Wednesday, December 9, 2009


I find this to be infuriating. Where does the arrogance come from that allows someone to think they deserve a $200,000 trip to the edges of space? This, to me, is the perfect example of an increasing distance between the outrageously privileged 1% and the rest of us. When there are people who have trouble affording a bus ride to work or food to eat, how can someone justify this inane waste of basic shared resources? What allows some people to view the world as their personal amusement ride?
I secretly hope for two things. One, that the first Virgin Galactic flight will pulverize in a flaming mass of molten shrapnel. Or two, that the coddled passengers will look back at our fragile planet and reach a deeply internal comprehension of the basic interconnections between their actions and all earthly inhabitants - the fact that their wasteful, irresponsible and ludicrous two-and-a-half hour fling has dire consequences for the other 99% of the planet. I know this is an arbitrary line to draw, as the super-rich amass greater and greater material wealth, collect houses, cars, yachts, and islands and revel in their disparity while occasionally soothing their guilt with philanthropic or eco-capitalist gestures - but really, this is over the top and obscene.
I also find statements such as this (as quoted in the NYT article) to be inherently misguided: “As humanity eventually moves to other planets and bodies throughout the solar system, we will of course fly into — and eventually live in — space.” This kind of idea, which has been standard fare among technocrats since the space race of the '60s (if not before), strikes me as a flagrant continuation of the colonialist fantasy. These ideas are based on a conception of the universe as conquest.
Is it not obvious how dependent any outer-terrestrial activity is upon basic earthly resources? Inhabitants of MIR are tethered to earth, at huge cost, and I believe, given the huge distances between heavenly bodies, we always will be. Do these adolescent fantasies of a gleaming Martian outpost really have any basis in human possibility? Personally, I like it here. We as a species have co-evolved in relationship with the planet and need to find a way to make it work here. This attitude of "Well, we've used up this one, let's move on." is, to me, offensive and wrong. I imagine a bedraggled group of survivors scraping the last crumbs of TVP out of a tin, while gazing longingly back at the wrecked shell of a pollution-choked earth.
Additionally, I strongly feel that resources should be allocated to observational rather than physical exploration of space. The amazing and paradigm-shifting discoveries of the Hubble telescope and related observational tools should be the focus of cosmic aspirations. I feel the goal of looking at and understanding our place in the universe - the building and revising of cosmological models - to be both necessary and urgent. This is an essentially different enterprise from those which attempt to spread and diversify human greed and conquest.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Bandage A Knife Review

This wonderful review by Catherine Thomas was published in the Oregonian today: Incohesive 'Bandage' intensely cinematic: the production marries a choreographer's and composer's best. "perversely witty" - that's good.

I actually prefer the web title Prepare to be Disoriented in several mediums. "Incohesive" suggests unintentionality, while "disorienting" allows for the possibility of a purposefully fragmented structure, which Bandage a Knife certainly has. Anyway, the review is extremely attentive and discusses all the elements of the show - video, dance, sound, dialogue.

The performance was developed as a spinning out of various tangents from the source material. One of our goals was to experiment with all the different interactive possibilities we could imagine between live dance and recorded video, live voice and recorded sound and voice. That process resulted in a large number of "moments" - and then moments accreted to moments, with an intention towards maximum disjuncture. Threads, echos, mirrorings and repetitions provide a loose web of connections.

I think incorporating narrative elements within the context of dance was the most difficult aspect - perhaps for the audience as well. The lack of narrative consequence creates a possibly uncomfortable "no-man's land". It's a place I want to explore more.

Alongside this fragmented structure, the "performance within the performance runs parallel on a suspended television monitor. Kaj-anne Pepper's solo within the all-white dripping wet "weatherbox" was a single hour-long take. A bravura action for an intimate space and an (original) audience of three.

Here's another excellent review from Lisa Radon.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Field recording gear

I don't usually write this kind of post, but I'm pretty excited about finally having a semi-professional field-recording setup. I'm now using a Marantz PMD671 with a pair of Sennheiser ME66/K6 shotgun mics in shockmounts with a stereo bar and a hand grip. (Beware of the kit, by the way, the shockmounts are NOT universal). I should say "will be using" as I haven't yet put this rig to the test. When I receive the backordered Gator broadcasting bag and the rechargable battery unit for the Marantz, I'll finally be ready for fully mobile, high-quality recordings.
I haven't been making too many so-called "field recordings" in recent years, largely because of my problems with the whole urban/rural dichotomy. Recordings made around the city are sure to include distracting automobile and airplanes sounds. Recordings in lightly rural or more wild areas get caught up in issues of "nature-ism" that I find equally distracting.
At the same time, I treat all of my recordings as "fields" - I have very rarely recorded in studios, and I'm always interested in the whole range of factors which might influence the acoustic character. The size of a room, the materials of the walls, the number of participants, the placement of the mics and sound source(s), the mediation of varying quality speakers or analogue distortions, and the choice of acoustic source itself, all influence the sound. That's why Shaeffer's solfege of musique conrete is an impossibility, as well as any comprehensive notation.

