Wednesday, April 29, 2015

800 Words: Home

Baltimore is my city and will never be my city. I am an interloper to its developments, a Johnny-whose-family-come-lately in a city where your only credibility is your insiderness, and whose wounds and tensions stretch back 350 years. The land of Barbara Fritchie and Hattie Carroll is not mine, and perhaps I delude myself in thinking that the land of Roger Taney and Spiro Agnew is not mine either.

But it is the place where I've spent the vast majority of my life so far; not in the true Baltimore, but in an ersatz Baltimore - a bubble northwest of the city where Jews enact a separate but greater-than-equal community free from the goyisher molestation that's never happened in America. There is no way for a Pikesville kid to ever find out where the true Baltimore is, I don't know whether the true Baltimore exists anymore or if it ever did, and it certainly isn't there. But is the true Baltimore simply a nightmare from which we can only wake up by leaving it?


How does a place so seemingly right go so wrong? At the moment when America was at its most prosperous, we lost all our hope. America has never been more prosperous than it was in the last century's second half. For all its unimaginable poverty and inequality, there was still less devastation here than anywhere else in the world. And yet the moment this century ended, we all lost hope for America's future. The most privileged country in the history of the world, which has done more to lift more millions of people out of poverty and squalor than any European nation on its most altruistic day, and whose entire identity is based on a brighter future, is now a place of despair. The one thing every citizen in this country seems to agree on, regardless of ideological background or ethnic origin, is that something has gone horribly wrong. Nobody agrees on when or how or if it was ever better than it is today, but nearly every American now seems to agree that America is a shitty place, and only getting shittier.The one country in the world for whom pessimism was never in the national lexicon is now a place where everybody seems to dread a future worse than what came before. We won everything, and by winning, we lost.  


An overheard conversation:

"What's going on in Baltimore?"

"The Schvartzes have gone crazy."



Baltimore is one of the racial fault lines of America - it should be no surprise that this round of protests and riots started around St. Louis - the city closest to the exact center of the country. Baltimore has all of St. Louis's salient qualities: a huge black underclass, enough white progressives to help give them voice to their grievances, but not enough progressives to lift them out from where they come. Anywhere further north, and there would be enough liberals to make a dent in the underclass, anywhere further south and white conservative control over the black underclass would be so ironclad that a riot would be nearly impossible. Nowhere in America has had more hope continually dashed than Maryland. In pre-Civil War Baltimore, slaves and educated free blacks rubbed up against each other every day. After the war, Maryland's inability to secede meant they wouldn't get a cent of reconstruction money,and its antebellum progressivism ensured a law that all blacks must receive an education, and as a result, former slaves arrived in Maryland by the thousands. But the conservatism that forced Lincoln to treat Maryland so destructively ensured that the education could only be received in segregated schools. Black leaders, having hoped for a new day, had to explain to their constituents that they had to back Jim Crow so that the vision of a universally educated Black America could be fulfilled. Blacks and whites together served in the steel foundries of World War II, and many poor Southern whites came to Baltimore looking for well-paying jobs which the heirarchical South would never allow them. But when the jobs started moving out of Baltimore, the whites who were always wealthy moved away from Baltimore too. All that was left was poor black people living near poor white people.


For all the complaining this overprivileged white male does on a daily basis about the ineptitude of Baltimore's local artistic scene, Baltimore as a subject has produced more memorable, sometimes stunning, art about racial divides by great artists who know it intimately than nearly any other city in America: Homicide, The Corner, The Wire, Liberty Heights, Serial, The Accidental Tourist, Roc, the Tess Monaghan series. We here in Baltimore are acquainted with tragedy, dashed hope, farce, and epically dramatic events as few if any American cities have ever been. Some cities are an American success story writ large. We are a million stories of American failure. But people from more secure places will never know success like a Baltimore success - to climb to victory over a millions obstacles, to make it in a town that conspires to take it away. For those few who ever made it, how sweet it must be. But we are the city of failure, and by losing everything, we have gained the freedom to be ourselves which so few others ever did. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

800 Words: Regulate the Arts!

In America, there are only three markets less regulated than finance: drugs, sports, and the arts. At least 1% of this country makes it work because of their investments. But in these three fields, the people who make it work are 1% of the field itself. Not being an athlete or a drug dealer, I have no real knowledge of how to cure those markets to make them more equitable. But having continually made lame attempts at being a financially subsistent practitioner of the arts, I think I have some idea.

