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21 September 2011

Brassland is 10: A short attention span essay on publicity, intimacy & the community behind the label’s anniversary.

Publicity, or: What you see is what you get

My label Brassland is 10 years old this year. I’m sure there’s an exact anniversary date on which the Dessner Twins and I determined that starting a record label was a good idea – circa Napster and the birth of the iPod, on the cusp of the recorded music industry’s decade-long earnings decay, and after the major bummer of 9/11. (One of those is a prime example of understatement.) I don’t know the actual date. I’m not keeping that close a track.1

I’m happy to report that, macro-economic trends aside, we’re doing better than ever and have left a nice bit of culture in our wake. To jump right into some news you can use, here are some sounds we’ve put out during that time.

But as much pride as we take in the music we’ve released, the label has never been strictly about putting out recorded music.2 We’ve always thought of ourselves as doing something larger. Or maybe what I mean is that we thought of ourselves as something smaller?

In any case, we’ve always been trying to do something else. Soon after forming Brassland, we published a statement of purpose on our website which phrased that “something” like so:

    “We encourage collaboration and creation among an evolving assortment of creative folks. Music is our current focus. We like music that transcends genre. At the same time, we try not to make transcending genre a cliché by applying labels to what we do: funk-metal, progressive punk, Afro-cuban jazz, underground hip-hop, intelligent dance music, whateva! We like musicians who play well and possess the elusive tonic of personality.”

What got me musing again about this origin myth is a bit of publicity: an article about our anniversary that appeared in The Guardian a few months back. You can click here to read the piece online, or the image below to see it laid out in all its pulp-printed, pre-digital glory.

By and large, the paper got our story remarkably right. Record labels don’t generate much commentary so it’s nice to see the mission behind Brassland shine through. As I was quoted in the article: “It’s gratifying. I feel like we started with an idea, and that idea has become true.”

Ten years in, though, I think it’s worth wondering: Have we met all our goals? What still needs doing? How should our goals evolve? And, finally, is it worth forging ahead with our bread & butter activity of putting out records, the fate of the recorded music industry be damned?

***

Today that initial mission statement still sounds about right: that music is not our exclusive interest, that genre is a fool’s game, that the group of people we’ve assembled is as vital to our identity as the products we make. This credo has enabled us to outlast and outgrow many better-funded and over-hyped entities that emerged at the same time we did.

But on this anniversary, I’d like to give a sense of how that mission statement has played out in the real world. First, here’s a sense of what we have been for & against.

  • AGAINST the deskilling of popular music that’s been characteristic since punk rock emerged in the late 1970s
  • FOR making inroads for independent culture (a.k.a. “indie music,” a.k.a. the D.I.Y. spirit of punk rock) into high-culture milieus that have been too obscure and too unapproachable for the masses after successive waves of increasingly recondite 20th-century avant-gardes
  • AGAINST focusing on the cool & the fashionable, the trendy & the transgressive.
  • FOR “good music” in whatever form it takes. Yes to that which is progressive, purposeful & capable of touching hearts. Yes to quality over quantity. No to “the new” for newness sake! No to releasing eight albums a year if we don’t find albums for which we truly care!
  • AGAINST business for business sake, profligacy without purpose, and opportunism and careerism without meaningful cause
  • FOR the work of “lifers” — the makers who’ve placed artful living at the center of their existence in whatever form that creativity takes: painting pictures, recording music, making their own clothes, engineering software or other innovative machines, the growing of food & artful preparation of such, etc.

I know, I know, it’s a bit ranty. But it could be worse.3 And even outlining it in bullet point fashion like that, I can’t help but think there’s something missing…

***

Intimacy, or: What’s missing is what we’re after

If the Guardian article and my bullet points omitted something, it’s the years of personal connections & interactions that preceded and supported every flash of publicity our artists receive — in brief, what is missing is how shit actually happens. It’s what articles about culture, especially popular culture, always miss. To use the architecture of the internet as metaphor, they may capture the network but they overlook the nodes; they’ll highlight the strong ties but overlook the weak ones.

