In 2002 you were NASA’s first artist in residence, Why you?
Because I have a reputation for being a gear head and a wire head. It was a really great gig. I went to mission control in Pasadena, and I met the guy who figures out how to color the stars in the photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
The opportunity came about completely out of the blue, as many things are in my life. Somebody called and said “Do you want to be the first artist in residence at NASA?” and I said “What does that mean in a space program?” and they said “ Well, we don’t know what that means. What does it mean to you?” I was like “Who are you people? What does it mean to me? What are you talking about?”
You’ve also worked at McDonald’s.
Yeah. I began to think, “How can I escape this trap of just experiencing what I expect?” I decided maybe I would just try to put myself in places where I don’t know what to do, what to say, or how to act. So, I did things like working at McDonald’s and on an Amish farm, which had no technology whatsoever.
What do you need to “escape” from?
At heart, I’m an anthropologist. I try to jump out of my skin. I normally see the world as an artist first, second as a New Yorker and third as a woman. That’s a perspective that I sometimes would like to escape. It’s why in my performances I use audio filters to change my voice. That’s a way to escape as well.
Uyghur music embraces several distinct regional styles, product of the geography and complex history of the region, whose oasis kingdoms, separated by mountains and deserts, have been subject through the course of history to rule by many different outside forces. The musical traditions of the southern oasis towns of Khotan and Kashgar are more closely allied to the classical Central Asian traditions of Bukhara and Samarkand, while the music of the easternmost oasis town of Qumul has closer links to the music of Northwest China. Each of the region’s oasis towns have to this day maintained their own distinctive sound and repertoire, but they are linked by a common language and overarching culture, maintained by constant communication through trade and movement of peoples. Musically there is much to link these local traditions, in terms of instruments, genres, styles and contexts. The most prestigious and well-known genre of Uyghur music are the large-scale suites of sung, instrumental and dance music known as muqam. In addition to the muqam the Uyghurs maintain popular traditions of sung epic tales (dastan) and other forms of narrative song (qoshaq, leper, eytshish and maddhi name), suites of dance music (senem,) instrumental music, musical genres linked to the rituals of the Sufis, and a large repertoire of folk songs which commonly dwell on the suffering of life on earth and the torments of frustrated love. . . .
Mr Bain was followed by a white-face, the classic circus clown, like Grimaldi himself, reading from the Gospel of St Mark. His eyebrows, one a smile, the other a frown, formed a sharp, black contrast to the pallor of his face and the red of his ears. The gold, pink and blue sequinned glory of his harlequin coat sparkled as he meandered up and down the aisle playing a tiny saxophone.
Cheerful though his appearance was, the melody was melancholy, as clowns themselves often are. Sadder still was the recitation of names of clowns who died in the past year. As the poignant litany of departed jesters was recited—Bozo, Boxcar, Uncle Dippy and the Unknown Clown—beaming children placed a thick cream candle for each clown at the back of the church.
The clowns then joined together in the Clown’s Prayer. They gave thanks for the gift of laughter… The final words of the prayer offered a gentle alternative to the financial hubris with which the world has been confronted: “As your children are rebuked in their self-importance and cheered in their sadness, help me to remember that your foolishness is wiser than our wisdom.”…
At the end of the service, a organist who resembled Groucho Marx bashed out Grimaldi’s favourite song, the Hot Codlings polka, on the church’s squeaky instrument. Mr Bain led a prancing procession of clowns down the aisle and out the door where they put on a proper show in the church hall. As they left, one of my friends, who is a devout atheist, leaned over to me and whispered: “If church was always like this, I’d come every week.”
For reasons that are obscure to me, those qualities we cherish in our artists we condemn in our politicians. In our artists we look for the many-colored voice, the multiple sensibility. The apogee of this is, of course, Shakespeare: even more than for his wordplay we cherish him for his lack of allegiance. Our Shakespeare sees always both sides of a thing, he is black and white, male and female—he is everyman. The giant lacunae in his biography are merely a convenience; if any new facts of religious or political affiliation were ever to arise we would dismiss them in our hearts anyway.
