Year in Review: 2017-18

by Barry Drogin

Back to guide - Next item in guide - Back to index - Next item in index

Please skip this silly opening:

Shabbas is "the seventh day," in remembrance of the seventh day in Genesis when G-d rested. To Jews, Shabbas is on Saturday; to Christians, the Sabbath is on Sunday. Not suprisingly, ISO 8601 considered Monday to be the first day of the week, and world-wide, calendars start on Monday. In the United States, Canada, and Japan, Sunday is the first day of the week, and in much of the Middle East, Saturday is the first day of the week. Why the Christians in the United States decided to start the week on the Sabbath rather than end the week on Sabbath is a history I have not uncovered, but it may also have to do with starting the week with the Sun and the Moon (Sunday and Monday), which isn't Christian at all. I exclusively use calendars that start on Monday.

Similarly, when does the year begin (and end)? Without a long and sordid history of calendars, we all know that New Year's Eve is recognized worldwide due to the international adoption of calendar dates and time zones (noon being related to the high point of the sun but midnight being arbitrarily set as a consequence). Of course, other cultures and religions maintain their own calendars, numberings, and start dates, so we have, for example, Jewish and Chinese New Years. We (Americans) all do taxes (assuming we earn enough), but the IRS allows companies to use a different "fiscal year" (accounting period) which starts and ends on dates that make sense (for example, a college can end its fiscal year on June 31).

January 1 and April 15 have always felt arbitrary to me, so it should come as no surprise that, for me, Labor Day Weekend ends the summer and the year, and the "new year" starts on the corresponding Tuesday. You can buy calendars that start in September or start in January, so I am not alone in this feeling (it frustrates me that many colleges start their academic years in mid or late August; at least the New York City public school system always starts classes after Labor Day). Similarly, theaters, dance troupes, museums, music groups, and a host of other cultural entities announce their new "seasons" (and seek subscribers and offer subscriptions) that start after Labor Day. Thus, the same awkwardness that comes with winter (is it the winter of 2000 or 2001?) is encountered by my "year" in review - the 2017-2018 year, starting in September 2017, after Labor Day, and ending with Labor Day 2018 (assuming something of note happened over the summer).

As is my preference, even as a critic, I practice advocacy journalism, meaning I am not going to provide a summary of the worst and best of 2017-18, but instead use this as an opportunity to highlight some discoveries, some I've already written at length about, some I haven't. In Turning Time Into An Object, and Turning An Object Into Time, I described the collaboration between flautist (MaAyan) Taiga Ultan and graduating Cooper Union artist Clara Zinky and their April 3, 2018, performance.

On October 23, 2017, I was in Cooper Union's Great Hall for a panel discussion, Monument: Myth & Meaning. Preservationist Mabel O. Wilson was put in the awkward position of being the only one to present an argument in favor of some Civil War monuments; journalist Brian Palmer provided an impassioned history lesson on how, why, and when the monuments had been erected, but it was artist Julian LaVerdiere who stole the show with an art history lesson on the destruction and displacement of politically incorrect art. It was a fantastic event to kick off the season, as there was something to learn from every speaker (I've mentioned here only three).

On January 11, 2018, I was in New York Public Radio's Jerome L. Greene Performance Space for a dramatic reading of scenes from Sophocle's Philoctetes by Theater of War. Intended primarily for military families and veterans, the theater company makes a persuasive argument that Sophocles, an Athenian general, wrote this drama for audiences of citizen-soldiers, likely performed by cadets and veterans, to help them return to civilian life throughout 80 years of war. Although I am not a veteran and so left space for those in the audience who were, during the talkback that is part of the evening, it was a powerful and moving evening, and I am eager to spread the word about this not-for-profit organization, which is involved in using the same theater reading/talkback format for other non-war projects intended for immigrants, domestic violence, gun violence, disaster, and rape victims, addicts, and the like.

On February 5, 2018, as part of a week-long series of events surrounding the inauguration of the Cooper Union's new president, Laura Sparks, I attended Who Needs Truth: An Evening of Politics and Performance. In addition to a spectacular rendition by Bill Irwin of a selection from philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit, Jose Antonio Vargas read a selection from his soon-to-be-published memoir Dear America:Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. On pages 139 to 141 (of the hardcover edition), Vargas questioned the very language of immigration: why white people are called "expats" and people of color are called "immigrants," some "settlers" and others "refugees." He even points out that the Declaration of Independence listed, as one of its grievances against King George III, his actions against migration. Even for this liberal New York City audience, it was an eye-opening moment of truth-telling. I highly recommend the book, and the not-for-profit, Define American, that Vargas founded.

On March 15, 2018, I was again in The Great Hall for a brief reading and prolonged panel discussion led by Rebecca Solnit titled after her essay and book, Men Explain Things to Me. Suffice it to say that I was one of the few men there, although I think it would have been worthwhile for more men to have attended. Here is the point where I dare not mansplain anything I heard that evening. I'll just note that the constant "Fuck the Patriarchy" refrain led me to look up the definition, and when I came across sociologist Sylvia Walby's Theorizing Patriarchy, I agreed that I was against all aspects of the patriarchy as well. Fuck the Patriarchy!

