austin - jon lebkowsky
A Parisian Spring in Austin
It's a hell of a commute, Paris to Austin to Paris. Joseph Rowe's been making it for the last six years. He spends most of his time in Paris, but he still hangs out in Austin, where he was born and raised.
Joseph first traveled to France in 1968, opting for the asylum President Charles De Gaulle offered to Vietnam-era draft resisters: "De Gaulle wanted to show his independence from American policy," says Joseph, "and to irritate the Americans." But once in France, the radical Americans he sheltered proved a constant irritant to the patriarchal De Gaulle. Joseph joined the national revolutionary movement led by Daniel "Danny theRed" Cohn-Bendit, which for a time paralyzed France with nationwide strikes and fighting in the streets.
Fortunately, Joseph wasn't tossed out of the country on his ear. In Paris, he hooked up with some Argentinean musicians and toured parts of Africa as their percussionist before returning to the US. More luck: his local draft board never moved to prosecute draft resisters, so Joseph got on with his life, earning his living in radio and by doing translations.
Six years ago he returned to France, and there met vocalist Catherine Braslavsky through a mutual friend, David Hykes of the Harmonic Choir. They eventually married during a short trip to the US. In 1995, they recorded a CD, " Alma Anima: towards a new Gregorian Chant," and they're currently working on another.
Their subtly powerful music is a blend of Gregorian chant and African, Asian, and Indian rhythms. Says Joseph, "I discovered that Afro-Arabic rhythms, added to ethereal Gregorian chant, bring sensuality and even sexuality back into this austere medieval music. The great wound of Christianity is its rejection of sensuality -- a full-bodied sexual Christianity really inspires me."
Joseph is a practicing Buddhist, with the Buddhist's appreciation for paradox -- especially useful given the paradoxical qualities of his Austin/Paris bilocation. He was eager to discuss the different energies he finds in the United States and Texas vs. France.
"It's a love-hate affair," he says, "an attraction-repulsion of the two very different cultures. Paris is intense: nervous rhythm, very high energy. In Paris people are alert, very present -- sometimes in a narrow, overly focused way. Whereas Austin is slackertown; people are laid back, easygoing. They really are opposites."
But isn't the slacker thing a myth? Austin is not without its enclaves of intensity, if not downright craziness.
"I don't think the slacker thing is incompatible with a certain kind of intensity. Slacker doesn't mean weak and milquetoast. Folks here are just as relaxed about their intensity as they are about everything else. The good thing about the slacker ethos is that it's very tolerant and noncombative. Its negative aspect is that there's often a lack of initiative, an inability to see anything through -- some things just don't get done."
Isn't that kind of behavior actually in line with the thinking of twentieth-century French intellectuals?
"That's a good point. Though the attitude is different, they share a common nihilistic base. I witnessed an interview once of Michel Foucault by Noam Chomsky, during which Foucault openly smoked marijuana. In the course of it, he let fly with a disgusting nihilistic rant. I had never seen such darkness. The more Chomsky would say things like 'surely there are human values; after all, we have many different cultures, many different systems of thought, still there is a fundamental human value,' the more Foucault would insist: 'No, there is no fundamental value.'
"This kind of intransigence appears in both the postmodern and the slacker stance. It's a disease that we have to oppose in ourselves and others, a rejection of any kind of meaningful values. Whether you find it in the laid-back slacker style or the intense Parisian style, it's still nihilism."
Yet, both the Austin and the Paris sensibilities have positive aspects: "On the slacker side are tolerance, relaxation, openness. On the French side, there's conservatism in the pure philosophic sense of the word, not in the modern political sense. They conserve ways of doing things, traditions, a sense of history."
Though Joseph occasionally finds himself profoundly contradicting traditional approaches, both he and Catherine value the concept of tradition as an essential component of community. Both agree that traditions are formed neither through abstract communication nor through books or other media. It is in the face-to-face transmission of experience that profound changes are instigated. This sense of one-on-one passing on of knowledge is diminishing in both the US and France. Joseph and Catherine are creating CDs of their music and performing regularly, but their primary focus now is on workshops and retreats, and on helping to build new traditions of human understanding.
One thing I liked about living in (of all places) Brooklyn, was that I could walk to anything I needed to get to. For that matter, I've lived over the years in two places in Austin where I didn't need a car except for getting to work: Riverside Drive a few blocks from I-35 (back when Half-Price Books was still there) and at the Northcross Apartments, across from the Northcross Mall and the Village Theatre. The Northcross location was quite nice -- I was off a walkway far enough, but not too far, from the parking lot. I ate at Furr's at the mall a lot -- It was actually closer to my apartment than the college dining hall was when I was a student, and the food was of comparable quality, so I sort of considered it the commune eatery. :-)
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I discovered that Afro-Arabic rhythms, added to ethereal Gregorian chant, bring sensuality and even sexuality back into this austere medieval music.
...traditions are formed neither through abstract communication nor through books or other media. It is in the face-to-face transmission of experience that profound changes are instigated.
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