Friday, May 17, 2013



Spending countless wonderful hours immersed in music performing and working to organize a series of concerts, not to mention time dedicated to my day job as a union representative (these days with the NYS Nurses Association), I have more than neglected this vehicle of communication, my blog. So when I turned to it just today I made some changes in photos, shifted some things around, added links, etc, but I also came to the realization that I have never used this blog as blogs are intended. Since its founding, THE CULTURAL WORKER was never really written in sort of diary form, I really never thought of this as a voice for my day-to-day thoughts. Instead it became a clearinghouse of all of my writings on radical arts. Not only a catalog of older pieces but also a space for every new article, review or bit of commentary I devised in the period between about 2008 and 2011. I used considerable energy and time writing the bulk of these pieces, what with research and much artful focus, and in the past couple of years this allotment of time energy has been saved for performing free jazz, new music and the like.  One only has so much in reserve! But upon further consideration---and inspired by the blog of friend and fellow musician Matt Lavelle---I have decided that THE CULTURAL WORKER can be all things. So without any more rambling, let me backtrack to where all of this revolutionary fervor in the music originated...

While writing had always come natural to me, I can trace my fusion of it music in the form of one time and event: early September, 1998, as I prepared a speech for The Hanns Eisler Centenary Festival. I had begun organizing the Festival nearly a year prior and had become increasingly fascinated with the tapestry of musical, social and political revolutionary happenings found within Eisler’s manuscripts. This masterful composer, a constant, stinging irritant to the Nazi power structure swelling in and around Germany of the 1920s-early ‘30s, partnered with legendary poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht on some of the most daring of radical theatre works. Eisler’s music, at times the bizarre marriage of atonal lieder and mass marching song, was downright infectious as I listened through scratchy German-language 33 RPM recordings and the occasional hard-to-find CD. The next step was to read the translations of Brecht’s lyrics—and this was the deciding factor. This music was not new to me for I’d become a fan in the early 1980s during college and then engaged in it actively while performing on xylophone and percussion within New York’s Downtown improv scene, but I was now listening with a new, visceral comprehension. And while I’d been enjoying Brecht’s work with Kurt Weill for many years, and it pulled me in deeply, Eisler’s rawness—a painful rawness wrapped in bold Modernism--seemed to be the apex of revolution as art. Suddenly, all of my Left inclinations toward music up until that point became clear and vital to me. 

In order to better build this Eisler centenary event, I did earnest research into the man, his music, his personal life and history. I sought out any and all resources available and, after placing an ad in the now defunct New Music bible—‘Ear’ magazine--I organized a wonderful group of diverse musicians, a steering committee, which met at baritone saxophonist and composer Fred Ho’s Brooklyn apartment. While our numbers grew to perhaps a dozen, ultimately Fred, along with composer/guitarist Jeffrey Schanzer, punk guitarist Scott MX Turner, and I became the core the Composers’ Circle for Social Change--a contemporary organization inspired by 1930s coalition the Composers Collective of New York. The Composers Collective’s deep connection to Eisler also served as a model for me to further investigate the important place US-based Communist, Socialist, anarchist and generally radical artists have had within revolutionary movements. My findings were enlightening to say the least.
Research also led me to conduct several powerful interviews, the outcome of which has stayed with me in a marked way over the years. Among those interviewees was Sis Cunningham, whom I visited with in her apartment on West 98th Street in upper Manhattan; it was a veritable folk revival museum. We spent the entire day together, singing radical songs and speaking about Sis’ times with the Almanac Singers, with her late husband and collaborator Gordon Friesen, about her founding of Broadside magazine and of course about the impact that the music of Eisler had on her. Sis’ story is recounted in the main text, but what stayed most with me was the spark in her otherwise very tired-looking eyes as she spoke about Eisler and Brecht’s “In Praise of Learning” and how she taught it to a vocal group comprised of four young, southern mill workers who had no musical training whatsoever. 

I also spent several hours in the Greenwich Village apartment of Mordecai Bauman and his wife Irma, who spoke about not only Eisler’s influence but his company: Mordy had been the vocalist who toured the country with Eisler in the 1930s when he first arrived in the United States, singing Eisler’s melodies as the composer himself accompanied at the piano. He even spoke of the time that one of their performances put them into contact with Arnold Schoenberg, the master composer who’d been an important teacher to Eisler, and whom Eisler had not seen in years. And he spoke of his close friend, Paul Robeson, too. These conversations were dripping with history. 

The Hanns Eisler Centenary Festival occurred at the Brecht Forum, then located in a drafty old office building on West 27th street in Manhattan, on an upper floor reachable only by a small, unsteady elevator. The building reminded you of a setting from a Dashiell Hammett novel, but it was always worth the ride to hear brilliant Marxist lecturers, powerful cultural presentations and vexing discussion. I was proud to have my event occur in such company. Our Festival included performers such as singer-songwriter David Rovics, pianist/composer Bernadette Speech (appearing here as a vocalist), vocalist/guitarist Matt Jones of the SNCC Freedom Singers, poet Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs, plus a representative of the Woody Guthrie Archive and others. Of course there also was ‘the Eisler Project’ ensemble featuring the celebrated musician Fred Ho’s baritone sax (and poetry recitation), noted alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, gifted composer Jeffrey Schanzer’s lead electric guitar, Scott MX Turner’s electric guitar and voice, Larry Towers’ fretless bass and my own drumkit and voice. The group performed unique, indeed radical, adaptations of Eisler’s music, arranged by myself or other members, and also accompanied some of the vocalists. Mordecai Bauman, unannounced, came in to speak as well, but Sis Cunningham, who’d wanted to come until the last moment, was already experiencing illness and needed to cancel. Still, the vibe was electric.