Anyway, I've briefly tested these new mics and I'm quite pleased. My next purchase will probably be a pair of ME62 omnidirectional capsules (the adaptability of the K6 series is pretty great). Eventually, I would love to own a pair of the Sennheiser MKH series, my dream mics at this point.
I'm wondering if anyone has thoughts on battery-powered mic pre-amps to complete this current rig. Are they necessary? Is there anything that might come close to the Sound Devices mixpre?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Growth of the Author

One of the things that draws me increasingly to performance-oriented work is the complexity of authorship. I do enjoy the isolated, private give-and-take of the studio experience, but collaboration tends to be more fun, more unpredictable and more unstable. And the result is more than can be contained by any one brain - a sharing and dispersal of responsibility.
A piece like Bandage A Knife (which runs for 5 more nights!) explores so many variations of authorship, it becomes quite difficult to determine a point of origin. Some moments, such as the trio of Anne, Kaj and Rebecca with mirror, flashlight and mirror came directly out of my notebook sketches and my scripted monologue, but were developed through improvisation with Linda and are brought to life in performance through Rebecca's intonation and Kaj's elaborate and absurd facial translations.

Some moments, such as the dialogue between Kaj (below the plywood) and Linda (standing on top) were developed through improvisation, but injected with my dialogue (which is itself an interpretation and extraction of the filmic source material). Other moments were written in a back-and-forth manner between Linda and myself, with much laughter. Laughter was used as an evaluative tool throughout.

A moment such as Rebecca with projected hand gestures and a percussive score depends heavily on my studio-based video and sound composition, carefully constructed (though again, the video was assembled from an editing of Linda's improvised gestures). Rebecca's hands-behind-back trajectory within that video/sound moment was then developed from my broad suggestions which asked for her interpretation.

I am thankful for Linda Austin's willingness to allow me to develop my own directorial ideas within the safety of her studio. And it was fascinating to observe the wide variety of methodologies which make up her own choreographic practice. These ranged from predetermined and taught movement, to suggestions for improvisation ("imagine your eyes are a camera"), to a kind of aleatoric mirroring ("catch my gestures as I improvise and assemble them into your own phrase") to free-form improvisation by the dancers, videotaped and then painstakingly relearned from the tape, among others. These elements then meet discussion, suggestion and editing from the directors and the group.

What makes this issue of authorship even more complicated is the way a distinct voice shines through such an enfolded and complex development. (A standard example being that of John Cage - if he's so interested in subverting the authorial ego to allow indeterminacy, why do his pieces always sound like his?) For this reason, it's understandable that Lisa Radon would mis-attribute moments from this piece in her thoughtful review. Linda's quirky movement and choreographic preoccupations with bodily awkwardness are suffused throughout the piece - and influenced me too. This raises the open question of how the dancers subsume their own bodies within the director's aesthetic, and to what degree they are "allowed" or willing to insert their own movement idiosyncracies. The meeting point is diffuse, complex and, to me, deeply interesting.

Within cinema - another highly collaborative form - it is somewhat understood how the cinematographer, sound designer and others operate within a directorial vision. What would Ingmar Bergman be without Sven Nykvist? I'm sure that each director and each film explores these relationships in variously shaded ways, but we at least know how to think about such structures.
Modern dance/performance work, on the other hand, seems to rely much more broadly on what Catherine Sullivan calls "unique methodologies". It seems that the author's role in this kind of work becomes one of providing frameworks for improvisation, contexts for material, strategies for assembly and, of course, a guiding voice and a kind of generalized "veto power". Authorship gathers, disperses and re-gathers within the unique methodology of a director, as each participant gives him or herself to the collective creative process.

photos by Michael Degutis

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Gutierrez and Sullivan

I've been thinking about Miguel Gutierrez' Last Meadow since seeing it two months ago during the T:BA festival. I wrote a compressed, fractured and somewhat melodramatic description of it on the PICA blog (see below). It seemed useless to give a blow-by-blow account of a performance which was so centered in mood, repetition and groove.
In general, there seems to be something about the relationships between cinema and dance. There's an interesting tension between the repeatable and the ephemeral, the narrative and the abstract, the continuous and the montaged. These questions are certainly part of Bandage A Knife, and perhaps I was thinking through some of my own problems in response to Gutierrez' work. I loved the intensity of Last Meadow and its willingness to be dark.
I can feel myself getting darker. I continue to be drawn further toward genre film, but especially horror flicks. In some way, perhaps returning to my deep regard for transgressive images such as Passoloini's Salo, or my childhood experiences of seeing Dracula, King Kong and Phantom of the Opera for free in the University cinema. I always liked these archaic images which seemed so foreign and intriguing. I like the way form and content can seem to split apart and operate in parallel - the symmetry in each shot of Salo which intensifies and counteracts the brutality; the utterly artificial lighting and acting of Argento's Suspiria which is subsumed by mood.
Right now I'm feeling a real affinity for Catherine Sullivan's work, her manner of using source material, the way she has feet in cinema, theater and modern dance, the use of what she calls "vestigal narrative". I've been wondering how to bridge these realms, how to work in the cracks between, how to make something that belongs nowhere. This talk with her collaborators Dylan Skybrook and Sean Griffin is answering so many questions, and raising others that I hope to apply to new processes. I find she's taking the words out of my mouth.
I especially appreciated the discussion of accessibility and difficulty from around 1:10:00

I come very much from theater, and in theater you don’t have this highly directed gaze. Your eyes have the pleasure to wander and to enjoy things flickering peripherally. It’s about allowing yourself to give over to a landscape than it is looking at the installation and needing it to satisfy a kind of one-point perspective. It’s about how you look at images and what in the image is ambient or what is direct. So there’s a lot about the composition that tries to allow for, as I’ve said, the pleasure of the eyes to look the way they want to look. To me that says a lot about judgement. When you’re presented with a lot of information, the question you’re forced to ask yourself is “Well, what do I want to look at?” and that says something about your sensibility as a viewer.

