4th Grade POWER OF PROGRESS – The Immigrants

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Last spring the full 4th grade of the Brooklyn Children’s School presented “The Power of Progress 1840 – 1920”, a multi-media, multi-disciplinary event where different groups of children created presentations and performances on such topics as Suffragettes, Newsies, Tenement Buildings, The Great Migration, Immigrant Pastimes and Diets.

The dance teacher Sandy Stratton-Gonzales and I mentored the 4th grade Musical Players who created a mini-musical called “The Immigrants”.  Their performance began with the singing of the theme song “Power of Progress”.

Power of Progress

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The 4th grade musical players, a group of 13 boys and girls, composed the music for “Power of Progress” and wrote the lyrics for the chorus and part of one verse in a group effort.  The rest of the words for the verses were written one couplet at a time by the students in each section of the Power of Progress program (fondly referred to as POP).  So the Migration group wrote “Migrants fled the south to look for better jobs and freedom” and the Pastimes group wrote “Children played in empty lots and played on open roof tops”, and so on.  (The complete lyrics for “Power of Progress” are reprinted at the bottom of this article.)

immigrants 3The setting for the play “The Immigrants” is a schoolroom of children recently immigrated to America around the turn of the century.  Each child tells a short tale of their journey, informed by research the musical players did in books, the internet, or by interviewing family members with immigrant stories.

Then the children sing a hymn, based on the famous poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, which is engraved on a plaque mounted on the Statue of Liberty.

Give Me Your Tired 1

Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore

Send these the homeless tempest-tost to me

I lift my lamp beside the golden door

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EVOCATION II – Double Stop Etude or Relationship Elegy?

Edward Elder and Danny Ashkenasi - 4/25/1998

Edward Elder and Danny Ashkenasi – 4/25/1998

There were about 200 wedding guests present when Ed and I got married (the first time) April 25, 1998.  It took at least an hour for the reception line to make its full way past us.  And with the expected good wishes and hugs there was also the occasional conversation that went something like this:

Guest: “So, your second year.  That must have been hard.”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Guest: “The music for the second duet was so sad.  Like you two got through a really difficult time that year.”

Me: “Oh no. The piece is not biographical.  I just wanted to write something with double stops for the viola.”

Guest: “Really.” (With an expression that is both skeptical and concerned.)

Me: “Yes, truly.  Ed needed to practice double stops.  We were quite happy that year.“

Ed: “Although practicing those double stops did drive me to tears…”

Moving on to the next guest, with the passing one looking unconvinced…

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HOW MANY WAYS CAN ONE BE A CREEP? And does it ever stop being so “fuckin’ special”?

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Who could have imagined that Radiohead’s “Creep”, that dark, spiky, idiosyncratic paean to self-loathing, would become one of the most covered rock songs from the 1990’s?  It’s not only recorded by a huge variety of artists, but also covered in a rather dizzying variety of styles and attitudes.

Creep – Radiohead

creep - radiohead albumThe original version, a classic of 1990’s alternative rock is the internal monologue of an awkward young man as he tries to make conversation with a woman, or maybe just follows her like a stalker at a party.  He thinks she’s an “angel”, but considers himself a “creep” who doesn’t “belong here”.  His extreme self-loathing ultimately becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when the woman extricates herself from his attentions (“She’s running out the door”) and he’s left licking his wounds (“Whatever makes you happy”).  The lines between his self-loathing, his crush, and a certain aggression against the woman herself are ultimately blurred.  By the end his declaring her “so fucking special” sounds as admiring as it sounds angry.  No wonder she runs out the door.

Creep - radiohead 2

The particulars of Radiohead’s 1992 recording, the quality of the male vocal, recessive and haltingly melodic on the verses, then soaring in elongated falsetto on the bridge, combined with clustering guitar chords that slash into the song before threatening to overwhelm the singer on the choruses, make the original so distinctive and so seemingly dependent on its unique elements to succeed artistically, that one could have reasonably suspected at the time that this is one of those pop/rock songs that belong solely to the original artists, succeed because of the particular qualities of the recording and don’t lend themselves well to copying or reinterpretation.  And oh, how one would have turned out to be wrong (for better and for worse).

Creep – Scala & Kolacny Brothers

Creep - scala 3Listen to the above version of “Creep” by Scala & Kolacny Brothers, a Belgian Girls Choir, singing live accompanied only by a piano.  As I indicated already, there are many versions of “Creep”, in many extremely different styles, but this is my personal favorite.  It was famously and very effectively used as the music for the trailer for the movie “The Social Network”.  A girl’s choir is probably vocally as polar opposite from Radiohead’s pinched male vocals as one could get.  However, the fact that the voices sound so young – before I saw a photo of the group, I imagined these could be middle school girls singing – imbues this version with a healthy dose of adolescent anxieties.  I can easily picture an teenage girl feeling as awkward and self-loathing as the Radiohead protagonist.  And the slow tempo, the plaintive singing, the menacing whispering of “I wish I was special” is ineffably sad, haunting, and suitably creepy.

