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

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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.

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 

untitled

I remember the day I returned your name to you, it flew from my mouth to yours and simultaneously, our bodies were thrown back in time, kisses that once flew from my mouth to yours compressing backwards, by the tens and hundreds. I fall through time, recoiling from the impact of my own love. Something in the fabric of the universe is torn and I see the denim couch unfraying, my hair redacting itself, an opposite erasure, coloring in the gray, regaining fullness.

There’s something about the way we say a name that belongs in part to us. Hundreds of others have the same name, but I mean you even when I’m talking to them, and even now, my voice still catches. There’s an intimacy, an implication in the tone of love, or blame, or some combination of both. Those two always seem to be in cahoots together, inseparable, unlike humans, so easily yoked or unstitched with a signature, a name. You shrugged out of our ill-fitting relationship, a marriage that shrunk or became bloated, too oversized. I’m not sure which. I’m too tired for this shit. It’s getting late in life, and I can’t keep recoiling from our impact, falling backwards. I sit on the frayed denim couch, redacting and editing our past, trying to allot blame without love. My life has bloated with nostalgia, shrunk to an aerial view of our relationship, and I’m still trying on a new old name, trying to figure out how to color in the gray, regain fullness.

social anxiety soup

I’m anticipating that, as new friends, we might go to movies and museums together, or just generally experience anything together, and I’m scared that I will feel pressure to be interesting and to have thoughts about things even though I know I will probably have thoughts since I’m a human but I’m already feeling this intense cranial pressure on the side of my eardrum and maybe I will have a nosebleed and my hearing is going in and out and I want to lay on the ground and just be still- I guess I’m just letting you know that I think I am a bland block of tofu in a soup of miso miasma and I am fine with it until someone else comes along and I feel like I should be a crunchy takoyaki ball full of flavor and texture and profound inner depth but I can only be a bland block of tofu, not even deep fried first for flavor, not even cooked or the extra firm kind, just raw crumbling pasty tofu the color of legs that haven’t seen the sun in 13 months dumped straight from the container left to flounder among the seaweed bits clinging to a scallion floatation device hoping no one will notice that I’ve had an accident and was born uninteresting. 

Shostakovich op. 134 Program Notes/Poems

Maybe the most terrifying and similar aspect of war and nature is their indifference; the randomness of their affliction. Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata op. 134 written in 1968 is one of nine compositions where he uses a twelve-tone row, which begins the first movement. Something about the equanimity of serialism, the lack of meaning inherent in the equal representation enacts some of the horror of that indifference. When everything or everyone is equal, no one is special, and if no one is special, we are all expendable. I believe Shostakovich used serialism as well as a wide variety of techniques throughout the entire piece to portray the psychological aftereffects and wreckage of war. Theodor Adorno infamously wrote in 1949, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” In a sense, Shostakovich heeds this advice. He writes against himself, mitigates his own beautiful melodies by chaining them to an open string so that they rub painfully in dissonance verticality as they reach horizontally for expansion, or he dictates one dynamic marking for clear phrases he has written so you have to go against your human instinct to phrase, to be polite and musically trained, you have to, in a sense, become indifferent and barbaric. This is what war does to people. There is no longer any poetry without it. He uses these techniques to express the inability to express. The first movement Andante is banal, spectral, and agitated in tone, with a “lighter” coy middle section which straddles cynicism and optimism so perfectly it is hard to distinguish which is which.  There are eerie whistling passages on the E-string with spidery arpeggios in the violin left hand which add an extra element of fear. The movement ends with hollow ponticello tremolo… reminiscent of reflexes, the way muscles can twitch and spasm after death. The second movement is brutal in it’s relentlessness. There is no rest in this movement for the performers or the listeners. With a constant barrage of shrieks, whinnies, and desperate pleas, this movement is an assault on the senses. The last movement, Largo, is a passacaglia- continuous variations on an eleven-bar theme which is first woodenly plucked in one dynamic by the violin before the piano joins, adding depth to the 2D melody. Later, the piano has this simple theme, followed by a violin pizzicato. This and other passages like it in the first movement show almost a literal haunting of one instrument by another. A residue from the war that can’t be washed off. The variations engorge and pare down at different points, but a passacaglia in a sense is just perpetuation. More of the same- a repackaged, refurbished soviet life ad nauseum. The movement reaches a breaking point with cadenzas first by the piano, and then by the violin. After these existential cadential outbursts make feeling more permissable, the theme returns, now more awakened, more expressed and expressable. The piece ends with the return of the eerie whistling passage, and the hollow ponticello death spasms. Which begs the question… having been through the cadenzas, are the spasms more redemptive at the end of this movement? Do we have some kind of closure having spent the entire last movement trying to achieve feeling and humanity? Or maybe that doesn’t count for anything. Death is the most indifferent and undiscerning of all.

(the following is a poem structured around a 12-word row to go with the serial aspects of the piece)

human machine feral hollow automated tender emptiness shudder despair please numb swollen

automated machine
steady release of effluvium
toxic residue clinging,
finding every fold
in freshly starched
clothing, sleepily burrowing
in the brain
muffling synapses
as we deaden,
mouths slacken
become bored

automated despair
an inner murmur
a shiver far down the spine
small choruses with
numbed tongues
sleepily mumbling
thomething ith wrong
buried agitation
so far recessed
just a vague anxiety
in the hollow cave
of the mind

automated human
it feels better when
the business of death
is neat, packaged
as virtue
co-rrect-ness
the sounds, so punctual
so clean and compact
efficient in it’s consonance
helps us forget the
devastation of it’s
emotional resonance

tender machine
releasing comfort.
a spidery silk garment,
numbing paralysis
of indifference
weeping without
feeling, sobbing
pure bodily response
each tear perfectly timed
to follow the next

hollow despair
it doesn’t come
naturally
the heart slowly
turns to wood
knocking in the breastplate
left, right, left
mass puppetry
of military
rhythm a cage
against feeling
anything
besides propriety
these hollow men
who would rather be right
than alive

feral human
they are blurting,
groping death
nonsensical, casual
waltzing in
red
dripping polka dots
on the plaster

please despair
limbs crack open
like pomegranate carcasses
cleanliness and
order crack open
separation of ethics
and bodies
it doesn’t come
naturally
to be unrelenting
unfeeling, no longer men
not even animal
neighing in their
consumptive terror

swollen emptiness
aborted feelings
the largest presence
is absence
fragments, shards
to pick up and examine
clinically
residue clinging
ebbing at the oaken
heart eroding

please numb
the waves of
digitized death
crashing against
consciousness
knocking with a crooked finger
insistent small chorus
cicada voices humming
demanding audience
guilt and applause

human despair
blurting, groping
grasping meaning
accumulated heaviness
running crippled
wearing a shroud
weighted with guilt
unseeing eyes
scales ripped off
and unbalanced

tender human
a sorrow song
mumbled off-key
moments of light in
the regularly irregular
movements of dilapidated
life which still charges on
disabled

human emptiness
consumptive terror
aborted feelings
creaky half-wood heart
no longer men
blurting death
right, left, right
wearing that dew-jeweled
silk garment
of indifference, of
ease
as the caged heart shudders
spasms in emotional
rigor mortis