I was wrong in 1988. Bob Dylan Matters. OK?

So, in 1988, I was sitting in Broadway Pizza eating pizza and talking with some friends of mine who both happened to be named Dave. We were all people who cared a lot about music. I mean, a lot. We were the sort of people who went to record conventions to buy bootleg recordings of stuff, we spent hundreds of dollars collecting Japanese imports of, you know, whatever we were into. We were whack jobs. I worked at Cutler's Records, in those days. The subject of Bob Dylan came up. He had a new album out, and the Daves weren't drooling to get their hands on it, but they were saying things like, "yeah, I gotta get the new Dylan, I'll pick it up this weekend." And I snorted, "Bob Dylan is irrelevant."

This led to one of the biggest arguments about music I think I've ever had, and the Daves and I still talk about it today, when I run into them. Which isn't often, but this is New Haven, so, you know, it happens, now and then.

We laugh about it.

Dylan has proven to be important to a lot of people for longer than I could possibly have imagined, back then in June of 1988. Now, I personally still don't care much. I had a phase when I really enjoyed The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and thanks to a college roommate who was obsessed with Blood on the Tracks, I came to really love that album too. But otherwise? I have to admit I don't really give a hoot.

Here's what I give a hoot about: Donald Brown's book about Bob Dylan. The Institute Library is hosting a book release party this week. Come on down. Maybe get the book. Here's why you should do this: because you know -- if you're a reader of the NHR's site -- Don is a smart guy. He's got a good sense of humor (something I find many Dylan types sorely lack). He's a really good writer. And... it's coming toward the end of May, and you need to get out more.

I'll see you there. I'll be the woman standing around arguing heatedly with whoever will listen, insisting that for my money, Lou Reed is more interesting than Dylan...

Here's the NHR / Institute Library site for reserving a spot.

And here's the amazon listing for the book, which already has some good review! (The book will be on sale at the party, slightly cheaper than on amazon.)


Life During Wartime: a new program from Cantata Profana

Last spring, I was quite impressed by members of Cantata Profana in performance of the challenging score of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in a dramatic staging of that work directed by Ethan Heard at Yale Cabaret. This weekend, Cantata Profana is back with a new program, “The Rest of the World at War: Germany—America—1942,” which their press release describes as “both a deep reflection on the War and a comedy show for music nerds.” Artistic Director Jacob Ashworth says that the idea for the program began with the Richard Strauss sextet that opens his last opera Capriccio. Written in 1942, in wartime Berlin, the work is striking, as Ashworth sees it, for its lack of engagement with a world at war. Six characters in a salon debate “which is more important in opera: music or words.” The opera's opening is “decadent and irresponsible,” Ashworth says, “for someone in such a highly influential position.” In his 70s, Strauss seems to have chosen to detach his music from any real world relevance. Praising the work as “stunningly beautiful,” Ashworth wanted to find companion pieces that would help create an artistic and historical context for Strauss’ preference for aesthetic contemplation over engagement with the times.

Last year Cantata Profana performed a program as a centennial celebration for works composed in 1913. Though 1942, as a year, is not as directly related to 2014, Ashworth chose other works from the period when the U.S. entered the war as companion pieces with the Capriccio sextet. Bookending the program is a work by the avant-garde composer Arthur Schoenberg who, in 1942, was 10 years younger than Strauss when he wrote Ode to Napoleon, a work which uses lines from a poem written by Lord Byron in 1814 to characterize the fall of the world-dominating “tyrant,” and references Austria—later, the birthplace of Hitler—while addressing Napoleon in an interesting fashion: “Must she too bend, must she too share / Thy late repentance, long despair, / Thou throneless Homicide?”

Other works chosen for the program offer contrasts to the German romanticism and modernism of Strauss and Schoenberg. Elliott Carter, the long-lived American composer who died recently in 2012, at age 103, was influenced by Stravinsky and created avant-garde works but, Ashworth says, often forgotten are his earlier forays into Copland-like Americana such as The Defense of Corinth, a piece for a speaker, a male chorus and piano, four hands. The choral work is highly comedic, according to Ashworth, in its evocation of the preparations for war by the town of Corinth, as described by Rabelais in the Prologue to Book III of Pantagruel. Carter’s score suggests the sound effects of martial preparations as well as the useless activity of the philosopher Diogenes who joins in the busy activities by engaging in the Sisyphean labor of repeatedly hauling an empty tub up a mountain and letting it clatter down. In 1941, when the piece was written, the U.S. had not yet entered the war and Carter’s piece could be a look askance at the war mania throughout the world or a prescient glance ahead to the war effort that would soon occupy the U.S. after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of that year.

John Cage, the youngest of the composers on the program, was only 30 in 1942 and his Credo in Us was written that year in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Cage approaches his piece in what Ashworth describes as “a very slippery” manner. On the one hand, it is “a love letter” to his partner Merce Cunningham who devised dance to go with portions of the piece, so that “Us” is Cage and Cunningham, but, on the other hand, “Us” is the U.S. and the piece, with its use of classical phonograph recordings, the radio, boogie woogie, percussion including tom toms, could be said to be a microcosm of the soundscapes available at the fatal moment when the war in Europe became truly a “world” war with the East attacking the West.

Founded in 2013 by students at the Yale School of Music and the Institute for Sacred Music, Cantata Profana is an ensemble comprised of a dedicated group of players, with a flexible arrangement for additions and collaborations, "able to combine anything from duos to chamber operas in one evening.” The group has been praised in the New York Times for their ability to encompass a range of musical periods and styles in their performances. Often choosing works that have a strong narrative or descriptive component, Ashworth sees the future of the group as based on greater merging of music and theatrical ventures; one such venture is collaboration with the newly formed Heartbeat Opera company, which involves working with Ethan Heard and Louisa Proske, both alums of the Yale School of Drama, whose work in musical theatricals has been noted here: Pierrot Lunaire and La Voix Humaine. Ashworth and other company members of Cantata Profana will act as “pitband” for Heartbeat in their upcoming workshop presentation of Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins, which, Cantata Profana hopes, “will be the beginning of a long-standing relationship.”

The 1942 program will be performed this Saturday, May 10, at Trinity Lutheran Church on Orange and Wall Streets in New Haven, and on Sunday, May 11, in Brooklyn.

THE REST OF THE WORLD AT WAR: GERMANY - AMERICA – 1942 R. Strauss, Sextet from Capriccio; Elliott Carter, The Defense of Corinth; John Cage, Credo in US; Schoenberg, Ode to Napoleon (featuring John Taylor Ward)

Saturday, May 10, 8:00pm at Trinity Lutheran Church in New Haven Sunday, May 11, 8:00pm at 22 Boerum Place in Brooklyn



From an Editor’s Desk: It’s Not Who You Know…Really It Isn’t

As music editor for Rowman and Littlefield, I receive any number of proposals for memoirs from musicians that tell not so much their story as that of the musical luminaries with whom they worked. Unfortunately, the aura of fame often extends only as far as the actual celebrity. As I wrote one agent regarding a possible book by a temporary drummer for a once famous act:

I know the uphill battle you will be facing when pitching a book of this sort, which I commonly refer to as the “memoir of the greatest sideman you've never heard of.” It’s tough to place books about the near famous rather than the famous. As Mel Brooks once quipped: “There are two types of people in this world: the famous and the near famous. The famous are just what you’d expect—president, popes, Hollywood stars. The near famous are those who want to be near the famous.”


Not long before this proposal, I had received another from a prospective author that was to be brazenly titled Confessions of a Shameless Name-dropper. Unlike other memoirists who try to sneak this stuff by, this author was refreshingly open about the matter, and even though I had to credit him with his bravado, I had to school him in the realities of the market (which he took with remarkable grace). Here’s what I wrote:

Since I handle lots of music titles—and of all sorts, including memoirs of the type you’re proposing—I wanted to follow up. I tend toward the brutally honest, so, as I warn some of my authors, put on your elephant skin. Here we go…

You are not the first and not by any means the last author who has proposed a book about his adventures in the music business and the many great names with whom he may have worked. The problem is a simple one: names of note in a book do not translate into sales when the book itself is not written by one of those noted names. Even forewords and endorsements by “big” names are no substitute for the real deal. A book about one’s working relationship with Renee Fleming or Mick Jagger is simply not the same as a book by either one of them.

The net result is that these titles don’t ever do nearly as well as their authors predict. Sometimes they don’t even do as well as we predict—and we at least have access to good sales data about this kind of thing.

The bad news is that star-power-by-association is a bit of a myth, and unless you are one of those rare behind-the-scenes individuals who made those stars into stars rather than just someone who worked alongside them—think Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records or Motown producer Berry Gordy—a book documenting one’s musical career through the great artists whose paths crossed yours is a tough sell.

I should note that this isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions. But those exceptions are few and far between. If the story told is so compelling or uniquely wrought that the work shines almost in spite of the name-dropping, a book editor might sign on. But in that case the sign-on is not to the dropped names but the literary quality of the work itself.

