Friday, October 21, 2011

Steve Elkins: Local Hero, or How I Learned that Meaningful Music Still Exists in this World

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.

In my classes this week, I asked my students to brainstorm on this topic:

“Write about a current artist or band whose music is genuine, sincere, relevant, and meaningful.”

This activity was prompted by an essay we read entitled “The Cosmic Significance of Britney Spears,” in which Tom Perotta points out the banality and irrelevance of pop stars like Britney Spears. It was also inspired by conversations with my friend Landon about how meaningful, socially-conscious music seems to have gone the way of the buffalo. Kids today don’t want to change the world like Bob Dylan. They just want their 15 minutes of fame on American Idol.

Whenever I ask my students to do a writing activity, I do it along with them, so I began to brainstorm some possible musicians:

-Smog (LA folk singer)…too obscure.

-The Audacity (Fullerton punk band)…Maybe. Too party-oriented.

-The Arcade Fire (Canadian rock band)…Maybe, but too abstract and arty to inspire change.

-Same goes for Radiohead. It sounds good, but what is the message? “Yesterday I woke up suckin’ on lemon.” WTF does that mean?

-Bob Dylan? Too old. His music is still cool, but doesn’t inspire the activism of “The Times They Are A’ Changin.”

-Is there no one? Now I’m getting depressed…

-Wait a minute…Steve Elkins! Steve Elkins! And he’s local!

Who is Steve Elkins, you ask? Why is he important in terms of current, relevant music? Let me explain. It’s a neat story.

Steve grew up here in Fullerton. I first met him at church in high school. We both played for the praise band, and shared an interest in “non-Christian” music. I was into 60s and 70s folk like Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel. Steve was into British and LA art-rock bands like Cocteau Twins and The Autumns (which Steve would later join).

After high school, we parted ways and would not meet up for another several years. When we finally re-connected, I had opened an art gallery in Fullerton (Hibbleton), and Steve was working on a documentary film about experimental music.

Steve would try to explain his film to me, but I honestly did not really understand what the hell he was talking about. He was traveling all over the world, seeking out these really obscure musicians who were doing things like playing barbed wire fences and putting electrodes on plants. I remember thinking: Steve’s a cool guy, but he’s operating on a whole other level.

It wasn’t until I agreed to let Steve show a rough cut of his film at Hibbleton Gallery that I began to understand the importance of what he’d been up to.

The film is called “The Reach of Resonance,” and it focuses on a handful of current musicians around the world who are using music to explore larger issues like the environment, politics, history, even science.

Let me give an example, my favorite example of the film: Jon Rose. Jon Rose is a classically-trained violinist who got bored with the violin, moved to Australia, and started building his own modified, zany, and increasingly large violins, sort of like “pimp my ride” except “pimp my violin.”

At some point in his travels in the outback, Rose discovered that the country is somewhat arbitrarily divided by thousands of miles of barbed-wire fences. These fences are a current reminder of how British colonists imposed an artificial and often brutal structure on the environment of the Aboriginees.

Seeing these fences and thinking about music, Jon Rose had an epiphany: What if I used my violin bow to play these enormous fences? So that’s what he did. He began recording himself playing barbed-wire fences like a giant violin.

Why did he do this? What does it mean? According to the film, he is taking something incredibly brutal and ugly (colonialism) and turning it into something beautiful, into music, into art.

After gaining some attention playing these fences, Rose began to travel around the world, using his violin bow to give voice to the violent and brutal divisions between groups of people. He played the fence along the Gaza strip in Israel. He played the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. And in 2009, the famous Kronos Quartet played some of his barbed wire fence compositions in the Sydney Opera House. Steve Elkins was there to film it.

Jon Rose is just one of a number of musicians in Steve’s film who are using the language of music in new and exciting and creative ways, to say something sincere, meaningful, and relevant about the world.

Steve’s independent film won Best Documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival and is currently being shown at venues around the world, including the Louvre in Paris. I now have the proud distinction of owning the first venue to screen Steve’s film, and to help raise money so he could finish it.

Steve Elkins followed his dream, even when very few people understood why. He gives me and others hope that music can still be deeply meaningful. Steve Elkins is a local hero.

Unofficial Trailer for The Reach of Resonance

1 comment:

  1. Sunya Vakil ENG103

    I found this story very inspiring. I honestly have not thought about music as an outlet to change the world in a long time. Over the past year especially, ive thought of music only to bring me temporary happiness. To make me giggle at a completely bizarre line, to make me want to dance, to keep my mind off the enormous amounts of traffic I was about to face, or to add to the background noise while my friends and I talk secrets. It was a refreshing idea to use music as an outlet to change the world. It reminded me of a time when I was obsessed with Lupe Fiasco. Artists like Lupe Fiasco do bring something other than a good beat and a catchy lyric to the table. They bring awareness. They make you feel apart of something bigger than yourself.
    Nevertheless I’m a fan of Top 40 music. I feel like every time I say that out loud, people look at me like im suddenly not an intellectual or “artsy” enough to appreciate “meaningful” music (or meaningful according to them). But does meaningful music always have to mean “underground” bands or artists? Does meaningful music only come from artists who “have not made it”? If Britney Spears’s music brings you joy, does that not make it meaningful?
    Comparing the two types of music, “Intellectual Meaningful” vs. Purely for entertainment. I can’t say that one is better than the other, but I can say that I feel that music is a very effective way to bring awareness, hope, and spread an idea. I guess you can’t really compare them with one another, because they have different purposes. Ones purpose is to evoke change (etc.), and the other is to provide entertainment.