A few short plugs for Stillpointe Theatre’s Grey Gardens, Single Carrot Theatre’s Samsara, Baltimore Annex Theater’s The Tempest, and Iron Crow Theatre’s Fucking A


Christine Demuth in “Grey Gardens”


This weekend offers a local theatergoing luxury that’s becoming increasingly common: there’s so many compelling productions happening at the same time that you’re not going to be able to hit them all. Three of these four productions—Iron Crow’s Fucking A, Single Carrot’s Samsara, and Stillpointe’s Grey Gardens—end this weekend. None of them are emotionally easy rides, which is part of the reason they’re all worth trying to catch.

Stillpointe shrewdly sees the misogyny lurking in the background of Grey Gardens. Roughly halfway through the first act, a rich, old, white guy offers some advice to the fairer sex. Major Bouvier (Barney Rinaldi), the portly mansplainer, is chatting with his niece Edie (Christine Demuth) and his two tweenage granddaughters, Jackie Bouvier (Anne Murphy on the night I attended) and Lee Bouvier (Avagail Hulbert on this eve). Yes, that’s future first lady and heiress Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her younger sister, the future socialite Lee Radziwill. The major counsels them that because “we live in perilous times, if you want to anchor yourself in an uncertain world you have only one recourse”—before launching into “Marry Well,” a jaunty little ditty driven by a coy, martial beat. The Major’s advice: “Find a staunch young patrician, Republican/ With the blood and the brains to excel/ Like the fine strapping lad your late grand mama had/ meaning I, little girls, marry well.”

Welcome to Stillpointe’s tartly comic and sweetly cruel Gardens, a production that understands that the story of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale gets its gravitational allure from the lifelong détente of a mother-daughter relationship, and knows that these two women’s lives took place inside a social culture that didn’t want them if they weren’t going to do as they’re told. Co-directed by Stillpointe founding members Ryan Haase and Danielle Robinette, this production is the first to make use of the company’s pair of intimate performance spaces in the adjacent buildings at 1825 and 1823 North Charles Street, and it features two of its more formidable performers playing different versions of the same character. Also: puppets. All three of these decisions conspire to add a nuanced gravity to this version of the Tony Award-nominated musical—music and lyrics by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, book by Doug Wright—that debuted on Broadway in 2006, and which The New York Times critic Ben Brantley called “a show that is, at best, costume jewelry.”

The source material here is, of course, filmmaking brothers Albert and David Maysles’ beloved, 1975 documentary about the mother-daughter Beales, whom the filmmakers captured living in the decrepit decadence of the expansive, 28-room East Hampton estate that lends the movie its name. The elder “Big Edie” was a daughter of privilege who married lawyer Phelan Beale at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1917. They lived on the Upper East Side, had three kids—two boys and one girl, also named Edith, aka “Little Edie”—and separated in 1931. Big Edie got Grey Gardens in the divorce, and it became the live-in rehearsal studio for her singer career. Pianist/composer George “Gould” Strong lived there for a spell; as did another male companion for a bit. By 1952, Big Edie was all alone, and Little Edie left Manhattan, where her own attempt at an entertainment career stalled, to return to the summer retreat they called home year round.

The two of them had been living there increasingly removed from the outside world when the Maylses showed up with their cameras in 1973 and captured a house overrun by cats, raccoons, trash, fleas, and disrepair. The documentary has stoked an adoring cult fanbase ever since, particularly among gay and queer audiences. “Gay men think they’re latching on to Grey Gardens because they think it’s camp, but it’s really because it’s about a parent-child relationship,” performance artist John Epperson, aka Lypsinka, told The Advocate in 2009, adding that “[t]he best movies are always about identity, and that movie certainly is.” Scott Frankel, the composer behind the musical Grey Gardens, told Newsweek in 2006 that “Little Edie’s so inspirational to a lot of disenfranchised people. . . . She somehow managed to put on some incredible headgear and still think the best years were ahead. She faced each day with optimism, energy and style.”

