textMay 21, 2013 1:30 pm
By Alexia Chandon-Piazza, who used to sing with La Cigale de Lyon under the direction of Anne-Marie Cabut. Now she sings the way she does most things, that is, without direction and with great eagerness. She has a website.
It was a late afternoon on the 5th floor of a primary school in the city centre. I was seated in the tier reading a comic book. My mum had always wanted me to learn music. I didn’t want to play the violin or the piano, so she suggested I sing. I was 6, and said okay. After one year she was told I should audition for a bigger, high-level choir that was in my city. So here I am, on a sunny day of summer, a few days away from the grandes vacances, reading my book, waiting for my turn to sing. Everybody else has sung, my mother is pressing me to get up. I close my book and walk down to the piano. The choirmaster asks me my name. “Alexia Chandon-Piazza,” I say, in the faintest voice. “WHAT?” she roars, putting her hand behind her ear.
♦ ♦ ♦
Choral music has existed since Antiquity, transforming itself into Gregorian, Renaissance, Romantic music and the like, and it has often been associated with Christianity. Yet — this choir was laic. Of course we sang many songs from different sacred repertoires, but there was no religious education around those pieces — we sang it for the beauty of the music, not necessarily for the message it conveyed. At least that’s how I viewed things, not being a Christian myself. I discovered through music the gems, though, old and new, as well as secular pieces. I discovered Benjamin Britten, William Byrd, but also Fosco Corti, Arne Mellnas and many other composers.
The first rehearsal. I’m on the left side of the tiers with the soprani, sitting between older singers — they’re 14, 15. I am handed a score. I don’t know how to read it but I don’t want to tell anyone, so I pretend to follow along. I get lost. It is the Litanies à la Vierge Noire by Poulenc. Not exactly the kind of music I’m used to. The lyrics go “Dieu le Saint Esprit sanctificateur, ayez pitié de nous.” I don’t understand anything. I leave the score on my lap and start listening. I am taken by surprise by the beauty, and while I cannot comprehend everything that is going on, I listen, open-mouthed. The choirmaster stops, adjusts the intention, the colour of a group of voice, the nuances. She sculpts the voice of the choir as if it were matter, hears the strand of voice that doesn’t go with the flow, adjusts, makes the choir repeat, again and again.
Entering the choir allowed me to travel the world more than many adults ever will. I went on tours in France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Belgium, Ireland, and China. I stayed at people’s place and ate the food they made for me. We talked even if we didn’t share the same language. I got to sing in Arabic, Japanese, French, English, Chinese, German, Spanish, Gaelic — even in invented languages with Joiku by Jukka Linkola — all of this with more or less accurate accents. My mother and I welcomed foreign choir singers in our home and shared a few days with them. I overcame my shyness, both with the contact of all the amazing persons I met, as well as through the audience. I got to sing in front of many, many people, both small audiences and large ones. I sang in tiny churches in the middle of the French countryside, as well as in the Forbidden City, where three thousands spectators sat in front of us and behind us.
The chance to travel and to meet people from around the world is most definitely a great lesson in humanity and respect. Once, during a tour in Czech Republic, we sang Teče, voda, Teče, a Moravian folk song, apparently a favourite of the former President Masaryk. The family who was welcoming me in their home was of course in the audience. When the concert finished, I simply remember being lifted off the ground by the father of the family, and pressed against his heart while he tried to express how much the song had moved him. How could we, how could I, as small as I was, move a tall and strong adult man to tears, I wondered. I believe now that it was not simply the song or our probably clumsy interpretation that moved him. I think it’s the connection. To hear this song so dear to his heart, that reminded him of past struggle, of loss and joy, sang by children who had no idea of the struggle, the loss or the joy, who simply carried on the emotion contained in this song. I know it will sound way too sentimental, but in French, chœur (choir) and cœur (heart) are perfect homophones.
