Harmony Beat

Violinist from Indiana traveling to all 50 states in 2016, asking: "What is American culture?"

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Location: Indianapolis, IN, United States

violinist, violist, teacher, composer, conductor, writer, cultural diplomat, traveler

Friday, May 20, 2016

What is American culture in New York?

It's very difficult to know how to deal with the Empire State as part of this project. During the 9-year span when I was mostly based in New York City (2001-2002 and 2004-2010), I never went upstate, but three summers spent at Meadowmount School of Music showed me that the rest of the state is almost entirely unlike its largest city.

Fortunately, I started and finished the New York State week (sponsored by Dianne McKeever and Shreyas Gupta) of our American culture project in beautiful, resurgent Newburgh, the small city on the Hudson where George Washington maintained his headquarters during the Revolutionary War.

As the Guardian wrote a year ago, Newburgh is slowly emerging from decades as an impoverished, high-crime city. One of the people helping it do so is quoted in the article above: David Ludwig, the organizer of Queen of the Hudson concert series, on which I performed a recital of American music with pianist Katya Mihailova. A highlight of the project, the recital featured music by Philip Glass, Don Freund, William Bolcom, George Gershwin, David Baker, and Lera Auerbach, and took place in Atlas Industries, a warehouse that David has thoughtfully and artistically converted into a concert venue. I decided not to focus as much on social media and more on joining my friend Katya to provide a high-quality immersion in the diversity of American music for the hundred audience members. Based on the reaction we received, such as this testimonial, that was a good idea.

Downtown Newburgh has a lot to offer: a gourmet cafe/bar/restaurant named Ms. Fairfax, after George Washington's probable mistress; an outstanding juice bar; and a cafe with excellent bagels, among numerous other resources.

I did spend much of the week in New York City. As challenging as it is to share any finite set of experiences that may be representative of the world's most infinitely varied city, I did my best to show how the conversations, events, and spaces that define the city are continuously evolving in ways that confirm some expectations and deny others.

9/11 & New Architecture

New Yorkers were never going to let the most horrific terrorist attack on American soil dampen the vibrancy of our downtown, although the seemingly endless salvage, reconstruction, and construction efforts at Ground Zero proved frustrating and dispiriting at times. Finally, the new skyscraper is up, the 9/11 museum is open to the public, and Sergio Calatrava's already-iconic PATH station is almost fully open. The picture above, showing both the new skyscraper and the train station, is emblematic of New Yorkers' trademark resilience.

The 9/11 museum does a magisterial yet heartbreaking job telling the story of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Huge artifacts, like the mangled communications antenna that perched atop the World Trade Center, give an idea of the scale of the tragedy, yet in the heart of the museum (where no pictures are allowed), the small stories will get you choked up. One man and his wife always kept two-dollar bills with them as a symbol of their love. The man died on 9/11, and the museum exhibits the two-dollar bill from inside the wallet that was one of the only "remains" they ever found.

Spencer Finch's artwork in which each blue panel 
represents one person who died on 9/11.

Carnegie Hall

For a classical musician, Carnegie Hall is our cathedral. Yet, from my own participation as an ACJW fellow (2008-2009) to leading the Afghan Youth Orchestra in a sold-out concert there (in 2013), I've been proud to participate in its radical re-thinking of its role in the community. No longer an elite bastion, Carnegie Hall brings music to a wide variety of communities in the region—and, through programs like Link Up, around the world.  My ACJW colleagues went on to found the extraordinary collective Decoda, and as part of the New York week, I attended a concert that was part of their unique and invaluable efforts to create musical compositions in collaboration with individuals who have been through the criminal justice system.  Check out my full report and interviews here.


My friend, the great jazz pianist Aaron Diehl, had suggested that we meet at Red Rooster, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised Marcus Samuelsson's restaurant celebrating Southern American and soul food. However, it was so jam-packed with tourists (and locals) seeking an "authentic" experience in Harlem provided by a world-renowned gourmet chef, that we ended up at Chaiwali, a restaurant fusing Indian and international cuisines accompanied by an eclectic and obscure beer list stretching from Japan to Mexico. As we spoke about the changes in Harlem, the move Red Rooster's two-hour wait compelled us to make offered a thought-provoking snapshot of the pluses and minuses of gentrification. Red Rooster, and its older, more famous, more politically significant neighbor, Sylvia's, have turned the cuisine of African-Americans into a marketable tourist commodity, and Harlem is now a neighborhood that seamlessly hosts a restaurant like Chaiwali, which—though excellent—could be located anywhere.

I met with acclaimed Dominican poets Jorge Piña and Karina Rieke in the Bronx and discussed the ways in which the culture of the Dominican Republic has evolved—and stayed the same—in the US. Jorge's poetry has both Caribbean and universal influences, and he finds New York with its varied cultures to be an ideal expression of the US at its best. "You meet different ideas and cultures, and that motivates you to grow," he said. Karina finds that Dominican writers have a better opportunity to get their work published in the US than back home. They both feel, as do I, that the US must prepare itself for the demographic change that will lead to the increased use of Spanish in public and commercial life.


Nearly every tourist and local spends time in Central Park. It says something about American culture that few park architects are as well known as the designer of this famous public space, Frederick Law Olmsted. The park represents how we Americans like our nature just fine as long as it's carefully controlled, managed, and somewhat artificial. Yes, it's beautiful, but you're never very far from a reminder of the human desire to display a masterly ordering and taming of nature's chaos.