At the same time, I wonder about the possibility of attention in a gallery setting. When I saw Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land at the Whitney biennial, I was unable to focus, a bit disoriented by the multiple screens, and feeling that I was unable to give the piece the time it required. Sitting down to take in a performance has a way of centering and allowing patience in a way that just doesn't happen for me in a gallery. Is there a special switch in the brain when an event has a set arc? We give in to the experience and can sensitize to its universe. (But maybe I just need(ed) to learn how to watch.)
Many of Sullivan's touchpoints are somehow dear to my heart - Poe, Muybridge, Tatsumi Hijikata - early interests that I've repressed because of the impression that narrative and melodrama should take a back seat to abstraction. Now it's all coming back. How does she have the courage to be this incredibly weird, this completely faithful to the process of collaboration, to the tenuous webs of meaning and to these beautiful images? I want to see more.

Here's my review from September:
Miguel Gutierrez & Powerful People Last Meadow

The script is a controlling device. The storyboard commands. The director is an egomaniac. The movie camera captures bodies within its lens, contains them -flattens them onto celluloid. Method acting infects actors like a germ, changing gestures, changing voices. Sometimes the role carries actors into a dark hole – they lose their edges, become the character, drive a car into a tree. There is a compulsion behind the machine of Hollywood, driving its makers into standard narratives, driving audiences into admiration and emulation. A nightmare of falseness. We forget that we are immersed in artificiality. Miguel Gutierrez wants to use the cinematic nightmare as an alarm clock.
Old age is frightened by youth. James Dean represented the uncontrolled force of the “juvenile delinquent” – the scary eroticism of Elvis’ hip shake, which reminded the 1950’s of an even more frightening “other” – the suppressed energy of the American experience. The monster which we ourselves have created, fed with blood, and tried to ignore.
Miguel Gutierrez & Powerful People throw off sparks. They are driven by a demoniacal repetition, swallowed by illusion. Free-floating scripts attach themselves, forcing the dancers to vomit lines over and over. Shouting directions, moving in perfect unison, these bodies are controlled. “Take 47! Again!”
Actors can forget where the machine ends, find themselves absorbed into the tabloids which have scripted romance, scandal, marriage and divorce. This is the “moral” of Lynch’s Inland Empire (with which I could compare Last Meadow). Dancers use their bodies as machines of expression. Who owns these bodies? Do we, as observers, bear responsibility for the actions and habits of dancers offstage, who must carefully prepare themselves for moments of white-hot activity? We shouldn’t forget that we are all human beings here.
Last Meadow carries each scene beyond the limits of “enough”. It displays a prickly exterior. It exists in the moment on stage, but also in the memory of a film (or films). This doubly and triply-layered moment creates complex refractions. Something is wrong here. I want to laugh but it hurts. “You’re tearing me apaart!” Actors live a multiplied existence. Where is their “authentic” identity? What parts of previous roles do they continue to play? What parts of previous films do we knowingly or unknowingly absorb and enact?
DVD extras now allow us to penetrate the machine, to examine the construction with all its visible scaffolding. And yet, the movies never lose their power to convince, to carry us out of our bodies and into other bodies. James Dean is resurrected each time we watch his image, a zombified body compelled to repeat itself. The steps, the swagger, the smirk. And somewhere offscreen, his car rams into that tree over and over and over.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Maryanne Amacher (viva)

About a week ago I was up late into the night, reading the liner notes to Maryanne Amacher's two CDs, Sound Characters and Sound Characters 2 (Teo!). I was filled with conflicted emotions, hearing her sounds and voice. I was reminded of her brilliance as a composer and thinker. Her crystalline intelligence shines through these works, but so does a kind of cracked, other-wordly perception. The most recent CD struck me as especially bizarre, her writing littered with unlikely exclamation! points!! and a passionate, eccentric, expanded awareness of cosmological events. At the same time, the music sounds heavily processed and smeared with digital artifacts - the warbled interpolation of extreme pitch shifting and other software-driven manipulations. I was (and am) filled with both deep admiration and sadness encountering this work. I remembered how instrumental she was in my acceptance into the Bard MFA program and her visible excitement in listening to the grinding, piercing noise of my CD Uva, which was included in my application. Maryanne remained a teacher and mentor during my time at Bard and, for a year or so after, I could expect occasional late night phone calls... This summer, I heard about her poor health, and I couldn't help but wonder about her well-being, and those shelves of decaying reel-to-reel tapes on the second floor of her falling-apart house in Kingston, NY.
That night, I had a dream about Maryanne - we were engaged in a collaboration, sharing ideas and sounds, deep conversations. In the morning, it passed through my thoughts "Maybe she's dying..." Yesterday, I learned that Maryanne Amacher has passed away at the age of 71.

