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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mark Morris's Choral Fantasies

Photo: Mark Morris, by Amber Star Merkens
Choreographer Mark Morris loves music. He talks about it constantly. He’s won awards for its advocacy. And he has a web radio show devoted to things he wants you to hear. He’s even quipped that “the Mark Morris Dance Group is a music organization.” Why so? Because “every dance ever,” Morris insists, “is because of the music.”

But specifically live music.“Why do I use live music?,” Morris asks, putting economic questions aside. “I would turn that question around and ask why would you use recorded music. Why am I the freak? Live music is music. The fact that recorded music has become so acceptable is unacceptable to me. If you have to use recorded music, then don't do the piece.”

Even if the piece demands a 60-person orchestra, a virtuosic piano soloist, and full chorus.

Beethoven’s tour-de-force Fantasy in C minor, Op.80—to which Morris’ dancers will perform the world premiere of A Choral Fantasy Thursday night—requires no less. The logistical nightmare of fitting all of those musicians in the pit would alone make the work an unlikely musical choice for a choreographer. But there’s also the issue of its enormous personality, which has historical precedent for, well, stealing the show.

The work premiered in 1808, on a benefit concert Beethoven held to raise money for himself when he had none. That he was somewhat desperate to maximize his return is evident in the colossal, four-hour program that resulted. On the docket was nothing less than his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (both premieres!), the magisterial Fourth Piano Concerto (a Vienna premiere), portions of the Mass in C, the scena and aria from Ah! Perfido, Op.65, and a smattering of improvisations by Beethoven on the piano. How powerful a presence did he consider his C minor Fantasy? It was the encore, written especially for the concert—the Atlas holding up another Atlas, who’d already held up the world.

Speaking of ambition, it has been argued that the Fantasy was something of a study for an even bigger work: the Ninth Symphony, that other of Beethoven’s gargantuan masterpieces culminating in a triumphant choral hymn to universal brotherhood. You can hear the relationship in the two themes, one in some ways the inversion of the other:

Excerpt, Fantasy in C minor, Op.80

Excerpt, Symphony No.9, Op.125, Fourth Movement

In any event, getting to see such a gifted choreographer work with such musical forces is a rare opportunity. We've woefully neglected to talk about dance proper, but suffice it to say that if “every dance is because of the music” as Morris says, then the ostensible reason we need dance in the first place is because it reveals something in that music (and, clearly, in itself) that the music couldn’t reveal alone. That Morris’ musical choices are ambitious speaks to just how much his dances have to say.  

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Free Ticket+ Thursdays Recap: Going Gaga

Familiar with choreographer Ohad Naharin? You might say that we're gaga for him at the moment (think a less-grizzled Hugh Laurie)—or at least for his Gaga movement method, which is what informs the engrossing choreography of his soon-to-be-at-BAM Batsheva Dance Company. The blog faithful will recall this description we gave earlier in the week of a typical Gaga class instruction:
Imagine two snakes inside your body—one running along your spine and the other across the width of your arms. Lift your flesh away from your bones. Float, but feel the ground below your feet.
So we're gaga for Gaga. But for Free Ticket+ Thursdays on February 9th, we were curious to find out what you were going gaga for at the moment. Here are some of your choice answers.

Nina Simone videos on YouTube
(Our favorite: "I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free," from Montreux in 1976)

The Paleo Diet  
(i.e. the Agrarian Revolution never happened)

Cranberry sauce on ice cream
(Jiggly meets melty—brilliant!)

Leopard print everything 
(Except for leopards. Because otherwise, how would you find the leopards?)

Photos by urban explorer Steve Duncan
(What subterranean majesty might be beneath BAM?)

The letters between Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz
("I'm getting to like you so tremendously that it some times scares me"—O'Keefe to Stieglitz)

Recurring dreams about Sleep No More 
(Ironic, no?)

Bill Cosby
(Before the Jello pudding pop impersonations of impersonations, there was "The Dentist")

Running after 1.5 years of injuries
(Exit, pursued by bear.)

