|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.|
The Numinosum Blog
After reading this disturbing New Yorker article about wrongful execution, it was good to know about there is a program in Texas to compensate and help wrongfully imprisoned inmates who are later exonerated. Not an excuse for all of the years these men spent behind bars but it is comforting to know that justice and fairness does live. Maybe Texas's generous program, and the cost to strapped tax-payers and governments, will make all prosecutors remember William Blackstone's principle "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer" and get things right BEFORE convicting.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 11:36 AM
40 years ago yesterday was the start of the Woodstock Festival and reading and thinking about it sparked other thoughts about another icon of the 60s, the Beatles and the hoopla surrounding the upcoming release of remastered Beatles albums in September. And I realized something, which I've felt for sometime now, but only manifested into concrete form during my contemplations:
I'm not a fan of the Beatles or of Woodstock.
Now before I hear classic cries of heresy that usually accompany displeasure of something canonical ("how can you not like the Beatles?", "are you crazy?", "you have no taste in music", etc.), my lack of enthusiasm for the Beatles and Woodstock is not for lack of understanding (I guess some WOULD say I lack understanding if I don't like them). I have seen the Woodstock DVD and listened to many Beatles songs over the years (both originals and arrangements--I have the Basie on Beetles vinyl somewhere and a Wes Montgomery rendition of "A Day in the Life"). I have read about both and yes, I get that the Beatles revolutionized recording techniques and influenced all popular songcraft (and celebrity) and yes I get Woodstock marked a sort of milestone of cultural and musical convergence of (some of) the 196o's themes: hippies, war, peace, love, rock and roll.
It's just that they don't move me. Well, at least not in the same way that they seem to move all the arbiters of cultural relevance. Don't get me wrong, I do respect the Beatles and even like some songs (especially from Sgt. Pepper's; also this past winter on the radio I listened intently to The Beatles White Album Listening Party and was fascinated by some of what I heard and certainly plan to add that album to my collection when the remaster comes out). And with Woodstock, while really enjoying Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Joe Cocker among other performances on the concert film, when I start to hear people talk about their recollections of being at Woodstock as some incredible moment!, my eyes start to glaze over like when people say, "ah, back in the day, New York in the _____'s, that was the real New York" or "you should'a been at Ebbets Field". I feel like that women in the Wrigley's commercial who while looking for another piece of gum misses "the moment".
Sure, hearing about "back in the day" can be interesting and fascinating, but it can also sometimes strike me as a bit distant and off-putting. I did this, lived through this, heard this...and you didn't. In some ways it doesn't value the present, always looking back to a (real or imagined) "better time" which I guess we are all guilty of at times.
So still knowing all that I do about Woodstock and the Beatles, hearing and seeing what I've seen and heard, I always come back to, what's the big deal? It's like that line about Elvis in Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" (comes 2:38 in video), and I paraphrase (and cleaning it up) here: a hero to most, don't mean anything to me. Writer John Murph on The Root has an interesting article looking at Woodstock from a different perspective but for me as a rational, intellectual person (regardless of personal background), shouldn't the adoration of the Beatles and Woodstock be up there like other (supposed) high cultural totems: French cinema from the 60's, Ginsburg, Seinfeld, Ellison, Radiohead, Duke Ellington?
We've all met or dated people where you do like each other but you're missing that thing, that spark, that "YES YES YES YES YES YES" moment in your brain, of real emotional (or physical) connection with another. For me, I think the Beatles and Woodstock will always be that respected acquaintance I'll see at a distance or run across every so often, but whom, for me, there is no there there. Not that there's anything wrong with that...