On the positive side, Central Park represents American democracy providing all citizens with an equally beautiful experience. On the other hand, I also visited Wave Hill, a private park in the Bronx, accessible for a fee. One seldom forgets in New York that this is the city with more billionaires than any other, and although the billionaires certainly enjoy playgrounds far more difficult for the plebes to access than this exquisitely manicured park overlooking the Hudson, the aura of exclusivity remains a valued commodity in NYC.


Two concerts I attended showed how both classical music and jazz are ever-evolving in New York. Ricardo Romaneiro's extraordinary vision involved conceiving a concert at the House of Yes that scarcely seemed to pertain to the genre of "classical music," though it certainly did. The House of Yes combined the atmosphere of a bar and club; before the concert, bassist and DJ Leo Leite did a kinetic, genre-bending set:

After George Crumb's infamous electric string quartet, "Black Angels," singer Daisy Press gave a haunting performance of the nearly 900-year-old music of Hildegard von Bingen:

Finally, a large ensemble performed Ricardo's own mixed-genre composition, Nocturnal Suite, featuring singing, costumes, strings, a clarinet, percussion, and aerial dancers:

Classical music increasingly seeks meaningful ways to evolve and reach new audiences without losing what makes it so timeless. Superb ensemble coordination from the musicians of Ensemble LPR throughout allowed both classical music expert and neophyte to connect with the experience, and it was the rare classical concert with a predominantly young, and almost counter-cultural, audience.

As a fan of jazz, I'm bewildered by its transition from the popular music of a century ago to a music that today, along with classical, is considered elite. Like classical, jazz's share of the recording market hovers around 2% and has dipped even lower in recent years. 

Jazz at Lincoln Center's tribute event, Miles Davis: The Sorcerer at 90, is emblematic of Wynton Marsalis' success at doubling down on the presentation of jazz as establishment music. The glitzy skyscraper six blocks south of the actual Lincoln Center where the band has resided since October 2004; preceding the concert with a reception with yet more jazz in the background; and the hushed, formal atmosphere of the sparkling Rose Theater all combined to create a world very far from the milieu of the small clubs where jazz is more often heard. 

The music-making was uniformly superb, with Ted Nash's blistering sax solo in Gershwin's "Gone" a highlight, as were the orchestrations, such as Marcus Roberts' use of four unaccompanied trumpets jamming in counterpoint near the beginning and end of George Shearing's "Conception" and Gerry Mulligan's ingenious use of sax doubling plucked bass in Davis' "Deception." The ensemble is almost clinically tight, enabling both genuinely delightful moments, such as an effect at the end of Wayne Shorter's "ESP" that evoked the air let out of an accordion, or Victor Goines' sax solo bubbling up from the crystalline world of Davis' "Selim" like champagne bubbles floating to the top of a glass. 

Yet the orchestration felt almost too pristine, calculated with a cold precision Ravel would envy, in a flute-accented version of "My Funny Valentine" orchestrated by Marcus Printup, who shared music director duties with Ali Jackson. Jackson's daring willingness to risk long periods of total silence during his drum solo, playing sound and its absence off one another with sensuous wit, felt far closer to the spontaneous zeitgeist that first drew me to jazz than the formal milieu, copied from classical music, that the most innovative classical concerts (such as Ricardo Romaneiro's "Black Angels"-themed event) are increasingly jettisoning. 

Thank You

Thank you to Dianne McKeever & Shreyas Gupta for underwriting the New York week; to the Lilly Endowment for underwriting the performance of music by Indiana composers throughout the project (Don Freund is an Indiana University professor, as was the late David Baker); Ed Pass for his kind hospitality; David Ludwig for his compassionate vision and help; Katya Mihailova, for her superb musical partnership; Aaron Diehl, for a thought-provoking conversation and his assistance and advice; and Ricardo Romaneiro, for generously providing access to his visionary Black Angels concert experience. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Conversation with an Amish farmer

“Before we get started, I wanted to make it clear: we do not think alike. I will tell you how I feel about things. My neighbor might tell you differently.” The farmer’s words were as American as his dress: a faded sweatshirt and dark jeans. Only the style of his haircut and beard suggested the truth: he is Amish. 

Through Discover Lancaster, I had arranged to interview an Amish farmer about his views on American culture for the Pennsylvania week (May 15-22) of our “What is American culture?” project. The Amish, a group of conservative Christians who reject many aspects of modern living and technology, do not generally agree to be photographed, videotaped, or audio recorded, so I took only some scratch paper and a pencil with me on my half-hour journey from Lancaster into Amish country, a verdant, idyllic land of rolling hills and farmland. 

On my way, I passed horse-drawn carriages, which I expected, and men atop diesel-powered tractors pulled by horses, which I did not. I pulled into the farm and looked for my contact in the store, where the women of the family sell jams, artwork for the home, and quilts. One of them suggested looking in the house, so I peered in the window, surprised to see a luxuriously plush armchair. Eventually I found him in the barn, where he had just answered a question from a pair of fellow tourists. With his blonde hair and beard framing an easygoing boyish smile, he seemed to be in his late twenties. For our interview, he ushered me into his plain office, its only equipment a landline telephone. 

“You can ask me anything you like, and I won’t get offended,” he assured me, at which I thought how rare such a courteous disclaimer is in today's USA.

I asked if it was a contradiction to abjure electricity but embrace diesel engines. He started to defend the decision to renounce electricity before I clarified that while I totally sympathized with that, I do have ethical concerns about petroleum related both to the politics of their extraction and its impact on the environment, so was therefore surprised that the Amish seem untroubled by this.