Those who are successful stand to make millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars - encouraged by market forces to only do material that’s tried and true, and those who are marketable within it make more money than they’ll ever know what to do with. The rest of us are occasionally lucky to make a middle class living - getting a regular job with an orchestra, or a regional theater, or doing technical jobs on film, or getting regular commissions from galleries, or designing clothing that a couple rich ladies want to wear. But surely this is only 10% of people who want to make a living as artists and artisans in America. Perhaps another 30% make a living from teaching their art to people who have no real interest in it, remunerate them inadequately, increasingly give them no real health and insurance benefits, and spend what should be the most productive years of their careers tied down to a system that designed so that they cannot make any of the art they wish to make. The rest of us, if we’re lucky, feed on small scraps, we might eke out a lower-middle class living from gigs, plays, commissions, and wedding photography/videography. But most of us can’t even do that. God knows what else we have to do to make it work, and all of us certainly learn that it’s not pretty, but let’s not kid ourselves: The paltry amount of time we get to do what we want is usually not worth the amount of compromises it takes to make that time. Many, perhaps most, of us have to go to school to learn our craft, and accumulate vast quantities of debt which we eventually can only pay off by leaving our fields and getting a ‘real job.’ And God alone knows how many talented artists and artisans are dissuaded by circumstance from ever exploring their creative selves properly.

The arts are a real job for real people, responsible people who pay their taxes and contribute to society in a manner that no other field can. All artists and artisans want to do for you is to make your lives more beautiful, more meaningful, more civilized, more livable. The arts serve no real function for society except to make the society better. The worth of our society should be judged by how much we can pursue what makes us happy. The worth of our society to posterity is judged almost solely on the joy its art still brings to our descendents. The more we leave behind, the more people after us will value who we were.

But part of the problem is that most artists, like most drug dealers, most potential athletes, and most people who work in finance, are grotesquely bad at what they do. The incompetence of our field is staggering - a waiting pool for amateurs who go into the arts because they’re not good enough to be competent in anything else. If you go to medical school, you have to learn all the necessary tools. If you don’t, the patient dies. But in the arts, we say that anything at all can be art, and the result is that most people consume commercial crap that soothes their souls to the point that they can be effective consumers, nothing more. While the rest of us sit patiently in shows that demonstrate nothing but masturbatory pandering to a small audience who is there more for a social outlet than to expect any kind of artistic revelation.

Artists are doctors of the soul, and being an artist should have all the rewards, and all the responsibilities, of being a doctor. It should be a high-paying, white collar, upper-middle-class living, with its practitioners trained for years and licenced to practice their art by their competence. They should be pillars of their communities, respected, perhaps venerated, but never truly worshipped and paid like celebrities. Proven incompetence should result in revoking an artist’s licence. How do you prove incompetence? Well, there are facts in the arts just like there are facts in anything else. Writing and distributing a song with only three chords should be banned unless the artist derives special permission from an Art-Review-Board for such a dangerous practice. So would any painting of a ship, or any improv comedy. Artists who want to create avant-garde work should have to obtain a licence in which he or she demonstrates competence, outlines the project, and all the potential expenses, from which the review board would issue a grant based on the value they deem to it.

