Monday, January 22, 2007

An Art World Divided

A.O. Scott’s article in the New York Times is titled “The World Is Watching. Not Americans.” and it is inspired by the National Society of Film Critics’ selection for best films of 2006. The three winners are all films done in another language than English. Critical successes yes, but unlikely to be showing up at the multiplex near you. America is isolating itself from the world, not only in international politics, but in arts as well. We are blissfully unaware of what interests the remaining 5.7 billion earthlings. Just as we promote the American variety of freedom and democracy, with force if necessary, we seem to have decided that the taste of most of the 0.3 billion living here should be the only one that matters.

In the last month I went to great lengths of trouble to be able to view two Icelandic films, absolute masterpieces by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson (Friðrik Þór Friðriksson). Neither was available as a region 1 DVD. One, “Cold Fever”, I obtained from a source in Florida, as a version aimed at the European market, and the other, “Children of Nature” came from a store in Japan, with only Japanese subtitles. Having a background in Scandinavian languages I was able to follow the plot in Icelandic, which has changed very little from the Old Norse of a millennium ago. The latter film had been a candidate for an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film in 1991, and yet it had never been issued as a DVD here. Someone was trying to sell it online as a used VHS cassette for $100 which is ridiculous, of course.

Sometimes a foreign film becomes an unexpected success here, usually through word-of-mouth advertising, as was the case with “The Gods Must Be Crazy” which ended up running in theaters for an amazingly long time. But most often the very films that the Europeans or Asians flock to see remain totally unknown here. In a lucky break, a foreign producer or distributor may be successful in selling the product to Netflix, or IFC on cable may pick it up. The rest of us have to import our discs from abroad and purchase a region-free DVD player, or as I first did, a software conversion program. I found an excellent one, DVD X Player, which will play just about anything recorded on a disc. I got the Professional version, but the regular one works as well for most needs.

Critical success the U.S. does not translate to commercial success. There are wonderful writers trying to get their manuscripts published. If they are eventually successful the books end up having only a few thousand copies printed. The battle for shelf space at Barnes & Noble is just as fierce as for products at the supermarket. Only books that have been heavily promoted on television shows make it, most of them talking about a scandalous subject or being autobiographies written mainly by ghost writers. Yes, there is Oprah whose stamp of approval usually guarantees success, even when she promotes old classics or something written on a topic close to her. But a good book should be able to make it on its own, even if it’s not called Harry Potter.

A music critic may praise a recording of William Schuman’s symphonies, but there is no rush to buy these compact discs (where do you find them anyway these days?), and if such a work is scheduled in a symphony orchestra’s program after the intermission, a large part of an audience will head for home at the break. Perhaps in Europe a contemporary musical work will create excitement, such as a composition by Kaija Saariaho, or there is a market for new works in certain Asian countries, such as Japan and Taiwan. With the new restrictions for travel we don’t even get to hear star instrumentalists from the rest of the world, not to mention the new repertoire they might bring with them. If an orchestra manages to come to New York from across the ocean, they often have the same soloist, or even guest conductor, that the New Yorkers are all too familiar with already, playing the same war horse compositions that are performed in the city, time after time during any given season. Likewise, Europeans know very little of American composers and our superstars don’t necessarily get that kind of reception over there. Instead of the world becoming smaller, we have managed to make it a place with barbed wired fences, a globe deeply divided.

Perhaps we can reach an agreement with the Iraqi government that all the denizens of Baghdad are obligated to come and hear American music, performed by either the mighty Iraqi National Symphony or an American free-lance orchestra (Halliburton Freedom Players?). I have made up a list of suitable works and guest artists already, just in case my opinion would be required. Many of our composers of today use percussion instruments rather heavy-handedly, so they might be able to drown out the usual background noise or perhaps even incorporate it into their works. A brand new “2007 Overture”, anyone?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Schwarz Worth Remembering

History often forgets about true heroes and geniuses, and credits the wrong people. One of these forgotten ones was a Schwarz who should have been famous but whom people now know very little about.

