Good News!

Yesterday I got word that I’d been awarded a “CA$H” grant from Theatre Bay Area, our tireless local advocacy and support organization for non-profit theatre and dance. Though the amount is modest, it will allow me to keep working on the solo (maybe with musicians, though) musical theatre piece I’m developing. But most importantly, it represents a huge validation from the community of fellow theatre-makers that is all the more meaningful now that I have no artistic home since TJT’s closing. Here’s how I described what I’m doing in the grant application:

I am increasingly aware of the historical layers in which my own lived experiences have unfolded. I came up during the cold war, witch-hunts, assassinations, riots – a time of great cultural upheaval. My life has been shaped in very direct ways by the war in Vietnam, the emergence of the “counterculture,” the struggle for Civil Rights for African-Americans and other powerful currents of history.

cf.epi

There’s only one generation between me and my Eastern European Jewish ancestors who immigrated here in the late nineteenth century. Though not religious, both my parents identified as Jews and embraced the progressive, inclusive, vital culture of the secular Jewish immigrant artists and intellectuals. It was no accident that I chose to base so much of my work in theatre on Jewish culture, history and imagination.

I’ve long been inspired by the notion, articulated most eloquently by the great African-American historian, Manning Marable, that people cannot have a shared future unless they understand their common past. It seems to me that Americans, especially the young, have a hard time even realizing that they have a history, much less one hared with people different from themselves.

The recent struggles over immigration policy, inequality and racism in the U.S., and current clashes between cultures, globally, often hinge on the question of who owns the narrative. But rather than remain caught between dueling narratives, I believe that it’s possible to discover stories of a common past that can offer alternatives to binary conflict. Doing this might be one of the most important contributions theatre can make to the world.

Two of the spoken-word pieces and one of the songs I’ll be incorporating into the work suggest the narrative arc I’m imagining. The first, The Dream of the Disappeared Immigrant, imagines the life of a great-uncle of mine with whom the family lost touch shortly after immigrating from Odessa at the turn of the twentieth century. In the story-song, Morris, the uncle, reinvents himself as an entrepreneur in the first years of the twentieth century, but feels he must give up his music and his language in order to become part of a new world. The second piece, Born in ’45 uses my parents’ biographies to tell the story of a generation that still believes in the ideal of a universalist, democratic, “modern” culture and fights to hold onto its fervor and ambition as America’s post-WWII optimism is eroded during the era of retrenchment that followed in the fifties. The third, 1976, a narrative ballad, tells the story of my decision to leave the life of a film actor in Hollywood and join an activist, ensemble theatre group on a long and arduous tour across the country – a decision that changed my life.

logic.screen

You can hear all of the eighteen pieces I’m using – at least for starters – in a playlist I created on SoundCloud. If you happen to listen and feel moved to share any responses, you can leave comments on each track at SoundCloud or hereon t
his blog. That always means a lot to me

Golden Lies

Video

n the airport
I knocked back a shot
That was my usual pre-flight routine

But I tried to believe
That love never dies
I tried to sing roses for you
To remember me by

Wrote you a postcard
Said just how I felt
Right there in plain sight for the whole world to see

But I hadn’t a stamp
I forgot your address
Left the card on the airplane
The clean-up crew found it I guess

One more false start
One more scar on the heart
Ah, but, those were the days, those were the nights

All we needed was love
But it helped to stay high
So we swallowed the sun
And we sang golden lies

1976: a song

nineteenseventysix. from Corey Fischer on Vimeo.

In 1976 I left off working as an actor in TV and film in LA to join an activist theater company called The Provisional Theatre that had grown out of the anti-war movement of the early seventies. My time with them was life-changing and eventually led to co-founding Traveling Jewish Theatre in 1978. You can find more music of mine on https://soundcloud.com/corey-fischer

Loving the Stranger: Wrestling Jerusalem a New Play by Aaron Davidman

[Originally Published on Tikkun, March 13. 2014]

Wrestling JerusalemThe first sentence that Aaron Davidman speaks in Wrestling Jerusalem, his new solo play at Intersection for the Arts, will have an all-too-familiar ring to anyone  who has ever tried to understand the sources of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “It’s complicated.”

For the next eighty minutes Davidman seamlessly and thoroughly embodies fourteen characters – Arab, Israeli, American, Jewish, Muslim, male, female, old, young, religious, secular, left, right – who both prove and transcend that assertion.

At the end of this moving, provocative, exhilarating journey, I had to ask myself whether there had really been only one actor on stage.  There were so many characters, so many arguments, debates, dialogues, so many people with so much to say. Did all that really come from one person?

Aaron, an actor-writer-director –- in other words, a theatre-maker– has spent decades mastering the art of splitting himself into multiple characters.  Full disclosure: I am anything but an “objective” critic. In fact, I’m not a critic at all. I, too, am a theatre-maker. In 1978, I co-founded Traveling Jewish Theatre. Sometime in the mid-nineties, Aaron joined us, becoming the first new company member since TJT began. By 2002, he had become TJT’s artistic director and led the company until we closed it in 2012.  Aaron and I worked together as actors and co-writers and directed each other many times for about seventeen years. Though I’m more than twenty years older than Aaron, I’ve long  regarded him as a peer and have learned as much from him in our work together as he might have ever learned from me.

Given our history together, it’s no surprise that I’d recognizeWrestling Jerusalem as rooted in the intentions, concerns, sources and theatrical elements that animated TJT for 34 years.

