Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 19, No. 2, 2020
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
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David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nick Catalano
Chris Barry
Don Dewey
Howard Richler
Gary Olson
Oslavi Linares
Jordan Adler
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
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Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
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Emanuel Pordes
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Mark Kingwell
Charles Tayler
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
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Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




Steven Hancoff is a graduate of St. John's College in Annapolis, MD, and a long-time Rolfer and acoustic guitarist. Jazz Review Magazine once wrote that "he is an interpretive master who plays with fluidity, grace and passion." He has concertized all over the US, and for about 15 years, he represented the United States in about 50 countries throughout South America, Africa, Asia and the Arab world as an Artistic Ambassador, presenting the story of the development of American music in concerts, media appearances and master classes. Feel free to purchase his recordings and books at


Wow! Today is my birthday. It’s really hard to believe that I am 72 years old. I feel like 'a man,' not 'an old man.'

The older I get
The more I think
You only get a minute, better live while you're in it
'Cause it's gone in a blink

[“The Older I Get” is by Alan Jackson.]

When I was young, time seemed to move so painfully slowly. As the years go by, time slides by like a speed-skater on ice. But I wouldn’t choose to be young again, not even if you paid me! Bouncing off of too many walls. Too angry. Too frightened. Too sad. Too lost. Too confused.

I like Jon Hendricks’ lyric: “Life is given for livin’.” It’s best to make the most of the opportunity of having been given the grand gift of having a life, even though it has apparently been given by virtue of no special virtue of myself. That is, I am not aware of having done 'anything' to deserve this most-precious gift. I believe that the Catholics refer to this phenomenon as “grace.”

And the older I get
The more thankful I feel For the life I've had,
And all the life I'm living still
72 equals 2x3x2x3x2 = 72

Musically, 23232 is a guitar fingering for a trill, usually added to the score to embellish a melody. In music, this is called an ‘ornament.’ An ornament is a device used to make a melody line more attractive than holding a single note for a length of time. I don’t see aging as an ornament. And it’s hard to imagine that I look more attractive from the outside than I used to. But aging perhaps renders a person more attractive in the sense of becoming a bit more wise, or more experienced, or maybe even just more calm or patient? Or at least less impacted by the power of the waves of irrational feelings.

And if they found a fountain of youth
I wouldn't drink a drop and that's the truth
Funny how it feels I'm just getting to my best years yet The older I get.

Re: my body, when I was younger, I used to be able to hike forever. On treks I used to be able to leap from boulder to boulder. Nowadays, I need to step slowly and carefully lest I fall and do serious damage. And I can’t go nearly as far as I used to. In other words, I am not as energetic or as coordinated or as agile as I once was. The last time I tried to row a raft down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon there was no way I could keep up with the younger boatmen who were able to plow through the current and the rapids. Same on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.

I walk more slowly and less far than I used to. I need to rest more often than I used to. I can’t satisfyingly eat as much as I used to. Thankfully, I am still what they call ‘healthy,’ and I can still concentrate on things that matter to me. In short, my body can not do what it used to -- not the same stamina, strength or coordination. I do miss that body, even as I identify less with it than I used to.

But on the other hand, the travails of the world don’t trouble me the way that they used to. I guess I am saying that the matters that seemed important or unimportant have changed.

Happiness and genuine pleasure matter. Getting my way, not so much. Discerning that which is true is entirely meaningful, pleasurable, somewhat triumphant and important. Discarding discredited beliefs and attitudes is an unmitigated good. Being ‘in truth’ matters immensely. Lying is unthinkable. It is hard to fathom how young people think. Being able to do deductive reasoning is more and more significant.

And the older I get
The better I am
At knowing when to give
And when to just not give a damn

Pretending anything is worse than useless; it is destructive. Truth matters more than anything. Deconstructing and discarding the long-ago-self-constructed mask matters. I’m not the ‘good boy’ my mother so wanted. Acknowledging my own ‘lower self,’ and exposing and discarding it, letting it go, is valuable. There is no longer any purpose in feeling shame, baseless anger, hatred or envy. There is grand purpose in feeling genuine admiration, gratitude and occasional amazement. Genuine insight is rewarding.

