Thursday, March 10, 2011

Through some odd combination of good fortune, I've managed to have the privilege of attending a grand total of three events at the Tully Scope Festival at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. The first was the free opening ceremony -- written up in NY Times here. (Charlotte, one of my friends who went with me, says that she can see me in one of the pictures, but I can't. I never was very good at Where's Waldo. Or Magic Eye, for that matter. Remember those?) The contemporary piece performed in the opening ceremony, "Bells" by Nathan Davis, incorporated the use of cell phones to create an atmospheric, futuristic effect. Ordinarily, the curmudgeon in me would be skeptical of combining the necessary evil of cell phones with a concert at Lincoln Center, but I really enjoyed it. There were performers moving about the space, including a flute player, and there were some really cool overlaps between what the live performers were playing, and the electronic effects coming from the cell phone channels. There were a few different options for channels of sounds to have your cell phone play, so my friends and I had fun holding our phones up to one another's ears and creating a surround-sound. I would really love to see what the score of the piece looked like, since parts of it felt improvisatory to my ear, but other parts involved really precise interactions between instruments.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to obtain a ticket that a friend couldn't use to go see Kayhan Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider. As previously mentioned, I can be a bit of curmudgeon in some ways when it comes to classical music (though not in others -- for example I think it would be totally awesome to see more classical performances in bars and places that have more of a rock-concert feel) but even so, the idea of a contemporary string quartet performing with a Persian-music virtuoso seemed intriguing. My favorite piece on the program was the world premiere of a John Cage string quartet, which was rich and luscious, and made me wish that I could play the cello. There was also a piece by Colin Jacobsen, who plays violin in Brooklyn Rider, called "Beloved, do not let me be discouraged" that combined the string-quartet sound with the kamancheh (Persian fiddle-like instrument) in a really interesting way. They combined the instruments on some other pieces, too, but this one in particular stood out to me because the kamancheh blended completely with the violins during some sections, and then took on its own voice. They apparently have a collaborative CD called Silent City that I'd be interested in checking out (both figuratively literally, from Brooklyn Public Library).

Tonight I'm going to see Louis Lortie perform a Liszt program. When I bought the tickets, I knew that I had heard of Louis Lortie but wasn't sure where, but I needed to make a quick decision in order to get an awesome deal. My general rule of thumb for classical music is that if I feel like I've heard of the musician and I can get tickets for less than $20, I should definitely go. (My feeling was correct on this one -- as soon as I got home, I found that I had some recordings of Lortie's on my iTunes.) And Liszt is awesome -- it should be a good program, and probably involving a drool-worthy piano that will make me entertain fantasies of moving somewhere where I could keep a gorgeous Steinway grand in my living room.

Other than that -- I recently paid a visit to my alma mater to attend their annual women's history conference. This year's theme was Breaking Boundaries: Body Politics and the Dynamics of Difference. My friend Charlotte was presenting her paper on information bias in fat studies, so basically she is a rockstar academic who does things like speak at conferences now. She and her research partner Kate did a really awesome job, and I learned enough to be appropriately outraged, for example that all books on fat studies (studying how fat bodies are perceived in society, suggesting that it is possible to be both fat and healthy and that most studies that say otherwise are funded by various multimillion-dollar diet companies, etc.) are mostly categorized by the Library of Congress under such offensive categories as "disease", right next to books on cancer, rather than under a more-factually-correct social science heading. There were a ton of really excellent panels, and it was a good reminder for me that I can still do lots of things that expand my brain and challenge my thinking without being in school.

One of the best talks I attended was by Zoe Spencer from Virginia State University, whose lecture was entitled The Sexualized Body Politics of African American Women: From Enslavement to Hip Hop. I would actually really like to listen to everything she said one more time, because she was a super engaging speaker and kept dropping these really huge, groundbreaking statements like they were totally no big deal, and it took my brain a second to try to keep up (an example that I wrote down: "Reproductive and sexual labor is directly controlled through social constructs"). I bet she is a really awesome professor. She also talked about Sarah Baartman/the Hottentot Venus (who I hadn't heard of before but came up again later in a talk I attended on the inherent sexism and racism in the field of anatomy, and how the default in textbooks is almost always white and male unless the picture has something to do with reproduction).

