Friday, October 27, 2017

A Story of Fascism by Val Coleman

The following is a transcript of from a lecture entitled "A STORY OF FASCISM" that my father, the esteemed writer Val Coleman did about a month ago at the Sandisfield Arts Center in the Berkshires.  

As my dad grew up seeing it develop during World War II and beyond, he gives a unique dissection of Fascism's inner mechanics and origins. Not to mention, what it means for us as Human Beings today.  It's a bit of a read. (About 20 pages worth).  But if you are a lover of Humanity and a pursuer of Peace and Freedom throughout the world,  then this is a must!


Although I am talking in late September….I am writing this intervention on August 13 2017. I must say something about Charlottesville, Virginia where, yesterday a passel of haters, all decked out in the usual paraphernalia of fascism…. masks, nazi flags, sticks and chains, brazenly attacked some folks on the streets of the city where my dearest friend, the civil rights leader James Farmer lived and died. It wiped me out…..I can’t sleep….here I am, at 86, unable to lace up my boots, put on my CORE button (I still have it) and do something…anything. I mean DO something, beyond talk….beyond pounding my fist at Villa Mia…..or in the gallery room at the Sandisfield Arts Center. What is really on my mind is the degree to which fascism has penetrated my country once again. Silence….the “wicked permission”….won’t do.

Well, I’ve got to start somewhere. 

Fascism. There is so much….acres of books, acres of pain, miles of history. Vast graveyards and old dark ovens. Fascism has shouldered its way through history like cancer in the body politic, leaving behind (always leaving behind) empty shattered fields and long sad parades of homeless people. More than fifty five million people were killed in the World War II….a war cradled in fascism….probably the most unspeakable interval in all history.

It is a deadly disease….that comes from everywhere….its symptoms are always with us……but until the early 20th Century it appeared usually as an anomalous Nero, a Caligula, the 11th Century “assassins”, a couple of the Borgian popes. Modern fascism, with its annihilating agenda, required the teeth of the instruments of mass murder and destruction…..dynamite, machine guns and the mechanics of voice amplification….to claim its proper place in history.

The word “fascism” is rooted in the Italian word “fascio”…a bundle, and the Latin “fasces” which is an ax wrapped in a cradle of rods which was carried before the magistrates of Rome to celebrate their authority.

The “fasces” are ubiquitous….even with what might be innocent placings….showing up once on the Lincoln Memorial….I swear I once saw them in the US Senate chamber, and it’s a fact that they appeared on the 1932 minted American quarter. In the late 19th Century Italian revolutionaries used the term “fascio” The word has always moved in all directions….Sicilian peasants rose against their landlords in 1893 and called themselves Fasci Siciliani……in l914 a peculiar mixture of left wing nationalists and outcast socialists like Benito Mussolini brought Italy into the First World War using the name Fascio Rivoluzionaro ‘dAzione interventista. More about Mussolini and the onset of “fascism” later.

But the greatest spawning of fascism as a fixed political system began a very few years later…in the snarl and chaos between the two great wars of the 20th Century. Much of the vocabulary, the undergirding characteristics were already in place as the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919. Anti-Semitism, for instance, had already grown to unthinkable levels in the darkness of the Dreyfus Affair, which caused a paroxysm of hatred surrounding the arrest and conviction of an innocent Jewish officer in the French army…..Scapegoating, sexism, disdain for intellectuals and the arts, cronyism, bizarre uniformed narcissism was commonplace. There were some who saw it coming, and some did not. According to Frederick Engels, Marx’ partner, the “rosy cheeks of socialism” would never wain….but one generation later, socialism was falling…. the casting call for fascism was in place and the principals chosen. Using socialism as a temptation….In Germany fascism was called “national socialism” (Nazism) in Russia it morphed from democratic socialism through Martov’s Menshevism to Lenin’s Bolshevism and ultimately to a fascist Stalinism.

What happened? When? And to whom?

“L’etat, c’est, moi” The ringing statement that the state is ME, the state is everything…..peopled by a brutal chauvinism which projected an almost zoological hatred of other people, other nations.

Fascism as a political philosophy is difficult to describe because of its irrational character. It comes from ancient and modern thinkers….a mess of doctrine makes it difficult to present as a coherent point of view.

Machiavelli, Hobbes and Nietzsche, for example, are among its sources despite the fact that none of them were what we now know as fascists. Machiavelli was a 15th and 16th Century Italian intellectual who was a practical man and a patriot with noble ideals, but who believed (and convinced many since) in the vigorous and ruthless rule of a strong man…the Prince…who often used cruelty, bad faith and deception as essential to the prosperity of his reign. Hobbes, also in the 16th Century believed in the “royal prerogative” as the only means of avoiding what he considered the principal of flaw of collective and democratic systems….avoiding what he called the “the war of each against all”. And Nietzsche, in the 19th Century, believed the fundamental reality is the will to power. He despised a morality based on pity, humility and altruism…a morality written by the Jews to revenge themselves upon their “Aryan” conquerors. Sound familiar?

