Wednesday, February 28, 2007

This one is for the children

Funny thing happened last week. My thirteen-year-old drum student and her family found my weblog and discovered my not-so-secret life as a foul-mouthed commentator on the wilful destruction of the planet by the high, the mighty and the rest of us.

So this one is for the children, for those innocent people unjustly exposed to radical political views and strong language not suitable for the young. Exposed to ugly ideas. Exposed to sick concepts and vulgar vocabulary. Exposed to dirty words like "Condoleeza", "powersuits", and "AIPAC".

Honestly? I must say I am thrilled that my student and her younger brother were confronted with the unrestrained and justified outrage the writings here generally represent. The drum teacher who shows up once a week is not only the drum teacher, but a concerned human being as well. Young people must be aware of the danger in the world. If I was young it would terrify me to think others were unconcerned, that they failed to be outraged, that they were unmoved to respond to the dangerous world. So I'm perfectly happy they found these words. And of course I am fine with the fact that they know I think both Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton are assholes.

Of course, I hope they will discover a power of language that reaches beyond the cheap and vulgar . . . but kids I can't help it if the US Vice President is a total Dick.

It was funny when suddenly, in the middle of last week's lesson, my student asked if I was a communist. We were working on the drumbeat to a Coldplay song, and she seemed to guess I didn't like the band very much. I mentioned UK environmental writer George Monbiot's strong criticism of the false environmentalism of Coldplay leader Chris Martin. And I said that I thought it was important for musicians to be concerned about the state of the world in real ways, not just as a hook for their songs. She said: "so are you a communist?"

She wasn't kidding.

I thought for a moment about what "communism" meant to me in 1989, when I turned thirteen myself. The "communists", I was brought up to believe, were evil incarnate. They hated freedom and democracy and Jews and color television (sound familiar?). People forced to live under "communist" rule knew deprivation, decay, and despair, and the horrors of an enormous prison-industrial complex (sound familiar?).

I remember thinking that the opening of a McDonald's restaurant in Moscow in the mid-80's was a major victory, that Ronald Reagan was fighting to liberate millions of near-starving children from leaders who incessantly threatened the peaceful West with nuclear holocaust. I thought the US was responsible for taking down the Berlin Wall, for Solidarity's triumphs in Poland, and for dismantling the Soviet Union.

Was I a stupid kid? No. Was I specially targeted for indoctrination? You bet. We all were. We all are. Which is why I think it's perfectly fine my student has read her music teacher's angry little articles about officially sanctioned and culturally encouraged political, economic, and environmental violence.

I would be a rotten teacher -- of any subject -- if I didn't encourage my students to think critically, to examine what they're taught, to challenge ideas that they find intuitively repellent.

Just as I want my student to find and develop her own way to play the drums, I hope she will find her own path through the information she is exposed to. At her age I had seen enough Time magazine covers to truly believe that deceitful, murderous Ronald Reagan was fighting against bad guys and for such vaunted concepts as equality, justice, freedom, and democracy. The magazine covers, the network news, pop culture and even the new CNN taught me this while Reagan's administration sent more and more arms and money to (non-communist) blood-thirsty psychopaths around the world.

Don't get me wrong. The bastards running the Soviet Union and its satellites were criminals too. There really was deprivation and despair. The utopian social system really did crumble while some of the same mafioso-types who are running those countries now lined their pockets, spied on people, and threw money at a bloated and unnecessary military (sound familiar?).

It's worth mentioning now that the mistake has always been to see leaders of adversarial countries as real adversaries. Remember: people like Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein belong to the same club, and club members have never been adversaries of each other so much as they have set themselves up as constant adversaries of us. In my moments of greatest optimism I believe we could, if we chose to, cease fighting their wars, cease allowing them to enrich themselves off of the blood of people and the planet. And young people have to know this.

So this is what I said when my student asked if I was a communist: I said it doesn't matter what I am -- I believe that you and I and everyone else have the same rights to food and security and housing, regardless of how we look, where we come from, and where we live. And then I said this is a drum lesson, so let's get back to the beats.

If my young student of the drums continues to search, she may find some of the ideas that I touched upon in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And if she reads it and keeps it in mind when she catches the news or sees Hollywood's latest, I have no doubt she'll become a truly radical drummer.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Love and Ambiguity

"Intolerance of ambiguity is the mark of an authoritarian personality."
---Theodor Adorno

"The greater the ambiguity, the greater the pleasure."
---Milan Kundera

I'm finding governments to be terribly intolerant of ambiguity these days. Just today I was listening to a news broadcast referring to the insistance, by the extraordinarily insane Condoleeza Rice, that Palestinians (and only Palestinians) renounce violence as a prerequisite to peace (or, ostensibly, even modest attempts at human rights guarantees under international law).

