Perambulating the Bounds

Monday, December 30, 2013

6 comments on Patrick DeGuira

I reviewed one of Patrick DeGuira's shows years ago. I haven't reread it, but I bet I'll say some of the same things. He's the same person and I'm the same person, in spite of intervening life experience. Seeing art by the same person has to have the effect of seeing a person from time to time--"every time I see you I'm reminded of..."  For me, because my memory is unreliable and spotty, sometimes the thing I remember is highly idiosyncratic--maybe one comment the person made in passing in a conversation that passed in seconds, not a representative sample of the truly salient details of the testimony of that person's life.

1. I do remember Patrick's long ago (2004) show at Zeitgeist. It had many images related to the difficulty in hearing. In itself, this was a neat trick, making visual the sensation of aural frustrations. The show at Zeitgeist this December contained analogous images of sensory frustration, in this case visual.  There are a couple of photos of adolescents in the 70s or 80s, enlarged to the point where the pixels take shape. It pulls you into the experience of peering closely at a photo to try to make out details that seem to slip further away the more you strain, or which evaporate as you increase the magnification on screen. You want to make out who these people are, but you can't quite remember. You look for clues on the spines of books or posters on the walls, but the letters don't quite make sense.

Several paintings have words painted on them.  Little puns, or bits of something like poetry or snippets of a narrative. The words are mostly painted in a slightly different shade of the color applied uniformly across the rest of the surface.  The words are legible, but turn the knob on tone and intensity of the color a little and they sink back into the dimensionless background.

On one of the bigger paintings, two blocks of text take up the bottom 60% of the surface--painted in tone just different enough from the background to be visible.  Above them are four black horizontal lines that correspond in the length to the fours lines of the first block of text. It's the black-out lines from a censor's redaction that have been lifted to reveal the underlying text.  What was impossible to seen has been made visible. But the revealed words didn't make sense to me.  Seeing is hard, and understanding is harder.  Much remains hidden in plain sight.

2. Patrick's art seems to function best as a suite.  I'm not sure I would have gotten this idea about the frustration of visibility from any one piece.  You see parts of it, in different ways, in different works, and you add them up to reach the observation.  I wonder whether any of these pieces work as single isolated objects--say you encountered one on a collector's wall (not as an artifact reminding you of the show). In the exhibit, the works are always organized carefully, placed asymmetrically around the room to manage the dynamic of space between them. Colors recur across pieces--the pink color of bubble gum stuck on some of the pieces matches the color of a model of a country church. The words in one painting--"die garage is meine kapelle" also point to that model of the country church.

The collection of works becomes a poem, with rhymes between portions and careful pacing of images. Maybe it's projective verse, but with meters easier to scan than in Olson.

The interdependence of the works raises one commercial question. How easy has he made it to buy a piece?  Is there a market for poems of any sort?   Or a non-commercial question.  How does this artist intend to communicate with us?  Is a bunch of staff the primary vehicle? What can we expect to get out of single pieces?

3. In a similar manner to the way that years ago show dealt with auditory phenomenon and this one deals with visual, each of these shows locates itself in a specific time of life.  2004 dealt with old age, this one deals with adolescence.  There are those pixelated photos of teenagers--one of two boys in a living room, one with his shirt off, evokes a particular point of awkward near-adulthood in high school. The photos have wads of bright pink chewing gum stuck on them, the last bite marks in the gum visible. One of the larger works features the words Model Builder, an evocation of the classic teenage hobby of building model airplanes, and the other points in life where a person might make models, including an artist like DeGuira who made models of a church and a row boat for this show and almost always has some sculptural models in the suites of work he presents. And of course the Model Builder could be a more distant and powerful figure, maybe God, setting in place the pattern to govern what follows.

4. Patrick makes extensive use of flat, uniform color, whether on paintings, collages, or sculptures. It lacks affect, and betrays no sign of the artist's hand, of the human making marks. This places him squarely into the camp of minimalism, although the objects in his work matter and hold interpretative, not just formal, significance.  This is an empirical observation that in itself does not add to understanding.

