Monday, October 29, 2007

Conductor of the People: Gustavo Dudamel

October 28, 2007
Conductor of the People

In 2004, Gustavo Dudamel, who was then virtually unknown outside his native Venezuela, entered the first Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition, for conductors under 35. One of the jurors in Bamberg, Germany, was Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “I arrived a bit later than the rest of the jury, and by the semifinals, there was already a lot of buzz about him,” Salonen said. At 23, Dudamel was not only an unusually young contestant; this session with the Bamberg Symphony marked his first time conducting a professional orchestra. He seemed unfazed. “You are young and inexperienced, but you should somehow create an aura of confidence and authority,” Salonen explained to me recently. “Gustavo is not concerned about authority. He is concerned about music, which is exactly the right approach. The orchestra gets seduced into playing well for him, rather than forced.” After the prize was awarded to Dudamel, Salonen telephoned Deborah Borda, president of the L.A. Philharmonic. “He says, ‘Deborah, you won’t believe this kid from Venezuela who won the competition,’ ” Borda recounted to me. “I said, ‘What’s he like?’ He said: ‘He’s a conducting animal. Let’s get him in for a bowl concert right away.’ ”

Dudamel didn’t even have a manager. First he found one, then Borda booked him for a philharmonic outdoor summer concert in the Hollywood Bowl. “When he came, we were getting toward the end of the bowl season, it’s 110 degrees, the orchestra was getting ready for vacation — and it was electric,” Borda recalled. She immediately signed him up for a regular subscription date in Disney Hall and, in the meantime, embarked on what she calls “a two-year odyssey” to watch him work with orchestras throughout Europe. For Borda, who was scouting candidates to succeed Salonen someday, the turning point arrived while she was watching Dudamel rehearse the La Scala orchestra in Milan in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (as it happens, the piece he performed in the Bamberg competition). “That is a great opera orchestra, but you don’t think of them as a great Mahler band,” Borda says of La Scala. “When they started playing, it sounded like Verdi. By the end, it sounded like Vienna, with the klezmer, Jewish, real Mahlerian weighty sound. This was heavy lifting, a real crucible for a young conductor.” The only remaining question in her mind was to see how he fared at Disney Hall in his debut there last January. After a rapturous response from the players and audience members, she offered Dudamel a five-year contract as music director, starting in the 2009-10 season.

There was a sense that she had snaffled the Man o’ War or Secretariat of the classical-music racetrack. Dudamel, now 26, is the most-talked-about young musician in the world. Sir Simon Rattle, the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, has called him “the most astonishingly gifted conductor I have ever come across.” At a time when recording companies are cutting back on orchestral releases, Dudamel has received a coveted contract with Deutsche Grammophon and has released two CDs of Beethoven and Mahler symphonies. Already a frequent presence in European halls, he will begin his most extended appearance in the United States next month, performing in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston — and, for the first time, in New York, with the New York Philharmonic and, at Carnegie Hall, with his own Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.

Is there a risk in committing an orchestra to a leader who is still relatively unproved? At this stage of his career, Dudamel has a limited repertory, focused on the familiar Central Europeans (Beethoven, Mahler) and the underperformed Latin Americans (Arturo Márquez, José Pablo Moncayo, Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez). Also untested is his capacity for the administrative and public relations tasks that American orchestras require of their music directors. But the L.A. Philharmonic has a history of hiring dynamic young music directors (Salonen was 34 when he began there, and Zubin Mehta was only 26), so you could say that taking risks is part of its tradition. A Latin American conductor in Los Angeles County, where roughly half the population is Hispanic, also makes sense. “It’s exciting for people here,” Borda says.

In selecting Dudamel, the L.A. Philharmonic is also allying itself with a uniquely successful education initiative, of which its new music director is the most illustrious product; this week the philharmonic will announce plans to inaugurate a program, “Youth Orchestra L.A.,” that is directly modeled on a Venezuelan prototype. Youth Orchestra L.A. will begin with youngsters between the ages of 8 and 12 in a disadvantaged district in central Los Angeles, but its ultimate goal is much grander: to provide a musical instrument and a place in a youth orchestra for every young person in Los Angeles County who wants one. Borda says that she was inspired by her visit late last year to Caracas. In vivid contrast to the situation in the United States, where arts-education programs have been snipped from school curricula as unaffordable frippery, the Venezuelan system provides a place in an orchestra for children, no matter how poor or troubled their backgrounds, throughout the country. And the results have been astonishing. I asked Borda if she was surprised by anything she had seen during her Venezuelan visit. “I didn’t imagine I would be in tears as much as I was,” she told me.

A decade ago, in a gymnasium in Barquisimeto in western Venezuela, Dudamel, then 17, stood on a podium with a baton in his hand, facing an orchestra and chorus of about 800. Conducting a musical ensemble of that size is like commanding a regiment. For the teenage novice, the challenge was heightened by the conspicuous and audible presence of his mentor, José Antonio Abreu, who was seated front-row center and calling out suggestions. “Woodwinds up!” Abreu urged his protégé. “Tell the strings more bow!” The conductor sailed ahead confidently. “I think that was the test,” Dudamel told me. If his unflappability was the quality being sized up, the young man triumphed. His musical instincts were equally impressive. On the five-hour car trip back to Caracas, Abreu telephoned home to tell his sister, “I think we have found the new conductor for the Children’s Orchestra.”

Dudamel’s rocket-fast rise can’t be grasped without an understanding of the music-education system that launched him. With an enrollment of 250,000 students, most of them from humble backgrounds, the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela — known popularly as el sistema — is the lifetime work of the visionary and tireless Abreu, who in 32 years has navigated the program through 10 different administrations of this politically turbulent country, flourishing under the conservative presidents of the 80s and the defiantly leftist Hugo Chávez today. Combining political shrewdness with religious devotion, the stooped, ascetic Abreu, who is 68, seems to have stepped out of a novel by Stendhal or Greene (if you overlook the ever-present cellphone). His friends invariably compare him to a priest. Unencumbered by family obligations or material possessions, he has dedicated himself to a utopian dream in which an orchestra represents the ideal society, and the sooner a child is nurtured in that environment, the better for all. Sometimes Abreu emphasizes the spiritual enrichment that music brings to the individual; at other times, he points to evidence that students who go through the sistema become more productive and responsible members of society.

The most remarkable feature of the Venezuelan music-education system is its instant immersion: the children begin playing in ensembles from the moment they pick up their instruments. Their instructors say the students are learning to behave as much as they are discovering how to make music. “In an orchestra, everybody respects meritocracy, everybody respects tempo, everybody knows he has to support everyone else, whether he is a soloist or not,” explains Igor Lanz, the executive director of the private foundation that administers the government-financed sistema. “They learn that the most important thing is to work together in one common aim.” Across Venezuela the sistema has established 246 centers, known as nucleos, which admit children between 2 and 18, assign them instruments and organize them into groups with instructors. Typically practicing for two or three hours every day, the children are performing recognizable music virtually from the outset.

Not long ago I visited a few nucleos, including one in a concrete-block building in the Los Chorros district of Caracas that was constructed in the mid-60s as a detention center for juvenile delinquents. It now houses youngsters who have been taken from the streets or from violent or crime-ridden homes into the protective custody of the state. Only 57 kids were residents of the shelter, but 300 more who lived in the neighborhood came there for daily music instruction. I watched several orchestral groups perform, including a string ensemble of 7- and 8-year-olds sawing away at Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the first violinists scratchily bowing and the second violinists fingering pizzicato notes. The harsh overhead fluorescent lights, the white and ocher paint peeling off the concrete walls and the bars on some windows (dating from the building’s origins) might have cast a gloomy air over the proceedings. Instead, the pleasure and pride that the children took in their collective effort was infectious. “It was a shot in the arm,” Matias Tarnopolsky, the artistic director of the New York Philharmonic, told me of his own tour of the sistema in Caracas. “It reminded me of the reasons I went into the music world as a profession.” Rattle has called the sistema “the most important thing happening in classical music anywhere in the world.”

Like a far-reaching catchment network that comprises 1,800 teachers and some 600 orchestras, the sistema pulls in youngsters who, depending on talent and ambition, advance to statewide orchestras, with the younger ones in children’s orchestras and those in their late teens and 20s in youth orchestras. The best are funneled into the national Bolívar Youth Orchestra. (One of them, Edicson Ruiz, a double bassist, at 19 became the youngest musician admitted to the modern-day Berlin Philharmonic.) Directed by Dudamel since 1999, the Bolívar Youth Orchestra enjoys a worldwide reputation for a sound that is not only passionate — to be expected with youth orchestras — but also surprisingly polished and balanced.

Dudamel, who began playing as an orchestra violinist in Caracas at age 12, has known some of the players for half his life, and he conducts them with the intimate assurance of someone who grew up with them. “The relationship between the orchestra and me is so easy that sometimes in rehearsal I don’t have to tell them anything — they are waiting for my hands and my movements,” he says. During a rehearsal he can good-naturedly chide, “No, muchachos,” wagging his forefinger and shaking his head, in a way that probably wouldn’t work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “We used to believe that a conductor is an old, introverted guy,” says Rafael Payares, who plays French horn in the orchestra and is one of Dudamel’s closest friends. “But this is the same Gustavo you used to see playing the violin or throwing parties. He’s still the same — crazy.” Dudamel is diminutive in stature and warm but unshowy in conversation; when the music begins, however, with his thick curly hair bouncing as he leaps passionately on the podium, an electrifying avatar materializes.

Abreu and Dudamel are the two most identifiable figures of the sistema, and Abreu’s mentoring of Dudamel has taken on the appearance of fathering. “When I met Gustavo, I thought he was the son of José Antonio — the way he walks, the way he talks, even the way he writes,” Dudamel’s wife, Eloísa Maturén de Dudamel, a journalist and former dancer, told me. At the all-night parties following Caracas concerts of the Bolívar Youth Orchestra, typically held in the home where Abreu lives with his sister and brother-in-law, Dudamel will always peel off to speak with the maestro. “I know when they sit down and start talking, it can last forever,” EloÃsa says. “It can start with one bar of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, and it can go to the universe. José Antonio arrives very late at these parties. When he arrives, he always kidnaps Gustavo. And when that happens, we know Gustavo is finished with us for the night.” Some people wonder if Dudamel will curtail his international commitments one day so he can assume the role of Abreu’s successor. “Gustavo is much more than a successor,” Abreu told me, laughing, when I posed the question. “He is a universal glory of Latin America. He is a flag, a standard.”