I grew up with this choir, both literally and figuratively. Some of the friends I made during these years will stay with me for life for all the moments and firsts we experienced together. It taught me the importance of transmission, responsibility and fraternity. When I was a child, I didn’t get the French national motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” The first two were simple and natural, but the latter I didn’t understand – fraternity was too complex a concept. Yet, with the choir I learned a lot about sorority. Young girls, young women taking care of each other, confiding in each other, creating and playing together. I remember the annual workshop in the countryside. We would meet in one of our dormitories, or sit on the bathroom’s floor, sharing sweets and stories. We would gather outside in the evenings, improvising music, sometimes experimental, sometimes rap, sometimes lyrical. On the last night we would chat all night long, whispering and lighting ourselves with the screens of our mobile phone, so as not to draw the adults attention to us. We would grow up, together.
textMay 21, 2013 1:01 pm
By Evan Fleischer, who lives in Boston, Massachusetts. When he isn’t editing Somersault Magazine, he is a writer-at-large.
Can’t you see what everybody wants from you?
Forgive the kids
for they don’t know how to live.
— St. Vincent, “Cruel.”
There are days when I wonder if the collective strength of St. Vincent, Feist, Cat Power, Fiona Apple, and Esperanza Spalding have been overlooked — not in terms of being an attempt to proactively ‘fix’ things the way Auden held up an affirming flame at the end of “September 1, 1939,” but just in terms of the bared teeth of it all — that this is the levy of well-deserved and well-earned pride that holds some of the tide of indignity back, where the figurative waves crash up against the walls again and again in the form of Foster Fries making a crude penicillin joke, Dylan Byers needlessly flirting with a woman at The New Republic in the thoroughly elegant and compelling manner of a yuk-yuk 70’s cop show, and that — even though it’s a world where —
They could take you or leave you,
so they took you — and they left you.
— and even though there’s a cop who “roughed someone up” and the singer thinks it’s “the end of time” in “Northern Lights” and tries to find a way to help someone sleep in “Strange Mercy,” it’s nevertheless about defiantly saying, slowly and deliberately — even though the narrator doesn’t know “what good it serves / pouring my purse in the dirt” — but — you know — just in case you can’t hear it —
I, I, I —
I don’t want to be your cheerleader no more.
Our focus here is St. Vincent and the album known as Strange Mercy. After a power-draining experience — or possibly something worse — it’s no wonder the narrator seeks refuge in S&M in “Chloe in the Afternoon” by setting the terms that say there will be “no kisses and no real names.”
It’s odd that we overlook this.
It’s odd that some reviewers continued to focus on the “naivety of the fairytale strings” — as The Guardian did. It’s odd that Pitchfork wondered if the album was about “an almost-30 indie musician’s lament” and claimed that the album “exists in its own universe” — as if people don’t treat other people the way they do in the lyrics. It’s nowhere near as bad as the obsession the press seemed to have when they learned that Annie Clark listened to some Disney music while working on Actor — though Wyndham Wallace returned to that form by complementing the “Disney-esque strings” in “Cruel” and ignoring its lyrical content (which — let’s be clear — is a song about taking a woman’s body by metaphor or literal force) over at the BBC — but it’s pretty close.
“This collection of Disney-inspired songs,” Vanity Fair once said. “It’s some Disney-quality vocal work,” says one outlet. “This explains the Disney sound of ‘The Strangers,’” says another. “Annie Clark may look like an animated Disney heroine sprung to life,” says yet another. “The follow-up to her acclaimed debut is like a Disney soundtrack for the GarageBand age,” says another.
textMay 21, 2013 12:30 pm
By Torie Rose DeGhett, who writes freelance about politics and music, and is a contributing arts writer at Aslan Media. (And is also one of Somersault’s two editors.)
“Sharia laaaawwww…” The opening track on The Kominas’ debut album Wild Nights in Guantánamo Bay hits hard at anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, a surreal flash of satire that pounds through your ears. The Kominas pull off being both alienating and alluring at the same time. They have incredible musical talent and lyrics that are harsh and gleeful, but well-chosen. ”Sharia Law in the U.S.A” mocks and ridicules profiling and institutional Islamophobia, jabbing at the radicalizing nature of security measures:
Cops chased me out of my mother’s womb
My crib was in state pen before age two
The cops had bugged my red toy phone
So I devised a plan for heads to roll…
Being Muslim in the US in the twenty-first century has meant an unrelenting scrutiny, a patchwork of stereotype and profiling including the ignorance of public assumption and the direct attack of authorities.