Reusable chopsticks
(Fewer splinters!)

Girl Walking with Anne Marsen
(Girl Talk meets rogue choreography)

The Civil Wars
(Johnny Depp is in an alt-country band?)

Go Burger’s sweet potato fries
(Speaking of food trucks, check out Cesar's Empanada truck outside Atlantic Terminal)

Walter Benjamin’s conversations with Bertolt Brecht
("It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us." —Walter Benjamin)

The return of New York City Opera
(We're biased, but...indeed.) 

Colin Stetson, Saxophonist
(Anyone remember a screaming sax solo during The Long Count at BAM? That was Stetson.)

Dance Academy, a teen drama about would-be ballerinas from Australia 
(They only have one shot to make it to the top.)

Good slow cooker recipies
(How about Paula Dean's ham hock pinto beans?)

Charlotte Gainsbourg
(Heaven can wait.)

Pussy Riot Russian feminists
(Rage against the Putin machine!)

Don't forget to enter this week's Free Ticket+ Thursdays! The prize: tickets to 'Tis Pity She's a Whore + Friends of BAM membership

Monday, February 27, 2012

Brooklyn Reel Estate: Fort Greene and She's Gotta Have It

“Spike Lee's first feature-length film, She’s Gotta Have It, which was set in Fort Greene, was a turning point for both the neighborhood and for Fort Greene's younger generation of creative artists… She’s Gotta Have It took place in a black neighborhood, it was about black people and it was from a black perspective,” says writer Thulani Davis, “but nobody said anything about that within the context of the narrative. It was taken for granted.”  —E.R. Shipp, The New York Times, “Their Muse is Malcolm X” (December 4, 1988)

Tonight’s edition of BAMcinématek’s monthly Brooklyn film series spotlights BAM’s ‘hood in a Fort Greene double-feature with Nelson George’s documentary Brooklyn Boheme about the Fort Greene renaissance in the 80s along with one of the products of that explosive period of creativity, Spike Lee’s debut feature She’s Gotta Have It.

It’s been nearly 26 years since Spike Lee shot his first feature for $175,000 and joined contemporaries Jim Jarmusch and Steven Soderbergh to usher in a new wave of American independent cinema, but the film’s playful, fresh energy and its cultural relevance have not diminished even a tad. Released when Brooklyn still played second fiddle to Manhattan in the eyes of most of the world outside New York, Lee’s film was one of the first cultural entertainment objects that portrayed Brooklyn as a colorful (even if the film is largely black and white), imaginative, and cool habitat—one which possessed a low-key, but vital sense of artistic community that rivaled its more well-advertised neighbor up north. There was more to Brooklyn than crime, car chases, and Coney Island.

It’s fascinating that its release coincided with the infancy of BAM’s Next Wave Festival (launched in 1983) and these were two of the horns that trumpeted to the world that Brooklyn had arrived. Indeed, “Their Muse is Malcolm X,” the seminal New York Times article on Fort Greene’s emergence as a center of black creativity, posits that the rush of media attention on the neighborhood that resulted from Lee’s film fostered a population surge of artists and creative thinkers that was a harbinger of the Brooklyn we know today.

Lee’s love letter to Fort Greene, where his film production company 40 Acres and a Mule still sits only a stone’s throw from BAM, features a handful of well-known Brooklyn locations as well as many Fort Greene shots that capture the flavor of the neighborhood.

Here’s a gallery of memorable images from the film (some of which resemble photographs by Brooklyn photographer Jamel Shabazz):

Erland Josephson 1923-2012

Natasha Parry and Erland Josephson in The Cherry Orchard
We at BAM were sad to hear the news of Erland Josephson’s passing. One of Sweden’s greatest actors, Josephson was most well known for his roles in Ingmar Bergman’s films—though Josephson was much more than a Bergman actor. He was also a director and a writer, and he starred in Andrei Tarkovsky’s final masterpiece, The Sacrifice.

