Category Archives: 2018-2019 Season

Message from the Center: Barber Shop Chronicles

The older a man gets, the faster he can run as a boy.
—Inua Ellams

It took me a while to understand why my mom would leave me alone in the Barbershop every other week. Six years old, surrounded by Black men and their conversations, all I could do was listen and hope that one day, I could add to the conversation. Being an only child raised by a single-mother, the Barbershop taught me a lot about the Black male voice. Mainly, that it matters and that it exists. Somehow, my mother knew this. She trusted that these important conversations would live with me, shape me, push me towards my own definition of Black male masculinity.

In Inua Ellams’ piece, these same conversations take wing across a variety of borders. For many Black men, his characters find a place of commune in the barbershop where joy and pain are expressed. Where questions are answered, jokes told. Heartfelt and beautifully crafted, Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles provides to us all a window to the scared haven that is the Barbershop. The Country Club for Black Culture. To my first barber, Mr. Jerry, I thank you for all the cuts and conversations.

On behalf of us at the Center, it is with great pleasure that we welcome and share these conversations with you.

—Theodore Bonner-Perkins

Message from the Center: Tigran Hamasyan

Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan describes his latest works, this year’s For Gyumri and its companion album, 2017’s An Ancient Observer, as being “about the world we live in now, and the weight of history we carry with us.”

What does it mean to carry history with us? I’m reminded of a quotation carved in stone above one of the entrances to Royce Hall, the words of the building’s namesake, the great Californian philosopher Josiah Royce: “The world is a progressively realized community of interpretation.”

We should keep this idea of a progressive interpretive community in mind when considering history. Despite how it is often taught, history is not just a boring list of trivial facts about some distant epoch. Rather, it is something vital that lives within us in the here and now. There is no final draft of history, it is a multiplicity of intertwined stories that we tell and retell to make sense of our lives in a constant and often agonistic process of reinterpretation.

You can see the importance of historical interpretation in many of the contentious debates we have about the past today, where questions of justice are often paramount: whose stories do we give more weight to, the oppressed or their oppressors? Which figures and events deserve monuments and which demand critical reexamination? These debates are particularly relevant for long-marginalized peoples. It is interesting to note that Hamasyan combines musical influences from two groups that were both victims of unimaginable historical injustices: African-Americans and Armenians.

In drawing from both his native folk traditions and from jazz, Hamasyan’s music fits Royce’s ideal of progressive interpretation. By finding connections between different art forms and different histories, across eons and continents, Hamasyan is able to create something new in conversation with the ever-present past, enriching that evolving interpretive community to which we all belong. As Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

—Andrew Hartwell

Message from the Center: Emmylou Harris

Existentialist philosophers argue that a truly authentic life requires awareness of our finitude and mortality, what Martin Heidegger famously called “being-towards-death.” Perhaps this is why the best country music feels so authentic: it is infused with an awareness of death, with the hard-earned knowledge of the pain that life dishes out. What else would you expect from an artform that evolved from the experiences of the working-class rural poor, from the stories of people who live close to the earth, where the cycles of nature and the storms they bring are a part of everyday life?

Emmylou Harris knows about weathering storms. Her solo career began with the tragic death of her original duet partner, Gram Parsons, a loss that haunts much of her subsequent work. There’s an inescapable ache at the heart of great country music: the bottle that lets you down, the sweet dreams that can never come true. As Harris sang on the title track of her 2000 album Red Dirt Girl, “One thing they don’t tell you about the blues when you got ‘em, you keep on falling cause there ain’t no bottom.”

Los Angeles may seem like an odd venue for such authentic, American music. After all, we are constantly told that we aren’t the “real America,” that we are a city of fakes and frauds. But beyond the superficial glitz of Hollywood, we have our share of the blues, too. The L.A. transplant Harris sings of in “Two More Bottles of Wine” works hard, suffers heartbreak and drinks her sorrows away, just like that southern “Red Dirt Girl” who “never got any farther across the line than Meridian.”

These songs remind us that the struggles of downtrodden working folks aren’t so different, whether they are Angelenos or Alabamians. Maybe that’s why country music has fans in east Africa as well as east Texas: it reminds us that we all suffer from loss, that our pain is never just ours, that we’re all heading to the same place regardless of what patch of dirt we call home, and that our ability to live with that knowledge, to weather the storm together, is what makes us truly human.

—Andrew Hartwell

Message from the Center: Fran Lebowitz

This summer when my husband was visiting family in Kansas, I got a text from him with this picture.

“Look,” he wrote, “Fran Lebowitz in Kansas!”

“Wow,” I wrote back, “Where are you?”

“I’m in a cool bookstore, and they have good iced coffee!”

My brain had never put the words, “Fran Lebowitz,” “Kansas” and “good iced coffee” in the same sentence. I looked more closely at the picture.

“Think before you speak. Read before you think.”
—Fran Lebowitz

The words were hand painted on what looked like old newsprint, the edges were curling, it was torn, but somebody had cared enough to frame it, and hang it on a wall. Being a native New Yorker (something I share with Fran), I will admit to having a few preconceived notions about what I think people are reading and thinking in other parts of the country. So, this was a bit of a surprise. It looked like the kind of thing you would see in San Francisco, or in downtown New York, but not in a small town in the middle of Kansas.

