Perambulating the Bounds

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Svenonious on real estate markets and musical style

Ian Svenonious, currently of Weird War and formerly of Nation of Ulysses, had a great commentary on the public radio show marketplace last week:

His hypothesis is that Alan Greenspan is responsible for neo-psych folk and electroclash because his monetary policies have encouraged massive real estate speculation that makes space so expensive that musicians in cities have to make music in close quarters and therefore forego a drum set. I don’t know if acoustic bands like Wooden Wand (I think that’s one of the clips in the piece) stay away from the drum kit for this reason – there’s plenty of aesthetic reasons for skipping it – but there is a claustrophobic sense on the cultural scene right now. The overcharged economy runs down people’s incomes and makes it more expensive to have a place to live, practice, or perform, and the ethos of getting squeezed down and out is knocking around in the air. There seems to be less room and time for urban, youthful Bohemia, and this has the potential to change the culture in very deep ways if the typical ferment among the young is throttled. You can probably argue that real estate has always been hostile to the young and poor, and that it has always chased people from neighborhood to neighborhood. But the next neighborhood seems harder to find, and even secondary towns are infected by the virus that demands instant conversion of every asset into ready cash or multi-digit gains in value. Svenonious is one of the few people I’ve heard try to articulate the specific ways these economic shape what goes on with culture at these levels.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Malle Moreau Miles

Belcourt is showing an early Louis Malle movie, Ascenceur pour l’Echaufaud, Elevator to the Gallows, for a couple of more nights. This is a sort of Postman Always Rings Twice/Body Heat story of lovers getting together to murder bothersome husband who is getting in their way. I heard about it first because it has some original Miles Davis music on the soundtrack, recorded with a French rhythm section and tenor player (that includes Kenny Clarke, an American who was living in France). And it was Jeanne Moreau’s debut.

The film is all displacements. The male lead, Julien, gets caught in an elevator for most of the film, setting in motion much of the plot by being taken out of the action. A young couple steal his car and his identity, and go on a joy ride that takes them out of Paris into a suburban landscape of empty modern highways (the “autoroute”) and a cabin-style motel right off the highway. Most significantly, Moreau’s character, Florence, floats through the Paris night searching for Julien and emerges as a kind of ghost. She alone among the characters speaks in an interior dialog. At other times you cannot hear her thoughts but see her silently mouthing words to herself. In an all-night pinball hall she walks behind couples sitting at a bar, leans down to look at them. She is invisible to them, and she looks at them as if they are utterly strange. For me the most defining moment was when she walks slowly across a busy street, with cars passing in front of her and behind her as she goes, as if she is walking through a wall. Florence does not occupy the same plane as the rest of the movie. To a lesser extent this is true of the other main characters as well.

Moreau is fascinating to watch in this movie. She is not beautiful in a conventional way, and her appearance changes in Malle’s hands. She has a hard appearance at first, but then softens as the film goes on. I’m reading Cavell’s World Viewed these days, and she is a good example of what he says about stars being a singularity, representing not a type or the world but a particular, specific entity that becomes known as “Jeanne Moreau” or Bogart or whatever.

Miles’ music comes in at just a few points. It is effective enough, especially the section in the opening. Last weekend the Belcourt was also showing some completely unrelated footage of Miles from the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, a group that consisted of Gary Bartz, Jack DeJohnette, Airto, Corea, Jarrett, and Dave Holland, close to the group on the Live at Filmore recordings (with Grossman instead of Bartz). The sets that band did had a very similar structure, and this was the first time I’ve seen how they put it together. Corea and Bartz are doing very interesting things in their contributions to the whole. Bartz vocalizing on alto, Corea working in some very crunching synthesizer sounds.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Nautical Almanac This Friday

Nautical Almanac is back in Nashville this Friday, at 310 Chestnut Street. They’re known for circuit-bending, but one of the clips off their new album (Cover the Earth, has more acoustic sounds: loose strung guitars, and percussion, with Carly singing nonsense words. I think I read somewhere that they were getting away from the circuit bending. This track still has the sculptural quality I hear in their music, chunks of sound put together in a spatial way. The other cuts you could download were more like what I expect, globs of sound getting squeezed and pushed around. But it’s not like they’re going to come in and play the numbers off the new album anyway. The web page gives a credit to a third player, Max Eisenberg in addition to Twig Harper and Carly Ptak. Don’t know if it’s going to be all three of them at the show. But they are always worth hearing. They have a clarity I like. I don’t use the phrase experimental music much because that suggests someone discovering new sounds or ways of making music, and most stuff, no matter how far outside commercial mainstream, correlates to some way of putting sounds together that’s been done somewhere in the last 30 years. But Nautical Almanac feels like an experiment where they work out a logic of the sounds in a overcharged way. The quality is pretty obvious in their circuit bending, which has an obviously experimental character when they try to figure out what happens from rewiring a toy or a machine.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

One Off Courbet

The Tennessee State Museum is currently showing paintings from the collection of the German heir of an industrial fortune, Gustave Rau. I’ve got a full review coming out tomorrow in the Scene, but there’s always stuff you can’t cram into a review, especially on a show like this which has mostly single pieces by a whole mess of artists.

