Featured Ryder Films

NEAR MYTH: OSKAR KNIGHT

  Scott Fivelson chronicles the life and times of one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, or does he? Interview by Richard Fish  Oskar Knight is so

Bloomington 1971, Revisited

Change was in the air in Bloomington in 1971; only those in power could fail to notice.

 

 

 

By Charlotte Zietlow

 

 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  –Margaret Mead

 

In 1971, Bloomington was a very different place than the modern city we know today. Surrounded by forests, quarries, hills, and hollers, you couldn’t tell if the home of Indiana University was a boom town or a backwater burg.

City and County governments were run almost entirely by Republican businessmen–upstanding citizens who were active in both their churches and the few charitable organizations in the area. As might be expected at the time, these city officials were men, and the charities they administered were geared mainly toward boys they hoped would someday take their place as city fathers.

In 1971, Bloomington was an  employment center for thousands of workers from Lawrence, Greene, and Owen Counties. The majority of these were women who had come to work for local stalwarts RCA or Sarkes Tarzian, as well as for newly established firms like Westinghouse, GE, and Otis. The Cook empire was still in its infancy then. Along with Tarzian, it had not been unionized, but the other major firms were. Times were good for those who had jobs.

The Bloomington of 1971 was a city ready to flourish. The IU population had tripled to over 30,000 students in just over a decade and beautiful university buildings were sprouting up all over campus. Historical preservation was an unknown concept; elegant, older homes on Walnut and College were torn down to make way for bland, one-story insurance offices.

Mayor Jack Hooker had foreseen the wisdom of at least rudimentary city planning but the rampant residential growth to the east and south went largely unregulated. There were no uniform requirements in place for sidewalks, sewers and gutters.  What older homes that remained were bought up by ambitious landlords and either replaced by poorly built apartments or chopped up into units. The calculations of these landlords were many–they fought vigorously to minimize city mandated maintenance requirements. Green spaces were ignored.

In 1971, Bloomington felt like a closed system.  There was very little interaction between the connected folks on the city council and new residents–the faculty coming from around the  world and other, more developed campus towns, the students and union workers who weren’t born in Bloomington and seemed like a passing phase.  Government meetings were short, simple, and the decisions were made in advance.  New ideas were not encouraged. Neither were questions.  Checks and balances did not exist; beyond a few shunned outliers, the council was perpetually allied to the mayor.

Coming from Minnesota and Wisconsin, as I did, I couldn’t believe that developers didn’t have to help put in sidewalks and provide for storm water on the hilly terrain here. Single family homes were being rezoned without question. Housing codes were not enforced. Citizens raising questions were treated with condescension or ignored.  We had to go to Indianapolis to buy kitchen appliances.  The city government was unreachable—one council member suggesting that if we had a problem we should all go to church.

 

But change was in the air; only those who held all the power could fail to notice.  New IU faculty poured in by the hundreds, coming from sophisticated university cites from all over the world. Most of the new hires at IU were men.  Of course, most of the new faculty were too involved with their work to look around and notice the conditions that surrounded them.  Except for the wives, that is. They had plenty of time to gauge what was happening.

In many ways, our experience in Bloomington was a reflection of what was happening throughout the country.  After all, the sixties hadn’t exactly been a picnic.  In fact, they were incredibly disruptive and challenging.  Following the ‘quiet revolution’ of the Eisenhower years, a New Frontier suddenly appeared.  JFK’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’ urged all toward the future with a renewed sense of responsibility.

The Pill had just reached the mass market, changing the way women and their families could plan their futures.  The Kennedy Peace Corps was unlike anything that had preceded it–a brand new and inclusive approach to the rest of the world.  Those who possessed the stamina and curiosity for exploration suddenly had the structure necessary to do so.  We could now reach out and help other nations much more easily, thereby increasing our understanding of diverse people and places. It was also the beginning of the Space Age, with the funding of NASA motivated by a race to the moon.

Millions of people, young and old alike, were excited. The smell of marijuana wafted through neighborhoods. There was even the possibility that everyone in the nation would receive sufficient health care. It truly was a New Frontier, one that everyone who chose to could participate in. Popular music broke out of its Great American Songbook tradition, the British Invasion mesmerized fans of many different ages, with rock and roll, folk music, and bossa nova added into the mix.

Then in 1961, The Bay of Pigs disaster shook our confidence. The following year, we waited through the fear and anguish of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which had housewives in Ann Arbor wondering if they should even bother to cook dinner. Civil rights leaders were met with systematically cruel responses. Women fought hard to carve out a place for themselves in a male-dominated society, but progress was slow and painful. This remained true even after the Griswold decision allowed married women in Connecticut to purchase contraceptives.

Unbelievably, in front of the whole world, our glamorous, charming leader John F. Kennedy was shot dead. Then, to make it a devastating one-two punch, his alleged murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was also killed before millions of television viewers.

So many of us had worked so hard to arrive in the New World, believing in its promise so deeply that we were filled hope and unbridled enthusiasm. We had a new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, a southerner, very effective as a Senate leader but what could we expect in the areas of civil rights, health care, peace?

 

At first it was a miraculous gift—Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty.  Overriding his fellow southerners, LBJ worked to fulfill Kennedy’s promises.  It was unbelievable, and major pieces remain part of the fabric of our society.

And then we bombed the Bay of Tonkin.  Suddenly, young men were being drafted to take up arms in a tiny country no one had ever heard of and for reasons that were never fully clear.  Young men, boys really, were hustled through basic training and sent off to fight in Vietnam.  Many of these soldiers weren’t even 18 yet.  Consider that for a moment.  These young men found themselves in a tropical land of rivers and jungles, the alien backdrop to a culture and language they didn’t understand.  They were surrounded by both enemies and friends, without any way of knowing which was which.  We had weapons of mass destruction and used them viciously against a force armed with bamboo contraptions and Russian machine guns.

The whole country erupted after that. Friendships and marriages were destroyed by external events. Children disowned their parents and vice versa. It seemed like the whole world was trembling

By the end of the sixties, our country was riven, torn.  Either you were for the war or against it with mounting fury and desperation.  Young men poured out of small towns to enlist, many  choosing the armed services over jail stints for petty crimes.  College students, many of them white and affluent, opted for university deferments. The less well-to-do, who were disproportionately black, had no choice but to go.  Students everywhere insisted that we ‘question authority.’   ‘Never trust anyone over thirty’ was another favorite mantra.  They remained excited about the New Frontier and were willing to help bring it about through protests and violence.  Chaos littered the prosperous times brought about through military production.  Both free love and hatred were rampant.  No, the sixties were certainly no picnic.

The city government was unreachable in 1971—one council member suggesting that if we had a problem we should all go to church. 

The tipping point in Bloomington came with most of the shock waves rolling through the mayor’s office.  A consortium of the largest church congregations had made a proposal to build a high rise apartment building for senior citizens at the intersection of Kirkwood and Dunn, where Dunnkirk Square is currently located.  The City installed parking meters in the residential neighborhoods to underwrite part of the project.  Needless to say, this idea did not sit well with the people who actually lived in those neighborhoods.

The City planned to contribute a substantial tract of land to the project.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t any money in the general fund to pay for it.  Undaunted by this difficult reality, Mayor Hooker dipped into the utilities fund to buy up a large parcel of land downtown.  The plan was to repay this ‘loan’ with the revenues generated by the parking meters.  In the meantime, the church consortium was working with HUD to support the actual construction.

Then something rather important came to light.  Someone had failed to do their homework and using the utilities fund for such a purpose turned out to be illegal.  Ultimately, the mayor and the controller were indicted and brought to trial.  Prosecutor Tom Berry had no choice but to take the case to court.  He did a workmanlike job during the prosecution, but the trial ended in a hung jury.  Eventually, the mayor was fined two dollars and the City was forced to repay the utilities fund.

The fallout from all this was momentous.  Outraged, many Bloomington residents began to attend city council meetings, intent on voicing their complaints.  Unfortunately, they never had the chance.  These angry citizens were denied the right to speak.

But this strategy turned out to be a big mistake because it caught people’s attention and persuaded them to become actively engaged.  The outrage was pervasive throughout Bloomington, but nine of us were upset enough to offer ourselves up as candidates for city council. Along with this writer, the Democratic slate featured Bobbie Bennett, Al Towell, Sherwin MIzell, Hubert Davis, James Ackerman, Richard Behen, Brian de St. Croix and Wayne Fix.  A promising young Republican named William Andrews ran for city judge, on a platform that had much in common with the Democrats’ agenda.  Lastly, members of the old guard selected Frank McCloskey to run against Hooker for mayor.

Most of us were Roosevelt and Kennedy Democrats, but in some ways, we were all very different people. Fortunately, this did not impede our ability to work together.  Although we came from disparate backgrounds, we had several important values in common.  Chief amongst these were transparency and a commitment to citizen participation. We were new and inexperienced, but we certainly weren’t dumb.  We knew how to learn and were willing to listen.  Unlike our predecessors, we actively acknowledged the citizens’ inalienable right to be heard.

We ran in the primary election and became the slate for the fall.

We got down to business quickly.  We worked hard every day.  Most important of all, we persisted.  We had the shared goal of increasing citizen participation and maintaining proper respect for their input.  We wanted informed, professional city management, not constant political jostling.  We wanted to replace the unresponsive cronyism of the past and build a city we could be proud of.

Senator Birch Bayh came from the State of Indiana, not exactly a hotbed of dissent.  He and his staff saw what was happening and responded in kind, one of his aides drafting the 26th Amendment of the constitution and watching in amazement when it was ratified within a few months.  The 26th Amendment granted the right to vote to all U.S. citizens over the age of eighteen.  It was a response to the chant ‘if they’re old enough to die for their country, they’re old enough to vote for the people who send them to their death.’  It went into effect on July 1, 1971.

Strangely enough, Bloomington was the first city in the country to hold a municipal election after that.  We were a college town facing an intense election campaign.  The national press watched closely to see whether the students would ‘take over’ our little city as was generally predicted by the status quo.  Reporters from the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune came to Bloomington.  The city resonated with the dire warnings issued by the establishment.  None of the reporters spoke to us.  The people in power shouted:  ‘the students will take over and ruin our town.’

Amazingly, we won.  We won these seats in an upset and immediately began putting clearly defined policies into practice.  Eventually, we transformed Bloomington by changing the way it did business.  We didn’t turn the city around alone–it was truly a community effort–but we used our positions to lead the charge.

 

A Local Sea Change

Our efforts brought about a much needed paradigm shift.  We created a list of issues called The Better Way to Govern and tackled each of its items in turn.  Take the issue of patronage, for instance.  Instead of the ‘to the victors go the spoils’ approach that dominated the era, we intentionally retained all government employees who did their jobs effectively.  We also recognized the importance of having the department heads who helped make policy be in sync with the Mayor.

We encouraged citizen involvement.  Both the mayor and the city council called on interested and qualified residents to serve on the growing number of boards and commissions that were created to manage the City.  To stir productive dialogue, we insisted that citizens bring facts and knowledge to the table, not blinding biases or relentless self-interest.

We also made great strides in administrative effectiveness.  When filling professional positions, we sought out well-qualified, credentialed candidates, hiring them for their abilities in the field.  Whether looking for a city planner, a utilities manager, a city engineer, a city attorney, or a controller, we hired people who truly knew what they were doing–not just ‘good guys’ we knew in the community.  Lastly, we always checked with our attorneys before starting on any project.  We believed in doing our homework, not in taking orders.

Today, the term accessibility means something quite different than it did in the past.  Now it refers to the importance of accommodating person with disabilities, but in 1971, it referred to the facilitation of open communication between local citizens and the government officials that served them.  We wanted the people of Bloomington to know that their government listened whenever they spoke, and that they would be treated with the respect they deserved.

We were especially proud of the job we did on economic expansion.  Up until the 1960’s, job creation programs centered almost entirely on skilled and unskilled men who supported single income households.  In those days, corporate headhunter types took their orders from (“consulted with”) the Chamber of Commerce and the West Side Development group, neither of whom saw much need to create employment opportunities for unskilled or qualified women.  This was true despite the fact that there was now a glaring need for jobs among this segment of the population.  To counteract this, we advanced directives that helped women enter the workplace and allowed families to keep up with an economy that had made two-income households into a requirement.

At the time, the concepts of planning and zoning were anathema across Indiana.  “You can’t tell me what to do with my land” was a common refrain.  To its credit, Bloomington had tried to implement city planning but in 1971, property developers did not have a clear set of guidelines.  With a new planning commission in place–one selected directly from the community–we began to transform the chaos into a working system.

IU experts were anxious to work with the City to create a public transit system and federal funds were becoming available to help.  We were happy to work with both the feds and IU and confirmed the need for it with our Manpower task force.  Bloomington Transit was born.

Republican President Nixon signed the bill creating the Environmental Protection Agency and in 1970 the first Earth Day was proclaimed.  Bloomington merchants and students had been developing a plan for recycling, but had been ignored by the City.  The School of Public and Environmental Affairs was born in 1972, and eager faculty worked with local environmentalists to protect our water supplies, especially Lake Monroe.   We supported both strongly in contrast to those whom we defeated.

We also created a Manpower Task Force, established a preliminary historic preservation policy, a beefed up human rights commission and ordinance with enforcement options and a staff, and sought out federal and State funding for social services, a commission on the Status of Women, child care.   And we made government feel as if it mattered.

 

At the very end of our term (December, 1975)  a city building inspector denied a building permit to a group hoping to renovate space for a gay coffee house.  At that point Brian de St. Croix came out, and in 1975 he worked to draft a gay rights amendment to the Human Rights Ordinance we had written and staffed to enforce in 1972.

The response was incendiary–both for and against–very vocal, threats,  name-calling etc.  When the time came to vote only five of the nine council members showed up. Both Council members and members of the overflow audience spoke passionately. The Bible was quoted—opponents favored the Old Testament, proponents the New Testament.  The vote was unanimously “aye.”  The Mayor immediately indicated he would sign it.  It became law.

IU opposed the human rights ordinance for other reasons, and several years later sued to have it nullified at the State level.  IU’s concern, they said, was that the ordinance might be applicable to the University. IU prevailed. They resisted any implications they would be subject to City rules and regulations in any way.  In overturning the Human Rights ordinance, they also killed the gay rights amendment.

Several years later a new Human Rights ordinance was adopted by the City.  It did not include the gay rights clause.  Gay rights was finally codified in 1993 (about ten years later) ominously, but only after a marathon six hour meeting which also was incendiary, with lots of singing of Onward Christian Soldiers.

A Microcosm of the Wider World

On November 9, 2016 life in the United States changed dramatically.  We suddenly had a president who was unpredictable and communicated in the most idiosyncratic ways imaginable.  He was also new to the workings of Washington, D.C.,  ignorant of custom and precedent that demonstrate both his scorn for propriety and his relentless will to do things his own way.

Some of us are delightfully surprised at his election and are now waiting for America to become great again.  Others are dismayed, fearful, and trying desperately to figure out how to cope with this bizarre new regime.  Difficult questions abound.  Will we continue to honor the Constitution?  Will everything familiar be changed into something unrecognizable?  Will the rule of law somehow prevail?  Will Obamacare be replaced or eliminated?  And if we wander into nuclear war, who will be our allies?

Here, in the richest nation in the world, economic inequality has worsened considerably over the past few decades.  Small towns are disintegrating beneath the weight of economic hardship and an unprecedented opioid epidemic.  Major issues surround us at every turn; we are beleaguered with concerns about everything from social justice to health care and education.  All of these stand in great need of help.  In other words, it’s an absolute mess.  It doesn’t feel good.  And what can we do about it?

