Perambulating the Bounds

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Salon in Murfreesboro This Saturday

No, I'm not talking about some sort of appearance sponsored by the online magazine. A notion that is as improbable as it is tiresome. Salon is a name I could live without, it's so fusty-sounding, but the basic idea is good and compelling - get a bunch of people together to share art, music, or words on a pretty informal, unstructured basis. In the best case, this should provide an alternative to shrinking public space and impoverished commercial and institutional sectors as a way of letting people do what they need to do aesthetically and intellectually.

Frank Baugh, Ryan Lewis, and Jacqueline Meeks are putting together a one-night in-someone's-apartment showing of paintings, drawings, and zines this Saturday. The announcement is here: http://salond6.childismine.com/ . The address, if you don't feel like clicking the link, is 1311 Greenland Drive, Apt. D6 in M-boro. I'm particularly glad to see that they say the work will include zines. They provide an important crossover into words, and really into music a lot of times too when they include reviews and interviews. It also brings to mind a specific vibe of pervasive self-expression which is comforting and energizing, the way Halcyon Books felt, which I have missed since the store closed.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Real Big Flowers at the Airport

<>Viewing art at the airport is a little like catching a band on the late talk shows – it’s a substitute for someone who is too lazy or busy to actually go to the show. Still, it’s good to get some benefit out of the time at the airport, especially in the summer when there’s a pretty good chance everything is running hours late, and Susan Knowles does a great job of getting work that is well done, works in the space, and captures stylistic and regional variety.

Right now one end of the ticketing concourse has Monica Quattrochio’s multi-panel photos of flowers taken at extremely close range and blown up to extremely large size. The results are intensely colored, fleshy and moist. The flowers have beads of liquid on them that could be dew but seem more like their own secretions. A photo of a tulip bloom focuses in on the white pistil surrounded by the black or deep purple stamen. The petals of the flower form a blurry background.

<>Floral and botanical art seems to be a fairly common theme in galleries around Nashville. Often it comes with some claim to be a commentary on ecology and nature, its fragility, transience, or developmental processes. However, a lot of times that seems like an effort to give grander aesthetic rationale to work whose appeal rests on something a lot simpler. Pictures of flowers are pretty. They are nice to make, nice to look at, and you ought to be able to sell a few. One of the discomforts of a market-based art world (as opposed to say institutional or individual patronage, which have their own problems) is a conflict with an artist’s sense of integrity and higher purpose. Those things are great, but why are they worth anything to a purchaser? When you think about the nature of the financial transaction (and when someone buys art they beyond postcards we are talking about a fairly significant exchange of money), there are fortunate cases where the buyer writes the check sheerly out of aesthetic appreciation, but you can’t get around the fact that some people with the money to buy art are practical people. That’s how they got to be people with the money to buy art. And for some number of those practical people, the financial transaction represented by buying an art work is an investment, or a very nice way to decorate the house or office. When you paint floral paintings or take pictures of flowers, unless you have a Clyfford Still-like pickiness about whom you sell to, some of the sales will be serve the pursuit of higher home design.

Quattrochio finds one way to get around this, which is to push the images into such extremes – the close-ups emphasize the richness of color but also bring out the less comfortable aspects of the natural world, like the fact that living things excrete stuff. Where the focus on the very small brings out one kind of edginess, the large size makes for a degree of discomfort of the opposite sort. The big size makes the image overwhelming. I first saw her photos in a show at the Downtown Artists’ Coop in Clarksville, a nice second floor space in an old downtown building. The photos fill up the space and their slick surfaces nearly light the room. In the airport, the works look more like something put on a monumental scale to respond to the challenges of this terminal room. The size also means you cannot easily buy and display the entire image in a house, undercutting the tendency for the subject matter to devolve to decoration scheme. As I recall, Quattrochio offers individual panels for sale, something still pretty but more abstract and that may not be readily identifiable as a flower part.

Quattrochio’s photos walk a line for me. The combined scale effects give them a kind of concrete object presence, but I’m not sure the images go as far past pleasingly pretty to give them sustained aesthetic power and to lead into the kind of threads of thought and association that I enjoy most from the experience of art.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Recent Excuse to Reread Robert Duncan

The New American Poetry, put together by Donald Allen in 1960, is one of those classic canon-forming texts. The poets he chose, and the ways he grouped them together defined post WWII American poetry. As a teenager, my dad pointed me towards this book as an essential source of knowledge and enlightenment.

