Jack Elliot: Still Ramblin’

ramblin-jack-elliott-newport jack.and.dylan jack.ash.poster

I went to the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley last night to see Ramblin’ Jack Elliot who has been one of my favorite performers since I first saw him at the Ash Grove – the west coast center of the folk revival of the sixties – when I was still in high school. He’s 84 years old now and needed some help getting his guitar plugged in and positioning the vocal mic. When he started singing, some of the high notes were a little frayed, but his musicality, humor and timing were intact. He made it clear that his nickname didn’t come from all his traveling but from the countless yarns he spins around, between and through the songs he sings. Stories about growing up in Brooklyn, discovering the rodeos at Madison Square Garden and trying to become a bronco rider himself at age fourteen; about unknown and famous folksingers from Bess Hawes to Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan.

The audience, like me, tended toward the grey and wrinkled.  Lots of beards and long white hair. A few canes and cowboy hats.  Long, ethnic dresses and turquoise jewelry. I said to my friend George, who came with me, “Mill Valley, where the counter culture comes to die.”  My irony masked my mingled nostalgia, grief and joy. Those feelings hit me full force when Jack sang “Bobby McGee”  the song by Kris Kristofferson that became a posthumous hit for Janis Joplin.  I had once run into Ramblin’ Jack at a party in the Hollywood Hills back in the early seventies. I had asked him to sing it and he did. I’ve never forgotten how it felt to be sung to by a legend. Last night when he sang it, my tears were right there. Of course, I do believe that “Bobby McGee” is one of the most beautiful songs in the American singer-songwriter canon. But Jack is a genius at singing stories and has a way of making a song like that stand for an entire life, a whole era.  Same when he sang Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.”  I had once heard him call it a song by “my former son, Bob Dylan.”  This was a reference to Dylan – before he got super-famous – having referred to himself as “Jack Elliot’s son.”

Last night he introduced it with a long tale of how he learned it while snowed in a cabin somewhere with a good supply of firewood, a bottle of Cutty Sark but only one record: “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” which he listened to continually for three days. His finger-picking was as lively as ever, and he bit into the rueful intelligence of the lyrics more deeply than any young man ever could.

After the show, as we headed to George’s car, I saw that Jack was talking to some people by the stage door. I walked over and said something about loving his music since the Ash Grove days. He took my hand and looked at me, really looked. “Have we met?” he asked.  I mentioned that long-ago party.  He asked again, “Do we know each other?”  then, after telling him I was an actor, he said “Did I meet you on that film? It was with Jack Nicholson in a railroad yard.”  I said “No, I never met Nicholson.” Then, still holding his hand, I said what I really wanted to tell him all along. “Jack, you’re in my heart forever.”

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

1976: a song

“1976” an excerpt from “Who Was I?” a music-theatre piece by Corey Fischer 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

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

Time’s Turning Wheel

To the New Year
By W.S. Merwin

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

Contents

  1. On Friendship, time and work
  2. Unexpected Joy at Cal State East Bay
  3. Mentor and Father
  4. Swimming to Shanghai [and Beijing…]

◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

1.
I had thought to use a line from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – my favorite play of the twentieth century – as the epigraph for this post until I read this poem by Merwin for which I’m so very grateful to Sarah Fry for posting on Facebook.

Sarah, (formerly Sarah Jane Norris and then Sarah Ludlow) is a beloved friend and acting partner I first met in 1977, in New York, the year before co-founding TJT. Sarah and TJT both moved to the Bay Area about five years later.

Sarah Fry and Corey in "Dybbuk," 1988

Sarah Fry and Corey in “Dybbuk,” 1988

A consummate actor/singer, Sarah helped work our box office during our first residency in San Francisco, at Intersection, and, a few years later, had the great idea of acting together in Bruce Myers’ Dybbuk for two actors.