This is not the first time in our nation’s history that our problems have seemed overwhelming. it’s not even the first time in my lifetime.  Some of us experienced The Great Depression, World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Cold War, and McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee.  Not to mention the devastating assassinations that occurred in the late 1960’s.  And now more than ever, there’s the ongoing struggle for racial equality and prosperity and climate change.  There have been many crisis moments in my lifetime, some of which are not yet resolved. Yet we have managed to find solutions for some of them, and we continue to try despite tremendous adversity.

 

Similar Challenges, Similar Methods

It’s been 45 years since a small group of concerned citizens helped transform the Bloomington community.  Since then, some things have reverted back to near tyranny and a certain amount of power has shifted away from the citizens. But although this means it’s high time to remind those in power that they work for us and not vice versa, there remains a great deal of hope in the thought that most of the major changes remain in place.   I write this story to encourage others to do as the ten of us did in 1971.  Although some of us were recent immigrants and new to the work of government, we still managed to gather a little army to assist in our work.  We recreated the City of Bloomington in a more democratic image.  The result was a vibrant, attractive, and comfortable place to live, work, study, raise children, and retire.  It will require faith, dedication, and a great deal of focused hard work to push back against the current adversity, but I hope all of you will find inspiration in our story.

 

Hope Going Forward

We can affect change today, but only if you become a part of the process.  It won’t happen by itself, but you can do it.  It will take stamina, careful planning, self-awareness, and understanding of our local citizens’ actual needs.  It will also require a willingness to forge alliances whenever you can find like-minded people and to keep your eye on the prize at all times– a city where everyone can live and thrive.

Never forget that everything you do makes a difference.  Your actions affect everything that comes next and life is full of surprises.  Don’t burn bridges with anyone–you never know who your next ally might be and you’ll need to build working relationships with them in advance.  Life is short, so use the time you have wisely.  We must keep going.  We must continue to fight for change right here at home; this is the best chance we have to contribute to a democratic world community.

[editor’s note: Charlotte Zietlow moved with her family to Bloomington in 1964. She has a checkered career in linguistics, city and county government, business, education, social services and family. She was the first woman president of the City Council and the first female Monroe County commissioner. Dubbed by some as “the woman who swims upstream,” she believes we can all build a better world together. This article is  a relatively short look back at the 1971 election and its results. Many details are not included, but will be presented in great detail  in her forthcoming book We Did This, publication date to be announced.]

 

 

 


             

 

 

 

 

Granfalloon: A Kurt Vonnegut Convergence

By Joe Hiland

In 1973, Indiana University awarded Kurt Vonnegut Jr. an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters. Two years earlier, he had finally earned his master’s in Anthropology from the University of Chicago more than two decades after the faculty rejected his first thesis. They didn’t have a change of heart about the work he’d done as a graduate student; instead, they accepted his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle as an alternative thesis. The belated degree suggested that his fiction had contributed more to the study of humanity and our social customs than his youthful scholarship had. If you care to weigh the wisdom of this decision, you can find early drafts of the novel and copies of his rejected thesis in the Lilly Library’s archive. There you’ll also find Vonnegut family photos, original drawings from Breakfast of Champions, and the rulebook for a board game he invented but failed to sell. You can see these and other pieces of Vonnegut paraphernalia at the library’s new exhibit, Random Acts of Granfalloonery: The Art and Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Read the full article, along with a complete schedule of Granfalloon events, in the current issue of The Ryder. Pick up a copy at one of 250 locally owned shops and restaurants or on the IU campus.

Hal Hartley at the IU Cinema

Hal Hartley has been an unwavering independent filmmaker for thirty years. His films, The Unbelievable Truth, Simple Men, Trust and Amateur were touchstones of the early 90s and his Henry Fool trilogy is a masterwork of contemporary American cinema. Hartley will be at the IU Cinema on April 26th and 27th to talk about the challenges of independent filmmaking and introduce his films.

We recently interviewed Hartley – the full text will be published in our May 7th issue.  Here is an excerpt.

Ryder: How did you get into filmmaking?

Hartley: Almost by accident.  I went to art school–MassArt in Boston–in the late ‘70s.  One of the electives I took that first year was a Super 8 filmmaking class. It was with a guy named Steve Anchor.  He was a solid San Francisco and Boston American avant-garde filmmaker. He was interesting. He turned us on to a lot of things.  You know, visual art filmmaking…. Dan Brakhage, Peter Hutton, Maya Deren. I was very excited, but as it turned out my dad and I ran out of money for me to stay there, so I had to go back to Lindenhurst on Long Island.  And I got a job, figuring out what I was going to do. I had to go to a New York school that would be cheaper. I had really been bitten by the film bug, but I had to spend another year back home working.

I got myself a camera and a projector.  I discovered my library had Super 8 versions of classic films.  It was amazing. No one took these things out. Yeah, it was a lonely but fun little initiation.

So I spent 1979 making 6 or 7 short films and I was sort of writing. And then I decided to apply to a New York state school for film rather than continue with art. There was really no looking back after that.

A Moment of Science Turns 30

 

Co-hosts Don Glass and Yaël Ksander are just getting started

 

What were you doing at 4:58 pm on February 28th, 1988? Think real hard. Listening to WFIU – that’s the correct answer. And if you were listening to WFIU, you would have heard the very first episode of A Moment of Science, titled  “Benjamin Franklin’s Swatches on the Snow.” Is there snow on the ground as you are reading this? If so, and if you listened to that first episode, and if you retained just a little bit of what you heard 30 years ago, then chances are you are dressed properly. If not, well, maybe it’s warm out.

A Moment of Science is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Over the years, the program  has become an integral part of the cultural landscape of Bloomington. How did it begin? Where is it going? We sat down at a local café with co-hosts Don Glass and Yaël Ksander to talk about the past, the future, and all things in between.

Interview by Peter LoPilato

Ryder:  So, 7,000 episodes?

Yaël Ksander:  Is that right!? I know that Don and I have done about 4,000 together.

Don Glass:  I’ve lost count. I think it’s between 7,400 and 7,500.

[RYDER]:  Which was the best one?

[DG]:  The one we just did.

[RYDER]:  What’s the coolest part of doing the show?

[DG]:  I think there are two cool parts. The first one is learning cool stuff.  And the other (gesturing towards Yaël) is working with her.

[YK]:  Awwww!

[RYDER]:  So in other words, this show wasn’t really that good before she joined?

[YK]:  (laughter) Yeah, that’s pretty much what he’s saying….

[DG]:  Actually, it wasn’t.

[YK]:  There’s a funny story about how we segued into my tenure, but I don’t want to accelerate things…

[DG]:  The long answer to your question is, the shows are better. They’re certainly better for us to perform, so to speak.  I think they’re better to listen to when there are two people doing it, especially when there’s a man and a woman, which is something I insisted on–

[RYDER]:  There’s that sexual tension.

[YK]:  (laughing) When we have sex on the show, which we often do, it usually has to do with the hermaphroditic qualities of worms or something like that.  Usually when we have a little of that piquant touch there, it’s Don saying something like “I wish my mom would stop signing me up for these online dating services.”  We’ll have things like that, but we don’t usually explore the, you know, sexual tension between us, because that’s just obvious.

[DG]:  Sometimes there is a sort of tension, not in a sexual sense, but in a gender sense

[RYDER]:   Has the show evolved since Yaël has been part of it? Was there a defining moment where something clicked?

[DG]:  It’s been an evolution.

[RYDER]:   But if I were to listen to an early episode, say the fourth episode with Yaël–

[YK]:  So much has changed. The bottom line is our relationship, which is real.  We aren’t just hired guns showing up and doing voiceover….We were joking earlier that it really is like The Sonny and Cher Show (laughing)….Don and I have just gotten to be better and better friends over the years and so a lot of that comes through. And so when he first hired me to do this show, I didn’t know him very well and I was on my best behavior (more laughter). Now, I’m extremely disobedient and he puts up with me. And he lets me make fun of him all the time.

[DG]:  And the writers have sensed that.

[YK]:  Yeah, right, they’ve responded.

[DG]:   A lot of credit has to be given them, because when they write the scripts, we ‘just’ read them, but the creativity’s behind them.

[RYDER]:  How involved are you? Do you sometimes revise the scripts?

[YK]:  Yeah, he does a lot on the front end.

[DG]:   I’m the producer’s last editor.  So the writers send the scripts to me after I approve what they’re doing in the first place.  Then, if it needs some tweaking, I ask them to do it.  I mean, I could do it, but they’re paid to do it. They’re also very good at it.

[RYDER]:   How many writers are there?

[DG]:  Let’s see.  Oh, this numbers thing. I’ll have to go through…(mentions several names under his breath while counting) Is that five? Oh, six.

[RYDER]:  Are they also researchers, or are they just writers? They’re researchers as well, right?  You’re not just pulling the Encyclopedia Britannica off the shelf and reading from that?

[YK]:  No. There’s a lot of vetting that goes on.

[DG]:  They come with the ideas and I say ok, this’ll work.  Then they research it, which means probably browsing the web to look up stuff.  They see an article in a magazine and pattern the script after the information in that article.  Several articles for that matter.  It might not just be one.  Then, once we get the tweaking done, all the programs are sent to a scientist.  So we’re not just going to rely on what somebody reads in the New York Times. 

[RYDER]:  No fake news.

[DG]:   Did you see my letter-to-the-editor the other day?

[YK]:  Did they put it in?

[RYDER]:  You had a letter in the New York Times?

[DG]:  No, I wish it was. It was in the H-T….So each script is checked by a scientist. Which is not foolproof, but it certainly gives it a certain amount of authority by having them check it because sometimes they disagree. They might say that article in the Times left out this or it left out that.  So they’ll help us correct that.

[YK]:  And originally, for the scientists, we drew upon on the resources that we had here at IU. In fact, as the show came together, that was the idea, that we would take the name of Indiana University and our significant scientific resources to the world… Don, why don’t you explain the origin story.

[DG]:  Paul Singh was a professor in physics, and he was coming home from a fishing trip with one of his sons and they were listening to StarDate on the radio. And either he or his son said “If they can do that with astronomy at the University of Texas, why can’t we do something with general science?” I was concerned that it might be a little esoteric. But Paul convinced me. His point was to bring science to the people.

We were joking earlier that A Moment of Science really is like The Sonny and Cher Show. —  Yaël Ksander 

[RYDER]:  Each episode is two minutes on the air.  How much time goes into preparing each episode?

[YK]:  Yeah, good question.  Like all radio, oh my goodness.

[DG]:  It takes hours.

[YK]:  You know, film production, TV production, radio production….

[RYDER]:  Speaking of film production, when are you going to pitch Moment of Science  to a Hollywood studio?

[YK]:  Yeah!  Who’s going to play you, Don?

[RYDER]:   George Clooney.

[YK]:  George Clooney!  Who do I want?  Scarlett Johansson.  (laughter)

[DG]:  Stephen Colbert can play me. Stephen Colbert or Chevy Chase.

[YK]:  Chevy Chase?  He’s too goofy.

[DG]:  That’s what I like about him.

 

[RYDER]:  Has there ever been a question or a topic that you would not discuss? Maybe something that might be politically sensitive?

[YK]:  We think about the political ramifications all the time, and we’re not interested in putting people off. So a lot of times, we’ll have to tweak the language in order not to make untoward suggestions.  For example, the other day we had a script about how drones were being used to measure and collect and photograph the stuff that whales blow out of their spouts. They’re using drones to do that.  And the first line was just a real casual:  “You know, Don, drones are pretty cool!”  I think we had to tamp that down a little bit. Because obviously, drones are used for warfare.

[DG]:  I wasn’t thinking about the military part of it.  Drones can be just a disaster if people aren’t careful how they use them.  They can wreck airlines.

[YK]:  In radio you get only one chance.  People can turn you off real quick.

[RYDER]:   Do you ever tackle subjects like climate change or evolution?

[YK]:  Oh yeah.  We don’t stray away from provocative subjects.

[DG]:   They’re provocative to some people and not others.  We deal with the science.

[RYDER]:  So how do you feel about the current administration dismissing scientific research?

[YK]:  That’s why we think now the program’s more important than ever, because, like on that bumper sticker, “science is true whether you believe it or not.” So just getting people to think about how things work and the fact that there are these laws that determine …

[DG]:  But at the same time, we’re going to look at the science, not the political aspects…

[YK]:  So we refrain from moralizing or putting the stamp of approval on things.

[RYDER]:  How many takes does the average episode require?

[DG]:  Two point something.

[YK]:  99% of them have no overdubbing.  We record it like old radio theater.  We do it in one take, whether or not that take takes 17 takes to get.  We don’t splice things together, so the interaction you’re hearing is real life interaction. And we have to get all the way through a two minute thing with the music underneath us without screwing it up.

[RYDER]:  Do you record back to back episodes? Do you record five or six at a time?

[DG]:  Six a week.  It takes about an hour and a quarter, which isn’t too bad.

[YK]:  It has been an incredible school for me in terms of voice work because I remember looking at these scripts that were two minutes long, and thinking how in the heck am I going to get through all of this without screwing up.  And it used to scare me so much.  It’s so unforgiving.  If I’m reading a newscast live and I stumble, no biggie, right?  But for this, we don’t do stumbles, so it’s been a way of trial by fire.  It’s been a great way to learn actually, like boot camp.

[RYDER]:   Where do you see Moment of Science in ten years?

[DG]:  Oh, man.  Who would have thought we’d be here for 30 years?  I don’t know. Probably the way it is now, in terms of radio.

[RYDER]:  What about podcasts?

[YK]:  Yeah Don, talk about how much action they get.

[DG]:  I was getting to that because in some people’s minds, radio is dead. Traditional broadcasts, that is.    And the fact is, there may be some truth to that.  Some people still listen to the radio, but they’re older people.  Other people listen to their own music on their phone.  They listen to what they want, when they want.

[YK]:  We only listen to podcasts. I say we, but I mean 30-year-olds do that.

[DG]:   The whole media environment is changing so rapidly, and I’m not keeping up with it.  I’m doing radio.  As long as people want radio programs, that’s’ what I’ll do.  If they want something else, somebody else can do that.  I’m not criticizing it.  It’s just the way i approach it.

[YK]:  Luckily, the station has had the foresight to adapt and make the program available.

[DG]:  They just branched out to the web and its’ been very successful.  In 2017, A Moment of Science got over two million site visits. Two million! That’s 45% of WFIU’s website activity. I can’t act like a total idiot and pretend it’s not happening.

[YK]:  He doesn’t like it.

[DG]:  I don’t dislike it.  I think it’s fine.  Obviously, more people are hearing it, just in a different way.  I’ll have to ask the people who analyze the website, but I wonder if more people are using the podcast than just going to the website and listening to it.  My guess is they probably are.  It’s a bit more cumbersome to go the website and click on the script and click on the audio.

 

[RYDER]:  So Yaël, tell us the story of how you became co-host.

[YK]:  I had just joined the station in the Fall of 2000. At the same time Angela Mariani was leaving for Texas–she had been the co-host with Don.  So [turning to Don] you were thinking maybe you were going to record her an ISDM line, but that was going to be pretty expensive.

[DG]:  Or just have her record scripts and send them back. But it was too cumbersome to work.  Really complicated.

[YK]:  Yeah, you were kind of flummoxed about how to proceed. Then, in comes unsuspecting me.  I don’t know how you just thought to “give the new girl a try.”

[DG]:  I can’t remember that part either.  I must have heard you.  I would never just take somebody off the streets.

[YK]:  I’ll tell you, I was pretty thrilled because I had enjoyed the program for a couple of years before joining the station.  I was very excited and Don said, “Well, come over on Thursday and you can audition. You’re an unknown quantity and Angela and I had this rapport going, but it’s getting kind of difficult, so why don’t you just come in and give it a try.”  And so I came in on a Thursday and we recorded some scripts.  I was thinking I was auditioning, right?  I was waiting for the other shoe to drop; then he said “come in next Thursday and we’ll do some more.”  Then he didn’t have to remind me to come in on Thursdays and then about five years later, I said “Don, did I pass the audition?  Or are you going to give it back to Angela?” He never told me.

