Wednesday, January 30, 2013

THE SOUTH BRONX: Seen Through the Eyes Of 'Seis del Sur'

On Saturday, January 19, a new photographic show opened up at the Bronx Documentary Center. The show was titled Seis del Sur, or Six from the South, an exhibition in Black and White by six photographers from the Bronx.  The photographs date from the late 1970s to the 1980s, a time when the Bronx had declined through a combination of factors including real estate redlining, the misconceived policy of planned shrinkage of municipal services, a boom in high-rise housing projects in the area, and of course, the real “bull in the china shop,” the construction of Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway.

As young photographers who, with one exception, did not know each other back then, these six men documented life in the South Bronx, capturing both the massive destruction of building infrastructure (much by arson) and the ever-fascinating human drama of life on the street.  As Michael Kamber, the founder of the Center, states, "There is a lot of community, social activism, families and people just going on with their lives the best way they could."  This is a wonderful show, and I encourage all to come up and see it.

I have selected a few works by these men, which I will show at the end of this blog post;  but, in order to record them, I had to return the next day.  Attendance at the opening of the show was so enormous that viewing the art was impossible, getting to the beer, wine and food table was a major challenge, and at least half of the attendees at any one time were socializing on the street outside as a consequence of the opening's success.

So, on Saturday, I turned my camera on people at the show's opening and even managed to capture some of the artists.  I begin with these portraits, then follow them with some pictures of the art on display, which I took the next day.

South Bronx People, now:

Bronx Documentary Center, 614 Courtlandt Ave., Bronx, NY

Opening night, Seis del Sur show, Bronx Documentary Center, Saturday, January 19, 2013

Opening night, Seis del Sur show, Bronx Documentary Center, Saturday, January 19, 2013

Opening night, Seis del Sur show, Bronx Documentary Center, Saturday, January 19, 2013

Corrine & Amanda, Opening night, Seis del Sur show

Libertad & Linda, Opening night, Seis del Sur show

Mychal, Opening night, Seis del Sur show

Kali & John ("Chi-Chi" Rosado), Opening night, Seis del Sur show

Moncho and daughter, Opening night, Seis del Sur show

Edwin Pagán, Opening night, Seis del Sur show
Edwin Pagán is one of the photographers who also would take up filmmaking.  He may best be known now as the founder of the website and online publication, Latin Horror, and is currently producing a documentary film, Bronx Is Burning, chronicling the rise, fall and resurrection of the South Bronx.

Ángel Franco, Opening night, Seis del Sur show
Ángel Franco is another of the photographers featured in Seis del Sur.  Today he is a Senior Photographer at the New York Times and was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for a ten-part series of articles in 2000 entitled "How Race Is Lived in America."   In recalling this earlier work of his in the Bronx, he felt the need to set the record straight, because officials "just called it crime...So I said, I'm going back to photograph our holocaust."

Francisco Molina Reyes II, Opening night, Seis del Sur show
Francisco Molina Reyes II is a third of these Bronx photographers. He has been a street photographer ever since he started shooting in the South Bronx in 1975, but that street life also seduced him to become a writer and chronicler of the Latin Music scene.

Joe Conzo, Jr., Opening night, Seis del Sur show
Joe Conzo, Jr.,  the fourth of these six photographers (and the last of them that I managed to photograph on opening night), started to take pictures at the age of nine.  Because his father, Joe Conzo, Sr. was Tito Puente's publicist and archivist, Joe, Jr. may have developed an extra appreciation of the local musical scene, only shifting allegiances from "El Rey del Mambo" to the Hip Hop movement of his generation.  He collaborated with musicologist Johan Kugelberg in 2007 in the publishing of the book, Born in the Bronx: A Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip Hop,  and he notes that the tenets of Hip Hop still inform his subjects and approach to photography.

The South Bronx, then:

Bronx Documentary Center, Seis del Sur show, General view

Bronx Documentary Center, Seis del Sur show, Couple 

This couple is looking at two photographs that deal with the subject of prostitution.  On the left is Francisco Reyes' piece of 1980 with the self-explanatory title,  Not In Our Block: Community Members Prevent Actors Hired To Play Prostitutes for the Film Fort Apache, The Bronx From Entering Their Neighborhood.  On the right is a partial view of Edwin Pagán's 1986 photograph, Working Girl and Johns.

Seis del Sur show, E Pagán, D Gonzalez, J Conzo [left-to-right]

In Summertime Fun of 1987 [left], Pagán captures a typical scene, still prevalent today, as youngsters play in the street that has been partly flooded by an open hydrant. 