Josephson also appeared in two productions in BAM’s Majestic Theater (now the Harvey Theater). First, in 1988, he played Gaev in Peter Brook’s The Cherry Orchard, and in 1991 he played Doctor Rank in Bergman’s A Doll's House. He came back to BAM in 2002 to play Melvil in Bergman's Maria Stuart in the Opera House.

Every performer who has acted or danced or played on BAM’s stages leaves a permanent mark. It is the mark of a human presence. Erland Josephson’s presence will be felt throughout BAM for a very long time.

Friday, February 24, 2012

February Staff Pick: Prima Donna

This month's pick: Prima Donna (Howard Gilman Opera House, Feb 19-25)
Picked by: Joe Guttridge, Publicity Manager

1. Why Prima Donna?
Opera has never really been my thing, but New York City Opera’s productions truly do present the art form in a fresh, modern, and very “New York” way. And somehow, the tale of an aging soprano clinging to her title as “one of the world’s greatest” just never seems to get old.

2. What makes it unique?
Rufus Wainwright, singer-songwriter and recreator of Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert—need I say more?!? The idea of Wainwright amplified to literally operatic proportions sounds pretty unique to me.

3. You might like this if you liked:
Since this will be the US premiere production, it’s hard to say. But I’d wager that if you like Wainwright’s music and the musical Sunset Boulevard—another classic tale of an aging diva—then you will not be disappointed.

4. Guilty-pleasure reason for seeing the show:
Wainwright appeared at the production’s 2009 premiere at the Manchester International Festival dressed as Giuseppe Verdi, so here’s hoping his appearance in New York is equally dramatic!

5. Final words:
New York City Opera has overcome some huge obstacles in an effort to continue bringing its singular vision to New York audiences, and that perseverance alone deserves our attention.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Going Gaga: Ohad Naharin’s Movement Language

Imagine two snakes inside your body—one running along your spine and the other across the width of your arms. Lift your flesh away from your bones. Float, but feel the ground below your feet. These are not uncommon directions I’ve heard from an instructor while practicing Gaga, the movement language developed by Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company. 

Gaga. It sounds like baby talk and has a playfulness that lends itself to the freedom of Naharin’s movement language, which Batsheva dancers do daily. Gaga has also gained popularity worldwide, with classes offered for both dancers and non-dancers. The reason? To connect with pleasure, listen to your body, and build awareness of sensations—a refreshing change from dance forms that require a rigid technique. While recovering from a back injury, Naharin developed Gaga to find ways of moving that worked with his body rather than against it. He developed it into a daily practice for Batsheva, and soon after it arrived in New York, Japan, and elsewhere.

There is no prescribed technique in Gaga. Rather, it’s about personal, investigative research that encourages using all of the senses to become aware of your body. Attention to gravity, texture, tension, and dimensionality are important. This might sound like it requires serious focus, but Gaga also encourages laughter, silliness, and release. Mirrors aren't used in classes—a rarity in dance since most forms rely on them for self-correction. But how refreshing! Self-consciousness literally dissolves. 

In the October 2006 issue of Dance Magazine, Naharin said, "Abolish mirrors; break your mirrors in all studios. They spoil the soul and prevent you from getting in touch with the elements and multidimensional movements and abstract thinking, and knowing where you are at all times without looking at yourself. Dance is about sensations, not about an image of yourself." I love that quote. It captures everything that Gaga stands for. 

The absence of mirrors allows for movement that is more honest, open, and deeply investigative—all of which is evident in Batsheva performances. Batsheva dancers move with intense physicality that emerges from sensations. While performing MAX at BAM in 2009, the company seemed fully present on stage. They possessed magnetic alertness, fluidity, and authenticity in their movement that was undoubtedly rooted in Gaga. Textures, use of breath, and playfulness were particularly noticeable. It’s exciting to think of how the dancers’ personal investigations in Gaga make the leap from studio to stage, offering audiences a raw, wholly satisfying performance.

—Evan Namerow

Experience Gaga at an open class with Batsheva at noon on Saturday, Mar 10. And don't miss Batsheva performing Hora from Mar 7—10 at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House.

