Thursday, March 31, 2011

Running with Music

by Drew Martin

I like how musicians can show up with an instrument and sheets of music, sit down in a sea of other musicians, and start playing along in the collective.

I have always looked at this from the outside but I never gave much thought to the individual's perspective right before an introduction and becoming part of a group. It is not simply confidence that you can pull something off but assurance that you would complement the assembly.

I was able to look closer at this a week ago when I approached a group of elite runners I have seen religiously gathering at 7:30 every Sunday morning at a local duck pond. I am typically finishing my run when they are forming. I asked if I could join in and was welcomed but the acceptance happened once the run was underway and I held my own. Some runners were doing ten miles, others were going twice as far. Running long distances is similar to ocean swimming in that you cannot really decide halfway out that you are not in the mood. So this was a sink or swim situation.

A long distance runner's body is very much like a musical instrument. It resembles a violin or viola because the stringlike tendons and muscles are taut and need to be in tune. The body is typically light, without excess. Its performance depends on how you play it. A runner's body is also very much like a wind instrument; a flute or trumpet because of the breathing skills required, especially while carrying on a conversation. At the same time a runner is also a percussionist, keeping rhythm with his or her swinging arms and striding legs, and beating the surface of the ground ever so lightly with the soles of his or her feet.

The analogy of running and music is something that presented itself several times to me while running. Sunday is my social run. On this day, I try to arrange to run with friends. I have always noticed how each person plays his or her instrument. It can be the difference between a violinist and a fiddler or a flutist and a drummer. Likewise, a run can either feel like a well-conducted concert or a creative jam session. While running in a pack, one person might want to mix things up and change the pace. He or she steps it up and stands out from the others very much like a soloist.

While I am a smooth runner, I prefer not to run with other gazelles. I like the work horses who cover the same distance at the same pace but do so with a gutsy, locomotive drive like Emil Zátopek. It is the variety in style and age that makes a group diversely more interesting and frees up the regimen of exercise into a jazzy experience.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Barberians: the Medium is the Massage

by Drew Martin

In Chinatown (of Lower Manhattan) you can get an underground haircut for $5 and/or a massage for approximately $1 per minute (before tipping). Depending on the age of the advanced barber, the lapse since your last trim and your abandonment of urgency, the haircut may last a good half hour.

Both the haircut and the massage are sensational, especially if you don't speak Cantonese because there is no small talk and these activities are better experienced with closed eyes because the encounter is, first and foremost, that of being touched. The difference is that the massage is an insatiable experience. You don't want it to ever end, there is no terminal sensation...or if there is, it is soon to be desired in a short while, in a greater degree. Even worse is that the head massage or back rub is clocked and pleasure is spoiled when you are trying to anticipate when it might abruptly end. It's an odd deprivation because once committed, the absence of external contact feels like something has been physically taken away/removed.

The haircut is the perfect alternative. Your desired length of hair is the limit and even if that is surpassed, a bare scalp is the terminus. While the haircut requires a lighter touch, a finely tuned sitter might find the thousand of snips just a satisfying as overall meaty kneading. What does it for me is when an old barber jacks open the straight edge and runs it down the back of my neck. Perhaps it's a thinker's preference, to assuage a crowded cranium.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Anaïs Nin!!!

by Drew Martin

When I was very young, I thought the past was black and white, like old movies and photographs. I believed life was more formal and respectable because people wore hats and gloves in public. My parents, grandparents and teachers told me it was so.

It wasn't until I read Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, and then (immediately afterwards) Tropic of Capricorn that I saw things clearly: humans have not changed one bit. More distant voices maintain the stasis of the human condition as well (Shakespeare is a fine example) but the difference is that Miller's writing is not rolling in 16th Century English and he comes from a time that was shared by my grandparents, who wore hats and gloves.

Although I was intrigued by the love triangle between Miller, his wife June and Anaïs Nin, which as I recall from my peripheral readings about Miller, propelled him to Paris and into the pages of Tropic of Cancer, I had not read anything by Nin until the past couple of weeks and I hadn't necessarily intended to. What a shame. I deeply regret not having read her before flying off to college because her writing is a liberating remedy to overly decent modesty.