Of course, another possible approach is if the book editor not only thinks the story compelling enough to publish but also believes that real marketing muscle (and real editorial attention) will overcome possible lack of interest. In this scenario the book is, you might say, forced upon the public by being oversold or sensationalized. A case in point is Chicago Review Press’s publication in 2005 of I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. Following in the wake of this sexual tell-all, which CRP managed to get behind well enough, author Pamela des Barres was able to write a follow-up and even publish an anthology of confessions from other groupies.

But, my, my, how quickly this kind of self-pumping confessional—groupies as muses…really?—ages when you look at how autobiographies of this ilk now clutter the world of the self-published. After Warren Zevon’s wife, Crystal, published her tell-all—since we now swim in a sea of spousal memoirs that are hardly better than shoulder-rubbing memoirs (or more than shoulders, if you opt to work from des Barres’ playbook)—it is not surprising that there should follow a self-published confessional, too, about Zevon’s illegitimate child with Rae Murphy or Anita Gevinson’s self-published expose of rock stars she bedded (most prominently…Warren Zevon).

A great deal more could be written about the sociocultural pressures to take advantage of celebrity. After all, there are any number of so-called celebrities whose only real talent is their ability to celebritize (yeah, I made that word up), from Paris Hilton to the Kardashians to the reality TV personalities who will then reappear on Dancing with the Stars. Because celebrity is now so cheaply bought on cable and online, it had created the illusion that there is, in fact, an audience of readers who want to know about the people who knew famous people. And there might be: for free. But a paying audience?  That’s a different matter, and it’s where I, as a book editor, often draw the line.

Poetry. Performance. Party.

Mario Biagini is a man who believes in the power of the word—spoken, recited, sung.  As a performer and director he has brought together 9 performers—musicians, singers, actors—to travel to Yale and New Haven as part of Interdisciplinary Performance Studies at Yale (IPSY).  Biagini’s group, originating in the Open Program of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, pride themselves on a collective approach to performance that aims to include its audience, creating an environment that feels like “a holiday, a relaxation” of our routine responses.

While in New Haven, the troupe will perform a show called Electric Party Songs, twice at Yale’s Calhoun College, Feb. 22 and 23, and, in a more extended version, at BAR, March 3—the latter show is billed as “an experiment in the potentialities of a party as an art form.”  If your winter has been as low on energy as mine, you too might find yourself intrigued by that idea.

The troupe will also perform I Am America at the Whitney Theater in the Whitney Humanities Center, with a set built by children at the Eli Whitney Museum, Feb. 28 and March 1, and will hold a symposium on Poetry as a Practice of Encounter, also at the WHC, on March 2.

The Open Program likes to include the contribution of locals in their shows, using materials found in the streets of the different cities they visit, and at times, as in Italy, have set out to create self-generated festivals in the streets.  Traveling about New Haven by bus, Biagini noted the racial segregation of New Haven where almost all bus riders are black and almost all students at Yale are white.  He told his collaborators: “we should do our show right here on the bus.”  Instead, he does his best to engage people wherever he finds them, offering a kind of contact high from his joy in performance.

The performances consist of an unusual mix: selections from the poems of Allen Ginsberg—the late Beat Guru, Bop Buddist, Singalong Shaman and Clown Prince of Poetry—are turned into songs and are then intermixed with African American spirituals, shouts, and worksongs.  The mix is thoroughly American, as Ginsberg is perhaps the poet of the last 60 years most concerned with trying to live up to “America” in a Whitmanian sense.  Whether or not he succeeded, Ginsberg was astute at assessing the kinds of mash-ups that drive our national psyche.  He was into jazz, rock, folk, blues, as well as dipping into most religions, particularly Judaism via his upbringing and Buddhism via his own searches into mysticism.  He also participated readily in the cults of personality that float so many boats in the media, and could make pop culture read like holy texts.

Some of the best moments in Electric Party Songs come from the performers’ grasp of the essential showmanship at the heart of Ginsberg’s poetry (Lloyd Bricken, looking a bit Waits-like, is particularly effective in his delivery).  Ginsberg’s work is about exposure—of the highest self, of the lowest urges, of the deepest shame and the most inspiring ecstasies.  The troupe does not offer reverential recitals, but rather dynamic musical numbers that bounce off Ginsberg’s lines, making the songs assume a bodily urgency—whether it’s Biagnini recreating an old and infirm poet or Alejandro Tomás Rodriguez writhing about on the floor to the yearnings of love.

Add to that the spirituals—with many rhythmic shout-outs to Jesus—and you have a kind of revival meeting that may make all feel either welcome or uncomfortable.  These lithe and sinuous young men and women sing gracefully a capella (Felicita Marcelli and Agnieszka Kazimierska ) or with the accompaniment of guitars and percussion, and to see them up and swaying to songs from the South is to harken to a kind of cultural trance and transcendence.  How are these predominantly European performers—from Italy, Poland, France and elsewhere, looking like an ad hoc collection of gypsies and free spirits—able to lose themselves so readily in traditional songs?  And what is the principle force behind the vibe they create like a band of charismatics?

Biagini likes to think back to the farm he grew up on in Italy, where a holiday was a true transformation.  People knew the value of letting down their guard, of giving up their daily tasks for a collective enjoyment of the free flow of time.  His group has sometimes staged a “night watch” where the audience and the performers stay together through the night, interacting, singing, playing, sleeping, moving about freely, finding themselves, in the end, not the same as they were when it began.  He believes fervently that letting music and poetry, lyrics and rhythms inhabit one is to liberate—at least for a little—the spirit.

The spirit—that’s the place where the poet Ginsberg meets the songs of faith amidst oppression.   And that’s where Biagini and his troupe try to meet their audience.  It may take a leap of faith to get beyond your New England reticence and intellectual skepticism on a cold February night—but it might just be worth the effort.


Interdisciplinary Performance Studies at Yale presents The Open Program of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards


Electric Party Songs: Feb. 22 & 23: 8pm, Calhoun Cabaret, 189 Elm Street

I Am America: Feb. 28 & March 1: 8pm, Whitney Theater, 53Wall Street

Symposium: Poetry as the Practice of Encounter: March 2: 11 am-4pm, Whitney Theater, 53Wall Street

Electric Party Songs: March 3: 4 pm, BAR, 254 Crown Street


Events are free and open to the public.  Seating is limited.

Multitudinous Tunes

David Byrne & St. Vincent, The Beacon Theater, NY, 9/26/2012


Step into the Beacon Theatre and you’re hit with layer upon layer of eye-popping visuals: huge bronze doors, white marble floors, a Classical pastoral mural over the entrance, mahogany wood paneling, gold and burgundy wool carpeting, gold-tasseled draperies, and gilded everything-in-sight. And all of this is before you get to the auditorium. Once inside you’re treated to 30-foot-tall sculpted goddesses flanking the stage (I’m guessing Athena based on the long spear she’s holding), which themselves are flanked by murals of an elephant-led Eastern caravan. Over the stage hangs a Moorish-inspired decorative flap reminiscent of a circus big top, topped off by a riot of Art Deco and Arabesque decorative patterns, a 900-pound chandelier, and a gigantic ornately-carved pendant.

Designed by Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager and opened to the public in 1929, New York’s Beacon Theater is both reassuringly stately—reassuring because of the steep ticket prices—and wonderfully tacky. The American Institute of Architects describes it as “Greco-Deco-Empire with a Tudor palette” while the New York Times goes with a “pastiche of Greek, Roman, Renaissance, and Rococo elements.” Built as a vaudeville palace—vaudeville must have been the perfect counterpart to the Beacon’s visual aesthetic, a democratizing mashup of ‘high’ and ‘low’ arts, entertainment and exploitation—the theater has since played host to everyone from the Allman Brothers to ZZ Top, from the Dalai Lama to Louis C.K. In other words, the Beacon contains multitudes, and contains them in a way that’s distinctly American.

Enter David Byrne and St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, making a two-night stand at the Beacon in support of their first album together, Love This Giant (4AD). It’s a great pairing. Both might appear under “art damaged” in the dictionary—Byrne in the 1970s and 80s, and St. Vincent today. Both are known for music that’s austere one minute and feral the next (“feral” is probably the best word for St. Vincent’s guitar playing as a whole) and for lyrics that range from unsettling to playful. If they come across a little stiff at first—Byrne, St. Vincent, and the Beacon—it doesn’t mask their underlying weirdness for long.

Of course David Byrne pioneered the whole buttoned-up/unhinged thing—best captured in audiovisual form by Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense. The Beacon show has some interesting parallels to the Talking Heads concert-doc masterpiece. The stage is filled with musicians, dressed in black and white, and each song is treated as its own mini-theater piece with distinct lighting and choreography. The ten-piece band includes eight brass players, a drummer, and a keyboardist/percussionist. Most of the musicians are fully mobile, with choreographer Annie-B Parson taking full advantage. She arranges them in lines, clusters, and circles, draped across the floor at the beginning of one song, facing off in two groups like the Jets and the Sharks in the next, their formations attuned to the unusual rhythms and textures. And for her part St. Vincent creates a new signature move—a variation on the duckwalk except it’s more like a centipede missing 98 of her legs.