Monday, February 20, 2012

BAM Celebrates Presidents Day for 150 years

1993 BAM publication

BAM has a long history of hosting presidents and their families—150 years, to be exact. In fact, Mary Todd Lincoln was in the audience of BAM’s opening night performance in 1861. Every president from Cleveland to Truman appeared at the Academy. FDR, who spoke here 10 times, drew the largest recorded crowd in BAM history—7000, with the approximately 4800 who couldn't be seated spilling onto Lafayette Avenue. In more recent history, then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke here in 1998 for the Martin Luther King Junior celebration.

Check out our record:

Ulysses Simpson Grant  (Memorial service was held at BAM for Grant)
James Abram Garfield
Chester Alan Arthur  (Officiated at opening of Brooklyn Bridge celebration)
Grover Cleveland  (Spoke at BAM both as governor of New York State and as President)
Theodore Roosevelt
William Howard Taft
Woodrow Wilson
Warren Gamaliel Harding
Calvin Coolidge
Herbert Clark Hoover
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Harry S. Truman

The spirit of America's presidents is very much alive at BAM!

Secretary of State (and then-First Lady) Hillary Rodham Clinton with BAM President Karen Brooks Hopkins in 1998

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Aristotle Traviata

By Robert Jackson Wood

Look at all them boxes! The interior of the old Metropolitan Opera House in 1937.
"What Aristotle said: When one buys anything it is because the benefit promises to be greater than the sacrifice. To this may be added, that when the quality is absent from the transaction, the sacrifice is greater than the benefit. A W&J Sloane price indicates the quality, and W&J Sloane quality substantiates the price." —W&J Sloane ad excerpted from below 

As readers probably know, New York City Opera was just at BAM doing Jonathan Miller’s fantastic production of La traviata. As we've written elsewhere, Verdi's warhorse has been here several times before, and we recently went poking around in the archives to see what we could find in the way of blog-worthy material evidence. Among the discoveries was this fascinating program from a 1922 performance by the Metropolitan Opera Company, conducted by Roberto Moranzoni in the wake of the storied reigns of Mahler and Toscanini. It’s a fascinating document, as much for the program proper as for the ads surrounding it: Aristotle selling fabrics and furniture, lunch in a refined atmosphere, diamonds and sapphires for sale.

Program from a 1922 performance of La traviata at BAM. 
We tend today to take for granted the (sometimes completely irrational) association of opera with wealth. But that marriage is an arranged one if anything, with seeds in the Astor Place riots of 1849 (read more about that here) and largely consolidated in the decades surrounding the turn of the century. From its Gilded Age beginning in 1883, the Met was known as much as a meeting place for moneyed industrialists and genteel up-and-comers as it was for the operas it put on. In fact, its original location at Broadway and 39th Street (supplanted by this lovely building, with notably worse acoustics) came to be largely because the older Academy of Music—4,000 seats in total but with a mere 18 luxury boxes—could hardly satisfy the degree of public preening demanded by the nouveau riche (William K. Vanderbilt offered to buy one for $30,000 but was refused). By contrast, the new Metropolitan Opera House had 122 boxes, arranged, as historian Joseph Horowitz has written, in a “diamond horseshoe [that] invited bejeweled boxholders to admire one another.” It also encouraged the conspicuous consumption of culture itself. For the newly wealthy, still self-conscious about their (and their nation’s) emergent status, nothing provided a better symbol of the moral betterment and spiritual uplift to which they aspired than glitzy European opera.

The original Metropolitan Opera House at Broadway and 39th Street, 1905.
Photo courtesy of the Detroit Publishing Company
To make a gross generalization, this all still held in the1920s when the company would regularly hop the East River to perform at the comparatively box-less BAM. For a furniture ad to peddle its high-end wares by way of Aristotle was to try and exploit the ways that spiritual and material consumption could become indistinguishable from one another, ways that were largely symbolized by the Met itself. My guess is that Met’s patrons didn’t need to be reminded that “when one buys anything it is because the benefit promises to be greater than the sacrifice.” But it couldn’t hurt to remind them that buying in general could be rationalized by the thinking of no less than a standard-bearing Greek philosopher.