“Here’s the opinion of just one Amish man when it comes to global warming and emissions: let’s just live our lives. Forget about it. Ninety-five percent of Amish really don’t care. Sure, we need to live as green as possible, but we’re not as concerned about emissions as most people.” 

That still doesn’t explain why diesel is an advance many Amish accept. The farmer thought for a bit.

“We have to have some sort of power. We could go really old school and use water power, but we need power. We rely heavily on engines. Prices have gone way up and we couldn’t continue our lifestyle without certain compromises.” It looks like diesel is simply one of those compromises. Well, who decides where to compromise? I wondered. How do the Amish determine how their way of life will evolve?

“A couple hundred men decide what we can and can’t have. There are some rules that do not make sense. We don’t have a single written rule, and some started many years ago. You might think I’d understand all the rules. I don’t. If each person could pick a rule and say, hey, why don’t we change it, pretty soon we wouldn’t be Amish anymore.”

What does it mean, to be Amish?

“The core of our culture is family, family, family, family. There are no divorces: none. We live here and this is where we are, three meals a day.” As we spoke, several of his children would come in and out. The littlest ones wouldn’t say much except to whisper in his ear in Pennsylvania Dutch (related to German), but an older boy about 10 or 11 occasionally asked for instructions regarding the daily farm tasks. 

The farmer expounded, “There’s nothing better than a mom, a dad, and the children. When I’m on the farm, I’m tired at the end of the day. When I was a carpenter, I would come home and want to do something, like go to a ball game. But that would be losing quality family time.” 

I pointed out that for many non-Amish families, going to a ball game together is quality family time. “In your society, yes. In our culture, no. A relaxed and peaceful life is best spent with the family. There’s nothing like being at home, teaching our children true values.”

He spoke of non-Amish friends of his that occasionally take him and his wife to dinner, and how active they are. “If you’re not Amish and you’re at home, you’ve got to get out and do something. We’re content just doing nothing.”

I told him I was puzzled that the Amish choose to use scooters instead of bicycles: I couldn’t figure out the problem with using a bicycle, an invention now two centuries old. “You can bike 10, 25 miles easy. Let’s try to stay at home,” he said, leaning in and drawing out the last words for emphasis. “You can’t get that far on a scooter. Sure, I’d like to have a bike, but I’m going to teach my children to Follow. The. Rules.”

The Amish are known for a principled ambivalence to technology, which is often mistaken for opposition, a stereotype the farmer was eager to dispel. “Like you, we also keep progressing. Take solar panels: You’ll see them on many Amish homes. There are still Amish without freezers or indoor plumbing, but most of us are progressing. We’re just X amount of years behind you guys.” He thought about the implications of what he had said and laughed, “Although I’m not saying we’re going to have cars in 100 years. Still, we do not live as our great-grandparents did 100 years ago.

“We know how convenient technology is. Using smartphones and computers is not all wrong. A smartphone is a great thing to have, but in the hands of the wrong person, lots of sin can be achieved. The possibility of bad outweighs the good.”

The Amish think a lot about avoiding sin. How do they view the problems of the rest of the world? What advice would they have? Once again, he impressed me with his tolerance.

“I’m not saying we don’t sin: we do. Being Amish is not the only way.” That said, his view on the cause of violence in our country and our world surprised me. “Divorce and bad parenting is at the root of violence. Quit divorcing!” I informed him that many terrorists and criminals have, in fact, come from intact families. He willingly conceded that he hadn’t considered that, and I wondered to myself when the last time was that a non-Amish person in a political debate conceded a point to their opponent in the United States!

Of course we talked about politics; in fact, one of the first shocks he gave me was when he told me that Amish people vote. “Probably 50% of us would say we need to vote because we do pay taxes. We are just a different culture living under the same rules as you, with a few exemptions: we do not have to serve in combat, and we can be exempt from Social Security. For the most part, we are treated just like the rest, and rightly so.”

Do Amish feel themselves to be American?

“I feel fortunate we live how we do. In some countries, Christianity is a big deal. There are countries where there’s a lot of  violence and tension between religions, but not here. However we want to live our life in the US, we can do so.”

What do you think of our politicians?

“From what I grasp, I think one thing has almost been lost in our presidents: Christianity. Look at Michelle Obama: the way she dresses isn’t Christian. To dress in a Christian manner, you should cover as much of the body as possible. Look at the large percentage of the world looking at them. Everyone wants to be popular, so they will think it’s right to dress like that.” If he was critical of the Obamas, he seemed more critical of Trump, whom he dismissed as “obviously not a conservative.” 

Who is the most recent mainstream politician you admire? “Ben Carson. But he’s almost too honest to do the job.” At first, his choice surprised me. All I’d seen of Ben Carson is him being ridiculed for the way his eyelids droop, or for suggesting that Joseph built the pyramids in Egypt to store grain, or for a few explicit statements of conservative dogma that a liberal would reflexively oppose. But how often had I seen Carson treated seriously by the mainstream media? For how many Americans is it important to have a politician who dresses and carries himself modestly while endeavoring to put conservative Christianity at the center of their personal life? For all the liberal fear-mongering about a “religious right,” surprisingly few nationally prominent Republican politicians have been able to sustain a lifestyle that is actually consistent with a humble and conservative Christianity.

If I had wondered how much the Amish follow our politics before, I quickly learned that for many Amish, American national and local politics are very much theirs as well, and they have opinions on the same issues the rest of the country debates. When I suggested that dressing more modestly might not stop the epidemic of racially-tinged police violence, he had a lot to say.