I don’t fault the media for its inability to understand how culture is made. It’s a function of the difference between living and observing, between inside and outside, and the difference between intimacy and publicity. The format that newspaper stories on the Arts typically adopt make true insight into what’s being reported on impossible. Take the case of this Guardian article. Several months before it appeared, I spent an afternoon with Laura Snapes, the young British journalist responsible for the piece. Laura is great — an uber-fan of The National, an employee of the long-running British music publication NME, and a self-admitted lover of sad-sack music which, well, it’s probably a requirement for fans of Brassland’s discography.4 Over the course of a day, we hung out at The National’s studio in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn; at Buke & Gass’s rehearsal space in Red Hook; at a Clogs concert one night at Merkin Hall in midtown near Central Park. In miniature, it was a fitting map of how culture actually works in New York City today. There are grand displays of art in the center, while the making of things takes place in cozier spaces at the edges, and in the boroughs.5

But there is a difference between a map and the land that it traces.

The activity of promoting artists as individuals, and launching their careers as sui generis stars continues to define Brassland as a business entity. Indeed, some of the artists we’ve worked with over the years have become critically acclaimed and semi-popular phenomenon: The National and Nico Muhly come to mind most firmly. But the fact is, servicing these public roles is a very small part of what Brassland is and does.

Our more vital role is serving as an informal & conceptual hub for a small but growing community of artists. Our main hope is that during their tenure on the label, we can help them find a comfortable niche within an evolving constellation of co-conspirators. I like to think that we encourage the idea of having peers more than we do individual stardom. We try to create an environment conducive to [blank]-making: be that word before the hyphen music, food, or empire — this last, a word which I’d define positively. Empire is the opportunity to build an infrastructure of one’s own.

This may sound idealistic, but in large part the focus on the creative network is practical. It is a fact of life in the arts that behind every “overnight success” are dozens of lesser-known but much beloved men & woman who supported that instant sensation. Even after success comes for an individual artist, those men & women continue to help make new work happen. Every year spent building a foundation for one’s art in these private communities will strengthen it, and allow the art more time as a viable economic and creative force. Artists who truly embed themselves among their network of collaborators are far more likely to enjoy long-term success and, by extension, sell more records; thereby, Brassland’s focus on the creative network over the superstar could even be construed as self-serving (in the sweetest and most humane way possible).

To transform the metaphor about internet architecture into one about physical architecture, let’s imagine our most popular artists as skyscrapers. A strong foundation, a strong system of support in the urban jungle, is what allows that artist’s aspirations to reach farther into the air, and what allows a thriving ecosystem of supportive businesses to exist in the neighboring buildings and on the lower floors.

It’s easy to overlook how our greatest successes are bound up in the lives and art of our (as yet) less popular groups. If you pay little or no attention to our specific milieu, you can probably tune out the rest of this paragraph. If you do pay attention, here are some examples: That one of our most forgotten artists, Baby Dayliner aka Ethan Marunas, was a major inspiration to The National’s Matt Berninger as he was learning to be a frontperson for a rock’n’roll band. (Interestingly, the descriptors one would apply to Baby Dayliner’s performances — brave, funny, curious and intellectual — are the same ones you’d apply to Matt’s; the difference being that Ethan’s one-man karaoke-style approach is braver still.) That we discovered Buke & Gass when the sister of Aaron & Bryce Dessner from The National booked them at a small club in Ditmas Park. That Padma Newsome — the driving force behind Bryce’s other group Clogs — was in part responsible for the great leap in arrangement & sophistication between The National’s first and second albums, joining the group as an associate member though the completion of Boxer. That Doveman (aka Thomas Bartlett) contributed key riffs and ideas to that same album in more or less anonymous fashion — a favor repaid when The National played a major performing role on his album The Conformist. That Nico Muhly was a major presence on that same Doveman album — an outgrowth of their relationship as co-conspirators in the social whirl of New York’s music scene, a relationship that’s offered a number of our artists entrée into past and future projects well outside of the label’s immediate orbit.

Finally, Brassland prides itself less on sales figures than this daisy chain of intimate relations. These relationships are what allows careers and the people who have them to grow, and grow strong.

***

At the best of times, Brassland’s artists just keep growing & growing & growing.

That’s a picture of Madison Square Garden, soon after a management client of mine had left the stage. The National have had the honor of playing that same arena. It still strains my imagination to contemplate that I’ve had not one but two artists play such a venue. But the thing to remember about Brassland’s artists as they’ve grown in the world is that what impresses most is not the grandiosity of display but the ways they’ve made these grand displays…smaller. Maybe that’s not the word, but certainly the intention has been to make art in the world more about connection than spectacle.

