06 December, 2007

RIP Patato

I was very saddened to read about the passing of legendary conguero Carlos Valdés, aka Patato. Patato was one of those figures who, as a drummer, you couldn't help but know about, even if the music that you played was the furthest thing from Latin jazz. He was a towering presence who played with, among others, Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey and Elvin Jones. The world of percussion has lost one of its greats.

(photo by Martin Cohen, from www.lpmusic.com)

24 November, 2007


In memory of the great muralist Diego Rivera, who died fifty years ago today, please spend some time exploring the Diego Rivera Web Museum .

(Photo by Carl Van Vechten)

14 November, 2007

On Evolution (Yes, that's right: Evolution)

So things have been really busy, and I have been traveling around a lot. It's been great, but has prevented me from having the sort of ruminations I'd have if I were staying at home and working. My latest travels have brought me to the one and only Austin, Texas, where on Monday Audio Inversions performed my descanso (waiting) to rave reviews, and tonight--in about an hour--the UT Wind Symphony will rock my über-cacophonous homage to home, East Coast Attitude.

It's been a great trip, overall, and I have had a chance to get caught up with old friends and see a bit of the Austin freak culture I have heard so much about. Keep Austin weird, indeed.

But today something happened which tainted the experience a little for me. After the dress rehearsal with the UT crew, I went over to the little museum that's right across the street. After about 45 minutes of checking out the old dinosaurs and assorted taxidermy mammals, I ended up on the evolution floor. Getting out of the elevator, I overheard a young boy ask the question: "Mom, what's evolution?"

Fair question I thought. He initially confused evolution with revolution, which I thought was really cute since I have been reading a whole bunch of revolutionary theory. (Nerdsville, totally.) The mother's ultimate answer--or really, non-answer-- troubled me, however.

"What's evolution?" she said, "Well, we don't believe in evolution. We know that God made everything." This was her answer. In a science museum, this was her answer! Why even pretend to educate our children by taking them to a museum and then give them an answer like that!?

Now, I don't care if people believe in creationism--fine, really, do what you want--but please, for the love of Pete, give a better answer than that when your kid asks what evolution is! She didn't even explain the idea of evolution, she just skipped right to the dismissal!

Some public schools teach creationism as "another theory," alongside evolution--in fact, in NJ it's required by law! In light of this, doesn't it only seem fair that a creationist could at least have the courtesy to say what evolution is before dismissing it?

I wanted to yell, as the elevator closed: "God sure did make everything; even evolution!" But then I remembered that it's legal to carry concealed weapons in Texas, so I decided to keep my big Yankee mouth shut. I head back to the cold New York area tomorrow morning, and am looking forward to its snarky charms.

05 November, 2007

Colbert Op-Ed

"Dick Cheney’s fondest pipe dream is driving a bulldozer into The New York Times while drinking crude oil out of Keith Olbermann’s skull"

- Stephen Colbert, as quoted in the intro to his NY Times Op-Ed

18 October, 2007

The City of (Big) Brotherly Love

After a knock-down, drag-out show at Crane Arts last May, Newspeak returns to Philly to do a little more damage. One of New York's edgiest new music bands, Newspeak will join Electric Kompany for an evening of house-shaking socially-conscious music by some of the most daring composers working today. Come on out and hear the music of Missy Mazzoli, Stefan Weisman, Andrea Mazzariello (aka massey), Jonathan Pieslak, Jacob TV, Caleb Burhans, yours truly, and more.

All this--plus an installation by Philadelphia artist Daniel Heyman--makes this a show not to be missed!

Be there! ...rumor is there may be protests.


October 20, 2007 @ 8PM - The Community Education Center, 3500 Lancaster Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19104

• $15 general admission
• $10 discounted tickets available for students (with I.D.) and seniors
• seating is General Admission
• tickets are available for purchase at the door one hour prior to each even


17 October, 2007

Favorite Obsession: Oct. 11-Oct. 19

Pantera - Far Beyond Driven (1994)
(East West Records)

16 October, 2007

Burying Paul, or, "turn me on, dead man"

So, I went to see Across the Universe the other night, which I enjoyed although I can certainly see how someone might not. I always enjoy Julie Taymor's striking imagery, and so for that, it was great. A story based all around characters from Beatles songs (Jude, Sadie, Prudence, etc) thrown into a sort of weirdo narrative, however, was less convincing. Nonetheless, a good time. And the songs are still really great.