 Joe Conzo's Charlotte Street of 1980 [right] juxtaposes devastation and hope, as an enormous Puerto Rican flag asserts its presence against abandoned buildings and amid the bulldozed rubble of their immediate neighbors.

In the center, David Gonzalez's Dancers, 1979, captures life at its richest in this simple, centered composition of a couple dancing in the middle of a street.  It's pure poetry, and as sexy as it gets.  I imagine that this commandeering of the street is spontaneous (or that's how Gonzalez chooses to show it to the viewer)  and so this couple seems not to have a care in the world.  But this picture offers evidence of the importance of the street in urban culture, particularly with short blocks such as this one.  As Jane Jacobs wrote in her famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, "frequent streets and short blocks are valuable because of the fabric of intricate cross-use that they permit among the users of a city neighborhood."

How do I know that this is a short street?  Because I live on it.  This is east 140th Street, looking west to Third Avenue.  I live in the first taller building that you see on the right, the one with some faded advertising letters on its side.  They're still there, only a bit more faded.

Seis del Sur show, Á Franco, R Flores, F Reyes [left-to-right]

Ángel Franco's undated work, A Boy Caught in Crossfire of a Drug Dispute [left] and Francisco Molina Reyes II's 1979 piece, Hombre Con Perrito [right] offer two more views of street life.  Franco's subject might be gruesome in its implications, but in its close-up composition that densely packs the frontal plane, it shares a power and the chiaroscuro of a Caravaggio.  Reyes' composition (even if it nicely lines up the standing dog with the Pontiac grille behind) is less important than is the subject of empathy, as man shampoos dog, once more using the ubiquitous open hydrant found on so many Bronx streets in the summertime.

Ricky Flores' 800 Fox Street of 1983 [center] is that classic representation of "the Bronx is burning," which, by the way was not uttered by Howard Cosell as he announced game two of the 1977 World Series in Yankee Stadium.  ESPN's Gordon Greisman went over the entire broadcast of that game, hoping, without success, to find it.   Still, this oft-quoted clause does capture the shame of this era like nothing else.

Seis del Sur show, Joe Conzo, Jr., CAFA

CAFA stands for the Committee Against Fort Apache.  As the expanded caption under this photograph tells us, "Fort Apache, The Bronx, was a 1981 film starring Paul Newman which was based in the 41st Police precinct formerly located on Simpson Street.   Local community groups protested the film for its stereotypes of blacks and Puerto Ricans and its negative depiction of the South Bronx."  Wikipedia provides a workable summary of the movie, for those interested.

Seis del Sur show, Ricky Flores, Johnny on the Box

Ricky Flores' 1984 photo, Johnny on the Box, captures the icon and possibly most essential piece of hardware of the period, the boombox, aka ghetto blaster.  As Fab Five Freddy tells us, the boombox was essential to the rise and spread of hip hop culture.  It was the means by which new music could be instantaneously disseminated from street-to-street, neighborhood-to-neighborhood. Then the Walkman came along...

Seis del Sur show, Joe Conzo, Jr., Sisters: Abigail & Rachel, 1979

What can I say of this portrait by Joe Conzo that his sitters don't already say without uttering a word?  Maybe a simple "wow" suffices.   Their look is tough and self-possessed; yet these sisters also reveal something vulnerable, at least in this moment captured by Conzo.   The slight three-quarter view is important in revealing ambiguity;  the formality of a full-frontal composition would have  overemphasized their defiance and made them less accessible.  This is just a wonderful double portrait. 

Seis del Sur show, David Gonzalez, Pistoleros, 1979

I end with David Gonzalez's Pistoleros: four boys brandishing five plastic water pistols (and I know where this was taken as well by the angle quoins on the building behind).  These are beautiful kids, and they exude a sense of playfulness and camaraderie.  The guns may be plastic and fake, but the idea of defending turf and acting in solidarity is all too real, and adds tension to their playful gestures.

As delightful as this image is, I can't help thinking of its obverse, and that is kids exactly the ages of these boys, only holding real pistols or AR-15 assault rifles, which is what the NRA and certain other non-profit groups funded by the gun industry is promoting for the youth of America--an attempt "to get newcomers shooting something."  I refer to the front page article in this past Sunday's New York Times by Mike McIntire: "Selling a New Generation on Guns."

David Gonzalez gives us an image of mirth and innocence.  Mike McIntire exposes a new, dystopic future that could make William Golding's Lord of the Flies seem like an innocent cakewalk.

All of a sudden a nostalgia for the Bronx of the later 20th century has washed over me!!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Musical Aside: 'Face the Music' in Rehearsal

My previous post, subtitled “Carla in the ICE House,” documented a rehearsal in the Brooklyn studio of the International Contemporary Ensemble, or ICE, for the major piece in this Saturday’s musical event in Merkin Hall.  That event is the world premiere of Carla Kihlstedt’s At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire.

