Sunday, May 03, 2009

Mountaineering -- for Pete Seeger

It will seem, probably, a bit odd to begin a post in celebration of Pete Seeger's 90th birthday with a couple of clips from My Dinner With Andre. Louis Malle's film, probably the quintessential New York intellectual arthouse talking-heads movie, feels like a world away from Seeger's plain-spoken bobble-hatted Hudson Valley fingerpicking realm (notwithstanding the latter's perhaps surprisingly middle-class roots).

Partly the connexion only arises because I watched My Dinner for the first time a few days ago. (I mean I watched My Dinner With Andre; I've spent a baleful amount of time in my life watching My Dinner, especially since a dog made off with some Ilchester Farmhouse cheese, to which I was fondly but insufficiently attached, on the Meadows in Edinburgh in 2001.) I'm a huge fan of Vanya on 42nd Street, which documents Andre Gregory's production of Uncle Vanya, from David Mamet's brilliant version, with Wallace Shawn in the title role: but, though I'd read about it often, I'd never seen the earlier film, in which Gregory and Shawn famously have dinner and talk about Grotowski and..., er, that's it. I guess it's just been released on DVD for the first time maybe, and I picked it up in a naughty splurge at that CD store on the South Bank the other day -- without it having occurred to me to check first whether the whole bloody thing's up on YouTube. Gah!

Anyway, it's a nice film, though I couldn't quite find in it the waves of numinous insight to which its diehard fans so avidly attest. I'm lucky enough to know plenty of pretty interesting people, and talking with them about Grotowski -- or, even, on rare occasions, not about Grotowski -- over dinner is actually a far more stimulating experience than watching Malle's movie, though there's certainly something peculiarly engrossing (and rather relaxing) about it all, and for every moment where one wants to hurl objects at the image of Gregory's face in fury at the proto-New Age nonsense with which he periodically spoils his own intriguing monologues about theatre and American culture, there's at least one other where his twinkly charm wins out -- or, alternatively, one gets a sumptuous close-up of the magnificent Shawn phyzzog (as seen here psychically projected onto the business end of a courgette).

At least one part of Andre and Wally's conversation about theatre feels as relevant now as I guess it did in 1981 when the film was released. (It's in the second of the two consecutive clips above.) It concerns a sort of circular paradox about the role of theatre in connecting its audiences more deeply with the reality that surrounds them (and in which -- though nobody says this exactly in the movie -- they also participate). Shawn, as a playwright with a quite distinctly literary take on the making of theatre, feels that this exactly is his aspiration in writing his scripts; though they may be working to the same ends, the sensational paratheatrical experiences that have seduced Gregory during his work with Grotowski cannot, Shawn avers, be so easily extended to everybody. Is it really necessary, he wonders, for everybody to have some kind of magical experience at the top of Mt Everest in order for them to be exposed to the truly real? And anyway, why should what happens on Everest be any more real than the reality of, say, the cigar store next to the restaurant? To which Gregory admits pretty much that, yes, the reality of the cigar store is not of a different order than the reality of the top of the mountain: but that the profound reality of the cigar store is basically imperceptible to those people who frequent it or pass by it every day, as just one of the countless rhythms and habitual behaviours by which their semi-conscious lives are governed: and therefore, in order to be able to respond to the reality of the cigar store next door, first those people must be transported to, and reawakened by, Everest. -- This feels a lot like the arguments that erupt whenever Michael Billington pronounces on the spectacularism of a company like Shunt, say; it seems pertinent also to the turn in John Fox and Sue Gill's thinking at the point that they became disenchanted with the large-scale carnivalesque projects of Welfare State International and turned their attentions to funeral ceremonies and suchlike. And in fact it reminds me of an impassioned conversation that took place in the early days of my own company (in those days itself a realer proposition than it is now), Signal to Noise. I was one evening daydreaming aloud about moving the company out to some rural base where I fondly imagined it subsisting self-sufficiently as a community, making work and living off the land. One company member advised caution: it would be a mistake to turn our backs on the city and live in secluded refusal of the reality of urban life. Another seized incredulously on that remark: because what's real about the reality of urban life? Wouldn't our retreat connect us more deeply with a reality that city dwellers seldom encounter? -- I thought then, and I think now, that both of those statements are true, and maybe that's why I'm still in London and still not living the good life.