The only mark-making in the pieces is not immediately apparent--it's in the pieces of chewing gum, where you have to assume the artist chewed the stuff up and left the bite marks.

The thick layers of expressionless paint add to the quality of masking.  They dampen the sense of expressive presence, and make you look elsewhere for what turns out to be highly expressive and emotionally felt work. The paint starts to hide the objects they cover.  The rowboat and church models are not represents of specific instances of their type, but are more like the visualization of ideal types, a form of objectivity. And they are also ghosts--a specific rowboat that starts to lose its specificity--the different colors of different parts and materials, the marks and dings that come from use. You can't quite remember what the rowboat you used that summer decades ago looked like, you just remember that you had one there.

5. The hardest works are possibly some of the easiest.  There are a couple of collages with images of mineral and crystal formations reproduced in black and white and covered with a sparkly surface. These pieces are easy in the sense that as isolated objects, they might be the ones with the strongest visual appeal left on their own. But they are harder to relate to the content and style of the rest of the work. The iconography in everything else is of the human world--abstractions, words, and constructed things like the building and boat.  There are no plants, animals, or landscapes. In this context (or non-context) the mineral specimens stick out. Black and white rather than color. A sparkly surface coating rather than flat colors.

So what do you do with this? You could conclude that it's a variation that doesn't connect with the rest, a wrong move. Minerals and crystals do make some standard interpretations available. They represent self-organizing, naturally evolving structures. They repeat upon themselves. It's easy enough to relate these characteristics to human phenomena. But these are generic interpretations and Patrick's work deserves better than that.

One characteristic of these images is that their natural and naturalistic content is rendered with a more obviously artificial means--the surface treatment, laced with sparkles. The other objects are more immediately themselves, constructed objects placed in the room. The images of rocks are more mediated.  So this may come back around to the difficulties in seeing--images that at first seem to be scientific illustrations are more removed from the natural world.

At the end of the day, these remain difficult interpretive corners of this show, although someone out there no doubt has gotten to the point.

6. I mentioned the emotional content of this work.  At firs the emotions sneak up on you. The work is stripped of the things we associate with expression. Brushstrokes, bright color, sharp contrasts, dramatic representations. The artist is undoubtedly involved in formal arrangements. The color palettes are muted. But these stripped down images he gives us have references that draw down into significant human experience.  Family is always everywhere in his works. The experience of sensory strain is not a cold phenomenological observation, but deals with the emotional weight of loss, and the frustration of reaching back and what eludes the grasp of memory.

The characteristics of this emotional landscape don't adhere to common forms.  The past occupies a central place in the material, but nothing seems nostalgic.  The rowboat must be connected to a rowboat that existed and events in which it featured, but it strikes me in a more matter of fact way--there was this thing that happened, we took at rowboat. Patrick distills some features from that scene, from an episode that can remain hidden.  

Unless you're Proust, it may be pointless to try to describe what you encounter when you come into an emotional presence in a body of work. It gets to be like music, where the emotional heft is undeniable but exists in a realm distant from words.  To use a safe example, Beethoven.  Or Schumann, whose music has been on my mind a little the last few days. Passages in Kinderszenen move me deeply. I can play it for you, point to the specific measures and notes, and maybe you'll hear it too.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Jessie van der Laan

I'm a sucker for certain kinds of art objects, and it may even come down to certain effects, independent of any higher level processing. One of those things are surfaces that are tricky, ambiguous in perspective, color and form. They draw me in, and because when I get to them, they issue forms and structures that seem to combine and recombine in an insistent, quiet flow. I ran into that a couple of weeks ago with work by Jessie van der Laan in an exhibit at the Ground Floor Gallery. This is a group show of artists working with textiles, curated by Herb Rieth from Memphis. 

van der Laan's work here consists of embroidery hoops covered front and back with layers of fabric, the top layer very sheer, with stitching and appliqued fabric on and between the layers. The hoops are mounted on the wall in groups of two and three to make up the pieces.