The sistema is a kind of religion, and among its initiates, I grew accustomed to hearing Abreu described in Godlike terms (all-seeing, all-knowing, never-resting) and Dudamel celebrated as his charismatic, filial prophet. Attending concerts of the Bolívar Youth Orchestra in Caracas these days, Abreu can still be found seated front and center, but he no longer feels the need to issue instructions. At a performance last summer of Beethoven’s Third “Eroica” Symphony and Bartok’s thorny First Piano Concerto, Dudamel radiated eager boyishness and delight as he indicated the emphatic successive downbeats in the “Eroica.” He grinned whenever the musicians played a phrase to his liking, and his eyes twinkled and his fingers plucked the air, as if wheedling the sound he wanted from individual sections of the orchestra. His face and body expressed torment, elation or despair, to elicit the mood he was after, while the stick in his right hand and the undulations of his left relayed the entrances and rhythms to the players. In his ringside seat, the old maestro, in rapt absorption, beamed and nodded approvingly. “Every time I see in Abreu’s face the joy of watching how Gustavo can make music that is not written,” Frank Di Polo, a violist who is married to Abreu’s sister, told me. “I think Abreu is not only proud. It is his son now.”

Dudamel was raised in Barquisimeto, a city that prides itself on a rich tradition of popular music. His father, Oscar, played the trombone professionally, mainly with salsa bands, so Gustavo attended concerts before he was old enough to speak. The family lived with Oscar’s parents until Gustavo was 12, when Oscar landed an office job in a nearby city and the parents relocated. Gustavo chose to stay behind with his grandparents. (Both his parents now work for the sistema.) Gustavo’s grandfather, who was a truck driver, died five years ago, but I visited his grandmother, Engracia de Dudamel, in the modern apartment in Barquisimeto that Gustavo bought for her in 2005.

At an early age, Engracia de Dudamel told me, Gustavo was concentrating on music. By 5, he was studying music in the sistema in the afternoons. When he came home from school at lunchtime, he would arrange his Fisher-Price toy figures as if they were an orchestra, making a little box for the conductor, and put a record on the phonograph; he would ask her not to break up the orchestra while he was in music class so that he could resume directing the musicians on his return. One time his grandmother took him to see his father perform in a classical concert in Barquisimeto. “He was very small, I thought he was going to fall asleep,” she told me. “And he was completely attentive to details of the instruments. He said, ‘Grandmother, I like this music.’ ” When I repeated this story to Dudamel, he told me what the program had been.

Although the boy wanted to learn to play the trombone like his father, his arms were still too short. Instead, he took up the violin. “From the very beginning he showed signs of great talent and learned everything very easily,” says Luis Giménez, the principal administrator of the sistema in the state of Lara, of which Barquismeto is the capital. When Gustavo was accepted by a renowned violin instructor in Caracas, his grandparents proudly shepherded him to weekly lessons, departing at 3 a.m. on Fridays to get him there.

Exceptional as were both his talent and family support, Dudamel also benefited immeasurably from the institutional framework in place for him to climb. “It is a brilliant result of the sistema,” Abreu says. In the Lara children’s orchestra, Dudamel was soon appointed concertmaster; and when Giménez formed the Amadeus Youth Orchestra to explore Baroque string music, Dudamel served as concertmaster there too. One afternoon, Giménez arrived late to a scheduled rehearsal of the Amadeus Youth Orchestra in the school cafeteria and discovered that the musicians had started playing without him, under the baton of Dudamel, who was then 12 or 13. “He was great, he was like a regular conductor,” Giménez says. He appointed Dudamel to be assistant conductor, which meant in practice that the boy was doing much of the conducting for both the Amadeus string ensemble and the Lara children’s orchestra.

Abreu, who monitors in-house talent as closely as a studio mogul of the Hollywood golden age, encouraged Dudamel to take conducting classes along with his regular violin lessons in Caracas. So when he saw Dudamel conduct the oversize orchestra in Barquisimeto for the annual May concert in 1998, he wasn’t totally surprised by the boy’s prowess. After the concert, he went to speak to Dudamel’s grandparents and said, “I have to take him to Caracas.” They were shocked, but they could not refuse. “We cried a lot,” Engracia recalls. “And my husband told Dr. Abreu, ‘You are taking the light out of this house.’ ” But Dudamel’s talent shone more brightly in the big city. He honed his conducting skills rapidly; indeed, his last decade has whirred forward like a sped-up film. In 1998, when Dudamel was 17, Abreu gave him less than two months’ notice that he would be conducting the national children’s orchestra in Mahler’s First Symphony on a tour of Italy. Abreu coached him personally. At one session, held on the move in typical Abreu fashion, he handed Dudamel the partiture — the full conductor’s score — and told him to mark up the first movement. Then the maestro went off to Mass. “I looked at it and kept writing, ‘This is important, this is important,’ ” Dudamel recalls. “You couldn’t read the score, I wrote so much. He came back and said, ‘O.K., conduct.’ I went to take what I had written and he said, ‘You don’t need the partiture.’ When I started, he said: ‘Where is the entrance? Sing the second melody. Sing it in reverse.’ ” It was sink or swim. During the orchestra’s tour, Dudamel met the conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli in Sicily. He became the first of Dudamel’s foreign mentors, to be followed by Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle, who have all encouraged and coached him.

Over the last three years, Esa-Pekka Salonen has seen Dudamel develop as his opportunities have exponentially increased. Most notably, a year ago, he signed on to eight weeks annually as principal guest conductor of the Gothenberg Symphony in Sweden. “He has had a few years of very professional conducting around the world, and obviously he is a very different kind of guy,” Salonen told me. “What hasn’t disappeared is the sense of wonder and awe and discovery. These are wonderful qualities in all human beings, but especially in a conductor.”

Musicians grasp to put into words what makes it so exciting to play for him. “When he’s conducting the piece, you’re feeling like it’s just been composed, it’s like he’s creating it himself,” says the L.A. Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist, Michele Zukofsky. “He throws away the past. You’re not bogged down by what’s supposed to be. It’s like jazz, in a way.” In a rehearsal for Dudamel’s debut at Disney Hall, Zukofsky performed an extended solo that is featured in Zoltan Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta.” “I played an ascending run very softly, pianissimo,” she recounted. “He said, ‘Oh, I love this.’ ” It is a passage that she normally plays mezzoforte, or moderately loud. “Even though it was a mistake, he enjoyed the difference,” she says. He had her do it that way at each of the concerts.

Just as down to earth as Dudamel’s talent is the social transformation that was needed to nurture it. In 1975, when Abreu began what was then called the Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, the nation had only two orchestras, the Venezuela Symphony and the recently founded Maracaibo Symphony. Both were staffed mainly by European émigrés. Initially, the chief appeal of the Youth Orchestra was the professional opportunity it provided for young Venezuelan classical musicians. Abreu had a greater goal, however — to create many orchestras, which would embrace a segment of the population that was thought to be incapable of appreciating the art form. “For me, the most important priority was to give access to music to poor people,” he says. “As a musician, I had the ambition to see a poor child play Mozart. Why not? Why concentrate in one class the privilege of playing Mozart and Beethoven? The high musical culture of the world has to be a common culture, part of the education of everyone.”

Abreu combines a deep knowledge of music (he studied composition and conducting and performed on keyboard instruments in churches and concert halls) and economics (he taught the subject at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas and served a term in the Venezuelan National Assembly). So he was unusually well equipped to found an orchestra system. He works without rest, despite a frail constitution that was further weakened by serious abdominal surgery for ulcers in 1973. Ever since, he has been forbidden alcohol and restricted to a low-fat, nondairy diet of small meals. An onset of diabetes later deprived him of chocolate, his one indulgence. Today he is a gaunt, bony figure, swaddled in woolen clothing even in the Venezuelan heat, his bright eyes and smile blazing beneath a big domed forehead.

The Venezuelan government began fully financing Abreu’s orchestra after it succeeded brilliantly at an international competition in 1977 in Aberdeen, Scotland. From the beginning, the sistema fell under the dominion of social-services ministries, not the ministry of culture. Strategically, this positioning has helped it to survive, since Venezuelan presidents feel varying degrees of commitment to the arts and, when possible, prefer to reject anything associated with the previous regime. The current Chávez administration, best known in this country for its populist, vehemently anti-American tone, has been the most generous patron of the sistema so far, footing almost all of its $29 million annual operating budget and ponying up for additional capital projects. When I talked to leaders of the sistema, I thought I detected a special emphasis on the socially progressive aspects of the program that would gratify the Medici of the masses. But that social-welfare element is central to Abreu’s philosophy, and if the theme is being underscored now — well, such choices are a musician’s prerogative.

In politically polarized Venezuela, a government-supported institution walks a tightrope. For the sistema, the delicacy of the footwork became unpleasantly public earlier this year. The minister of communications asked the Bolívar Youth Orchestra, with Dudamel conducting, to play the national anthem in late May, at the moment that Radio Caracas Television, an outspokenly anti-Chávez broadcasting network, went off the air for the last time. The performance would be the first programming on the new, Chávez-compliant station that replaced RCTV, which had lost its license. Under longtime law, the national anthem is heard whenever a TV station begins or ends its regular day of broadcasting in Venezuela. Officially, the government was requesting a newly performed, complete version of the anthem with an orchestral introduction. In context, though, it would appear that the nation’s acclaimed young conductor and orchestra were endorsing the Chávez administration’s refusal to renew the RCTV license, a decision that bitterly divided the nation.

