A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
The top of my toilet tank is littered with old New Yorkers. We have a relative who left the city years ago, but only geographically. Her heart is there, and we are bequeathed with the old fussy rags. The fiction isn't bad -- it's gone all postmodern, though, with a texture of dryer lint rather than a weave -- and I can't avoid reading Alex Ross, one of the few music critics who still gives criticism a pretty good name.
I'm about 18 months behind, so was catching up with a rare early morning bath, reading a May 2006 article on Syrian cinema. The New Yorker is a great leveler, making interesting things less interesting, and dull things less dull. The story was told with a typical mix of personal stories, intrigue, and individual heroism in the face of oppression. I was glad not to be living in Syria ... until I read the reminiscences of one film director, tucked away in the New Yorker equivalent of page six. In Lawrence Wright's article "Captured on Film", Abdullatif Abdulhamid says, "The most beautiful Soviet films were produced in the era of Stalin. When the Soviet Union collapsed and suddenly you could say whatever you wanted, the Russians began producing the most trivial films. Nobody should be forbidden to say what he wants, but it is a phenomenon that dazzles me: when you're suppressed, you think better."
That stopped me. Sure, but... But what? Is this truth? Is suppression required to think? What is suppression, anyway? Is suppression oppression? Does it or do they range from self-challenge in a society of abundance to persecution in a society of terror? The same?
These sorts of questions sidle their way into my self-criticism. I'm uncomfortable in a comfortable little home in Vermont, having left the woes of the city behind thirty years ago. Our governments are pretty non-intrusive. Neighbors are helpful, and the big philosophical and political "isms" seem absent from quotidien life. It's a land of independence and leveling with no persistence of memory. And in forty years I've slowly edged away from my working-class youth where art had no place, having become a frugal baby boomer who now seems to enjoy a state of privilege, able to create music with most of the tools at hand. In other words, at risk of a perfection of emptiness.
Have I responded by crusading for composers, a task doomed to failure? Have I deliberately created an artificial suppression by taking on this "We Are All Mozart" project? I wonder, but I'm not convinced. Speaking of exiles from oppression, during the Soviet era, a writer came to America and wrote in the erstwhile Saturday Review that he had realized there was little qualitative difference between the regime of political dictatorship he'd left and the regime of marketplace dictatorship he'd arrived in. Both censored at will, with the latter -- a construct of deception and chicanery -- disguised as a meritocracy. There was as little chance of great literature being published in America as there was in the Soviet Union, he said -- but at least the former's rules were clear.
Let's assume that sup/oppression is necessary to think better. What is our sup/oppression? Is it the capitaliban that has embraced us, and we it? Or is it that we can count the abuses of liberty and spirit in the name of illusionary security ("Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety" --Franklin)? Is this our oppression, this creeping invasion of spirit? What, then? Is it, as William Osborne believes, that "We fail to recognize the extraordinary uniformity of our society, the consciously created cultural isomorphism that shapes the very foundations of so many of our thoughts, perceptions, social mores and belief systems. If this cultural isomorphism were benign it wouldn't be such a problem, but as should be all to obvious these days, it is often quite sinister. Even evil, if you will allow for such a word."
So we have an oppression of cultural isomorphism (Osborne defines it as "a social order where artistic expression is strongly shaped by conditions such as a totalizing economic system, a powerful religion, hyper-nationalism, or a dominating state of affairs such as long-term war."), or crackpot security, or non-meritocratic capitalism? Whatever it may be, what do we do to confront this sup/oppression? How do we speak truth to it? Will anyone care? Or even notice?
Can tamed art ever confront? Is Bruce Springsteen an ultimate cultural isomorph? Or, in Star Trek terms, even a metamorph, but without the empathy? Where is our Beethoven, dedicating scores to Napoleon and then famously tearing them up? We have, what, the Dixie Chicks? Come on! Art and particularly new nonpop has been co-opted in the United States. It is unheard not because it has nothing to say, but because few people need to listen -- and most of all because it is dependent on the institutional coercion of social goals. Please report how many LGBT members were in your audience, but not how many Libertarians. How was the outreach? Oh, what is it you do exactly? Ah, I see, so what kind of songs do you write? Ack. The music doesn't represent (read: stand for) anything but the artist's mind's ear. An orchestral ode to puppies or patriotism or Palestinians or Pitcairn Islanders does not a statement make. Is that why I feel a little ill when I read self-thrashing "who are we" commentaries in composer community websites like New Music Box or Sequenza 21? Really, to turn Feldman on his head, who cares if you compose? You have nothing to say -- you're just an entertainer without an audience.
Okay, that's harsh. But not wrong. We are collaborators with capitalism, and for some, that's a welcome state. Marketplace censorship is somehow perceived as more ethical than government censorship. It's not just the artists. The NEA is not merely succumbing to pressures to feed funds to local agencies, it is collaborating in a plan of social and political conservatism, not to mention the corporatized collaboration required to raise matching funds, imprint corporate logos, and follow through with the required flattery of the corporate patron. Brought to you by Waste Management, Incorporated. No irony, there.