As an example, the piece "cumulonimbus" (all the pieces are named for cloud types) consists of a large oval embroidery hoop with a smaller circular one positioned above it at a 10:00 position. A strip of wavy fabric is attached to the back panel.  Another flap of fabric folds over the top of the hoop. Fine stitching forms little waves on the top layer and connects to the back. van der Laan uses contrasting colors for the cross stitches that connect the thread, so here you have some yellow strands crossed with black to make tendrils that look like garter snakes. She also seems to have stained the back panel fabric with light washes of ink, which gives another layer of patterns deep down in the space. The space between front and back is less than inch but it still requires you to pore into it. 

The second hoop is darker, and the bottom layer features what may be a blot of ink or applied fabirc that looks like a splash.

You've got at least four or five types of events creating the shapes and structure--the base fabric front and back, places where those fabrics dimple and wrinkle, the threads weaving across and through it, pieces of fabric that look more or less solid depending on whether it's on top of the sheer layer or behind, and then those ink stains.You can't be entirely sure what's from ink or even water stains, and what is fabric with different degrees of opacity.

Each hoop has a different look. In one, fabric bunches up inside, reducing the sense of inner captured space. Some have strips of ribbon suspended in the interior space. She uses some colors consistently, like a blue thread, but others sparingly. A lemony yellow appears in one place. Dark purples in another piece. The groups in combination all have contrast, definitely between lighter and darker compositions, but the contrasts are subtle, in keeping with the inherent subtlety of all effects in this work.

In most cases the colors are muted by the layers of intervening fabric, and by the way threads are deployed as filigree across the surface and interrupted by cross stitches. It was even hard to discern the color of portions--in one piece at times my eyes played tricks with one portion that at times looked brown, but at times seemed to take on a coppery sheen.

The visible embroidery hoops make no secret of their reference to women's traditional handwork. What is more, the works all combine one larger hoop with one or two smaller ones--the phrase hens and chicks comes to mind, like with plants.

These works have an ephemeral effect. They seem to vibrate just on the edge of focus. Colors and shapes emerge diffidently. The multiple layers both enclose an interior space and produce a surface plane, spongy as it may be.

van der Laan gave each work the title of a type of cloud (cumulonimbus, stratocumulus, pyrocumulus). I could look up each word and try to match the characteristics of the works with the qualities of the clouds, but that seems uninteresting. I'll accept the general title metaphor of clouds. The pieces certainly have cloud-like qualities, but for me it makes them less enjoyable to think of them as representations. Or I think the range of reference is broader--"cumulonimbus" seems to be as much about water, and "stratocumulus" brings to mind flowers and plants.

Graphically, the works move towards being hardly anything, and work that indulges this sort of subtlety runs the risk of lacking enough graphic presence not to keep it from fading into a series of background designs or visual pads. Again, for me a big part of the pleasure comes when an artist walks you towards or up to the line where the imposed artistic order seems to run the risk of falling into pointless chaos. A artist can go too far for me, to a point where I stop enjoying the work. van der Laan's pieces have little risk of that because the organizing devices--embroidery hoops, and a range that contains variety but also adheres to some limits--gives them an inherent resonance.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Reading in reverse order

In the post on Phèdre, I mentioned Diane Arnson Svarlien's translation of Hippolytus, the play by Euripides that served as the source for Racine. Thing was, I hadn't read that play yet, but now I have. It would have been good to do it in the right order, but you can say that about a lot of things and you might never get past 500 C.E.

It's been entertaining to track the differences between the two. Much is due to the 2,000 year separation of the works, but I tend to read anachronistically. Books that appear in my reading space about the same time become part of the same conversation. I should probably work some Samuel R. Delany in here, something else I'm reading now.

Racine is interested in abstractions like virtue and honor, Euripides deals more directly in natural experience, like the nuances in the connection and rivalry between father and son across generations.

Euripides is bleaker than Racine, no surprise. At the end, Thésée is just left with grief. In Racine, there is the consolation of reconciliation with Aricie and the Pallantides.

Racine added the character of Aricie. This changed the structure in several ways. For one, in Euripides Hippolytus never succumbs to Cypris (Aphrodite) and gets punished for his resistance. In Racine, Hippolytus has lost his resistance and gets punished for his insistence on behaving honorably and not spilling the beans on Phèdre when he first had a chance. See, here's that motive force of an abstraction in Racine--he is undone by acting honorably. In Euripides it's more visceral--the goddess is jealous.