Pleading technical impediments, the orchestra’s leaders begged off a live appearance and instead provided a videotape. But because the anthem on television is typically accompanied by a photomontage of picturesque Venezuelan scenes, many viewers who watched the tape on TV thought Dudamel and the orchestra were indeed performing live. In the press and on blogs, some of Chávez’s critics — who tend to be the people who buy concert tickets — expressed outrage and dismay. Looking back, the orchestra’s leaders say they had no choice but to provide the tape. “How could you say no?” explains Lanz, the foundation’s executive director. “What will be your next answer? The organization depends on the state, and they are asking for something that is absolutely normal.” He allows, however, that “for some people it was shocking.” The next day, he went to the manager of the new station to say that “many people are using this as a political cause and it is causing damage, not to us but to the kids,” and to request that in the future, the audio be used without the images of the orchestra and Dudamel. “They did it immediately, which I am thankful for,” he says. “Having your anthem being used politically is terrible.” Some people told me that Dudamel was upset by the controversy, but to me he would speak only in generalities about the current world situation. “We are in a point of intolerance,” he said. “The national anthem is the glory of the country. It is for all Venezuelans.” Abreu, a little disingenuously, told me: “We have recorded the national anthem dozens of times. We were never told the particular use of a particular recording. When we deliver a video, it is for all. It is the national anthem. It is not our fault.” When I said that it was a question of context, he repeated, with a pained expression, “It is not our fault.”

Not to say that political posturing is demanded solely by the government. The recording of the anthem was made in the sistema’s new Center for Social Action Through Music, an 11-story, $25 million building on the edge of downtown Caracas that officially opened at the end of July. I had assumed that its cumbersome name constituted another blandishment for the Chavistas, but I was wrong. It was a sop to the Inter-American Development Bank, which helped underwrite it with a $5 million loan and is now advancing $150 million for the construction of seven other regional centers of the sistema throughout Venezuela. Development banks prefer to lend money for infrastructure: sewers, roads, water-treatment plants. Within the I.D.B., many bankers objected to a loan for such a frivolous-seeming project. “One of my colleagues joked, ‘Are you going to finance the poor kids to carry the instruments of the rich kids?’ ” says Luis Carlos Antola, a representative of the bank in Venezuela. “Because there is the feeling that classical music is for the elite.” In fact, the bank has conducted studies on the more than two million young people who have been educated in the sistema, which show that two-thirds of them are from poor backgrounds. Other studies link participation in the program to improvements in school attendance and declines in juvenile delinquency. Weighing such benefits as a falloff in school dropout rates and a decline in crime, the bank calculated that every dollar invested in the sistema was reaping about $1.68 in social dividends.

It is true, however, that Abreu argues that the poor are entitled to not only Mozart and Beethoven but also to the best of art and architecture. He retained two of Venezuela’s most distinguished abstract artists to help decorate the center, which contains a beautiful wood-paneled 1,200-seat auditorium, a 400-seat chamber music hall (an afterthought of Abreu) and several acoustically pleasing recording spaces. After attending concerts of Dudamel with the Youth Orchestra at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, which is one of the poshest settings for music in the world, Abreu admired the granite entry floor of the concert hall. “He went to the Ministry of Finance,” Antola says. “He convinced them. There was not even enough granite in the country. They had to bring it back from Panama, where they had already sold it. He is like a serpent enchanter. You can’t resist.”

And his ambition is unbounded. Within Venezuela, Abreu is determined to reach even further into society. Supported by the government, the sistema has started to introduce its music program into the public-school curriculum, aiming within five years to be in every school and to double its enrollment to 500,000 children. The organization is also pressing lower in the class structure, having introduced a pilot music-education program in three cities for the homeless children who subsist as scavengers in garbage dumps. Outside the country, the sistema is cooperating with programs in nearly every Latin American country; and in Europe, Simon Rattle, a leading proponent of music education, has worked with Venezuelan experts to enhance the already impressive program that his orchestra manages in Berlin.

In a stroke of auspicious timing, Dudamel’s precocious success has coincided with the sistema’s international advance. “Gustavo is the visible face of what is coming behind,” Antola says. “You needed some sort of emblem. People are discovering Gustavo and the sistema simultaneously.” In his words and his achievements, Dudamel is an unmatched spokesman for the sistema’s virtues. “You feel a young sound and a young energy in the sistema,” he says. “We are not looking at an individual goal, it is always collective. I am a product of the sistema, and in the future, I will be here, working for the next generations.”

As an international celebrity whose career was incubated by the sistema, Dudamel is uniquely able to champion its expansion at home and promote its adoption abroad. If successful, the “Youth Orchestra L.A.” initiative of his new home, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, may prove to be a pilot project for reinventing music education in this country. You can see why devotees are looking to Venezuela with the fervor of Ponce de León hunting for magically rejuvenating waters in Florida. This dual vision — of hundreds of thousands of young people transformed by the sistema and of a youthful conductor who can bring audiences to their feet cheering — is a powerful sign of vitality to rebut those grim-faced pulse takers who are forever proclaiming the senescence of classical music.

Arthur Lubow, a contributing writer for the magazine, last wrote about the ownership fight over Machu Picchu artifacts housed at Yale.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Chinese Underground Avant-Garde Music

New York Times
October 27, 2007
Growing Underground Is Making Noise in China

BEIJING — Down a short alley in the sprawling, tourist-mobbed 798 art district here — a complex of 1950s-era military factories converted into galleries and studios — is a tiny shop that serves as one of the centers of China’s small but thriving experimental music scene.

The store, Sugar Jar, is barely big enough to accommodate a half-dozen customers, and one wall displays all the essentials of the genre, from discs of abstract electronica and brutal noise-rock to anthologies with bold titles like “China: The Sonic Avant-Garde.” Playing samples from his stock, the proprietor, a lanky, soft-spoken man named Lao Yang, noted proudly that his store is one of the only spots in all of Beijing to buy much of this music.

Like Sugar Jar, avant-garde music occupies a minuscule niche in Chinese society, overshadowed by the larger and vastly more lucrative world of contemporary visual art. Only a few dozen musicians around the country make up this circle, but their work has begun to attract international attention, and over the last several years a steady stream of Western musicians, including Brian Eno and the New York guitarist Elliott Sharp, have visited and given their blessing.

“The feeling of the scene in Beijing is exciting and reminds me of New York in 1979,” said Mr. Sharp, who last performed here in April. “There’s a tangible sense of discovery and transgression.”

Though China may be in the beginnings of a new love affair with consumerism, rigid cultural controls are still in place, and discovery and transgression are values not widely held by the Communist government. Following President Hu Jintao’s call for moral purity in society, broadcasters have come under increasing pressure lately to keep potentially subversive material — which means anything but sugary, shallow pop — off the airwaves. At the end of the Communist Party Congress in October, the official Chinese Music Association denounced the “vulgar” pop music reaching the nation’s youth through the Internet.

Growing out of rock and electronic music, and operating outside the state-supported classical sphere, the experimental scene in China has existed for barely a decade. Its hub is Beijing, with the electronic performers Wang Fan, Sulumi, Yan Jun and FM3; Sun Wei, who creates sound collages under the name 718; and Dou Wei, one of China’s biggest rock stars, whose solo career includes numerous spacey, dreamlike albums that incorporate traditional instrumentation.

Shanghai has one of the most extreme noise groups, Torturing Nurse, which sometimes performs with a female member in a nurse’s uniform. Huanqing, from Sichuan Province, makes field recordings from the hinterlands of China and manipulates them with electronics.

Though Western styles have influenced them, the Chinese musicians have for the most part developed in isolation, and their work is flush with the excitement of creating a new kind of music with no previous national model.

“Chinese people don’t know the best music system,” said Mr. Yan, who is also an influential critic. “There are no rules. No teacher. I can use this, I can use that — that’s all interesting. In the West everything was created already. But here we don’t know that.”

In Beijing the subculture that surrounds this music is so small that most of the major participants often turn up at a weekly concert and gathering at 2Kolegas, a bar inside a drive-in movie complex on the east side of town. One recent night Mr. Yan led an audience-participation performance that involved strips of plastic sound triggers laid on the floor, to be danced on, stepped on or smacked.

It could have been a musical game of the kind that flourished in downtown New York lofts in the 1970s, except for the overhead ambient music with Chinese instrumentation that played through a sound system. Among those in the crowd were the members of FM3, who frequently employ Chinese sound elements, as well as Wu Na, who plays the zitherlike guqin.

Despite the new openness of Chinese society and its arts, the stultifying influence of the state is still felt in mass entertainment like the candied pop that fills the airwaves, and even in the often dull music coming out of the universities.

Kenneth Fields, a professor of electronic music at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, complained of a lack of creativity and free thought among students at his and other universities. The most exciting new music in China, he said, comes from the underground.

“Media is very centrally controlled at the top; at the bottom it seems to be a mirror of anarchy,” Professor Fields said. “There’s no innovation at the top, but on the bottom there’s a lot of informal freedoms.”

The experimental and underground rock musicians represent the most creative contingent of Chinese music, and the scene has had its first bona fide international hit: FM3’s Buddha Machine, a device slightly bigger than an iPod that plays nine electronic drones, has sold nearly 50,000 units around the world and already spawned remix albums.

Christiaan Virant, an American-born musician who is half of FM3, arrived at 2Kolegas in a spiffy black suit with a while silk scarf and a white Panama hat. (The other half is a Chinese man, Zhang Jian.) His new prosperity, he said, is “all 100 percent thanks to the Buddha Machine.”

But this music has received scant attention at home, from the marketplace or, for good or ill, from the government. The Buddha Machine is not widely available in China, because the low price demanded by the domestic market would make the cost of distributing it prohibitive, Mr. Virant said. (It is, of course, for sale at Sugar Jar.)

Like most pockets of avant-garde music, the Chinese musicians have no real commercial prospects. And while relatively few links exist to contemporary visual arts, that world and its moneyed clientele provide essential ancillary income.

Artists who might have minimal record sales — meaning hundreds of copies, or even fewer — can make money doing sound installations at galleries and, increasingly, through commissions from real estate developers looking to add a cool factor to their buildings by using sound art commissioned from underground musicians.

“There are huge amounts of rich people in China who lavish huge amounts of money on weird stuff,” Mr. Virant said.

