Notes Toward the Death of New Yorkby George Grella
Nobody misses being mugged, but that danger was part of the every day reality of New York City in the ’70s and ’80s. Anyone could get mugged, pretty much any time or any place, including the old Times Square that, through the Vaseline lens of memory, has somehow been transformed into an object of sweet nostalgia.
You can find the current family-friendly Times Square dispiriting even without longing for the type of street life depicted on the HBO series The Deuce. It’s not that we want to hang around with pimps, junkies, and street-walkers all day, it’s that we want some of the culture of ’70s and ’80s New York to still survive. Because what exists in the city today is a rear-guard action retreating from a battle against late capitalism that has already been lost.
From its founding, New York has always been devoted to making money, like every other city. But because New York was so good at making money, and those possibilities drew so many people, it became the cultural capital of the world. Dynamic things were happening, and both the makers—artists, writers, musicians, etc.—and the takers—salesmen, middleman, brokers, anyone skimming a fee or rent-seeking—gathered here.
That it was the makers who struggled economically and the takers who did well showed the gap between capitalism as a moral philosophy and as a flimsy wrapping around rapacious behavior that is part of the human condition. But at least up through thirty or so years ago, the makers could make and survive, do well enough to keep making.
That situation is gone now. It’s not directly the city’s fault but that of decades of national economic policy, driven by the Republican party’s desire to reward the wealthy and punish the poor and the non-white (and now that they’re running out of poor people to punish, the supposed middle class) and the Democratic party’s spineless acquiescence in order to appear reasonable to an amoral class of consultants, pundits and political journalists.
This is the context that haunts every cultural event that crawls out during the summer from under the shadows of the big arts institutions which take a break over the hot months. This is the reason why every chance I have to experience the kind of niche culture that is the foundation upon which those grand institutions are built is invaluable. No summer vacation for me.
People and things still come here, still want (and are able) to appear in front of New York audiences. I remember a special night in the late ‘80s when I saw an excellent, shoe-string production of Genet’s The Balcony on the Lower East Side, then went around the corner on Houston to the Knitting Factory for the late set from Sun Ra’s Arkestra. That’s what I expect from New York in the summer.
Over this summer, I’ve seen things that were stimulating and satisfying and moving because of that. I saw Jack DeJohnette’s new trio, with Ravi Coltrane and bassist Matthew Garrison, at ShapeShifter Lab (which can exist because Gowanus Canal real estate has yet to price it out). They didn’t bring anything new after their excellent 2016 album In Movement (ECM), but their relaxed, open, focused approach to their set was a marvel. They improvised, played things like John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” “Blue in Green,” and original material. DeJohnette is near eighty and as agile as ever, and Garrison is one of the most distinctive and original bassists out there.
I saw Jason Palmer making a live recording at Jazz Gallery. Palmer is an amazing trumpet player, with a full, bright sound and unsurpassed dexterity in his hands and embouchure. His stature is such that his sidemen were Mark Turner on tenor, bassist Matt Brewer, and drummer Kendrick Scott. Yet his appearances here (he lives in Boston) are infrequent—it’s that hard for even the top jazz musicians to find gigs in New York, the center of the jazz universe.
But what a gig. This was a tremendous quartet, energetic and imaginative, and what stood out was Palmer’s playing. He crafts astonishingly long lines, extended improvised development that flows forward through time. They are full of twists and turns, are always logical, and despite their length never hit a dead end. His musical language, with all it’s rising and falling intervals, turns, and grace notes, is something like the prose of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The current location for Glenn Cornett’s Spectrum is a converted garage on Flatbush Avenue across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a prototypical space and location for a venue for experimental music in this city. Pianist Reinier van Houdt appeared as part of Glenn’s Modern Piano Festival and played Green Hour, Grey Future by Michael Pisaro. Pisaro is one of the most important and accomplished experimental composers, still on the outside of a contemporary mainstream that has now stretched out to include John Luther Adams. His ideas encompass quiet, stillness, the properties of acoustic sound, electronics and field records. There’s a real aesthetic connection to Morton Feldman, and hearing Pisaro, through van Houdt, craft a space temporarily out of the flow of time inspired the thought that this is the essence of an avant-garde stance in this city, where the hustle has always been constant and grinding. In that context, the most radical thing is to stop where you are and be as still and silent as possible.
Blank Forms whittled this down to a startling purity when they presented a performance of composer Jakob Ullmann’s Müntzers stern at the San Damiano Mission. For solo bassoon with pre-recorded audio accompaniment (mostly field recordings of urban spaces), this was in one way a lot like Ullmann’s other major works, quiet and spare. But the quiet in this piece was of another order of magnitude—the audio and bassoonist Dafne Vicente-Sandoval played at a barely perceptible level. But tuning out the noise of Williamsburg and tuning into the cocoon of sound that the music and playing created was like stepping into an alternate dimension. We heard the piece in the audience, but it seemed more like we felt it, a comforting warmth, like floating in the Gulf Stream, that defied the rules of both the consumerism of Williamsburg and the laws of physics. (Blank Forms has their own music imprint now, and they are going to be undertaking the invaluable service of releasing archival recordings by Catherine Christer Hennix, a “downtown” musician before there even was the term. The first release, a double LP of Selected Early Keyboard Works, will be out September 7 and is full of mysterious and compelling sounds.)
Leaving each of these, I wondered if stuff like this will be around in 2019. How long will spaces dedicated to ephemeral creativity survive? Spectrum’s idea is to lose money as slowly as possible, so here’s hoping the tide around the place, and Shapeshifter, and the Jazz Gallery, stays calm and low. The Mission is hopefully in the hands of a higher power.
All of these spaces are on the edge of extinction, and what happens then? Imagine balancing a Richard Serra on top of a Giacometti; a top-down structure—economic or cultural—one built built like an inverted pyramid, is inevitably going to collapse. Not even the art spaces, if the waiters and drivers and maids and even cops and firemen and sanitation workers can’t afford to live in or near New York, then the city ultimately implodes. Who will be left to serve meals to the rich, drive them around, clean their homes, protect them, put out their fires, take away their garbage? What happens when the rising seas swamp the lobbies and short out the elevators in their luxury high-rises (Kim Stanley Robinson, who’s about the most thoughtful writer there is, has some ideas about that in New York 2140)?
When the last musician or artist or playwright or dancer is forced out, what will there be left to do here? Go to the multiplex? See the same Broadway show based on the same TV show/movie/album? Wander through the Met and the MoMA and look at the same paintings, over and over and over again? Even the rich might become bored, more bored, impossibly bored, beyond what they now obviously are.
That, it seems to me, is what nostalgia for the city of the late 20th century is all about, a longing for when living in interesting times was not a curse but the basic glory of the city. It’s the fear of New York becoming boring, because a boring New York (which used to be impossible to conceive) is a dead New York.
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.