Artisans should be nurses, trained to fulfill the directives of the artist in the safest possible way, and remunerated with a solid, middle class living (though would that all nurses made a solid, middle-class living…). Artisan-nurses should be able to go to school for a bit more time and become an Artisan-practitioner, with all the directives of a non-specialized artist. Upon graduating, artists would do a residency within their field, and the field could be as general as composition or painting, or as specific as bassoon composition, or wax figurines, or sock puppetry. The artists could then collaborate with other artists in other fields to realize projects that require the competence which they have not attained.

As always, there will be giants and stars within every particular field, who have more opportunities than anyone. But the playing field will be so evened, and the product so much better. Please, somebody in Washington, find a way regulate the arts already and put us all out of our collective artistic misery!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

800 Words: Why I've Left Kol Rinah

In circumstances as dramatic and sudden as I always dreaded they might be, I resigned tonight from Kol Rinah, the Jewish chorus I've directed for nearly six years - effective immediately. I walked into the rehearsal room to find a singer immediately ready to pounce, I had a five-second heated exchange with this singer who never had any trouble letting me know that she thought me an organizational incompetent (perhaps not without justification, and she's hardly the only one...), and immediately realized that I could not do this a moment longer. I walked out, drove to my parents house, typed up a resignation, and sent it. That was that. No more seeking approval from people who will never stop withholding it. No more dealing with people who use their religiosity as a cudgel with which they hit the rest of us for supposedly being less virtuous. No more dealing with singers who see their director as a personal waiter to service their ideas at everyone else's expense. No more dealing with people who want to spend their lives singing Jewish music that is no better than Christian Rock. No more waiting for weeks on end for enough singers to show up that we can have a functional rehearsal. No more banging my head against the wall until I can make a dent. Most importantly: no more settling! No more settling for playing music I could never stand, with people who could never stand me. My life has more than enough messy stress without the added stress of dealing with the kinds of people who have seen me all my life as a hinderance to everything they want from the world. So it is time, at a moment when I can't deal with any more stress than I already have, to exit with whatever little dignity I have left.

What is Kol Rinah? Kol Rinah is the chorus I conducted for more than five years, the chorus that met in the music room I had to sit in when I was six years old, the chorus that included the father of my earliest schoolgirl crush, the best friend of my father's not particularly amicable ex-business partner, the wife of one of his oldest business associates and the wife of his newest; the Baltimore Hebrew College professor of my uncle and also a few of my uncle's classmates, the daughter of one of my grandmother's oldest friends and the parent of one of mine, and friends of the parents of all my other childhood friends, and friends of all my parents friends. How can any kid ever establish authority in such an inbred network of people? 

And still, I somehow, sometimes, managed to get this group of people to sound halfway decent. When I came to them, they were lucky if they didn't finish a piece singing a minor third beneath where they began. They were an embarrassment - shunted off to the side of their congregation, allowed a cursory appearance once a year that would always meet with subtle congregant eye-rolls and titters. We got good enough that people who hated listening to Kol Rinah for years would come up to me and tell me that for the first time, they enjoy listening. I have no idea if what they said was true, but considering how vocal they were about what Kol Rinah used to be, I can't imagine there isn't an element of truth. Nothing I did was a miracle: I simply did what any good servant of music would when in front of a chorus: I got them to sing reasonably in-tune and rhythmically together, with decent diction and vowel placement, I tried to build up their confidence when their self-confidence was low, and tried to nicely but firmly put them in their place when their self-confidence was too high. 

My stipend for this accomplishment was 100 dollars a rehearsal for no more than thirty-three rehearsals and performances, the other inevitable twenty appearances I would have to accept as gratis every year. Never was there any question of a raise or even a possibility that the wage would be tacked to inflation. Six years of arranging, six years of ego-massaging difficult singers (and they were plenty difficult) six years of finding music that might have a modicum of quality while still being as light-as-air poppy as many singers wanted, six years of patient teaching; all this for 3300 fucking dollars a year - and not even a single recording to ever have documented what we did. 

