Sunday, June 19, 2011


in photo: Upsurge!


August 13, 3PM - 11PM The Brecht Forum 451 West Street (between Bank and Bethune streets), New York NY 212-242-4201

Producer/Organizer – John Pietaro, Poetry Director- Steve Bloom

New York, NY: In the midst of reactionary fear-mongering, ongoing war, rising unemployment and a right-wing assault on organized labor, progressive artists speak out for social justice. The Dissident Arts Festival, now in its sixth year, is a platform for cultural workers to create, sing, recite, improvise, act and orate against war and inequity and in honor of the struggle of workers and the globally oppressed. Event organizer John Pietaro, a cultural and labor organizer, is proud to present the Dissident Arts Festival in conjunction with the Brecht Forum.

Festival performers include:
San Francisco’s radical poetry/jazz ensemble UPSURGE!
The explosive post-modern jazz band SECRET ARCHITECTURE
Art Deco-damaged protest/improv music RADIO NOIR
Jazz violinist/vocalist GWEN LASTER and her ensemble
Topical singer/songwriter JUDY GORMAN
Political satirist DAVE LIPPMAN


The Festival will open with a screening of the long-blacklisted film ‘SALT OF THE EARTH’; discussion led by film artist KEVIN KEATING will follow

The Dissident Arts Festival was founded in Beacon NY, 2006 with a primary goal of establishing an annual showcase of politically progressive music, poetry and performance art---perhaps the only such vehicle in the nation. But this Festival has always sought to bring together a wide variety of sounds and styles, tearing down boundaries, bending rules and infusing all of the arts with the strongest, most radical activism, where folk-protest song meets free improvisation and contemporary composition. Featured among our past performers and speakers were actor/raconteur Malachy McCourt, folk legend Pete Seeger, poet Louis Reyes Rivera, revolutionary hip hop group ReadNex Poetry Squad, protest/garage band The Last Internationale, labor luminary Henry Foner, topical singer Bev Grant, ‘anti-folk’ singer Lach, and filmmaker Kevin Keating (“Giuliani Time”). We presented tributes to Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Bertolt Brecht and Phil Ochs along the way. As of 2010, the Festival became affiliated with the Brecht Forum, a center of Left education and culture which has proven itself the perfect host of the Dissident Arts Festival.

The arts ARE a weapon for social change…….

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Revolution in Sound, Sound Sources, Sound Design: ‘Roulette’ Comes to Brooklyn and Celebrates Cage

A Revolution in Sound, Sound Sources, Sound Design: ‘Roulette’ Comes to Brooklyn and Celebrates Cage

By John Pietaro

Roulette, the performance space that helped to usher in ‘new music ‘ when it was still new and spawned a generation of experimental musicians, is moving to a new, cavernous auditorium in downtown Brooklyn. With the club’s penchant for the avant garde this in itself is something to celebrate for all of us on this side of the Bridge, but this weekend of June 4th to 5th, Roulette gave its new borough a preview to not be forgotten; “Musicircus” descended upon Atlantic Avenue and the grey skies above quaked with the vibrations John Cage called for. This “carnival of all things experimental” was first performed, if you will, by Cage in 1967, but in the I Ching musical world of this stalwart of modernism, the intent of Musicircus was more in line with the happenings and soundouts of the day than anything Carnegie Hall’s regulars could then imagine. Cage simply invited disparate performers to assemble together in solo settings or small groupings and engage in simultaneous performance—which may or may not be influenced by what was going on in the other side of the room. In 1967---and today---artists were instructed to “resist the temptation to react to what is going on around them but remain centered in their own artistic creation. The audience is invited to wander freely and choose their own sonic and visual relationships”.

Like Cage, Roulette has always been a place where those who were progressive well beyond their artistic vision could safely gather. Today was no exception; one could imagine the pained looks that might have been offered by a passing teabagger. This was where free expression of art morphed into a much larger freedom.

I entered the auditorium on Sunday afternoon, having unfortunately missed the first day’s proceedings, and was immediately greeted by the intensely swinging, powerfully post-modern jazz of Secret Architecture. Led by the monstrous chops of drummer Zach Mangan, the band also sported alto and tenor saxophonists, piano and upright bass, but within this rather ordinary looking consortium sat an explosion of burning jazz improvisation held together by killer tutti riffs and very hip, yearning, melodies which coalesced into a labyrinth of sound. I should add that about mid-way through their set, two dancers clad in mesh body suits and crochet hoods (which completely covered their faces, heads and necks on this relatively warm day!) at the behest of performance artist Liliana Dirks-Goodman took over the center of the room, laying out angular shapes on the floor with multi-colored tape. Inspired by the quaking music of Secret Architecture and the disconnected bursts of sound from Fast Forward’s kitchen-utensil percussion and someone playing with live electronics over to the side, the pair decorated the floor space with interlocking red, yellow and green patterns that I was sure would be used to establish the outer edges of a dance stage, but, naturally, no dance piece followed.