The show opens with a baritone sax melody weaving in and out of the brass section. David Byrne enters over their stuttering rhythms, wondering who will share his taxi, who will help a dying soldier, who exists inside of him (the song is called “Who”). Suddenly, the nervous sonics drop away and St. Vincent sings over a shuddering drum line, ‘who is an honest man?’ Her melody is meandering and disorienting, much like one of her guitar parts, but it’s seductive nonetheless. In this song as elsewhere, the brass ensemble shifts between enveloping slabs of sound and dancing, intertwining lines. This interplay is the unique sonic thumbprint of the concert and of Love This Giant. It’s a distinct sound, but it contains echoes of the American pop music past and nods to world music genres ranging from Balkan brass band to Latin jazz. Again, the music meshes perfectly with the venue—a relic that seems new and strange.



In the songs they’ve written together, Byrne and Clark make heavy use of juxtaposition as a literary device: ‘hideous, virtuous, both of us’ for one example. Their song’s narrators find delight in the everyday—drinking coffee, doing laundry, lost in reverie on 30th Street—while dismissing horrific events as mere annoyances. In “Dinner For Two” a party is inconvenienced by raging street battles outside: ‘Harry’s gonna get some appetizers / now he’s keeping out of range of small arms fire.’ In “The Forest Awakes,” there’s assurance when ‘bombs burst in air / my hair is alright,’ pausing to note ‘the shifting of light on the trees and the houses.’ In “Lightning,” the narrator observes a ‘funny lightning’ that she finds puzzling and thrilling: ‘But if I should wake up and find my home’s in half…I guess I have to laugh.’ Control is a recurring theme as well—maintaining it and relinquishing it—seen in images of nakedness or remaining clothed, especially when least expected: ‘we were totally naked / outside that small cafe’ vs. ‘dare to keep our shirts on / rolling in the mud.’


These strands come together—the magical mundane, multiple contradictions, control issues—on “I Should Watch TV.” In the song, Byrne finds agency in a passive medium, engaging with people when he’s all alone. With the help of his TV he describes losing himself, being opened up and set free by ‘the weird things that live in there.’ In some ways the song is the centerpiece of the album (its title comes from a line in the song). It’s also a rare autobiographical song for Byrne (see the clip below) that taps into a long-term obsession reaching back to his Talking Heads days. Opening with a pulsating electronic pitch—its digital glitchiness immediately sets the song apart from the rest of the album—Byrne sings, ‘I used to think that I should watch TV / I used to think that is was good for me.’ The lyrics go on to detail the view he ‘used’ to hold—a TV-based transcendentalism that advocates diving into the collective electronic slipstream, casting off one’s alienation in “the place where common people go.”


In this regard, Byrne even goes so far as to quote from Walt Whitman—‘behold and love this giant’ is adapted from ‘I behold the picturesque giant and love him’ in the great American poet’s “Song of Myself.” Here as elsewhere, it’s not hard to see how Whitman’s transcendentalism may have inspired Byrne’s artistic worldview, but what’s most striking is the particular choice of quotation. The ‘picturesque giant’ in “Song of Myself” is a black carriage driver described in loving detail by Whitman—a brave and progressive gesture at the time, perhaps, but a gesture that today comes off as more than a little objectifying and patronizing. Byrne’s choice to quote this line, and to name the album after it, is curious. He’s way too smart and self-aware not to realize the negative implications, of course,  and the lines ‘behold and love this giant / big soul, big lips / that’s me and I am this’ only highlight the diceyness of the original context. At the song’s conclusion, however, Byrne seems to cast doubt on how he ‘used to think.’  Near the two-minute mark he wonders, “How am I not your brother / how are you not like me?” as the frantic rhythms briefly cease.  The final stanza makes no mention of the mass culture he idealized and exoticized before, suggesting instead:

Maybe someday we can stand together Not afraid of what we see Maybe someday understand them better The weird things inside of me.

Whether or not we understood them better by the end of night, the weird things inside of David Byrne and St. Vincent put on quite a show. I’m not sure how often audiences get up and dance in their seats at the Beacon but it happened this night. Adding an extra layer of resonance to it all were the weird things inside the Beacon Theatre, a building no doubt inspired by the 1893 Chicago Exposition and the White City, a dizzying assemblage of neoclassical cityscapes and midway attractions that gave physical form to Whitman’s ideal. You could hardly find a more appropriate setting for David Byrne and St. Vincent’s songs—a musical world populated by a cast of all-American eccentrics (including themselves) and fascinated with spectatorship, whether watching TV or simply watching life go by.


Jason Lee Oakes studied ethnomusicology at Columbia University and now teaches at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. His blog on music in the 2012 presidential race can be read here.

Reflections: A view of the Arts & Ideas Festival on the Green

The Arts & Ideas Festival is international in scope, using the unique geography of New Haven as a venue through which to showcase artists and academics from around the globe. But on a recent Saturday, in the heart of downtown, these roles were reversed as the festival played host while New Haven showed off a little of what it has to offer. That day saw a day-long showcase of musicians, dancers, and community groups from New Haven and across the state in the form of two performance stages and a line of family-oriented activity tents.

Kicking off the day was the sixth annual Channel 1 Block Party on Temple Street, hosted by New Haven's Channel 1 Showroom & Gallery. From noon till six, the street filled with the sounds and movement of DJs, break dancers, and live sets from Waterbury's Sketch tha Cataclysm and New Haven's Political Animals. Two mural walls were gradually covered by the intricate chaos of graffiti art, with special guest and legendary New York artist Cey Adams watching from the wings.

“This generation is becoming more homogenized, more separated,” says Channel 1 co-owner Lou Cox, recalling the diversity of the neighborhood block parties he experienced during his youth in New Haven. “The idea is to do one of these in every neighborhood in town, and at the end of the summer do one big event to bring everyone together. This is the kick-off for all that.”

Leslie Cohen, Cox's wife and other Channel 1 co-owner, puts it perhaps more succinctly when she says, “People walk by who might never see another break dance competition in their lives.”

At the Family Stage across the Green the afternoon saw a line-up of world music acts including Connecticut's Oboe Duo Agosto with Yovianna García, folk group Echo Ugunda from East Africa by way of Wesleyan University, and the Jolly Beggars, a Celtic band out of Hartford.

While the Beggars played upbeat arrangements of traditional Irish songs about the Troubles and conflict with the English, the tent hosted by New Haven organization Promoting Enduring Peace saw 5th grade students from the King/Robinson School performing a self-penned song entitled “Save the World,” with heartfelt lyrics pleading for an end to violence and warfare. Balloons were given free to children, on the sides of which were drawn symbols of peace in magic marker.

“It's a festival about Arts and Ideas, and we're really blending each,” said one volunteer, “You'd be amazed how many kids know how to make a peace sign. Even the really little ones.”

Next door at the West Haven Students Art Show artwork from K-5 students at West Haven Head Start was displayed, with father and son volunteers Kenny and Kenny Jr. providing free coloring and origami lessons (this reporter made a somewhat functional flapping crane). “We need art shows for kids,” said Kenny the elder, in his seventh year bringing just that to Arts & Ideas. “We need to support the arts in our communities and our school, to support our art teachers and show kids that this is important. This is a great outlet.”

The day’s main attractions were a series of dance performances on the Elm Street Stage, kicking off with a series of series of pieces by students of the New Haven Ballet. Of particular note was a piece by New York based choreographer and performance artist Katie Rose McLaughlin. In a man’s suit from the waist up and wearing only white briefs from the waist down, McLaughlin performed an interpretive dance set to a monologue that ranged from academic lecture to free verse poetry to post-modern exercises in self-reference, read live by a man seated far stage right. The performance was refreshingly unique, and would have seemed more at home in an after-hours gallery than the main stage of “Weekend Afternoons.” Nevertheless old men, young children and scatterings in between sat on the grass and watched, rapt.

University of New Haven students Eric, Paul, Nicole, and John caught McLaughlin’s set front and center after coming down to Arts & Ideas to break the monotony of their summer break. “This shows New Haven has a lot of personality,” said Eric of the festival, a native of Milford, New Hampshire. “There's more than just its reputation as a violent place, there's culture here. It's really changed my opinion of the town.”

“I feel like people who are born and raised in Connecticut a lot of times are afraid to come into New Haven,” said New York native Maxine, voicing a similar sentiment. “This brings people in.”

She checked out the Elm Street Stage with her sister Sara, a Bethany transplant, and Sara’s neighbor Mauren. “We came for the music,” said Sara. “The acts are interesting,” agreed Mauren. “There's so much to see.”

The trio chatted and indulged in with wine and hors d'oeuvres laid out in front of their camp chairs as dusk began to settle and the dense crowd got ready for the main event, a performance by New Haven’s favorite Gypsy- swing export Caravan of Thieves and Grammy-winning Black roots band the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Maxine beamed, “I love it, it reminds me of something in Central Park.”

