Opinion

Bruce Conner Loves Sound (Part 2)

From Angels (1986) with Edmund Shea

In one visit, it is difficult to appreciate the welter of media, styles and experiences of Bruce Conner: It’s All True. Mandalas are framed and hung on the wall in one gallery- inked in minute, cramped detail. Intentional or not, it reminds me of the test patterns and countdowns that one often sees in his films. Those images make me “hear” the beeps and sine waves of the behind-the-scenes machinations of watching T.V. and movies as a kid. Sometimes the curtain would open and you would see and hear the wizard, or at least the technician, before the show started.

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#100 MANDALA (1970)

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1950’s  era television test pattern

Conner likes working with other artists.  Angels is one cooperative effort with Edmund Shea from 1986. The room for Angels is painted black and hung on the walls are several gelatin silver prints of heavenly light piercing a black plane. There are eight almost-full-sized portraits, each cutting through the dark in its own way. According to the information sign, Bruce liked making his gallery shows “theatrical”, so these images were originally accompanied by crickets in a box, chirping. MoMA shied away from this idea by playing a close recording of crickets into the gallery space. I guess bait shops and potato slices aren’t plentiful on 53rd street.

 

The chirping warms the room, accompanying the angels not with the sounds of  heavenly hosts, but with a summer night. The angels are made familiar by this friendly, earthy chorus. Angels is now associated in my mind with the sound of chirping crickets, and they are more alive in my memory. Clever how he attaches his angels to my memory with sound.

This is the second post of many about this exhibition. Please go! At MoMA until October 2nd.

Bruce Conner Loves Sound

Gregory Briggler at the exhibition. Photo credit: ©2016 Gregory Briggler

Bruce Conner loves sound. He understands it in a way that few visual artists do. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is showing and sounding a retrospective of the artist whose life spanned the life of Rock and Roll. The name of the show is Bruce Conner: It’s All True. I can not recommend it enthusiastically enough.

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A frame from A Movie

The main show begins fittingly with “A Movie” (1958) which impressed me with its aesthetic directness. Well known and respected (but new to me), the found-film collage swings back and forth between images of violence, love, beauty and the mundane. All accompanied by the orchestral brass warhorse “The Pines of Rome” (1924) by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. The music begins with a quiet flourish and ends majestically, and the images seem to surf the music, harnessing its power in a brilliant way. It’s hard to imagine how the film would work without the music to lend structure and support. Conner often uses images, music and sound that look back in time, but the effect never strikes me as nostalgic or cheaply ironic.

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He uses sound as a part of collage in Tick Tock Jelly Clock Cosmotron (1961) (above) just as surely he uses nylon hose, wax and pin-up cutouts in other sculptures and assemblages from around the same time. In the original “Tick Tock” a vacuum cone containing the sound playback and recording device is umbilicaled to the rest of the collage. Inside the cone, he had originally recorded the conversations in the gallery, distorted them, and added them back to a pre-recorded track. The MoMA, out of fear of privacy lawsuits or laziness only plays the original ambient recording. You can hear a sample below. By the way, the cosmotron was a particle accelerator used in nuclear physics. He was obsessed with “the bomb” after all.

This is the first post of many about this exhibition. Please go! At MoMA until October 2nd.

The Rake’s Progress (A Concert Review)

File_002The evening begins…

The venue for Eli Spindel’s String Orchestra of Brooklyn’s concert version of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Roulette Intermedium, sits within earshot of raspy-voiced island music thumping from cars on the street and within eyeshot of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower. The intimate theater (“Prime seats at the Met”) was perfect for this production. The concert-goers sported blazers and bowties, jeans and t-shirts and cocktail dresses. The small theater was full of young and old adults chatting. Dressed in black, the orchestra prepared for three hours of concentration the score demands. A screen hung behind the chorus on which to projected the super-titles. There were microphones in between the audience and orchestra which framed the evening as an inviting, open recording session.

