Posts Tagged ‘music’

Friday night, West 13th St., New York

In art, beauty, cities, culture, life, U.S., urban life on September 10, 2016 at 2:02 pm

By Caitlin Kelly



You know how you sometimes, spontaneously, have a perfect evening?

Last night was one of them.

We ate at a new-to-us restaurant on West 13th. Gradisca, that sits in the basement of a historic brownstone.

The 16-year-old restaurant, named for a character in Fellini’s film Amarcord, has deep red walls, dark wooden tables and the kind of atmosphere that signals you’re going to have a good time — attentive and professional staff, delicious food, reasonable (for Manhattan) prices, funky posters and filament bulbs on the walls.

The kind of place they let you have a taste of your wine and still (reasonable for this city) charged $11 a glass for it; ($15-20/glass is fairly standard now.)

I had vitello tonnato, an item still hard to find in many Italian restaurants, then tiny, perfect tortellini — handmade by a woman standing at a table near the front door, her worktable fronted by a black velvet rope. The tortellini were the size of a fingernail. Amazing!

Outside the restaurant, grips and make-up people and technicians ran up and down the stairs of the brownstone next door — filming an episode of “Younger” a television show (how fitting!) about a 40 year old woman trying to pass as 26 to get and keep a magazine job.

It was so utterly New York!

On many streets here, especially the gorgeous older ones in the West Village which are lined with elegant old houses, tree-shaded and cobblestoned, you’ll very often see the enormous white trucks (grrrr, no free street parking!) for the stars, and director and make-up and wardrobe, lining entire blocks while a film,  TV show or commercial is being made. If you’re nice, maybe you can snag a cookie from the “craft table”, the tented area where the crew finds food and drinks during hours of shooting.

It was a very humid 90-degree evening last night, so it must have been exhausting to work for long hours.

We walked a block east to the Tenri Cultural Institute — 43A — with a doggie day care and spa next door and another Italian restaurant, completely blocked from view by one of the enormous white trailers, in front of it.

I’ve lived in New York since 1989 and keep finding new-to-me things to enjoy.

The Institute, an astonishingly cool, modern white space with 20-foot+ ceilings you’d never suspect was in there, was hosting a concert of contemporary shamisen, shakuhachi and flute music, played by a 2012 MacArthur genius grant-winner, Claire Chase.

It was astounding. The room held about 75 people, an intriguing mix of Asian and Caucasian, an age range from 20s to 60s. Everyone was artistically stylish, many sporting wrinkled cotton mufflers (worn by men and woman alike; mine was silk), lots of little black dresses and a great pair of platform lace-ups on the 60-something-year-old woman sitting in front of me.

The shamisen player was a young man visiting New York on a fellowship, heading back to Japan 2 days later. I’m no expert in the instrument, but he played with terrific attack and speed. The three-stringed instrument sounds mostly, to Western ears, like a banjo, but also adds percussion when the soundbox is hit with a large wooden pick.

My favorite piece was The Universal Flute, written in 1946, by Henry Cowell, an American composer who died in 1965.

I had never heard of him and his biography is extraordinary; the piece is a duet between shakuhachi, a Japanese wooden flute, and a traditional metal flute, the one we know from orchestras worldwide.

As we listened, I kept thinking about Pearl Harbor — 1941 — and how that attack, and the resulting attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, wondered how it might have affected his composition.

The evening was everything I love, at its best, about multi-cultural New York: a great meal, an intriguing and affordable ($20 tickets) concert; discovering a wholly new set of experiences with Jose, my husband; a night in cozy,  historic Greenwich village.



The Tragically Hip — a global Canadian campfire

In culture, entertainment, life, music on August 21, 2016 at 1:48 pm

By Caitlin Kelly


Did you see it?

Last night’s astounding concert by the Tragically Hip, whose lead singer, Gord Downie, 52, has an incurable brain tumor, the kind that killed an American legend, Senator Ted Kennedy.

It was broadcast by CBC, and we watched it here at home in NY on television, live-tweeting with fellow Canadians.

One guy tweeted — “I’m in Seattle. Where can I find a bar showing it?” I tweeted the link and he tweeted back, “Watching it. Thanks!”

