Monday, May 31, 2010

Is Live Music the Key to Peace and Love?


The Woodstock Music & Art Fair of 1969 was one of the biggest events in the 1960's, establishing the cultural importance of the flood of new music and alternative lifestyles that had been developing for years, and then celebrated with its own documentary film, soundtrack albums, books, commemorative festivals, a museum, and untold references to the event in the popular culture.  Although the event originally generated $1.4 million dollars in debt, countless promoters have been trying to duplicate its success ever since. 

When the event occurred I was just about to begin my graduate studies at UC, Berkeley.  When word came that one of our friends, Bill, from our recent days at Oberlin College, had attended the event and described it in glowing terms, my small world of recent Obie graduates was jealous of Bill's good fortune.  It seemed so unfair. Here we had all moved to Berkeley, the center of the new counter-culture, and now our thunder had been stolen by an event on a dairy farm in New York!

Less than four months later we got our own chance to be involved in a historical event of music and coolness, thanks to the Altamont Speedway Free Festival organized by The Rolling Stones and presented on December 6, 1969 not far from our new home in Berkeley.  The timing of the event just barely got it included in the Sixties.  And though it became historic, it was not for its coolness or "peace and love," but for its violence, shown in a documentary film of its own, as the symbolic end of the hippie era, a conclusion to the youth culture of the Sixties.        

We all went, as it was free and promised an incredible lineup of acts: Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones.  How could we go wrong?  Surely this would trump Bill's good fortune on the East coast and confirm our wisdom in moving West.  The first sign of what was to come was when we had to park our car by the side of the road miles from the venue and start walking.  In fact Stephanie Gutieri and I hitched a ride, sitting on the trunk of a car inching its way forward in the gridlock.  Stephi is the one who had gotten me into Dylan only three years before at Oberlin.  The ride must have taken about an hour, which we mostly passed playing a question and answer game of "Who Am I?"  As it turned out, this was the high point of the day for me and is still one of my fondest memories of Stephi.  Rest in peace, dear Stephi.  I miss you and have for many years!

Once we got to the event, we staked out less than nine sq feet of space with our blanket and then endured the day, feeling claustrophobic and threatened by the bad vibes rolling through the audience all day long.  And it was only later that we learned that a man had been killed right in front of the stage, no more than fifty feet from our cramped location.  To his credit, Bill never rubbed it in with any of us.
But this is not a history lesson about the Sixties.  This blog is about the transformative experience a live musical performance can provide, when the "numbers were burning."  Amazingly, this even applies to Altamont, now known as "an infamous rock concert."  The Stones performed last and by the time they appeared we were worn out from the long day of cramped quarters and bad vibes.  And though the violence interrupted their "Sympathy for the Devil" song, with Jagger then urging everyone to be calm, the band restarted and played on, even as Meredith Hunter was killed in front of them at the foot of the stage during "Under My Thumb."  The band was afraid that if they stopped playing a full-scale riot could develop.

Their decision was a wise one.  The one thing that finally unified the crowd and brought peace to the day was the charismatic and electrifying performance of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. Imagine this, the very next song they performed after the killing of Hunter, was the first ever live performance of "Brown Sugar," yes, a world premiere they had saved for that day.  And somewhere along the way, during the rest of their set, Stephi and I, as well as all those around us, finally gave up our guarded enclave and rose to our feet for the rest of the show.  Jagger had turned around the bad vibes and gotten the audience with him and only him.  Finally we were all in the moment, witnessing a powerful performance and letting the good vibes of the glorious music wash over us.  For the last songs of the set, "Satisfaction" and "Honky Tonk Woman," we were fiercely dancing around, like all the rest, culminating in perhaps the most ironic song selection ever to end  a concert, when the band finished with "Street Fighting Man."  

This is one of the best examples from my own life of how the performer and the audience interact to create the experience and how the power of music can bring peace to the unruly mob, as suggested by Dr. Karl Paulnack.  As I write this on Memorial Day, when we honor our fallen soldiers, I wonder whether it would be more effective to invade foreign shores with armies of artists, rather than soldiers.

The Latitude Festival is an example of what music festivals have become.  Also presented on farm land, but in England, it strives to be an all-encompassing festival for all the arts, with performances on its various stages "from the worlds of comedy, literary, poetry, cabaret, theatre, film, art and dance."  That's a tall order to fill, but they seem to be fulfilling their promise, as all tickets for their fifth season had already been sold out, two months before the festival was to begin in July 2010. 