For further reading, see Lawrence Levine's colorful Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in AmericaJoseph Horowitz's Wagner Nights: An American History, and our post on the early days of BAM.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Poetry 2012: Expression in the Right Direction: Grand Slam!

Photo: Yosra El-Essawy
When Baba Israel and DJ Reborn take the stage on March 9 as part of the multi-artist spoken word performance Poetry 2012: Expression in the Right Direction, it will be the exciting outgrowth of a BAM program that initially exposed New York City students to professional spoken word performance.

BAM’s Education Department launched its poetry program in 2004, giving students an opportunity to explore their own voices and use poetry as a tool for self-expression. Along with school-based residencies led by BAM teaching artists, students attend a special daytime performance featuring some of the best poets in the country. These riveting annual shows began to attract interest beyond a student population, leading BAM to create the first evening incarnation this year—open to the public at large and staged at the BAM Harvey Theater.

Poetry 2012: Expression in the Right Direction, directed by Monica Williams, is a cross-generational, interdisciplinary performance featuring diverse, groundbreaking poets who demonstrate the vitality of the spoken word. It is a theatrical poetry experience, shaped by this year’s theme—Grand Slam! —with a roster of performers whose work speaks to diverse influences, including the Beat writers, the Black Arts Movement, hip-hop culture, and a wide range of theater experience. Poetry 2012 explores a mesmerizing art form imbued with social consciousness and personal discovery.

The evening is hosted by master of ceremonies Baba Israel (MC, spoken word artist, educator, and current artistic director of Contact Theatre in Manchester, England) and features the acclaimed DJ Reborn, who has spun at live shows by The Roots and John Legend. Featured performers include jessica Care moore, Ishmael “Ish” Islam, Jamaal St. John, “Mighty” Mike McGee, NeNe Ali, and The Striver’s Row Poets.

Past participants have included Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway artists Staceyann Chin, Steve Coleman, and Lemon Andersen; as well as Ishle Yi Park, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Carol Hancock Rux, music and dance artists including Universes, Rockafella, and other nationally recognized poets/slam artists.  

Poetry 2012: Expression in the Right Direction invites you to explore the power of the word through the art form’s most intrepid and adventurous disciples.

—Sandy Sawotka

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Next Wave Infamy: The Birth of the Poet

The Birth of the Poet
After the Paris premiere of Robert Wilson’s Deafman Glance in 1971, founding Surrealist Louis Aragon famously declared that the 29-year-old Wilson “is what we, from whom Surrealism was born, dreamed would come after us and go beyond us.” It’s a shame that none of the Dadaists were still around (or that none of the living Surrealists still adhered to Dada’s program of playfully nihilistic absurdity) when Wilson’s contemporary, Richard Foreman, broke onto the scene in the late 60s. A shame, because just as long as Wilson has been carrying the torch of Surrealism, expanding its theatrical possibilities, Foreman has been doing something similar with Dada.

Perhaps the silence of Dada’s founders toward Richard Foreman is a sort of Dadaistic passing of the torch. A goal of Dada performance, after all, was to enrage the audience, to shake them out of placid passivity. Such a nihilistic approach to creation cancels out the possibilities of tradition.

Which brings us to The Birth of the Poet, Foreman’s production of a play written by downtown legend Kathy Acker, with music by Peter Gordon and sets by David Salle. Part of 1985’s Next Wave Festival, The Birth of the Poet was reviled at its premiere: the audience (those who hadn’t already walked out) barraged the actors with boos, and the next day’s reviews unanimously echoed the audience’s rage. The Birth of the Poet is still considered one of the most panned shows of the Next Wave.   

