Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Overheard on the El



A: What I love about living in Chicago is that every night of the week, interesting people are putting on interesting work.

B:  But you never go to anything! Nobody does! And when I go to shows, I only see audiences of about eight people!

A: True, but knowing that interesting people are putting on interesting shows helps motivate me to stay home and try to do interesting work.

B: So you can perform in an empty club? There is something wrong with your logic, but I can't put my finger on it.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Can this democracy be saved?

Ballet is an undemocratic art form, for which biological freaks are chosen from the general population, usually abused when young, and abandoned after they reach a certain age. The relationship between the audience and the dancer is subjugatory -- the dancer expands the awe-struck audience's understanding of the physiologically possible, but the fleeting temporality of a dancer's career is a reminder of the power structure that made the career possible.

Ballet started under the Bourbon domination of France, and it is the favorite art form of many authoritarian governments. Goebels made an exception for modern dance, and Leni Riefenstahl, as a former dancer, reconceptualized political rallies and sporting events as elaborate dance spectacles, in order to serve the Nazi cause.  The alternation between tightly choreographic group dances, with individuality subsumed into the broader organism, and the specific heroism of the individual dancers, naturally supports fascist belief systems, and it is unsurprising that Stalin famously used the ballet as an effective subjugational tool throughout his empire. 

While choreographed spectacle is fascistic, amateur theater -- shows performed by people acting from a genuine love of theater -- is probably the most democratic art form. The multifarious responses to theater are, by their nature, more ambiguous and less easily controlled than the emotions aroused by dance and spectacle. The dichotomy between spectacle and art puts spectacle at one pole -- with the goal of cowing people into submission -- and art -- wanting to elevate individuals into a sense of self-worth -- at the other. Dance and spectacle exist in a clear hierarchy -- one can almost mathematically measure a dancer's exact location on a precise spectrum of professionalism; whereas theater is sloppier, weirder and more generous. Even a High School play can sometimes connect its audience to their core emotions, but three people watching the same performance by a "world-class actor" can be in complete disagreement -- one might see farce, another was moved to tears, and the third was completely unaffected. Theater provides surprising pleasures in unexpected places, while spectacle and dance are more literally quantifiable: with spectacles, politicians get more "bang" for their "bucks" -- a docile and unified public, who know and accept their place.

The current mayor of Chicago, a classically trained ballet dancer, has been closing schools, libraries and mental health centers, but remains eager to spend civic money on dance festivals and spectacles, revranding Chicago as a global destination for a certain type of mindless entertainment. But the dialectic teaches that you cannot defeat the human need for balance. If you shut down schools and devalue education, people spontaneously arise and share whatever limited knowledge that has fallen into their hands. If you try to guide Chicagoans towards vacuous mass spectacles, they will naturally gravitate toward personal, thoughtprovoking and intimate experiences. If you tell people that they are only meaningful as a tiny shard in a giant mosaic, they will reflect on their individuality.

The Hypocrites performance of "All Our Tragic" at the Den Theater is a countervailing force, rising against the dehumanizing tendencies of both popular and avant-garde entertainment. The script forms about nine hours of drama -- a Gesamtkunstwerk combining elements of the 32 surviving Greek Tragedies into an extended history of the House of Atreus and the Seven Sisters, with music, food, costumes, and blood, lots of blood (absent from the preview that I attended, owing to equipment failure). A common criticism is that Hypocrites' "acting style" over-relies on Schtick, and some audience members dreaded the possibility of enduring twelve hours of knowing asides and silly voices. In this case, however, Schtick was more post-Brechtean Entfremdung than Clichee -- it repeatedly recalibrated the audience to approach the genuine emotion with fresh feelings, never numb and alienated from the horror and tragedy as the constant interjection of twenty-first century comic sensibilities repeatedly pulled them back into themselves, allowing them to return fresh attention back to the stage. Further, if we are conceptualizing "high art" in terms of social control, "schtick" is both egalitarian and anathema to high art, so it was a constant reminder of the democratizing "low art" possibilities of Greek Drama.

The performance could be summed up as Wagnerian ambitions serving a counter-Wagnerian agenda. From the chaos of Ancient Greek tragedy, Sean Graney finds a common thread of democratic hope, presenting the plays as an Athenian tool for contemplating their nature as humans and their duties as citizens. This is a fresh an interesting approach to the corpus of extant Greek tragedies, usually categorized in a Spenglerian descent from Aeschylus (contemplating the relationship between human will and the divine order), through Sophocles (contemplating the irreconcilability  of different ideals) to Euripides (contemplating the chaos and conflict between different psychological motivations): Graney presents them in thematic and rough chronological order of the mythological events in the plays, with the sequence closing on the guarded optimism of the final play in Aeschylus' Oresteia.

I left the theater hoping that we are not necessarily living in an age of existentialist Euripedean self-interest and psychological disintegration, but maybe we can still approach our politics with the hope and possibility of the Golden Age of Athens, utilizing art's healing power rather taking it as a narcotic to blot out the pain that we inflict on ourselves. Was that the intention of the director, costume designer, lighting crew, gore manager, actors, and sound designer? Probably not: They are creating an art work, with a perspectival take on almost a hundred archetypical characters, a day of theater which the audiences lucky enough to experience will be thinking about and debating for years to come.