At this age, it has become abundantly clear to me that the purpose of a life well-lived is transcendence -- the recognition -- the certainty --- that the ego identity with which I have identified and lived my life, is not the ultimate reality of who I am. After all, my body – ‘body’ from the word ‘abode,’ meaning ‘house,’ presumably of what some of us call the ‘soul’ -- is kind of like my ‘earth suit,’ that structure without which I can’t wander this world with this consciousness, this ego-identity, and in this body. The soul is on a transcendent journey toward the recognition of an ultimate reality of knowing who he actually is.

My being qua soul? I suppose one can’t say for sure, but it seems clear to me that transcendence actually means coming to identify with the soul whose journey compels the ever-present, ever-incompletely answered, question: “Who am I.” As the Don Williams song puts it:

. . . I’m an ordinary man
Sometimes I wonder who I am

I guess we all start off life in Socrates’ cave (The Republic, Plato). The point of life is to emerge from its shadows of misleading impressions into the natural luminescence of ultimate reality. So, who is this soul? Well, one quality of consciousness is the ability to fathom true things, and discard false things, in particular concerning who I am and what is so. And inasmuch as insight seems to be the currency, the mechanism, of discerning truth and motive, perhaps the soul is on a journey toward greater, and perhaps ultimate, insight . . . all of which sounds like qualities of what some call ‘God.’ Is the final self-identification of the soul that we become aligned with, or unified with, the Creative Force of the Universe? That is, is the soul on its way to recognition of itself as what humans sometimes call God? Are we each a single cell in the spirit of Creation? Maybe.

The older I get
The longer I pray
I don't know why,
I guess that I
Got more to say

I have endured my share of tragedy and heart-break, God knows. That said, I have also had my share of pleasure and joy. I have devoted my working life to Music and Rolfing. I am grateful and happy that I somehow (I don’t know how) managed to discover fulfilling ways of expressing my being here on this Earth during this oh-so- short, blink of an eye we call a lifetime.

Being able to love matters. I am beyond lucky that I have found the love of my life, and that she feels the same about me. This quality is called intimacy, and the engine of it is transparency. The inestimably great Ida Rolf once pointed out that we are each an electro-magnetic entity trapped in the gravitational field of the Earth. As such, we each express a unique vibratory frequency. Maybe that’s what makes each of us who he is. I suspect that falling in love actually means that two souls who express/embody mutually consonant electro-magnetic vibratory frequencies connect at that level. That’s how they recognize each other. When we were much younger, we spoke of ‘vibes.’ That’s what vibes are.

The greatest, deepest pleasure is sharing and feeling love with one another, hiding no part of myself, mutual nakedness of spirit, admitting every part of her gratefully into my heart, never resistant to or frightened that she sees me for exactly who I am. Helping one another to transform rather than to blame and resent and hide. And doing that suggests that we can see something of the Divine in one another, mutually realizing we are both on THE Soul’s Journey, striding together, and that we are steadfast in joining with one another’s soul on our earth-wandering during this lifetime. We both deeply hope that path continues in the next plane of existence, whatever that experience may be . . . like Aristophanes’ separated souls that Plato described in The Symposium.

In other words, even though Freud is mostly disdained these days, he was right to assert: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” I would have to add being in truth and opening the capacity to love -- the merging of one soul wit-- and the determination and ability to cease hiding one’s nature from oneself and one’s beloved.

Neither of my parents lived into their 70s. So, what about my genetics? How much more time do I have to live? I don’t fear death, but I know I have many years’ work still to do. I hope my energy, creativity and physical capacity last long enough to complete that which I wish to do. If I don’t apply myself to that work, I feel I will have betrayed whatever creative gifts were given me to use to do the work I have felt impelled to do in life.