Two examples: Here is Matt from The National at their recent show at the Hollywood Bowl, on the tenth anniversary of September 11th, literally reaching out and touching the crowd.

And here’s the whole band at a recent show of theirs in Philadelphia a week earlier, my first in-the-flesh opportunity to see their new end-of-set tradition of singing “‪Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks‬” unplugged, the audience as loud as the band on stage.

I’ll readily admit, I’ve yet to sit down and talk to The National folks about what each of these nightly rituals signifies to them. (You’ll probably see both events play out no matter where you’ve seen them on their current tour cycle.) But I couldn’t help but hope & wonder that they’ve internalized a certain concept about what it is to be a star — a concept that considers not only the light that is cast, but the dimmer, darker, high pressure quadrants of the universe that birth them.

I’ll probably never ask them. Part of the secret of creative relationships being that you don’t always ask; sometimes you just dream your own crazy dream.

So, okay, there are some deep thoughts for you on the gulf between publicity and intimacy. Next up, a brief consideration of the function of community and the entities that propel creativity.


1. I did look up some actual dates after finishing this short essay. I found this fall 2011 tour schedule for The National particularly evocative for the way it portrays a band either oblivious to the events of that September, or intent on getting on with things tragedy aside.
– 2001-08-10 – New York, NY – Brownies
– 2001-08-12 – Arlington, VA – Galaxy Hut
– 2001-08-15 – Pittsburgh, PA – Club Cafe
– 2001-08-15 – Philadelphia, PA – Khyber Pass
– 2001-08-25 – Brooklyn, New York, NY – North Six
– 2001-10-18 – New York, NY – Mercury Lounge
– 2001-10-20 – Buffalo, NY – Hallwalls
– 2001-10-27 – Brooklyn, New York, NY – Galapagos
– 2001-11-03 – Raleigh, NC – King’s Barcade
– 2001-11-04 – Mobile, AL – The Splash
– 2001-11-06 – New Orleans, LA – Mermaid Lounge
– 2001-11-07 – Athens, GA – Caledonia
– 2001-11-08 – Atlanta, GA – Echo Lounge
– 2001-11-09 – Bloomington, IN – The Space 101
– 2001-11-11 – Evanston, IL – WNUR 89.3 FM Taping
– 2001-11-11 – Chicago, IL – Empty Bottle
– 2001-11-12 – Columbus, OH – WCBE 90.5 FM Taping
– 2001-11-12 – Columbus, OH – Little Brothers
– 2001-11-13 – Louisville, KY – Barretone’s
– 2001-11-14 – Oberlin, OH – Oberlin College
– 2001-11-15 – Newport, KY – Southgate House
– 2001-11-16 – Morgantown, WV – 123 Pleasant St.
– 2001-11-17 – Pittsburgh, PA – Mr. Roboto Project
Lots more memories are attached to some of these shows. But in any case, I’d say autumn 2001 stands as a fitting anniversary date for us all.
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2. I always correct people when they refer to us as “Brassland Records.” I mean, ick! Who would want to run the Wild West Horse Buggy Company just as the railroad was being introduced?
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3. Have you read about hedge fund manager Ray Dalio’s Principles yet? You can do so in The New Yorker or Dealbreaker. Crazier still, you can read the thing itself. Go for it.
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4. I prefer the term “thoughtful” to “sad-sack” though, at our current cultural moment, I think those two words have become largely become synonymous in most people’s lexicon. Let’s leave the unpacking of that thought to a future BLOG, k?
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5. One thing Laura missed: I’d have liked her to include the detail that, on the weekend of her visit, I was staying at an apartment once rented by legendary Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren while he lived in New York attempting to pen a never-published memoir. I don’t quite fancy myself an impresario, but any portrait of a music scene would not be complete without the schemer off dreaming in the background.
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19 July 2011

The real temple of culture: a short attention span essay on El Sistema, MNMP, art education & art institutions


Above is a video that I hope serves as the candied sweetness that draws you into reading the rest of this post. It’s a TED talk from British-born, Los Angeles-based educational theorist Ken Robinson. It’s brilliant and funny and the version I’m embedding has been viewed over two million times, so I think it’s safe to say that people like it.

