Perambulating the Bounds

Sunday, June 26, 2005

More Major Production Photos

Cheekwood’s Temporary Contemporary is running a show by Anthony Goicolea that goes with the Crewdson photos at Frist very well. Like Crewdson, Goicolea stages strange, vivid scenes for his photographs. Of course the imagery is different: woodlands, crude structures, and school boys in private school uniforms. He runs a lot of riffs that contrast the markers of high social refinement with a state of nature. In a video, two boys in school uniforms and ski masks crawl along the ground, grunting, until they find a trap set for them – a tea service set under a box propped up as a trap like what I used to do to trap birds as a kid. The feral schoolboys are irresistibly attracted to the tea and cucumber sandwiches, and fall into the snare. Inside they eat the food and drink the tea, dose it with something from a flask, but it makes them sick. They pass out or go to sleep, and then fade out.

In one of the photos, “Still Life with Pig,” two men sit under a crude shelter in the woods made from cardboard and tree limbs. Their faces are smudged, maybe with paint, maybe with dirt. They blend in with the environment. The shelter could be something in a homeless encampment, or castaways. On the ground in front of them lies a profuse array of foods, all with luscious reddish tones. A raw pig, scalded but not cooked, Rainier cherries, turnips, apples, beets, black grapes, carrots, cantaloupe, and other cuts of meat. Food almost too perfect to be eaten, something out of a painting. Like classic still life, it is a delight to look at, but an intrusion in this setting.

Goicolea is Cuban-American and is interested in mixing up the two cultures and their folklore, one southern and tropical one, the other northern. His imagery doesn’t seem to draw too literally from either, but isolates elements of wildness and social order. The schoolboys in several of the works seem more English than American, and that reflects the way England stands as the ideal form of social norms people have tried to establish here. The woodlands settings seem to refer to a larger view of Caribbean culture and history as the site of encounter and conflict between cultures. The suggestions of castaways in “Still Life with Pig” made me think of an essay I read years ago by Roberto Fernadez Retamar, a Cuban writer, on Caliban, the savage in Shakespeare’s Tempest, as a model for the encounter between European and people of Latin America and the Caribbean. Within the lush woodland setting, or a cave in Hawaii, social forms get confused. The two men in the shelter seem to be reverting into the landscape, and the fruit and meat are what stand out.

In addition to having different thematic concerns that Crewdson’s Blue Velvety suburbia, Goicolea’s photos have photos’ crisp edges. They are more conventional photographs on the level of first appearances. Goicolea’s interventions in the environment are less extreme than Crewdson, but he makes up for it with digital manipulation. He uses his own image in many of the photos, repeatedly in the same scene. “Pile” shows two boys in school uniforms throwing another boy on a pile of boys dressed the same in front of what looks like an English stone church. All of the boys are the same person, and as I understand it they are all images of Goicolea, who apparently is a very youthful looking guy.

Cheekwood is running this through July 31. Their mazes are also open (following last year’s treehouses), but I was doing a blitz of galleries in town Saturday when I saw the Temp Contemporary show and didn’t get a chance to look at anything else.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Down from the Hills

In terms of the art produced, one place in the US may look pretty much like every place else with variations in the number of artists, the number making their living from art, the number with art school training, etc. Still, there are some regional differences, subtle but explicable. In Tennessee, like other parts of the South, the crafts have probably formed a larger portion of overall artistic production and they seem more integrated with what is called fine art. This is due to the persistence of folk forms, threatened as they are by mass culture and suburban banality. People still play bluegrass and string band music. They still weave. And the state is home to two leading schools for preserving these visual traditions, Arrowmont ( in Gatlinburg and the Appalachian Center for Craft (ACC) in Smithville ( ).

Belmont’s Leu Gallery has an exhibit of work by the ACC faculty and resident artists up right now. A couple of the younger faculty, Wesley Smith and Lisa Klakulak, are revelations, and there are interesting pieces from others.

Smith is a ceramicist who uses the medium sculpturally, like Jason Briggs (who also had ACC affiliation). “Bio Saucer” is in almost a basket form, but I don’t think it is a vessel with a detachable top. Bulbous forms in earthy blues and grays protrude from the lower half, and the top is a matte black surface accented by silver buttons embedded in the clay. On top, a circular section holds a jumble of metal forms fused together – strands, elongated drops, globs, and rings made from silver, platinum and hematite. It is like the nest of a bird which has stolen bright objects or the cache of a covetous troll.

