John Keene and Christopher Stackhouse’s *Seismosis* arrived today. It’s a wonderful-looking book with texts by Keene and drawings by Stackhouse. I don’t know the latter’s work but Keene’s *Annotations* has been one my favorites lately.
For what it’s worth, the poems remind me of *Annotations* though Keene’s style has developed remarkably, assured and matured in both subject and delivery. *Seismosis*, is less of a personal history than *Annotations*, though no less thoughtful, reflective or considerate. Keene’s approach is to take his subjects as objects in hand, noting their materials, weights, surfaces, contours, and variations. The drawings pre-register these notations, providing a record and measure as a fortifying context for Keene’s meditations.
Stackhouse’s drawings are scribbles, mostly, likened here to the titular needle-jumps of a seismograph. Taken as the book’s point of entry, they’re a pleasurable, bodily foil to the shape of Keene’s texts (lines, grids, blocks). The opening and closing poems, for example, share the title, ‘Process’; both are printed on recto pages, faced by Stackhouse drawings of dissimilar stroke and light: the first concentrates its vigorous strokes over each other and in the center of the page; the latter keeps its strokes to a relative minimum, creating two forms on the left and right sides of the page.1 Of the poems, the first reads, “In the mark event, you enter your signature.” The final poem, after much speculation on — among other things — spatial relations, human relations, and the relations between the drawings and texts of the book itself, acts as an aphoristic resolution of the first: “In the mark, we choose and lose signature.”
The distiction between the mark itself and the mark’s event is a crucial one for these collaborators, whose marks are contingent on the event of their collaboration; that is, the event (the book) of the marks (poems, drawings) amplifies the effects and meanings of the marks and transforms them into a single event, the way single notes form a chord. The resulting unity is no small feat. Most efforts at such union of illustration and text suffer the egos of their makers, an unwillingness to see their work subsumed into a greater project. For Keene and Stackhouse, on the other hand, it seems that *Seismosis* was occasioned by likemindedness, trust, and an abiding kindred sense between two artists.
The drawings, part of his *Perpendicular Series*, are not entirely scribbles. Stackhouse’s use of straightedge, in particular, generates effective armatures for the works, directing attention from the page margins to the structure of his forms: drawings XII, XXI, XXIX (my personal favorite and the most ‘perpendicular’ work in the book), L, and LI (described above in conjunction with the second ‘Process’), are examples of this practice.↩
I’ve been re-reading Muriel Rukeyser’s *The Life of Poetry* the last few nights. It’s not an easy book by any stretch, its density matched only by her elusive biography of *Willard Gibbs*. But there are numerous passages of immediate moral if not linguistic clarity, the following of which struck me last night:
[I]f communication has broken down, then it is time to tap the roots of communication. Poetry is written from these depths; in great poetry you feel a source speaking to another source. And it is deep at these levels that the questions lie. They come up again and again during these years, when under all the surface shouting, there is silence about those things we need to hear.
Later, in a somewhat different context, she writes, “The gestures of the individuals are not history; but they are the images of history.”
Rukeyser’s insistent humanism reminds me of Hayden Carruth’s, but not as individualist as his, and though her prose can, as I said, be cumbersome, her position is clear. Against the dominant strains of violence, imperialism, and inequality, she defines poetry as the center of healing, peace, community, and learning, as a measure of progress. Whether or not she’s right in this assertion might be open to debate (I’m pretty sure she is, for what it’s worth) but she remains, in any case, an active and productive source of inspiration as we approach election-times and face a seemingly neverending war.
Slow media 2 are not necessarily the same thing as slow culture, though they are certainly related. The term *slow media* as I’m using it here refers to a direct, physical contact with a medium’s material; *slow culture*, on the other hand, is not so limited and refers to a culture which produces reflective, meditative, deliberate, and/or restful gaps in its material. Mainstream culture’s works bear revisiting because we look forward to the known satisfaction of their resolution; how we get there is less important than that we know it’s coming, and, for the most part, the sooner the better. Slow culture’s payoff comes generally in the works’ process. That is, slow culture gives its participans and audience members a chance to think about what they’re participating in while they’re participating in it. This thoughtfulness is essentially creative and mutual, an investment by the artist in the audience as well as an investment by the audience in the work.
Though the formats and modes suggested by the *slow* terms are generally appreciated by many people, they exist outside the main channels of production, exhibition, performance, broadcast, and spectatorship: it’s cool to know they’re there but they’re not the money-makers of their fields.
They remain, nonetheless, characteristic of a kind of hipness that is less obsolete than it might seem.3
I’ve digressed from my original intention but not irrelevantly. We’ve grown accustomed to the speed of not only cultural works themselves but also their accessibility. Even though the ideas here can probably be applied to any aspect of artistic or cultural life, for the purpose of this piece, I’ll stick to music.
The last decade has yielded an exponential increase in the number of musicians and musical artists and a subsequent increase in recorded and performed output. And yet there has been little *new* music in this period.4 We’ve seen new ways of getting it, new ways of making it, storing it, and distributing it; new places to discuss it, new places to see it, new places to bring it. But the music itself tends toward retro/nostaglic styles 5 whose chief asset is described according to the artists’ *authenticity*.
So from the soulful voices, hard or smooth MCs, sassy cheerleaders, brooding journeymen, laptop-toting maestros, cool popsters, forthright post-punkers, and whoever else has shown up in the last ten years, we learn that many of these artists write their own songs, or that their talent first emerged in early youth; that they heard the call of G-d to sing out in His name. Yet none of these experiences is unique to them or artists in general.
Let me be clear: I do not mistake the experiences of these artists for pretense. On the contrary, I believe we have all been moved by our faith, our youth, our need to find or build a community around what we fear separates us from everybody else or might, however tenuously, connect us. But for these expressions and performances to be meaningful takes time, and what’s been increasingly absent is a culture willing to take the time to think while it listens.
Observed from a different and more pointed angle, the artists, captivated by the availability of recorded music’s entire history, give or take, are deliberately making derivative music. This is not simply the case of punk bands sounding like their predecessors or tenor players adopting the modes of post-war heavies, which practices are rooted in identity-formation, alignment, alliance, homage, tribute; in most such cases, the younger artists anticipate finding their own voice through inspiration. What I’m trying to get at is the widespread assumption that copping styles from older music is good enough. It is not. The standard for original playing has unfortunately been replaced by a standard of authentic fandom, which is fine for fans but diminishes the prospect of hearing anything new when held to by the people who make the music.
e.g. LPs, a preference for movies in which people who don’t say very much don’t do very much, books as opposed to magazines or the internet, live performances in small venues↩
That is, hipness to the kinds of material described above; knowing that vinyl is cool, for example, does not mean that one is buying any. To be *Old School* is, a surprising amount of the time and somewhat paradoxically, to be hip.↩
Jaron Lanier discusses this subject with great intelligence in his book, *You Are Not a Gadget*, a terrific if sometimes opaque manifesto on life online, its evolving homogeneity, corporate control, and a host of other relevant cultural and economic stuff. Worth a look.↩
e.g. the last-several-years’preponderence of so-called *psych* music; the americana boom at the turn of the century; hip-hop’s relative stasis compared to its evolution from, say, 1980-2000; the odd mini-boom of British soul singers highlighted by Amy Winehouse, Adele, and Duffy; the mostly-Madonna-derived successes of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Other genres present their own examples, which are surely known to their constituents. This note sticks to the well-known to avoid confusion.↩
On the left is a book called Circles of Confusion: Film · Photography · Video: Texts 1968-1980 that was written by the man on the right who was (in his lifetime, from 1936 until 1984) and is called Hollis Frampton. It is a book of essays, most of which were originally published in Artforum magazine when it was edited by Annette Michelson, a film theorist and critic whose abundant and energetic wing fostered three generations of scholars and filmmakers, including and perhaps especially, Hollis Frampton.
Visual Studies Workshop Press in Rochester, NY, published the collection. The connection between VSW, Rochester, and Frampton is not as obscure as it might seem: Frampton taught at SUNY Buffalo in the 1970s, the campus of which is situated roughly 70 miles west of Rochester, home of Kodak, and therefore a center of film manufacturing.
Such connections are, rudimentarily speaking, the stuff of Frampton’s thought and work. He came to still photography via Ezra Pound and James Joyce; to filmmaking via still photography, painting, and a devotion to mathematics and science; to video and photocopiers via filmmaking and a return to still photography.
His films run the gamut from his earliest efforts whose concern was primarily motion (e.g. Manual of Arms, 1966) to found-footage films (e.g. Maxwell’s Demon, 1968) to so-called structural 1 works (e.g. Lemon, 1969; in this case a full-frame shot of a lemon subjected to a range of light and exposure, about which Frampton said, “As a voluptuous lemon is devoured by the same light that reveals it, its image passes from the spatial rhetoric of illusion into the spatial grammar of the graphic arts.”) to the unfinished Magellan, which was intended to expand to include a film for each day of a 371 day cycle. A spirit of inquiry, a sense of humor, and a feeling for the necessity of art infuse his writing as they do his films. These are curious works, works of a curious mind, works for curious minds.
I’m not sure I agree with the entirety of this page’s explanation but it does serve to provide a definition of this kind of filmmaking. I prefer to view structural film, like film noir, as a style or method as opposed to a genre.↩
My experience as an artist is more or less divided into two spheres: on the one hand, I’m a musician, a practice which has always involved public performance and the explicit realization of a community. On the other hand, I’m a poet, a practice which has been, until the last year or so, an almost entirely private practice, one I shared with a handful of people, whose publication was limited to a couple of poems published several years ago (including, as it happens, the same poem twice). By and large, the two spheres remain separate, though, decreasingly so. I have tried to model my life as a poet on what I learned in the Rochester, NY and DC punk scenes from roughly 1989-2000: that artists, regardless of their art, carry with them a responsibility to the world in which they create and exhibit their work (it is, after all, created and exhibited in the same world).