I went back to the book last week because of something that came up getting ready for a solo sax performance. I put one thing together by taking the first few lines of a Steve Lacy solo piece, Pearl Street from the Snips loft concert, which I used as the jumping off point for my own improvisation. That wasn’t the most successful thing I’ve ever done, but it reminded me of Robert Duncan’s “A Poem Beginning With A Line By Pindar” from New American Poetry. I read some of the poem as an intro to playing, and probably would have been better off just doing that.

I don’t know Duncan too well, and this is the main poem I know. He’s grouped with the Black Mountain poets by Allen, and probably by self-definition, but he was much more a lyrical poet than any of them. In this poem, he goes into a historical section, but I don’t think it’s as strong as other parts of the work.

The poem is a great cross-disciplinary work. It starts out with music and sound: the line from Pindar is after all “The light foot hears you and the brightness begins” and moves to reverberations of a Grecian lyre, a Rilkean motive. And dance is here as well, and comes back in the end with an image of children dancing. What really struck me was his writing about painting, Goya in the main instance:

<>“In Goya’s canvas Cupid and Pscyhe
have a hurt voluptuous grace
bruised by redemption. The copper light
falling upon the brown boy’s slight body
is carnal fate that sends the soul wailing
up from blind innocence, ensnared
by dimness
into the deprivations of desiring sight.

<>But the eyes in Goya’s painting are soft,
diffuse with rapture absorb the flame.
Their bodies yield out of strength.
Waves of visual pleasure
wrap them in a sorrow previous to their impatience.”

The description of Goya goes on a little longer. It reminded me of the Goya painting currently on display at the Frist as part of the Wadsworth Athenaeum collection, “Gossiping Women.” It shows two women, fully clothed, reclining outdoors in a pastoral setting. The woman in front is seen from the back, so she is all fullness and curve of voluptuous body. The painting has a narrow, horizontal shape, probably meant to go over a door. According to the catalogue its pendant was a sleeping woman, again reclining, in soft fabrics, this time seen from the front, her head resting in her hand. That seems more explictly erotic and seems to confirm that the image of the gossiping women is meant to be alluring. The eroticism is understated but pervasive, a function of the “desiring sight” Duncan describes.

<>Each succeeding line of the poem, especially in this early part, gives you something else to take and use for looking at pictures: “waves of visual pleasure”, “sorrow previous to impatience,” and later on “hot luminescence at the loins of the visible.” Its not necessarily the most sophisticated way to read a poem, something like the way historians use novels to illustrate some point or the other about an epoque. But pleasurable even if not entirely responsible to the status of the poem as an integral whole.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Curtis Mayfield Saves The Day

Susan Alcorn had her show in Nashville this week, and the performances were darker stormier than I remember from last year. Typically lyrical openings developed into very dissonant, noisy stuff. She also did her piece Twin Beams, which is a response to the 2001 attacks in New York but really a protest against what has become of the country since then. The piece opens up with small dissonances, the same note on two adjacent strings set just apart from each other. And it went on from there, to a dense, angry, wounded sound. But at some point it comes off that, and it ends up in People Get Ready by Curtis Mayfield. I don’t have the Wire review of her London show in front of me, but I think she made this same combination in on that show. It’s a remarkable tune, and to me was fully redemptive in this context. It is one of those soul songs that is so close to gospel it’s hard to tell the difference, making for the kind of non-sectarian spiritual expression that has great curative powers. It also brings to mind the person of Curtis Mayfield, who projected joy and gentleness (and I know little about his bio, so I don’t know if that’s the way he was).
Susan has discovered that this song, played on pedal steel, can counterbalance almost anything. She can make a lot of noise with the pedal steel, and when she attaches it by association with post-Trade Center political climate that makes for something very harsh. Even then, there’s no denying People Get Ready. Maybe that undercuts the protest, offering too easy hope – in spite of the evil spirits afloat in our culture, if we just tap into our memories of 60s peace and love it will be better. But from a technical perspective, it is remarkable what the combination of note sequence and instrumental timbre can achieve.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Billy Renkl Fold Refold

In my review of the Fragile Species show I wasn’t able to comment on every participant, which leaves me with some topics to take up on the blog.