The attention did not seem so lavish one recent afternoon at Sugar Jar. Over a few hours several curious gallerygoers wandered into the shop and looked around at the CDs for sale, though none bought anything. Mr. Lao said he operates the store without a proper retail license — that, he said, would necessitate stocking music for mainstream tastes, an intolerable concession — and until recently slept in the back.

He said he had no illusions that the music he sells will be accepted by a mass audience. He added that what he hopes for most is support from the government in the form of public festivals and other profile-raising events.

“Even though this music can’t be accepted by most of the people,” he said, “this is the real music of China.”

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Trouble With Indie Rock: It's not just race, it's class

The Trouble With Indie Rock
It's not just race. It's class.
By Carl Wilson
Posted Thursday, Oct. 18, 2007, at 5:53 PM ET

New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones has often indicated boredom and annoyance with a lot of the critically acclaimed, music-blog, and/or NPR-approved "indie rock" of this decade. This week, in an article, a couple of blog entries, and a podcast, he tries to articulate why. His answer? It's not black enough; it lacks "swing, some empty space and palpable bass frequencies"; it doesn't participate lustily in the grand (and problematic) tradition of musical "miscegenation" that's given American music, especially rock 'n' roll, its kick.

To give bite to the accusation, Frere-Jones names a few names, beginning with the Arcade Fire and adding Wilco, the Fiery Furnaces, the Decemberists, the Shins, Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, Panda Bear, and Devendra Banhart, plus indie-heroes past, Pavement. He contrasts them with the likes of the Clash, Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Public Image Ltd., Bob Dylan, the Minutemen, Nirvana, and even Grand Funk Railroad as examples of willful, gleeful, racial-sound-barrier-breaching white rockers of yore.

As indicated in his pre-emptive blog post, the piece is a provocation, as is Frere-Jones's M.O., and that is welcome at a time when musical discussion revolves numbingly around which digital-distribution method can be most effectively "monetized." (Current champ: Radiohead.) But many commentators have pointed out his article's basic problems of consistency and accuracy: Frere-Jones' story is that the rise of Pavement as role models and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg as rivals in the 1990s marked a quick indie retreat from bluesiness and danceability. Yet the conscious and iconoclastic excision of blues-rock from "underground" rock goes back to the '70s and '80s origins of American punk and especially hardcore, from which indie complicatedly evolved.

While it's possible to cherry-pick exceptions ever since, Frere-Jones does so selectively, overlooking the likes of Royal Trux or the Afghan Whigs in the 1990s, or more recently, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Spoon, Battles and the dance-punks LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, and Junior Senior, almost all of whom appear on his own best-of-the-year list in progress. Last March, in direct contradiction to what he says in this week's New Yorker essay, Frere-Jones wrote in an LCD Soundsystem review: "About five years ago, indie rockers began to rediscover the pleasures of rhythm." Where are those indie rockers now? Vanished, because they would mess with his thesis. He isn't really talking about all of indie rock, but a folkier subset that's hardly trying to be rock at all. But to say so would be less dramatic.

The article also tends troublingly to reduce "black music" to rhythm and sexuality, and to elide the differences between, say, funk, soul, disco, folk-blues, Caribbean, and African influences in white rock. While he justifiably frames the issue as an American one, at least half of Frere-Jones' lauded precedents are British, a context in which appropriating black American music has vastly different connotations. His lead example, the Arcade Fire, is likewise un-American, hailing from Montreal (one of its leaders, Régine Chassagne, has family roots in Haiti). The piece also switches at its convenience between mainstream rock history and the "underground" genealogy of indie, while never balancing the scales by addressing current hit-making rockers like Fall Out Boy or the White Stripes, who remain heavier on groove.

One could go on playing "gotcha" at the expense of Frere-Jones' intended thrust, which mainly indicates that this piece needed another draft or two. This is odd, because "indie whiteness" is a subject he's been banging on about in many forums for several years. (Frere-Jones is also a sometime white-indie-rocker himself.) His consistent mistake seems to be to talk about musical issues as if they were nearly autonomous from larger social dynamics. It's the blind spot of a genuine music lover, but it grants music culture too much power and assigns it too much blame.

For instance, the separation of racial influences in American music arguably begins with the 1970s demise of Top 40 radio, which coincided with the Black Power movement and the withering of the integrationist ideals of the civil rights era. Frere-Jones nods in this direction when he talks about "political correctness," but he reduces the issue to an "academic" critique rather than a vast shift in racial relations and, more importantly, expectations. The brands of "authenticity" that both punk and hip-hop came to demand, which tended to discourage the cross-pollination and "miscegenation" of musical forms, are in keeping with the identity politics that became dominant in the 1980s as well as the de facto resegregation of black and white communities that began in the Reagan era. This is the counternarrative to the cultural-level "social progress" that Frere-Jones rightly points out, in which explicit racism has retreated and black entertainers have come to dominate the mainstream.

It's not just because Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre were such great artists that white people were afraid to imitate them—they're no better than John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Muddy Waters, and dozens of others whom white artists have happily mimicked in the past. Rather it's that this kind of "theft" became a capital cultural crime, and not just in the academy (how many '90s indie rockers knew by heart the verses in "Fight the Power," where Public Enemy calls Elvis a "straight-up racist, simple and plain"?). If gangsta rap marked a break, it was because hip-hop became coded to reflect the retrenchment of the "Two Americas" and the resultant combative, near-separatist mood among African-Americans. It was deliberately made less assimilable, a development reinforced by the marketplace when white suburban kids turned out to love its more extremist voice.

You could argue that it's always incumbent on the artists to come back swinging by presenting an alternative vision. Some have tried—unfortunately, often in the form of jam bands and rock-rap groups—but the diminished street-level faith in an integrationist future means there's not as much optimism about integrationist music. What's more, racial lines in the United States no longer divide primarily into black and white. When "miscegenation" does happen in music now, it's likely to be more multicultural than in Frere-Jones' formula, as in rainbow-coalition bands such as Antibalas and Ozomatli.

Ultimately, though, the "trouble with indie rock" may have far more to do with another post-Reagan social shift, one with even less upside than the black-white story, and that's the widening gap between rich and poor. There is no question on which side most indie rock falls. It's a cliche to picture indie musicians and fans as well-off "hipsters" busily gentrifying neighborhoods, but compared to previous post-punk generations, the particular kind of indie rock Frere-Jones complains about is more blatantly upper-middle class and liberal-arts-college-based, and less self-aware or politicized about it.

With its true spiritual center in Richard Florida-lauded "creative" college towns such as Portland, Ore., this is the music of young "knowledge workers" in training, and that has sonic consequences: Rather than body-centered, it is bookish and nerdy; rather than being instrumentally or vocally virtuosic, it shows off its chops via its range of allusions and high concepts with the kind of fluency both postmodern pop culture and higher education teach its listeners to admire. (Many rap MCs juggle symbologies just as deftly, but it's seldom their main point.) This doesn't make coffeehouse-indie shallow, but it can result in something more akin to the 1960s folk revival, with fretful collegiate intellectuals in a Cuban Missile Crisis mood, seeking purity and depth in antiquarian music and escapist spirituality. Not exactly a recipe for a booty-shaking party. While this scene can embrace some fascinating hermetic weirdos such as Joanna Newsom or Panda Bear, it's also prone to producing fine-arts-grad poseurs such as the Decemberists and poor-little-rich-boy-or-girl singer songwriters who might as well be James Taylor. This year even saw several indie bands playing in "Pops" concerts at summer symphony programs; that's no sin (and good for the symphonies), but it's about as class-demarcated as it gets.

Among at least a subset of (the younger) musicians and fans, this class separation has made indie more openly snobbish and narrow-minded. In the darkest interpretation, one could look at the split between a harmony-and-lyrics-oriented indie field and a rhythm-and-dance-specialized rap/R&B scene as mirroring the developing global split between an internationalist, educated comprador class (in which musically, one week Berlin is hot, the next Sweden, the next Canada, the next Brazil) and a far less mobile, menial-labor market (consider the more confining, though often musically exciting, regionalism that Frere-Jones outlines in hip-hop). The elite status and media sway that indie rock enjoys, disproportionate to its popularity, is one reason the cultural politics of indie musicians and fans require discussion in the first place, a point I wish Frere-Jones had clarified in The New Yorker; perhaps in that context it goes without saying.

The profile of this university demographic often includes a sojourn in extended adolescence, comprising graduate degrees, internships, foreign jaunts, and so on, which easily can last until their early 30s. Unlike in the early 1990s, when this was perceived as a form of generational exclusion and protested in "slacker"/grunge music, it's now been normalized as a passage to later-life career success. Its musical consequences might include an open but less urgent expression of sexuality, or else a leaning to the twee, sexless, childhood nostalgia that many older critics (including both Frere-Jones and me) find puzzling and irritating. Female and queer artists still have pressing sexual issues and identities to explore and celebrate, but the straight boys often seem to fall back on performing their haplessness and hyper-sensitivity. (Pity the indie-rock girlfriend.)

Yet this is a problem having to do with the muddled state of white masculinity today, and it's not soluble by imitating some image of black male sexuality (which, as hip-hop and R&B amply demonstrate, is dealing with its own crises). Are we supposed to long for the days when Zeppelin and the Stones fetishized fantasies of black manhood, in part as a cover for misogyny? If forced to choose between tolerating some boringly undersexed rock music and reviving the, er, "vigorous" sexual politics of cock rock, I'll take the boring rock, thanks—for now.

If class, at least as much as race, is the elephant in this room, one of the more encouraging signals lately might be the recent mania for Bruce Springsteen—as if a dim memory suddenly has surfaced that white working-class culture once had a kind of significant berth in rock 'n' roll, too. (It's now moved to Nashville.) I was unexpectedly moved by the video of Win and Régine from the Arcade Fire playing "Keep the Car Running" (Frere-Jones' No. 15 song of the year so far) live with the Boss onstage Sunday in Ottawa. The performance itself aside, their presence in front of an arena audience that mostly had no idea who the hell they were shows the chutzpah it takes to resist niche-market fragmentation. (And sure, I'd be at least as happy if they'd been doing it with Stevie Wonder, and even more if they were sharing the stage with Dr. Dre.)

