Photo by Meg Krausch
Music as Political Solidarity:
The Refusal to Tour with Covid and What Comes Next
Interview by Meghan Krausch
Cyrus Pireh is an experimental guitarist who, until March 2020, was known to his friends and fans for frequent, long, and enthusiastic solo tours where performances were as likely to be held at an intersection as at a bar. He is a self-described shredder, a university-trained composer and music theorist, and, at a lanky 6'4", he can usually be recognized at the gig by his railroad conductor's hat or tie-dyed T-shirt, sipping yerba mate to get his arm ready for an hour-long tremolo performance. Although he is fully vaccinated, he has not given an in-person performance since the first lockdowns in the United States. He is currently recording daily practice sessions on his YouTube channel at his home just outside of Detroit, MI, and has two albums being released this year.
DISCLOSURE: Pireh is also my partner of 21 years and although we have collaborated on other projects, this is the first time I have ever sat down to interview him. We spoke in early 2022 at our shared home outside of Detroit, MI, about the political lessons he believes we can learn from music and why he still isn't playing shows anytime soon.
PSF: Can you tell me a little bit about what playing music means to you?
CP: Well, playing music, I don't even really think of as a separate thing from myself. It's part of my existence. The actual playing, using an instrument, is part of a larger music awareness. I often will just transition immediately from listening to thinking about music and back. And then transition from that to actually playing with the instrument. I don't see a boundary. There's not, for me, a moment where I'm playing or not playing. So, what it means to me, it's just part of who I am- it's as important as breathing. If it was gone, I would be gone.
PSF: You talked a little bit about the personal importance, but I also know that music has some political meaning and importance to you. Could you talk about that?
CP: Well, I think that music has a role in the generation of new modes of societal interaction. Music is the place where you can experiment with these things. I mean, it's the same word--'practice' the verb: you practice music but also the noun, a 'practice' of social interaction.
Music is not just playing notes on an instrument- you have to deal with all of these other aspects. There are two key ideas that come to mind here, as a composer. One is that there are all of these things that people just end up doing, because they do them when they play music, but all of these are also a part of the composition. And you can choose to engage with them or not, but they're not set in stone. So, who is it that you're playing the notes with? Do you have a plan? Do you not have a plan? Where are you playing these notes? Do you have the permission of whoever it is that owns the place where you're going to play them? Is anyone watching you play these notes? Or not? What is their role? Do they have a role other than just watching? Do they pay? Do they not pay?
The other comes from Jacques Attali's Noise: A Political Economy of Music. His claim is that music actually prefigures economic relationships. That the changes that were happening in music prefigured, for instance, the rise of capitalism. This is an importance we don't often give to music, but it's there. Really, I think music is a way first to dream, and then a way to practice and form the relationships to embody those dreams in everyday life.
PSF: Is it different for you to play alone than it is to play in a performance?
CP: There's always someone, even if it's just the instrument. But it's very rare that when I'm playing that I'm actually not around any other person. A huge part of my own music politics is actually in working to disintegrate the category of audience. I mean, people who are coming in, they're interested in music. What if they should feel excited and interested in participating in some way? I think that, to me, would be the pinnacle of success for any sort of musical project. Having them relegated to the position of observer is really hard on me, I don't like that at all.
PSF: Can you say something about the goals and outcomes of your tours from say, 2016 to 2019, and maybe how they were a little bit different from some of your peers?
CP: The thinking that was different was that I approached the idea upfront explicitly that the musicians booking the tours and coming to each other's shows are all doing this together. I'm not someone that you placed on a pedestal this time, and then the next time, I placed you on the pedestal. No, I want to continue working together. It's not just like a one-time thing where I'm going to come and extract from your local scene: money, and a place to sleep and sell my records to you and leave. I mean, that's a harsh way to put maybe a more standard way of doing that kind of traveling and performing. But that's why I didn't want to do it that way.
The goal was really to travel and perform music at other locations, and to meet other people face to face, and to be in community with them. That's invaluable, and is often something that's mediated in the music world by a lot of other institutions. The goal was to say part of my artistic practice involves being in a community with people. The outcomes were outstandingly positive, there's no negative. Even when things were difficult, I didn't lose money. Even when I went across the entire U.S. to do 10 shows in two weeks. All of the tours have made money. And then also, the list of people who are interested in knowing what I'm doing grew. But there's this other important metric: the number of asks that I received from people who want to collaborate on things also increased.
