples stretched out on towels, stubby old men peddling mangoes across the sand... and one beautiful Mexican/Hispanic/Italian/who-knows man with spiky black hair and a tattoo of the Madonna spread all down his back, rays shooting out from her pliant robed loveliness and pinging off his pointed shoulder-blades.

            Coney Island is a huge carnival, in a perpetual state of Fourth of July, tinged with a forbidden fading despair that reeks of gypsy carnival. I was enchanted by everything I saw – just the spread of colors and lights and explosions of life when you turn to look back down the beach is enough to melt the heart of any Americana romantic (which I am, undoubtedly). We played in a dingy arcade, ring-tossed, browsed cheap sunglasses & hair-clips & Chinese groceries. Dinner at a buffet beneath the rattling train-tracks.

            Mostly to say that I did, I got a psychic palm-reading from an overflowingly large woman leaning back in her lawn-chair along the boardwalk, her huge brown serious scam eyes globbing meaning onto mine. She told me a lot of easily applicable things in a musky foreign accent, such as: I have something holding me back from my cherished future, I have gone to psychics before but they never helped (false), that I need to avoid romantic relationships because they had been disastrous recently. So, she basically listed all of the reasons that someone would ever go to a psychic, seeking answers to their life’s little struggles on the wayside of Coney Island's mystical, reality-defying carnival atmosphere. The most amazing thing was how seamlessly she launched into her sales schpele. Mid-sentence, without changing the cadence or tone of her voice while she was looking into my eyes and telling me about my life, she said, “Now why won’t you let me help you by buying this crystal that will help to balance your chakaras?”

            I thought that freakshows had been outlawed, but right next to the fortune-teller there was a man in suspenders & gray whiskers on a soapbox selling tickets to Coney Island’s very own home-grown freakshow, The Coney Island Circus Sideshow, only five dollars. The audience is squashed into rows of soft, old wooden bleachers in a dim-lit theater (atmosphere of intrigue... the venue also doubles as a late-nite burlesque). The MC, Insectavora, was a woman in long, banshee-black dreadlocks, thoroughly tattooed, the right side of her face marbled into a Mayan ruin. She closed out the show with a breathtakingly beautiful fire twirler-swallower-spitter-flinger act. I saw her reared back with a flame curling out bright-yellow from between her kissing lips, a torch held in each hand. She was also scheduled to appear in the burlesque show later that night. Around 11 pm that night I saw her walking down the street, talking to friends she passed in doorways, looking like Amy Winehouse in a black tank-top & her black dreadlocks piled high.

            There was the Illustrated Penguin, a little man with hands but no arms, who drove a screwdriver into his nose – a trick called the Back-Alley Brain Surgeon. There was a buxom bondaged woman who danced with a pale-gold python (Serpentina), a Southern woman who escaped from a straightjacket with much sighing and laughing to the audience, a burly man who lifted weights with his earlobes and bottom eyelids. Screaming kids, squirming women, awestruck men. An old, old piano kept dusty vaudeville vigil over the show from the back wall.

            After walking around until dark in the vast human carnival, through the old and new sections of rides and games, we rode the famous 90-year-old Cyclone roller-coaster. The whole thing is made of rattling white wood, and feels like it's threatening to collapse at every moment. The riding arc caught the milky half-moon glowing at the very cusp of the first drop before we all went down screaming and clenching our teeth. I was in the last car, with the most bone-scraping neck-cracking whiplash. Staggered off dazed, violated, happy & dripping with adrenaline.

NYC notes, #2: Gay Pride Parade

June 26: There is a breed of men who watch street action in the city from their balcony windows with cigarettes and cynicism. I saw one lone golden-skinned, grocer-armed, mean-looking motherfucker looking down on the parade going by today — the only one who didn’t crack a smile. On every street there were people watching from windows, balconies, and rooftops.

I saw beautiful freaks, shaved & greased Mediterranean men with gauzy neon fairy wings and glue-diamond-encrusted eyes, black bodybuilders in bondage, congressmen waving and pandering to the whooping crazies in the crowd leaning out over the blockades onto the shoulders of cops, soliciting hugs and kisses from passers-by. I joined the march mostly for the amazing vantage-point — I got to see the city's entire population, or so it seemed, streaming out around me from the middle of the street.