Another Twitter pal needed to find a place to stay near Kingston, an area we know fairly well, and I tweeted out my suggestion.

One friend watched it on her phone in her car on a road trip from Toronto, sitting in New Mexico.

Canadians at the Olympics in Rio shared a hello.

Canadians in VietNam and Africa tweeted hello.

The Hip, as they’re known, have been together for 30 years, an unchanged line-up, since they met in Kingston, Ontario — fittingly, the site of last night’s concert, the last of a national tour.

The arena had 6,000 people in it, while Market Square, usually a venue for farmers selling carrots and maple syrup, burst with astonishing 20,000 fans.

In the arena audience, wearing a Hip T-shirt and a jean jacket, standing alone, (although clearly not without security nearby), was Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, eight years younger than Downie.

No fuss was made about him. He didn’t grandstand or make a speech.

Thank God. That was so typically Canadian — low-key, modest, no need to make a fuss or draw attention away from the main event.

It was Downie who called out to Trudeau, putting him on notice (and praising him for a good start) to address the many needs of Canada’s aboriginals, facing appalling rates of murder and suicide.

The show went almost three hours, with three encores, an astonishing length for any band, and for a man whose craniotomy scar was visible, etched into his face, mostly hidden beneath an array of hats with feathers, hard to imagine. (The show’s TV credits included his “wellness” team, and his oncologist has been traveling with him.)

His costumes were goofy and playful — a silver suit, a pink metallic suit, a sparkly silver suit. A Jaws T-shirt.

Two striped socks pinned together at his throat to keep it warm, he explained.

He cried, although it was hard to tell his sweat from his tears.

caiti flag

It made me deeply homesick.

Living in the U.S., which I have for decades, means living in a place where Canada is seen as a bit of a joke, all hockey and beer. It gets old and it gets lonely when no one knows — or cares about — your shared cultural references.

There are also very few times Canadians get weepy and emotional and wave enormous flags at one another in public.

The Olympics is one.

This was another.

Here’s a lovely analysis by fellow Canadian musician Dave Bidini:

Canada is good when it’s viewed and heard through the Tragically Hip, and the Tragically Hip is good when they’re viewed and heard through us. No other band stretched our potential as a nation of popular art. They put weird songs on the radio. They put thousands in stadiums listening to strange, wild jams. They wrestled our inherent Presbyterianism and won over a public that, more often than not, demurred when it came to stronger flavours. They offered an anti-hero as hero who was as interested in promoting his brand and chiselling his image as he was selling cars or soap or gasoline. For all of their commercial proportions, the Tragically Hip weren’t a commercial band. They have a sense of composure, and dignity. And grace, too.

In terms of history, and the history of art in Canada, we scramble to celebrate what’s good or who’s done what and why this thing or that person matters, but it’s often in the greasy sizzle of a sudden trend or in the twinkling glimmer of the rear-view mirror. But with the Hip, we were given the chance to cheer them not through museum glass, but in the hot thrall of the moment. We were able to point to them – point to Gord, whose courage as a performer will be forever burnt into our imagination – as they deadheaded across the country.


As we, living in the U.S., face day after day after day after day of the insanity and toxicity of liars like Ryan Lochte and Donald Trump, what a refreshing break from bullshit and spin and feeling like I need a shower every time I listen to one more piece of trash being sold to me as gold.

What a glorious, heartbreaking night.



A return to vinyl

In culture, design, domestic life, entertainment, music, Technology on March 9, 2016 at 2:19 am

By Caitlin Kelly

“The digital era gives us everything to own,  but nothing to touch” — Stephen Witt, writing in the Financial Times



Do you own a collection of vinyl, aka records aka LP’s — short for long-playing?

I do, but hadn’t been able to listen to it for a long time after ditching my college-era sound system more than a decade ago. They sat, forlornly ignored, in a pile in the hall closet, and I longed to hear them: Genesis, lute music, koto music, Juluka, Joe Jackson, Rickie Lee Jones. All of it!

For Christmas this year, my husband finally bought us a turntable and all the digital stuff needed to listen to my music again and I’m so happy!

But it’s also been an odd and sometimes deeply poignant experience, because my vinyl, which I haven’t added to since the 1980s, is a mini time capsule. Listening to it whisks me back to my 20s and the jumble of complicated feelings — intense, professional ambition, wanderlust, moving within six years from Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-New Hampshire, unrequited love — I felt throughout most of that decade.

