Re: some ideas to stir up inspiration

Not to give away too much, but The Satellite Collective is beginning to wiggle its fingers again. A new piece is in the works. To get the juices flowing, Kevin Draper sent out an email to the core creative team with initial ideas. The theme would be “Time Machine,” and all sorts of media would be represented as Satellite Collective always does. After a few glowing responses, I decided to chime in. Here’s what I wrote:

Re: some ideas to stir up inspiration
Thu, Dec 8, 2016 at 6:03 PM

I want to put in my two cents:

One of the most difficult things to get right in a performance of this kind is striking the right balance between all the different media. Spoken word, dance, opera, music, moving images… these all have their own strengths and limitations. How to have them co-exist in a performance piece without overcrowding?
Most of Satellite Collective’s works have deliberately separated different pieces in different media into a kind of medley, which are presented in sequence. This is a distinctly different approach than trying to create a fully immersive multimedia thing. Opera is closer to the latter, but for the fact that it’s bogged down by the proscenium. You could make an argument for both with the Time Machine theme: it supports the deliberate sequence because that’s how we experience events in time (which you can reshuffle to some cool effect), but it also supports multimedia because a Time Machine is a fascinating, fantastical, complex piece of machinery, with millions of parts working simultaneously in order to transport someone to a different place. Whichever direction it ends up taking, I think it’s best to be deliberately one or the other. A performance that lands in neither/nor might sacrifice pacing or fail to hold the audience’s attention or fail to carry a single idea throughout– ie the intangible stuff that is the true magic of performance.
I hope this makes sense.
BTW, walking back my own words somewhat, I like the idea that our image of what a Time Machine is has itself changed over time. It has gone quite a way from HG Wells to the Twin Paradox. I remember I saw William Kentridge’s Refuse The Hour at BAM a couple of years ago, and he has a monologue where he explains that if a single photon can be considered a snapshot of the thing that emitted it, then we have been broadcasting snapshots of ourselves out into space since the dawn of time. If you could go out and catch each of those photons discretely, you could piece together the film of humankind.
Whether or not that makes sense to anyone, I highly recommend watching this video of highlights from the show. A lot of Satellite parallels.
whew.
-Ivan Himanen, RA
No one has responded to the thread since.

Architects – the backup band

This will be both an album review of Vulfpeck’s The Beautiful Game and a general thought on architectural practice.

In general, Vulpeck, the four-or-five-or-six-or-more-piece band from Michigan, has been solidly my favorite band for the past couple of years. Their music infuses funk, R&B, rock, jazz, and you never know what else (Klezmer? Bach? Swing?)– they back it up with undeniable chops, too– and they just seem like they’re having a good time making music.

Take a listen to their latest release and try to give me a definite answer on what genre it could fall into. Hard to do, right? As evidence, Vulfpeck’s music has appeared in as broad a range of music Top Ten charts as German Pop:

2016-10-26-itopchart-german-pop-vulfpeck
Wait. What?

….. and R&B!

2016-10-26-billboard-rb-hip-hop-albums-vulfpeck-the-beautiful-game
WAIT. WHAAAAAT?!

Part of the band’s essence is versatility. And it’s useful here to think of it not in terms of genres, but more in terms of the kind of music they want to play. Sometimes a musical mind thinks of a tune, and the art is in figuring out how to physically create that sound. Or, say a band starts jamming, and something that just sounds good emerges from that session. If it’s improvised, that good sound may have emerged from a specific hook or beat that the guitarist or drummer heard. This deft skill allows a band freedom to create a palette of sound that transcends categories. Listen to Animal Spirits, the opening track. You hear all kinds of genres in there. The tight drums sound funky for sure, the piano vamps are poppy, the vocals R&B, but then the syncopated claps and the jingly keys make it sound like a theme song from a kid’s TV show. But for a band that sees itself first as a rhythm section, that’s par for the course. Like The Wrecking Crew, The JB’s, or The Muscle Shoals house band, you’re supposed to be able to perform for anyone at anytime. It’s how you 1) sell your services, and 2) make pure music come first. I remember Genres are just gloss anyway, right?