I find myself gravitating away from the most famous painters in this show. For instance, there’s an El Greco here, but I think for someone at that level of importance I want to see it with more context. It’s the people who are less familiar where you feel like you learn something from a single work.

There’s this great painting by Gustave Courbet in the show, Bacchante, a luxurious, sensuous nude lying asleep or passed out on a red cloth, bathed in warm, golden brown light. The drinking cup lies knocked over next to her. Courbet is not an obscure artist, but he comes onto the scene before the explosion of the Impressionists. Although his career overlaps theirs, he is not one of the universally recognizable group.

This painting is a good example of what separates Courbet from the Impressionists. In many ways this is an extremely traditional painting, the dark tone range, the allegories of death, and the classical reference. You would not mistake this for the light of Monet or the others (although it shares more with Manet, who has a transitional character).

Paint has a remarkable ability to make the depicted body fleshy, palpable and sexual. The warmth of the body in this painting follows in a line with Titian’s Danae ( and Venus with a Mirror ( Or anytime Caravaggio shows some skin.

I’ve been reading Cavell’s The World Viewed, and came across this line: “Courbet’s and Manet’s nudes are as different from their ancestors as a Dandy is from a Magus” (the reference at the end to one of Baudelaire’s subjects in The Painter of Modern Life). Any continuity between Courbet and Titian or Caravaggio would seem to contradict this, although when I first read it, what Cavell wrote made sense. There is something remarkably matter of fact, if improbable and highly wrapped up in male fantasy, about Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe ( While Courbet’s nude is wrapped in classical allusion, distancing her, there’s also a haphazard quality, as if the painting has captured her where lies. Her face is not visible, seen from below the chin, but it seems like a modern face, the natural skin at the surface, not buried in cosmetics or a preternaturally clear complexion, unmasked.

I don’t know if I would see this painting this way within the context of a show of many Courbet works, or if I had a more well-engrained sense of the painter so that other images came to mind right away. I have to remind myself of the things I’ve seen which he painted. I wish I weren’t so ignorant, but the positive side of ignorance in this case is it gives you more room to see the thing fresh, and to build an interpretation focused on the one work in front of you.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

W-S Burn

W-S Burn played in Nashville Friday. They’re based in Knoxville, and play lo-fi, seemingly off-hand music that is deceptively tight. The group is Pixie Beddard, Steve Gigante, Pixie Beddard, and Marcelle Good, Steve on acoustic guitar, Pixie singing and playing a lamp rigged up with bells, Marcelle playing fiddle and a kid’s xylophone. A lot of the music is incredibly simple, a single guitar line played over and over, a few fiddle lines, and Pixie singing, but it is patient and finely tuned. The players react to each other very intuitively. One part might seem out there on its own in a spot, but then one or both of the others will come in effortlessly in a harmonized way, as if they were just waiting for the other line to get there. Actually, that’s probably what’s going on.

Pixie has this floor lamp with a big old shade that she’s hung with bells and wind chimes. She can turn the lamp shade and everything will start tinkling, or rock it back and forth, or just ring one or the other chime. It seems sort of haphazard, except it always fits. It’s also a way in which the group is very visually engaging. There was a step ladder in the performance space, and Pixie started out sitting on the top rung, leaning over onto her knees, sort of singing into her folded up body. Later she climbed down and sat on one of the lower steps. She’s got curly red hair, striking looking, and she moves very fluidly. Even before their set, when they were watching John Allingham play some solo stuff, she was sitting on the floor, and she rolled over in this perfectly smooth motion to sit next to Steve. Movement was also part of the playing for Steve and Marcelle. They dropped foot stomps as percussive accents, and Marcelle would extend a leg out in front of her like a extension of the sound.

Most of the songs were slow and subdued, and many are quite pretty in conventional ways. One more energetic one was a complex hocket of intersecting guitar strumming, fiddle notes, guitar body taps, and foot stomps. I heard some field recordings today on the radio that reminded me of it, a construction made up of rough pieces assembled with a great balance between loose and tight. Breath and cohesion.

I’ve got one of their recordings on, and it is definitely lo-fi. Some cuts have lots of background or machine noise. In the show, bumps from moving the ladder or the freight trains two blocks away just seemed to flow right into the mix, even on the quiet, thoughtful songs. The lo-fi recording puts it into the territory of Jolie Holland (especially that first album Catalpa), as do some of her vocal qualities, although she’s does a little more extreme things with her voice at times. Like Holland, for some listeners the lo-fi quality may mask fundamentally competent musicianship. But its there. And all around, not just Pixie. Marcelle’s violin playing was just right, on the money without seeming cold and excessively technical. There was more messiness in Steve’s guitar playing at times, but he always came back to ground in ways that gave you a lot of confidence in the music, that it reflected intent and structure. For both Marcelle and Steve the music demanded restraint at times, to play its simple lines steadily.