Monday, February 13, 2012

BAM and the Black Brooklyn Renaissance

Chuck Davis Dance Company, DanceAfrica, ca. 1970s. Photo courtesy of Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble

BAM has drawn significantly from the borough’s deep well of cultural resources, particularly from the African-American community in Brooklyn and the surrounding metropolitan area. From historic performances and lectures by Harlem Renaissance heavy hitters such as Langston Hughes (1945), Marian Anderson (1938), and Duke Ellington (1968), to New York’s own Society of Black Composers (1969) and BAM’s long-running DanceAfrica Festival (which began in 1977), BAM has been key in bringing black arts and culture to the Brooklyn stage.

It’s no surprise then that the BAM Hamm Archives would be chosen as one of nine repositories for the Black Brooklyn Renaissance Digital Archive (BBR), a recent initiative to preserve the history of black arts and culture in Brooklyn. The rest are distributed at other research institutions around primarily Brooklyn and Manhattan and include the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Black Brooklyn Renaissance Digital Archive from Brooklyn Arts Council on Vimeo.

The two-year-long project by the Brooklyn Arts Council, in partnership with the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, seeks to celebrate the “many ways black performing artists, primarily those working in music, dance, and spoken word, have contributed to the borough’s significance as a center of black culture in New York and the world” through field research, public performances, exhibitions, panels and other documentation. The project culminates in an archival collection of 73 DVDs organized by genres (dance, music, visual art, spoken word, etc…), separated into performance events and artist interviews.

Using the Harlem Renaissance as the project’s symbolic point of departure, it documents the mid-century counterpoint in Brooklyn and celebrates black Brooklyn’s renaissance of the 1960s through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and continuing today. Beginning in 2010, the project held programming at various Brooklyn institutions to highlight the borough's cultural assets. During the yearlong program, BBR held events at BAM such as Black Brooklyn Renaissance: The New Generation (BAMcafé, February 12, 2011); Word is Brooklyn, a celebration of traditional and contemporary spoken word (BAMcafe, November 19, 2010); and interviewed BAM regulars such as Chuck Davis, founder and artistic director of DanceAfrica.

Erin Matson, BAM Hamm Archives Intern

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Executive Files: LL Cool J Orders Chinese Food

BAM President Karen Brooks Hopkins has been at BAM since 1979, first working with Harvey Lichtenstein in the development department. The blog will feature anecdotes from her storied BAM tenure, as well as from Executive Producer Joseph V. Melillo.
Historical reenactment of LL and Karen in 1988.
With the Grammys tonight and LL Cool J serving as host, I reflect back on a Next Wave Gala in 1988 when LL attended as our guest.

It was one of those evenings that featured a fairly lengthy performance followed by dinner. LL was unhappy with the menu (wild mushroom flan and salmon with sorrel sauce) and decided to order Chinese food, which was delivered to the gala. It was pretty hilarious to see the delivery man show up, be directed to LL’s table, and then to watch LL and other guests ditch the gala food in favor of pork fried rice and chicken wings!

Karen Brooks Hopkins, President of BAM

Friday, February 10, 2012

Ten Reasons Why Jonathan Miller Is Awesome

The next time you're feeling constrained by career choices or boxed in by the whims of fate, it might be good to consider the career of Jonathan Miller, director of New York City Opera's production of La traviata, currently running at BAM. A true polymath, Miller has proven that being both a jack and a master of all trades is only a few TV shows, books, and operas away. Here are 10 reasons we think he's awesome.

1.  He is president of something called The RationalistAssociation.

2.  He is a trained neurologist and revered medical historican.

3.  He produced a multi-part miniseries on atheism called A History of Disbelief (2004) for the BBC in which he says things like “I will not be seen leaning over a balcony watching René Descartes nibbling his quill while he struggles with the problem of mind/brain duality.” First part here:

4.  He produced another multi-part mini-series on the BBC entitled The Body in Question (1978), in which he says things like: “The reason why Dudley Moore is so at ease on this keyboard is that he has no need to rehearse the keyboard he has inside his own spinal cord.”