Along with the weaving of multiple stories and timelines, the transforming from one character to another in full view of the audience, the juxtaposition of the personal, the political and the mythic, there’s the overarching theme of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which TJT explored in its 1985 Berlin, Jerusalem and the Moon, (one of Aaron’s first roles with TJT was in the 1998 revival of that piece) and later, in the 2005 Blood Relative which Aaron conceived and directed.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Rob Hurwitt, Aaron mentioned Blood Relative:

“There are seeds and stories in this play that came from those first trips back to Israel when we were researching Blood Relative… when I started working with TJT, the wealth of material under the umbrella of the Jewish experience really opened up for me, personally, historically, culturally. Digging into Blood Relativemade me realize I couldn’t get all this topic into one play. And out of that came a commission from Theatre J in Washington D.C., which was the catalyst for this whole project.”

Another area of Jewish imagination that inspired TJT was the exploration of the Jewish mystical tradition known collectively asKabala.  Aaron frames the play with a seminal text from theZohar, one of the most important Kabbalistic books:

Once there were vessels of light that contained all that is good in the universe.  But this goodness was so powerful that the vessels, with their thin shells, could   not contain it. And the vessels burst. And the light of goodness was scattered.    Sparks and shards of light flew into all corners of the world. They’re hidden amidst all of us. And it’s the work of human beings, say the Kabbalists, to find those sparks, those fragments of goodness, and put them back together. It’s how we heal the world, they say. We gather the broken pieces of goodness and put them back together.”

Healing the world is called tikkun olam in Hebrew, and has counterparts in the deepest parts of every religion or spiritual path that I know of. Aaron’s evocation of tikkun olam lets us know, right away, that the reason he’s asking us to follow him to Jerusalem or Hebron is to try to gather those holy sparks, those fragments of goodness in order to heal – to heal the land, all the souls suffering at each other’s hands, the tortured history.

To do that, Aaron knows that you can’t ignore the “complicated” reality on the ground – at the checkpoints, bus stations, farms, on the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem or at the souk in Ramallah.  Aaron has the courage of a shamanic firefighter to walk into the hottest flames of the conflict and bring back all the painful truths he finds there, with no self-regard. This is theatre with remarkably little ego-investment. Which makes Aaron’s brilliance as a performer all the more compelling.

But, in a departure from TJT’s works, Wrestling Jerusalem  is based on interviews that Aaron conducted on trips to Israel and the “occupied territories” of the West Bank. Though he changed names to respect the interviewees’ privacy, most of the words he speaks are theirs.

The play contains several bouts of accelerating verbal combat in which Aaron leaps from character to character, performing a kind of linguistic parcours as he hurtles between arguments and points of view. The first of these is a discussion of “Where it all started.”

“You might say it all started in 1948 

Which you might call Al Nakbeh The Catastrophe 

You might say it all started in 1948 

Which you might call Milhamat HaAtzma’ut The War of Independence 

You might go back to World War I And blame the British 

Say they fucked up a thousand years of decent relations Between
Jews and Arabs 

You might say it was the 1929 massacre of Jews in Hebron 

You might say it was the 1994 massacre of Arabs in Hebron 

Or the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila 

Or the 2003 massacre at the Tel Aviv bus station 

No, no, you might say, It was 1967 The Six Day War 

That was when the real problems started 

No, you might say it was the Yom Kippur War 1973, that was it 

Or really, you might say, It was 1947  

The Green Line United Nations Resolution 181 

The Arabs should have accepted 181 

And they would have had a better deal 

Than they’re ever going to get now 

But, you might say, 

The UN never should have adopted Resolution 181 

Because it was a European land grab 

Look, You might say It was the invasion of Lebanon 

It was the First Intifada 

It was the Second Intifada 

It was the Withdrawal from Gaza 

It was the war in Gaza 

No, no It’s the Settlements 

Definitely the Settlements 

No, no it’s the terror attacks 

The bus bombs, the cafes 

No, it’s the wall and the check points 

No, it’s the tunnels from Egypt and the missiles in S’derot 

No, no, it’s Iran It’s all about Iran 

No, it’s  No, it’s the politicians 

It’s all about the politicians 

Golda blew it 

Peres blew it 

Arafat blew it 

Barak blew it 

Sharon blew it 

Olmert blew it 

Clinton blew it 

Bush blew it 

Obama’s blowing it 

If they just hadn’t killed Rabin 

If we just hadn’t killed Rabin 

If the Ultra Orthodox just didn’t have so much political power 

If the Arab League would just do more 

If the media just wasn’t so biased 

If the Right Wing Christians would stop funding Settlements 

If AIPAC would just be more critical of Israeli policy 

If J Street would just be less critical of Israeli policy 

If we just had a real partner on the other side 

If Netanyahu would just… 

If Abbas would just… 

If the Palestinians would just lay down their arms 

If the Israelis would just get out of the West Bank 

If the world would just step up and get more involved 

If the world would just back off and stay of out it 

If, if, if, if, if, if If!”

Aaron’s ease and power in these challenging sections – there’s little in the play that isn’t a considerable challenge for an actor – must be at least partly credited to the sensitive, intelligent, unobtrusive direction by Michael John Garcés, the artistic director of the legendary Cornerstone Theatre Company.  Later in the play, there’s an equally jaw-dropping dialogue between Aaron (that is the character, Aaron, a progressive American Jewish “everyman”) and a radically pro-Palestinian American Jewish doctor. The dialogue becomes a furious debate between two American Jews that takes place in the home of a Palestinian who works for an Israeli civil right organization on a hill above a refugee camp near Hebron.

DANIEL: Hamas is the lesser of two evils!

AARON: Hamas is a gang of fascist zealots!

DANIEL: Aaron, Fatah is on the payroll of the United States!

AARON: Fatah is upholding the rule of law in the West Bank!

DANEIL: They can’t be trusted!

AARON: You can trust Hamas?

DANIEL: They were elected!

