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September 4, 2018
Posted by Seth Boustead

It’s amazing what can happen when you walk into a bookstore.  A couple of months ago I had an appointment in Union Square in Manhattan and because the subway unexpectedly functioned not well but perfectly adequately, which is a minor miracle and frankly a bit of a surprise, I arrived twenty minutes early and decided to while away the extra minutes in the Strand bookstore.

I thought I’d see if I could pick up the new Jonathan Lethem or perhaps this satirical science fiction book from 1936, War With the Newts by Karel Capek that I had read about in the Review of Books the previous weekend, but the fiction section at the store was jammed with tourists so, somewhat ironically, I found myself in the New York section, which was empty, where a book called Vanishing New York immediately called to me.

I bought the book and started reading it on the trip back home.  The author is Jeremiah Moss and his book is a neighborhood by neighborhood chronicle of independently owned businesses: music venues, bars, restaurants, cafés and shops, that have been forced to close because of high rents and that have been replaced by chain stores.

The book gives some history too about why people are moving back to the city from the suburbs and how the eternal search for lower rents combined with the city’s willingness to give tax breaks to major corporations combined with the fact that there is no cap on what a landlord can charge for an apartment or storefront combined with the fact that landlords actually get tax breaks for empty spaces so they can afford to keep them empty while they wait for the perfect corporate chain tenant, how all of this has led to, in Jeremiah’s view, the erosion of the city’s very soul.

And if that wasn’t enough, now the rent has gotten so high that many of the big chains can no longer afford to stay open either and so we have a proliferation of high-end empty storefronts throughout the city, what’s known as high-end blight.  I read all of this on my A-train ride back to Bed-Stuy and decided to build an event around the theme of the Vanishing City.

I wrote Jeremiah through his website and asked if he’d participate in a panel discussion about this and I asked the head of Open House New York Greg Wessner as someone who would have a more positive counterpoint and then for more of an urban planning, what are the factors behind this, kind of perspective I asked Vishaan Chakrabarti who is an accomplished architect and the author of the book Country of Cities.  Amazingly they all said yes and I immediately panicked.  This isn’t my field after all, I’m just some guy who read a book on the train.

But then I thought it could be interesting to pair this panel presentation with a concert of “vanished” New York composers, folks who thrived in the New York of the ’70’s and ’80’s which everyone says was the golden era.  I talked to my friend Frank Oteri, who will also be on the panel, and he suggested Arthur Russell and Tui St. George Tucker, neither of whom I had heard of though I’ve since immersed myself in their life, times and music.

I knew I wanted to program something by Julius Eastman too and then another friend recommended Ben Weber, a composer who knew each of the others and was a kind of mentor figure to artists in the Village in that era. I pitched the idea to Lincoln Center and, again amazingly, they said yes.  So it’s all happening on September 20th at 7:30 PM.  The event will be taped for broadcast on Relevant Tones and we’ll be streaming it live from WFMT’s Facebook page so I hope you can tune in.

And in the meantime I’ll stay out of bookstores for a while.  Don’t need to get inspired again anytime soon after this one.

August 6, 2018
Posted by Seth Boustead

I rarely ever play piano gigs anymore but I took on a ton this summer because, inspired by Paul Manafort, I’m saving up for a new python-skin jacket and so I was driving to one of these gigs or racing really as I only had an hour to get from downtown Chicago to Lakeview in rush hour traffic or not so much racing really as sitting immobile in traffic cursing everyone around me though mentally because I had my windows down and the last thing I needed was a confrontation and who knows who has a gun these days and I flashed back to my first gig in Chicago.

Not my first paid gig but my first gig.  I was fresh off the boat so to speak and saw an ad from someone looking for pianists for a show called Monster Piano. I don’t think they do this anymore but it was like thirty pianos with two people to a piano playing cheesy things like Somewhere, My Love.  It didn’t pay, required that I attend three rehearsals in the burbs plus the concert and I didn’t have a car at the time so in short it was the kind of gig only a still wet behind the ears 22 year old would think was worthwhile.

