Friday, January 28, 2005


The words resist erasure. The oldest and most stubborn form a thick crust of chattering rage. Cleaners have been bitten by words still quarrelling, and in one famous lawsuit a woman whose mop had been eaten and whose hand was badly mauled by a vicious row sought to bring the original antagonists to court.

The men responsible made their defence on the grounds that the words no longer belonged to them. Years had passed. Was it their fault if the city had failed to deal with its overheads? The judge ruled against the plaintiff but ordered the city to buy her a new mop. She was not satisfied, and was later found lining the chimneys of her accused with vitriol.

I once accompanied a cleaner in a balloon and was amazed to hear, as the sights of the city dropped away, a faint murmuring like bees. The murmuring grew louder and louder till it sounded like the clamouring of birds, then like the deafening noise of schoolchildren let out for the holidays. She pointed with her mop and I saw a vibrating mass of many colours appear before us. We could no longer speak to each other and be heard.

She aimed her mop at a particularly noisy bright red band of words who, from what I could make out, had escaped from a group of young men on their way home from a brothel. I could see from the set of my companion’s mouth that she found this particular job distasteful, but she persevered, and in a few moments all that remained was the fading pink of a few ghostly swear-words.

Next we were attacked by a cloud of wrath spewd from a parson caught fornicating his mother. The cloud wrapped round the balloon and I feared for our lives. I could not see my guide but I could hear her coughing against the noxious smell. Suddenly I was drenched in a sweet fluid and all returned to lightness.
"I have conquered them with Holy Water," she said, showing me a stone jar marked with the Bishop’s seal.
After that our task was much easier. Indeed I was sorry to see the love-sighs of young girls swept away. My companion, though she told me it was strictly forbidden, caught a sonnet in a wooden box and gave it to me as a memento. If I open the box by the tiniest amount I may hear it, repeating itself endlessly as it is destined to do until someone sets it free.

Towards the end of the day we joined the other balloons brushing away the last few stray and vagabond words. The sky under the setting sun was the colour of veined marble, and a great peace surrounded us. As we descended through the clean air we saw, passing us by from time to time, new flocks of words coming from people in the streets who, not content with the weight of their lives, continually turned the heaviest of things into the lightest of properties.

We landed outside the university, where the dons, whose arguments had so thickly populated the ether that they had seen neither sun nor rain for the past five years, welcomed us like heroes and took us in to feast.

That night two lovers whispering under the lead canopy of the church were killed by their own passion. Their effusion of words, unable to escape through the Saturnian discipline of lead, so filled the spaces of the loft that the air was all driven away. The lovers suffocated, but when the sacristan opened the tiny door the words tumbled him over in their desire to be free, and were seen flying across the city in the shape of doves.

--Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry

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The Soundtrack 4

David Tudor, Toneburst
Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro (yes, complete)
Bruno Coulais, "Les Choristes"
Ani Difranco, "You Had Time"

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

On the Couch

Heather Heise does not write music or extemporize though she knits without patterns, cooks without recipes, and drives without maps. She sometimes writes poetry, changes her own bicycle tires, and invents...on the piano--but only in dark concert halls when no one is around. She is a classically trained pianist known for her "senstivity" and the deeply personal level of committment she brings to ensemble relationships.

Pony Keg (1979)--Unable to find a piano stool, the firemen bring me a little keg and top it with a piece of plywood. My first piano, and I climb up to it, teetering, staring...improvising songs with my fists until, having just discovered an infinite palette of techniques (not just fists, but elbows, too!), my mother declares I will take lessons. "Better to learn to play real music not just that made up banging around." At this decree, I slip quietly from the pony keg to the box of alphabet blocks on the floor where, with my words, I am more easily unheard.

Junior High Band (1986)--I play keyboard on top of a thirty-year-old amp that smokes and shorts on a daily basis. On a mission to escape certain death by electrocution, I grab my best friend's flute for a run-through of Magnificent Seven. I push air roughly through the pipe and clack, clack the keys, mimicing rhythmic gestures and musical phrases. Three quarters of the way through the piece I suddenly sound something more like a note than a ragged breath. Giddily I let my fingers fake a sequence of pitches. "Who is playing that...?" By the time the other students cease their racket, I am halfway down the hall to the principal's office.