Well, really Hippolytus is punished because he's a douche. His sense of self-righteousness, and his willingness to tell people about it ("there is no man alive/whose wisdom and restraint surpass my own" 1114-1115), earn him no slack when things go wrong. His servant wanrs him early on--"those who act superior are hated" (line 110). His dad is quick to assume he's lying.

Gods exist and play an active role in Euripides. They are almost completely metaphorical in Racine.

The addition of Aricie creates a diamond structure in Racine:   Thésée-Phèdre-Hippolyte-Aricie.  Thésée loves Phèdre (or at least is connected to her), Phèdre loves Hippolyte, and Hippolyte loves Aricie. Aricie is connected to Thésée by the negative antipathy between the houses. In Euripides there are two triangles: Theseus-Pheadra-Hippolytus, and Cypris-Artemis-Poseidon.

Words don't seem to stand out as much against the backdrop of the action and the play. Some of this may be the fact that I'm reading this in translation, although Diane's verse is excellent. Even so, it seems like the characters don't wield the words the same way.

Lots of dialogue, some rapid and continued back and forth, like lines 331-374, where Phaedra reveals her desire for Hippolytus as she trades single lines of dialogue back and forth with the nurse. This really brings out the monologic quality of Phèdre.  The fact that it has monumental stature in French culture must say something about the French. The role of Phèdre was one upon which Bernhardt built her fame. These big chunks of verse would provide a showcase for an actor.

The written word plays a critical role in Hippolytus and has no presence in Phèdre that I recall. Where the critical turn in the plot in Racine comes from false oral testimony, in Euripides it takes the form of writing on a wax tablet Phaedra attaches to her wrist as she is committing suicide. (Diane's translation comes with thorough and incredibly helpful notes, such as the one explaining this wax tablet.)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Eight words on Phèdre

I saw Jack Ryan last week at the Chestnut-Houston art crawl. Seeing Jack Ryan is of course special since he's in Oregon. When he said he checks this blog from time to time it made me think maybe I should post something and try to make it not completely a waste of his time. I may disappoint Jack, because instead of posting on local shows--say his show at Seed Space--I'm going to say a few words about classical French theater. Then again, Jack seems to appreciate some such things. 

1. Alexandrine. In school I heard about the alexandrine, the classic French meter, but I don't remember seeing it too much because I much preferred more modern poets--think Rimbaud--who were freeing themselves of the tyranny of the alexandrine. The term refers to a 12-syllable line that breaks neatly into two halves, 6 and 6. It is to French verse what the iambic pentameter is to English. When I finally picked up Racine, there it was, line after line of couplets repeating the meter, on end, at length, and seemingly effortlessly.  Drama rendered with such formal rigor boggles my mind.

2. Vetru/honneur.  Oenone says "pour sauver notre honneur combattu,/il faut immoler tout, et même la vertu" (III.iii.).  Throughout the play nouns like virtue and honor drop into the play like characters--once named and spoken, they take on a life of their own. Actions and emotions bend to them. They seem to be self-evident, and characters wield them as tools against each other. Their relative weights become self-evident even if their meanings may not be. These nouns protrude from the text. The Germans go so far as to capitalize their nouns, as if each were the name of a God. Like a God, every bit of added meaning the noun brings seems to come with more mystery.

3. Silence. Much of the action revolves around silence. Oenone (again III.iii.): "Mon zèle n'a besoin que de votre silence." Phèdre gives her that silence, perhaps out of weakness, but just as easily as a form of action--to protect her son, protect her honor, revenge the insult of having fallen in love with Hippolyte. As Racine says in his preface, "Phèdre n'est ni tou à fait couplable, ni tout à fait innocente." Hippolyte himself lends motion to the drama through silence--in refusing (III.v.)  to explain to Thésée how, and by whose hands, he has suffered the offense he just learned of from Phèdre, Hippolyte makes himself an easy target of Thésée's suspicions.