Why are we doing this? Click here to find out more.


Remote Happiness: David Lang's 'love fail' is a meditation on love

The story of Tristan and Isolde (or Iseult) is one of the greatest love stories in Western literary history, forming not only the basis for Wagner’s opera, but also playing its part in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and providing inspiration for other tragic tales of love. For his composition/theater piece love fail, Pulitzer-winning composer David Lang searched through various texts that tell the story, particularly Gottfried von Strassburg but also Sir Thomas Malory, Marie de France and others, looking, as he says, for “weird incidents.” Stripped of all reference to Tristan, Isolde/Iseult, King Mark or any other elements that would make the piece seem merely a dramatization of the age-old story, love fail is a fascinating meditation on love’s lyricism, its almost mystic force, and its surprising moods and shifting desires.

Sung by the female vocal group Anonymous 4, noted for their adaptations of medieval compositions, such as plainsong, for female voices, love fail is a stunning exercise in vocal precision, polyphony, overlapping voices, and hypnotic variations on simple lyrics. The piece begins with “he was and she was,” in which descriptive terms for the two lovers are sounded against a backdrop of voices, including percussive whispers. With the stage set for intensive listening, the evening becomes an occasion for marveling at what the four gifted singers—Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek—are able to do with their voices, creating layered effects that are—no doubt because of the medieval associations of the music—spiritual and meditative.

There are also humorous elements—mostly provided by texts taken from MacArthur fellow Lydia Davis. Wonderful examples of precision and compression in their own right, Davis’ writings add a wry, modern touch to the piece. Perhaps my favorite segment, “right and wrong” (following “the wood and the vine,” adapted from Marie de France, which is also particularly strong), provides convoluted R.D. Laing-like reflections on how being right doesn’t make one right if, “in some cases,” it is wrong to be right. The “right and wrong” instances are in reference to a female, making the piece a subtle comment on sexual politics as well as a general moral consideration. As sung, the interplay between the lead voice and the accompanying voice is riveting: the lead sounds a single note/word at intervals, and in those intervals the accompanying voice must sing through the text to the next interval. Pacing was everything in this unusual form of call-and-response; the call was almost a punctuation of the response while also acting as an introductory note for each sequence.

The texts are projected on a transparency behind the singers, making it easy to follow the words. There are also large projections showing male and female faces, made-up to appear as if they are in a fantasy film, that are more or less moving portraits. Primarily static, the images move slowly, and are more of a distraction than an illustration. Jim Findlay’s set design is simple and elegant, able to look at home in a concert hall, a theater stage, or a church, but his video design was the least inspiring aspect of the piece. The lighting and look of the faces put me in mind of the recent Cindy Sherman retrospective—not an association I would normally bring to this work.

While each segment of love fail has its own significance, the 12 parts, taken together, yield a progression from introduction of the lovers to reflections on love’s durability, and on the heart’s forgetfulness toward the arguments the head furnishes against love. Musically, we might say it moves toward transcendence of the sorrows of love, though—again, due to medieval associations—the idea of true happiness on earth is remote, and so love and sorrow must be inextricably linked.

A vibrant work for voices, love fail does not fail to provide thought about love, evoking love’s higher aspirations as well as some of its darker reaches. The masterful Anonymous 4 are not to be missed.

IF YOU GO: What: love fail by David Lang performed by Anonymous 4 When: 4 p.m. June 30 Where: Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St. Tickets: $35-$45 Info:

Why are we doing this? Click here to find out more.

Still Don't Know How He Did It: Wu Hsing-kuo's one-man 'King Lear'

The production of King Lear by Contemporary Legend Theater of Taiwan mixes the ancient and the modern to startling effect. As a one-man show featuring Wu Hsing-kuo, who also directed the show and adapted it from its source, King Lear becomes a series of vignettes that dramatize both the high theatricality of Shakespeare’s play as well as what might be thought of as its folklore elements, and ends with a reflection on theater itself.

The story of a king who ill-advisedly chooses to divide his kingdom among his daughters -- Goneril, Regan and Cordelia -- King Lear is also a story of the aged being mistreated by the young.  The harsh treatment of Lear by Goneril and Regan is matched by the story of Gloucester, who foolishly trusts his illegitimate son, Edmund, and becomes a blind and broken man, assisted by his legitimate son Edgar in the disguise of a mad beggar.

Condensing the plot and subplot into a three-act structure running under two hours in length requires a certain skill in dealing in broad strokes. Wu Hsing-kuo’s Lear begins with the madness of Lear, and the scene of his frantic condition in a thunderstorm. Having banished his loyal daughter, Cordelia, and been mistreated by his other daughters, Lear wanders a heath, calling on the gods for comfort. Screens to the right and left of the stage translate the Chinese dialogue, but words are less important in this opening scene than the stylized acting, an interplay of gesture and music. The rapid rhythms of the Lee Yi-Chin’s score create an anxious texture that seems to surround Lear, producing an atmosphere of confusion and conflict.

Costumes (by Tim Yip) are also of great importance to the production, as the long flowing hair and beard of Lear are expressive devices as used by Wu, as are his truly majestic robes. Seeing such an impressive figure flail about the stage, wringing his hands, doing flips and falls, we know at once he’s mad and the entire scene becomes a great man’s struggle with his own nature. If the great can become the low, where can certainty be found? Wu’s Lear is a study of warring mannerisms that finally ends with the king humbled, placing flowers in his hair while recalling giving a flower to his youngest daughter whose loss he now mourns.

At this point Wu emerges from his King Lear costume and speaks to us an actor or, as he says, Lear’s storyteller. Having set aside the costume of Lear he indicates that there is more to the story, and the first act ends.

The second act is all about transformations as Wu begins in the character of Lear’s Fool who enlivens the tale from the perspective of the lowly. At first he was no better than Lear’s dog, but now he sees Lear as a foolish king, reduced to a figure of fun. Wu’s monologue as the Fool skillfully establishes satire as an attitude toward Lear’s court, and this view is extended into his enactments of the three daughters. This part of the play, in which Wu costumes himself in the regal trappings of the emperor’s daughters, and depicts the vain and deceitful characters of Goneril and Regan, with all the  grace of Beijing opera, is striking, creating a world of ritual manners, in contrast to the lowly Fool’s bent-knee postures, that is beguiling but also comical.

After Cordelia strikes a sincere contrast to her sisters, Wu transforms again — giving us in brief the story of Edmund’s false defense of his father Gloucester, Edgar’s transformation into “poor Tom,” and finally, and most dramatically, Gloucester’s search for death on a high cliff. Having said that, I still don’t know how Wu managed to recreate all these scenes in such rapid succession; I do know that the image of Gloucester on the rocks surrounded by mist and the surging sounds of the ocean will stay with me for a while.

Gloucester’s leap to darkness is followed by a voice narrating the eventual reconciliation of Gloucester and Edgar, and this introduces the last act: Wu Hsing-kuo in his own character as the Actor. Speaking still within the stylized context of the play, Wu addresses us as an actor who is a character and a character who is an actor. At once, the skillful transformations we have watched become a series of artificial identities that trap the Actor.

The final speech comments on a quality of the play that is hard to pin down: these roles are not only Shakespeare’s, but were selected by him from older sources, and, in this current form, now translated into the words and rhythms and costumes of Chinese theater, they take on a wider application, a global reach we might say. And this new formulation of Lear shows how the situations in the play—the family drama, the generational tensions, the class elements, the archetypal nature of a blind man being led by a mad man—have become emblematic myths told about the human condition. Wu’s final statements struck me as a realization not only of the tragedy of Lear, but of the sorrow of theater itself as a world that can only pretend to be true.

Wu Hsing-kuo and the Contemporary Legend Theater of Taiwan have memorably transformed King Lear into an experience of theater as both timeless and contingent.


IF YOU GO: Who: King Lear by the Contemporary Legend Theater of Taiwan When: 8 p.m. June 29 Where: University Theatre, 222 York St. Tickets: $35-$45 Info:

Why are we doing this? Click here to find out more.


A Cash of American Music: Rosanne performs from her newest record

As a teenager, Rosanne Cash went on tour with her father, the rockabilly and country legend Johnny Cash, where she says she was first formally exposed to country music standards as a musician.

“My mother had her favorites that she would always play around the house, like Patsy Cline and Ray Charles, and of course those musicians influenced me,” she says. “But when I started buying records, I wasn’t checking out country. I was a huge Beatles fan. I loved Elton John, Buffalo Springfield, you know, the popular music of the time. I was re-educated in country music when I went on the road with my dad after high school.”

Cash’s latest record, The List, is a collection of country standards compiled on a list of essentials to know and learn by her father.

Cash grew up in Los Angeles and Ventura, Calif. She started making records in 1979 and has had No. 1 singles on both the pop and country charts. She considers herself a singer-songwriter rather than a country musician, but in general resists labels and classifications; even when describing her new record, which has a pronounced influence from her father.

