Remembering Nora York, Lightning Rod for Beauty and Truth

courtesy WNYC

photo by Stepanie Berger/ courtesy WNYC

I was saddened to read Daniel E. Slotnick’s New York Times obituary about singer Nora York, and to learn that she’d died at 60 of pancreatic cancer.

York’s was a voice worth hearing for both its musical qualities and its focus on the intersections of beauty and justice. She was a force to be reckoned with, popping up in varying contexts through the years. She was also a friend. We’d encouraged each other at critical moments, though we’d recently fallen out of touch.

I don’t agree that, as Slotnick wrote, she “intrigued audiences with bold mashups of jazz, rock and other genres”—her creations were too fully formed and fluid, and never sounded mashed-up.

Yet he otherwise characterized and quoted her well:

Ms. York sang with a supple, polished voice that was by turns mournful, yearning and powerful. She covered or adapted the work of musicians like the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Charles Mingus, Joe Simon, Stravinsky, George Gershwin and Fats Waller.

“I take the form of a tune like ‘Moanin’ ’ and sing ‘Satisfaction’ over those changes,” Ms. York told The Boston Globe in 2001. “It plays with memory and feeling in a different way.”

Reconciling these seemingly disparate styles of music came naturally to Ms. York, a polymath who delighted in synthesizing philosophy, poetry, politics and song in front of an audience.

Blond and six feet tall, she commanded the stage in frequent performances at the Knitting Factory and Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in Manhattan, and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Sometimes she merged singing with video art and acting in performance pieces like “Jump” and “Water.”

Below are some excerpts from my 2013 interview with York. She had just returned from a Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado. She told of performing Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come No More” — singing lines such as “While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay, there are frail forms fainting at the door.”

“These lyrics had a transformative effect on the panels that followed,” she said.

“I see myself as a kind of lightning rod,” she told me. “I like to pick up on what’s going on, and play it back for people in a more condensed, altered way: That’s what art does.”

How did you get on path of blending social and political issues with music?

When I started out at the Knitting Factory in the late 1980s, I sang popular music instead of jazz standards. I read from newspapers and quoted philosophers. I discussed the apocalypse and god. I wanted to make the music relevant to me, and what interested me. I came out of performance art, so I was always conceptually inspired as opposed to only responding to repertoire that was predictable for singers. And I was interested in the art world and the world of politics. I mean, love is great, but life has other properties and perhaps my “tough-minded sensibility” (to quote one New York Times reviewer) is better at expressing subjects that involve the world around us.

In 2001, I began to explore the subjects of war and work in “Power/Play.” It began as a commission, actually. The Brooklyn Academy of Music asked me to present something to complement a film series, “From Hanoi to Hollywood.” And then George Bush was elected president. And then 9/11 happened, and the world changed completely. I had to respond. “Power/Play” began with Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War,” in which I reharmonized stanzas of the Dylan with new songs in response to each section. I ended up recording it in 2007, and it is offered for free download on my website.

In these days of round-the-clock news and “truthiness,” is art a more reliable or necessary way to learn about pressing issues and political tensions?

I am not sure what art does. I can find connection and meaning, I can inspire. I’m not sure if it is reliable as a source of information, but it is a way to connect people — to round them up and have them share an experience. In an anthem, or say, even better the way music fueled the anti-apartheid movement, we can feel the power of art. Here in the U.S., it is rough because there is almost no access for many artists to connect to broad audiences. At least in my experience, record companies and press are not as eager to present artists who push boundaries of style and genre and whose work has social or political observation.

My instincts and observations are all I have. I want to give them voice, literally, and to share my observations of meaning. I am of the mind that if people care about things, they will act. And I have always felt that what interests me is to focus peoples’ hearts and minds. I have been thinking about what Mario Savio (of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement) said in 1964. He spoke about how we need to “put our bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and make it stop.” So perhaps maybe what I sing in some small way can inspire action. I am not sure. I just want to give voice to this stuff, the best I can.

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