NOW. In architecture, the challenge is the same. You spend your years in school learning Greek column orders, Roman concrete vaults, and cruciform churches from the Middle Ages, you mimic Le Corbusier with cube-houses Mies van der Rohe with kissing planes, you master the art of the airbrushed axonometric like Peter Eisenman, the glossy disjunction of Tschumi or Stirling… then you spend much of your career as a member of the backup band for a famous frontman like Bjarke Ingels, Michael Maltzan, Tom Kundig, Cecil Balmond, or Patrik Schumacher, adapting to their style. If you have foresight you get licensed behind the scenes, studying on the tour bus. Then after a couple of decades, the moment of truth arrives and you start your own firm, the first step of which is having a conscious direction of your own. By now you have absorbed enough variety for something personal to emerge. You have acquired an ability to work with a range of building types, clients, budgets, and styles, depending on the demands of the project.

A purist would say that by definition, this ability transcends style because it runs deep. Everything you design yourself from then on has the weight of all your training behind it, and therefore is coming not from mimicry, but from a palette of experiences.

I’ve spent years as a drummer, a bassist, a backing vocalist, an audio engineer, a marketer, even a groupie, and hopefully in the next few years I will start my own band. A band that can top the high-end residential, performing arts, and research Hot 100 Charts.

Drawn In By Youthful Energy – Satellite Collective @ BAM

The purest amateurs require nothing more to operate than the purest excitement and love for a particular subject. The Satellite Collective can strike the balance between professional and amateur dedication. Its goal to envelop multiples contains that love-driven quality which is so often lost when artists find first success. This entire show is reflective of their mission to turn a dozen creative fields into players in a gentle game. In this process the various arts may themselves become audience members to the brilliance of their peers, commencing a cycle of show-and-tell. Each piece, embedded in the modernist tradition that eschews symbolism and linear narratives, comes to the stage intentionally bare, intentionally open to its viewers, as if mindful of its own part in a continuous exchange of translation, interpretation, and inspiration. During the performance I am enriched having never forgotten the faces of the choreographers. The tiniest imperfections only pull me in further to investigate. And I joyfully discover the possibility that I may join such a game one day myself.
We all know that moment when the lights go dim before a show. Satellite Collective takes those butterflies in your stomach and draws them out. They elongate the sensation– from the first layered cello solo to Nathan Langston’s poem Invocation to the first wall projections– the same persistent rawness gives one a sense of gradual immersion, beckoned by this community of friends. The orchestra is seated in the balcony, in full view, meeting us halfway. There is no sudden lights-out or opening cymbal crash. Like every hard workout, or every silent meditation, it requires a warm-up.
Nathan Langston. Image via Satellite Collective facebook page.
Esme Boyce’s choreography is like a single-celled organism observing its own evolution. For the last 5 years her work has been consistently focused on the breaking-down and re-layering of rudimentary movements, and is steadily increasing in complexity. The most rewarding method of viewing her work is to set oneself a confident frame of reference. Whether it’s a single section or movement, a single piece, or her three most recent works, there can always be identified 3 basic stages: a point of departure (the introduction of a singular unit of movement, stripped of associations), a buildup (the increase in complexity via repetition), and a reflection (a now-complex movement encounters its own past). Now, what separates this from your typical begnning-middle-end structure is that it isn’t quite so linear. It’s more aptly described as exponential. But even that isn’t enough. At the third stage, when the evolved action encounters its former self again, there emerges a state which cannot be described with a mathematical metaphor. In fact, it is detrimental to try. The onset of the third stage is the moment at which humanity is discovered– in the broadest, most self-reflexive, most emotionally uncertain sense. Once you identify that self-awareness, a new field of possible interpretations explodes before you. It is the birth of history, and of emotion. It is reminiscent of Merce Cunningham or Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s best work, choreographing for the works of Steve Reich. I believe it is Esme’s desire to arrive at a genuine emotion, a first emotion, an emotion without precedent.
Esme Boyce; Emergence; image via Satellite Collective.
