Get out the universal translator, captain. Platforma just posted a long read about the E.X shows last month in Lviv, Ternopil, Khmelnytskyi, Kyiv, Kremenchuk, Odesa, Kharkiv, Sumy, and Chernihiv. Слава Україні!
Sat.14.Oct (Concert in Lviv) // U Travni is a warmly-lit three-story vegan cafe, each floor connected by a spiral staircase. Comfy but elegant, elegant but comfy. The opening act (the impossible-to-Google Misha a.k.a. 8:30) wore a voice-modulating mask and ran the signal through a tape cassette karaoke machine. His friend joined him for a solo on a very very long flute. It was alarming and beautiful, and the best start of a tour in recent memory. The second act Pilikayu, the solo project of U Travni’s owner, was similarly hypnotizing, somehow both more aggressive and and cleaner than the opening act; dope pop tracks, lyrics that went way past my vocabulary abilities but seemed to make all the locals laugh, and two songs dedicated to advertising vegan düner and falafel at the cafe. My set was my set; I just set up and played like I usually do. But I spoke a bit before and after with people about why I felt this tour was important to me, and some of them seemed to understand. A woman asked to use my synth; she learned the interface quickly and played us all a harsh noise set as the show wound down.
Sun.15.Oct (day off in Lviv and Ternopil) // Anyone coming to eastern Europe hoping to find commie blocks and brutalist parking garages is going to be severely let down. Lviv is a layer cake of history and architecture, Czech trams knit a patchwork of Austro-Hungarian facades and Kruschevkas and wide plazas together — a flatter, landlocked Porto. The war is visible as metal plates welded to protect valuable and delicate building elements like stained glass and keysontes and gargoyles; one quickly learns to overlooks these, because the city’s beauty asserts itself with confidence despite these hints of temporary fortress. It’s a lot like Ukrainians overall, actually; they never minimize the human tragedy of the war or disregard danger, but they are undominated by it, no hand-wringing, just carrying on with cautious determination. The cafes are busy, and I’d put the coffee on offer in Lviv’s uncountable coffee stands up against a fancy third wave spot in Berlin or L.A. any day. Lviv Coffee Gang 4 Ever (sorry Yaroslav, I’m with Katja for now). Another illustratino of this spirit is the ubiquitous floral rock launcher. These are spent tubes people get their hands on and repurpose as vases. They are everywhere.
Yaroslav and I took the train for Ternopil (platzkart, naturally), and our cabin mates were two women on their way back from a mini-holiday to celebrate a birthday. Their English was flawless and Ukrainian-flavored, and they introduced us to positive nihilism, a notion I will return to in later entries. I won’t talk about Galina and Helena anymore right now, but they’ll come up again later.
We met up with the venue owner at a comedy show (all of which was sadly lost on me but folks seemed to be having a great time) and were lead to a flat at the top of stairs with no guardrails. We were tired, so we went to bed early…until 3:45 a.m., when I heard for the first time the wail and the deep robotic instructions of the air raid warning system echo across the city.
We opened one of the Telegram channels folks here use like to keep track of such things like we people in not-being-invaded countries use weather forecasts. The channel told us that a group of twelve Iranian drones had breached the border, and at first seemed to be headed our way. There was no panic, simply alertness. Shaheeds moved slow, and we were only a five-minute walk from the bomb shelter. As they neared our oblast, the group split into two and headed for other cities. We heard the all-clear signal and went back to bed.
No big deal for Yaroslav. For me, it was a very new experience. I slept surprisingly well and woke up refreshed. I had time to explore Ternopil before the concert, and to meet up with Re-Read…
I have been wondering what art and music can/should do in crisis times, especially my niche imagistic abstract ambient acoustic psych songwriter music and the DIY/punk-descended music scenes it exists within. This has been an ongoing preoccupation of mine for many years, but the intensity spiked in February 2022, never let up, and spiked again last week during the Hamas massacres in southern Israel and subsequent ongoing Geneva Protocol-violating IDF bombing and siege of Gaza. None of this looks like it’s going to get better any time soon, either. It is time to try to address this question: Do artists and art communities bear a responsibility to engage with crises like the above?
Messiaen seemed to think so. He wrote and stagedQuatuor pour la fin du temps in a Görlitz concentration camp. But was this his responsibility as an artist? He might he might have written something more cheerful to lift his fellow prisoners’ spirits, but he chose this very grave work instead. What would Messiaen do in 2023?
// // //
When global geopolitical conditions change, some people are forced to directly respond by the nature of their work: aid workers and emergency first-responders, politicians, members of the military, etc. Not responding directly would be a failure to accomplish their job. We can call the work of this group of people crisis-engaged work.
Other people might have work that obligates them to do the opposite, creating a bubble shielding their work from the chaos as much as possible: doctors, kindergarten teachers, transit system workers, etc. Not shielding their work would be a failure to accomplish their job. We can call the work of this group of people crisis-shielded work.