“I don't think that all the interpretations could be classified as country,” Cash says. “The songs on The List are not just country, but borrow from a lot of traditions: Appalachian music, American roots music, classic soul, and protest songs. They are not all strictly country songs.”

Cash goes on to explain that American music generally draws on a number of influences.

“There was a lot of feeder streams that went into country,” she says. “It was influenced by everything around it.”


IF YOU GO: What: Rosanne Cash When: 7:30 p.m. June 30 Where: The New Haven Green Tickets: Free Info:

Why are we doing this? Click here to find out more.

Feats of Timing: Circa defies gravity, easy interpretation

ARTS & IDEAS: Circa is billed as “movement at its most adventurous and dangerous,” and it lives up to its billing, but it’s also more than that. It’s also kinetic sculpture, physical theater, poetic gymnastics, breath-taking and mind-bending acrobatics.

The troupe displays a mastery that is hard to rationalize at times: You see it, but you don’t quite believe it. At the end of some particularly audacious stunt, you find yourself marveling at the powers of mind over matter. The body, we might think, has no choice but to do what the brain tells it to do, unless it can’t do it and simply fails. The bodies of Circa don’t fail, but perform what’s demanded of them and what’s demanded of them is thrilling and beautiful to behold.

Like what? Feats of timing, of extension, of more or less levitating—they’re called “handstands” but you haven’t seen handstands like this. Dancing with hoops (to the tune of Jacques Brel’s ever-accelerating “Le valse à mille temps”), ballet moves suspended on a rope, nimble use of hands that gives prestidigitation a new meaning. And, most memorably, lots of stepping on, climbing on, swinging on and throwing each other.

That description makes the show sound very much like circus stunts, and, of course, that’s what it is. Circa, though, has more on its mind than simply amazing us with its incredible tumbling, balance, and handstand skills. Each segment has musical accompaniment that adds dimension and theatrical purpose. We’re invited not simply to marvel at what we’re watching but to consider what it means.

A case in point, and probably my favorite sequence: Stylized as a pas de deux, the interaction between Freyja Edney and Darcy Grant became an amazing display of . . . the eternal patient suffering of women? Grant climbed all over Edney, at one point standing on her head. Of course, if it were the other way around, and she were climbing all over him, we would probably be less engaged. Seeing the woman “on the bottom” in this way gave the stunt a theatrical meaning beyond its skill.

Another example: Casey Douglas did a handstand on a sawhorse, then on one hand. Members of the company brought him blocks. By the time he was doing a handstand on two columns of three blocks on a sawhorse, we saw his point: At what point is he too high, when does “what goes up must come down” take effect? His dismount after letting the towers crumble wasn’t simply a dismount, it was a plunge.

Or, if the idea of a man treading on a woman makes you uneasy, how about a woman in heels (Emma Grant) literally walking all over a man (to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s sardonic “I Came So Far For Beauty”)? You might think of S&M routines (he probably loves it), but with that song playing, there’s time to reflect on what Cohen means in another song when he speaks of those “oppressed by the figures of beauty.”

The point is that every routine is interpretive, as dance or theater, and not only circus stunts. The audience, provoked into awe and pleasure, gasped, laughed, and applauded the amazing feats, but sometimes that distracted from what the piece was saying. Like skilled mimes, the show implies more about the human condition than one expects. With its many exuberant moments of the full company flowing and flying and undulating and contorting around the stage, Circa is a good show to see if you want to feel proud of and humbled by the powers of the human body.


IN YOU GO: What: Circa, directed by Yaron Lifschitz When: 8 p.m. June 28 and 29; 2 p.m. June 30 Where: Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, 177 College St. Tickets: $35-$45 Info:

Why are we doing this? Click here to find out more.

The Humanist: Yuval Ron brings the Middle East to New Haven

ARTS & IDEAS: When Yuval Ron was 17 years old, he ventured out from his home in Israel into the Sanai Desert with a guitar. There he met the Bedouin, a nomadic people with a distinct musical tradition.

“I played music with them and they embraced me, because I could play the guitar, and they could play the oud, which I play now,” Ron says from his Los Angeles studio. “They are tribal from this remote desert. My connection to them was through appreciating their music, but that made me appreciate them as a culture, as a people. It made me realize that culture and people and environment are one in the same. If you mistreat the people or the environment, you lose the culture.”

Ron has been playing sacred and folkloric music from the Middle East with his ensemble for 12 years. On June 28, the Yuval Ron Ensemble will perform a sold-out performance at Morse Recital Hall on College Street. On June 29, the group will perform a free concert of upbeat dance songs from the Middle East on the New Haven Green.

The members of the group and the songs they perform are as diverse as the region itself. Growing up in the conflict-torn region as an Israeli, Ron said he was raised with one specific nationalistic and religious perspective. His music is in part a reaction to that, and Ron says he deliberately tries to transcend national borders and what he calls “artificial” divisions.

“The music that I do does represent a global perspective, but it starts with a regional perspective: a Middle Eastern perspective, which is where we are from. We embrace all the beauty in that region,” Ron says. “The perspective that I have is more humanistic than nationalistic. I am interested in using the information and research I do to bring out the human expression from both sides of the border to point out their commonality, and to show their commonality across borderlines is greater than the things that separate them.”

For Ron, this was a radical realization that he came to at the end of his teenage years.

“I can tell you that growing up in Israel, each side of the divide has a different narrative of what happened—not just in the last 30 years or 50 years—in the last 200 years, even 500 years. So it’s a very complex issue and when you grow up,

you only hear one side of the story,” Ron says. “I didn’t have any Arabic friends, any Christian friends, any Muslim friends. I didn’t meet anybody who was any different from me. I was 19 or 20 when I started meeting people who have a different heritage, a different narrative from mine.”

When asked if there are parallels between U.S. society and the Middle East, Ron says the most striking similarity is the opportunity for cultural cross-pollination.

“The U.S. is a melting pot as well. They are very similar societies here in the U.S. and in Israel. There is no other country on earth with so many people from different countries and religions living side-by-side than in the U.S. and Israel, and any time you have that meeting of cultures you have an opportunity for combinations and fusions of music. In the States, look at jazz, it is a fusion of different cultures that clashed and met in the U.S. Jazz didn’t happen in Africa, it happened in the U.S. with African roots mating with Celtic roots and German roots.”


IF YOU GO: What: The Yuval Ron Ensemble When: Noon, June 29 Where: the New Haven Green Tickets: Free Info:

Why are we doing this? Click here to find out more.

Joy of Man's Desiring: Mark Morris Dance Group with Yale ensembles

ARTS & IDEAS: The Mark Morris Dance Group performed three classics of the choreographer's repertoire Thursday night at the Shubert Theater. Each was accompanied by the Yale Choral Artists and the Yale Collegium Players, respectively the home-town baroque orchestra (with period instruments) and choir (with countertenors and all). Mark Morris himself conducted the ensembles.

"A Lake" was first performed in 1991 and has lost none of its freshness or charm. It seamlessly combines modern-dance movement with ballet, and the effect is like watching troupe of 18th century court dancers that lost interest in the trappings of point shoes a long time ago. Set to one of Haydn's Horn Concertos, "A Lake" had a feeling of effervescent, especially during the French horn's jaunty cadenzas. It took a while for the horn to hit its stride, but once it did, its bounding lines were a delightful accompaniment to the swishing frocks of the dancers.

That Morris's choreography is like watching a fugue unfold one layer at a time was evident in 1981's "Gloria," the show's final piece. On the surface this is a humoresque of sorts, beginning with a female dancer imitating the movements of something like a marionette. Another gag was dancers pushing their prostrated selves along the floor like salmon swimming upstream.

But when the laugh wore off I was struck by a profound thought. If you take the dancers not as individuals but as an organic whole, they moved like flocks of migratory birds or large herding animals, which, if viewed from a distance, can be said to possess a logic of their own that must work its way through a fugue-like process to a logical end. While Vivaldi's "Gloria" sings praises to the Lord, Morris seems to sing praises to nature. Or maybe it's just me.

Which brings me to the second work, Bach's "Jesu, meine Freude" (1991), the one I'll end with, because it was the most gorgeous of the three works and the most overtly religious (in the pan-theistic, non-denominational sense).

It began with a big blast from the Yale Choral Artists and two men wearing nothing but flowing linen slacks, one behind the other, standing still but for hand gestures suggesting a four-armed priest delivering a homily. I was reminded of Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles, a beautifully brutralist tribute to the heavenly host. Morris's movement was as spare as it was laden with rich religious sentiment, two opposing feelings finding wholeness in one.

The company performs again tonight at the Shubert.


IF YOU GO: What: The Mark Morris Dance Group When: 8 p.m. June 22 Where: Shubert Theater, 247 College St. Tickets: $20-$50 Info:

Why are we doing this? Click here to find out more.

