Monday, December 26, 2011

Films by Abigail Child

Frames from Covert Action by Abigail Child (courtesy of the artist)

The latest issue of The Brooklyn Rail includes my review of a recent DVD-and-book release for Abigail Child's Is This What You Were Born For? Endlessly inventive, this remarkable cycle of films, whose creation spanned the 1980s, is unlike anything made before or since; in their approaches to montage, image/sound relationship, and constituent materials, each film is distinctly different, yet they work together as a cohesive whole. Their soundtracks are meticulously crafted, and feature a set of extraordinary musical contributions by the likes of Shelley Hirsch, Christian Marclay, Zeena Parkins, and Charles Noyes.

The review itself can only begin to suggest the cycle's richness and depth, and this is where the book comes in; it includes a very fine set of essays by Tom Gunning, Melissa Ragona, Redell Olsen, and Thomas Zummer, along with an interview with Child by Francois Bovier and Ricardo Da Silva. You can read the Rail piece here:

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Alvin Lucier’s "The Queen of the South"

Members of Loadbang and Pygmy Jerboa performing at Issue Project Room- June 2011

This is the first in a series of entries on individual works by the composer Alvin Lucier; it begins with The Queen of the South, commissioned in 1972 by Gerald Shapiro and the New Music Ensemble. Stay tuned over the coming months as the series continues.

The Queen of the South is for me part of an ongoing fascination with attempts by artists and musicians to visualize sound; typically achieved through technological means (regardless of the sophistication of materials at hand or degree of scientific understanding on the part of the artist), they are often informed by—yet distinct from—any science-driven objectives of recording and measurement. My recent article about Ryoji Ikeda looks at one recent example of this desire at its most elaborate; The Queen of the South represents a more back-to-basics approach.

Lucier’s composition draws direct inspiration from the work of the Ernst Chladni and Hans Jenny; Chladni, an 18th century German physicist, is best known for his pioneering research into the laws of acoustics and the visualization of sound waves, using simple materials like sand, flat resonant plates, and a violin bow. Two centuries later, Jenny (who passed away the same year Lucier’s piece was composed) extended Chladni’s explorations, conducting rigorous experiments with liquids, and using oscillators for precise calibration of audio signals. Later, he speculated about the potential healing powers of certain sound frequencies, thought that has been presented as fact by some of his kookier followers.

Plate from Die Akustik by Ernst Chladni

Lucier saw these experiments not simply as a form of drawing with sound; he was intrigued too by the momentary arrest and exposure of something invisible and ever in flux, a kind of photography before (and beyond) photography. Many of his pieces, such as Vespers and Bird and Person Dyning, foreground the process of discovery, enacted anew with each performance. They evoke a childlike wonder in the most positive sense, and he achieves this by stripping each piece down to its essential elements. For The Queen of the South, he steps back from Jenny’s precision instruments, deploying a musical ensemble with all its sonic idiosyncrasies and the human imperfections of its members. The prose score instructs performers to

“Sing, speak, or play electronic or acoustic musical instruments in such a way as to activate metal plates, drumheads, sheets of glass, or any wood, copper, steel, glass, cardboard, earthenware, or other responsive surfaces upon which are strewn quartz sand, silver salt, iron filings, lycopodium, granulated sugar, pearled barley or grains of other kinds, or other similar materials suitable for making visible the effects of sound.”

This indirect interface is a bit like watching someone use a computer mouse for the first time, struggling to understand the correlation between their actions and what happens upon the resonant surface. The various materials suggested in the score may respond quite differently to the same sounds- some offering visible resistance, others skittering across the chosen surface with minimal sonic prompting. Performers are given great leeway for real creative input, for Lucier is quite at home with the idea that no two performances of this piece will look or sound quite like another. In truth, Lucier—along with post-Cagean contemporaries such as George Brecht, La Monte Young, and others—went well beyond Cage in both the freedom granted to the performer and, following that, their encouragement of such varied outcomes (it’s too little known that Cage himself, for all his professed allegiance to chance methods, quite often displayed control freak tendencies.)

Important as Cage and his contemporaries were, Lucier was also reacting to the cultural and pedagogical traditions of the conservatory in which he was trained. Why must the search be the composer’s alone? What about the performers, or for that matter, the audience? By the time he composed The Queen of the South, he had established convictions about the importance of music as a process of inquiry, wholly antithetical to the values now calcified within the western classical tradition.

Back in early June at Issue Project Room, two ensembles- Loadbang (Alejandro Acierto, Jeffrey Gavett, Andy Kozar, and Will Lang) and Pygmy Jerboa (Maria Stankova and Ivan Naranjo) gave a fine performance of Lucier’s piece. Following a note suggested in the score for the benefit of the audience, a video camera transmitted a live signal of the image for projection onto a wall behind the performers. In an interview with Douglas Simon, Lucier explained that:

“...needing closed circuit video is a blessing in disguise. You make the imagery available to the audience, but what happens along with that is that you defy gravity, you turn the plates up on their axes, you change the spatial relationships, you show something that is physically impossible. And secondly, by translating the image to video, you’re turning a mechanical phenomenon into an electronic one.”

