geometry of circles – philip glass on sesame street (1979)

Still from Geometry of Circles – Philip Glass (1979)

Unlike many writers, I carry little nostalgia for my early years. My first eighteen were far from happy, and those before my teens, among the most miserable of the lot. That said, as someone who spent his childhood hiding in the pages of books (and within music), it’s hard not to recognize the period as formative, nor to cast an appreciative eye toward the objects which contributed to the person I became. And so, at least for a moment, it is to these, and this, which I momentarily return.

There were a number of definitive factors in my upbringing – some worth mentioning, others less appropriate for this context. While most members my family bore the standard hamarks of the Reagan era – an exit from the idealism of the 1960’s and 70’s, replaced by a drive for upper middle class stability and affluence, I still benefited from the progressive groundwork laid in the decades before.

We were, and remain, a family for whom the written word is the most cherished art. My mother and her sister taught literature. One uncle was a lapsed poet who has since returned to writing. Another is a Pulitzer prize winning journalist. One of my cousins is a regularly published author of fiction. Another teaches Proust, at a college in Maine. Looking back, it’s hard to tell if we’ve spent more time reading in each other’s company, or discussing the books we love.

Disposed as I am to inner worlds and wandering thoughts, it wasn’t a particularity welcoming enviroment for a child. We were advised, explicitly and otherwise, as might be expected of family of cultural Calvinists who have resided in New England for centuries, to speak only when spoken to. There’s not much to contribute to a conversation about Finnegans Wake, at the age of six. I was forced to listen, learn, and absorb.

The world of my youth was far from silent. There was more than turning pages, and weighty discussions of weightier tomes. Music was always in the air, as were conversations about the records from which it came. With the written word, music played an equal, if not greater, role. I was given a record player at a very young age, and for many years owned two cherished LPs, playing them again and again – Marlo Thomas And Friend’s ‎ Free To Be…You And Me, and Pete Seeger’s The World Of Pete Seeger.

Books unquestionably formed the way I process information, and understand and empathize with the inner worlds and experiences of others, while music, particularity when viewed through the first records I owned, contributed my belief in the topical potential of art, and the way I believe we should regard each other in real life. Pete Seeger’s politics are well known and explicit in his songs. For those unaware of it, Marlo Thomas recorded Free To Be…You And Me in 1972, with the hope of expelling the gender and racial stereotypes of the era (all of which, tragically remain with us today), by reaching children while they were young. It’s remarkable, and shockingly ahead of its time. Nearly every ideology I promote and pursue, is captured, with far more potential and scope, by these songs, encountered during my earliest years.

 

Alan Alda & Marlo Thomas – William’s Doll, from Free To Be…You And Me (1972)

The cultural artifacts which I was raised on, represent an important distinction within the temporality of art. As someone born at the end of the 1970’s – a decade  bearing history’s strongest presence of progressive politics within the mainstream, but raised in an era of extremely vicious Neo-Conservatism – the 80’s, the efforts of Thomas and Seeger where a formative bridge to another reality. They planted the belief in the possibility of a better world – one then being vanquished by Reagan and his cronies, and now similarly attacked by Trump and his. Yet, after all these years, many of us retain hope, fighting for the objective of universal social equity, in our adult lives. Works of art (like those of Thomas and Seeger), as they live through our resistance and action – having planted the seeds, are a reminder of why Conservatives are so afraid of the objects of creativity, and seek to censor and destroy them. Their influence, with their proposal of a better possibility – the fact that they can travel through time bearing the message of moments that many would like us to forget, are the greatest threats to the Right’s destructive presence in the world.

When we were young, my brother and I were not allowed to watch TV – given the mantra, “read a book”. There was a lone exception – Sesame Street, which notably, within this context, bears two distinct features. During the 1970’s and early 80’s, it presented a image of the world not far removed from the economic, cultural, and gender dynamics offered by Free To Be…You And Me – kids from all backgrounds operating in equity and mutual respect. It was multicultural, multiracial, gave equal role to girls and boys, and sought to educate while it entertained. It also appeared on PBS, a publicly funded channel which the Republican party has been attempting to destroy since the Reagan era, and among the first bodies Trump attacked when he took office. Given that children’s programs are among its most well known features, one can not help but draw the connection.

Sesame Street has always been known for its musical guests. Their performances are among the program’s most beloved legacy, and have unquestionably laid the groundwork for generations of listeners’ interests. A number of years ago, but refreshed in my memory by a friend’s recent social media post, I encountered an artifact which took me by surprise – a series of animations accompanied by the music of Philip Glass. Entitled Geometry of Circles, and commissioned by Cathryn Aison in 1979 (roughly the moment when I would have first seen the program), the moment I heard these sounds and saw these images, they came screaming back to the front of my mind. I remember being fascinating by them as a child. As someone who spends most of his time writing about avant-garde music, and within the context of discussing the formative influences of the encounters of youth, I couldn’t help but wonder if these short films had played a heavy role.

In the era of Trump, which follows nearly three decades of Neo-Conservative erosion of our rights and attacks on our will being, it is easy to get caught in the web, to react to the most visible and explicit, and to attempt to defend those who need it the most, but it is also worth remembering that a Trump presidency could have never been without what Reagan began. Conservatives are adept at playing the long game – slowly unraveling what few pay attention too. We must play a similar game. We must strive to enable education and access for the young – to give them hope, and to reach them first, as Pete Seeger and Marlo Thomas once did.

After nearly three decades of Neo-Conservative attacks, the thought of avant-garde ideas, images, and music being offered to young, seems almost impossible, if not an absurd dream. A futuristic fantasy, which, in truth, the past already holds. While Geometry of Circles is wonderful in it own right, Glass’ work is a far more potent example of what is possible, and how far such dreams have been pushed from sight. We no longer have what we once did, nor have we retained a dream of its possibility and potential. It is reminder that we must defend the young – our society’s children, for having not done so, may well have brought us toward the horrors which have now come.

-Bradford Bailey

 

Philip Glass – Geometry of Circles (1979)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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