“Spheres of Knowledge” are three forms that are not spheres, but polyhedrons. The border of each facets is delineated with colored paint, and some have a silver-colored bead in the center. On the largest of the “spheres,” one of the facets has been replaced with a mess of organic forms that look like worms, and tubes in green with black stripes connect that mess to some of the adjacent facets. Both of these pieces play with organic/inorganic contrasts and hybrids.

Lisa Klakulak also introduces organic material into her fabric and woven pieces. “Relinquish” is in the shape of an turtle shell turned upside down, with its bottom plate intact but empty of a turtle, what remains after one dies. It should be morbid, but it’s more a soothing, tureen-like shape that doesn’t quite have a clear functional purpose. She also has an orange felt handbag with conical shells worked into the surface, adding a rough, sharp texture to the soft fabric, but also forming legs the bag can stand on. My favorite piece was a necklace woven from small glass seed beads that incorporate chunks of abalone shell. The shell fragments look like a mineral deposit, which they basically are, though produced through organic means.

Bob Coogan, a longtime metalworking faculty member showed a lot of range. One bracelet holds a section of sword blade that would run parallel to the arm. It looks a bit threatening for jewelry, but one imagines Coogan working on blademaking techniques and looking for ways to use the results other than for knives. The exhibit also has a canister of his made with a rugged-looking steel base and a firm copper lid, and two exquisite sake cups whose bases are marbled with silver and a darker colored metal using a technique called mokume-gane which fuses stacks of metal which are then carved and rolled (these were also shown in the Tennessee State Museum crafts show this winter, I think).

Two of the woodworkers made interesting mirrors. Graham Campbell’s “FimFamFum” is a full length mirror whose frame is thicker and deeper at the bottom, creating a perspective illusion that it is leaning against the wall although the reflection is undistorted. Kimberly Winkle has two thin mirrors, one horizontal (“Zipper”) and one vertical (“Sliver”). The frames are much thicker than the mirror, and Sliver is especially thin, so the mirror is less a tool for observing yourself than an element that creates a flash of reflection that produce an independent effect in a room.

All of the work is attractive and appears well constructed. One of the things about the crafts is that those things are still important and sufficient for the work to have merit. I’ve chosen to discuss the ones that I think present more challenges as objects to be viewed. Depending on your view of the matter, this may seen like forcing the works in these media into the conceptual frameworks used for encountering painting, sculpture, and so forth, or this is how you break down the barrier between media carried by the crafts/fine arts taxonomy.

According to our listing in the Scene, the Belmont show will be up through July 8.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Suburban Baroque

Terry Thacker, the incoming head of the Fine Arts Department at Watkins College, says that our culture has entered a new Baroque era, enraptured by melodrama, visual complexity, and technical virtuosity. Thacker sees it across the culture, in music like Outkast as well as visual art. The idea of a new Baroque era is out there elsewhere, like in the New York Times article in November about the Chelsea art scene where an ostentatious gallery culture has arisen.

Perhaps as a serendipitous encouragement to the people of Nashville to get with this trend, the Frist Center currently has a big show of Baroque and Mannerist paintings from the Wadsworth Athenaeum. And as if to make an explicit transition from the 17th century to today, the Contemporary Art Project gallery tucked away on the first floor has an exhibit from photographer Gregory Crewdson that fits the new Baroque model, with elaborately staged dramatic scenes in lurid colors and unnatural lighting. His visual vocabulary owes a lot to films like Blue Velvet and the rest of David Lynch’s oeuvre, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, any number of sci-fi movies and TV shows that involve alien abductions, and the films of Peter Greenaway. Here’s a few of the photos in the exhibit:

