- The world-renowned pianist, conductor, and activist Daniel Barenboim is dedicated to making real change in the world through music.
- In the songs of Tift Merritt, the stuff of everyday life is ripe for the picking.
- For the interdisciplinary artist Vivek Shraya, creativity is at the heart of self-discovery.
Tift Merritt is a folk and country singer-songwriter. Her 2004 album Tambourine was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Country Album.
Merritt was born in Houston in 1975 and raised in Raleigh, NC. She started playing with a band, The Carbines, while studying creative writing at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Their EP The Two Dollar Pistols with Tift Merritt was released in 1999. Her first solo album, Bramble Rose (2002), was named the best debut of the year by the Associated Press and listed on year-end lists in Time and The New Yorker. In 2015, former Eagles frontman Don Henley covered the title track with Mick Jagger. Merritt has recorded six more albums, including the Grammy-nominated Tambourine in 2004 and See You on the Moon, which reached number 7 on the Billboard folk charts in 2010.
Known for her soulful storytelling, Merritt continues to tour and record. Her seventh LP, Stitch of the World, was released in 2017.
Vivek Shraya is a multidisciplinary artist whose work spans music, literature, film, visual art, and theater.
Shraya was born in 1981 in Edmonton, Canada; her parents were South Asian immigrants. She began recording music in 2002. Her 2017 release Part-Time Woman was nominated for a Polaris Music Prize for Canadian musicians. She has also recorded two albums with Too Attached, a collaboration with her brother, Shamik Bilgi.
As a writer, Shraya has been nominated for six Lamda Literary Awards for LGBTQ literature. Her first book, God Loves Hair (2010) recounted growing up as a genderqueer child in an immigrant family. She has published illustrated stories, poetry, novels, and non-fiction. Shraya has also created several short films screened in international festivals and a photo exhibition, Trisha, shown in multiple North American galleries. Her debut theatrical work, How to Fail as a Popstar, was staged in Toronto in 2020.
Shraya came out as transgender in 2016. She teaches creative writing at the University of Calgary.
- Stage & Screen
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how creativity is the very bedrock of what makes us human. On this episode of Articulate, Transformers.
For decades, world-renowned pianist, conductor and activist Daniel Barenboim has reveled in dividing public opinion.
Daniel Barenboim: I would be very worried if it was positive on one side and negative on the other, but since it is both and both, we just keep going, you know.
For thousands of years, the Greek myth of Icarus has served as a cautionary tale, but the singer-songwriter Tift Merritt believes we should all try flying too high.
Tift Merritt: I feel like Icarus was so damned in such a harsh way, and maybe flying out of prison was an exuberant feeling and he enjoyed it, and you gotta cheer for him a little bit for that.
And Tori Marchiony finds out how for the interdisciplinary artist Vivek Shraya, creativity is at the heart of self-discovery.
Vivek Shraya: Ideas are my sustenance. Ideas are the reason why I do wake up in the morning, and so the idea of not having another idea is something that causes me a lot of stress.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Daniel Barenboim is one of the world’s most well respected, highly regarded conductors. The Argentinian-born Israeli Palestinian and Spanish citizen was a piano prodigy whose early and profound connection with music informed his belief that it exists not merely for its own sake, but as an instrument of change. Now in his mid-70s, today Barenboim is as well known for his activism as he is for his music, but he says music is still revealing itself to him.
Daniel Barenboim: Every time I play a piece of music, or conduct a piece of music, I learn something new. Every single time. Some detail which I had not seen in exactly that way.
This process of discovery began as soon as he started playing the piano at age five. His father, who was also his music teacher, believed that the great composers could also be useful co-parents.
Barenboim: My father was very often criticized when I was 11, 12, for letting me play works that obviously require great maturity, late Beethoven sonatas, and he replied very simply, by the music staying in the drawer, it will not become more mature. And so, in the end, I learned a lot more from music for life. I knew what passion was in music long before I knew what passion is as a human being.