AARON: So was your senator, but you don’t trust him.

DANIEL: He’s complicit with an Apartheid government!

AARON: Can you stay on one topic for more than five seconds! You gotta go to Apartheid?

DANIEL: Sue me!”

Like Aaron says, it’s complicated.  For one thing there are no villains or “bad guys”  in Wrestling Jerusalem.  Aaron finds his way into the fragile human heart beating inside each character, underneath any armor of opinion and self-righteousness. With him, we bounce between equally valid, mutually contradictory points of view. He describes these points of view as:

“…the sparks I’ve pulled from behind the eyes of every single person I’ve met. They smash up against each other. And I’m bursting. I’m exploding into a million shards.”

In one example, we hear an Israeli Jew point out that:

“What  transformed [Zionism] from an idea into a reality was the
Holocaust… a kind of wholesale change of the condition of Jewish life in Europe And its not a justification. I’m not waving the shroud of Auschwitz in order to
defend breaking the arms of Palestinians, I’m just saying, that something
changed in Europe which transformed Zionism from a rather silly idea, into a
state.”

And we understand what he means. But then we hear from a Palestinian farmer:

It’s not balanced. There is the occupier and there is the occupied. And what can we do? My family’s orchard was our life for five generations. Five. Yes, we were there for three hundred years, for sure, three hundred, probably more. Many more. And now my orchard is destroyed. They said for security. For this Wall.

“Let me tell you something, Aaron. Please do not be upset. The Holocaust was not my fault. You understand what I say? I am sorry for the Jewish. The Holocaust was…a terrible tragedy. But my grandfather was not Hitler. He was a farmer here, in Palestine. Three thousand kilometers away. And when the Jewish came he would not sell land to them.”

And again we listen and understand.

We have to pay attention to the uncomfortable realpolitik of an American Jewish expat in Israel:

“I got news for you: statehood ain’t pretty. It’s called realpolitik, kid. Look over your notes from Poli Sci 101. I’m not just being a rightwing hardass, Aaron. I’m not. I’m a Democrat, for god’s sake. I’m being realistic. Take Iran: Keep them from getting the bomb. Whatever it takes. And I mean whatever it takes. What are we waiting for? Some people think Jews have some higher moral obligation. Why? Why?! It’s us or them. That’s how it is. Us or them.”

Or to this Palestinian woman who works for the UN:

“Aaron. There is a man I always see at the Beit Jala checkpoint. He’s an old man. Every day he rides the bus, and everyday the soldiers make him get off the bus and he refuses! And he yells at them, tells them they should treat him better. Yells at them they should respect him. He does the same thing every day. And some days they beat him and some days they let him go and some days they just make him wait for hours. And every day he tries to teach them. Someone should make a movie about this man. You see how we live. No freedom to move about. It can take me hours to get to work in East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem! It’s ten minutes from Ramallah. And I have the permissions. I have the papers. If you don’t, forget it. You’re not going anywhere.”

In the achingly beautiful last part of the play, on a hill above the Dead Sea, Aaron meets an Israeli survivor of a piguah, a suicide bomb attack. Amir, as Aaron calls him, is suffering from PTSD, self-medicating with marijuana, listening to Bob Dylan and refusing to blame anyone for the tragedy.  He reminds Aaron that in the Torah, the Jewish bible, there are exactly three commandments to love. We are commanded to love God, to love our neighbor and, to love the stranger.

At the end of the journey Aaron takes all the pain and confusion he’s absorbed to the only place that might be able to contain it: the Kotel, the Western Wall, the sole remaining, millennia-old fragment of the Temple. I won’t try to describe what happens there. Certain moments in theatre are untranslatable to other media. This is one of them.  There are others like it in Wrestling Jerusalem. Though the play is brimming with talk, we are always brought home to the body and voice that supports it all. Aaron sings, whispers, dances, falls and even appears to fly without ever leaving the ground.

Wrestling Jerusalem  offers no solutions to the intractable conflicts it explores. But it fiercely insists on continuing to imagine that peace is possible, that it’s “not a fantasy.”   By embodying all these human beings so deeply, by fulfilling the commandment to love these “strangers,” Aaron allows us to fully experience that possibility. If the play is still running by the time you read this, I urge you to go. I don’t often find works of art that can generate an honest and well-earned sense of hope.  The last one was the 2009 novel by Colum McCann, Let the Great World SpinWrestling Jerusalem is definitely another.

Wrestling Jerusalem.  Opens 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 15, 2 p.m. Sunday, March 16. Through April 6. $20-$30. Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., S.F www.theintersection.org

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For information about Wrestling Jerusalem on tour, visit wrestlingjerusalem.com

Review: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Petit

“… even though the book takes place primarily in 1974 – so much of it began for me very shortly after 9/11. I had read Paul Auster’s collection of essays The Red Notebook, where he wrote about Philippe Petit scribbling his name across the sky between the World Trade Centre towers. Then – when the towers came down in 2001 – the tightrope walk popped out of my memory, one of those eureka moments, and I thought, What a spectacular act of creation, to have a man walking in the sky, as opposed to the act of evil and destruction of the towers disintegrating. I certainly wasn’t alone in this. It was almost part of a collective historical memory. The same image ran true for a number of people, not least of course Philippe Petit himself. And I wanted to write a song of my adopted city as well, and maybe to confront some things that were on my mind about issues of faith and recovery and belonging.”

- Colum McCann,
from an interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

I’d been hearing about Colum McCann for a while but hadn’t read any of his novels. Then, at a friend’s house, I saw a copy of Let the Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award for fiction.  I asked my friend if I could borrow it. He’s one of my few male friends who has as much love for fiction as I do and probably reads even more than I. He has given me many books over the years, though sometimes his tastes run ahead of my own into the works of writers I find rather difficult and opaque, like Boltano.

