Friday, December 30, 2011

OCCUPY MUSICIANS--The Pulse of Revolution

Musicians as Cultural Warriors in the Occupy Movement
By John Pietaro

For as long as there has been dissent, there has been the protest song. In the people’s history, the fight for social justice has always been accompanied by, inspired by the voices of outspoken songwriters, the daring harmonies of dissident composers, the passionate cry of radical poets and the compelling news reports of the topical balladeer. This is the drumbeat of radicalism. Phil Ochs told us that every headline can be realized as verse just as he cautioned us that, “a protest song is something you don’t hear on the radio”. But regardless of popular acceptance or not, the music of revolution prevails. 

One can easily trace work songs back to the earliest toilers and songs of revolt directly to the movements to organize—in each era. Reviewing poetry or ballads composed on slave ships, within workers’ hovels or concentration camps, or in cold urban landscapes, we can not only gain valuable information about earlier uprisings against injustice, but develop a visceral understanding of them. Where progressive history books offer core stories and important dates, topical art-forms deliver the fervor, the agitation, the struggle of the embattled to survive and then to live. Bread and roses. 

Often artists can become overwhelmed by the stressors in their midst. In the US, the creative community has never had adequate funding or respect, so in times of fiscal constraint, we can easily fall victim. Further, audiences during lean years find it easier to simply avoid. Popular culture reflects this in “the feel-good movie of the year” or the litany of Top 40 hits that are pure escapism. 

After eight years of Bush and Cheney, with the rise of cowboy capitalism, first-strike offenses and a repressive economy, progressives of every shade began to build a protest movement of ebbs and flows. Many sought out change through the Obama candidacy. With the promise of the nation’s first African American president, one who’d had a background as a community organizer, countless among us were moved to rebuild a progressive base. But Obama’s drive toward conciliation with the forces of reaction for far too long turned many off. The teabaggers were all over the news and every brand of lunatic flooded the right-wing. Oh, there were pockets of celebrated rebellion: Wisconsin taught us all. But on the heels of that amazing takeover, Occupy Wall Street happened. And then nothing was the same. 

In my own experience as a musician and a cultural organizer (one moved toward Left philosophy as a direct result of the first Reagan term!), I’d long sought out something—anything—like OWS. And here came a disparate group with no visible leader, one that united all facets of the Left, liberalism, and Labor, and not just the most progressive of unions. Yeah, it turned out to be this generation’s Popular Front. After my first visit to Zuccotti Park, I was drawn to return many times, usually carrying a drum. The first time I sat in with the pulsating mass of a drum circle, I realized the distance our message could carry. How voluminous the voice of a determined, unified group! We breathed as one through percussion and this was evidenced by the reactions of the beaming, dancing passerby, often wearing designer suits and Italian shoes but sharing in a historic moment with this band of rad rhythmatists. 

Though drum circles are empowering and an excellent means to build still larger masses, there is a need for musicians of conscience to forge a more cohesive unit, a cultural arm of OWS. Rather than the occasional folksinger or rapper writing an anthem for the movement, why couldn’t there be, shouldn’t there be a solid, committed organization which would feed the protest, inspire creativity and then take it out to the wider populace? The Occupy Musicians group ( is an exciting means toward this goal. Hundreds of signatories and a series of events has fortified the organization’s dawning. Now what’s left to do is to draw on the considerable strengths of musicians of conscience; we must agitate, educate and organize through song, through verse, through shout and stomp, through musical weaponry.
Using earlier cultural movements as models, we can draw on the work of the bards, the songsters, poets, playwrights and journalists of the Industrial Workers of the World. This radical internationalist union counted artists in their front line of organizers. This spawned the likes of Joe Hill; no mean feat! And the Socialist Party in the first decades of the 20th century also laid the ground work for later models. It did so with the likes of Jack London and Carl Sandburg and by the 1930s founded the Radical Arts Group toward the establishment of a national cultural program. However it was the Communist Party which, in the 1930s and ‘40s, successfully founded a cultural commission of widespread proportions. It not only counted artists such as Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Dalton Trumbo, Hazel Scott and the Almanac Singers in its ranks, but a massive list of fellow travelers across the country. Of important note are the arts collectives under CP cultural auspices which were both activist bases and educational seminars for all genres: the John Reed Club, the League of American Writers, the American Artists’ Congress, the Red Dancers, and the Composers Collective of New York which produced contemporary classical works that were at least as daring musically as they were politically!

