Maria Schneider just nabbed 3 Classical Grammies. Deservedly?

Maria-Schneider-OrchestraMaria Schneider won 3 Grammy awards in 2014: best classical composition, arrangements and song. Did she deserve all three, in her first recorded outing in the purely classical category?

“Winter Morning Walks” (ArtistShare) is no one-woman show by the slightest stretch of the imagination. At her service is the great American soprano and American music specialist Dawn Upshaw, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and two of our finest poets, Ted Kooser and Carlos Drummond De Andrade.

First the album is unapologetically and almost effortlessly beautiful in its impressionism and spirit, a combination quite rare to achieve In this postmodern age. in the opening piece, uncovers the world of a “perfectly still the solstice morning” and then quickly shifts to a scene of spectral dramatic discovery: “When I switched on a light.” No worry. “Walking by Flashlight” lures us, step by crunching step, back into the sense of ecstatic wonder because we are entering big skies of the American Heartland, the Minnesota-raised composer’s home stomping grounds, frozen in solstice glory.

Littered like fresh-fallen leaves along the walk is the text by former American poet-laureate Ted Kooser, which adds another strata of artful substance that reflects back to the music and beyond it.
Yeah, Schneider’s gone and done it again, but this on a bigger palette than ever. And then “I saw a dust devil this morning” is like getting a gust of icy wind rushing into your mouth and down into your lungs – It’s a thrill but a private shock in the same instant.
Perhaps nothing is more austerely beautiful than “My wife and I walk the cold road,” because it compresses — in four minutes — the autumnal weight of great memory, longing and supplication for hope and life to carry on.

Exquisite string writing here shows that Schneider is more than just a jazz orchestra writer and arranger. I’ll let you discover more of it for yourself but she never lowers the bar for herself even as she lowers the boughs for us to more easily see the wonders of winter morning walk as she does with her expansive musical vision , which looks down into the moisture the ground with a sharp eye for mystery and mischief as much as she gazes into the heavens.

maria CD cover

Having making made all these somewhat presumptuous pronouncements I will immediately admit that I did not hear her competition. But it seems to me, if she won his awards I can understand how she set a strong standard.


“Trains That Passed in the Night” — How photographer O. Winston Link told a classic American story


  train movie “Hot Shot Eastbound,” Iaeger, West Virginia, 1956. All photos © W. Conway Link


Trains That Passed in the Night: The Railroad Photography of O. Winston Link, running through April 27 at the Grohmann Museum, 1000 N. Broadway, The Milwaukee School of Engineering.

Thomas Garver understands O. Winston Link as a kind of genius who “seduced” viewers with the romance of billowing smoke, thundering pistons, and clattering train tracks. The analogy is apt given Link’s background as a commercial photographer, says the curator of the new exhibit, Trains That Passed in the Night: The Railroad Photography of O. Winston Link, which runs through April 27 at the Grohmann Museum, which collects and exhibits “industrial art.”

The museum’s holdings are built around its Man at Work collection of depictions of human labor and industry, in primarily paintings, mosaics, stained glass and large-scale bronze figure sculptures, some of which adorn the museum’s roof  like heroic, larger-than-life gargoyles or, if you prefer, cathedral saints. Museum director James Keiselberg welcomes the Link photography as a complement to the museum’s more traditional media.

Link dealt with a historic American subject in new technological means, for the 1950s. He also instinctively plumbed the dark side of the American experience by taking the radical step of shooting most of his train photos at night. These 36 black-and-white prints — documenting the final days of the steam-powered railroad on the Norfolk & Western Railway — evoke film noir. He used large, cumbersome tripod cameras with flashbulbs, and developed his exquisitely detailed images as gelatin silver prints in dark rooms, using beds of liquid developing solution for the exposed print, a “stop bath,” a fixer bath, etc. and mechanical enlargers. In an era of instant digital photography with “smart phones,” all these arcane techniques seem to risk extinction, like the steam locomotive, Garver notes.