An extreme example of crisis-shielded work might clarify the question. Imagine a farmer in a small self-sustaining agricultural village on a state border shared by a hostile power. She sees enemy troops approaching her land. She could set her crops on fire and try to delay their invasion by forcing them to find another route, but if she did so she would jeopardize the village’s food supply. She has a primary responsibility to provide food to the village normally for as long as possible, especially in times of crisis. Otherwise, the village starves. Delaying the invasion a accomplishes little if they have no food. In absence of a phone call from the local unit commander instructing her to burn her crops, it’s sensible to conclude that the nature of her work obligates her to focus on agricultural concerns, to stay out of the crisis as much as possible, and to protect her fields rather than burn them. (Even granting that some might contest this, few would find a decision to burn her crops obviously right.)
In contrast, crisis-engaged work must change and directly address chaos. In our example above, the soldiers guarding the town our farmer lives in, and the village’s mayor, hospital workers, and manufacturing planners, would by many accounts be obligated to directly respond to the pending invasion in a way that drastically impacts their day-to-day functions. A construction company building a road, for example, might immediately pivot to building defensive structures with the same construction equipment. The mayor might cancel a fundraising trip to the capital. The hospital might activate a triage ward and begin a public blood drive. No bubble separates this work from the crisis. It proceeds in direct response to it.
As with many categories, most real-world examples are somewhere in the middle, partly crisis-engaged and partly crisis-shielded. History teachers must still show up for work and guide students through their studies, but they might teach lessons that illuminate the crisis. Journalists must still do their work with unflinching neutrality, but they might be particularly on guard against propaganda and fog-of-war misinformation. Truckers must still drive, but they might need to drive inconvenient unfamiliar routes or work longer hours to deliver crucial supplies.
(It bears mention that work’s crisis attachment is moderated by distance from the crisis arena; a usually crisis-shielded olive farmer or daycare worker under artillery fire in Gaza is more affected by clashes there than a usually crisis-engaged soldier or trauma surgeon in Japan is. But the increasingly-global scale of contemporary geopolitics ethically entangles many more people than geopolitical events in the past. This is especially true in conflicts like Palestine-Israel, as antisemitism and Islamophobia are deep problems everywhere, and in the Russo-Ukrainian War as the violent encroachment of a nuclear-armed kleptocratic mafia state into a European-facing regional power would imperil liberal civilization. Because of this diminishing role of distance and the increasing moral entanglement of every human being, I disregard in this discussion the moderating effect of distance from crisis, and focus instead on the nature of a task.)
But my focus is less general. I have three questions that I can’t let go of. To what extent are working musicians like me, the communities we interact with, and the cultural artifacts they make crisis-engaged vs. crisis-shielded? To what extent should they be? And how, precisely? I’m not sure yet. But I think I’m groping towards something that resembles an answer, and I’ll share more about it from Ternopil tomorrow.
Thu.12.Oct-14:10 (Onboard a Deutsche Bahn regional train in Landkreis Oder-Spree, between Berlin and the Polish border) // Low gray clouds spit mist, and all the pavements are wet and reflective. I can hear freeway rush nearby when the doors open at stations, louder the closer we get to the Tesla factory. Inside the train it is clean and dry, and a young man deafens himself by suavely blasting German trap through earbuds. Occasionally his chill vibe is harshed by an add for online gambling, but the volume stays at gun range level. Poor guy.
Fri.13.Oct-07:30 (Warsaw West bus station) // Transferring in Warsaw was an awkward dream; a big box of a station with pedestrian underpasses, som3 taped off with flickering fluorescent lights, a dignified but well-worn facility of smooth charcoal/tan concrete. Bus station breakfast time air is a colloidal suspension of 63% bacon vapor, 29% atomized cleaning fluid, and 9% warm bread. I tried to order a coffee an alcove a few tables partitioned from the waiting hall by transparent yellow plastic strips but my Polish failed me, so I gave up and tapped my card on one of the beverage automats lining the wall.
There was an oddly pale flatscreen TV — a faulty HDMI cable with a broken red channel pin? I watched the state-run TV broadcast scary insinuations about a recent wave of migrants, faces of worried-officials technocrats cut with grainy footage of people in puffy jackets dragging roller suitcases across a wet-looking forest behind a razor wire fence. (It was this.) Two bored old men pointed at the screen, muttering to each other. We all sipped our automat coffee.
Fri.13.Oct-09:48-16:00 (Onboard the Warsaw-Lviv express bus about 100 km north of Lubin) // A mostly-flat rural expanse. The sunrise was golden on the freeway through Warsaw but we drove straight into a rainstorm and it has been low-contrast cloudwash since then. I have time to think, and write, and set up live audio scenarios for the clip launchers at my shows.
We got through Polish exit control and Ukrainian entrance control faster than I expected. The landscape doesn’t change much, but some basement windows have sandbags stacked against them and I see a few burned-out farmhouses. I was surprised to see signs of the bombardment of Lviv so immediately. But the mood on the bus is cheerful; an Italian young man seated next to me tells me that he is on his way to meet a friend he met a few months ago at university who had to return home. He doesn’t get specific, but the way he talks about her makes it seems like he cares for her very much her. “I’m Luigi!” he said, holding up a wallet charm of the Nintendo character namesake. “In case you forget my name, just remember this!’