Park in one of their lots and then transport your tent and other camping gear to your weekend home on the farm using one of their rented "cloth barrows" or skip the trouble of bringing your own stuff and buy a ticket for one of the campsites with "ready pitched and fully equipped tents for hire" in the Tangerine Fields.  Surely the Beatles would have found these ideas to be truly delightful.

A wonderful synthesis of pastoral beauty & the bright colors of the arts.

And surely this festival offers something that no other venue can offer: neon bright pink and orange sheep.  Getting cold at night? Cuddle up with some lovely pink wool.

Which brings me to the origin of this festival in July of 2006.  One of the performers presented in their inaugural outing was the great Patti Smith, a woman from my own generation, who helped create the punk rock movement of the 70's when she started reciting her poetry to the chords of an accompanying guitar, and later singing them with a full rock band.  

By 2006 she had already been named a Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture and less than eight months later she would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recognizing the importance of her significant contributions to music.

On July 15, 2006 Patti Smith and her band performed on the second day of the first ever Latitude Festival.  Fortunately her performance of "Gloria" is now preserved on YouTube, placed there by John Macaulay, who shot the video.  Many audience videos of live concerts are difficult to watch, often marred by bad positioning, noisy crowd near the taper, jerky cameras and lousy sound.  In this case the filming was done from an excellent position very close to the front providing engrossing closeups of the performers throughout and the noisy crowd adds to the passion of the performance, rather than detracting from the recording.

Two minutes into the performance, the audience begins to catch fire, which inspires Patti to greater passion and by five minutes into the song she and the audience are performing the song together.  Just short of six minutes in, the taper is rightfully drawn into shooting video of the audience, not just Patti, as they have become performers as well, and then she is enthusiastically thanking the audience. "Thank you!!  I'm at the place of my ancestors. I'm bucked down!" and the rest is pure love and joy.

She thanks her always guitarist, Lenny Kaye, and then "Be! We the People!" And at the very end she thanks the crowd again with, "Attitude, ya got the good attitude!"

Is there any better example on YouTube of what the Spanish call El duende, the spirit of evocation?  As Wikipedia says, "It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive." 

You notice that by the end, both the performers and the audience were creating this moment together.  And Patti appreciates that fact and thanks them for their participation.  She maintains no professional distance, as the "legendary performer."  She is just like them, as she acknowledges with her "We the People!"

Now I consider this video very unusual for having captured this magic in a tiny window on our computers.  You can begin to feel what it must have been like to be there.  I laughed and cried while I watched it.  But here is the part I want to emphasize.  I have seen Patti Smith perform a number of times and every time I have been inspired by her performance.  So it gets back to my repeated encouragement for everyone to get up from behind their computer monitors and go see the live performance of music.  Patti Smith would be a good place to start.  She is one of the best performers I have ever seen for really connecting with her audience and encouraging their participation. She is real, just one of us, though bursting with talent and always totally life affirming.
Peace and love to all on this Memorial Day!

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Glorious Sounds of the Many-Tongued Mimic

A major proposition of this music lover's blog is that witnessing music performed live, in person, is far superior to experiencing music in any other way.  But who has the time or means to go to the symphony or a club every day to satisfy their need for a live musical experience?

If one lives in Northern California, one could be fortunate enough to have an alternative in the spring.  That is, if a Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, decides to take up residence in one's neighborhood.  Mimus polyglottos means "many-tongued mimic," a name given this bird because of its wonderful ability to mimic the sound of many other species of birds, as well as neighborhood cats, dogs, car alarms, rusty swinging gates, whatever.

Now that word "mimic" has a rather disparaging connotation, doesn't it. As though they weren't creative enough to come up with their own sound, so they had to just copy the ones they heard around them.  To me this seems a little unfair.  After all, did the neighborhood Robin or Cardinal come up with their own sound?  I don't think so.  They copied it from dad, or it was already built into their dna.  Same for every other species.  But along comes the Northern Mockingbird and he starts to belt out the songs of all the other birds.  Hey, that's pretty amazing.

Elvis made a pretty good career out of singing songs that were all written by others, and now they call him "The King!"  So let's give the Northern Mockingbird some respect.  It's all about how one performs the sounds in live performance, right?  Well our Mr. King bird does pretty well on that score.  Each of the songs of these other birds is repeated by Mr. King several times, and then another song is taken up and repeated many times over, before going on to another.  One can listen to this performance for quite a long time and not hear him start over with a song he has done before. On top of that, he may spread his wings and flutter up in the air in a circle and come back to the branch he launched from, while continuing to sing, and not missing a single beat along the way.  Elvis wiggled his hips, but did you ever see him do that?  Not I, not even on the Ed Sullivan Show.   

