Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Old Walls, New Walls

On tour in Havana, 1998

So, musicologists, what do we think of the visit of the New York Philharmonic to North Korea? Alex Ross has the beginning of a roundup, but I suspect there must be other opinions out there. Hey, if you're interested in music and politics, it doesn't get much more clearcut than this! And lord knows, the subject could use some better writing: (NY Times: "They came bearing bows and basses rather than the arms and armor Americans carried the last time this large a contingent set foot in the North Korean capital. The brass will issue fanfares, not orders." Yikes.)

I'm of mixed feelings. On the one hand, I find myself curiously aligned with Condoleeza Rice, who reportedly said that she wasn't sure what good Dvorak could do for the peace process. The aim of this trip seems to be the old "classical music as universal truth" line, as if beautiful music can bring the world together. Interestingly, it seems to be conservative critics like Terry Teachout that have been putting the music in its political context, albeit in a Cold-War-4EVA sort of way.

Against that, Matthew Guerrieri has a lovely analysis of the situation that manages to combine actual musical analysis with a far more penetrating grasp of the political situation in Korea than anything else I have read.

Ironically, I myself have played American in Paris in front of a tyrant. Well, almost, the tyrant himself did not show up. In 1998, the Oakland Youth Orchestra, of which I was a member, played a concert in Havana, at the Gran Teatro. It was a joint concert with a Cuban youth orchestra, and took place in the all-too-brief thaw between our two countries in the latter days of the Clinton Administration. Supposedly, we were the first American orchestra to play in Cuba since the revolution.

I kept a journal, which is lucky because my memories have largely faded. One of the things that struck my eighteen-year-old self the most was the Cuban sheet music. Supposedly there were photocopiers, but because of the embargo no toner was available to work them. So alongside rosin, reeds, spare bows, and other gifts, we had been told to bring blank manuscript paper, since the practice was to hand copy out all of the individual orchestra parts. We also ended up leaving our portable music stands as well, as the stands in their rehearsal space were mostly homemade contraptions.

We were ensconced in one of the official tourist hotels in the old part of Havana, a beautiful and immaculate building. The week before we had played in Costa Rica, and then in a series of cities in Mexico. Havana compared very favorably, I have to say. Mexico City in particular had seemed nightmarish, a fortified futuristic megalopolis. (Matters had not been helped by our attempt to visit the Plaza de la Constitución literally just as Mexico was knocked out of the World Cup by Germany.) As an outsider on a tour bus, the city seemed like one giant impregnable institution after another--museums, concert halls, tourist hotels--all surrounded by barbed wire and extreme poverty.

Havana, on the other hand, wore its poverty much more gracefully. Everything needed a good coat of paint, but in all honesty, the equality seemed legimate. Everyone was poor, but unlike Mexico City there were no brutal examples of inequality--everyone was poor. There were rumors that Castro would attend our performance, which was receiving heavy publicity in the state-controlled press. No sign of him at the concert, however, which was too bad. A year later my sister's choir also toured Cuba, and Castro not only came to their concert, he came to dinner with them afterwards and insisted on going around to every little choir girl or boy, shaking their hands and asking them where they were from and what they were interested in.

Our repertoire was more eclectic than what's being played in North Korea right now. We did American in Paris, Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileras No. 5 with a local soprano, and... my memory fades a bit. Elsewhere on the tour we had played some Ginastera, and Brahms First Symphony, so maybe those. And then together with the Cuban youth orchestra we played some premiere by a Cuban composer (no recollection of who) that involved very tricky rhythms knocked out on the back of our instruments.

Afterwards, a number of us were able to go out on the town with some of our Cuban compatriots. I didn't speak Spanish, they no English, and it was a mesmerizing time for an eighteen-year-old. The next morning we bought cigars and souvenirs from the Museum of the Revolution--I still have a poster I bought there that shows an old photograph of Fidel in the mountains, plotting out strategy.

I don't mean to seem post-ideological here, in what are obviously touristic and nostalgic memories. But it is hard for me to appreciate some of the issues involved in the New York Philharmonic visiting North Korea. I was ten years old when Germany was unified, eleven when the Soviet Union fell. The metaphor of the "Iron Curtain" is completely foreign to me. When someone like Terry Teachout argues that crossing over such a curtain legitimizes the tyrant behind, I intuitively disagree, but I really have no basis for understanding his points. The 38th parallel and the Florida Straits are all we have left of the old boundaries of Cold War policy, and although they have tremendous meaning for people who live across them, their conceptual power is not what it once was. The fact that the NY Phil has brought not only musicians, but also "patrons" who paid $100,000 a couple (no singles, I guess) to accompany the tour shows how fantastical the entire event can be, as if these super-tourists are desperate for a glimpse of the Cold War past, having missed their chance to see Leonard Bernstein in Berlin, or ping-pong in China.

The Bush Administration has tried desperately to revive the notion of global war, but all that has resulted is tiny, infinitely permeable boundaries that define not national security but personal safety. The era of the Green Zone, if you will. The Mexico City of my memories is the harbinger here, with its literal walls and barbed wire, keeping nationalist and capitalist institutions safe from a putatively malignant populace. And how different is Los Angeles? If an alien were to stroll around the Hollywood Hills, he would assume that its fortresses were designed to repel nightly attacks from the villagers below. Whatever will bridge those walls, it's not going to be an orchestra.

Gift shop at the Museum of the Revolution


cpo said...

Music as universal language, feeding the belly and warming the soul when there isn't actually any food or fire wood available.

Thanks for the links. I just hope that the Phil stays here:


(But, not, you know The Phil, as in you.)

The NY Times front-page juxtaposition of a picture of a woman (probably my age but looking 60) collecting firewood juxtaposed with a picture of the Philharmonic really said a lot.

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