My armchair sociology may be as reductive as Frere-Jones' potted rock history, but the point is that the problem of style segregation can't be solved by calling upon Sufjan Stevens to funk up his rhythm section. I'm as much a devotee of genre-mixing as Frere-Jones, when it works (I've even used the loaded term "miscegenation" in articles for years), but I've noticed that when indie musicians do grapple with hip-hop rhythms, using their own voices and perspectives (my friends in Ninja High School in Toronto, for instance), they're usually lambasted by critics who fancy themselves arbiters of realness for being an insulting joke. The culture-crossing inhibitions exist for reasons beyond mere timidity, and snorting "get over it" is not enough.

The impetus may have to come from the currently dominant side of the pop market—and increasingly that is what we're seeing. Kanye West doesn't much care about the race of the people he samples, while Justin Timberlake cares very much what race his producer is (African-American, please), and OutKast and Gnarls Barkley play teasing, Prince-like crossover games. If it's going to be re-established that such moves are legit, it will happen on the charts for a while before the more cautious and self-conscious rock-in-decline types feel free to do it too. Which, as a turnabout, seems rather like fair play.
Carl Wilson is a Toronto-based music critic for the Globe and Mail and blogger at His book Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is forthcoming.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Paler Shade of White: How indie rock lost its soul

The New Yorker
Pop Music
A Paler Shade of White
How indie rock lost its soul.
by Sasha Frere-Jones October 22, 2007

Why did rock and roll, the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed, undergo a racial re-sorting in the nineties?

In May, I went with a friend to see the Canadian indie-rock band Arcade Fire perform at the United Palace, a gilded rococo church in Washington Heights that seats more than three thousand and doubles as a theatre. The band was playing to a noisily receptive crowd during what has been a very successful year. Arcade Fire’s latest album, “Neon Bible,” which was released here in March, has sold more than three hundred thousand copies—an impressive number for an indie band during an industry-wide sales slump—and the group was on its second visit to New York in three months.

The band, six men and three women, shared the stage with half a dozen curved screens and slender red fluorescent lights, which encircled the musicians like a ring of candles. In January, at a less elaborate show in a small London church, the band’s members had called to mind Salvation Army volunteers who had forgotten to go home after Christmas—their execution was ragged but full of brio—and I had spent the evening happily pressed against the stage. At the United Palace, even though the music was surging in all the right places, I was weary after six songs. My friend asked me, “Do they play everything in the same end-of-the-world style?”

Arcade Fire’s singer and songwriter, Win Butler, writes lyrics that allude to big, potentially buzz-killing themes: guilt, rapture, death, redemption. And because, for the most part, he deals convincingly with these ideas, the band has been likened to older bands known for passion and gravitas, including the Clash. (On tour, Arcade Fire sometimes plays a cover of the Clash’s anti-police-brutality anthem “Guns of Brixton.”)

By the time I saw the Clash, in 1981, it was finished with punk music. It had just released “Sandinista!,” a three-LP set consisting of dub, funk, rap, and Motown interpretations, along with other songs that were indebted—at least in their form—to Jamaican and African-American sources. As I watched Arcade Fire, I realized that the drummer and the bassist rarely played syncopated patterns or lingered in the low registers. If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible. And what I really wanted to hear, after a stretch of raucous sing-alongs, was a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies—in other words, attributes of African-American popular music.

There’s no point in faulting Arcade Fire for what it doesn’t do; what’s missing from the band’s musical DNA is missing from dozens of other popular and accomplished rock bands’ as well—most of them less entertaining than Arcade Fire. I’ve spent the past decade wondering why rock and roll, the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed, underwent a racial re-sorting in the nineteen-nineties. Why did so many white rock bands retreat from the ecstatic singing and intense, voicelike guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat, and the elaborate showmanship that characterized black music of the mid-twentieth century? These are the volatile elements that launched rock and roll, in the nineteen-fifties, when Elvis Presley stole the world away from Pat Boone and moved popular music from the head to the hips.

It’s difficult to talk about the racial pedigree of American pop music without being accused of reductionism, essentialism, or worse, and such suspicion is often warranted. In the case of many popular genres, the respective contributions of white and black musical traditions are nearly impossible to measure. In the nineteen-twenties, folk music was being recorded for the first time, and it was not always clear where the songs—passed from generation to generation and place to place—had come from. The cadence of African slave hollers shaped the rising and falling patterns of blues singing, but there is still debate about the origins of the genre’s basic chord structure—I-IV-V—and how that progression became associated with a singing style on plantations and in Southern prisons. In 1952, the record collector Harry Smith released “Anthology of American Folk Music,” a highly regarded compilation (and, later, a source for Bob Dylan), which showed that white “country” performers and black “blues” artists had recorded similar material in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, singing about common legends, such as “Stackalee,” over similar chord progressions. Even the call-and-response singing that is integral to many African-American church services may have been brought to America by illiterate Scottish immigrants who learned Scripture by singing it back to the pastor as he read it to them.

Yet there are also moments in the history of pop music when it’s not difficult to figure out whose chocolate got in whose peanut butter. In 1960, on a train between Dartford and London, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, then teen-agers, bonded over a shared affinity for obscure blues records. (Jagger lent Richards an LP by Muddy Waters.) “Twist and Shout,” a song that will forever be associated with the Beatles, is in fact a fairly faithful rendition of a 1962 R. & B. cover by the Isley Brothers. In sum, as has been widely noted, the music that inspired some of the most commercially successful rock bands of the sixties and seventies—among them Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Grand Funk Railroad—was American blues and soul.

The Beatles, especially in Paul McCartney’s compositions, married blues and soul with the verse-chorus-bridge structure common to songs from the English music hall and Tin Pan Alley, and hooked teen-agers on a combination of Irving Berlin and Muddy Waters that previously would have been unthinkable. Similarly, when Mick Jagger stopped trying to imitate Bobby Womack he became, musically speaking, an original—a product of miscegenation. He sang with weird menace and charm, and with an accent that placed him in an unidentifiable neighborhood (with more than one bar) somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. Jagger’s knock-kneed dancing may have begun as an homage to Little Richard’s exuberant hamming, but he eventually devised his own style—a bewitching flexion of knees and elbows.

The borrowing went both ways. Keith Richards wanted a horn section to play the main guitar riff in the Stones’ 1965 single “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” on the theory that this would make the song sound like an American soul track. But the song was recorded without a horn section, and immediately became popular, inspiring several covers. One of the better ones was by Otis Redding. (“Otis Redding got it right,” Richards said.)

Until Michael Jackson, another soul singer, achieved international prominence, in the late seventies, however, some of the most successful venders of American black music were not black. MTV had been on the air for nearly two years before it got up the courage to play the video for Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” in 1983. (Jackson was the first black artist to appear on the channel, though it had played videos by the equally gifted white soul act Hall & Oates.) Jackson’s 1982 album “Thriller” is the second-biggest-selling record of all time (after “Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975”), but he alone could not alter pop music’s racial power balance. Black and white musicians continued to trade, borrow, and steal from one another, but white artists typically made more money and received more acclaim. This pattern held until 1992, when the Los Angeles rapper and producer Dr. Dre released “The Chronic,” an album whose star performer was a new rapper named Snoop Doggy Dogg.

You could argue that Dr. Dre and Snoop were the most important pop musicians since Bob Dylan and the Beatles. There had already been several important hip-hop hits: the 1979 single “Rapper’s Delight,” by the Sugarhill Gang, which marked the genre’s commercial début; the 1986 remake of “Walk This Way,” a raplike song by the white seventies rock band Aerosmith that the group rerecorded with the black hip-hop trio Run-DMC (as pure an example of musical miscegenation as there can be); and the 1988 album “Straight Outta Compton,” by Dr. Dre’s group N.W.A., which helped make sampling and sexually violent lyrics central to hip-hop’s aesthetic.

“The Chronic,” which has sold more than five million copies, upended established paradigms. It presented rappers chanting over smooth funk played on live instruments, as well as over grainy digital samples of old records, and in doing so it changed hip-hop’s sound. It started a conceptual migration, establishing the template for hip-hop from outside New York—especially in the South, a region that has recently come to dominate the genre. Hip-hop became music for driving; it was designed to soothe. (The heavy bass frequencies cause car seats to vibrate, literally massaging the passengers.) The menace was now limited to the lyrics, which featured increasingly explicit tales of gunplay and sex, creating a dissonance between sound and sense that typifies gangsta rap even today.

Videos of songs from “The Chronic” were broadcast on MTV, and Snoop, then a twenty-year-old former gang member from Long Beach, California, who delivered his grim narratives with laid-back aplomb, became the face of hip-hop for many people who had little experience with the genre. If young white musicians had been imitating black ones, it was partly because they had been able to do so in the dark, so to speak. In 1969, most of Led Zeppelin’s audience would have had no idea that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page had taken some of the lyrics of “Whole Lotta Love” from the blues artist Willie Dixon, whom the band had already covered twice (with credit) on its début album. (After Dixon sued Led Zeppelin, the band credited him with the song.)

By the mid-nineties, the biggest rock stars in the world were rappers, and the potential for embarrassment had become a sufficient deterrent for white musicians tempted to emulate their black heroes. Who would take on Snoop, one of the most naturally gifted vocalists of the day? Of course, a few did—there have been white rappers and several commercial, if generally unappealing, blends of rock and rap. But, in the thirty years since hip-hop became widely available, there have been only three genuinely popular white rap acts: the Beastie Boys, whose biggestselling album sold to kids who were more taken with the Led Zeppelin samples and the lewd jokes than with the rap music; Vanilla Ice, an anomaly who owes much of his success to his vertical hair and the decision to rap (in “Ice Ice Baby”) over “Under Pressure,” a song by David Bowie and Queen that has proved immune to destruction; and Eminem, the exception who proves the rule. A protégé of Dr. Dre’s who spent part of his youth in Detroit, he had to be better than the local black competition simply in order to be accepted—a fascinating inversion of the racism that many blacks have encountered in the workplace.