Challenging Islamophobia is a core tenet of the band’s musical purpose. They aim to overturn assumptions about Muslims, and impugn the legitimacy of institutional anti-Muslim sentiment in the US. Guitarist Sunny Ali says “We used the media’s Islamophobia to get attention the same way they used us and continue to use Islam for their headlines. We are also tapping into people’s stereotypes and turning it around on them for our own benefit. Turning a minus into a plus.”
Addressing the world’s myriad minuses with a punchy, invasive musical style has been a theme of theirs since the band’s beginning. (It should be noted that the current membership of the band has undergone lots of shifts since The Kominas started playing.) Among the songs on Wild Nights, their first full-length album, is “Rumi Was a Homo (But Wahhaj is a Fag),” written in response to homophobic comments by Imam Siraj Wahhaj. The logic of using such a slur to hit back at someone for being homophobic is an obvious question, but The Kominas (whose name roughly translates as “the bastards” or “the scumbags”) often make their way on insults and contrarian juxtapositions. This is the same band that sings “I want a handjob” in virtually the same breath as “Subhanallah (Glorious is Allah).” The lyrics from “Rumi Was a Homo,” “Conventional opinion is the ruin of souls/Bhai-jaan it’s my prose I can’t control,” feels like one of the best descriptions of the band itself and its members, using their witty, sarcastic lyrics to escape the ruination of conventionality.
The punk-meets-bhangra mix of sound that The Kominas produce is a jumble, each song shifting up the pace and the tone. Soundwise, they have a great deal of unpredictability. The changes from album to album might come from the membership changes the band has gone through since they first got in people’s faces by calling Rumi a homo, but from song to song they shift up, varying sounds and styles from jarring to smooth. When reached by email, Sunny Ali says that their musical influences are many and ever-changing, starting with a foundational mix of punk, hip-hop and Bollywood and moving on to the “endless crate” that is YouTube, which offers up everything from reggae to psychedelic African rock. It’s the lyrics that make a song one by The Kominas. Sunny Ali notes that in the process of writing, “the lyrics are usually what turns it into an actual song.”
textMay 21, 2013 12:03 pm
By Qainat Khan, who works as a radio producer in Boston.
The underground system of tunnels and platforms at New York City’s Times Square station is vast, stretching for city blocks. More than 58 million people passed through this particular stop in 2011, making it the busiest transit point in the entire Metropolitan Transit Authority system. It is not a pleasant place to linger: moldering and drippy, and overrun with rats. But it is here that Nick Moyer, a mechanical engineering student at Columbia University, willingly spends his time.* He doesn’t descend into the subway for his studies. Moyer is a one-man band of accordion, trumpet, and improvised percussion — a busker.
The tall and wiry 22-year-old balances the accordion on his lap and pushes its buttons with his left hand to make chords. With his right hand, he plays the melody on his trumpet, using his feet to beat out a rhythm on his suitcase. “I have to put in another dollar!” calls out a guy in a deerstalker hat one December afternoon as Moyer launches into the Gershwin classic “Summertime.” “That’s amazing!” adds the newly converted fan before boarding his train.
There are 468 subway stations in New York City, and 1.6 billion people rode the trains. Nearly all of them, at one point or another, encountered a musician along the way. So while the subway system may be noisy and smelly—even, sometimes, frightening—it is also home to moments of unlikely spontaneity and beauty. Who would expect to find classical music—what many consider the highest of art forms—in the lowliest of places?
Just across town from Times Square Station, Grand Central Terminal blesses its bored and frustrated commuters with a ceiling dotted with glittery constellations, marble halls lit by chandeliers, and, occasionally, tunnels echoing with classical music. On this particular afternoon, the strains of James Graseck’s violin mingle with the hurried footsteps and random chatter. Those with any knowledge of classical music will recognize the precise counterpoint of Bach. Dressed formally in black concert attire, Graseck is deep in conversation with a small blonde boy whose backpack is enormous on his tiny frame. The boy is telling the older man about the Paganini capriccio he’s in the process of learning with his private teacher. The two try to figure out just which of the master’s 24 caprices it might be, Graseck eventually playing the last note of the fugue with a flourish, then handing his instrument over to the boy.