I’ve seen Billy Renkl’s work at Cumberland Gallery a few times and it has some characteristics that make me suspicious. Primarily because it seems he often uses antique books or other sources as the background for an image of his composition. The problem I have with that sort of borrowing whenever you run across it is that the found material is a little too interesting on its own. You end up looking at and maybe trying to decipher the older material, which relieves the artist from some burden of holding your interest. I have the same problems with work that incorporates maps. I can look at a map for hours. When it’s in an art work, am I looking at the work or the map? If the latter, why not just frame some maps. Would I get the same thing from it? Sometimes one can be confident that the artist’s contribution is not nearly as interesting as the original image. So this creates maybe a higher threshold for the artist.

Renkl has two pieces in the Frist show constructed in a similar way (one tangential observation: while most of the pieces in the show were listed as “courtesy of the artist,” both of Renkl’s were lent by collectors other than the artist). He took parts of a map, cut it into strips, and recombined the strips so the boundaries printed on the map form outlines of children’s heads. These woven silhouettes are mounted on top of found material – in one case a ledger book hand-written in French, the other a book in Latin (Marcus Aurelius?) overlaid with an illustration of the geometry of map projection techniques. Like I said, this sort of work is tricky because I could spend hours just trying to decipher the ledger book and figure out what this person was selling. And ditto with the maps – from the fragments visible, what can you tell about the original, the area it represents, the age of the map. However, these pieces do have things going on that transcend the source material, and at least part of it relates to multiple transformation and reuse of iconic shapes.

In one piece called “Island” a map of England has been cut apart and rewoven so that the shoreline is reshaped to trace a head in silhouette, the green color of the English land inside the figure, the blue of the surrounding seas forming the background. In the other, “Foreign Country #2,” sections from a mountainous German-speaking country (could be Bavaria, Austria, or Switzerland, I’m not familiar enough with the towns there to know) have been reworked so the textured and orange-tinted mountain areas take the form of a head enclosed within the red lines of political borders surrounded by smooth green lowlands. What is particularly clever about these images is that the figure in “Island” takes on some of the shape of Britain, at least its southern part, and the other figure looks something like Germany before reunification with the East. In “Island,” Renkl seems to have accented this echo of the English/Welsh landmass by adding a little more of the figure’s chest, making a shape that looks a bit like Cornwall’s western reaches.

Renkl takes familiar map shapes, breaks them apart and reassembles them first into something that represents something entirely different – a human head – but then molds that head in such a way that it points back to the iconic shapes of the countries that he broke apart.

Using a map puts into play a very conditioned set of viewing responses. We know that maps represent places. When we see a map, even if its just part of a map (folded back on itself so we can read it in the car), we look to see where it is. If we see a section and realize it is England, we can imagine the shape of the whole from the part. That imagined shape probably colors my projection that the silhouettes look like England and Germany.

Silhouettes are similar to maps in that they are representations we are trained to understand. They reduce a human figure to a single element, its exterior outline. We think we can tell something about the figure represented from that line, but we accept some signals like hairstyle to tell us the age, sex, and era of the figure. When Kara Walker uses silhouettes there is a moment of recognition when we realize that the figures are unconventional, in that they are black – African-American – people. When Watkins student Cherry Smith-Bell used silhouettes of African-American figures in her senior thesis work, there is first the recognition that the work reminds you of Walker and then that unlike Walker these are contemporary, everyday figures. Or so I think. Silhouettes require the viewer to construct the image and fill in the details in an active way.

Renkl’s pieces engage in a complicated set of visual transactions conducted by both the artist and viewer as forms are broken down and reconstructed. He overlays two bodies of visual convention – silhouettes and maps – that require their own interpretative actions and also evoke the past in content and visual practice.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

What Makes Dave Cloud Dave Cloud

I caught Dave Cloud for the first time in a few months last week when he opened for Comets on Fire at the End. The band sounded good, even tight, with 4 guitar players plus bass, drums, and Tony Crow on keyboards. Not that things were buttoned down – Dave did strip down to his boxers and do a couple of pushups, and the words are still what they are, strangely visionary, libidinous. My favorite was Helios, a long number, mostly spoken if I remember right, in which a guitar player like Link Wray descends from the sky and conquers the earth without mercy.

