Where Are We?
Vijay Iyer, Arooj Aftab, Ambrose Akinmusire, Daryl Johns, Moor Mother, Tyshawn Sorey in the Prospect Park Bandshell. Photo by Valerie Magan
Tackling this essay, I spent a lot of time and went through many fits and starts, trying to pin down where the experience of music is right now, in New York City in the late summer of 2021. I’ve been seeing live music, after a 400 day pandemic gap, since April, around 20 different events as of the middle of August, with about a dozen more still to come before the end of the month. Fall schedules for everything from (le) poisson rouge to the Village Vanguard to the Metropolitan Opera are as full as they’ve been in previous years. It all seems so normal.
That seemed to me enough to have a clear handle on my experiences and reactions. But every line and phrase evaporated into … nothing. Because the truth is, I don’t know how I feel, I don’t know where we are, and I don’t know where we’re going. Nobody does. Going to a concert right now is an unreal experience. That’s because we are trying to relive our previous reality and shoehorn that into a society that is in a slow-motion, agonizing, and unfortunately suspenseful race between vaccinating the country against the COVID-19 virus; waiting for when schoolchildren under 12 can be vaccinated; and wondering if the hateful, shameful sociopathy of the Republican party and its cultish members will deliberately and gleefully spread the Delta variant faster than we can keep up.
So concerts exist, both in real time and on prospective schedules, in a place tenuously connected to circumstances, there’s the feeling that, well, this one came off, but what happens tomorrow night, next week? There is still anxiety and anger at these events—Bargemusic has required masks since they reopened this spring, but at more than one concert I’ve looked up to see people in the audience with their masks off, a blithe “fuck you” to everyone else there, including the artists. Well, I guess it wouldn’t be America without a strain of self-regarding arrogance, and just because someone likes the same music you do doesn’t make them a kind or good person.
What is jarring about that is music-making is a social activity, bringing people together into a temporary society and culture that exists around the performance. Culture is how we share and pass on ideas and values, so it is important for venues and institutions to look beyond the pandemic and plan on once again creating these myriad enlivening evenings of small societies with shared pleasures and purpose.
There’s been probably several million words written over the past year and a half about the importance of social life, and how people miss music. It has not been pointed out enough that going to concerts is social life in an important way, not just getting together with friends to see a show, but in, through regular and sustained attendance at something like a jazz club or the New York Philharmonic, seeing a group of regular faces. That is the concert society, and experiencing that, noting familiar people one evening, and noting that the crowd is different on another night, is the fundamental social fabric of experiencing music. You choose to go, and you choose to be part of that crowd, and by being there, you all implicitly welcome each other.
And you—we—all work together at a concert. In early August, I went to a Mostly Mozart performance in Damrosch Park (Lincoln Center held a drastically reduced festival this year, part of their Restart Stages initiative that put the music, dance, theater, and more of the center outside in the plaza, which itself was covered with astroturf to make a wonderful artificial lawn for playing, listening, and just hanging out). There, conductor Louis Langrée pointed out that an audience at a concert starts, as a group, to sync their heartbeats and breathing in time with the tempos and rhythms of the music. And making music means a musician vibrates air molecules that reach into the body of a listener, so live means alive, with Mozart embodied in sound, literally touching us from the past.
I felt that with Symphonies No. 1 and No. 41, and felt it even more strongly at an August 14 show in the Prospect Park bandshell, a fantastic quadruple bill from BRIC’s Celebrate Brooklyn series. At the culmination of the concert, Vijay Iyer introduced his new piece—commissioned by BRIC—as not so much commemorating the pandemic and those lost to it (a theme of the night), because, as he pointed out, it’s not over (the unreal territory we live in now). Instead, Tempest was set to commemorate what he pointed out is the larger, ongoing pandemic of 500 years of white supremacy.
One thing I’ve been gauging is how, after such a long time without gigs, ready musicians are to play in public. That’s been uneven, but unlike some of the groups at the Vision Festival, Iyer and band—vocalist Arooj Aftab, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, young bassist Daryl Johns, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and Moor Mother, who spoke her lyrical text with the weight and edge and grain of cut, unpolished granite—were ready and in peak form.