“There’s too many variables to go live. I would never recommend any artist go live because the slightest glitch would devastate the performance,” [explained Jennifer Hudson’s producer regarding her prerecorded Super Bowl anthem.] His justification echoed Itzhak Perlman explaining why the all-star classical quartet at the inauguration was prerecorded. “It would have been a disaster if we had done it any other way,” Mr. Perlman told the New York Times. “This occasion’s got to be perfect. You can’t have any slip-ups.”
My, what a standard of perfection is now demanded. No longer is a good or even a great performance good enough. Now we must have performances free from the “slightest glitch.” And since no one—not even a singer of Ms. Hudson’s manifest talent nor a violinist of Mr. Perlman’s virtuosity—can guarantee that a live performance will be 100% glitch-free, the solution has been to eliminate the live part. Once, synching to a recorded track was the refuge of the mediocre and inept; now it’s a practice taken up by even the best artists.
Added excitement comes from the bilingual reworking of the libretto. When Maria sings I Feel Pretty it comes out as: “Hoy me siento/Tan Hermosa/Tan preciosa que puedo volar/Y no hay diosa, en el mundo, que me va a alcanzar.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the recent hit musical In The Heights, which focuses on a poor neighbourhood of Manhattan’s Washington Heights faced with gentrification, was recruited to rewrite the lyrics. The Sharks sing in Spanish, with English surtitles, while the delinquent Jets sing in English.
Laurents was given the idea of a bi-lingual show after his companion, Tom Hatcher, who died two years ago, saw an all-Spanish staging of the musical in Colombia in which the Sharks – the Capulets of Shakespeare’s play – were transformed into heroes, the Jets into villains.
Laurents intends to make the new version darker and more threatening than previous stagings, certainly more so than the film, of which he is disparaging. “I thought the whole thing was terrible. Day-Glo costumes and fake accents!” he told the Washington Post.
In 1990, he married an American girl, a fledgling pianist from Florida. In 1991, he accepted a piano professorship at Indiana University at South Bend—a place best-known for Notre Dame’s football team. Transplanted to northern Indiana, he proceeded to recreate the intense mentoring environment he had known in Moscow, as well as the communal social life he had known in Tblisi. To date, he has recruited more than seventy gifted young pianists, mainly from Russia and Georgia. They bond as a family, with Lexo the stern or soft surrogate father. They make music and party with indistinguishable relish. Lexo’s big house, on a suburban street without sidewalks, is their headquarters. Since separating from his wife in 1999, he has densely decorated the downstairs rooms with an assortment of American, Russian, and Georgian books and embellishments; the upstairs walls remain blank. The basement comprises a Ping-Pong room, a table-hockey room, and a Finnish sauna. The swimming pool outside is used in winter for furious ice baths in alternation with languorous sauna sittings.
South Bend is welcoming, comforting, and incongruous. As new Americans, the members of the Toradze community eat pizza, play basketball, and barbecue salmon in the backyard. They are addicted to such gadgets and amenities as giant TVs and state-of-the-art audio systems. They shop for steak and vodka in the early hours of the morning in vast twenty-four-hour food marts. Their social rituals are Russian or Georgian. So is their informed enthusiasm for jazz, which preceded their arrival. Though they do not attend the football games, Lexo’s excitement was boundless when he discovered that the forward pass was a South Bend invention.
This is the first portion of the talk I gave in Nashville this past week. I began the talk with a kinetic visual. For 30 seconds I danced in front of everyone. It was a very ridiculous-looking version of modern dance (and, c’mon, that’s a long time to look ridiculous). Then a professionally trained modern dancer (with Stillpoint Dance Theater) danced for 30 seconds. Hers was beautiful. I said, “Folks: exhibit A, exhibit B, this is the summary of my talk.” And with this my talk officially began.