Maryanne didn't compromise on anything. She never had money. She rarely paid attention to her body, forgetting to eat or sleep while composing. Her overgrown, decrepit house was the subject of vandalism, seen by neighborhood kids as a "witches house". And no wonder! Strange, spooky sounds drifted from the windows at 4am, deer wandered through the yard eating foliage, squirrels invaded and finally overtook the entire 3rd floor of her gothic house.
Most especially, Maryanne didn't compromise on her music. For many years, she refused to release her music on LP or CD, claiming that the sounds coming out of those "wretched boxes" could only be a faint approximation of her work. While working on an installation, she would spend months in an exhibition space, moving speakers one inch to the left or right - literally playing the architecture.
Maryanne always thought at the edges of the possible. She imaginined a use of DVDs to release 6 hour compositions, with long silences between sounds - allowing the listener an entirely different relationship with the music, one that she considered more organic, more alive. She was waiting for the next step in audio fidelity to master her many unreleased compositions. She theorized that a 196k sampling rate actually begins to mirror the speed of neurons, producing a huge leap in clarity and vividness of the sounds.
Reading the liner notes for Teo!, you can feel her struggle with the decision to release this work. The sounds may be created and contained in recorded media, but they are NOT recorded works. They are produced for specific sites and situations, designed to respond to living spaces, breathing acoustics, dynamic surroundings. She asks the listener to imagine these sounds streaming out of 48 speakers, in geometric configurations, surrounded by the traffic and noise of a busy Mexico City plaza. This, of course, is an impossibility, and we are left with a flattened, contained representation of the work, not the work itself.

During my last year at Bard, after the vandalism of Maryanne's home, I had a fantasy of archiving all those endangered reel-to-reel tapes. These are artifacts which deserve to be stored in a temperature-controlled room at MIT, or in the basement of the NY Public Library. Maryanne was an absolute pioneer in the field of sound installation, a "guru" of electronic music, and a composer of astounding skill and vision. This work must not be lost to the squirrels and rain! But I soon realized what a task it would be. It would require living in Kingston for at least a year, carefully baking each tape (to keep the magnetic coating from separating from the plastic and falling in a pile of dust on the floor) before digital transfer. It would require grant writing, and the support of some major institution. Most especially, it would have required the help and support of Maryanne herself - something which could not be counted on, as I learned when publishing her 1977 paper on "Perceptual Geography" in the pages of FO A RM 3. I'm not sure what has happened or will happen to the Amacher archives.
In the end, perhaps this all makes sense. Maryanne Amacher insisted on treating her sound as a living thing. The experience is the art, not some mass-produced product. Unfortunately, I never had a chance to experience one of her brilliant, beautiful installations. Like all living things, those too have passed away.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Neighborhood Notes

Eve Connell was kind enough to come to a rehearsal and interview me and Linda Austin about Bandage A Knife for the website Neighborhood Notes. It's a good peek into our creative and collaborative process one month before opening night.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

T:BA Festival

Hey! I'm writing reviews over at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art's Time-Based Art Festival Blog:
Check it out! Leave a comment!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Is pleasure a relevant lens for thinking about experimental music?