And I don't mind all the lines
From all the times I've laughed and cried
Souvenirs and little signs of the life I've lived

Modernity: During the last couple of decades the world has evolved to become a digital domain. “For ways in which digital is better than analogue, press #2.” As the Internet has grown more and more powerful and pervasive, the way people spend their time and money and attention has shifted, and continues to shift, in ways that nobody predicted. And it looks like the world will continue to move -- evolve? devolve? -- in the direction of cyber-space and AI becoming the realm in which we live more and more. My judgment is that it is better to live in physical reality than in an imaginary one constructed of zeros and ones, because being grounded -- feet solidly planted on the earth -- is more secure, and provides, well, groundedness; that is, a deeper, more immediate connection with physical reality.

What will be the ultimate impact of this techno-revolution? I never would have imagined that a powerful entity, like, say, a government, having my phone number, would enable them to know every sort of pertinent detail about me, what I do, what I like etc. Whosoever has access to so much information -- what I purchase, where I go, what web-sites do I look at, what interests me etc. -- how will they not give in to the temptation to use that information for personal power and accumulation of immense wealth? It’s impossible not to conclude that the more technologically advanced societies -- i.e., those countries known as ‘free’ -- are inexorably headed to totalitarianism, where the powers that be control and manipulate everybody by virtue of knowing everything about everybody. The future is Orwellian, totalitarian, a future where actions will be controlled and free thoughts will be crimes. I just don’t see how it can be avoided.

So, I find myself more and more relieved that I won’t be around to be part of it or witness it. Old goat that I am, I still prefer actual physical and person-to-person contact to website connections, Facebook ‘likes,’ and e-mail. I suspect I will be dying as the digital revolution zooms. I feel sorry for the next generation, even as they seem to be at one with it, and entirely unaware to where they are being led. It seems to me that the process is inexorable, and the outcome inevitable.

From Lord Byron’s poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,”

Opinion an omnipotence, whose veil
Mantles the earth with darkness, until right
And wrong are accidents, and men grow pale
Lest their own judgments should become too bright,
And their free thoughts be crimes, and earth have too much light.

Sex: We all took part in the so-called sexual revolution. I guess the invention of the pill (and antibiotics) changed everything. At 72 I have had the experience of knowing that random sexual connection has its pleasures, not to mention its dangers. But it has nothing in common with actual love. I am grateful and fulfilled that I have been able to learn and embody such a profound lesson. My sexual inclinations are as robust as ever, but, sad to say, I am less virile than I used to be. Sigh . . . Culturally, we have witnessed the mistaking of license for liberty. Our societies are paying, and will continue to pay, the price. I can’t help but think of the archetypal myth of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Being Jewish: To be a Jew a person can experience what it means to be hated for who he is as opposed to being hated for what he has done. Put another way, being born a Jew is a very interesting karma. One of the qualities I embrace most about being a Jewish person is that I love the humour. There’s plenty more to say, but not in my birthday rumination. I think there’s an entire book waiting to be written about being a Jew.

Money: I guess I have more than some people, and less than others. Clearly, accumulating money has never been a goal, but whenever I had enough, it felt better than not having enough. One thing you can do with money is buy stuff. And as we are packing up our belongings right now to have our things shipped to move to Israel, I can say with certainty that we have too much damn stuff. So, maybe I didn’t need as much money as I thought I did, because I must have bought too much stuff. I can’t escape the feeling that less stuff is better than too much stuff. And maybe even not-enough-stuff is better than too much stuff. I think maybe owning things might be an expression of the Western materialistic illness. People I have met in Africa, for example, whose belongings all easily fit into a single room of one grass hut, didn’t seem to me to be less happy than we Westerners who are filled to the gills with things we thought we needed and wanted.