Not too long ago, after some years in medical school, she began a new career as a doula and nurse practitioner in obstetrics.  I  don’t see Sarah very often these days. I particularly miss her stunningly clear and buoyant voice singing everything from lullabies, Scandinavian hymns and Childe ballads to jazz standards and show tunes.

I had not planned to write anything about Sarah, but this day invites reflection on what it is we most value. Ironically, friendships – the endlessly fascinating, ever-nurturing procession of bodhisattvas and lamed-vavnikim moving through my days – are the gift beyond compare that makes life a cause for celebration.  Ironic because I spend so much more time on other parts of life, those connected to work, creativity, and, yes, ART. People compliment me for my commitment to the muses, and I am appropriately grateful for the work I’ve helped bring into the world. But there is a cost. In the weird foreshortening that now effects my view of time, the sense of an ending is no longer an abstraction and, in its shadow, I feel very keenly the presence and the absence of the many friends of my soul with whom I’ve managed to lose touch.

Which brings me back to the Beckett lines:

“The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors.”

2012 seems to have been one of the more unhappy and difficult of the nearly sixty-eight years I’ve lived. The December shooting in Connecticut continues to weigh on the nation and makes it hard to breathe.  At the same time, several people who meant a great deal to me recently died.

This year I also said goodbye to Traveling Jewish Theatre which had been my artistic home for thirty-four years. At  the TJT Farewell event on May 14, the tension between the needs of friendship, community-nurturance and human connection and the demands of theatre-making was erased as three hundred or so friends gathered to celebrate TJT’s thirty-four years of work and witness its ending.

One of the seductions of work, activity, doing is the illusion of a “rain check” on feeling  that it gives us. When I was a kid, there was a show-biz biopic with Susan Hayward called I’ll Cry Tomorrow. Right. For about a year, I had deferred my own grief over the end of TJT by focusing on the labor of directing my play In the Maze of Our Own Lives and on the TJT Farewell. But as soon as May 14, 2012 passed, I felt unaccountably restless, irritable and lost.  I finally let myself sink into the experience: the central endeavor of the last four decades of my life no longer existed.

Once I let this knowledge circulate among my molecules, new possibilities arose, as if on cue.

[back to top]

2.

I know that
hope is the hardest
love we carry

– Jane Hirschfield

I was asked to direct The Good Person of Szechuan (Bertolt Brecht, tr. Tony Kushner) at California State University, East Bay.  I’d never directed  in a university and felt a bit like an imposter, with my dusty old B.A. As it happened,  I had an incredible time working with a group of gifted and open-hearted students who were excited by the chance to work with someone who had been making theatre outside academia for forty-five years.

The Ensemble uses bamboo poles to create houses, landscapes and percussive sounds

The Ensemble uses bamboo poles to create houses, landscapes and percussive sounds

The hope and trust I’ve held for almost half a century, that theatre – which too often seems marginal, irrelevant or moribund – can still be a vital source of connection and meaning for people was renewed during my time at Cal State East Bay.

But it is in Hayward, forty miles (one way) from my home, and I couldn’t have handled the driving had it not been for my good friend Rhoda Kaufman, one of two full professors in the Theatre and Dance department, who generously offered me a guest room in her house in Berkeley, a mere half hour from campus. Her counsel and support got me through the more opaque and confusing parts of academic culture and some difficult production challenges. Best of all,  our friendship deepened and I discovered a colleague and mentor who is a formidable scholar as well as a dedicated activist and an inspiring teacher.

Directing – which I’ve done less frequently than I’ve acted and co-created – especially directing young people, is intensely relational. Having spent so many years as an actor, and, earlier, as a student, I discovered I had an intense ambition to create or invoke the conditions that would allow the cast to have an experience of empowerment in which they could discover their own creativity as theatre-makers.

l. TIffinee Walker, r.  Jasmine Williams

l. TIffinee Walker, r. Jasmine Williams

I had suffered through too many meaningless, lifeless productions when I was a theatre major in the 1960s. My time in a university theatre department nearly annihilated the creative spark that led me to theatre in the first place. Fortunately, in those four years, there were two different productions (one was Baal, Bertolt Brecht’s first play, the other was Waiting for Godot – coincidence?) each directed by a visionary teacher – James Kerans and Louis Palter, respectively – who inspired everyone involved.  I wanted to do the same thing for the CSUEB students.