Leaving Eden: Carolina Chocolate Drops remember weird America

ARTS & IDEAS: For the past few years, you could say there's been a bit of a resurgence in interest in traditional American musical styles, and with it, a move to do to American music again what Dylan did to it a generation ago: to combine the sounds of old, weird America and the music lots of people listen to today.

Buck 65 took a stab at it with Talkin' Honky Blues in 2003. The Low Anthem has been steadily rising since 2007 by using the sounds of old country, gospel, and blues in ever new ways. And, of course, there was Mumford and Sons' breakout performance with Dylan at the Grammys, turning the stage into a 1960s-style hootenanny, which hearkens back even further into the past.

One of the more interesting groups going after the ancient-modern alchemy is the Carolina Chocolate Drops—Grammy winners themselves for their 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig—and if you were to describe the various musical acts as a race to perfect the formula, to my ears, the Chocolate Drops might be in the lead.

The Chocolate Drops, then composed of Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, and Justin Robinson, started off almost like historians. The band's first album, Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind, found them paying homage to the great black fiddle-banjo duo Joe and Odell Thompson (the title of the album is taken from one of the Thompsons' signature tunes) while also placing them in the context of other string band and jug band acts that were, more or less, the Thompsons' contemporaries. But even on that first album, there was a hint of what was coming: the Chocolate Drops weren't just recreating old recordings, but playing them like they wanted to, infusing the old music with their own spirit, energy, and sensibility.

They followed that up with years of relentless touring, during which they grew and developed their sound. A lot. A collaboration with the Luminescent Orchestrii, a band doing similar things with Eastern European music as the Chocolate Drops were doing with Americana, led to some of the most hip hop-inflected work for both groups. Giddens proceeded to work with Sxip Shirey, guitarist for the Lumiis and a composer in his own right, and appeared on Shirey's Sonic New York. The result of all this for the Chocolate Drops was Genuine Negro Jig, and the Grammy that followed.

Justin Robinson left the band after the Grammy win—he's currently heading up this fascinating project—and Flemons and Giddens took on Hubby Jenkins to round out the trio, with support from beat-boxer Adam Matta and Leyla McCalla on cello.

The project recorded with this lineup, Leaving Eden, is their strongest album to date. The sound still partakes heavily of the old American music the Chocolate Drops have been swimming in, but the modern elements are stronger and everything comes together even more seamlessly than before, in a more compelling way.

They're right to put "Country Girl" forward as a single. The unusual instrumentation—fiddle, banjo, mandolin, cello, and beat box—lays down an unmistakably modern groove, letting Giddens's beautiful voice slide and soar. But then the album's opener, "Riro's House," marries stringband music to a rolling snare that shows the connection between Appalachia and New Orleans while also rocking pretty damn hard. "West End Blues" delivers a spare slink. And the title track is a moody slice of gorgeous country.

Leaving Eden is another step forward in the band's evolution, another signpost in these musicians' pilgrimage across the American landscape, and New Haven should consider itself pretty lucky that we're one of the stops. Fittingly, opening for the Chocolate Drops will be Caravan of Thieves, one of New Haven's most successful musical exports in recent years.



IF YOU GO: What: The Carolina Chocolate Drops with Caravan of Thieves When: 7 p.m., June 23 Where: The New Haven Green Tickets: Free Info:

Why are we doing this? Click here to find out more.

Blood, Sweat and Tears: Bassist Ben Allison plays poetry of Robert Pinsky

I didn't have a proper appreciation for On the Road until I saw a video excerpt of its author, Jack Kerouac, reading an excerpt of the novel on Steve Allen's variety show. Allen made a habit of interviewing guests while vamping at the piano. Turns out it was a perfect setting for Kerouac, and he used it. [youtube][/youtube]

Words and music have a history together, as Ben Allison reminded me recently. And it's a continuation of that history that Allison, a native of New Haven and one of the hottest bassists around, is going to do this week with none other than Robert Pinsky.

Pinsky is well known as a former poet laureate of the United States, a frequent commentator on PBS on poetry, art and culture, and a translator of Dante's Inferno. He is generally a spokesman for poetry though he once lent his voice to an audio book of a biography of legendary pitcher Sandy Koufax.

More importantly, at least where this latest project is concerned, is Pinsky's background as a musician. He once said that while he was translating the Inferno, he'd take a break to blow a few licks on the tenor saxophone, which always sat by his desk.

"Words and rhythm together are as old as words are," Allison says. "But over time, the poetry has been separated from the performance and Robert is doing what he can to bring that back."

Allison met Pinsky some years ago at the Arts & Ideas Festival, where Allison has played many times. Its director, Mary Lou Aleskie, introduced them with the hope that something would spark between them. He really didn't know Pinsky or his work, but Allison had worked with poets in the past. Just before Allison was set to go on stage, they improvised a little set and knew something sparked.

"His poems have a kind of Americanness to them," Allison. "It's very New Jersey, lots of subtle and not-so-subtle elements that I love. I'm a big fan of high art and low art and everything in between. Simple words carry a lot of meaning with Robert."

Allison is no stranger to poetry. His mother is an English teacher. His brother is a poet. But the musicality of poetry escaped him. It wasn't until he started working with Pinsky that he realized that poetry had to be performed to really come alive.

"It's like reading a screenplay or watching the movie," he says. There's really only one way it's meant to be.

Just before our conversation, Allison testified before the U.S. Congress on the unfairness of royalties. Currently, radio stations pay songwriters for the rights to broadcast their music, but they do not pay the performers who made the recordings.

He wrote on his blog after testifying: "What we’re talking about here is whether people believe that music has value – that after all the blood, sweat and tears that American musicians pour into their craft, they should be afforded the same rights enjoyed by musicians throughout the rest of the developed world."

Amen to that.

Click here to hear Pinsky read "Samurai Song." Samurai Song

Then play the video below to hear the same poem with Allison's group.

IF YOU GO: What: The Ben Allison Band with Robert Pinsky When: 8 p.m., June 27 Where: Morse Recital Hall, 470 College St. Tickets: $35-$45 Info:

Why are we doing this? Click here to find out more.

Blossoms of Sound: Red Baraat and Noori bring the world to New Haven

ARTS & IDEAS: If the Arts & Ideas Festival is any indication, brass bands are having a moment. On Sunday, Asphalt Orchestra played two full sets of delightfully raucous horn and drums on the New Haven Green, including a bit where they left the stage and rioted through the audience; your correspondent's son had the honor of being chased by a saxophone player.

Asphalt Orchestra covered everyone from Thomas Mapfumo and Charles Mingus to Frank Zappa and David Byrne and St. Vincent, in addition to deploying several original compositions. It all felt of a piece, and it should have: Brass bands, after all, have a rich and astonishingly varied tradition to draw on. They can pull from Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, or Benny Moré, then turn around and dig deep in New Orleans, or Eastern Europe, or Mexico—really, just about anywhere in the world.

For Sunny Jain, the dhol player and MC of Red Baraat, a nine-piece brass band playing on June 24, the starting point was the brass bands he heard a lot of in India: "a baraat," he explains to me over the phone, "is a procession that happens for a wedding in North India—it’s something I’d seen since I’d been going back to visit, which I'd done since I was 5 years old."

As he grew as a musician in the United States, he played across multiple genres, as many professional musicians do, but that sound stayed in his head. "I wanted an acoustic band that was primarily horns and drums," he says, "drawing from the Punjabi and North Indian rhythms." But his idea quickly began to develop outward from there, since the horn players he knew had experience with jazz, funk, reggae, ska, R&B, and classical music, "more reflective of being Indian-American," Jain says, than of recreating an Indian marching band in Brooklyn.

Developing the band's material likewise has "always been a collaborative process"; some composition is involved, but the pieces really come into their own by being played in front of crowds, improvised on, pushed and pulled to let happy accidents happen and be used to make the compositions better.

"When you open yourself up to that, things really can blossom musically," Jain says.

Then he stops and laughs.

"You know, I can sit here and talk about the music in an intelligent and analytical way, but ultimately that’s not what it’s about. We’re here to deliver emotion, and that’s something that’s universal. We're to create a global dance party—it’s just music, and the only political message is to understand that the highest religion is humanity."

He talks just like I hoped he would when I was listening to Red Baraat before interviewing him, because all of that comes through in the music. You can hear North India in it, and jazz and funk and ska, too, and it's fun to nerd-out over it and figure out where it all comes from and how it fits together.

But in the end, the genre labels don't mean all that much; what matters is that big, propulsive groove, the energy that rolls off the band time and time again, whether they're playing in a club, at a big festival, or in a church.

"Brazilian people say it sounds like samba, Caribbean people say it sounds like soca, and D.C. people say it sounds like go-go," Jain says. That's how accessible the music is. People find what's familiar to their ear in it and let themselves be carried away by the rest.

In an intriguing scheduling turn, Arts & Ideas has paired Red Baraat with Noori, a Pakistani rock band formed by two brothers—one a trained lawyer and the other a business-school graduate—who left their professions behind to become one of Pakistan's most successful rock acts, putting out a slew of recordings, performing hundreds of shows, and winning a few awards. They're on their first-ever tour of the U.S., and Jain is excited to be splitting the bill with them.