I also learned about the "ugly laws" from the 1860s, in which people who were considered ugly or "deformed" could be sentenced to a mandatory year of hard labor if they were seen in public (partially due to a belief that a pregnant woman who saw an ugly person would damage her unborn baby), and how reaction to this law affected disability rights movements and later, employment discrimination laws (though apparently 98% of employment discrimination cases are settled in favor of the defendant*). Susan Schwiek, the lecturer, brought up the interesting point that in most discrimination cases, the oppressed group refutes weakness as a part of deserving civil rights (for example, women and African-Americans arguing equal intelligence to white men as a reason for suffrage). However, this type of reasoning is problematic for some forms of disability rights movement, in that people deserve civil rights regardless whether they are neurotypical.

* For my lawyer and legal-oriented readers -- Schwiek referred to the case of Samantha Robichaud v. RPH (McDonald's) as an example of a notable employment discrimination case. To sum up: Samantha Robichaud worked at McDonald's, had a large birthmark on her face and, after watching new employees that she trained get promotions, asked why she hadn't been promoted. The response she got was, "You will never be in management here because I was told you would either make the babies cry or scare the customers off." Robichaud ended up losing the case, but it broke new territory in that it raised the question of whether or not disability laws applied to discriminating against someone for being "ugly".

The conference allowed me to do some examining on my own intersecting forms of privilege, and put some thought into what I can do in order to work against systems of the kyriarchy -- even when, on the surface, they can benefit me. I think the biggest thing for me is to continue to work on being a good listener, and to question other people's assumptions, and to continue to ask questions in general. And also, to notice when privilege may play a part in what's going on around me. For example -- I attended on a panel on burlesque in which a member of the audience asked a question about whether or not fat bodies are accepted in burlesque. There were three women on the panel: one woman who was self-identified fat and performed in a burlesque troupe whose goal was to show fat bodies as sexy, and two thin women. The self-identified fat woman responded that fat bodies were not always accepted in burlesque, and that sometimes venues respond, "Oh, don't just want to sing?! You want to take your clothes off?!" The responses of the two thin women seemed to dismiss her experience, saying how great everyone was in the burlesque community and what a positive place it was for a wide variety of bodies.

Overall, though, I left the conference feeling inspired by movement. I realize this sounds heavy-handed, but what I mean is that I'm excited by what's happening right now in the various sub-groups of progressive political activism. In a way, the internet has done something similar for politics as it has for music and film: put it into the hands of everybody. I have a serious love/hate relationship with the internet in general, but I do love that I can read blogs that remind me to, above all, see people as people, and think about my reactions and assumptions. (One of these -- good even for those with short attention spans -- is the Microaggressions tumblr, found here.)

In somewhat related news, I've recently discovered some old high school journals, and if that's not a surefire way to show that I've gone through some amount of personal growth, I don't know what is. I'm currently working on a podcast that will include some of the best quotes as a feature (possibly entitled "Teenage Dirtbag"). As can be expected, I say a fair amount of things that I now don't agree with at all. What's actually more shocking are the things that I feel like I could also say in five minutes, and still have it be true. Also, prepare yourselves for some really great quotes from my dad, recorded for posterity.


  1. That's interesting about subjects in anatomy being white and male, as anatomy literally is looking beneath the skin at a macroscopic level, where we truly are all the same. I'm not sure how human anatomy texts are presented, but in vet med the skin is removed so you never really know the breed or color of the animal, nor does it matter... Anyhow, I just thought that was interesting

  2. Well, one specific example I remember from the lecturer (an anatomy & dance professor named Peggy Gould)'s discussion of skeletons is that the proportions of the male and female pelvic bones are different, but most of the time when a "generic skeleton" is presented, the proportions of the bones make it identifiably male.

    I just Googled "anatomy" and "human anatomy" to confirm that my memory's serving me correctly about the race aspect of things -- and it seems that a lot of drawings, for example to show different body systems, depict sort of a "cut-out". So you can tell that the picture is a white man based on the skin that's filled in around the organs.

    She also brought up how the proportions in anatomy books are standardized to be of a certain height, and how it's rare to see anyone short used in an anatomy diagram -- which I had never thought about, but it seems true to me.