5.  He wrote and produced Beyond the Fringe, a proto-Monty Python and Saturday Night Live sketch comedy revue. Clip here:

6.  He started directing opera when he couldn’t even read music. Some of his thoughts on acting in opera:

7.  He is highly opinionated about pants:

8.  He did an avant-garde adult version of Alice in Wonderland (1966) with music by Ravi Shankar:

9.  For a time, he was vice president of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

10.  His production of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, thrice performed at BAM, is legendary:

Simon Critchley on The Faith of the Faithless talk

Dear BAM blog readers,

Thanks to the hospitality of BAM, I had the great good fortune to launch my new book—The Faith of the Faithless—with a conversation with Cornel West on February 7th. It was a wonderful evening, full of joy in front of an attentive and very large audience.

We’d like to present three short video segments. The audio of the entire event is available here:

The first segment (and these segments were chosen by the people at BAM, so don’t think I am being ridiculously immodest) is Cornel saying some outrageously nice things about me. I thank him profoundly, although I think he has me confused with someone else.

The second segment is about love. For me, faith is fidelity to an infinite demand which has to be underwritten by love. Love is a new concept in my work, for reasons that I go into in the full audio version and in the book, but let’s say that the faith of the faithless is an openness to love, as giving what one does not have and receiving that over which one has no power.

The third segment is from a moment in the discussion where Cornel and I talk about love by way of the difference between the Socratic, philosophical experience of questioning and the religious experience of self-impoverishment and the establishment of communities of love.

I respect and admire Cornel and was deeply honored and flattered that he accepted our invitation to speak at BAM. Now, Cornel is from the US and I’m from a little, muddy island off the Continental European coast, but because of the vagaries of the English class system, where white English working class kids such as myself grew up in the 1960s and 70s listening to Black American music, I grew up listening to the same music as Cornel and—this would be another conversation for another time—we could and should have a serious philosophical rumination at BAM about music, about poetry, about the great Otis Redding, James Brown, Al Green, Bootsy Collins, Parliament and Funkadelic and the sacred and true President Clinton, George not Bill, and greatest of them all, the poet and activist Curtis Mayfield.

Cornel and I have picked a couple of philosophical bones in the past, on my idea of philosophy beginning in disappointment and my implicit romanticism, disappointed romanticism. For Cornel, there is no disappointment, but there was no appointment in the first place. There is no disillusion because there was no illusion in the first place. It’s just been the same old shit since the beginning, piling up ever higher. We can call it civilization and it smells bad. I accept his Chekhovian or Sophoclean critique of my position and have tried to rethink what I say in The Faith of the Faithless in the light of it, which I think becomes clear when I talk about history in terms of a history of violence, of a seemingly unending movement of violence and counter-violence. Also, I was eager to hear what he thinks about my views on religion. I remember in a debate a few years ago at the New School and asking him why he is a Christian. I guess he might well ask me the same question now. Anyhow, you can hear the full debate in details on the audio file.
I hope you enjoy it and we’d be curious to hear your feedback.

Yours truly,

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Ghosts That Haunt BAM’s Richard III

Kevin Spacey might be feeling a lot of pressure these days—and not merely because he’s playing the title role in over 50 performances of Richard III at BAM’s Harvey Theater this season. The pressure comes not from the strain of playing the same character night after night, nor from the craftsman’s need to nightly renew the complex energies of the Duke of Gloucester. We trust that Spacey can do this. Instead, the pressure comes from the walls. It comes from the voices of BAM’s past.

Richard III has a particularly fascinating history at BAM. Its first performance was in BAM’s third season, in October 1863, back when theaters in New York and Brooklyn were the battlegrounds for class warfare (read more about these early controversies at BAM here). And who starred in this first Richard III production at BAM? John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln’s assassin.

It seems, however, that the show didn’t go over so well. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle offered a single-sentence review of his performance: “On Saturday, to a poor house, Wilkes Booth gave a wretchedly appointed though well acted representation of Richard the Third.” It’s a nuanced, brusque critique—and Wilkes Booth must have felt the slap by this anonymous critic. He left Brooklyn shortly after, ostensibly never to return (though here is an interesting article conjecturing that Booth was in Brooklyn shortly before Lincoln’s assassination).