The Jim Saah photograph above is from a Jawbox show at the Black Cat in DC; I think the year was 1994 and it might have even been the show advertised in the poster next to it. I have kept a print of the photograph on my refrigerator since that time to remind me of several things, chief among which has become the best-integrated art/politics scene in which I have been an active member. It was the reason I moved back to the area in 1991, and found it to be an invigorating and inspiring time and place to be as both writer and musician (I had, when I left Rochester, decided to give up music entirely, in favor of literature; thankfully my mind was changed nine months later when I joined Jawbox). There was a near-constant air of protest, of seeking out materials and economies that abandoned convention in favor of defiant humanism and concern for essentially leftist values. This took place mostly among bands and show-attendees, who were gathering anyway for music and new ideas. There were frequent benefit shows, protests, and a network of people around the world whose contact with each other depended on touring bands. The link was inherently political: we were doing our thing, not the mainstream thing. It worked, too.
By 1994, several of us (by which I mean bands) had signed to major labels, in hopes, variously, of reaching larger audiences, or at the very least, having more time and money with which to make records. I think Jawbox was more concerned with writing better songs than we were with fame. The jump to the majors allowed us to practice more, tour more, and record under better circumstances.
The ramifications were obvious enough then as now: we were selling out. For my part — I can’t speak for J., Bill, or Kim — I’ve always thought of it as *cashing in*, though there wasn’t really much cash and I’m not certain that the distinction even matters anymore. For what it’s worth, I didn’t feel like we were wrecking anything by signing to Atlantic; that is, the decision was ours, the consequences were ours, and it didn’t reflect on any other bands, labels, or fans. I was wrong.
The scene from which we’d come felt, in some circles, betrayed, and the mainstream rarely has the patience required for unconventional art. We were ignored by our label within nine months of our first release and completely pushed aside within a year. Our story is not at all unusual except perhaps for the degree to which we continued to practice a DIY-based method, regardless of being on a major label. We knew what we were getting ourselves into (most of the time). I don’t know that this recounting requires much elaboration at this late date so I’ll just say that if I was in that situation today, I’d probably handle it differently, though this remark is qualified by knowing that the circumstances that made Jawbox possible at all no longer exist for me.
In the end, I can’t say I regret our deal with Atlantic. Kim and Bill even bought our tapes back from the label and are planning to re-release both *For Your Own Special Sweetheart* and *Jawbox* online. The fact remains that we made our most challenging music under those conditions, and my experience in that band has positively served my consciousness as much as anything else I’ve done, before or since.
Marty Ehrlich’s Dark Woods Ensemble, “Tribute,” Live Wood, 1997.
The Live Wood set was recorded over the course of a European tour in 1996. The line-up for this tour was Marty Ehrlich, winds; Erik Friedlander, cello; Mark Helias, bass. The group has elsewhere included percussion, guitar, and other instrumentation.
I first saw Ehrlich perform in Andrew Hill’s sextet at the Knitting Factory in 1998. It was among the best shows I’ve ever seen, in no small part because of Ehrlich’s versatility and range, to say nothing of his attention to the other musicians. He is a consummate performer: assertive & gracious to both audience & bandmates.
Other recommendations: Dark Woods Ensemble, Sojourn (Tzadik, 1999); Marty Ehrlich,News on the Rail (Palmetto, 2005); Andrew Hill, Dusk (Palmetto, 2000).
I listen to a fair amount of jazz but am not a jazz-geek in the regular sense of the term: I don’t pour over liner notes, I’m not very good at remembering titles, and I tend to think of records/groups/performances in terms of their leaders and drummers, regardless of who else appears. I’m drawn to jazz mostly because of how it feels to listen to jazz, and one of the best-feeling composers and performers I’ve come across, Andrew Hill, died in April.
Though best known for his adventurous Blue Note LPs recorded in the 1960s, Mr. Hill’s career was consistent and seamless, whatever label- or promotion-related difficulties he faced along the way. In the course of the last 40 years, he continuously sought new arrangements for the instruments in his groups (including, at times, human voices), new rhythmic variations, new harmonic interplay.
He was, in his way, without peers, bridging an often-felt gap between the genre’s freer and more conventional modes. He was and is as fine an entry into avant-garde music as I know of. His passing is a tragedy, to be sure, and no small loss to both the performing and listening communities.
“Hey, Hey,” Lift Every Voice, 1969.
“Mira,” Grass Roots, 1968.
“15 8,” Dusk, 2000.