[DG]:  I never even thought of it.  I don’t know if it’s a male/female thing or not, but I kind of assumed that you’d already been doing it for five years that maybe you’d assume you had it.

 

[RYDER]:  I’d like to end with a quote and ask you to respond: “All of our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike.”

[YK]:  Who said that?

[RYDER]:   Nobody important. I’ll tell you who said it after you respond.  [which we forgot to do; the quote is from Albert Einstein.] [YK]:  I feel somewhat agnostic about everything – that there’s so much more to discover than we can even begin to grapple with

[RYDER]:  Every three years we learn that a healthy diet is different than we thought it was three years earlier.

[YK]:  Right . . .my father as a child had leeches put on him as a way of bringing down a fever – I mean, it was in another country and 70 or 80 years ago but still –

[DG]:   They use maggots to clean wounds. Maggots only eat dead tissue so they use them to heal really bad wounds that have dead tissue around them – we covered that on a show about ten years ago.

[YK]:  We like to do gross-out scripts on the program. Scripts about maggots and roadkill? – they’re memorable!  Like naked mole rats. One time I asked Don, “What does a naked mole rat look like? Is it like a possum?” This was completely unscripted. Don said — this is a direct quote: “A naked mole rat makes a possum look like Raquel Welch!” (loud laughter; people in the café are staring)

[RYDER]:   Not too many people reference Raquel Welch anymore. She might be appreciative.

[DG]:  If she ever saw a naked mole rat, I don’t think she’d be flattered.

Photo: Hannah Sturm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NEAR MYTH: OSKAR KNIGHT

 

Scott Fivelson chronicles the life and times of one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, or does he?

Interview by Richard Fish

 Oskar Knight is so real, he really ought to be real. His entire career is a shining example of why Hollywood has always been the foremost place on the planet where reality, myth and legend don’t just meet, they dance. But (spoiler alert!) Oskar isn’t really real, except that he is now, since the movie came out. This delightfully crafted, engagingly funny mockumentary does for Tinsel Town what This is Spinal Tap did for Heavy Metal: in the age of Alternative Facts, this is a perfect Alternative Biopic.

The pun-gently titled Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story was born in the brain of writer-director Scott Fivelson, whose wide-ranging creativity is all the more amazing because he doesn’t get to live here in Bloomington. I caught up with him at his home, somewhere in earthquake-prone, fire-ravaged, mudslide-covered, traffic-choked, rain-inundated, drought-stricken Southern California.

Ryder: This was obviously a labor of love, Scott, and when you come right down to it, it’s really a movie about Hollywood – about Oscar Night as well as Oskar Knight. You certainly understand how the movie industry works, even when it doesn’t! So, how did you manage to use that understanding to whack the Zeitgeist right between the eyes?

Scott:  Ha! It’s true reality has been getting kind of blurred lately in the media, and it’s nice to discover we’ve made something that resonates in a timely way, but that wasn’t in my mind when we started. I just loved the stories of these great filmmakers so much that I wanted to have another one, so we could enjoy his story….and miss him. Oskar is a larger-than-life character, a bit like Charles Foster Kane – in fact, this picture is something of a tribute to Orson Welles.

Ryder: Who does appear, briefly, and Oskar’s right there with him of course. Do you think people need to be serious movie buffs to really “get” this movie?

Scott: Oh, no, not at all. I’ve had people tell me they really liked the picture, thought it was very funny – and then said they’d tried to find out more about Oskar and his movies online, and asked why a Google search only turned up references to this movie!

Ryder: They actually thought–?

Scott: Yeah, they did. Of course the more you know about movies, the more you’ll get out of it.

Ryder: Oh, yes! The detail is amazing, all the way through. All those pictures of Oskar with the great stars and in famous places, so perfectly chosen to evoke the era –

Scott: It’s up to the viewer to decide if we inserted Oskar, or just found those pictures in Hollywood archives.

Ryder: It’s great fun to spot all the stars as they flash on the screen, but you move right on because you’re into the story. It’s a great story.

Scott: All the best stories are about people, and that’s why it’s the arc of a life, a career, the triumphs and the struggles – Oskar lived a long life, you know, and he never gave up trying. If someone is around long enough, they have a story like this.  And we do have some real stars to help tell it.

Ryder: What Lolly Poppins and Hedda Publicity used to call “Hollywood Insiders?”

Scott: Yes, we had great luck with the casting. We had some hot young up-and-coming actors and some well-established names – of course Lenny Von Dohlen has done a lot of things, from Miami Vice and Twin Peaks to The Orville, and David Suchet was brilliant as Hercule Poirot, and Margaret O’Brien goes back to the 1940s, starting as a child actress.

Ryder: She looked great, and I loved seeing Noel Neill and Jon Provost, from Superman and Lassie on TV –

Scott: Yes! We had so many wonderful experiences working on this project.

Ryder: And it’s very funny. Would you call this film a satire?

Scott: I’d call it a blend of satire, comedy, whimsy, nostalgia…

Ryder: …sort of a love letter to Hollywood.

Scott: Love…but in the real world. It can be poignant. There’s heartache and heartbreak, but there’s something really inspiring in Oskar’s story, too.

Ryder: And we’re getting to see the picture just as it’s coming out.

Scott: That’s true, and I’m delighted it’s going to be shown in Bloomington. It’s an independent project, you know, and the whole team that worked on the film – we’d like to believe we’ve made something kind of special. The Ryder Film Series is just the sort of program that can really add to the buzz, and Oskar always was a good time – that’s what his friends always said. I hope people will spread the word, especially online.

Ryder: Well, Bloomington people do tend to have a lot of connections. I sure enjoyed it. Thanks, Scott, for talking with us and giving us a movie that is an ideal prelude to the Academy Awards show on Sunday, March 4th. Got any predictions?

Scott: Just that nobody’s going to break Oskar Knight’s all-time record as the Director with the most nominations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Electronic Bloomington Comes of Age

 

text by Kenneth Shafer       photo by Brody Nevins

On one warm night, July 19, 2017, in Bloomington all the following occurred within only a few hours of each other.

In the basement of a South Walnut house a small but fascinated crowd of mostly twenty-somethings  were taking advantage of the free Open Tweak V (fifth in a series), as a live electronic performer was knob-twisting and fine-tuning his dual “Eurorack” modules, his Elektron drum machine and sound sampler, and his Korg keyboard synthesizer, churning out a series of hypnotic beats and blips.

“Welcome to the south side of electronic music,” said the host, Iain Donkin though he didn’t bother to explain how the south side of Bloomington differed from the north side. Still, he continued, “Almost everything we do here is Live Personal Appearance (Live PA), and we cover the spectrum of genres – Electronic Dance Music, Trance, Drone, and spontaneous collaborations. This is a venue for discovery, nearly everyone who participates is self trained.”

A few blocks away and less than an hour later, Indiana University music professor Paul Siwko-Bajon played to a somewhat less than sellout crowd of much older people at the Buskirk-Chumley theater. Twenty bucks got one entry to an overview of Synthesizers in Film, branded as Synthfest. Multiple top of the line racked Kurzweil synths were visible on the stage, along with a tower personal computer.

Before the live synth playing, the audience was treated to a short video where classic synth player Jean Jarre was shown in his studio surrounded by scads of electronic music making hardware, only a few of which had attached keyboards. Indicating a preference for what are known as electronic sequencers (hardware boxes that play pre-programmed sequences of notes), Jarre explained how he created one of his classic pieces, Oxygene.

From here, Siwko-Bajon took the stage and played the classics from Vangelis, Giorgio Moroder, Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter, and Jean Jarre, underscoring the importance of synthesizer music as film soundtracks, especially for science fiction movies like Blade Runner and Escape from New York. The crowd was attentive, but did not dance other than with an occasional gratuitous nod of the head, as if they were disguising the fact that they were almost falling asleep as the performance passed their usual bedtime hour of 9:30 pm.

But the night was still young. It was easy, almost too easy, to walk just around the corner, and slip down the steps into the underground of The Root Cellar, where Danger Latte and Kyle Spears were DJing their particular brand of so-called Techno, which is one of the types of electronic music most amenable to dancing. This was Saturday night, after all, and nobody had to be anywhere Sunday morning, and the crowd was not about to let up until the legally-mandated closing hours wee in the morning. The thump thump! thump! thump! thump! of the bass drum on every quarter beat kept everybody jumping.

That such a litany of electronic events could happen so close together in location and time was not always so in Bloomington, and should not be taken for granted. That it did is a clear and pronounced statement that electronic music has firmly arrived in Bloomington.

How did this scene get to this point? Where did it come from? And where might it be going?

This issue initiates a series of articles will address those questions, if not fully answer them. Other follow-up articles will focus on the history of synthesizer and electronic dance music, the explosion into numerous different types, called genres, and even into sub-genres, the evolution of experimental and electronic music in Bloomington, the role of local Disc Jockeys (DJ’s), Live Performers (Live PA), and a bit of a catch-all covering what is called experimental, ambient, and drone electronic music.

The musical culture changes. Electronic and Dance Music is claiming its rightful place in the local music scene as a full-fledged equal with classical, rock, jazz, R&B, blues, folk, and country.

A Short Guide to Dance Music and Electronic Venues in Bloomington

The Bluebird

The Bluebird has been at the top of the heap for music venues since the 1970’s, and continues today. Its large capacity, its reputation, and its history all serve to be a draw for big name acts with a healthy smattering of local artists thrown in. When the big names come in, the cover can be expensive, but that does not deter a crowded attendance. When most of the students leave town for the summer, the Bluebird will feature more local acts.

There’s a big dance floor right in front of the performance stage, which also accommodates what is usually the best light show for these events. By midnight it is often standing room only, and that is even shoulder to shoulder.

Music wise, The Bluebird seems to feature more of the Hip Hop derivative genres of dance music.

The Root Cellar

This club is one of the favorites of the DJs. It regularly features EDM and live electronic acts, and as its name implies, it is underground, being in back of The Farm restaurant. As well as a nominal size dance floor, there is some seating, and off to the side several cubby holes with comfortable lounge sofas that serve as “chill rooms” to provide a little sonic distance from the boom boom boom of the music.

It also seems to attract a more diverse crowd than some of the other venues, and a poster at the door cautions entrants to leave their bigotry at home.

The Root Cellar is very supportive of local acts, and seems to often provide entry without any cover charge.

Video Saloon

The Video Saloon has its EDM dance floor right at street level, across from the Bluebird, and customers often traffic between the two. EDM acts are presented on a somewhat infrequent and irregular basis and have been known to be without a cover charge.

Serendipity

Serendipity has a light, airy feel, located in the same space as the legendary Second Story. The stage is at one end, the bar at right angles to it, with a dance area the length of the club. You’re more likely to encounter an international type crowd here, as it also regularly hosts Latin dance nights.

As advertised, Serendipity is a martini bar – with a peculiar twist of also featuring PBR on tap.

Blockhouse

The Blockhouse is a somewhat hidden gem nestled in the same cluster that includes Serendipity and The Back Door. You get to it by going downstairs – to an underground, a characteristic which it shares with the Root Cellar, and which has all the flavor of “underground” Techno clubs in the Detroit area. Being underground, it’s possible, but not easy, to take a break outside, but just like truly urban Techno underground clubs, there are two or three “chill rooms” where you can get just a little bit away from the volume of the kick drum, and have a chat with the friend you just made.

It does not have the capacity to generally handle big name acts, though regional one and smaller national acts do pass through. It is one of the venues that is especially hospitable to local EDM DJ’s and live performers.

Open Tweak

Strictly speaking, Open Tweak is a Bloomington House Show network kind of place rather than a “club.” This is an experimental electronic event as part of the Bloomingtron network. (Read carefully now, there is that “r” in Bloomingtron that makes all the difference.) Another underground venue, it is located in the basement of a house on South Walnut Street.
Players Pub

Players Pub is as little bit off the beaten path, being further south, but still within easy walking distance if you’re going “clubbing” to multiple destinations. Cover charges are modest, and this is the only place where you can get food, really good food, late into the evening. The red beans and rice are highly recommended.

The dance floor is open and inviting, and for those taking a break, there is also easy access to the sidewalk patio which is taken full advantage of in the summer.

Players Pub draws a steady, but not packed, crowd, and its schedule is consistent – dance music every Friday night starting at 11:30 PM, after the headliner music act has left the stage.

DJs usually bring a light show and maybe fog machines, and the dance crowd seems to be easier than average to accommodate making new friends. It also features a wide variety of DJs, and doesn’t seem to play favorites.

The Back Door

The Back Door is easily the most festive of the clubs. As Bloomington’s premier LGBTQ venue, you are likely to see costumes and fashions any day of the week, not just during Halloween or a Friday the 13th.  A disco ball provides the shimmering light. The Back Door is more likely to feature what is known as “House” music than most of the other clubs.

During a recent visit on a Friday the 13th, a patron dressed with a giant Earth globe for a head claimed that “global warming” was the scariest thing going on, as the dance music provided the release from the madness of the world.

The Back Door is also one of the more consistent hosts for dance music, featuring it every Friday and Saturday night. There is a cover, but it is modest.

Recess

What to say about Recess? Well, it seems to have more in common culturally with its sister watering hole Kilroy’s on Kirkwood than any of the other electronic venues. It’s an experiment of an “18 and over” venue, being launched only a few months ago. A spate of bad publicity over questionable marketing slogans was climaxed by a public rebuke by Bloomington mayor John Hamilton.

Few of the local DJ’s we interviewed had much experience with it. Recess looks to be booking national acts, possibly augmented by a set of local DJs who do not circulate much beyond Recess’s confines.

Its proximity close to campus and the fraternities and sororities on Third Street naturally make it a big favorite of the college crowd.

Electronic / EDM Bloomington Venue Roundtable

The Ryder asked many of club owners and managers about town a number of questions about the growing scene for Electronic and Dance Music in Bloomington. Panelists in this discussion are Nicci B at The Back Door, Dave Kubiak of the Bluebird, David James of The Blockhouse, Joe Estivill of Players Pub, and Danny McKinley of The Root Cellar.

The Ryder: How often do you offer entertainment that can be considered electronic or Electronic Dance Music?

Nicci B:  MADDOG and Pixie are our resident Friday and Saturday night DJs and both invaluable to our business and the culture we’ve created at The Back Door.

Joe Estivill: Weekly, Fridays at 11:30 PM.

Danny McKinley: Three to six times a month, sometimes more, sometimes less depending on who is looking for gigs and how recently others have played.

David James: We do a wide variety of music – rock and roll, jazz, Hip Hop – and we do EDM at least once a month.

Dave Kubiak: For the current semester, about three times a month, counting both local and national acts. We often book TR0LL and Shy Guy Says and local acts after national acts for Thursday night shows. Our national and local acts support each other both ways – it’s give and take.

The Ryder: How do you feel this entertainment is received by your customers? Are they enthusiastic, do they dance a lot? How is your attendance? What can you say about your customers interaction with these types of acts?

Nicci B: I can tell you that, regardless of the genre, dance music is and has always been at the center of queer culture and specifically queer night life — we dance to celebrate, we dance to mourn, we dance to protest, we dance to rage, we dance to escape.

Joe Estivill: This is a new audience for us.  They do dance a lot.

Danny McKinley: There are a lot of positive reaction from the public and customers for this style of music. Most who come for EDM nights are very enthusiastic and spend as much time dancing as their bodies will let them. Generally our attendance is outstanding, even on nights that would normally be slower or even nights when there is a lot of competition from other clubs doing similar events.

David James: Attendance is performer dependent.

Dave Kubiak: Promotion is critical to attendance. The underlying principle as to what the Bluebird is morphs over time. Some things are the same but the music genres change. I want the Bluebird to be the place that everyone wants to experience. Interaction with the audience is great with our EDM acts. We would still like to take it up another level, but there can be a lot of production involved, since some national acts literally fly in with only a suitcase for their setup, and we have to arrange the rest, like the light show.

