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.


Anonymous said...

As a long time reader, this is one of your all-time superior entries. Why? Because there is a noticable lack of the all-pervasive angst that usually permates your writings, and instead, the reader is treated to a really somber and increasingly mature observation of the civilized condition. But you were successful, once again, in getting us to practically split a sleen with your almost can't-seem-to-help-yourself bashing of the U.S. You know for years you've been doing that and to some, it could have easily been taken as a very shrewd method of cop-out. However,in this latest chapter, your observations and expressions of concern are certainly more wides read; more universal and more inclusionary. This is progress. This is good. As for the crux of your thesis, your art is a tool. And it's crap to think your excluded from the States because of some percieved lack of receptivity. That's garbage. You do not have to be a "teacher" (gosh, how you hate that term) to be able to teach, and show, and present, and educate, and enlighten, and open eyes. And obviously, IF you had the desire and yearning, you can do that anywhere. It does NOT have to be in Europe, not that there's anything wrong with that place. But there is Canada; Australia; Chile; Puerto Rico; New York City, to name a few other countries. Don't limit yourself because of your feelings about one or more yahoo's temporarily running the place. Argentina, Chile, Poland, all had some unfortunate interludes in their history regarding who ran the "country". Thank goodness the world didn't give up on those people. Hopefully, you won't give up on the U.S. You think there are problems there? OK then, make art; make music; and make change for the better.
Excellent entry; keep it up.

Keir said...

Hey there anonymous. No US-bashing up there. Yet. I guess that's because of the apparent lack of "angst," what others might call a commitment to certain radical principles and language reflective of that commitment. Apologies, here ya go . . .

First of all -- and I've been consistent about this -- the problem is not "one or more yahoo's temporarily running the place," unless by "temporary" you mean since year one. I cannot think of a single day in its history that the US was any kind of democracy. Seriously. And less bad is still not good.

Next: I was unclear in the (admittedly meandering) post: my hypothetical exclusion from an art scene in the US is not due to "lack of receptivity", rather to the feeling that, like Vonnegut now, I would not be capable of producing work there. The US is a ticking time bomb and would be whether Dick Cheney, Barrack Obama, or Jesus H. Kennedy were calling the shots. It's a structural issue. Never gonna be solved by Democrats and Republicans. Never gonna be solved by America's hyper-materialistic, ultra-consumerist, uber-militarist, corporate-dominated culture distracted by non-stop sub-titilation, disinformation campaigns, and the illusion of choice.

I could be completely wrong. Great and moving art was surely produced within Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, Pinochet's Chile, the current Saudi Arabia and China. Although xenophobic governments throughout the world are rapidly closing the windows of opportunity, I am still incredibly fortunate and privileged to be able to have at least some choice of where to be productive. We should fight tooth and nail to preserve such opportunities for every last person on the planet: who knows where another Vonnegut might spring up . . .

Ma said...

As much as I want you back, and you'll never know how much I do, I must say, AMEN to your blog and to your response to Anonymous

Megan said...

i liked this entry!

i also liked the article you linked to in your comment on my blog. barbara ehrenreich has an article in this month's harper's on kind of that same thing; she argues against positive thinking. i'd say you should read it, but...meh. whatever!