Perambulating the Bounds

Friday, December 30, 2005

Best of 2005: Playing Music

This, the last in my exciting series of Best of 2005 posts, is probably of little interest to anyone other than myself and the people involved. These are the best experiences I had this year playing music. In rough order of occurrence. It occurs to me that maybe there’s some stuff I’m forgetting about from early last year. So it goes.

Robert Pearson. Robert is a remarkable pianist in Houston who is not much known outside of Houston. He is completely self-taught, and has developed a style and vocabulary of total improvisation but with little or no swing – in other words, you don’t hear it as jazz, but more like classical music or some derivative from popular music. Really it is a kind of painting with sound. Robert trained as a painter. One of the things that I admire about Robert is that he has adamantly insisted on building his own approach. It would never occur to him to pattern himself on someone else, or get someone to show him how to play. The resulting sound has tremendous coherence and integrity. It’s a lot of fun for me to play with him. He plays a lot of notes, with gusts of energy, and it’s fun to throw yourself into it. I think what we do together often comes out very well, and I hope to get us recorded one of these days. I don’t think Robert has any recordings in circulation, not even informal CDRs, except he’s probably on some things from the Hawthorne Improvisation Collective or its subsidiaries.

Susan Alcorn. Susan and I played a duet after she finished her solo set in Nashville this summer, and it was really nice. Several years ago we did some in a practice in Houstonthat felt really great to me, but we haven't been able to get back to it until now. This time we were both pleased to find ourselves going into the Internationale, each of us enjoying the fact the other knew it. Susan is a person and musician who continues to be very influential for me. I’ve posted on her a couple of times. Enough said for now.

Chris Davis and Chuck Hatcher. We started playing together as a trio this year, I guess just played out once, but there are some recordings around. We were the Bloated Lackeys on that one show, but the name was in flux. This is the best place I’ve had to try out ways to express my affection for the Anthology of American Folk Music and Trad Gras och Stenar. Chuck and Chris have great frames of musical reference that I'm trying to soak in as best I can.

Cherry Blossoms. I got to sit in with the Cherry Blossoms a few times this year, playing tin whistles and stuff, and singing backgrounds once in a while. And they let me join in while they were recording with Josephine Foster, which for me as the guest was a delightful experience, one of those occasions when time just floats by blissfully.

Bluff. This always gets called Bluff Duo, but I think of it as just Bluff. Its Brady Sharp and me playing as a duet. We played on the Buzz and Click show in November, and I hadn’t been playing much, so I didn’t have a lot of lip to put into it, but I found a nice dodge by playing the clarinets without the mouthpiece. It makes funny noises, and they worked well with what Brady was doing and bought my lip some time.

Transcendental Crayon Ensemble Christmas/New Year’s show. I’ve been doing the Crayon Ensemble for years. Sometimes I find myself out of alignment with the energy required, but I was trying something new with my embouchure on soprano before this last show and was ready to see how that would work. When I’m not playing too frequently I have to warm up through the set, and late in the evening I got to a nice place on a version of My Favorite Things. We have some rotation with the drums and bass these days, and really everyone coming in is good, but on this show Greg Bryant was on bass and he is really adept at helping a horn player sound good. The other guys in the band continue to develop and change in interesting ways, like Andrew Tarpley hitting a strong stride as a soloist, or Zander Wyatt trying out new stuff.

Happy and healthy 2006 everyone.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Best of 2005: 10 Art Shows

Alright, I did a post earlier on individual pieces that stuck with me, now I’ll do 10 shows. Or serial encounters with an artist in a couple of cases.

Andrew Kaufman. His solo show at the Tennessee Arts Commission was inquisitive and heart-felt. He threaded together at least a couple of things. One was a pretty theoretical exploration of what happens when you ask what is a painting in a pretty literal way. You end up with things that emphasize the canvas itself, and a painting’s status as object of purchase. The other strand were pieces that pretty directly expressed sensations related to the affiliation of people in love and marriage. Even that was not without a lot of intellection.

Terry Rowlett. He had a bravura show at Zeitgeist that borrowed the settings, styles, and motives from painting of earlier eras to portray contemporary characters. The characters maintain their contemporary character, in bearing and expression that capture distinct stances to the world, but the material of the paintings draws a line between them and the characters who fill the history of art. It gives depth to what is contemporary and relevance to what is antique.