Crewdson’s scenes fall into three groups: interior scenes, medium shot exteriors (from a ground level angle), and long-range exterior shots (from an elevated angle). In the interiors, he takes over a room of a house, alters it in ways such as cutting floorboards and filling the room with sod or flowers, or punching a hole in the roof and hoisting an uprooted tree into the space. He places usually one, sometimes more, models/actors in the space, where they look out into the distance, seemingly lost in thought, zoned out and sleepwalking, or in some absurd project of interior gardening or landscaping like Richard Dreyfus building the model of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters. Some of the photos are subtly allusive, such as “untitled (bedroom tree),” which puts a tree in the bedroom like the house Odysseus built for Penelope. While Odysseus built the house and bed around the tree, in Crewdson’s scene it seems to be getting extracted it or put in after the fact. Crewdson’s version of the story subverts the original’s underlying values. Where the bedroom tree in the Odyssey represented an abiding love and marital relationship, in Crewdson’s photo the tree is part of some strange nighttime alteration project, something you can just take out or insert into the room, although it can only be done crudely, at great trouble and leaving behind a mess to clean up.

These are obviously very expensive pictures to make. They require physical alteration of the structure, extensive stage dressing that includes importing quantities of dirt or flowers or other material, and a cinematic lighting capability. One figures every detail is precisely selected.

The resulting image, especially in these interior shots, is surprisingly painterly. The lighting, often over-bright like the lights of an alien ship (or car or helicopter), catches motes in the air that soften the picture and make it slightly hazy.

The exterior long shots were the most interesting to me. They have lots of information, and you can’t tell what details Crewdson planted and which ones were just there. These pieces are more purely photographic, both in the sense of making use of the visual qualities of the world as the artist finds it, and with harder image edges. The staging of “untitled (yankee septic emergency)” start with a series of port-a-johns, one of which emits smoke and bright light. A worker from a septic service stands in front of it with the hose from his truck, seemingly unsure what to do about it. Just behind the port-a-johns there’s a house where a group of men play horseshoes and sit around, unconcerned with the septic emergency. Further into the picture a whole bunch of trucks and other vehicles are parked close together, including a GE truck and a dark school bus that could be a prison bus. You figure Crewdson arranged for the horseshoe players, but wonder about the trucks, whether he collected them or found them, and if he found them this way, why so many are parked there. As your eye goes further into the distance you see hills covered in summer foliage, power lines, the typical aspects of landscape. But the odd scene staged in the foreground call everything into question, whether it is normal or strange, fabricated or not.

The interior shots have a more immediate, lurid strangeness, but I distrust the excessively stagey quality, too close for comfort to David Lynch’s observation of a deeply strange suburbia. The exterior shots bring to bear more tensions that are inherent to these works and the medium. The interplay between recording the physical world and exercising the artistic right to design an art work can cause difficulty, like Arthur Rothstein’s Depression Era photo of a cattle skull–a documentary photograph of a scene which Rothstein altered to make more dramatic. Crewdson has no reason not to embrace the tension between making and finding, and in his case the artificiality of the clearly staged material bleeds into the final world and infects it with strangeness and uncertainty.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Home Team at the Frist

This Thursday was the opening for the Frist Center’s big show of local artists, Fragile Species ( The website says it opens June 27, but it’s open to the public now). I’ll write about it in the Scene soon, and probably get into some side issues here, but for now I wanted to acknowledge what a lovely evening it was. Everyone seemed very happy, radiant even, the artists and their friends, family and students. It felt like a reunion, with so many people from the art community on hand, and in some more literal ways–Jen Cohen newly returned to the States after a year in Israel, and Jack Ryan bearing the news that he’s going to be back in the area next year thanks to an appointment at Sewanee. The installation looks great at first glance, and treats the work with deep respectful. It is nice to see Nashville affirm its own artists so warmly with this show.

Rat Bastard’s Merry Band

My favorite part of yesterday’s Laundry Room Squelchers set ( was the end – no, not because it was over, but when Rat Bastard decided it was time to end the set and he walked down the line of amps and turned them off one by one. Dad was telling the kids it was time to turn off the TV and go to bed.

The Squelchers’ set is largely a visual experience. There’s sound, lots of it, at high volume, but it washes over you while you watch the musicians go through a stream of rock performance gestures in exaggerated and absurd form combined with Jerry Springer show chaos. Rat plays guitar, and strides out into the audience on stiff legs. Leslie Keffer flings her head and long hair down, but in slow motion, or turns to the audience in a dramarama confrontational way. Alex Diaz lifts a wah-wah pedal over and behind his head. And one of the other women wrestles on the ground with Kate, from the noise community here in Nashville, who stormed in and threw herself into it.