When I wrote about directing Good Person in a previous post, I said, “The cast, all students at CSUEB, have achieved the rare feat of becoming a true, functioning ensemble in an impossibly short time.”  I was moved many times during rehearsals by the ways in which cast members cared for each other.

The "Gods" wore giant masks designed by Rhiannon Williams

The “Gods” wore giant masks designed by Rhiannon Williams

Two actors could not join us until the third week of our five week rehearsal period. The nine who had been there from the start went out of their way to welcome, reassure and support the late arrivals, showing up early or staying late to help them catch up with memorization and blocking.

My sense of the practical value of the ensemble, collaborative approach was confirmed over and over.. Treating the students as collaborators gave them a space to enter and fill, it gave them agency.  I happily subverted any notion of the actor as puppet or tool to be manipulated by the director. Early on I made a habit of asking different students to lead the physical and vocal warm-ups at the start of our rehearsals.

Carlos Aguirre, actor, beatboxer and vocal coach for "Good Person"

Carlos Aguirre, actor, beatboxer and vocal coach for “Good Person”

As we worked on the songs – which the wildly talented beatboxer/actor/musician Carlos Aguirre arranged and coached – as spoken-word/hip hop- inflected shprechtshtimme – I called on one or more actors to take responsibility for setting and keeping the tempo for the number.

The spirit of generosity that infused the project was reinforced by Brecht’s own vision, I’m certain. One of the elements I most appreciate in the play is the epilogue that ends it. Apologizing for the lack of a neatly packaged denouement and clear moral to the story they’ve told, the ensemble sings to the audience:

Honorable audience, don’t feel cheated
If as we end you feel defeated.
We’ve failed, we know, to be conclusive:
But definitive answers proved elusive.
We know that you might not approve
of this, our last dramaturgic move.
But there is one chance to redeem defeat,
if you, dear friends, in your theatre seats,
choose to take on the need to defend
what’s good in this world, we can make a good end.
You’re the actors now, be brave and be just,
We’ve got to do better, we must, must, must! 

The ensemble took Brecht’s challenge to heart. These twelve young theatre makers –

from l. Teresita Brown, Tiffinee Walker, Belgica Paola Rodriguez

from l. Teresita Brown, Tiffinee Walker, Belgica Paola Rodriguez

Filipino, African American, Anglo, Latina, Asian – became an instance of “what’s good in the world.” In their easy acceptance of each other, of difference, in their willingness to support each other’s strengths and build on each other’s commitment and hard work, they became “brave and just.”  They gave me reason to hope that they would “do better” than my generation. They knew that “We must, must, must.”

[back to top]

3.

In addition to my work with the young artists at Cal State, I’ve had a couple of other recent opportunities to mentor younger artists.

arielAriel Luckey is a remarkable actor-writer-musician-activist who has been performing his original, solo, hip-hop theatre piece, Freeland, about the U.S. government’s theft of native land in Wyoming including the land that was eventually homesteaded by Ariel’s maternal grandfather.  I’ve been helping Ariel develop a new piece. Amnesia draws on stories and music from Jewish and Mexican cultures to tell his paternal great grandfather’s story of escaping the violence and oppression of Eastern Europe to settle in Arizona, where today’s Latino people struggle to make a life in the midst of anti-immigrant demagoguery. I’ve taken special delight in watching Ariel’s growing excitement as he discovers more and more of the richness of nineteenth and early twentieth century Yiddish culture – the music, theatre, poetry, humor and literature that I found so inspiring in my early work with TJT.

