Politicking & Community

“The perks go to the guys who play the game, the ones who politick. I knew a long time ago I didn’t have the stomach for that.”
– Robert Hanssen, Breach (2007)

The above quote stuck out to me upon my first viewing (of many) of Breach almost 8 years ago. It’s curious: as a longtime political and current events junkie (who’s been trying to detox the last ~8 months or so), I’ve long been averse to political gamesmanship in most all areas of life, particularly in music. I don’t enjoy schmoozing and/or networking for the sake of schmoozing and networking, and I try to be genuine and let the interaction or music speak for itself. I know many folks who are always out in the “scene,” working as many people as they can just so they can ultimately get their own back scratched. It’s slimy and I have a hard time bringing myself to do it. That being said, I have “networked” in the past, but whenever I do it’s coming from a sincere place: I’m trying to make a connection; I’m genuinely interested in what he/she/they are doing; I think a rising tide lifts all boats. Etc., etc. But the older I get, I see that I’m in the minority. Indeed, it’s a pirate’s life for all…

But as with what most refer to as politics – the crafting and implementing of public policy – the how is almost as important as the what (if not more important in some cases). You want something to become law? Okay, how will you get that enacted? Similarly, you want to play a show? How will you get that booked? Who should share the bill with you, and what can you do for them (and vice-versa)? Instead of that rising tide lifting all boats, it’s a giant wave lifting some boats and pulling others down in its wake. Zero sum. Good for the goose, bad for the gander. The cold crossfire of competitive self-interest.

And yet, despite my aversion to acting politically, my longtime fascination with politics and desire to engage in public service has led me to a political post on my own small scale. Basically, I reached a bit of a personal tipping point: I could obsess over obscure congressional races and legislation throughout the country, etc., or I could actually focus that energy on what’s going on in my own city, joining the process at the local level in the hope of affecting immediate change myself (or at least giving it a shot). At the end of 2014 I applied to fill a vacancy and was appointed to the City of East Lansing’s Arts Commission. It’s thus far been quite a gratifying experience. I’ve learned a lot about the city’s political and policy landscape, and despite the seemingly innocuous title and post, I’ve quickly observed that no politicking is too small for politics. Though, of course, if that’s how it is with music, why wouldn’t it be so for politics itself?

Words like “scene” and “community” are often bandied about synonymously when discussing a local/regional/etc. musical environment. However, it’s been my experience that competing “scenes” (and/or “selves”) often work against forging a “community.” Even at the very local level of where I live, the various disparate musical enclaves feel almost balkanized. (I lightly touch on that here.) First, there’s the municipal and mental division of East Lansing and Lansing. Though the border is largely a highway, it unfortunately can feel like it may as well be a derivative of the Berlin Wall. I live in East Lansing and am still only a few miles from Michigan’s capitol in Lansing, and yet the change in vibe regarding perception and tired old stereotypes once I cross said highway are palpable. EL vs. LAN: college town vs. industrial town, MSU vs. GM, transients vs. townies, cover bands vs. the hardcore, acoustic vs. electric. And I’m just talking about the cities. When looking at the various musical scenes, one can quickly go down an endless rabbit hole of not only competing styles (acoustic, rock, jazz, etc.) but competing castes within each style (bluegrass and singer-songwriter, indie and hard rock, bebop and all else). But that minutiae is another entry for another day.

When I first joined the Arts Commission, I think a couple of my friends (and even myself to a small degree) thought that it’d be a comically sterile experience, more akin to student council or the municipal government from Gilmore Girls (between my wife and a former roommate being fans, I couldn’t help but absorb some of it) than “government.” However it’s been more rough and tumble than anticipated, and I’ve gladly and enthusiastically accepted that challenge and dove in head first. The first big issue to pop up after my appointment was the city’s divesting East Lansing’s municipal contemporary art and performance venue (SCENE)metrospace to Michigan State University’s art department. (I won’t turn this post into a diatribe on the topic. I’ve said more than enough on it locally and you can read about it here, here, here, here, and here if you’re so inclined. Separately, Matt also wrote a post on it from his perspective to bring in the new year.) In short, (SCENE) will continue as a visual arts space curated by MSU’s AAHD, with music and other non-visual arts greatly reduced (almost to zero). The deal is still officially in talks but I have no doubt that it’ll pass in the coming weeks.