All of it orchestrated by Rat Bastard. He’s a middle-aged guy, a veteran, and puts together the group for its tours and decides what instruments or devices they are going to play. The set is relentless, loud and leering. As I understand it, there’s always women rolling around on top of each other (maybe it’s coed sometimes – someone can set me straight on that). It reminds me of Dave Cloud’s honesty about his own lascivious nature.

Rat Bastard travels around with his band, a bad example dad, except … unlike the proper suburban dad, Rat ain’t hiding nothing. Honesty is one of the defining qualities of noise music, an honesty and openness so extreme that it is basically dysfunctional in conventional settings, especially conventional music business settings. Noise music says isn’t it fun to turn the volume up real loud, aren’t women with guitars sexy, aren’t the poses of rock performers completely ridiculous, doesn’t the sound quality of a screech break your heart.

The Squelchers started out with a solo set by Alex Diaz as Xela Diaz. He launched loops from reedy harmonica chords and vocal sounds, and then sang over that. It was lovely and consonant, something like Tyondai Braxton’s solo performances.

Taiwan Deth played another strong set. A lot of it had steady rhythmic grooves done with pretty simple means – Angela on guitar and Derek on a stripped down drum set he played standing up, without a lot of manipulation. I want to take some notes during one of their shows. It’s hopelessly uncool, but at my age that’s kind of a moot point and and it would help me put my finger on why their sets seem so cogent.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Finer Things' New (and Updated) Blood

I stopped by Finer Things Gallery today. I don’t get there often enough, but it is very pleasant, a big space tucked away off Nolensville Road that feels removed from the city. I got a chance to talk to Ali Bellos, who works there, and who had good pieces in the book show at the Nashville Public Library this winter and always seems to be cooking up odd projects.

I wanted to see work by a new artist to the gallery, Leandra Spangler. (In part because some of my relatives have this last name, but it doesn’t look like we are related.) She makes vessels by weaving reeds, covering them in paper, bathing that in “graphite emulsion.” I guess this is a liquefied version of pencil lead. It certainly has the characteristic color of pencils with specks that pick up the light. The papering technique, which adds texture as well as solidity, appeals to me as a construction technique that you might use to create a temporary structure. These materials together give the clear sense of combining organic and inorganic stuff, objects that of ambiguous weight.

This was also a chance to see new work by Adrienne Outlaw and Kristi Hargrove, gallery regulars. Outlaw is exploring new materials, at least new to me in her work. Soft textures come out more. “Foster” is a long cone projecting out from the wall at eye level, covered with fuzzy white material. You look into an aperture on the end of the cone and see a backlit assembly deep inside that includes a shell and a lattice of fiber.

A couple of other pieces are covered with pink crocheted fabric (made by Cecilia Wells – Outlaw often collaborates with someone on components of the work and seems careful about crediting them). The color, crochet technique, and even the shapes remind me of Kristina Arnold, but of course these are different. “Nerve” has a small opening inside of which you see red pins and folds of cloth – definitely Outlaw’s visual world.

“Queen” is a very strong piece. She started with a glass milk collection jar. I don’t know anything about milk production, so I’d just be guessing how it is used, but the jar has four necks around one end and a single neck in the center opposite them (tubes from four udders come into the four necks, go out the single one into the rest of the collection system?). Outlaw turns the jar so the set of four necks forms legs. It sits on the floor, a squat presence, and the whole is covered with pink crochet. The legs are closed off and contain vials of honey, and when you look down into the jar from above there seems to be a mirror. Several metaphors converge – the milking cow, the queen bee, the crochet maker – women as providers of food and comfort, women as tools, women as containers of things. Outlaw’s metaphors always have a demanding quality to them, but this pieces comes off with more visual crudeness, which for me just makes the it all more compelling.

Kristi Hargrove has been exploring the ambiguities of biological form in exquisitely rendered drawings of skin and hair at such a close perspective you can’t tell if it comes from a person or a dog. Her new series, Morphing, makes the transgenic qualities more explicit. She seamlessly combines human and canine body parts – for instance, a human thumb and heel of the hand blend into the pads of a dog’s paw.