When I put on Hejira, Joni Mitchell’s 1976 classic, a gift from someone, I’m back in my second year of university, living alone in a tiny, ground-floor studio apartment in a not-very-good-neighborhood of Toronto. I’m scared, broke, starting to freelance for national publications, even as a sophomore attending a very demanding school full-time. I have an answering service.

I eat a lot of tunafish and can still remember all the clothing I then owned, as there was so little of it. Her songs of one-night stands echoed my life at the time, flailing about romantically and wondering when I’d ever feel safe.

I discovered the terrific South African band Juluka and have never tired since of their anthemic music. I went to see Johnny Clegg performing near me about two years ago and danced non-stop through the whole show.


Listening to the legendary French chanteuse Barbara brings me back to the house lent to me by a friend there at the end of my Paris-based journalism fellowship, and where I savored her eclectic music collection. I had never heard of this singer, and love this live double album.

One of my favorites is American guitarist Leo Kottke, who I interviewed many years ago. His voice is a bit of a foghorn, but his music is timeless.

And Canadian Bruce Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn), who morphed from gentle folkie to rocker and is still performing  and touring 40 years into his career. I love his early work, like Salt, Sun and Time — and the first track, All the Diamonds (2:41), makes me cry every time.

If you live in Colorado, he’s playing two dates there later this month.

I’ve been a huge Genesis fan since high school — prog-rock anyone? If you’ve never heard their double album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, give it a try. Many people have since heard of Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, both of whom were initial members of this seminal group. It’s an astounding set of music, based on a story about Rael, a Puerto Rican kid living in New York City. Voted one of the best prog-rock albums ever by Rolling Stone and NME.

Anyone remember Kate Bush? Apparently thousands of people, as she performed 22 shows in London in 2014 — and her last ones had been in 1979. If you haven’t heard her music, check it out. I love Running Up That Hill — which was chosen for inclusion in the closing music of the 2012 Olympics in London.

And Joan Armatrading, another British singer, who recently played the music hall in my town.


It’s a totally different physical experience playing vinyl again after years of cassettes, CDs and downloads. Only cassettes, like LPs, had actual sides, and you had to participate in turning them over, as I now have to do again. I love the rituals of turning on the turntable, sweeping the grooves smooth and gently lifting and dropping the needle.

Here’s a recent story about the best new record shops (!) in my hometown, Toronto. Can’t wait to get in there and stock up once again.

Do you own, love and play vinyl?

What are some of your old and new favorites?


The most important thing school can teach you is…

In behavior, children, culture, education, life, parenting on August 27, 2015 at 1:37 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this story in Intelligent Life magazine, which asked seven thinkers and writers what they consider the most essential subject to learn in school.

Still very much an experiental learner

Still very much an experiental learner

Their answers: music, emotional intelligence, cultural literacy, history (backwards), basic geography, open-air dawdling, physics.

Of open-air dawdling, Deb Wilenski answered:

I have worked in the wild outdoors with young children and educators for more than ten years. I work in classrooms too, but there is no better place for dawdling than the woods. Free from the props and expectations of The Curriculum, children become explorers, philosophers, inventors, illustrators, poets, scientists, professionals of every kind.

If I were in charge of education, I would build open-air dawdling into the curriculum, giving every child time, slow time, to explore their own burning questions. The best subject is the one you can’t leave alone.

You need to why this shadow is here...

You need to why this shadow is here…

Here’s Jessica Lahey on cultural literacy:

Consequently, every subject depends on cultural literacy. The underlying warp of the class could be Latin, literature, writing or law, but the weft is all connection, linking new content to the strands of knowledge the students already possess. Words that are utterly forgettable in their dry state of denotation can be retained given connotation and a bit of context. Characters and plot lines that might otherwise slip through holes in attention become memorable when safely tethered by literary allusion.

Before we read Chapter 15 of “Great Expectations”, I tell the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s jealousy, murderous anger and subsequent exile prepare my students to meet Orlick, the morose journeyman with no liking for Pip. When they read “he would slouch out, like Cain or the Wandering Jew,” they have a nuanced understanding of Orlick, and see why Pip senses that he may become fuel for his ire.