The band sounded like it had been rehearsing, working the songs out. On the obvious upside, tightening the music makes the band more accessible. If music sounds “messy,” many people can’t hear it. If DC and the Gospel of Power stay on this trajectory, it should be easier for more people to hear Dave. And it’s also important to remember that Dave Cloud loves rock music, and part of rock music is the rock star thing. Give the band a cleaner sound, and Dave gets to go further into that. Based on the band’s sound at the end, there’s a lot less reason why they should be relegated to underground venues and no-pay/low-pay gigs. I didn’t see what separated them from a band that would play shows across the street at the Exit/In.

Still, you expect a howl from Dave, a primeval expulsion of the sub-conscious, unfettered and unedited, and a rougher sound reinforces that primal growl character. The sound on Dave’s recordings or in shows at the Springwater is not just a matter of convenience, it also constitutes an aesthetic position with a discernible impact. When Dave Cloud sounds more like other rock bands, is that a good thing for rock music?

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Pedal Steel Innovator Susan Alcorn Back In Nashville

Susan Alcorn, who does breathtaking things with the pedal steel guitar, is going to be back in town for a show next Wednesday at Angle of View. Starting from her home base in Houston, she’s doing a tour that will end up in New York. The details are:

<>Location: Angle of View, 417 Gallatin Road
Date: Wednesday, July 13
Time: 8:00 or so

I’m opening for her with a short solo set, then she’ll do a substantial solo set, and then we’ll play some duets. Chris Davis is trying to line up a couple of local bands to play after us since we want to start kinda early.

Susan has defined a musical realm for herself that is nearly unique. She is thoroughly grounded in country and jazz, but has gone way past that to integrate Indian music, gamelan, minimalism, and contemporary classical music. Her music is lush and meditative, and usually works from defined melodic material, but she improvises freely and organically. Her harmonies, timbres and textures shift in unexpected ways. In addition to her own compositions, she has adapted old hymns, Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready, a choral piece by Oliver Messiaen named O Sacrum Convivium, Piazzolla tangos and Chilean Nueva Cancion. The pedal steel guitar has an amazing sound, and Susan starts with the material qualities of its sound and distills it in an almost overwhelmingly emotional way.

I think an important reference point for Susan’s music is the work she has done with Pauline Oliveros over the years. Oliveros is a minimalist composer, but her work has evolved to include strong meditative and psycho-spiritual aspects. It seems like people who work with her develop a distinct stance towards sound, they see it as powerful and sacred and healing. The Argentinian band Reynols absorbed a lot from Oliveros. So has Susan.

In addition to her performances with Oliveros, Susan has recorded with Eugene Chadbourne, played with Chris Cutler and Peter Kowald. It seems like she has been touring more – she played at High Zero last fall (http://www.highzero.org/2004_documentation/photo/alcorn_session/index.html). Then she participated in the London Musicians’ Collective’s annual festival in November (there’s a picture of her at that event and a nice mention in the review in the January 2005 Wire, p. 87).

The sound of Susan’s music, her words about music, and the qualities of her personality have been deeply influential on me. It is worth taking a look at her web site (www.susanalcorn.com). The following passage comes from her “performance notes” page:

“Blurry the distinction and uneven the border between notes and sound. Music has so much to say and so little time to say it. For this reason, I often feel that music should be more shamanic ritual in nature and less recital for each note is a god or goddess, and they live with others of their kind in the primordial space under the fingers, between the strings and surrounding the twelve notes that humans have delineated. And in this community of countless notes surrounded by sounds and noise, each has a story to tell if it is properly beckoned and if our ears will hear it. This is the nature of music. It is this beauty, the depth and the heart of sound formed from this community of notes and from the original sound that I hope to touch lightly, to bring forth, and to share with you in this time and space tonight.”

The passage about each note being a god or goddess comes back to me all the time.