I started reading Let the Great World Spin as soon as I got home. I didn’t devour it the way I once read novels as compelling as this one. I don’t know whether to blame my changing reading habits on the internet or on old age, but I don’t seem to be able to read for hours at a time as I used to. There were even some days when I didn’t pick the book up, though I never went very long without thinking about it.

The book’s central image is the 1974 walk by funambulist Philippe Petit on a cable suspended between the top floors of the World Trade Center towers.  He used no harnesses, nets or safety gear of any sort. He and his support team went to great lengths to get themselves through the building’s security, rig the cable (an archer was involved) and remain in the building until the following dawn when Petit began walking. His walk was, by all accounts, flawless, elegant, breathtaking. It excited the imagination of thousands – perhaps millions – of New Yorkers who stopped, wherever they were, and watched a man walking in the air a quarter-mile above.

McCann begins the book with a three page prologue describing the walk and returns to it several times later, either directly or through the peripheral vision of the several characters who all witness it. McCann never names Petit,  a choice that reinforces the walker’s distance from the other characters whose lives we come to know intimately. Yet, McCann’s funambulist is intensely corporeal, never an abstraction, a symbol, or a literary device. Here’s how McCann gives us the beginning of the walk:

One foot on the wire – his better foot, the balancing foot. First he slid his toes, then his sole, then his heel. The cable nestled between his big and second toes for grip. His slippers were thin, the soles made of buffalo hide… He played out the aluminum pole along his hands. The coolness rolled across his palm. The pole was fifty-five pounds, half the weight of a woman. She moved on his skin like water…

His body loosened and took on the shape of the wind. The play of the shoulder could instruct the ankle. His throat could soothe his heel and moisten the ligaments at his ankle. A touch of the tongue against the teeth could relax the thigh. His elbow could brother his knee. If he tightened his neck he could feel it correcting in his hip. At his center he never moved. He thought of his stomach as a bowl of water. If he got it wrong, the bowl would right itself. 

He felt for the curve of the cable with the arch and then sole of his foot. A second step and a third. He went out beyond the first guy lines, all of him in synch.

petit 2Within seconds he was pureness moving, and he could do anything he liked. He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air, no future, no past, and this gave him the offhand vaunt to his walk. He was carrying his life from one side to the other. On the lookout for the moment when he wasn’t even aware of his breath.

The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.

He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.

All the characters are struggling to awaken or to resist awakening. We meet the first  two characters as young boys being raised by a single, devoted mother in Dublin: John Corrigan, called simply Corrigan or Corrie, already in a constant dialogue with God, and his brother, Ciaran, who tells their story.  Corrigan becomes a radical Catholic monk and ends up in the Bronx, ministering to a group of African-American prostitutes who are on “the stroll” beneath the Major Deegan Expressway, across from his housing project. Missing his brother, Ciaran follows him to New York where Corrigan has become a sort of patron saint to the hookers, giving them round the clock use of his apartment for showers and self-care.  Corrigan, in spite of his vows, has fallen in love with a Columbian woman with whom he works at a nursing home. Later, in a section written in her voice, we experience that all-encompassing love from within the relationship, revealing everything that Ciaran struggles to understand about his brother.

Throughout the book, the narrative is handed off from character to character as McCann’s layered edifice gains depth and power.  Corrigan and Jazzlyn, an eighteen year old hooker he watches over, will not live past the first section of the novel. Yet, like the twin towers themselves, the space they occupied continues to shadow the rest of the book.

The other characters, whether they understand it or not, are affected by them. But to simply enumerate these connections does McCann’s talent a disservice. The book is in no way schematic. The relationships between characters are unforced and asymmetrical; as messy as life.

“Then came the moment when I thought that I could go backwards in time to talk about the present: that’s when the tightrope walk came in. And the deeper I got into the novel the more I began to see that it was, hopefully, about an act of recovery. Because the book comes down to a very anonymous moment in the Bronx when two little kids are coming out of a very rough housing project, about to be taken away by the state, and they get rescued by an act of grace. That’s it, not much maybe, but everything to me. And there’s hardly a line in the novel about 9/11, but it’s everywhere if the reader wants it to be. I trust my readers. They will get from a book what they want. It can be read in many different ways. In this sense I hope it works on an open poetic level: make of this child what you will.”

- Colum McCann,
from an interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

It’s worth noting that three of the most important characters are black women. Two of them narrate their respective sections of the book.  First, there’s Tillie, , the daughter and mother of prostitutes, a heroin addict, and, thanks to an eccentric Middle-Eastern client in her early days as a high-priced uptown call girl,  a reader of Rumi. Her daughter is the eighteen year old Jazzlyn, already a mother herself. Tillie narrates a long chapter from jail on Riker’s Island after Jazzlyn and Corrigan’s death. I’ve not been able to shake a certain discomfort with this section of the book. Interestingly, I had no discomfort at all with the chapter voiced by Gloria, an educated black woman from Missouri who is a neighbor of Corrigan’s and plays an important role in the second half of the novel. I was able to accept Gloria as a unique human who happened to be African-American, who was shaped, as we all are, by her experiences, and yet, like all of us, could not be reduced to her socio-ethno-economic profile.  So my discomfort isn’t merely a response to a white author writing in the voice of a non-white character.  After a lot of reflection, I’ve come to see my discomfort with Tillie as a sign of McCann’s uncompromising integrity. To follow McCann into Tillie’s world of sexual slavery, addiction and violence should not be comfortable.  Tillie can’t forgive herself for not preventing her daughter from becoming exactly what she once was, a heroin addicted, teen-age mother who sells her body. Though McCann never lets us lose sight of Tillie’s boundless love for her daughter and granddaughters, her internalized self-hatred remains devastating. For it to be anything less, would be false and sentimental.