In a time where music has come to be mostly a solitary experience, recorded music heard via headphones, subway musicians remind us of the vital, spontaneous and participatory aspects of music making. For the art form isn’t just an aesthetic experience, it is a social one as well. And the social is where we learn how to be well-adjusted human beings—to engage with each other and our environment.
According to anthropologist Susie Tanenbaum in Underground Harmonies, her 1995 ethnography of the city’s subway musicians, when New York opened its first subway in 1904, performers weren’t legally allowed to play inside (though many did it anyway). It wasn’t until the 1930s, under Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, that the rules against underground performance began actually to be enforced. Much of the increased prosecution had to do with the conflation of street musicians and panhandlers. (Panhandling is illegal.) People continued to play despite the rules against it, and over the decades, enforcement was haphazard at best. A series of cases in the 1980s finally codified and decriminalized the act of making music in the subways; artistic performance in public spaces, the court decided, was protected as speech under the First Amendment. To its credit, the subway has been a launching point for some commercially famous acts, including the indie band the Freelance Whales.
In New York City, it’s legal for subway musicians to perform on any platform at any stop. There are certain caveats—musicians need to stop during announcements and they can’t sell CDs or play inside the subway cars. Lydia Bradshaw, who conducts the MTA’s MUNY program, says that musicians are expected, along with everyone else who rides the subway, to adhere to the MTA’s Rules of Conduct. The MTA, in fact, sponsors a program called Music Under New York (MUNY), in which artists audition to get access to some of the most-trafficked spots in the system—like specific platforms in Times Square and Grand Central. Those accepted into the program go through a scheduler to reserve times for the desirable locations. Otherwise, musicians are free to set up anywhere they like, though those without the banner that comes along with MUNY membership tend to get harassed from time to time by police officers who don’t always know the rules regarding freelancers, and may make arbitrary decisions about who can play where and when.
textMay 21, 2013 11:30 am
By David Grossman, who is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter is @davidgross_man, his Tumblr is onemanbandstand.tumblr.com. He thinks the best albums of 2013 so far are Kasey Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park and Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap.
As my bus pulls up on the corner of Prospect and Dodd in East Orange, New Jersey, I see Guitaro 5000 through the window, walking out of his house. I bolt out of my seat, ready to jump on him. It’s a few minutes past 11 AM on a Sunday, and I’m late to our meeting. I’m a nervous wreck as I run out of the bus, and yell “GUITARO,” which gets him to turn around. He’s about six foot with a beefy body that comes from weightlifting, and is perfect size for, say, a running back. He’s the best street musician in New York, which puts him in the running for the best street musician in the world. I was convinced I’d ruined his day by being late, and he’s kind enough to let me know nothing could be further from the truth—he had trouble finding his jacket, he couldn’t give me better directions because he hates texting with a touchscreen, and so on.
I first encountered Guitaro (née Reginald Guillame) on the L train at least half a year ago, and I haven’t been able to get him out of my mind since. He was playing my car — my car! — and performed an amazing version of “Billie Jean.” He wears a mini-Fender amp on his hip, and his hands fly between the strings and the top of the guitar, turning the electronics on and off. He sings adequately, but more than makes up the ground by his earnestness. On the L, he seemed so into Michael Jackson’s message of equality—“if you wanna be my baby, it don’t matter if you’re black or white!”—that it was impossible not to catch his enthusiasm. And if that doesn’t get you, the bag he takes in donations in will — it details in a friendly yet meticulous manner how this money will go towards his nursing school education — heck, it even encourages you to ask for his transcript.
His biggest problem for a while now has been figuring how to parlay busking into gigs — playing restaurants, weddings, sessions, concerts, whatever will pay. He has a rotation of three or four songs that he knows get him money from passersby, but that doesn’t show his versatility. He’s compiled a list of 100 songs, over two-pages, that he has memorized. He knows “400, 500 songs really well” but needs his HP tablet for most of them — to remind himself of tabs and lyrics. These are a mix of old and new, fast and slow, everything from Sam Cooke to The Lumineers.
