The Operating System

Bryce Dessner’s #BLACKMOUNTAINSONGS for the BROOKLYN YOUTH CHORUS :: #THEKIDSAREALRIGHT

 “Today the arts exist in isolation, from which they can be rescued only through the conscious, cooperative effort of all craftsmen.” – Walter Gropius, 1919, Bauhaus Manifesto and Program

“All the interviewing of former students and faculty are but shallow reminders, dim reflections. It is too bad, and may seem unfair, but so Black Mountain was, and if you weren’t there, you will never know, or understand. Unless you create it. That’s the catch. If you never were there, you’ll have to create it.” – Fielding Dawson

Over the course of the last few years, our internet culture has been treated to videos from Kid President, watched Ted Talks from impressively articulate young people on everything from the economy to the environment and back, and gotten a little emotional when 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize.

And earlier this week, you may have seen an article that’s been much ballyhooed on the interwebs, wherein Will and Jada Smith’s precocious, bred-in-the-spotlight children (Jaden and Willow) spoke freely on their opinions about the dangers of traditional schooling, prana energy, and the central importance of freewheeling, collaborative, creative process in the education of a human, among other things.

So what? Well — we’re living in a time that many would describe as one of social and ecological crisis. One that has caused many people who grew up trained for, and believing in, certain systems and ways of life to question everything about what we thought we knew. Pair this with a time of unprecedented access (though sadly still globally grossly unequal) to technology, and through that, to each other, and we find ourselves somewhere extraordinarily fertile for change…particularly in the hands of young people, who have grown up around parents, schools, (and environment overall) in the throes of existential crisis.

While of course we can find substantive evidence, if we choose, for the negative impacts of this situation, in this environment of instability, I choose to see the evidence of the opposite — of chaos within us, as within nature, being the catalyst for real and substantive change, beginning with the critical formation of the self.

If you search for the twitter hashtag, #thekidsarealright, you’ll find that many (including myself) have reappropriated this familiar phrase to highlight instances of awesome featuring our younger generations on a daily basis. It’s pretty heartwarming stuff, even for the most committed cynics.

In the past years, I’ve been graced with the opportunity to see two youth ensembles based in New York City whose young members exemplify the spirit of which I speak: Face the Music, the new music dedicated program based at Lucy Moses School / Kaufman Music Center, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, a non profit organization that has grown from its humble origins of 45 students in a donated space in Brooklyn in the early 1990’s into a grammy winning ensemble supporting over 400 young people from all backgrounds, performing with a huge number of notable musicians in world-class venues.

This weekend, you’ll find the Brooklyn Youth Chorus performing “Black Mountain Songs,” a co-commission from BYC and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, an expansive choral and visual work created and curated by The National’s Bryce Dessner that celebrates and rekindles the utopian spirit of North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, where John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and others forged new creative directions in the 1940s and 50s.

If you’re a contemporary composition nerd, like we are at The Operating System, you might be excited to learn about this performance simply because it includes new work from the likes of Jherek Bischoff, Dessner, Tim Hecker, John King, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry, Caroline Shaw, and Aleksandra Vrebalov… even if you weren’t familiar with the history of Black Mountain College.

But if you were not only a contemporary composition nerd, but also a poet, a publisher of poetry, a visual artist and curator, who works with composers and choreographers and conceptual artists, who has a background in architecture and urban planning, who found themselves having a cry on the original campus of the Bauhaus earlier this year so emotional was she about the interdisciplinary, freethinking, revolutionary promise of this school, and around the utopian ideals of which both Black Mountain and the very magazine you are reading right now were founded, you might be feeling pretty excited about not only this collaboration, but what it represents: a suggestion that this is a fertile time in which the spirit of the Bauhaus and Black Mountain are alive and well, and finding their footing in interdisciplinary works such as these, which not only serve as sites of performance but of teaching and learning across generations.

In speaking about the show, Dessner quotes writer and artist Fielding Dawson, who studied at Black Mountain, as saying that “all the interviewing of former students and faculty are but shallow reminders, dim reflections,” of the school, a situation that is “too bad, and may seem unfair, but so Black Mountain was, and if you weren’t there, you will never know, or understand. Unless you create it. That’s the catch. If you never were there, you’ll have to create it.”

I’m happy to say that Dawson, were he alive, would find the Black Mountain Spirit alive and well in Black Mountain Songs, for which the composers drew substantially on the history of the institution, particularly from the work of the Black Mountain Poets — and that both the Chorus and the composers worked closely with the very alive alumni of Black Mountain, including writer/painter Basil King (who will serve as narrator for the performances) and his wife, Martha Winston King as the work developed over a three year period.

Dessner’s idea for this particular work was “born out of a more recent exploration of the hugely influential Black Mountain Poets, like Robert Creeley and Charles Olson (also the last rector of the College),” though his original idea of setting poems by these poets “expanded to embrace the ethos of community and collaboration which was so essential to the college,” drawing on “the spirit of learning through doing and emphasis on self-exploration for both teachers and students” as a “vehicle to create a collaborative work that would be meaningful to both the young singers of the chorus, as well as the creative community of composers and artists who we embraced for the project.”

