Saturday, November 26, 2005

Experimental Music vs. American Thanksgiving

The following is a slightly edited version of some prepared comments I made on 24-11-05 (American Thanksgiving), preceding a concert of solo saxophone improvisations I performed at <>TAG in The Hague.
Let me just mention how this evening will run. I will say a few words now, and then I'll perform for between 45 minutes and an hour. We'll take a short break to get some drinks, and then regroup to talk for as long as you're interested and about anything that comes to mind (yours or mine). We can discuss the music, what I am about to say, or the weather, whatever you like. I want to mention that I am speaking and performing tonight not only for people at <>TAG in The Hague, but also for a number of people listening via internet, and I would like to thank Mickey Z. in Queens, New York for promoting this concert to his online readers. Check out his important work at

Now allow me to explain why I'm performing this concert in this space tonight. About six months ago my friend Fernando Rinc√≥n Estrada and I started hatching a plan to get me over this December to Bogota, where he lives and teaches composition, so that I could do a performance and workshop on improvisation, saxophone technique, composition and so on. Since I am one of the audio curators here at <>TAG, I used my enormous power and influence here to schedule a try-out for the Colombia meeting—(which has, in the meantime, been postponed until the Spring).

Some of you may know that a large part of my work is concerned with creatively addressing the critical issue of avoiding a human-instigated global catastrophe. Tough work. Given my preoccupation with global diplomatic and environmental meltdown it might at first seem strange that I then spend so much time preparing a solo concert of experimental abstract saxophone improvisations. We could talk all night about the various ways one might choose to address the horror of our time—indeed of any time—but what I want to mention are two items in particular.

First, experimental abstract saxophone improvisations cease to be either decadent, or benign, or both, when one considers that it would be through such work that I might meet and communicate with people on the other side of the world. I have had some experience in this. In fact, that is what I am doing here now, in a country other than “my own”. I am a visitor, an observer, and a participant engaged in a dialogue with a cultural scene which is radically, I assure you, different from the dominant cultural scene in the country of my birth, and it is only through exposure, through such dialogue that this important fact becomes apparent. I have an Israeli friend who recently had the opportunity to meet and talk in Istanbul with artists from places like Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Such an act is bizarrely illegal according to the laws of their countries (and I suppose shunned in some Israeli circles as well). But it is through such meetings, such communication, that we begin to trivialize inane laws, rabid propaganda-fueled xenophobia, and homicidal, if not suicidal, imperialisms. It then becomes possible to create a space in which we challenge and solve the problems that face us all.

We have to meet. We have to talk. And the pervading atmosphere of xenophobia that has touched all of us in this room is a threat to our future.

And that brings me to the second point. This space, this organization, <>TAG, is explicitly about communication. And not just the communication between artist and observer, but the communication amongst artists, across disciplines, amid different aesthetics and inclusive of various backgrounds. This is damnned important stuff and I am glad <>TAG exists to support it.

In addition to our handful of listeners across the Atlantic, I want to make another connection to the Americas today. In the United States people are celebrating “Thanksgiving”, a national holiday referencing a semi-mythological peaceful harvest meal between Natives and White settlers in 1620 something. We Americans are taught from day one about the greatness of our country, and this is the second great act of American benevolence (the first being the story of the racist pirate Christopher Colombus “discovering” an entire half of the planet and “rescuing” savages from the horrors of non-European civilization).

Anyway, we all know, or should know, how the rest of the story of the birth of the US played out. Over the glorious years of the supposed “civilization” of the Americas millions of Indians were slaughtered to pave the way for European settlers. Before oil was the power commodity of choice a trade in people made fortunes for Enlightenment-era political and business elites. The story continues to play itself out now, with the assumed Euro-American right to the control of resources around the globe the dominant factor in our wars on the environment, on sovereign nations, on peoples’ right to communicate, and on children. I’m not suggesting that our systemic racism—the racism inherent in American society as exposed recently by Hurricane Katrina, and the racism inherent in xenophobia (instigated by corporate globalism via the profitability of the arms trade and the pilfering of resources, for example)—I’m not suggesting that such injustice is unique to the US, or to Western Europe for that matter. I am not exonerating the limits on press freedom in Turkey, or the limits on free speech in China, or the theocratic totalitarianism of Saudi Arabia or Iran. But in the same way that communication starts with us, here, now, the reduction of savage world-encompassing violence begins with us. We can stop it when we want to. We can stand up to injustice not just when it’s convenient, and not just when it threatens us directly, but as a way of life.

I want to clarify that it is not illegal for me to speak with Colombians, for example, and that a meeting about experimental music will not directly prevent the horror, for example, of my country’s horrendous drug wars and its consistent meddling in Latin American affairs. But the ability to communicate, as we’re doing tonight, as I hope I will be able to do in Colombia in a few months, is something precious that must be constantly defended. And we have to defend our right to communicate by communicating. When we fear each other, when we scorch the earth, when we poison the food and water, deprive children of education and healthcare, and systematically ignite hostilities (most often for profit), we implicitly reduce the likelihood of being able to engage in the kind of communication that uplifts us all. I am genuinely thankful for this opportunity to share my music with you, but as long as injustice and violence reign as the building blocks of global society—with my own country at the helm—I can do nothing but work against it, even as a performer of experimental saxophone improvisations. As a resident of the Netherlands, as a citizen of the US, and as an artist at large in the world, I see that as my obligation tonight and always.
I hope to have a link soon to an archived excerpt of the performance, and a transcript of at least some of the lively discussion that followed the concert. The spontaneous informal debate on the role of artists in society and the value of creatively addressing the crisis of communication and humanism raised a number of important questions and lasted for two hours after the concert. My thanks to all who contributed.