4. Abstract. Not much happens in this play. The settings are indistinct and unimportant. A small number of players meet in different configurations and talk to each other, mostly in pretty big chunks of alexandrine. The action such as it us takes place well off stage.

5. Past. The key character developments have already taken place when the play opens. Phèdre has fallen in love with her husband's son. That son has lost his resistance to Venus, and fallen in love with Aricie, the daughter of his father's rivals.

6. Performatives. In this play with its sequence of dialogues and implacable nouns, the uttering of words changes the conditions of the world. Words are action. Thésée kills his son by going to Neptune's altar to ask his justice for the outrage he has declared that his son has committed (IV.iii and iv).

7. Irreversibility. Once something is said, it cannot be unsaid. Every generation tries to teach our children these lessons. Whether true or untrue. "I love you." "Your son took advantage of your wife." "Neptune, avenge me on my son."  In Act V when Thésée receives Aricie's testimony that contradicts Oenone's lies, he starts to investigate too late--he would re-question Oenone, but she has thrown herself into the sea, and as he asks for his son, he only receives the news of his death at the hands of Neptune's sea monster. "O soins tardifs et superflus!" In the end Phèdre acknowledges "un injuste silence" and would return to Hippolyte his innocence. I suppose he does end up redeemed in his father's eyes, but too late.

8. Diane. Diane Arnson Svarlien, a friend from high school who now lives in Kentucky, grew up to become a classicist, and she is known for translations of Euripides. Her Medea is superb and very well-regarded. In that same volume she translated the Euripides play that was Racine's source. It is titled Hippolytus rather than Phèdre. Racine took a hero out of the center and replacing him with someone who combines hero and anti-hero.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Notes on Tatsuya Nakatani show

Tatsuya Nakatani played at Downtown Pres last night (thanks to Dave Caperton for use of the photo below). I've heard Tatsuya at least a couple of times now, most recently maybe a year ago, playing solo both times. I don't always get to hear people multiple times, so when I do I'm struck by how different the experience can be. That experience of difference raises a bunch of questions. How different are the performances? Am I just latching onto different aspects to listen to? I have some serious selective hearing. I will always listen to horn players in an ensemble and have to make an act of will to hear the drummer. Do I get smarter? Am I hearing more each time around?

I have had a strong experience of performance differences listening to Susan Alcorn, but I follow her music closely enough and know her well enough to know that at different times and in different performance contexts she works with very different material. My ears and brain are not playing tricks on me. Last week I was listening to a recording she's done of People Get Ready. It works so differently there as a stand-alone track than when I've heard her play it in concert as the second part of a diptych with Twin Beams, one of her compositions (I think I'm remembering that right). And each time she puts different things into the song.

As for Tatsuya's show on Friday, the first thing to note is that it was in the church's acoustically very sensitive chapel. The previous show was in Zeitgeist gallery, which is a converted retail space, not a listening room. Everything rings in the chapel. As I recall, both shows had a similar general structure, starting and ending with a large gong which he bowed on the edges and struck with a big soft mallet. At the DPC show, he ended with ever subtler strikes from the mallet, just brushing it at the end, but in that room you could hear the vibrations. At the end you heard everything--the smallest sounds from Tatsuya's instruments, then the flourescents, the building's HVAC system, who knows what from the street and buildings around. All through the show, everything seemed clear and available to the ears, so some of the difference in the concerts could come from what one was physically able to hear--maybe it was all there both times.

In this set, the presence of melody and harmony stood out. Some of this is inherent in Tatsuya's method. He doesn't use sticks too much--much more depends on bows, scraping things across drum heads, rubbing a kitchen whisk around on things. My sense is that when a percussionist uses sticks, it puts emphasis on the attacks and their sequence and timing. These other methods of drawing sound out of the kit give some sounds more sustain and draw attention to pitch and timbre. All of that is always there, but for me can get lost in the energy of rhythm.