PSF: I want to switch to talking a little bit now about the pandemic. Can you explain a little bit why you haven't played any live shows since the beginning of 2020? And how that has felt?
CP: The short answer is the particular nature of this illness. I haven't seen a way where I can feel comfortable with people coming to an event and not having a chance of getting it or passing it along to somebody else there, or on the way there, or when they get home. It just doesn't seem possible currently. Not for lack of imagination, it's just that music performances happen as part of what's going on in wider society.
I don't want somebody to die because they came to see me perform, nor do I feel like I need to have somebody risk dying for me to be able to do my artistic practice. So, I have not done any live performances.
As far as how it's felt, I mean, now it just sort of feels like routine. I think that it was pretty tough initially, because I had a whole lot of things scheduled that I had to cancel. I mean, that was a real bummer. But, while 'positive' is the wrong word, it's just my brain doesn't say, just because something is impossible means that there isn't some other way or some other path. So, looking for that path has been what's kept me occupied.
PSF: Yeah, I'm thinking about some things that you said earlier, that music is as important as breathing for you and that music is a way that we practice all these other social practices. And I'm wondering how that relates.
CP: Well, performance in front of people-- "shows" --is not the end all, be all of music. Music is so much more than that. And so yes, I continue to breathe. I continue to music.
There's part of me that wonders if it is going to be possible to do these sorts of performances that I've been doing again, or at what point I might feel comfortable taking a risk, or letting people take a risk. And I realized that I'm saying to people, "no, I'm not even going to offer you the chance to take a risk." It's going beyond me just risking me, but that's because, I feel like it's not just about me performing the music that I've prepared or whatever. The solidarity is deeper than that. And that's why it's important to me: because if people are coming under this kind of risk, then it doesn't feel like solidarity anymore. It feels like a calculation of what access to resources people have should things go wrong. And that people who feel like they'll be able to access the health and job resources feel able to come, but then there are people who wouldn't have those sorts of resources.
PSF: I also want to ask if there's any other aspects of touring and music performance that the pandemic has made you reconsider?
CP: Yes. In a lot of ways, it feels like everybody's position in the music scenes that they exist in have been put on hold. What I mean is this: there may be in a particular town, a handful of places that it's possible to perform music, and let's say one of them is run by somebody who everybody knows is a dirt bag. Usually, you can't really say no to the dirt bag and then expect to be able to play all the other places because of scene politics. That sort of calculation is gone now, which is amazing.
Bars and other shows also end up providing cover for people who have a much more sinister objective. And seeing that happen, especially when you're watching from the stage, I mean, you're somehow allowing or giving your support to these situations where people are coming in and preying on other people.
I don't want to paint with too broad of a brush. But part of the reason why people are able to collect power in music is because they say some things are music, and some things are not. So, the direction this can go is that you have to look the part. What ends up happening is that falseness goes into making something "real," and that's driven by people saying "this is what it is to be real" -- a lot of things that aren't music. And that phenomenon is deeply related to other kinds of power and domination that thrive in the music scene.
So, my project is much more like having none of that stuff. I don't have the cool jeans, or the right van, or the right amps. It's just me and the instrument. My response has been more and more to say "I don't give a fuck about this dirtbag. I will go play somewhere else, or not at all." There are other ways. Really, if you look at it, a band like Black Flag got kicked out of all of the places they went and they rented VFW halls. They were not allowed to play in the "real music venues." Others too. Not just me, not just them. This has happened over and over and over again. And not just in music.
What happens is that when people are excluded from the network, they seek other networks. When enough people are using a new network, it then becomes co-opted. That's the process that happens over and over and over again. The real lesson is to be ready to move once the cooptation occurs. Learn the lessons. Trust in yourself and your network and your community. And continue with the eye on the actual goal that isn't to make money from your venue that used to be your house or whatever. But it's to be in community with people that make music.
PSF: I think that's a real pandemic lesson.
CP: Sure, I mean the question for me is not how can I can get back to...
PSF: ...doing what you were doing in 2019?
CP: Right. the question for me is not how can I get back to shows or anything. It's how can I continue making music with and as part of my community.
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