My own son, Ben Galland is a videographer who is collaborating with China Galland – his mother and my wife – on a very ambitious and most necessary full-length documentary, Resurrecting Love, the Cemetery that Can Heal a Nation inspired by China’s last book, Love Cemetery, that reveals the ongoing damage to the American soul inflicted by the legacy of slavery.

My grandson Eli, on a mountain

My grandson Eli, on a mountain

During a recent break from that project, Ben completed a short, lyrical celebration of fathers and sons, My First Fish, that received over twenty thousand views in less then a week on Vimeo.

Ben grew up kayaking wild rivers, climbing in the Sierras and the Rockies, surfing the north coast and skateboarding Mount Tamalpais on full moon nights.  He was eleven when China and I found each other, thirty years ago.  Over the years, Ben and I have been able to transform a typically contentious clash of opposing sensibilities into a profound and loving father-son bond. I’ve been able to share with him what I’ve learned about storytelling and the practice of creativity and he, and his mother, have taught me to appreciate wilderness. Ben and I have kayaked together in the San Francisco Bay, scuba dived in Hawaii and hiked in Marin. No skateboarding so far, though.   In making , My First Fish, his beautifully simple account of a day with his five year old son, Eli, on the Trinity River, Ben has located an underground aquifer of creative energy that can never be exhausted.

[ back to top]

4.

Before my work at Cal State was over, I got a call letting me know that I was one of six theatre-makers to be awarded a “Global Connections” grant by TCG (Theatre Communications Group, the only national advocacy and service organization for non-profit theatre in the U.S). The grant is aimed at seeding international collaborations in theatre. It will allow me to accept an invitation from Taiwanese director Stan Lai  to spend time with him in Beijing next March while he rehearses the Beijing premiere of one of his most ambitious projects, A Dream Like a Dream. The play surrounds the audience, who sit on swiveling chair and lasts eight hours.  The inspiration for it came from an experience Stan had in Bodh Gaya, India, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment and Stan’s reading of certain Buddhist texts.  I’m currently reading a rough translation of it and feel a palpable undertow,  something like a gravitational force that its many interweaving characters, their stories and journeys generate. In Beijing, Stan and I will begin talking about ways we might collaborate on a project in the future.

Stan Lai, director and playwright

Stan Lai, director and playwright

Some of you will have seen the video of Stan I recorded last August when I met him during his visit to the Bay Area, and know something about the unusual connection between us that began, unbeknownst to me, thirty years ago.

The plan is to spend about three weeks in Beijing observing Stan’s rehearsals and starting the conversation about collaborating. Then, after A Dream Like a Dream opens, I’ll travel to Shanghai where Stan is  arranging a guest workshop for me to teach. I’ll end the trip in Wuzhen, a “water town” built on canals. Stan and two other Chinese theatre artists  are organizing an international experimental theatre festival there with some formidable participants from around the planet. (Such as the legendary Odin Teatret from Denmark).

Corey Fischer is a participant in the Global Connections-ON the ROAD program, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for the professional not-for-profit American theatre.

In days to come, I’ll be booking flights, applying for a visa, working on logistics with Stan’s assistant named, charmingly, December. Proceeding as if it’s all really happening though I’m still not quite convinced. As with most improvisations,  the effectiveness of preparation is questionable, but the need to feel in control is unavoidable. My little video camera is working, I’ve got extra memory cards and batteries and electrical adaptors. I’m starting  to imagine fragmentary conversations with Stan about the essence of theatre,  cross-cultural collaborations, stories that need telling and more.  I make lists. I lose the lists. I have plenty of time before departing. I have no time.