Link also recorded locomotive sound effects and filmed this passing railroad environment — part of a documentary film for British television. Garver describes Link’s actual footage as “very atmospheric and romantic.”

So Link’s advertising-style “seduction,” brings the viewer “into the scene which includes the trains, but only as part of the total ensemble.”

Or think of a director’s seduction, in a classic American noir film like Double Indemnity. Here, the murderous threat seems submerged — but not a sense of something dying. What’s passing is the locomotive Iron Horse, and the way of life it helped build across America.

Link’s “ensemble” involved locals as closely directed players, in elaborate setups and lighting, and exquisite timing. His famous 1956 photo “Hot Shot Eastbound,” (top) blends mediums of transport and entertainment, life and death, romance and tragedy — muffled by the train powering by, as an airplane screams across a movie-screen sky. A young couple in a convertible enjoys a drive-in movie as a train hurtles past into darkness.

river train

Link seductively downplays tragedy, complicit with the enjoyment amid such “passages.” In “Hawksbill Creek Swimming Home” (above) river bathers frolic with a rather American disregard of fatefulness. Link creates a zig-zag interplay of angles — the current’s ominously black flow, the starkly backlit hill, the skeletal causeway and — in that instant — the train above, like a hell-bound or heaven-sent messenger, depending on your viewpoint.

Included are some daylight train photographs, with their own visual poetry. Link’s magic invariably seems to emanate from the smokestack’s cloud dance. And in one of the daylight photos he manages to capture the passage of an even older means of transportation. What is most striking about “Maud Bows to the Virginia Creeper” (1956, below)  is the horse-drawn carriage waiting in the foreground, beside a small train station in Green Cove, Virginia.

horse train

Because the rail traversed 55 mountainous and treacherous miles from southwestern Virginia into western North Carolina, the train only ran during daylight hours. However, the head of the elegantly powerful white Maud is bowed, as if she is acquiescing to the propulsive black power of the Iron Horse, surging into the same foreground. The animal instinctively conveys a delicate poignance in the historical moment, intensified by the depth of field, which the train is quickly consuming.

Link was an American original, striving to capture something that was disappearing from the vast panorama that formed the indigenous identity of America. In this sense, he is a kindred spirit to Edward Curtis, who also went to extraordinary lengths, to photographically document the American Indian and the passing of his way of life in his native habitat — during the transformative and often tragic advent of the white man. The Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend recently closed an exhibit of Curtis’ work (which this blog covered extensively, starting with this review at:

As Curtis did commercial portraiture to survive, Link did advertising photography for The Saturday Evening Post and various technical publications, but trains were his passion, as a subject.

“This was created as a work of passion and belief; that he set out to help in the preservation of a vanishing technology, in the manner he understood best, which was photography,” Garver says.

Link helps us to understand that with fresh eyes, to peer into the captured night, into the steam railroad’s fast-changing times and implicitly into ours.

The Grohmann Museum hours are 9 AM to 5 PM Monday- Friday, Noon-6 PM Saturday, 1-4 PM Sunday. Parking is available east of the Museum at the corner of Milwaukee and State streets. 414-277-2300 Website:

A shorter version of this review was published in The Shepherd Express.


Amiri Baraka: A Native Son of Racial Reality and Necessity

Mediasanctuary-AmiriBarakaObamaPoem472 Pioneering black music critic, playwright, essayist, and former Poet Laureate of New Jersey Amiri Baraka died at 79 on Jan. 9 in a Newark hospital. I thank jazz critic, author and educator Howard Mandel for posting a tribute to Baraka on his Facebook page, which prompted this blog post.

Part of Baraka’s rhetorical gift was his way of offering incisive insight while often pushing to the edge of provocative (and sometimes offensive) polemics that could undermine his posture as “civil discourse.”

