Monthly Archives: July 2005

Traffic Jam

The Car Music Project In 1998, I was fortunate to receive an invitation from a friend, Bill Milbrodt, an avant-garde composer I had come to know as a result of our mutual interest in technology and art. Milbrodt runs his own music company and has created music and soundscapes for A Visit with Ann Rice, Frank Gorshin’s A Lasting Impression, ESPN’s America’s Horse, and live theater. In 1991, he won an Emmy Award in New York for Outstanding Original Music Composition for his electronic score for American Venus, a surreal video short.Milbrodt invited my partners and me to attend a Trenton Avant-garde Festival performance of his work that involved an ensemble of musicians playing instruments made of automobile parts – with piano accompaniment. It was an experience of pure magic. I was intrigued by the ingenuity demonstrated in the sculptural transformation of automotive technology into musical devices and enthralled by the range and expressiveness of the sound they produced.In the years since, the composer has kept me informed of his continuing progress on the work he refers to as “The Car Music Project.” This summer, the project has reached full fruition with high-profile performances at The College of New Jersey Concert Hall and an upcoming show at Grounds For Sculpture, in Hamilton, NJ, on July 29. The current ensemble is comprised of musicians playing instruments made from car parts and contains no traditional instruments.Milbrodt is an avant-garde genius. Rarely in the world of new music does one encounter a musician/composer/producer who conceives of an entirely novel orchestra and then proceeds to create lengthy and complex compositions for it that contain as much structure as classical music and also a level of improvisation on a par with modern jazz or contemporary rock. In terms of pure uniqueness and creativity, comparisons with John Cage come to mind. But where Cage was conceptualist to a fault, Milbrot is an entertainer. He is motivated by a desire to reach audiences in emotional and visceral ways. The soundscapes he creates convey drama, wistfulness, raw energy, delicate nuance, and even comedic interludes. In this respect, I’m reminded of the orchestral and improvisational work of Frank Zappa. Milbrot’s music is up to the comparison – up there in the rarefied air of pure inspiration, zany inventiveness, and emotional range and power of Zappa’s best work. There’s unparalleled pleasure in discovering a masterwork like The Car Music Project. It’s as if the entire history of music has been rewritten from scratch. We’re confronted with instruments that bear some generic relationship to familiar forms – the four families of orchestral instruments, for example – strings, brass, winds, and percussion. In Milbrot’s conception the basis of these categories has more to do with the physics of sound than with their historical development. He reinvents them with the junkyard precision of a Road Warrior – taking parts from his old battered personal automobile, enlisting the assistance of sculptors, musicians, metalworkers, glass-cutters, and physicists, and assembling novel contraptions into the instruments necessary to convey his sonic conceptions. Milbrot applies his prodigious skills in musical composition to wring every bit of sound he can from the strange assemblages and then structures works according to the imperatives of his personal vision. The result is a cohesive, comprehensible experience with universal appeal. This is an art of transformation and synthesis. Music, the most abstract of the arts, is made concrete by the metaphor of the automobile. The composer is a contemporary shaman who delivers a new message from the refuse of our postmodern society. His production is an inspiring signal from the wasteland that all is not lost. In fact, the best is yet to come. We come to see that “junk” is a relative term. What’s left after 200,000 miles of mundane use is more potentially valuable than when it was new. We catch a glimpse of our human destiny – to create new worlds from the detritus of the discarded old. Reinvention allows for continuing evolution and progress. There are no dead ends. Everything is new again…and you can dance to it!*The Car Music Project will be presented at Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton, NJ, July 29, 7 p.m. Tickets cost $8.00. For information, call (609) 586-0616, ext. 20. *Images courtesy of Bill Milbrodt.Car Music Project on the Web* Bill Milbrodt has generously contributed a previously unpublished artist’s statement and an overview of the current incarnation of the Car Music Project. I’ll include them here:

“The new ensemble is an ongoing ensemble comprised of car part instruments only (from time to time we might have reasonably accomplished guest artists join us on traditional instruments, but nothing of this sort has yet been rehearsed or scheduled) … The instruments represent the four instrumental families of the traditional orchestra, as follows;

Winds: Played by Dave Homan
Reeds: Tenor and Alto Convertibles (with saxophone parts attached)
Flutes: Tube Flute No. 1, Tube Flute No. 2,
and Tenor and Alto Convertibles (flute mode, without sax parts)

Brass: Played by James Spotto
Strutbone
Exhaustaphone

Percarsion: Played by William Trigg
Includes windows, springs, gears, a drum kit made from
car parts and much, much more. It is a substantial setup.