Leslie Kneisel. She had a show at Ruby Green and before that I stumbled across a piece by her in New York at AIR. She embroiders fantastic figures on cushions and the like, the figures detailed in elaborate lines. The images have overtones of fairy tales or horror stories, but they have a friendly-creepy quality.,

Jiha Moon. I saw her work at DC Curators Space and Creative Partners in Bethesda and posted it on it this Fall. She makes surreal, complicated landscapes, skyscapes, and seascapes, starting with Asian ink drawings techniques and lays over flat cartoon elements and flows of color in acrylic.,

Pieter Claesz. This small exhibit at the National Gallery was one that left you with a lot better understanding of the artist’s work. Claesz was a Dutch specialist in still life. The curators classified his work into 4 groups and showed how he innovated from his immediate predecessors in the form. One of the best parts was the cases that included samples of some of the objects in the paintings - wine glasses, pipes, even the ornamental cup of Haarlem Brewer’s Guild that was pictured in one painting.

Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun. Not a single show, but I kept running across work by this portrait painter who was part of the Ancien Regime court at Versailles just before the French Revolution and was able to escape to Russia and lived into the 1840s. There were examples of her work in the Frist’s show of European paintings from the Wadsworth Athenaeum, the Rau Collection at the TN State Museum and I ran across a couple of the ones the National Gallery owns. In the Wadsworth show, you were surrounded by paintings of women by men. The women were often lovely and luscious, others were literally tortured martyrs. Only in the Vigée-Lebrun portrait did the woman in the painting seem alert and self-possessed. I have wondered if I am just reading this into the paintings, knowing who painted them, and I want to look at more to try to parse out specifics that might be making these images different.

You Are Here. Nashville’s Cranbrook alumni association (Julie Roberts, Armon Means, and Anderson Williams) put together this show from people they know, mostly with Cranbrook associations. It was a smart show, and everyone in it other than Julie, Armon, and Anderson was new to me.

I Love to Draw, I Live to Draw. This show at TAG was uniformly excellent. It was a good chance for me to look at pieces by Robert Simon, a self-taught compulsive drawer from Oak Ridge, but all of the artists were well-represented. I think they included Ian Pyper, Julie Murphy, and Andy Moon Wilson.

Fragile Species. The Frist Center did a good job of selecting the best younger career artists in the area. There were of course exceptions, people left out, but it was nice to see everyone getting the big museum treatment, and seeing Barbara’s piece on the side of the building.

Jin Soo Kim. Her construction, a series of tunnels delivering crisp packets of sound around the room was interesting enough, but the best part were all the sculptures she pulled out of the Vanderbilt collection. She mixed cultures, religions and time periods, so you get multiple visions of the crucifixion, multiple visions of Buddha, with a liberating effect for the art objects themselves and the viewer.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Best of 2005 – Music

I did a crappy job getting out to hear music or keeping up on recordings on my own this year. Mostly I followed Chris Davis around, Angle of View and then 310 Chestnut. Here are the shows I did hear that are most worth noting:

Cecil Taylor Trio. This was my second time hearing him, first time with a trio. This was surely a case where seeing him live helps you hear what he is building his music out of and how it fits together. At the Iridium in NY.

TM Krishna. I’ve been listening to Indian music a long time, although only slightly above idly. The performance by this Carnatic vocalist took me to a new level of connection to this music. I would say a new level of comprehension, but I’m not sure how well I understand what is going on. No, this had more to do with my emotional response to the music, to its details as well as larger form shapes. Krishna has a great voice, strong in all its parts, and as you go with him into the performance he creates tremendous energy, spinning out phrase after phrase that drives to tension points derived from phrasing and timbre, not always from piling up speedy runs. I’ve decided that vocal music is the ne plus ultra of Indian music, with all the instrumentalists huddled around aspiring to vocal qualities. At Sri Ganesha Temple in Bellevue.

No Neck Blues Band. This was one of Chris’ shows at Angle of View. The basic substance of NNCK is very good, a ritualistic practice of a catholic sort that absorbs everything good from music of the last 40 years or the last forever. From what I’ve heard their shows can be up and down. My experience was this was a good show, with real religious fervor to it.

Susan Alcorn. I’ve posted a bunch about Susan already. This is the second year running she’s come through Nashville during the summer. She played her piece about the twin shafts of light memorial in NY, which builds into a violent climax that resolves into Curtis Mayfield’s "People Get Ready". I had read about the piece but this was the first I’ve heard it.