The concertmaster, Gina Dyches, a staff member at Roulette, entered followed by the guest conductor Tito Muñoz, music director of The Phoenix Symphony and five year S.O.B. collaborator, who said a few things before the concert. He mentioned that everyone involved in the project was a volunteer, incredible considering the quality of the performance. Also, The Rake’s Progress is one of his favorite pieces of music. And with that, they began. The orchestra performed very well overall. There were moments of uncertainty, but the proper bounce, blend, and sheer concentration smoothed out any rough spots. Rebecca Steinberg should be praised for her trumpet solo in Act 2. Stravinsky always treats the trumpet player with respect and Ms. Steinberg reciprocated.

The chorus was small and rag-tag. The members offered unintended diversions during the performance. One was asleep in the front row during the first act; another pursed her lips in disapproval at the stage action later on. There was a thirsty bass on the back row three minutes after intermission and, another time, a snarky joke between two sopranos on the front. The chorus was on stage the entire night, so these discreet indiscretions helped move the evening along. I also enjoyed the unintentional gravitas added by Rebecca Pechefsky, the capable harpsichordist for the production, who occasionally descended and ascended the stage right staicase like Eurydice.

The audience enjoyed the production and singing. Both Tom Rakewell (Gilad Paz) and Anne Truelove (Stefanie Izzo) received ovations during the performance. Many in the audience stood to clap when the progress had wound its course. I enjoyed both the staging and singing as well. The petite soprano Izzo’s voice is anything but,and her Anne endearing. John Kapusta as Sellem the Auctioneer made an explosive entrance which made me laugh. He kept up the energy and character to steal his short scene. Mother Goose (Caroline Tye) was convincing as the Madam of a brothel. Amy Maude Helfer, who played Baba the Turk with skill, was difficult to hear with or without the veil covering her character’s bearded face. I expect more scenery chewing from Baba. Paul An (Truelove) was the granite presence that the small role requires.

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The scenario is straightforward enough, but the welter of elements keeps you guessing. Anne is the heroine of the tale, but it’s hard to believe the sophisticated Auden and Stravinsky thought so. Anne shows up in technicolor OZ like a black and white Dorothy. I was taken with the coming and going of the characters. Each has their arch which undergird the structure and symmetry of the work. The progress begins with Tom and Anne together in Idyll. The progress is completed, after Anne, her work and charity finished, leaves. Tom in the asylum Bedlam with the chorus of mad accompanying him,dies. An epilogue with the five main characters is added a la Mozart. The work itself is an odd mishmash of seriousness and silly, romance and morality play, classical music and 50’s broadway, with scene, mood and character development turning like the flick of a playing card.

In tonight’s production, Tom’s death scene was very effective and seemed genuine, a rare feat on stage. Throughout, Paz was quite the leading man, giving Tom a kaleidoscope of feelings and character quirks throughout each tableau. His chemistry with Benjamin Bloomfield as Shadow was some of the best on stage tonight. Shadow had some moments of flubbing his lines here and there noticeable only because of the ever-present super titles. In spite of these small mistakes, his voice was nicely present and he certainly looked the part of Shadow by sporting a goatee and slicked hair. The menace of malice became real in his demeanor when he began to lose the impossible-to-lose card game to Tom near the end of the work.

Evil is very present in this work- Tom is easily talked into leaving Anne for money, easily talked into whoring and then a bad marriage. (“Marry Baba neither for desire or duty! Marry her because you can to be free!” Odd logic if logic it be.) Magic is present in this work, with Baba silenced like a canary simply by covering her head. Love is manifest by Father Truelove, Anne and Tom. Even when driven mad by Shadow, Tom as Adonis remains what he became during the card game – devoted to Anne, his chaste Venus.

Try and see this production tonight. The musicians work hard so there is no need for you to.