After seeing the film, I was sent into a bit of a Beatles fit, dug out my copy of The White Album, and listened. First: what a weird record this is. Great, yes, but totally weird. Second: "Revolution 9" is amazing in how it contextually illuminates what was going on culturally at the time. (John Sinclair talks a little about this in his book Guitar Army; The Beatles and Freak Culture.) What listening made me realize, however, is why I have always disliked Paul McCartney.

Now, those who know me know that I have always had issues with Paul. For a while I thought it was because I am a composer and he is a fake-composer. But that's really not it. I don't really care if Paul writes "classical" music. Someone has to, since none of my friends do it anymore. What really irks me is, I now realize, is his public persona; the character he appeared to play in The Beatles, and has continued to play since. (Regardless of whether it is sincere or not).

Each of The Beatles had their own public image, which has since become their little myths. John was the martyred rebel artsy weirdo who fought the law (even though the law won). George was the spiritual one who--perhaps the most brilliant musician of the lot--was trounced by the Lennon/McCartney musical personality. Ringo was the lucky one. The worst musician of the lot who wrote all of their dopiest songs (Octopus’s Garden?!) and who was the ultimate right-place-at-the-right-time stand-in for Pete Best. (…but more on Ringo another time) And Paul? Well, Paul was the nice one.

And what does it mean to be the nice one? Well--and perhaps this is unfair--to me it always suggested a lack of personal conviction. It was clear that John and George had beliefs. Even Ringo had them, even if his beliefs were more along the lines of "I am going to ride this magic wave as long as I can." Paul always struck me as a bit of a goody-goody who always listened to his record execs. Sometimes I fantasize that he sold his soul to the corporations, which is why he has outlived his more noble band mates.

It will be interesting to see how his myth plays out. What will Paul's legacy be? Will they make movies about him like they have about Lennon? They may, but I can't imagine they will be all that interesting. What could they be about, really? How nice he was? His dramatic friendship with Michael Jackson? ("Paul I told you, I'm a lover, not a fighter!") Who really cares about any of this anyway?!

On a side note, has anyone ever thought how amazing it would be if wacko artist Paul McCarthy were to be inserted into The Beatles line-up? Now that’s a band I'd love to see--all mop tops and Heinz ketchup! Something more akin to GWAR than the Crickets I suspect!

10 October, 2007

Don't You Cross That Line

The UAW is on strike. According to the AP, "It is the first UAW strike against Chrysler since 1997...and the first strike against Chrysler during contract talks since 1985."

I have never been on strike, since there is really no union for what I do. But in 2003 my mother went on strike with her local teacher's union, after working without a contract for a number of years. My mother is not a terribly political person, but the fervor with which she fought her bosses was inspiring.

Some teachers went the scab route. Fearing for their own personal well-being, with no sense of solidarity, they crossed the picket line. Not a good idea. What friendships may have existed between the teachers-turned-scabs and their colleagues ended at the moment. The rest of that year was made unbearable for them. Most of them left for other schools at the end of the year. Interesting, to say the least.

09 October, 2007


"I never understand the radical who comes on TV in a suit and tie. Turn off the sound and he could be the mayor! The words may be radical, but television is a nonverbal instrument! The way to understand TV is to shut off the sound. No one remembers any words they hear; the mind is a technicolor movie of images, not words."

Jerry Rubin, Do It!: Scenarios of the Revolution (1970)

07 October, 2007

On Forgetting How to Compose

In a recent interview on New Music Box, composer Jennifer Higdon spoke very candidly about something that many composers experience quite frequently. That is, the feeling that, upon starting a new composition, one has totally and completely forgotten how to compose. At moments like these, I'll often call Missy, Andrew, Judd, or Joel. Picking up the phone, I just ask: "How, again, do you write music?" To which they almost always reply: "Damned if I know."

04 October, 2007

Newspeak Kicks Off 2007-2008

Sunday, October 07, 2007 at 7 pm
Kitting Factory, Old Office, $6

The very large Newspeak ensemble engulfs the very small Knitting Factory Old Office for a night of exciting music at overwhelming volumes. We’re playing pieces by Mazzariello, Mazzoli, Weisman and Little that are sure to please, plus a special surprise. Come early for a live set by the magically mysterious Massey performing cuts from “Music for War” and stick around for The Motion Sick, from Boston, doing that-indie-rock-thing they do so well. Doors are at 7; Newspeak at 8:00 or so. Good times for all, and only $6 (cheap!)