The Happy Birthday Incident (1995)
--"Oh yes, they'll need you to play Happy Birthday. Ok? In C, and" in pure terror and disbelief I sound a C major chord, hoping that someone will be able to pick the tune out of the harmony. Thinking furiously, searching for dominants and subdominants, I attempt to "improvise" a way to the end, fail miserably, and endure the stares of sixty kindergarten parents and their confused, stage-fraught children. Later I practice Happy Birthday in every key before quitting in disgust and throwing most of my ideas about what it means to be a pianist in the trash. I think I feel the first nudge of musical freedom.

Cookies & Accordions (2001)
--Prowling the streets of Portland with old college friends, I discover the tiny accordion in a shop filled with vintage clothes, tinted postcards, and rusted lunchboxes. I pick it up and begin noodling, turn to my best friend and joke, "hey I've almost got these left hand buttons...wanna hear something? I'll improvise for you...ah-hah!" The shopkeeper interrupts in a blatantly disdainful tone, "hello? The thirty second accordion performance period is--OVER." Still laughing, I ask, "are you serious?" and he says smuggly, "you gotta learn to play it right, you know, buy it and take some lessons." I put the accordion down and smile, "yeah, lessons." Who is more free, the instrument or me?

--In the practice wing hallway, half a dozen men sit hunched over pages of music. They rest their coffee mugs on instruments still in cases--fiddle, drums, accordion, bass, guitar. As I walk past, "hey what's up?" Bill asks, "would you like a bagel?" A bagel. I linger, peering over David's shoulder at the score, wondering if, given a few minutes, someone might say, "wanna join us?" But the band, even as they stand barricading the door to the women's bathroom, seems decidedly for the boys.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Performance, Untranslated

Two stories.

Recently, on the afternoon of arriving in Paris, I ducked into the sleek organic cafe R'Aliment for a late lunch. Service had ended for the day, unfortunately, and only a few sandwiches were available for take-away. I gleaned this information in a rather non-welcoming exchange with the young waitress. My French is admittedly atrocious, but my ear for the language is quite strong; I can pick up the gist of a conversation by listening and observing the speaker closely. This woman, however, gave me nothing. The bland exasperated look on her face could have been due to a very busy lunch that day, or the fact that I walked through the door when she was ready to close up, or that I was a typical non-French speaking American. The situation ended in a draw: she carelessly tossing a sandwich in a bag and perfunctorily closing the till (at the same time, of course), and I half-heartedly walking out onto the street to eat my first meal in Paris (a delicious and simple concoction of soft, herbed cheese and arugula on a crisp, sundried-tomatoey baguette).

A few days later I entered the chocolate shop L'Etoile d'Or with almost mythic expectations. The curious stories of Denise Acabo, the proprietress, and her school-girl braids, plaid pleated skirt, and knee-high socks worried me somewhat; anyone who dared to wear such a costume at my grandmother's age was bound to be eccentric. Would she refuse me chocolates if I couldn't ask for them--with proper verb conjugation--en francais? Quite the contrary. All smiles from the moment I stepped through the door, she eyed me attentively as I fumblingly said I would like any "assortment" of "vous favorites" for "dix euro." She nodded effusively, grabbed a little cellophane bag, and chattered away in French as she filled it with Bernachon chocolates. Pistache? Menthe? She probably asked if I preferred dark or milk, almonds or nougat, candied orange or caramel; I really have no idea, and yet it definitely felt like we were conversing, communicating. Simply the fact that she just kept talking as if I understood made the entire encounter a pleasant and memorable one.

Language and translation. Performance as language. These days, particularly with modern music, what I hear more and more from the audience is, "we need a translator!" As the curtain comes down at intermission, cries of "what was that about" or "what was the composer/choreographer trying to tell us" or "did you understand that" abound. But really, is translation necessary?