The Rake’s Progress

Music by Igor Stravinsky

Libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman

The String Orchestra of Brooklyn

Conducted by Tito Muñoz

8 p.m., July 23rd

ROULETTE INTERMEDIUM, INC

509 Atlantic Avenue (Entrance at the corner of 3rd Avenue)

Brooklyn, NY 11217

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Tatra Epiphany

IMG_1618The blogger hiking in Roháče around the year 2000. Photo Credit: © Katarina Vizina

[A note to the reader: I wrote this essay many years ago about the intersection between trombone playing and the reality of body perception. I will follow up with a more recent take. I have tried to keep the editing to a minimum; these were my thoughts at the time. Enjoy!]

You can never predict when you might reach your next level of perception. Each summer, my wife and I stay in Roháče in the “Western Tatra” mountains of Slovakia. The mountain forests are flush with raspberries, blueberries, and mushrooms. Part of the vacation ritual is for my in-laws to collect mushrooms and dry them for use later in the year, especially for a soup made around Christmas time. The mushrooms smell woody, earthen. I practiced among tables of sliced mushrooms drying on sections of newspapers. It was among the mushrooms where I had an epiphany that took my playing to a higher plateau.

The journey of improvement on the trombone seems to be made of steps and plateaus. There are times when improvement can be felt. The higher plateau of ability is exhilarating, at first. Then there is the feeling of “I’m awful!” and the work towards the next step up occurs.Then there is the next plateau to conquer. I find myself asking, “Is this it?” when I reach a plateau. In my journey, as if I am climbing Mt. Everest, I am always making it to what feel like a higher plateau.

My teacher, David Taylor, counsels me to concentrate on what my tongue is doing. This is easier said than done. I realized that I was thinking of my embouchure as flat in profile like all the drawings of the lateral cut-away mouth used to show tongue placement. The type is well know – a tilted coat-of-arms with two white, long-tailed tadpoles that represent the teeth and gums surrounding an albino leech that is the tongue. This pale heraldry does not come close to the actual sensation of the mouthpiece touching the face and the roof of the mouth being tapped by the tip of the tongue. A superior diagram would imply a three-dimensional mouth and mouthpiece but would still fall flat.

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In the mountains, I became aware of the difference between the way I was thinking about my embouchure and the reality of the fullness of experience. It was as though a flat drawing ballooned into the reality of my skull. In other words, I stopped “looking” at my embouchure from the side while trying to feel the drawing. I actually began to feel the hollow of my mouth, the width of my tongue. What helped me hold on to the feeling was my concentrating on the ring of the mouthpiece rim touching my face and lips. This feeling of “being in” my body was a strange, vertiginous experience especially at first, like the moment when first learning to balance a bicycle.

Too mystical? There are types of body-based learning in which we can participate. Anyone who has taken an Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais course knows this first hand. Although I am by no means an expert in either technique, our anatomy is often quite different from the way we think of it. For example, before taking an Alexander course, I thought of my rib-cage and spine as a ping-pong ball stuck on a stick like a candy apple. The truth is more like a ping-pong ball stuck onto the side of a stick, like a sculpture of a “P”.

The Feldenkrais Technique is a series of exercises that allow you to feel the reality of your body. Some exercises show you how to experience your pelvis in three dimensions. Others pinpoint your diaphragm. Still others articulate the range of motion of your neck, waist, and spine. With both Feldenkrais and Alexander techniques, the learning is done from the inside. Understanding begins with feeling. In the same way, the moment of clarity I experienced in the mountains taught me the truth of my embouchure in a way that no drawing could.

What has this mountaintop epiphany allowed me to do? I can feel much more accurately where I am placing my tongue. In just two months time, I could play multi-phonics much easier than before. Also, it has made me aware of how much air escapes from the left side of my mouthpiece. Most importantly, the mist has vanished between my perception of what I am doing and what is actually happening. I am certain this isn’t just a new plateau. Perhaps the previous plateaus were foothills leading up to this experience. Now begins the climb to greater heights.

Movie Music: Dead Men (1995)

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photo credit: © Gregory Briggler

Some times music chosen for movies plays against type and that makes the movie better. Dead Man Walking, Oscar bait for Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, is clearly made better by an unusual soundtrack. In the case of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, it can make a great movie grate.