People think they know what fascism is. That’s because it is a vivid and constant mix of images….a demagogue yelling at an ecstatic crowd, marching youths in colored shirts, soldiers slashing, the ovens at Auschwitz….Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini. But it’s not enough. We can’t understand Nazi Germany with a just a fierce biography of Hitler. Mussolini actually started out as a fairly humanitarian socialist.

No. Fascism is much of history itself.

It is the dark fog of history…penetrating, obscuring…outright blinding civilization. Although it is seductive with all its pomp and circumstances it is always born nourished by hatred and always dies in a spasm of death and destruction. According to most scholars, fascism has three principal streams of thought….absolutism (one powerful leader), organicism (the state as one unassailable organic unity (Hegel called the fascist state “the march of God”) and thirdly, a combination of the first two streams…with the will of the leader identified as the will of the state.

Hannah Arendt leads us through the dark fog with her “Origins of Totalitarianism” And in doing so leaves us with many of the signposts, the “cairns” of fascism: She starts by saying: “Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself, in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal us.”

We should study the signposts, the “cairns” that lead us to us some form of fascism. The piles of rocks on the horizon:

1. Anti-intellectualism. A distrust of reason in which the anti-intellectual presents himself as a “populist” representing “ordinary people” and manifests a hostility to education and he arts….dismissing art and literature as pointless exercises. The examples are legion. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39)there was a “white terror” in which some 200,000 teachers, artists and intellectuals such as the magnificent Federico Garcia-Lorca were murdered. Hitler, as we will see later, a failed artist himself, based his philosophy on cranks such as Huston Stewart Chamberlain who argued the superiority of the German race and created the academic vindication of Anti-Semitism. Thomas Mann, the novelist who escaped Nazi Germany, argued that “reason had disappeared”. The distrust of intellectuals has a long history which is currently dramatized in this country with the rise of email “chains” and conspiracy theories.

2. Suppression and control of the press. Fascists have always considered the press “an enemy” until it comes under their control. The best example is, of course, Hitler’s capture of Walter Hugenberg’s press empire, and Joseph Goebbels re-invention of “propaganda” that didn’t permit disagreement of any sort. The whole argument can be found in John Milton’s (at the beginning of the 18th Century) “Areopagitica”….a pamphlet which argued that each of us is capable of using reason and distinguishing right from wrong and therefore “the individual must have unlimited access to ideas of his fellow man in a free and open encounter.” Those who would destroy or demonize a free press might profit from hearing the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights when it says “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” A similar declaration (this one about racial equality) was proposed by the Japanese a the 1919 Versailles conference to be included in the manifestos of the League of Nations. It was demolished by a combination of Britain, Australia and Clemanceau’s France. It is a testament to America’s purchase on freedom that the magnificent Thomas Jefferson said “If I had to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I shall not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”

3. Rampant sexism. The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Divorce, abortion, homosexuality and transgenderism are suppressed. In Hitler’s Germany a bizarre and homicidal program of murdering “defectives” lasted for several years.

4. The cynical, manipulative use of religion. In its day, religion has tasted fascism, indeed re-invented it with the 15th and 16th Century popes. The long history of a gentle Jesus-focussed Christianity has often been manipulated by fascist regimes. Hitler’s 1933 “concordat” with the Catholic Church in which Pope Pius XI agreed to force his clergy to sign oaths of loyalty to the Führer and never engage in political activity, was a paradigm. And the terrifying drift of the Christian right in America with its “creationism”, “rapture” and spooky massive born-again book-shilling conventions. Hannah Arendt put it best in describing a Church-inspired fascism which produces, “the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world.” Walter Wink, our own theologian, in writing a seminal analysis of fascism, looked to the born-again Christian right and said “millions of Americans are under the spell of an extraordinarily dangerous mass psychoses.”

5. Anti-Semitism.
Since the gospel of John, Jews have been demonized, described as children of the devil, by both Christians and Muslims. Ritual killing, well-poisoning, deicide….malevolent characterizations, have been retailed for centuries. Did you know that the First Crusade in 1095 stopped over in the Balkans on it’s way to Jerusalem specifically to kill Jews? For our purposes in this diagnosis of fascism, anti-semitism must be considered one of its principal sources and outcomes. Hannah Arendt argues that anti-semitism “became the catalytic agent for the rise of the Nazi movement with unparalleled ferocity and ultimately genocide.”

Anti-semitism inexorably generates fascism. The intensity of European anti-semitism grew in the second half of the 19th Century…most powerfully in the Dreyfus Affair….. and inexorably in Nazi Germany the catastrophe of the Holocaust with it’s book burnings, “Kristallnacht” and the open murder of some 6 million Jews forever established what Arendt called “the banality of evil.”

6. Populism, Nationalism. Also known as anti-modernism has undergirded world-wide politics. Isolationism, autarky (self-sustaining), anti-immigration, the veneration of “ordinary people” and unleashed patriotism have all shown up regularly in pre-fascist states. The “state” remember is the key…the one and only state, and one and only leader. Huey Long, Charles Lindberg, Benito Mussolini, Oswald Mosley come to mind. Populism is a much misunderstood phenomenon… corny and shallow, even humane on its face, but mortal and devilish when it shows up… and wins.

