BAM Agonistesby George Grella
In the mid-1980s, I lived on Ft. Greene Place in Brooklyn, a sketchy block in a neighborhood that mixed the grand and the rough-and-tumble. Down the street, the Brooklyn Academy of Music complex was a beacon not just as a solid piece of community, but as a cultural leader, drawing audiences from Manhattan, beyond, and abroad, and presenting daring works at the cutting edge of creativity and ambition.
By that time it had already been more than 10 years since BAM had presented Robert Wilson’s 12-hour production of The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, which brought about the collaboration of Wilson and Philip Glass on Einstein on the Beach, one of the most important works of the 20th century. BAM co-produced John Adams’s Nixon in China, a truly seminal piece that laid the groundwork for a new generation of American opera. They also produced Laurie Anderson’s United States, a two-night multimedia performance. Now, over 25 years later, they are crowning their new Next Wave festival with 12 performances of Anderson’s new work, Delusion. That’s a problem.
While neither Anderson nor BAM was ever truly avant-garde, they both once exemplified the cutting edge of established, even popular, arts—reliable signposts on the way to expanding possibilities and popularizing contemporary works. BAM still draws crowds for music, dance, theater, and film; Laurie Anderson still draws praise, and I expect her appearance at the Next Wave will fill the house and be widely lauded. The BAM bus will still disgorge eager crowds who find the G train and the Atlantic Avenue transit hub too challenging. It will all go as expected, no surprises. No more surprises.
It’s an odd situation that BAM is in. Despite the ongoing recession, there is a top-to-bottom effervescence in the performing arts in New York City. In the summer there are excellent programs of music, dance, and theater for free or very little money in the parks; Lincoln Center Out of Doors presents jazz, pop, punk, funk, and even Sandra Bernhard in a revitalized landscape. Make Music New York not only seasons the entire city with a huge variety of music, but presents Xenakis, gnarliest of composers, in Central Park, on a boat. Tiny art and performance spaces seem to be proliferating, especially in Brooklyn, which itself is in the middle of a long and vibrant social and cultural renaissance. Performers and presenters everywhere are trying new things, embracing the possibility of failure because the possibility of success is so enticing.
There are surprises in unexpected places. At Lincoln Center, BAM’s institutional peers are renovating the content as much as the physical plant. City Opera is back and increasingly vital under George Steel; Peter Gelb is determinedly steering the enormous ship of the Metropolitan Opera towards new waters that are promising and maybe a bit dangerous for a vessel that size; the Lincoln Center Festival organized two roaring nights of the entire works of Edgard Varèse and presented Salvatore Sciarrino’s haunting avant-garde opera La porta della legge. And in less than a year the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert has completely transformed itself, musically and administratively, with a new music series, invitations for live bloggers, and a thrilling New York premiere of Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre. It was an enormous gamble that saw subscription ticket sales drop off drastically, but as an institution the Philharmonic dared and won. Avery Fisher Hall was an exciting and fun place to be during Macabre’s run, with sold-out crowds sharing in the obvious pleasure the performers had in bringing the work to life. Likely many in the audience had never set foot in Avery Fisher before, and there’s a good chance many of them will be back. It was the Philharmonic’s willingness to take a chance aesthetically and financially, their willingness to risk failure, that made the event such an enormous success.
Back in Brooklyn, what is BAM gambling? Earlier in their careers, Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, John Adams, and Laurie Anderson were no sure things for producers—there were real chances of artistic and financial failure. Now, BAM succeeds, with an opera house, a beautiful theater, and a comfortable movie complex. Their programming is not bad; in fact, they present a great variety of solid works (in the past few years I have had great pleasure from Sufjan Stevens’ The BQE and a production of Woyczek), their film programs are as good as any in a city that already has Film Forum and the Museum of Modern Art, and they regularly schedule Baroque opera, which is invaluable by itself. But the last John Adams opera I saw there was on one of their movie screens, a live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera of Doctor Atomic. And then there’s Laurie Anderson.
