Gabriel Kahane: 1890 Book of Travelers, thoughts

Two nights ago, I saw one of the most beautiful and thoughtful performances I have seen in a long time and I wanted to write about the experience and how it spoke to me as a musician and human existing in this time of political and societal unrest.

The story goes (from the BAM website): The morning after the 2016 presidential election, singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane packed a suitcase and set out for a two-week train trip across the US with no phone or internet, embracing 8,980 miles of a reclusive Amtrak existence.”

 (Kahane also wrote a beautiful article for the nytimes about the experience of writing this album which I recommend- certainly more than reading the rest of my post! You can find it- https://nyti.ms/2ieFCOL)
This album is perhaps one of my favorites in the recent trend of reinterpreting what albums can be. It is to music what Sarah Silverman’s I Love You America is to comedy in its attempt to start a personal dialogue with those we consider other. It is an ode to slowness and the experience of time as necessity for deeper enjoyment and understanding of music, landscapes, and people. There is almost nothing more like any music album and its many tangents than the equally fluid wandering of transitioning landscapes on a train. As a culture, we have begun to lose a sensitivity to the unfamiliar, both in thought and in place. With this album, Kahane continues his work in breaking apart the compartmentalizations of “genre”… the ones that hold classical music and other kinds of music apart from each other. It is only fitting that he uses his unique melding if genres to also break apart ideas, expectations, and limitations (his and ours.) And while different traditions and kinds of music speak to each other in his compositions and songwriting, so do different cultures and people in this particular project.

I think if I could have done something similarly after the election, I would have. But I know my desire would have been for escape- Kahane and I would have the same actions, but towards very different ends. He had dozens of conversations with people of vastly differing backgrounds and beliefs from his own. He became homeless for a couple weeks to find the greater shared American home. This was a project about rejuvenating our ability as a society to communicate; a project about connection, the kind deeper than our media allow us to have. I still haven’t recovered from this election in many ways- I check my Facebook at a maximum of one time a day, usually just logging on to post a haiku, afraid of what I’ll see, what I’ll believe. Afraid of the further polarization of our world, and the subsequent diminishing of understanding between disagreeing parties. There are many inspiring, wonderful, and hilarious things on the internet to be sure, but since the election, there has also been the constant unearthing of apathy and negligence for truth, lack of desire to understand, quick and often misdirected anger, and a troubling virtuous stench from both sides. Instead, I spend most of my time with things I don’t understand- be it reading books I deem too difficult for my understanding, or listening to music which has no prescribed way of listening. Classical music, with it’s (often) lack of words and thus, openness to interpretation is at least one certain antidote to the binary thinking Kahane tries to eschew with his project of meeting and listening to people from other cultures and societies. What better than the slowness of a train and the slowness of really getting to know someone to express the slowness of music which has been described as time unfolding? Because certain things depend on you to an extent- you can read faster or walk faster, but to enter an experience of music, and any kind of public transportation, is to surrender your control of, arguably the most important thing we have in this life… time.  

Not to say this album is all wonderful connective tissue for the broken belief sys-limbs of Americans solely in a warm and fuzzy way. There is also much sadness and frustration about what it means to be an American now and in the context of history. One song in particular, “William Eggleston’s Sky” which used electronic loops and voice distortion started quirky, became beautiful, hilarious, and subsequently terrifying. Lights were slowly turning on throughout the song and by the end, the audience was suffused in a mass of different colored lights, lit up together. It was simple, but effective staging… I was, by the end overwhelmed by the music and the slowness of the attention of the lights. I found myself crying and felt so connected to my fellow citizens in the audience- all of us in this shared numinous experience. MASSMoCA wrote that this album is “A meditation on the beautiful terror of getting lost in an unfamiliar landscape” I would disagree and say it’s almost the opposite- a meditation on the beautiful terror of finding yourself and the others who are with you and creating a community in an unfamiliar and fractured societal and political landscape. In this way, it was almost a spiritual experience. The album has reinterpreted hymns with simple, devastating, and often very unexpected harmonies, infusing the experience with a deep spiritual and secular love for our shared humanity.

Kahane created a shrine to one of the most quintessentially American things, the train being a spine that historically shaped our country as much as it helped us navigate it. Nostalgia has been under fire for being one of the reasons we are in our current predicament, with phrases such as “Make America Great Again” at the center of that accusation. Kahane radically redeems nostalgia by using arguably the most nostalgic elements of American to show us the real greatness of America- this album is a survey and map of the American people as they exist now, in all their beautiful contradictions, complexity, and inability to be reduced.