In these drawings she sets the objects off with hard boundaries against large amounts of white space. There is no illusion of continuous natural space, just disembodied zoological fantasy objects which sit on the background like cut outs. The drawn objects read as abstract shapes, introducing an element of artificiality. Earlier drawings were more plausibly naturalistic. My initial reaction is that I find the combination of artificiality and natural illusion jarring, but I think this may be important in pushing her inquiry-in-drawing into a new direction.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Mystical gospel music from Jolie Holland

This post is about two songs I like by Jolie Holland. About a year ago I did a short review of her album Escondida and was by necessity limited to a couple of sentences about these songs, but wanted to spell out my thoughts on them some more. The songs, “Black Stars” and “Goodbye California,” both take these huge leaps into mystic visions, and achieve this great adaptive reuse of country and folk sounds.

Holland is probably considered an Americana performer because she does acoustic music with roots in traditional sounds. She is associated with The Be Good Tanyas and Freakwater, and I think both of them get put in that compartment. Her first album, Catalpa had a real low-fi quality (you can stream it from her website (, and Escondida is less smooth and radio-ready than some other Americana stuff. She chews her words around and puts more flex in her rhythms than say The Be Good Tanyas (compare “Littlest Birds” from Catalpa with the same song on the Tanyas’ Blue Horse).

I’ve zeroed in on these songs because it is somehow surprising to hear music with these roots used to communicate non-Christian religious ideas. I remember hearing a bluegrass song that sounded exactly like one of the many bluegrass gospel songs but it was about Buddha achieving enlightenment under the bodhi tree. Christian belief powers some of the best folk, bluegrass, and country music, and provides some of the best language. “Are you washed in the blood, the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb, are your garments spotless, are they white as snow.” But sometimes even though you get caught up by the music and the language, you realize you can’t quite go with the theology, even if you are a church goer. And the hard-core Christian theology separates some musicians from the music. It feels strange hearing someone sing one of those gospel songs and wonder whether that’s really what they believe. Do they belong to those words and vice versa? But religious language is so captivating, I would never ask someone to stay away from the songs. Still, I wish there was material just as good that could be shared more broadly in the music community. That’s where someone like Jolie Holland comes in. She uses the same sounds to express a mysticism that can be taken as non-sectarian – she might be a Buddhist or something else, but her words don’t tie her songs to one creed.

Like the Song of Solomon, Black Stars is a love song that points to something beyond the two people. The song starts with a scuttering bass line on guitar and a two-note whistle. The lyrics starts out with the contradictory image of “shining black stars.”

<>“I saw you tonight
by the light of the shining black stars that circle my heart.
I saw you come in though it was dim.”

This next line:

“I have been listening from the beginning.”

sets up a kind of cosmic meditation, of attention that has been present since when – the beginning of time? I think so. It is listening as an aspect of the universe that transcends individuals.

The next section describes a powerful encounter between two people. When they meet, everything else falls away.

<>“When you arrived
it was as if we had both died
and gone somewhere else you and my self
That otherworldly feeling came over me stealing.
My mind was reeling,
blood bleeding red like my guitar.
Whoever you are.”

Holland’s vocal line moves slowly. The melody often works within little three note groups bounded by a minor third–down a half step, up to a step above the starting pitch, back, or similar variations–although these are broken by larger intervals. The line seems to slow down even more at the lyrics about the guitar, which goes low into her vocal range. In the section that follows the melodies seem to become even more constrained:

<>“Cold in the night
I think you’re right to whisper and listen
like flowers glisten in a quiet garden.
The moon is wizened
and it is old as a toad in a Chinese story.
The fallen glory of my ego is laid at the feet of all our purposes.
And my purpose is to keep on dreaming.”

Rather than move towards complexity, this song leads towards simplification. And this brings you to the song’s key line: “the fallen glory of my ego.” The song arrives at this state of selflessness. Instead of dreams falling away, waking life falls away to reveal an essential dream state.

Holland sustains this section for 1½ minutes out of a 5 minute song, and finishes it with the ring of a bell, breaking the spell. The song ends with a recap of parts of the earlier lines that launched the encounter, although when she returns to “When you arrived” the music sounds like a new section is beginning, and the final line, on her self, is absolutely unresolved harmonically.