It embodies the excitement I’ve felt recently for exploring a life outside of the Arts, a life that values the application of the Arts in day-to-day life more than Art for Arts sake. You see, the deeper I get into the world of music, the less faith I have for the Arts as a freestanding institution; the more disturbed I get by the way it often engages people merely as entertainment or spectacle or a means to status. Which is not to say I am against spectacles, or entertainment, or status. (Well, okay, status makes me queasy.)

But I digress…
Sometimes these qualities are called for. And I am fascinated by the distractions which Art can offer, in the way that anyone would be fascinated by a car crash at the side of the road. But increasingly I care more about making Art as a process, about the way it engages people free of its role as entertainment.

I’m writing here to share a few strands that have reinforced that view. The first one is rather slow. (Note: The embed has been behaving a bit tetchily — so here’s a direct link if it doesn’t appear embedded in the body of this post.)

For those entirely deprived of web video, it’s a 60 Minutes segment about El Sistema, Venezuela’s much vaunted music education program for the public schools. There’s something lacking in this mini-documentary. 60 Minutes‘s storytelling style is a bit pat, almost too effective. It greases over the bumps, or the notion of what a program like El Sistema may be competing against for funding. For that let’s turn to this passage from a 2009 blog entry by David Byrne, wherein he recounts an awkward conversation he had with Portugal’s senator for culture.

    I suggested that it was more important that children, and everyone really, be imbued with a sense that they themselves might make things — that the things they might make have value — as opposed to learning mainly to appreciate the great masters, whether they be Bach, Picasso or the literary canon. I proposed that the value of art might be of more use to society in that regard, rather than focusing on supporting, well, museums and symphony halls. Naturally, to a senator who has made it her noble mission to argue for more support for the arts, this is slightly heretical and, as she said, “very American.” America’s lack of state support for the arts and skepticism of the value of fine art is legendary.

    I qualified my opinion by saying that I myself love a lot of “refined” contemporary art, and some highbrow or academic music as well — but I don’t assume that everyone should. Those who enjoy that stuff are not all wealthy, but they do constitute an elite, rarified world. By this definition, comic book fans and heavy metal fans are elite bunches as well. Every subculture is, in a way. I don’t presume that my tastes or those of my friends require lots of state support — although a little more in the US would be nice — and I would argue that supporting the arts and culture in schools at all levels is worth a lot more to our future quality of life. Encouraging students to write, to make stuff, to cook, design, to draw, play an instrument, record music, sing, edit films, etc. — all of that creates a sense of self-worth, curiosity and experimentation that has applications way beyond each of those disciplines. I would argue that this is where the greater percentage of state funding should go. Of course in the US, it’s the part that has been eliminated almost completely.

Going deeper, even that quote fails to get across what art’s lasting effects on a child can be, though it’s more effective than the 60 Minutes style visual is.

Watching children playing in unison, though powerful, is only the half of it. It displays the external view of arts education — children on display! — but it does not x-ray the internal view.

What I’m not sure any representation can do justice to is the lasting effects art (small “a”) can have on children. That has to be seen to be believed. And by see it I don’t mean on a screen. About two months ago, I had the profound experience of getting to see art & kids together in the flesh…

Let me rewind a bit: Around 2008 I got involved with a New York organization called the Manhattan New Music Project as a member of their board of directors. The organization sends working artists into the New York City public schools and a short time ago (somewhat ashemedly for the first time!) I actually paid visit to a classroom, in this case, a school in District 75, a citywide district that focuses on special education. You probably haven’t heard about it unless you have a friend or family member who is touched by their efforts (I sure hadn’t) so here is a summary:

    District 75 provides citywide educational, vocational, and behavior support programs for students who are on the autism spectrum, have significant cognitive delays, are severely emotionally challenged, sensory impaired and/or multiply disabled. District 75 consists of 56 school organizations, home and hospital instruction and vision and hearing services. Our schools and programs are located at more than 310 sites in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island and Syosset, New York.

The music being played in this class was not classical, not pop, not jazz. It was something simpler — rhythm sticks, a spacey circular drone on a boombox. The goal was not to train the children to learn about the Western canon, or get them to play “Chopsticks.”