Ian Bostridge. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve heard a classical singer of this caliber. And he did an all-Schubert program, no lame show tunes or anything else intended to please the presumed masses. Bostridge dramatizes while he sings, sometimes leaning over and clutching the piano cover, that sort of thing, but you get used to it. The material is so good. That night I was particularly taken with the quality of the poetry, most of which wasn’t poets I think of as major in German literature, like Mayrhofer and Schulze. But I’m probably just showing my ignorance of German literary history.

Carol Genetti/Jack Wright/Jon Mueller. Carol’s a friend from Chicago, and this was her first time in Nashville. Their show had very nice focus, and created a nice visual set up around Erin Hewgley’s hair-covered bed frame. This was definitely in the low db school of small sounds, which means that you can hear Carol, although I have to say I get impatient with the style and want people to cut loose. That’s probably shallow of me, but I also know Carol and Jack can do that well.

W-S Burn. Another 310 Chestnut show courtesy of Chris. I posted on these guys. I had never heard of them, but thought the songs and sounds were great. I think what I liked best was how they come across as very loose, haphazard, but that turns out to be deceptive as the threads drop into focus at just the right time.

Among the musical disappointments were Sandip Burman, a tabla tarang player who opened a Nashville Symphony Orchestra performance of Messiaen’s Turnagalila Symphony. The program sounded good in theory, but Burman’s seemed stuck between delivering a lecture and a performance. The Symphony’s reading of the Messiaen was good. Also, a concert at Sherith Israel by Moshe Tessone of Sephardic music. I thought this would be some of the exquisite Iberian and Moroccan stuff you hear on things like the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, but this was more pop music, better than your usual wedding reception but not out of place there. It was interesting enough to hear, but not quite what I expected.

Like I said, I’m the last person to ask about new recordings. Philip Gayle finally released his recording on Family Vineyard, the Mommy Row. I’m going to review it here one of these days. And for Christmas my wife bought me Jim Baker’s solo album, which came out this year and was long overdue. And the Tito Puente 2-disc retro set that came out this year. These are all really good.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Best of 2005: 10 Pieces of Art

Since no one asked me for year-end best-of lists I’ll just have to do it myself. And since there’s no one exercising editorial restraint, I’m going to do different lists each of the next couple of days.

Today it’s 10 pieces I enjoyed this year. I’m focusing here on individual pieces that struck me on their own, with the effect of leaving out some excellent bodies of work shown this year by folks like Adrienne Outlaw, Barbara Yontz, Bob Durham, and Donald Earley. A lot of people really.

1. Beatriz Milhazes, Phebo, at the San Francisco MOMA. A very appealing lotus-pattern abstraction.

2. Wangechi Mutu, Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies, also at SFMOMA. The image is a little hard to make out, but it’s this stack of three figures, a man, a woman, and a monkey that grow out of each other in a collage form.

3. Will ClenDening, acousto-kinetic sculpture, Watkins Senior show. I didn’t note the name of the piece, but it translated the minimal noise of a fan into movement (of a speaker surface) which he harnessed to a writing machine. I thought it was brilliant in effecting movement between states and dimensions.

4. Paul Chan, My Birds…Trash…Future, PS1 Greater New York show. I knew Paul a bit when he was finishing at the SAIC in 1996. He went off to New York and things started happening for him really fast. I’ve been reading about his work in recent years, but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to see it.

5. Kathryn Spence, Corcoran Biennial. Her section in the biennial included messy balls of threads, embroidered paper towel rolls, delicate little drawings of birds and with the centerpiece a construction of boxes filled with bound bunches of paper, cloth, balls of string, photos. Something massive and effusive coming out of the accumulation of mundane material.

6. Maggie Michael, Explosion #8, G Fine Art (DC). A big drawing combining charcoal, pencil, enamel, and apparently entire bottles of ink. It had tremendous energy and presence.

7. Melody Owen, MGM Lion, Rhodes College. This was part of the traveling show by several members of the Fugitive Art Center. Gems float out of the mouth of the MGM lion when he roars. I was completely blessed out by it.

8. Cody VanderKaay, drawings, Finer Things. Each sheet is filled with closely-packed vertical lines in a single color of ballpoint pen. Patterns come out from variations in the line weight and places where the ink runs. There’s obviously an interest in process, and it results in very appealing forms. The drawings also reminded me of Wesley Willis’ ballpoint pen drawings he used to sell on the street in Wicker Park.