In today’s post, I build on this, returning to the ICE House in Brooklyn and photographing a rehearsal that features the musical group Face the Music.   Face the Music is supported by the Kaufman Music Center and is an alt-classical ensemble of highly talented teenagers (and some younger students) from New York City and environs.  The group was founded in 2005 by Jenny Undercofler, has played in musical venues around the city, and received the ASCAP Aaron Copland Award in 2011.

On Saturday, 19 members of Face the Music will join the 9 members of ICE and Carla as part of the first half of the evening's program; they will perform George Lewis’ 2007 composition, Artificial Life.  This composition consists of two pages containing instructions which offer the performers certain rough guides for improvisation.  Or, as an ICE introductory statement explains, “Artificial Life is a schema for collective improvisation – and collective silence.  No musical material is prescribed; the principle is rather that of stimulus, and the medium that of verbal instructions that could give rise to radically different results, depending on the performers taking part.”

The performers will work together in groups, but also individually while on the first page.  As the composer tells us, “the success of the performance is not so much related to individual freedoms but to the assumption of personal and collective responsibility for the sonic environment.”

How fitting this statement is in this particular week, when we have just heard President Obama inspire us with his formula for progress through teamwork, when he told the nation: “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

Below are twenty documentary photographs from this rehearsal of January 21, both of individuals and of the collective groupings of some of these young musicians from Face the Music.  Please join us this Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 7:30 PM in Merkin Hall for the performance.

Dean (piano): here you can see page 2 of Lewis' score for Artificial Life

Dean's view of many of his Face the Music compatriots and ICE musicians in rehearsal

ICE House: view of violin, wind, guitar groups [clockwise from left]

Guitar group: Ethan, Dan Lippel (ICE), TJ, Jack, Kyle [left-to-right]

Wind group: Rebekah Heller (ICE),  Matt, Daphne, Joseph, Owen [clockwise, from top]

Assorted (treble) group: Juan, Jonah, Liz, Erik Carlson (ICE), Claire Chase (ICE: only end of flute visible) [from left-to-right]

Violin group: Jennifer Curtis (ICE), Carla Kihlstedt (hidden), Paris, Sophia, Will (hidden behind on the stairs) [front-to-back]

Percussion group: Harun, Nils, Nathan Davis (ICE), Yonatan, Juliana (hidden) [front-to-back] 

Percussion group: Nathan Davis (ICE), Harun, Nils, Juliana, Yonatan [front-to-back]

Guitar group: Kyle, Jack, TJ, Dan Lippel (ICE), Ethan [left-to-right]

Guitars: Kyle, TJ [left-to-right]

Clarinet: Juan

Piano: Dean, Joshua Rubin (ICE, standing), parents (seated behind)

Percussion: Yonatan, Juliana [right-to-left]

Winds: Rebekah Heller (ICE), Matt [left-to-right]

Violin: Will

Wind group: Rebekah Heller (ICE),  Matt, Daphne, Joseph, Owen [clockwise, from top]

Percussion: Nathan Davis (ICE), Nils, Juliana [left-to-right]

Winds: Daphne, Joseph, Owen [left-to-right]



Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Musical Aside: Carla in the ICE House

Nine days from today, the New Sounds Live and the Ecstatic Music Festival will present a program of new music which will include the world premiere of At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire. This piece was composed by Carla Kihlstedt and commissioned by ICElab.  ICE stands for the International Contemporary Ensemble. This event will take place at Merkin Hall in New York City, 7:30PM, on Saturday, January 26, 2013.

The Merkin Hall press release offers this description of Carla's piece:  "Multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and composer Carla Kihlstedt joins the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) to premiere Kihlstedt's new ICElab commission, At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire.  Written for nine members of ICE plus Kihlstedt, the song cycle is based on images, impressions and textures taken from dreams from various sources, including the players themselves.

"The title of At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire is a translation of a Latin palindrome:  In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni....Kihlstedt brings her experience as both a songwriter and an improviser to the piece [consisting of nine through-composed songs].

"As Kihlstedt explains: 'I've always been struck by the dissonance between our waking and sleeping lives.  Regardless of the fact that we spend such significant time in both worlds, we have to leave one to enter the other, bringing with us only the faintest residue, image or inscrutable sensation.  My goal with this piece was to bridge these two worlds as much is possible -- to access the unpredictable logic of the dream world, using the particular characters and talents of each musician.'"