Today, the center of Daniel Barenboim’s musical life is Berlin. Shortly after the Fall of Communism, he was tasked with reviving the Berlin State Opera, and it has flourished under his leadership. Today its resident orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin, has garnered a reputation as one of the world’s finest concert ensembles. In the past 30 years, Daniel Barenboim has also overseen a complete, nearly half-billion-dollar renovation of the opera house, and the construction of a brand-new Frank Gehry-designed concert hall, Pierre Boulez Saal, at his music school, the Said-Barenboim Academy, named for his friend and fellow activist, the late Palestinian-American author and scholar, Edward Said. The Academy shares a mission with their West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to nurture peace in the Middle East by bringing together Arabs and Israeli Jews. And the past 20 years since the orchestra’s founding have, says Barenboim, been transformative for those who have been touched by the ensemble.
Barenboim: Close to 1,000 musicians must have come and gone, and I think hardly anybody remained with his original opinions or feelings or fears.
Daniel Barenboim believes that addressing such prejudices in the Middle East will be key to making real change, and he’s advocated tirelessly for the idea that understanding is the most fundamental tool for peace.
Barenboim: We have two people who are deeply convinced they have the right to exist on the same little piece of land, preferably without the other, and they don’t want to accept that this is not possible and that their destinies are inextricably linked. The destiny of Israel is inextricably linked to the Palestinians, and vice versa, and you cannot solve this politically and you cannot solve this militarily. You can only solve it by bringing people to understand, and there is no use speaking about one state solution or two states’ solution. This is a solution that has to come after the two people have understood that they have to accept the existence of the other in the region.
The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which is based in Spain, has gained great renown and has performed throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas, but they’re rarely invited to play in the musicians’ home countries.
Barenboim: We have many, many fervent admirers in Israel, and many fervent admirers in the Arab world, and many negative political views, both in Israel and in the Arab world, which makes me feel that something that we do must be right. I would be very worried if it was positive on one side and negative on the other. But since it is both in both, and we just keep going. In those things, I am very stubborn.
Daniel Barenboim does have a stubborn streak. He also has a reputation for being autocratic, mercurial, and controlling, but this all seems to work well for him as a conductor. Making 100 other musicians follow you requires confidence in your convictions.
Barenboim (in rehearsal): Please, please, don’t play before me! All the strings are playing so often ahead of me, but why?
Barenboim: You must be able to show and if it doesn’t suffice, to explain why, you know? The conductor does not have the luxury of trying things out like an instrumentalist. I can sit at the piano and try fast and slow and louder, softer, shorter, longer, all these things I can try, but I can’t expect an orchestra to do that. The orchestra wants to be shown how the conductor thinks it should go, and therefore, the conductor has to have a knowledge that is the right proportion of information and intuition. In front of the orchestra, if everything else fails, I must have the capacity to explain to the oboe player why the high point is in the third bar and not in the second bar. Intuition doesn’t play any role. I cannot communicate that only intuitively or with feeling. There has to be a certain amount of knowledge. Conscious knowledge. This is why it is very important to learn all those things in order to become a conductor, and that you are not automatically a good conductor because you are a great musician.
But Daniel Barenboim is that rarest of birds, a great conductor and musician, and a powerful advocate for change.
On a spring day in Philadelphia, the singer-songwriter Tift Merritt came by Articulate’s home, the Stotesbury Mansion, for an intimate performance and conversation. Merritt is a writer, whose favorite way to tell stories is in the bite-sized form of song.
Tift Merritt: The lyric has to be really electric because you’re editing everything out that is not pushing the story forward.
(Tift Merritt singing from “Bramble Rose”)
The ungrateful few who tangle inside
Don’t care where they’re born, they’re growing up wild
The rain makes me thirsty and fighting to go
My mind turns determined, dark as a storm
Merritt’s mastery of her craft has earned her some high-profile fans, among them, Eagles founding member, Don Henley. In 2015, he recruited fellow rock legend, Mick Jagger and country superstar, Miranda Lambert, to record one of Merritt’s best-known songs, Bramble Rose.
