Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation

Written by: William Badgely

[WHAT’S UP: Bellingham’s Music Magazine, June 2014] Film maker Laura Archibald brings us this beautifully complex documentary, narrated by Susan Sarandon, weaving together animation, stock footage, beautiful music, and an impressive amount of interviews by an all star cast of characters to tell us the story of how a tiny neighborhood in New York City changed the world in the 1950s and 60s.

Through an exploration of the careers of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, The Loving Spoonful and many more, the film paints the Greenwich Village scene of the 1950s and 60s as the explosive blasting point for the miraculous social change to come in the back half of the 20th century.

Built on an artistic appreciation for the American Folk Music tradition, largely brought to light by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk music released in 1952, and a healthy disdain for the seemingly unmovable American social and political modes of the first half of the 20th century, the Greenwich Village movement brought about an immense amount of social change simply through the seeking of it.

“In the early 60s people were searching for something, they didn’t know what it was because what it was, was that they really weren’t searching yet, they were running away from something… and in running away, it was a free reign horizon,” stated Ritchie Havens (RIP) in the film.

As people began to adapt the American Folk Tradition to tell a modern American story, rather than just dutifully re-singing the songs of the past, the youth of Greenwich Village quickly realized the power of the then modern art form… and so did the City.

The city government of New York banned singing in Washington Square Park where hundreds had been congregating every Sunday to sing the songs of the new revolution. The backlash against the police action was paramount, cementing the anti establishment attitude and things quickly turned political.

But the art scene that had been largely concerned with social change up to that point had always had political undertones. Woody Guthrie, arguable the most revered fore runner of the Greenwich Village scene had a sign taped to his guitar during his time in WW2 that read, “This machine kills fascists.” And when he returned to the states when the war was over he decided that the sign was still relevant.

“People would ask him… ‘Hey Woody, Hitler’s dead, why don’t you take the sign off? And he would reply ‘Well this fascism comes around whenever the rich people get the generals to do what they want,’” stated Pete Seeger.

The suspicion and scrutiny of the activities of the American Government through the words and music of artists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were quickly returned… both artists, and many others, were brought before The Committee of Un-American Activities for questioning. A beautifully simple reaction to the hearings is personified in the following quote: “What in the world is an ‘Un-American Activity’?” stated Pete Seeger.

Who knows? But one thing is certain, after the police action taken by the city no one in the Greenwich Village scene ever questioned the power or validity of what they were doing… and soon that power would be transferred into the homes of the average American teenager through the music of folks like Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan typified the pop expression of what was going not only because of his wide spread popularity but because his music clearly expressed that it wasn’t about being a good singer or about being a good guitarist but that it was about the message of the music.

Once the Vietnam conflict began, the elements of the Greenwich Village art and music scene exploded into a wild fire of change that roared through the next 40 years defining and aiding to movements such as gay freedom, civil rights, the rise of feminism, etc. movements of such epic proportions that they comprise a great part of how we are able to live today.

An ear to the future: Bristol Proms bring classical music into the 21st-century

At the Bristol Proms, all manner of techno-wizardry – from 3D visuals to digital art – is being deployed to lure in new audiences, says Jessica Duchen

[the Independent, Wednesday, November 19, 2014] You can see the atoms in action around the violinist as she plays. You can enter a 3D visual world where virtual events respond to live sound. You’ll see a pianist’s performance in intimate, enhanced detail; witness Handel’s Messiah on a stage; or listen to an a cappella choir in pitch darkness. This is what happens when a theatre director with a passion for mingling music and drama, a record-company boss fed up with traditional concert presentation and a cutting-edge digital-art studio come together to create an extraordinary new series. This is the Bristol Proms.

The classical-music climate is currently buzzing with innovative presentation: take the cross-genre commissions of the Manchester International Festival, the Southbank Centre’s hugely successful 20th-century celebration The Rest is Noise, the craze for cinema relays of live performances, or the growing trend for classical club nights and concerts in concrete car parks. Even so, the technological twists of the Bristol Proms suggest that they’ll be going further still; and, as in London’s Proms, standing places in the arena cost just £5 each.