There was confetti dripping from the trees. There were people crowding the sidewalks, swinging off poles like sugar-hyped monkeys, hip-thrusting at traffic-lights, lounging on tenement balconies, standing lined up in shop windows like warm grinning mannequins, on the roofs looking down on this rainbow caterpillar wiggle-line dominating the streets of New York City. I had no props — not even a gay pride flag — though I wish I did. I wish I could’ve swirled in with my lime & magenta psychedelic priestess shawl that was lying scrunched in the bottom of my suitcase back at the apartment.

The parade petered out in Greenwich Village, & I was left milling around tents of free condoms, sex-ed brocures, rainbow hemp jewelry, and sizzling mozzarella corncake patties. Almost got picked up by a skinny Columbia-grad skeezball who said that it would be in the spirit of the occasion if we went off and had random sex.

Aug 19, 2011

NYC notes, #1

I spent three weeks this summer staying with my college roommate in the Bronx and exploring New York City; taking notes all the time, preparing to write something more structured later. There are some events that are posts unto themselves (Gay Pride Parade, Henry V on Governor's Island, Alexander McQueen at the Met, the Coney Island Freak-show...), but here are some brief snippets.

June 27: I saw a model come to life in front of the Guggenheim today. A luxuriantly-curled redhead, popping her joints and pouting, breathing lightly from winnowed creamy cheeks while her photographer crouched on the pavement & some Hispanic boys looked on, leaning on a mailbox smoking cigarettes and drinking orange juice.

June 29: Arthur Avenue Market, Little Italy, Bronx. Hand-rolled cigars while you wait (huge brown tobacco leaves, crumpled & compounded into thick tubes), barrels of olives and salted capers, chunks of parmesan shaved off by a burly-armed grocer (this guy, having received the knowledge that I was from Vermont, wanted some maple syrup in return for a cheese sample he had given me — “What, you don’t just carry it around with you?”). There was some kind of corporate party being held in the market, with hors d’oeuvre of pizza slivers, olives, fruit skewers, mini cannoli. A painted piano in the middle of the tables, played by an old man in sparkling, tinkling, flamboyant, very old-world honky-tonk style. The mother of the deli owner got up in her sensible beige pumps to sing an old Italian song, voice still quavering with power & passion, & everyone applauded. It was priceless. Dinner at Dominick’s family-style restaurant, where the waiters loom over you & look at you closely with dark, inscrutinable eyes. A businessman named Greg joined us. A bit about Greg:   - he was wearing a summer suit he didn’t want to spill on but always manages to — light beige, pink shirt
 - warm, sea-nuanced blue eyes shooting out light from a tanned face, chubby around the edges
 - loud, chatty, emotional Italian from Pittsburgh who grew up right here and used to eat lunch at Dominick’s every day as a kid
 - still has dinner at his mom’s house every night
 - heading out to a Yankees game that night
I loved this guy. It sounds callous to characterize him instantly, but he was a perfect relic; a perfect accent to the whole scene.

July 3: I'm on Fire Island, watching speedboats make white lace tears through the dark water. It's gray, sweating light rain, altogether very hazy. Yesterday, we were walking on dark sterile concrete streets that criss-cross the island, through groves of overhanging trees& house-parties. Standing on the steps to the beach under a silver palette of stars, simmering in the sound of sea-woosh & red-faced drunken cocky declamations coming from the mansion behind us. This is definitely a summertown -- a place that only exists for the summer, used as a tourism playground & get-away. Apparently, Marilyn Monroe used to come here.

July 5: I went to a centennial celebration exhibit at the New York Public Library and saw Jack Kerouac’s sunglasses, Malcolm X’s briefcase, Mark Twain’s letter-opener (the handle of which is the taxidermied paw of his favorite pet cat), & the lock of dark auburn hair that Mary Shelley tied up with tiny white fingers and sent to Percy when she was only seventeen.

July 6: Today, there was a Wall St. broker/executive/Patrick Bateman type guy walking down the street in a black suit that positively glistened in the sun, earphones blasting music, a cigarette held between his teeth. Swaggering skinny shoulders. An air of absolute imperviousness.

July 8: 3 am, and I'm sitting up in the living room; vermilion lipstick still smeared on my face and blaring out in the empty silence like a siren. Tonight was the night of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. We set out on a drizzly gray evening looking like tramps -- boots, fishnets, miniskirts, and elbow-length black lace gloves. Confronting the streets like this is a very unique experience... At the movie theater, there were freaks & geeks & a few token whores. There were also two lovely transvestites who couldn't dance in their tight skirts, but I whirled like a dervish to pre-show pop-punk & disco. The cast was big, brash, vulgar, all-out-there, as they should be... but somehow too intensely self-conscious and referential to be welcoming. Rocky himself was a marble-white specimen with blue eyes & a blonde stoner shag. Virgin sacrifice: make your best orgasm noise into a microphone. The whole thing was like a silly, late-night circus of sexuality with some sacramental call-backs & songs thrown in to draw the audience in. I did a lot of shouting at the screen, of course, along with the other fans in the audience. Coming back home in the early hours of the morning, the subway was eerie and deserted; and of course the strange, askance looks couldn't be helped.