If this description, itself, hasn’t intrigued you, maybe the photographs below of the individual performers will help pique your interest.  I took these one day last month, when I accompanied Carla to the ICEhouse in Brooklyn: she to rehearse with the nine members of ICE who will perform with her in Merkin Hall on January 26, 2013; I to walk around a new part of New York in search of interesting photographic subjects.

Carla Kihlstedt, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Carla Kihlstedt, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Carla Kihlstedt has trained as a violinist at the Peabody Institute, the San Francisco Conservatory and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.  She is also a singer, composer and major musical improviser, and she teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music.  

As a collaborative artist, Carla has been a founder and principal member of several diverse musical groups, including Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Tin Hat Trio (now Tin Hat), 2 Foot Yard, Causing a Tiger, Book of Knots, Minamo, and Rabbit Rabbit Radio.

Claire Chase, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Claire Chase, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Claire Chase is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory, a co-founder of ICE and its artistic director.  The latter position has impelled her beyond being simply a masterful flute soloist and collaborative artist, but also a curator and arts entrepreneur.  In that capacity, she became a 2012 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship for her role in forging a new model for the commissioning, recording, and performing of contemporary classical music.

Dan Lippel, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Dan Lippel, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Guitarist Dan Lippel earned a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Manhattan School of Music and is the founder and artistic director of New Focus Recordings, an independent label specializing in contemporary classical music

Erik Carlson, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Erik Carlson, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Erik Carlson holds a Master's degree from the Julliard School, is a violinist and composer, and (beyond ICE) is a member of the Talea Ensemble and the founder of the New York Miniaturist Ensemble.

Jennifer Curtis, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Jennifer Curtis, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Jennifer Curtis holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Mills College and a Master of Music degree from the Julliard School.  She is a violinist and composer and, besides being a member of ICE, she is the founder and artistic director of Tres Americas Ensemble, a group dedicated to the Celebration and preservation of musical traditions of North, Central and South America. 

Joshua Rubin, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Joshua Rubin, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Joshua Rubin is a clarinetist, co-founder and program director of ICE, overseeing more than fifty concerts/season, world-wide.  He holds Bachelor's degrees in Biology and Music from Oberlin College and the Oberlin Conservatory, as well as a Master's degree from the Mannes College of Music.  

Rebekah Heller, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Rebekah Heller, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Rebekah Heller, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Bassoonist Rebekah Heller holds Bachelor's degrees in English Literature and Music from Oberlin College and the Oberlin Conservatory, as well as a Master of Music degree from the University of Texas at Austin.

Nathan Davis, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Tools of the Trade, Nathan Davis, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Bucket O'Mallets, Nathan Davis, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Percussionist Nathan Davis holds Bachelor's degrees in composition and in percussion from Rice University and a Master's in Music from Yale University.   He studied at Rotterdams Conservatorium as a Fulbright Fellow and directs the Contemporary performance Lab at Dartmouth College.

Phyllis Chen, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Phyllis Chen, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Phyllis Chen, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Phyllis Chen attended the Oberlin Conservatory and holds a Master's degree from Northwestern University.  She also is pursuing a DMA in piano performance at Indiana University under André Watts, and she founded the UnCaged Toy Piano.

Bridget Kibbey, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012

Bridget Kibbey, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Bridget Kibbey, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Bridget Kibbey, Brooklyn, ICEhouse rehearsal, December 2012
Bridget Kibbey holds Bachelor of Music and Master of Music degrees from the Julliard School, and she a member of the harp faculties at Bard College, New York University and the Julliard School Pre-College program.

At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire rehearsal, Brooklyn, ICEhouse, December 2012
At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire rehearsal, Brooklyn, ICEhouse, December 2012

The International Contemporary Ensemble, founded in 2001 by Claire Chase and Joshua Rubin “on a Greyhound bus en route from Oberlin to Chicago,” consists of a flexible roster of thirty-three leading instrumentalists and is dedicated to “advancing the music of our time by developing innovative new works and pursuing groundbreaking strategies for audience engagement.” 

With the support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, ICE launched ICElab in early 2011 as a way to collaborate with emerging composers and develop works that push the boundaries of musical exploration.

The January 26, 2013 program at Merkin Hall is ICElab's collaborative venture with Carla Kihlstedt.  Besides the world premiere of Carla’s composition, At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire, ICE will join Causing a Tiger and Face the Music to perform George Lewis’ Artificial Life (2007). I hope to see many of you at Merkin Hall next week for this New Sounds Live and Ecstatic Music festival performance.

FYI: ICE and Carla will perform At Night We Walk... on February 16 at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art and on April 11 at the Atlas Theater in Washington, DC.