On May 11, 2018, I attended a Ladies First concert which included an awesome original piano piece, Tempest by Kathleen Supové, and also introduced me to "rhythm vocalist" Loire Cotler. Cotler not only combines Jewish nigunim, Middle Eastern taksim, and Konnakol Indian drum language, she has already reached a level of mastery that is boundary-breaking. She performed Miriam's Prophecy with co-composer Glen Velez, who accompanied on riq frame drum, an Arabic tambourine (although "co-performed," if that's really a word, is more appropriate).

On May 21, 2018, I saw Jane Mayer being interviewed by Paul Holdengräber as part of LIVE from the NYPL. Mayer is the author of Dark Money, an astounding collection and expansion on her extensive investigative reporting on the "Kochtopus," a secret network of eighteen billionaires and many more millionaires who met annually at the Renaissance Esmerelda Resort and Spa in Indian Wells, California (on the outskirts of Palm Springs) to gather donations to finance a far-right Libertarian takeover of the Republican Party (not only through SuperPAC advertising campaigns, but through direct funding of anti-Obama Tea Party groups, establishing Law and Economics programs at law schools, financing the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies (5 Supreme Court justices are current or former members), and creating computer programs to help localities gerrymander their districts in favor of the Republican Party). The Koch Brothers were not behind Donald Trump, but Betsy DeVos and her family were a part of the Kochtopus, and Mitch McConnell hired a former lobbyist for Koch Industries to be his new policy chief soon after being sworn in as Senate Majority Leader, launching a war against the EPA and restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. Although McConnell squeaked into office on Ronald Reagan's coattails, it is ridiculous not to view his current power and policies not in terms of Trumpism but in terms of the Libertarian Kochtopus. Similarly, the Religious Right's current debate (Ahmari/French) over whether it is more important to be right than to have a majority (which, on opinion polls, the anti-Progressive pro-Libertarian agenda is constantly losing) is squarely in the anti-democracy realm of the American oligarchy. It is impossible to see American politics today without the lens of Mayer's "Dark Money." As Mayer's chosen epigraph, a quote from Louis Brandeis, says, "We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."

In May 2018 I saw New York Theater Workshop's revival of Caryl Churchill's "Light Shining in Buckinghamshire," directed by Rachel Chavkin, using only a cast of six. This was the same number as NYTW's 1991 production directed by Lisa Peterson with Cherry Jones in the cast. I wish I had seen that performance, but I got to see Evelyn Spahr in the revival, and it is exciting to consider that she may end up with a career to compare to Jones. The audience gets accustomed early on to seeing the same actors play multiple roles; Spahr is lucky enough to get the most emotional moment in the play, a mother forced to give up her starving child (represented by a blanket); at the conclusion of the devastating scene, she turns the blanket into an apron and becomes a butcher for the next scene. We can all admire (and expect) that actors have range, but it is exhilirating to see a young actress move from one extreme to another so quickly right in front of us.

In July 2018 I attended the New York City Poetry Festival on Governors Island and heard some poems read by "Chirishican" (that is, Chinese, Irish, Puertorriqueña) Nichole Acosta (her poem says she is Chinese but her bio says she is a different form of Asian, Singaporean). She is also a type 1 diabetic and self-described as queer. She collaborates a lot, but I really enjoy her poetry, as can be found in her first book of poems, Field of Fireflies. In addition to the multitudes of perspectives she draws upon, she also has an attitude and frankness that makes listening (and reading) irresistable. You can get a great feel for that attitude in this reading back in 2013 of Looks Are Deceiving, which is kind of (figuratively and literally) her signature piece.

Squeaking in over Labor Day weekend at the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit is painter Virginia Calleja Elyassi, who shows under the her grandmother's name, Alevito. As is typical of me, usually a single painting catches my fancy; in this case, it is Strength, which is both figurative and abstract. It has since been sold. It is a powerful painting, and its imagery may have different meanings for different viewers.

It's not in date order, but here are some pictures of artist's works I enjoyed at the 2018 Cooper Union End of Year Show. I missed Ultan and Zinky's Flute Concerto; Welcome Banners, Show 2, but I did get a copy of the program, which is included.

It is inevitably a part of the persistent patriarchy that the list of people I had never heard of (and want more people to know about) are primarily women. When I first knew I wanted to write this piece, I didn't realize that was so. Sorry it took so long for me to finally write it (January 2020) and even longer me to finally post it (January 2023!). In 2017-18 I forced myself to go out and see things while dealing with the randomness of the dating scene. Except for the Caryl Churchill, everything else mentioned here I attended stag.

Back to guide - Next item in guide - Back to index - Next item in index

A Musical Contrarian © 1999-2023

Last Updated: January 7, 2023