7. Assailing the right to vote and assemble. Although the Nazi’s actually took power in 1933 by winning the popular vote overwhelmingly, once in office denied any further demonstrations of democracy. In this country the right to vote has been challenged repeatedly by the right. As a 10 year old trouble maker I picketed Charles Lindberg’s “America First” representative in our town in Illinois and almost got my father (a teacher at a State College) fired. The bloodstream of the American civil rights movement was a fight to get black American’s the vote. Fascist programs such as “Jim Crow” depend on the suppression of dissent….and the right to vote. We, thank God, have a First Amendment.

8. Narcissism. My sister, a famous neurologist, author of a dozen books on schizophrenia and autism, argues that our current President is a “clinical narcissist”. A self-contained and directed fascist society depends on the “absolutism”of self-love.

9. Dictatorship. The obvious….centralizes all political and military power to a single leader and smashes traditionalists, all sorts of democrats.

10. Insularity.  The righteous belief in the uniqueness of a particular nationality or race…..such as Nietzsche or HS Chamberlain’s or Himmler’s or Hitler’s absolute belief in “Aryan Superiority”.

11.And finally, of course, the militarization of the state, the body politic, the mind, the beliefs, the entire teleology, the long term and short term purpose is born on the shoulders of armies and navies….usually dedicated to such horrific nonsense as “lebensraum” ---- the conquest of reputedly needed “living space”.

Next, let’s discuss America’s own periodic dance with fascism has been occasional, sometimes terrifying but usually snuffed by the good sense of our Constitution. Anti-democratic and xenophobic movements have flourished here fairly regularly. The Native American Party of 1845 and the No-nothings of the 1850s…with their eerily familiar “anti-immigration” nativist agendas both come to mind. America has continuously trashed the immigrant Asians, the Irish and of course African Americans up through slavery to Jim Crow and even today.

Setting aside Aaron Burr’s infamous attempt to create a dictatorship in Alabama and Louisiana after failing to win the presidency in 1800 and acknowledging but passing over such recent impassioned proto-fascists as the Protestant evangelists Gerald Winrod and Gerald L. K. Smith and George Lincoln Rockwell and his American Nazi Party, (who I actually confronted in the 1964 Democratic convention)….and most recently the scary “Alt Right”.

By the way…let’s not forget America’s direct affairs with the Nazis….In 1922 the first American local of the German Nazi Party was founded in New York City…by 1935 the German-American Bund claimed a membership of ten thousand. At the same time an “America First” committee was formed (headed by the solo-flight-to-France hero Charles Lindberg) that was committed to preventing the United States from opposing Nazi Germany. (By the by, American fascism rarely, if ever, used the original European models. No swastikas or bundles of rods….Stars and Stripes and Stars and Bars, were the ticket….rarely (excepting Rockwell and an infamous Alt Right meeting) used fascist salutes…but ubiquitous Christian crosses, mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance….American fascism transformed them into “obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy”.)

Charles Coughlin, commonly known as Father Coughlin, was a Roman Catholic priest who captured an immense radio audience in the 1930s and 40s…ultimately preaching his brand of populism which began sympathetic to FDR’s New Deal, but morphed into a savage stew of pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic screed. He spoke (I think I heard him) for an hour each week…..a strong vehement rhetoric mixing religion with what can only be described as hatred of the “money changers” He ultimately called Roosevelt a Communist and joined happily with the isolationists and America Firsters of the day. He claimed that Jewish bankers were behind the Russian revolution and started a weekly magazine called “Social Justice” which, among other things, published sections of the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” Efforts by many, including the Pope, to get him off the air, failed until he was threatened with an indictment for treason….and was orderedto return to his priestly duties. He finally complied and became a parish pastor dying in 1979 at the age of 88.

The Ku Klux Klan actually mass-attacked my CORE people in the town of Plaquemines Louisiana in 1964, 99 years after its founding…..the Southern Poverty Law Center calls it “the oldest and most infamous of American hate groups”. Born right after the civil war as a poisonous reflex by the losers, over its lifetime it has targeted immigrants, Catholics, Jews, gays, lesbians and most especially African-Americans. A bizarre mix of skirt-costumes, lynchings, rapes the so-called “invisible empire” actually murdered three friends of mine in Neshoba County Mississippi and buried them in a nearby dam. The current Klan cloaks its racism as “civil rights for whites” and boasts a current membership of 5 to 8000 split among dozens of different, often warring organizations. 


……Adolph Hitler. We can skip the oft-repeated early bio, with the lousy paintings and the years as a bum in Munich, but it is worth of minute to describe Hitler’s assumption of absolute power…absolutism….which as we have seen, is probably the principal requirement of full-blown fascism. In 1934 Hitler ran for “president” of Germany against the World War I hero 84-year-old Paul Von Hindenburg and came in second on a crowded ballot. He was established as a strong force in German politics and Hindenburg named Hitler “Chancellor”. Hitler used his Chancellorship to form a legal dictatorship……and began by using a flaw in the Weimar Constitution allowing him to rule by decree following a fire in the Reichstag. The day before Hindenburg he died in August of 1934, Hitler’s “cabinet” enacted a law abolishing the office of president combining those powers with that of the chancellor….making Hitler head of state and, importantly, supreme commander of the armed forces.