July 13: The open-air fish market in Chinatown is sparkling with flies over the smooth pink & gray-mottled cold scaly sides of meat. Glassy doll eyes on ice. One huge severed head with lips delicately hung open, exposing a bristle-line of thin razor teeth. Whole blue crabs suspended in dead animation with claws out.

July 14: I gave $5 to a man leaning against the wall of a tunnel in Central Park playing "My Way" on smooth saxophone, its echo dilating into a sublime sepulchral moan for the ages. He smiled at me from beneath his hat, between notes.

Aug 18, 2011

The Rocky Horror Show

(Note: I wrote this review of Dartmouth's 2010 Rocky Horror production for my short-lived-and-barely-noticed high school online newspaper. It was the first piece of journalism I ever attempted, and I'm still fairly proud of it. At the time, I knew nothing about Rocky Horror -- since the time that this was written, I have seen the show many times and also played Riff-Raff in a shadowcast performance at my own college.)

You’re a virgin if you’ve never seen the Rocky Horror Show. On Thursday night I went to see a production of it at Dartmouth College, utterly unprepared. I was with a family of fans; each had shared delirious quips of excitement with me over dinner, but I still had no idea what the show was about. I was eager but entirely unprepared. So… the lights dimmed over the audience (flashing with bright feather boas and metallic suits), and piano chords swelled through the theater to begin the opening number. Icy rays shot from an overhanging disco-ball as a diva in hippie glasses, a black bob wig, and plaid schoolgirl uniform draped herself over the microphone, languorous and sultry and sinister, licking the air ferociously as she sang… welcome to the show.

There are no inhibitions in Rocky Horror; the cast crawled all over each other, all over the stage, down into the audience. The costumes were all bondage – fishnets, boas, garter-belts with straining hooks – except for the two bewildered innocents (Brad and Janet, played perfectly by Jay Ben Markson and Talene Monahon), who were soon stripped down to their white linen underwear. Their reactions to the weird inhabitants of the castle (Frank-N-Furter and his gathering of Transylvanians from the planet Transsexual) parallel the shock and delight of any newcomer to Rocky Horror. Once they are violated and their conventional morals flagrantly ignored, Brad and Janet become caught up in the absurd joy of the whole thing and end up camping it up along with everyone else. Possibly the greatest moment of the show, among many, was the sight of Brad stretched out onstage, one pale Ivy League leg sliding up through a feather boa, singing: “What’s this? Let’s see… I feel sexy!”

During intermission, the “creatures of the night” prowled down into the crowd, dancing with girls from the audience who were simply shrieking from happiness (and if you’ve never heard of the Time Warp, “it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives you insay-ay-ay-ayne.”) I watched one huge silver-haired boy in a frock coat and metallic-red platforms stand onstage, flicking a whip, seemingly entranced by his own power. He slowly walked down onto the floor and straddled a girl in her seat, leaning over and smiled leeringly at the row behind her: “And how are we all doing tonight?” The fourth wall is smashed, the shards ground into glittering dust under stiletto heels. 

I think that everyone in the audience was grateful for the knot of cult-followers who came to heckle, call-back, dance and sing along with the show. It was the most devoted and involved display of fandom I have ever seen or heard of. Heckling the cast is almost an obligation – it’s the assigned role of the audience. This strange, sarcastically-tinged relationship between the fans and the institution of Rocky Horror itself stems from an awareness of the show’s lovable absurdity and cheesiness. The story is in many ways an homage to old, kitschy science-fiction/horror films of the 1950’s and earlier, with some ‘60s decadence and ‘70s androgynous punk mixed in for libidinous measure. It’s a cocktail of pop-culture delights, but really can’t be taken too seriously.

