Saturday, December 22, 2007


A word after a word after a word is power. --Margaret Atwood

As a writer, I'm grateful for the reminder of how dependent we are on our storytellers out on strike during this dismal holiday season, even as I miss them terribly. When I heard the corporate fobbing swag-bellied puttocks intended to flood the airwaves with even more "reality TV shows" (as if any of those situations or losers represent reality), I took an oath to find other ways to fill my time until the strike is over.

This oath is not particularly new. I've never seen a single episode of Survivor, Wife Swap, Big Brother, or the other crapola. I did watch part of an Amazing Race because some blog had mentioned there was a gay couple on it, but I lost interest rapidly and changed the channel. My one exception to the genre is Extreme House Makeover, because they actually help real people in dire trouble in a way that prolongs lives, creates exponentially more opportunities, and rewards poor/nonwhite/nontraditional families as if they deserved as much respect and faith as Ozzie and Harriet. And yeah, it's all about product placement and hype, I know, but I've followed up on those families, they actually benefit long-term. It's more than just a Sears circle-jerk.

(Patti LaBelle as winner of the Excellence in Media Award at the 18th Annual GLAAD Media Awards)

But: I broke my oath last week to check out the first night of Clash of the Choirs. Because, my god, it was Patti LaBelle heading up one of the choirs. I have to say, she definitely did not disappoint. Michael Bolton and his Connecticut milquetoasts were an embarrassment, and at least the country-western guy was honest in admitting he didn't have a fucking clue about anything except kicker music. But Patti blew them out of the hemisphere. I got hooked, in spite of myself. I learned that choirs don't have to sound like badly homogenized eunuchs (or Mormons), and I was fascinated with the all-too-brief glimpses of how Ms. LaBelle formed her musical judgments and pushed her pupils to perform dazzling displays above the rest.

I wound up taping and watching all five nights (taping was essential because I really couldn't sit through Bolton & Co.) And every single night, LaBelle's crew mopped up the floor with extremely original, ambitious, outrageously moving performances. But: the format relied on the standard "let the idiots with cellphones make the final decision" and even my cynical self could NOT BELIEVE IT when Nick Lachey (Mr. Jessica Simpson) was named the winner.

Gag me with the patriarchy. Gormless white boy beats out Patti LaBelle? Yeah, you just convince me it wasn't all those hip-hop-lovin' racist pasty-skinned suburbanite testosterone-poisoned BOYS who couldn't bring themselves to vote for a 50-something black WOMAN. I was utterly disgusted, most of all with myself for giving it a try.

Back to my oath.

And here's the thing: These "reality" shows are designed to bring out the worst in people. Designed to reinforce woman-hating and white supremacy. Even more, they are sops to distract us from the class war being waged with increasing ferocity against most of the population. Shadocat recently pointed out how many daytime shows have devolved into flashy giveaways to audience members, a high-tech throwback to the old Queen For A Day shtick of let's get everyone to believe help from drowning will eventually arrive. It's obscene.

If you care about the survival of unions, the compensation of merit over corporate greed, the value of diverse voices: Check out the Writer's Guild of America site and lend your solidarity. You can go here to find out ways to support a fair contract -- even if it's just writing an e-mail which they'll post, it makes a difference.

And if you'd like to create your own devastating insults such as the I used in the second sentence of this post, check out The Shakespearean Insult Kit for ideas. Language is at our disposal, and we don't have to be stupid or obscene to wield it with maximum effect.

Speaking of art and language...

(Ira and George Gershwin at work)

I watched the American Masters' special on George Gershwin yesterday, and was struck again by how what we think of as pop culture in this country would not exist without the outscale contributions of Jewish immigrants and African-Americans. Gershwin, coming from Russian Ashkenazic immigrant parents who were not in the least musical, still somehow found his way to a job on Tin Pan Alley by the age of 15, playing piano as if born to it and blending Hasidic longing with jazz and blues to create an unmistakable sound. He was especially dependent on his family for emotional sustenance -- never married and, from the sound of it, never even came close to it, although it doesn't seem he was a closet case, either.

It was deeply interesting to hear the two main stars of Porgy and Bess, who owe their roles in that smash to Gershwin's groundbreaking insistence that only blacks be cast for black parts, present two completely contradictory reactions to the fact that the first successful African-American opera was written by a white man: One of them, Todd Duncan, had no problem with it, and one of them, Anne Brown, said tactfully but with strong emotion "I just wonder what it would have looked like if it were written by someone who wasn't white." We'll wonder forever, won't we?