Baraka often felt we need to break past civil discourse that perpetuated the status quo. Because Mandel uses “Blues People” in his jazz class at New York University I thought I’d add this Baraka quote about education from the 2009 anthology of his work Digging: the Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music:digging2009_mr “On the one hand, if we use Afro-American improvised music (American classical music) in the classroom, we would see big changes. Likewise if we began to use all the arts to teach, because there is no depth to education without art. But the constant presence of the music in the classroom hallway cafeteria etc.. would help toward providing that”true self-consciousness” Du Bois spoke of as opposed to the double consciousness these schools try to mash on our children now where they are forced to look at the world through the eyes of people that hate them (even if they are white working-class children).” 1

The educational canon has gotten a lot hipper since he wrote “Blues People” in 1963 but the Tea Party-driven culture wars often feel like barely hidden hate aflame again. Blues people “Mr. Baraka’s forthright use of black vernacular, slang and profanity in an improvisatory style became an influence on later writers, hip-hop musicians and playwrights, noted In Matt Schude in an obit for The Washington Post, a publication hardly expected to embrace his legacy. “Arnold Rampersad, the biographer and literary critic, once wrote that Mr. Baraka’s bold writings, coupled with his vibrant social activism, made him one of the most historically significant figures in African American life, alongside Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.

“‘More than any other black poet,’ Rampersad wrote, ‘he taught younger black poets of the generation past how to respond poetically to their lived experience, rather than to depend as artists on embalmed reputations and outmoded rhetorical strategies derived from a culture often substantially different from their own.’ “Mr. Baraka’s detractors considered him a reckless agitator whose inflammatory rhetoric contained elements of anti-Semitism and misogyny and constituted a reverse form of hate speech.

“In 2002, (conservative) cultural critic Stanley Crouch ridiculed Mr. Baraka’s writing as ‘an incoherent mix of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, black nationalism, anarchy and ad hominem attacks relying on comic book and horror film characters and images that he has used over and over and over.'”

Others seemed to find pressing and lasting value in Baraka’s work. One can sense filmmaker Spike Lee trafficking in Baraka’s cultural thinking in Lee’s tragic and still provocative film about racial conflict and misunderstanding Do the Right Thing. But Baraka’s painful themes and riffs, which seemed obsessive and agit-prop at times, were something he came to uneasy terms with in slowly evolving from his separatist Black Nationalist stance to coming to understand America’s intertwining roots.

Schudel concludes: “Mr. Baraka’s writings became more fragmented over the years, but he earned good reviews with his collected poems, “Transbluency,” in 1995 and with his 1984 autobiography.

In that book, he described his early life in his native Newark and seemed to come to reluctant terms with the world around him. “‘I realized,’ he wrote, ‘that the U.S. was my home. As painful and complicated as that was.’” 2

I last saw Baraka in a celebratory mode, at the 2009 Chicago Jazz Festival, doing his own brilliant version of a hip-hop rap — as only he could as one of the original hip-hip precursors — to honor the legacy of R&B singer-songwriter Curtis Mayfield.

More will be written, thought and felt about Baraka’s body of work, and about how he helped articulate the black man’s deep-rooted anguish, which seems as pertinent as ever today in a society still stacked against him. Consider Trayvon Martin’s unjust fate and that of the millions of incarcerated black men in America, a disproportionate travesty maintained by a complex political and economic system. And yet Baraka, who understood the America cultural tradition in historical and poetic terms, gradually honored the difficult truth of America as his home.

At times America is a horror movie, filled with ruthless characters, playing over and over. Would that America honor Baraka as a Native Son whom we needed — to feel the racial horror of America and its heart of darkness, to paraphrase Joseph Conrad, in some of our most troubled times. Remember, the horror deep in the Congo jungle of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was an insane white man. Baraka understood that the African-rooted music of the Blues People told an American story, in bellowing Abstract expressionist cries and gritty, parable-like stories, that trace common ground from coal-stained, seemingly black-face miners in Appalachia to the boys hangin’ in the ‘hood.


1 Amiri Baraka, The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music, University of California Press 2009, p. 108

Toni Morrison on Melville and the Language of Denial


This is a scene from Serge Roullet’s 1967 film adaptation of “Benito Cereno,” Melville’s novella about an actual slave rebellion aboard a Spanish ship.