What made Dead Man Walking so exceptional was director Tim Robbins use of music that didn’t have any cultural association with the deep South setting or even the United States. Instead of the boring, second-rate-slide-guitar-go-to of most films set in the exotic, gothic (hot, humid…) South, Robbins went with something exceptional. The music featuring the amazing, piercing voice of Pakistani Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, tabla and sitar, adds a lens of otherness. The beauty of the story shows through because the music removes tired stereotypes which allow the larger questions of the movie to come into focus. The worth of all is a people problem. It is not only a Louisiana problem or a United States problem.

The horribleness of Dead Man’s soundtrack cannot be overstated. The music is a Neil Young vehicle and in my memory consists of one electric guitar, one chord, and one chorus effect pedal. The stoic, solitary guitar is supposed to create an emotional connection to the enveiled main character, John Milton, played by Johnny Depp, as he wanders toward nothingness in the Pacific Northwest. Instead, the lonely guitar sounds stumble into the frame like an unwanted busker on a crowded subway car when you are reading a good book. The attempt to set a mood without orchestra swells and french horns playing open fifths is admirable but fell well short of effective.

(This post is the first in a rolling series about movie music.)

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Government Money: One Solution

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Photo Credit: © Larry Beckhardt

In my previous post Government Money: Prog Rock vs. String Quartet, you may remember my hesitation in supporting the way government money is given to “The Arts”. Basically, the process is too dependent on the taste and prejudice of nameless individuals. The way money is distributed lacks popular input which is what democracy should be about. I promised to suggest some solutions, so here is one.

Why don’t we open the process up at the beginning with input from any American citizen with a social security number and an internet connection? Each American citizen would get one thousand points to award to any project they felt worthy. To offer their points after signing in to the NEA website, they would click a button on the project page that reads “Support”. When clicked it asks, “How many points would you like to offer to support the project?” The citizen-supporter would enter the number of points, and their part is finished. The current selectors could still offer their support for favorite projects by featuring them, but their roles would be reduced from deciders to “influencers”.

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Each individual or organization petitioning for money would create a Kickstarter-style campaign consisting of a description of the organization, an under-two-minute video, and a proposal for the project they would need to support. This would create a rolling outlay of government funds for project-based needs. This means no more large government checks at the beginning of the artistic season. Filming a two-minute video and creating a project profile is much less onerous than the current hoop-jumping system. Categories would be simple and broad: music small ensemble, music medium ensemble, music large ensemble.

The larger the organization, the larger the payout, but also the greater number of points required. Within a certain time frame, say one month, if a project reached its points goal, it will likely be funded by the NEA. Americans who pledge their points after the project goal is met will keep their points, although the support will be noted by the NEA. This insures there will be plenty of points (and therefore money) around to support other projects. Like Kickstarter, a campaign must reach its goal for any funding. Unlike Kickstarter, the petitioner doesn’t get more and more money for points surpassing their original goal. Once the number of points needed to fund the project are pledged fully, the funding decision is automatically passed on to The National Council on the Arts which already meets several times a year.

This new and improved process will allow for diversity of input. It will also spread the money around in unexpected ways. It will surely cut out a lot of staffing largess which means more money for the art we love. This simple approach seems more just for sharing money in an open society.

Please Pander!

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Photo Credit: © Larry Beckhardt

Are you programming new music for an orchestra? Are you considering new music? Disappointed with the chilly reception generated by most new music you wish to perform? Here’s an idea: pander!

Give the audience what you think they want. Make sure the standards of the work meet your expectations… then program it. Chances are the audience will either love it or hate it. When you finally find a piece or performer the audience enjoys, then find something that compliments that work!

Pandering will humble you. It will make you realize that your art depends on listening to your audience just as you wish them to listen to the music you make. Pandering can free the impasse between the music programmer and the audience – the audience and the musicians. Music is made better when everyone listens!