Anderson is an impeccably safe performer, and her new recording, Homeland, is warm milk to soothe the liberal conscience. It sounds exactly like what a Laurie Anderson recording should be: generally slow tempos, synthesizers, a little rock, a little dance music, a touch of vocoder, a little bit of singing, a lot of carefully enunciated speaking in that same slightly knowing, slightly insinuating tone. There’s a vague international flourish at the start, a Qawwali-like call of a woman’s voice, like a postcard from an exotic and dangerous land one will never visit. Anderson’s concerns are the same as ever: the dulled falseness of materialism, the shallowness of government, the language games that signify that she and her listeners are smarter than the average bear. Ten years on from her previous recording and she sounds no different. The problem is that the world has passed her by.
That’s not a new problem, actually. The long track “Only an Expert” has Anderson revealing that the supposed experts qualified to deal with strategic and personal problems on television are actually frauds, and that the systems of experts are a frauds. Well, yes, and that’s what George W. S. Trow explained with so much more power, insight, and beautiful craft in Within the Context of No Context, which is now 30 years old. But Anderson makes pop music at what was once the hipper edge, and so she has had more listeners than Trow has had readers. A recent profile in the Times Arts and Leisure section gave her the opportunity to talk about the new disc, particularly the title, with its connection to the Department of Homeland Security. “It’s a very cold, bureaucratic word,” she is quoted as saying. “No one I know would say ‘my homeland.’” I am still struck by how much she misses the point, and how she seems to have completely missed the public and political debate that began in the fall of 2001. “Homeland” is partly problematic in the way she describes it, but much more because of the word’s authoritarian, even fascist connotations, the renaming of a country based on nationalistic ideas of geography, borders, language, and blood, very much like Donald Rumsfeld’s “Old Europe.” Anderson is missing the atavism for the bureaucracy. She’s done the easy thing by pointing out the problem, but she can’t think of a solution.
As a multimedia performance artist, Anderson has always been a consolidator of the work that others do, working in the safe center of a space that others like Karen Finley and John Kelly were willing to risk failure to create. Finley and Kelly made room for the mainstream to broaden, and Anderson has positioned herself outside of, but within easy reach of, that mainstream. What’s more troubling is that BAM is now there as well, presenting the work of Anderson and other slightly off-center yet completely acceptable choices and productions. Nothing will ever fail; even boredom is a successful soporific. There’s a lot of high-quality blandness, quirky and forgettable at best, like shambling staged performances from ETHEL and So Percussion, or self-indulgent, bumper-sticker liberalism like Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Darwin’s Meditation for the People of Lincoln. BAM opened up the acceptable space for other organizations to exploit yet seems not to have noticed that this space is now much larger. They remain where they were, and now it is the uptown institutions that are taking advantage of what BAM has done. I never imagined I would see the day when the New York Philharmonic would have more daring programming and take more risks than the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but I saw that day this spring.
BAM is also being left behind by its neighbors. On the more commercial side is Galapagos, which has decamped from Williamsburg to an industrially glossy new home in chic DUMBO. They are working at the hip edge of pop culture, tilling the fields that were left fallow. On the truly avant-garde side is Issue Project Room, where every night is a dare: Who will show up? What will happen? Issue Project is an example of open-minded, ecumenical presenting at its very best, offering a huge range of ideas without judgment, educating without lecturing, maintaining a casual but committed we’re-all-in-this-together-so-let’s-enjoy-it spirit that is intimate but never amateurish. They have also been honored, deservedly, with a gift from the borough of Brooklyn, the new performance space at the 110 Livingston Street building, former home of the Board of Education, where they will eventually be able to fit in larger crowds, have better facilities, and be almost within a stone’s throw of BAM. I don’t see the student devouring the teacher, but perhaps the teacher could learn a thing or two.
GEORGE GRELLA is a composer and writer who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, daughter, and dog. He is founder and publisher of the Big City (soundtime.wordpress.com).