It can be an interesting exercise to try and view one’s “own” subculture with an alienated gaze… I’ve been feeling this way about experimental music the past few years, and have been wanting to articulate my shifting sense of doubt about a type of art that I once identified with strongly. Experimental music can provide an instant sense of community, and it feels odd to both participate and to feel separate.
One recurring question I’ve had is about the role of pleasure in listening to music that might be determinedly anti-comfort, anti-tradition, anti-beauty. My goal in asking is not to form an overarching theory about pleasure. There are infinite loci of pleasure, both in terms of making and listening. Pleasure as a subjective experience comes and goes – the same piece of music finds different places of interest depending on the moment, the context, the level of attention, and any number of other factors.
Experimental music is paradoxical in its formation as a genre. The term is problematic because it would best describe an activity that is constantly breaking apart under its own process of self-inspection. One thing I’ve noticed is that the rules actually seem to be multiplying. In addition to the usual concert-going conventions of classical music (audience should sit quietly, contemplating the music, and should clap after an appropriate pause), some areas of experimental improvisation have added several more layers of implicated or unacknowledged structure. For example, the set should consist of one long piece, or at most two; no leader or conductor should be hierarchically positioned; no pre-determined plan or score should guide the music, except for perhaps a few simple parameters; nothing resembling “music” should be played, even when traditional instruments are present; in many cases, timbral beauty should be resisted.
It’s a paradoxical position - the conventions of breaking the conventions. The restrictions of experimental concert practice have created a position within which any form of aesthetic conservatism mustn’t be used – regular rhythm, melody, and pitch have been removed from the palette of resources. These are deliberate choices, but they can feel diminished rather than expanded. Anything traditionally pleasurable is seen as conservative, and therefore must be withheld.
The history of 20th Century music contains many examples of withheld pleasure. The “progress” of the modernist avant-garde consists largely in the denial of familiar pleasures. Composers and musicians push audiences to accept gestures which are extreme in relation to their cultural context, and the accommodation of the new territory creates a new form of pleasure. The NPR program Radiolab had a fascinating section on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and its passage from riot-inducing avant-garde to Disney soundtrack. On a neurological level, the brain enjoys challenges, and assimilating unfamiliar sound combinations gives pleasure.
In many cases, it seems that while some types of pleasure are denied, a replacement can be found. For example, in Cage’s iconic work of withheld sound, 4’33”, we can find new pleasure in the absurdity of the theatrical gesture, the neo-Dada humor in the stilled player(s), the social tension of an audience attempting to be quiet. (Witness an orchestral version for an amplification of such characteristics, broken by the coughing, shuffling release of “allowed” noise during the movement markers.) Perhaps, maybe, one might experience the stated goal of 4’33” - the pleasure of hearing all sounds as music and the replacement of orchestral entertainment with the joys of apperception.
It’s not that I’m a stranger to the exquisite pleasure of displeasure. One of my favorite examples is the 2-CD “TNB Est Mort” by The New Blockaders. This grinding, crushing, wailing, dragging piece of noise music is broken into four approximately 25-minute sections, each of them continuous, unbroken, unchanging and similar almost to the point of being identical. In this case, the negation of musical pleasure is replaced by the monumental decision to just continue - the sheer excess of the composition extends beyond the bounds of tolerance, forcing the listener to either submit or reject.
I’m guessing that one underlying cultural metaphor separates pleasure into two varieties – that of the body and that of the mind – intellectual or sensual. Perhaps this division drives the pursuit of an arid aesthetic within experimental music, which is supposed to be smart. I suppose it also drives the vacuity of many popular musics. We could say that a song like Pitbull’s “Hotel Room” – which I find adventurous and hugely engaging on a timbral level - displays an entirely empty and surface-oriented lyrical content. This emptiness plays into the song’s function as a dance track. It emphasizes an unthinking, body-oriented listening.
I recently attended a concert of improvised music at the sparse but beautifully resonant Gallery Homeland. Performed was a duo between Bryan Eubanks on electronics and Vic Rawlings on electronics and cello. The sonic structure was typified by whooshes of white noise, crackles of contact mics, piercing high-frequency tones and crunchy electronics bursts. I’ve enjoyed music by both of these musicians on other occasions, but on this evening I found the music dry, timbrally predictable and sometimes painful on a basic auditory level. I really wondered what there was to find pleasurable – not because I questioned the musicians themselves but because I wonder about my own quality of attention.
In some improvised music, predictable structures are replaced by instrumental virtuosity, but this is a music that purposefully distances itself from displays of virtuosity. Some composed music orients the listener around processes of memory and recognition, but this is a music that is constantly drifting - neither static enough to be forgetful nor organized enough to be memorable. Most experimental music (and, I would argue, pop music) finds pleasure in new timbres, but here I found myself over-familiar with the limited range of non-musical sounds and physically repelled by the high-frequency sine waves.
Matt Carlson suggested that the locus of pleasure in this type of music is a deep self-identification with the players and their decisions. Each new sound, each interaction is viewed through a lens of asking if each choice was a ‘good’ one - “If I were playing, would I make the same decisions?” This requires an extremely close attention and when it works, it can also produce that attention. But perhaps it also emphasizes an insider’s understanding of the means and results. Does it exclude an unfamiliar audience to utilize only this kind of listening?
I ask this question of my own work as well, out of the desire to include more people in my sonic interests - not to meet an audience at the level of predictability, but to somehow draw them in. I would suggest that it has become more unpredictable to include “musical” structures and sounds in experimental music than to exclude them. I have been sweetly surprised by the music of Giuseppe Ielasi, for example, which draws elements of rhythm, melody and pattern into a fractured, difficult and gloriously unconventional framework. (Matt Marble wrote a nice review of Aix here.) Ielasi resists any blanket statements about the direction of his work or experimental music in general. Future projects may include minimalist drones or free improvisation. At the same time, these elements are not combined in a bricollage of various styles – they feel deeply committed and personally relevant. Each project is truly an experiment.
I felt the need to write this essay, but now I wonder about posting it. I would like to stop defining my interests in the negative. I hope that it might start some interesting discussion.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that commitment is the key term in the exchange between artist and audience. It is commitment which opens up the possibility of pleasure – through the means of attention. The energy of commitment itself can come from any number of sources, cultural or personal. It gives force to the act of attention, and anything becomes interesting given close enough attention.
From here on, I'll be writing more about the things that have caught my attention.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

plait reformations

One of the wonderful things about the new studio has been returning to previous work and viewing it in a new light (figuratively and literally). I unwrapped all the pieces of Plait and have been crystallizing them into finished structures. Here are a few in the process of forming.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Turns of phrase

In my dispersed and fragmented reading lately (am I becoming guilty of the micro-attention span?), I've been noticing how various authors use rhetoric. I'm referring here to language which works as a subtle manipulation in the favor of sound or persuasion. Since I've been involving myself with so many texts that develop arguments as a mode of writing, I've become very aware of attempts to use words as a means of creating meta-narratives or expressions of interpretive authority.
Even when texts recognize and give lip service to the postmodern ideas of plurality and the imposition of narrative, they often seem to engage linear ways of speaking, embedded in the very language. I realize that writing is meant, in part, to be seductive - to produce pleasure through the spinning of ideas and the rhythm of words. But am I asking too much for writers to give attention to accuracy and the implications of phrase?
I'll choose a few examples from diverse sources that I've come across recently. This isn't meant as an attack on these particular texts, but more as a question about a pervasive use of language. Seth Kim-Cohen was kind enough to send me his new book In the Blink of an Ear - Toward a Non-cochlear Sonic Art. I'm only 70 pages in, so I'm still not sure what is meant by a "non-chochlear sonic art", but I've been noticing a heavy use of rhetorical language throughout. It's been unclear when he is describing notions of art history, and when he is making use of them himself. One brief quote: "Duchamp siphoned off the power of modernism's original combustions, energizing first Jasper Johns and later, more securely and more incontrovertibly, the conceptual artists of the 1960s and '70s." This probably seems like a minuscule example, but in light of the book’s examination of Greenberg, Fried, et al, I can’t help but think about the ways in which art theory has been so often the attempt to construct a more authoritative story about who did what “first” and what kind of doing is “best”… These stories reinstate progressive notions of artistic activity which lie somewhere deep in the very basis of our thinking. I think these notions sneak into the language, often without notice, subtly shaping our overall “map” of a complicated, conflicted and infinitely detailed terrain.