The generation of folksingers in the 1960s became the very soul of the struggles of civil rights and peace. Immortal, moving works were created and tirelessly sang at each rally and march. Folk revival musicians such as Bob Dylan, Odetta, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez wrote the anthems that acted as shields against the assaults of the police and the national guard, as did the songs which had originated in southern Black churches. Performers like the Freedom Singers made all the difference in the world when staring down Bull Connor. And the Black Arts Movement offered creative guidance along with fiery radical sounds to urban centers. Avant garde jazz figured highly into this scene, as well it should in today’s movement. Legendary names like Amiri Baraka, the late Sam Rivers, the AACM and Black Arts Group were instrumental, so to speak, in countless seminars, rallies, gatherings and confrontations. There’s was a music which celebrated African culture as it fought for American rights through the most creative means.

The Punk movement often carried with it an anarchist message, or in the least an intolerance for mere compliance. While some aspects of Punk could seem right-wing due to the presence of fascist imagery (to shock) most Punks were drawn to the Left messages found in the music of the Clash and the fight against Reaganism launched by the Dead Kennedys. Punk also turned “DIY” into a freedom cry for all artists. Hip Hop has also stood out as a people’s movement which has called on multiple generations to speak out. For every gangsta rapper there are scores of Hip Hop artists who use their poetry and music as a means of unity and expression: life and survival in the ghettos, exposing social ills and the need for social change are mainstays. Some rappers are inspired by the Beat poets of the ‘50s, and most are well aware of the radical statements of Gil-Scott Heron. Rappers like Dead Prez and Immortal Technique have focused on a specific kind of topical Hip Hop. 

MUSICIANS ALIGNED WITH THE OWS MOVEMENT need to make a close study of the history of cultural workers in building a lasting organization. Occupy Musicians should call on composers, improvisers, rappers, singers, songwriters and instrumentalists; there’s a need for pop singers, jazz and contemporary classical musicians, hip hop artists, world music performers, folkies, satirists, rockers, balladeers and punks. We must speak in every language, to every taste, to allow for the unrestrained flow of outreach. And we need to establish a series of awareness-raising concerts, to circulate recordings of OWS musicians and offer teach-ins and workshops to not only insure continuity of current artists but to inspire the generations to come. Occupy Musicians can not only offer a soundtrack to OWS but can drive it with Shock Brigade bands to descend upon rallies and marches. And to really be thorough, we need to do so in concert with radical poets, performance artists and other cultural workers. 

Occupy Musicians can become an integral part of Occupy movements all over the nation, all over the world. And through both concert presentations and social media we can grow a network that will keep live music relevant even as it carries activists to the necessary next level, true social and political change. Upward, onward.

-John Pietaro is a musician, writer ( and activist from Brooklyn NY. He is the leader of Radio NOIR ( and the director of the annual Dissident Arts Festival.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

LIVE IN CONCERT: Radio NOIR & guests at ABC No Rio

Here's a concert recording of a rather expanded Radio NOIR line-up performing at the C.O.M.A. experimental music series at ABC No Rio, the celebrated anarchist space in NYC, 12/18/11. John Pietaro (xylophone, frame drums, percussion, spoken word), Javier Hernandez-Miyares (elec guitar), Laurie Towers (electric bass) with guests Frederika Krier (violin) and Rocco John Iacovone (soprano and alto saxophones). Our regular fourth member, clarinetist Quincy Saul, was unavailable for the gig as he was in Durban South Africa reporting on the Climate Conference (a pretty good excuse if I may say!) so we adapted some of our regular material to this line-up and of course added in some new things too. We'd also planned on performing a newly realized version of the brilliant Phil Ochs song, "No Christmas in Kentucky" but unfortunately there was not enough time. Still, this was a notable evening of music-on-the-edge.
Much thanks to the very talented Frederika and Rocco for being a part of this day. For more info on ABC No Rio and the COMA experimental music series curated by Blaise Siwula see 
To listen to the recording log on to:
(1) free improv
(2) Langston (Pietaro/Saul)
(3) Pastures of Plenty (Woody Guthrie; arr: Radio NOIR)
(4) the Arbitrator (Iacovone)
(5) Hanns Eisler Speaks: Fantasia in G-Men (prose by Eisler; free improvisation by Radio NOIR)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Radio NOIR plays ABC No Rio

Radio NOIR, the 'dissident swing' combo, will be performing a set of their unique improvisational protest music at noted anarchist performance space ABC No Rio, on Sunday Dec 18, 2011---one of the final concerts in the COMA experimental music series before the space closes its doors for a lengthy remodeling. Works will include reconstructions of Hanns Eisler and Woody Guthrie pieces, plus free improvisation, twisted standards and modernist blues. John Pietaro (xylophone, percussion, voice), Javier Hernandez-Miyares (electric guitar, effects), Laurie Towers (electric bass) and as our clarinetist Quincy Saul is proudly away on important activist business in Durban South Africa, we will be joined by guest saxophonist Rocco John Iacovone among other special guests.