9. Erin Hewgley, The Conundrum of Plumb, Frist. This lectern was made of a tangle of metal pipe. I said in my review it was Monty Python animation come to life.

10. Ludwika Ogorzelec, Nancy Margolis Gallery. She created a web from clear strips of film that filled the gallery, mostly about 4 or 5 feet up from the ground, so you ducked under it to reach gaps where you could stand up. One portion of it seemed to go through the gallery window and stick out over the sidewalk. I guess this is a variation in plastic with what Hewgley was doing with pipes, showing I’ve got a weakness for maze-like art.

Tomorrow, either I’ll do something on a few full shows worth noting, or go on to music or maybe reading.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

A Christmas picture

For Christmas, I want to talk about a painting I saw this week at the National Gallery in DC, a nativity by Petrus Christus:

Petrus Christus was a Flemish painter in Bruges in the middle 15th century, considered a follower of Van Eyck. The National Gallery painting is dated around 1450.

Joseph and Mary stand in a stable, accompanied by a bunch of angels, looking down at the infant. The back of the stable opens into a deep perspective landscape with a city in the distance. The figures in the stable are strange. The angels are modeled like adults, but are less than half the scale of the parents ( The mismatching of the angels with the other figures makes clear the simultaneous presence of the natural and the supernatural in the event. The angels look human, but are not, unlike Christ who is both. The child lies on the ground, on the hem of Mary’s robe, but sort of haphazardly, like he was just dropped there. He’s oddly scrawny (, not a beautiful child, very vulnerable, and that weakness has got to be the point. God taking on human form with its most fragile aspects.

The scene in the stable is framed by a cathedral archway, filled with scenes of humanity’s Fall from the Old Testament done in grisaille, like stone: Adam and Eve covering themselves in shame,, being cast from the garden, working by the sweat of their brow, their child Cain killing his brother, and I think the last vignette is Jacob deceiving Abraham to gain his blessing. Adam and Eve stand on top of marble columns which in turn are held up by two squatting, straining human figures. The notes on the website describe them as symbols of humanity struggling with original sin, and they reminded me of Buddhist images where gods stand on top of a figure or a corpse, crushing ignorance, substance, ego, or the bonds of Samsara.

The composition’s structure provides a perfect summary of Christian doctrine. The old world, and the world of an individual locked in sin, is utterly changed over by the incarnate God. One passes from a realm without color into a glowing, rich landscape. Cold stone turns to warm flesh. Trying to explain the effect of God’s grace is like talking about dimensions in space past the third. One reverts to metaphors. The difference between third and fourth is moving from a flat drawing into the three dimensions of sculpture.

The multiple scenes of human sin show the same pattern repeating, all of it leading to the Incarnation, to the need for the Incarnation. The Bible is like that, telling the same story over and over, sin and redemption, a series of covenants all pointing towards the Cross.

The painting is packed with symbols. The beams of the stable form a triangle and a triangle inside it, which frames a broken beam with plants sprouting from it, premonitions of the Cross. In the corners of the picture are two small figures of warriors. One thrusts a lance, the other has a sword at ready behind a shield with an ornate lion’s head sculpted into it (, I suppose these symbolize the fight against sin, but I couldn’t get the image of Reepicheep, the valiant mouse in the Narnia Chronicles, out of my head. Which of course gets back to the same idea. The same story over and over.

One can talk about art that is spiritual, but a painting like this goes further. It is religious and even theological. It is not clear how much art today succeeds in that integration of theological thinking and aesthetic invention. It’s also not clear how much aspires to it. It may be that our connections to theology are much dimmer now, so that to find aesthetic and theological fluency running together would be remarkable. Maybe artists of the Renaissance nailed it, and these paintings left to us are sufficient.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Susan Alcorn's Texas

My friend Susan Alcorn, a great pedal steel player in Houston, had this piece in of all places Counterpunch.

It covers two nights of real world small town Texas country music, mixed in with her memories of the Houston music scene, the things she's seen and heard about.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Look up tonight

According to my wife the full moon tonight is the brightest it's been in 20 years due to its trajectory, at least in latitudes around these parts. It's going almost straight overhead, and the light is really bright. Enough to confuse our new dog, who's still a bit of clueless pup, who was sure when I sent him outside to pee that we were really getting ready to play a round of fetch.

Thanks to Claire Suddath...