In the mid- and late eighties, as MTV began granting equal airtime to videos by black musicians, academia was developing a doctrine of racial sensitivity that also had a sobering effect on white musicians: political correctness. Dabbling in black song forms, new or old, could now be seen as an act of appropriation, minstrelsy, or co-optation. A political reading of art took root, ending an age of innocent—or, at least, guilt-free—pilfering. This wasn’t a case of chickens coming home to roost. Rather, it was as though your parents had come home and turned on the lights.
I’ve spent much of my life playing music, and on and off since 1990 I’ve been a member of a funk band called Ui. We’ve had six members, all white, though most of the musicians who inspire our sound are black (the New Orleans band the Meters; several artists who played with Miles Davis in the seventies; various Jamaican rhythm sections) or are white bands heavily indebted to black music (Led Zeppelin, the German band Can). We released our first record in 1993—a vinyl EP available only in England, the first in a series of dubious marketing decisions—and the handful of reviews that it received were factually accurate, citing the bands I’ve mentioned as influences and recognizing that we were primarily interested in making instrumental funk, not in singing. The singing, what little there was, was my job, and it caused me to start thinking about musical miscegenation.

When we played our version of funk or dub reggae, or tried to make a synthesizer sound like a dolphin fixing a tractor (tough but doable), it felt natural. Most of our music didn’t require singing, but a few pieces needed the sound of a human voice to round them out. Yet singing stumped me. Except for a single, miraculous week when I was sixteen, I’ve never rapped successfully, and melodic singing was inappropriate for the jumpy, polyrhythmic music we played. So I fudged, splitting the difference between singing, chanting, and rapping, each time with diminishing returns. (I can hardly stand to listen to these tracks now.) And the problem was clearly related to race. It seemed silly to try to sound “black,” but that is what happened, no matter how hard I tried not to. In some ways, this was the result of a categorical confusion, the assumption that if I could use my hands to play a derivation of black music with any authority I could use my voice to do the same thing. Playing black music never felt odd, but singing it—a more intimate gesture—seemed insulting. By the time we recorded our last album, in 2003, I had given up singing altogether. It had become clear to me that, to understate the case wildly, I lacked the ability of Mick Jagger and Prince and any number of other great rockers to fuse disparate traditions into a sound that was obviously related but unique—a true offspring.

Many indie bands seemed to be having complex reactions of their own to musical miscegenation. The indie genre emerged in the early eighties, in the wake of British bands such as the Clash and Public Image Ltd., and originally incorporated black sources, using them to produce a new music, characterized by brevity and force, and released on independent labels. The Minutemen, a group of working-class white musicians from San Pedro, California, who were influential in the late eighties, wrote frantic political rants that were simultaneously jazz, punk, and funk, without sounding like any of these genres. But by the mid-nineties black influences had begun to recede, sometimes drastically, and the term “indie rock” came implicitly to mean white rock. Pavement, a group that the Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau, in 1997, called “the finest rock band of the nineties—by critical acclamation,” embodied this trajectory. The band’s first drummer, Gary Young, had a strong sense of swing and a solid backbeat (at least, when he managed to stay on his drum stool), but after his departure, in 1993, Pavement began producing a flat-footed mixture of shaggy, improvisational rock and sylvan curlicues taken from obscure folk groups.

During the same period, indie-band singers abandoned full-throated vocals and began to mumble and moan, and to hide their voices under noise. Lyrics became increasingly allusive and oblique. (From Pavement’s 1995 song “Grave Architecture”: “Am I just a bathtub waiting to be gripped or found on shady ground? And the lampshade’s poised on the overwhelm. Drugs, and need the talent to breathe.”) Several groups that experienced commercial success, such as the Flaming Lips and Wilco, drew on the whiter genres of the sixties—respectively, psychedelic music and country rock—and gradually Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, a tremendously gifted musician who had at best a tenuous link to American black music, became indie rock’s muse. (Two currently popular indie acts, Panda Bear and Sufjan Stevens, are well schooled in Wilson’s beatific, multi-tracked harmonies, which evoke the sound of glee clubs and church choirs.)

Wilco’s 2002 album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” which won that year’s Pazz and Jop national critics’ poll in the Village Voice, is one of the most celebrated indie-rock records of the past five years. (It was released on Nonesuch, which was a subsidiary of the major label Atlantic—further evidence that “indie rock” has become an aesthetic description, and no longer has anything to do with labels.) Wilco, which formed in 1994, was initially an alt-country band, whose songwriter, Jeff Tweedy, demonstrated a knack for writing clipped, vernacular descriptions of relationships and emotional states. The band’s 1996 album, “Being There,” is one of the few alt-country records that I play. It is indebted to a couple of readily identifiable sources—country (as the Rolling Stones played it) and bluegrass—and the music has a pleasing crackle. But after that Wilco and Tweedy, presumably under the influence of other indie bands, drifted from accessible songs toward atomization and noise. On “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” the lyrics are embarrassing poetry laid over plodding rhythms. (“Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad, sad songs, tuned to chords strung down your cheeks.”) The album features synthesizer squeaks and echoey feedback-, which fail to give shape to the formless music. A little more syncopation would have helped.

Other flagship indie bands—the Fiery Furnaces, the Decemberists, the Shins—occasionally produce memorable hooks and moments of inspired juxtaposition. (The Fiery Furnaces have a constantly mutating lineup of instruments, which makes the band sound, at its best, like a jukebox on the fritz.) Grizzly Bear, the indie band that excites me most right now, is making songs with no apparent links to black American music—or any readily identifiable genre. (The band’s sound suggests a group of eunuchs singing next to a music box on a sunken galleon.) But, in the past few years, I’ve spent too many evenings at indie concerts waiting in vain for vigor, for rhythm, for a musical effect that could justify all the preciousness.

How did rhythm come to be discounted in an art form that was born as a celebration of rhythm’s possibilities? Where is the impulse to reach out to an audience—to entertain? I can imagine James Brown writing dull material. I can even imagine the Meters wearing out their fans by playing a little too long. But I can’t imagine any of these musicians retreating inward and settling for the lassitude and monotony that so many indie acts seem to confuse with authenticity and significance.

The segregation occurred in both directions. Beginning in the late eighties, there were several high-profile lawsuits involving sampling. In 1991, a U.S. federal court ruled that the rapper Biz Markie’s use on his album “I Need a Haircut” of a sample from a song by Gilbert O’Sullivan constituted willful infringement. (The album was withdrawn from stores and rereleased without the offending track.) A similar suit led to a decision by a federal appeals court, in 2004, that the use of even three notes from someone else’s work could be a violation of copyright, making it difficult for all but the wealthiest rappers to use samples. For twenty years, beginning in the mid-eighties, with the advent of drum machines that could store brief digital excerpts of records, sampling had encouraged integration. (Think of De La Soul rhyming over an excerpt from the seventies educational cartoon series “Schoolhouse Rock!” or of Jay-Z rapping over a snippet from the Broadway musical “Annie.”) In practice, the ruling obliged hip-hop producers to write their own music, which left them with a larger share of royalties. And, as producers became as powerful and as well known as rappers, having a distinctive sound that wasn’t associated with another genre or artist became an asset. Rap musicians, lacking incentives to appropriate other sounds, began to stress regional differences instead: in Atlanta, the rugged, spare sound of crunk; in the Bay Area, the whizzing, burping, synthesizer-dominated sound of the hyphy movement.

The most important reason for the decline of musical miscegenation, however, is social progress. Black musicians are now as visible and as influential as white ones. They are granted the same media coverage, recording contracts, and concert bookings, a development that the Internet, along with dozens of new magazines and cable shows devoted to celebrities, has abetted by keeping pop stars constantly in the public eye. Even unheralded musicians don’t need Led Zeppelin to bring their songs to the masses anymore: an obscure artist can find an audience simply by posting an MP3 on MySpace. The Internet, by democratizing access to music—anybody, anywhere can post or download a song on MySpace—has also made individual genres less significant. Pop music is no longer made of just a few musical traditions; it’s a profusion of strands, most of which don’t intersect, except, perhaps, when listeners click “shuffle” on their iPods. Last month, in the Times, the white folk rocker Devendra Banhart declared his admiration for R. Kelly’s new R. & B. album “Double Up.” Thirty years ago, Banhart might have attempted to imitate R. Kelly’s perverse and feather-light soul. Now he’s just a fan. The uneasy, and sometimes inappropriate, borrowings and imitations that set rock and roll in motion gave popular music a heat and an intensity that can’t be duplicated today, and the loss isn’t just musical; it’s also about risk. Rock and roll was never a synonym for a polite handshake. If you’ve forgotten where the term came from, look it up. There’s a reason the lights were off. ♦

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Unraveling the Knots of the 12 Tones

October 14, 2007
Unraveling the Knots of the 12 Tones

MENTION the term 12-tone music to many veteran classical concertgoers and watch them recoil. Twelve-tone music? All those dreadful, aggressively dissonant pieces that a cadre of cerebral composers tried to impose on audiences for so long?

Mention 12-tone music to younger people and fledgling concertgoers, and for the most part they draw a blank. They don’t know 12-tone from “Ocean’s 12.” They just know what contemporary music they like and don’t like.

Among all segments of the audience major misconceptions persist about the 12-tone technique of composition devised by Arnold Schoenberg in the 1920s. Schoenberg’s use of systematized sets of all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale — all the keys on the piano from, say, A to G sharp — was a radical departure from tonality, the familiar musical language of major and minor keys.

Seized with excitement over his breakthrough, Schoenberg predicted that the 12-tone technique would assure the supremacy of Germanic music for another hundred years. He could not have been more wrong. His system spread well beyond Germany, but with far less impact than he had hoped.

Still, the invention of the 12-tone system was arguably the most audacious and influential development in 20th-century music. Its impact can be heard today in works far removed from the knotty scores of composers like Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Charles Wuorinen and its other formidable practitioners during its heyday in the third quarter of the last century. Elements of 12-tone style turn up even in Broadway shows and film scores. Yet an overwhelming majority of music lovers have no idea what the technique is, what exactly the music sounds like or what the fuss was all about.