PLUS Blaise Siwula's duet AND an open session!

Sunday Dec 18, 7PM, ABC No Rio 156 Rivington Street, NYC

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Free Jazz as Cultural Revolution: Karl Berger & The Stone Workshop Orchestra in Review from Inside

                                                                 (Photo by Don Mount)

Free Jazz as Cultural Revolution: 
Karl Berger & The Stone Workshop Orchestra in Review from Inside

By John Pietaro

The Stone stands quietly and without fanfare at the corner of Avenue C and East 2nd Street. The club is set in an old store front that still bears the markings of pre-gentrified Alphabet City. So unassuming is it that there’s no sign over its door proclaiming that a new experimental music space—one which features the free exchange of art and ideas--has taken back part of New York otherwise lost to the developers and yuppies. The Lower East Side , New York’s historic center of alternative arts and struggle, survived years of neglect and decay during which it was shunned by a larger society attempting to cut off its immigrant and poor population just until the ‘hood became fashionable. And as its boarded-up shops transformed into bistros, it ‘became’ the East Village and was sold to the highest bidder. And somehow post-modern saxophonist John Zorn made a grab to claim some of this prized territory for the movement. This community --where Beat poetry found its home, where the most radical of Left activists congregated, where jazz’s loft scene was birthed, where the punk movement began and where the post-punk avant garde coalesced into No Wave—has taken back one of its lost corners. There’s cause to celebrate but the Stone remains the Village’s best-kept secret. And the noise about it only seems to occur within.
 Having enjoyed memorable performances in LES clubs and galleries back when there was a healthy scene harboring this kind of music, I well remember the once-affordable community and its phalanx of artists, anarchists, addicts, dealers, homeless, Hell’s Angels and poverty-stricken residents. No, they weren’t really good old times because there was too much hurt and yet the area held a strange beauty that’s long gone. Walking through the door of the Stone brings me back almost immediately. The space is tight, intimate. The lights are dim. The energy is whirling, barely contained in the walls about me. I felt it on my first visit: Musicians flow in, greeting each other with warm, jovial exchanges, laughs, and discussions about a recent tour with this or that one, the last gig with so-and-so, or baseball scores and small talk. Dressed down, unpacking their axes these men and women are as unassuming as the club itself. I walk over the uneven floorboards and find a spot near the back, next to the drummer and two upright bassists preparing for the evening’s excursion. I stand amidst a mini xylophone or glockenspiel, large and small frame drums, several small hand-held percussives, sometimes a dumbek, and a pair of crowded racks sporting woodblocks, temple blocks, cowbells and a triangle. Somehow I set it up in a manner that’s workable but not imposing to the tightly-packed band, which ranges from a minimum of 12 members to a more standard number of about 23. The immediacy of those around me seems to extend well beyond the physical.
Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso enter the room, gently reaching out to the musicians sitting in a two-rowed semi-circle. The band responds in kind, offering greetings, brief bits of humorous tales and other chitchat. But this is not a mere social call. Soon Karl seats himself caddy-corner at the piano and offers some basic ideas as to what the music will be like tonight. In some cases choosing pieces he’s worked on with the Orchestra before, in others, introducing brand new ones without warning, of course. 
The compositions are often his own but just as likely penned by the Ornette Coleman or Don Cherry, or other past collaborators. Many are drawn from the repertoire of world folk songs (Karl is especially fond of Turkish music). But it can never be said that there is anything assumed or pre-planned about this band’s music. There is NEVER a written score and when the band needs to learn a jazz head or other melody, it is simply played at the piano, at times slowly and repetitively, until the musicians are comfortable with what’s to come. Karl offers some info on the particular mode or the tradition in which the piece was developed as his hands lightly run over piano keys. The musicians are all veterans and adept at this kind of performance, but Karl’s advice and philosophical guidance are never taken begrudgingly. “Please let’s remember to pay close attention to dynamics in this passage,” Karl is wont to explain as he demonstrates the importance of the phrasing in a piece. Standing now, he raises a hand and gently fans it downward: “You can almost leave that last note out completely. In fact, I would like some of you to fade the phrase just before it ends to really exaggerate the emotion. Deeee-da. Deeee-da”. And the music, already inspired and executed beautifully, comes fully alive. By design, this band is geared toward the highest level of creativity, and the tools of such creativity--free improvisation, on-the-spot composition, modernist harmonies, world rhythms, technical expertise, and latter-day angst—are in constant demand here.
The Stone Workshop Orchestra’s sound is born of the moment, founded by the players’ instincts, skill and need to emote----and it’s then organized by Karl’s artful hand and facial expressions. Sculptor-like, he molds and shapes the aural force emanating from this collection of brass, reeds, strings and percussion set before him. Refusing to consider his part in this as conduction (“really, this is not so specific, I just cue and offer guidance, you do the rest…”), Berger none the less has developed an incredible language of his own; never losing sight of the musicians’ individuality, he plays the orchestra. Karl’s unique hand signals--and welcoming eye contact---bring in sections, soloists or the tutti ensemble, and in doing so, establishes range, tempo, volume, timbre and vibe. 
Through his cues the band knows the direction and shape as well as the duration of the notes to be played---but the specific notes remain our own. He guides orchestral accents behind the force of a soloist’s excursion, adding to the soundscape and fierce intensity. Karl then layers one solo over another and calls on this or that accompaniment—which ultimately is seen as just an important a voice in the mix and may very well take over the spotlight. Feel is paramount and interpretation is demanded. Its clearly there in the leader’s eyes each time he becomes engulfed in the tapestry. Leaning back into the sound in a moment of particularly rich improvised harmony, Karl adds: “It took Gil Evans two years to write a chord like that!”
 So what of this orchestra? Since I began this weekly gig in early September 2011, it has proven itself as a wonderfully expansive vision of what a ‘big band’ could be. The line-up has often shifted in membership with a solid core of regulars and a series of guests who are passing through New York while on tour. Each Monday I have seen new faces, heard new accents and reveled in new and exciting musical concepts. The musicians qualify as a united nations of Free Jazz, among them Karl Berger - Piano and Conducting, Ingrid Sertso - Voice, Thomas Heberer - Trumpet, Brian Groder – Trumpet, Bob Selcoe - Trumpet, Herb Robertson – Trumpet, Steve Swell - Trombone, Rick Parker –Trombone, Avram Fefer - Soprano Sax, Stephen Gauci - Tenor Sax, Yoni Kretzmer - Tenor Sax, Darryl Foster – Tenor and Soprano Saxes, Esa Pietila - Tenor Sax, Dave Schnug - Alto Sax, Mercedes Figuera - Alto Sax, Blaise Siwula – Alto Sax, Mikko Innanen – Alto Sax, Jason Candler - Alto Sax/Alto Clarinet, Bill Ylitalo – Alto Sax, Welf Doerr – Alto Sax, Ricardo Tejero – Clarinet, Michael Lytle - Bass Clarinet, Ken Ya Kawaguchi – Shakuhachi, Sylvain Leroux - Flutes, Peter Buettner – Flutes, Frederika Krier - Violin,  David Bakriges - Violin, Cecile Borche – Violin, Mossa Bildner - Voice, Kenny Wessel - Guitar, Harvey Valdes - Guitar, John Ehlis – Mandolin and Guitar, Adam Lane – Bass, Hilliard Greene – Bass, Dominic Lash - Bass, Dave Perrott - Bass, Ken Filiano – Bass, Lou Grassi – Drums, Harvey Sorgen - Drums, John Pietaro - Percussion, Philip Foster – ‘Odds and Ends’. And the many others whose names have escaped me and I hope to meet again.