I attended private school Grades 4-9, and am grateful I did, even as I also learned to loathe arbitrary rules, (aren’t they all?!), crummy boarding school food and sharing a bedroom with four strangers.

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland -- the world ready for me to explore!

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland — the world ready for me to explore!

I still vividly recall our terrifying fifth grade teacher who had us use carbon paper to trace the maps of various countries so we would learn what they looked like and our eighth grade teacher — whose last name rhymed, appropriately enough, with the words gruff, tough and rough — who had us ploughing through The Scarlet Letter, a dictionary necessary for almost every single sentence.

What did I learn that’s most useful to me, decades later?

To question and challenge authority. It’s not a subject taught in any classroom, but it’s a crucial life skill, certainly for a woman, a feminist and, as a journalist, someone paid to ask questions

To trust my judgement. Even as a child, much to some teachers’ frustration, I knew what mattered most to me and fought for my principles.

To see the world as a place worth exploring, as often and widely as possible. Reading work from other cultures, traveling, listening to the stories of people who’d ventured out and come back, whetted my lifelong appetite for more of the same.

To understand that someone expecting excellence of me will bring out my best. I’m a high-octane girl and need a lot of intellectual stimulation and challenge. I’m much happier feeling scared of a difficult assignment from which I’ll learn and grow than bored silly by something mundane and simple.

To write quickly and confidently. Our private school had an annual essay contest, in which Grades 4, 5 and 6 would compete against one another, Grades 7 and 8, Grades 9, 10 and 11 and Grades 12 and 13, (this was Ontario, Canada.) I won the contest in Grade 8, giving me, even then, the confidence I could do this writing thing, well and under pressure. It’s what I’ve been doing for a living for a long time.

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

To savor nature. Our school grounds had enormous chestnut trees and every fall I’d marvel at the ground littered with their thick, spongy, spiky green casings — and the glossy brown nuts inside them. We’d walk the block every morning, scuffing through leaves or snow. Being alone outdoors also offered a blessed respite from constant company, in class, at meals, in the common room or in our bedrooms.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

I later studied English literature for four years at University of Toronto, Canada’s highest-ranked, but also learned that I don’t enjoy sitting still for hours being lectured to, no matter how much I love to learn new material. I much preferred my training at the New York School of Interior Design, two decades later, also because choosing color or knowing what materials work best in certain situations has proven a more useful tool day-to-day than the nuances of 16th-century drama.

I don’t envy today’s teachers — competing with (or at best making great use of) technology but also “teaching to the test”.

I fear that some of life’s most important skills, from financial literacy to civics to how our bodies work and how to keep them healthy, have little to no place in most classrooms. We learn them much later, if we’re lucky.

What did you learn in your early years of formal education you still find most useful today?


It’s Record Store Day!

In business, culture, entertainment, music on April 19, 2014 at 2:22 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I love this idea — an international celebration of indie record stores.

Record? What, you ask, is a record?


Some of us are old enough to remember 78s and 33s, not just cassettes or 8-tracks (really) or CDs or…downloads.

I have stacks and stacks of dearly beloved vinyl in a closet and our garage, desperately awaiting the day I have the spare cash to replace my long-lost stereo system with a kickin’ turntable and speakers.

I really miss my music!

The last CD I bought was purchased last month after a concert in Poughkeepsie by one of my favorite artists, South African singer Johnny Clegg.

If you can sit still and not start dancing to his music — you’ve just been declared dead!

The last batch of CDs I bought was last May, (far too long ago!) from a used CD store in Flagstaff, Arizona, on my way to the Grand Canyon. I found — and kept playing Elton John’s spectacular 1970 album Tumbleweed Connection — which provided the perfect soundtrack to where I was at the time, the American southwest, alone in a car.

I love the serendipity of browsing the bins, flipping through piles of vinyl and jewel cases, seeking something new, or something old, then listening to it obsessively.

One of my favorite memories dates back to my first newspaper job in Toronto, when a hip colleague and I ended up in the recently-closed Sam the Record Man. David pointed authoritatively to an album. “Buy it” he commanded; Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. I’d never heard of it and loved it.