Strings: Played by Wilbo Wright and Milbrodt
Tank Bass: Wilbo Wright
Air Guitar: Milbrodt

All of the music is original and, at this time, it is all instrumental (although, by Friday, we may be including a couple of narrated pieces — this won’t be certain until our Tuesday rehearsal is complete) … All of the music is charted (written), and many of the charts include improvised sections. In some cases, the improvised sections are close, conceptually, to traditional improvisation in that the musicians are required to improvise over a groove or rhythm, not unlike the way a jazz or rock musician might improvise within a song. In most cases, however, The Car Music Project musicians are required to improvise over written musical constructs that offer little, if any, exact repetition or symmetry — So, it is not like the melody drops out and now they make something up over the same chords that support the melody; they are instead required to improvise something over an orchestrated construct, based on directions I provide that one would probably liken to the directions a stage or film director delivers to actors (ie: “sparse, but agitated” … or “a chase ensues with the Tank Bass performing the part of the human and Tube Flute No. 2 playing the part of the Ferret … The Percarsion should judiciously represent pieces of furniture and other objects bumped into and knocked over during the chase”)”

And here’s the concert program (including Milbrot’s comments) for Friday night):

“The Car Music Project
Concert Program

Noodles
This was lifted from a sidebar sketched while working on a completely different piece of music. Left in the wrong place, it became the victim of spilled chicken noodle soup (The perpetrator, never identified with certainty, was most likely a child or dog). The cleanup that followed revealed the sketch’s potential as a standalone, so I filed it until recently, when I added a new opening. The result is Noodles

Crenabulations No. 1
The first of five parts. “Crenabulate” is a word I made up while cooking in the kitchen with my stepson when he was between 5 and 7 years old. We would “crenabulate” something when we improvised a previously untested concoction.

I Can’t
I can’t think of a title.

Wrinkles in Space, Part 2
The second of three parts: A sonic impression inspired by anomalies in the activities within our universe that, according to Albert Einstein, probably cause gravity. In essence, Einstein theorized that galaxies push against the fabric of space-time, thereby causing it to bend and fold, with gravity as one of the results that we can experience. If space and time can indeed be bent and folded like an old piece of corduroy, my impression of that process would be something like Wrinkles. In Part 2, numerous unexpected sonic events, created through improvisation, pressure the boundaries of the written composition. Yet like our universe, it seems to somehow remain intact.

Carbonation
I enjoyed playing the Air Guitar riff that opens the piece and reoccurs throughout.

Interrupt
This is self-explanatory.

The Ferret and the Futon
A sonic pantomime: The heavily inebriated “owner” of a relaxing ferret mistakes his pet for a foot-long hot dog. Not interested in being slathered with mustard and onions, the wily critter wears his master down, and ultimately steals his super-sized roll for use as a futon.

Bonetime
A featurette for the Strutbone (Jay Spotto on Strutbone).

6 Winds
A feature for our wind instruments, the Tenor and Alto Convertibles and Tube Flutes #1 and #2 (Dave Homan on winds).

Like Bugs to a Flashlight
A four-part sonic pantomime inspired by characters who came out for the cameras when, in early 2005, a decision was enacted to allow a brain-damaged woman to die. When tv coverage of the event ended, these real life characters disappeared quickly, seemingly, with little residual commitment to their moral crusade. Part 1: Scouting the Terrain, Part 2: The Monk in Designer Shades, Part 3: The Screaming Reverend, Part 4: Here Comes CNN.

Eight-Four-Two-One
A fast paced shuffle in which our Percarsion and Tank Bass swap solos (William Trigg on Percarsion, Wilbo Wright on Tank Bass)”

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Onward Toward The Great Whatever

What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (Otherwise known as What the Bleep Do We Know?) is the kind of film that is recommended among those already converted to its premise – that we create our own reality. The film endeavors to recount the endless implications of this hypothesis. I’m guessing it succeeds in convincing only those who already believe all of them.For the rest of us, What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? is, at best, unintentionally funny in spots, mildly entertaining in others, and just annoyingly ludicrous for the most part. It employs a cast of “experts” who are not identified on screen. It turns out that some of them are known and respected scientists – physicists, neurologists, astronomers. Others, like JZ Knight, whose claim to fame – her “ability” to channel the 35,000 year-old Ramtha, a supposedly Atlantean sage – make a mockery of the credentialed cast because all the quoted sources are given equal weight and presented as possessing expert knowledge.The silliness really starts here. It’s also irresponsible and manipulative. We’re led seamlessly along a path from the credibly inscrutable world of sub-atomic physics toward the fatuous un-bleeping-believable world of new age gibberish. The results of well-documented and repeatable experiments in quantum physics are presented along with junk-science reports. They are given equal time and proffered up as somehow proving concepts like “nothing is real” and “time is an illusion.”By the time the film ends, the rational use of language and logic has been pummeled into submission and we’re left not on the edge of our seats but on the edge of sanity. This may seem liberating to some – borderline psychotics come to mind. But reasonable viewers will know the difference between Shinola and its organic double.Integrated – edited, at least – into the science and pseudo-science here is a short movie in which Marlee Matlin sort of acts out situations that are vaguely related to the concepts being presented. That’s the only reason I can imagine why these sequences exist in the film at all. I guess we’re supposed to draw connections between our quotidian lives and their attendant miseries and see how they’re reflected in the anxiety-ridden mindset and sensory-challenged perception that is Matlin’s fate to endure. She does do “annoying” very well, I suppose.Cartoon animations are also patched into this cinematographic slurry. They resemble antacid commercials from the ‘50s done up in psychedelic colors. They careen around the mise-en-scene portraying anatomical and psychological processes. Their addition makes the film reminiscent of one of those movies we were shown in Health class.If my descriptions of What the Bleep… seem a bit odd, they still can’t convey the truly wacky feeling that suffuses the attempts at seriousness in this film. It’s just that bad. The best I can say is it provides an opportunity to laugh at the filmmakers and not with them.*More troubling than the fact that this film exists at all is how it serves as a reminder that soft-headedness is on the rise in our society. We’ve endured sloppy new age clichés for decades now but this new version, complete with scientific-sounding “explanations” and “proofs” is gaining adherents faster than a Black Hole sucks up information. If you don’t believe this, head over to the official web site and get a load of the What the Bleep… hoopla. (Among the self-congratulatory presentations here you’ll see critics quoted out of context so their words reflect positively on the production even when their reviews make the opposite point.)* To be sure, on the quantum level, the universe displays some very strange characteristics. And we are responsible for a great deal of what happens to us in our lives. But to make the leap from abstruse mathematical expressions to catch-all words and concepts that can encapsulate and explain the mysteries of phenomenal and psychological experience is something only the most gullible among us could swallow. It’s as if by accepting the simple notion that anything is possible we are suddenly enlightened and free to live any life we care to create for ourselves.The film makes a big deal out of the metaphor of addiction. We’re told that everything we do in our conventional lives is addictive behavior, predetermined by our past habits, and delusional. Yet, this new kind of thinking that’s proposed as liberating functions as just another, albeit new, version of addictive thinking and behavior – we’re simply urged to live our lives according to a new book of rules. We can memorize the assumptions and live by them – not at all different in any way, really, from the traditional religions this film lambastes for their doctrinaire approach to life.*I must confess that for decades I held firmly to many of the new age paradigms expressed in this film. I was an idiot. I’m quite more in control of my life and my life is more manageable and much better since I rejected this poor excuse for a worldview. I see it now as a big copout from actually coming to terms with life as it presents itself each potentially excellent historical moment. I take more responsibility for things than I used to – not because I think I create my own reality, but because I’ve accepted the reality and necessity of the social fabric I once rejected. I used the new age stuff as a rationalization for laziness and fuzzy thinking. It was more “addicting” than the way I see things now – period.I’d encourage you to view this film as a way of measuring how far along you are on a road we’re being encouraged to take these days. I hope you’ll see it as the shoddy fantasy world it is and that you’ll be happy to reenter the conventional and consensual real world after this make-believe film ends.*Image: Neurons, from the film What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?