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Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Curtain Rises--Sunday

Sidecar Syndicate performs at Epic Arts in Berkeley this Sunday, January 30th at 8:30pm with Heather Heise on toy piano and accordion and Anne Hege on electronics and voice. The program will include arrangements of songs by Hanns Eisler, Alvin Curran, Charles Ives and Luciano Berio. Anne debuts a new collection of folk-inspired songs with Gene Baker on drums. $5-10 sliding scale. Friends, spouses, lovers and children all welcome!

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Monday, January 03, 2005

At Work

There is a scene in the film The Hours when Virginia Woolf (played by Nicole Kidman) sits in her chair, cigarette mindlessly in hand, lost lost lost in deep thought. We surmise that she is working things out, unknotting the plot, structure, or events of her novel Mrs. Dalloway. Her immobility, physically speaking, suggests an emotional catatonic state. Only the curling and drifting smoke hints at creative activity, activity that occurs in "a room of her own," her mind. Friends and family do not understand her. Is this a great writer? At work? Doing nothing?

I identify with the Woolf of this scene because I, too, spend a great deal of time in my head, planning, dreaming, creating, and visualizing a seemingly endless list of concepts and ideas, props and sounds, gestures and programs. This setting--the mind--is not where the public wants to see their artists, musicians, writers, or dancers. We laud the visible and tangible, the end products of mental activity, from precisely diced vegetables and flawlessly executed passages of Mozart to irregular brushstrokes on a canvas and the colors of chemical mixtures changing from one test tube to another. The outsider can not witness certain activities, the lists and diagrams scrawled on the back of an ATM receipt or the mental blueprint that positions one's props and instruments on the stage. Like the scene in the film, the moment when we glimpse beyond the end product, to the artist "at work," may feel confrontational or intrusive. Not able to comprehend, we find it difficult to support or nurture this aspect of the creative endeavor. Is it surprising that we latch on to the end product, often posthumously, and attempt to appreciate the creator through their work? How would interpretations be affected if we studied more closely the actual act of working?

The dichotomy between "workplace" and "work" fascinates me. The artist "works" in multiple worlds: a workplace may be the recording studio or practice room, the study or breakfast-nook, the lab or stage. But the workplace is also a mental engagement of ideas, observations, decisions and prayer. One workplace is public, a shell, and one is private, the fragile liquid egg. The artist inhabits the many nooks and crannies of this world, some in high, and some in low, relief, a perspective poetically rendered by Mary Oliver:
And I am thinking: maybe just looking and listening
is the real work.
Maybe the world, without us,
is the real poem.
--from "The Book of Time"
The juxtapositions challenge, as when we glimpse the artist in both worlds at once: Virgina Woolf quietly in her chair, pen at rest, Glenn Gould murmuring and gesturing over the keys of the piano, never touching them, the scientist hunched over his notepad, glassware nowhere in sight. The fractured view is offputting, a little frightening, incomprehensible.

Woolf, of course, penned the poignant A Room of One's Own, which, unfortunately, has become its own cliche. It is too easy to pigeonhole each creative mind to their "room": the chef to her kitchen, the musician to the practice studio, the filmmaker in the dailies reel room, the dancer at the barre. Isn't it more likely that for the artists themselves, the most important room is the room in their mind, and that the end product, however viscerally we see, hear or experience it, is only the door barely cracked open? The light slithering out from beneath the closed door? Consider Les Demoiselles d'Avignon as a slice of light emmanating from Picasso's "workroom" and learn to experience art in a more humbling way. These multiple perspectives--the audience viewing the end product vs. viewing the artist at work, and the artist working in the mind vs. working, physically, with the body--intertwine with an expressive complexity. I realize that in an end product or performance I see only a single thread or shard of a more sprawling creative work, but perhaps that is the trick of a masterpiece regardless of one's sensitivity to it or not. The silent artistic process--what goes on behind the closed doors, so to speak--creates a mysterious void that compels and draws us in, demanding a reaction or response. In many ways, what we never witness flirts the most with our powers of appreciation, our desire to enter the artist's room.

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