I've been ridiculously busy with work the past week, but I've been comforting myself by listening to

It creates a stream of music starting with an artist or song you type in and then it pulls up tunes one at a time based on some characteristics of the music. The result is that it connects music you like with stuff you don't know about. I've heard stuff from Carla Kihlstedt from Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, a Tim Berne project with Mark Doucet on guitar, Fred Anderson's duets with Hamid Drake, Jenny Scheinman. It's really addictive. And I found out about it from a post Claire Suddath had on Pith in the Wind.

The downside is that by sticking to cuts that have similarities the stream can be kind of monotonous. It's the opposite of the iPod shuffle phenomenon to which I am also very attached. Oh yeah, the other thing is realizing that this post makes me a participant in a viral marketing phenomenon. Makes you feel like a lab rat.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Last Weekend's Revelation Thanks to the Secret Show

The Secret Show group currently has an exhibit of work by art students at MTSU and Sewanee. It’s a great idea, since these guys are so close but people in Nashville aren’t going to see what they are up to the same way the students at Watkins are visible.

I didn’t get a great look at the show, and I hope I’ll get a chance to go by again before they take it down. The work that stuck out the most for me was by Jacqueline Meeks, who I think is at MTSU. One piece was four dead feeder mice, hung by their tales from pins in the wall. Each had been frozen in water, I’m pretty sure just in an ice cube tray. Each mouse wore a block of ice that was slowly melting. Seeing them impaled on the wall was just a bit gruesome, but definitely worked in poetic ways. The feeder mice are sacrifice animals, sold as a pet supplies for things like snakes that need live food, or in lab experiments. They seemed to be carrying the ice as a burden, and being slowly relieved of that burden in a streak of water down the gallery's drywall.

Her other piece was a video showing a man seated, no shirt, facing away from the camera. His back was marked with a grid, and a fully dressed woman worked her way across his back, planting a hickey in each square. She converted an act of passion, or at least of teenage making out, into a technical exercise. Still, there was some tenderness in the way she approached him, put her hands on him gently to steady herself while she loudly sucked on his skin. And the tenderness was balanced by the inherent violence of a hickey, possibly the most common form of sado-masochistic practice. In addition to setting up these tensions, this is one of those pieces that establishes art historical references in a sly and simple way. The grid line is of course the painter’s grid from the Renaissance, used for the same purposes, to position the artist’s marks. It’s just she’s making marks with her mouth and teeth (or those of a stand-in). Bob Durham also pointed out a similarity to photos by Joel-Peter Witkin, and I think I know the ones he’s talking about, looking at sitter from the back. And it’s a good allusion all around, emphasizing the presence of disfiguration and deviant sexual practice. Of course the cleverness of Meeks’ piece is that the “deviant” erotic practice here couldn’t be any more common. Makes a similar point, just from another direction.

I spent too much time at the opening jawing and didn’t get a great look at everything. Hopefully they’ll have some open hours for the gallery and I’ll get over there at the right time (always a challenge for me).

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Mahadevan Sings!

Sankaran Mahadevan is known to many people in Nashville for organizing a longstanding series of classical Indian music concerts at Sri Ganesha Temple and other venues. He is also a singer and a voice teacher, although he has no less a day job than a faculty position in Civil Engineering at Vanderbilt. With all of those responsibilities, it is no great surprise that he does not give a full concert very often, and apparently his concert at the temple this Saturday was his first in 10 years.

He was accompanied by a mridangamist from Memphis, M. Lakshman, and violinist S. Ramakrishnan from Chennai. Dr. Mahadevan was fully convincing in his role at the center of musical attention, not its enabler and organizer. He has a fine voice, sweetest in its bass ranges, and he seemed utterly at ease and joyful throughout. As one expects from Carnatic music, the performance reached its most intense points well into the concert, far from the distractions of whatever one left before coming into the sound-world the performers establish.

The visitor from Indian, Mr. Ramakrishnan was adept at using bow pressure to shape the music. He was particularly skilled in creating filigreed lines with lots of delicate ornamentation that he seemed to whisper from a bow that glanced across the strings. He also made use of surprising intervallic jumps and blues-like slides where again bow pressure seemed everything.

This performance, by a man who obviously takes music seriously but has another career entirely to tend to, shows a level of talent and focus that is pretty much guaranteed to feed one’s – OK, my – sense of inadequacy. But concern for my fragile ego is no reason not to have the chance to hear Dr. Mahadevan’s interpretation of Carnatic music more frequently than once a decade.