"Human kind / Cannot bear very much reality," says Woody Woodpecker, garishly crashing the party in Eliot's 'Burnt Norton': and if there's something to be said for both sides of the Everest / cigar shop coin, the argument in the first of the two clips from My Dinner with Andre is, I'm inclined to suggest, more divisive. Faced with the uncomfortable realities of pain and, in Wally's vivid formulation, "abrasive beatings ... everywhere you look", either, as Gregory does, we find in those instances, those sensations, sites to be mined for experience and interrogated for information; or, with Shawn, we want comfort and shelter. Perhaps divisive is too strong a word: almost everybody has some instincts towards comfort, I guess. But Gregory's impulse, to want not to alleviate pain but to search it, to sound its depths, is a learned impulse, perhaps a primarily artistic impulse. (I suppose also a spiritual tendency, but I have so little use myself for a category of the operations of spirit -- mind and body have it covered, for me, and the movements of the erotic within and between them -- that I'm reluctant to try and encompass such a territory within these thoughts.) There is of course a common, I guess basically bourgeois, reaction to this, that such projects are to be derided as masochistic -- the most illegible variety of that especial horror, self-indulgence. It's too easy to suppose that this is a reactionary knee-jerk born out of fear and ignorance among audiences (or committed non-audiences): but it, or traces of feelings very like it, seem to obtain even among some fellow artists, who distrust the nakedness and apparent self-regard of work that dwells on and is inspired by discomfort and disquiet, but not moved to dispel these or to find for them some solution or balm. In a way I guess it's a more rarefied manifestation of that acute embarrassment that can afflict us when we're confronted by another's grief, say, and feel that we ought to do or say something to make it all right, as if it were a problem that needed to be solved. (Maggie wrote today with a quote from Murakami -- "pain is inevitable, suffering is optional" -- which I'm pleased to note can work both ways...)

I'm chatting away, not very cogently I know, about these things, partly because of a couple of recent conversations with friends -- both over dinner, it so happens, and for all I know some abutting mini-Malle captured the proceedings on his mobile phone, but no evidence of such has yet surfaced -- in which I was surprised to hear bafflement expressed at the commitment of some artists to the examination of pain and distress and the productive development of tensions and disturbances around these feelings, without any built-in provision for remedy or transcendence. But more appositely I'm getting around to Pete Seeger, who is asked in yesterday's BBC 'Archive on 4' interview whether (this is my phrasing, not the interviewer's) the political content of his songs isn't otiose, given that (a) he's preaching to the choir in the first place, and (b) all that music can do, in relation to the various and pervasive afflictions of real life, is offer some kind of topical consolation which, as it were, salves but does not solve.

Seeger himself first speaks to the long and virtuous history of songs of consolation, or those which promise (what seems to me to be an uncomfortably religiose) deferred freedom -- e.g. his own "We shall overcome some day," &c., before insisting that his songs are often also intended to energise and inspire, so that the downtrodden will feel roused into mobilising. I'm not quite convinced by this; as he says elsewhere in the same interview, it's much harder to sort your own life out with a bit of autobootstraptuggery and cheerful banjo-bothering if the circumstances of your existence are all stacked against you and the powers that shape your being are insistently reminding you of your own powerlessness. Nor am I much of a fan of songs as ointment (unless they come with pre-embedded flies as standard). So why then should it be that not only am I a fan of Seeger for his long, leftist public service, but also I'm so moved, frequently to tears, by his simple -- arguably simplistic -- songs?

It seemed to me, admittedly giving it not overmuch thought, that there are only two ways to answer this question, the first of which is to not answer it at all: which is to say, one might huff and puff a little bit, as the subjects often do on Private Passions and so on, before blithely capitulating into a blissed-out overwhelmedness. "One simply can't put it into words, Michael." (No, but you're going to, aren't you.) "It's as though twin angels jizzed in my ears." (Ah.) The other option, which I'm going to pursue briefly for the sake of good form, is to think about what other music has a similar effect on me, and to try and draw a conclusion from that.

OK, well, I've had a crack at that, and here's what I've come up with: and please can I have a bonus mark because this seems to have something to do with theatre as well.

I'm not sure I'd have thought of this if I hadn't, earlier today, retrieved from the bottommost bottom of a long-unexplored laundry basket the t-shirt from Bill T. Jones's Still / Here, which I saw in Edinburgh in (I think -- can it really be?) 1995, and in watching which I first started thinking about broken arcs. One of the things that make Jones's work (and likewise that of some of my other favourite choreographers, such as Forsythe and Cherkaoui) so consistently interesting is that it sets within a field that is more than capable of supporting quite emotionally affective readings often multiple instances of what I call 'broken arcs': in other words, a line, a gesture, a movement, a change, is set up, which implies a trajectory -- like the curve of a ball being thrown through the air -- and that line, that arc, is then broken -- as if the ball were suddenly to fall directly to the ground -- or, for that matter, rise into the air, or disappear altogether, or turn into a bat and fly off. The feeling is akin to having something snatched away from you. Your expectation -- which is probably not wholly rational, is instinctive rather and not the product of a fully pursued process of prediction and analysis -- is thwarted, ending quite often abruptly in what feels like a confiscation. A lot of comedy, of course, uses this pattern, but the laugh it produces is often discomfited or slightly painful. (Have your youngest nephew or niece tell you the interrupting cow joke fifty times in a row and tell me it isn't harrowing.)