Stillpointe’s approach puts equal emphasis on the parent-child relationship and the disenfranchisement. The musical’s first act plays fast and loose with the Beales’ real story, remixing rumor and fact to imagine what life was like at Grey Gardens before the cats and trash took over. About thirty years before that quagmire, the stunning, elegant big Edie (Zoe Kanter) is all posh enunciation, witty banter, silky gowns, and endless cocktails. She’s prepping the gorgeous Grey Gardens estate for Little Edie’s (Christine Demuth) nuptials with Joe Kennedy, and the extended family’s all there: Bouviers Major, Jackie, and Lee, groom-to-be Joe (Bobby Libby), and perpetually pickled piano man Gould (Adam Cooley), Big Edie’s partner in song and seeking distraction at the bottom of a glass. Big Edie in her youth also possesses a competitive, conniving streak, and her yearning for the spotlight, even at her daughter’s wedding, sparks a schism that snowballs into a seemingly insurmountable chasm. If Big Edie can’t be happy in marriage—her husband divorces her by telegram from Mexico—no one can, and the first act ends with Little Edie leaving Grey Gardens, never to return.

The entire audience for this Grey Gardens moves next door for the second act, where Big and Little Edie, and the state of the home, look like the ruin familiar from the documentary. As exceptional as Kanter is with Big Edie in her youth, Danielle Robinette is ruthlessly human in her performance of Big Edie in old age. The use of different actors—in the original Broadway and Off-roadway production, Christine Ebersole played Big Edie in the first act and Little Edie in the second, which has a different effect—doesn’t merely highlight time’s unforgiving passage, it intimates how the social fall that accompanied it changes a person. Demuth returns as Little Edie, improvised head scarf an all. Save for a few visitors, such as congenial handyman Jerry (Jon Kevin Lazarus), Big Edie and Little Edie live amongst their own filth, dreaming of what might happen in the world outside that isn’t, ever, going to happen.

They were too brash, too opinionated, too liberated, had too many of their own ideas, didn’t just get married and do the wife thing the way they were supposed to. The narrative contrasts between the first and second acts shows that, yes, there was an insurmountable tension between Big and Little Edie that eventually tethered them together. The thematic contrasts between the first and second acts suggests that their resulting behavior because of that tense relationship is what drove everybody but each other away. According to the society in which they traveled, they deserve their fetid fate.

And it’s one where they live surrounded only by a horde of feral cats, which Stillpointe features as puppets manipulated by everyone from the first act who isn’t in the second. These puppets and puppeteers adds a devastatingly nuanced touch: we see the Edies haunted by the people who used to be in their lives when they had social connections, glamour, a future, money. Kudos to this production’s entire cast and crew for landing this quiet knockout punch. The story of Big Edie and Little Edie is, per the Grey Gardens documentary, an almost too textbook example of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that there are no second acts in American lives—there’s nothing but the rise and the fall. Stillpointe’s approach to the unapologetically mainstream musical Grey Gardens reminds us that those rises and falls in America don’t happen in a vacuum. They take place in the socioeconomic milieus that people make. And if this is how America’s “best” families—who attend the finest schools and go on to be captains of industry and the government—treat their own when they don’t obey, well, how do we expect they’re going to treat anybody who isn’t white, privileged, and rich?

* * * 

Single Carrot Theater also finds a way to make a mainstream tone uncomfortable with Samsara by playwright Lauren Yee. Katie (Alix Fenhagen) and Craig (Paul Diem) are a childless-but-trying middle-class Northern California couple who decide to go the surrogate route. They’ve already invested a small fortune in their efforts, so they find a more economic surrogate option online—via “reproductive outsourcing” in India. Suraiya (Saraniya Tharmarajah) is a medical student who is hoping to use her portion of the surrogacy fee to complete her education.

When Craig—and only Craig—flies to India for their child’s birth, all metaphysical hell breaks loose. The wise-cracking, relentlessly inquisitive Amit (Utkarsh Rajawat) appears to Suraiya, a projection of the unborn fetus she’s carrying. Katie begins having visits from the Frenchman (Dustin Morris), a version of the suave, seductive leading man her mom idealized. Nobody seems quite prepared for—or completely thought through—what a Western couple paying for a child produced in a south Asian country means. And they better figure it out soon, because Amit is ready to come out—that is, until Suraiya talks to him about the cycle of life, which eventually includes death.

Director Lauren Saunders and scenic designer Jason Randolph opt for a minimally surreal visual approach. The set is but a curved screen hanging above a curved set of risers that can be moved into a variety of positions. While the dramatic action cross cuts between America and India, only the characters change. Everything takes place in this visual sea of neutral hues, as if the imagination had been decorated by the Pottery Barn.