“I don’t know how those white policemen felt, pulling the trigger, but it drives me crazy that people can’t forgive them. Blacks are angry at whites, and everything becomes racial. I want to say, get ahold of yourselves. We’re all human. Why can’t we get along? The world has become so good at finger-pointing. The policemen’s rights were ripped right out of their hands. When you don’t have authority anymore, you’ve got problems. Some of our leaders you might think shouldn’t be leaders, but that’s how it is. My grandpa used to say, ‘It is what it is.’”

You might think that this reverence for the concept of authority at all costs would lead to a society of conformity, but before our interview concluded, the farmer once again insisted, “Make sure that when you write this up, people understand that we are not all the same. We are not perfect. This is just one man’s opinion.”

Could you give me an example of an issue that is controversial among the Amish?

“Dress is an area where there are many disagreements. Us dressing this way doesn’t make us a Christian.” I wasn’t surprised that he cited this. When we had met briefly earlier in the day through Discover Lancaster, he had been wearing the traditional homespun Amish garb and straw hat, but he gave the whole interview in casual modern clothing, leaving the hat on the desk. At one point in our conversation, he nodded to the hat and said, “I wouldn’t have to wear this, but I wear it because it’s tradition.”

Why agree to speak with me about American culture? 

“Amish are looked at in ways that are not accurate. It is fun for me to tell people how we are. Ultimately, our way of life is about: do the best you can, and keep the peace. If I see my neighbor doing something against our culture, I could go complain to the bishop, but if it’s minor, I’m better off keeping my mouth shut and looking at my own mistakes.”

I chuckled and said that all cultures might be better off adopting this philosophy. To thank him, I told him I’d go into the store and get a jar of jam. I passed a family of tourists, a young couple and an older woman, who appeared South Asian. 

Once in the store, I picked out a jar of strawberry jam and took it to the counter, where a young woman of 15 or 16 attended the cash register wearing a full length, plain gown and white bonnet. As I held out my hand for the 75 cents in change, she dropped it into my hand with a practiced fluid elegance I had never seen before. Her fingers swooped up slightly, bird-like, before she dropped the three quarters precisely in the center of my palm in a gesture that had clearly been learned so that she would deliver the change without the slightest risk of touching me.

I left as a huge bus of tourists were descending on the farm to buy goods at the store. Previously I had viewed the Amish the way many Americans probably do: as a quaint culture, apart from modern life, with which we can interact in order to learn about our own history and enjoy some made-from-scratch baked and canned goods. I hadn’t been prepared to learn so much about the changes and social debates confronting the hundreds of millions of non-Amish Americans in 2016. And the farmer's one-word answer ("Technology") to the question of our project ("What is American culture?") does say a lot about the concerns both Amish and non-Amish have about an age where social media and the devices on which we access it control us more than the other way around. 

The Amish are far more than a tourist attraction come to life, and deserve more careful consideration and even critical engagement than has often been the case. As the farmer told me with the friendly frankness that had characterized our entire dialogue: “We’re human like you, we just have some weird traditions.”

Testimonial from Newburgh concert

Dear Mr. Harvey --

well, of COURSE your performance was amazing, inspiring, lush!  (Queen of the Hudson never fails to surprise).

thank you for your provocative introduction to  ‘What is American Culture’.  the question lingers with me...as i listen to the politics, or suffer shopping accompanied by pop-culture vocals -- from grocery chains to hi-end coutureI  or am assaulted by thousands of books at Barnes & Noble - i-will-miss-the-one-revealing-the-meaning-of-life.....

You reminded me that I was treated to the National Symphony Orchestra of Uzbekistan in Tashkent several years ago.  It was thrilling being introduced to their traditional music played on traditional instruments. Imagine my surprise when the program ended with “My Fair Lady”.

Enjoy your 50-state project -- those other 39 states are in for a treat!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Youth, no longer at risk, now composing genre-bending music

Courtesy of Carnegie Hall

When several dozen children and parents crowded into the tiny lobby of Carnegie Hall’s new Resnick Education Wing, the palpable excitement did not diminish as we squeezed into an elevator to the tenth floor. We were going to a concert of Musical Connections, Carnegie Hall’s incredibly varied set of community-based projects, this particular one conducted in partnership with Passages Academy, the NYC Administration for Children’s Services, and the Center for Community Alternatives

In collaboration with Decoda, a classical music collective, and Circa ’95, a hip hop duo, teenagers and young adults in nonsecure placement had created compositions. These were youth sentenced to a program in which they are placed in residential settings closer to their families and provided with other resources in an effort to ease the transition back into their communities.

Based on how supportive their family members were, and on the program’s clear ability to build and boost their confidence, they have a great chance of success. A few of the youth were as nervous as any young performer would be, and when the audience could detect a bout of nerves, they would whoop and cheer them on. 

The performances were all highly polished; recordings of the compositions the youth created are available here. As part of the New York State week (May 8-15) of Cultures in Harmony's "What is American culture?" project, I interviewed Patty Dukes & Reph Star of Circa ’95; Kris Saebo of Decoda; and Madeline, a student in the program, about the ways in which unique efforts like this tell us something about the direction in which American culture is heading. The interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity, based on transcriptions by CiH volunteer Alice St. Clair.

Interview with Madeline, a student

WH: We’ve got this really cool mix going on in the music this evening: we’ve got classical and certainly I heard a lot of hip hop. What was that like, trying to figure out how to mix these different types of music?

Madeline: Well, it was a good experience. It was good to learn new things and learning how to rap and how to make music!

WH: OK, good. What was your approach to guiding the instrumentalists into what you wanted them to do during the song?

Madeline: My approach?