Tatsuya uses a smaller drum, maybe a floor tom or marching band tom, in place of a bass drum. He strikes it with a pedal, but it produces a more structured sound, defined by high overtones not just a thud. Between the structure of the sound and the way he plays the foot pedal, it registers a distinct bass foundation pitch that worked like pedal point note on which other notes piled up to form harmonies. The clarity of that pedal point pitch is one of those things that maybe I just didn't pay attention to last time, or it didn't ring as clearly in Zeitgeist.

He also uses a set of pitched metal bowls to provide lots of melodic content. He bows their edge or taps them. And one of the best parts for me was a four or five note melody or scale he got by bowing the edge of a smaller gong. Harmony and melody seemed to be everywhere in this performance.

A critical dimension of a solo improvisation is to tie ideas and events together and provide connective tissue for doing so. Tatsuya starts with the mallet and bows on a large gong set up behind the rest of his kit. He works with these sounds for a while, but at some point he will want to transition over to the rest of the material he has. Musically he needs to let the material with the large gong evolve but can't stay there forever. Musically he needs a way to move on to new ideas, and technically he needs a way to move to the next thing physically. In his case this involves continuing to use one hand to make sound on the large gong, but to take his other hand and bow the smaller gong (I think) which is positioned in with his other equipment. Once he gets some sound on that going and established as a musical motive, he can shift himself physically to a position at the kit and start using a whole new set of tools to make sound.

I bring this up because these transitions are one of the hardest things about performing solo, no matter your instrument. On saxophone you work into a musical idea, but then you need to build a bridge to the next thing you want to do, and it's really easy for that transition to feel choppy or unintentionally abrupt. In some cases, you just need to be faster. John Zorn built a whole aesthetic around lightening fast quick cuts back and forth. In other cases you need to find things that can morph into something else or form a bridge that might mark a little time, like white space on a page of poetry. In the case of a percussionist, so much more of this technique is shown visually.

The other thing about Tatsuya's performance is that you can see the refutation of any argument that the sequence of sounds is random. Part of Tatsuya's task in constructing these performances is to provide himself with connective tissue--sounds that he can repeat or which ring through to give him a bridge to get ready for the next thing. He positions a bunch of cymbals on the floor to the right of his floor tom. At times he will set up a pattern that he can continue with his left hand--say running a metal bowl around the edge of the tom so it clicks and rings on the keys around the head. While he's doing that he'll reach down to the floor, and sort through the cymbals to select the one he's looking for, and pull that up and start working with it. He rarely seems to be grabbing the first thing he gets his hand on.

This point may not be necessary. It's certainly not needed for anyone who has made a commitment to this music and pays attention to it. I may still be fighting wars of 30 years ago when people would say Free Jazz guys were playing completely random notes. That seemed to be a prevalent attitude then. I'm not sure it still is today. It's not an argument I think about or have so often any more, but that may be a function of my participation in general social atomization. Maybe I'm less likely to actually talk to someone about our different aesthetic preferences and experiences.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Sound Crawl Nashville edition 3

The downtown Art Crawl generates a swarming, buzzing mass of people, squeezing themselves in and out of galleries, diving for miniature cups of wine, and talking about art, artists, and everything else. For all the intensely social quality of the event, people do have their eyes open. And once a year two musical entrepreneurs ask them to have their ears open when they add the buzzes, clicks, swooshes, and blips of electronic music to the buzz of people in the Arcade. 

For three years now, Kyle Baker and Aaron Doenges have curated Sound Crawl a festival of electronic music presented in conjunction with the Art Crawl. Each time they’ve tried something a bit different, but the basic idea is to invite composers from around the country to submit works that will be played in the Arcade and environs during the Crawl. From the first, Sound Crawl has had an enthusiastic response from composers looking for audiences for their music, and the sounds in the Arcade heighten the 40-ring circus feel of the evening.

Baker and Doenges use the term Sound Art rather than electronic music for what they present, a signal to the audience that what they will hear won’t have many of qualities people (unless they are familiar with contemporary classical music) will associate with “music.”  As Doenges puts it, these works have “no notes. Usually no instruments. There isn't a performer. And rhythms (even arhythmic rhythms) are often obscured by the newness of the listener to the medium. "Sound Art" leaves people without a preconceived notion of what they will be hearing so we feel that they come with more openness to the experience.”