I don’t see much reason these guys couldn’t be pretty popular, sort of like Devandra Banhart, start out playing places like 310 Chestnut and then progress up the venue food chain, up to a point. Maybe they’ll decide they don’t want that.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Sometimes mazes work, sometimes not

Cheekwood is an odd duck sort of institution, part botanical garden, part museum, with a limited collection and floor area, as you should expect given the facility’s origins as a private home. Some of the best things Cheekwood does take advantage of its hybrid nature, like the Sculpture Trail that is part walk in the woods, part sculpture garden. They also have a great summer series where they get teams of architects to design interactive environments for the grounds that kids can play on. Last year it was tree houses. This year it’s mazes.

Of course the mazes and treehouses are just for fun, but they let the architects show off and sometimes it’s much more an artistic statement than a playground facility. Last year one of the treehouses was an oversized Chinese carryout box on its side – not much for a kid to explore, but a fun piece of pop art.

This year there is one maze (they are up through the end of October) worth talking about here. Called “Signs of the Times,” and designed by Emilie Taylor and Luke Tidwell, it is constructed from plastic sheets printed with bright images from advertisements, blown up to a very large size. The sheets are hung to form a series of square, concentric walls that have a ziggurat shape. You work your way around each ring, go through a gate into the next level, with the walls getting bigger all the time, eventually surrounding you with supersized images. Just from a patch of color and a couple of words you can identify some things, like a Southwest Airlines ad, others are harder to place. Sometimes snippets of sensitive topics like healthcare come out.

This maze does not offer much challenge in terms of finding the correct path – you circle the wall until you find the one gateway to the next layer. But like any maze it has a payoff. Some mazes lead you to the other side, some take you to the center. Sometimes you find something in the center, like the Monkey Puzzle Tree at the center of the maze in a botanical garden in Vancouver. In this case, you end up in the tallest section of the ziggurat, in a narrow space with blank, white walls, open to the sky. That’s what you get – a break from the overwhelming sales images bearing down upon you from all sides, and these planes that lead your eye up into the sky. Maybe the reward is being given a moment’s piece, the chance to extract yourself from all that. Maybe this space is a kind of death, where activity ceases. At any rate, the transitions, circling around one layer and passing into the next, getting deeper into a field of vision dominated by marketing pictures, and then the break from it has a clear motion, and a sequence upon to interpretation. This one has layers that seem a lot more designed for the adults.

Like I said before, these summer projects give the architects a chance to play and show off. I have assumed that a lot of the designers are younger architects when they are listed with an affiliation with a firm. Well, anything that gives you a chance to show off also has some risk of maybe not looking so good. Three architects from Earl Swensson and Associates did a maze that consisted of colored plastic fabric stretched on wood frames (like signs) that were planted in the ground parallel and at right angles to each other to make a geometric pattern that you could pass through a number of ways. This late in the display’s run, a number of the frames had shifted, with many of the ones that were placed perpendicular to the ground’s slope tilted over, and a season of weather had left the plastic stained. Maybe this decay was intended, but it didn’t seem like it. The tilting looked like the architects hadn’t quite figured how well the ground could hold the weight of the frames against gravity, given the depth to which the legs were stuck, their anchoring, soil conditions, slope. It’s just a maze, but it doesn’t scream technical precision. The architects here are associated with the firm that brought Nashville the Bat Building (and as I understand it has a good reputation as a designer of healthcare facilities), but the more unfortunate association is with the renovation of TPAC, which included a floor inlaid with quotations that included misspellings and misquotations which had to be corrected after installation.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Three artists from my DC trip

The statute of limitations is rapidly running out on writing about things I saw a couple of weekends ago in a quick run of galleries in DC, so I’ll try to keep it brief.

Snow globes: an unfailingly entertaining form, and highly underutilized as an artistic medium. At Numark gallery, Walter Martin and Palma Muñoz made these creepy fantasies in somewhat oversized snow globes. In a scene with bare trees, crows sitting in them like a Brueghel painting, a boy is on his knees over a partially buried man. In another a bunch of men stick their heads into trees. Rather than putting snow over some sunny vacation spot, Martin and Muñoz take the snow part seriously and follow imagination into winter fantasies.

Smutty drawings: Kyung Leon’s drawings feature small figures, rendered in a careful style like children’s illustration, but there’s a prurient element throughout. In one picture a girl trudges away from a forest of pink trees carrying a bundle of kids on her back. In the woods, there are little groups of figures. They are very small, so you have to look very close to see that they are engaging in acts to varying degrees kinky – a naked boy and girl on a swing together, a boy pees on a girl and the pee takes a heart shape. The tiny scale seems to draw your nose right into someplace you shouldn’t be or may not want to be here. Also at Numark.

Voodoo: At Hemphill, in what seemed like a wildly broad mix of medium, Renée Stout created sculptures, paintings, and installations that mixed up femaleness, blackness, folk healing, oracles, psychic power, and games of chance. Some pieces seemed like folk art artifacts of a black neighborhood culture wiped out by various waves of modernism, others were clearly the constructions of an artist. The entire assemblage, prolific in its content, was the clearest sign of the artist’s hand. The exhibit was dedicated to the city and people of New Orleans, as touching a tribute as imaginable, completely enraptured with the mystery and soul of its people, making the case that this society has access to realms of experience not available to people committed to a straight, mainstream life.