On an entirely different subject, Friday was Magic Johnson's 50th birthday and as Roy S. Johnson writes on his Yahoo Sports Blog, "I never thought I'd see this celebration". Magic was one of my favorites players growing up. I remember seeing the Michigan State (Magic)-Indiana State (Larry Bird) dual, Magic's rookie season NBA Final's heroics ("back in the day"--see even I can't get away from it!--the broadcast from the West Coast came on at 10 or 11pm Eastern Standard Time-can't imagine THAT happening now), playoff battles with the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, and later the Chicago Bulls, and of course, his announcement of HIV and early retirement. As Roy Johnson points out, with all of his post-NBA business dealings, Magic is one of the few athletes to make more money in retirement than during his playing days.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 6:58 AM
Yesterday I read Nate Chinen's posting about this year's Chamber Music America New Jazz Works commissioning program and was planning to write a response, but then read an intriguing answer on NPR's A Blog Supreme and I wanted to take up one of the reactions posted on A Blog Supreme:
Someone must have something to say about the fact that none of the [Chamber Music America New Jazz Works] recipients this year are black. And that only a small handful in the past have been either. I by no means intend to suggest that the CMA is racist; if anything, I suspect it's a question of demographics in who's applying for these grants. (As a side note, many of the artists selected this year -- Rez Abbasi, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Jason Kao Hwang and Amir ElSaffar among them -- are from ethnic groups underrepresented in jazz.) This, of course, taps into a larger question about the paths that African Americans are taking in jazz and improvised music these days, and how those career trajectories may differ from the majority of artists who find themselves inspired by abstract expressionism or studying the hand drums of Central Asia or whatever. I am not qualified to elaborate on this; I hope someone else is.
While I certainly agree that the reasons for a lack of African-American grantees was probably more to do with who applied than anything else, the larger question posed of "the paths that African Americans are taking in jazz and improvised music these days" is a bit like why there are so few African-Americans in professional baseball after an honorable and distinguished history in the sport. Just as many black kids who might have picked baseball as their sport of choice now gravitate to basketball or football, I believe that many young African-American musicians will tend not toward jazz but to popular forms (rap, hip-hop, or nu soul), if they consider music at all, because they seem most validated and visible in terms of a broader cultural (and possible financial) relevance and sometimes as an acceptance in the black community as well.
Not that there aren't black musicians interested in abstract expressionism or Eastern cultures or rock or any other art form not typically considered black. Today, as there have almost always been, many African-Americans interested in traditionally non-black musical forms, both serious and arty and more popular (Earl Greyhound, TV on the Radio, Imani Winds, George Walker, Cowboy Troy, Darius Rucker, and I'll include myself in this list). Maybe a problem is how those musicians (and others) are valued or perceived both in the general and black public and press, not on the quality of their work. An on-going dialogue 'Ain't But a Few of Us: Black Jazz Writers Tell Their Story at The Independent Ear discusses the lack of coverage of black serious music by even the mainstream black press but I think it also focuses a light on what all press in general deem important, worth covering or probably more accurately, what the editors believe the readers want to read (actually A Blog Supreme's reaction #4 hints at this dilemma as well). With choice of what is covered denotes the perception of "importance" or "worthiness" and I think writer John Murph put it cogently for some African-American musicians in an interview on The Independent Ear when he says, "...there’s the whole idea of what is deemed more artistically valid when it comes to jazz artists incorporating contemporary pop music. I notice a certain disdain when some black jazz artists channel R&B, funk, and hip-hop, while their white contemporaries get kudos for giving makeovers to the likes of Radiohead, Nick Drake, and Bjork." Is Brad Mehldau better (more valid) than Jason Moran because the former covers songs from critically acclaimed alt-rock band Radiohead and the latter covered a song from proto-hiphop/electronica Afrika Bambaataa? This is of course a silly and wrong question (of course, the jazzers will agree that both are of high artistic merit). But how each artist is perceived by the cultural tastemakers, gatekeepers, and mavens, I think is a more interesting question.
Going back to Nate Chinen and A Blog Supreme's musings on the "grant monsters", those artists that are "grant-ready" who consistently get the funding for their projects, the more substantial question is how those grant monster's 'worth' is perceived by winning grants? My guess is that the perception of them changes when they win (and subsequently, those that don't win are perceived less favorably). Here I think of Steve Reich and his many years as Pulitzer-Prize runner-up. For me and most people, and probably to him, I don't think it mattered that he hadn't won. Disappointing, maybe. Affecting his own worth in new music circles, no. But once he did win, I think there was a subtle shift in the perception of him in others. Rightly or wrongly, award or grant winner (and any buzz surrounding it) can represent to some an air of officialness and validation. Then it DOES affect the future opportunities that musician will receive (much as Malcolm Gladwell talks about early, unseen advantages building up through time, in his book, Outliers). David Lang in an interview on NewMusicBox and Counterstream Radio humorously and candidly talks about this shift in the perceptions of him among others after winning the Pulitzer Prize last year (he even, quite honestly, talks about how he isn't immune himself to this perception game). Is Alfred Hitchcock any less worthy not winning an Oscar? John Stockton and Karl Malone in not winning a NBA championship? Carl Yaztrzemski, in not a World Series? The question isn't on the actual quality of their work, but rightly or wrongly, on the perception of others whether that work IS quality, based on what someone "official" says is quality or valid.