George's creativity found home port when his older brother Ira began creating the lyrics for his songs. They were temperamentally very different, but extremely close friends as well as collaborators, living a life joined in most aspects. Ira Gershwin was the first lyricist to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize (for Of Thee I Sing, a profoundly political and still radical script), and his ability to wed words to George's extraordinary music leaves me simply in awe. These brothers made an American art form of musical comedy.

During the late 70s and early 80s in San Francisco, almost weekly I stepped away from my intense role as a radical dyke activist to watch old movies at the Castro, York, Rialto, or other theaters around town. It was a habit I didn't talk about much with my serious revolutionary friends, but I can now see that it fueled my faith and creativity in profound ways. I had a movie-going buddy, Laurie, and the sum total of our relationship was Fred Astaire/Ginger Roger movies. We saw every one of them, more than once. A New York Jew, Laurie found validation of her culture somehow in those dances and melodies, while I reveled in the language and meter. Laurie, if you read this, write me. No, no, they can't take that away from me.

I began crying at the end of the PBS special, not over George's tragically early death at 38 (though I still consider it a great loss), but over the revelation that when he died, he had created the music for a final song with Ira but Ira didn't write the lyrics until after George was gone. That song was his goodbye to his beloved little brother, and no wonder it's one of my favorite of all time. Knowing the history has altered the meaning for me irrevocably for the better:

It's very clear
Our love is here to stay
Not for a year, but ever and a day

The radio
And the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies and in time may go

But oh my dear
Our love is here to stay
Together we're going a long long way

In time the Rockies may crumble
Gibraltar may tumble
They're only made of clay
But our love is here to stay


kat said...

Okay, Mags, there's some great stuff in this post. I love what you have to say about the Gershwins. I love the contrast of what we think of as typically "American" music being produced by people who were obviously "other." Aaron Copeland is another good example. He wrote the music that was used (much later) in the "Beef, it's what's for dinner" commercial, and the Fanfare for the Common Man. He wrote orchestral music that was so reflective of that myth of America that's been created. He was also a gay, Jewish, communist, Russian immigrant who lived in Brooklyn. Some contrast, huh?

I've got to take issue with a couple of things, though.

Just exactly what does this mean: "I learned that choirs don't have to sound like badly homogenized eunuchs (or Mormons)"?????

Okay, I'll agree that the Mormon tabernacle dudes are freaky (not to mention boring), but what does the Eunuch comment refer to??

A choir is people singing as a group. as one. It's supposed to be homogenous. People with really distinctive voices typically don't sing in choirs because the point is to blend with those around you.

My friends and I were up in arms about this whole clash of the choirs thing, because not a single group was actually a choir. One person singing with back-up singers behind you is different. It's not a choir. It's the Supremes. Yes, Patti Labelle's group was really entertaining, but they weren't a choir.

That said, the other dude's groups were even worse. Not only were they not choirs, but they sucked and looked dumb, too. I was especially mad when the country singer dude claimed that you don't need to be able to read music.

Uh....ask any choir director whether that's true and she/he will laugh at you. No director wants to spend months teaching people the notes one by one, and very few will have the patience to do so (unless it's an all volunteer church choir, and even then, it's unusual).

So anyway, this singer is a little insulted and would like an explanation.

Maggie Jochild said...

Thanks, Kat, for calling me on the carpet so elegantly. I've opened mouth and inserted foot, and deserve your demands, clearly.

First, I'll plead ignorance. Your definition of a choir was news to me, and made me think further. One thing I realized as a result is that the groups I was comparing the TV shows' groups to, that I've heard in person, were either church-based (which probably have cultural and religious strictures on their sound that have nothing to do with music) or, in fact, actually labeled as choruses or chorales. Without hitting Wikipedia, I'm willing to bet I'm mixing apples with oranges, aren't I? And being just as stupid as Nick Lachey.

I should have expressed confusion and asked more questions. My bad.

In addition, after thinking about it, I realize "eunuch" is an extremely poor choice of words. Partly because, on looking it up, I see it refers only to the castration of males instead of what I was (vaguely) aiming for, the removal of earthiness from human voice. Sex is not really the issue. Except -- I'm still confused here, clearly -- it does seem to me that the glorification of boy choirs has a great deal to do with seeing them as pre-sexual males. My mother went gaga over the Vienna Boys' Choir and her comments focused on how "sweet" they sounded, how "pure" and "untouched". Yikes. When, in fact, they sounded to me exactly the same as girls' choirs. What was so special about boys sounding like girls?