Tonight, as I sit in a darkened room, and exclude everything except my own memory of Adolf Hitler….what comes to me is the infection....a child’s fear of disease (I was nine or ten years old when they told me that a bad, poisonous man, screaming German obscenities, had captured Europe.) I remember the pictures: the knife-eyes, the straightened arm the blazing mouth…..Movietone News, that era’s television showed thousands, maybe tens of thousands of soldiers ranked before this tiny man….his words unintelligible barks answered by a thunderous response that seemed to make the swastika flags shake.


Hitler had emerged from a Weimar Republic that was politically and fatally weak. But it was on the other hand, a “closet” European renaissance. The Weimar years (or better said, the Weimar culture) was aesthetically a stormy and remarkable period with its “Bauhaus”, Dadaism, Kandinsky, Marlena Dietrich and the crazy lyric life later described as a “Cabaret”. But it was politically naive, its Constitution and government a grab bag of compromises fashioned by a mix of a half-dozen varieties of Marxism, democracy and old empires. But deep in the stew was a poisonous river of anti-intellectualism and most importantly, anti-Semitism. All of the ”cairns”of fascism were there…most evident in the so-called “Folk Parties” all of which called for revenge for the loss of First World War and its Versailles Treaty.

Hitler was the 55th member of the National Socialist Workers Party (forever shortened to NAZI) founded in Bavaria in 1921. In point of fact it wasn’t “socialist” at all….Hitler galvanized it into a political force and attempted to overthrow the German government in his infamous “beer hall putsch” in 1923. It failed, Hitler was arrested but landed softly in a comfortable prison where he dictated “Mein Kampf”. He spelled out his plans to:

1. Unify Germany, abrogate the Versailles treaty, recapture territory taken from Germany…namely Czechoslovakia and Danzig in Poland. He announced he would

2.“Destroy the virus known as the Jewish people”,

3. Destroy Bolshevism

4.Provide the German people with “Lebensraum”, living room beyond the German borders.

5. And all of this would emanate from a self-dependent state (an “autarky”). 

A terrifying screed, “Mein Kampf” was the literal scenario of World War II. The Third Reich was the model for fascist states throughout all of Europe.

Here’s a list. First the “Axis”:

Japan (see below)

Other countries that became fascist Austria, Brazil, Chile, China, Croatia, Finland, Vichy France, Greece,Hungary, Norway, Portugal, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain.

Benito Mussolini. But back to our narrative….by 1936 we have, in Germany, the elaborate, now classic fascist state. But any narrative of the history of fascism requires a closer look at the origins of fascism in Italy under the the command of Benito Mussolini.

About a century ago, Benito Mussolini showed up confounding the Italian political structure…..creating an “anti-party” called fascism. Although he was a well-established journalist and Socialist, Mussolini, after creating the fascist party (as we have seen above) in 1914 (and bringing Italy into the First World War) by combining left wing nationalists and outcast socialists into something called the Fascio Rivolunzionaro d’azione Interventista, in 1922 organized a “March on Rome” with a forest of black shirts…..beating and savaging everyone who stood in their way……upon arrival he demanded and became the prime minister of Italy. This has been called the “authoritarian playbook” and with one individual bully standing above and beyond the party, the overture of fascism.

Although in the Thirties, Mussolini organized industry, agriculture and economic systems into state-controlled labor unions and employer associations……special courts were set up to try anti-fascists…..despite all this, Mussolini came increasingly under the influence of Adolf Hitler’s Germany…..even joining the anti-Semitic holocaust in the making.

Mussolini called himself “El Duce”, the leader, and launched a series of failed, heartless, savage invasions in 1935 on Greece and ultimately on an innocent African state of Ethiopia which ended any chance alliance with the western democracies. The rest is too familiar…..the spiral downwards in World War II… ending with Mussolini and his mistress dead….hanging upside down in a Milan gas station. Milan…..Mussolini’s “model modern city” that would rebuild the Twentieth Century.

Now, we must deal with history of fascism in Japan. I was born in 1930 and was thus an adolescent spectator of World War II. At the time we saw the Japanese as our ultimate enemy who had manufactured Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, the Japanese invasions of China and Manchuria….who actually aspired to conquer and rule what they called “The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”. A closer look is appropriate and revealing. Was Japan a fascist state? Remember that this is the same nation that in 1919 proposed a clause in the charter of the League of Nations that condemned racial hatred….a humanitarian clause that was vetoed by England, Australia, France and tragically, America. In 1898, Japan had adopted a “Meiji Constitution” … modeled in part on the founding documents of the western democracies. It created a weak but representative legislature called “The Diet” under (and this is important) the ultimate and absolute authority of a worshiped Emperor…… The 20th Century brought both a representative government and a host of “factions” that, in the 1930s morphed in and out of a military dictatorship. Following the Meiji Restoration….. “Bushido” the warrior code of feudal Japan…..originally permitting the creation of a professional and actually humane military….became a combination of propaganda and radicalism that would lead to aggressive war. 