I happened upon Nin because I recently heard a wonderful online lecture with a professor who mentioned the psychologist Otto Rank, whose patients included Miller and Nin. I went to The Strand to pick up a copy of his Art and Artist. A young employee helped me search the shelves in the Arts section where she said it could be. Looking down at me from the step ladder the young lady disappointingly told me they did not have it. I asked "What about Nin?" She all but did a backflip off the ladder in joy, telling me I had to read Delta of Venus but warned several times that it was "Over the top." Her enthusiasm was contagious. I went down to the Journal section of the basement to get Henry and June and then back to the first floor to the Erotica section to get Delta of Venus and Little Birds.

I just finished Little Birds. I only read it during my commute, which is perhaps the best environment: Surrounded by button-down suburban professionals, Nin is the perfect titillating escape into a world that trades polite conversation for bohemian romps.

I love Nin most in sentences such as:

Every kiss, like a gulp of wine, added to the warmth of her body.

Many of the stories are about artists and models in which modeling is foreplay and art is love. This is most blatant in the chapter The Maja, which references Maja Desnuda by Goya.

A painter can only see and paint his prudish wife naked when she is sleeping:

Novalis no longer desired his wife when she was awake, with her puritanical expression and stern eyes. He desired her when she was asleep, abandoned, rich and soft.

Returning unexpectedly from a trip, the wife finds her husband making love to one of the paintings of her, surrounded by a room full of her nudes. Aroused by the scene she offers herself without hesitation and they fall into passionate lovemaking.

Such writing reminds my of Peter Schjeldahl's introductory comment in The New Yorker article Long Faces: Loving Modigliani (March 7, 2011) about the painter's prestige resting more on his perennial appeal to sensitive adolescents than on grownup critical favor.

So I ask myself why I like Nin. Does she simply uncover a layer of ripe adolescence or is there something much more complex and deeper in this adult material?

Nin is restless in love and life. In most cases this is acted out in the act, in a release of internal desires but at times she expresses this in external forces. In the chapter/short story Sirocco she writes,

The wind is charged with perfumes from Africa, heavy sensual odors. It gives a kind of fever and turmoil of the nerves.

These internal and external powers are juxtaposed with jealousy and prudence. In Lina, the lady by that name wants her lover, the narrative voice of Nin, to stop seeing men. There is a temporary compliance in which Nin writes one of my favorite lines,

So we were reduced to each other's company.

In Two Sisters, this restriction is flipped for the magical realm of infatuation,

He had such magnetism in his hands that his touch, even his hand on her arm, sent warmth all through her. She lived open and sensitized to his presence. And his feeling about her voice was the same. He would telephone her at all hours to hear it. It was like a song luring him outside himself and out of his life. All other women were canceled by her voice.

The Little Birds cover reads Little Birds: Erotica by Anaïs Nin. What is the difference between erotica and pornography? Some of her writing is very explicit. Perhaps one thing, regarding this writing, is that there are no images, no objects. Erotica is more realistic because the story is more complete. Erotica stimulates the mind as much as the body and does so with a wide range of emotions.

This is certainly the story in A Model. Lena, an illustrator recounts a conversation she had with a young gigolo, whose "handsome, aristocratic" Argentine friend and roommate would rise after his leaving the apartment each day and pull out an iron and an ironing board. While pressing his pants, he would fantasize about getting dressed, walking out on 5th Avenue and following the perfume trail of a beautiful woman, who would eventually take him back to her hotel room where they would make love.

"As he presses his pants carefully, meticulously, my friend imagines how he will make love to this woman - and it excites him"

One of my favorite passages is in The Chanchiquito. A woman poses in bed for her lover, a painter. While lying on her back, she studies the lines and forms in the old, plaster ceiling. She says to the artist. "When you are finished with your work, I want you to make a drawing for me on the ceiling, of something that is already there, if you can see what I see..." For the next three pages they joke and trace things on the ceiling. At first she points out shapes, which are evident, then she deviates with her imagination.

Then with the charcoal Laura began to search for a man. At all cost she wanted a man in this picture. She wanted a man to look at while Jan was looking at the woman with her skirt raised. She began to draw, cautiously, for the lines could not be invented, and if they wavered too much and too faithfully and according to the contours of the plaster, she would have a tree, or a bush, or a monkey. But slowly the man's torso emerged. True, he was legless, and his head was small, but all this was amply compensated for the largeness of his sex, which was quite obviously in an aggressive mood as he watched the dogs coupling almost on top of the reclining woman.

And then Laura was satisfied and lay back. They both looked at the drawing, laughing, and as they did so, Jan with his big hands still full of drying paint, began to explore under her skirt as if he were drawing, molding the contours with a pencil, touching each line amorously, very gradually traveling up the leg, making sure of having caressed every region and of having gone around every curve.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Sound as a Bell

by Drew Martin

The following is an email interview with Stephen Vitiello, whose installation A Bell for Every Minute is at the 14th Street Passage of the High Line.

I recently walked by your bell sound installation on the High Line. I did not know it was there: I was on the way to have another look at Spencer Finch's The River That Flows Both Ways (pictured left) when I walked under your installation and one of the heavy church bell recordings went off. It was a great surprise. It changed that unremarkable space into something grand.

Do you have a favorite bell sound, or is there one that you have a particularly interesting story to?

There are so many of the bells that I enjoy. My favorite moment is at the beginning of the hour, when all 59 ring together. In that space, I tend to like the temple bells with their deep resonance. I recorded every bell but one. Almost every recording session had a story with it. Recording the counter bell at Good Stuff Diner was just a bit comical as I was there when people were eating and the various wait-staff watched with amusement as I pointed this very fancy microphone at their tiny counter bell. Climbing on the roof of City Hall was an experience. Going out to Coney Island to record the Dreamland Amusement Park Bell was something as it had just been dredged up after a fire from 1911 had buried it for all those years. The most personal encounter in some ways was with the nun who rang the Bell of Hope for me - this is a bell that is normally wrung for victims of 9-11. It was raining and she rang the bell for 3-minutes while a man kept an umbrella over her head. She kindly smiled and just kept ringing this big, rich sounding bell.

The bells, rings and chimes are spaced a minute apart and cycle every hour and there is a metal sound map of NYC and all the sources. Do you have the artwork for that, which I could include here as a visual and to show the sources?

The sound map is a really important part of the installation but I have to say it doesn't photograph well. The subtleties of how the sign is engraved and the lighting in the space just don't show up well in pictures. I'll attach the file that was created for the engraving of the map*. It was my concept but the design was done by Kristen Becker of Mutuus Studio.

*click sound map on right to enlarge>>>

You had one of the World Trade Center studios in 1999 for six months on 91st floor of Tower One where you recorded the sounds of the building swaying with the wind stress. All skyscrapers move with the wind: Did the sounds simply seem part of the environment, like flapping shutters in a storm, or was it a disturbing noise for you? Listening to that recording now...does it seem ominous because of its destruction or rather personal/sentimental, like the voice of a late friend or relative?

In general, I couldn't hear the building moving without the use of the contact microphones I had on the windows. The recording you heard was just after Hurricane Floyd broke. That was the only time I could hear the building creaking and cracking without the mics. I heard different sounds on different days. It sounds ominous to me as a sound and a sound of a big building swaying. I don't know that I associate it with 9-11. Of course, anything to do with the World Trade Center is different after what happened but I don't connect my recordings with any sort of premonition or foreshadowing.

You were born in New York. What part of the city did you grow up in and how did that influence this project?

I grew up in Park Slope. I'm not sure if I have an immediate answer. I just thought of the city and the kinds of sounds that one hears. The idea of bells felt natural somehow and I realized I could trace bells to all parts of New York and to many of the cultures that I was aware of.

You live in Richmond now. I know the city quite well because I visited my grandparents there at least once a year in the 70's and 80's and lived in it for half a year in the 1995. Richmond was considered the punk capital of the South. Additionally, GWAR (pictured left in concert) was from there. How does the music scene and the less chaotic sounds (compared to NYC) influence your work?