Rather the goal for most of these kids was to, over the course of a semester, learn to make eye-contact, to connect to another human, to use art to not only slow themselves down but, more interestingly, to slow down the teachers instructing them. It’s easy to forget that children are not workers. They need to learn and absorb and develop at their own pace.

I spent a solid portion of my hour or two in the class holding back tears.

So let me end this post by returning to culture. About one month back, driving around upstate New York, I ended up spending a few hours one afternoon on the campus of Bard College where I saw yet another temple to the Arts, Frank Gehry’s imposing Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts.

It was a bit magical running into this temple in the middle of nowhere. But it didn’t quite match the magic of those kids in a classroom. And I had to wonder why I tend to find myself more in temples of culture than in classrooms of wonder. And while I don’t think one needs to choose one or the other in an absolute sense, I do think it’s worth realizing that spending more time with one than the other does represent a choice.

And now, for a relieving rimshot to break up the mood.

PS – As an aside that brings us back to where we started, there was a recent complication with the idea of bringing El Sistema to the United States. If you watch the 60 Minutes piece to the end, you’ll hear an administrator for Venezuela’s El Sistema say the program could easily translate to the United States. But, in fact, after a high-profile kick-off that began with founder Jose Abreu winning the TED Prize (natch!), El Sistema USA has had well-documented issues, including the loss of fiscal sponsor, the New England Conservatory. This NPR piece points to the simple issue of competition for resources — El Sistema offers for free to kids what NEC wants to charge for.

*Sigh*

(Image of children playing via El Sistema USA.)

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18 December 2010

“The way I keep in touch with the world is very gingerly, because the world touches too hard.”

If the short, sentimental, uninformative docupoem about him by Anton not embedded up there then look for it here. “The difference between art & music…” he says in the documentary, well, it’s different forms of drowning. Am I right? Probably not. Because Captain Beefheart aka Don Van Vliet didn’t so much confound expectations as deny they were even possible…

    “Don van Vliet, alias ‘Captain Beefheart’, is one of the most influential, misunderstood, talked about, admired, copied, treasured, loved and quoted musicians and yet he is still an obscure and mysterious artist. His quite abrupt artistic transformation from working with a microphone to a paintbrush in 1982 and his consequent move from the desert to the ocean meant even less direct contact with the outside world than before. Subsequently there is very little information about Don from this time onwards and this short black-and-white film made in 1993 is an unique opportunity to see and hear this unique man. The film is approximately 13 minutes long, directed and photographed in black and white.”

But please don’t mistake Captain Beefheart for being an uncommercial artist. In fact, they were so commercial they once made one:

Before you go, you might want to read why in the New York Times’ obituary. O captain! My captain! More rambling after the jump!
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30 April 2010

The energy of a Void: some lessons on hardcore, faith & what not


Recently I had reason to reminisce about hardcore, a music very close to my heart. Want proof? Pictured above is the wall of my bedroom. Below: framed cover of Void/The Faith split 12″ (Dischord, 1982) Above: a copy of the etched side of The Locust’s “Well I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle” double 12” (Gold Standard Labs, 2000). A pictorial detail here:

One of the problems with explaining an appreciation for this music is its obscurity, its inexplicability compared to most of what people would consider music, and — the topic I’m going to focus on in this post — its energy, an energy so untidy and chaotic it doesn’t translate well into adulthood which, if you define adulthood like most people do, means that it does not translate well anywhere that is considered polite society.

Now for some Void videos, sorted by YouTube popularity:

LESSON #1: ENERGY – 58,000 views

So, yes, energy. It’s less like music than a rolling storm. The guitar player Bubba Dupree’s sway and lean is trance-like, masturbatory in a zen way, completely focused. The singer John Weiffenbach displays a weird athleticism all the weirder for how it’s mixed up with a weird rage. Imagine for a second if the jocks were the biggest weirdos in your typical American high school and you get a sense of the threat to the social order someone like Weiffenbach represents. He’s a punk but he’s proudly wearing short shorts, simultaneously upsetting both the actual weirdo peers (for the way he’s dressed) and the more straightforward kids (for the things he’s doing in those shorts). If only he replaced then with 80s-era running shorts maybe his band would have been more popular. But no that’s an innovation he left for Henry Rollins to master.

