Is John Adams a terrorist suspect?

Ok. I’m the first to admit I didn’t particularly like Doctor Atomic. We saw the opening of John Adams’ latest opera in SF, and my personal feeling was that it was interesting, but it didn’t work. As the story goes, the librettist quit, and Adams and director Peter Sellars instead assembled a libretto from original documents such as diaries, poems, and (painfully) declassified government documents. I’m not a tremendous fan of Adams’ orchestrally dense composition in any case, but the utterly unlyrical rhythms of government prose pretty much killed the drama for me.

Still, I wouldn’t call him a terrorist, musical or otherwise. Yesterday, Adams told the BBC that he’s been “blacklisted” by the US government. Here’s Adams, from the Guardian:

I can’t check in at the airport now without my ID being taken and being grilled. You know, I’m on a homeland security list, probably because of having written The Death of Klinghoffer, so I’m perfectly aware that I, like many artists and many thoughtful people in the country, am being followed.

True? I’m all for paranoia. But if a fairly unrevolutionary composer who makes Nixon and Robert Oppenheimer mythological (anti)heroes is stuck on the US’s terrorist watch list, the administration’s Homeland Security efforts are even more pathetic than anyone imagined.

Another NY boomer wants 70s music, and mass culture, back

I won’t say it’s exactly amazing how often I hear music critics — or anyone — of a certain age lamenting the lost music of the ’70s. When I covered digital entertainment closely, I was on an influential mailing list full of ostensible music lovers, smart people, and every few weeks someone would argue that the problem with music biz today is that nobody’s making any good music.

Pah. David Brooks’ column in the NYT today is slightly smarter, but not much. He has interviewed Steven Van Zandt, Springsteen’s guitarist, and together they wistfully remember a time when big bands like the Stones and Springsteen meant something, or meant something to huge masses of people. Not like today, where music consumption is fragmented into micro-genres, bands can’t fill stadiums (remember how great the sound and view in those stadium shows are?), and the kids picking up instruments just can’t play.

He says that most young musicians don’t know the roots and traditions of their music. They don’t have broad musical vocabularies to draw on when they are writing songs.

As a result, much of their music (and here I’m bowdlerizing his language) stinks.

He describes a musical culture that has lost touch with its common roots. And as he speaks, I hear the echoes of thousands of other interviews concerning dozens of other spheres.

Did I say slightly smarter? Forget it. Music cultures change. Everything is fragmented. But why in hell is that bad?

A musical monoculture is like any monoculture. It stagnates. Innovation happens within a strictly circumscribed sphere. What really happens is that it produces rebels, punk, new wave, and then what happens… it fragments. I’m a deeply music loving music geek, who today has the ability to listen to everything from Johannes Ockeghem to Valerio Cosi’s Italian free-jazz drones (if you haven’t heard him, GO LISTEN NOW), with long detours through the Middle East, Africa and Asia. That perpetually blows my mind.

Kids can do this too. The ability to get in touch with musical roots beyond Zeppelin and the Doors and the Beatles and a bunch of very good 60s blues bands is overwhelming today. Not everyone takes advantage of this, but many, many do. It’s creating vast amounts of new and innovative music even despite the industry’s implosion. It ain’t the Stones, ’cause frankly that sound’s come and gone at least three times.

Music, and music culture, moves with the times. Brooks gets part of this. He finishes with this, which was his real point all along:

We live in an age in which the technological and commercial momentum drives fragmentation. It’s going to be necessary to set up countervailing forces — institutions that span social, class and ethnic lines.

Music used to do this. Not so much anymore.

This is the old end-of-shared-culture argument. We listen to different things, think differently, read different Web sites. We don’t all watch the same TV news at 8, don’t listen to the same Rolling Stones albums. Terrible, right?

Pah. Before, “technological and commercial momentum” created the impression of cultural monocultures — although underneath, unlistened to by Brooks and his besuited buddies, were other vibrant scenes. Maybe the culture business wasn’t fragmented back then, but culture was — what were the jazzheads listening to, or the folkies, or the deeply weird Tony Conrad or Eternal Music drone aficionados? They sure weren’t in stadiums.

Diversity of cultural opportunity allows people to stretch their minds and expand their experiences, and breeds creativity. Even if people who want to hear the same thing over and over again don’t want to hear it.

Thanks to Alex Ross for the pointer.

Berlin in New York, our dancing, delightful orchestra

Berlin and New York are having a little love-in these days. It’s not just in the pages of the NYT, where gushing and usually (but not always) 66 percent fictional articles appear about the Wild Life In Berlin. The two cities are in the midst of a cultural interchange just now, swapping music and other performances at Important Cultural Venues, and I am unhappy to say I missed all of New York here.