I suspect that’s intentional: tone-wise, SCT’s Samsara feels a bit like a very special episode of an otherwise anodyne prime-time television drama. As such, the acting is intentionally affected, as if characters are experiencing seemingly obvious points—about life, their childhoods, the global movement of capital, marriage, colonial exploitation, babies—for the first time. It’s a cheeky way to spotlight how insincerely mainstream entertainment typically handles serious topics. Diem and Tharmarajah, especially, ride this knife-edge balance of naiveté and knowingness, finding the sincere emotions among the superficial reactions. Rajawat has a gift for oddly timed humor, blending the total lack of knowledge, much less consciousness, you’d expect from a fetus with a wily wiseacre streak. He’s not just a fetus trying to form an opinion; he’s almost surly about it, too. Also: Fenhagen is a total badass at creating the upwardly mobile middle-class American white woman whose anti-anxiety mediated understanding of the world she’s formed in her head you will have to pry from her cold, dead, organically eating, credit-card wielding, thin hands.

The kicker is that Samsara can’t avoid heading into more serious terrain, because things like the global movement of capital and colonial exploitation and, well, birthlifedeath don’t conform to the unreality perpetuated by the imaginary realities conjured by mainstream entertainments. This intermission-free, 90-minute play takes a turn toward the end that might feel sharp, but it’s merely what’s always lurking behind the perceived consumerist benefits of contemporary capitalism, a reminder that the relative ease of being able to click and buy anything online only temporarily shields us from an entire system of unpleasantness and exploitation that isn’t going to end well, no matter how rosy things appear right now.

* * * 

As with last season’s Flatland and Minotaur, Annex Theater’s approach to The Tempest feels like it started from a visual idea and bloomed from there. For this Evan Moritz-directed production of William Shakespeare’s temperamental play, the audience rings a large oval stage that swallows Psychic Readings’ black-box theater, as if you’re all sitting down to a large dinner party. In effect, you are. For the play’s two-and-a-half-ish hours running time (with intermission), you’re going to be overserved a lavish, topsy-turvy feast. There will be drama. There will be laughs. There will be magic. There will be mischief. There will be scheming. There will be romance. And, boy howdy, will there ever be drunks.

The Tempest doesn’t so much have a plot as it has a suggestion of things that take place. Prospero (Aladrian Wetzel), the former Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda (Katharine Vary) live on an island deserted save the deformed creature Caliban (June Keating) and the spirit Ariel (Mika Nakano), with who Prospero communicates. Prospero conjures a storm to crash the ship carrying his brother Antonio (Betse Lyons), the king of Naples Alonso (Sarah Lamar), and his retinue—Stephano (Molly Margulies), Gonzalo (Michael Ziccardi), and Trinculo (Carly Bales)—washing them ashore. The King believes his son Ferdinand (Jonathan Jacobs) is dead, but the young man merely washed ashore elsewhere and is found by Miranda. What ensues is the kind of small alliances formed for potential power grabs that run through Shakespeare’s plays, only with a little sorcery thrown in.

All praise Annex’s back house for this production’s striking audio and visual experience: the world created by set designer Douglas Johnson, costume designer Susan MacCorkle, lighting designer Chris Allen, composer Rjyan Kidwell, and video designer Tom Boram feels closer to psychedelic late 1960s/early 1970s European flicks than anything in the Shakespeare universe. Wetzel’s Prospero—who stumbled a bit early on with Shakespeare’s odd language the night I saw this, but she recovered quite strongly—is clad in a white body suit with fringe and feathers and faux fur things and flowing cape that’s just cool; she looks like she wandered straight out of an Alejandro Jodorowsky flick and into a Baltimore underground theater, bringing a layer of wiggy ’70s excess with her. Nakano’s Ariel flutters around the stage like some newfangled bird-bug species. And Keating’s Caliban costumes turns the character into a tentacled humanish creature ripped from the pages of a Japanese comic.

Most entertaining of all is the drunken partnership formed by Margulies’ Stephano and Bales’ Trinculo, who are plotting something but are really more interesting in staying lit. Stage inebriation is one of those things you think should be easy but more often than not just looks idiotic. Bales and Margulies appear to know that the drunken verisimilitude passes directly through outright idiocy. This pair of bumbling, tumbling, stumbling, and slurring actors should do an online web series where they, in sloshed character, read House and Senate Democrats’ reasons for voting “yes” for this administration’s cabinet appointments—because the only excuse such spineless officials could possibly have for that is that they were obliterated beyond all human thought.

* * * 

Jessica Bennett in “Fucking A”


Iron Crow Theater is in the middle of what we can politely call a fucking tear. After sitting out the 2015-’16 season, Iron Crow has returned with a string of impressively acted, visually rich, and emotionally intense shows, from The Wild Party through The Zero Hour. The company’s latest, Suzan Lori-Parks’ Fucking A, doesn’t veer from that daring streak, and may be the most distressing production in a season absolutely roiling in disturbances.