Bringing this full circle, I’ve been gobsmacked by the local music and arts community’s deafening silence on the (SCENE) issue. Without naming names, I know quite a number of folks who have performed or shown their work there over the past several years who have made little-to-no (with emphasis on “no”) public comment about this. For some, I believe that they think the change may benefit them in some way. For others, I wonder if there’s a territorial “scene” mentality taking place, considering that some of them may see (SCENE) as competition for their more hyper-local scenes. (SCENE) benefited them in the past, but now that they seemingly no longer need it, why rock the boat and state that they care? Of course, those who live in East Lansing are more affected, considering we’re the ones whose tax dollars will continue to fund it while losing access to perform or exhibit. And, considering a number of the aforementioned folk live in Lansing, and given what I wrote about the supposed EL vs. LAN divide, it’s “understandable” that they wouldn’t raise a stink over something that takes place on the other side of US-127 divide. On top of this, most other venues in the area are nearly monopolized by Fusion Shows, a Lansing-based booking agency and promoter. Once you’re in with Fusion, why care about the Alamo-like independent venue?

So where am I going with this meandering entry? (Not that it matters much.) It’s likely obvious to only me, but this post seems to continue along a path touched upon in previous posts (here, here, here): the micro trumps the macro; the individual trumps the whole. While (SCENE) is considered by many at first glance to be a visual arts space, it’s been an important local resource for live music in every style in East Lansing (including a handful of shows by yours truly over the last several years), and just about the final holdout to stay free of the clutches of the Fusion leviathan. (SCENE) will of course continue – and possibly thrive – under its new management as a visual arts venue, however the live music component has been squelched (with small, tightly-controlled exceptions). Another venue bites the dust. So many got so much out of the space – artists, musicians, and attendees alike – and yet so few came to its defense when it was put on the chopping block. I wonder if things would’ve been different had those folks made a stand. Perhaps not, but we’ll never know.

“All politics is local.” – Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill


Paternity Leave

This blog has been pretty quiet over the last several months, save for a couple posts. My wife and I finally met our beautiful son in late January, and we’ve since been running on fumes trying to keep up with him. I don’t often get personal beyond music here, so suffice it to say that it’s been absolutely amazing. Tiring and stressful, sure, but truly amazing. With him now approaching four months of age, I’m finally starting to get somewhat of a handle on my schedule, and hopefully can resume regular posts here going forward. In my head I’ve written dozens of entries these last few months, but in reality I actually sat down to start typing only one and abandoned it after two paragraphs. However, paternity leave from the blog should be over now.

I can say this, and I know it’s cliché, but once our son arrived my perspective and priorities automatically (and instinctually) underwent an instant and total transformation. Most of what I had considered to be important suddenly vanished from my mind, and what remained was given much more weight. Much more. Everything has a new urgency now that the little guy is here, the intensity of which continues to catch me off guard. But our little family is having a great time, and I’m thankful to be taking a summer off from teaching abroad to be home these next few months.

Musically looking back, it’s certainly worth noting that the Borghi | Teager show at Muskegon’s The Block was a success. Matt and I both considered that to be an apex gig for us. Not only were the venue, staff, and attentive crowd first-rate, but we gave what was probably my favorite performance. The music locked in from the first note and maintained throughout the evening. It was a special night for us and one that we’ll not forget. Our performance aside, The Block is a venue to both see as an audience member and play as a performer — a wonderful space!

There’s been little activity other than The Block save for some gigs here and there, as I tried to keep these last few months clear to adjust to the transition. But I’m starting to get back on the musical wagon. Slowly but surely, and with an angry embouchure…

(Happy 202, Richard, a couple days late…)

Victimusicology: I Am Modern Flute Technique

I have a number of half-finished posts that were intended to be in contention for the comeback post now that I’m slowly getting a handle on this whole parenting thing. However, earlier today I saw something a little too ridiculous to ignore. It’s not worth spending too much time on, but here are my $0.02. Initially I offered a snarky tweet, then quickly deleted it because it’s my firm belief that with social media less is certainly more. But since I’m writing a blog post, I’ll resurrect that first volley here:

“And the ‘New Music community’ officially joins the ranks of the humorless, terminally offended & victimized PC class. Blech.”