As uncompromisingly bleak as Tillie’s chapter is, the book as a whole is anything but depressing. It fully earns its vision of reconciliation and recovery. Perhaps stories of descent, purgation and redemption are part of McCann’s Catholic spiritual and literary DNA. Dante’s spirit hovers nearby. We recognize that most of the characters are terribly lost in a “selva oscura,” Dante’s “dark wood,” and we can’t help but think of angels when McCann tells us about the man walking in the air. But in McCann’s cosmology, guilt and punishment are not imposed by a judging God. They’re part of the human story. I don’t think one has to be a believer to see the world humans have made as a fallen world, whether one bases that sense on the hundred years’ war, the ubiquity of slavery through most of our history, the holocaust or 9/11.

McCann has Ciaran describe Corrigan’s “theology” on the twentieth page of the book:

What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth – the filth, the war, the poverty – was that life could be capable of small beauties. He wasn’t interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven. To him that was a dressing room for hell. Rather, he consoled himself with that fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light, all the same. He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it. Out of that came some sort of triumph that went beyond theological proof, a cause for optimism against all the evidence.

Without minimizing the unbearable suffering we create for each other and for ourselves, McCann has the courage to celebrate the love we are equally capable of giving. Though it may, indeed, transcend our understanding, in this author’s uncommonly generous view, it’s as much a part of us as our breath.

Colum McCann

Colum McCann

Storyboard Dances

StoryboardP-390x245

Earlier today I read an article in The New Yorker  about the street dancer, Storyboard P. and watched several online videos of his dancing. I was moved and deeply impressed by his astonishing virtuosity. He “pops and locks” in break dancing style but also has created his own vocabulary of extreme and precise isolations that he actually describes as a series of “charley horses” and that have the look of stop-frame animation. He and other “flex” dancers sometimes refer to their moves as “animations.”  He also uses moves from other forms of street dancing like “juking,” which mimics ballet en pointe foot work.

But more than his technical proficiency – which is more than enough to put him in his own category, it was the rawness of the impulse-life behind his movements that captured me. Strange to tell, I, a 68 year old Jew recognized the place from which this 23 year old African American found his intense physical expressivity.

It’s a place I’ve visited as an actor at certain special times, usually improvising without words, mostly on my own but at times with a partner, connecting to story or character that carries intense emotion, in a pre-verbal way. By “place” I mean an inner condition, a state of awareness that’s free of the controlling, dominating power of discursive, discriminating, utilitarian, hierarchical thought-language or judgmental self-talk;  free of any desire to please anyone or accomplish anything other than “tracking” the pure energy of the physical impulses – those minute desires to move this or that limb, make this or that sound, run, fall, shake or be still.

Perhaps this condition, not unlike states of mindful but non-discriminating awareness that can arise in Buddhist meditation, has something to do with giving oneself over to a distributed intelligence that’s different from the more familiar kind neo-cortex-associated intelligence.

For a while now, neuroscientists, plant biologists, computer scientists, information theorists have been talking about “hive mind” “swarming”  “distributed networks”  as a way to explain seemingly “intelligent” behavior among plants, animals, insects and computers.  Migrating birds, schools of fish, bees and ants, trees and sagebrush all partake of this phenomenon.

Perhaps humans do as well. When I watch Storyboard dance, it’s as if I’m seeing him deconstruct his body into an aggregation of nerves, muscles, tendons, cells and impulses that dance, argue and fight with each other, that support, block, push and pull each other, that coalesce for a moment and come apart again.

Watching him dance, I am reminded of both scientific and mythopoeic accounts of the origin of the cosmos. God contracting God’s essence to make a space for the created universe to exist. Energies so compelling they bend light and pull it into their dark core. Primordial beings giving birth to time and space.

This notion of a performer fragmenting herself into multiple presences isn’t new. It exists in some forms of South Asian narrative dance like Kathakali in which the dancer’s hand gestures, eye and torso movements, footwork and voice each have their own specific role in telling the story, whether it be to convey a mood or emotion, embody a character, evoke a landscape or change the point of view.  In the West, solo performers – mimes, storytellers, puppeteers, ventriloquists, performance artists, monologists – have split themselves  into many parts for centuries, playing multiple characters simultaneously.

But Storyboard’s performances, almost always improvised in the moment, would be difficult to parse in conventional dramatic terms. He might use narrative, but because he’s working so close to the bone – literally – we become witnesses to a shamanic journey rather than listeners to a story. Storyboard, though a dancer, achieves the Artaudian ideal of the actor who “signals through the flames”  that consume his identity, who reveals what remains after ego, social conditioning and self-will are burned away before our astonished eyes.

Lost in the [Sound] Cloud

b3fc32203f30dd86b68ba31fd7becf64_biggerSoundCloud, at first glance, would seem to be a sort of audio-only version of YouTube – a place where people upload music and other audio files to the internet.  But in the two years or so I’ve been using it, I’ve discovered that it’s as different from YouTube as a library is from a video arcade.  It’s the only “place” online in which I feel a sense of community. I use Facebook, Google Plus, and a couple of other popular “platforms,” but their populations and activities are too varied and diffuse to generate feelings of kinship in me. In the case of the ubiquitous YouTube, the pervasive nastiness that infects many of their comment threads triggers something akin to a gag reflex whenever I stray onto them.