Susan and I have played a couple of times over the years. They have been among the best musical experiences I have had.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Recorded Music and the Decline of Music

Bill Friskics-Warren, the very capable music editor of the Scene, author of books and articles, and thoughtful critic, sent me a copy of an article from the June 6 New Yorker on the effect of recording technologies on musical performance (the full text is actually available online http://www.newyorker.com/critics/atlarge/articles/050606crat_atlarge). The author, Alex Ross, is reviewing a couple of books. The focus in the books and the review is on the impact recording has had on classical music. The big hypothesis of the books is that it has contributed to the decline in audiences for classical music, although Ross makes the case this case doesn’t hold up. Leaving aside whether recording can take that rap, the article points out some effects that are hard to deny. Most significantly, recordings have contributed to a homogenization of classical performance styles. There was a time when players from different countries played to different standards of rhythm and timbre, but the availability of recordings led to a convergence on the styles that sounded best in recordings. Especially in early recordings, musicians had to cut through the surface noise, favoring piercing sounds and effects like vibrato to provide a wider range of sound.

One wonders if the decline of the classical recording market will lead to more diversity of performance style. On the one hand, the conservatory system will tend to promulgate standards. However, as playing occurs outside of recorded gaze, local peculiarities may creep in. You may be able to see it in a place like Nashville already. This Spring, at Alias’s last concert of the season, I was struck by violinist Zeneba Bowers’ approach to a Baroque piece by Matteis. To me her playing seemed loose – very effective, exciting and enthusiastic, and somehow akin to bluegrass fiddling or jazz. As a violinist in Nashville, you know that Bowers cannot help but be aware of “folk” fiddle styles. Moreover, as a leader in one of the city’s main classical performance groups, she is self-consciously trying to reach out to people not immersed in classical music. It’s a strategy shared by the Nashville Chamber Orchestra and to some extent by the Symphony. For someone presenting classical music, the violin or fiddle provides a common ground. There is an audience that flocks to performers like Mark O’Connor, Allison Kraus, or Vassar Clements. Bowers can make the case that if you like that kind of violin music, you should check out what Alias does. With that in mind, it would make sense that Bowers would throw herself at the music with some of the abandon of bluegrass fiddler. What is the point of inviting the bluegrass audience to the concert, and then presenting them with a performance style drained of the emotion that they respond to.

As Bowers does this from one concert to another, won’t her performance style shift slightly? As a performer in Nashville in a world of an anemic classical recording market, she will be able to develop her style without negative feedback from record reviews by unsympathetic national critics.

Based on this concert, one remains skeptical about Alias’ success in luring that audience for fiddling. The audience looked like the typical contemporary classical audience, slanted heavily towards older people. No matter how accessible their programs, I think there are barriers. Musical education is often cited. Perhaps so, especially if you understand education as going beyond the forms of music to the rites of musical performance. Anymore, piling into a quiet concert hall at a specified hour and remaining stationary and silent is an odd way to experience music. People are used to getting up, talking, making sound themselves. At least sipping on a drink and munching food. Of course, classical music was designed exactly for this enforced stationary setting and the degree of attentiveness possible in it. I’m not sure what it would take to resell people on this as a mode of experiencing music, and the best parts of the repertoire get lost in other settings. On its program, Alias played a Shostakovich string quartet with a an elusive structure that becomes just meandering if you don’t track it pretty closely. You can’t walk in and out on the piece.

One train of thought is that the reconnection to classical music is a long process. It will take years of exposure to Zeneba Bowers and similar performers before it sinks in. The other possible is that many pieces lose their broad audience, and listening to Shostakovich gets to be like reading Latin.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Neomanagerial Art and the Cultural Will to Power

The March/April edition of the New Left Review has an article that almost earns its keep from its title alone: “Neomanagerial Art.” It’s written by Matthew Jesse Jackson, a faculty member at Cal Arts, and it deals most directly with Ilya Kabakov, who was able to work within and on the margins of the Soviet art and culture system and is now doing the same thing in the era of post-Soviet capitalism. During the Soviet years, Kabakov was identified as a dissident artist, even though he was a member of the Union of Soviet Artists. Outside of his day job illustrating children’s books and science magazines, he engaged in “conceptual actions” that took the tools of state control systems, such as surveillance and documentation, and reapplied them to pointless activities under his leadership. Jackson refers to this as “an essentially homeopathic undertaking,” a great phrase that refers to taking the active ingredients of a syndrome and applying them to build up resistance to that syndrome. In this case it would be the tools of totalitarianism putting up some protection against totalitarianism. The pointlessness of the activities documented in the “conceptual action” make absolutely clear the pointlessness of the activities required by the Soviet bureaucracies in culture and all other spheres.