There never was what one could call a purely fascist party or a purely fascist state per se. The horrors of war brought brutality on all sides….including the painful American detention of Japanese Americans in camps in the United States, Japanese brutality to American prisoner’s of war and, of course the barely-rationalized dropping of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities. 

As to North Korea…..the modern paradigm of fascism….Need I say more?


Holding onto a humane democracy requires a lot of holding. It slipped through the hands of Pericles and the Greeks and has had spasms in most parts of the world. By and large it has held fast in America these 241 years despite slavery, 11 wars, and the almost unquenchable greed of regular human beings. But always on the horizon is the madness of fascism, riddled with righteousness and prepared to eat us alive with its promise of superiority and wealth.

It’s a terrible business….an obscenity coined by the greed in us. Now everybody has a theory of fascism…..the literature, by the way, is endless. Sinclair Lewis wrote a book “It Can’t Happen Here” in 1938, a dystopian novel about an America that elects a fascist president and spirals downwards. Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” and of course George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” (which I read on a tape driving across the country….I had to pull over to breathe and recover.) Jack London, of all people, wrote “The Iron Heel” way back in 1908….another dystopian novel that amazingly, chillingly depicts the forthcoming horror and thunder of a fascist 20th Century.

Fascism seems to come up out the common commerce of our lives…parts of it even follows our better instincts…..Huey Long wanted to buy schoolbooks for the poor kids of Louisiana…..but, granted power by the electorate, he decided create a dictatorship which, he thought, would make every man a King. There is so much more….”The banality of evil” drowned the 20th Century in blood….. 

In searching for a proper ending I was drawn back to the time between the wars and a man named Walter Rathenau. An industrialist, a superb politician (it can be argued that he saved the German economy during World War I)….a foreign minister but most of all , a Jew….symbolizing the sanity and decency of the best of mankind in the Weimar Republic which was the sweet but brutalized interval in the crush of fascism that consumed the first half of the 20th Century. On Yom-Kippur, the Day of Atonement, June 24, 1922 a trio of killers, members of a fascist terrorist group called the “Organization Counsel (or “OC”) dedicated to killing the “November criminals” who had negotiated an ending to the First World War…..murdered Walter Rathenau as he was driving to work. The first of six million. The door to fascism swung open.

Thank you.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

REVIEW: "Maestro" a documentary

The task of presenting classical music to a new audience is daunting.  One must be encouraging yet careful in their enthusiasm in order to spread the word….These days, there are still a number of musicians that perform this music like a massive ring of fire. World renowned conductor, Paavo Järvi is arguably at the top of the list and is featured in the appropriately-titled film documentary, “Maestro”.  

As Pierre Bezukhov watches the French invasion of Russia in “War and Peace”, so Paavo Järvi watches the vibrance and struggles of working as a successful classical musician in today’s multi-layered world.  Writer and director, David Donnelly shows us a unique approach to film making.  Rather than making this a documentary only about Järvi, “Maestro” is more a film about the riches of classical music, for which Järvi is the lead character.  

As we look at Paavo Järvi’s life growing up in Estonia and then his studies in Los Angeles with Leonard Bernstein, we see that for him, the music is all that matters.  It is a value instilled in him through his genuine love for it after the horrors of living in Estonia occupied by the Soviets.  Even in his later successful career, this devotion continues as he tries to balance his musical life and the life he has with his two children.  

Amidst all this, Donnelly provides us with pivotal moments, seeing the riches of classical music through clips of rehearsals and performances led by Maestro Järvi, intermixed with interviews of young aspiring musicians and of music’s finest like Hilary Hahn and Joshua Bell, commenting on Järvi’s great influence on the podium. 

Throughout it all, Paavo Järvi is shown to be a genuine leader of his orchestras. He GUIDES them to do the best performance possible, rather than dictating.  Järvi considers himself a servant of the music, stating “I get to work with the greatest geniuses in human history.”

At the climax of the film, the celebrated pianist, Lang Lang, scorches through the last few minutes of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3 with an enthusiasm aided by Järvi and the Orchestre de Paris. One could guess that anyone new to this genre, seeing this performance, would be in love with it immediately. 

“Maestro” gives an approach to classical music that is encouraging to new listeners, but with a benevolent attitude.  In a perfect world, the music should speak for itself.  But as Järvi suggests: “Somebody has to open a door for you and say ‘Ok, listen. Come with me. Listen to this. What do you think of this?’” .  “Maestro” accomplishes that.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Rodgers/Hart: My Funny Valentine

Yes, the song "My Funny Valentine" composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart is indeed a great pop standard which is well known by all music lovers.  But I just got reacquainted with this song via watching a portion of the show "American Idol" when Harry Connick Jr. coached a young female singer into an awareness of the story behind this classic.  Originally, this girl hadn't a clue what this song was about and Harry Connick Jr. politely, yet firmly, gave her a bit of insight into the insecurities of Lorenz Hart's life.  He pointed out to her that one should know the story behind a song before one sings it.  For me, it was a wonderful addition of depth to an otherwise commercially abject TV show.  This segment also made me want to explore this song and its origins a little more.