And the older I get
The truer it is
It's the people you love, not the money and stuff
That makes you rich

Drugs: Perhaps with good reason, there is a kind of cultural hysteria about people taking drugs. People take drugs because they like them. And they become addicted (from the Latin ad – ‘to’ and ducere – ‘lead’ -- people are ‘led to’ drugs because they like them.) to what they like. As the old Fats Waller song put it, “This Is So Nice, It Must Be Illegal.” I’ve taken my share. Some illegal substances are useful in helping people navigate the labyrinths of their minds. And by and large, they’ve done me good. Or at least I am happy with how I have used them.

Nowadays, and for the last years, I seem to have lost the desire or urge to imbibe. Is that a function of aging? Maybe. I don’t really know. I think the urge to escape oneself by means of drugs is self-damaging. To me, drugs are for the sake of getting deeper into coming to grips with your own identity and distortions so that you can address and change them. They are Theseus’ thread, the one that is designed to keep him from getting lost in the monstrous center of his own Labyrinth, that he uses to lead himself out and away from being devoured by the Monster at the center of the Labyrinth that is himself.

Music: I first picked up a guitar when I was 13 years old, one day after taking in the first concert I ever attended, a concert by the folk music group, The Weavers, at the old Lyric Theater in Baltimore. And I have not ever put the guitar down yet. And music is ‘never’ far from my conscious mind.

There is a lot of idealization about music -- “the voice of angels,” “the harmony of the spheres” etc. I don’t know about all that. But I know that music and guitar got me in their grip from that first day. I think guitar is the easiest instrument to play poorly, and the most difficult instrument to play great. There’s always one more thing to get. The shape, obviously the shape of the feminine, is seductive. But the music itself is what is, was and remains so completely compelling.

So far, I have performed in about 50 countries -- a grand education into the ways of the world and how countries treat or mistreat their citizens -- and I have recorded seven records/CDs, and I have written three music books. Reviewers have almost unanimously recognized me as a virtuoso. One reviewer called me “a master of interpretation.” It feels good when knowledgeable people think so well of my work and me. But their opinion is not the point.

Audiences have loved the concerts. But fame and notoriety have eluded me. In my heart of hearts, I know I ought to be renowned. And I have been disappointed in the world for not recognizing me. A famous musician friend recently informed me that I have a small but very ardent following. I had not realized that.

What I do know is that for me, when I am in my element, I sit alone in a room for 3, 4, 5 hours at a time day after fascinating day concentrating as purposefully as I can, running my fingers and hands up and down the guitar neck. And then, when I am done with the physical practice, my mind stays around whatever music I am working on, so that the last thought I have before falling to sleep at night tends to be “What finger plays what string to get what sound? What harmony works there? Where does the melody go.” In other words, guitar/music is a demanding mistress, but one so compellingly alluring that I simply can’t resist surrendering to its Siren call.

I think of my gift as a better-than-mediocre one, but not a great one. But whatever it is, I only know I just can’t help it. I just have to play -- it’s a compulsion. A music friend once told me that when he once met the iconic jazz pianist, Teddy Wilson (Benny Goodman’s pianist and a grand soloist in his own right), Wilson scowled and told him, “I hates music.” I know the feeling -- the music and the instrument always collaborate to defeat you. They gang up! For me, it is impossible to translate the sounds/concepts of my mind to a perfect performance. There is always at least some frustration and the feeling of defeat. On the other hand, there is also the feeling of satisfaction and sinking into a place of immense inner comfort when I play well. The guitar always defeats me. Idealizing music is self-destructive. But, as I say, I just can’t help but work at it, dive in and play.

Michael Hedges once pointed out that melody is the heart of a piece of music, harmony represents the intellect, and rhythm represents its sexuality. I like that concept. My unsuppressible motivation is in harmonic structures and ideas. So, maybe there’s not enough heart and sexuality for the listening public to adhere to my style. Or maybe my harmonic conceptions are just too far out for most people to relax into, or to appreciate. I really don’t know. All I can do is to just keep on doing it, deepening the process, being grateful, and loving it . . . and practice, practice, practice. There’s a saying among some of us musicians: “He’s so good, no one’s ever heard of him."