There’s one Sam’s store left — oddly, in a mall in Belleville, Ontario. We actually drive through there when we visit family and friends back in Ontario, so I might stop in next time.

Do you know the fab 200 film High Fidelity? One of my favorites, it’s set in a record shop in Chicago (originally set in London), and features another bit of musical nostalgia — creating a mix tape for someone you’re crazy about and hope to make a good impression on.

Do you have vinyl? Or CDs?

What’s your current favorite tune or album?

“I know a lot of people doubt me. I don’t listen to those people”

In art, behavior, children, culture, entertainment, life, men, music, news, parenting, urban life, US, work on July 30, 2013 at 1:54 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I love these guys!

Have you heard (of) them?

Check ’em out — sixth-grade boys from Brooklyn, Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins and Alec Atkins who play heavy metal. Their band is Unlocking the Truth and they’ve already played two of Manhattan’s toughest crowds — Times Square and the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

English: The Apollo Theater in Harlem, New Yor...

English: The Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They’ve been teased and bullied for their funky hair and black nail polish, but there’s no denying their talent, chutzpah and quiet confidence.

They met in kindergarten and have been playing music together since. When they played Times Square — for 10 hours at a time! — they’d pull in $1,600.

That’s $160/hour or more than $50/hour per musician. Not bad for mid-career or fresh college grads.

Pretty damn awesome for sixth-graders, I’d say.

But what I most admire is their belief in themselves and their willingness to put it out there, literally, before strangers with no vested interest in cooing at them or praising them for…breathing.

I see too many kids spoiled rotten, like the *&#@*)_$ eight-year-old girl who decided to change her socks and shoes three times (?!) last week beside me, in an expensive Midtown restaurant. Her extended foot practically hit my plate.

Her mother did nothing, said nothing.

Kids that like make me want to throw furniture.

Kids like this make me want to cheer.

English: Broadway show billboards at the corne...

English: Broadway show billboards at the corner of 7th Avenue and West 47th Street in Times Square in New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From PRI’s Studio 360:

Brickhouse and Dawkins have been playing music together since kindergarten. Although hip-hop is the dominant music at school and in the neighborhood, they come to metal honestly. “My dad used to take us to watch wrestling shows and we used to watch animated music videos,”

Brickhouse tells Kurt. “The background music was heavy metal. I was surrounded by heavy metal.” Their originals have lyrics (about “drugs, and relationships, and stuff — and being free”), but no one in the band will sing them.

The trio’s debut EP will be released later this summer and young as they are, the members see a long future in rock. Brickhouse says he’ll be banging out vicious licks “until I die”, while Dawkins is more pragmatic; “I’ll retire at about 70 years old.”

Here’s a video of them and story from The Huffington Post.

Do you love Joni Mitchell as much as I do?

In art, beauty, culture, entertainment, music, women on June 22, 2013 at 12:29 am

By Caitlin Kelly

If you took away every other piece of contemporary music and allowed me only one artist to listen to, it might well be that of fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell.

Joni Mitchell, performing in 2004

Joni Mitchell, performing in 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She’s now 70, living in L.A. dividing her time between there and her property north of Vancouver in Sechelt, B.C.

Friends of mine in Toronto last week had the rare and fantastic opportunity, at the annual Luminato Festival, to hear her sing — when she had only agreed to read a poem. So jealous!

You may never have heard of her — while those of us who grew up singing along to her work keep playing and re-playing her work — after all, there are 28 albums listed on her official website.

She officially retired in 2002, although you’ve likely heard one of the 587 (!) versions of her song “Both Sides Now”, written when she was only 21. Singers including Taylor Swift and Madonna have cited her as a major influence on their work.

A winner of eight Grammy awards, her classic album “Blue” was named one of the 100 best albums ever made by Time magazine.

She started out as a visual artist but got pregnant, gave her daughter up for adoption, and only by accident fell into her long career as a singer/songwriter.

Here’s one of her paintings, from 1987, linked to her song “Night Ride Home”, one of my many favorites.

She started out living in a small Western Canadian town, where her mother “raised me on words.”

She’s even inspired 47 songs by others, as recently as 2011 — including the classic “Our House” By Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Neil Young, yet another Canadian.