However, most of the pieces follow the basic rules of music—they have a beginning, middle and end and are composed with a logic in their sequence of sonic events. And therein lies a problem. While the Art Crawl provides a great opportunity to introduce a lot of people to these unfamiliar sounds, it isn’t the best environment to really hear the works. In the Arcade, you’re more likely to catch a snippet here and there, not the full shape of the composition.

The problem is no different than most video art, also a time-based medium. With video, you usually walk into the room somewhere in the middle of the piece and decide whether to stick around for the end or not. Plenty of people sample a few random seconds of the video and move on. You have to evaluate the length of the piece and decide if you want to take the time with it. Sound Crawl limits its submissions to 7 minutes or less, so listeners don’t have to wait forever to come around to the beginning, but they don’t have video’s title sequences and copyright notice at the beginning and/or end to provide orientation.

While the Arcade is lively on Crawl night, there’s no way to make it a place where you can concentrate on music with an abstract structure. So last year Baker and Doenges also presented pieces in more of a concert setting in the sanctuary of Downtown Presbyterian Church. It’s a great room for music, but off the beaten path and it required taking a break from the flow of Art Crawl.

This year Doenges and Baker have new variations in the Sound Crawl events. They will still present pieces in the middle of the Arcade in the middle of the Crawl—it keeps the festival connected to the crowds in the galleries, and Doenges adds “I just think it’s fun to do.” To this they’ve added two events, one later on Saturday and the other on Sunday evening that will expand Sound Crawl into settings where their material becomes the destination—people won’t stumble across the performances while visiting galleries, but will make a decision to attend these separate events. Part of the purpose of the project has been to expose this music to people who will just bump into it at the Crawl. Now they are taking a little more risk and seeing if they can also get some people to search it out.

After the Art Crawl on Saturday, Sound Crawl will sponsor a kind of after-party at the Bank Gallery on 3rd Avenue.  Calling this event the “Listening Room,” they will present some of the selections from the Sound Crawl in less hectic environment. According to Doenges, “we wanted to provide a space where people who were more interested in the works could really listen but without the strange formality of being in a concert hall with nobody on stage.”  

The next night, on Sunday, they are inviting people to come back downtown to Downtown Presbyterian Church for “Art of the Future,” which looks like the core of the Sound Crawl this year. Using several rooms in the church, they will present a series of performances sequentially (not simultaneously), along with listening stations for purely recorded work. In addition to the basic ticket price ($10, $5 for students), there’s a VIP ticket for $20 that includes dinner.

The Sunday offering at Downtown Presbyterian Church represents an evolution of Sound Crawl from recordings of electronic compositions into electro-acoustic material with live performance, improvisation, and work that extends beyond pure music composition into a realm that more justifies preference for the name Sound Art over electronic music.

Some pieces have elements of theater, like Elizabeth Roberts’ “Title,” which is her response to an artistic depiction of an antique chair. The performance incorporates the chair into a stage setting with an electronic track and piano improvisation.  Michael Kalstrom’s “Life is Dreaming” is a sort of short opera where video accompanies a vocalist, an instrumental soloist and electronics. Visual elements obviously will figure prominently in a piece of video art by Quinn Collins and Tyler Kinney where the sound and images are integral to each other.  Paul Schuette goes further into the middle ground between sound and visual art with an instrument he built called Mobile2 that combines several oscillators that mimic the properties of an Alexander Calder mobile. 

Most significantly in this evolution for Sound Crawl, they have installed a system built around a software called Weiv which uses Wii controllers to allow several users to interact with video scenes projected on a clear projection surface that floats in air like a hologram. This system will be used with for a performance of a movement from Derek Webb’s recording “Feedback.”   

The selections in the Sound Crawl may not always live up to the level of medium transcendence suggested by the phrase Sound Art, but looking at them as musical compositions points to an even more audacious quality of this event. Baker and Doenges have created a festival of contemporary classical composition in plain sight in Nashville. Our town does not have a prominent contemporary music ensemble like the Contemporary Music Forum in DC or Boston Musica Viva. The Symphony and Alias program contemporary pieces regularly but not in great concentration. No one in Nashville presents as much work by living composers to such a large audience in a focused format as the Sound Crawl does each year.