And whether something is perceived as quality hits on the head what I think because since the majority of tastemakers, gatekeepers, mavens are not black (or women), and often come from different socio-economic and educational backgrounds and experiences, maybe sometimes African-American musicians (or women) might not be as fully understood, valued, or appreciated as someone coming from the same background (see John Murph quote above). I think of some of the reactions to the OJ Simpson verdict in the different communities (for the record, I think he was guilty but I also understand the other side quite well), the reaction to Judge Sotomeyer's "wise Latina" remark, and of course the recent brouhaha over the Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates arrest, that all hinge on these different perceptions and thereby hindering full understanding of the other side (the New York Times Room for Debate blog has some interesting thoughts in the Professor Gates arrest as how the conscious and unconscious perceptions of both the professor and the officer contributed to the situation; like one of the experts, I, too have my own personal stories of questioning looks, stoppages, etc. from police and others).
The real question though is can we acknowledge our limitations with own 'cone of experiences' and have empathy and understanding on all sides? I would say, absolutely.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 6:40 PM
Went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince yesterday (no, not the midnight showing-I don't do that anymore...). And while I have eagerly read and loved the books, I have been ambivalent about seeing the movies. In fact this was the first of the movies I have seen in the theatre and have only seen a couple of the previous films adaptations, well after their initial theatrical release. I think one reason I'm not so excited about the films is that they only hint at the fullness of the world JK Rowling created. Yes, film is a different medium and SHOULD be different than the books, but I often find myself missing the subtle nuances that are in the book. And sometimes, because there is only so much time to show things, you get (in my opinion) awkward breaks or gaps (I found that in all of the movies I've seen but an example in Half-Blood Prince is the scene where for the first time in the movie Dumbledore and Harry are talking about the recalled memories of Tom Riddle; this scene seemed to me to come about unprepared).
Don't get me wrong, I loved seeing how the director and creators of the film translate Rowling's words to visual images: the Qudditich scenes in Half-Blood Prince were quite thrilling and exciting and there are many beautifully composed shots, even some of the casual, quiet moments (a shot of Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Jenny just sitting, for example). I really did enjoy the movie but I also felt it more of an expositional penultimate place-holder for the ultimate finish in the next two planned movies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (I felt the same way after seeing Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones, it was all just a lead up to revealing Darth Vader in The Revenge of the Sith). It was also exciting to see that one of my former students was one of the 3D artists for Half-Blood Prince. When her name rolled across the credits at the end, I was happy and proud to know that she has done so well for herself.
One other thought after seeing the movie was that it made me realize once more what a wonderful creation JK Rowling came up with when she brought Harry Potter into the world. The books (and many parts of the movie) are such a richly detailed world, full of mystery, humor, fun, and tragedy, it makes me marvel at her imaginative acumen. In many ways, the epic sweep of the books create a totality that mimics the best of all myths and stories. In fact from the lightness of the first two books to the change to a darker, more ominous tone starting with The Prisoner of Azkaban, but more so in Goblet of Fire and the later books chronicling the "dark times", Harry Potter's journey reminds me of the classic enlightenment stories of so many cultures throughout the world. And that kind of creativity is very inspiring to me. Laurie Anderson in an interview said, "I feel that [a] work has really succeeded when somebody says, 'I saw or heard your piece and I got so many ideas from it'" and that good art work makes you "want to jump up and get out of there" and create something yourself. JK Rowling's Harry Potter is a reminder to me to go out and create my own musical worlds equally enriched, layered, textured, and memorable.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 12:00 PM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.