The gig was posted on the bulletin board at the old Carl Fischer music shop on Wabash where I was working at the time.  I was paid $6 an hour to help people purchase everything from Billy Joel’s Rootbeer Rag to Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto because the movie Shine had just come out and everyone thought it would be cool to buy that piece and practice it until they went insane though needless to say the vast majority of people just didn’t have what it took, not to play the piece necessarily though that’s certainly true but I mean to become insane trying. People just don’t have that kind of dedication anymore.

At any rate I would leave Carl Fischer after a long day of listening to people hum tunes at me in the vain hope that I’d recognize them and track down the out of print sheet music for the song even though everyone knows that out of print is out of print and we didn’t even dream there would be something like Ebay back then and I would go to DePaul to practice though I wasn’t a student and would have to sneak in which hardly required ninja training and I would practice and practice because I really didn’t want to be the one pianist out of sixty who screwed up and knowing my luck would be the only individual pianist anyone would actually hear just as I played a wrong note during the chorus of The Man I Love.

I practiced a lot and the gig came and went and I got a ride home from someone who was dating a guy who worked for the Federal Reserve Bank which I thought was cool even though I had no idea what that was.  We were listening to a Jazz trumpeter on the radio and I said that’s Miles, I always recognize Miles and she said are you sure it’s not Chet Baker and I said, yes I am because Miles uses a mute like ninety percent of the time and Chet never uses a mute even though I’m not sure if that’s true though I think it is.

I got home to my little studio apartment and put away my music notebook, made a snack and watched network television because I couldn’t afford cable TV and we didn’t have things like Netflix or Red Box back then so watching a movie wasn’t an option.   I remember so much about that night but weirdly don’t remember what I watched though if I had to guess I would guess that it was M*A*S*H.  Seems like M*A*S*H was always on back then.  Some things never change.

July 2, 2018
Posted by Seth Boustead

TOPSHOTS-SLOVAKIA-EUROPE-MIGRANTS-DEMOI’ve spent my entire life in the arts in one way or another, mostly by writing music and producing concerts but I also run an arts organization in which capacity I am frequently asked to justify our work as artists in terms of economic benefits like jobs created.  I tend to bristle at this kind of thinking because for one thing it’s obvious that the arts sector creates jobs.  I mean what sector doesn’t?

Literally everything we humans do creates jobs. From watching television, to drinking beer, to shooting off guns in the woods, to shooting guns at your television while drinking beer in the woods, (just to name a few of my favorites,)  there simply isn’t a human activity that doesn’t create jobs.  And yet artists are asked to justify our existence based on how many jobs we create?  It’s a stupid and insulting thing to ask us to do and it’s misses the entire point.  To reduce art and the people who make it to jobs created is so woefully off base that I don’t even know where to begin.

Do I point out that creating art is actually part of what makes us human?  That art helps us to see the world through another person’s point of view?  That being viscerally reminded on a regular basis that we don’t exist in a solipsistic universe is a good thing? Do I point out the lifeline that the arts give troubled kids? Or that creativity helps us realize that the world can change and that we can change it?

In the same vein it pains me to hear people talk about the economic benefits that immigrants bring. Again I feel it should be obvious and again I feel that it’s missing the point.  Even a child can tell you that a closed system will lead to decay no matter how large the system may be.  Close it off, add time and you will get decay.  That’s self-evident but beyond that there is the question of morality. Is it right to turn desperate people away?  Is it right to send people back to a country where horrible things will almost certainly happen to them?  Is it right to want prosperity for ourselves and our loved ones and not for others?  Is it right for our ancestors to take advantage of America’s formerly generous approach to immigration but then, once safely settled, to slam the door shut?

I’ve been stunned lately by the fervor of the anti-immigration sentiment.  I get that it’s driven by fear but what makes them think they have an exclusive right to fear?  We all feel fear. Like the impulse to create, it’s part of what makes us human.  Everyone reading this has worried about death, illness, money,  loved ones or the general uncertainty of life.  Honestly when you think about it, it’s crazy that we have no control over how and where we’re born, into what body we’re born and how long we live.  It’s a haphazard way to run a universe if you ask me, but that’s the deal.  There are no guarantees.