Is the US Secretary of State totally out of her fucking gourd or what? How's that for unambiguous? You have to put down your weapons, but the Israelis don't. And we don't. Just you.

As it happens, Israel and the US insist that Iran unambiguously cease its nuclear power program. US Presidential hopeful and all-around rightwing-asshole-in-a-powersuit Hillary Clinton has unambiguously stressed to her sugardaddies at the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that the US will continue to stand with the criminal Israeli government against the people of Palestine. And at her second talk delivered to AIPAC in as many months, Clinton told those assembled: "in dealing with [Iran] option can be taken off the table." That's Washington-bullshit for "Yes, I would assert my humanity by dropping atomic bombs on people who live in Iran."

Now Israel, of course, has maintained a policy of ambiguity about its hundreds of nuclear warheads since the 1980's. Israel's is the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East, other than Dick Cheney's in Iraq.

(Incidentally, here are some talking points by Phyllis Bennis on the Iranian non-issue.)

So this past weekend I went to a noise-music event organized by some people I know in The Hague. As one of the organizers said to me, it was a "package deal", meaning some of the acts he wanted to present were touring with some acts he was less interested in. Most of the music was loud and unfriendly. Difficult, but not thought-provoking. Thoroughly "more-underground-than-thou" and I felt like I was in a scene from a David Lynch film most of the night.

One of the acts involved two costumed men standing behind a table with some electronic music gear on it. Draped over the table was an American flag. One of the performers was dressed up like a "terrorist" (as any typical Hollywood movie-goer would be expected to recognize). The other was dressed up as a US soldier, but with a "scary clown" mask. The music -- poorly constructed feedback and noise -- was also supposed to be "scary". You can sense the subtlety of the group's political critique, right? The performers jumped around a little bit, got in the faces of the audience, and at one point kicked a few beer bottles at those of us standing in the front.

I said to someone, a reader of this very weblog: "these fascist Americans aren't making any friends". I was kidding. At the same moment someone else said "I hate this socialist bullshit." That was funny. At one point an audience member tried half-heartedly to light the flag on fire.

The performers eventually exited the space in a feigned fury, the "terrorist" strangling himself with the American flag. They left all their gear on and loud noise fuming out of strained speakers. Everyone just watched and waited. I hesitated for about ten seconds and then walked to the table and shut off the power. I got some applause for that, and shouted "USA! Number ONE!" I wonder if anybody got it. I wonder if anybody didn't. I left things ambiguous.

I go and see a lot of music and art and lately I find myself asking "where is the love?" (On constant rotation in my cd-player at the moment are discs by Philip Jeck, some of the warmest, most hauntingly nostalgic and beautiful stuff I've heard in a long time. The love is definitely there.)

Not to be mistaken myself, at my solo concert at STEIM earlier this month I mentioned something I had heard in this video of a speech by architect-designer William McDonough. In the video McDonough looks at his audience and asks "How do we love all of the children of all of species for all time?" He presents it as a design question, as a problem for his discipline. I did the same before I began playing.

Well. It's a monumental question. Maybe the question. For any of us. Check out the video to get the proper context.

You know, I don't think the powersuit assholes are working on this question. I don't think the Presidents of this or that or any country are working on this question. Are you? As the planet heats up impossibly and the powersuits prepare more warfare, "security", and economic dominance, at least one thing we need to be unambiguous about is love.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Break the law or support the war. Is there any other choice?

I have written on more than one occassion about Rosemarie Jackowski of Vermont. Jackowski is an advocacy journalist and former Liberty Union candidate for state attorney general. She is also a principled and fearless activist working on behalf of the victims of US aggression, and a grandmother.

I am happy to report that the guilty verdict against Jackowski for her non-violent act of civil disobedience in 2003 has been overturned. Jackowski blocked traffic with a sign that read "Stop US War Crimes". She was charged with disorderly conduct and sentenced to prison.

An article in the Rutland Herald notes that Jackowski "believes she had an obligation, morally and under international law, to speak out against the death of Iraqi civilians."

For my part, I believe that we all have such an obligation, grandmothers, politicians, artists, factory workers, black, white, short and tall, all of us. It's wonderful to have examples of courage set by a 69-year-old member of Veterans for Peace. Sure. But what do the rest of us have to lose? What can we risk -- what can we offer the people Jackowski believes she has a moral and legal obligation to protect?

(Answers such as "attending State-sanctioned mass rallies on Saturday afternoons" do not count.)

Jackowski has claimed that, with the case essentially thrown out of court (because the State wants to avoid "wasting taxpayer dollars" on it), she will not have an opportunity to explain what she did and why. Here, then, is a link to Jackowski's Courtroom Speech from October 2004. Please read it carefully.