When I came to Kol Rinah, my 'past' in Pikesville meant that I had was operating with a Scarlett Letter from the very beginning. I was given a six-month probationary period during which I had to prove my fitness for the group. After six months, we all seemed to be going along splendidly, much better than the shape of things at Voices of Washington. So if there were no review, no harm done, I figured I had the job. It was, so I reasoned, just one indignity to pass through before things get better. 

But in year 2, some of the singers were horrified that I might ask them to review old pieces, so they simply arranged to have the probationary review, roughly nine months after it was supposed to happen, by which time I got a much worse performance review than I would had they operated promptly. Whatever the word of mouth was, the paperwork shows not that I was well-liked six months in, but that I was ill-thought of fifteen months in. 

We chased all sorts of big performances, only for them all to fall crashing down once we realized what it entailed. We were supposed to sing for 1,200 people at the United Synagogue Conference of Conservative Judaism - we prepared all summer for it. We were then cut off, forced to learn a cantor's entire repertoire at the last two rehearsals, and then, rather than sing onstage where we'd have had an actual audience, we were then 'appeased' by being allowed to sing our repertoire while people were waiting in the buffet line

Or the times we chased the "Limmud" projects to try to interest the wider Jewish community in us, only to inevitably find that our only audience members were our families.

 I don't think my ambition was particularly high - certainly not for Kol Rinah. Kol Rinah always dangled in the background after college, and after I was out of college, some adult friend of my parents would get it into his or her head that I was the man for them after they ate their way through yet another new director (and there were at least two acrimonious splits before me...)  I knew that I could well end up with this organization, but if I did, my life had to be in desperate, desperate circumstances if I wanted to go back into my grade school and try to direct within the uber-critical clutches of old Pikesville Jews who knew my parents when they were younger than I. 

But then I turned twenty-seven: unemployed, virtually homeless and penniless, refusing a cent from my parents and refusing to speak to my father. I was living on the couch and charity of friends who thankfully ensured during the Summer of 2009 that I would not starve. I applied for more than a hundred jobs, and never heard back from more than two - one of the two turned out to be a pyramid scheme. 

Kol Rinah was, if nothing else, the project on which the Prodigal Son returned home. Contrary to what so many singers charged of me, I never, never wanted it to be a Jewish Robert Shaw Chorale. My dreams of choral glory (how lame that even sounds...) died with Voices of Washington, THAT was my misbegotten title shot that didn't even get me past the first match's first round. What I wanted was to build a respectable chorus that could sustain itself long after I left, and perform concerts that have as much music that's great and cathartic as we had fun, engaging music, and not for a moment did I want for one to subsume the other. I wanted to build a chorus that was a reflection of Judaism itself, not just of the narrow tastes of uncurious Jews who live in a three-mile radius of one another. I don't want glory, I just want respect from people who never before gave it to me, and as it turns out, will never give. 

I know I'm an organizational mess. Everybody whose ever seen me for fifteen minutes knows I'm an mess. But some people refuse to forgive such people and see the obtuseness of people like me as an insult against them. And because they're so insulted, they automatically read bad intentions into me which I never had. And such things have happened so often, to such catastrophic result, that it makes me an emotional mess. Such Type-A people are not evil, but for the effect they've always had on my well-being, it often feels like they might as well be.

Kol Rinah is an organization for its time and place. Its like will not exist in ten years, and it will be completely forgotten less than ten years later. I don't think the singers ever particularly liked each other, but I'm sure it served some kind of purpose in their lives that kept them in touch with the power of music and/or God. But the price to even do that was so steep that I don't know how the chorus could exist for twenty-two years.

In all seriousness, Kol Rinah, my hats off to you. For twenty-two years you've weathered every storm, and will hopefully weather this one as well as you ever have. There is no reason you could not, with some effort that hasn't been put in for a long time, continue to exist for twenty-two more. I tried everything I could to make you understand why you should aim at least a little bit higher. I still believe that you deserve better than you got. And hopefully, a new director can articulate a case for that better than I have.