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Government Money : Prog Rock vs. String Quartet

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Photo Credit: © Larry Beckhardt

There are many challenges when American democracy wants to give money to “the Arts”. When a single patron supports a string quartet, they are showing their personal preferences. When a string quartet is given a portion of collective money on behalf of population of three hundred and twenty million, problems arise. Should the Tulsa Ballet get money at the expense of a square dance troupe? The Fort Worth Symphony over the Madison Scouts? A string quartet before a progressive rock band? Who makes these decisions for us?

Committees can give away money on behalf of “us”, but these committees are not elected and not necessarily representative of the nation. Decisions at the National Endowment for the Arts are made based on the cultural or political bias of a cadre of people who are “experts” in their fields before being passed on to The National Council on the Arts. This public face of the endowment, to their credit, is a diverse group of people from all over the country.  However, there is no easy way to find documentation about how the “experts” make their decisions before reaching The National Council.

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Let’s consider a funding death match that could rage between a string quartet and a prog rock band. Naturally, ensembles that are traditionally dependent on the government money such as string quartets are a common sense choice for funding to their supporters. This is a problem. There is no way to justify an individual giving public money to support one over the other.

Both ensembles (both bands?) play complicated music, have four members, and have die-hard fans. One could argue for the “cultural relevance” of either. Although I dare not call myself an “expert” in the wide-open plains of music, I would certainly qualify as well informed and knowledgeable in a number of music styles. Regardless of my personal feelings about the worth of one group over the other, justification is hard to find for choosing one.

In a government for the people,  giving government money for the arts based on “experts” is a problem. A possible solution to make the process more democratic will be offered in a future post.

Oysters

I enjoy eating raw oysters. I didn’t begin to eat them until my thirties. They were never an acquired taste for me; I dug them from the beginning. They taste of the ocean. I like the slurp and the chew. They are on my plate as often as I can eat them. Filtering their food from the waters of the ocean, they are an excellent natural source of minerals as well.

Raw oysters are clearly not for everyone. A quality mignonette sauce or lemon juice can be added to calm a brassy finish. Some people add hot sauce only to kill the flavor. Alternatively, oysters can be fried to delicious effect. Some people add them to dressing at Thanksgiving which always seems like a mistake to me.

There are people who will never be convinced to like raw oysters. The taste for some is too briny. Perhaps the texture reminds others of a hawker. Apart from taste and texture, a mouth full of raw seafood may be a hard-shell hard sell.

Those who do not like oysters are not, to me, Phillistines. They do not fall out of bounds of acceptable or correct eating habits. If after trying an oyster, a diner has no more use for the dish, then I can respect their just-as-correct opinion of the bivalves I enjoy.

The same goes for new music. I may love a new composition in its chewy, salty entirety. Not only the sounds but the experience in the concert hall, subway platform or black box. If another listener has her reasons for not liking a new opus, what can we oyster eaters say? It doesn’t even need to be a “good” reason. A plain reason will do for me. My delight in raw oysters does not prove or disprove anything based on someone else’s disgust. Raw music is the same.

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Thank God for Football

What would American wind band playing be like without high school and college football? Bands and football go together like majorettes and sparkly bathing suits. Because of this cultural link which goes back to the beginning of the sport (bands are much older), wind bands have found favor in schools and towns that otherwise would not support them.

Where football programs are cherished, band programs find funding. In the book “Friday Night Lights” the Permian High School English department decries the money that the band receives because of football. I suppose the English department saw music as frivolous, or at the least, not as important as reading and writing. It is hard to see band funding as a bad thing from the point of view of music education whatever the source. In addition, because of strong bands, schools can add more music: choirs and sometimes orchestras.

Without this cultural link between wind bands and football what would happen to large-ensemble music making in schools? I think one need to look no further than any large American city. Band programs, and even cheaper choirs, are struggling without a reason to survive. Why get together and make music for no other reason than making music? This is a difficult thing to justify to a cash-strapped school board or city council.

With football, you need band. Without football, you don’t. Thank God for football.

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