Lori-Parks’ Fucking A, which debuted in 2000, is an allegorical reworking of The Scarlett Letter, set in mythical small town, where the Hester (a powerhouse Jessica Bennett) branded with an “A” is the local abortionist. Hester used to work for the mayor (Jamil Johnson) and his wife (Cricket Arrison), until her son supposedly committed a crime that sent him away and cast her to the lowly job she occupies now. Hester is quasi-friends with prostitute Canary Mary (Deirdre McAllister), who’s sleeping with the mayor, and the Butcher (Jared Swain), who dotes on Hester on a bit. Illiterate, Hester relies on Mary to read the letters from prison her son mails her, and the local scribe (Rebecca Dreyfuss) to write her replies. With what little money she brings in from abortions, Hester pays into the Freedom Fund that, she hopes, will get her son out of jail after 12 years.

That simple sketch suggests a level of conventional dramatic reality coursing through Fucking A that the script flatly rejects. There’s enough recognizable figures and ideas floating around—a mayor, a butcher, some pantomime of ethics and morality—that you sense a patina of a Wilderesque Our Town going on. But other elements short-circuit that assumption. For one, a string band—percussionist Josh Eid-Reis, mandolinist Dave Engwall, and guitarist/banjoist Kevin Krause—sits onstage the entire play, providing some musical accompaniment and providing background when characters intermittently break into bluesy, folksy songs. At times, Hester and Canary Mary speak in an invented language that a voiceover translates for the audience. Also: the level of everyday violence accepted by everyone in the play is unconscionable. When a feared convict called the Monster (Javier Ogando) escapes from jail, a trio of red-neck hunters (Caitlin Weaver, Kelly Hutchinson, and Martha Robichaud) set off to track him down and capture him, dead or alive, for a bounty. The bodily cruelties they inflict on escapees, such as cutting off limbs while still alive? They they can do those for free.

Anybody slightly familiar with the Jacobean tragedies that inform this play will have an idea just how true horrorshow this will go before it’s all over; what director Stephen Nunns and set designer Nicki Seibert add to that rough ride is a withering indictment of state law and order. The stage is set up like a shotgun-shack judge’s bench and courtroom, with a series of moveable tables, bars, and a bed that create various interior spaces during the production. A porch swing occupies stage right, a sofa stage left. The entire cast sits somewhere on this stage for the entire running time, turning the entire performance area into a courtroom with the audience as the, well, audience.

Or does it? As Iron Crow’s blistering Fucking A unfurls, in the back of your brain you start wondering, Who’s on trial here? Is it Hester, being judged by the town? Is it the Monster, whose word-of-mouth actions since escaping flee from the lips of everybody, though we never see him do what they accuse him of? Is it the mayor, the ostensible rich man in charge, who’s position it is to guide the state through the exercise of its power. You decide. By the time this Fucking A ended, though, I was wondering if the play might be indicting those people who sit quietly and comfortably watching a society lead itself to ruin for the sake of its own entertainment.

Stillpointe Theater’s Grey Gardens runs through Feb. 12; tickets. Single Carrot Theater’s Samsara runs through Fe. 12, tickets. Iron Crow Theater’s Fucking A runs through Feb. 12; tickets. Annex Theater’s The Tempest runs through Feb. 19; tickets.

Happy birthday Carmen Laforet

Carmen Laforet (image stolen from internet)


Happy birthday to the late Spanish author Carmen Laforet, who was born on this day in 1921. She’s a writer I knew zilch about prior to this summer, when a passing mention of her 1945 novel Nada in an essay that I was reading made me curious about it.

And holy ass-flattening debuts: Laforet was only 22 when she wrote this utterly transfixing, existentially sophisticated novel about Andrea, an orphaned young woman who moves to Barcelona to live with relatives in the bleak aftermath of the Spanish civil war. It’s an intimate novel about Andrea’s experiences, Laforet’s language terrifyingly beautiful at times (even in English translation), and by the time Laforet has you gripped by Andrea’s saga you realize the novel is as much about Spanish politics and society and the struggle just to get by itself. Nada is one of those kinds of sneaky knockouts.

