Thursday, December 24, 2009

Oh Silent Night: An Agnostic Carroll. Part 2.

OK, so, picking up where I left off...

What I hadn't realized about the traditional (i.e. "Christian") end of the Christmas music spectrum, listening again for, for all intents and purposes, the first time since I've been old enough to know better, was how incredibly complicated what's actually being SAID in the songs is with any eye at all to current affairs, global-culture, international politics, religious wars, etc.

Listen to the lyrics of conventional carols... "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Oh Holy Night," "What Child is This," etc. etc.... you know, any of the countless that depict the creche or nativity-scene. Imagine what would happen if a child was born into poverty in a Middle-Eastern Gaza village now making such claims, representing, yet not representing, altering, and redefining one sect or another. It gets pretty messy, to say the least.

Maybe it was just because this sudden exposure to these songs directly followed a report from the BBC World Service that dealt with a lot of these sort of issues. Who knows. Either way, it's troubling, to put it mildly.... especially since the ideological struggles so "peacefully" depicted in these songs represent (in the tangible, non-dogma-based world, free from indoctrinated anachronisms) so much very real bloodshed.

What bothered me the most, I think, was thinking about the sort of individuals earnestly singing these songs (probably without paying much attention to the lyrics, to be fair) at the same time spouting political agendas that take a far more simplistic and narrow tack on such issues (ie, the awkward irony of the American "evangelical-ethics" voter who is also in favor of nationalist/ patriotic imperialism... but there are a ton of other examples as well). There's a "choosing sides" element at work in these songs, when placed in a modern context (that dates back problematically to the same time-period that they depict, and even earlier) that makes me deeply uncomfortable. The idea prevalent in all of these songs that this child in the stable "brings peace" seems particularly awkward, considering the actual history that chronologically follows (and, in some cases, results from) his arrival. Apparently the Christian carolers's definition of "peace" is different (and far more sectarian) than mine.

To boil it down, then... These holiday songs offer a caricature-ish depiction of how the people who most violently advocate waging war against impoverished, radical, sectarian Middle-Eastern peoples also happen to WORSHIP an impoverished, radical, sectarian Middle-Easterner.

Anyway, my intention here wasn't to be a holiday downer. I just figured I'd offer my take on a partial answer to the questions I've been hearing more and more every year (and this year it's like an epidemic); Why does no one seem terribly "festive," and why are many of us becoming increasingly irritated by those who are, because the festivity seems out of place or fake? I think this might be part of the answer... our collective world-view is more and more global each year, and both the capitalist- and religious- mythos involved with the elements that make up the "spirit of the season" seem increasingly disingenuous to the real-life complications of the world that we live in.


The "moral," then? Make the holidays that you celebrate your own. Be "festive," in your own way, for yourself and the people that you care about. Any other reason for celebration becomes far too problematic, and might just leave you advocating something that you may not otherwise, opening a can of worms that has too many angles to effectively "celebrate."

Like I said in the first installment, I'm not exactly your average Bah-Humbug type. Here's a photo of how Sara and I got festive on our own terms at the Swords We Swallow Studios in Dover-



And here's a bit of a "Holiday gift" from me to all of you out there in the interwebz. I dropped about 20 minutes of live improvised electronic music to video the other night... I know, I know, it's wicked long... but I was just jamming and experimenting, so wasn't really keeping track of the time. Bear with the length, and enjoy what you can of it. (unfortunately, some of my favorite moments are closer to the end.)


Wolf, Are You Ready?

Bernard P. Provencher LeVautour | MySpace Video


Because some people were asking when I initially shared this elsewhere, here's the rig I was using for this particular jam-



Let's see... there's a customized toy piano, an odd stringed "harp" thing that I made out of a broken door-chime, a toy record player (for this track I was spinning a record called "Songs Children Sing in France"), an iTouch running some synth and sequencer apps, an old radio-shack mixer, a Zoom Rythmtrak 234, a halloween toy for vocal effects, an old electro-voice ceramic mic, a Sure vocal mic, a Macbook Pro running garage-band synth-pads, some Bose speakers and a beat-up Gorilla bass-amp.

Out of curiosity, if I were to put together some sort of a show doing this sort of thing, with a collection of guest-collaborators (most likely somewhere in New England), would anyone come out to see it?

Oh, and if you like this sort of thing, keep your eyes peeled. I definitely hope to drop at least a couple more before classes start again in January... but hope to not be the only one making noise (hint hint... interested collaborators be in touch.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Oh Silent Night: An Agnostic Carroll. Part 1.

While driving home from finishing up my holiday shopping this evening, I reluctantly allowed myself to leave the radio on “the folk show” on NHPR. Not that this would usually be reluctant... but they were playing Christmas music.

Now, I don’t think I’m exactly your run-of-the-mill anti-social bah-humbug type. I tend to think that my usual objection to consciously subjecting myself to holiday tunes is a bit more nuanced and complicated than that, for a few reasons. First, (and probably most pressingly), until my “real” career starts actually paying me, I wait tables. Which means that I’m subjected to the most banal and commercialized version of consumer Christmas music on a daily basis, starting the moment the restaurant opens on Black Friday, straight up until new years. Second, I’m an agnostic, and I don’t exactly believe in the traditionally-assumed benefits of the American style of capitalist consumerism... which puts me in a bit of a dicey situation when it comes to holidays that are based on nothing but a combination of religion and material-consumption. Third, I don’t have, like, want, or understand children. Not to mention, I’m a “recovered Catholic” (about 11 years of parochial education under my belt), raised in a house where, after Thanksgiving, all music HAD to be season-specific. Call it jingle-bell-burn-out. Call it jaded cultural nihilism. Call it whatever you want.

But, now... Christmas is less than a week a way, I have just finished my shopping, in one form or another I still “celebrate” the holiday (for one reason or another that I’d have a pretty hard time trying to rationalize), snow is on the ground... yet I don’t feel terribly “festive,” though for some reason I feel like I should. God knows, I’ve spent enough money that it seems like I SHOULD find a reason to feel “in the spirit” to make it all worth while, right? So... when I get back in my car and, over the course of time I was in the store, public-radio has transitioned from news to Christmas music that falls on the “classier” (or “less-tacky”?) end of the spectrum, this seems to be an adequate compromise between my internal opposites that are annually active during this season.

Problem is... it’s been a long time since I’ve actually LISTENED to Christmas music. I mean, actually paid attention to it.

The last few years, when I was wrapping gifts, or doing something else that required at least the facsimile of festivity, I had a few standby albums that FELT warm and festive, but had enough complications to make their holiday sentiments less-than-deadpan, and thus more comfortable for me. Miles Davis- Kind of Blue. This one’s easy. It’s not even a Christmas record. But it just FEELS like the perfect record for a cold, comfortable night by the fire. No internal compromise required. Jethro Tull- A Christmas Album. I think most of this band is pagan, and nearly all of these tunes have the smirk of such an irony shining through them. Yet there’s a Celtic warmth to the record that makes it somehow appropriately “Christmasy.” Other than that... The Squirrel Nut Zippers, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole... just because I truly enjoy torch-jazz, no matter what season it happens to be.

None of these, however, allows me the opportunity of regularly observing what Christmas music is traditionally “supposed” to be.

And the Frosty’s and Rudolph’s in the restaurants only expressed the consumer end of the equation.

(...to be continued...)