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Collabor-Art

Exhibitions of art are the kinds of things that patrons, collectors, curators, academics, and mass audiences hold dear. The reasons for this have more to do with how culture-at-large works than with how art and aesthetic experience are produced.The so-called “art world” assembles itself around artists and works of art like a nearly impenetrable fortress. Besides creating series of obstacles, status-rankings, fashion-conscious canons, and critical baggage, it feeds on the natural egoism of artists and nurtures it to supersize proportions.In general, artists are all too pleased to take part in exhibitions – starved as they are for attention and the desire to be understood, accepted, and rewarded for their prodigious and mostly solitary efforts. Of course, by so doing, artists participate in competitive status-seeking endeavors. These are in many ways anathema to the aesthetic process.The fact that the actual creation and appreciation of artwork are not necessarily about any of the considerations mentioned above creates a kind of cognitive dissonance in artists and viewers alike. Erroneously, we come to believe art is like other forms of social activity – a feeding-frenzy food chain topped by a select group of famous celebrities.The cult of celebrity ruins our view of what art and artists are about. It has reduced the definition of an exemplary, creative human life down to a place in official histories, showboat appearances in cultural media, critical attention and approval, mere popularity, and economic reward. A “famous artist” is another version of the celebrities we are more familiar with: royalty, rock stars, sports figures, actors and actresses, and so forth.The alternative to all this useless and counter-productive competitiveness, isolation, and alienation is a spirit of collaboration that can subsume the childlike artistic ego and engage it within a higher and more socially relevant purpose.The event that inspires me to write about aesthetic collaboration as a much-needed antidote to the cult of celebrity and the unhinged creative psyche is a recent visit to the Freedman Gallery of Albright College, where I encountered, Affinities: The Separate and Group Efforts of Six Artists.The show has all the trappings of an “art-world” event but I sense something larger going on here – something that is worth very special consideration – and that is the spirit of collaboration suffusing the entire exhibition. Organized by Nancy Sarangoulis, an artist whose work I have followed for decades, this show presents her own work and the work of artists with whom she shares affinities (and whose work I have also followed for years): Anna Kuo, Karl Klingbiel, Beverly Leviner, Valetta, and Ron Schira.Several of the major pieces on display at the Freedman Gallery are collaborative in that up to a dozen artists worked on them. Others, such as works from Sarangoulis’ Recycled Paintings Series, are collaborative in more subtle ways. (This series is composed of found paintings gathered from flea markets, trash bins, and other sources. Sarangoulis adds painted imagery to them – thereby “collaborating” with their original creators.)It’s enthralling to view the work of several or even many artists seamlessly integrated into a single work of art. It is also compelling to witness the production of a group of artists who share a communal vision, notwithstanding their individual differences. To experience a sense of community that transcends personalities is most gratifying – especially in an art context. It’s as if we no longer need the conceptual crutches that have supported Art History – from the Renaissance “genius who creates a masterpiece” to the Modernist “art star” who creates a sensation. We see, perhaps for the first time in epochs, that it takes a village to make art.*Vessel Wall, an aggregate work by Sarangoulis, Beverly Leviner, and Valetta, presents more than thirty half-bottles of low-fired, glazed terra cotta arranged in a loose oval pattern. Colorful archetypal scenes – dancing, hunting, loving, traveling – cover the surfaces. The impression is atavistic – the primal and metaphysical narrative and spiritual essence of pottery produced by some ancient culture reappears anew via the intercession of these inspired collaborators. I want to redefine the word “primitive” here – or at least to reorient it. Speaking anthropologically, “primitive” is a concept now mostly absent from the lexicon because it has implications that are distasteful to current modes of cultural relativism. However, as humans, we have primitive structures in our brains that fill us with particular emotions and perceptions. The roots of human behavior and experience – communal, magical, fantastic, and phantasmagoric – originate in these parts of us and they are present in the majority of the pieces in this show. A sense of the “primitive” (defined this way) informs the exhibition and adds resonance to its postmodern, multivalent nature. It’s not so much that we’re confronted by contradictions – such as contemporary artists employing ancient archetypal narrative – but more that these subtexts are naturally present and come to the fore in their production. They appear as central concerns and accompany the sense of collaboration and aesthetic affinity shared by this creative group. And they reflect a holistic view of humans, society, nature, and art.* Archetypal narrative elements coursing through works such as Valetta’s Bridal Path can evoke the primal sensation that we are disconnected from our conventional bearings and walking through a dreamscape. Physically moving through this pivotal multi-media sculptural work pinions viewers between a densely illustrated picket-like fence and a domestic stations-of-the-cross. Scenes from a marriage – from love and trust to lust and conflict – bump up against each other with inexorable rhythm. We don’t so much read the images as feel them. They correspond to universal sensations inside of us, those that animate and also decimate us. Anna Kuo’s beautiful, evocative, and logically inscrutable paintings evoke a mental and emotional landscape that appears intensely personal. And yet, it is as accessible as our common human heritage – the pre-literate interior consciousness that spawns and supports the superstructure of words and logic with which we are habituated to experience most of our waking lives. Other works echo another elemental aspect of art and aesthetic experience – a non-verbal and immediate connection to nature. Karl Klingbiel’s expressionistic abstractions reveal more truths about nature than do most literal landscapes. They are direct, unmediated celebrations of living in the world and of the deeply connected creative process.In much of Ron Schira’s visual art, the same deep subjects dealt with in his colleagues’ works are quoted, contained, displayed, and confined within glass enclosures. Schira presents conceptual conundrums referencing the seemingly contradictory relationships between art and life, nature and culture, and ultimately between the interior personal experience of being human and its poor doppelganger, the external culturally-defined persona. Schira holds a mirror up to himself as a contemporary thinker and artist and thereby allows us to view those contradictory aspects of ourselves as well. His inclusion here provides the conceptual underpinning necessary to comprehend the problematic relationships between culture and nature vis-à-vis the personal and the communal on a rational, verbal level. *“Community-oriented” has many meanings – some local and some universal. This community-oriented exhibition reflects the best meanings of both senses of the phrase. In the end, I see all experience and all art as local. Ironically perhaps, it is this intimate microcosmic essence that gives art a universal relevance. Most significantly, this collaboration of six inspired individuals affirms the notion that where both human life and art are concerned, it takes a village.Affinities: The Separate and Group Ef
forts of Six Artists is on view at the Freedman Gallery of Albright College through July 31 and also from August 30 through September 11, 2005.*Images by Tullio Francesco DeSantis and courtesy of the Freedman Gallery (not for reproduction).