"My Funny Valentine"  was originally one of many great songs from the Rodgers and Hart 1937 musical "Babes in Arms".  It tells the story of a young man and woman, Valentine and Billie, who want to put on a new and hopefully successful vaudeville show.  In "My Funny Valentine", Billie pokes fun at some of Valentine's physical imperfections, but she ultimately affirms that he makes her happy and that she doesn't want him to change.   Let alone the song's effectiveness in the musical it comes out of, "My Funny Valentine" seems to speak to those of us who are insecure about our own physical appearance.  Just for a perspective, here are the words for those of you that don't know it:

My Funny Valentine.
Sweet comic Valentine.
You make me smile with my heart.
Your looks are laughable.
Yet you're my favorite work of art.
Is your Figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little week?
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
But don't change your hair for me.
Not if you care for me.
Stay little Valentine stay.
Each day is Valentines day.

These beautiful words represent the solace that we all need to hear when we deal with our own crippling fallibilities.  The lyricist, Lorenz Hart perhaps dealt with this issue more than anybody.

Despite his great success in the theatre world, Lorenz Hart was a humble and insecure man who dealt with his problems through his writing and his alcoholism.  In addition to being a repressed homosexual in early 20th century America, Hart was a short and average looking man who was tortured by what he felt he lacked in an assuming world of glamour and physical perfection.  I can only speculate  that his lyrics from "My Funny Valentine"  represent the words that no one ever told him in real life.   He seems to have created a fictional person who adores him despite his receding hairline and his 5 foot physical stature.   Like most artists, Hart spoke through his work because he felt that he couldn't do it as affectively when talking to someone.  So this song is likely the most autobiographical piece of everything he wrote.   And perhaps one of the biggest reasons for its continuing success, in addition to Richard Rodgers seemingly perfect musical setting, is that we are all, Lorenz Hart.   

We all feel a similar pain and insecurity as he did. We all desperately want to bare our soul to people that we are fond of, whether it be on a date or otherwise.  But we're afraid to do this because it could come off as annoying and pathetic, especially since we don't "look" good enough.  So we stay silent.  But Lorenz Hart, in all his genius, bares his soul through these words he created. And we, the repressed and tortured, can feed off and benefit from it.  Through the means of song, we are no longer annoying and pathetic. We are touching and meaningful.  "My Funny Valentine" says the unsaid, and sings to our most vulnerable selves.   Perhaps, the muse that sings this song to us is, in its origin, fictional, but it still helps us to move on and face our uncertain future.  We are given a great hope through this song that we're not alone and that there's ultimately someone out there that will love and adore all of us regardless of all our flaws.   Solace, incarnate!  

There are, of course, many great renditions of this work, but I'm partial to the version below by Ella Fitzgerald.  Another great artist who dealt with her own distinctive hardship growing up. Thank you Rodgers and Hart for giving so much of yourselves in order to create this masterpiece among many others.  And thank you Harry Connick Jr. for reacquainting me with it.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"Klinghoffer" at the Met

In all the years I've been a musician, I haven't been very vocal when it came to controversial issues in the Arts or otherwise.  I'm not a politician and I usually try to speak through the music I write or perform.   But sometimes, one must speak for real when one is concerned for musicians who have been smeared with lousy rhetoric based on rumor and imperfect knowledge.  This came to play with the hoopla surrounding  John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer" and its performance at the Metropolitan Opera last Monday.  Yes, it has been noticed by a wider public, but only because of the assumed controversy of anti-semitism behind it.  Not for its more relevant and important feature: THE SCORE.  And every time I think about that, it just makes me a little bit mad.

Nonetheless, on Monday, October 20, 2014, the conductor, David Robertson walked into the orchestra pit of the Metropolitan Opera to conduct this masterpiece which tells the true and horrific story of an innocent wheelchair bound man, Leon Klinghoffer, who was killed and thrown overboard from an Italian cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists.  As Maestro Robertson walked to the podium, the audience reacted with a thunderous applause that I haven't heard in a long time. The audience, responded with the utmost pride and appreciation for these brave and wonderful musicians who were willing to perform this seemingly controversial opera, despite the very vocal crowd protesting outside Lincoln Center.  If he wanted to, Maestro Robertson could have just stood on the podium for a full minute or two and absorbed our tremendous and enthusiastic applause, but instead, the Maestro simply took his appreciative bow and turned around to conduct. A true professional.  

We, the audience, were also very proud of ourselves.  We were not swayed by the loud group of rhetorical protesters that we dealt with outside as we went through the barricade into Lincoln Center with our tickets in hand.  We knew that most of that angry crowd had neither seen or heard "Klinghoffer" and they had only read portions of the libretto out of context without hearing any of the music associated with it.  Therefore, this crowd had no cause for complaint in our eyes. A lot of us audience members knew this opera very well since its premiere in 1991.  And those who didn't know it simply wanted to see a great performance.  Nothing more natural.  The combination of all of these situations was what resulted into the elevated enthusiasm that we, the audience greeted our performers with.  Again, we were very proud of performers as well as ourselves.

