Un-American

Hardy Jackson, American Citizen

There is political art, and there is art that is political. The former is art whose raison d’être is to make an argument about how society should be ordered or governed, the latter is art that has ideas and concerns beyond the political, but that has a content or context that is intrinsically political. In a blunt sense, an example of the first type is the visual propaganda of Socialist Realism, while an example of the latter is Goya’s “Disasters of War.” I’m a fan of Goya.

I’m also a fan of HBO’s new series “Treme,” and Ted Hearne’s CD Katrina Ballads , which will be released on August 31. Each is about New Orleans, the first not explicitly political but full of political argument and fury nonetheless, the second seemingly explicitly political but at it’s core a real work of art, a narrative of a disaster that most of us saw unfolding before our eyes but that is still difficult to accept.

The political idea at the heart of each work is what it means to be an American, and thus what is American and what isn’t. It’s a timely question, with a federal election coming in the fall and angry crowds and cynical figures tossing off claims here, hints there and floating “trial balloons” with hearts of burnt, compacted coal. As an American with an enduring love for this country, I always find the question easy to answer; an American is a person who embraces the values and ideas that created this country, and who accepts the responsibilities of citizenship that come with them. In terms of art, the America that is Goya can be seen in New Orleans, a city that has been a polyglot for centuries and out of which came so much of the synthesis, the originality, of this country and culture. America speaks English, French, Spanish and dialects thereof, America enjoys a drink and a party, America prays and mourns, America eats exotic spices and taps its foot to the mixed-race/culture beat of the Blues, Calypso, Spanish dances and French chansons. America is democratic, multi-racial, uninterested in the limits of blood and geography.

Un-America, though is the complete, ugly opposite. It makes absurd claims about the origins of this country in hope of spreading a pall of bland monotony across society. It ignores its own foundation in non-conformity and, under the desperately false claim of piety and moral righteousness it makes and worships idols of the most material sort; men, money, property. Its only joy is in following orders, and it resents anyone who might exercise the most basic American virtue of free-thinking, and, in a country built from the start on international immigration, both voluntary and forced, and an expansionary idea of geographic, for good and ill, it is obsessed with borders, with the purity of language and the purity of blood. It is a part of the country that we Americans accept in hopes it will join us in the true and good things, but that detests and fears us, and wishes we would go away. Except for brief moments when there is a political advantage or an easy sloganeering opportunity, it hates New York City. And it hates New Orleans.

Fortunately, Americans love New Orleans, and so does “Treme” and so does Katrina Ballads. The show will be back for another season, but the way it ended was totally satisfying and appropriate. It’s the story of a demolished city and demolished lives and the success and failure of trying to put them back together mostly against an indifferent government. Because that’s the way it happened. Katrina hit the city and the government didn’t look away, it never looked in the first place. Bush woke up the next morning and someone conveniently told him that they “dodged the bullet,” because it fit better into their imaginary view of themselves, their un-Americanness. Michael Chertoff claimed that everything was okay, because that’s what the filter of political governance allowed him to be told, Brownie did a heckuva job because to the un-Americans getting the sinecure is the same as doing the job, the personal achievement is the sole goal and responsibility. Heckuva job cashing checks and receiving benefits. Of course they never looked at New Orleans, because it is one of the quintessentially American cities.

People died, lives were disrupted, the city shambled to a halt. America looked on in shock, un-America didn’t give a shit. And yet people held on, put some of it back together, kept America alive in the city. The show shambled along in the last few minutes, wonderfully. Some of the characters, like Jeanette, did their best but didn’t have enough to overcome circumstances, some, like Creighton, could not re-dream their dreams, and imploded, some, like Sonny, were in love with a false, clichéd America, and fell apart. But others made it from one point to the next, like Batiste, Chief Lambreaux, and especially LaDonna. Batiste scraped together enough gigs to survive, Lambreaux scraped together enough of his tribe and enough will and enough family to take to the streets and keep the spark of the St. Joseph’s night parade. Lambreaux may not have enough screen time, and the tribal rituals may be unfathomable to non-natives, but he, and they, are an intrinsic feature of New Orleans, and the city needs their cultural, local uniqueness.

The very last two scenes of the season were breathtaking. As the funeral service for LaDonna’s brother, Daymo, proceeds, the narrative unobtrusively drifts back to the city the day before the hurricane hit. The combination of the character’s blithe confidence and what we have seen of the aftermath is expressively unsettling, filling in the sense of disequilibrium that many of them have inhabited during the previous episodes. We also see just what happened to Daymo, or rather, the unfortunate mistake that puts him in jail, where, once the storm hit, he was doomed. Doomed because in a country where the governing institutions were either indifferent or hostile to the citizens of New Orleans (the police not only prevented citizens from passing through and into public property but apparently murdered some as well), a young black man in jail has already so completely disappeared from America that his physical death comes as some kind of afterthought. But seeing Daymo, alive and unaware of what is going to happen to him, is eviscerating and moving. And then, the Treme neighborhood brass band ambles back home, playing “Didn’t He Ramble” and “I’ll Fly Away,” and the parade breaks up, people chatting, shaking hands, making plans for later. Life goes on, because people are going to live it, and civilization continues because Lambreaux takes his tribe into the streets, Batiste cadges gigs all over the city, and LaDonna tends bar, a place people can gather where there is literally a roof over their heads. I’m looking forward to seeing more Treme, but nothing more needs to be said. Music brings people together and makes ritual, and so civilization.