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“Creep” and Girls with Guitars

But how did this vogue and eventual avalanche of “Creep” covers begin?  It looks like credit is due to Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders.

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By the time Jane Allison, in the musical “Speakeasy”, has walked through one door into a speakeasy foyer and through another door into an automat, she realizes that the regular rules and expectations of time and space may not apply anymore.  So she is not as surprised as she might normally have been to suddenly find herself on a New York Street transported back in time to 1919, where society lady Caroline Chrysalides and Jane’s own cousin Dean Kitteridge are leading a “Dry March”, calling for the enactment of Prohibition.

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Dry Out the Nation


Alice in pool of tearsJane Allison’s encounter with the dry movement tracks neatly with a parallel plot point in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, when Alice and a congregation of animals are nearly drowned in a pool of tears.  The mouse then attempts to dry off the wet and bedraggled crowd by giving an excessively “dry speech” about English history.

The mouse gives a very dry speech

The mouse gives a very dry speech


P women's temperanceSimilarly Dean, Caroline and the protesters decry that “we drown in drink” (see lyrics below).  The Dry Movement in America succeeded in making alcohol consumption illegal beginning in 1920.  It was greatly motivated by the many social ills – poverty, domestic abuse, addiction – that the proponents of Prohibition felt were greatly exacerbated if not caused by “The Devil Alcohol”.

P prohibThere was also a strong element of moral opprobrium attached to the cause, as alcohol consumption was seen as intimately linked with sexual vices.  Additionally class arrogance and xenophobia played a part, as the saloons, frequented mostly by the working class, and the beer halls, run mostly by German immigrants, were most vociferously targeted for scorn by the anti-alcohol brigade.  But the wealthy upper class were allowed to keep their private wine cellars even after Prohibition was enacted, as long as these wine cellars had been established before 1920.

The enactment of Prohibition however, rather than issuing in a more morally righteous time in the United States, ironically speeded up a loosening of social strictures.  Far from stopping the consumption of alcohol and all its supposed or actual attendant vices, Prohibition contributed to a widespread underground culture of illegal imbibing, especially in the cities, running parallel with much loosening of cultural and sexual norms in the country after World War 1.

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THE MADONNA CONCERT – as experienced, sorta, from the far far up and away and off to the side “cheap” seats


“Cheap” seats deserves it’s quotation marks.  After all, we did pay over $100 a ticket.  We could have paid less and ended up even further up, up, up in the nosebleed section, or even further off to the right and behind the stage.  I didn’t realize just how big the Barclay Center was and just how high up we would be, so that even through our “opera glasses” / binoculars we got only a far away look at the performances.


Thus my heart sank a little when I took the above picture upon arrival.  Ed and I had thought when he made our tickets choice that we’d have a good view of the video screens, but unfortunately no screen angled well towards our section, and we could barely see what was on them.  The loudspeakers also all faced away towards the left of us, which is possibly why the sound was a bit muddled.


Madge, the tiny figure to the far left of the runway. And to the right the sliver of screen showing her video “close-up”.

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The director of “Speakeasy”, Lissa Moira, and I were conducting another one of our weekly meetings pouring over the script and discussing staging and production issues, when I mused aloud that in many ways “Speakeasy” is an expression of my bisexuality.

“You are bisexual?” Lissa asked.

“I thought you knew”, I responded, dumbfounded.

How could Lissa, who has known me for years, not be aware of that fact about myself?  It is not something I try to keep secret.  And she’s known me for decades.  But that is the problem with bisexuality.  It is so easy to keep hidden, even if there is no intention to hide it.  Society may not assume someone is heterosexual as categorically as society used to, but monosexuality – hetero or homosexuality – is nowadays still the default assumption.

bi 2Or is it?  Just these past weeks have seen a slew of studies showing that the upcoming generation of young adults are much more comfortable with sexual fluidity and placing themselves on the bisexual spectrum than older generations (see here and here and here).  Charles Blow has written profound editorials about bisexuality in the New York Times.  Entertainment websites keep posting lists of celebrity bisexuals (like this one or this one).