In line with the creatively expansive nature of Black Mountain, Dessner took a page from that diversity — allowing each composer and collaborator to explore the ideas and characters of the place on their own. The music was written over a three-year period and commissions were rolled out on different timelines, allowing the team to “steer artists towards exploring different ideas and texts based on what others already covered,” a process that still, based on the institutions great reach, touching on “only a fraction of the vast community of the college.” In the end, the songs and narration woven throughout the show set texts or ideas from John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Josef and Anni Albers, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Duncan, Fielding Dawson (including a song set in Franz Kline’s studio), Ruth Asawa (who inspired the stage design), Basil King, and MC Richards.

“When any of us meet someone who rejects dominant norms and values, we feel a little less crazy for doing the same. Any act of rebellion or non-participation, even on a very small scale, is therefore a political act.”
Charles Eisenstein, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible 

I spoke to Basil and Martha King about the piece and their involvement therein, and my hopes for the show were affirmed immediately in their enthusiastic responses. In particular, it’s important to note Basil’s pleasure in reporting how genuinely respectful — and in the spirit of Black Mountain — the very collaborative process between the chorus members, chorus director and founder Diane Berkun, Dessner, and the composers has been from the outset.

I asked Basil why and how this piece represents an important continuation of the spirit of Black Mountain he replied, “It is so important because the composers, the musicians, have a real understanding of the poetry, of Olson, Creeley, Fielding Dawson, Duncan, MC Richards. They don’t plagiarize and they aren’t sentimental.”

In addition, he stressed how the environment of this particular chorus is unique, creating a space of real understanding and appreciation for the work, rather than simply its perfect replication in performance. King explains how “Diane Berkun has the kids in chorus focus on the language,” within the source poems, taking time to explains and contextualize the work when it isn’t understood.

It’s important, he continues, “because so many of these kids paint, take music lessons, because they sing and want to do art; because their spirit is exactly the kind that existed in Albers time, in Olson’s time. Albers wanted you to learn to see. Olson wanted you to learn to hear.  And in that way, the kids are getting a huge dose of BMC.”

It would not be an exaggeration to say that my own dose of Black Mountain (whose light is tended with great care at the Graduate Center of CUNY under the watchful, generous eye of Ammiel Alcalay) was the impetus that drove the foundation of this organization and its mission — to empower creators from all disciplines to find sustainable, collaborative practice and new, utopian, visions of community structure. Not only the artistic, but also the life decisions of Charles Olson, in particular — first eschewing traditional academic language and study, and then a post at the Office of War Information, waging wars of self-and-cultural-knowledge on the battleground of language.

Olson said: “It comes to this: the use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature. . . . If he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share. And by an inverse law his shapes will make their own way. . . . This is not easy. Nature works from reverence, even in her destructions (species go down with a crash). But breath is man’s special qualification as animal. Sound is a dimension he has extended. Language is one of his proudest acts. . . . I keep thinking, it comes to this: culture displacing the state.”

“these kids paint, take music lessons, because they sing and want to do art; because their spirit is exactly the kind that existed in Albers time, in Olson’s time. Albers wanted you to learn to see. Olson wanted you to learn to hear.  And in that way, the kids are getting a huge dose of BMC.” – Basil King 

Is it possible that via language, via sound…via acts of creative, collaborative output, that we create space for not only interpersonal but political action? I certainly think so. And when we, and our young people, are exposed and encouraged in the spirit of Black Mountain, we build a culture of resistance.  In his book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, Charles Eisenstein writes that “when any of us meet someone who rejects dominant norms and values, we feel a little less crazy for doing the same. Any act of rebellion or non-participation, even on a very small scale, is therefore a political act.” And so, maybe in this time of the Keystone Pipeline, Obamacare, and the fear of impending environmental disaster, performances like Black Mountain Songs are more important than ever.

Please join us this weekend, and encourage others you know to do the same.

I’ll leave you now with some poetry, appropriately, the last words Basil King will speak at the performance this weekend, from his book Learning to Draw / A History (Skylight Press, 2011)

Oh, Black Mountain, wonderful place, desperate place. I was blown to where light abstracts the smallest thing, into the core of a vernacular, into the heart of the abstract. No wind but the stillness blows me, no reason; no existence blows the shapes that have lost their edges. Oh, Black Mountain, wonderful place, desperate place. Blow your feathers and your worms. Your mulch protrudes the surface. Your bravery blows forgiveness. Your anger blows freedom. Oh, Black Mountain, wonderful place, desperate place. I was blown to where light abstracts the smallest thing, into the core of a vernacular, into the heart of the abstract. No wind but the stillness blows me, no reason; no existence blows the shapes that have lost their edges.

BLACK MOUNTAIN SONGS
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theatre
November 20-23, 2014
Part of the Next Wave Festival
Tickets start at $20

Performed by Brooklyn Youth Chorus
Choral director and conductor Dianne Berkun-Menaker
Created by Bryce Dessner
Co-curated by Bryce Dessner & Richard Reed Parry
Directed by Maureen Towey
Music by Jherek Bischoff, Bryce Dessner, Tim Hecker, John King, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry, Caroline Shaw, and Aleksandra Vrebalov
Choreographed by Jenny Shore Butler

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