The meaning is clear enough - Duchamp's work early in the 20th century was rediscovered by artists 30 and 40 years later, who felt a resonance with his appeal to the "grey matter" rather than the retina. But notice how the construction of the sentence places Duchamp as active, giving him a kind of magical (energetic) power over those who came later, giving Duchamp metaphorical access to the “gasoline” which drives the “engine” of modernism. By implication, this metaphor creates a direct line through history, reinforcing the idea of history as direct lines, even in opposition to the paragraph's surface idea.

In a local example, Calvin Ross Carl posted a response to a review of The Manor of Art, a 110 artist show: “Shows like this are poisoning the well and help in maintaining Portland's appearance as a haven for scrappy amateurs, and we are much more (and better) than this.” The comment has sparked a firestorm of responses, and rightfully so. The metaphor has descriptive power and one can agree or disagree, but I am so (yawn) tired of this manner of speaking. “Portland Art is such and such…” “The Portland scene is doing such and such…” So many of the stories we tell seem wrapped up in essentialist notions – these polemical ideas which emphasize linearity, unity and cohesion. Is there really a “well” of Portland art? Can Portland appear any one way to this imaginary “Viewer”? Are “we” really any one way? Who are “we” anyway? Not only is this kind of linguistic construction tedious, it just seems plain inaccurate. Which is not to say that Calvin is committing some kind of linguistic crime… as I’ve said, these constructions are pervasive, insinuating and practically inescapable.

Other times, I think authors simply become carried away with the flow of words. From David Cox The Lens of Images: "As we move toward a database culture in which all texts are made available to all others, the empire of signs starts to crack as surely as the Berlin wall." Really? Is a collage-based aesthetic and a mouse-clicker’s leveling of all information as a potential download really going to deconstruct the semiotic nature of things? Does the availability of a text really give it more importance or power? It sounds great… It helps to build a polemic in support of a coined term - “database culture” – by indirectly referring to recognized authority (Barthes’ Empire of Signs) and important historical events, but does it accurately and specifically observe?

It’s my belief that specific observation is the antidote to these problems. In Calvin’s comment mentioned above, and in the 40+ responses, there are various heated declarations, vague generalities and blanketing statements, but no close attention to individual artists or works, no use of critical observation to analyze the apparent issue. The more we can look closely at specifics, the less tempted we might be to make broad gestures. The more we can think about individual people and the more we can engage subtle, distinct particularities, the less we’ll have to rely on oppressive essentialisms.

As David Bordwell says in the introduction to Theorizing the Moving Image by Noel Carroll: “Much of contemporary theory in literature, art and film consists of assembling received doctrines of vast generality, recasting them to fit one’s interests, yoking them to other (often incommensurate) doctrines, and then applying the result to the task at hand (typically interpreting a particular artwork). If the theorist undertakes analysis of a theory, the process usually focuses on rhetorical argument rather than logical inference.” Carroll’s writing (what little of it I’ve read so far) is refreshingly careful, thoughtful and precise. Just using the title as an example, he chooses the verb form “theorizing” to stress the active process, and to avoid the singular term “theory”. And then he uses “moving image” instead of “motion pictures” to allow an open definition of the subject, one which makes room for non-pictorial films, as well as television, video, computer animation, etc. I’m looking forward to delving into this text.

Words have power. Even single words can carry deep meanings. Metaphors create powerful mental images which affect our models of the world. I believe it’s worth thinking about how we use language.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Monday, June 22, 2009

new CD!

Flock & Tumble is out now from Sonoris (France)! This music was mostly the result of my scoring of Linda Austin's dance piece, Circus Me Around, which ran November 2007. For that production, the sound was dispersed on a roughly cross-shaped four-channel system, across three separate but simultaneous performance areas in a large warehouse. This album marks a major shift in my compositional style (at least to my ears), emphasizing a more song-like structure, a more obvious inclusion of the voice as material, and a finer degree of attention to micro-structures.
Confusingly, this is not the sound for my own performance piece of November 2008 titled Flock & Tumble (I'm still looking for a label for that material, which will be called Furl.)
The beautiful cover image is by Harrison Higgs.

new studio!

A few shots from the build-out of our new studio... with the help of the amazing Theodore Holdt. We'll finish mudding tonight and start thinking about what to do with the crumbling wood floors. I'm looking forward to pulling out some older work, seeing things in conjunction, and thinking about how to organize a showing. Kelly's looking forward to large, clean walls and space to begin installation-based pieces. We're both looking forward to the greater sense of community that will come with the group of 20 or so artists who are also building spaces. We'll be putting energy into a communal area where everyone can display work - and of course a big studio opening party later this summer.