There are guidelines to the heckling, to prevent the fans from becoming too insufferable or showing up the cast; for example, every time the name “Brad Majors” is said, you shout “Asshole!” as vehemently as possible. You are also supposed to throw things onstage at certain moments (rice during the wedding scene), but the production I saw sadly did not allow that in the theater. There was an announcement intoned over loudspeakers before the show began that made the rule abundantly clear: “Attention audience members. This not the Rocky Horror Picture Show. That’s a movie. So please, don’t throw things at us. … But we’d love it if you’d dance with us.” 

Those who didn’t want abrasive sexual encounters with the cast during intermission could mingle with some of the older fans congregated in small clusters around the lobby. They were reminiscing and glowing in their element, talking about how they’ve been going to see the show and doing the Time Warp since before these Dartmouth actors were in diapers. The movie came out in 1975 after running as a play in England for years, and quickly became an institution of proud freak-dom. It is traditionally shown in theatres at midnight, often accompanied by a shadow-cast (while the film plays, people mimic the action on-screen at the front of the theater). The audience that night was laced with these forever-fans, and their obvious delight fueled the show all the way through. During the Time Warp, there were many excited fans who got up to dance with the fantasies parading around onstage. It becomes clear very quickly that there is no actor-onlooker barrier needed for the Rocky Horror Show to run – as I said, there is no fourth wall. The fourth wall is your indifference; and in an involved and exuberant production such as this, the audience almost merges with the cast. The show is a transformative experience for everyone in the vicinity of its happening. As Frank-N-Furter hypnotically croons in the floor-show finale, “Don’t dream it, be it”.

Fishnets mean freedom; that’s part of the code for fans as well. That night, I saw purple ones, bright-red ones frothing with lace, rose-printed ones, basic black, flesh-colored, tights and knee-highs and thigh-highs. Everyone was dressed to kill, but Frank-N-Furter (David Mavricos) was the most magnificent. A tall, strutting transvestite with huge fluttering eyes, evil red lipsticked-lips and dominatrix knee-high black leather platforms (picture these stomping across stage as he’s holding a roaring chainsaw). In the show, he ends up making it with both Brad and Janet, personifying the delicious downfall for both of them. Frank is the unequivocal symbol of The Rocky Horror Show. It is sinister, voluptuous and fabulous, a campy rock-musical out to bawdlerize old movies and rough up a few virgins in a carnival of perverse pleasure.

As Dartmouth’s director writes in the program: “The Rocky Horror Show is, more than anything, a rock and roll show, and rock and roll is freedom. At Frank’s castle, anything goes, all answers are appropriate, and following your bliss is a requisite activity.” My evening captured this perfectly. Emerging from the theater into reality was a shock that left me speechless, but smiling with what I carried out with me.

Gaga in Nebraska

This is a great little nugget: a local news report from the small town in Nebraska where Lady Gaga filmed her newest music video, "YoΓΌ and I". The video is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, and I can't write about it yet because I don't have any particular frenzies of description to impart. All I'll say for now is that it's awesome, blends her Americana ("Telephone", "The Edge of Glory", "Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)") and arty Euro-minimalist ("Alejandro", "Bad Romance") aesthetics perfectly, and leaves you exhilarated more than confused.

Most notably, in the video Gaga gets to make out with herself. She cross-dresses as a hot Italian greaseball in a James Dean-style rolled-up white tee; Joe Calderone, her alter-ego. Gaga first appeared as Joe in the September 2010 issue of Japanese Men's Vogue. She says that he's a Sicilian car mechanic -- a perfect cameo part for a song that includes the line, "Muscle cars drove a truck right through my heart"... followed by a rollicking glam-rock guitar wail, of course.

Aug 17, 2011


The bald sax player of Gutbucket has a rope-thick vein popping out on his forehead as he convulses and whirls and launches his torso across the stage in a fiery fit of jazz eloquence. There is a man playing some skeletal thing that used to be an upright bass, with wonderful soulful agony. The guitarist blisters static, the drummer pounds away, and this wonderful anarchy rings crazily in your head like a jungle ska party.

It's sunset, and on the lawn outside the Berkshire Fringe festival there are rows of benches lined up to watch this band explode over and over again onstage. Gutbucket could be described as an art-punk-jazz band from Brooklyn, only the Brooklyn part being indisputably true. The driving force behind this morass of sound is the sax player, giddy with pure invention as he plays. There are squeaks and squeals and yelps from protesting instruments, most of them coming from that single saxophone. During rockabilly-esque, dark, walking-beat sections, he has this wonderful creeping, menacing, predatory stance... a thug with his melodies. Then the music opens back up into absolute frenzy, straddling the line between jazz precision and punk passion. Gutbucket is punk jazz -- the "art-rock" tag really just means that they try to push the boundaries of what their instruments can do, and expect a certain level of patience from their audience when the things really start to hiss and squeal and sing.