The Ryder:  Do you feel there are differences between electronic / EDM acts and your other live acts (rock bands, shows, skits, etc.) – how does EDM fit into your overall offerings?

Joe Estivill: It’s a bit different than most of our acts as they are solo artists, most of our acts are bands.  It’s a great complement to our other offerings as we like to mix it up.

Danny McKinley: There is a huge difference in the styles of EDM even within the genre. I couldn’t really say, other than some of the crowd types, most people who come to our club and stay are generally in a good mood and are enthusiastic about the entertainment they are seeing/hearing. I couldn’t really respond to the question if you are trying to get at whether or not one type of night is better than the other or if crowds are more positive or negative. As an overall offering, we try to offer a good safe time with quality entertainment/ music and our EDM artists fit right with this category quite well.

David James: Oh, yeah! We welcome good people and good music. And the EDM community is a welcome one.

Dave Kubiak: EDM can be polarizing, kind of like country music. Either you really like it or you don’t at all.

The Ryder: Do EDM DJ’s offer you a cost advantage in what you pay your acts?

Joe Estivill:  No, everyone works for the door.

Danny McKinley: We offer all performers more or less the same rates. I guess the only ‘bargain’ that maybe we get is that most of the current EDM DJs like to perform in small groups. When this happens we do see pull of different crowds where some of our performers are solo and not only have to push through with a longer endurance, but also have to try to pull from all crowds by their lonesome. (one hour or five hours, the performances these people do, have to be exhausting)

David James: No, EDM does not offer a cost advantage to us.

Dave Kubiak: The biggest difference is that EDM or live electronic acts are usually only one or two performers. But what has changed is this – it used to be that rock acts, of several performers, traveled a circuit of about three hundred miles radius. And they play four or five nights in a row. For EDM, the national acts travel nationally, and may fly in from two thousand miles or more, and only for one night. So the expenses can be greater.

The Ryder: What do you see as the near and/or long-term future for electronic / EDM for your club?

Joe Estivill: Continue to grow our weekly gig.

Danny McKinley: I see it being a regular in our rotation of entertainment. As the scene grows more and more great DJs keep popping up. I’m really quite impressed at the number of really excellent DJs that have come out of seemingly nowhere. (Eighteen months ago, I was having a trouble filling my calendar and now I have trouble making room for everybody)

David James: EDM and Electronic will be around for years to come! It is relatively new compared to other types of music.

Dave Kubiak: We’re on the music bus, let’s see where it takes us. Certainly through the spring semester.

The Ryder: Any specific Electronic / EDM artists that  you have hosted that you would like to specifically mention?

Joe Estivill:  I enjoy the different styles of the DJ’s.  No favorites quite yet.

Danny McKinley: DJ Angst and E-Trash, MADDOG, TR0LL, Derz, Lemondoza, Longuy, Danger Latte, Kyle Spears, Sweater Disco, Lowe, Plastic Sounds, Deep Sense, FIIT, and I am sure I’m forgetting many more, but these are some of the very excellent and very different styled EDM DJs and producers that we have hosted/ particularly enjoyed.

Dave Kubiak: We’re getting the networking of people in place. Attendance is a consequence of more than contact via social media. The best is when a friend tells another friend.

The Ryder: Any general comments you’d like to make that you would find quotable?

Nicci B: I think anytime you get a critical mass of queers together in one space a dance party becomes less of a possibility and more of an inevitability–it’s just what we do.

Joe Estivill: Come dance!

Danny McKinley: DJ Angst said it best, “When it comes to EDM/electronic music: the vibe, the performance, the audience, the dance, the party will go ALL. NIGHT. LONG.”  Though you may quote me, please make sure DJ Angst gets credit for the “ALL. NIGHT. LONG.” tag. It’s his tag for his parties, it’s just a very true statement and positive statement for the genre.

Dave Kubiak: I’m happy The Ryder is writing this piece. And I’m happy that TR0LL (Troy Michael) and Shy Guy Says have been so instrumental to the success of this kind of music. Troy has been working very, very hard to uplift the DJ and EDM scene all over town.

 

A Too Brief History of Electronic and Dance Music

There’s no way a magazine article can do full justice to exploring the roots of electronic music and its dance music variation, but justice be damned, there can be no significant understanding without at least touching on the history.

The modern incarnation of the electronic synthesizer can be largely attributed to inventors and engineers Robert Moog and Donald Buchla, who designed and produced their units beginning in the mid-1960’s. As with any new technology, these early units were quite expensive, and so their use was restricted to only film producers and big name rock acts who could carry the cash to buy them.

It would not be until the 1980’s that we began to see the popularization and democratization of electronic music. This trend was made by the confluence of four tendencies, two technological, one sociocultural, and one that can only be thought of as a completely fortuitous accident.

The first technological breakthrough was the advent of the microprocessor. It is no coincidence that the affordability of electronic synthesizers occurred at the same time as the introduction of the personal computer. IBM’s first floppy-based PC and PC/XT with a hard disk, released in 1981-1982 were powered by an Intel 8088 processor. The 8088, running at 4.77 mHz, soon found competition from a Z80 manufactured by Zilog, which ran at a “blazingly” fast 7.16 mHz.

Those of you with a fine-tuned sense of irony will chuckle at the fact that Zilog  during 1980 – 1989 was a short-lived subsidiary of Exxon, which implies that Big Oil had a substantive role in the creation and promulgation of this type of music.

Just as the microprocessor was to make computing available to the masses, so would it do so for making electronic synthesizer music available to musicians, driving down the prices tremendously. In short order, synthesizers and drum machines using the Z80 as their engine hit the market, classic and very influential hardware like Sequential Circuits’ Prophet 5 and Prophet 10 polyphonic synths and Drumtrax drum machine, the Roland Jupiter 8, the Oberheim OB-8 polyphonic, the Memory Moog, Roland MC4 Microcomposer / Sequencer,  the Moog Source, the Akai 2700, and others.

The second groundbreaking technological advance was the creation of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) standard in 1983. Prior to it, synthesizers and keyboards could inter-operate only by an analog electrical standard called CV / Gate (for Control Voltage), and there were two competing incompatible implementations, one followed by Sequential Circuits, Moog, and Roland, and another by and Korg and Yamaha. Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits and Roland’s Ikutaro Kakehashi collaborated and released the standard into the public domain, the invention of which would have possibly made them billionaires today if they had tried to patent it themselves. The MIDI interface allows practitioners to interconnect all kinds of electronic equipment, synths, drum machines, samplers, effects units, drum machines, even light shows – the list goes on and on.

The third significant influence is sociocultural. As a backlash to the indulgent excesses of the progressive rock era, with its overly produced sounds, punk rock made its debut in the late 1970’s, followed by its cousin New Wave. This created some breathing room for electronic experimentation that had not existed before. Building upon the disco sound, today’s dance music can also be heard in its synth-pop forerunners of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

Dan Sicko documents this in his treatise “Techno Rebels – The Renegades of Electronic Funk”:

“One could hear New Wave’s offbeat and eclectic ingredients working themselves out in Detroit’s early electronic records, where groups like Human League, the B52’s, and Visage were reconciled with Eurodisco, the midwestern funk of George Clinton, Zapp, the Ohio Players, and subconsciously, the Soul of Motown.”

The last influence to mention is nothing more and nothing less than a historical and serendipitous accident of immense proportions.

In the early 1980’s, the Roland Corporation released two compact electronic music boxes: the TB-303 Bassline synthesizer, and its companion TR-606 Drumatix drum machine, which could be synchronized together by a 5-pin cable which was the forerunner of the MIDI cable. These were explicitly but ineffectively marketed to rock guitarists, to provide a rhythm section for them to practice with alone.

It was not long before this was recognized as a complete commercial failure. The drums of the TR-606, well, being analog electronics, just didn’t sound like real drums. And neither did the mechanical sounding electronic bass of the TB-303 sound like a real electric bass guitar. Scores of TR-606’s and TB-303’s hit the pawn shops. This was to have wholly unintended and unforeseen consequences.

From a 2002 article in Wired magazine:

“Earl “Spanky” Smith picked up a 303 in a Chicago secondhand music store and took it back to his place, where his musical partner, Nathaniel Jones, tinkered with the box. Jones, who was beginning to DJ under the name Pierre, played with a row of knobs – Resonance, Decay, and Cut Off Freq – for adjusting the bassline; the controls were meant to be set, then left alone during recording or rehearsal. But Pierre programmed a bassline, hit the Run button, then cranked each of the knobs to its upper limit as the bassline was playing back. The 303 reacted with a piercing, almost obscene screech.

“Spanky was saying, ‘Keep doing it, keep doing it!'” Pierre remembers. “It wasn’t meant to squeak and squeal and all that kinda stuff. We just knew it sounded weird and energetic and funky. We thought, ‘Wow, this thing is really a jolt of lightning!’ So we taped it and took the tape to [legendary DJ] Ron Hardy’s place, the Music Box. We played it, and by the third time people were going crazy.”

Though they didn’t know it at the time, by adding the warped, druggy 303 sound to then-standard club beats, Pierre and Spanky had invented a new genre of dance music: acid house.

In no time at all, electronic and dance music trailblazers in Chicago and Detroit were picking up these boxes at the pawn shops for pennies on the dollar, as they began the popularization of this wholly new type of music. They found a music fanbase who reveled in the sheer artificiality of those sounds! Today, those same boxes sell on ebay for as much as ten times their original 1982 dollars.

Roland ceased production of the TB-303 many years ago. But its recognizable squeaky squawky sound lives on in many, many hardware emulations and sampled sounds. In fact, Roland recently introduced machines which use digital emulation of the TB-303’s analog sounds, the TB-3 Bassline and a lookalike clone, the TB-03 Bassline. Other firms such as Cyclone Analogic, Abstrakt Instruments, Analogue Solutions, and x0xb0x manufacture clones, and how well they replicate the sound of the original Roland TB-303 is a subject of endless debate in facebook synthesizer group forums.

As far as drum machines go, Roland at about the same time extended upon the TR-606 by releasing the TR-808 which was a big improvement with its multiple audio outputs for the different drums, and the TR-909, which was the first drum machine to implement MIDI.

These four machines were pivotal to the evolution of disco into the multiple electronic genres of dance music. And their sounds carry on through today. In fact, there are those music critics who contend that the manufacturer and model of music hardware used is essentially indicative of the genre of electronic music being produced.

The Early Bloomington Experimental and Electronic Scene

Bloomington has a heritage of experimental music going back nearly forever.  In the mid-1970’s an avant-garde band called MX-80 used no synthesizers, but did use their dual live drummers and electric guitars in such an unusual and eclectic way that they (nearly) defied description during that heavy-duty rock era. Self-proclaimed fans of musical anarchist Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, they were alternately characterized as art dada, proto punk, or perhaps most accurately of all, acid punk. Their music was so out of the mainstream rock at the time that no music club in town would book them, and they faced the ignominy of performing multiple times only at the auditorium of the Monroe County Public Library.

Thus locally unappreciated if not downright scorned for their ahead-of-their-time sound (their dual drummers presaged the multiple drum machines now prevalent in dance music), they headed out to greener pastures in San Francisco, where they hooked up with kindred spirits Tuxedomoon and The Residents, both of whom are still actively making music today. Continuing to use traditional rock instruments, but adding a healthy mix of electronic effects and synths, they pushed the envelope of experimental synth-punk.

The Residents, in particular, explicitly stage in-your-face anonymity into their act, as their live appearances and album covers always feature them wearing giant eyeball heads, a performance meme that is also used to great effect by the French dance band Daft Punk, who hide behind Schwarzenegger de-fleshed Terminator style robotic costumes, and even Bloomington’s own Shy Guy Says, who uses a giant round-eyed emoji as his visual persona.

But the most significant roots of the Bloomington electronic scene are traceable back to local electronic enthusiast Mark Kunoff, who started a Bloomington Electronic website in 2010 which was active through early 2015, when it was overtaken by its companion Bloomington Electronic facebook page.  Bloomington Electronic was a virtual meeting space for the community’s electronic musicians to congregate, collaborate, and publicize their (rather limited) number of shows. During these early years, unlike today, live acts predominated over DJ acts, although DJs were also welcome. Interviews with local performers were prominently and regularly featured.

Under the brand Speed of Sound, Bloomington Electronic sponsored quite a number of shows at the Bluebird, Back Door, the Root Cellar, and the now defunct Rachel’s Café, featuring acts at the time like Shy Guy Says, DJ Flourish, Beauklu, Dioxin One, DJ Gigante, Ersatz Modem, the Audiodics, and many others.

The music was Drum ‘n’ Bass (DnB), Dubstep, Experimental, Ambient / Drone, House, and various amalgamations that defied any single genre.

This early trailblazing, mostly by live acts, slowly but steadily gave way to the “Electronic DJ”, most of whom emphasized more “danceable” beats as opposed to “experimental eclecticism.”

They were able to build upon the continuity of dance music in the LGBTQ scene.  A bar called Bullwinkle’s (so-called because it was ensconced in the former Moose Lodge building) held a consistent program of DJ’s playing dance music throughout the 80’s, 90’s, and beyond. Bullwinkle’s was located beneath the alt-rock, New Wave, punk club Second Story, but both closed in 2006.

More than one local DJ and live performer challenged this writer’s initial contention that beyond this historical niche the DJ scene had no significant presence in Bloomington 18 months ago, but in fact had been percolating for quite a while.

DJ Angst, who has a strong preference of House music, explained “There has been a lively dance music scene for the past five years. When we started back in 2011 it was definitely a little quieter with less events, so our Riot Bootique event was pretty unique, but we always drew a great crowd and had some really big parties. What has definitely changed is the number of DJs and the number of events.”

DJ Troll confirmed that the scene has really taken off the last couple of years: “I started DJing about 18 months ago. I think that inspired new up and coming DJs to go for it and start planning shows. It honestly could have been one of those, “If he can do it so can I,” situations. I have noticed the amount of local DJs at least tripled since I started.”

MADDOG agreed: “The electronic scene in Bloomington has always been here. That’s the beauty of this town. There is music here for everyone of every genre. You just need to look for it. A lot of my inspiration for doing what I do came from watching friends perform at house parties and what used to be The Jungle Room in the early-mid 2000’s. Guys like Action Jackson, Sleepy T, Phnm, Flufftronix, Figure, and Wally Wonder who have all gone on to make names for themselves outside of Bloomington. I spent my late teens-early 20s watching these dudes and just being in awe of them. It wasn’t until I got a little older and more confident in myself as a woman that I realized this is something I can do too.”

Bad Psychic recalled: “I remember going to my first “rave” at the Hotspot (where Btown Diner now resides) in ‘97 or 98’. The scene here in the US was really taking off then. That place was always busy and would draw kids from all over the Midwest sometimes to see a specific DJ. Of course the scene is not the same as it were back then, but I’m happy to see it’s slowly come back in the past decade or so.
“Well when I started Bad Psychic 4 years ago, I was playing shows with Ray Creature all the time because they were the only other band in town doing something similar to what I was doing. I’ll never forget when Natascha Buehnerkemper Jacob (drummer, vocals for Ray Creature) pulled me aside as I was working at The Runcible Spoon and introduced herself to me. “Hey! Are you Bad Psychic? I’m in the band Ray Creature and I live in a house called Butt Temple. Do you wanna play a show with us there some time?” It was the kind of classic Bloomington interaction I live for. There was also Dust From A Thousand Years, they’ve been playing in Bloomington a long time. Also Hunter Child and Drekka. And then there were the noise dudes of the Artifex Guild/Auris Apothecary realm (Dante Augustus Scarlatti, Lather, Noon, John Flannely, etc) who messed around with electronics. That was over 4 years ago. But I would agree that lately electronic music has been taking off more in Bloomington, which is exciting to see.