Many other artists have recorded her work, some of them making her songs into hits. A favorite, “Michael from Mountains”, off the 1967 classic by Judy Collins, “Wildflowers” is a song written by Mitchell.

Cover of "Hejira"

Cover of Hejira

I have so many favorites among her work, but Hejira is an album I could play all day every day and never tire of. The word has several meanings, one of which is “a journey to escape something dangerous or undesireable.” It came out when I was a second-year university student, living alone in a crummy small apartment in Toronto, struggling to combine freelance photography with full-time studies at a large and demanding bureaucratic institution.

(If you’re lucky enough to be in Pacific Beach, CA on November 9, 2013, a band called Robin Adler and the Mutts will perform the entire album. Wish I could be there!)

Hejira expressed the aching, overwhelming multitude of feelings I felt so powerfully then — joy and excitement at leaving my family home for good; fear I would not do so successfully; dating a succession of men, many of them unlikely; trying to define who I was as a young woman in the larger world.

I love this lyric — talk about the wrong man!

No regrets, coyote

We just come from such different sets of circumstance

I’m up all night in the studio

And you’re up early on your ranch

This is a verse from “Amelia”, nominally about Amelia Earhart, but which resonates for me, still, as someone happiest in motion, in flight, traveling somewhere new:

The drone of flying engines

Is a song so wild and blue

It scrambles time and seasons if it gets thru to you

Then your life becomes a travelogue

Of picture post card charms

Amelia it was just a false alarm

Here’s a fantastic, recent hour-long exclusive interview with her by fellow Canadian Jian Ghomeshi on his CBC/PRI show, “Q”.

I love that it ends with an audible hug.

Are you a fan as well?

Have you ever heard her in concert?

How badly do you want it?

In art, beauty, behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, life, music, work on May 17, 2013 at 2:56 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Here is a powerful essay by British pianist James Rhodes, from The Guardian, about the many sacrifices he’s made for his music:

Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six
hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a
brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something
that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental
hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of
gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d
envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising,
lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews,
isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches
of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house
slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure
(playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right
fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the
composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices,
my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most
crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect
recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of
self-forgiveness, be “good enough”.

I find this an interesting, and extremely rare, admission of what it’s like to achieve and sustain public excellence.

English: A post-concert photo of the main hall...

English: A post-concert photo of the main hall’s stage inside of Carnegie Hall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We see and hear, and applaud, (or boo or yawn at), the final product of many talented hard-working people, but often have absolutely no idea what it took to get them there — onto the concert stage, into the corps de ballet, onto the bookstore shelf or into the kitchen of a fine restaurant.

I’m fascinated by process, always hungry to hear how others are doing it and what, if anything, they have had to give up along the way. By the time we see someone becoming famous and, possibly, well-paid for their talents, we’re really looking at an iceberg — seeing barely 10 percent of their story, the other 90 percent often being years, even decades, of study and practice and rejection and failure that led up to this moment.

The Passage of Time

The Passage of Time (Photo credit: ToniVC)

I think it’s worth reading these stories as a way of thinking about our own choices:

How much longer will I devote to this project?

What I never achieve my goal?

Are there smaller, more private, less lucrative successes that would also satisfy me?

If not, why not?

What am I willing to give up?

How much will I regret those losses?

I weary of the widespread fantasy that “everyone’s a writer.” They’re not!

It is damn hard to become very good at something.

Here’s a great recent post by a professional conductor talking about this, chosen for Freshly Pressed:

Recent research and a popular book have theorized that it takes 10,000 hours for a human to become proficient and considered an expert at something.  It seems so easy:  Put in the Time, Collect the Dime.  I think most adults can see some truth in this theory based on their own experiences.  Driving a car is a great example.  While we are learning, we are cognizant of every movement, every decision, every possibility.  After time, we become very natural at it.  It almost becomes a reflexive action.  (For example, when’s the last time you thought about—really concentrated on—operating the turn signal?)

What makes it interesting is that it could apply to anything, from knitting to playing the violin.  The implications for an art form are obvious and the research pointers are fairly sound.  However my question is: Is it enough to make good art?