The final performance of the Stone Workshop Orchestra—at least in this incarnation—occurred on December 5, during which time the Stone’s inner walls shook under the weight of the music. Two full concert sets (no workshop for this gig) left the room dank with perspiration and brimming with intensity. Guest soloists, to really drive the point home, were legendary avant alto player John Zorn and the brilliant trumpet and slide-trumpet player Steven Bernstein, and the band exploded under and about these two voices of unbridled improvisation. Zorn seeking no attention, remained reserved before putting horn to mouth, but wailed and shook over his instrument like a feverish, davoning rabbi when he played. The ensemble shouted accents as Zorn sonically fought back the depth hovering just above, drawing from and warding off the wall of music he encountered. From my spot near the back, with a line of winds and strings immediately in front, dual basses to my right and drums just behind, the room seemed to ascend with Karl’s conducting wizardy guiding the journey. And just then Steven Bernstein hollered across the thicket with a slide trumpet improvisation that should have lifted off the roof, polyrhythmic pulsations falling over the brass call to arms. New visions of a developed repertoire spoke volumes about the potential for this band. No one could accept that it would simply end; the rush to find a new site is on with plans being carefully laid for a new residency and a series of other performances to continue the mission.
  As winter’s chill arrives on the Lower East Side, the echo of musical liberation descends over the luxury condos and gourmet delis, declaring the legacy of fearless creativity. And in its resonance, the music tears away the cloud of conformity and clears the path for further generations of New Music. 

-John Pietaro is a musician and writer from Brooklyn, NY. His websites are and

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