At the end of the speech Jackowski stated "What happens to me here today is not important. Since the day of my arrest, more than 13,000 Iraqi civilians, many of them children, have been killed. That IS important." Take that number -- thirteen thousand -- and think about it. It represents people just like you and me, condemned to horrific, brutal deaths. They committed no crime, but stood in the way of the crusade of the US government and its allies to thieve the resources and sovereignity of Iraq and test out the sadistic machines and gadgets of the military-industrial complex.

Now take that number and multiply it over and over and over, many times, until you reach the current and growing death toll. Who can fathom that kind of carnage? (Certainly not typically pacified Americans.) Or here's another question: with what other regimes in history do the US and its coalition partners share the stage for having been responsible for that kind of carnage?

On the day after she announced her good news at Mickey Z.'s blog, Jackowski (known to readers there as RMJ) shared an email she had received from a supporter named Richard. It hits the nail on the coffin, as it were, and I reproduce it here.
“I support the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I support the killing of innocent women, children and soldiers.

I support the desecration of the Constitution.

I support the destruction of our environment and our eco-systems.

I support Global Warming.

I support the death penalty for poor people and people of color.

I support population control through starvation.

I support the power to imprison us without our due process by eliminating habeas corpus.

I support these things by DOING NOTHING.”

Friday, February 02, 2007

A Man Without a Country

I just finished Kurt Vonnegut's latest book, A Man Without a Country. Superb. In it, Kurt says
No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.
And Kurt Vonnegut says
Evolution can go to hell as far as I'm concerned. What a mistake we are. We have mortally wounded this sweet life-supporting planet--the only one in the Milky Way--with a century of transportation whoopee.
And he also says
"Socialism" is no more an evil word than "Christianity." Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition. Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal and shall not starve.
What else?
I have some good news for you and some bad news. The bad news is that the Martians have landed in New York City and are staying at the Waldorf Astoria. The good news is that they only eat homeless men, women, and children of all colors, and they pee gasoline.
But this is not a funny book. Vonnegut says as much himself. To him, this is no time to be funny. I was talking about this with my friend Joel Ryan yesterday, who said that a film like M*A*S*H would be impossible today. Too true. Vonnegut again:
The good Earth--we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.
Vonnegut, at 84, shames the rest of us for our lack of outrage. He obsesses over global meltdown so severe--with his country at the helm--that he cannot even do his job.

I don't think I would be able to do my work if I lived in the United States of America either (although at a very meaningful level, the US is a prison we are all living in). Art springs from context, and I do not think I would be able to produce anything good over there--regardless of whether the Asshole-in-Chief is named George or Hillary. Or Barrack.

That's just a feeling, nothing "anti-American" about it. A few years ago, my good friend Greg Altman visited me here in The Hague. We grew up playing funk music in bars together. Greg is a phenomenal drummer. He produces television shows now. I arranged a gig for us at <>TAG, in fact, it was the first event I curated there. We performed a piece I wrote called Dodging Bullets. A audio waveform of a skipping CD is visible on a large screen, and there are markers with text placed in the waveform to pass by the cursor in the middle of the screen. The music on the CD is aggressive and noisy. The "rule" of the piece is that each time a marker connects with the cursor the musicians must choose from three very simple musical gestures to play. By the end of the piece (twenty minutes later) everybody is wiped out, exhausted. Cathartic stuff.

Anyway a lot of the crowd loved the piece and said as much. Greg was shocked the audience didn't walk out. They would, he felt, in New York. He tells that story whenever we see each other, how we performed this crazy music and people listened. And liked it.

Or this: a week ago I performed in Krakow with Rafal Mazur and Morten Nottelmann. Imagine the worst scenario to try to get people to come listen to a free-jazz trio. Almost no promotion. Snowing. Venue in the middle of nowhere. Hard to get to. Cold. 7PM on a Saturday night. No famous last names on the bill. No bar at the venue. But the people came out. And they enjoyed themselves. In my experience people in Manhattan rarely go to Brooklyn to see live music, regardless of the weather. It's like pulling teeth.

When I first arrived in Krakow to study in 1999 and told people that I was a composer (that's how identified myself then), I would receive the same nod of respect one might get in the States if they were to say they were a doctor . . . with a private practice. It was nice. No one, not a single person in Poland, ever suggested I teach music to make a living (for years that's all I got from people in the US).

It's all just a feeling and I could very well be full of shit. Fact is, I'm not a big fan of countries per se, and I don't mind being a man without one (I would like that residence permit I've been waiting six months for, though, please, already, Dutch bureaucrats). I don't like the idea of the US anymore than I like the idea of The Netherlands, or Poland, or Iraq. I do like the idea of people, different, talking to each other, making things together, trying to dig their way out this hole we're in, that's OK.

As Morten was saying on the way to the gig in Krakow, there are two strata of society, and we operate amongst the people, not amongst the politicians. Yes, and sometimes it can be fun up here.