It is even harder, depending on a wide variety of external circumstances — do you have kids? A big mortgage? Student debt? Poor health? — to make a lot of money doing something purely creative, versus working for The Man and taking home a steady paycheck.

I love this multi-media piece about jockeys in Nairobi — the only track for 3,300 miles. They want it badly!

At Ngong Racecourse in Nairobi, Kenya, the only track in a 3,300-mile swath of Africa between Egypt and Zimbabwe, the jockeys struggle to earn $20 a ride, even in the big races. For the country’s biggest race, the Kenya Derby, the winning horse’s owner may take home little more than $7,200. Grooms, who wake up at 4:30 six mornings a week to muck out stables and brush down horses, make less than $100 a month. Yet, the dwindling numbers of trainers, jockeys, owners and breeders in Kenya are deeply committed to keeping the sport alive.

I started working for Canada’s best newspaper, The Globe and Mail, at 26, after applying for a staff job every year for eight years. I eventually wanted to come to New York and so, after a day’s work, also worked as a stringer (contacts I sought out) for Time, The Boston Globe and the Miami Herald. I needed to find American editors who liked my work and to up my game.

Knowing I planned to leave Toronto within a few years also meant not settling down and getting married and having kids, (not a dream of mine anyway.) I moved to New Hampshire in 1988, leaving family, friends, career and country, then moved to New York just in time for a horrible recession, with no job. I got one after six months, earning $5,000 less in March 1990 than I’d made in Montreal in September 1986 — in a much costlier place to live.

Every move we make is a choice that carries consequences and every one carries a cost — physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, professional. Sometimes all of those at once!

That’s why they’re called sacrifices, and why it’s so much nicer to just avoid them. And the worst fear, perhaps, is that you make a ton of them and still don’t get what it was you really wanted.

So it helps to figure out what you really want — the fancy job title and shiny new car or a life with enough room in it to travel three months every year? A bunch of kids or the creative freedom to fail at new ideas and still pay your monthly bills? A loving spouse or the sort of work that moves you from one conflict spot to the next, in an NGO or aid work or journalism? (They are not all either/or, but they will enact sacrifices.)

No matter who you are or where you live or what you hope to achieve in life — non-materially — the fewer your financial obligations, the easier it is to focus on that.

Do you have a specific dream you’re trying to achieve?

What are you willing to do — to give up — to get there?

The creative class is struggling, too. Do you care?

In art, beauty, behavior, books, business, culture, design, film, journalism, life, Media, movies, music, news, photography, television, US, work on April 30, 2012 at 1:17 pm
De artist

De artist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not just lawyers who are hurting  — 7,500 of them surplus in 2009 in New York alone.

Or older men.

Or those who used to work in manufacturing.

The “creative class” is as well.

Those working in photography, architecture and graphic design have seen a 20 to 30 percent drop in employment, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Since August 2002, those working in the music field have seen their work opportunities plummet by a staggering 45.3%.

“The story has really not been told,” Scott Timberg, an arts and culture writer in Los Angeles said to host Kurt Andersen on the weekly public radio show Studio 360, which examines all forms of culture. “They don’t always have a tattoo or beret.  They’re like Canadians, among us secretly, silently and invisibly.”

“A life in the arts…means giving up riches, making a trade-off to do something they’re passionate about,” Timberg said. “It’s become forbidding for a much wider group of people…I see some of the best getting knocked out.”

Timberg also wrote about this recently on Salon:

Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen write anthems about the travails of the working man; we line up for the revival of “Death of a Salesman.” John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson hold festivals and fundraisers when farmers suffer. Taxpayers bail out the auto industry and Wall Street and the banks. There’s a sense that manufacturing, or the agrarian economy, is what this country is really about. But culture was, for a while, what America did best: We produce and export creativity around the world. So why aren’t we lamenting the plight of its practitioners? Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that creative industries have been some of the hardest hit during the Bush years and the Great Recession. But  when someone employed in the world of culture loses a job, he or she feels easier to sneer at than a steel worker or auto worker.

As both a Canadianan, living in New York since 1989, and a member of the creative class, I’ve absolutely felt the sting of this terrible recession. My last staff job, as a reporter for the New York Daily News, the nation’s sixth-largest paper, ended in 2006.

My income the next year fell by 75 percent. Fun! It’s now barely back to 50 percent of that figure. In 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs.