Various acts came and went over the course of the several hours I attended, including Hammer of Hathor, a trio comprised of alto saxophone, tenor saxophone and amplified acoustic guitar playing a pointillistic piece triggered by a series of tape loops. The hocketing, in the company of background electronics and Fast Forward now hurling a pot high into the air and attempting to catch it over and over again into a slightly larger one (often he missed but then the resulting kerrang seemed about right), offered a beautiful bizarreness that would have put a smile on the face of any fan of incidental art.

While the event encouraged no “star” performers, a couple were present this weekend nonetheless. Among these were composer Margaret Leng Tan on Saturday and woodwind player/composer Elliot Sharp on Sunday. Sharp moved to a microphone with no fanfare, though it soon became apparent that the fans of new music recognized him. Playing short, biting clarinet tones, Sharp established the basis for a piece that would soon develop into one of his classic improvs. Amazingly he carried through (heeding Cage’s instructions) even as a new maelstrom of electronics blared on about him, an unnamed soprano on the balcony sang out in a hauntingly bellowing voice, choreographer Koosil-ja swirled through the crowd while wearing head and arm sensors and creating brainwave tones, a trumpet trio played Beethoven’s oft-quoted Symphony Number 9 chorus melody, Fast Forward noisily juggled u-shaped metals and a guy playing a vintage electric guitar with a series of electronic-triggered bass drum pedals offered a throbbing accompaniment to something other. Sharp, with circular breathing, screamed over the top with both clarinet and curved soprano simultaneously (Rahsaan-like) in his mouth and guitar/drum man added a loud rhythm machine to it all, perhaps to further test the rules of happenstance.

As the atmosphere grew thick with aural revolution, Bradford Reed came onto the scene, setting up his ‘pencilina’, an instrument that appeared to be an antique, oversized dulcimer of sorts, affixed with a bass-heavy pick-up. Alternately with a bow and a pair of sticks, he coaxed Chapman Stick-like textures from what appeared to be an instrument from an earlier time. He was paired with Sasha Welsh a choreographer/visual artist who rolled out a long piece of drawing paper and proceeded to cover it with swooping arches and shapes from her felt-tip markers. Perhaps accidentally, a lighting tech through splashing beams this way and that, into the eyes of the spectators, the performers and against the floors and walls. As I stood in the center of the room, the wash of sound cascading and crashing around me, I became momentarily lifted out of the moment. Here the purest level of improvisation met 20th century harmonies and post-modernism danced dangerously with post-punk, throwing pop culture to the wind and convention to a roll of the dice. . .

Later, I had the chance to speak with Elliot Sharp out front. “I have no expectations with a performance like this”, the saxophonist explained, “Ideas start and stop and you need to move with them. But freedom is meaningless without a frame work of sorts”. As we talked about music, the old Knitting Factory and the place of politics in music, we were serenaded by the echoes of Roulette’s Cage-lovers and the tinkling of a vibraphone set out front, brandishing a sign to passersby, “Play me”. Sharp explained that “all music is political and you can make a strong statement about this without being didactic. I was part of the original Radical Jewish Culture event, but after I argued against the Zionism they pushed, I was left out of all of the later gatherings. And that’s alright. This music must rise above the restraints one people have over another”.

And that seems to be the whole point. Revolutionary music must reject the divisiveness that so easily pulls us apart. Here, in the shadow of John Cage’s I Ching-inspired risks, there was no sign of anything other that the fabric of creativity that shouts down any hint of conservatism.

Moved as I was upon my exit from the conversation, I leapt at the chance to get to the shimmering Musser vibraphone discreetly chained to Roulette’s wrought-iron rail. Four mallets sat in a mallet bag hanging on the side of the instrument. I snapped them up before another curious stroller could and through myself into the aluminum bars deftly, flailing over jazz runs and chord clouds that inspired a new series of onlookers to stop and stare and hopefully go on inside the center of it all.

Damn, Roulette has come to Brooklyn.

( for more info on Roulette see

Saturday, June 4, 2011


by John Pietaro

It occurred to me some years ago that with all of the music and arts festivals that happen each year in and around New York, none seem to be dedicated exclusively to Left culture. Sure there are lots of special events dedicated to this or that special radical personality or anniversary, and progressives of one sort or another were always around, but what about a yearly celebration of protest arts? They have this kind of thing in Europe for certain, but why not here?

I began producing some of those special events, such as the Hanns Eisler Centenary Festival in 1998 and a series of concerts for May Day, the birth anniversaries of Phil Ochs and Woody Guthrie, concerts to raise funds for the IWW and to mourn the loss of Sis Cunningham, but had as a goal something with a much wider grasp.