Adaptations of the technique and aesthetic have become so integrated into concert music today that few listeners even notice anymore. Patrons at the season-opening gala of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at the Rose Theater last month might have been upset had they thought they were going to be confronted with some gnarly 12-tone piece. Yet the program included the premiere of Bruce Adolphe’s spiky “Crossing Broadway” for chamber ensemble, music that impishly blurs the distinctions between skittish 12-tone riffs and jazzy scat. The audience listened with pleasure and gave Mr. Adolphe a warm ovation.

The 12-tone movement was supposed to have engendered a revolution. In 1979 Mr. Wuorinen declared victory, at least in the realm of “serious” music. “While the tonal system, in an atrophied or vestigial form, is still used today in popular and commercial music, and even occasionally in the works of backwards-looking serious composers, it is no longer employed by serious composers of the mainstream,” he wrote. “It has been replaced or succeeded by the 12-tone system.”

Obviously this declaration was premature and ultimately wrong. Beginning in the mid-1960s a backlash emerged against 12-tone dogma. Minimalism, post-Minimalism and neo-Romanticism took root, along with various hard-to-label approaches to composition that found invigorating ways to combine tonal and atonal elements.

Before long audiences developed such animosity toward 12-tone music that its adherents, if not abandoning the technique, were disavowing the label. “If anyone writes program notes and says that I am a serial or a 12-tone composer, I am infuriated,” Donald Martino said in a 1997 interview. “I don’t want to prejudice people with that.”

By now the popular perception is that 12-tone music is passé if not dead. Yet the revolution may have surreptitiously succeeded, at least in part. Almost every composer of significance has had to come to grips with the method. You could say that once the 12-tone commando squad was defeated, the victors picked through the spoils, taking what they liked and ignoring the rest.

Now that decades of hostility are past, maybe it is time to reacknowledge the pervasive impact of this path-breaking development. It’s hard to ignore that at its worst the battle was debilitating. On one side were 12-tone composers who claimed the intellectual high ground, usually from secure posts in universities; on the other, composers who clung in various ways to tonal languages, cared about connecting with audiences and withstood the patronizing disdain of the tough-guy modernists in their midst. The critic Alex Ross tells the whole sorry story in his insightful, compulsively readable book, “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century,” coming out Oct. 23 from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Happily, the best young composers today feel entitled to borrow from anything and anyone, and more power to them. Talk to those young creators about the standoff between the Babbitts and the Coplands of 20th-century music, and they react as if you were trying to explain some archaic history, like the schism between the Brahms and Wagner wings of late 19th-century German music. Who cares?

From what I can tell the 12-tone technique is seldom adhered to strictly anymore. Even in Schoenberg’s day his followers, notably his devoted student Alban Berg, found deft ways to inject elements of haunting tonal harmony into astringent 12-tone scores, most amazingly in Berg’s unfinished opera “Lulu.”

Still, if the application of the technique is loose, the aesthetic of 12-tone music — its deliberately disorienting sound world, its burst-open harmonic palette, its leaping lines and every-which-way counterpoint, its gleeful avoidance of tonal centers — is very much alive among exciting composers of otherwise strikingly different styles. Think of Judith Weir, Stephen Hartke, Kaija Saariaho, Steven Stucky and Thomas Adès.

For those unversed in music theory it may be worth explaining with a little more specificity what 12-tone music is and how it came about.

Tonality is a means of organizing pitch in accordance with the physics of sound. A fundamental tone — say, C in a C major scale — is central; the other pitches relate to it in a hierarchy of importance based on natural overtone relationships. Whatever happens, the music keeps returning to that fundamental tonal mooring. Variety, expression and development result when a composer plays with expectations and introduces ambiguity, letting the music drift to remote pitches and chords that are not part of the basic major or minor scale.

As music developed in the late 19th century, Wagner, Mahler, Debussy, Strauss and other path breakers pushed at the boundaries of that mooring and weakened the pull of the tonal center. Ten years into the 20th century the whole business was in crisis, Schoenberg argued. .

So he started composing in a harmonic language unhinged from tonality: atonality, it has been called. His works in this style, Expressionistic pieces like “Erwartung,” sound as if they were conceived almost through harmonic free association.

Yet Schoenberg revered order, form and tradition. So he took a conceptual leap. If all 12 pitches in the octave are to be used more or less equally, why not devise a system that ensured a kind of equality?

Instead of the old tonal hierarchy, or his short-lived experiment in harmonic free-for-all, Schoenberg specified that the 12 pitches be put in an order, or row. Once a pitch was sounded, it was not to be repeated until the entire row had unfolded. There were countless ways around this dictum, however, because Schoenberg adapted his technique so that the row could be transposed, gone through backward or upside down, broken into smaller units that were mixed and matched, and so on. Wiggle room was built in from the start.

This description may make the technique sound like a rigid methodology, but Schoenberg found it liberating. “I find myself positively enabled to compose as freely and fantastically as one otherwise does only in one’s youth, and am nevertheless subject to a precisely definable aesthetic discipline,” he wrote to a colleague. Besides, tonal music relies on patterns too. Whole spans of pieces by Mozart and Beethoven are generated through default patterns of pitches: arpeggios, scale passages, chords and the like.

If the human ear is conditioned to find music with tonal moorings satisfying, if we are “embedded in a tonal universe,” as Leonard Bernstein once put it, then 12-tone music discombobulates those aural expectations and shakes up the universe. A Berlin critic of Schoenberg’s atonal works wrote indignantly that the music “kills tonal perception.” Exactly! And that’s what’s so exhilarating. You are invited to take a vacation from tonality, to experience music without a tonal safety net.

Other composers also found Schoenberg’s invention liberating. One branch took the systematizing principle radically further by placing rhythms and dynamics as well as pitches into predetermined series; hence the term serialism. In the 1960s and ’70s 12-tone music and serialism were treated like scientific disciplines by composers working within universities, where their research, to call it that, was of interest mainly to other composers.

Alas, there are many stories of gifted young composers who initially felt no choice but to adopt 12-tone technique. David Del Tredici, for one, eventually made the break and was in the vanguard of composers who rejected the dogma and reclaimed tonal languages. He emerged from that experience bitter.

William Bolcom went through this experience too, though with fewer psychic scars, from what he has said. He was drawn to the music of Mr. Boulez and Luciano Berio as a young man, but also to the music of Darius Milhaud, with whom he studied, as well as a wide range of American vernacular music. In time Mr. Bolcom too shed what he considered an academic approach to composing and developed a vibrantly eclectic language, rich with allusion to American song, jazz, ragtime and rock. Still, he and Mr. Del Tredici are stronger and more precise composers today for having been through the rigors of 12-tone composition.

Several giants explored 12-tone technique as well: not only Stravinsky, whose move into the enemy camp shook up the world of modern music, but also Messiaen and Copland. Whether their explorations were driven by a competitive desire to be in the front lines of modernism or by honest curiosity, each grew immensely from devising his own adaptations to the 12-tone system.

I don’t mean to romanticize 12-tone music, which has given us lots of terribly cerebral pieces. But prosaic, dull tonal works of every description continue to be written as well. I would much rather hear Mr. Babbitt’s scintillating 12-tone piano pieces than, say, the lushly tonal “Tempest Fantasy” by the Poulenc-infatuated Paul Moravec, a piece that beat out distinguished works by Peter Lieberson and Steve Reich for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in music.

The refreshing lack of dogmatism among the new generation of composers seems to have spread to audiences as well. The brilliant pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard segues from Beethoven to Boulez, from Liszt to Ligeti on the same program, and today’s audiences just follow along, open to everything. As Elliott Carter, the dean of modernist composers, approaches his 99th birthday, he keeps challenging us with complex and ingenious new scores and is cheered by young and old at every premiere.

I doubt that Mr. Wuorinen spends much time regretting dogmatic pronouncements he made in the heat of the battle, since he is far too busy enjoying the recent burst of enthusiasm for his music, thanks in part to champions like the conductor James Levine and the pianist Peter Serkin. Certainly Mr. Wuorinen’s Fourth Piano Concerto is evidence of a stunningly complex approach to writing music.

But in a brilliant performance by Mr. Serkin with Mr. Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in 2005, that concerto came across as audacious. You stopped thinking about tone rows and responded to the playfulness and ferocity of this formidable music.

In retrospect the major flaw in Schoenberg’s astute analysis of the crisis of tonality was the notion that pursuing an alternative had become a historical necessity. The development of 12-tone technique was no necessity. During the same period Bartok, Stravinsky and other giants were finding enthralling ways to adapt, transform and shake up tonality.

Instead Schoenberg’s great adventure was, as Mr. Ross puts it in his new book, “one man’s leap into the unknown.” But what a leap!

How to Calculate Musical Sellouts

How to Calculate Musical Sellouts
As Rockers Cash In, The Moby Quotient Helps to Determine The Shilling Effect

By Bill Wyman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 14, 2007; M01

A commercial during "The Colbert Report" recently featured a happy family shopping in Circuit City for back-to-school technology for their comely daughter. She's a big fan of the bubblegum punk group Fall Out Boy, and while the band's fabulous song "Thnks fr th Mmrs" plays, she imagines all the exciting Fall Out Boy-related things she could do with many different amazing Circuit City products.

As the happy family leaves the store, Dad hands her a new cellphone and says, smiling, "You can take a study break with Fall Out Boy!"

The kid is tickled pink.

Right after that came a Nissan commercial, which wanted consumers to understand that, if you owned an SUV, you could drive places. To underline the point, the commercial broke into the Ramones, who sang, "Hey! Ho! Let's go!" That's the famous break from the punk rockers' "Blitzkrieg Bop," a heartfelt ode to pogoing to the beat of a Nazi military assault.

Well, at least it wasn't a Volkswagen ad.