Friday, June 12, 2009

I finished one today, three others almost there. Two new canvases are stretched. I want to cool down the composition, make the brushwork both more contained and more spontaneous.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

auditory practice 2

I'm interested in the way sound connects to other things, forming temporary alliances. Rather than seeking a primacy or purity of the auditory, I like its contingency.

My fascination with the tactility and physicality of sound is what now attracts me to working with dance. Choreographers are also working with a kind of resonance between the bodies of the audience and those of the dancers. While (probably) unable to perform their actions, on some level we “feel” them, in a neurological way. The weight and density of the dancer’s body, the breath, feet, sweat and pulse of the dancers become associated with the metallic or wooden or watery sounds, complicating both their gestures and my music. Through the laws of magnetic attraction, impulses of movement become connected to sonic impulses, creating strange overlaps and correspondences. In some ways, this completes a loop - the removal of sound from action in capture and the connection to a new action in performance - but in a way that is shifted and shifting. Dancers allow themselves to find and feel the pulse, and I find ways to adjust and respond to their gestures. These elements become linked, but tangentially. The link occurs primarily in the experiencing of the moment.
I want to recognize all listening as happening within and through a body.

auditory practice 1

I am experiencing a near-total block with composing. Not too unusual in general, and as preoccupation shifts to visual work, focus on sound tends to lessen. I experience a fairly constant doubt around the creative process, but I most often find a way to become fascinated by something. I can't go on, I'll go on...
But this current feeling is more extreme and part of a larger, gradual shift. I've been listening mostly to underground pop and various dance musics lately, and more and more interested in making something which reflects my enjoyment of those forms. But filtered through my lack of musical skill and my "mis"understanding of those sonic worlds. On the other hand, I occasionally become tired of the attitudes and limits which surround all kinds of musical activity - the conventions of genre or sense which make a cultural object identifiable. Sometimes, while listening to music I'm overwhelmed by the "belongingness". I want to hear things which can't be identified, can't be named. And it's also the kind of music I want to make.

Perhaps I'm moving away from making sound work which is organized into "tracks" and gathered into an "album" (it's getting increasingly difficult to find willing labels, anyway). I'm more interested in sound work which directly relates to an event in real time. Simultaneously, I'm moving alongside "real music", wanting to act as some kind of reflection. In the next few weeks or months, I plan to write occasional posts on my past and current composing, in an attempt to find out where I am. I would also like to start writing about the music of others I enjoy, attempting to articulate my appreciation of diverse sounds. This might be a way back in.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Accumulative Interlocking

One of four smallish canvases in progress...

Improvisation continues in relationship to existing marks. The window is propped with a hammer, the sounds of continuous traffic. Drips on the freshly painted floor. I have been thinking about DeKooning (especially early and late periods) and Amy Sillman. Painter's painters. The sensuousness of the brush remains, with varieties of buttery, liquid, dry... the saturation of color which charges my retina and continues out into the world.

Forms are carved out. I'm not interested in depicting things. I'm feeling the way marks can open and question, or seal and confirm. I feel completion as a kind of interlocking, arrived at through accumulation of moves. As with sound, I try for velocity. I've also been thinking about wildstyle graffiti, the graphic quality of letter forms, which has been a longstanding impulse. Wildstyle graffiti is all about interlocking, the interplay of letters and the spaces between, which compete as foreground and background, positive and negative space, form and void.

Mural by Zephyr

I've been photographing various stages of these paintings in progress, trying to understand the way early, arbitrary marks can shape or determine later decisions. Trying to understand the way a consistent vocabulary rises out of an accumulation of small decisions. I gave up oil paints for about 8 years. I remember being frustrated with the problem of defining a vocabulary, the repertoire of personal forms. It's still a problem. I want these paintings to maintain ambiguity, places where forms could be one thing or another - or both.

I feel almost guilty for making paintings, abandoning any pretentions to sculptural form. A flat surface with shapes and colors. A medium in which one must trade between the refinement of materials and the crush of historical weight. An online review of Amy Sillman's recent paintings mentioned that an opinion of her work moves around the fulcrum of your opinion about the possibility of abstract painting. It's an issue I try to forget in order to continue. Seeing a small annex of Sillman's paintings on paper at the Brent Sikkema gallery in February reignited something. After months of internal debate, I finally took the plunge. It feels good.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I'm now a few months into twice-weekly rehearsals with Linda Austin, building material for our movement/sound/video performance, along with the dancers Anne Furfey, Rebecca Harrison, Kajanne Pepper and Lucy Yim. This is the first time I've started a dance/sound collaboration from the very beginning and it's been fascinating to observe processes for constructing. Linda uses a number of methods for improvising, gathering and remembering sequences, utilizing a combination of technical means (video-taping and re-watching) along with individual and group memory. It's been a tangible luxury to develop all the components of the piece simultaneously and interdependently.

I've been recognizing the importance, in various creative ventures, of just "getting something out there". I've never been one to plan something and then attempt to match reality with that already complete mental conception. The movement towards action begins with an impulse, an image, a dynamic, etc. This impulse is the trigger for improvisation which places something before our senses - a thing which can be examined, revised, tweaked and adjusted. Within performance practice, there's the interesting opportunity to incorporating the filters of each participant. For example, Linda might perform an improvisation, instructing the dancers to "catch" movements and to assemble them into a phrase. We watch each of these phrases as solos and as a quartet, begin working with the quartet, making changes in timing and moving towards ever finer adjustments. Within an hour, we have several minutes of new material to expand, shelve or discard...
I'm interested in producing video material in a similar way, through group improvisation and play - within situational contexts rather than strictly movement-based concerns. Working with a set of materials and methods, unpredictable things may happen, and I can videotape continuously. Combing through this stockpile of material, I can select images or sequences which have strength, and refine the procedures for another session of taping.