Very often, however, the dynamic sensation of the broken arc is only partly to do with this sudden withdrawal. The best artists -- including all the choreographers named above -- know that when they pull the rug out from under you, whether in the most fleeting, momentary way (with a single gesture) or in their organization of the trajectory of an entire piece, the greater emotional jolt for the subject comes not from then plummeting into some abyss, but, Gloucester-like, landing a second later on a patch of ground you hadn't understood was beneath your feet all this time. In theatre, the ideal rendering of this makes you suddenly aware of the x-axis, the slow inexorable creep along the timeline, which in a live context makes everything you've already experienced unrecoverable, except in unreliable memory or stilted documentation. Complicite always used to be incredibly good at this; these days, there's often so much video on the stage it's impossible to believe, or invest, in the liveness of the work in the first place -- but equally, few of their arcs break these days either, so this particular problem doesn't so much arise.

Most importantly, in throwing our attention to the ground beneath our feet, the artist should also remind us that it was there all the time: only our attention had become disconnected from it -- the kind of disconnection that appals Andre and narcotically comforts Wally. And so in one wrenching moment we experience both the vertical sensation of collapse and the horizontal sensation of persistence. There are two musical examples I want to cite before we return to poor old obscured Pete Seeger, the ostensible subject of this post.

Twice in shows -- The Consolations in 1999 and Escapology in 2004 -- and in fact, more precisely, at the climax of those pieces -- I've used Charles Ives's still-extraordinary The Unanswered Question, which is now, amazingly, over a century old (though the orchestral version I think dates from the '30s) but I think will sound 'modern' for some time yet, as its radically diagrammatic superposition of the tonal and the atonal, in an apparent contest that ultimately doesn't so much resolve as expire, enacts an argument that remains current and, to some ears, pretty disturbing. If you don't know the piece, here's a serviceable (if slightly glossly) version by the Filarmonica della Scala under the direction of the Venezuelan wunderkind (or, rather, nino maravilla) Gustavo Dudamel:

It's pretty obvious that, in relation to the model I described above, those shudderingly chilly strings are the horizontal plane, proceeding with impervious serenity while an increasingly freaked-out dialogue unfolds between the solo trumpet (as questioner) and the flute quartet (as flustered respondents). It wouldn't be quite right to talk about that dialogue in terms of arc-breaking, it's more organic (in a sort of Ballardian way) than that, but what you have in effect is an apparently separate layer on which these exchanges take place, and the sense of vertical drop, from that layer to the ground floor below where the placid strings persist, becomes stronger and stronger. The whole thing is awfully reminiscent of that Chris Morris piece from Jam where a man commits suicide by jumping forty times off a first-floor balcony. And it's the combination (in the Ives -- not so much the Jam thing) of an increasingly distraught sense of anguish with the steady persistence of the strings that I find so moving, when either layer without the other would feel either banal or histrionic.

I'm not sure the other piece of music that comes to mind is quite so lofty and I suspect my emotional response to it is more, or at least more obviously, sentimental. It's the song '14th Street' from Rufus Wainwright's 2003 album Want One. In the midst of a typically overblown arrangement, an almost wall-of-sound sheet of vocal harmonies supports Wainwright's lovelorn chorus lines:
"Why'd you have to break all my heart?
Couldn't you have saved a little bit of it?
Why'd you have to break all my heart?
Couldn't you have saved a minor part?"
And the part that I find so deeply, weepily moving comes right at the end of the track, where almost everything quite steeply fades out, and our focus is suddenly thrown to the beautifully plodding ostinato of the banjo that's been there all along, played by none other than Kate McGarrigle, who, you'll surely know, is Rufus's mother. It gets me right there. Obviously this is, far more than is the case with the Ives, a highly subjective response: it matters that I know who's playing that banjo; it matters to me that Rufus's heartbreak is (presumably) of the gay kind; it matters that my own mother -- no banjoist she, but a quietly unassuming and sweetly persistent stalwart -- died a long while ago, and I miss her more in listening to those few seconds of Kate McGarrigle than in the course of any other normal daily round. But it tickles my lachrymal glands mostly because of that confiscation when the song is suddenly withdrawn, and the revelation of that x-axis banjo that was there all along -- like that horrible (but sometimes weirdly, bullyingly efficacious) funeral fave story of the man who looks back along the pathway of his life to see that God walked beside him all the way except in times of strife and torment, when only one set of footsteps could be seen... blah... (You know the rest, right?)

It may be hard to see how all this relates to Pete Seeger, given that the examples I've described rely on a certain complexity or plenitude which is suddenly taken away; more often than not heard as a soloist with only his own guitar or banjo as accompaniment, Seeger seems hardly to possess the wherewithal (let alone the inclination) to go around arc-breaking and, by so doing, throw some hitherto unremarked element into relief.