After we hit up Staples, it’s off to the bus to Newark to catch the a train out to the Long Island Railroad stop at Penn Station, which we’ll go out to Far Rockaway in Queens, where — wait for it, you’re almost there — he’s got a recording session. Guitaro is twenty-five, and like everyone else who is twenty-five or thereabouts these days, there’s one question that preoccupies his thoughts — how can anyone make money doing anything? He’s been talking to me almost non-stop since we me about the business side of his music—wondering if he should sign officially with his manager, singing the praises of his assistant, and why passion is bullshit. “I don’t know if you want to print this, but certain musicians describe themselves as passionate. I could never do that, because I do this as my living. It’s, like, you don’t tell your wife you love her everyday. But you do!” On the bus, he asks again and again about journalism, what my goals are and how I think I can make it work for myself, and how I could use technology to improve my career.
Guitaro 5000 is one of those people who become obsessed with an idea and followed it through. He listened to a lot of radio rock when he was in his mid-teens, bands like Hoobastank and Creed, and wanted to do what they did. And so he did. He wanted to learn guitar. He did. His first venture into subway performance – sometime in his late teens – scared him off, but since age 21 he’s been doing this consistently ever since.
Music is his job, he reminds me several times. Making money is ingrained into the Guitaro 5000 experience — the ‘5000’ comes from the $5,000 he owed his nursing school at the time. He’s clearly dedicated to nursing school — during travel breaks, when we’re not talking he’s often studying for a final on his phone — but there’s no future in it. Not his future, at least. Music is going to pay for school, yes, but if Guitaro has his way it’ll also pay for everything else. And on good nights, it can — Guitaro estimates that on good nights, he’ll make thirty dollars an hour playing in the subway, and – on great nights – fifty. Playing on a subway platform is protected by the First Amendment, but entertaining in a subway car falls under direct violation of the MTA Rules of Conduct, Section 1050.6, Subsection 3(A), and Guitaro’s run afoul of it enough to know it’s fully enforced — he’s been arrested twice for playing subway cars, and that’s more trouble than its worth. Thinking about this makes him shake his head.
Rockaway and Queens beckon, and while we’re standing around checking train times Guitaro notices a singer nearby. It doesn’t take long for him to start critiquing her style. Her sound is kind of tinny, he says, but what really antagonizes him is her spot — the busking game is all about spot-finding and mobility, and the spot she’s in is gold. Guitaro points out that her key spot — main corridor near the entrance to the 1, 2, and 3 lines, next to McDonald’s — has been bequeathed to her by Music Under New York, or MUNY, the MTA’s official musician-handlers. Not that all their spots are money-makers, but they can give you security — the MTA is God down here, and if they reserve you a spot it’s yours, no questions asked. Guitaro’s getting his permit next month, and can already envision what he’ll do with the spot — a big amp, maybe even a drummer and a backup singer. He doesn’t need them — he’s gone through around “twenty, thirty” subway partners through the years, and none have made a substantial difference in what he’s earned. But it could work.
textMay 21, 2013 11:01 am
By Corinne Grinapol, who is a writer born, raised, and currently living in Brooklyn. She tweets at @corinneavital.
Around the turn of the 12th Century, a group of nomads belonging to the Imakcharen Tuareg tribe were roaming with their camels through the southern fringe of the Sahara desert in West Africa. When they reached the Niger River—in the semi-arid land at the intersection of the Sahara and Savannah now called the Sahel— they stopped, setting up a camp so their animals could graze. The Tuaregs would return to their home in the north, but not before leaving the place in the care of an old woman named Buktu. The site would eventually become a permanent city, and to this day, the city still bears the old woman’s name: the place of Buktu, or Timbuktu. This, at least, is one of Timbuktu’s creation myths.
The geographical reach of the Tuareg’s land extended well past Timbuktu, and today the Tuareg are spread across Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria and Burkina Faso. With many Tuareg maintaining their nomadic lifestyle through to the modern era, certain sites in the Sahel serve as annual gathering points for the Tuareg to reconnect, share and exchange news, gossip and ideas. The soundtracks to these meetings are the live musical performances that are a part of Tuareg life. In 2001 the Tuareg opened this tradition to the rest of the world, hosting the first annual Festival au Désert in Tin Essako, a small village in Mali’s northeastern Kidal region.