In 2005 while living in Beacon NY for the first of five years, I set my sights on the grand Howland Cultural Center, "the jewel of Beacon", a hundred year old mansion that had served as a library prior to moving into the performance space business. With a cavernous ceiling, the space is renowned for its amazing acoustics and hip vibes. Further, the anti-war, pro-worker crowd that had been gathering in this part of the Hudson Valley for decades often coalesced at this site and Pete Seeger was not only a benefactor of the Howland but a frequent performer. Yes, if there was any place to devise such a spectacular to begin a tradition, it was there.

Surrounded by the plethora of folk-oriented musicians and singers and a brilliant tradition of folk art that filled the towns and byways of the Hudson Valley, that first year it seemed only right to deem my event 'the Dissident Folk Festival'. I had as a goal not only the celebration of protest song and poetry but to seek actual dissidence within the folk scene itself; this was to be a concert which celebrated the often-lost spirit of radicalism within the repertoire. The spirit of the revolutionary cultural worker so important to the tradition would be plucked from oblivion and displayed proudly for all to see. Here was a biting opposition to the polite folk concerts of recent decades. This was also to be an event which celebrated diversity in every way; I refused to feature one white guy with a guitar after another. So the first of the two-day Fest closed with a tribute to Woody Guthrie which featured both a near ninety year old Pete Seeger and Woody's twenty-something granddaughter Anna Canoni. The second day closed with a tribute to Paul Robeson, who was embodied by the uncanny voice of Kenneth Anderson and the musings and memories of labor heavy Henry Foner, president then of the Paul Robeson Society.

That first year the Festival featured a wonderful assortment of performers including actor and raconteur Malachy McCourt (then on the New York gubernatorial campaign trail, running as a Green) as well as 'anti-folk' founder Lach, the Pittsburgh Raging Grannies, young singer/songwriter Holly-Go-Anarchy, seasoned topical songstress Bev Grant, Mexican singer/guitarist Zenote Sompantle, my own Flames of Discontent (of which I was front man)and an array of others. I was not only one of the performers but served as house drummer, stage manager and MC. It was exhausting but I never felt the impact of that till well after Sunday night. It was electric! The local press responded better than expected, offering us articles in newspapers and magazines and I developed a particularly special relationship with WDST-FM Radio Woodstock which not only played the Flames of Discontent's recordings but also had us on live in studio and had me as a regular call-in to the morning show for a few years. It was a nice moment.

By year two the event had become a single-day concert and the name had been changed to Dissident Folk & Arts Festival' to indicate the wider grasp I was going for. That night closed off with a powerful tribute to Bertolt Brecht with performances of his most revolutionary cabaret music and poetry.

In 2010 when my much better half, Laurie, and I moved back to Brooklyn from upstate, I brought the Festival downtown and it was finally morphed into the Dissident Arts Festival, where I'd been leaning all along. Sure, topical folkies are still featured performers but the accent is on modernist sounds, improv, radical jazz and more. The poetry sometimes blends right into the music and I am always hoping to take this further by finding just the right avant garde painter or dancer to become entrenched in it all. While the Fest may have been born of the spacious sounds and cool vibes of the Hudson Valley, the heart of its dissidence is purely New York City and the heat of all that goes on here. Finding a home in the Brecht Forum seemed like kismet. Last year the show included poet Louis Reyes Rivera, filmmaker Kevin Keating (and his film 'Giuliani Time'), garage/rad band the Last Internationale, revolutionary rappers ReadNex Poetry Squad, folksinger Bev Grant, percussionist/poet Rafael Figueroa and others.

The 2011 edition of THE DISSIDENT ARTS FESTIVAL will feature a wide array of artists of conscience ranging from radical jazz musicians to protest-folkies to experimental artists and everything in between. Revolutionary sounds of social change. The final list is yet to come, but presently here's what we have in store....

-Upsurge! (radical jazz and poetry ensemble) -
-Gwen Laster (socially conscious jazz violinist) –
-John Pietaro’s Radio Noir (instrumental improv-oriented protest music) -
-Judy Gorman (acoustic topical singer/songwriter) –
-The NY Metro Raging Grannies (sage vocalists of radicalism)-

-Steve Bloom –
-Robert Gibbons –
-Mary-Ellen Sanger –
-Rashida Ismaeli –
-Angelo Verga –

-Dave Lippman & Bard of the Bankers Wild Bill Bailout. (progressive satirist)

presented by John Pietaro and the Brecht Forum
WHEN: Saturday August 13, 2011 WHERE: The Brecht Forum 451 West Street (between Bank and Bethune streets), New York NY 212-242-4201 Now, in the midst of right-wing fear-mongering and teabag hysteria, progressive artists speak out for social justice. The Dissident Arts Festival, now in its fifth year, is a platform for cultural workers to sing, recite, improvise, act and orate against war and inequity, on behalf of human rights and environmentalism, and in honor of the struggle of workers and the globally oppressed.

Event producer John Pietaro is a cultural and labor organizer who performs as a percussionist and vocalist
, and writes for progressive publications.

Poetry director Steve Bloom is a poet and organizer of the Activist Poets Roundtable.

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