It seems as if every commercial these days has a rock band in it. What was once the mark of utter uncoolness, a veritable byword of selling out, has become the norm. More than a decade ago we became inured to the most unlikely parings. Led Zeppelin in a Cadillac ad. The Clash shilling for Jaguar. Bob Dylan warbling for an accounting firm, or Victoria's Secret. An Iggy Pop song about a heroin-soaked demimonde accompanying scenes of blissful vacationers on a Caribbean cruise ship.

There is no longer even a debate, let alone a stigma. "If you did an advert, you were a sellout," notes Billboard Executive Editor Tamara Conniff. "The Rolling Stones broke that when they allowed the use of 'Start Me Up' for the Windows campaign. Though there was an initial backlash, it suddenly made it okay for bands of integrity to do commercials. Now, it's almost as if as an artist you don't have a corporate partner [or] commercial, you've not really arrived."

Indeed, in the late 1990s, the techno artist Moby, as hip as they come, openly boasted of having sold every track of his breakthrough album "Play" to an advertiser, or to a film or TV soundtrack. The album should perhaps have been called "Pay."

So we submit: The battle has been lost. But that doesn't make it right. There are even some who disagree.

"People say making money is making money, but there's a difference," says Bill Brown, a onetime rock critic who now works in the New York publishing world. He examines the implications of this new age in rock commercialism at great length and no little erudition on his Web site, "If you're in a band, you want to be paid, definitely, but the music is for people to use and enjoy. The problem with branding yourself and selling your songs to commercials is the music is no longer for the listener.

"Instead, the ad is signaling that, 'This company is cool, and we've gotten this band to sell us some of their music.' It's the difference between selling to me, and something else: Pete Townshend sold a song to Hummer!"

Clearly, what we need is an objective formula for determining just how offensive a particular rock-based advertisement is. I am proud to announce that this lack has been righted.

I recently enlisted the aid of Jim Anderson, a senior lecturer in mathematics at England's University of Southampton. An expert on hyperbolic geometry, he embarked on this task with tongue firmly in cheek, and developed a formula that can be used to process the ethical and aesthetic implications of any one instance of the pervasive blurring of the lines between rock and advertising.

The formula kicks out a number that could be used to determine just how much of a sellout is a particular artist.

We are pleased to call this number the Moby Quotient and to assign the Greek letter "mu," to designate it.

The equation is designed to put things in perspective. If Kelly Clarkson sings for Ford, where, in the end, is the harm? Negligible artists singing on subjects that can be of less-than-pressing social import advertising silly products. One does not look to Disney pop culture puppets or artists given an imprimatur by the viewers of a Fox TV show for artistic integrity. Ms. Clarkson can sing for her supper anywhere she wants, and the world sits solidly on its foundations.

However. If you are an artist who traffics in -- or has trafficked in -- your outsider status; if you were a punk or a rebel or a beast whose rude yawp emerged from the underground and you are now hawking your anthems of defiance as ear candy to further the sales of a crummy telecom company, a new line of SUVs or the marvelous things General Electric is doing, well then, sir or madam artiste, expect your Moby Quotient to be somewhat higher.

The formula sits proudly on this very page, along with a few examples of the sorts of Moby Quotients certain artists earn. We have to be realistic: This tide of greed will never slide back out. Indeed, it can only get worse, since new generations of rock fans have grown up with the practice and apparently see nothing wrong with it.

Our one hope is that what greed created, greed may eventually eliminate -- in other words, that younger artists will view Moby's career as a cautionary tale. The jut-jawed vegan still makes a good living touring and doing film soundtracks and the like. But it's also true that commercially and artistically, his recorded work since "Play" has been on a downward spiral. Let the sellouts beware.

Bill Wyman, the former arts editor of National Public Radio, writes the blog "Hitsville" at

Monday, October 08, 2007

How a Western changed the way Cubans speak.

the good word
3:10 to Yuma in Cuba
How a Western changed the way Cubans speak.
By Brett Sokol
Posted Monday, Oct. 8, 2007, at 12:21 PM ET

For most American fans of classic Western cinema, Delmer Davies' 3:10 to Yuma (1957) is simply a cult favorite, one recently rescued from obscurity by the $55 million remake that is packing multiplexes from coast to coast. In Cuba, however, the original 3:10 to Yuma has had a major impact on everyday conversation. Take a walk down any of Havana's main thoroughfares and you'll hear American visitors hailed as yumas, while the United States itself is affectionately dubbed La Yuma. You won't find those phrases in any state-issued dictionary, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro stubbornly opts for the more derisive yanqui in his own public speeches, but outside of bureaucratic circles it's yuma that holds sway.

How on earth did this happen?

During the late 1950s, American-owned "United" firms such as the United Fruit Company maintained high-profile holdings in Cuba. Since the word united doesn't exactly roll off the tongue in Spanish, Cubans adopted the moniker La Yunay. Likewise, when referring to their neighbor across the Florida Straits, Cubans sometimes opted for a Spanglish version of United States—Yunay Estey—rather than the formal Estados Unidos. When the original 3:10 to Yuma hit Cuban cinemas, it inspired a spin on the already extant yunay, and the new slang term quickly took off.

Yuma held a prominent place in the popular lexicon until shortly after the 1959 revolution, but then it hit a rough patch. As tensions with the U.S. government built to a boil, American pop culture came to be seen by Castro as just another weapon in Uncle Sam's arsenal. Westerns received a particularly harsh drubbing from el presidente: With their often less-than-enlightened portrayal of Native Americans, and genre standard-bearer John Wayne's staunch public support of the U.S. troops in Vietnam, these films were dismissed as imperialism writ large—10-gallon cowboy hats and all. The Cuban government, which controlled (and indeed still controls) all film distribution on the island, eventually pulled most American movies from theaters. And with Communist officials frowning at its social implications, the word yuma fell out of use.

Yet while once-beloved films like 3:10 to Yuma may have been banned, they were anything but forgotten. By the late '70s, with audiences weary of a steady diet of didactic Soviet-bloc and Western European art flicks, a powerful nostalgia had developed for classic U.S. cinema. Even new generations of Cuban hipsters, raised without ever seeing an old-school celluloid cowboy, were pining for a glimpse of the censored Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. "We were so fed up with those bad Soviet films," recalled Alejandro Ríos, then a twenty-something Havana movie critic, now a scholar in Miami. "And they weren't the worst of it! You haven't experienced boredom until you've tried to sit through a North Korean film."

Fortunately, by 1978 an ideological thaw inside Cuba's national film institute, ICAIC, permitted the exhibition of once politically incorrect movies. And Westerns, that most forbidden of aesthetic fruits, became the hottest ticket of all.

ICAIC officials dug into their archives and began dusting off copies of films that had arrived before 1959 and, after the revolution, had never been returned to American distributors. 3:10 to Yuma enjoyed the biggest buzz, perhaps because its story line struck a chord with Cuban audiences. Based on a 1953 short story by crime novelist Elmore Leonard, the film is less a conventional shoot 'em-up than a tense psychological drama, focused on a beleaguered cattle rancher (Van Heflin's Dan Evans) and his effort to save his failing farm. Desperate for cash, Evans swears he'll deliver a notorious stagecoach robber (Glenn Ford's Ben Wade) to the 3:10 train bound for the federal prison in Yuma, Ariz., in exchange for a generous bounty.

With Wade's vicious gang at his heels, Evans quickly loses the support of his neighbors—who scurry for cover at the first sign of trouble—as well as his wife, who pleads with him to be sensible and let Wade escape. But Evans turns resolute, and his trek to Yuma becomes a fight for personal honor. "The town drunk gave his life because he believed that people should be able to live in decency and peace together," Evans tells his wife. "Do you think I can do less?" It's not hard to see how Cuban viewers, faced with their own dilemmas of whether to stay or to go—to make their peace with the compromises of life under communism, or to risk everything in leaving for the United States—would read fresh meaning into Evans' principled stand.

With 3:10's return to Cuban theaters, yuma suddenly sprung back into daily usage, and it came loaded with all the implications that a journey north entailed. Legend has it that in 1980, when a desperate Havana bus driver crashed through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy seeking asylum—subsequently sparking the Mariel boatlift that saw over 125,000 Cubans migrate to Miami—his anguished cry was, "I want to go to La Yuma!"

These days Havana's movie theaters are still filled with crowds for the latest Hollywood blockbusters, all projected off imported DVDs with little regard for the U.S. trade embargo. Accordingly, when the remade James Mangold-helmed 3:10 to Yuma arrives there (if precedent is any guide, it'll be the week after the DVD appears in Miami shops), expect younger Cubans—most of whom have continued using yuma even if they're unclear where the word originated—to ponder the term's implications anew.

For his part, Leonard says he's amazed at the legs his 1953 short story has taken on. During a phone interview, he told me he'd just recently become aware of his historic role in shaping Cuba's slang. He'd settled upon the title Three-Ten to Yuma simply because Yuma was the most notorious prison back in the days of the Old West. Then a struggling writer, he received a whopping $90 for the story from Dime Western magazine (their two-cents-a-word rate was on the high end for pulp fiction), $4,000 for the 1957 screen rights, and the promise of another $2,000 if the picture was ever remade. As for the new 3:10 to Yuma's success, he quipped, "My agent is working on getting me that two grand."

Still, Leonard does intend to return Cuba's linguistic tip of the hat. In his next book, he'll bring back from an earlier novel a Cuban character who left the island in the Mariel boatlift. Speaking over the phone from his Detroit home, Leonard assumed the voice of this Marielito and read me a line from his new manuscript: "When Fidel opened the prisons and sent all the bad dudes to La Yuma for their vacation … "

Thanks to Erik Camayd-Freixas and John Jensen of Florida International University, Tony Kapcia of the University of Nottingham and the University of Havana, Elmore Leonard, Tom Miller of the University of Arizona, Lionel Ruiz Miyares of Cuba's Center of Applied Linguistics, Alejandro Ríos of Miami-Dade College's Cuban Cinema Series, Richard Slotkin of Wesleyan University, and Beatriz Varela of the University of New Orleans.
Brett Sokol is a journalist in Miami Beach, where he writes for the Miami Herald and Ocean Drive magazine. He is currently working on a book about hip-hop in Cuba. You can reach him at

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