My ignorance of 20th century contemporary Spanish fiction is shameful—actually, my ignorance of most 20th-century fiction that isn’t America is shameful—and the most cursory of poking around led me to recognize that Laforet is a major female author in a male-dominated post-Spanish Civil War literary world, and I think Nada is the only novel of hers widely available in English translation. (This is, like, reason number 90 million why my white Mexican-American ass needs to learn Spanish.)

Laforet passed in 2004 at the age of 82; see The Guardian‘s obit. Nada was reissued in new English translation by Edith Grossman in 2007 by the Modern Library, and if I read writer Fernanda Eberstadt’s review in the New York Times back then, I don’t recall doing so. (The Times even included an online excerpt from the first chapter.) The Guardian‘s review was even more potent.

If I came across either of those reviews then, neither moved me to pick up the book. So this post is merely me hoping to encourage a few people to check out this quiet brain bomb of a novel.

From Mario Vargas Llosa’s introduction, translated by Grossman, to that 2007 Modern Library Edition of Nada:

“In the world of Nada—the unsurpassable title says everything about the novel and the city where it takes place—there are only the rich and the poor, and like a third-world country, the middle class is a thin, shrinking membrane and, like Andrea’s family, has half its being sunk into that plebian jumble where workers, beggars, vagabonds, the unemployed, and the marginalized commingle, a world that horrifies the middle class and that it tries to keep at bay by means of fierce prejudices and delirious fantasies. Nothing exists beyond the small larval world that surrounds the characters; even the little bohemian enclave that Andrea sometimes visits, created in the old district by young painters who would like to be rebellious, insolent, and modern but don’t know how, is parochial and something of a caricature.”

Some endnotes: A quick hat tip to some sources who helped me navigate Only When it’s Dark Enough Can You See the Stars

Tonight is the closing reception for Only When it’s Dark Enough Can You See the Stars, the Abigail DeVille project installed at the Peale Museum downtown that was commissioned by the Contemporary. The inimitable Joyce J. Scott is performing, and there’s a processional featuring the New Edition Marching Band that was directed by Charlotte Brathwaite, one of the many collaborators on this project.

And, yes, I’m going to use this event as a shameless excuse to link to my arguably too wordy essay about the show that appeared over at Bmore Art.



Above: A detail of “Black Whole” from DeVille’s Peale Museum installation. Excuse the poor rendering of the m4v file to GIF.

Despite all the typing and obvious research that went into that piece, I didn’t get a chance to acknowledge a few key things that appropriately calibrated my head for doing my best to wrestle with the intersection of history, museums, creative labor, and race, and I wanted to. I didn’t quote directly from any of them, but whatever interesting things I may have said about Dark Enough are greatly indebted to three essays, one set of liner notes, and two songs listed below.

The first is art historian Rebecca Zorach’s essay “Art & Soul: An Experimental Friendship between the Street and a Museum” that appeared in the Art Journal, Summer 2011, Vol. 70 Issue 2, p 66-87. It remembers a short collaboration between the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and an organization of former gang members from Chicago’s west side that produced a community art space called Art & Soul in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighbor in 1968. This piece was vital for helping me to understand what we talk about when we talk about collaboration and museum labor.

The second and third essays were examined the 1969 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Harlem on My Mind: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968, and the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. Museum Scholar Yuha Jung’s paper from the 2010 International Council of Museums Conference, which I read thanks to it being printed in The International Journal of the Inclusive Museums 7 (2): 1-13, 2015, is titled “Harlem on My Mind: A Step Toward Promoting Cultural Diversity in Art Museums,” and thoughtfully wrestles with understanding the historic context to how museums represent a version of African-American history when African-Americans are not part of that museum process. The second is scholar Caroline V. Wallace’s “Exhibiting Authenticity: The Black Emergency Coalition’s Protests of the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1968-71,” that appeared in Art Journal, Summer 2015, Vol. 74 Issue 2, p 5-23, which is one of those essays everybody should read who has an interest in the activism and the problematic structural insufficiencies of museums.

The last three things may seem trivial but nothing happens in my brain without a soundtrack, and very often the ideas midwifed by the music experience are as important for how my brain gets wired as conventional prose communication. In the case of thinking about See the Stars, those wild cards were the liner notes to Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Yanqui U.X.O., Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation Project and specifically “Revolution”, and Palace Brothers’ “For the Mekons Et Al” off the 1994 compilation, Hey Drag City.

Ear Candy: On Matthew Shipp and Michael Bisio’s Live in Seattle

The 1947 remembering-a-lover-lost song “Green Dolphin Street” by composer Bronislaw Kaper and lyricist Ned Washington is one of those standards that jazz musicians have interpreted and reinterpreted for more than half a century. The plush, almost decadent melody becomes a springboard for performer’s personalities, whether it be Ahmad Jamal’s unflappable cool, Miles Davis’ confident vulnerability, or Wynton Kelly’s bluesy elation. When pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist Michael Bisio tackle the standard on their new album Live in Seattle, what you hear are two eloquent and versatile veterans balance intelligence and warmth without ever slipping into the nostalgia and traditionalism that a can be a standard’s musical quicksand. Their sympathetic and sparring duet makes “Green Dolphin Street” sound emotionally romantic and forlorn now, not evocative of some imagined, idealized past.

The entire album feels as spry and fresh. Bisio and Shipp have, I think, played and recorded together for nearing a decade now, and their ongoing collaboration continues to produce a wealth of music that is as expressively moving as it is intellectually astute. Unlike last year’s The Conduct of Jazz, a stunning statement that felt like it was engaging with and commenting upon the jazz trio format, Live in Seattle sounds like two musicians with their hearts and minds set to thrill. It’s an album that sees avant-leaning vocabulary and musical pleasure as inescapably enmeshed, where Bisio’s seemingly atonal high-pitched bowed bass lines become the apt accompaniment to Shipp’s achingly melancholic reading of the melody to Rogers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.”

Quite simply, it’s a musically complex album that mines an emotional landscape of the everyday. Consider Bisio and Shipp’s engaging take on Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s 1972 hit “Where is the Love”. Shipp handles the song’s melody and meter while Bisio paints abstract rhythmic textures behind him. Together they take the song into rhythmically meditative spaces until it’s a whorl of piano chords and bass throb before easing back into the song’s hummable melody.

More fun are what they do with Shipp’s originals, such as the rhythmically knotty “Psychic Counterpart” from 2012’s Elastic Aspects and “New Fact,” a song that is, I think, a robust update of “The New Fact” from the 1998 quartet album, The Multiplication Table. Live in Seattle‘s “New Fact” is a powerful, gorgeous dance where the bass and piano seemingly drift apart into their own paths and circle around to share an orbit again and again.

To get a sense of the nimble relationship Bisio and Shipp share, just consider what he brings to a single Shipp composition. On the 2006 solo piano album One, Shipp’s “Gamma Ray” is a meditative exploration in which he moves from melodic lines to dense improvisations, from elegant passages to dizzying sequences. When “Gamma Ray” appeared on Shipp’s 2011 live trio album Art of the Improviser with Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey, Shipp tackled the song solo; the tempo feels slightly accelerated, its dynamic shifts more angular, and as a result its melody feels more physically dense. On Live in Seattle Bisio and Shipp stretch “Gamma Rays” out to nine and half minutes, with Bisio putting a ghost of a pulse behind Shipp’s lines. When Shipp comes to the composition’s rush of pointillistic piano notes around the seven-minute mark, Bisio marks a thwumping time behind him until they’re both sounding dense, percussive sheets of sound from their instruments, a soulfully ineffable eruption of beauty.

Painting and cooking metaphors come all too easily to mind for moments like this, those situations where a mix of sophisticated skill and expressive know-how ignite a complex and esthetically visceral response. Live in Seattle is just that, a delicious, sumptuous feast for the ears and the wrinkled brain between them.

Matthew Shipp and Michael Bisio play An die Musik April 12 at 8 p.m.

A list of writers

OK, so because I was ignoring the internet for most of the weekend I didn’t pay much attention to the Gay Talese thing until this morning. So while standing at the home desk with this morning’s coffee I wanted to see if I could do any better. The below is a list of women journalists, critics, and nonfiction writers who inspire me and/or I admire and/or whose bylines I seek out simply because they’re good at what they do. In no particular order, by no means exhaustive, heavy on music & culture writers because that’s what I read a great deal of, I did cheat a bit by looking around at the piles of magazines laying about the desk and nearby bookshelf and used titles for memory clues, and I didn’t include a number of people I know personally and/or have/currently work with as I felt that might be playing favorites in some way. Included brief IDs for some names, figured the names who I didn’t ID needed no intro.

Also: am sharing not to be one of those not-all-men asshats but as an invitation for others to tell me what women journos they read on the regular as well. Like I said, what came to my mind is heavy on arts/culture and the publications I regularly read so am always looking for more bylines to pay attention to.

Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times‘s crime fiction columnist since the late 1980s—I know I just said this list is in no particular order but Stasio immediately came to mind for me because in many ways she’s the platonic ideal of a critic to me: highly informative, economically entertaining, and somebody you trust not because you agree with everything she says or her tastes, but because you have utter faith in her succinct ability to communicate what’s in her brain without wasting your time.

Andrea ‘Enthal, who penned the Underground column for SPIN pre-Byron Coley, and who was responsible for making me aware/turning me onto the very idea that things I had never heard about or known existed were worth seeking out and experiencing for myself.

The late art critic & historian/curator Arlene Raven, Baltimore-born, Hopkins-educated, who I had never heard about until her 2006 death, and since then the 1989 book she edited, Art in the Public Interest, has become as interesting and oft-referred to text for me as Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

The late Molly Ivins, political columnist/reporter & OG badass

Ellen Willis, music critic and formidable essayist

The late Jill Johnston, dance critic and utter original

Alma Guillermoprieto, Mexican journalist and longtime Latin American correspondent for the New Yorker, The New York Review of Books

Barbara Ehrenreich

Jamilah Lemieux, culture critic

Lorrain Ali, veteran music & culture critic/reporter

Danyel Smith, music and features writer

Mona Eltahawy

Rebecaa Solnit

dream hampton, veteran music/culture writer

Geeta Dayal, music/features writer

Lucy Lippard, art critic

Amy Taubin, film critic

Carol Cooper, veteran music/culture writer, early Spin introduced me to her byline

Laila Lalami, The Nation contributor/essayist

Caitlin Moran, British music/culture writer, co-creator of the fab TV series Raised by Wolves

Melissa Gira Grant

Catherine Taft, art critic/curator

Naomi Klein

Melissa Harris-Perry

Sylvie Simmons, music writer

Gina Arnold, music writer

Donna Gaines, music writer

Molly Haskell, film writer

Jamaica Kincaid

Janet Kutner, Dallas art critic

Libby Lumpkin, art critic

Ingrid Sischy, art writer/editor

Susan Faludi

Joy Press, music & arts writer

Rachel Kushner, Artforum & Bomb contributor, in addition to being a novelist

Linda Yablonsky, longtime Artforum contributor and veteran art critic

Tricia Romano, features writer

Ann Powers, music writer/editor

Rosalind Krauss, art critic, October co-founding editor

Jessica Hopper, music writer/editor/visionary

Julianne Escobedo Shepard, music & pop culture writer

Sia Michel, features writer/editor

Lillian Roxon, music critic

Hannah McGill, film critic

Andrea Grimes, Texas Observer, investigative reporter/culture critic

Heather Havrilesky, one of the many funny-smart writers that the late, great suck.com clued me into.

Melissa del Bosque, Texas Observer investigative reporter

Michelle Tea, essayist

Anne Midgette, classical music critic/reporter

Karen Durbin, veteran film/TV critic

Joan Acocella, New Yorker dance critic

Katy Vine, Texas Monthly features writer

Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly features writer

Mimi Swartz, Texas Monthly features writer

Emily Nussbaum, New Yorker TV critic

Karina Longworth, film critic/writer

Molly Lambert, all-purpose pop culture writer and assassin of trite, conventional thought


Everything is Illuminated: On strolling through the first two nights of Light City Baltimore

Thank you, Paul Rucker and John Somers, for making my first two visits to Light City Baltimore worthwhile. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from the festival itself but after wandering around it for about two and a half hours on each of its first two nights, I think I greatly overestimated its size, scope, and vision. I mean, I feel like I have been hearing about it pretty steadily since the Sun first wrote about it in February 2015. The fest’s budget figures have tossed around $4 million estimates, raised through private donations. Last spring and summer the festival’s social media channels talked about its community planning meetings and calls for artists. When the lineups were announced last fall it sounded big: 29 original works of “light art” and some 50 concerts and 100 performances, along with its ticketed innovation conference. And over the past few months its media rollout has felt inescapable. The festival even has a freaking app (which I can’t use because my DumbPhone can’t upgrade to iOS 8). But while wandering up and down its 1.2-mile footprint around the Inner Harbor on Monday and Tuesday nights I kept wondering, Is this it?

In fact, while making my first pass through I was reminded of that episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer where the Scoobies spend the entire hour trying in vain to prevent the appearance of some demon. When the ugly creature from an evil dimension does appear, he’s about the size of a toy, causing one of the gang to quip something along the lines of, “Big fanfare . . . little finish,” right before Buffy stomps on him. So clowning on Light City—and, I have to confess, I left my apartment Monday night fully thinking I was going on a fact-finding mission to hate on this thing with extreme prejudice (I just can’t with the “light art”)—would feel a bit like making fun of Eeyore. Light City is less a Grand Prix of Baltimore-scale epic fail and more like those off-brand carnivals that used to set up in the old Eastern High School parking lot across from Memorial Stadium. You can even get cotton candy. Served atop sticks with lights, natch.