But there is humanity and that idea transcends any one individual.  Being a conscious being is a moral responsibility. Unless you’re a sociopath you believe that we have a responsibility to help each other.  And yes it’s true that we could do a kind deed to someone and they could murder us in return. It’s true that we could let refugees into this country and terrorists could hide among them. It’s also true that we could turn them away, give into fear and then, finding that we’re still fearful, drive others away and turn on ourselves.  Fear isn’t an itch you can scratch. Give into it and it becomes your reality.

Forget about fake news, alternative facts and post truth.  Don’t believe anyone who tells you that it’s impossible to know what’s right or wrong anymore. Right and wrong still exist and helping people in desperate circumstances is right.  Seeing the humanity in all people is right.  Sharing prosperity is right. The universe is a dangerous place and there are no guarantees.  We will grow old, get sick and die. But we can live with dignity and we can uphold the highest standards of what it means to be human.  Not because it creates jobs. Because it’s right.

May 5, 2018
Posted by Seth Boustead

I’ve finally gotten around to reading some of Richard Hell’s essays and I have to say that he’s a hell of a writer, ha.  Sorry, I couldn’t help it but I promise not to make it worse by asking you to excuse the pun because, well, it’s not a pun.

Anyway, one of the interesting things about Richard Hell is that he started out as a poet but started the Voidoids because as he says, “it sounds obnoxious but I wanted to influence the culture and there’s maybe two poets per generation who get to do that.”

This is interesting to me because my contention lo these many years has been the opposite, that we can change the culture over time so that it is more conducive to the creation and appreciation of things like poetry and, oh I don’t know, let’s say contemporary classical music.

I was having a very nice rye whiskey with my visiting guests from Mexico recently at a bar in Manhattan called Brandy Library, a gorgeously appointed room replete with bookshelves that, instead of books, were jam-packed with exotic whiskey bottles, and we started talking about this very thing.

Having produced concerts in both Mexico and the U.S. I was saying that what I find most interesting about playing and programming music in the U.S. is that people always tell me how glad they are that they came.  No one says this in the other countries in which I’ve worked.

But here they say it because they know that it was a close thing. They almost stayed home and watched Netflix but they made the game-time decision to go to the concert and once they were there they were so glad they got out of the house.

It’s interesting to me because no one says this after they see a movie, like, oh I’m so glad I managed to get my butt off the couch to see the new Avengers movie tonight.  This is partly because seeing the new Avengers movie was never in doubt and partly because we’ve normalized going to see blockbuster movies to such an extent that people do it without even thinking and often without even enjoying the experience.

With respect to Richard Hell though, I would say that the answer isn’t for all of us in the arts to form legendary punk bands, develop a drug habit, lose a couple of decades, clean up and become respected elder statesman writers, as interesting as that would be. I think there’s another way.

As I sipped my whiskey the other night I couldn’t help but think about Budweiser.  Partly as a joke like what would the sommelier, (yes there was a whiskey sommelier,) say if I ordered a Budweiser with a straight face. But also thinking about what they’ve been able to do with advertising.

I mean they’ve conditioned millions of people to drink Bud Light despite the fact that it’s objectively a bad product.  Just like Hollywood has conditioned us to go see the latest blockbuster even though at least half of them are mediocre CGI fests.

Since I’ve often seen firsthand that people in this country thank us for the experience that we artists provide, which is our product, my question is how do we condition people to go out and hear unfamiliar music, attend poetry readings, check out the latest opera and beat a well-worn path to the doors of their local storefront theater?

The answer is advertising dollars and a mascot.  I’m thinking some kind of Spuds Mackenzie-esque arts dog.  Or maybe Culture the Vulture?  Parrot Lunaire? Buff McPoetson?   Clearly this will need more thought.  Perhaps we should meet at the Brandy Library for a brainstorming session?

April 4, 2018
Posted by Seth Boustead

pandora2

Spring is the time for snow, rain, miserable cold and a complete lack of sun, or so it seems this year. It’s also the time for renewal in every culture of the world, some kind of cynical hope that things are actually getting better despite the fact that there’s snow in April which just shouldn’t happen.

Speaking of hope, in Greek mythology humans were created by the Titans, those forebears of Zeus and the gang who are still mainly archetypal but are just starting to exhibit anthropomorphic characteristics like, well, stupidity.  I’m thinking especially of Epimetheus, the Titan charged with handing out positive traits to animals and humans alike.