“Also around that time, Amy Luxenburger was doing this incredible project called Amy & The Dancebox. She recorded her songs with Jon Booth of Ray Creature in 2014. Her album, Good Report Card, is perfect and so touching. She wrote the whole album on a Casio keyboard with her friend Catherine Jewett singing harmonies. She passed away not long after the songs were recorded and we’re all so lucky to have her songs preserved, to have this memory of her.”

Another DJ, Sweater Disco, also challenged the contention that the recent spate of electronic dance events is a new phenomenon: “That’s absolutely false, dance music has had a place in the underground Bloomington scene for quite some time. A friend of mine, who’s also an audio engineer/live-sound engineer in town, has been around for several years (more than 4) and has told us stories about large warehouse parties, and dance music events that have evolved and been thrown for years.

“A promoter/friend in Indianapolis has also commented on Bloomington’s history of dance music, referencing loft parties and warehouse parties, similar to what I’ve heard from other older dance music fans. I remember hearing about shows at Dunnkirk and the Bluebird (2012-2014ish?) with huge national acts like Zeds Dead, Kill the Noise, DJ Craze, RL Grime, Baauer, and Boyz Noise. The Bluebird even had Bassnectar headline there in 2010, and Deadmau5, Feed Me, and Le Castle Vania did an impromptu show there in 2011 after a rained-out show in Bloomington.”

“I would say that dance music “took off” (became more visible in this generation of students’ college culture) about one to two years ago, mostly due to frats picking up on EDM, and more college kids coming to school with some DJ experience already.”

Another DJ, Danger Latte, confirmed the increase in popularity lately: “Yea! It’s pretty crazy, it’s like we all came from nowhere all around the same time. My journey started while living in Chicago, when I discovered house music by going to street festivals and warehouse parties. After moving back to Bloomington the obsession with the music grew to the point where I felt like I had no other choice than to start DJing in the fall of 2015. Later that year I discovered Techno, which grew into an even bigger obsession, especially when I realized that it was a seldom played genre at most venues in Bloomington.”
A live act going by the stage name of FIIT still sees the local electronic scene in its early stage: “Locally to Bloomington,  EDM (Electronic Dance Music) is still very fresh. When I first started performing live (summer 2015), I was not aware of any other pure electronic dance oriented acts. A lot of my first FIIT shows were in basements of houses often booked with rock acts that may have included electronic elements into their music with a synthesizer or a drum machine, or booked with experimental live PA (aka Personal Appearance) acts. The setting of these venues was fine, but they did not stimulate a dance atmosphere. Since Acid/Techno is a dance music, I was on the search for a better space and acts with similar intentions. This is about the time I met up with a group of local DJ’s (Body Mechanics) that were playing Acid/Techno music in their sets and at a particular club (Root Cellar). They put me on a few of their shows as a live act and it worked out perfectly.”

The Electronic Scene in Bloomington Now

There was a time when FM radio was the primary conduit to introduce new music to a community, but local radio stations no longer satisfy that function, though there are a couple notable exceptions.

Community radio WFHB has a Dance Music program called Beat Party, every Saturday night from 10 pm to midnite. Featuring four or five DJ’s that rotate on a regular basis, like Goodhands, Deejayspikes, Slique Monique, Dancin’ Don, Zeitgeist, MADDOG, and Mark. WFHB’s Program Schedule, available on their website, has a place to click on the DJ’s name and see their playlists for all of their recent broadcasts, a very good resource if you’re trying to associating musician names with music.

MADDOG explains: “Beat Party is pretty unique – there’s no rules really. You’re not restricted to EDM, House, or Hip Hop. I know I personally like playing late 80s – early 90s House and Club with some late 90s – early 2000s Trance. But if I can squeeze in some World music or Afro/Latin/Brazilian beats then I do.

“I know some DJs on the show are more Urban or Hip Hop based while others are more dance or club oriented. I don’t think it really matters as long as it makes you move. That’s kind of the great thing about WFHB and Local Radio in general – you can tune in whenever and always get something different. It’s not like tuning into a Top 40 station where you kind of always know what you’re going to get.

“EDM and dance music have become much more mainstream in the past few years. So I would think there is some cross-over in ‘sound’ you know what I mean? With mainstream radio and my sets on and off WFHB.

“Also as a DJ you get a lot of ‘requests.’ It’s not something that I condone but people kind of think that’s a thing you do – go up to the DJ and ask them to play your song. You hear that line in music all the time ‘Hey so and so DJ play my favorite song!’ so I think people kind of think that’s a thing. But what I’m getting at – is because of that – at the club I’ll sometimes play something that is a little more well known that you may hear on popular radio or MTV (if people still watch that ha!) People kind of freak out if they don’t hear Beyonce. So for instance if I’m at The Back Door or another “dance club” I may throw in a top 40 remix here and there to keep people engaged.

Indiana University radio WIUX (99.1 FM) likewise is another place on the radio dial. Though there is a fair amount of IU sports “talk radio” and a concentration of college radio “indie rock,” you’re far more likely to encounter electronic or dance music here than elsewhere. The signal is not powerful, so its range is limited, but it reaches through most of Bloomington proper.

WIUX Event DJ Director Ethan Brown has a program called Inbound, Tuesdays 8 pm – 10 pm, which features predominantly house and dance music. Also, WIUX sends representatives to some national electronic music festivals, with website coverage via reporter’s narratives and some musical excerpts. Recently Moogfest 2017, Durham NC, and Movement 2017 – Detroit Electronic Music Festival have both been covered in considerable depth, with lots of reviews.

Aside from these local exceptions, those looking for dance music airplay turn to alternatives like Spotify, or music Soundcloud or Youtube url’s passed around on facebook. Those who have Sirius XM satellite radio receivers, increasingly popular options on autos, can find four channels of interest. They are BPM (Channel 51), Electric Area (Channel 52), Chill (Channel 53), and Studio 54 (Channel 54.) An Internet streaming option is also available with Sirius XM.

Which brings us to how in Bloomington the dance music scene is primarily a club scene, rather than a radio scene. One can find these events even in home basement venues, via the Bloomington House Show Network facebook page. These are mostly too numerous and erratic to discuss in depth.

That leaves us with the club scene to cover. The first installment in this series, published last month, did this from the point of view of the club owners, managers, and booking agents.

But now let’s put the audience first, front and center.

Not to take the obvious for granted, they were asked by The Ryder at a number of recent events: “Uh, just why are you here?” Here are a sample of their responses, nearly all of the attendees in their early to mid-twenties.

John: “I like the energy. It’s a diverse crowd. Anybody can dance with anybody. I go out at least every couple weeks.”

Matt, wearing a Chicago Cubs sweatshirt: “I like the looseness – the absence of rules. Everything feels free. I don’t like music out of a jukebox – I want to see a performance!”

Kendra: “There’s complete freedom of expression. You can be anybody you want to. Nobody asks questions, because nobody cares what you do with the rest of your time. Music drowns out a complicated world – and we can all connect. The main point is – it’s all good! There’s a beat we can all get on with – all of us together! To have a good time! I try to go every week.”

Mariah: “I like going to the festivals too, and not only electronic ones, but also like the Rothbury Music Festival.”

Emily: “It’s not just couples dancing. It’s everybody going with the flow. It’s PLUR – Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect. And acceptance. Everybody is so nice – nobody is mean. Why, even uptight people can be comfortable with this dance music! Why, just look at them go – you just can’t make a fool of yourself!”

They mentioned attending with friends, but also meeting lots of new people too. They also contrasted the scene with what they saw as negative aspects of some of the “collegiate” hang-outs: “Some places, all the guys want to know is what sorority you’re in – that’s just too much like a clique! Nobody asks you that here! And people are nicer besides.”

Now to move on to interviewing one couple – as a couple. See if their answers were any different. Not really. Their names were Max and Ally. Max was wearing a Napoleon Dynamite t-shirt.

Max and Ally: “We go out once or twice a week, usually on weekends. Sure, our circle of friends like this music too and we often find out about events from them, but going to these events is how you make friends too. We usually learn of happenings via facebook. We sometimes go because we like the club but also sometimes because we like the DJ who is playing.”

Now at first glance there’s not much different here than what was present at the Summer of Love 1967 in San Francisco, or Woodstock, or Monterey Pop – but peel one layer away from the onion and there is one very, very important difference: The drum machine does not get tired. It does not stop. It keeps perfect time. And it does not miss a single beat.

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this and its consequences.

Danny McKinley of the Root Cellar touched on this when he said, echo’ing one of his mainstay DJ’s: “DJ Angst said it best, ‘When it comes to EDM / electronic music: the vibe, the performance, the audience, the dance, the party will go ALL. NIGHT. LONG.’”

That’s right. The performances feature non-stop, seamless transitions from music segment to segment, the whole night long. There’s no lead vocalist announcing, “OK, we’re gonna take a fifteen minute break and then be back to play another set.”  There’s no interruption when one band leaves the stage and the next one comes on. There’s no occasional slow, sappy ballad to give the musicians a bit of rest before they return to their frenetic rockin’ pace. There’s no narrative interlude with the obligatory and now overused, “Hey, Bloomington, we love ya and let me introduce the band!”

Once the DJ, or the live act, presses the Play button on the first of dual DJ decks, or the sequencer, there’s no stopping until the night is over and last call for drinks has been announced. Dual decks, whereby the DJ cues up the next tune, matches the beat together with the one already playing, sees to that. One after another after another. And the dual decks allow one DJ to leave and another to come on smoothly.

Paradoxically, the freedom of expression, the feeling of equality, the connectedness of it all, which those interviewed all articulated, is actually a recognition of their submission to The Beat.

When you’ve got the groove on, nothing else much matters. And The Dance is as much a ritualistic subservience as it is an expression of self identity or group solidarity. Sure, you can wear a lizard costume as a couple of dancers did at the Video Saloon, or dress up like a peapod as did one dancing fool enthusiast at Player’s Pub, but you’re still a slave to the master clock resident in the electronic hardware.

Give yourself over to the music, and the music will set you free.

 

 

Beauty from Smoke: Nell Devitt

by Paul Sturm

I was jolted into exuberance the first time I saw Nell Devitt’s artwork…that ‘shock-of-the-new’ rush from realizing I’ll forever see the world with new eyes.  There was no going back; no “unseeing” or forgetting her bold wall sculptures made of smoke fired clay tiles.  (clay! of all things…)

Thirty-five years later, Devitt remains an all-time personal favorite visual artist, with a refreshingly distinct voice – her extraordinary ability to blend the clean-line beauty of minimal geometric forms with a murky, smoke-infused palate and rich surface textures born from aleatory…it’s like luscious dark chocolate for your mind and soul.

I count myself lucky that I’m an occasional visitor to her studio in Greene County.  Through the years, I’ve been able to track her progress and revel in her new work.  For most art-loving Hoosiers, though, Nell Devitt’s work is less accessible for viewing because she has rarely shown in Bloomington or Indianapolis.

Devitt’s creative prowess and assured technique have allowed her to create ceramic art tile works that have attracted buyers and commissions in major urban markets on both East and West coasts, and in Chicago.  She sells the inventory she might otherwise exhibit and then turns her attention to generating new series of art tiles.  Devitt has led, and continues to lead, the life of a successful working artist.  And that – at least for some readers – may be considered an even greater feat than her bold innovations in using ceramics as a collectible art medium.

So with full-on excitement, I herald the coming of “Nell Devitt Ceramic Retrospect 1980-2017” – a not-to-miss exhibition featuring a 37-year retrospective look at the work of this local gem.  The show runs at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center’s Miller Gallery from Oct. 28 thru Nov. 18.

Devitt began her career in the 1970s with a functional clay background (making pots, cups, plates, bowls), but most of her work for the last 30+ years has been decorative art tiles – both smoke fired and occasionally wood fired.

I recently made the pilgrimage out to Bloomfield to chat with Devitt in her studio.  I asked her how and when she made the leap from table to wall; from functional to nonfunctional clay art.  For her, the shift was organic.

“I can’t recall having an ‘a-ha’ moment.  I make connections through growth, learning and change, but the process was gradual.  It’s important to remember that craft itself is a very organic art form.  The craft tradition is that you learn by doing things through repetition.  You learn how clay responds by making series of multiples, like a series cups.  That gradual transformation is an important aspect of craft, and an important part of my process.  So it wasn’t one moment; it was a gradual, organic process.

“I started with pots and vessels, bowls and cups, canisters, bird feeders…  Like other clay artists, I started by throwing functional work, the type of work you do in larger production scales.  But I never did as much pure production work as most clay artists.  I was more interested in doing limited series that I could use to explore a theme or design, but then allow my work to transform and change as I had new insights and ideas.  When I switched to smoke fired clay, I began creating decorative wall tiles as a complement to the vessels – and they were useful in designing a visually compelling booth at craft fairs – and gradually my focus shifted to the wall tiles.

“In 1979 I started doing regional craft shows with my smoke fired work, and I was fortunate to begin showing at American Craft Council (ACC) exhibitions in 1985.  At that first ACC show, my pieces caught the attention of Carol Sedestrom Ross (founder/CEO of American Craft Enterprises and senior vice president of American Craft Council).  Carol was the first person to encourage me to develop the design side of my work.  She believed that I could be a designer as well as a producer; that most clay artists are makers, which is good; but she thought I was strong in both design and execution, which made my pieces distinct and original.  For clay, my pieces were less utilitarian and focused more on creating a strong image.  I got encouragement like that from several people, which gave me the confidence to keep trying new things.”

Whether her source inspiration is a zipper or a leaf or a letter or a geometric shape, Devitt’s tiles explore abstraction with a minimalist aesthetic that incorporates the indeterminacy of smoke firing.  Her practice is rooted in Japanese raku, and Devitt apprenticed for a year in Kasama, Japan with potter Ono Yoshi, before coming to Bloomfield in 1978 to set up her studio.

“During my year in Japan [1977], I saw firsthand how artists would create with a specific intent to celebrate the error or the irregularity or the one little flaw that makes a whole image come alive.  That aesthetic infuses my work and my creative language.  I’m interested in the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete found in nature and the world.  I try to create tiles and installations that embody asymmetry and simplicity; that use the rough, uneven surface of smoke firing.

 

“And I’ve always liked repeating tile patterns that have small, irregular interruptions; like old tile floors with small, scattered imperfections.  I like creating that look in the context of minimalism and abstraction.  What I like about minimalism is the repetition and the space, and one of the values in abstraction is that it can be open to any interpretation.”

And Devitt is committed to smoke firing, a technique she has been mastering and refining since 1979.

“I like to use straw in my smoke firing, although some artists use sawdust, newspaper, or other flammable materials.  What I love is the warm, dark, dim look of clay that is smoke fired: the straw marks, the irregularities, the random results.  I also have a primary color palate – red, yellow, blue, and green stains – that, when you smoke fire them, their color is more subtle but still visible.”

Devitt’s dark tonal palate contributes to the dramatic impact of her work.  Within Devitt’s fields of multiple tiles, there’s tremendous subtlety in the surface and color and shine of each tile, lending textural depth to her large minimal designs.  This combination of simple form, elegant design, and engaging texture has made Devitt’s work a favorite of interior designers, architects and galleries.

I like to use straw in my smoke firing, although some artists use sawdust, newspaper, or other flammable materials.  What I love is the warm, dark, dim look of clay that is smoke fired: the straw marks, the irregularities, the random results.  –Nell Devitt

In fact, the marketplace is ever-present in Devitt’s creative plans and art-life gestalt, but commerce plays a very symbiotic role with her growth and development as a visual art innovator.  Rather than dampening or ‘chilling’ Devitt’s artistic vision, the customers she has attracted and the revenue she generates from her work actually serve to coax, validate and ‘underwrite’ new periods of exploration.

“When I first started participating in ACC shows, there were a few adventurous buyers who really liked my early tiles.  I remember an exhibition in West Springfield, MA when an architectural group from downtown Boston got so excited.  They laid their blueprints down on the floor to figure out how many tiles they would need for an installation in a Boston bank, and they bought my entire display of 40 tiles.