Jackson describes Kabakov’s efforts to apply the same principles within the new system of cultural management, particularly in regard to his competing visions for the reuse of an old coking plant in Germany. One of the points is that he transfers his attempts at a kind of cultural homeopathy to the new cultural masters, masters who operate within a market context. There is an equivalence in the kind of absolute control both systems and their bureaucracies would exercise.

Jackson describes the Western cultural system as dominated by “cultural actors plugged directly into the entrepreneurial sector.” Thomas Krens of the Guggenheim is the poster child for this character. There has been a convergence in which the business world has adopted ideas pioneered by cultural radicals, such as iconoclasm, constant change, and fluid identities and relationships. The business world’s cooption of these sorts of ideas has been well described by Tom Frank (The Conquest of Cool) and earlier by people like my friend Warren Leming, who as a musician in the late 60s saw rock music quickly converted into profit by many levels of opportunists. Jackson’s article reminds us that it goes the other way too, as artists take on the role of managers: organizing human resources, logistics, financing, and marketing.

The managerial instinct has been around as long as artists ran studios to help them turn out their work. It may have gotten more pronounced in the 1960s. Earth artists like Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, James Turrell can’t do a thing without a managerial hand. With Christo and Jean-Claude, the process, the business of getting one of these things made, is nearly the entire point. The question is whether artist-managers and their work resist or reinforce the prevailing systems of dominance in society. As the business world embraces anti-institutional instability (e.g., a world of purely contingent workers replaces standing employment relationships), do artists simply become adjuncts to the drive for corporate profitability? Jackson suggests that “the arts become more commercialized while business recuperates their discarded mythology of creative individualism.”

Kabakov’s response is very Constructivist, to build monuments to the non-artist rather than in engage in “yet another exercise in Effective Cultural Management.” He would make of art spaces like the coking plant “a liberated zone where the diktats of the cultural managers would be rendered redundant and ridiculous.” The inevitable role of cultural power makes any institutional setting problematic for art, whether it is the Frist Center or a small art center that is striving to “institutionalize” itself and become more of a player in the art scene. The tendency towards oppression lurks behind them all.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Eels on Letterman

The Eels are one of those bands I think about looking into every once in a while, so I listen to a few samples but inevitably end up deciding to leave it for another time. They were on Letterman last night (the late night shows are the lazy/cheap person’s way to eventually hear more than 30 seconds of a band). I didn’t pay too much attention to the song, but enjoyed the theatrics of it. The band was the leader, E, singing and playing celeste, an acoustic bass player, a drummer, and a string quartet. Everyone was dressed in pajamas. The best part was the drumming, which used drum cases rather than the drums. It was a perfect depressive scene – no one could get out of their pajamas, the drummer couldn’t summon the energy to pull his kit out of the case. E has a shaggy beard, like someone who’s been out of work a long time. At the end, the string players dropped out one by one and picked up percussion instruments, so all you had was this quiet, muffled, rhythm. E stopped playing, got up, lit a cigar and walked around the stage with a cane, tapping it along with the rattling of the band. It was like a geriatric hoofer, padding around his assisted living apartment. He brought it all to a clean stop with a cue from the cane.

I have a feeling this performance pissed Letterman off. At the end of these shows there is a ritual where the host gets up, walks over to the band, shakes some hands and tells them how great they were. Last night NBC cut to some filler footage. I wonder if we didn’t miss Letterman giving them hell. I’m thinking it might have been because of the cigar – is it illegal to light up like that? Or it just seemed to him like goofing around. After the break he made some comments about the pajamas. I liked that, it reminded me of times I was depressed and didn’t understand it, just knew all I wanted to do was sleep.