His name means afterthought and he’s portrayed as a sort of Harpo Marx-esque bumbler who can’t do anything right, isn’t funny and can’t even play the harp.  Just the person, or immortal, to entrust with such a task!   So of course he screws it up.  He goes around handing out positive traits to the animals, you know, things like having a warm pelt, the ability to chew a cud and I don’t know, lightfootedness or something.

But he hands them all out and forgets to give anything to humans. Idiot!  So his brother Prometheus (forethought) has to intervene and give us fire and civilization for which he will later be punished by Zeus and have to hang chained to a rock while a vicious, pate loving vulture eats his liver every single day until Hercules finally rescues him.

And then, as if this this weren’t bad enough, Epimetheus goes and marries Pandora who opens a certain box containing all the evils of humanity including plagues, disease, famine and Adam Sandler movies.  The only good thing in the box was, you guessed it, hope which springs eternal but really only serves to prolong the misery of it all.

Ok, so it’s not warm and apparently won’t be for some time but on the bright side I’ve got fire and civilization and a vulture is not currently eating my liver, although the bottles of mezcal I brought back from Mexico may do the job just as well. Still, I’m not chained to a rock so that’s something. Although, now that I think about it, that’s probably just hope talking. Insidious hope.

March 4, 2018
Posted by Seth Boustead

I’m sitting at the international terminal at JFK whiling away the time with a newspaper and, so far at least, all of the articles that aren’t about Trump are about the Oscars, which is sort of like our national divide in miniature isn’t it?

I’m at the international terminal because I like to come here to watch people happily reunite to remind me that love actually exists. No, that’s a movie, plus I’m in the departures terminal and though I’m sure the people around me love someone, they’re mercifully not showing it at the moment though many of them are watching videos on their phones with the sound on and no earbuds.

Which is just rude.  How can you find love if you don’t even respect the people around you?  I mean do you really think I want to hear Love Actually? And why are you watching a Christmas movie in March?  Oh wait, it’s not Love Actually, it’s that other one with Hugh Grant where he owns a bookstore and meets that famous film star Julia Roberts. Notting Hill, that’s it.

So now here’s Notting Hill bleeding into my newsletter when I meant to be writing something poignant about our national divide and all because she can’t be bothered to use earbuds.  I should sit next to her and read my newspaper out loud in retaliation.

This movie is so unrealistic.  He spills orange juice on her and they kiss? I spill orange juice on people all the time and it’s never once led to a kiss. And yeah, I’m not Hugh Grant but still, we’re talking about gallons of spilled juice here. You know, over a period of many years, not all at once. How would you even pretend that was an accident?

Anyway, the thing about the Oscars and Trump is that both hold up a mirror to our society.  Hollywood tries very hard not to make films that don’t already have a demand. As Kumail Nanijani said last night they “do it because you get rich, right?”   So we know that celebration of diversity is in the air.

But it’s undeniably true that Trump’s societal mirror is just as accurate a portrayal of what’s in the air and it’s the polar opposite. The question now is whether we really are two societies as it seems we’re becoming or have been all along or if, like the characters in Notting Hill appear to be doing, we can put aside our differences and make it work.

Oh wait, what’s this??  She has a boyfriend?!?!  Ugh, guess we’re doomed.

Ooh, they’re boarding my zone.  I’m off to Mexico!

February 2, 2018
Posted by Seth Boustead

bannonI spent a recent weekend afternoon, yesterday afternoon if you must know, on the couch watching basketball with the sound off while listening to the audio book version of Fire and Fury.  I was watching the Houston Rockets light up the San Antonio Spurs while the narrator, a marvelously deadpan Holter Graham, shared the inner workings of what appears to be the most dysfunctional White House administration in modern history.

It was about midway through the second quarter, I remember because James Harden had just finally missed his first shot of the game, when I heard that one of Steve Bannon’s many pre-Breitbart jobs was running Biosphere 2, an experiment to see if humans could live in a completely closed system for two years as a prelude to colonizing other planets once we’ve finished making the one we currently live on uninhabitable.

This was in the early ’90’s and it was a complete disaster, largely because of cost overruns and extensive litigation by two former biospherians who had a long-running dispute with Bannon.  The cost overruns, by the way, were probably because they built the thing, out of glass mind you, in the Arizona desert and cooling it cost more than a million dollars a month which, you know, maybe there was a better way to have done that.