But they like us over there on the other side. And it’s not just the romance. Well, it’s partly the romance; it’s impossible to read many articles without quickly finding references to the Weimar period, where Art and Sex and optimistic politics went hand in hand, even when all three were technically the same sex. (Of course that’s what sold me on this place too; how many expatriates here can’t claim some private love affair with the velvet-penned Herr Isherwood, or at least his cultural Caberet-ish offsprings.)

But no, it’s not just that. The NYT has much to say in the paper’s Berlin in Lights blog here, most of it very complimentary, about Berlin’s cultural ambassadors. Yet my favorite is the unrelated review of the Berlin Philharmonic by the very serious, very readable, very smart composer, writer and teacher Greg Sandow. A few excerpts:

The most astonishing thing about the Berlin players is that they move when they play. … Sometimes the entire section almost danced, each player in his own way… We hear that in Berlin, the Philharmonic attracts a younger audience, that there’s excitement at their concerts. And no wonder. It’s not because of marketing, or gimmicks. It’s because they’re exciting to hear, and also to see. You know they care. You know they’re excited by the music. You can see it. Carnegie Hall was electric with their presence, as it was with the young Venezuelans, but never is — just never — with most other orchestras.

That’s our local. We, or I, tend not to appreciate it enough, having an overwhelming surfeit of classical (and contemporary) music here. But they are not only good, they are world class, enough to make New York stand up and take notice. I need to spend more time at the Philharmonic.

Visa woes and Haino screams

Two poles of Berlin existence yesterday, after sending lovely Ms. Peasant Glasses off to Hawaii for three weeks.

After a year of pretending it didn’t exist, it was time for me to visit the friendly Ausländerbehörde, Germany’s version of the INS, again. I had my docs in order; income statements, proof of insurance, rental contract. The works, in that peculiarly German paper-rich fashion.

Naturally, the woman who was helping me took one look at my stack and told me it was no good. She was quite friendly about it, and I was happy to see that my German was good enough to argue pointlessly with her about it. But it was no good. Apparently we freelance journalists can’t just shove check stubs at them to prove we’re making enough money to live on; we have to get an accountant, and have them sign off on everything, showing how much we’re likely to keep after taxes, and so on.

So it’s back to the termporary visa status for me, and time for accountant hunting. Any Berlin-ites know a good, reasonably priced, English-speaking Steuerberater?

Naturally, the best thing for forgetting a tooth-grinding bureaucratic experience is music that hits you over the head like a cartoon anvil. So it’s a good thing that Keiji Haino was in town last night.

Haino, who I’ve written about here before, is a Japanese guitar player who has roughly the same relationship to sound as a stick of dynamite does to a mountainside. Last night he was playing with electronic duo Pan Sonic, who kept a rumbling, dark and edgy texture underneath him at all times, sometimes sampling and chopping his work, sometimes creating their sounds from scratch.

Long- and gray-haired with straight, short bangs, always sunglassed on stage, Haino sings eerie high soprano notes, screams his throat out, plays rows of theremin-like instruments that give the impression he is swimming through or wrestling with a thick field of distorted sound. He brought out a detuned stringed instrument I’m unfamiliar with and beat oddly pretty horror-show dissonance out of it. Of course he played his guitar as though it were some alien trying to take over his mind.

The effect is both numbing and exhilarating. I remember the first time I went on Space Mountain at Disneyland, when I was very small. I was petrified, kept my eyes shut the entire time, so tense that I was exhausted at the end. But loved it. That’s Keiji. If I can’t scream about the Ausländerbehörde, at least he can.

Droning Shiva-style in Alexanderplatz

I ran into this guy, India Bharti, playing in Alexanderplatz yesterday. He’s a wandering musician of uncertain (but distinctly sandy-graying) age, a white yogi type, sitting crosslegged, sunflowered, maybe deeply cliched right up to the point you looked at how he was making his sounds.

He was playing a pair of homemade instruments: one a small electric violin, the other something he calls a “Bhartiphone” (and yes, of course I thought immediately of Slartybartfast), which is essentially two long, thick strings stretched almost zither-style, which he both plucked and played with a little mallet.

The result, electrified, distorted, and processed through a handful of guitar pedals, was hypnotic and droning, exactly the kind of music I love these days. Listening to his recordings online, you miss the effect; his rhyming, anti-war, anti-power lyrics are mixed too high, and they are by far the least interesting part of what he’s doing. I stood and listened for a quarter-hour, and vowed to make my own instruments one of these days.

No pics or sounds, because I was unprepared.