As the human body is ultimately the subject of all dance, each choreographer needs to decide how to confront its physical limits. Since the decline of ballet, a common approach is to unabashedly expose that limit, embracing sweat and heavy breathing as part of the dancer present on stage. Esme’s approach is something else. It doesn’t display the physicality itself so much as diagram it, dissect it, interbreed it, sometimes to points beyond recognition, but always with fascination. It even harkens back to ballet in its display of effortlessness. It doesn’t forcibly trap itself in the present moment, nor does it take the past as a given. Her method cannot be a breaking-down of existing lifeforms– it is far too intelligent for that– Esme doesn’t even take the complex human form as a given. Her given is a building block so simple that it is barely recognizable (a perfectly logical place to start for the designer of any universe). We are only shown its connection with complex life in ‘stage two’– the stage at which individual identities, characters, and communities are formed. Thus, at the climactic and most formally complex moments of her work, there isn’t the sense of relief that something has been regained or rebuilt, but rather one feels a deep scientist’s pride in having witnessed something come from nothing. Nothing less than the musical score provides this insight as well– it is a moving, classically harmonic buildup, not forcefully atonal (as the truly deconstructive late Romantic composers were). And the joy is that these three stages of exposition, evolution, and recognition are not linear– they exist in multiple chunks, scattered throughout the piece, each in its own stage of development. This, again, is why it’s so important to set frames of reference.
Esme Boyce; Emergence; image via Satellite Collective.
I remember when I was 18, I had my first college-level drawing critique. I was harshly challenged by a professor with gray hair about the photographic accuracy of my drawings–he was upset that I didn’t abstract enough. He asked me if I was bored in class. He asked me what interests me. He asked me if I had any interests at all. He told me not to look at my subjects ‘like a scientist’. Having grown up with a biochemist father, I recoiled at his notion that ‘scientist’ is equivalent to ‘unfeeling’. Scientists are as emotionally invested in the subjects of their experiments as artists, and research-based science involves just as much creativity as simply drawing figures from observation. Looking back, it’s fair to say that the shallowest postmodernists– the ones concerned only with deconstruction, for deconstruction’s sake– fit the bill of ‘unfeeling’ more than scientists do. The evidence in current trends in art and culture show that observing the world from a traditionally scientific point of view vastly enriches a work’s subject. That may be the great virtue of this generation– the acceptance of a multiplicity of viewpoints and the belief in the validity of any discipline.
Manuel Vignoulle’s choreography is of a more purely physical breed. Breathing, sweating, lifting, throwing, holding, dragging… from our first upright steps, this is the vocabulary we are all familiar with. The philosophy is that physicality can only be an honest quality if it is undisclosed, laid bare. Indeed, dancer Michael Wright said to me afterwards that Rituals is the most physically demanding piece he has ever done. It is being ourselves, in the moment, as fuel-burning beings, that is the only sincere way to think of our bodies.
Manuel Vignoulle; Rituals; image via Satellite Collective.
But Manuel doesn’t consider that enough– as the piece’s name implies, the goal of this physicality is to find a way to approach another human being. Given that these movements are more naturally associated with childhood and adolescence (few of us move like that on a daily basis), seeing two adults fall so physically in love on stage is even more affecting. However, love doesn’t come easily. One must first tread through the bog of seduction (when I say bog, I use it only to evoke an environment where everything slows down, where I must move one limb at a time to make progress). The internally seductive energy given off by Rituals, along with the moaning strings & piano, and charcoal suits & heels, makes it very tango-esque. And like in any tango, the impetus for seduction is precisely that two people never harmonize at first touch. Each of the three duets illustrates the struggle, at times against all rationality, for two people to sync up.
At the end, whatever uplift one gets from witnessing the dancers find their unity is dampened by the realization that the unity has come with a price– a price that their bodies have paid. Finally together, their limits have been reached, and the next struggle begins: the struggle to hold their tender bond intact. It is the lesson we are taught after every revolution, or for that matter, after every marriage. In this light, the way corporeal mechanics can measure people’s interconnectedness overlaps with the work of, say, Marina Abramovic.
A good dance piece is nothing short of a confrontation. Rituals features one such moment: in the second half, suddenly the music stops, the dancers line up to face the audience, and the only thing you see and hear is their exhausted breathing. Soon their exhales become rhythmic and lead into the next section. But those naked moments are the piece’s most memorable. With little energy left, the piece looks like it is demanding a response from the viewer, a contribution. As an audience member, if you feel you are being tested or pushed, then that is the time to embolden your senses. Do not shy away from the encounter.
Manuel Vignoulle; Rituals; image via Satellite Collective.
Live projection is still a developing medium in any performance, and its inherent challenges are immediately clear here: the conflict for attention, the necessity, if any, to relate formally to the dance happening below. Emergence takes a technically new path– limiting the projected light to a silhouette of the dancers in particular positions. When done well, it is very effective. I would say that even when the dancers do not perfectly align to the light, one still gets the sense of two media finding common ground, rather than being simply juxtaposed. In Rituals, the slow morph and rotation of the shapes on the wall contrasts with the acrobatics happening on the floor. Unless I ignore them entirely, the association between the two is thinly articulated, and I find myself jumping to bizarre conclusions regarding their role.
Manuel Vignoulle; Rituals; image via Satellite Collective.