<>“I am fishing for wishes
That’s where you come in.
Though it was dim
When you arrived it as if we had both died and gone somewhere else,
You and myself.”

The return of the words, and the music that suggests beginning rather than ending implies an endless cycle, always heading towards the still point when the fallen glory of ego is laid at the feet of our purposes.

Many great works of time-based art – music and film – pivot on still points towards their center, when time seems to slow down and nearly stop. Most Hitchcock films reach that point. One of the effects of sonata form is to place Beethoven’s slow movements in the middle his works. Taiwan Deth brought their performance last week down to a point of a single noise puncturing silence. This is the movement of ecstasy. “Black Stars” uses constrained clusters of notes that move by small steps like chant, sometimes decorated with melismas like Middle Eastern music.

“Goodbye California” sounded more like a conventional country song. It starts as a thoroughly morbid contemplation of suicide, but in the same way that “Black Stars” kicks a love or lust at first sight encounter into a trajectory towards selflessness, the thought of suicide leads to a vision of union with the universe.

<>“When I’m dead and gone
My immortal home will hold me in its bosom safe and cold.
No more desires will light their fires
Or disturb my immaculate calm.
And the birds of the air and the beasts of the soil
And the fishes of the desperate sea
Will know who I am and our substance will expand
As part of everything.”

The last words are picked up as a group chorus:

<>“As part of everything my God,
As part of everything
And the clouds will roll
And the wind will blow
And the beautiful birds will sing.”

This may be an even better example of adaptive reuse of country music than “Black Stars,” with its tightly constrained, chant-like melodic line. The chorus here really sounds like a country gospel song, maybe “I Saw the Light.” But Holland replaces Christian theology with this statement of mystical union with the universe. When I hear her sing it, I have no doubt of her conviction. And this song, or at least this chorus, could become an anthem for the people in society listening. I hesitate to put a single label on the audience, but it consists of mono-theists, multi-theists, and atheists who feel their common sense of humanity (and connection with other organisms and natural forces), interdependence, and mutual responsibility has greater spiritual power than sectarian affiliation. Jolie Holland sings to them.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Why we care about what art says

In this week’s Scene I did a profile and review of Erika Johnson’s show at the Plowhaus gallery ( One set of comments didn’t make it into the final version, but the point of having a blog is that you have a place to park that sort of thing.

The main piece in her exhibit is an installation of several rows of transparencies of plants, text pages, architectural details, antique photos of women and contemporary photos of women in gay pride marches. The accumulation of images makes a portrait of lesbian identity within history and society, but does so in an indirect, non-linear and open-ended way. Viewers can choose their own path through the images, make their own connections, find their own keystones. The old pictures remind you there always were women who loved other women, but they looked like everyone else and blended in. Now they join together to announce themselves in the streets. Or those old pictures might make you wonder who in your family was gay, or went through their whole life forcing themselves to conform to overwhelming social conventions. The possible combinations and connections are vast.

Johnson’s piece is a good example of the significance of art as a form of discourse and inquiry. The same need to recapture a suppressed narrative of gay identity and history that motivates her art applies to scholarly fields as well. Her work, and the imperative for narrative, reminded me of the importance of a book like historian George Chauncey’s great book Gay New York. As an historian, Chauncey has collected facts exhaustively and pieced together an account of events and society that follows the necessarily linear structure of history presented in book form. The aspiration for this, as for any scholarly work, is that people will find the narrative compelling and authoritative, and that it will putt to rest certain questions and explode myths.

At first blush, it might seem that the historian’s discourse is more valuable than the kind of narrative an artist can create. History tries to put things straight, to clarify. Art brings ambiguity along with it at every turn. E.H. Gombrich pointed out that art blurs the distinction between falsehood and truth, reality and appearance, and creates “a twilight realm which is neither one nor the other.” But he goes on to argue that “it is precisely the acknowledgment of such a twilight realm, of ‘dreams for those who are awake,’ which may constitute the decisive discovery of the Greek mind.”