Once your love has blown as far as a bramble rose
Just a real good woman nobody knows
Over the course of 20 years and 7 albums, Tift Merritt has covered a lot of thematic ground. Sure, there have been the songs about love and heartbreak, but also ones that examine ancient Greek myth, like 2017’s “Icarus”, the story of the boy, who with his father, imprisoned inside Knossos Palace in Crete, made wings from chicken feathers and candle wax. Ignoring his father, Daedalus’, advice, Icarus flies too high, too close to the sun. His wings melt and he falls to his death.
AJC: And it has taught us ever since for millennia about hubris and about the foolishness of youth, but not for you.
Merritt: Well, I mean, first of all, we must think about what a beautiful crash landing this young man and all of his chicken feathers would have been. And second of all, I really feel like this poor guy has been locked up, and for thousands of years now, he is the example of hubris, but really, nobody got hurt except for him and his ego, and he really didn’t do anything that bad. I mean, I think we have some modern examples of hubris that might be a little more demonstrative. So, I kind of feel like he got a really bad rap, and that somebody needed to maybe nurse his wounds and go to the dreamers and the people who do try to fly too high. I think there’s one way of looking at it, which is you don’t want to be arrogant, but I feel like Icarus was so damned in such a harsh way, and maybe flying out of prison was an exuberant feeling, and he enjoyed it, and you gotta cheer for him a little bit for that.
(Tift Merritt singing from “Icarus”)
I found him in the field out there
His clothes were torn, glue in his hair
Feather down over everything
On the ground, his broken wings
I washed his hair and I nursed his bones
I held the way he felt alone
Keeping watch over fitful sleep
To catch him falling out of his dreams
There’s a wing down in each of us
Faster than the speed of sound inside
In 2016, Tift Merritt gained fresh perspective on Daedalus’ desire to protect his son when she became a parent herself, but says she hopes never to stifle her daughter, Jean.
Merritt: You know, I certainly wouldn’t want Jean to take any unnecessary risks with her health and safety, but I would also hope that she extends herself fully into the world, and I think that’s the most important risk that they must take, and I certainly cannot explain that to her, and I realize I have a very limited sphere of influence as a mother. She is her own person, and the best thing I can do is just be a clear example of the things I believe in.
Tift Merritt is a Texas native who grew up in North Carolina, but is raising her daughter in New York City. But wherever she is, writing comes naturally. Merritt is a close observer of the world, and mines even the minutia of everyday life for material. Take, for instance, her 2012 song, “Small Talk Relations”.
Merritt: I feel like the song started with a construction site on my street in New York City, and just that sort of noise of city life, and the feeling that it is, that life is just obscuring what is important and what is underneath and that feeling of being the only person trying to hold onto that, and all the small talk relations are just noise.
(Tift Merritt singing from “Small Talk Relations”)
I skipped a stone and watched it go
The arc and then the undertow
Thinking a day is something like a prayer
So much to ask, you started soft
Then the weight of locks come off
In the end you just hope someone’s there
‘Cause all these small talk relations
No, they ain’t nothing for real
No, nobody here at all knows
The way that I feel
Over the years, Vivek Shraya’s creativity has taken many forms. Installation, film, music, fiction, poetry, and in 2018, a bestselling memoir. But growing up, Shraya had a singular outlet for self-expression, singing bhajans, devotional songs at temple.
Vivek Shraya: It was the one place that I felt special, as opposed to in junior high, in high school, where being a quote unquote boy that sang was actually seen as undesirable in some ways, so for me, music did become a place for me to express longing and vulnerability, but also a way to gain comfort and admiration in a way that wasn’t happening at school.
(Vivek Shraya singing from “Part-Time Woman”)
I don’t shave
I don’t wear lipstick
I’m not polished
I don’t fix it
What does that make me?
What does that make me?
Does that make me a part-time woman?