SoundCloud is different. Almost all the people I interact with on it  are engaged in creative endeavors. They’re musicians, composers, sound designers, singers and songwriters. Some are relative beginners, others are experienced and accomplished. Anyone can post a “sound” on SoundCloud – a song, a piece of avant-garde electronica, a sound effect, a radio broadcast, your baby’s first words – anything that can be contained in a digital audio file.

According to a piece in the June, 2013 issue of Wired Magazine, “…the Berlin-based company now has 40 million registered users… and reaches more than 200 million people each month…”

SC cofounders Walforss & Ljung

SC cofounders Walforss & Ljung

Cofounder Alexander Ljung was quoted in in the same article: “We have some people who are into dubstep, some people who are into the sound of songbirds. People can find their own niches and participate.”

My SoundCloud icon

My SoundCloud icon

In the year I’ve been exploring SoundCloud, I’ve found a number of these niches populated, respectively, by songwriters in many different genres, jam bands, electronic composers, radio stations and record labels, print publications like The New Yorker, well-known jazz, classical and pop recording artists, sound designers, archivists and audiophiles of all persuasions.  I’ve found “clouds” (as individuals’ pages are called on SoundCloud) devoted to the sounds of Southern California history, sounds of explosions, genres of music I had never heard of,  NPR content,  and much more. A search of SoundCloud for the word “cosmology” brought up over 500 audio tracks, 57 “clouds” and 40 “playlists” (compilations of tracks).   SoundCloud hosts collections including parts of the Smithsonian’s massive audio archives, the Muzak archives; the archives of Killorglin, Ireland, the national archives of Georgia (the country) and hundreds more.

Like a Borgesian library of nearly infinite possibility, SoundCloud might, in fact, contain something for everyone. What effect its existence will have on the recording industry remains to be quantified, but it certainly seems to be another instance of how digital technology is changing everything about everything.

Since I started using SoundCloud, my music  purchases from Apple and Amazon have dropped significantly. SoundCloud is not only the place where I share my own music, it’s increasingly where I go to listen to music.  The fact that most of what I hear isn’t anything I could find on iTunes or  an internet radio app is telling.  Cofounder Ljung says that a relatively small group of “big artists” can no longer determine what music people listen to. While I still consider new releases by Dylan, Cohen, Simon, or the much younger Regina Spektor, noteworthy events, I no longer follow  a limited and well defined group of recording artists whose work I listen to and discuss with friends, the way we did in the last century. The distinction between “creator” and “listener” has become fluid. Everyone I know on SoundCloud is both.

I’ve been playing guitar since high school and writing songs since I was in my twenties. Until recently, my music took a back seat to my work as an actor, director and playwright. With the advent of a host of music-making apps for the iPad, however, I’ve been spending a lot more time composing music,   songs and spoken word pieces as well as venturing into new forms: remixes, mashups and beats. SoundCloud led me to an online class in songwriting and another in digital production from the Berklee School of Music. SoundCloud is now my most frequently visited site online.

At first it was simply a convenient way to share the music with friends. A number of music apps feature links for uploading directly to it. After a while, though, I began to make use of the website’s capacities for “following” the work of other members, commenting on their tracks and joining groups (“singer-songwriters,” “twelve-bar blues,” etc.).  I heard music that was as interesting to me as anything I could find on commercial venues: a guitar player from San Antonio, Tom Adams who plays traditional Chicago blues as well as anyone since BB King;

Laura Montenegro and Friends

Laura Montenegro and Friends

a woman from Buenos Aries, Laura Montenegro who sounds uncannily like Bessie Smith ; a French pianist, Laurent Guine, who improvises delicately beautiful solos; Jörn Schippera German Jazz trumpeter who now concentrates on provocative spoken-word/electronic music collages; Tony Bluestone, a singer from Detroit whose impassioned songs bring me to tears; Walter Paget, a modern Welsh bard who writes songs about his coal-miner father; Kathleen Martin, a singer/musician in Knob Knee, Indiana who records pristine versions of songs by Baez, Dylan, and other icons of the sixties; Mike McCoy, an Australian expat in Spain who plays world-class jazz guitar and sings standards in a voice that reminds me of Fats Waller.  And there are more. Sofia, A Parisian composer/singer who spins out hypnotic story-songs that at least one animator found compelling enough to base a short film around, and Iannis, a musician from Athens who plays blues and jazz on his oud.

The ever-growing wave of wonderful music from this online cornucopia has become almost overwhelming. I can spend hours browsing SoundCloud. Following a perceptive comment on one song might lead me to a new composer whose list of  “favorite” works by others will take me to the pages of still more musicians.  While all of them might not appeal, many will move, instruct or delight me.

After compiling a “playlist” (another useful SoundCloud feature) of tracks that I’d found most interesting,  I decided to contact each singer/songwriter/composer on the list. I wanted to know if their experience on SoundCloud was anything like mine. How did they use the service? Had it changed their approach to music at all? Did they share my sense of community?

I heard back from nearly all of the twenty members I queried, receiving emails from France, Germany, Australia, Great Britain (Leicester and London) and elsewhere. Americans who responded come from Oakland, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Indiana and Ohio.

Chris Okunbor

Chris Okunbor

Everyone who responded agreed that there was, indeed, a SoundCloud community.  Chris Okunbor, who lives on a mountain in Australia,   sings classic Delta blues and plays the kind slide guitar I used to hear on Folkways archival recordings from the 1930s, wrote:

“SoundCloud  is a very special community…..I’ve seen, on many occasions, when someone is struggling with a negative real-life event, all their friends and supporters hop onto a track and give them positive and kind support. I’ve had  over five thousand comments on tracks I’ve posted and only one of them was a bit strange – but I think that person was struggling with their mental health.”  Chris said that she has made “genuine friends” on SoundCloud and will be soon be visiting some of them in Europe where they’ve arranged a series of gigs for her. She hopes to do the same thing in the U.S. in 2015.