The Knitting Factory, Old Office
74 Leonard Street
New York, NY 10013

Box Office/Info: 212-219-3132

For more information on Newspeak and our 2007-2008 season, check out these pages.

02 October, 2007

Favorite Obsession: Sept. 27-Oct. 1

Marilyn Manson - Mechanical Animals (1998)
(nothing, Interscope)

01 October, 2007

Just Doing Our Job

On September 18th, the NY Times featured an article and audio slide show about a recently discovered photo album showing the members of the Nazi officer corps during their off-hours at Auschwitz. This is important, Rebecca Erbelding from the US Holocaust Museum tells us, because so little is known about the daily lives of those who managed the death camps; it provides "great insight into the banality of evil." What is more chilling, she continues, is that these images--photos of parties, romps in the woods, and sing-a-longs--were taking place within miles of the daily murder of thousands of Jews and other victims.

One of the lines from Ms. Erbelding that most struck me was the following: "the album reminds us that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were human beings--men and women with families, children and pets--who celebrated holidays and took vacations." In other words, these were people like you and me. People who were just doing their jobs--as unspeakable as those jobs were. People trying to live as normal a life as they could under their particular circumstances.

During the composition of my piece Soldier Songs, as I've mentioned, I interviewed a number of veterans. During these interviews, each soldier made statements to the effect that they were "just doing their jobs." One even said that his daily goal was "do (his) job, look out for (his) friends, get through the day." In this, there is little room for analysis. There is little room to ask questions about what is right or wrong. The goal is to survive.

So my question is this: By "just doing one's job", can one be held accountable in some way for actions that one did not directly commit? Does the doing of one's job in this context support, by default, the entire apparatus in operation? In the end, who should be held accountable, and does it depend on who wins or loses?

Going a step further: Within a democracy, how does this effect the average civilian/consumer/citizen? Are citizens complicit, through the support of their national apparatus, in the actions of that nation's government and/or military? And if not, at what point does this complicity take effect? At what point, if ever, is a population truly responsible for the actions of it's national politico-military-industrial complex?

27 September, 2007

Favorite Obsessions: Sept. 10-Sept. 27

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention - "Freak Out" (1966)
(Barfko-Swill, 1993)

Frank Zappa - "The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life" (1991)
(Barfko-Swill, 1993)

26 September, 2007

Happy Birthday to MATA

I attended the MATA benefit concert last night, celebrating both MATA's 10th anniversary and the 70th birthday of festival co-founder Philip Glass. The event was truly impressive. The performances were excellent and remarkably diverse. Hearing Annie Gosfield's The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory, part II, next to Theo Bleckmann's entrancing anteroom, and Derek Bermel's Thracian Sketches next to Carla Kilstedt's Hold My Own truly illustrated MATA's mission. The mission, so eloquently stated by new executive director Missy Mazzoli at the evening's outset: to allow composers to be themselves, as this is when they are at their best.

Although the whole evening was great, if a bit warm, the high-point for me was the surprise, all-star performance of Knee Play 5 from Einstein on the Beach. This piece, one of my all time favorites, is also probably among the most influential on me as a composer. It has the simplicity and sophistication that I strive for in my own music, and embodied the spirit of an evening marked by honesty, sincerity and love of art.

Congratulations to Missy and everyone at MATA for a really spectacular event. And to MATA: best wishes for another 10 and more!

17 September, 2007

Being Frank

"The biggest threat to America today is not Communism, it's (the) moving (of) America toward a fascist theocracy. (...) Everything that has happened during the Reagan administration is steering us right down that pike."

- Frank Zappa, 1986

10 September, 2007

Favorite Obsession: September 4-September 10

Gillian Welch - "I Dream a Highway" from Time (The Revelator) (2001)
(Acony Records)

06 September, 2007

To The Man You Have To Give The Spirit

This from Bernard Holland's Obituary of Luciano Pavarotti in today's New York Times:

“I’m not a politician, I’m a musician,” [Pavarotti] told the BBC Music Magazine in an April 1998 article about his efforts for Bosnia. “I care about giving people a place where they can go to enjoy themselves and to begin to live again. To the man you have to give the spirit, and when you give him the spirit, you have done everything.”