I'm not very good with isms. Osborne's accusation of cultural isomorphism wounds, and perhaps I am too blinded by it to notice, but my sense has been that many artists in a capitalist social system work personally because the suppression is always mutating, without the monolithic visibility of a Stalin or a Council of Trent where complexity and depth of thought are themselves subversion. Art may be a subversion in this society, but it is not a shared subversion. This oppressor seems good to us, good for us. There is no samizdat (except for ones like this or this ). We are free.
I'll feel better next time, really.
I promised the journal from our residency in Nodar. Here is the first installment, beginning with our departure from England. Please write to me if you want a copy of the full journal in PDF format with photos.
Monday, April 9
The follies began. Our bags were intact, but TAP wasn't ready for check-in to Porto. As soon as we put our documents away at the counter, they decided they were ready. We checked our bags and, pointing to our carry-ons, asked again to be sure that the limits included one bag and one laptop. They did. When we arrived at security, we were turned away. They meant, it seemed, one bag and one laptop--but not a laptop in a case. Nor Stevie's tummy belt.
We trudged downstairs (escalators only went up), reorganized our bags to include the precious equipment in the carry-ons, and checked the two relatively meager laptop bags, with our Portuguese lessons, books, maps, some cables, and a few interface items. It was absurd--hot, confused, and with yet another utter nonsense rule. We reappeared at security with our bags and naked laptops, and were cheerfully waved through (following the obligatory shoe, belt and coin removal). Sipping at an airport lounge, I searched for the new mobile phone, the tri-band unit that wouldn't work in Vermont, and found along with it a bottle of some liquid soap that the top-notch security screeners had not noticed. We sighed a grumpy relief...
Oh. That sentence above was in mid-thought when it seemed like there wouldn't be much more to talk about, and I closed the computer. There would be a flight, a bed, and then the next day a relaxed drive to Nodar. Nothing more tonight.
Instead, the flight gate was not posted. The intense security at Heathrow not only disallowed laptop bags, but also did not post flight gate information until a half-hour before boarding. Flights simply read "please wait" as travelers sat in the terminal in collective anticipation. Our 7:20 flight read "please wait" until 6:50. And 7:00. And 7:10, at which point Stevie found an airport phone to ask. Our plane, coming in from Geneva, was late. We called the car company from our mobile--yes, the phone worked. They'd be open until midnight. We called the hotel. Fénix didn't answer. The departure gate was finally posted toward 8:00--and, as the day had so far suggested would be the case, it was one of the most distant gates (gate walking distances were posted; gate 36 was twenty minutes away). The waiting passengers hurried, only to wait with no information at the gate and two bored personnel shuffling phones and papers.
Another half-hour passed before we were all boarded, and the plane lifted off into the British night. I napped until the snack appeared (some sort of turkey slab on a roll and mixed fruit salad with kiwis), but was hungry, tossing down all the food (except the kiwis), a glass of wine, two coffees and dessert. The friendly man next to me seemed bemused by my requests for wine and coffee in Portuguese, so I summoned my best skills to ask if he was Portuguese. He was, and spoke no English at all.
After some pleasant talk about where we were each from, I had run out of vocabulary. He asked if perhaps I spoke French, and the conversation was off and running. The three of us talked about his business (furniture), about the town of Porto (he had a house on the beach nearby), about snow in Vermont and sun in Portugal (where the temperature in June began rising and reached 40°C by mid-summer), about sailboats and weather and wine.
We had gotten over our irritation at the lateness--we'd been up now for 36 hours--as the plane settled into Porto. Passing through passport control was quick, we said boa noite to Joaquim Fernandes the furniture man, and waited for our bags. The bag system was modern, with the upper belt stopping its bag drop until a space was available on the lower belt. But once all the bags had been fed out, our two laptop bags were missing. I found a worker in the nearly abandoned airport; he spoke no English, so I explained the problem in inarticulate but sufficient Portuguese. He pointed and said "lushtifond"--where we learned that not only had our bags gone to Lisbon, they also had been marked with another passenger's name. Certainly they would be delivered to our hotel the next day.
At the car rental, we were told that the reservations company should not have promised us the 'excess' (deductible). Negotiations were resolved only with a photocopy of the website and a note of understanding. The car--a tiny grey Nissan--worked adequately. We followed the directions to Hotel Fénix and shortly found ourselves at undescribed road splits that ended us up at a Rua Boavista traffic circle. The wrong Rua Boavista or the wrong traffic circle, that is, where we explored its perpendicular roads for the next forty minutes. Streets signs are small grey (blue in the daylight, it turned out) placards placed only when convenient, and far off the roadside. We drove away from the circle further on Rua Boavista and found another circle and another Rua Boavista, and then the Hotel Fénix above us a block away. Two Fénix hotels sat side-by-side. I went to the wrong one first, then the right one, then got directions ('be careful! around the block, not down the tunnel!') to the parking garage, and after waiting for another couple who had arrived in the interim, found our way to the 13th floor and our room, that night's sleep, and a morning where we awoke to find ourselves overlooking a vast cemetery
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