Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Sarah Cahill Premieres Antiwar and Peace Music by Rzewski, Kline, Terry Riley and Others at Merkin Concert Hall, NYC 3/12/09

As WNYC host John Schaefer noted, this concert had been given many names by many people: Composers Against the War, Notes on the War, and, eventually, pianist Sarah Cahill’s choice, A Sweeter Music (a MLK quote referring to the sonics of peace). Cahill has become the go-to pianist for adventurous composers of new music; in this case, these were works that she had commissioned during the waning phases of the Bush regime. Virtually all of these were either world premieres or at least being played in this city for the first time, some of them absolutely transcendent, others less so.

 

The most rewarding composition was Phil Kline’s new piano sonata The Long Winter. While far from the only antiwar piece he’s written, it ranks with his best. Originally begun as a collection of fragments, it coalesced right after 9/11, an extremely personal event for Kline, having been jolted from sleep by as the first plane hit Tower Two. The first part set a horrified, repetitive, upper-register staccato motif against crashing, chaotic bass chords, a viscerally intense evocation of the attack, working its way down into a quiet, insistent anguish. In the program notes, Kline explained that in the weeks afterward, he’d realized that he was now living in a city under siege, illustrated by the sonata’s second part, paring the central theme to its most morbid, dread-filled essence. For anyone who breathed the air here during those hellacious first few months, this is essential listening (you’ll be able to hear it on Schaefer’s next New Sounds Live program on March 26).

 

Frederic Rzewski filled Cahill’s request with a series of eight Peace Dances, a marvelously diverse mix of alternately minimalist and melodically rich vignettes. Through the icy call-and-response of the first, the playful yet reflective tone of the third, the Asian-inflected cascades of the seventh and the bouncy, glissando-spiced final piece, Cahill was given the opportunity to use the entirety of her dynamic range and met the challenge with a seeming effortlessness.

 

Another powerfully satisfying work was Kyle Gann’s War Is Just a Racket (whose first working title was George Bush Is an Asshole), Cahill narrating text by 1920s Congressional Medal of Honor recipient and corporate coup whistleblower hero General Smedley Butler against a jarringly percussive, frequently rubato piece with a deliciously sly humor in places, folksy ragtime or deceptive blues coming out nowhere to underscore the text’s most ironic moments. We’ve reprinted the full text below, something of an early version of what John Perkins would confirm in his bestselling Confessions of an Economic Hit Man in 2004.

 

The rest of the bill included pieces by young composer Preben Antonsen, the Residents, a particularly sadistic work by Jerome Kitzke and a fascinating, rather biting ragtime suite by Terry Riley replete with all kinds of strikingly counterintuitive accents and dissonances making unexpected appearances within its comfortable architecture.

 

And now over to Gen. Butler:

 

“War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses. I believe in adequate defense of the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we’ll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag. I wouldn’t go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.

 

There isn’t a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its “finger men” to point out enemies, its “muscle men” to destroy enemies, its “brain men” to plan war preparations, and a “Big Boss” Super-Nationalist-Capitalism. It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulnesss compels me to. I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile miltary force, the Marine Corps. I served in all comissioned ranks from Second Lieutanant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a ganster for capitalism.

 

I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service. I helped make Mexico, expecially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeeing is long. I heped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers [later Brown Brothers Harriman, where Prescott Bush, George Bush Senior’s father, would become Adolf Hitler’s #1 fundraiser in the United States prior to World War II] in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

 

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

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March 14, 2009 - Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. If you are going to refer to a piece as “sadistic,” as you did Jerome Kitzke’s, you owe it to the reader (and the composer) to say what you think is sadistic about it.
    I heard the piece, felt it was one of the high points of the concert, and heard nothing even remotely sadistic in it’s content or intent.

    Comment by Guy Klucevsek | March 16, 2009 | Reply

  2. This was a can of worms I didn’t want to open. Kitzke was handed a golden opportunity to make a powerful statement against the Iraq war (or at least in favor of peace) and dropped the ball.

    Insisting that Cahill holler “hoo, ha, yip yip” at random intervals during the piece was an insult to the pianist, the audience and the other composers on the program. If this was Kitzke’s attempt to mock the military-industrial complex (as Kyle Gann had done so brilliantly), it fell flat. And it ruined the music – the piece by itself was dark and compelling. I was left with the feeling that this was just a grouchy old hippie toying with Cahill, to see if she’d call bullshit on him and refuse to play it that way. But she didn’t. Too bad.

    Comment by lc | March 16, 2009 | Reply

  3. Interesting account. I heard the Kitzke in Berkeley when Cahill premiered it and thought it was the best piece on the program, but I can also see hating it.

    Comment by sfmike | March 19, 2009 | Reply

  4. Okay, I have to weigh in here now. I was very grateful for your review and for your kind words, and thank you for coming to my concert. But Jerome Kitzke’s piece is not about mocking the military industrial complex, or about mocking anything. It’s a celebration of life, as all of his music is, and for him that involves using the body and the voice in various ways. In his piece for me, he set Walt Whitman poems, and if you think of Whitman and his “barbaric yawp” in Song of Myself, how he encouraged us to be aware of physicality and to make joyful sounds, then Jerome’s piece captured his spirit perfectly. If the piece didn’t come across that way, it’s my fault as a performer. But I’m very proud to be playing the piece (there is nothing “sadistic” about it). Any performer of Jerome’s music (and there are many) would say he writes with great sensitivity and understanding towards performers.

    Comment by Sarah Cahill | March 19, 2009 | Reply


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