And here's the best part of all.  He often sings like this in the middle of the night, when all the other birds are sleeping or watching the late show, or whatever.  He doesn't take a break.  He's out there on the highest branch he can find, singing away at the top of his voice in the stillness of the night for hours on end.  
But is it music?  You betcha!  Perhaps you read my article about the deaf percussionist, Evelyn Glennie, who said her aim in life "is to teach the world to listen. . . allow your body to open up, allow your body to be this resonating chamber. . . just experience the whole journey of that sound." The medium of music is sound.  The composer John Cage said, "There is no noise, only sound."  And musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez said, "the border between music and noise is always culturally defined.  By all accounts there is no single and intercultural universal concept defining what music might be, except that it is 'sound through time'."

For me the sound of the Northern Nightingale singing through the middle of the night is glorious sound through time.  For me that is music to my ears! And it has the other qualities that make the live performance of music special to witness.  You hear it in the moment the sound is created and then it is gone.  Take it in fully, "experience the whole journey of that sound," as it is there now, but perhaps not for long.  The particular sequence of sounds, the sequence of bird songs that are sung, the rhythm, tempo, dynamics, timbre and texture of those sounds are unique to that one performance, never to be repeated again.  That is what makes live performance so exciting.  It is not ordinary.  It is special, created in that moment, heard in the moment, and then it is no more.  So enjoy it while you can!

Did you notice him do his little dance of flight in the middle of his performance?  Now listen to the incredible variety of sounds in this next one.

And finally here's a chance to go to school and really learn about this amazing performer.  At 3:30 in the video, they even identify which species of bird song the mockingbird is singing as it goes along.  So if you are lucky enough to have a Northern Mockingbird take up residence in your own back yard, as I have this spring, that one creature will create the sound of an entire forest of different bird species, all by himself.

Often I like to take a walk around my neighborhood late at night, after most people have retired for the night. There is no traffic on the street, no people walking about, and one can be alone with one's thoughts and the stillness of the night.  The jumble of the day can fall away and one can more clearly see the way ahead.  Two nights ago I finished up a lovely hour long chat with my Facebook friend on the Northumberland Coast of Northern England. I had been thinking about capping off the evening with a walk, but as I got up from my desk I heard my many-tongued mimic wailing away in the back yard. So instead of the walk, I stepped out onto the porch and sat down and listened.  Mr. King was singing his heart out without a moment's pause, and his singing was the only sound to be heard in an otherwise totally silent night. I just sat there, in the same spot that was Marcia's absolute favorite place to sit, and I just took in the performance.  It was marvelous.  I know Marcia loved the green grass, the trellis and vines, the flowers and lush foliage of the yard, as well as the squirrels, hummingbirds, and cats that made it their home.  But I don't actually know whether she ever enjoyed a performance of a night time Mockingbird from that favorite spot.  I hope so.        

Perhaps the glorious sounds of this bird has won itself some respect after all.  Of course one of the classic tales in American literature is the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee called To Kill a Mockingbird.  In the book, Miss Maudie explains that mockingbirds never harm other living creatures.  "They don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us."  So to kill one would be to kill what is innocent and harmless, and Atticus warns that "it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."   
Mockingbirds have not always lived only in the wild, as they were once popular as pets.  In fact Thomas Jefferson had such a pet, which he named Dick.  He didn't know about "The King" back then.  This aspect of the lives of mockingbirds was described in the traditional lullaby, "Hush Little Baby" which had lyrics that said:

Hush little baby, don't say a word,
Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird.
And if that mockingbird don't sing,
Mama's gonna buy you a diamond ring. 
In 1963 Inez and Charlie Foxx cashed in by recording their version of this song, simply called "Mockingbird," which became a big hit in both the US and the UK.  Since then the song has been covered by the great Dusty Springfield, as well as by Carly Simon & James Taylor, Toby & Krystal Keith, and Katie Melua.  It was also featured in episodes of the TV series "Will and Grace" and the film "Dumb and Dumber."

Of course now you want to hear this song.  And YouTube is waiting to serve up any one of them to you.  The Dusty Springfield performance at the 1965 New Musical Express Poll Winners concert is the best.  But in the spirit of our many-tongued mimic, I've decided that it's most appropriate to give you a version of pure mimicry, perhaps the best example of lip synching to be found on YouTube, the work of amy and kass.

That's all folks!