The festival’s name sounds romantic, but it’s quite literal. In Essakane, the small village west of Timbuktu that has been the festival’s permanent home since 2003, the festival stage stands in a clearing of flat sand, surrounded by the soft rolls of the Sahara’s sand dunes. Westerners mingle with indigo-veiled Tuareg men and visitors from around the rest of the region—onstage and off. Both Bono and Manu Chao have performed in the lineup, which is mostly made up of more local acts from Mali, Senegal, Niger, and Mauritania. Some of Mali’s most legendary performers, including the late bluesman Ali Farka Touré and Khaira Arby, nicknamed the Queen of Desert Blues, have taken to this desert stage.
Around 2007, the festival began to attract visitors of an entirely different sort. Residents began to notice Islamists from outside Mali’s borders on the fringes of the festival. At first they were silent onlookers, then slowly began to voice their disapproval of the revelry and the Western visitors the festival attracted. These Islamists were more specifically Salafists, followers of a severe interpretation of Islam, who seek to return the entire Islamic world to their vision of a puritanical version of the religion, one they believe existed during the Prophet Mohammed’s time, supposedly before scholarship, diversification of the religion and the spread and interaction of Islam with other cultures.
textMay 21, 2013 10:30 am
By Evan Fleischer, who lives in Boston, Massachusetts. When he isn’t editing Somersault Magazine, he is a writer-at-large.
To be in Berlin then meant — per Tony Visconti, a long time producer of Señor David Bowie — “we could see the Wall [from the control room] and we could see over the wall and over the barbed wire to the Red Guards in their gun turrets … We asked the engineer one day whether he felt uncomfortable with the guards staring at him all day. They could have easily shot us from the East, it was that close. With a good telescopic sight, they could have put us out. He said you get used to it after a while and then he turned, took an overhead light and pointed it at the guards, sticking his tongue out and jumping up and down [and] generally hassling them. David and I just dived right under the recording desk. ‘Don’t do that,’ we said, because we were scared to death!”
To be in Berlin today means something else altogether, but — in the spirit of Leonard Cohen saying in his Prince of Asturias speech that “No country is just a credit rating” — I think it’s fair to say that Bowie’s “Where Are We Now?” isn’t necessarily about just about Berlin — even though it’s riddled with lines like, “Sitting in the Dschungel / On Nürnberger Strasse” — but Europe, too.
To be in Berlin then meant Hauptstraße 155 and Kreuzberg; it meant — per Deutsche Welle — that fans, “rather than hassle Bowie on the street, instead loitered outside record stores, waiting until the musician had departed and then going in to buy the same albums Bowie himself had bought”; it eventually meant the switch from vinyl to digital; it eventually meant songs like, ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire,’ the album World Clique, Achtung Baby (where they began recording on the day of reunification), Wenders’s wandering angels, endless episodes of Das Literarische Quartett, and the ghostly memories of airplanes and the RIAS and oranges on trucks trailing through the clouds above Tempelhof.
I pose the question as to whether or not the song and the moment are suited for each other, mindful of the involuntary response that comes upon us every time a moment strikes us in the figurative knee. You can kind of see it in the compulsion to review books like Capital by John Lanchester or when anyone gets a whiff of anything Michael Lewis happens to pen. (It’s one reason why writers like Simenon and Wodehouse are such good fun — it’s the literary equivalent of Dylan’s ‘Never Ending Tour’ no matter what’s afoot.)
photoMay 21, 2013 10:07 am
IT’S HERE… Somersault’s spring music issue!
Check out our free, downloadable pdf magazine for essays by David Grossman, Qainat Khan, Alexia Chandon-Piazza, Corinne Grinapol and your two editors, Evan Fleischer and Torie Rose DeGhett, not to mention beautiful artwork by Gregory Muenzen. Check back here throughout the day as we post the essays to this Tumblr so you can reblog and otherwise share them individually.
textMay 20, 2013 10:08 am
Be prepared for some wonderful writing on music+politics, and some beautiful artwork.
Check back here to see the issue!
textMar 12, 2013 4:30 pm
(Refresh your memory about the current call and guidelines for spring’s music issue here.)
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