I DO want to hear choirs giving me a sound I can't experience another way, but still clearly human, rich, evocative. I'm not sure I know what "one voice" means to you. I felt like during the first performance by the LaBelle choir, where there was a sort of call and response, two halves of the choir singing back and forth to each other, that I was hearing something radically different and vibrant, enough to make me sit up and my blood start pumping. I kept looking for that every time they performed, and found it in between the sections where, yes, it was a soloist doing their shtick and getting back up.

I don't have the language to describe it, but I'm hoping you can elucidate further. Educate me, if you will.

I believe you that people singing in complicated harmony would need to be able to read music, but I don't know why. I compare it to folks who've never studied poetic structure, meter or rhythm trying to write lines of work that hangs together or deliberately doesn't for effect. I mean, yes, there are gifted savants who can do it "naturally", but they are few and far between. Most of us have to acquire some basic tools to do Big Work. America idolizes the perceived "amateur" but, well, they wind up sounding like Nick Lachey instead of Patti LaBelle, don't they? The enjoyment of art is within the grasp of everybody, and like sports, I'd rather see people going out and doing it for themselves than sitting at home watching someone else do all the work. And in my local community, I'll go to live performances and have one hell of a good time. (I go to poetry open mics, yes. It's part of the dues we owe our sister poets.) But if I'm going to see a nationally televised show, I want to see professionals knocking my socks off.

Anyhow, if you've accepted my apology, I hope you'll take this opportunity to share your expertise and lead me/us into a deeper understanding of and appreciation for choirs. In fact, if you'd like to guest post at my blog, write me a private e-mail and we'll set that up. Seriously.

Celeste Winant said...

Hello, Maggie- I'm a good friend of kat's, and she said that you had made some keen observations about choral singing on your blog, so I hope that you dont mind that I've checked it out!

Despite being the utterly radical and liberated, fabulous, roaring woman that I am (insert some self-deprecating chuckles here) I am thoroughly mired in the web of mostly dead-white-patriarchial-christo-dogmatic-male music (I'm a classical singer). I mostly do choral singing, and that means that I mostly sing sacred (which is 99.99% christian) music.

I've tried other kinds of singing- even been in SF's lesbian a capella ensemble, but didn't gell with the group (especially since they discriminated against bis- not the topic of this posting).

I watched the first episode of 'Clash' and, too, found that the LaBelle choir was the only group that took the task to the next level. This was incredible to me given that any of the groups only had 3 weeks to rehearse- not a whole lot of time to gel as an ensemble. I wasn't surprised that most groups had to take the easy way out with doo-wop numbers (soloist backed by simple harmonic homophony).

But, such music is a snooze to me.

I didn't watch the rest of the cycle, but I am not surprised that Nick's choir won, simply because he is presently the most popular celebrity out of the 5 represented. I don't think that most people can even begin to judge a good choir for themselves. The decision was extended to non-experts, so I expected a non-expert decision. Maybe this makes me elitist, but it doesn't really matter, because this election only really mattered to the 5 charities that were at stake, and each deserved to win.

As far as race or sex, I think that if Beyonce (someone whom I consider as popular as Nick Lachey) had led one of the choirs, then perhaps the black, female choir may have won simply because she is so popular... but I do not make this statement lightly. there are many more hugely-popular white male entertainers out there today than there are female and/or non-white' The odds are stacked for the white-dude choir.

I have my own choir blog- I wonder why the public has become so disengaged by classical choral music, and seek to tie that in with the overall atrophy of the classical music industry. Some reasons are obvious- others are worth exploring.

So, thanks for posting your thoughts.

Jesse Wendel said...

I'll tag on -- months later -- to the choir part.

There is a world of difference between a Boy's Choir and a Girl's Choir.

Boy's voices sound much more "angelic" while girl's voice simply sound "young." Is this sexism?

I honestly don't know. I know that these are the first words which pop up for me when I, someone who sang in the U.S. equivalent of the Vienna Choir Boys, from eight through thirteen, touring all across the United States, Canada, England and Scotland, performing on CBS and the BBC, and singing in both the U.S. Capital rotunda and the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Easter Sunday... I tell you that girl's voice simply sound young, while boy's voice's sound like angels.

Perhaps it is that girls voice will stay in that range forever, while a boy's range lasts only a few short years before puberty takes it away as the boy becomes a teenager.

In any event, being able to read music is required of any competent chorister, even in church choruses.

Reading music at that level is essential of world-class choruses such as the Tucson Boys Chorus or the Vienna Choir Boys. When I was in the Touring Group (the 1972/73 Tour) we could pick up a Mass or a Magnificat and sing it adequately our first time through. We could sing it well the second time. And on the third time, you could bring up the curtain and we'd perform in front of hundreds to thousands, literally. Sometimes, that's how it went down. To spotlights and standing ovations.