Satellite Collective’s performances are strongest when the relationship between professionalism and rawness is most clearly defined. Tension exists, no doubt, between how well-produced & presented a piece is and how relatable it is as a work-in-progress. Seeing as the Collective has so far juggled half a dozen media with success, it remains to be seen whether or not they are able to maintain the qualities of a ‘movement’, the sense that each player is participating in something greater, the playful energy that excites and engages all of its supporters.

Satellite Collective @ BAM

I’m currently collaborating with The Satellite Collective, headed by Kevin Draper, in a handful of capacities.

-Designing their latest online publication: Transmission
-Consulting on motion graphics to accompany Manuel Vignoulle’s dance piece which will premiere in mid-May at BAM
-Writing a review for my good friend Esme Boyce’s piece, also premiering at that show
-Eventually, resident architect-editor

All these will start to take shape by early summer. I’m lucky to be included in such an energetic group– I hope this is only the beginning.

Choreography by Manuel Vignoulle. Photo by Lora Robertson.

Laura Marling – Saved These Words

At the close of the at-once heavy and light hour-long evolution of Once I Was An Eagle by Laura Marling, I feel greatly rewarded with a verse which morphs meaning at least once per line:

Thank you naivety
for failing me again
he was my next verse.

A light personification of ‘naivety’, and a word of gratitude, becomes tamped failure in the second line. Then an actual person, a ‘he’, is introduced at the end, wrapping the triptych back to the beginning with an explanation of the naivety. But since naivety is the first noun mentioned, I feel like I know more about it that about the ‘he’. Laura Marling seems to have just gotten out of a love triangle. Or a metaphor triangle. A TRIMETAPHOR! muahahaha