There is that awkward, uncertain moment in jazz and rock concerts where one musician is taking a solo, their face contorted with passion and the collective gaze of the audience positively glowing off of them... and the other musicians have to find something to do with themselves while they wait for their turn to play again. While some look at the floor, some dance around a little bit, some nod along with the music & wrinkle their forehead, this particular guitarist whips out his iPhone, crouches on the side of the stage, and starts taking a video. It was so blatantly 21st-century, I couldn't believe it... and I was honestly a little horrified to think that this was considered okay. However, Gutbucket redeemed themselves in the end. During the last song, while the saxophonist was gasping and squealing and lurching around the stage (I think it was meant to be funny -- if not, I am very sorry for cracking up in the thick, stunned silence between notes), in the spasm of a solo, and the guitarist was taking another video, the bald vein-popping sax player stood over him guitarist and lunged at him repeatedly as if the bell of his instrument were a viper-head. It was weird, twisted slapstick brilliance; the guitarist's terrified expression and all.

All songs played during this show were from Gutbucket's newest album, Flock (2011)... available everywhere, including iTunes.

Aug 12, 2011

Our Man (the Gipper!)

On one level, it's an enjoyably absurd play with gunfire patter between two clownish radio announcers in white button-downs. On another level, it's a political analogy that invites further dialogue about the themes. On the level of the absolutely transcendentally absurd, it is a play about the life, death, and legend of a wooden tennis racket. This racket is introduced as "Our man -- the Gipper! But first, some background: our man was raised in the small town of Tempeka, Illinois...", and off we go.

Our Man was brought to the Berkshire Fringe festival by Goat in the Road, a performance company from New Orleans. This two-man show is by Will Bowling and Chris Kaminstein, playing two 1950's-style radio announcers trapped in a 5x5x5 Plexiglass box. The play is about political image, what the back-story of a political figure means and how they are objectified (as a racket? yes! the Gipper!) to be used by the public for whatever they need. While the two announcers are making up a fantastic backstory for the racket, getting breathless on the sensationalistic gossip... they're just creating an absolute rhapsodic opus of bullshit, details details details filling the frame with American sentimentality gilding. Even the most aloof audience knows to laugh at this galloping-paced absurdity.

The character of The Gipper is loosely based on Ronald Reagan, a great political figure in that he effectively utilized modern means of broadcasting his image to the American public. But why use the medium of radio in this play if Reagan appeared primarily on television? As I learned when I talked to Kaminstein, Reagan actually got his start as a 1930's sports announcer on the radio. A radio announcer then would get reels of ticker-tape play-by-play of the game, composed mostly of numbers with a few simple phrases to delineate action; the announcer would fill in the storytelling holes himself. So embellishment was an inherent part of the job, and Reagan acquired a temperament that never wanted facts and accountability to get in the way of a good story.

Kaminstein also explained that the piece is trying to show the process by which we create grand images of public figures, willing to tear them down on any impulse. We will then find someone new, build them up, and tear them down. The surreal, isolated setting of the piece brings out the blatant delusion of this, as the two men are completely fixated on this one powerful, enigmatic, influential, controversial figure who is really just... a racket. The racket has knowledge of its own racketness, while also being endowed with a historical background and implied personality as if it were human. Though this never actually makes the audience feel empathy for the racket, it does allow for some moments of hilarious gravitas... the slow, slow, slow death ooze down the front of the Plexiglass box, all eyes riveted on a falling racket... audience tittering nervously and breaking out in spasms of laughter, unsure why this scene has to last for just as many seconds as it does.

It is tempting to compare the racket's influence to the Bush administration as well, particularly the Florida vote-miscounting scandal at the start of his second term.There is a point where the two men in the box are both trying to run for election (for an inconsequential position, Supervisor of Mail Sorters, when no-one ever sorts the mail anyway). They create too many rules for the voting and twist themselves up in the logistics. There is a moment of self-conscious clarity when one of them says, "Well, I wanted to use one or both of my votes for me, but once again the hand of big government is over-regulating things." Kaminstein said that they definitely had Bush in their minds as inspiration during this, although this particular sequence was not intended to allude to that. However, for a show meant to provoke questions and make connections to politics and behavior in real life, it's still not a useless impression.