Hearne’s Katrina Ballads is political by way of context and inference. It’s a song cycle with text for all ten vocal pieces taken from the public record, things like Anderson Cooper’s contentious interview with Senator Mary Landrieu, statements citizens made to journalists, appalling displays from Barbara Bush and Dennis Hastert, and of course “heckuva job.” It’s a marvelous, deeply impressive work, full of musical skill, knowledge and an understanding of people and events that goes so far beyond the blather of politicians and pundits that one is again left to puzzle why it is that artists are not running things (and another in a series of terrific releases from New Amsterdam this year – their list of itsnotyouitsme, Matt Marks, Corey Dargel and William Brittelle CDs must be the envy of every record company). It’s also a deeply American work, not just in the superficial sense but one possible only because of the accumulated history of American music.

This is contemporary classical in a theatrical style, supporting ideas and emotions with music that is right for the words and the moment. Hearne describes it as a fusion of styles, but I think it makes more sense to call it a polyglot style, one that makes the music quintessentially American. There are elements of gospel, show music and rock, for example, but there’s no sense of pastiche, no awkward dumbing down to give this populist appeal. It’s a balancing act that many composers try and few succeed at and I admire how well Hearne accomplishes it. It can be boiled down to how he sets the words and how he chooses and selects his singers. Working with found text is hard, the elements of diction, phrase length and rhythm that make words singable are there only accidentally. He’s set them so that they sound both musical and natural, every word clear, and there’s some quality of Harry Partch in it, especially the challenging scanning of “Anderson Cooper and Mary Landrieu.” The musically radical elements of the piece are the most surprising and satisfying, a demonstration of how appealing music can be made out of all kinds of parts.

It works from the start; the first sound is the strings of a piano, strummed like in Henry Cowell’s Aeolian Harp, and then Abby Fischer sings “New Orleans is sinking,” and in that moment one can hear how well this is going to work. Along with music that uses bits of accessible styles as a point of common experience without every pandering or sounding phony, singers like Fischer balance the color and richness of their tone with a direct, clear understanding of the words they are singing. The music has a pop appeal without being pop, without vapid “cross-over” formulation, and the singers are uniformly fine; Fischer, baritone Anthony Turner, tenor Isaiah Robinson and soprano Allison Semmes express themselves unselfconsciously in the classical vocal tradition, confident of the beauty and appeal to all listeners. There’s a rigorous, even ruthless sense of craft underlying the work, with a combination of the just-the-facts selection of the texts and clear, forceful music that never editorializes or underlines the easy and the obvious. The salient example is “Brownie, You’re Doing A Heck Of A Job,” with Hearne himself handling the vocal part. The phrase is now an idiomatic expression, a way to damn laziness, incompetence and indifference with sarcastic praise, a way to remind whoever says it or hears it what that indifference wrought. Hearne sets and sings it as a riff, playing around with it like a scat-singer, the entire lyric just that phrase. It’s musically hip but one never forgets what it’s about. Instead of trying to tell us what the words mean he simply gives them to us in musical form and trusts that we’ll know. It’s the difference between political art and art itself.

Katrina Ballads is an act of bearing witness to a collective memory. It lays out what happened on a timeline and tells us how we got to “Treme,” to a demolished America. Hearne is a thinking, feeling human being, so he does have his own view of things, but he keeps intellectual and emotional directives out of sight. The act of making the piece is his main statement, and while there is a feeling of rage throughout the work, his control over his materials, his expressive power and his fluid handling of elements of style from Cowell to Partch to Bernstein, Berio, Gil Evans, Meredith Monk and Ben Johnston makes it supremely musically compelling. These are powerful, integrated songs with no hectoring or lecturing, songs that meet the listener as an equal and with sympathy. The subject has an intrinsic political context and the music cannot be free of that, but all Hearne does is remind us of what happened and what we saw and heard, each step of the way. He reminds us how incomprehensible it is, still, that the government of this country was fundamentally indifferent and uninterested in the drowning of a great American city and its people, indifferent because the leaders of that government were themselves fundamentally un-American, and he reminds us with each impassioned note that we, who care and are moved by Treme and Katrina Ballads, are Americans, and that we will, hopefully, endure. Katrina Ballads and “Treme” are great Americans.

UPDATED: Fixed Video

UPDATED AGAIN: Added link to Cowell’s Aeolian Harp

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