I’m always looking for how art and public discourse can intersect better. Seeing this performance convinced me more than ever that Arts’ place is with the people. It is the job of the artist to meet people where they are and to talk about the things that are happening in the world, affecting everyone a massive scale. And as I cried and laughed and traveled everything in between, I realized that what I most value in Art is the balance between irreverence and sincerity. My favorite artists tend to be the ones who are their own biggest skeptics, be it Franzen finding his way in China as a way out of his prejudice, or Kahane finding his way in nostalgia as a way out of desperation. What I really learned is-

real musicians listen,
Ling Ling

#brooklynacademyofmusic #gabrielkahane #bookoftravelers #MASSMoCA

Advertisements

concentric paths

I make my way in the lacquered night, under a sky of raw denim bejeweled by some teenage girl-god with too many braces and too few friends. The tree trunks do back bends, stretching their long boughs toward the earth, tired of their daily efforts to reach upward. My shoelaces slap happily, untied, on the shining pavement, wet with the tears of some giant happiness. The street lamps abruptly turn way from me with their yellow fever light and the mosquitoes continue their frenzied dives against the glass, music in the rhythm of their repeated hollow clinks. Children howl from their wombs, growing only fingernails to scratch a way out and your eyes are clouded over because you’ve been crying. I can’t understand your expression, can only understand the steadiness and necessity in my two feet moving forward. I have made my way to the narrows now, and I don’t know if they will open up. The air has begun to get shallow and the walls are damp, moldering with earth. The upturned cuffs of my jeans fill with silt and soil lines my auricula. My coat becomes heavy as the mud seeps into the pockets, nesting, belching. I listen to my breath as it gets labored, calmly register my heart’s panic. I crouch to keep going, my knuckles grazing the ground in it’s earthiness, stickiness, and sweetness. What I mean to say is; there is a path I have been walking for quite some time now, whistling, yelping, singing low and off-key. Full of rotted peach fruit and aborted stones, lavish with fungi and the eaten lace of decaying leaves. I reach the end and I keep walking, the fine skin on my forehead grating on the limestone, slowly rubbing my limbs raw on that giant rock, my body a fine paste, pestle to the earth’s mortar.

Have you heard

the one about the man who climbed a thousand fathoms down the rabbit hole,  who trapped and released outside the house a hundred dragons just to get to the girl who lay there in an elaborate coffin pretending wakefulness? He pulled at her heartstrings and she giggled and appreciated all the same art and liked all the same coffee places, but her heart kept spilling out cotton in great wads, stuffed with old receipts and other miscellany- nothing of substance. He traversed all the Ntrails within her, leaping from one slippery blood cell to another looking for some surface or substance to hang his haberdashery on. Peeking through her femur, rummaging through the large intestine, circumnavigating her big toe. As he crept through the thickets of her body hair, stopping to rest in the webbed hammock space between her thumb and pointer finger, he shivered and realized everything was freezing, already frozen over. Underneath her on-trend oversized sweater, a thousand sweaters deep, was an ice block he would have to chip and chip. The princess is in another castle, of her own making, a web woven over and hardened into resin, this cocoon of safety a coffin. There is only room for one, and anyway, we only destroy what isn’t ours to love.

LA2

City of angels and collapsible steeples with ghosts folded in the laundromat on every corner, drunks stirring in the streets with a look of vague contrition, their faces so used to the arrangement of some sweet apology they’re too numb or sleepy to remember.
Strangers become friends become lovers without ever having stopped being strangers.
Billboards are as high as steeples and it is difficult to know which to worship. Don’t mistake loneliness as emptiness, the void is not outside, waiting to be filled like a new plot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame- it is inside waiting to be punctured.
The overdrawn eyebrows, fake moles, and real tans gleaming in all directions like false gods make your heart wobble and dive, skip a beat, 1-2-2-check, and you do a little dance to the snare of his cutting up coke on the board, watching his eyes roll into the back of his head as his shopping cart rolls backward down the street, creaking.
City of angels, of ghosts, learn not to be afraid of the unfamiliar. The familiar is what is scary, the familiar is compulsion, is the need to overdraw brows and lips everyday, the need to conceal the same purple hues patterns on the body, the need to keep shoveling small amounts of diamond dust into the nostrils.
I walk the streets and see perpetual thirst, the plants and people grow quietly deranged with thirst, consumed by deficiency. I walk the streets and see a city of Angels, stripping their wings, peeling off goose flesh and plucking feather by feather, the feelings of unworthiness caused by this star-searching city resulting in an epidemic of inflated breasts, augmented dreams, and deflated souls
And I just remembered overhearing that girl in the restaurant who folded her napkin over her folded legs, pushing back her straight black hair, her chopsticks poised over a piece of teriyaki salmon with the precision of Krasznahorkai’s crane-

She said, “all these years I thought I loved sushi but I love soy sauce”