Ready, and tight. That the musicians had so much to say, so many ideas, and such force, was no surprise, things have been bottled up for so long. That was the case at much of the Vision Festival too, though plenty of the sets and groups there were ramshackle, serious and sincere but underprepared, stumbling over each other and themselves—there was a real contrast there between the working groups that have had a few gigs under their belt this summer, especially in Europe, and the pick-up ensembles of friends and colleagues. Iyer’s group was not just prepared, navigating the hour-plus duration of the piece with the kind of relaxed command and ease of a veteran working band, but precise and responsive in all sorts of key details, like dynamics and rhythmic inflections. A few days prior to the show, Moor Mother had tweeted: “Just did a live 12 minute set and wow I am rusty. I was sweating so much like what’s goes on? I’m sweating this much for only 12 mins. I gotta get my mind right asap.” Her mind was right. Often bouncing on the balls of her feet like a boxer, she punched out the words in Exactly. The. Precise. Open. Spaces. Inthe. Music. Made. Fortheir. Explodings.
Iyer and Akinmusire were the main soloists, and both were as fine as I’ve ever heard them. Maybe part of that experience was getting back into the swim of live music, maybe we’re all not quite hearing as sharply yet, just as rusty and un-limber as some of the musicians. But they were indeed inventive and dexterous, building improvisations out of the material in the music, saying things clearly with each note and phrase and committing to making clear musical statements. Despite the simmering volcanic passion under the music, they never fell back into the emotional clichés of smears, note clusters, forearms smashing on the keyboard. Facing the inchoate atavism of white supremacy, the music delivered an articulated counterforce of morals, values, and prospects for the future.
Everything was tight, all night. Iyer was the headliner, and the lead up was three terrific sets from poet Mahogany L. Browne, who was accompanied by bassist Max Jacob and vocalist Vuyo Sotashe; vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Melanie Charles and her trio, putting, as she said, the “trill back into jazz” and channeling some classic Nancy Wilson and Marlena Shaw lines and vibes; and vibraphonist Joel Ross and his quartet, who showed the crowd the emotional and intellectual sophistication and complexity of contemporary jazz, a diamond-like geometry of rhythms, harmonies, and dazzling improvisation.
The crowd was deep in the pleasure of the music, but also a little subdued, even with Charles getting them, man and woman, young and old, all colors, to sing along with the refrain “I’m a woman of the ghetto.” Where are we? We’re not quite back yet, not quite feeling it yet. As great as the music was, the time and space still felt unreal, as in, “Is this really happening? Did the last year and a half really just happen, in its non-happening way?” And, of course, “Is it safe to be here, doing this?”
That is going to be a continuing issue. BRIC’s guidelines were that everyone in attendance had to show proof of vaccination, or a negative COVID test (or remain masked if under 12), but no one asked me for my Excelsior Pass. New regulations are now in effect for indoor spaces in New York City, and BRIC’s website emphasizes the requirement, again, but what kind of gap might there be between protocol and practice?
The major high culture institutions like the Met and Carnegie Hall are clear that they will require vaccination proof (in the case of the Met, full vaccination, as in it needs to be at least two weeks since your second dose if you’re trying to get in the door) and even masks on top of that. This is of course a benefit, a way to keep the shows rolling.
This also represents elite culture, not that its patrons are superior people, but in the socio-economic niche in which classical music institutions reside in America. That same niche, nationwide, is full of rich, arrogant assholes who voted for Trump, despise anyone outside of their immediate social set, and fall into the geographical and political demographic of being pro-pandemic. A lot of these people come from other parts of the country, from Texas and Florida, to go to the opera or Broadway (which already stepped up on requiring vaccination for patrons). They come here to have their fun, and now to do so they might actually have to do the right thing, which is good for them but also beneficial to those around them. Their sociopathy cannot be underestimated; it’s no longer a joke that some of them would prefer to die just to “own the libs.” Still, they wish to be part of some kind of society, even for just one night at the opera or at a musical. They’re going to have to get vaccinated, that’s the reality, and when they actually accept reality in the form of a needle, maybe then we can see where we are.