Once you acknowledge the twilight realm of experience, it suggests that narratives also need expression in this realm where a different kind of truth about experience can be found by mixing history and myth. Art is not a poor substitute for history, or science, or economics, or any other discipline. It is uniquely capable of certain kinds of treatment of experience, and its narratives will speak in ways that other media cannot. Charles Olson would have called it mythopoesis. The capacity of art to create narrative and discourse and to make meaningful use of myth puts a burden on artists to take the intellectual content of their work seriously.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Josephine Foster and a way with songs

Last week, Josephine Foster spent several days in Nashville, playing a show at Angle of View, an in-store at Grimey’s, and recording with the Cherry Blossoms. I’m not sure where she and the Cherry Blossoms first crossed paths, but they’ve known each other long enough for her to give them an acknowledgment in her new recording and she covered a CB song for a disc going out with a magazine (I think).

She makes sense with the CBs, or vice versa. She sings in a quaint, quavery voice that could have come straight out of the Folk Revival. The 60s translation of folk music is the real reference point, not Alan Lomax field recordings of crofters or miners. Her voice and songs are polished, and reflects too much other listening. But at this point, the early 60s culture and its optimism are like a distant past, and contrast deeply with the brutality of attitudes and forces that govern now. Rather than go back to some notion of a pre-commercial Eden, we can get plenty of mileage from reconnecting to a fairly commercial recent past that offers compelling suggestions of alternate paths not chosen or lost.

Josephine’s songs have a patient pace. They never rush, and in performance you notice her willingness to let a phrase break into silence, hang there a moment, and then pick up the next few notes. This patience and ability to bring music down to these calm, motionless points marks much great music. It is a quality that abounds in Christina Carter and Charalambides, who are one of my touchstones for a perfectly formed and spiritually intense expression in sound. My friend Susan Alcorn, who does miraculous things with the pedal steel guitar, describes this quality so well when she says that “music should reflect a kind of ‘suchness’ or stillness of reality.”

One thing that struck me hearing her live is that her voice is richer and fuller than on the recordings I’ve heard. Part of this contrast comes from listening to the recordings on poor playback devices, and also the effect of digital translation on a high voice. I’ve had a similar experience listening to Joan Baez. When I first picked up one of the early Baez Vanguard recordings on CD, I thought there must have been a mistake, it sounded so different from the sound I remembered on LPs. I’m not very sensitive to fine points of audio fidelity, but I could hear the digital coldness there. I think the same thing happens for Josephine, and she’s got the new release out on vinyl and that’s probably the way to hear it. Hearing her live, I kept recalling the sonic image of early Joan Baez – a high voice, sometimes quivering, with a crystalline quality. And this was just one more way her performance called up associations with the 60s.

I’ve been listening to the first song on the CD closely, “The Siren’s Admonition.” Like the pentatonic melody of many Anglo-Celtic songs, it is ambiguous whether it’s in a major key or mixolydian mode (the 7th shifts between the natural and flat). It also does something I know I’ve come across in old songs and ballads, which is to modulate temporarily towards the end of a phrase and come back home at the end. The first phrase modulates either a half-step or tritone away from the home key – lots of sharps all the sudden – and then back, and the second phrase ends with a bit that I think is a minor third up. The modulation in the first phrase seems to destabilize the tune briefly, but the second one grounds things more firmly to my ears. All of this is to say that the song is thoroughly drenched in the spirit of primordial Western songs without sounding like a historical reenactment. It’s a matter of absorbing a language, music’s grammar, not trying to copy its surfaces. The balance and the transitions work so well that she must have heard each shift – it is hard to imagine choosing them through an analytical process.

I haven’t listened carefully to all the lyrics yet, but there’s a similar process of absorbing and interweaving the vocabulary of older material with new expression. She uses archaic language, like “Wherefore hide your fleeting pearls,” and phrases echoing the language of old hymns. Like the old songs, she will take a traditional formula like “Hush little baby don’t say a word” but combine it with new things to take the entire lyric in a new direction.

Even without breaking down the songs like this, the thing about Josephine Foster is that this quality of something simultaneously familiar and strange strikes you strongly and intuitively, and even when you do look at the details you aren’t going to put your finger on where it comes from and how it happens.