WH: Yeah, what would you tell them? I mean like the players, the clarinet, the bass, did you tell them anything?

Madeline: No.

WH: No you didn’t say do this here or that there or…

Madeline: No

WH: OK, you just let them find something that worked. 

Madeline: Yeah

WH: Our culture is changing rapidly, so, how would you like it to change and what role do you see for yourself in changing it? You can say anything you want, there are no right or wrong answers.
Madeline: I wouldn’t want anything to change. I like everything that’s good.

WH: You are going to keep creating, I hope?

Madeline: Yes, I’m gonna keep creating.

WH: More rap or what genres?

Madeline: It can be rap or singing.

WH: Finally, in your opinion, What is American culture?

Madeline: What is American culture? I don’t know….it’s being who you want to be!

Interview with Kris Saebo of Decoda

WH: What can we learn about American culture from projects like this?

KS: This project incorporates popular music, with the rap and funk and soul elements that are on the radio and everybody listens to. So it’s something that the students are ready to start with at a high level of ability to speak that language because they grew up doing that. But then the other thing that is unique about this project is that Decoda is a chamber music collective; so we took popular music and we added some classical arrangements. So it’s a real mix. A melting pot, just like American culture. So I would say this project pretty much defines America in the sense that it’s a melting pot of different styles and different cultures including popular and old world music from Europe. One thing about all culture is that art sort of bleeds between all cultures. That is what I am interested in: what are the things that bring all of humanity together. And music does that. These youth received an amazing opportunity to be able to work side by side with people from Carnegie Hall and with Reph and Patty of Circa 95, who helped them develop their verses, style, and performance practice. 

WH: The work that Decoda does with this project and other projects affirms the creativity of people in the criminal justice system. How does this relate to how American culture is changing today? For the first time now we’re starting to see bipartisan consensus that some kind of a reform has to happen. What role do you see in our national dialogue about criminal justice reform for the creation of musical compositions?

KS: Decoda’s work in the justice program is something people have been doing for a while. Johnny Cash used to go into prisons, plenty of people have been doing it. Carnegie did it and that’s how Decoda got involved: we were involved with Musical Connections and went to Sing Sing. Then through Claire Bryant’s work at Lee Correctional Facility, we started doing a yearly compositional process. The interesting thing about Decoda’s work is we don’t try to influence the style of art that will be the result. We allow each song-writing opportunity to be as unique as it will be and that includes the styles of music. So, it could be folk music, it could be rap, it could be a straight up classical composition. At Sing Sing we had someone who notated an entire string quartet or even a septet for strings. And they notated everything out. At Lee Correctional they don’t have the training to do that, but they had abstract ideas like, I want to do a spoken word piece and have a classical type of underpinning, and with these emotions and I want it to peak here and I want it to do this here or that there. So, it’s an interesting creative and compositional work because it’s always different and it’s not going to be classical always. That’s very fulfilling and it keeps it fresh every single time.

WH: There was a lot of attention given when Sir Mix-A-Lot collaborated with the Seattle Symphony. I think what was different here is, this was new art created collaboratively, incorporating both styles, rather than a pre-existing thing in one genre shoe-horned into another setting.

KS: Exactly, our process is a little different. We try to make everything truly collaborative throughout the process. So that each step is a collaboration and it’s not, as you said not just inserting one affect into a pre-existing context. So, that’s really well spotted.

Interview with Circa 95

WH: Circa 95? Is the name because you started in 1995?

Patty Dukes: Well Circa 95 means, around that time but it’s also about 9-5. This is our job. Music, art, and culture is our everyday life. 

Reph Star: And hip hop has been around since the late ‘70’s, but, for us the golden age was the early ‘90’s and mid ‘90’s, so we like to say ‘95 is what inspired us. 

WH: So, you have been doing it about that long?

RS: No, we’ve been artists individually since the ‘90’s. It’s really where we started our art form. But as a group, we were in existence since 2012.

WH: What can we learn about how American culture is changing from this project?

PD: Well, how diverse and how inclusive American culture is. I think it’s important to focus on all the people and cultures from different parts of the world that have come to America and added to it, as opposed to taking away from it. In this concert, you hear all the different languages, from Chinese to Spanish to English, which represent all the things we bring from home but we kinda wanna still add into the pot. Make that home cooking, make that good feeling in music!

RS: In Puerto Rico we call it sancocho: the mixture of these different colors and sounds and feelings coming together. This project here at Carnegie Hall is special because it focuses on bringing two different groups together to collaborate with the young people and the musical art forms might not be the same. So this time it was Circa 95 and Decoda.

PD: Circa 95 being hip hop focused.

RS: And Decoda being more focused on classical music. And for us as artists on both sides, it was about being flexible and finding spaces where we could connect to the young people that we were working with.

PD: We want to reflect what society looks like. Instead of just saying we want to diversify: society is already diverse! We want to normalize that. We want to show all the things that are already there in society on stage. A lot of times we don’t get to talk about these things. We don’t get a chance to share these things and let the young people talk about their struggles. It opens up the world to the other side, so we can sympathize and empathize. 

RS: Especially in the times where we are now. A lot of times things are so polarizing and people’s opinions and lifestyles feel separate…

PD: You feel alone.

RS: You feel alone, you don’t necessarily feel connected to what it means to be American. But, something like this project brings it all together and shows the connections. It shows where people are similar, where people are different…..but it’s ok, it doesn’t necessarily always have to be the same. It doesn’t always have to be different. We are just enjoying the freedom that we have to be ourselves and to share with each other.