Friday, February 3, 2012

This Week in BAM History: Laurie Anderson’s United States

Laurie Anderson is an artist with a lifelong obsession with the history and fate of her native country. Since the late 1970s, when she began presenting sections of her magnum opus, United States, Anderson has been preoccupied with capturing all varieties of the American experience. And since United States (including her many subsequent shows at BAM), it seems that Anderson has taken literally Walt Whitman’s injunction that the American poet must walk among the common people of the country.

In fact, Anderson may well be our era’s Whitman. Just as Whitman endeavored to embody what he taught in his writings by serving as a nurse in the Civil War, Anderson has worked both on an Amish farm and at a McDonald’s in Chinatown, and more recently she has been heavily involved in the Occupy movement. She often refers to herself as an anthropologist, and undoubtedly these experiences enrich the American narratives Anderson has been spinning for the past four decades.

Laurie Anderson in United States
United States was the first major articulation by Anderson on the contemporary American experience. Its centerpiece—the single “O Superman”—became a surprise hit in Britain in 1981, pushing Anderson to widespread fame. When the entirety of United States was ready to be performed, BAM had the honor of presenting its world premiere over the course of the week of February 3rd, 1983. In the program notes, Anderson wrote:
“When I began to write United States I thought of it as a portrait of a country. Gradually I realized it was really a description of any technological society and of peoples' attempts to live in an electronic world.

“Like the work of many Americans—Melville, Hemingway, Mark Twain—much of it happens off shore. For perspective. Or on the roads: those moving diagrams of progress, Utopia, and the passage of time.”
Spoken like a true American artist, Anderson here emphasizes not the geographical borders but the perceptual borders that determine These States. In other words, Anderson’s America is not a shape on a map, but an expansion through physical and digital space. If we want to know the answer to the questions Whitman posed to himself in his poem “Salut au Monde”—“What widens within you Walt Whitman? / What waves and soils exuding?”—we need look no further than Laurie Anderson.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Iconic Artist Talk: Meredith Monk

It seems like Meredith Monk has always worn her hair in braids. Sometimes several, sometimes only one or two, but always braids. It’s a fitting consistency for an artist who’s been just as unwavering in her artistic goals. Sure, there have been changes in scale, in personnel, and the occasional need for a magnificent tower with a double helix staircase, like artist/collaborator Ann Hamilton's. But always, it seems, to the same life-affirming ends: the celebration of the voice, prior to language; the use of the body as a sonic canvas; and the exploration of the universal archetypes with which these things timelessly resonate. All of that over the course of 50 years.

Monk will be at BAM on February 15 for one of our Iconic Artist Talks, and this is a great time to remember why at least one of those ends was so historically important. In the 1960s, instrumentalists had already long been experimenting with the “non-linguistic” underbelly of music (the equivalent of what Monk would do with the voice). John Coltrane’s Ascension, for example, traded slick bebop licks for the screeches and noises between notes; Györgi Ligeti’s Atmosphères engulfed the listener in clouds of sublimely dissonant sound. But the emotiveness behind both of those works was mediated by instruments. For a human voice to make those sounds—particularly a female voice—was unheard of. An instrument yelps and scratches and evokes the technique of the player; a voice does the same and it risks evoking madness and pain. When Monk came out with works like Dolmen Music in the 70s, she was allowing the voice to be vulnerable and emotive in a way that was completely brave and new. She was also forcing listeners to come to terms with the highly constructed images of women that had, until then, dominated the stage. No diva was she.

There are other remarkable things, of course. Like the fact that almost her entire oeuvre was transmitted orally without the use of notation, allowing her to go without an official publisher until 2001. But best to stop there and let some of her work do the talking. Check out these exclusive videos from the BAM Hamm Archives and, of course, Monk herself on February 15 as she revisits her remarkable career at BAM.

Meredith Monk's Quarry (1977), her first appearance at BAM

Meredith Monk's impermanence (2006)

More videos:
Meredith Monk in Peter Greenaway's "Four American Composers" (1983) series