05 September, 2007

Why I Don't Want an EZ Pass, Part II

In light of the recent strike in NYC over the installation of GPS units in cabs, I thought I would continue my EZ Pass post. Below is Part II. (Go here for Part I)


What bothers me, though, is not whether or not the government listens to our phone conversations. We all know that they can and do. What bothers me is that people seem to be so docile about it. People seem to have either accepted surveillance as a normal part of life, or just don't even give it much thought. For me, neither of these feels quite right.

In one of our many talks on political music, my friend Seth mentioned a generation of composers—Italian I think—who "knew what it was like to live under fascism," and behaved accordingly, artistically and otherwise. Could this be it? Do we Americans just not know what it is like to live under fascism and so don't see constant surveillance as among its signifiers? I think this might be part of it, but, as my friend Jeff suggested, and I agree, it is something more uniquely American—more uniquely Capitalist.

I mentioned The Lives of Others earlier, which if you haven't seen you should. In this film, the East German Stasi monitor a playwright who is believed to be, among other things, straying from Communist ideology. (Ideology is something that will be discussed a lot in these pages, I predict.) In a fascist state ideology is key. After all, along with its cousins propaganda and force, ideology, one could argue, is a primary source of totalitarian strength. In this context, the government listens in to insure that its citizens are ideologically adherent, securing the regime's retention of power.

But in a Capitalist system the bottom line is, well, capital. Because of this—and here is Jeff's point—if the average American (which is to say the average apolitical consumer) was being monitored by the government, it would more likely be so that the they could be more efficiently and effectively sold to than it would be to insure any ideological adherence. Of course, one could further argue that buying is Capitalist ideology, and thus ideological adherence is, in fact, being monitored.

(to be continued…)

03 September, 2007

Favorite Obsession: August 28-September 3

Marc Blitzstein: The Cradle Will Rock - Original 1985 Cast Recording
(Jay Records, Released 1999)

01 September, 2007

Ol' Red Pete

"I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it."

- Pete Seeger, New York Times, January 22, 1995

25 August, 2007

Why I Don't Want EZ Pass, Part I

I recently attended a family event. On the way there I overshot my exit and had to back track a bit before reaching the final destination. When I arrived, still pretty much on time, one of my uncles said "you really should get a GPS device for your car." I offered a tossed-off reply, joking that I would rather not, as I didn't want the government to know where I was at all times.

Now, I know as well as the next person that by having a cell phone and using credit cards, I am totally traceable. I have no alternate identity, no secret underground network to hide me, nor have I burned off my fingerprints with chemicals. All in all, becoming invisible would be tough. The fact that I spend most of my time at home writing or composing, and that frankly, I like attention, doesn't help either. If some G-Men wanted to find me, it's a pretty safe bet even the dumbest of agents could do it. Yet despite this I somehow feel that having a GPS unit or an EZ Pass would be trading personal freedom for convenience.

So, okay, I know this is probably ridiculous, but I am pretty sure I am not alone in my dystopian paranoia. The fact that marketing research (or worse) is being conducted through the guise of things like Facebook doesn't really help convince me that something fishy isn't going on under all the fun and convenience. But whenever I make some knowingly paranoid comment about the government, people seem to react in one of two ways. They either dismissively inform me that the government already has total power to know where I am at all times if they wanted to; or they tell me that the government is so incompetent that they couldn't do it even if they tried. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

to be continued…

13 August, 2007

Favorite Obsession: August 7-August 13

The Fiery Furnaces: Rehearsing My Choir (2005)
(Rough Trade)

06 August, 2007

Favorite Obsession: July 31-August 6

Judas Priest: Painkiller (1990)

03 August, 2007

Speaking Truth to Power: The Story of Ms. X

Nico recently posted about a serious—and totally avoidable—problem in the US military: the firing of highly skilled Arabic-speaking soldiers because of their violation of "don't ask, don't tell". This post struck a personal chord with me. Like many, I find this policy to be problematic to say the least. Unlike most people, however, I actually know one of the linguists in question. Let's call her Ms. X.

Ms. X and I first met in 2004. We quickly became friends, and in 2006, she contributed a wonderfully moving interview to be used in my composition Soldier Songs. At one point in the interview, she told the story of her separation from the military. The exchange seems somehow important to share and so, with her permission, I have paraphrased it below.