The drummer Sean Finnegan will not stop playing when the band does. It seems like whatever he is doing is only half-coordinated with the actions of his bandmates. He’s going balls out and won’t stop. It would be too clever to say that only death could stop this guy — or that he had an energy which seems too much, too much, which was destined to make him expire at a young age. But when you hear that his death in 2008 came via a massive heart attack, and that he was only 43 years old you might think those thoughts were correct & appropriate after all.

One of the reasons this video has so many more views than the others is that it’s the one bloggers gravitated toward when running his obituary — making him, perhaps, the single biggest means by which this pre-internet band has been embraced in this medium.

LESSON #2: WILLPOWER & WILL TO POWER – 28,000 views

This next video gives a better sense of what makes the band exciting. The camera never moves. The singer has a fearful, will-to-power like intensity. You understand the appeal the group might have to a heedless young person, an appeal much like the original creator of the will to power concept seems to hold on precocious young people — at least in my experience.

For the most part the band is absent entirely from the shot. But if you’re like me you don’t much care. There is plenty of visual interest here besides them, and the point of what they’re doing up there on stage, finally, is to incite a movement, a violence, a creative spark & persistent impact that goes far & above the music they’re making in real time. So yes, a shout out to 19th-century German classical philologists everywhere straight from 1980s era Washington, DC.

LESSON(S) #3 & #4: CHAOS & COMMUNITY – 19,000 views combined

Here’s the point to put a finger on it. Watch the second video, where an audience member for a second grabs control of the mic; where singer John Weiffenbach tells the crowd “Stick your fingers in my gizzard” and you’re not sure if it’s a lyric or a request; where you can barely tell where the band stops and the crowd begins.

Unique to this music is a sense that there is no line between audience and performer, between the chaos of the crowd and the creation of something new, between the artist and the community that supports them. That’s what made hardcore punk so inspiring to so many kids that would, eventually, leave the actual music and aesthetic of that culture behind. I recall the Passover Seder I attended a few weeks back at the home of a particularly forward thinking Lubavitcher rabbi in Boro Park. I, myself, neither observe nor practice any religion but I was taken aback by the guy seated to my left at the table — a Catholic hardcore kid from Connecticut that had recently converted to the Jewish faith and was dressed in the full-out Hasidic outfit — beard, side curls, black hat, etc.

It made me wonder, was hardcore punk a kind of religion in and of itself?

And finally…

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16 February 2010

Some thoughts on Black Mountain College & the nature of communities

If you know nothing about Black Mountain College, where the above photo was taken, start here. Its teaching ranks were not populated by academics but practitioners. Among those who taught there during its brief, 24-year lifespan were Josef and Anni Albers, Alfred Kazin, John Cage, Harry Callahan, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Walter Gropius, Franz Kline, Charles Olson, Aaron Siskind, and Robert Motherwell. (I’ll let you Google the unfamiliar names.) Guest lecturers included Albert Einstein, Clement Greenberg and William Carlos Williams. (You better know them.) It wasn’t just a school, it was a community with a unique gravitational pull.

There was also fun with problems. To jump right into it, here’s a passage from Martin Duberman’s history of the place, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community

    “Drawing on the familiar distinction between negative freedom from rules and restraint, and positive freedom to be constructive and creative, Wallen argued that Black Mountain had concentrated too much on producing the first kind of freedom (‘laissez-faire’) and not enough on the second (‘democracy’). The difference between the two hinged on the lack of structure and leadership characteristic of the laissez-faire climate. Their absence created insecurity and frustration, which brought passivity and confusion, which led to a reversion back to autocratic methods in order to restore some semblance of productivity and harmony.”

For evidence of that laissez-faire spirit espy these two photographs. At left, a 1951 picture of writer Francine du Plessix Gray next to poet Joel Oppenheimer. At right, a snap of inventor and gadfly Buckminster Fuller.

Bucky — as his friends knew him — was really into these things:

Not exactly well-ordered! Or, well, so extremely well-ordered, in such a specific manner, that there was inevitably static:


I wish to say we could always use more wonder in the world. But communities require more than that; and communes–which is more or less what Black Mountain was–require far more than wonder to survive and thrive.
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