She keeps the disciplines of a dancer. In her words:
“I start with Pilates warm-up in the mornings. I take 2 ballet classes per week and 3 modern dance classes per week along with improvisation and composition. I rehearse approximately 12-15 hours a week with StillPoint. I also use the YMCA 1-2 times per week for extra cardio and weight training. I teach dance as well so I am in the studio creating classes or working on choreography many hours of the day.I have to keep an anti-inflammatory diet in order to keep inflammation down in my body due to minor injuries and the intensity of the rehearsing. This means staying away from sugar, dairy and wheat, and it means eating lots of “superfoods,” such as blueberries, walnuts, and salads. I require more food and sleep whenever we are in an intense rehearsal season.”
I do none of them. She is free. I am not.
She has obeyed the laws of her craft, its “order,” and so earns the right to improvise in a way that reveals the beauty of the craft. I have obeyed none and so earn the right only to look like a fool.
My temptation based on my minimal experience and training is to say: “I caaan’t do it. It’s too hard. You can do it because of course you’re better than I.” In saying this I sanction both my ignorance and my unwillingness to learn about the craft.
Maybe if I simply imitate her movements, I say to myself, then perhaps I can dance like her. But without adopting the disciplines of modern dance I will not become a person for whom the movements and graces of modern dance come “naturally.” I will simply be attempting to behaviorally conform.
What I went to last night was not the full-blown Passion play - that won’t happen until 2010 (they’re working on it now). I attended instead a play called JEREMIAS, written by the Jewish pacifist Stefan Zweig in 1933, which featured a relatively modest cast of 500, ranging in age from 3 to 80. The criterion for being in a play is that you should be born in Oberammergau or have lived there for 20 years. The current director is Christian Stückl, a local man who directed his first Passion at the tender age of 28 (making him the youngest director in the long history of the play). Stückl told us that, in the 2000 Passion, a group of Muslim inhabitants of the town asked if they could be included: they’d by that time fulfilled the 20 year residency criterion. After enormous discussion during which the Muslim folk elucidated the parallels between the Koran and the Bible, they were included.
New York is full of vocal coaches who help polish pipes, but [Melissa] Cross is one of a kind – she doesn’t teach singing; she teaches screaming. Her students – the heavy-metal faithful – generally don’t know from show tunes or arias. They come to her femininely soothing studio – filled with paper lanterns and Buddha figures – to wail with confidence.
As basic as it may seem, screaming is not just that primal complaint every baby learns in the crib. It’s as much an art as, say, hitting an A flat with no hitches. Guns and Roses’ Axl Rose and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler don’t just find their inner beasts without a vocal compass. Screaming takes skill.
In Boston, the city’s humongous twin dance clubs, Axis and Avalon, no longer even exist; they were recently demolished to make way for a giant House of Blues. And for the first time in recent memory, we’re having a serious party-dance crisis. Kids were Gettin’ Lite and doing the Chicken Noodle Soup and the Soulja Boy not that long ago. But have you tried Gettin’ Lite? It practically requires an instruction manual and two feet of clear space around you. Good luck pulling that off at a party.
Clearly we’re not dancing the way we did even five years ago. What happened?
It’s not that dancing is vanishing. In one sense, it is more popular than ever. On television, this year there have been no fewer than four dance shows: “Dancing with the Stars,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” “America’s Best Dance Crew,” and “Step It Up & Dance.” On the Internet, YouTube’s No. 1 “top favorite” video of all time is the goofy “Evolution of Dance.”
But it’s no coincidence that as dancing explodes in popularity on TV, it’s harder to find at bars and the average party. What’s popular on these shows and clips isn’t dancing - it’s second-hand dancing. These people are dancing so we don’t have to.
Where once we were a culture eager to dance among the stars, we’re suddenly OK to sit back and watch. In the same sense that we watch more sports than we actually play, we seem to be letting the professionals do our dancing for us, too. And as we outsource our dancing to professionals, something important is lost.