On a recent Tonight Show, host Jimmy Fallon delivered a bit (by his team of writers) about books to avoid, one of them being The Other Flute by Robert Dick. Seems harmless enough, but to read this NewMusicBox article and a series of follow-up tweets (including the hashtag campaign of #InviteRobertDick), you’d think that a real crisis was at hand. If outsiders weren’t convinced of classical musicians being in a bubble, this would make a good final nail in that coffin. I bet a lot of musicians are sleeping deeply tonight having burned so many calories on being so outraged.

That’s not to say that Dick himself doesn’t have a right to be offended. That’s a different story, as it’s about him personally. It’s quite unfortunate that his (likely) introduction to mainstream pop culture was a joke at his expense about his life’s work. That truly sucks. But what puzzles me is why other flautists are so taken aback. Were they also being insulted in such a personal way?

Being offended is big business these days. That’s not to say that bullying, etc. isn’t a problem. But we’re gradually moving away from the right to free expression to the right to not read or hear something disagreeable. And it strikes me as odd that a group of artists – those who supposedly are the biggest proponents of free expression – would themselves get so bent out of shape by a few jokes (Dick himself excluded).

But who am I to talk? I play the saxophone (and a little flute), so I’ve got nothing to complain about. (It’s not like there’s a Sexy Sax Man  or Kenny G to weigh down the instrument’s image or anything.) I’m simply a hegemon – my instrument is part of the dominant paradigm, present in myriad popular styles. I mean, Branford Marsalis was even The Tonight Show’s bandleader for a time. Although, most of my classical music-oriented colleagues don’t or won’t give much of my improvised music the time of day, so perhaps I should start my own aggrieved campaign. (The same goes for this blog being rejected from The Big List of Classical Music Blogs multiple times.)

I do think that it’d be great to have Robert Dick himself appear on the show as a follow-up to the bit, but not so Jimmy Fallon can simply offer a public apology to the music community like some sort of hostage video victim. I think that, with humor, it could offer genuine insight into something that does at first seem funny or odd to the average listener. (After all, extended techniques don’t often travel well when out of context.) Perhaps relate a technique such as simultaneously singing and playing with Ian Anderson’s playing (for pop context) and then go from there. In short: definitely have him on the show, but also have the community take a collective chill pill.

Having said all that, here’s Robert Dick doing his thing, and masterfully so, in his Sliding Life Blues:

Borghi | Teager at Muskegon’s The Block on Saturday 02.21.15

All has been quiet on the blog front this last month due to the wonderful new addition to our family. Regular posting should resume soon, but first a concert announcement:

This Saturday, I’ll be performing what I believe to be my first hometown show as a leader. I’ve played a number of fun (and occasionally featured) gigs in Muskegon over the years, but none of those have included my name in the top billing. This weekend, however, the Borghi | Teager ambient juggernaut will land in and sound throughout Michigan’s City by the Lake. The weather should hold for the evening, so please come out if you’re in the area. And don’t just take my word for it – we’re #1 is this weekend’s Top 5 Things To Do in the Muskegon Chronicle.

We’re performing at The Block, a wonderful, intimate venue opened by the West Michigan Symphony a couple years ago that offers up-close performances in myriad styles. Matt and I have long thought that our music is more akin to a listening space such as a concert hall as opposed to a rock club (even though we’re happy to play the latter!). Generally, for this type of music in that type of an environment, it’s been Philadelphia’s The Gathering or bust for us, and so we’re excited to have such a great opportunity close to home.

From the official press release:

Performance duo Borghi and Teager bring “jambient” music to a February performance at The Block in downtown Muskegon.

Matt Borghi (guitars, effects) and Michael Teager (saxophones, flute) are a recording and live performance duo focusing on improvised ambient, or “jambient,” music. The duo combines guitars, winds and electronics to make each performance a unique experience. The program starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21. Doors and cash bar open at 6:30 p.m.