“When I get enough orders to work on a line of tiles, I can work on a visual series that allows me to explore the theme, the design.  And it’s through repetition that I develop insights and a personal style; the progression from one series of tiles to the next series grows out of what I’m able to learn from exploring the design through the repeat production of a design series.  So the steady commissions and income from wholesale buyers, architectural designers, and collectors has allowed me to explore and deepen my craft.”

To keep her ideas fresh, Devitt has played with text as a stylistically disruptive departure from abstract shapes and forms.  And across many years and tile series, her foray into text-art clay has – not surprisingly – led her back to abstraction.

“My first text piece was ‘My List’ and it was just that: a list of all the things that I thought defined me.  For my initial text tiles, I would cut clay letters from stencils or templates, and add them to tiles.  It was very time consuming.  Every day I would be able to get only one or two full words created.  I did a number of text tiles like this, but the process was always very time- and labor-intensive.  I eventually stopped making them, although my text tile pieces were very popular at a show I did at the Smithsonian.

“On my next series of text pieces, I used a cover-tile that would hang over a back-tile that had text on it.  You had to lift up the cover tile to see the text etched onto the back tile; otherwise, the message simply exists under the surface of the image you see on the wall; kind of a conceptual aspect.

“All of those early text pieces were more like typesetting in clay.  Now I’m interested in the letters themselves, but letters in abstract form – using one complete but cropped letter for each tile.  I take a single corner or section of a letter and zoom in on it, keeping what’s most interesting or most important in that image.  Pieces in this style include ‘direct experience’ (2006), ‘unafraid’ (2009), ‘objective’ (2010), and ‘fearless’ (2017), which was fired in September.”

And very recently, Devitt has begun again to etch messages into the exterior walls of freeform pinch pots.  This new series of pinch pots, which returns to a very simple functional form, and a very simple method of creation, is a further extension of Devitt’s lifelong affinity with minimalism and the reductionist aesthetic at the heart of her creative method.

“It’s a subtractive process.  I throw out everything that isn’t part of the pure design in its simplest form.  I’m not making a representational piece.  I’m trying to create tiles that use the simplest elements to achieve something beautiful or memorable or provocative.  For me, it’s the emotion and joy that comes from seeing something elegant created from simple abstract shapes.  My goal is to make art in a way that I can eliminate non-essentials, not only in the design of the piece but also in the way that it gets fired and in the subtle smoky palate I use.

“And I try to live my life through a subtractive process as well, clearing away everything that isn’t necessary to being an artist working and living in Greene County, Indiana.  It’s what I’ve done all my life, because it’s a core value.  Whether I was making functional pieces to sell in local craft fairs, or making big, dramatic sculptural tile installations for art buyers, I’ve always wanted to keep my production right-sized to that level where I can pay for my process of discovery and then keep innovating.  I can make enough pieces of a series that the repetition teaches me something, but then move on to the new ideas I get from that repetitive process.”

Most professionals also hone their craft through lifelong study of their medium and exposure to peer artists.  Devitt is likewise devoted to seeking out and studying the work of others, and this learning process is only getting better – more information-rich – as technology allows faster, broader sharing of images and ideas.

“Coming from a functional clay tradition, it’s been important for me to study other contemporary ceramicists and the history of clay, but also painting, sculpture, jewelry and other media.  My influences are wide-ranging: from minimalist Sol LeWitt (I love MASS MoCA’s building that houses 4 floors of his wall drawings) to post-minimalist Eva Heese; from conceptualist Barbara Kruger (with her mind-blowing floor-to-ceiling text pieces) to painter Agnes Martin to sculptor Donald Judd.

“All of my early study was done slowly: hours devoted to trips to the library and days hanging out in the art section of a bookstore that allowed me time to digest information and assimilate visual ideas and aesthetics.  Today I’m able to travel virtually to any place in the world at any time of the day using my iPad and cell phone.  With Instagram, Google, and other Internet tools, I can look at artists’ work both old and new, in galleries and in studios, from any location.  It’s a rich time for artists to intermingle their ideas.

“Through it all, my goals have been simple: create art that satisfies me, sell what I make, and make what I need to survive.  I try to eliminate the non-essential in my artwork as well as my life.”

 

Warming by the Devil’s Fire

God and the Devil, like gospel and blues, are never far apart in Charles Burnett’s film

 

 

By James Naremore

 

 

 

 

[editor’s note: James Naremore is Chancellors’ Professor of Communication and Culture, English, and Comparative Literature at Indiana University. He has published acclaimed books on the films of Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. What follows is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge (University of California Press), is the first to be written about Burnett. “I aimed for comprehensiveness,” he explains, “and because many of his films are difficult to see, I tried not only to give them the critical attention they deserve but also to describe them in detail for those viewers who may be unfamiliar with them.”]

Author’s introduction: Charles Burnett, one of America’s most important yet least widely known filmmakers, was born in Mississippi in 1947, but his family soon took part in the post-war Southern Black diaspora, settling in the Watts area of Los Angeles. After attending Los Angeles Community College, Burnett entered UCLA, where he became the leading figure in a relatively short-lived film movement known as “the L.A. Rebellion.” His MFA thesis, the 16mm Killer of Sheep, (filmed 1973-75, exhibited 1977), was shot on weekends with locals in Watts and is arguably the greatest student film ever made: it’s listed as one of the 100 essential pictures by the National Society of Film Critics, and was one of the first motion pictures to be officially designated a National Treasure by the Library of Congress.

Among the reasons why Burnett’s subsequent career hasn’t achieved larger public attention is that his films grow out of his experience as a working-class Black, and he doesn’t traffic in sex, violence, or glamor. In thematic terms, he has more in common with a playwright like August Wilson than with Spike Lee. There’s nothing obscure or arty about his work (some of his pictures are straightforward history lessons aimed at kids), but he isn’t the kind of director who appeals to your average Hollywood producer. An authentic independent, he has great integrity and has been faced with all the disadvantages and disappointments such a position entails. But no filmmaker has a better record of showing why Black Lives Matter. Among his important films for the big screen and TV are To Sleep with Anger (1990, a masterpiece about generational conflict within a Black family, unavailable on American DVD for decades), The Glass Shield (1994, about police violence and murder of Blacks in Los Angeles), Nightjohn (1996, about Southern slavery, told from the point of view of a child), Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003, about the Turner rebellion, and in my view the best treatment of the subject in any medium), and Warming by the Devil’s Fire (2003, about blues music, discussed below).

 

 

Charles Burnett’s Warming by the Devil’s Fire was the fourth in a series of seven PBS-TV films about blues music which were executive-produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Burnett, Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Richard Pearce, Marc Levin, Mike Figgis, and Clint Eastwood. Burnett and Wenders took unorthodox approaches to the project by incorporating fictional elements into their films, but Burnett went further than Wenders, creating a fully developed fictional narrative interwoven with impressively selected archival footage. An early, extraordinary example of such footage is an archival clip of the black “Washboard Street Band,” composed of musicians playing washboard, a toy trumpet, and tin cans, and a small boy dancer in a derby who performs a sort of proto-break dance. There are also documentary images of hard labor and lynching.

Of all the directors involved, Burnett had the most intimate experience of the blues, and he wanted to make a film with a blues-like form, less about the technical aspects of the music than about the culture and feelings out of which it emerged. Warming by the Devil’s Fire is miles better than any of the other films in the series. As Bruce Jackson has said in a fine essay, the narrative structure is loose and episodic, “at heart it is lyrical, like the blues” (“On Charles Burnett’s Warming by the Devil’s Fire, www.counterpunch.org/2003/10/11). It’s also Burnett’s most autobiographical picture, mixing humor and history with the sad, sexual, sometimes raucous emotions of an old but still influential American art.

Burnett has often told the story of growing up in Watts to the sounds of his grandmother’s gospel records and his mother’s blues records. When he was a boy he sang spirituals in church and the first tune he played on his trumpet was W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” It wasn’t until he reached adulthood that he realized how important both kinds of music had been, and they clearly influenced many of his films. At a deep level, he understood that the two musical forms were symptomatic of a conflict between the strictures of fundamentalist religion represented by his grandmother and the sadness, sex, and rebellion represented by his mother. This conflict is apparent in the very title of Warming by the Devil’s Fire, which suggests a guilty pleasure. At one point in the film we’re given the source of the title: we see old documentary footage of a southern black church service and hear the voice of a preacher admonishing his congregation to avoid their sinful pleasures, all of which, he says, are described in the 14th chapter of Luke as “warming by the devil’s fire.” (I asked Burnett where he found the recording of this sermon, and he couldn’t recall; my guess is that it’s a 1928 record by the Reverend Johnnie “Son of Thunder” Blakey.) As Burnett explained to interviewers, his film is an exploration of a partly forbidden art that had a complex impact on his upbringing: “I wanted to take more of a personal approach. I wanted to express my experience with the moral issues you might face growing up in a family that was divided on what is sin.”

Burnett’s grandmother and mother were the chief representatives of that division, but he also had two uncles who were opposites–a preacher in Mississippi who “believed in every word in the Bible” and an adventurous merchant seaman who “got along great” with his mother. The oppositions or dialectic within the family ultimately enabled him to see that spirituals and blues have a paradoxical relationship. “[I]f you really listen to the lyrics of some songs,” he has said, “you can see why [blues music] is not appropriate for children. There are images of low life, hard drinking. You had the church trying to get you up from the gutter and here you are singing [the gutter’s] praise.” At the same time, there were blues songs “that make a profound observation about life. They are lessons in life . . . case studies of people who loved and failed, of people who were wronged and who died in fights. . . . Blues has a survival component that gives you a better perspective of life at an early age than any first year of school, I believe. It teaches lessons. So do folk tales. . . . a lot of blues singers came from the church and a lot of blues singers towards the end of their lives went back to the church.”

Burnett’s interest in the blues was inseparably linked to his fascination with the South, where both his family’s religion and the blues originated. He was an infant when he and his parents left Vicksburg, Mississippi for California, but during the 1950s, when he was ten or eleven years old, his grandmother put him and his brother on a train from LA to Vicksburg so they could visit their southern relatives and make contact with old-time religion. In an interview presented as an “extra” on the DVD of Warming by the Devil’s Fire, he recalls that the train made a stop in New Orleans, where he and his brother had a traumatic encounter with southern-style segregation. At the station was a play room for white kids, and while waiting for a change of trains the two boys innocently wandered inside to look at the various toys. Suddenly everyone in the room exited and the place was surrounded by cops. The boys weren’t arrested, but they were shaken and extremely cautious when they finally arrived in Vicksburg.

Burnett’s memories of that visit had largely to do with the climate and unfamiliar aspects of southern poverty: stifling heat, humidity-laden air, and country out-houses that attracted rats and dirt-daubers (wasp-like insects that build ping-pong ball or even baseball-sized nests of mud). In his DVD commentary for Warming by the Devil’s Fire, he remarks, “When you’re a city boy it’s hard to go back to those things.” He understood why many of the people he knew, including his mother, never wanted to return to the South; but the history and music of the South continued to exert a mysterious, romantic attraction. In the eighties he returned to the area around Vicksburg to research a documentary that he never made, and during that visit he began to learn more about blues musicians.

Warming by the Devil’s Fire is inspired by Burnett’s visits to Vicksburg, but it also draws on his considerable knowledge of blues history. Set in the mid-1950s, it tells the story of an eleven-year-old boy named Junior (Nathaniel Lee, Jr.) whose family sends him by train to New Orleans, where, because his relatives don’t want him to ride a Jim-Crow train to Mississippi, he’s met by his Uncle Buddy (Tommy Redmond Hicks) and driven to Vicksburg in Buddy’s shiny Chevrolet. Buddy is a blues aficionado, but also a dapper rapscallion and ladies’ man who is disapproved of by the rest of the family; they openly wonder why he hasn’t been sent to prison, killed in a fight, or lynched. In the course of the film he takes charge of Junior’s visit, keeping him from the rest of the family and acquainting him with southern history and the lessons of life that blues music has to offer. All this is narrated off screen from the retrospective point of view of Junior as an adult (voiced by Carl Lumbly). Both of the principle actors in the story are charming and impressive, almost like a comedy duo: Nathaniel Lee, Jr. maintains a stone-faced expression, occasionally frowning in bewilderment but quietly absorbing the strange new world in which he finds himself; and Tommy Redmond Hicks talks non-stop, behaving like an exuberant force of nature who is passionate about the history of blues and fond of his nephew.

The fictional parts of Warming by the Devil’s Fire were photographed in color by John Dempster, who became Burnett’s most frequent DP, on locations in New Orleans, Vicksburg, and Gulfport, Mississippi. Burnett was disappointed by the fact that he was unable to shoot in high summer, but the film’s autumnal landscapes have a quiet beauty and are free of the cheap, gaudy, corporate chain stores that infest poor towns in today’s America. Most of the documentary footage of blues musicians is in black and white, and Burnett occasionally segues from that footage into fiction by printing the opening moments of the color fiction sequences in black and white. Near the beginning of the film, after a grim montage of old newsreels and photos of southern black labor and lynching of blacks, a color fade takes us from archival footage of blacks exiting a New Orleans train to a shot of Junior alone with his suitcase in front of the station. He’s neatly dressed in a 50s-style coat and tie, looking like a polite boy on his way to church. Buddy soon arrives, wearing a sporty cap and two-toned shoes. He gives Junior a warm welcome, ushers him into a sparkling, almost new Chevy, and takes him on a quick guided tour of New Orleans before they depart for Vicksburg.

First they stop on Basin Street, which Buddy explains was once the location of the Storyville red-light district, later immortalized in Louis Armstrong’s 1929 recording of “Basin Street Blues.” “In those days you didn’t need much money to have fun,” Buddy says. (Burnett cuts to old photographs and snippets of Armstrong’s music.) Then they stop at Congo Square, located inside what is now Louis Armstrong Park. As we can tell from Buddy’s enraptured speech, this is holy ground for anyone who regards blues and jazz as America’s truly indigenous art forms. Dating far back into colonial times, Congo Square was originally a place where enslaved blacks were allowed to congregate on their Sundays off—not for church, but for market, music, and dance from Africa and the Caribbean. It was closed before the Civil War but reopened afterward, when it became a gathering place for Creoles and a source of the brass-band rhythms still associated with New Orleans. (Burnett cuts to old footage of the Eureka Brass Band in a funeral parade through the nearby Treme district, playing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”) Its original name wasn’t officially restored until 2011, long after Buddy supposedly makes his speech and even after Burnett made the film, but lovers of blues have always known its importance.

The film proceeds by this method, allowing Buddy to teach Junior blues history and initiate him into an adult world, and giving Burnett the opportunity to show footage of musicians and the life that shaped them. One of the great virtues of Warming by the Devil’s Fire is that it says comparatively little about formal or technical aspects of the blues (which, at least on the surface, are relatively simple) and doesn’t try to define the term; instead it does something better, showing how musicians described the blues and giving a clear sense of the trials, tribulations, and profane pleasures that were its emotional sources.

 

The film isn’t simply an archive of great blues performances (though it is that) but also a meditation on black experience. It concentrates mainly on the harsh Delta blues that extended from Tennessee down to Mississippi and Louisiana, and without explicitly saying so it gives us subgenres of this music, all of them dealing with forms of trouble or desire. One kind has to do with the pains of sexual love. After playing “Death Letter Blues,” a song about a man who gets a letter announcing “The gal you love is dead,” Sun House (1902-1988) tells an interviewer that “Blues is not a plaything like people today think . . . Ain’t but one kind of blues, and that’s between male and female that’s in love . . . Sometimes that kind of blues will make you even kill one another. It goes here [slaps his chest over his heart].” But there’s another kind about the cruelty of the southern treatment of blacks. W. C. Handy (1873-1958) says that “When they speak of the blues . . . we must talk of Joe Turner.” Handy’s song about Turner (“They tell me Joe Turner’s come and gone, got my man and gone”) concerns a real-life character who lured Memphis black men into crap games and high-jacked them for deep-South chain gangs, where they provided free labor.