I wish I can say that the performance went off unscathed, but sure enough, in the middle of Act 1, a protester who sneaked in with his ticket chanted repeatedly: "The Murder of Leon Klinghoffer will never be forgiven!".  Fortunately, security got to him quickly and removed him.  Even if this man had chanted: "The square root of 9 is 3!", it wouldn't matter that he was right.  There is never a good reason to interrupt hard working performers while they're in performance. When you do things like that, it is only a detriment to your cause and the people you represent.  Not only was it mean, but down right stupid and self damaging.  For better or for worse, often, our tactics speak far more volumes than the causes behind them.  All this man did was reinforce our love for this opera.

Fortunately, the rest of the performance of "Klinghoffer" went more smoothly. And at the end, we applauded even more enthusiastically than before.  Bows for the chorus, dancers, soloists, Maestro Robertson and the orchestra were greeted with our enthusiastic and huge appreciation.  But the best and biggest reaction from us was reserved for the composer.  When John Adams walked onto the stage to take his bow, we couldn't resist letting it all out.  It was deafening!  It was footstomping!  It was beautiful.  Both the audience and the people on stage went through an experience that was akin to riding a canoe down a rapid and uneasy stream.  And not only did we make it to the end, but we were touched by the journey along the way.  It was a true vindication for artists and lovers of the Arts!


Monday, October 14, 2013

Genre issues

So I just had a wonderful time in Cincinnati last week.  Why was it wonderful? Violin Concerto was just World Premiered there!  Beautifully performed in Memorial Hall by the dynamic Violinist Tatiana Berman along with the Constella Festival Chamber Ensemble, all under the baton of the awesome Maestro, Paavo Järvi.  Yep, it was pretty cool.  An enthusiastic audience, great reviews, the works! Did it I have a great time or what?! 

So I get back home to New York, still in euphoria from my premiere.  But now I have to try and figure out how to get this piece noticed by an even bigger audience.  This is a real burden.  Yes, the premiere in Cincinnati was a success, but it was only a local success.  It has yet to be heard by the rest of the world.  And I'm not just talking about the Classical world.  Every time I hear a work I love, I have this unquenchable desire to present this music to people who have no idea of it's existence.  Most notably, the American pop culture.  Yet, for some reason, there's this feeling of impotence in our ability to make that happen. 

Why is this the case?  There are probably many answers to this question, but I have a big one for you:  The classical world is too arrogant and the pop culture is too ignorant!  Yes, when it boils down to it, that's the bottom line.  I don't care what anybody says.

The powers that be in the classical world preach mainly to it's own choir.  The already converted.  It seems that they have no idea that there's a bigger world out there to show this wonderful music to.  They're afraid that it won't be understood by the rest of the world and therefore, not worth the effort to put it out there.  And whenever I meet someone who's not a classical musician (aka pop culture), usually they are amazed that there are people like me who are still alive and doing this sort of thing.  This is followed by comments along the line of: "I really appreciate what you do. ", "You must be really smart.", or the cringing,  "I just don't know enough about it in order to listen to it."

Music is not meant to be understood!!  Only to be heard!! And if, for some reason, you don't "get it", maybe it's not your fault.  Maybe............the composer just sucks!  So, no matter how simple or how complex the music is, we composers have just one purpose, to WOW an audience!  Every single musical genre on Earth has that goal.   Even this one!

As the years go by, more and more, I tend to agree with my good friend and composer Gene Pritsker with regard to his philosophy of the different genres of music.  That all these terms (classical, pop, jazz, etc) should be boiled down to just one:  Music of the Western Tradition.  I've always admired this concept of Gene's, but I never fully agreed.  It seems to imply a kind of musical anarchy.  Without any guidelines or ability to put into words the kind of music some of us are specifically involved with.  And yet, maybe that's not such a bad thing these days.  It is, after all, more about the music itself and not as much about where it comes from.   Maybe it's not that necessary to put it into words.  Maybe, as Duke Ellington famously said: "If it sounds good, it is good.".   I'll just have to get back to you on that one.

In the meantime, for you people who are interested, but not sure about the music I'm talking about, here are a few pieces I recommend that you google:

John Adams: Shaker Loops
James Macmillan: The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
Wojciech Kilar: Orawa
Steve Reich: Cello Counterpoint
Jennifer Higdon: Blue Cathedral
Colin Matthews: Forth Sonata
Erkki- Sven Tüür: Exodus
Peter Schickele: Sextet
Carla Bley: Birds of Paradise
Kevin Puts: Silent Night

There are too many more to mention of course, but I think these works are great to start with.  They're all just as great to listen to as any pop song.  Go for it!  You've got nothing to lose.  And.......... OK.....I guess I should promote myself a little.

Charles Coleman: Streetscape

And I think my Violin Concerto is pretty good too.  I can't wait for you to hear it.   :)


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

An artist's vent

Well, it's been a year and a half since my last post here. A lot has happened since then. The death of my beloved mom, Ann Coleman. A major CD/Download came out with two of my orchestral works on it. And I've been having a little battle with my own self confidence, debating whether or not I have what it takes to survive in this uncertain world we now live in. Although I am an optimist in the long term, I am nonetheless marred with some short term self doubt mixed with the seeming indifference of our society.