It’s an interesting dilemma because being a creative professional — like those who choose law, medicine, dentistry — demands years of attention to one discipline. You start out with talent. You may invest tens of thousands of dollars in higher education, workshops, coaches and ongoing training. It’s crazily competitive and the criteria of success often utterly quixotic and subjective. A lawyer wins or loses a case. A dentist fills a cavity.

But a creative person, in any field, can languish in poverty/obscurity for years, if not decades, if their work or style isn’t fashionable or they just doesn’t know enough of the right people. To really make it financially, you often need to layer the daily hustle of a used car salesman onto the independence of spirit of the artist.

Many of us just can’t squeeze both personalities into one brain.

Yet we all hope to enjoy the basics of middle-class life: a home, a family, a vehicle, a vacation once in a while.

It’s a dirty secret but those of us who work creatively, whether we paint, sculpt, take photos, design buildings or play in a quartet also want the things that cube-dwellers do. Our groceries cost the same, our gas just as overpriced.

But, unlike many corporate cube-dwellers, we may have to purchase our health insurance in the open (i.e. costly) market; in 2003 (when I went onto my husband’s plan through his staff job) I was paying $700 a month. It’s now normal to pay $1,000+…adding an overhead of $12,000 pre-tax dollars just to avoid a medical bankruptcy.

Especially in the United States where corporate billionaires are lionized, creative folk — typically self-employed and working out of public and the media’s view — are seen as slackers, stoners, half-assed. (Author John Grisham earned $18 million last year — hardly typical.)

Very few creative professionals in any genre or medium will ever earn that in their lifetime — no matter their objective excellence, awards or peer respect.

Yet other nations actually pay their artists to help them quality work; the Canada Council hands out $20,000 grants every year to fortunate writers who have produced two books deemed worthy.

Are you a member of the creative class?

How’s it going for you these days?

My Soundtrack — And Yours?

In music on January 15, 2012 at 12:05 am
Nick Drake, c. 1969.

Nick Drake, 1969. Image via Wikipedia

I rarely go through a day without listening to music.

As I write this, I’m listening to one of my favorite radio shows, Soundcheck with John Schaefer, now in its 30th (!) year on-air from WNYC, 93. 9, in New York. John always has something fun to offer — today’s show included a version of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, sung in (of course!) Klingon.

Follow that link and you’ll find some of his shows, whether featuring Gaetano Veloso or Courtney Love.

My taste in music is pretty eclectic, from Baroque faves like Couperin to Japanese shakuhachi, a haunting bamboo flute you might have heard in tunes by Tangerine Dream, Dave Brubeck, Peter Gabriel and Sade.

My classical favorites include Erik Satie, Aaron Copland, Bach, Handel, Tchaikovsky, Smetana, Rodrigo; I never tire of Concierto de Aranjuez or the Brandenburg Concertos.

I don’t listen to rap, hip-hop, country or Top 40 stuff.

Here are some of my favorites, some of which you’ll know and maybe some of which will be a discovery:

Bruce Cockburn is a Canadian whose music I’ve loved since the 1970s. Try to find some of his earliest albums: great guitar, haunting lyrics.

Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Jane Siberry are all Canadians whose music I enjoy.

Acoustic guitar music is a favorite: Leo Kottke, John Renbourn, Richard Thompson, Kaki King, David Bromberg.

Singer/songwriters: Canadian female singer Feist, the late super-talented Englishman Nick Drake, American Duncan Sheik, Katell Keinig, Joan Osborne, Ricky Lee Jones, and Irishman Luka Bloom, among many others.

Nina Simone!

Instrumental music, like this amazing CD I keep playing over and over, La Valse Des Monstres. I have some odd affection for accordion music.

Genesis — 1970s British prog-rock. Check out The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a double album, and set aside a few hours to disappear into it.

A local New York band, whose vocalist and washboard player is a friend of mine, The Hot Sardines — who play music from the 1920s and 30s. Great fun!

The Waterboys. I was bouncing on my seat at The Beacon in NYC when I heard this terrific Irish band.

What songs, bands, musicians or composers do you love best?

Do you have a great radio station we can listen to on-line?

I’m desperate for some new-to-me tunes!