Matt Borghi is a sound artist, music composer, writer, but he claims that above all he’s a musical improviser, using his guitar in traditional and non-traditional means. His recordings have been featured on NPR, BBC and CBC.

Michael Teager is a Muskegon native and versatile musician, performing frequently throughout the Midwest in a variety of styles. He also serves on the faculties of Spring Arbor University and Michigan State University’s Office of Study Abroad, teaching each summer in Bregenz, Austria.

Saturday evening’s concert is titled “Soundscape. Improvised. Jazz.” When asked what audiences might expect form a Borghi and Teager concert, Michael Teager, who also regularly plays saxophone with the West Michigan Symphony, explained that the concert would be “a unique, contemplative evening of sound. Our music is too active to be considered traditionally ambient, it’s melodic and heavily improvised but doesn’t swing, and there are formal structures that constantly evolve.” Teager continued, “There’s something for everyone. We’ve also put together some visuals to make it a more immersive, sensuous experience.”

Overall, musicians Borghi and Teager are focused on the spontaneity of live performance and on taking the listener on a journey into sound.

Tickets for Borghi and Teager’s concert “Soundscape. Improvised. Jazz.” are $20 and available at the West Michigan Symphony ticket office: 231.726.3231 ext. 223; online at https://itkt.choicecrm.net/templates/WMSO/; or in person at 360 W. Western Ave. in Muskegon. For more information, visit www.westmichigansymphony.org/the-block.

When: Saturday 02.21 @ 7:30 PM (doors & cash bar at 6:30)
Where: The Block; Muskegon, MI
Tickets: $20, available here

MTH-V: Candy Dulfer & Chance Howard

I mentioned a few posts back that Candy Dulfer may be coming. As promised, here she is. The Dutch queen of smooth jazz saxophone may not be the first one to come to mind for regular readers of this blog, but she has her place. If you don’t recognize her solo work, you may at least recognize her from her work with many big pop acts including a long-running association with Prince and even sharing the stage with Pink Floyd.

Overall, I’m no fan of smooth jazz. However, I do like some folks that walk that line, Marcus Miller being the biggest for me personally. Marcus was one of my first posts in this video series, and he’s received some of the most appearances and mentions (see him in action here, here, and here). For me, I love Marcus as a sideman or a live bandleader (i.e., when he’s playing his bass with a killing band), both his playing and his ideas. The studio is another story if he’s calling the shots. Many of his albums and/or producing credits are so overproduced and overly overdubbed – he plays most instruments himself in the studio – that I have a hard time getting into it. That, and his solo albums trot too far into the smooth jazz territory. Just a tad too much cheese and fluff at times. And even when it’s not, it still lacks something organic. I mean, I appreciate Miles Davis’s Tutu, which Miller produced, but I don’t often listen to it for fun. This is following a thought that deserves its own post, but hopefully you get the idea…

Back to Candy. For me, she’s sort of the bizarro Marcus Miller – overall her playing’s not my thing but sometimes I’m really into it. Though, that’s mostly because of the style. Perhaps my biggest gripe with smooth jazz is that much of it seems to be trying to be something it’s not: vocal music. When you have a good vocalist, the horns should just lay back and let the pop hooks come through. It’s why “Just the Two of Us” is far and away the best part of Grover Washington, Jr.’s Winelight. (Though, I do like the rest of the album.) Similarly, the thing I’ve most liked by Candy’s solo band features voice. This particular voice is that of fellow Prince alumnus Chance Howard. (Prince experts may also recognize drummer Kirk Johnson, another former member.) And what a voice it is. As my wife says, “it’s pure butter.” How he’s not better known is lost on me. Regardless, he delivers a commanding rendition of Bobby Womack‘s “Daylight” in this live performance from Germany. This may be Candy’s band but it’s Chance’s stage. Candy lets the horn fit in well without butting her way in. She lets the song itself shine without trying to make it a sax feature. Other than the shoe-horned hip-hop breakdown towards the end, this is pretty great. I’ll admit that when I got my new stereo, this is one of the first things I listened to to test the surround sound.

To tie Candy in with another post, here’s a clip of Lydia Kaboesj sitting in with her band in Amsterdam for another rendition of “Just Friends (Sunny)”: