David Byrne, Cultural Centers, and Creativity

In the past week, David Byrne has published two editorials, one on how the 1% is stifling creativity in NYC, the other on how streaming radio could spell the end of creativity. And, as always, I masochistically scrolled through the comments section, running salt over the opened wounds from Byrnes pointed words.

I lived in NYC briefly, most of the time, for about a year. I went to school in Brooklyn, traveled back and forth between NYC and my apartment in South Jersey (Little Egg Harbor, a beautiful place). Byrnes says NYC smells like sex. The commentators were more correct: it smells of urine and sewage. The city is much safer--by the time I lived there in '08, my neighborhood of Crow Heights wasn't so bad. My neighbors were friendly, if a bit reserved with me; different cultural backgrounds can create quite a barrier.

My brief stay there showed two different cities: there's the one Byrne describes, mostly found in Manhattan, but also moving into Brooklyn as well; and then there was the underground, where living, working artists still eked out an existence playing shows and showing art at dingy venues. Sometimes, it was right under the nose the Elite, such as shows at the Yippie Gallery (oh, what a show we had there), or they were further out in Brooklyn. Williamsburg was becoming an in-between zone, where hipsters, creators, experimentalists, and nouveau riche were hanging out at new niche restaurants then some moving onto clubs and bars around the area.

These were the people not associated with "a scene." NYC has their scenes, the Downtown scene, which isn't what it used to be, the Midtown scene with their post-minimalist functions and cross-over acts, and the Uptown scene, with their new experimentalism, avant-garde, and sometime dense and/or meaningless works. (Untitled) encapsulated so much of what I remember in NYC, making great satire of what I felt in my brief stay. Granted, if you don't know the NY scenes, you may not find humor in all the moments.

I was not a part of any of these scenes. Brooklyn College doesn't have the clout of a Julliard, Columbia, Yale, or CUNY Grad. We weren't from out-of-town coming into Mid-town to play concerts with Bang on a Can, nor putting on motion capture suits and using them to trigger electronics (though at least two of us were dying to try). Further out from the center, we experimented, played, found our voices, and had a lot of fun. And, possibly, drank a bit too much.

Rent was high, food was affordable, as long as you didn't want to eat like kings every night, and we got could afford booze and cigarettes. We eked by because we were academics. Loans, grants, and fellowships sustained us. I had a job elsewhere that could pay well enough to subsidize the living, with a little help from loans. If we weren't attached to academia, it would have been entirely different. I actually blogged about my experiences long ago, discussing my masters and moving to Kansas City

Let's just say, many things fell apart in '09 causing me to leave the East Coast. I never really fit into the NY scene(s). I didn't really fit well in NYC at all. My swan song was done at a vocal arts camp run by Remarkable Theater Brigade in July 2009. I wasn't going to come up for the show but decided last minute "why not?" I drove, trained, and subwayed to a performance of I Do Good at Grammar. And the piece, to me, was the perfect way to go out, my own little jab at how serious NYC seems to be, even in the crowds more focused on popular music.

This video was not from that performance, but a more recent version hosted by KcEMA with Brad Van Wick doing a bang up job.

The point was, I left NYC. It was supposed to be the Mecca of the arts, a place where I'd learn and grow, go to concerts, meet people. I found the concerts too expensive to frequent, the underground scene not so inviting to an outsider like me, and the huge amount of time to create my own niche infuriating. It may be the largest city in the US, but it also has one of the densest populations of artists, all fighting over the same little pieces of the pie. I was happy to leave, to head someplace where I could make my own way. Thankfully, as I left, I realized just how decentralized the arts were becoming in the US.

My journey took me to Indianapolis which also didn't vibe--their art scene was too new and lacking an infrastructure and support for art music. It's much more of a folk/Indie/singer-songwriter town. And that's fine, but it meant, again, a huge amount of work I'd have to do to create my scene...which when you're working 40 hours a week at a music store is pretty damn hard.

So, it was, to Kansas City for my doctorate. It was a desperate move, but one that worked out in the long-term. Kansas City was like Indy, but further a long. The art scene had started growing about 5 or 6 years before I got there, so I entered just as it started a booming age. Artists and composers collaborated, little art galleries were popping up everywhere, jazz was everyone. For the first time in four years, I found a group I could play regularly with, Black House Collective. Professionally, my career started to take off. And I still went to NYC for performances--it was easy thanks to non-stop flights via Delta airlines. In just five hours, I could be possibly be from my apartment to the rehearsal space in NYC (time-change not added).

The scene is bustling in Kansas City, as it is in places like Austin, New Orleans, Fort Worth, Greensboro, and tons of other places. Flights make it easy to move around, and if you've got friends all over, or can split hotels between lots of people, you can move from city to city. The last few years I've traveled more than anywhere else.

The arts are becoming decentralized, which I think is a wondrous thing. However, I'm the first to admit that, sadly, my life is tied up in the 1%. Or, really, the 5%, that slightly larger upper bracket. You see, as a non-mainstream artist, I will never sell enough records or make enough in royalties to make a living. It doesn't matter if I live in NYC or Kansas City (where $600/month gets me a 2 bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood). My dozen performances a year don't make bank--and let me tell you that in the grand scheme of art music, a dozen performances isn't terrible--I have many friends who do far fewer performances, and are lucky to get one or two self-created performances a year.

Without non-profits, grants, and academia, I wouldn't be able to have a living. Byrne nods to this, that he has friends who teach, who have other jobs. That is a way of life for artists now, and it's not a good way to create.

One commentator said "Good, maybe the arts will go back to being a hobby" (paraphrased). I sincerely hope he was being sarcastic. I did that for a while. The first year I worked for a production company, the first year of my masters I could even argue was more of a hobby. My short stay in Indianapolis as I searched for a job, then finally found one. Art was a back-seat, something I practiced when I had time and when my mind and body felt up to it.

During the year before my masters and 6 months after, I produced 0 works.

During my masters my first semester, I produced 2 works, neither one of high quality. It wasn't until I got into my second year, rented a place in NYC, and really studied nearly full time that I started to make any strides in the quality and quantity of my work.

That's the kicker--artists need time to create. We don't just need time to practice, or a concerted hour that we assign for "writing music." If you haven't watched John Cleese's talk on creativity, do it. One thing he talks about is the "open" and "closed" mode. The closed mode is what we can think of when we're focused at work. Open mode is the curious, creative, and interesting mode.

And later Cleese talks about five ways to get into the open mode. These five things are space, time, time, confidence, and humor.

Create a specific space, a specific amount of time set aside, play with the problem over time, have the confidence to take a crazy chance, and humor.

All five of those things are difficult when you're working a 9-5 job. You spend all day in the closed mode, then you come home and have all sorts of life things to finish--shopping, cooking, family time, phone calls, bills, etc. Suddenly, it's late at night, and you just can't set aside the time. Throw in the anxiety created by creation, the fear of losing what little piece of the world we have for the slim chance of making a change that probably won't have good fiscal outcomes, and therefore be "meaningless" (at least in the current societal view of life being defined by capital expenditure).

So, the idea of being a creative "tourist," or someone that does it in his/her spare time defines that the person must have lots of spare time, an environment free of extreme anxiety, and free from so many life's difficulties.

It's difficult to put that time in. For many working class individuals, this means taking the "easy way" out because then we get to create, and it's done, and we can enjoy it on some level. But it doesn't always create the most compelling art. The same thing happens in a commercial environment. We have deadlines, stresses outside artistic nature (if we don't sell enough albums, we're screwed), and people telling us about the content we need to create.

We're told to be entrepreneurs, start our own groups, put out CDs, but also go to school, submit to competitions, play as much as possible, write as much and as quickly as possible.

At the end of the day, there's hardly time to breathe, let alone actually create. There's a difference between creation and working. We can work at music, stay in the closed mode, and pump out notation. It's not the same as creating. For that, to really come up with novel solutions to a problem, we need time.

This year, I'm on a Fulbright. For the first time in my life, I'm able to focus on research I want to do, and music I want to create. My days are programmed the way I want them. I write emails, make phone calls, try and get the interview thing happening. And I write music.

Since I've been here, I've worked on 2 pieces; my opera and a commission for trombone and percussion. In both, I'm examining all sorts of methods that I've never had a chance to examine. I'm getting to play with ideas. What's this led me to?

My trombone and percussion piece was, originally, going to be pretty straight forward. Then I decided to do a graphic score because I wanted to play with a much more flexible idea of rhythm and pitch. I generated random tables.

I didn't like the end result. It was the first idea, and it wasn't doing what I wanted. I took time to think about it.

Then, I created a computer program based upon probability--the highest chances go to "stepwise" motion in rhythm, meter, and pitch. Decisions are made contrapuntally. It took me three days of 8-10 hours a day to write that program (and it's still buggy and not perfect).

As I was hand-writing my score, I realized this was going to be a huge pain for distribution. I needed to find a large format scanner (ah, how I missed UMKC at that moment), and I'd have to do a "good" copy, in pen, on expensive paper, that'd be perfect. Be thankful none of you have read my hand-written scores. So, deciding that was a horrid idea, I set out to do it in Inkscape (since I don't own Illustrator).

I spent four days figuring out a template: sizes, staff spacings, finding a good music font, testing combinations, etc. At the end of the fourth day, I had one hand-written page done. It took lots of problem solving. huge amounts of problem solving.

These are all things that I could not have done without time...without time where I could work in the open mode, playing with problems, and testing solutions, and in the closed mode, focusing on implementing ideas of long periods of time.

It was not the work of a hobbyist. If I tried to do this as a hobby, it'd be well into next year before the piece was finished. Actually, the piece as it stands wouldn't exist, because I never would have even attempted to do something this "complicated."

So, David Byrne is right, in a sense. He rallies against the idea that hardship breeds creativity and I agree with him. Hardship breeds inactivity. Have you tried writing a piece of music when all you've had to eat was a single serving of Ramen around 3pm, and that's all you're going to eat today? Or painting in a loft without heat? It's been shown in studies that poverty and hardship affects students; it's not much of a leap to say that these issues aren't just for students, but for all people affected by poverty.

I don't bemoan that the nouveau riche don't all understand the idea of social giving. But, unlike the commentator who talked about a "return of music as hobby" who lacked the historical understanding of music and the output of "music as hobby," and the stagnation that comes with the lack of creativity caused by the loss of the setting to be creative.

And I also think that the decentralization is great for the arts. The arts are major job creators, community supporters, and provide amazing opportunities for people of all backgrounds. Having the wealth of creativity spread around the world is a great thing. The problems of NYC in its commodification of art to placate a certain sector and keep donations rolling in is a sad problem. And with the major image problems facing orchestras and art music in general, any other issue can be catastrophic for a local scene.

But, in a way, NYC's loss is everyone else's game. As NYC loses artistic residents to burgeoning new scenes like KC, Austin, New Orleans (is it really "new?" Same with KC. Jazz was kind of a big deal), and other large scenes going strong such as San Francisco, LA, and Chicago, won't these other places be bolstered?

And does Byrne really think NYC's art scene will crumble? No, the allure of that city is too strong, the culture too deeply grounded. It may stagnate as certain turnovers occur, large institutions take on conservative or popular streaks to stay running, but that underground scene, the smaller clubs, venues, and galleries, will always carry on. Even if artists have to move further into the reaches of Brooklyn, Queens, and maybe even the Bronx. They'll still band together and make meaningful art. Outsiders like me will still fly in for the occasional performance, either of a commission or at a festival.

But NYC will carry on, in one form or another. I know too many people fighting to keep the scene alive, fighting for their piece of NYC. The 1% aren't going to find a way to buy out the arts--if anything, the arts will probably find a new way to subvert the 1% out of a nice share of money to put on a display attacking the 1%.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I randomly stumbled upon this and loved it-- thank you for writing.