A shorter version of this piece appears on the Art Now Nashville website.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

WRVU goes to WPLN

A couple of years ago when WPLN switched over to a mostly talk format, I went through perfunctory motions of complaining about the death of classical music. Truth was I listened to the talk shows then on the AM station and not the classical programming. The switch accommodated my listening patterns. Well, classical music is back with WPLN’s purchase of WRVU, which gives me something else to complain about.

WPLN and Vanderbilt followed the same playbook as KUHF and Rice in Houston. Rice had (or has depending on what you think about internet broadcasting) a superb station, better than Vanderbilt’s. They put it on the block, and the NPR station associated with the University of Houston bought it and created separate sister stations for talk and classical music. Public radio seems to work that way—one station works out something, others pick it up. Several years ago I read some articles about a consultant who worked with the public radio stations on programming that always seemed to end up with less music more talk. Over time, I think most people feel reasonably good about NPR and local public radio as primarily news outlets. The decline of newspapers and the transformation of TV news makes the radio stations very important.

College stations like KTRU at Rice at WRVU at their best became interesting venues with room for a wide range of sound and inspired, idiosyncratic programming. They were places where a fringe improviser could do a live spot on radio for a few minutes. Some DJs emerged with very distinctive ideas—the Sunday afternoon jazz shows on KTRU, or their weeknight world music and experimental/electronic shows, Brian and Elizabeth’s Brazilian and local show on WRVU, Pete’s R&B show, the jazz shows John Rogers did. Chris Davis had a show at various times that was often remarkable, informed and broad-minded, and subversive.

Whenever these stations came under threat, I always wanted the Universities to see these stations and the programming mix that evolved as cultural assets major contributions to the life of the community like a series of art exhibits or classical music concerts. But there’s no getting around the fact that the universities saw these stations as student activities, possibly a training ground. And as student activities radio stations had probably outlived their relevance. I haven’t done a poll, but I can believe that fewer students listen to their college radio station today than way back in my day. Too many options.

According to the press release WPLN bought the frequent for $3.3M and Vanderbilt is going to set aside the money as an endowment for student communications. That means they didn’t sell the frequency to cash in on it. They will save some money on operating costs, and it might free up space, although maybe not if they continue to operate as an internet station. The $3.3M will go into an investment that would generate $165K a year at a 5% payout, $132K at 4%. In other words, not enough that these funds will make a difference for Vanderbilt’s bottom line.

Of the options, what happened at Rice and Vanderbilt is not as bad as I feared. The frequencies could have gone to the religious outfits that dominate the left side of the dial in some times, or ended up broadcasting C-SPAN or whatever it is that took over the public bands in DC (radio has been terrible in DC for over 10 years). I can’t say I’ve been listening to WRVU in recent years. While I never got turned on by much of WPLN’s classical programming, some of their stuff is well done. I don’t listen to Live in Studio C as much as I should, but it seems like they plug in well to concert programming in town. As the Nashville Symphony gets more interesting, they’ll ride with them. There is every reason to think that they will come up with new things.

A few suggestions

Drop the convention of avoiding music with words. Most classical music radio sticks to instrumental music, I believe in recognition of how people use classical radio, often as background music. Words and the human voice draw attention to themselves.

Grab programming from other stations, even if it is not actively syndicated. WQXR in New York recorded and archived the performances from the festival of North American symphony orchestrasat Carnegie Hall.

Do locally-produced programs of electronic and contemporary music. Find someone who can say put together a program on French spectralists or recordings by Ursula Oppens. If you must, put it on the air at some God-awful time, but archive it.

Buy recordings, don’t just rely on what record labels are pushing.
One of the best shows on WRVU was a program of contemporary classical and renaissance music hosted by Angela Lin, a professor in the German department. She died at the early age of 40. WPLN, in the form of WFCL, could honor her memory by trying to match the insight and range of her show.