This Schwarz, a Croatian Jew with a first name of David, was the inventor and builder of the world’s first rigid all-metal airship. This credit is usually attributed to Graf (Count) Ferninand von Zeppelin, but although he had made some theoretical plans, they never materialized until he bought detailed papers from David Schwarz’s widow, after the all too early death of the wood merchant and inventor. The first test flight in 1896 near Berlin was not a great success, mainly because of the inferior quality hydrogen gas used. The inventor was on his way to witness the next flight when he died in Vienna at the age of 45 the following year. However, his widow went to Germany after the funeral and a successful test flight took place in Tempelhof (see picture). Unfortunately, one of the propellers malfunctioned, causing the aircraft to crash from an altitude of over 400 meters (1,300 feet). Later von Zeppelin paid 15,000 marks to Melanie Schwarz for some critical information and started work on his own airships, better know as Zeppelins.

Count von Zeppelin had his own bad luck with the many crafts he built and it wasn’t until after his death that Dr. Hugo Eckener improved the design and was able to start a passenger service across the Atlantic Ocean. The high point of this era was the first flight around the world in 1929, by ‘Graf Zeppelin’. Eckener wanted to use helium, an inert noble gas, instead of very flammable hydrogen, but the United States would not let him purchase it, due to a military embargo. In 1937 the ‘Hindenburg’ was destroyed by fire while landing after a trans-Atlantic flight in Lakehurst, possibly by hitting electrical wires. 35 of the 97 passengers died, and one ground crew member as well. Just about everyone has seen film footage of this catastrophe. The arrival of the mighty airship was a major event and there were thousands of spectators present. This marked an unfortunate end to the Zeppelin era, although even the fanciest airplanes today cannot match the luxury and comfort of those magnificent cruise ships of the air.

As the Zeppelin should have been called the Schwarz, perhaps the Led Zeppelin (the ‘a’ was dropped from the band’s name to prevent Americans from pronouncing it ‘leed’) would have become a Lead Schwarz.

Thanks to bringing this trivia to my attention belongs to my daughter Anna, who as a regular fan of television’s ‘Jeopardy’, frequently comes up with her version of ‘Jewpardy’ for her school’s Hillel.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Musical Mogadishu

Year 2006 saw Seattle’s art life take a major step backwards, seemingly falling from a hopeful important cultural center to a provincial small city, something akin to Rochester, NY, or Portland, OR. Actually both of these other cities have something unique to offer. Rochester has a respected music school, Eastman, where serious students come to study from afar, not to mention that due to its location, the area can tap into the seemingly endless pool of talent from the Big Apple and surrounding areas. In its favor, Oregon’s biggest city has an excellent festival, Chamber Music Northwest, which has an active season throughout the year, in addition to a busy summer festival.

Seattle’s scene has become like an American version of Beirut or Mogadishu, with different militias and warlords fighting. A true sign of small town mentality is that one or two people have the ability to decide what is allowed to take place, or for that matter, to survive. Creativity has been suppressed and, with manipulation from the outside, the city’s 33-year-old alternate classical music group, the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, was put to death in the spring of ’06. With its minuscule deficit it should, by sheer logic, have survived, but the organization had become a thorn on the side of some ‘important’ people. We were actually toying with the idea of bailing the institution out ourselves, but with all the bad blood around town, it really would have been too risky a commitment in the long run. Also the musicians were to be blamed, as they stuck to every dot printed in their collective agreement, without real sense as to what flexibility was needed from their part to survive. Endless discussions took place regarding per diems on tours planned, and even lunch had to be provided between recording sessions just ten miles out of town. Some musicians were no longer in top shape, something that is perfectly acceptable in a large symphony orchestra but cannot be tolerated in a small ensemble where every note should be played perfectly every time. Had the players not insisted on medical and dental coverage and pension plan, the deficit would have been history without any other remedy. Yet the musicians felt entitled to that all, and as always, with such an attitude bad things happen eventually.