Friday, June 03, 2005

The MTSU travelling puppet show

Before getting into its typical mix of local and touring musicians abusing unoffending objects and devices with contact mikes placed where they don’t belong, last night’s Angle of View started with a puppet and sound performance by a class of MTSU art and music students. MTSU professor Tom Thayer brought the group together for an intense, short-format summer class during which they ate dinner, made puppets, and composed a play based on their dreams and subconscious using Futurism, Dada, and Surrealist theater experiments as explicit reference points. They brought the results of their work out for a public performance as part of one of the shows Chris Davis organizes at Angle of View.

Going into the Angle of View performance space, you found that the MTSU group had taken over much of it. They built a set from three sheets of foam rubber hung from the ceiling, with clothes and cardboard and other flotsam strewn on the floor in front of it (looked a lot like my college dorm room).

Like Red Moon Theater in Chicago, they combined types of puppetry: shadow puppets projected onto the foam from back lighting, stick puppets that appeared like Punch and Judy above the top of the foam when it was front lit, and a marionette which was walked out into the front space of the set, as well as people in costumes and masks, including the musician.

I don’t know if the play had a discernable narrative, but it worked for me on a more musical level as a series of events that shifted and combined perspective and scale. The music, an assemblage of samples and noise, pushed into fairly high levels of volume and activity, and the stick puppets lurched and cavorted along with it. The costumed characters maintained a consistently slower rhythm, first one slouching out into the set, laying down, and then working her way off the stage. As she headed off the stage, she was joined by another person wearing a costume composed of many nylons stuffed with fabric hanging off the costume, a pelt that was between fur and scales. The sequence and counterpoint of these events was pleasurable. The foam also worked nicely as a scrim, with its yellowed color giving the shadow puppets sequence an antique feel.

This was a great addition to an Angle of View bill for several reasons. Most importantly, it explores a huge piece of common ground that the visual arts and experimental music share. “Musical” performances at Angle of View often include theatrical elements, sometimes masks and costumes. Many non-traditional art works include sound elements or go all the way into performance. The visual and musical communities do not always recognize what they share, and do not explore the fringes of each other’s fields. Interaction between the two groups adds energy to the experimental art community, and makes everyone more sophisticated in their use of multi-media elements. Performance itself has unique potential to build shared experience, and it connects to some great historical periods of collective aesthetic effort like the Dada movement or Black Mountain College.

It was also good to get some more exposure to the MTSU visual arts community. I don’t get to Murfreesboro very often, so it is extremely convenient when it comes to me. My impression is that there are interesting things going on there, like the pocket gallery Thayer and Andrew Kaufman started (Adrienne Outlaw did a radio piece on it Kaufman has shown very good work at Ruby Green and Zeitgeist. I’d like to see more of what the students are doing, along the lines of watching the Watkins students.

I don’t see any reason the visual artists in town shouldn’t bring their experiments with performance into venues dedicated to performance, and would like to see options open up for the sound work created by musicians to become a more common part of gallery presentations of art.

In addition to this nice change of pace from the MTSU students, the show Thursday included a particularly good set by Taiwan Deth. Parts of it rocked over the chugging beat of a noise loop. Towards the end the set seemed to be winding down, but Angela and Derek let a single sound keep popping intermittently and then started to fill it in with amplified breath and brought it back up in intensity. All through, the sound events had very clear definition, and the pacing was really effective. Their performances seem to be getting better and more coherent, but it may just be that I’m getting better at listening to them. This seems to be happening for Dave, the sound guy at Angle of View, who has gotten to the point where he sets up their sound in a way they really like.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Report from Victoriaville

This article on the Victoriaville Festival talks about Anthony Braxton sitting in for a set with Wolf Eyes.

The fact this encounter took place reaffirms my own sense that jazz-based improvisation (OK, Braxton himself has always disavowed "jazz" as a term) belongs with everything that tumbles out of punk, metal, and noise. People involved in this just have to pursue it with as much conviction as they can muster, trust the places it goes, and try to stay clear of their indigenous conventions.

The review also gives a positive mention to the No Neck Blues Band. It's nice to see after the strong show they put on in Nashville. From what I've heard, their shows can be very uneven, which I believe is a function of the level of risks they take. Reports of other good shows encourage me that my faith is not misplaced.