Every now and then, when someone I meet hears that I'm a composer who writes for the concert hall (not just because I like it, but it's the work I get mostly), I am often asked if I would ever consider writing more "accessible" music, ala pop, commercial, main stream, etc. Usually I get very annoyed when I hear that. Mainly because it's already assumed that I write esoteric music that is liked only by a small intellectual crowd and the person asking hasn't even heard a note of what I've written!

As I've said in previous posts, it's very clear to me that all great music from all walks of life have an innate quality and expression that any listener would be affected by regardless of genre. Music is simply meant to be heard, not understood. Ok, maybe that sounds a little trite, but I think I proved this theory recently.

About a week ago, a CD entitled "American Portraits" arrived in stores all over the world. It contains two of my works "Streetscape" and "Deep Woods" along with the great music of Jennifer Higdon, Carter Pann, Jonathan Bailey Holland and Kevin Puts, performed by the awesome Maestro Paavo Järvi leading the awesome Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Naturally, I wanted it to be noticed. So I brought a personal copy of it to a record store in my neighborhood in NYC that would be played there all day in public. And within two days of it's release, all the copies there were sold!

This is clear proof to me that the subject of genre has absolutely nothing to do with how great a piece of music is. These customers were in the store hearing from the speakers this music of mine as well as that of Higdon, Pann, Holland and Puts. They were clearly affected by what they heard and decided to purchase. Nothing more natural.

Of course I was thrilled with this at the time. But later, I was sad because this happened only in one store and I didn't have the means and ability to get the CD played publicly like this in any of the other stores here and abroad. It's very perplexing to think that a simple gesture of getting a great recording heard in public wouldn't be made because the music is originally assumed to be esoteric and boring without even being heard in the first place.

A lot of us living artists are thought to be moral outcasts. Most of the jobs that I'm able to get are usually brief (commissions, teaching, singing gigs,etc) and these jobs irregularly come and go. It's very hard to find anything more permanent, and god help me, I've searched. Nonetheless, I am still dependent on family and friends to help me out now and then. I know I'm not the only one, but it still hurts and it makes me want to yell out sometimes.

I'm very tempted to assess blame for this current state that we artists are in. I often think of a certain powerful group of composers in the mid 20th century that seemed to write music that sounded more like a research activity than actual music (you composers know who I'm talking about). But this attitude may be more reflective of my own personal state of mind rather than the actual truth. And that's something I can't ignore. The fact is, before we judge anyone that we don't like, we still have to look at ourselves first. And that's very hard to do.

But a nice little thing happened recently. One night I was in a bar in my neighborhood and I had a great conversation with the bartender Pamela, a really cute, jaw dropping red head wearing dark glasses and a stunning tank top that almost made me drool. When she discovered that I was a composer, she then said to me: "Charles, I know this is a stupid question, but what exactly is a symphony?".

When she said that to me, instead of the usual "do you write commercial music" crap, I felt like a million bucks! It was like being in a nasty and humid swamp and finding that one beautiful sun flower. It showed me that we artists are still relevant and we all have a decent shot at getting that earthbound immortality that we're all looking for (whatever that is). Maybe I'm making too much of this little thing, but sometimes it's only the little things in life that matter. My mom certainly taught me that. Anyway, I gave Pamela a more or less concise description of what a symphony is and she didn't seem bored. :)

Overall, I'm still very proud to be an American composer and I'm proud of the works I've written. And lord knows that I truly appreciate the love and support from my family and friends who like what I do. I guess this means I'm not done yet.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

To be relevant

Well....I admit it. I'm kind of an eccentric.

Among my numerous oddities, I tend to conduct in public when I'm listening to my awesome ipod. Often I try to repress this kind of enthusiasm, but it's seems impossible to do that when you're listening to the 4th movement, Adagio from Mahler's 9th Symphony. There's so much orchestral passion and harmonic beauty in that piece, that you desperately want to share it with everyone within walking distance. Something that makes you feel worthy of their presence. Although I might occasionally get stared at in public, I accept it. I need the work to be heard on the street through my conducting gestures. We're it not for me, it would not be heard of. It makes me feel "relevant".

We artists are unusually proud of the work that we do. And when we feel unnoticed, we seem to have an unquenchable desire to spread the word. Some of us even go so far as to make alcohol induced gestures like chiming in on other people's conversations because we feel so "important".

The fact is that most artists from all walks of life have a truly intimate knowledge of numerous different works. We are transfixed by the inner detail within the pieces that we worship. This inner detail that we listen to seems to grab us in the same way that moths obsess at flying to that hot light that will ultimately kill them.

My God! I still can't get over that f---ing Cello line in measures 57-59 of the aforementioned Mahler. It's so exquisite! And it works so beautifully in conjunction with the other strings. WE GOTTA TELL EVERYBODY!!!!!!

Anyway, did I mention that I am an eccentric. Well....I'm proud of it! Stare at me all you like! I am relevant, God Dammit! :)