Crazily Forgotten Wisdom Masters

In Legacy I brought up how the real token of history is usually given not to the pioneers but to those directly succeeding them– the “culmination artists.” On the subject of the former, the progenitor, it might be worth taking a statistical jab at the rate of turnaround– or, how long it takes for a pioneer’s work to become widely recognized and valued. An important additional factor to consider is a counterforce: that of the public’s outrage at the pioneering work’s first reception. It may be skewed retrospect (which is to say that it may not in fact be a majority but an overly celebrated minority of cases), but many names come to mind that include the extremes of both aforementioned factors. The Rite of Spring. Four Organs. Howl. Justine. Fountain. Bonnie and Clyde….
Believers of universal justice hope that eventually all pioneering works of art will get their recognition– which then immediately summons thoughts of the exceptions: the lost masterpieces, time capsules buried in stone, forgotten creations… These exceptions are works SO unconventional, SO ahead of their time that they never became widely recognized. In fact, there is one in which not only were the creators unrecognized for their work, but in which the work may have served as a fatal turning point. It is the story of the Crazy Wisdom Masters.
The JBs were the most outrageous, funky, politically conscious hip-hop group during the early 90s. Their ’88 debut sampled Manu Dibango, Marvin Gaye, The Meters, Jimmie Walker, Gil-Scott Heron, even fucking Liquid Liquid!, and opened the doors for both jazz hip-hop and those awesome electro-house hip-hop fusion dance jams my Fame school predecessors most likely danced to. They entered the fray already with their own quirky language twists (jimbrowski) and that three-pronged attack of two counterpointing MC’s and one DJ. Tribe, De La, and others have followed this formula. I consider their sound to be more full-bodied than Tribe’s and more focused than De La’s. They really opened the doors to hip-hop for me. Which only multiplies the irony I was hit with when I realized that the JB’s have largely been slept on since ’93. Some say it’s the diminished quality of their music, others say it’s the height of the bar set by their legendary peers (aforementioned), still others say Warner Bros painted them as unmarketable after J Beez Wit The Remedy and their still-high-quality music is underhyped and thus underappreciated. Listening to Raw Deluxe, it is clear at least to this listener that they were still producing some funky stuff into the late 90s, maybe not quite up to par with their early stuff, but how can you not let your head roll to Brain or Bring It On (a rehash of Scenario, straight up). But you get the sense that the Jungle Brothers never quite rebounded from the disappointment of stifling the fruit of their long labors. Fortunately some tracks from the Crazy Wisdom Masters sessions were salvaged and released under a ten-inch entitled The Payback EP. Here’s the opening track. Totally mind-blowing. This is claustrophobic, fragmented, yet moving music that took real guts to put out. But by Mike G’s words the internet remains a tough blockade for artists who want to sell and make a living off their music, because so many people are able to just consume via YouTube for free. It’s a delicate balance between that and using the internet for its excellent promotional power.
There is something even more tragic about this episode considering the very nature of hip-hop in general. It is an art form rooted in immediacy. Youth. Collaboration. The absolute frontier, where multiple different forces have to somehow collide (collision is accurate because it must be simultaneous) and produce music. Under ideal circumstances, it’s like there’s only a before and after– in the middle is either instantaneous or uncontrollable. It’s like splitting atoms.
Hopefully the JBs can reunite and conceive of a new record that can hit that sweet spot. Because it is fun to imagine the time when popular music will finally catch up to Crazy Wisdom Masters… Considering their influence on hip-hop I hate to see them languish in footnotes and butt ends on hip-hop mixes. And it all comes down to the fantastic explosion of some real frontier shit in that summer of ’93. The force was so great it’s like the pieces became too scattered (the characters and stories are currently adrift). I hope we will soon gather them again, and see the whole picture in its glory, when the JB’s hour of judgment arrives.

Legacy

Looking Bach, Bach was like the Jesus of music. So immense is his influence that times in his immediate vicinity have become somewhat blacked out. He’s some kind of zero-point from which we are now tracing a new arc (just like BC and AD). Compare the number of Bach’s contemporaries you can name with the number of Elvis Presley’s. This phenomenon is bifold: it indicates 1) that technology has evolved to allow us to create ever-longer-lasting and ever-more-accurate documents, and 2) that despite this, we are bound to eventual ignorance. Sooner or later, everything will be forgotten. It is a ying-and-yang situation, as what we gain in remembering through recordings we lose in firsthand experience, and the more we focus in on single pixels in a field, the more we lose sight of the whole composition.
With popular (not pop) music’s latest renaissance (for that Jesus I nominate Elvis Presley) receding to a suitable distance now for retrospect and historic eyebrowing (traced over the life cycle of rock n roll and the “single”)– and a new age beginning– the following question may be raised:
Who will be the Bach of 20th century music?
Who will we forget last?
Who will be remaining in our history of music come 2500?
The history of 20th century music is awesomely located right on the U.S.’ side of the pond. [Small sidenote by the way: ALL histories need to present limits and definite frames of reference to be considered lucid. Half of the challenge here is defining those boundaries. Are we looking at just rock n roll? “Well,” says one critic, “we couldn’t possibly look at rock n roll without looking at blues.” “Well,” says another critic, “we couldn’t possibly look at blues without looking at African music.” And so on. Although I believe Africa is a fair resting point. But this is already getting too ambitious!] Blues led to jazz and rock, and the music industry as we today yesterday knew it was born. It was a rough-and-tumble time that gave birth to the single, a vastly broadened audience, and a new form of celebrity. Somehow the music seeped through. It is difficult to determine accurately what motivates each musician individually, particularly because half of the business is putting one’s selfishness aside and developing an appealing product. No one wants to admit it.. until they try it for themselves. [Twitter is the latest example of such.]
Looking back, the seminal moments were characterized by synergy: wherein one smart musician manages to make just the perfect blend of sound (between old & new, black & white, fast & slow, happy & sad, what have you). It is not a pioneer moment– the pioneers, you’ll notice, are usually commemorated only later, when audiences begin researching or the celebrity divulges their influences– but rather a coming-of-age. And the magnitude of this explosion is so great that it obfuscates the legacies of the musician’s nearby peers. So here I go:
Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams, Fats Domino, Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, and so many others were hugely important and popular in their time, but unfortunately they all get knocked down a notch by Elvis Presley. This is my theory. Elvis Presley will be the last musician of the 20th century to be forgotten. The Beatles are a very, very close second. There is a kind of purity and singularity in what Elvis did, that is unrivaled in its own description next to those of his influences and those he influenced.
Charlotte says this is what biography is all about– the desire to make an interesting story of your life that can outlive you. It is also called legacy. As an end justifying the means, oftentimes a perfectly crafted legacy is considered a justification of the entire life that it describes. The same can happen with auto-biography. Einstein’s journal here is composed of nothing but equations. What that seems to say is that he doesn’t care to communicate his life to everyone. He doesn’t need it retold. To him, a life lived is a life conveyed and he desires nothing more than to be remembered by what he’s actually accomplished.
Not to care how one is remembered takes courage. Two of the most inspiring musicians to me have done some thinking on this topic. One is Frank Zappa (@ 8:50 but the whole interview is revealing) and the other is Thom Yorke (@ 5:45 but again, the whole thing is worth a patient listen). They are both motivated by very contrasting circumstances, but ultimately it comes down to the question: what is the attitude I have towards my legacy? The musicians I tend to like more are the ones that don’t allow any personal details to enter the audience’s mind in the moments of the work’s contemplation. It is a narrow path, and it is the reason why Madonna, Lady Gaga, et al will not be remembered for their music in 500 years, if at all, but for the personas they invented.
Living at the attention and the service of the masses requires sacrificing half of one’s personality. Doing any job well requires it.
But as far as music goes, I find one of the greatest joys about listening is the discovery of an absolutely unique courage– the courage it takes to confront the now and forget about the then. I believe it is something that may get lost over time, but abandoning this worry that I’ve just stipulated in this post tears down some barrier in the brain and suddenly, through perception, a two minute song can last forever. And as far as Frank Zappa was concerned, gifting me the illusion of forever through the convex lens of his music is all that can be aspired to.