"Maybe we'll get to jam a little together," he says.

That could be something to hear.



IF YOU GO: What: Red Baraat & Noori Where: New Haven Green When: 7 p.m., June 24 Tickets: Free Info:

Why are we doing this? Click here to find out more.

Mind in Motion: Kyle Abraham and his acclaimed troupe dance to the memory of his father

ARTS & IDEAS: Choreographer Kyle Abraham ran an errand up to Massachusetts before arriving in New Haven. He had to collect a check for $25,000, part of an annual award given by the renowned Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires of Western Mass. The prize is one of the biggest in the perennially cash-strapped world of dance, and past recipients are among the giants of the art form, including Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones and Crystal Pite.

"I was so surprised to see the past winners," says Abraham, whose seven-member dance troupe has a five-night engagement at this year's Arts & Ideas Festival. "I don't really belong on that list."

Well, he does. But no one minds a little modesty.

Abraham is acclaimed for combining elements of ballet, modern dance and hip hop into seamless aesthetic. Dance magazine named his an artist to watch in 2009. His newest production, called The Radio Show, takes its inspiration from an AM-FM radio station that's no longer in operation in his native Pittsburgh. It used to broadcast classic soul, contemporary R&B and call-in talk shows that offered advice on sex, politics, and whatever was vital at the time to the local African-American community.

Abraham uses the idea of radio signals fading in and fading out in time and space as a metaphor for his father's aphasia (a disorder that debilitates language) and Alzheimer's disease. The entire work is an attempt to express the cultural identity of his neighborhood and themes of family and memory.

"I wanted to talk about the pain of loss, of losing a radio station that served so many for so long and of losing my father and his memories," he says. "I decided to focus on memory, the memory of road trips where all there is to do is listen to the radio, hearing it go in and out. I remember my father, how his mind would come and go."

How does a choreographer begin creating a show that's really an abstract narrative about the loss of communication, one set to soul, R&B and recording of those call-in shows? Easy. From the beginning.

He says the process starts with improvisation, but ends with collaboration. It sounds a more hippy-dippy than it is. Duke Ellington wrote scores with individual soloists in mind, like Johnny Hodges and Cat Anderson.

"The question is how to create movement that addresses issues of father and family," Abraham says. "So I improvise with an objective, an objective geared toward something. I clear my mind to generate material, a free-flow of thoughts. Then I get together with my dancers and we dissect what I've come up with.

"It's all relationship-oriented and it all tries to tell a story."


IF YOU GO: What: The Radio Show by Kyle Abraham and When: 8 p.m. June 19-22; 4 p.m. June 23 Where: Iseman Theater, 1156 Chapel St. Tickets: $35-$45 Info:

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Where the Wild Things Are: Kids events at the A&I Fest

ARTS & IDEAS FEST: Face it: Your three children under 7 probably aren’t going to wait as you soak in the riches of Tamar Gendler’s lecture on ancient philosophy, and they can’t stay up until the end of one of the fabulous performances on the Green. Doing Arts & Ideas with kids is its own thing: You won’t get to all the stuff your retired or empty-nester or pre-procreation 20-something friends will get to. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a fabulous time, tykes in tow. Here are some of your best bets for when A&I hits town, organized according to what kind of kid you have.

  • for the Maurice Sendak lover: ERTH, the Australian troupe that brought gargoyles to town in 2001 is back with a menagerie of dinosaurs for its Dinosaur Petting Zoo. This is scratching one of those itches straight out of your best night-time dreams, like the one you wake from to think, “Dang, I wish I could really fly!” Well, walking with big, furry, real-seeming dinosaurs is pretty cool, too — and even cooler for your 5-year-old who won’t shut up about T. Rex. Six afternoon show times, June 16-17, New Haven Green.
  • for the music lover: The Imilonji Kantu Choral Society, or, If the Music Won’t Get Them, the Outrageously Beautiful Costumes Will. But don’t worry — the African classical music will get them. 5 p.m. June 21, Morse Recital Hall, 470 College St.
  • for the crunchy kid: Box City is an interactive world of recycled cardboard and other art supplies that participants use to structure a city of the future. Do it for the memory of Ray Bradbury, who was all about alternative worlds that maybe could come true. Probably not for your toddler, but definitely for your teenager (or your wiseacre 12-year-old who thinks he is a teenager). 1-5 p.m. June 16-17, New Haven Green.
  • for the kid who likes to dance: Crazy Great Music on the Green. OK, we named it that. It’s actually called Family Stage. It’s a series of performances of high-end music accessible to low-end age groups, as well as their parents, as well as their dogs. In some ways, this is kind of music you just happen by downtown, which seemingly never ends for the duration of the festival, and it's the best part of A&I. It’s the stuff you don’t plan — you just hear it from your rolled-down window and have to pull over. Look for Bob Bloom’s interactive drumming, 1:15 p.m. June 20; or Hip-Hop Dimensions (with break dancing, too!), 1:15 p.m. June 21; or Annalivia, 1:15 p.m. June 26; New Haven Green.
  • for the kid who is not scared of the circus: Submerged!, Antfarm’s Circus for a Fragile Planet. In which overfishing and rising sea levels are lead characters. 1:15 p.m. June 22, New Haven Green.
  • for the active child: Bike tours! Helmets! Wheels! Spokes! Those crazy contraptions that hipper parents than you use to tote their kids who are better dressed than yours! About a dozen different velocipedic experiences, including safety training (1 p.m. June 16, on the New Haven Green); a trip down the Farmington Canal Greenway (9 a.m. June 16, leaves from the Green, and you need “moderate ability”); and trips to East Rock and West Rock (5:30 p.m. June 20, leaves from the Green).



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Jazz Singer Dianne Reeves: Women are 'the balance of the world'

ARTS & IDEAS FEST: Dianne Reeves is relieved I haven't asked the question journalists always ask. Until I ask it: How does she get along with two other divas in a tribute to the jazz world's greatest divas? Reeves, along with Lizz Wright and Angelique Kidjo, open the 2012 International Festival of Arts & Ideas with Sing the Truth!, a celebration of legendary women such as Odetta, Miriam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln, and many others.

"Oh, that's such a small-minded question," says the four-time Grammy Award winner who can sing anything. "They're always hoping for a cat fight. But we're sisters, mothers, daughters, the balance of the world. It seems like this would be a better place if women were in charge."

Which, in retrospect, seems incontrovertibly true.

Sing the Truth! has been touring for the last three years and Reeves has been with it the entire time. In the past, she has shared a stage with Dee Dee Bridgewater, a theatrical powerhouse, and Cassandra Wilson, an ingenious interpreter of American pop songs. In New Haven, she'll perform with Wright, a Georgia alto with roots in R&B, and Kidjo, a native of Benin steeped in Afropop and soul.

"We come from different places musically," Reeves says, but together they create a tapestry of jazz singing styles. "In the end, we rub off on each other. We want people to leave with anuplifted feeling, to celebrate the words of these great women and unite us in a spiritual place."

I suggest it's like leaving church on Sunday. "Well, we talk about a lot of other things, too, believe me," she says.

Variety is the spice of Sing the Truth!, which showcases the pioneering work of Odetta, Makeba, and Lincoln as well as the work of conventionally non-jazz composers such as singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco. A good song is a good song, regardless of genre.

"Joni Mitchell's music reaches generations of listeners because it is beautiful poetry set to elegant music," Reeves says. "We have our favorites, then we talk about why we picked that music and why it touches us personally."

I saw Reeves perform in 2003 after she won the third of three consecutive Grammys, the only time a jazz singer has done that. What I remember is an exquisite performance by a musician who pushes away the tensions of the day and creates a space of tranquility and joy. In particular, I recall her singing Abbey Lincoln's classic "Throw It Away," a sensuous restating of "If you love something, set it free."

"Abbey Lincoln sang her truth," Reeves says. "In 'Throw It Away,' she says that all things in this life are passing through us, we can't own them, we must give to others."

Lincoln died in 2010 after a long illness, ending a groundbreaking life as a performer, actress, and civil-rights activist. She was featured on her former husband's seminal 1960 record, We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite. She stood out by writing her own songs when singers typically sang other people's tunes. Reeves along with Wilson and Bridgewater celebrated Lincoln's life at the Kennedy Center earlier this year.

"I knew her," Reeves continues. "I had many conversations wit her where I was really listening more than speaking. It was sage advice. It gave you an opportunity to heal."




What: Sing the Truth! with Dianne Reeves, Lizz Wright and Angelique Kidjo When: 7 p.m. June 16 Where: New Haven Green Tickets: Free Info:

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Story Art

Visit 756 Chapel Street and step into the world of Dan Greene: colorful pastels, boldly drawn, presenting the mysterious activities of heroes and villains. There are archers, scribes, monks and nuns, and the fearsome knife throwers, trained by the villainous Hypnotist to thwart the lovers seeking a path to the Blue Fort that contains a mystic orchard.