Alan Cumming

Except, those lists of celebrity bisexuals usually feature three women for every one male or must resort to listing men long deceased to beef up the ratio.  Out bisexual males are still very rare in our culture.  Even Alan Cumming, who so deliciously professed erotic desire for men and women not once but three times while hosting the Tony Awards this year has not embraced the “bisexual” label (as far as I can tell) but is more likely to use the word “pansexual” if he allows any label to define him.  And that is his prerogative.  Labels are limiting.  But the bisexual label seems particularly maligned and avoided, especially for men, at least until now.  Perhaps with the millennial generation apparently showing so much more acceptance of sexual fluidity and bisexuality than their elders, this might finally change.

cabaretBut there is still so far to go.  There are still so few works of art about bisexuals, especially bisexual men.  I applaud the recent explosion of movies and TV shows centering on or featuring transgender stories.  And gay and lesbian characters have been incorporated into mainstream entertainment for some time now (not that we have arrived yet anywhere near full narrative integration).  But bisexual characters?  Especially bisexual male characters?  I have to go back to the 1970s and Sunday Bloody Sunday and Cabaret to find well drawn bisexual male characters.  Torch Song Trilogy had one too but also gave sympathetic voice to a lot of biphobic prejudices.  Yet that is over 30 years ago.  What about in film, TV and Theater nowadays?  Crickets.

Well, maybe not as much for bi women (Piper, the lead in Orange is the New Black, is surely bisexual, even though in the first two seasons no one appears to have used that term in reference to her).  But what about bi men in movies, TV or theater?  Where are they?  Plenty of gay men to be found, and of course straight men still dominate our culture like nobody’s business.  But bisexual men?  Nada.  Invisible.  Don’t mention it.



There may be hope.  That pansexual orgy scene in episode six of the first season of Sense8 surely had me shouting “Hallelujah”!  But the fact remains that the characters’ sexual fluidity was achieved through involuntary mind-melding – in their own space each character individually still seems to identify as hetero- or homosexual (at least by the end of Season 1).

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F flapper

My director Lissa Moira and I posted a casting notice for SPEAKEASY on Backstage.com.  You can find it here.

“SPEAKEASY – the Adventures of John and Jane Allison in the Wonderland”  will perform February 18 – March 13, 2016 at the Theater for the New City.  A reading of the musical is scheduled for December 7.  Learn more about Speakeasy here.

Below find the complete casting notice.  Go to Backstage to send your electronic application or email your headshot and resume directly to admin@ashkenasi.net, subject heading “Speakeasy”.

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ORFEO – Richard Powers composes beautiful music with his words


I just finished reading Orfeo by Richard Powers.  I have never before read literature that so beautifully and evocatively captures music, describing actual works of music, conjuring imaginary works, evoking the process of composing, with such detailed brilliance and clarity and often near religious ecstasy.

Richard Powers

Richard Powers

My brother-in-law gifted me the book last Christmas.  And I’m sure he merely thought of this book for me because he’d heard that Orfeo was about music and highly acclaimed to boot.

Surely he didn’t know that for most of its pages it describes the unhappy career of what would commonly be described as a failed composer.  My brother-in-law wasn’t trying to send me a hard message, was he?  He couldn’t have known that there were many passages in Orfeo that threatened to open a yawning crevice of mid-life-crisis in this middle aged composer’s psyche?

Nah!  I’m being silly.  Peter Els, the hero of Orfeo, is very different from me.  We may both be composers, but he is of a different generation, part of the classical avant-garde of 20th century music, with a personal and professional trajectory quite unlike my own.

And then there is the bio-terrorism subplot.  Nope, no identification there!

music and dna

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THE SONG OF JOB 9:11 – 14 year anniversary of 9/11/2001

The Song of Job 9:11 – Chapter Ten: HOPE – concert video, Sep 9, 2011

The Song of Job 9:11 – Chapter Ten: HOPE – concert audio, Sep 11, 2011

Above are recordings of the finale of the tenth anniversary concert performances of “The Song of Job 9:11”, which were performed free for audiences throughout New York City in 2011, 10 years after 9/11/2001. “The Song of Job 9:11” grapples with the events and immediate aftermath of 9/11/2001 through the Old Testament story of Job.  The whole concert, in video (and separate audio tracks that may have better audio quality on your computer) can be followed on “The Song of Job 9:11” page, added today on this site.

I open this post with the conclusion of the piece, “Hope”, because of its uplifting nature.  I understand how daunting and forbidding it is to attend a 60 minute concert about 9/11, and “Chapter Ten: Hope” is the light at the end of the tunnel after the Sturm und Drang of the preceding nine chapters.  It is a way to telegraph that the concert is not all darkness. Those who have attended The Song of Job 9:11, whether as a concert or theatrically staged, have always responded very positively to the experience.  But getting people to bring themselves to attend the “9/11 oratorio” has been forbidding.  I understand.  I don’t wish to relive 9/11 either, in musical form or otherwise, and I wrote this piece.