PD: And to say what we want to say. I mean a lot of places in the world don’t get a chance to collaborate, don’t have access to music in the same ways that we do. And America’s voice in the world? It’s huge! What we say, and how we say it? It reverberates through the rest of the world, especially for Hip Hop. Hip Hop is in the front of that, speaking up for people who don’t get a chance to be heard a lot of the time and saying what is going on in their communities. If you’re a Hip Hop artist in New York, Indonesia, Pakistan, or anywhere in the world, I could connect with you because the struggles that you might be going through, I might be going through it here.

RS: Every time we come together with a different group we’re tearing down the walls that separate us. We’re making the world a better place to live in: through music, through art, and through culture.

What is American culture in Vermont?

Thinking carefully about the ethics of food is central to how American culture is lived and defined in Vermont, a state best known nationally and internationally for its cheese and maple syrup. For the Vermont week (May 1 to 8) of our American culture project, I went to the intervale, a beautiful area next to Burlington combining wilderness, a park, and community gardens. At a garden supply store, I made this Vine (short video) with an employee there, and at a garden, I did a video interview with two community members, one of whom arrived in the US 10 years ago from Somalia, about the role community gardens play in their own lives and in American culture. In Shelburne, I visited Shelburne Farms (pictured above), a working farm open to the public that offers a wide variety of opportunities to learn about how our food is grown.

Many restaurants in Vermont offer an opportunity to sample the incredible food products for which the state is known. I enjoyed the maple cornbread French toast with local sausage (pictured above) at Penny Cluse Cafe, and a crepe with local cheese, apples, and sausages topped with maple syrup at the Skinny Pancake, located along Burlington's beautiful waterfront on Lake Champlain.

In Bennington, I performed "Autumn Leaves" with vibraphonist Gary Miller at South Street Cafe, a charming neighborhood spot that offers lives music every Sunday. 

I performed American music for solo violin in Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, setting a big sign with the question of the project, "What is American culture?" Within minutes, a veteran (with me in the picture below) approached, thrilled by my version of the national anthem (during which he had let out an appreciative whoop after the highest note). American culture is, he said, the society all around us, a society that makes it possible for me and people like me to do what we do, a society built by the sacrifices of him and veterans like him. His grandfather served in World War I, and his father in Korea. "I like a lot of songs, but there's only one song I'd die for," he said with a grin.

Next, I spoke with an intense man who hates Bernie Sanders from the left. "He voted for the F-35," the man said grimly. "He's as full of s@#$ as the rest of them." The man frequently made sense—his condemnation of the military-industrial complex is as mainstream as Eisenhower—but then he claimed that Bush did 9/11 because all the evidence that he stole the 2000 election was in the World Trade Center. This man said that American culture was s@#$ and that anyone who doesn't accept that we're going extinct due to our own stupidity, violence, and global warming is "in denial.” He made this Vine with me. 

As a welcome respite, a little boy came up while the conspiracy theorist was talking to me. "I want to hear the music!" I started to play the Gershwin 3rd Prelude while the man continued to yell about how I was in denial, scaring the child. But as the man walked away, the kid stayed, and enjoyed trying the violin later (I taught him how to help me play “Pop Goes the Weasel”). His father took the middle road with the question, saying that American culture is "a work in progress.”

Having listened to three men representing a wide variety of perspectives, I took a stroll along Burlington's beautiful waterfront. A man asked if my violin was a saxophone, and once I told him about the American culture project, he said that he is in regular touch with the angels who run everything and that the world will end in 9 years, "but the first bus is leaving in 2 years." He said they were supposed to "shut everything down" in 1995, but got delayed. He said that one of the your father's grandparent's names will be the name you will be called in heaven, "and I challenge anyone from any religion, whether Christian or Muslim, to say otherwise." 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Conversation with an artist

As part of the Maine week of Cultures in Harmony's "What is American culture?" project, I attempted to ask a visual artist (who wishes to remain anonymous) the question of the project. The ensuing conversation will be fascinating to anyone considering how open-ended questions of "American-ness" and "culture" truly are. Thank you to Alice St. Clair for transcribing the conversation.