The Festival was a 2-day event including a screening of the Eisler documentary “Solidarity Song”, a panel discussion, and a concert. During our panel discussion, I spoke of the history of Left music as seen from the perspective of the Eisler birth anniversary:

“It is during this year of 1998, specifically July 6, 1998, that composer/activist Hanns Eisler’s centenary occurred. This anniversary arrived with little outward fanfare, but for some of us this was a monumental occasion. Eisler’s one-hundredth, some 36 years following his death, is an opportunity to celebrate music’s role as a tool in the much celebrated and often maligned Class Struggle. This most immediate and expressive of
the arts has an intricate and winding history in its status as an instrument, if you will, for social change. And this history stands within and apart from Eisler’s looming legacy.
Since humanity’s actions have been chronicled, countless composers, performers, indeed cultures have managed to thrive via their tuneful messages of dissent while in the face of great oppression. Whether the oppression has been Euro-American imperialism, tribal-cultural sexism, Eastern-bloc suppression, economic depression or similar onerous behaviors inflicted by our own elected officials, musicians have long fought back through creative means. So relevant was this cultural force that during World War 2, Woody Guthrie’s guitar was tagged: ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’.

It is notable that the fascists harshly condemned Modernism and its proponents: any outspoken, adventurous sounds were immediately labeled “Bolshevist”. While Hitler, Goebbels and associates may have been beyond tasteless in their personal visions of art, the accusation of Leftism was not accidental. The political Left of the 1920s and ‘30s often saw the avant garde as their birth rite. It was new, revolutionary! Communists and Socialists welcomed Modernism, Expressionism, the New Objectivity—even as folklore and roots music became embraced in the search for patriotism by ideologies both Left and Right. This appeal to The People continues to be used functionally by political musicians from these opposite poles, however the lasting output has always been of the Left, the progressive movement. Whether or not the final product was Modern or traditional, 12-tone or plainsong, it was—and is—the intent of the art that ultimately moves the masses…

Perhaps the Eisler Festival’s greatest gift to me was its inspiration toward further writing, further research, further composing and performance of this music of revolution. It led me to focus my musical repertoire on songs of solidarity and struggle and to engage in performance in expansive ways: not only to continue this work as a percussionist, but to embark on a project in which I took on the front-man role, playing banjo and singing. While I thought it would just be a tool for isolated rallies, the focus on this performance medium lasted for several serious years. I  recorded two compact discs in collaboration with my gifted bass player wife Laurie Towers under the auspices of ‘the Flames of Discontent’. My performances of this protest-folk repertoire have ranged from the 2001 rally for striking longshoreman in midtown Manhattan, to the 2004 “Million Worker March” at the Lincoln Memorial, to peace rallies outside West Point Military Academy, annual concerts in commemoration of Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs to performances for May Day in Union Square Park or upstate New York, and to the creation of “the Dissident Arts Festival” and performances for union rallies and The People’s World newspaper’s “Better World Awards” and numerous coffee houses dotting the Hudson Valley. Wasn’t that a time.

The experience of the Hanns Eisler Festival--including the research on writing---also pushed me to become the author of numerous articles for the Left press and to collaborate on book projects with other writers and even to write works of fiction inspired by the working class struggle. A whole world of writers opened up for me and gifted authors such as John Reed, Langston Hughes and Dashiell Hammett became very influential to me. Most profoundly, it also affected my day job, catapulting me from the role of Music Therapist in a Brooklyn hospital into that of union Organizer, working for several progressive unions in both New York City and, for 5 years, in New York’s Hudson Valley. Through it all, the songs of social change provided the soundtrack, the drive. 

And after my return to NYC in 2010, I naturally leapt back into the free jazz/new music scene which I had engaged in so intently in the late 80s and 90s. My primary weapon is the vibraphone in this battle but I am also busy playing hand drums, frame drums, drumkit, xylophone and many other percussives. Upon returning, I found that the underground creative fervor had actually been born anew and the epicenter was in my town of Brooklyn. Talk about a homecoming. And of course, so much of free improvisation is about liberation, so many avant gardists were social activists and the symbolism inherent in the daring and the new couldn't be more obvious in relation to the reactionary world leaking into our existence through the hateful voices of Fox News and the Koch Brothers. This New Jazz that vibrates through the airspace of Williamsburg and Gowanus, the East Village and the West, speaks loudly and often angrily about the inequities in society. And so it is the music of a new day. I suppose it can be said that this entire journey, researching the arts-activism of the past and becoming a part of its present tense, has brought me to the here and now. 

These days I can be found performing with my very revolutionary quartet THE RED MICROPHONE as well as in some of the many assemblages led by reeds master and activist Ras Moshe. I am also the regular percussionist with Karl Berger's Improvisers Orchestra, work with international poet Erika Dagnino whenever she's in town and recently helped to found a new ensemble with trumpeter and alto clarinetist Matt Lavelle, Harmolodic Monk, adapting the compositions of Thelonious Monk to the free jazz theories of Ornette Coleman. I even rejoined Local 802 AFM and marched with union band on May Day 2013 (along with good brother Ras Moshe). The shackles are off and the journey----
---is on.

 Here’s to the future of cultural work and cultural workers…

-John Pietaro, Brooklyn NY

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