Anyway, as it happens, I’m a bit more than halfway through T.C. Boyle’s latest novel, the Terranauts, a fictionalized account of this very same Biosphere project and I actually sat up from my slumped position and said aloud to no one, “what a strange coincidence.”

Of course the Biosphere program is well known because of that critical darling of a Pauly Shore movie which used rapier wit to unearth the sublimated Freudian return-to-the-womb desires inherent in the project and couple them with razor sharp dialogue revealing the human condition in all its tragic grandeur.

Or was that a different movie?

Anyway, I sat there thinking of rumpled Bannon overseeing a sterile 3-acre glass ecosphere in the desert, barely watching as Houston continued to eviscerate San Antonio, and wondered if maybe this wasn’t the way of the future after all?

Maybe Steve Bannon and Pauly Shore have it right.  What if we all had our own ecospheres?  There could be artificial environments tailor-made for conservatives, liberals, foodies, early music people, consumers of Tide pods, lovers of Pauly Shore movies, you name it.

We’re heading there anyway so we should get a jump on it.  As for me, having spent so many idyllic childhood summers in Lord of the Flies camp well, I’ll be fine in any of them.

January 3, 2018
Posted by Seth Boustead
As the snow tumbles down none too gently outside my window and the wind howls and the air is full of the sound of cars over-revving their engines, trying desperately to get unstuck like Billy Pilgrim, I am happy to be safe, warm and in a comfortable room with a piano.  Though I do wish the landlord would shovel the walk soon because I’m thinking of going out for a slice.

I mean I could do it myself but I’m a renter here and it’s not really my job. Plus I’m not totally sure where the shovel is and, anyway, I’m not sure I want that slice anymore.  What I’d really like to do is become unstuck in time and listen to music the way I used to.  At one time I actually had a stereo with actual speakers and it sounded great.

I would play Mahler and Shostakovich and Camper Van Beethoven at full volume and sit in the middle of the room and let it wash over me.  I could probably do that here.  I’m just a lowly renter after all, no one expects much of me.  But I don’t have the actual gear. I don’t have a stereo anymore. Or a record player.  I have a Sonos box and I have a computer with headphones.

And yes, headphones are nice but it’s not the same thing.  In Montreal recently I went to the Leonard Cohen exhibit and my favorite part was a listening room where we all sat in bean bag chairs in a room with speakers everywhere. You could feel the music in your bones.  It was wonderful.

I’ve become obsessed with the idea of recreating this room in a public space where people could gather and listen to music the way we used to before we foolishly threw away our stereos.  I keep thinking of that sensation of music in my bones and how thrilling it was.

A public space where we could sit and listen to music together could be deeply therapeutic.  In the Leonard Cohen room we couldn’t control what we listened to and I think that’s key.  That last thing you want is people fighting over what to listen to or someone coming in and playing like nine Meatloaf songs in a row. Or even one for that matter.  If there’s a musician anywhere in the world who can incite me to instant rage it’s Meatloaf.  Although Garth Brooks is right behind him.

At any rate, the idea is less about the aesthetic and more about feeling the music vibrate in your body which used to be the only way we listened.  The experience of listening to recorded music is sadly much degraded these days, what with earbuds, faulty connectivity and compression.  Not to mention that people don’t just sit and listen to music anymore  but maybe they would if it sounded better.

Of course I should probably just get a stereo and try it out here in my room and then work my way up to opening a public listening space with state of the art sound later.  Yes, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll get started on it as soon as the landlord shovels the walk.  And I might grab that slice after all.

December 2, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

Every year our building management pays for an exterminator to come out and every year I think I’m going to remember to opt out and I forget and so this morning as I lounged around in my pajamas I was awakened by two gentlemen from a company called, and you can’t make this up, Absolute Death.  I was literally awakened this morning by death.

I was hoping they would act kind of like Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd from the Bond movie Diamonds are Forever, but they didn’t.  They just acted like exterminators.

f1880fb0-eb62-4713-83bf-fdfc56d16a77Remember these guys?   They were the well-mannered, almost Victorian, gentlemen who were also vicious killers but who, like every Bond villain, had to express their murderous desires in elaborate, easily-foiled plots instead of something simple like a glue trap.