Some blues are quasi-work songs, such as Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues,” which Burnett accompanies with powerful footage of black labor–men using steel bars as levers to rhythmically nudge an entire railroad track from one position to another; a row of five men in prison stripes standing close together and digging a trench by swinging pick axes in unison, the man in the middle flipping his axe in the air on the upswing and catching the handle for the downswing. Other blues are about weariness and soulful longing to be elsewhere. After playing “Nervous Blues,” bassist Willie Dixon (born in Vicksburg in 1915, died 1992) talks to his jazz quartet about the meaning of the blues: “Everybody have the blues . . . but everybody’s blues aren’t exactly the same. The blues is the truth. If it’s not the truth it’s not the blues. I remember down South, be on the plantation . . . and you would hear a guy get up early in the morning and unconsciously he’s [singing blues] about his condition and [wishing] he was some other place . . . down the road.” Still other blues, as with “Lonesome Road” by Lightnin’ Hopkins (1912-1982), are about a deep loneliness and wish to make contact with loved ones. We’re given an example of these feelings when Buddy drives Junior down the Natchez Trace (a location Burnett wasn’t able to photograph) and they pass an old man trudging down the empty road who turns down the offer of a ride. Buddy explains that the old man is lost in thought, making one of his long, periodic journeys from northern Mississippi to Parchment Prison to see his son, who for some reason never talks to him.

Parchment Prison was a source of blues music, as was Dockery Plantation, where blacks labored hard to pick cotton. Burnett shows documentary footage of the harvest at Dockery, and viewers of this footage can understand an observation Buddy makes when he takes Junior to Gulfport to view the Gulf of Mexico. Looking out at the vast, gray water and cloudy sky, Buddy seems relieved at the sight, just as Burnett’s seafaring uncle probably was: “You can’t pick damn cotton on the ocean,” he says. The film makes very clear how much the blues can be related to backbreaking work on the land or to long hours of menial domestic labor. Standing on ground near the Mississippi river, Buddy tells Junior about the 1927 Mississippi flood, the most destructive in US history; he doesn’t give statistics, but it left 27,000 square miles under water, in some places up to thirty feet, and displaced almost a quarter million African-Americans from the lower Delta. (Burnett’s grandmother, who experienced that flood, often talked about it.) We see documentary evidence of the devastation it wrought, and Buddy explains that black workers did a great deal of the labor needed to stem the floodtide. Archival scenes show black men in prison stripes trucked to work and trucked back in a windowless iron trailer with air-holes on its sides. With help from the Federal government, blacks also worked to construct the world’s largest system of levees along the river, but they got little reward.

Given this environment, it’s both understandable and amazing that nearly all the great blues musicians were self-taught. On the level of domestic labor, one of the most striking moments in the film, and one of the longest, is a documentary interview with the aged blues singer-guitarist Elisabeth Cotton (1895-1958), who, after singing “Freight Train” in a weak but beautiful voice, tells the story of how she acquired a guitar. When she was a very young woman, she went to white homes asking for domestic work. One lady invited her in and asked what she could do. Cotton proudly listed all her skills: cooking; setting a table; cleaning house; doing laundry; bringing firewood inside; bathing and looking after the lady’s children; etc. The lady hired her at seventy-five cents a month. After a year, the lady was so satisfied that she raised the pay to a dollar. Cotton gave the money to her mother, who months later bought her a guitar out of a Sears-Roebuck catalog. She smiles when she remembers that she couldn’t keep her hands off the instrument and almost drove her mother crazy learning to play it.

Burnett DVD Cover81vAugXV0XL._SL1500_

Charles Burnett’s interest in the blues was inseparably linked to his fascination with the South. In the 1950s, when he was ten years old, his grandmother put him and his brother on a train from LA to Vicksburg so they could visit their southern relatives and make contact with old-time religion.

Of course blues music wasn’t entirely about the woes of life. “With blues,” Buddy says to Junior, “you either laughed or cried.” A good deal of it, in fact, was about what the church called sin. We get a sense of this when Buddy takes Junior home with him to his tiny house, which looks like a blues museum. (In his commentary on the DVD, Burnett says that most of the old blues musicians, even the famous ones, lived in humble places like this, stacked with records and decorated with rare posters and photos; he also praises his production designer, Liba Daniels, for transforming an abandoned shack with very little money.) At night, Junior shares the narrow bed with Buddy, the two lying at opposite ends so that Junior’s head is at Buddy’s feet. Junior can’t sleep because when Buddy isn’t moving his toes to unheard music he suddenly jumps up and has a desire to put another record on the player. In the morning, Junior has his first experience of the horrors of the outhouse, made worse because the door won’t stay shut (there’s a blues poster on the inside of the door for convenient reading, and part of a broken 78rpm record on the wall). He finds a cat-gut string tacked to a post near the front door and strums it for a moment.

In the house, Buddy becomes Junior’s teacher. He shows the “cut and run” razor he keeps with him in case of trouble and begins playing records to exemplify the history of blues. This gives Burnett an opportunity to show archival footage of the people Buddy mentions. Buddy starts the day, as he does every day, by almost prayerfully listening to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Precious Memories.” (Tharpe [1915-1973] was a singer of both blues and gospels; her rendition of “Precious Memories” was used for the opening of To Sleep with Anger). He then segues into a discussion of women artists, who were in great demand during the 1920s, before the recording industry began to dictate what could be heard.  “So many women called themselves Smith,” Buddy says, among them Mamie Smith (1883-1946), the first woman to record blues, and of course Bessie Smith (1894-1937), featured in a clip Burnett shows us from the sixteen-minute film “St. Louis Blues” (1929). A montage of other female singers and songs features Ma Rainey’s “I Feel so Sad” (Rainey [1886-1939], the narrator tells us, was a successful stage performer who didn’t play juke joints and who worked with such musicians as Louis Armstrong; she was also a writer of songs with lesbian themes), “Four Day Creep” by Ida Cox (1896-1967), and a cover of “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” by Dinah Washington (1924-63). Buddy enthusiastically comments, “Those were some mean women, boy!” To reinforce his point, he plays a record by Lucille Bogan (1897-1948) and we hear a bit of the lyrics: “I got nipples on my titties big as my thumbs.” Suddenly realizing this might be inappropriate, he stops the record. The adult Junior’s narrating voice informs us that he decided to pretend he didn’t hear the words; Lucille Bogan, he says, had recordings that “would make the Marquis de Sade blush.” He adds that as a result of listening to blues, “I learned a lot about body parts.”

Buddy is obviously a man who loves women and makes no secret of the fact. Soon after playing the records, he visits a lady friend’s shot-gun house and introduces her to Junior. “This is Peaches,” he says, “one of the finest women God let walk on this earth.” He and Peaches cozy up and head off to the bedroom, backed by the music of Sonny Boy Williamson. (Williamson [1914-1948], the narrator explains, was the star of the “King Biscuit” radio show who was later killed in Chicago; we also see a clip of another, equally talented harmonica player [1912-1965] who somehow got away with appropriating Williamson’s full name.). Sullen, troubled, and beginning to disapprove of Buddy, Junior wanders outside. He gets in Buddy’s car and pretends to drive, then explores the neighborhood, coming upon a small church atop a hill. This discovery may seem implausibly symbolic, coming as it does on the heels of Junior’s increased uneasiness about Buddy’s sinfulness; but God and the Devil, like gospel and blues, are never far apart in this film, nor in back-country Mississippi. Junior goes into the empty church, which has a pulpit, pews, and a tapestry of the last supper (in his DVD commentary, Burnett says that the church was long abandoned and had to be fumigated for wasps before it could be decorated). Sitting on one of the pews, he experiences ghostly memories of churchgoing and seems to hear voices singing (“Things I used to do I don’t do any more”) and a preacher’s sermon, illustrated for us by old documentary footage.

When Junior and Buddy resume their drive, Junior pointedly asks about his other relatives in Vicksburg, whom he still hasn’t seen. Buddy ignores the question and resumes his lessons in blues history by commenting on the large number of singers who were blind, among them Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929), Blind Blake (1896-1934), Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945) and Ray Charles (1930-2004). But Junior looks unhappy. Sensing this, Buddy tries to cheer the boy up. “Let’s go see a movie!” he proposes. “Have you seen that movie Shane? I saw that one and High Noon about a dozen times!” Junior frowns and asks, “Why do you do bad things?” Buddy pauses, glances at him, and makes a prediction: “You’ll be surprised who you find in Heaven and who you find in Hell.”

Back at home, Buddy goes through a pile of old records and papers, including a yellowing, handwritten manuscript from a book he’s been writing about the history of blues. The book is unfinished because he still doesn’t have a beginning or end. The deep ancestry of the music, he explains, is in the early years of Reconstruction, in the era of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Welles, and W. E. B. Dubois, when southern blacks had greater freedom of expression. By the early twentieth century, mass production made guitars available through mail order, and distinctive forms of blues developed in the southeastern states, the Mississippi delta, and east Texas. The first blues musician to publish his songs was W. C. Handy, who could be considered the godfather of such later figures as Mississippi John Hurt (1892-1966), T-Bone Walker (1910-1975), and Muddy Waters (1913-1983), all of whom we see in performance. The life of blues musicians, Buddy says to Junior, was often tough and self-destructive: Bessie Smith bled to death in an accident and Leadbelly and Sun House killed men.

As Junior’s education proceeds, he begins to form an imaginative attachment to the music and stories he’s heard.  At one point we see him alone on a nearby dirt road, walking with his eyes closed, guiding himself with a long stick in order to experience what blindness must have been like for people like Blind Lemon Jefferson. Buddy takes him to visit a blind guitarist named Honey Boy (Tommy Tc Carter), who is sitting on his front porch with an aging, invalid gentleman named Mr. Goodwin. Buddy reverently explains that the invalid old man was once a player with The Red Tops (Vicksburg’s most popular blues, jazz, and dance band of the 1940s, which entertained both white and black audiences). Junior is amazed that Honey Boy knows he’s from California, and listens politely when the blind man tells him that blues musicians, if they live long enough, begin to mature and accept religion; he explains that he ruined his eyes and health from wild living and drinking too much home brew and “canned heat.”

Eventually, Junior becomes less concerned about Buddy’s womanizing. Buddy takes him for a fried catfish lunch at the home of two pretty young women who enjoy teasing him. Chucking Junior under the chin, one of them says he needs a better name and asks if he likes “Sweet Boy.” “No Mam,” he says, “I like Junior.” Broadly smiling and seductively looking him in the eyes, the other young woman tells him Junior isn’t “a name for a man.” She decides to call him “Sugar Stick.” Buddy plays a slow blues record and he and the awkward, shy, silent Junior begin to dance with the two women. Junior’s partner, who is much taller, buries his head between her generous breasts, whispering that when he gets older she’s going to teach him things. “I was backsliding into darkness,” the narrating voice of the adult Junior tells us. “I was between heaven and hell.”

Junior’s full absorption into the imaginative world of the blues happens when Buddy takes him for another drive, stopping the car at a country crossroads of the kind where Robert Johnson and other blues greats supposedly sold their souls to the devil in exchange for a devilish style. Buddy tells Junior that they’ll see the devil, but as night descends he falls asleep in the driver’s seat. Junior stares ahead into the mysterious, moonlit darkness, where the ghostly image of a well-dressed blues musician appears and speaks to him in the voice of W. C. Handy (who was still alive in the mid-1950s). Fearful, certain that he’s encountered an apparition of the devil, Junior shakes Buddy awake and tells him what he’s seen. Buddy explains he was only joking and explodes into waves of loud laughter. (In his DVD commentary, Burnett remarks that it was ironically difficult for the film crew to find a country crossroad near Vicksburg. He also says, “One would think this scene would be about Robert Johnson, but it’s not. It’s about this kid’s imagination.”)

Going deeper into the Devil’s territory, Buddy climaxes his course of study by taking Junior to a local juke joint crowded with drinkers and dancing couples. Junior gets a fish sandwich on white bread and sits at a table, where he eats and observes the action while Buddy perches in lordly fashion at the bar, turning toward the room and saying hello to the regulars.  The woman who owns the place rebukes Buddy for bringing a kid inside, but he begs for just one beer and she relents. A sensible friend of Buddy’s steps forward, declines the offer of a drink, and tells Buddy he’s crossed a line by bringing a boy into the joint. Buddy laughs him off and the friend says “I give up,” exiting the place in disgust. Not long afterward a fight breaks out, viewed from over Junior’s shoulder, and a man across the room is knocked to the floor. The owner and her bouncers put the unconscious man in a chair and relieve him of a switchblade. Buddy leans toward Junior and asks, “Having fun?”

Just then the disgusted fellow who walked out returns with Buddy’s brother—he’s Uncle Flem, Junior’s opposite, a preacher dressed respectably in a suit. Flem tells Buddy that Junior’s family in LA and relatives in Vicksburg have been worried to death, and that Buddy is “crazy.” Buddy knows that his time with Junior is up. He moves to the boy, gives him an intense look in the eyes, and hugs him. Flem announces that he’s taking Junior to the decent members of the family elsewhere in Vicksburg. As Junior is led away, he looks back at Buddy. Burnett freezes the frame for a moment, holding on the boy’s gaze, and then shows him leaving.

This is the end of Junior’s association with Buddy, but not the end of Buddy’s influence. As the film closes, Junior’s narrating voice tells us “I learned so much on that trip back home. I never forgot a second of it. I draw a lot from that time I spent with Buddy. . . .The years went by, and Buddy left the book for me to finish. I did, in my own way.” We see a still photo of Buddy in a suit, next to Flem, holding a Bible to his heart. Junior’s voice says, “Buddy ended up becoming a preacher, like so many of the blues players.” Viewers might conclude that in his “own way” Burnett himself finished Buddy’s book, paying full tribute to the things he learned by visiting his birthplace.

 

 

 

The Canine Muse

William Wegman and His Weimaraners: collaborations between filmmakers and their muses have long been recognized within both Hollywood and the underground.

By James Hook

 

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick. Celebrated artistic collaborations between filmmakers and their muses have long been recognized within both Hollywood and underground modes of filmmaking. What does it look like, however, when the muse in such a relationship happens to be a canine?

Such is the case in the unparalleled partnerships between William Wegman and his Weimaraner pets-turned-stars. A prolific multimedia visual artist and filmmaker who holds an MFA in painting from the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana, Wegman has shot a virtually uncountable number of film and video works since 1970. Some of these run mere seconds, while others irreverently reimagine such childhood staples as The Hardy Boys or The Twelve Days of Christmas. A selection of these films will screen at the IU Cinema in The World of William Wegman shorts program, part of the Underground Film Series, on Friday, September 8, at 6:30 p.m.

Mostly constant through this work is the presence of one or more canine collaborators. First came Man Ray, star of many Wegman shorts throughout the 70s. Man Ray’s death in 1982 marked the start of a four-year gap before the appearance of a new muse, Fay Ray. Appropriately, Man Ray’s and Fay Ray’s respective namesakes gesture toward the realms of fine art and commercial entertainment, an artificial binary Wegman’s career has never recognized—his work has been welcomed at the Centre Pompidou and on Saturday Night Live. Something of a repertory company of canines materialized following the 1989 birth of Fay’s puppies Battina (Batty), Crooky, and Chundo.

While there have been more Weimaraners since, Fay and her puppies are the dogs most seen by countless Millennials (and their parents) thanks to appearances on that bedrock of children’s television programming, Sesame Street, beginning in 1989. Here the dogs would run into an empty frame and pose together to corporeally create letters and numbers. They also enacted nursery rhymes and performed in sketches designed to highlight neighborhood service workers such as the waiter, the truck driver, and the ophthalmologist—with the aid of full costumes and the uncanny incorporation of human hands.

