The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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SEPT 2020 Issue

Listening In: All the Way Live

It’s been quite a ride, this pandemic. Somehow it reminds me of a cartoon I once saw of a man on his deathbed saying, “It’s been an incredible journey, but a crappy life.” That’s the feeling: we dig down deep, find hidden resources, reawaken dormant parts of ourselves—and somehow still come out feeling like shit. Part of it is the relentlessness of the bad news—the United States is far worse at managing this crisis than we ever even imagined! Less surprising, Trump is doing his damnedest to drive this country headlong toward fascism, or at least full-blown autocracy, as he pretty much promised he would; the lingering shock comes from those of high office aiding and abetting him, despite the utter shamelessness of his behavior. Also, it’s hot out, and the news keeps coming in about the planet dying, and nobody tries to unlink those anymore.

We’ve come a long way from those first few weeks, of time seeming to stop and become gauzy. If you had the bases covered—health and income, and that’s a big if—you could afford to treat it as a time of refuge, a time to be philosophical. The question, “what should we do?” seemed to hang in the air. Through the uncertainty, the high drama of the pandemic’s unexpectedness, the suddenly arising fear, the naked absence of movement in city life, there was some tenderness: slowing down, taking long walks in the park, trying to turn inwards, and sometimes succeeding. I’d also recovered from a mild bout of the dreaded virus and was glad to be alive. That was spring.

This is summer. It may turn out to be the hottest on record. Wearing a mask is one thing in the chilly March air, it’s another in the fetid July heat. We are in the grinding part of this saga, the can-we-move-on-to-the-next-news-story-no-we-cannot phase of our ongoing health emergency. As we face this crisis, we find a country that is the most disunified it has ever been. Protests are ongoing, the outrage still burning over systemic racism. Unemployment is a double crisis, as besides putting people into poverty, it is revealing the disaster of employer-based health care. American exceptionalism, we are finding, can cut both ways. Here in New York, the original epicenter in the US, we did our duty and watched the curve come down, only to see it balloon elsewhere. Now Cuomo says he feels like he is standing at the top of a hill watching the wave roll back to New York, and I believe him.

The stress is building, and where’s the relief? For me, summertime and concerts have always been inseparable. Jazzmobile, SummerStage, and Celebrate Brooklyn are flat-out some of the most spectacular aspects of living in the city, especially in the sticky old summertime. The physical experience of these shows, of vibrating with the music and the crowd in the thick air, has always struck me as the essence of city life. I miss these so much. Everything feels much poorer without them, a fact made more painful by all the musicians who are dying to get out there and play. But the virus, alas, does not care.

In place of live experience has come a welter of livestreams and other online attractions. As Jon Pareles sharply observed about them in the Times, “So many good intentions, so little joy.” Whereas you can’t take your eyes off great performers, online performances almost repel viewing; I can’t seem to keep my eyes on them. Whether heartening or disappointing (or both), this experience does seem to show that tech can’t do it all. At the end of the day, lived experience has ineffable value. Even a performer as brilliantly dynamic as Angélique Kidjo, who has torn it up so many times on the stages of her adopted city and around the world, seemed oddly constrained by her virtual performance on behalf of Celebrate Brooklyn! The small screen, it turns out, is not quite a magic portal—any Zoom call can show you that. I always feel a little lonelier at the end of online concerts, rather than more connected.

Desperate for connection, I wandered down into Prospect Park and stumbled one night onto a band playing just outside the shimmering white Boathouse, possibly the most beautiful structure in that magnificent park. Called Alegba and Friends and led by a stunningly versatile Haitian guitarist/frontman, they have been playing for four hours a night, seven nights a week. Sitting out on the grass or on the steps leading down to the lake is loose and lovely, and the reasonably distanced-and-masked crowd soaks it up. As much as I miss those city festivals, it is refreshing to see music presented with no corporate sponsorship and no police barricades. It’s direct to the people, and it’s a godsend.

The next best thing for me is listening to records. I’m no longer sharing molecules with the performers, but I am enjoying their sacred offerings. I use Spotify for its convenience, the sheer range of available music; my LPs, though, in a way that CDs just never were, are in many cases my old companions (or their heavy-gram current cousins). My recording of Money Jungle by Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach, has been in heavy rotation, each listen inspiring a reverie for the complexity, purity, and power of its combined interplay. Likewise a recording of early ’50s Miles Davis called Bag’s Groove with a different rhythm section on each side: Horace Silver, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke on one, Thelonious Monk, Heath, and Clarke on the other. The music thrills, with the hanging-back swing of “Doxy” by Sonny Rollins hitting low and slow. It’s not nostalgia, but a re-engagement with this music that brings me back to life.

I don’t think art can save us, but it can revive us, give us some measure of hope and appreciation. I find myself turning back to Rumi, who advises in “The Many Wines”:

Every object, every being,
is a jar full of delight.
Be a connoisseur,
and taste with caution.
Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a king, and choose the purest,
the ones unadulterated with fear,
or some urgency about “what’s needed,’
Drink the wine that moves you
as a camel moves when it’s been untied,
and is just ambling about.

So now we stumble headlong into the majesty of fall, autumn in New York. It won’t contain its usual energy, its rush of activity, the endless stream of cultural refreshment. What will take its place? We have a chance to steer the country back on track, assuming the election isn’t stolen out from under us. And then there’s the intractable pandemic. Unfortunately, if we thought shutdown was hard, re-entry is going to be much more so, a maddening stop-start. Until a vaccine emerges and is made widely available, we will have to muddle through and do our best to adjust to the new abnormal. As a first step, it’s worth remembering that actual experience still beats the virtual one nearly every time, and that for all its inconveniences and outright dangers, we need live, direct experience to help us understand what it means and why it’s worth it to be alive.


Scott Gutterman

Scott Gutterman has written about art and music for Artforum, GQ, The New Yorker, Vogue, and other publications. His most recent book is Sunlight on the River: Poems about Paintings, Paintings about Poems (Prestel, 2015). He is deputy director of Neue Galerie New York and lives in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues