|Jason performing with blacksmith Dave Berger at Juniata College
Photo (c) Chad Herzog 2012
Strangers All Along
When So Percussion conceives big projects of our own work – especially those that make it to theatrically-oriented venues like BAM – we always start with a source of inspiration outside of purely musical ideas. We look for a kind of libretto; but being rather non-linear guys, we quickly abandon the source and allow its discourse to inform our process.
For Where (we) Live, that source was Jane Jacobs’ manifesto of urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. We found in it an analogue to something that we had been thinking about for awhile: what about attempting a unified creation with multiple and sometimes chaotic inputs? In Jacobs’ book, she rails against the well-meaning but (in her mind) hopelessly short-sighted urban planning of the 50’s and 60’s by the likes of Robert Moses, where whole communities and use-areas were conceived together as one design. She claims that a truly vibrant city must have stages of growth, unplanned diversity, and mixed uses on every block.
My knowledge of effective urban planning goes only about as far as I’ve read that book and a few other commentaries, so I’ll leave that issue here. Also, many of the compositions we perform were created via top-down planning, and we’re perfectly happy with it in music. As I said, we abandon the source pretty quickly.
But it sparked in us the thought that our art forms are often planned and segmented in exactly the same way, so that our conservatory degrees in “Percussion Performance” designate us for a specific function in the art world. While we eagerly embrace that function, we also feel that it requires only a simple act of outreach to experiment outside of its boundaries.
But that function is also what we’ve trained for, and what we’re best at. Just as with Jacobs’ mixed-use block, what if we practice our craft, but ask other folks to share the stage and practice theirs?
Would it just be a big happy mess, or could we hammer out an aesthetic shape and purpose?
Along with the many other moving parts that we attached to Where (we) Live, we decided to ask specific artists and artisans to join us on the stage and make things. While our collaborations with Emily Johnson, Ain Gordon, Martin Schmidt, and Grey Mcmurray would be long and consistent, our work with these other artists would be very short, perhaps only a day or two before each show.
We visit each in their own studio before the performance, learning about their process by observing the idiosyncrasies and rituals of their work. They then bring tools to one rehearsal, where we hash out the parameters of our brief collaboration. To us, the juxtaposition is not enough. We strive for the uncanny sense that our simultaneous and disparate activities are part of the same ecosystem, a created community on stage.
The results so far have delighted us: Steve Procter fired his giant ceramic pots with a blowtorch; Michelle Holzapfel gathered fabric to the gently whirring amplified hum of her sewing machine; Dave Berger’s mighty anvil pounded out its own rhythms while a cloud of amber-burnt dust rose to the ceiling, wafting an ancient aroma through the hall. In Helena and Billings, Montana, Joseph Firecrow whittled a new flute, joining us in playing “Strangers All Along.”
The Dignity of Craft
The concept of “craft” came up over and over again. Why, when we have the ability to fabricate massive quantities of perfectly symmetrical and consistent objects, would somebody still labor over creating them? The question applies just as well to music: At this point, I can barely tell the difference between a programmed marimba in Ableton Live and the real thing.
For me, the question was answered vividly when we visited Dave Berger’s forge. I had never actually been close to a skilled blacksmith (or I guess any at all). Something deeply human in me thrilled at the physical gesture, the smell of burned ash, the proximity to melted steel.
It brought to mind my favorite quote by the composer Iannis Xenakis, which may surprise those who think of him as a mechanical composer:
The hand, itself, stands between randomness and calculation. It is both an instrument of the mind – so close to the head – and an imperfect tool. … Industrialization is a forced purification. But you can always recognize what has been made industrially and what has been made by hand. Industrial means are clean, functional, poor. The hand adds inner richness and charm.
Steve Reich, another of my favorite composers, talks about the joy of discovering how much he liked hearing imperfect humans attempt phasing in his music. Mathematical perfection pales aesthetically in comparison with our experience of identification with the performers who exert themselves in achieving it.
Our increasingly digital lives, while conferring many benefits, detach us from this thrill. Live performance, and craft by hand, jolt us back into a basic humanity.
The four performances at BAM (December 19-22) feature a different Brooklyn-based artist each night. Their creations, and the aesthetic experience of watching them make things alongside us, change the musical and theatrical environment. We encourage anybody who comes out to check out more than one night and see how the show changes.
Paula Greif, ceramics (December 19) trained as a graphic designer and has always had an interest in rock. Her first job was in the art department at Rolling Stone; she was art director at Mademoiselle, Condé Nast, Barneys New York, and Richard Avedon’s studio and designed album covers as well. At MTV in the 1980s, she made her first Super 8 rock video for The Smiths, “How Soon is Now,” and directed many rock videos and TV commercials. After marrying and becoming a parent, she began making pottery and glassware, taking inspiration from 20th-century artisans such as Lucie Rie, Beatrice Wood, and Rosanjin Kitaoji. She has a shared studio in Red Hook and in the summer is potter in residence at old Field Farm in Cornwallville, NY. Her wares are available at Beautiful Dreamers in Williamsburg and Iko Iko in Los Angeles.
Riccardo Vecchio, painter (December 21) was born in 1970 near Milan, Italy. From 1990 to 1993 he studied design at the university of Trier, Germany, and continued studies at the European Institute of Design in Milan. In 1994 he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to enroll in the masters program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, from which he graduated in 1996, receiving the Paula Rhodes Memorial Award for his thesis project. Since then, Vecchio has been a faculty member in the School of Visual Arts’ illustration department. He has won awards from American Illustration, Communication Arts and other publications. His work has been published in a wide variety of magazines and books, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Penguin Books. His work has also been published by the Verve Music Group, Adobe, American Express, and other media and commercial outlets in the US and Europe. His work was exhibited in a major solo exhibition at the Visual Arts gallery in Manhattan in 2006 and at project spaces in Brooklyn, including Astor Row unlimited in 2009 and 2010. He lives and works in New York City.
Joseph Firecrow , Cheyenne flute maker and player.