I texted back, “Who, in Kansas, even knows who Fran Lebowitz is?” Ooops. My cultural bias was raging. Think before you speak. Read before you think.

The woman who said these words has over 10,000 books in her apartment, and has read many more. For 60 plus years Fran Lebowitz has been thinking and reading. She has been called a literary icon, a social critic, a New York snob, a big mouth, a wit, a curmudgeon, a genius, a satirist and the heir to Dorothy Parker. She is all of these things, and none of these things. But she is a reader. She believes in books, printed on paper. The kind with pages that you turn, and fold, and write in the margins, and spill iced coffee on, and give to a friend, or pile in stacks or cram into crowded bookshelves, desks, nightstands. In the essay, Fran Lebowitz On Reading, she writes:

I would rather read than have any kind of real life, like working, or being responsible. Reading prepares you for other reading, and possibly for writing…All the things that I never did because I was reading, so what? If someone said to me, how did you spend your life? I’d have to say, lying on the sofa reading.

Books are our crucial connectors — whether in libraries, archives, classrooms, or small, scruffy bookstores in the middle of Kansas. I failed to imagine that someone in a tiny town could love what I love, value what I value, or—gasp—read what I read. Think before you speak. Read before you think. Sometimes we need our great readers to remind us to think differently.

—Meryl Friedman
Director of Education & Special Initiatives

Message from the Center: DakhaBrakha

What is ethno-chaos? That’s how tonight’s band, DakhaBrakha, describes their aesthetic. The term is provocative, bringing to mind the anarchic attitude of punk rock, but chaos is not merely destructive: it can be essential for new creation, the explosive combustion powering an engine of renewal.

DakhaBrakha means “give/take,” and that’s what their brand of ethno-chaos is all about. Philosophically, they embrace a poststructuralist approach: breaking down styles, reterritorializing foreign timbres into their own vernacular, freely taking from the old and giving us something new. They are experimental cartographers remixing the map of world music, spreading Ukrainian folklore while absorbing and metabolizing new ideas, asserting the uniqueness of their traditional culture while championing progressive ideals, boldly exploring the transcendent power of primal rhythms and cosmic drones.

We know a thing or two about ethno-chaos here in Los Angeles, the postmodern metropolis that gave the world Korean tacos, the place where the French Dip sandwich was invented in Chinatown. The perpetual swirling deconstruction and recombination of cultures and styles is a source of vitality for our city, just as it is for DakhaBrakha.

By joining us here tonight, you have become a part of this symbiotic process of giving and taking. That’s what live performance is all about: the energy shared between artists and audience. The creativity presented on stage should serve as a reminder that humanity always has the potential to grow in unexpected ways, giving and taking, forming new networks without regard for the barriers that separate us.

Maybe we could use a little more ethno-chaos in our world.

We hope you enjoy the show.

—Andrew Hartwell

Message From The Artists: Vijay Iyer and Teju Cole on Blind Spot

I’m fortunate to have called Teju a friend since long before he became the household name he is today. Our collaborations have emerged slowly and organically from a camaraderie established in the early 2000s. This particular one was born in 2016 as a kind of stunt, using Teju’s photographs and writings as our stimulus. Faced with a run of six performances, I thought, “What if we actually create the piece live from scratch each time, using Teju’s riveting text and images as our score? What if the music had no permanence, but rather consisted of a set of guiding principles, orienting forces, and emotional stimuli?” If the project’s music used the vulnerability and fragility of real-time creation and dispensed with any presumption of fixity, what’s left instead of a “piece” is an aggregate of very careful listeners — a band — with a compact network of social relations: ways of listening, sounding, building, and coexisting. As Ornette Coleman summarized once when rehearsing with his band: “If you cut loose the method, what’s left is stone presence.” Teju’s collection of texts and images gives us a way to be collectively present with some unadorned, harsh truths about the world at this moment; our ritual patterns and emergent unisons offer a slowly evolving emotional correlate to his work.

We’re excited to share this project with CAP UCLA audiences. We’ve performed this project more than a dozen times, but this will be a special version of Blind Spot with guest artist Ambrose Akinmusire, a trumpet superstar and another longtime collaborator of mine who will be no stranger to listeners.

—Vijay Iyer

I know of no artist more alert to improvisation’s inextricability from composition than Vijay Iyer. I was an avid listener of his for many years, and during that time I became a friend. Then a collaborative phase began a few years ago, and that has been such a joy. We first did the Open City suite, composed for a big band in which all the members were virtuosi. A kind of super band. And now there’s Blind Spot which brings together images, words, and music in a more elusive way. Blind Spot is different each time we do it. When the lights go down, I don’t know what the opening notes are going to be, and when we get to the end of the piece, I don’t know whether we are going to end with a feeling of peace or sorrow. What I do know is that there are a five of us on stage, listening intently to each other, using a sequence of photographs I’ve taken around the world as a kind of score. A multipartite co-creation happens. The audience is part of that too: the intensity of the audience’s listening amplifies the emotional precision of the musicians.

This is the magic of live performance. Questions of scenography and sound quality aside, sitting at home watching something on your computer couldn’t begin to capture the high wire emotion that results from seeing something unfold in real time and in actual space. Of the many different ways I present my work, doing Blind Spot with this band is for me the most moving and most satisfying.

—Teju Cole