Toni Morrison’s essay “Melville and the Language of Denial” in the most recent issue of The Nation shows us how Herman Melville, time and again, instinctively positioned himself on the fault lines of American society, politics and culture. In Benito Cereno, (which she discusses), Moby-Dick, The Confidence Man, “Bartleby the Scrivener” and other works, Melville conveyed an Ishmael-like sense of being an outsider/outcast even though the author was born into upper middle-class with a patriotically American heritage of Revolutionary War hero ancestors. Yet, his father died a ruined man when Melville was young, leaving his family in poverty.

Thus, Melville often worked themes about the agitations between the powerful and the powerless. Benito Cereno is so shockingly striking in that Melville slyly exposed the potential within the seemingly powerless, that of Babo’s radically covert rebellion, which Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, aptly characterizes as a rational, if enraged, human unwillingness “to be kidnapped for.”

Melville based his story on a true event that occurred in 1799. 1  What unfolds is a strange tale of stifled horror that might be reminiscent of Poe, while casting a wider net of anguish across the political spectrum than the horror-and-detective tale master seemed capable of.  The captains signify two men dwelling in intermingling mindsets fed by types of language of racial denial. Spanish Don Benito Cereno praises and condescends to his seemingly domicile black servant, Babo. He tries to hide from his American guest, Capt. Amaso Delano, the fact that the slaves have taken over his ship. So he builds a smokescreen over the reversing power dynamics afoot, so that the unwitting Delano can do little more than a proceed in passive manner of empowered compliance and complicity.

Meanwhile, Babo’s slithering unctuousness intensifies the scenario’s almost absurdist manner, presaging a Hitchcockian black humor, especially in a harrowing scene where the servant — who’s the revolt ringleader — shaves his “master’s” beard. The story ends with a horrifying image that signifies a form of ultimate retribution. Melville clearly suggests that the slave’s extreme response may be the only way to cut the problem off at its roots. Of course, we know it was never as simple as that, as Melville surely knew, and yet the simmering intensity of his tale exhorts us to stay the course to a greater truth and candor in our race relations, and to possible ways of healing.

Melville cover

Here’s the cover to a downloadable e-book version of the novella “Benito Cereno” courtesy of

Further proof of the novella’s seemingly perpetual provocative edge is how Morrison can write up a few paragraphs of response to it in January of 2014 and provoke such a wide ranging flurry of pointed — if sometimes ignorantly informed — commentary on the festering fissures in America’s complex racial divides.

It is interesting that one of the most ostensibly shrewd online comments to her essay comes from chris8lee, someone who exposes himself for apparently not even knowing who the author is and the context of her comments, as perhaps our greatest contemporary literary chronicler of the slave experience (best known for her Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved.)  Yet that commentator totters along the edge of the racial chasm with a characteristically white sense of entitlement and self-satisfaction that “washes his hands” because he postures himself as above the fray.

The Nation reader chris8lee also oversimplifies a Higher Power’s “moral grip” on fate, saying that life is always “just.”  Tell that to thousands of slaves who suffered and died under the South’s chattel slave system, indeed, millions of slaves who suffered worldwide in Arabian slave systems, as other comments point out.

The dialogue reveals the need for ongoing struggle for true racial justice which will always remain a struggle to some degree, as Frederick Douglass made clear, if we are to progress beyond the paradoxical social quagmire we were born in and maintain to the present.

Here’s the link to Morrison’s essay:

Writer Greg Grandin, whose query about Benito Cereno to Morrison prompted her response, also offers in the same January 27th issue of The Nation an excellent essay “Reading Melville in post 9/11 America” which even addresses issues such as Islamophobia.


1 Melville imaginatively based Benito Cereno on Chapter 18 of Capt. Amaso Delano’s A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, from either the 1817 or 1818 edition.

Thanks to Ed Valent for pointing out the Morrison essay to me.