I’ve never sought fame for its own sake. It’s just that fame is the necessary ingredient for making a living, if you are a musician. By now, I want to play music for the sake of making music. That’s my soul talking. One old friend has suggested that I probably ought be angry at the public neglect. I have been. But I’m not angry now. I just want to continue on the path of discovery that articulating my meaning musically entails. In the end, I imagine I’ll be playing until I die. As Leonard Cohen beautifully and poignantly, begins his anthemic Hallelujah:

I heard there was a secret chord,
That David played and it pleased the Lord...
But you don’t really care much for music
Do you?

When I began this irresistible and insistent love affair, I fell in love with American folk music. And thus began my journey. Then, at about 21, I was seduced by classic Ragtime, that under-esteemed, prototypically American pre-jazz magnificent musical innovation. I transcribed and recorded a lot of piano rags for guitar, and I recorded two lps of classic rags. Being a member of the tiny but passionate and intelligent and very knowledgeable ragtime world led me to traditional and then New Orleans jazz. Playing jazz naturally led to Swing, and I immersed myself in the music of the swing bands, most notably the songs of Duke Ellington and his alter ego, Billy Strayhorn.

Then the almost inexplicable detour -- eight years of transcribing for guitar, researching, writing my four-volume Bach biography, practicing -- a transformative and intense immersion -- into the world of Johann Sebastian Bach, the “God of Music” (Mahler), and to the degree that it is unavoidable when being intimate with Bach, Felix Mendelssohn. Now after years of practicing, arranging, transcribing, researching, writing, collecting, creating about 50 videos and two full-length performance pieces about Bach and the Mendelssohn family, it’s time for the next schwung. I am full of ideas, and raring to go!

In our culture, musical fame equals glory. Homer’s masterpieces (along with the Bible, our foundational myths) are, in large, measure, the myths of the glorified. They are warriors. I am a warrior too doing daily battle with my own limitations. I’m no Achilles. But I -- like all mortals -- must fight my battles. That’s one of Homer’s points, right? And I don’t argue with a giant like Homer. It’s a battle, a struggle, to get the sound I am after. And the Greek heroes mostly died tragic deaths. I don’t want music to represent my tragedy. I love it better when I feel like the music is my fulfillment.

My father once warned me that being a musician is a hard life. I have found that indeed there is often wisdom in lyrics of songs. As one song put it:

Do you want to play the guitar?
Bring your money home in a jar.

In the end, I have come to imagine that I am an acoustic soul, albeit a somewhat inspired one, living in an electric world.

Friendship: From all the above, spending so much time alone with my inspiration and instrument, it is obvious that my musical path is not one that leaves much space for being very social. I am inside of myself most of the time. I wish I had made more close friends. (When he was old, Ty Cobb said he wished he had made more friends too). For me, it’s not easy to find people with whom I wish to be transparent, open-hearted, and who will reciprocate, and whom I want to know so intimately. I wish there were more. Maybe we’ll find one another soon in Israel. I hope so.

The older I get
The fewer friends I have
But you don't need a lot when the ones that you got
Have always got your back

Death: Al Rose, the pre-eminent New Orleans jazz historian once advised me, “You don’t want to be laying on your death bed thinking ‘I blew it.’” I took that wise advice to heart. When I am dying, I want to be able to feel that my life expressed my heart. I want to feel that I have left behind something worthy of a life well-lived. Inasmuch as this is the only planet I will get to be able to explore, I want to be able to see much of it, especially those parts that evoke wonder, awe and mystery. I want to be able to complete those recordings I am inspired to work on. And I want to be able to leave behind a body of work that those who follow will be able to take pleasure from, and maybe even learn something from. I hope that my music will have touched some people in a deep place. That is a worthy life.

As it is written on the gravestone of Franz Schubert, an almost universally under- regarded but inconceivably towering genius:

The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even fairer hopes.


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Bravo, Stephen!
Just read every word. Quite a journey you have been on.
Your gift for writing is every bit as much as your musicianship...












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