LA VS NY

I guess it depends
if you want to be lonely
alone or
with many others
squeezed so tight in this
fist of a city
spread out so far in this barren
womb of a city
in this place where children come
to be adults,
adults, children
restless from pure
mushroom pumped into veins
the color of a smog-dusted areola
the palm trees here
made of steel, blooming
into rooftop gardens
the buildings here hollow
memorials to other lives
lived onscreen
how are bodies shaped
by their cities
what cramped haggard
structures erected where
there is no room
what augmentations, swells
from too much room
either is a growth with disfigurement
and both are so rich
in poverty, in sexiness
in loneliness
which presses in on all sides
in the form of people
or lack of people
rubbing up against you
on the 1
or so far away your voice
dissipates in the distance
it takes to carry yourself to them

grown

I think the first time you grow up
is when you get sick and there is no one
to take care of you, no one to force
slippery rice congee down your throat
they are too far geographically
or emotionally because of all
you have withheld out of fear

I think the first time you grow up
is when no one is there to cool you
with rags dripping in cold water
and instead you must drag
your aching body to the shower
and sit on the floor
in huddled darkness
your hands clutching your face
wordlessly screaming
as the hot water flames your body
in New York where the walls are so close
so thin, that even in the shower
with the fan on
you have to cry silently

and now I know that I have to
bear children, even with no man,
just to know what it is
to feed a child while their hand
is pushing yours away
to love that which is repulsed by your love
or at least has decided it doesn’t need it

motherhood, that
perpetuation of mistakes
which is all the same one
of not knowing which love is needed
and that perpetuation of love
which is all the same one
of knowing that no matter the magnitude of mistakes,
the lack or excess,
the mode of delivery,
it is needed

Pina Bausch – Café Müller

I have loved Pina Bausch’s work since I first encountered it through the Wim Wenders documentary on her. In the 5 years since I first saw it, I’ve come back to this documentary whenever I’m feeling artistically uninspired, stagnant, or lost and its wordless beauty always reminds me how influential art can be. I’ve stayed up many a night watching it only to see the sun rise after and on one of those nights- I wrote this-
https://linglinghuang.com/2013/11/03/intersection-love-duet-movie-clip-review/

The fact that I wrote such a lengthy analytical breakdown of a scene that is less than 2 minutes doesn’t show how obsessive I can be as much as it shows how thoughtful and emotional every movement in Pina’s choreography is.

I never dreamed of seeing Pina’s company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in person and I can’t believe I happened to be in the same city and that I was able to get a ticket. I’m still partially in shock from tonight’s performances of Café Müller and The Rite of Spring and this is kind of a public journal entry about the most meaningful things (to me) that I observed, especially in Café Müller, and at the end of Rite.

What I love most about a lot of Pina’s choreography is that it is so tangibly emotional. Her choreography is some of the sickest, saddest, and beautifully expressive stuff I’ve ever seen. It’s incredible to see a stranger’s body move and to feel a strong response in your own- there is a directness of translation that accesses a more primitive communication between performer and audience- what they are feeling creates feeling in us. It’s also the closest I’ve seen to dance as social commentary. So many of her narratives seem to explore gender roles, power dynamics, societal structures and influences, and the destructiveness of patterns and habits, among other things. And I love her ability to use simpler ideas such as repetition to express our dependency on the habitual, the childish fear and desperation still in every adult which causes us to be easily manipulated and at the mercy of outside influences. A question I think of often when I watch her choreography is… what is habitual, what is learned, and what is fate? Tonight’s Café Müller in particular moved me to tears with its different portrayals of love. It starts in total silence and darkness. There are random chairs and tables all over the stage and as the first woman dancer starts moving, we hear her bump into a chair, making a horrible dragging sound on the floor. She has her eyes closed. For all the music I’ve heard in halls, one of the most effective at making me feel was tonight’s first chair-bump. Something about how unintentional and ugly it was tore a fabric of some kind in my consciousness, allowed me to feel fear at the randomness of the stage and the darkness. The lights gradually come on, and she is joined by another girl in white with closed eyes, but they are unaware of each other in their blindness. They slightly limp as they walk, bumping into walls occasionally with their arms outstretched. There is so much vulnerability in their exposed wrists. Their vulnerable wrists, the helplessness of their inability to see, and their slight limp all cohere into a commentary about how all humans are born. Maybe in this case “all the world is a stage” but one littered with the unknown, and in which we are vulnerable, helplessly blind and alone, and crippled- impaired by nature. Already I have such sympathy for the women onstage in their false predicament, and more importantly, sympathy for all of us offstage together in the world, in our real predicament.

One of the first men comes onstage with his eyes open. He watches one of the girls who’s eyes are closed and clears a path for her as she stumbles in all directions, noisily knocking chairs and tables out of her way. To me this is one of the most interesting representations of love I’ve ever seen. Someone who is almost as helpless, who, just by seeing, has more control, but someone who is so incredibly attentive and attuned to the loved one’s steps and is focused on creating a clear path for them. Because he doesn’t know where she will go, he still lacks control in a way, and for me this is a fascinating representation of fate and free will. In my interpretation of this man, I love to think of him as God. It’s beautiful for me to think, what if (the christian) God is not as powerful as we have always thought- what if he is only a little more sentient than we are, but loves us as much as it’s always been said? A human God. That’s what I would imagine this looks like.