No, neither Ralf Gothóni nor Joseph Silverstein lost their artist management, but the programming, especially in the Music Director’s case, might have been too sophisticated and unfamiliar for the graying audiences. This is a town, after all, where going to hear an orchestra play means going to a pops concert, or seeing a ballet equals the annual favorite Nutcracker. There is nothing wrong with enjoying either, but it would be nice to be able to play and hear ‘new’ serious music, too, something composed within the last 75 years or so, whether American, European or from another continent. The fact that an ‘inferior decorator’ can write about performing arts for many decades without having an ear or an eye for the art form doesn’t help matters any. Even in Oregon the leading paper supposedly has taken a dangerous route with its reviewer wishing to decide how to keep the city’s musical life viable. I guess being able to publish whatever comes to mind frees people from self-censorship, and they become like drivers taking on a different personality behind the wheel, resulting in hard-to-understand episodes of road rage.

The year for me ended unexpectedly positively though, as I was taking part in a Viennese Night celebration. People were not confined to their seats, and they were actually taught how to dance properly in the Viennese fashion. The capacity crowd was having genuine fun, and the faces of both young and old people were glowing. What more could an entertainer wish for?

Justice, al-Sadr Style

The lynching of Saddam was a fitting end to a chaotic year. Very few people in Western countries saw Iraq’s former dictator as a model citizen, but there are countless poor Sunni Muslim people all over the globe to whom Saddam Hussein was a hero, someone who had managed to rise to power from very humble beginnings and who had the guts to do as he pleased, even if doing so angered former friends and supporters, the United States at one time among them. Personally I have many problems with his speedy execution after a farce-like trial, in the hands of frenzied enemies, chanting “Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada”, their leader al-Sadr’s name. I do not believe in capital punishment, which only exists in our country among the ‘civilized’ Western nations. Secondly, the U.S. invaded Iraq, a sovereign nation, without any real reason or excuse, and captured the head of that country. While I’m not trying to deny or defend all the horrible acts done by Saddam and his government, the United States is not a world police force, and it would have been up to the United Nations to decide what to do with this dictator or any other. The only court that should have had the authority to make a judgment on charges of crimes against humanity is the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the Netherlands. Although not known for its swift action, the it nevertheless is the only neutral court, capable of handling crimes of such magnitude. Of course, our nation doesn’t recognize the Court’s mandate, but that simply is an indication that our hands have been bloodied time after time. Diplomats and Heads of State should have international immunity and they normally do. Saddam was elected to be the president of Iraq: the elections probably weren’t fair, but the United States should not brag about fair elections. Thus we made a grave error by giving Saddam to the hands of his sworn enemies, expecting a fair trial. The Sunni now have a new martyr and being an American just became a lot more dangerous.

I watched CNN’s footage of ‘rejoicing Iraqis’ hours after the hanging and it wasn’t until later that the viewers were told this celebration was not taking place in Baghdad but in Dearborn, Michigan. Libya’s leader Qaddafi, with whom we have just started to normalize relations, declared a three-day mourning period and cancelled the celebration of Id Al-A’dha. Even though we now claim that our military tried to delay the execution, in the world’s eyes it was an American lynching, done in a hurry to justify our president’s reasons for the war and give badly needed support to Iraq’s present ‘government’. Even the Dutch ask if Saddam’s death was a blow for Middle East democracy. The initial circus-like reporting of the hanging soon gave way to sobering news about our military deaths exceeding 3,000. The only ones happy about the unfolding of events have been our sworn enemies in Iran. Will this reduce violence? Only a fool would agree. Now, instead of worrying about ‘if’ there is going to be another serious terrorist attack against America and its allies, the question now has become ‘when, where and how’.

President Bush and some others keep on insisting that there is no civil war in Iraq and they are widely ridiculed for not facing reality. I, on the other hand, tend to agree for once. There is indeed nothing ‘civil’ about the war in Iraq: it is complete anarchy and chaos of unseen magnitude. In the northern areas matters are not quite as bad yet, as the Kurds have managed to isolate themselves from the rest of the country. Curiously this trial and resulting verdict were all about the Kurdish minority. Of course these people have suffered a lot, in the hands of more populous neighbors. But interestingly the oppressed here have become oppressors as so often happens: go on the many web sites that tell the story of the Assyrian ‘holocaust’ in hands of the Kurds and others. One of the world’s oldest civilizations hasn’t done very well in its ancient homeland. But then, no glory lasts forever. How long will it take before people start referring to America as a civilization that could have been?
Photo AP - The Guardian