Ms. X was at the top of her class in military language school. She had recently been promoted to the rank of Sergeant, for which she was sent to Sergeant school. At the opening convocation, the Commandant told the in-coming class something to the effect of: "If you have any reason that you think you shouldn't be here, you've got until 9 pm tonight to let me know. After that, there is no turning back." Later that night, after some serious thought, Ms. X went to the Commandant's office. Tired of living a lie, she took a deep breath, knocked on the door, and entered.

After the obligatory salutes and yes-sir/no-sir greetings, Ms. X told the Commandant that she was gay. The Commandant turned to his right-hand man: "First Sergeant, did you hear what this Sergeant just said?" The First Sergeant replied: "No Commandant, I didn’t hear a thing." The Commandant turned back to Ms. X and said: "Sergeant, I am going to give you a chance to unsay what you just said." Yet she restated her piece. "You realize what this means, Sergeant?" he asked. Affirmative.

Ms. X was immediately removed from the barracks and went home to her girlfriend, another military linguist. She received an honorable discharge—she "told"; it's only dishonorable if they "catch" you—and left the military life behind. It is worth mentioning that Ms. X’s separation became official in September, 2001. Had she remained silent, there seems little doubt that she would currently be serving her country, likely stationed in the Middle East.

There are many different types of bravery in this world, especially when considering the military. One of my uncles jumped out of a plane into the jungles of Laos. Another was abandoned by his helicopter in the jungles of Vietnam, surrounded by Viet Cong. A good friend from high school acted as a makeshift medic in Iraq after the lead HUMVEE in his caravan struck an IED. These are brave acts performed by brave individuals. Few would contest this.

Ms. X is equally brave. And although one could argue that her bravery is of a different sort, to me, it is no less honorable. She possessed the courage to speak truth to power. How many of us can honestly say we have done that in as direct a manner, and at such high stakes?

01 August, 2007


According to the New York Times, Rupert Murdoch has succeeded in buying Dow Jones & Company, which publishes The Wall Street Journal, for $5 billion. If you have any question as to why this acquisition is troublesome, go turn on Fox News for a bit.

Actually, don't.

31 July, 2007

Music As Weapon?

Although I have posted a few items already, I thought it might be time to contribute something other than quotations or accounts of my latest most-favorite recording. So, to begin: what's the deal with this blog, and why is music a weapon?

Since the late-nineties, I have been fascinated by the idea of political music, and since the early-oughts have dedicated much of my time to the topic. Many hours have been spent thinking about the numerous problems that arise from the combination of (classical) music and politics/activism, and what to do about it. Can these be effectively combined? If so, how?

In pursuing answers to my questions, I have composed a number of works that could be considered political on some level. I also founded and run an ensemble, which is dedicated to the exploration of these questions. Lastly, and most recently, I am writing my doctoral thesis on the topic. With all of these elements in play, I feel that I am getting closer to an answer—although certainly not the answer—and intend to post to that effect on this blog.

The title of the blog comes from the 1934 Workers' Songbook, which states in its foreword: "Music is a Weapon in the Class Struggle." This saying served as justification/motivation for members of the allegedly failed Composers' Collective [Copland, Seeger, Siegmeister, et al.], and a number of other [Eisler, Wolpe, Dessau] young, left-leaning, fellow-traveling, communist-with-a-little-c composers.

From what one reads, these folks really believed—at least for a time—that music could be a weapon for social change, and composed their music accordingly. Do I agree? We'll get to that.

30 July, 2007

Favorite Obsession: July 24-30

Henri Dutilleux: Symphonie No. 1
Orchestra National de Lyon, Serge Baudo, coductor
(Harmonia Mundi)

Variations on the Death of Trotsky

"Artistic creation has its own laws--even when it consciously serves a social movement. Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy, and the spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of revolution only insofar as it remains faithful to itself."

Leon Trotksy, letter to the editors of the Partisan Review, 1938

23 July, 2007

Favorite Obsession: July 17-23

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum: In Glorious Times (2007)
(The End)

22 July, 2007

Weapons of Privilege

"You were born a white man in mid-twentieth century industrial America. You came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons. The weapons of privilege: racial privilege, sexual privilege, economic privilege. If you wanna be a pacifist it's not just giving up guns, and knives, and clubs, and fists, and angry words. But giving up the weapons of privilege and going into the world completely disarmed. Try that!"

U. Utah Philips, Weapons of Privilege

16 July, 2007

Favorite Obsession: July 9-16

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10
Ostankino Large Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Fedoseyev, conductor.
(Moscow Studio Archive)