Ed McCarthy's Icon

Ed McCarthy’s Icon

Ed McCarthy, whose nom de musicien is “edro,” may not make a living from music, but, like many SoundCloud members, he’s been playing guitar for most of his life.  He noticed that his passion for music was beginning to ebb some years ago, after a close friend of his, musician Steve Rebbin, died.

Ed wrote to me:  “I really didn’t realize that I was grieving until I got back into music and that hole in my life was there. Once I started playing with other people again, I realized again that music was my center. Almost all of my close friends have some connection to music. I don’t consciously think of that when making friendships it just sort of happens.”

He has a number of friends on SoundCloud. “I consider it important to be there to help when I can. We stay in touch with each others’ new music. I like their music more than most commercial music out there these days.”

Idris Davies

Idris Davies

This last point was echoed in several responses I received. Idris Davies, a Welsh singer-songwriter living in London wrote, “Why don’t I play current music? Well – here I can, current doesn’t have to be X-Factor. It can be anything from any of the guys I’m following, whether it’s Roy’s kitchen parties or Anju’s jazzy vocals, Chris and Derek sliding me back on their dobros, Mark swinging away on his piano or Mick mixing up sweet electro-blues! Discovering and sharing their music brings me great joy!”

Walt & Vervain's Icon

Walt & Vervain’s Icon

Sofia, who lives in Paris and  records as “Walt & Vervain,”  creates wholly original “electronic pop” songs with vocals. She originally joined SoundCloud hoping it would be a way to get her music heard by record labels. It didn’t happen. But she began to receive hundreds of emails from listeners who loved what she was doing. Now, she writes, “I can’t deny the connection I feel with the people who follow me and whom I follow.”

For Chris Okunbor, this same sense of connection prompts her to give back to the community. “I enjoy supporting and promoting other musicians I feel are really good and are good people, especially some of the young ones…some are not living in the affluent West…and really struggle to be heard and recognized.”  Chris reposts dozens of tracks by other musicians on her “cloud.”  Thanks to her, I discovered Dwayne-Xtreme, a remarkable singer from Jamaica.

Barbara Browning

Barbara Browning

After I’d finished a draft of this piece I found a  voice on SoundCloud that was new to me: Barbara Browning, a novelist who teaches at NYU and has recorded and posted covers of hundreds of songs, some well known, some obscure, in her lovely, evocative voice with simple ukelele accompaniment.  I discovered that she was not only a terrific singer with impeccable taste (that closely matched my own, naturally) but also a writer of graceful and insightful prose.  (I recommend her short piece about spam and Charles Trenet, I Wish You Love.) I immediately wrote to her and asked her to have a look at the draft and comment, if she cared to. Within hours, she responded:

“SoundCloud is so utopian – people are so kind and supportive. The one thing about your article that might irk some of my friends who are professional musicians (emphatically not me!) is that you’re buying less music. Of course the music industry is changing and musicians and composers need to figure out new ways of living with the changing economy. Myself, I’m paying for more music than ever. Because I have a fabulous day job teaching, I can afford to support musicians economically as well as creatively, so I do. If somebody has a “buy it” button on SoundCloud, I often do, and I buy the originals of the music I cover. Because I post all my music with Creative Commons licenses, some of my friends still think I’m helping contribute to the increasingly bleak situation where people assume music will be free. Deep down, I’m a big fat communist, so I have doubts about ALL private property, intellectual as well as material, but we live in this complicated world… As you know, I fall on the side of wanting to stimulate the gift economy – and the feminist in me wants us to pay special attention to affective labor and sentimental value. All of these things are intertwined in my mind.”

Her phrase, “affective labor and sentimental value,” continues to echo in my mind, evoking the possibility of a shamelessly utopian economic model. When I asked Barbara about the provenance of that notion, she wrote:

“if you want more on affective labor, a good Marxist feminist theorist to start with is Sylvia Federici, but of course you can always just talk to a waitress or a nurse or a mom about labors of love.”

For many members, including this writer, the greatest value SoundCloud offers isn’t  the space it  provides  to store and share  music.  It’s the  inspiration to our creativity and the nurture of our processes that count.   Axel Weiss, a jazz guitarist, composer and painter from Bavaria, wrote that some of his musical ideas would simply never come into the world without the supportive outlet that SoundCloud provides.  Justin Valente, a blues guitarist from New Jersey maintains that his past eight months on SoundCloud have been the most productive of his twenty-five year long career.

Alexa Weber Morales

Alexa Weber Morales

Alexa Weber Morales, an Oakland, California singer-songwriter who sang on the Grammy-nominated latin jazz album Bien! Bien!  and sings, tours and writes lyrics with Pacific Mambo Orchestra,  made an insightful connection between craft and community:

“If you believe in craft, and I strongly do, than a community like SoundCloud is inspiring. However, a lot of musicians do like I did at first: automatically post their tracks from CD Baby (you can just click a button), see zero comments/interaction, and let it lie fallow. I say forget Pinterest (tried it), LinkedIn, ReverbNation, MySpace (as if!) and FaceBook and enjoy a community purpose-built for musicians. So what if you don’t find many music fans there, half or more of the music business has to do with inspiration and collaboration with other musicians and who you know. This is a way to do all those things, without getting sucked into other time-wasters.”