William Harvey: The question of this project “What is American Culture?” - for you what are the assumptions imbedded in that question?
Artist: American. And, culture (laughs).
WH: What does it mean to be American and what does culture mean?
A: Yeah see, I don’t know. I wouldn’t pretend to know how to answer either of those, but I feel like your whole inquiry is based on an idea that those are clear concepts. For you to be championing the idea of like having conversations about culture for example, that’s so broad. How do you find your way through that? How do you not, wallow in your own existential angst?
WH: The idea is to encourage other people to define it, because what I find is that they define culture very differently…
A: How does your particular agenda with regards to classical music dovetail with culture? That’s why I feel like I need to know your definition of culture, because I don’t understand where this, this…..and why I am interested in your initiating this project because in order to understand where it is initiated, it’s through you. And I need to understand those definitions. Otherwise, it’s the kind of questions you get in High School. Ya know, where it’s like, repeat back to us your indoctrination. So, I feel like, to use huge broad terms like that, is not helpful. I just find it so oblique.
WH: But that’s exactly the sort of reaction that I’m looking for. See even a critique of the question is a part of the project.
A: OK, well that’s my feeling. So then, what makes me interested, is how you propel yourself forward in this project with the obliqueness in play.
WH: To the extent possible, I want to remove myself from the equation, because I want, I feel…
A: But it’s impossible
WH: Let’s pretend that I am still living in Afghanistan and it is someone else doing this project who’s coming at it from the perspective of an aspiring chef or something and they are trying to identify what is American culture. I mean I think, an individual asking the question? Yeah, it’s difficult  to avoid imposing your own bias, but that’s why as much as possible I don’t want to just ask other classical musicians…
A: I just want to point out that you’re very much a central figure, in this. I mean, who you are, if you read the blog, it’s a lot of pictures of you. And it’s a lot of images that show your performances and your, ya know, everything you’re up to. I just think you’re blind yourself if you think you are sort of an impartial participant in this and that people would not be interested in your specific role and agenda with regards to this project….
WH: Well, they’re not.
A: You’re essential, you’re absolutely essential!
WH: I can’t be, I can’t be though….I’m not going to say that I’m blind. I’m aware of everything you’ve been saying….
A: When you’re dealing with a quote, unquote “melting pot” culture, there are two different directions of this tube to look at it through. One is a homogenous one, and one is a multiplicity. This country attempts to do both all the time. We have a mainstream. We have a highly marketed, well advertised, and publicized mainstream culture. It’s driven by money and marketing, but it reaches the greatest audience. And then there are as many individuals in this country as there are that many different sub groups, eddies, other interests, specialties, and different cultural backgrounds. And so, that’s the multiplicity, that is this country. I think that for many of us who are of the immigrant descended set in this country, not First Nation, but from Western Europe or other parts of the world, landing here; I think we all harbor a kind of nostalgia about what it means, would have meant, to come from a country where to answer “what is American culture?”, for that to be a single statement. But that is the beauty of this country, that we don’t have that!
WH: Well, that is the point of the project.
A: Yes, ok, OK, so, but and yet, ok you say that’s the beauty of, the point of the project
WH: To capture reactions like that…
A: Oh, is to capture reactions. Ok, but, you are on a….you feel very differently. Which is to say you feel personally hurt by the fact that, that what you are specifically interested in, isn’t more included in mainstream culture.
WH: That would be fair, yeah.
A: And that is just something to point out, I would say. I mean, for yourself and for the project. Because, I mean, and this is where I think you and I really---there’s a real fork in the road. Because, I guess as a performer you do things for groups of people so maybe audience becomes more of an immediate part of what you’re up to, so I think through that lense I can really appreciate what you’re saying. But, I feel like for my work which is totally internal machinations, I don’t expect anybody else to be interested in it. But I’m compelled to do it and, I continue on my merry way. But I don’t have a proselytizing instinct at all about what I’m up to. So, I accept the wonderful and various eddies of people’s opinions and different cultural backgrounds. I don’t need the affirmation of everybody liking that.
WH: Well, I admire that. The thing is that there are other classical musicians who I most admire, would say exactly what you just said. I can’t be engaged as a musician without also thinking about the political and social implications. And then when it comes to politics, I’m also thinking ok, what does this say about our culture in general or the arts specifically? Because of that, I do see a tension between engaging in an art form that most Americans have chosen not to connect with in an economic sense. Whereas, politically, supposedly I believe in democracy. Supposedly I believe in the system that we have built in America where we choose our leaders and pass our laws through a simple majority rules procedure. In 2012, most of the people who voted, voted for Obama. We accepted that, most of us. But, in a cultural sense, most of the people who choose how to spend their cultural dollars, do not spend them on classical music. Classical music sells 2% of recordings and the principle that we use to guide our politics is it irrelevant in culture?
A: I just am so not interested in politics.
WH: (laughs) Well, that’s probably healthier!
A: I mean, it’s the truth. I just can not even get interested in that connection.
WH: In principle, and in theory, what do you think of the idea of democracy, then? I know that is a very basic question…
A: Jesus Christ! This guy specializes in oblique, slamming statements!
WH: Well, that was a question though, not a statement. Because that’s the thing, is that if you believe in a principle that majority is correct, how does that work in the arts sense? Because the thing is we use democracy not just in actual….
A: It’s not going to stop you from playing the music you love. Even if the culture of this country in a homogenous sense continues to veer away from what you love, that does not stop you from doing what you love. And it won’t stop the thousands, probably more hundreds of thousands of people who love it too. That’s the beauty of the arts, don’t you see? You don’t have to have funding to do it….always.
WH: Well, violin would be tricky to not.
A: For all of us we have monthly payments and mortgages and everything else, but the degree to which bury ourselves in those and then get angry at the system for not supporting us through it…...that’s interesting. I mean, I’d love to see us be honored by our culture. LIke art museums, you need to unpack the cultural context that delivers classical music in this, ya know, elitist way. And I think what you’re doing by personally going around and introducing it…..I mean, I think that should be your agenda! I mean forget the American cultural scene! Just get to work dude! Like that is much more, like it’s your heart. It marries you heart with your work. And, it’s like, show people! Find ways to bridge it. That’s your project!
WH: It’s part of it.
A: It’s great. I think it should be the whole thing.

Monday, May 09, 2016

What is American culture in Maine?

Thanks to the outstanding partnership of Alice St. Clair, the director of Eastport Strings, the Maine week (April 24 to May 1) of the American culture project offered an extraordinary window into one of our most unique and beautiful states.