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Stresslessness

Last evening while lecturing to my drawing students, I digressed into a discussion of stress and how it is anathema to aesthetic experience. The overall consensus was that a high state of stress is a constant and basically unavoidable aspect of our lives. Only a few individuals expressed knowledge of even a fleeting experience of stress-free living. Of course, this turned my digression into a full-scale exposition of the deleterious nature of stress as it relates to living well and in the present, and also how it related directly to the task at hand – drawing large and highly detailed compositions of small textured objects. The diminutive still lifes require focused attention to fully observe, but vividly rendering them is all about relaxing the eye/mind/hand/body nexus and allowing one’s perception to be transferred as effortlessly as possible to the drawing surface.I used common experiences, such as finding balance while bicycle riding, being in nature, and meditation techniques from yoga to martial arts as metaphors for the process of actively engaging things with a calm state of mind. Still though, my students had more than passing resistance to letting go of the many stresses they bring along with them to class.I spoke calmly using only action words, such as “look at the object and then look back at your drawing,” “don’t use your mind for this,” and “just move automatically and rhythmically between looking and drawing without thinking about what you’re doing.” I put some soft music in the CD player and then just let the time roll on. After an hour or so I asked whether they felt any inkling of what I was talking about earlier: letting go of stress, being, and doing in the present moment. Happily, there was general agreement that they had caught a glimpse of these elusive states while drawing quietly for an hour.Near the end of class I indicated that these are achievable and highly valuable states of mind that can be applied to the demanding situations in which we find ourselves while living in the world.*Upon reflection, I decided to type out this entry. The vast amounts of worry, anxiety, and stress to which we subject ourselves is thoroughly unproductive. It accomplishes nothing more than transferring external pressure inside of us – where it sets our minds to spinning uncontrollably and prevents us from acting as effectively as we could without it. At its most basic level, thinking about aesthetic experience involves thinking about ourselves and thinking about the many reasons why we are habituated to not seeing and being in the moment. And I am seeing, more and more, the need for speaking and writing about why we are so lost without it.

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Word Wars

Marlon HillSomewhat ironically, the evening after I wrote the entry below I had an entertaining opportunity to consider words used as blunt weapons of strategy and competition. I watched the documentary film, Word Wars, directed by Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo and featuring a real-life cast of tournament-level Scrabble players. It provides a fascinating view into the reality of those who take words so seriously they dedicate their lives to studying endless lists of them. In order to arm themselves against each other these word warriors, as it were, work to master the English language in its most literal aspect: spelling – and rote memorization of the many ways in which letters can be arranged and combined into the highest scoring words possible in a competitive situation. Marlon Hill, perhaps the film’s most memorable character – an African-American savant who decries just about everything (and is hilarious doing so) – eschews even paying attention to the definitions of the multitude of words he memorizes. Marlon says definitions just complicate and confuse things and that it’s only important for him to know a word exists, how to spell it, and maximize his score.We learn of Marlon’s major issues with European civilization as epitomized by the English language, which he feels subjugates him and his race. Nevertheless, Marlon has mastered it – at least in its lexicographical aspect. His memory is as prodigious as his temper is short. His inclusion in Word Wars goes a long way toward rendering the world of Scrabble tourneys in a palpably human dimension.Perhaps closer to the stereotypical word geek is Joel Sherman, the 1997 Scrabble World Champ. Sherman’s nickname, “G.I. Joel,” refers to his chronically malfunctioning gastro-intestinal tract. He is never without his medication or his word lists. G.I. Joel’s triumphs are always bittersweet.Matt Graham, a stand-up comedian from New York is like many of his colleagues in that he attempts to eke out an income from the meager winnings available in even the biggest Scrabble tournaments. It’s not fame and fortune that motivate these individuals though – it can’t be because they cannot achieve them. The film makes clear we’re dealing with a fanatical group of obsessive souls who are compelled to play this game because they have the rare and otherwise useless ability to do so. They appear tyrannized by words even as they struggle to come to terms with them.Then there’s Joe Edley, a family man with a real job who seems the most normal of the bunch – at least until you hear him spout a constant barrage of new-age lingo and execute physical and mental exercises that propel Zen and high anxiety toward new levels of compulsive behavior. Edley is a strange combination of winning and losing wrapped up in one lifetime. In this he’s an Everyman.On its face, Word Wars is a great documentary about a terribly minor subject. But it gets you thinking about words in some very unique ways. Of course, the game of Scrabble has as much to do with chance and dumb luck as it does with the ability to memorize the dictionary. That’s probably why it’s so compelling. We see words stripped down to their bare essentials, objectified, and reified into concrete entities. And we get a glimpse into those who live their lives according to the permutations of letters that comprise our mental landscape. It’s as if these word warriors are engaged in an epic struggle against the forces of chaos that threaten to turn meaning into gibberish and our very language into an anarchy of ciphers.

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