The groups at IPR were respectful of the score and to the sense of what Lucier’s music often sounds like. Their first iteration with salt on the head of a snare drum was perhaps the most successful, a particular combination of instrumental voices, resonant surface, and granular material that worked wonderfully together.

Eschewing traditional notation, Lucier’s prose scores are beautiful in and of themselves. Instructions are clear, and the language evocative- the score for The Queen of the South invites its performers to sonically conjure patterns and images from an inventory that includes “...beads, medallions, topologies of near or far environs, plaids, tweeds, road signs, floor plans, tapestries, diamonds,” and so on. It’s rare to encounter an artist so unafraid of the poetic associations within their own work. What’s more, the clarity with which he lays out his concepts extends to the performance aesthetic itself; Lucier’s music and his pedagogical contributions are very much of a piece.

The hand-wringing that takes place over the ever diminishing audience for contemporary art music rarely (if ever) considers that most listeners have no idea what composers are up to. Occasionally the composers themselves may bear some responsibility for this, but to me it’s the promotional materials—lazy, cut-and-paste press releases, program notes that comprise little beyond lists of career highlights—that are the great missed opportunities in bringing new listeners to music outside the mainstream. One look at Lucier’s Reflections: Interviews Scores Writings 1965-1994, published by MusikTexte (and from which the quotes here are taken) throws this into stark relief, lucid and with a generosity of ideas too often absent elsewhere in the world of contemporary music.

Through the transformation of language into sound and vibrating matter, then again into audio and video signals, the richness of this seemingly simple idea becomes apparent. As Lucier explained in that same interview,

“If you’re to play a piece in which the task is to put sounds into a material and experience the modes of vibration in that sound, as in The Queen of the South, have two choices. One is to make any sound that you already know how to make, or any music that you know, and see what it does to the materials; in that case, you’re making son et lumière. That’s the first thing that everybody suggests I do, to plug in a Beethoven symphony, for example... Or to avoid that simple- minded situation, you can do something more simple-minded: ask a player to pay very close attention to what occurs in those situations and use those occurrences as a...—I was going to use the word “score”—use them as a procedure with which to continue making sounds.”

Is it possible to reconcile these two approaches, creating “sound that you already know how to make”, while at the same time paying “very close attention to what occurs”? Josh Solondz and I (aka SynthHumpers) will see if it’s possible sometime this fall- performances details forthcoming.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Notes on W.C. Fields

The July/August issue of The Brooklyn Rail includes an essay I wrote about W.C. Fields; in it, I explore how his screen persona was shaped by his reimagination of an alternate destiny, one where the psychic scars of his early years of struggle were transformed into a dark comedy that resonated for audiences during the Great Depression. I also focus on the nuance and modulation of his comic voice and some of the complex issues of power connected to it. You can find it all here:

Monday, July 4, 2011

Ryoji Ikeda's "the transfinite"

Ryoji Ikeda's the transfinite, photo by James Ewing (courtesy of Park Avenue Armory)

The current Film Comment includes an article I wrote about the transfinite, Ryoji Ikeda's stunning recent installation at the Park Avenue Armory. I've been intrigued by Ikeda's music since first hearing it nearly ten years ago. Good as it was, it left me wholly unprepared for CI, a "concert" he staged at Eyebeam in 2004 (concert is in quotes because Ikeda had abandoned all pretense toward live performance); that, along with last year's datamatics [ver.2.0] at Alliance Française, solidified his place for me as one of the truly important artists working today. the transfinite moves beyond that earlier work, integrating elements of expanded cinema, sculpture, motion graphics, concrete poetry and, of course, electronic music. A few critics, including Ken Johnson of the New York Times, didn't really get it; the hope is that this piece might offer a little belated insight:

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Claire Denis and Tindersticks

Still from Nenette et Boni by Claire Denis

The current issue of Film Comment features a new article by me about the recently released collection of soundtracks by Tindersticks for the films of Claire Denis. My reaction to this set was quite mixed, but instead of repeating myself here, you can go straight to it:

To be fair, much of that criticism could be just as easily made against hundreds of other soundtrack recordings- in the coming weeks I'll post some further thoughts about what I think makes a living, breathing soundtrack with a life of its own, along with a handful of personal favorites- stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Synthhumpers at ETC

Synthhumpers at ETC, March 19, 2011

This video will help to account for my extended time away from posting anything new here- it's one of several pieces that Josh Solondz and I--aka Synthhumpers--put together last week during our residency at the Experimental Television Center in Owego, NY. It was my sixth time there, and Josh's first: the place has played a crucial role in my own creative life, but more importantly, in the larger history of the electronic moving image; it's imbued with the love of its core staff- Sherry Miller Hocking, founder Ralph Hocking, Hank Rudolph, and Dave Jones, who designed much of the equipment especially for the Center. We're sad that after 40 years, the Residency Program will be coming to an end- and all the more grateful to get this one last chance to shake a few bricks loose. This is dedicated to the ETC crew.

Josh Solondz: Matrix/delay and distortion pedals, percussion, and Casio SK-1.

Jim Supanick: Boss DR-110 drum machine/mixer feedback loops, guitar, and clamshell sleep aid.