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I felt like a toddler about to have a melt down.  This intense feeling that I was this close to bawling uncontrollably and reaching out my hand high for my Mommy to clasp.  When did I last feel this way?  When I was two, three, four?  No, I remember, it was 2007, the last time I had attended Fuerzabruta, when I had experienced this very same overwhelmed sensation.  And here I was back for seconds, having forgotten…

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I was standing with my arms crossed, pelted by loud music and extremely kinetic visuals, overwhelmed by the noise and sensation and the nightmarish implications of what I was witnessing.  A man in a white suit running faster and faster on a treadmill, running through walls that explode in a cloud of Styrofoam, running past business attired pedestrians falling off the treadmill into the void, futilely attempting to keep tables and chairs from cascading over the cliff, and finally collapsing after a gun shot leaves his white suit bloodstained.
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And my arms were crossing, my face muscles quaking, my eyes wide and considering tears, as my body even more so than my intellect became convinced it had been dropped inside a nightmare come to life, designed and stage managed by the fun house demon spawn of Kafka and Magritte.

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ANTHONY TOMMASINI RATTLES ME – On the Importance of Music in a Musical

Today the New York Times published an excellent dialog between its classical music critic and avowed musical theater enthusiast Anthony Tommasini and its pop music critic Joe Caramanica about the musical Hamilton.

The exchange included this from Tommasini, which has rattled me:

“At its core, musical theater is about the smart, elegant and playful combination of words and music.  But the mix is not 50-50: Words drive the form.  And in a great musical, every element of the music supports and lifts the words.  That’s what I revere about Stephen Sondheim.  Every detail of his ingenious and beautiful music calls your attention to his great lyrics.  Miranda’s music is very different from Sondheim’s, but I had a Sondheimesque experience at “Hamilton.”  Every musical moment in that score swept me into the smart and dazzling rapping.”

Words and music are not equal players in musical theater?  Words drive the form, take greater weight?  This is news to me.  I’ve been at several workshops and been part of many discussions comparing opera with musicals and other music theater forms.  My takeaway has always been that in opera music carries the greater weight, while in musical theater words and music carry equal weight.  50/50.

But now none other than the classical music critic for the New York Times is proclaiming music subservient to words?  Not an equal partner in creation but one whose place is to support and lift the words.  Mind you, he doesn’t necessarily denigrate melody; in the example he gives, he praises Sondheim’s “ingenious and beautiful music”, but still puts it in service to Sondheim’s “great lyrics”.

Could it not be said that Sondheim’s great lyrics are supporting his ingenious and beautiful music?

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CHASING WATERFALLS – The Flabbergasting Force of Foz do Iguacu

Fall 1Time for another bout of Two-fisted Touristing with musical accompaniment.  Today the amazing Foz do Iguacu waterfalls, which cascade partly in Brazil, where Ed and I first encountered them three years ago, and partly in Argentina, where we saw more of them on a day trip visa the next day.  This collection of enormous waterfalls covering several square kilometers requires at least two days to be fully explored (regardless of border crossing issues).  They are astounding in person.  I hope these pictures give at least some indication of their awesome power and beauty.

Fall 2We’ll start on the Brazilian side of the falls.

And of course must play “water” music, and so we’ll start with the most famous cut (Hornpipe) from the most famous water music, Handel’s Water Music:

Fall 2

It may be called Water Music and it’s very pretty, but does it sound watery?  Or even flowing?  A little near the end, I suppose, but certainly not cascading…

How about Saint – Saens’ Aquarium from Carnival of the Animals:

Speaking of Animals, do you see the bird flying INTO the waterfall? These birds have their nests on the inside and could be seen diving in and out of the falls all evening.

Speaking of Animals, do you see the bird flying INTO the waterfall? These birds, Great Dusky Swifts, have their nests on the inside and could be seen diving in and out of the falls all evening.

Fall 5I first heard Saint-Saens’ magical piece of twinkling, flowing, cascading music when it was used quite effectively as the main theme for the documentary on cinematography “Visions of Light”, whose smorgasbord of visual splendors I dined on often, always lamenting that the credits never listed what beautiful music the documentary was featuring as its main theme.  Finally some moderately intense internet sleuthing led me to Aquarium by Saint-Saens.

I love the Saint-Saens, but it is perhaps a little too twinkling for such massive waterfalls?

Fall 9

Fall 5This is just the beginning.  And was a taste of the view from Brazil.  Next stop is the next day in Argentina.  Also, Beethoven produces the ultimate in cascading awesomeness.  And, of course, TLC…

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