From a young age, Vivek Shraya felt different from other little boys. Creativity quickly became a refuge, a space for self-discovery. In 2016, at age 35, Vivek Shraya began using female pronouns to describe herself. The same year, she created one of her most popular pieces to date, a photo essay called Trisha, in which she reproduced old photos of her mother using herself as the subject.
Shraya: You used to say if you had a girl, you would have named her Trisha. You had also prayed for me to look like dad, but you forgot to pray for the rest of me. It is strange that you would overlook this, as you have always said be careful what you pray for. When I take off my clothes and look in the mirror, I see dad’s body as you wished, but the rest of me has always wished to be you. I modeled myself, my gestures, my futures, how I love and rage, all after you. Did this worry you and dad?
Trisha is one of few of Shraya’s works that her parents have actually seen. Mr. and Mrs. Shraya came to Canada from India in the 1970s, keen to blend in, and as a result, even today, conversations about her evolving sense of self don’t dwell in details, a sort of compromise meant to keep them on common ground.
Shraya: I grew up in a house where what happened in the home stayed in the home, so very, very, very private, and it was definitely a protective, an immigrant protective mechanism. We are outsiders, we don’t belong here, so the only way to protect ourselves is you know? And then I became an artist, and I was like, And so I think, for me, the strategy in some ways is a form of reconciliation. It’s trying to reconcile this with this, and also trying to sustain a healthy relationship with my parents.
(Excerpt from Shraya’s short film Holy Mother My Mother)
I always wanted to be a mom, that was my greatest dream. And now I am one. I’m truly grateful for that experience, thank you, and thank you for the challenges you have put us through, and thank you to the Divine for all the encouragements and letting us sustain all the things that come our way.
Now 38, Shraya continues looking to her mother as a model of womanhood, but she also recognizes just how expansive a concept femininity really is.
Shraya: I think everyone’s femininity is a little bit different and it’s really about figuring out what that means for you, individually. For me, personally, I know that it was my tenderness, my flair, my outspokenness, all of the things about me that were policed, I often associate that with femininity. That’s not to say that femininity has to be tender. I think I have to check myself, too. I’m like, you know, when I’m strong and confident, that’s femininity, too, and I think this is, again, where I was really fortunate to grow up in an environment or at least with the kind of religious practice where I was exposed to a range of femininity. We had the goddess that was in a lovely white lotus, and I’m the goddess of learning, but then we also had Kali, who’s literally, blood is pouring from her mouth and she’s dancing on her dead husband’s corpse, and skulls around her neck, and I’m like, yeah, femininity’s all of that, and I want to be all of that.
Shraya’s celebrated 2018 memoir, I’m Afraid of Men, explores her long and at times fraught journey to embrace aspects of herself.
(Excerpt from I’m Afraid of Men)
I’m afraid of men because it was men who taught me fear. I’m afraid of men because it was men who taught me to fear the word girl by turning it into a weapon they used to hurt me. I’m afraid of men because it was men who taught me to hate and eventually destroy my femininity. I’m afraid of men because it was men who taught me to fear the extraordinary parts of myself.
Shraya has some other fears, too, many that are more esoteric in nature.
Shraya: I’m afraid of the death of ideas. One of the things that really keeps me up at night is just that I’ll never have another good idea again, that I’ll never have an idea that feels exciting or energizing. As an artist, ideas are my capital. The idea of not having another idea is something that causes me a lot of stress, so I’m afraid of that. I’m afraid of, time, you know, as a trans person, as a queer person, I’ve lost so much time. There’s something about time that feels scary, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m always trying to do as many things as I can, because there’s always this sort of invisible clock that is hanging over me, and I never want to take this life or time for granted.
(Vivek Shraya singing from “Girl it’s Your Time”)
Girl it’s your time
Don’t ever, ever change your mind
‘Cause you’re mine
All those years of playing tough
All those years I gave you up
I’m never gonna hide you
Never gonna fight you again
Not for any man
Through art, Vivek Shraya continues to move ever closer to that which alludes many of us, an understanding and acceptance of self.