So that was my take, but I encourage everybody lucky enough to be in Chicago for this show to see it for themselves.  If you are interested in humanity, culture, politics, society or even just want to meet some Chicagoans and theater people (the actors and staff democratically mingle with the patrons during the food breaks -- a day of food was included in the ticket price), you should go.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

metal mania

Last Summer, Bohemian National Cemetery in Chicago hosted one of the best concerts of the year, the experimental-metal collective Wrekmeister Harmonies' nocturnal open-air performance of the piece, "You've always meant so much to me", later selected as one of Spin Magazine top twenty metal albums of the 2013. Performed in its entirety, accompanied by video of Detroit's urban decay and the desolate landscapes of the Joshua Tree National Forest, it was a powerful reminder of the transitory nature of civilization.  Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

Last week, Wrekmeister Harmonies returned to the the same venue, with an even more ambitious programme.

First, for the unfamiliar, some background on the evolution of the indie metal world over the last few years.  Locked in their basements, studying scales, practicing their craft, windows covered with aluminum foil, metal performers have gotten very good at playing their instruments. Further, the sheer excesses of the metal lifestyle have brought many major metal figures face to face with death, and those who survived the excesses are grateful to be alive. Finally, indie metal was always about thwarting expectations, now that the expectations are negative,  the goal of thwarting expectations has become thwarting negative expectations.  In short, the misanthropy at the heart of metal has led to isolation, which has led to skill, authenticity and wisdom.

How does this relate to last week's performance? The piece itself was an investigation of Gesualdo da Venosa, the bug-eyed murdering aristocrat, as famous for stabbing his wife twenty six times as he was for composing music whose harmonic constructs anticipated modernism. Again, for the unfamiliar, the music of Gesualdo is a historical puzzle. His compositions slide around chromatically, clearly not beholden to any specific key. Aldous Huxley listened to Gesualdo after taking hallucinogens, and wrote:


Mozart's C-Minor Piano Concerto was interrupted after the first movement, and a recording of some madrigals by Gesualdo took its place.
'These voices' I said appreciatively, 'these voices – they're a kind of bridge back to the human world.'
And a bridge they remained even while singing the most startlingly chromatic of the mad prince's compositions. Through the uneven phrases of the madrigals, the music pursued its course, never sticking to the same key for two bars together. In Gesualdo, that fantastic character out of a Webster melodrama, psychological disintegration had exaggerated, had pushed to the extreme limit, a tendency inherent in modal as opposed to fully tonal music. The resulting works sounded as though they might have been written by the later Schoenberg.
'And yet,' I felt myself constrained to say, as I listened to these strange products of a Counter-reformation psychosis working upon a late medieval art form, 'and yet it does not matter that he's all in bits. The whole is disorganized. But each individual fragment is in order, is a representative of a Higher Order. The Highest Order prevails even in the disintegration. The totality is present even in the broken pieces. More clearly present, perhaps, than in a completely coherent work. At least you aren't lulled into a sense of false security by some merely human, merely fabricated order. You have to rely on your immediate perception of the ultimate order. So in a certain sense disintegration may have its advantages. But of course it's dangerous, horribly dangerous. Suppose you couldn't get back, out of the chaos...'
This is complex music, and the Wrekmeister Harmonies performance asked some very complicated questions. How does music, which unites a tribe and binds people into a social organism, also serve to loosen the bonds of culture -- to the point where a person becomes a murderer? Did the same license that allowed Gesualdo to violate the rules of composition also permit him to kill his wife?

The piece started with doom rock, repeating Gesualdo's chromatics, reminding the audience that the chord progressions that defined their own tribal sense of identity were the same chord progressions of the murderous Gesualdo. Sophisticated members of the audience worried: Was Wrekmeister's rehashing of Gesualdo just a high-brow version of Danzig's integration of Hitlerian audio?

In the center of the piece, a professionally conducted choir assumed the stage and performed one of Gesualdo's madrigals on Death.

Werner Herzog's fictive documentary, Death in Five Voices, portrays Gesualdo as a deranged aristocrat -- a Satanic alchemist whose ghost haunts those become obsessed with Gesualdo's music. Was Wrekmeister Harmonies, having established that Gesualdo condoned murder, summoning an alchemical adept, performing the ceremony inches away from the interred bodies of once happily married couples?

The resolution of the piece, returning to Gesualdo's chromatics, answered this question. In the closing section, Wrekmeister showed that Gesualdo's musical vocabulary, while it may have given permission to murder, also expressed the enormity of his isolation and regret. So the piece ended with Gesualdo's harmonics, but this time the emotional register changed, and Gesualdo's wailing grief -- far from glorifying a murder -- reminded the audience of the preciousness of human life.

On facebook, an attendee wrote after the concert:

What a great show! The music, the cemetery...so, so good.
To the witless turds with your funky, chunky blue frames and red frames, you left your fucking beer cans and Frito bags (Fritos? Seriously? Did your mom pack those for you?) on the grass. Pick up after yourselves. Don't worry your skinny, little pants, though. We picked it up because...litter.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sartor Retardus

with a completely boring, navy-blue, polyester-wool blend black-buttoned blazer, an extremely boring nearly monochromatic tie, a tedious pair of pants, a nondescript belt and an utterly unimaginative shirt -- preferably cotton/polyster blend -- a pocket-square has a faint chance to work. If the blazer has brass buttons, the tie has any character at all, the pants are pleated or made from nice fabric, even if the shirt has shell buttons, it is already too much. The message has to be "everything about my wardrobe says that I am a beaten man, but -- look! -- I have some nice silk in pocket! maybe there is hope!"


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

When people ask for a seat at the table, they are not asking a new menu

In an unjust world, it is considered an injustice to be blocked from participating in the general injustice. The meek are blessed for a reason.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why selfish people think more efficiently

Consideration imposes a cognitive tax, so it is the difference between a multi-threaded and a single-threaded application.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Overheard on the El

Why would I pay a restaurant to cook "Fusion" food? If I want "fusion" food, all I gotta do is not go grocery shopping for a week, and then mix together whatever condiments are left over in my pantry and refrigerator.