Since I've been painting again, these procedures for "getting things out there" seem not so different from approaching a blank canvas, making a gesture, observing, reacting, making another gesture, obscuring, erasing. I suppose it's all very old-fashioned. This approach has its dangers for me as well, largely the problem of becoming attached to material just because it has been externalized, diminishing the possibility of change. There is an addictive freshness to the blank canvas, the equal possibility of all options. The rupture of the first mark which immediately begins to close off or determine future gestures.
As I was yielding the brush yesterday, I was listening to an interview on NPR about O.C.D. behavior, a disorder which makes extreme this fear of the determining consequences of action. A man who was literally paralyzed by the fear of "something bad" which might happen as a result of his actions. But of course, even non-action is an action... Putting material into the world requires a certain fearlessness, combined with clear observation and a willingness to change at any point.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A few from a new series. The first diptych is approx. 21" x 31", the second approx. 26" x 33". The third drawing is approx.22" x 25".
I feel that I am re-engaging a form language, and after finishing a few more of these, the next work may be painting in earnest - canvas, oils, color...

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Garbled Repetition

I'm thinking about the use of "extreme" repetition in movement phrasings. I'm interested in the processes of imperfection and ambiguity which are inherent in human reiteration. The forces of physical inertia, a mutation through fatigue or boredom, change through slurring, blurring, mumbling... The possibilities of scrambled or emergent meanings, a multiplicity of hearings and interpretations.
Another album on heavy rotation in the studio lately has been Radiohead's Hail to the Thief. Previously, listening to their other albums, I've been put off by Thom Yorke's nasal vocals and the anthem-rock theatrics, but this one has been hitting some pleasure centers. In the course of one song, there's the repetition of a phrase, "It should be ringing..." (it should be raining, it looks like rain in.. It could be Reagan...) The slurred and circular performance allows variations in emphasis, emotion and a linguistic imprecision. I want it to continue, to be more extreme, to become uncomfortable, to push and pull with equal pressure.
Toy boat toy boat toy boat toy boat toy boat toy boat toy boat tou boat toubut toiu bout.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Narrative Tangentiality

Finished composing for and performing Montauk with the Liz Gerring Dance Co. and now back from the run at the Baryshnikov Art Center in NYC. Returning to the ink paintings and now working with black acrylic, india ink, and a bit of charcoal in addition to the blue ink, and larger pieces of paper (I'll post some new pictures soon). It feels great to be back in the studio. Listening to Robert Ashley's Perfect Lives - two or three "episodes" each day... Despite my deep admiration for a few particular pieces (Automatic Writing, The Wolf Man, and especially In Sara Mencken Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women), it's only my second time listening through this sprawling opera.

Robert Ashley's music is a wonderful example of ambiguity - structures as non-structures. There's a quality of endless wandering, limitlessness. I admire this quality because my own music seems to become, in the course of things, resolutely unambiguous. In reaction to or against the segmented, ordered quality of my recent performance piece, Flock & Tumble, I've been interested in shifting more towards structures of narrative ambiguity and thinking about what that might mean in the upcoming project with Linda Austin.
Ashley seems to have recognized some hidden attribute of television, some rarely utilized possibility for expansion. Over the winter break and in the midst of snow storms, Kelly and I watched the first and second seasons of Mad Men, which might serve as another example (though far more conventional).

The potential within the framework of a television series is something Twin Peaks first noticed and utilized in a self-conscious way. The open-ended aspect of television gives the possibility of endless narrative expansion, something that Mad Men uses to create a network of characters and psychologies rather than a narrative arc, following endless side-paths within an established group of elements. A revelation of character rather than plot, a deepening of interior space. Very little happening on the surface, but great depths below.

Perhaps this all has something to do with a working method that starts without possibly knowing the ending. A reliance on brainstorming, automatic writing... A faith in the generative properties of the network.
Soap operas take this tangentiality to absurd extremes, but with reversed emphasis - lots happening on the surface and very little below. This was recognized and parodied by Lynch in Twin Peaks, and even mirrored by the television show within the television show (Invitation to Love). A certian degree of amnesia is necessary to continue.
Perfect Lives remains slippery in every way. The established elements of piano, organ and voice are a kind of changing same, constantly flowing, a pattern of syllables... Even instability is unstable, as short "songs" emerge and then disintegrate. A few phrases, names and places stick. Perhaps patterns would emerge with repeated listenings, and I would like to finally see the video, which is now available on dvd.
Robert Ashley also talks about engaging different attention spans, something I've been pondering lately. I'm wondering what the effect would be of extreme repetition of dance events, "looping" single actions or phrases of various lengths, working with the varieties of memory - immediate, short term and long term. (Does anyone have the approximate lengths of these categories, neurologically-based?) What would be the difference between a five second "loop", repeated many times, and a 30-second "loop" or a two-minute "loop"? Or loops that tangent partway through their repetition... I'm interested in the live repetition of human gestures because of the inherent impossibility of exact repetition. I'm interested in using this repetition as a way of accessing the brutality of separation, the way that violence becomes aesthetic.