I know the party line on Hurricane Rita is that it wasn't as bad as Katrina, it spared the major cities in its predicted path, etc. But I'm here to say that two of the places it most affected--Beaumont, TX and Lake Charles, LA--happen to be the two places where most of my remaining family lives. My sister, her family, and my father are all up by Dallas now, biding their time until they can go home, which is not possible at the moment given the absence of electricity, drinkable water, drivable streets, workable sewage systems, and other little luxuries like that. It's not entirely clear yet whether they'll even have homes to return to or not, particularly my sister, since hers was a mobile home, and we all know those don't fare too well under hurricane conditions.
I mention all this as context for the talk I attended tonight, which was part of the consistently excellent UB Art Department Speakers Series every Monday night through early December. Every week a mopey-looking assortment of undergrads struggles to stay awake while one wonderful guest after another delivers yet another outstanding presentation on visual art, performance, activist media, you name it. These kids have no idea how lucky they are, evidently; for them it's just an easy "A" (all they have to do is sign in and sit still for a semester to get one credit hour; no papers, no exams, no nothing but listening--though many of the talks float right over the heads of their intended audiences, I suspect).
Anyway, tonight's guest speaker was James Currie, who's on the faculty of UB's Music Department. Two of my friends highly recommended the talk; his name didn't ring a bell until I saw him and realized I'd met him a while back through mutual friends. Here's one of my characteristically unimpressive cell phone snapshots of his talk; maybe you'll recognize him, too:
The lecture was a brilliant pastiche of the personal and the theoretical, touching on 9/11, a parable about the Tower of Babel, voguing, the shortcomings of identity politics, totalitarianism, the rain outside, Cornel West, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the depoliticization of the gay community, and much, much more, punctuated with full-length song interludes. Given his home department, I was expecting something difficult and atonal and academic, but, surprise, surprise, the actual selections turned out to be Caetano Veloso's "Cucurucucu Paloma," a bit of improvised flamenco, and something I first thought was a boy's choir chanting something semi-Gregorian, which I soon realized was an a capella song by Virginia Rodriguez. These were not identified, not discussed, just presented in their entirety, and then passed over in silence.
I can't possibly paraphrase what Currie talked about, partly because I took only about five lines of notes, and partly because he'd make some witty or provocative or poetic comment and it would send my mind off on some internal journey for five minutes or so, and I'd have to work to find my way back onto the main road. But I guess I'd call it a defense of hysteria--sometimes the hysterical voice is the only way to effect change--in the face of our collective desire to sleep through the scary stuff of life, whether that be the rise of fascism in Walter Benjamin's day or the dance of terrorism and "patriotism" in our own. (I repeat: this is NOT a paraphrase; these words are mine, not his.)
Song comes in, he said at one point (and in a moment I really will be quoting, albeit three or four words at a time), in the balance between "where we are" and "where we want to be." Music, among other forms of art, sometimes provides us with moments of transcendence, of community, of somthing bigger than our individual lives--like on a dance floor, or at a rally--but how do we sustain that, or (okay, now I'm down to a two-word quote) "cash in" on these isolated moments?
See, my fragments of memory are even more fragmentary than his flashes of insight; you're lucky you're getting even this much out of me. But sitting in that classroom, listening to Caetano's voice and hearing someone speak so eloquently about the desperate need to wake ourselves out of our slumbers, thinking about my displaced family and their uncertain futures, everything started to come together for me, if only for a second or two.
LATE-BREAKING UPDATE (10/3/05) : For those of you keeping track, my family is okay. Still living the evacuee lifestyle up near Dallas, but my brother-in-law headed down to Beaumont and Lake Charles last Thursday and found out that, miraculously, his trailer is intact, my niece's new house is okay, and my dad's place is all right. Huge mess at each, and still no water/power/etc., but no major damage. Hooray! And now back to music talk...