Alexa, Axel and Justin, along with most of the people who emailed me,  frequently collaborate with other SoundCloud members, over considerable physical distances, sometimes without ever having met in person.  Idris Davies, in London  and Chris Okunbor in Australia created a haunting mashup of “death songs” from the black tradition, including chants, hollers and songs by Blind Willie Johnson, Charlie Patton and others. “musicaserj II,” a Paris-based composer-musician, remixed their work and added an electric guitar part.

telefan

telefan

Jim, a Philadelphia guitarist who goes by the name of “telefan” recorded and uploaded a traditional twelve-bar blues guitar track, “Two-Minute Blues”  and invited anyone who was interested to add a vocal track, a second guitar part or another instrument. After about three weeks, more than thirty musicians have taken him up on the offer  “It has been such an amazing success,” he writes,  “also very much a learning experience for me as a guitarist to hear other great players’ interpretations of the same piece.”

This sort of “song-swapping” reminds me of some of my earliest musical experiences when, from age eleven on, my family would spend summers in a small mountain town in Southern California where a folk-music “workshop” run by then-blacklisted Pete Seeger would take place. That was where I learned my first guitar chords and, later on, a few blues licks.  Besides Pete, folk-music virtuosos like The New Lost City Ramblers, Brownie McGee,  Sonny Terry and Bess Lomax Hawes would teach there, and hundreds of fans and amateur folkies would gather to learn and pass around songs, riffs and techniques.

In high school, college, and later, I stayed connected to the folk music community at  ashgrovevenues like the legendary Ash Grove in L.A., McCabe’s in Santa Monica and the Ice House in Pasadena. But, eventually, I drifted away from that world as other parts of life made greater demands.

For me, the most positive feature of the so-called “digital revolution” is the unparalleled access to music – as a listener and a musician – I now enjoy.  Until my own experience on SoundCloud, I had remained skeptical about the heralded “democratization of art,” that the internet has reportedly brought about. But the truth is that, these days, almost all the music I listen to is written, performed and recorded outside any commercial structure, mostly offered for free, by people who are, in terms of celebrity, unknown.  Could it be that – at least in this one area of life – we have stumbled our way into the gift economy that Lewis Hyde wrote about so compellingly in his classic book, The Gift?

The people I’ve gotten to know on SoundCloud – though many would not fit in any sort of “folk” category – have brought me back to a sense of participation in music as an activity that is intensely personal and, at the same time,  collective. Whether listening to music that moves me with its beauty, power, sense of history or its humor, or in giving and receiving help in songwriting or music production, or in philosophical conversations about music, and everything else, I sometimes feel that I’m taking part in a never-ending global hootenanny – the kind of spontaneous group sing- and play- along that was once a vibrant part of American culture. Maybe it still is.

What We Talk About When We Talk About SoundCloud:

I’ve found SC has been a way of getting a little of the same joy I get from gigging back into my life without the live nerves etc. I’m not saying it replaces it but I find the feedback I get has driven me and it’s just been such a joy and sense of completion to post a song and have it heard…

“The SoundCloud  community is a little eco-system of groups of individuals sharing music, ideas, advice and just life. I suppose other social platforms are ways of sharing what you ate for breakfast or what you’re watching on telly, SC is a platform for sharing music – and I don’t need to tell you how provocative, leading and rich a subject that is, do I!”

– Idris Davies, Singer-Songwriter, London, UK

Riny Raijmakers

Riny Raijmakers

I think there are more communities within Soundcloud. It’s like living in a small town and you just pick the ones you feel comfortable with, the ones who are on the same wavelength. It’s a microscopic world in a way.

– Riny Raijmakers, Singer-Songwriter, Eindhoven, Netherlands.

SoundCloud has replaced my old 4track.”

– Robin Thomas Martin, Singer-Songwriter

I find you can quickly see through to people’s hearts and intentions…through their music/lyrics/comments, and watching the way they treat others of all genders. SC is a very special community

– Chris Okunbor, Singer, Guitarist, Blue Mountains, Australia

Katja Tennigkeit

Katja Tennigkeit

“There’s that part of SC where people really listen to one another’s music, comment and like (or not). These people often do real collaborations, where each invests some time, someone does the mix and master etc…so yes, there’s a community with a real interest into the others. Mostly, they also make this typical handmade music, play real instruments, write songs with lyrics etc. Then there’s another world, where people just repost and comment (mostly standard blabla) and like other peoples music just in return for the same being done to them. Thus, their tracks quickly collect lots of plays and likes, but it doesn’t really mean anything, it’s just a deal. maybe they think that makes their music better, that this is a career starter, but I don’t think so.”

– Katja Tennigheit, Seeheim-Jugenheim, Germany 

I am pleasantly surprised by the lack of nastiness among commenters at SC. I’ve often wondered if someone goes around and deletes anything too untoward! It presents the other problem, though, of never getting helpful feedback or 100% honesty from fellow users. Early on I actually tried being more truthful — still not unkind, but recommending minor adjustments that could be made — and I’ve had mostly very good reactions to that. OTOH, I’ve lost some followers as a result, too. My approach to every interaction in life was / is / and always will be applying the Golden Rule: Would I want to see / hear such a note in return?”

– Kathleen Martin, Singer/Musician, Knob Knee, Indiana

Tony Bluestone

Tony Bluestone

Music is a personal thing. To share that is beautiful, man!  Creating music puts me in a special place… Music pulls people together where as politics, religion seems to pull people apart.”

– Tony Pappas (Tony Bluestone), Singer, Songwriter,  Detroit, Michigan

“For me SoundCloud was a life saver when I came upon it

Phutz' Icon

Phutz’ Icon

several years ago. It opened up a whole new thing for me, and I have been quite (happily) surprised by the responses I have got from others (all unsolicited).”

– Phutz, Singer, Songwriter, Sound Artist, Western Massachusetts

Corey Fischer

Corey Fischer

Links my own music:

songs and spoken word pieces 

my Smithsonian Remix Competition entries

all instrumental compositions