Why has no one ever thought to ensnare Bond in a giant glue trap? That would be hilarious.  You could trick him into using a men’s room with a floor made of glue. It’s so simple!
At any rate Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd are archetypes of the old evil duo trope.  They show up as Croup and Vandemar in Neil Gaiman, as Big Boy and Junior in Haruki Murakami, the Duke and the King in Mark Twain and too many more to list.

They are well-mannered for the most part, often one is skinny and the other is fat, they address each other with exaggerated courtesy, they travel about effortlessly and often appear from nowhere, and they exist in a moral realm entirely their own. They can be hired or set to work toward a momentary purpose but for the most part they exist as a generalized destructive principle.

And they’re having their moment now. As I look back on the year that’s almost past I can’t help but think of it primarily as a year of destruction. Some of the things we’re destroying I’m sad to see go like democracy.  But some of the things we’re destroying are way overdue like a male-dominated system that institutionally treats women as inferiors. I’m happy to see that go.

Anger is dominant at this moment, on all sides. We’re destroying indiscriminately and, down the road, will definitely miss some of the things we’ve destroyed.  But thinking in terms of archetypes and cycles helps me process it.  This is a time of destruction but, assuming we don’t all die in a nuclear war, it will give way to a time of building.

Destructive cycles in history are always followed by building cycles. It’s just that you usually have a couple hundred years of squalor in between. But, this being the speedy tech age and all, I’m optimistic we can get that down to a couple of decades.

I was awakened this morning by death but hopefully tomorrow I’ll be awakened by something more positive like an alarm clock or just a burning need to pee. Meaning, I suppose, that what I crave above all in the new year is normalcy. We’ll see how that goes…

November 2, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

Last Sunday was the five-year anniversary of my mother’s death. I think of her every day but especially at this time of year.  I wish I could call her, tell her all the things that are happening to me, talk about the weather, talk about anything.

And I wish I could do some of the things that I promised her I’d do, like write a piece for her.  She never really understood the contemporary classical music field but nonetheless she always wanted me to write her a piece and call it Song For My Mother. She bugged me about this for years but it was an impossible task.

First of all we had wildly different taste in music. Every time she came to a concert on which I had a piece she would say “why can’t you write something nice and tonal?”  I would get furious and start sputtering like Napoleon Dynamite.  It is tonal music mother!!  My music is tonal!  God!  Then I would pull a tater tot out of my pocket and chew it petulantly.

Well, no. But seriously I never wrote the piece because I thought it would either have had to have been some kind of Billy Joel-esque “classical” piece complete with an Alberti bass line or else a quasi-romantic Nocturne or some other thing I didn’t feel well-equipped to write and also because, though it’s only all these years later that I’m realizing it, I just wasn’t emotionally up to it.

I remember trying to think of specific musical ideas and always feeling overwhelmed before I even started.  Shortly after she died though I was asked to be part of a musical celebration for the 100th anniversary of Poetry Magazine.  The composers would choose poems published in the magazine to set to music for a performance in their gorgeous center in Chicago.

Needless to say a hundred years of poetry is a lot to go through in search of one poem that moves you.  I spent several days on their website reading and reading until I found a poem by Laura Kasischke called simply Game.  I read it several times over and was stunned at how powerfully it conveyed what I was feeling.

Composing is often difficult for me but I set this poem very quickly, in just two days.  Then for good measure I set two other poems by Kasischke, one about perspective and the other about a woman feeling strong after a breakup.  But Game remains my favorite.

The piece was sung in performance by Alison Wahl with the Chicago Q Ensemble and they did a marvelous job.  Unfortunately I doubt my mother would have liked it, at least musically.  Though it’s tonal, solidly in Eb Major throughout, it’s nonetheless a complicated tonality, wistful and rhythmically restless.  Not at all to her taste.

But then again, I’m not totally sure I knew her taste after all.  Lately I’m haunted by the realization that I never really knew her, that it was in fact impossible to truly see her as an independent person while she lived.  That’s the other thing that five years has brought, a sense of perspective.  It occurs to me now that I could have written anything and she would have been happy but somehow I couldn’t do it until she was gone.
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