But then you start thinking about the curiously insistent, sometimes almost panicky, way in which Seeger encourages his audience to sing along with him. It may just be his manner, I suppose -- which always was, and I guess still is, notoriously unvarnished -- but when he says "I can't hear you" or "Where are those harmonies now?", he sounds in fact not quite like the scolding schoolteacher he may initially resemble, but more like someone who literally depends upon the participation of his audience for the full realization of his practice: someone for whom that degree of participation is not just icing on the cake ("We are the folk, n'est-ce pas?", as Utah Phillips used to say, cheerfully and encouragingly), but perhaps the most fundamental technology at his disposal.

In that context, the pattern of withdrawal and persistence is most obviously felt in those moments where Seeger, having got his audience to sing, stops singing himself, instead perhaps leading by announcing the lyrics of each line just ahead. (His singing voice now having pretty much given up the ghost, this is essentially what Seeger now does in concert. I guess he's basically a rap artist now.) It's a self-effacing withdrawal intended to help the singing audience feel that they are carriers of the song too, not just temporary assistants. It reminds me of the day I first rode a bike without stabilisers: at first my mum was holding on to the back, and then, imperceptibly to me, she wasn't, and I was off down the road on my own, shouting "Don't let go! Don't let go!" (It sounds like a cute story but I was actually 19 years old at the time.) (...No I wasn't.)

This is not, though, where I think the magic happens: it's more like a kind of preparation for that moment, which comes later. It comes at the point when, as an audience member (or a home listener, identifying with the audience), having experienced the pleasure and communitas -- and not a little shot of adrenalin -- that comes along with having sung songs in the company of strangers, suddenly that structure is taken from you: not necessarily at the end of the evening, but perhaps just at the end of a song. And what you're left with is not the freefall of nothing, of isolation and disorientation, but the ground of everything you were, and everything you had, before. You are cordially reintroduced to your own persistence. It's neither consoling nor agitating, but to some degree inspiring -- in so far as it has to do with breath, with the matter of (what is) breath-taking. To put it crudely: if you're singing, you're breathing (and more aware of it); and if you're breathing, you're persisting. "Everybody sing!" is not just an injunction towards a kind of ad hoc union: it's Seeger's motto for the tactical invocation of the individual within the group, an insistence on your individuality and on a freshly plausible vision of a project for social justice in which no one is left behind. If you're singing, you're breathing. The song ends, the concert ends; we rehearse the sense in which, despite our noble (and self-serving) assertions to the contrary, we know that our experience of art will end before we do. Sure, the song outlives us -- I'm listening yet again to Seeger's fathomlessly moving performance, in true collaboration with his audience, of "The Water Is Wide", on Sing-A-Long At The Sanders Theatre (which I think I've said before in these pages is probably my favourite album of anyone's ever; certainly the Disc I'd most hope to get washed up on a Desert Island still clutching), and know that that song is getting on for 400 years old. But it survives us only if, recognising in the breath rhythm to which we are kindly returned our individual responsibility to the larger group, we elect to carry it a little way ourselves. A song, the way Seeger passes it to us, is a kind of breathing apparatus, in possession of which the realigning realities of the summit of Everest become not only available to us, but tantalisingly local, and liveable.

* * *

Rather a paltry birthday celebration, after all that, to whack up a bunch of YouTube videos. There's a lot of Seeger stuff out there, not all of which is first rate; if you don't know Seeger's work at all, this is a pretty pale introduction. But it at least covers a fittingly wide chronological span, starting with a performance with his old group The Weavers from (I think) 1951; taking in a couple of items excerpted from Rainbow Quest, his self-financed cable tv show from the mid 60s, when he was seeking to reestablish his media presence following a long blacklisted spell having fallen foul of the House Un-American Activities Committee (there's a great transcript here); and ending with Seeger's performance, alongside his most conspicuous present champion Bruce Springsteen, at the Obama inauguration concert in January this year.

I don't know if any American cultural figure of the past fifty years has done more of the right thing than Pete Seeger. Jim Henson, maybe (whose relative lack of longevity can hardly be held against him, though it can certainly be crossly deplored). Reading David Dunaway's excellent biography of Seeger, How Can I Keep From Singing?, one has a picture of a man who can be headstrong to a fault, naive sometimes, perhaps a little vain. I'm not even sure, had I met him in his prime, I'd have liked him. But I feel that I love him, and I don't feel that about many people I've never met. Watch these videos, read what you can about the man, raise a glass to him today: and then go find his 2003 recording of "Sailing Down My Golden River", and listen with all your might as he sings:
Sunlight glancing on the water --
Life and death are all my own --
Yet I was never alone.

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