Kaminstein says, "My favorite kind of theater, the theater that really inspires me, is when you're plonked down in the middle of an alien world, with an alien language, with one hour -- go." These radio announcers exist in a Beckett-esque purgatory of misinformation and delusion. Their unique brand of precise, rapid physical theater does often feel like something from a surreal alien world. The characters don't actually do any work except make up stories about the life of this racket, go over and over arbitrary rules and "fight" out petty rivalry, and perform peppy shows for an audience that they can't see (not the audience in the theater, the audience assumably listening to the radio broadcast). It's a relationship like that in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in an endless and hopelessly circuitous setting.

Both announcers end up trying to use the racket's image and personality to their own ends, vying for power in this tiny, isolated world. As this goes on, they turn against the racket and use it as a springboard to vent feelings toward each other. They mock it, scream at it, bang it on the floor, grovel to it, and eventually kill it (the slow, slow, slow death ooze...) After his death, of course the Gipper is mythologized and idealized into an even grander figure than he was in "life."

A really fascinatingly silly, hyperactively intelligent piece.

I Am Not Charlotte Simmons: an open letter to Tom Wolfe

Dear Tom Wolfe,

From one American college girl to another, I can tell Charlotte Simmons that she is out of it. Seriously, profoundly, Dorothy-in-Oz out of it. But I felt like I had to meet her. I had to read this monstrously large novel because, Tom, I worship you a little bit; bear with me, don't let that put you off just yet. As someone once said, you do paint with the broadest strokes possible. Your characters are all instantly recognizable as types -- and because these are types that I live with and are part of my generation, I felt that I would be a fair tester of their accuracy. In short, you passed; despite the hyperbolic pageant of characters in this novel (I know you modeled it after Thackeray's Vanity Fair, don't even try to bluster out of it), you have got the precise atmosphere of a big-time prestigious American college pinned down. 

There are a few types that you neglected to mention in this portrait, however. Most notable among these are the hipsters, an epidemic of attitude in the 21st century that almost equals the volume of '60s hippies. I go to a college completely unlike Dupont, a tiny exclusivist college almost entirely composed of geek, stoner, & hipster culture; as a result, I am much more acquainted with the Andrew character type. He's not quite a hipster, but he's close; if he exerted a little more effort in this physical appearance and contrivance, he could be. I can tell you that he, as a type, is... perfect. Pathetic & yearning & intellectually egotistical, completely pretentious, disdainful of those stronger mammals than him who cannot analyze with such dexterity but who have no trouble getting a girl into bed. He is the type that feels like he wants to save quiet bookish girls from their sheltered innocence, tries to dazzle them with random knowledge and powers of discourse... he's so sexually frustrated and repulsive, deserves to be pitied, but also deserves to be educated about these girls he wants to save. I've been on the receiving end of this kind of behavior; it's sweet at first, but also incredibly condescending.

I love your moments of bygone-age wonder, such as the realization that using the explicative "Jesus Christ" announces one as possessing an particularly antiquated burnish of cool, & that "fucking" is now universally recognized as the go-to adjective for familiarity, not only used for instant emphasis but for putting the other person at ease (we're all fucking friends here, right?). But thank God your language is still intact -- you and your "rude animal health", your "starved to near perfection", your medical terminology sparkling on the edge of sex. All these literary techniques still work in the hyped-up arena of 21st-century college life. Human nature is truly timeless, & it takes an excellent reporter to live by that knowledge and make his art out of it.

I followed Charlotte's wavering journey through her freshman year to the end with unflagging interst and attention. One thing, though: is the ending tragic? The inevitable doom of conformity? Has Charlotte been lost in the morass of crude popular culture, or has she been redeemed from her stifled starched small-town sarcophagus? To your eternal credit, you paint with the broadest strokes imaginable but still manage to capture the tint and musk of an atmosphere perfectly -- both the small-town high-school and the big-college microcosm. I am not Charlotte Simmons, being a real college student with complex anxieties and much more culture-savvy (did they really not have any Internet in that little Kansas town? did she really never see any movies? how could she have been so perfectly innocent?)... but somehow, I got to like the girl by the end. I also recognized some uncomfortable truths about people I know and people that comprise my personality from some of the other characters in the novel, proving that hyperbole channels reality more directly than it seems it should. Reading an account of this particular microcosmic world from the perspective of this innocent college-girl prodigy type (and a writer of another generation with an entirely separate perspective) was exhilarating & undeniably fascinating. Resounding thanks.

Sincerely yours,

S. Clelia Sweeney