All the while, the other woman in white is in the back, occasionally dancing upright, and other times laying very still. So still that you forget about her until she collapses to the ground… making you realize that what you thought was a stable structure could still erode, fall.

The woman in white who is dancing with God bumps into another man and they cling to each other. This is fascinating because they didn’t choose or seek each other, they just bump into each other. In this case, my question is, do soulmates exist? Were they meant to be and that is why they found each other in the dark, or is all love an accident? I love that this small thoughtful movement can be either of these opposing ideas, as well as so many others. Another man comes out (I call him the Enforcer) and he puts the couple through a series of stereotypical “love” actions…a kiss, a hug, and a carrying. But since it isn’t natural, the woman slips out of the man’s arms as the Enforcer is walking away, and the couple clings to each other again the way they first did when they found each other. The Enforcer once again puts them through the love actions. For me, the Enforcer could be a representation of the societal pressure for us to love a certain way, for us to follow some kind of rule book. This entire ordeal is repeated probably 7 or 8 times. The woman falls out of his arms everytime and they cling to each other with more and more desperation in their natural hug. Their return to the natural state of their love could also represent the ways we can’t give up love, even if it’s unhealthy for us. This whole bit is hard to watch for me, because even though the Enforcer is forcing them to do typical love things, it is tearing them apart from the movement that seems so natural for them and they start sighing in relief when they hug each other like that. (One thing I love about the Enforcer and the God types- you can’t really tell if they are on any side or have any ulterior motive or objective…for the couple or the woman, for themselves, or for someone else.) But the last time, the Enforcer walks away and they do the stereotypical love actions by themselves repeatedly, aggressively, fast. For me, their learned love is either the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen by virtue of the destruction of their natural state, or the most liberating thing in that it shows we can defeat our natures and love differently.

In another part, a man carries another man’s feet in his palms. When they disengage, the man who was carried immediately clings to the legs of the one who carried to him. Something about seeing grown men act so typically “childish” made me think of how childish we all are in our needs, in our dependence on others to carry us in some way. Another deceptively simple and devastating movement is when he stretched his arms upward to be carried or hugged. In the context of the narrative, it made us forcefully realize how alone and desperate we can all be at times.

The couple return to each other at different times throughout the piece. The second time, when they find each other again is such a beautiful moment. She has taken off her dress and sits naked at a table with her head down and back to us. This sign of failure or rest or resignation is disturbed when the man walks to her- this time on purpose! This time of his own free will! And waits for her to put on her dress, and smooth her hair and when she stands up, they do the typical love gestures, and she falls gently to the floor. It was so sad to see that their love was still not sustainable, but they find each other again after that and start doing these repetitive dance movements that are beautiful until they are against a wall. But it is habitual, so they keep doing these beautiful gestures, but they’re banging against the wall and it shows the violence that habits can have on ourselves and our relationships. The last time they find each other (and this for me, argues in favor of the existence of soulmates in this instance, or at least accidents that we can’t seem to quit) they fall to the ground together instead of just her. It is so beautiful to see that shared act.

The last thing that really struck me, was the end of the Rite of Spring. It was so incredible to see this live as well, after seeing so much of it onscreen. It is even more visceral, raw, and primitive as one would expect. There is a kind of ritualistic sexual power that is constantly in conversation onstage that is fascinating to observe. The solo choreography by the virgin at the end is incredible… the man is laying down and has his arms outstretched the entire time and she is dancing wildly. She is not only dancing out of control, but choreographed to seem like she is dancing in the control of someone else. Pina is exceptional at choreography which makes absence more presence- shows someone being influenced, manipulated by invisible forces- in this case, manipulated by desire, greed, the patriarchy, and betrayal, among others. The piece ends with the man closing his arms, and even though he is so far away, she collapses immediately, showing the control he had all the while, even though he seemed to be doing nothing.

Ok, really the last thing that struck me- (also the dirt stage for Rite of Spring deserves a mention, because it was a joy not only to see dancers dancing together so beautifully and in sync, but also to see the dirt dancing in response to their dancing- flying up in the same gestures or being left with the same patterns) the team bows at the end. Something seemed so emotionally exhausted, so shaken, maybe sad, maybe even ashamed. But it seemed like they were all very affected, or at least in character for the first couple of bows. It moves me to think of what kind of a journey this must be for them.

What is habitual, what is learned, and what is fate?
Ling Ling

#PinaBausch #TanztheaterWuppertal #WimWenders #dance #BrooklynAcademyofMusic #BAM