I gave several performances:

  • A full recital of American music for unaccompanied violin (works by Jessie Montgomery, William Harvey, Elliott Carter, Gregory Biss, Silentó, Mark O'Connor) at Christ Episcopal Church in Eastport
  • School concerts at Eastport Elementary and at Beatrice Rafferty School on the Passamaquoddy Pleasant Point Reservation
  • A lecture-concert on the varied nature of American culture at the Blue Hill Wine Shop in Blue Hill
  • A performance of Jessie Montgomery's Rhapsody on WERU radio in Belfast

I made five videos exploring the ways American culture—Native American dance & language, national parks, art, music, and fishing—is defined in Maine:

I'd like to thank Max Treitler of Blue Hill Wine Shop for his hospitality, and Carolee Bier and John Venskus for helping Alice make me feel welcome in Eastport.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

American culture as defined today in Burlington

Within minutes of setting up my "What is American culture?" sign and starting to play violin in Burlington's Church Street Marketplace, I had attracted both extremes of the spectrum. First, a veteran came up, thrilled by my version of the national anthem. American culture is, he said, the society all around us, a society that makes it possible for me and people like me to do what we do, a society built by the sacrifices of him and veterans like him. His grandfather served in World War I, and his father in Korea. "I like a lot of songs, but there's only one song I'd die for," he said with a grin.

Next, I spoke with an intense, grim conspiracy theorist who hates Bernie Sanders, but from the left. "He voted for the F-35," the man said grimly. "He's as full of s@#$ as the rest of them." The man frequently made sense—his condemnation of the military-industrial complex is as mainstream as Eisenhower—but then he went off on his claim that Bush did 9/11 because all the evidence that he stole the 2000 election was in the World Trade Center. This man said that American culture was s@#$ and that anyone who doesn't accept that we're going extinct due to our own stupidity and violence is "in denial."

A little boy came up while the conspiracy theorist was talking to me. "I want to hear the music!" I started to play the Gershwin 3rd Prelude while the conspiracy theorist continued to yell about how I was in denial. But as the conspiracy theorist walked away, the kid stayed, and enjoyed trying the violin later. His father took the middle road with the question, saying that American culture is "a work in progress."

I took a stroll along Burlington's beautiful waterfront. A man asked if my violin was a saxophone, and once I told him about the American culture project, he said that he is in regular touch with the angels who run everything and that the world will end in 9 years, "but the first bus is leaving in 2 years." He said they were supposed to "shut everything down" in 1995, but got delayed. He said that one of the your father's grandparent's names will be the name you will be called in heaven, "and I challenge anyone from any religion, whether Christian or Islam, to say otherwise." 

One of the risks of a project based on conversations with strangers is that many times, the people most willing to talk with a stranger are at the margins of society. Yet I'm grateful for the veteran and the father, and yes, even for the conspiracy theorist (though he was far less polite with me than the veteran and father were).

This project is about listening to the contrasting definitions Americans offer for our culture, and today reminded me not just of how different those definitions can be, but about how seldom we genuinely listen to each other.

Friday, May 06, 2016

What is American culture in New Hampshire?

In New Hampshire, I made four short videos exploring the question posed by our "What is American culture?" project:
At Bear Brook State Park, I made a photo essay for Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook in which I took pieces of litter I found and set them up as though they were posing for a portrait. Here is the first photo in the series. The essay is intended to convince people not to litter, a point I also made in this Vine where I ask rhetorically if American culture is a culture of littering:

Thank you to my aunt, Anne Harvey, and her partner, Ann Hewins, for being kind, loving, and wonderful hosts during my time in New Hampshire. With pianist Ken Grinnell, I performed "Mother and Child" and "Gamin" for violin & piano by William Grant Still at their church, Grace Episcopal, during the Sunday service. Here is a video of our performance of Gamin.

The minister invited members of the congregation to write down their own definitions of American culture and submit them to me. Here is a selection of their fascinating responses to the question, "What is American culture?"
  • It's completely adversarial. In all aspects of life one group is against another and often the result is evil. This week I experienced evil several times without any provocation other than I was there. 
  • At its best, American culture is a distillation of all the world's cultures celebrated in liberty and mutual respect. 
  • Knowing that you are free, and can be, or do anything [from a 10-year-old]
  • Jazz music
  • Culture is made of many layers. There is a "native" American culture deeply rooted to the soil, the sky and our relationship to everything. Added to this is the more recent peoples from Africa, Viking, European, Asian, Middle Eastern. Where else can one so freely share and add your tribal culture to the American goulash culture and yet there is a shared or common meeting place—our shared values—freedom to go your own way, the dignity of work, the value of helping the least, and an abiding desire to fairness. In our music, American music—Copland, Joplin, Ives, Louis Armstrong, Rogers & Hammerstein, Gershwin et al. Our culture is what we hold dear, what we teach our children, and what teaches us. It is what we must struggle to preserve. Jazz is the essential example.
  • Good + bad; individualness + collectivity. Two polar opposites that define our American life. Individualness can yield good in the form of self-reliance and a harbor for ingenuity + creativity, but can also yield bad aspects such as a tunnel vision and avoidance of world problems. Our collectivity can yield bad aspects in America towards blind allegiance, but can also yield so much good in the form of charity and help in times of need. These juxtaposed aspects, I believe, help define American culture.
  • American culture has always been—from her inception—a "melting pot," with all wanting to be one people. Sadly, because of the tenor and temper of the times, our citizenry is being fragmented into ever more diversified groups, not identifying as Americans first. While retaining an ethnic identity is important, it is of paramount importance for us to be Americans first. American culture should be the blending of all cultures with the emphasis on the American culture and ethos.
  • Different strokes for different folks
  • A vast conglomeration of many voices from countries/cultures around the world of every faith tradition—and none—of too much materialism, with some altruism—a culture looking to FUTURE—not the past— + based on HOPE for Justice
  • Wonderful, kind, generous ... and scared.
  • Our national culture is centered on how to optimize our combined skills and resources to not only create opportunity for anyone...