I'm not that close to the music scene in Richmond. I teach at Virginia Commonwealth University in the School of the Arts and mostly interact with art students. I did rent a room at Sound of Music for a while - it's a recording studio with a connection to Richmond's musical past, where Cracker, Sparklehorse, Labradford and others recorded but mostly before I moved here (2004). I've done some small concerts with some of the local electronic musicians (Anduin for example) but in general, I don't get out much. I'm either home with family, at school or traveling.

It sounds like you are also a tinkerer and make some (all?) of your devices. Was that something you grew up doing or did you learn about electronics later in order to execute your creative ideas?

I'm really not a tinkerer. I'm fortunate enough to know people who can help me if I have an idea for a device but really tend to use fairly traditional microphones, recording equipment and store-bought processors.

I have a broken 46 inch Sony Bravia flat screen on my basement floor (my youngest kid trashed it). Any advice about what to do with it? Would you, for example take it apart and save the speakers and other parts for projects?

I have no idea. If it was a broken piano, I might have more suggestions.

You have collaborated with a number of other artists. What do you get out of the collaborations and what do you like to retain just for yourself?

I have collaborated a lot. In the 90s, I made a number of soundtracks for video artists and choreographers. I don't think I ever thought to save the good stuff for myself. I just worked on the projects, taking the leads from the concepts and/or visual imagery that was coming to me from the videomakers. More recently, I sometimes collaborate with visual artists as well as with other musicians. I just treat each collaboration as a unique experience to try to make something new.

What's a project you would like to do that you have not done yet?

There's parts of the world I'd like to travel to - Vietnam, Alaska... I'd like to do more projects in which speakers and other sorts of readymade gear are not used or at least not visible, or where objects or structures become the speakers. I'm working on a large-scale project for MASS MoCA, transforming a building into an installation. For that one, I'm collaborating with a science fiction writer, Paul Park. I'd like to find more ways to integrate written/spoken language and narrative into my work but I haven't fully worked out how to do that yet.

Thank you for your time.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Operation of Memory

by Drew Martin

Last night I had a dream I was on a bus in the Czech Republic. I dozed off and awoke (in that dream) in upstate New York and the nervous bus driver was trying to find his way back to his country. A few minutes later, we crossed the border again, back into Bohemia. While this was an impossible geography, it was a fine example of the overlapping landscapes of memory.

The dream reminded me of a wonderful Yale University lecture I watched two days ago on YouTube, while ironing my dress shirts. The title was Reading History and Writing Fiction with authors Penelope Lively (pictured below) and David McCullough. I only watched Lively's part but she expressed such rich comments on memory that I was intellectually satiated:

I was interested in the operation of memory, the nature of evidence, the way in which there is no single truth about an event but as many truths as there are observers, the conflicting evidence of public events as mirrored by the conflicting evidence about private life.

A few minutes later, while speaking about linear chronological history where "one thing followed another in neat sequential order" Lively repeats herself with a bit more insight:

What I was interested in was the operation of memory itself, which of course is not linear at all. There's nothing sequential about the stuff that each of us carries in the head, that set of frozen moments, slides that will surface, prompted or unprompted, and that serve to remind us who we are, where we've been, what we've done, who we've known.

Everything happens at once in the mind. As some point, in the post college years...I discovered landscape history...I tramped around search of the corrugations in a field that indicate Medieval ridge and furrow, the lumps and bumps that betray a deserted village, the green lanes that were once drove roads and I became aware of the eloquence of the physical world, once you learned a bit of its language, as a nice reflection of the process of memory itself. All around us everything happens at once. Centuries are juxtaposed.

I especially enjoyed Lively's introductory remarks:

I have always liked that term that we use, reading a subject, rather than studying it, which carries an appealing suggestion of long term inclination rather than mandatory application. I think that for many people that's just what happens. That exposure to a particular range of books, to a particular academic inquiry at the most susceptible time of your life does indeed form a climate of mind. What you are reading will determine, up to a point, the person you will become.