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Diary Of A Mad Composer

I seethe when I hear Rand Paul or any of our professional ignoramuses explain to us how a country so rich that it can afford their sinecures cannot pay back miserly levels of support to people who have already contributed to the unemployment system. It is exactly because I have been unemployed since the fall of 2006 that I know more about how people think about work and jobs than these trolls. Leave it to a Free Marketeer™ to not understand the concept of insurance.

People want to work. Even something far short of a dream job is important, because the sense of doing something, making something happen, collaborating, is vital to all us non-sociopaths. It’s also why I have a visceral, pre-rational love for Charles Ives: his extraordinary contributions to music are more poignant because he saw them as secondary to his responsibilities to his family and the society around him. He was a working man who was also a musician.

Kris Davis. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

The sheer economic impossibility of being a working non-commercial musician is such that I am moved by the ones I see and hear who are playing a vast range of music at a committed and accomplished level. Beyond the great music they make, the energy and organization that goes into their practice is deeply admirable. It was like that seeing Kris Davis’s Infrasound project at Roulette. She’s already one of the most capable, intelligent, and expressive jazz pianists on the scene, and there she was, with a new baby in tow, showing the fruit of six months’ thought and effort.

Infrasound is a group and a concept, a unique ensemble of four bass clarinets, organ, drums, guitar, and accordion, with Davis at the piano. It’s jazz/not-jazz, music that comes out of swing, and bop, and ensemble improvisation but that is New Music. The forms start off in one way and end in another, a transformation through time. The style mixes dissonance with rock and funk, an abstracted blend of Led Zeppelin, Funkadelic, and Sun Ra. And it has the concrete means and oblique expression that is starting to seem to me the aesthetic badge of contemporary, forward-looking jazz.

Ken Thomson is another musician I admire. He’s an excellent reedman and composer. I’ve seen him play Steve Reich with Ensemble Signal and honking thrash in Gutbucket, and I’ve also seen him leading the Asphalt Orchestra and his terrific jazz group Slow/Fast. Now he has a CD of new compositions, Thaw, featuring the JACK string quartet. His musical voice is strong and clear, linear, driving in unexpected directions. The shape of the title piece is satisfying, with musical tension and aggression resolving to a feeling of hard-won beauty.

I’ve been listening frequently to Simone Dinnerstein’s fine new CD of Bach, Inventions & Sinfonias. The strength of her Bach playing always sounds to me like it comes directly out of her long period of public obscurity, when she was teaching piano and playing for herself. She found out what kind of musician she wanted to be, and the way she spins the music into long phrases while maintaining a constant antiphony between the two hands is unique. She’s also responsible for the Neighborhood Classics concert series, which brings great musicians into neighborhood schools, donating their time and skills playing old and new music. The money raised so far has brought back fourth-grade band to P.S. 142 and funded art, chess, band, and the chorus at P.S. 321. Charles Ives had another daughter.

I have trouble thinking about that. Musicians, who deserve to be paid more than lawyers and administrators, have to donate their time to raise money so that public schools can afford to teach kids music, art, and chess and to give them the chance to sing. Public schools!

It makes me queasy to see how Bloomberg Philanthropies gives money to well-known institutions, while the former mayor spent so much capital fighting against teachers, the same people trying to keep music and arts—and chess—in the schools. The actual results show it was never about education, but the case of upper management trying to control independent-minded workers.
As if working wasn’t already hard enough in New York City, not just for musicians but for teachers, for anyone trying to add to society rather than skim off the top of others’ labors. Best of luck to us all now that this is Bill de Blasio’s New York, and hopefully we’ll all live decently in it.


George Grella

George Grella is the Rail’s music editor.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2014

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