[ back to top]

Cliff Osmond, Actor and Teacher, 1937 – 2012

Yesterday I experienced a shock when a friend who’s also a “friend” on Facebook posted a link to an interview with Cliff Osmond, a prolific character actor who appeared in nearly a hundred feature films and network TV shows since his first job in 1962. The shock – the kind I am beginning to experience too often for it to remain shocking – was in the preface to the interview on The Classic TV History Blog which revealed that Cliff had died of pancreatic cancer on December 22, 2012, shortly after his last talk with the blogger, Stephen Bowie.

Seeing the photos of Cliff on Stephen’s blog hit me like Proust’s petit madeleine. 47 years ago, at UCLA, Cliff and I acted in an amazing production of Bertolt Brecht’s first play, Baal. Cliff played the title role. He was almost 30 and I was 21 and just about ready to give up theatre. I think every theatre-maker has a story about the time (s) they were that  close to quitting the whole crazy struggle to make a kind of art that disappears in nearly the same moment that it comes into being.  As Samuel Beckett has Pozzo in Waiting for Godot say, “They give birth astride of a grave. the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”

In 1966, after an invigorating year in France, courtesy of the University of California’s Education Abroad Program, and a summer traveling the still largely undiscovered “Hippie Trail” through Spain to Tangiers, across Algeria to Tunis and then back across the Mediterranean to Sicily, up to Rome and over the Alps to Paris and finally north east to Luxembourg to catch my flight home on the most affordable carrier of that era, Icelandic Air, with its brief stopover in Reykjavik. After a year and a half on the loose, I could no longer ignore the bitter smell of defeat that hung in the hallways and classrooms of the Theatre Department’s brand new McGowan Hall with its two state-of the-art theatres. The film school, still housed in portable classrooms on the other side of a parking lot, was a different, livelier story with Jean Renoir, young grad student Francis Coppola, and three others who spent more time playing rock music at parties than making student films.  They called  themselves “The  Doors.”

But that production of Baal changed everything for me. It was directed by a new faculty member, James Kerans, who was the only teacher I encountered in my four years there who inspired, energized and creatively disturbed the students he worked with. He came and went rather quickly, not cut out for  academia. I heard he had a heart attack while jogging and died shortly after he left  UCLA.

He lit a fire under Cliff who embodied the raw, elemental, cruel and narcissistic  Baal with great passion and power. I played a drunken beggar oscillating between ecstasy and horror on the Catholic holy day of Corpus Christi, as he sees the trees that pious Germans nail to the front doors of their houses become transformed into the actual “white body of Jesus”  Baal, sharing the beggar’s bottle sees the trees as the women he’s destroyed with his insatiable appetites. If Jim Kerans was the first director I’d worked with who really understood what theatre was, Cliff was the first actor I’d known who also knew, as Rilke would say, “secret things.”  Between the gorgeous excess of Brecht’s youthful, still forming genius, Kerans’ expansive understanding of life and theatre and his generosity of soul and Cliff’s combination of maturity, skill and a willingness to risk everything, we all became infected, feverish, obsessed,  joyful and terrified of the raw and beautiful thing we were making together. It was the first time I ever made a part my own, broke that membrane, that thin crust that build up between “the character” or “the role” or all the analytical  constructs — intention, motivation, given circumstances, back story, subtext, sense memory — and the moment-to-moment life we are sharing with the actors, the audience, the elements we’re breathing. It was the first time that all the work, the preparation, the thought, the inner and outer research, having done its job, melted away. That experience, to which Cliff was so central, is still my beacon, my true north, though, gratefully, there have been a few more in the 47 years since then.  

I’ve lost touch with everyone who was part of that undertaking. At least three have died:  Kerans, Cliff, and a woman who was my best friend back then, Marlene Rasnick, who played one of two sisters who frolic a night away with Baal in one of the few delightfully funny moments in the play. There’s more to be told, written, sung about all this.  But right now, attention must be paid to Cliff Osmond, and the uncanny absence of one whose unwavering presence made him one of the finest actors I’ve had the good fortune to work with. I imagine that most anyone who ever shared a moment on stage or in front of a camera with him feels the same.