One downside to the, well, doggedness with which these iconic images have maintained their hold in our collective pop-cultural memory is how another side of Wegman’s artistic sensibility has been overshadowed. His earliest video works, for instance, decidedly do not fit adjacently to a song by Big Bird, but would feel very much at home in a retrospective that also featured the works of, say, Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, or Bill Viola.

Many of Wegman’s short films are underscored by an existential absurdity that would not be out of place in a one-act by Samuel Beckett.

Art critic Kim Levin has situated Wegman within what she identifies as an “aesthetic of the amateur.” Indeed, Wegman’s short films can sometimes feel like home movies, but only to a point. Although shot in Wegman’s studio space with simple camera setups and little if any editing, rather than capture the quotidian in any uncomplicated way, the activities in many of these films are underscored by an existential absurdity (or, perhaps, an absurd take on existentialism) that would not be out of place in a one-act by Samuel Beckett. They veer from the borderline grotesque (e.g., Wegman expels milk from his mouth for a cooperative Man Ray to lap up off the floor) to the whimsically meta (e.g., Wegman and the dogs reenact in-studio their 1991 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman).

wegman-FAY RAY 12 DAYS

That vexed label of “postmodernist” has often been applied to Wegman and it is not incorrect. Even his earliest shorts display confidence that his audiences are conversant in the expectations and conventions surrounding specific genres, rules Wegman then revels in exaggerating or breaking. 1978’s Man Ray, Man Ray, for instance, is a dual biography of the canine Man Ray and the famed surrealist photographer who preceded him. Constructed from talking head style interviews, still photographs, and voiceover narration, this “documentary” blurs together biographical details from the lives of both of its subjects and manages to incorporate an intermission and epilogue into its five-minute and twenty-three second running time.

The Hardly Boys in Hardly Gold sits somewhere in-between the categorically unmistakable video art and the spiritedly playful Sesame Street segments. Shot on location in Rangeley, Maine using 35mm and premiering at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, the film is a technically accomplished tribute to the pseudonymous Franklin W. Dixon mystery series Wegman read as an adolescent. Herein sisters Batty and Crooky follow in the sleuthing shoes of brothers Frank and Joe; the voiceover narrator (unmistakably Wegman himself) helpfully clarifies, “Hardly boys, they were girls and dogs.” Whitney Museum curator Joan Simon has explained that for Wegman this casting was perfectly logical, as Weimaraners can be understood as “detectives by nature, tracking and sniffing for clues.”

Wegman’s Weimaraner muses are certainly not the first to bridge the categories of canine and star—this honor can be traced at least as far back as Rin Tin Tin in the silent era. Their image has, however, left an indelible aesthetic mark that continues to delight and baffle as it frustrates categories: Is the work fine art or kitsch? Does it appeal to children or adults? Is it best associated with the museum gallery or the television set? Are its characters dog-humans or human-dogs? As (surrealist) Man Ray once declared, “I like contradictions.” So too, I believe, does Wegman.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Other Equinox

The autumnal equinox gets short shrift across the board. It seems like a blind spot in the American imagination.

 

By Bart Everson

 

 

[editor’s note: Bart Everson lives in New Orleans but many years ago he lived in Bloomington and was co-host of the groundbreaking television series, “J&B on the Rox,” which aired on BCAT from 1992-1995. This essay is adapted from his new book, Spinning in Place: A Secular Humanist Embraces the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year, Frowning Cat Books]

 

There’s an old bridge over Bayou St. John in New Orleans, made from wooden planks supported by a steel frame and now used only for foot traffic. A Vodou ceremony is performed here on St. John’s Eve, just after the summer solstice, but recently I’ve come to associate the bridge with the autumnal equinox, because of a flower, of all things.

I first noticed them a few years ago, gorgeous crimson spidery blooms which seemed to have sprung out of nowhere in mid-September, in a little planter box at the end of the bridge. A friend’s grandmother calls them “naked ladies,” because they emerge tall and proud atop leafless stalks.

It wasn’t until several years later, as I was studying up on the equinoxes, that I realized these flowers are associated with the beginning of fall. They bloom around the time of the autumnal equinox. It’s a testimony to my own alienation from natural cycles that I noticed this not from direct observation or local lore but by reading about rituals of Japanese Buddhism on the internet.

The Higan Service has been observed at both equinoxes by Japanese Buddhists for over a thousand years. It’s traditionally a time to visit graveyards and honor ancestors. The naked ladies which I see in New Orleans are called higan-bana in Japan; they are often planted in graveyards and usually bloom around the time of the autumnal equinox.

Some say the flower has over 900 names in Japanese, including poisonous flower, fox flower, the flower of the dead, samadhi flower, abandoned child flower, and the flower that looks like a phantom. The Latin designation is Lycoris radiata, which I find almost as beautiful as the flowers themselves. In the American South they are also known by a variety of evocative epithets: red spider lilies, red magic lilies, surprise lilies, resurrection lilies. They have become for me one of the signal harbingers of autumn.

 

The boy who didn’t believe in autumn

The flower is also called the hurricane lily, which will need no explanation for those of us who live along the Gulf Coast. The peak of hurricane season comes on the tenth of September, statistically speaking, but the season officially runs until the first of November. Hurricane formation is driven by warm water in the mid-Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, which lingers on through the phenomenon of seasonal lag. It’s summer’s hangover.

Many locals take a dim view of September, the ostensible beginning of the fall season. September often seems like nothing more than an extension of the month before. August, Part II: The Revenge of the Humid. September is a sticky, sultry, summery month.

Here in the subtropics, spring may be ephemeral, but autumn can be downright elusive. Most of the trees in New Orleans stay green year-round, so we don’t see much fall foliage. The Saints may be playing football, kids may be back in school, and rumors of fall may filter down from the north, but when you’re mopping sweat off your brow it can be hard to believe autumn will ever come. The equinox can seem like a false premise. However, there is one undeniable reality that can’t be missed, even at our latitude.

I start to notice it at the very beginning of September. I rise at the same time, but each day it’s a little darker. Dawn slips forward through our morning routines. We are losing light. The days are getting shorter, as night encroaches upon day. Thus, even in the subtropics, we experience a sense of loss.

 

The other equinox

It seems to me that the autumnal equinox gets short shrift across the board. It’s my gut feeling that most Americans, if they are familiar with the concept of an equinox at all, think of the vernal equinox first. The vernal equinox is the subject of an enduring myth: that you can stand an egg on end on that one day and no other. For some reason, this story is told only about the vernal equinox. The poor old autumnal equinox gets virtually no traction in the American mind. I wonder why that is.

My suspicion is borne out by a moment with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which indicates that for 200 years the vernal equinox has been mentioned about twice as often as its autumnal counterpart.

The chart gets more cluttered if you throw the solstices into the mix, but it seems that the autumnal equinox has been the consistent underdog since the Civil War, at least.

I can’t help wondering if it’s a global phenomenon. One imagines that, for ancient people, the vernal equinox might have held greater importance in terms of the agricultural cycle. Knowing when to plant seeds is crucial information. By contrast, knowing when to harvest can be determined simply by observing the plants themselves.

I can’t help wondering what wisdom the autumnal equinox might have to offer us, in spite of (or perhaps even because of) its obscurity.

 

Abstract vs. embodied

Over the years I’ve amassed a collection of music related to equinoxes and solstices, and in so doing I’ve discovered a few things.

First of all, “Equinox” is a popular title. John Coltrane’s jazz standard is the most famous, but there are many others in genres ranging from death metal to ambient electronica.

Second, most equinoctial music is instrumental. Yes, there are some precious few songs about the equinox, but the overwhelming majority of tracks have no lyrics whatsoever.

Third, it’s often impossible to determine which equinox is being referenced. Some compositions seem to have a seasonal feel, either a bouncy vernal character or a more autumnal melancholy. Some titles make the matter explicit, such as “Vernal Equinox” by John Hassell or “Vernal Equinox” by Can (same title, but entirely different compositions). There are half as many titled with some variation of “Autumnal Equinox,” further evidence of the disparity noted above.

In some cases a seasonal association can be deduced from other clues. For example, John Coltrane was born one day before the autumnal equinox in 1926, so perhaps the title of his standard was chosen to invoke autumn. “Meet Me on the Equinox” by Death Cab for Cutie was released in early September 2014, just before the autumnal equinox, and the lyrical refrain of “everything ends” seems to fit with the fall season.
However, for most compositions, the reference is completely ambiguous, and this ambiguity intrigues me. Perhaps musicians are intending to reference both equinoxes at once, to reference the idea of the equinox in the abstract, rather than its embodiment at a specific time of year. Note that solstice compositions are almost never ambiguous; the reference to summer or winter is almost always quite clear. The solstices by their nature represent opposite extremes, whereas the equinoxes are identical, insofar as the celestial mechanics are concerned.

The autumnal equinox is a global moment which can be observed and celebrated by all, and it exists far beyond the scope of any government or institution.

It’s a precise moment that happens twice a year, when the equatorial plane of the earth intersects the center of the sun. For this moment only, the Earth’s axis will not be tilted one way or the other with regard to the sun. It’s easy to illustrate with a flashlight and any round object (a globe, an orange), and I’m happy to demonstrate to anyone who cares to pay attention. In fact I have demonstrated the concept on numerous occasions at a local elementary school.

Yet the thought of a non-tilted axis has probably not inspired many musical compositions. Rather, I suspect, it’s the idea of day and night in equal balance. There’s something mysterious, magical, even mystical, inherent in that notion. It’s obviously a natural phenomenon, and taking note and marking it seems deeply human as well. Furthermore, it’s a global moment, which can be observed and celebrated by all, and it exists far beyond the scope of any government or institution. And since this configuration of Earth and Sun happens twice a year, it lends itself toward abstraction.

 

A different kind of balance

The concept of balance, common to both equinoxes, is not static but flowing. We seek balance as the best footing for our actions. This flowing sense of balance is embedded in the seasonal continuum. In the spring, the equinox represents a transition from dark to light; in the autumn this valence is reversed. At the autumnal equinox we move from light to dark. Attendant metaphors ensue.

Perhaps that’s why this equinox seems like such a blind spot in the American imagination. Themes of loss and darkness don’t fit well with the national narrative.

Yet there is much to celebrate, if we aspire to a full and comprehensive vision of what it means to be human on this planet. The metaphors of the equinox can work for us, if are open to the possibility. These metaphors only gain power when embodied in their seasonal context.

As metaphors of new growth predominate at the vernal equinox, so harvest metaphors abound in autumn. This might be a time for drawing in, for gathering together. The equinox can be a time for reflection, for making changes and starting projects, for setting priorities and recognizing intentions. Glenys Livingstone writes of “stepping into the creative power of the abyss,”1 a wonderfully expressive and suitably mysterious phrase. Truly darkness and loss, though they present challenges, are not to be feared, if only we can gain adequate perspective.

Fear and denial are fundamental responses to loss and encroaching darkness. There’s no sense in pretending otherwise. However, there is another response which may seem surprising and counterintuitive, though just as fundamental, and that is gratitude — the reciprocal of the spirit of desire which we celebrated at springtime.

 

Methods of gratitude

In fact this cuts both ways. Reflecting on one’s mortality can enhance one’s sense of gratitude, and gratitude helps us cope with loss. There is now abundant evidence of the many benefits of gratitude in the emerging field of positive psychology sciences.

Most ancient wisdom traditions have also emphasized the importance of gratitude. Gratitude is like any other capacity we have: it grows when we exercise it regularly. So it’s good to be intentional about it, to set aside time for gratitude.

A fun way to do this with family and friends is to make a gratitude chain. Cut up some strips of colored paper, and on each strip write down things for which you are grateful. Join the strips together to make a chain. Add to it daily throughout the season and soon you will have visible evidence of just how much gratitude is flowing through your lives.

A craftier alternative, perhaps appropriate for a gathering, is to make a gratitude garland. Each person can bring a token to hang on the garland, representing a blessing which they wish to celebrate. As the garland is constructed, each person can share the story of their gratitude.

Another worthwhile exercise, suitable also for the solitary practitioner, is drafting a gratitude letter. This is simply a “thank you” letter to someone you’ve never adequately thanked. It’s surprisingly powerful. Try it some time.

There are other methods. Whatever you do, do something. A recent study by Robert A. Emmons and Anjali Mishra2 indicates that cultivating gratitude may help you manage stress, reduce toxic emotions and materialistic striving, improve self-esteem, enhance your ability to remember the good things in your life, build social resources, motivate moral behavior, make you more spiritual, help you reach your goals, and promote your physical health.

I heartily recommend it.

 

Objects of gratitude

I am riding my bike to my daughter’s school on a warm September afternoon. It’s sprinkling gently though the sun is shining. As I ride I puzzle over an issue related to this essay, a philosophical snag over which I’ve dithered for years.

We may feel immense gratitude for favors large and small done us by our fellow human beings, which is a truly wonderful thing in its own right, but what about that gratitude we feel for a beautiful day? For sunshine or rain? For the blooming of Lycoris radiata? What about the whole of existence?

Gratitude is usually constructed as having two objects. We feel grateful for something, and we also feel grateful to someone. Note that in the standard formulation, this second object is typically a person or agent of some sort. Does it have to be that way? Is it correct to speak of gratitude to impersonal forces, or is there some other word for that? Does gratitude require an object, or can it be sort of free-floating?

By the time I arrive at the school, the sprinkle has thickened into a more substantial rain. The September sun is still shining brightly, however. I’m supposed to take my daughter to aikido class. If we ride in the rain we’ll both get soaked. Fortunately a friend shows up. He’s taking his daughter to the dojo too, so he gives my daughter a ride.

I stand under the portico waiting for the weather to clear, appreciating the beauty of the raindrops sparkling in the sunshine. I wonder about the nature of this appreciation. It feels akin to gratitude, but for many years I scrupled to label it as such, because it wasn’t clear to me just who the object of this gratitude might be. I am grateful to Jameel for giving my daughter a ride. Am I grateful to the rain? To the sun? While the rest of the human race gets on with feeling grateful, some of us stop to wonder: To whom or to what am I feeling grateful? For years that question was my stopping point, my stumbling block.

Since my daughter was born, however, many things have changed. I started to experiment with some things, tentatively at first, but in time — slowly, cautiously — with greater enthusiasm. I thought to myself: Why not? Why not give it a try? Why not allow myself to feel gratitude to the rain, to the Sun, to the Earth, to the Universe? Was it possible to experience gratitude to everything for everything?

We began to say grace before dinner. “Thank you, Mother Earth, for the food that gives us life.” I started visiting a certain tree each morning for a brief meditative moment, and I found myself saying “thank you” to the tree. These practices felt good, but they had other consequences. The world around me began to seem more alive. An incipient animism was springing up in my breast. I noticed that many children seem to relate to the world this way. Was I that way once? I can’t remember.

When the rain abates, I get on my bike and head up Moss Street, along the edge of Bayou St. John. That’s when it hits me. One of the prime functions of mythical metaphors is that they allow and even encourage our expressions of cosmic gratitude. That’s kind of the whole point.
Gratitude surely is a social phenomenon which has evolved over millennia as part of humanity’s web of interdependence.3 Yet that web extends well beyond humanity without any clear limit. It’s only right and natural that we’d want to extend our social feelings to the natural world. This gives an emotional validity to the hard fact of our manifold interconnectedness and conveys many benefits besides. I suspect it’s “selected for,” as evolutionary biologists might say, but I’m speculating again.

This may be a minor revelation but it comes down on me with some force, just as I arrive at the footbridge where Lycoris radiata will soon be making its annual appearance, the very place where I started this overlong rumination on the autumnal equinox. It seems a fitting place to stop, and to express my gratitude to you, Reader, for coming with me so far.

 

 

 

 

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