Greene, currently a singer/songwriter with his group The Mountain Movers, first became known in indie music circles while a member of the group The Butterflies of Love, a band which had radio and concert success in the UK from the mid-90s to mid-2000s, even performing on air for legendary DJ John Peel.  Around the time that he moved on from that band and formed The Mountain Movers with bassist Rick Omonte (aka Shaki Presents, former scheduler of the free concerts at BAR), Greene began to create drawings that, at first, were illustrations for a long poem, but that gradually took on a life of their own.  At times Greene draws something and then has to decide what story goes with it, or how the image fits in with what he has already drawn.

A selection of the voluminous works Greene creates are now hanging on the walls at Intercambio, in a show called Knife Thrower.  The show is the result of the efforts of Omonte and his partner Gabrielle Svenningsen, curators of the show under their name Ephemeroptera, to bring Greene’s work to the public.  Each image is accompanied by lines typed by Greene to indicate what is happening in the picture.

Greene, originally from Worchester, Massachusetts, is a teacher at a private elementary school in New Haven, and describes himself as self-taught both as a musician and as an artist.  In both music and art he prefers a do-it-yourself style and an aesthetic that is rough-hewn and ready made, using “cruder equipment.”  The surfaces he adorns with his art are generally found on bulk trash day in the area: scrap wood, pieces of furniture, a door, old cardboard.  And Greene is quick to point out infelicities, as for instance a fixative unevenly applied, or a drawing that suffered rubbings and discoloration simply because he hadn’t considered preserving or displaying it.  Previously, he was happy to give drawings away to friends who admired them and made no effort to title or catalog his output.  As an influence, Greene cites frequent visits to exhibits of folk and outsider art in New York; his primary development as an artist has been to become fluent with his own childlike, naïve, and unrefined style.

While certainly describing the simplicity of Greene’s line drawings, and his use of flat planes of color in a manner reminiscent of cartoon panels, such terms don’t do full justice to the odd power of the works on display.  One can’t help thinking of medieval artists, not only because of the medieval characters and settings of Greene’s pastels, but also because Greene’s compositional spaces and his sense of figure derive from a medieval manner—unlike many fantasy artists who render the Medieval with the overwrought renderings of pre-Raphaelite artists.  Stained glass images come to mind, in part because of the saturated colors Greene achieves.

Sometimes the borrowing is deliberate, as for instance in Handing Over The Works, one of the more complicated compositions that clearly draws upon St. Bridget of Sweden (an image of the 14th century original is stuck to the wall next to Greene’s pastel in the exhibit).  Both Greene’s version and the medieval picture portray the importance of texts.  In Greene’s tale, particular books create the visions that enable the First Saint to envision a new city, or monastery, a refuge for study and what we would call sustainable living.  Both images show three levels of action, with communication occurring between the saints of the past and the devout of the present.

More often what is recalled by Greene’s art isn’t so much a specific image or artist from the past, but rather an access to stories that we find in storybook art for children, in comix or graphic novels, or in illuminated manuscripts: elastic space, mostly frontal presentations, details and texture achieved by overlays of color (Greene begins each composition with yellow and orange outlines, working toward the darker and heavier colors), and the aura of a coherent if otherworldly narrative.  Blue Knife Thrower, for instance, might be taken at first for an alien or a spaceman or super hero until one realizes he is garbed in mail, but even so the mask-like head somehow communicates a haunting character.

And the imperfections that indicate Greene’s less than curatorial approach to his art add a sense of the haphazard and spontaneous.  Almost as if the works we’re looking at are relics from the world Greene depicts.  After The Kill, depicting the Nun in Black with the head of a vanquished Knife Thrower, looks rather talismanic, as if a heroic image carved into wood and kept by the people of the monastery to commemorate an important victory.

As with the best fantasy tales, Greene’s Knife Thrower implies an extensive backstory, where animals can be hypnotized to aid the Knife Throwers, where the lovers—the Nun in Black and the Skyscraper Worker—can reach the orchard or fail and die and return to try again and again, where there is a Land of Stalagmites, where the unwary may be impaled, and a Land of Pillars, and other lands that Greene’s imagination, guided by what his hand discovers in drawing, has yet to explore fully.  As the story continues to evolve, so does Greene’s music.  The Mountain Movers, whose three vinyl albums are on sale at the gallery, have also been evolving from “folk garage band” to something more driving and raucous. The band performed at Knife Thrower’s opening and created a loosely textured sound to accompany the beguiling textures of Greene’s fantasy art.

Knife ThrowerDrawings by Dan Greene

An Ephemeroptera exhibition

Intercambio, in association with Project Storefronts 756 Chapel Street, New Haven May 12-June 15, 2012

Photographs by Kurt Heumiller

Surfacing at the Shubert

When I first heard Neutral Milk Hotel it was 2000 and my daughter brought the CD of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea home from college.  By then, the album had been out for about two years and its composer/singer Jeff Mangum was already passing into legend as a young, quirky genius who had produced a distinctly offbeat, ‘alternative’ masterpiece and then dropped out of the music biz, more or less.  There were tales of him spending his days making field recordings of Bulgarian music.  What, the rumors strongly suggested, do you do after In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? So, when I heard that Mangum was back in public, that he’d performed as part of All Tomorrow’s Parties, and in Zuccoti Park for OWS, and then announced a mini-tour that would commence at the Shubert in New Haven, January 18, 2012, there was no way I was going to miss it.  And it seemed that everyone who attended had the same feeling I did: this dude is just too original to miss.  What’s more, I had the impression that the nearly sold-out venue was filled with other listeners who had, for one reason or another, pretty much committed every note of that album, and maybe more or less all of its predecessor—1996’s On Avery Island—to memory.  We weren’t just fans or consumers.  We were a kind of faithful who believed in what Mangum had given us—a gift that, like the best gifts, you didn’t know you needed till someone gave it to you.

What he gave us on Wednesday night was an almost solo walk-through of most of his recorded output (he was accompanied on musical saw on a few tunes, and the final song of the show proper was the unnamed instrumental that follows “Ghost,” in which he was abetted by The Music Tapes, the Athens band that opened the show with a set featuring a seven-foot metronome, “Static, the Magical TV,” stories of Roumanian circus acts, and a banjo played with a violin bow).  Of course, a cruise through the best of the recorded work is pretty much what anyone expects when going to see a concert, and most artists with a small output tend to play everything they’ve got.  But in Mangum’s case the songs, on the records, are enhanced by flugelhorns and percussion and instrumentation somewhat unusual for a “rock album.”  Solo, on a simple chair surrounded by four guitars, with two bottles of water and a music stand, it was all a matter of voice and guitar.  What was so stunningly impressive is that the songs never needed more than that.

The songs, on record, also have an elusive, DIY quality that makes them oddly compelling, delivered in a strident voice that seems always close to dissolution in shrieks, or ever-ready to go off in almost manic ‘dee-dee-dees’ that make Mangum sound like some kind of musical idiot savant.  On Wednesday, Mangum played through it all as though it cost him no great effort, as if, indeed, he is a professional singer-songwriter, with a distinctive musical style and impressive vocal control, when one had perhaps conceived of him as something both more and less: some rare and fabled beast from the Id, wailing songs thick with odd changes, with lyrics bristling with strangely neurotic images of the family romance, of a two-headed boy, a piano full of flames, of falls from fourteen-story buildings, of things to do “when you realize you’re dead,” of semen-coated mountain tops, and ghosts, and brains falling out through teeth.  Wednesday Mangum even offered a song he introduced as one he “rarely plays”: called “Little Birds,” it had, like most Mangum songs, gently devastating lyrics that also sound a bit like demented nursery rhymes.

What are his songs about?  I have no idea.  And I also find it hard to say what the overwhelming emotion is while listening to this music.  My daughter told me of a friend who put Aeroplane on while making dinner and felt like he should start crying by the time it was done.  The album is plaintive, hallucinogenic, nakedly alive, at times uncomfortably so—as in the acapella drone of “I love you, Jesus Christ / Jesus Christ, I love you” in “The King of Carrot Flowers, 2”—but also thrilling, which makes it rather memorably uplifting.  And that was the main feeling I got from every song Wednesday night: joy.

At one point, Mangum, who fielded the shouted song requests—the best was, “play a song of your own choosing”—and the shouts of adoration with a benign, amused cool, asked “Is everyone happy?”  Yes, happy to see and hear him do those songs, regardless of whether or not the music is “happy.”  Then again, I can never hear these lines from “In the Aeroplane over the Sea” (the encore and last song of the night), “And one day we will die / and our ashes will fly / from the aeroplane over the sea / but for now we are young / let us lay in the sun / and count every beautiful thing we can see,” without feeling elated.  It’s not the words themselves so much, but rather the way they ride the emotion of Mangum’s voice, which seems to arrive at the benediction with a slap of being—sort of like the slap on a newborn’s butt to make it cry, or sing.