One key player behind the series is Tom Morris, the artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, who has to his name such productions as Tom Stoppard and André Previn’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour at the National Theatre and John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer for English National Opera, as well as the smash hit War Horse. He says he has always been interested in what might happen “if theatre and classical music were to explore the collaborative potential that exists between them”.

This was his starting point, along with the BOV itself. It is the oldest continually functioning theatre in the UK, having opened in 1766, and for many years music was integral to its programming, including promenade concerts. Handel’s Messiah was performed there in 1782 – Morris is directing the semi-staged Messiah partly in tribute – and in 1831 the venue hosted three concerts by the violinist Niccolò Paganini.

“The thought of all that was inspiring in terms of presenting classical music in an atmosphere where the audience felt entitled to respond directly to what they were experiencing,” says Morris. “The culture of its performance wasn’t weighed down by a series of social obligations, as some people now feel that it is.”

One such person is Max Hole, the other key player behind the event and chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group International. Earlier this year he set the cat among the pigeons in a speech to the Association of British Orchestras, stressing the urgent need for these organisations to seek new ways of engaging more actively with audiences.

“When I really started going to classical concerts I was quite shocked by how many are almost off-putting to the consumer,” he says. “There’s a lot of convention about where you can clap; the conductor usually has his back to you and often doesn’t talk to the audience; and the lighting can be very sterile. The music is wonderful – but if I took my son to a concert he’d run a mile.

“I’m curious about what we can do, not only to draw in younger people to see how great the music is, but also people like me who grew up listening to rock’n’roll, then discovered classical music, yet can be put off by some of the conventions, venues and presentation. I’m not trying to disrespect the core audience and we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But we need to attract more people and pull it into the digital age.”

And so he has thrown Universal’s weight behind the Bristol Proms, “a festival that marries world-class classical musicians with a digital environment in a way that might draw a new audience in”. Four of the events feature collaboration with Watershed and the Pervasive Media Studio, Bristol’s extraordinary centre for cross-genre ventures and cutting-edge creative technology.

“Some streaming events are frustrating in that they just present a slightly less good version of a live event in a cin ema,” says Clare Reddington, director of the Pervasive Media Studio. “That didn’t seem to use the capabilities of new technologies to create new pieces of art. We’re excited to see if we can employ technology to bring audiences closer to classical music, creating a more engaged, informal, intimate environment.”

One concert features the 18-year-old star pianist Jan Lisiecki, who performs in the BOV where the audience can enjoy his recital as it is or watch a screen showing a closer view of his playing; simultaneously, an audience at Watershed will see a real-time mix from nine cameras in which film director John Durrant realises the performance in From Every Angle, “an intimate, augmented interpretation of the live event”. Then in Vibrations, the violinist Nicola Benedetti takes centre stage while scientific creative visualisations by Danceroom Spectroscopy literally show the audience the response of atoms around her to her energy and the vibrations of her violin.

The studio is also pulling in the Sacconi Quartet, which has a residency at the BOV, for Hack: The Quartet, the four players will be put at the centre of a two-day brainstorming session with computer experts. Together they will explore the intersections of their musical and scientific interests, finishing with a public showcase.

And for a performance of Max Richter’s take on Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Recomposed with the violinist Daniel Hope and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the digital designers Play Nicely use video-game technology to create immersive 3D-visuals where events are triggered in real time not only by the music, but the way the performers play it. For those of us who remain techno-twits, that idea is mind-boggling.

All this costs money, which means Universal’s backing is invaluable. But dissenting voices are bound to sound in the classical-music community: some view digital visualisations as gimmicks, while others might distrust the involvement of a record company that inevitably has commercial concerns in mind.

Hole, though, is the first to admit that “I’m not doing this for philanthropic reasons”. Sales of CDs are not precisely flourishing, and lasting change in the music world can be sluggish due to cost, attitude or both. Ultimately it is imperative that industry leaders invent ways to keep pace with the expectations of 21st-century audiences. “It’s easy to be cynical,” Hole says. “But I’d rather be doing something pro-active. Have a look, then judge for yourself.”