Photo credit: MEL GUAPO

If that home-school-simple scale was intentional, it was a smart move. Navigating the Inner Harbor during Light City is no more or less annoying than usual. But I have to admit I was expecting some aspect of it to be more interesting—or at least making some effort to be visually grand. In my brain “light art” of this variety operates like Olympic games opening ceremonies, and there’s not a single piece here that even aims for that level of artifice. For better and worse the work from the visual artists is by and large innocuous. Some are interesting, some are imaginatively conceived, and some are incredibly thoughtful, but nothing so far has totally grabbed my eyeballs. More distressingly, everything installed for Light City Baltimore looks more visually interesting as a hashtagged shared pic than it does in real life.

OK, full disclosure: I find the very idea of the “light art” peddled by light art festivals to be visually tepid, so understand that I’m coming at all this from a biased and pretentious place. I see images from Vivid Sydney, the festival Light City organizers cited as an inspiration, and all I think is that “light art” of this ilk is just a Cow Parade for the 21st century. Yes, there are a few light festivals around the globe with longstanding historical roots—see: Lyon’s Fête des Lumières, and we’re going to come back to this notion of “historical roots” in a bit—but most are of a more recent vintage. And they’re everywhere. It’s not that they can’t be interesting—Thomas Schielke writes about architectural lighting at ArchDaily, and in this 2013 post he examines four different light festivals with four different focuses—but the blatant tourism aspect of these events is pretty shameless. The International Light Festival Organization lists 11 light fests happening this year alone in Europe.

But, hey, I’m a snob. Thankfully many of the participating local artists aren’t. Scott Pennington’s structures installed in the plaza by the World Trade Center is what initially planted the carnival aspect of Light City in my brain. His works are midway-like gates and shapes festival attendees appear to enjoy walking among. That romper-room playfulness animates Mina Cheon and Gabriel Kroiz’s diamond lights, which dot the walkways heading from Pier 5 to Harbor East. People appear to enjoy getting their photo taken standing inside of these large, illuminated diamond shapes, but I’m not buying their ostensible referencing to CitiWatch‘s surveillance system and the blue lights associated with them. That’s a specious symbolism not earned by experiencing the works in person, as they fit all too comfortably among the rest of the bright and shiny nonsense at the Inner Harbor, void of tensions.

The Inner Harbor setting, in fact, can’t be ignored or even muted, much less transcended. Not only do all of its corporate entertainment, retail, and restaurant signage possess a similar illumination palette as the Light City artworks, they’re all an order of magnitude larger than every piece in the festival. The environment just devours everything in sight, and any piece with a touch of nuance about its articulation or concept feels nearly inert.

Take Lisa Dillin’s “Natural Lighting Emulator V.” For it Dillin has made a series of slowly rotating discs that have holes, shapes, slits cut into them; as they slowly turn overhead the light passing through them becomes diffuse, the way sunlight does passing through a tree canopy. This piece is exactly the kind of acutely observed, inspired use of a material to evoke the natural world that Dillin does so exceptionally well. But installed maybe 10 meters away from the entrance to Family Meal, it feels and looks like the outdoor smoking area, a place to burn one with just enough light to check Facebook while doing so.

The same could be said for Robby Rackleff’s “Pyrrha” or Greg St. Pierre and Andrew Bernstein’s “Water Wall,” which are both projection and sound installations. The former uses the visual language of glitchy computer graphics and is installed on a bridge by the former Public Works Museum. The latter sits in the harbor off the promenade behind the Four Seasons Hotel in Harbor East, and it projects images onto a spray of water shooting into the air. Both are the kinds of ideas and scales that would stun in any kind of gallery setting; at the Inner Harbor they feel like the sorts of mild divertissements that are there all the time. Here you go hip, young customers of Wit & Wisdom, the official bar of Light City. Partake of house-crafted infusions such as bacon-washed bourbon and seasonal cocktails such as an Asian pear mule while enjoying the pretty lights we had local artisans craft for your amusement.

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Now, about those historical roots. Practically since its public debut the fest’s press materials have touted: “In 1816, Baltimore was the first American city to illuminate its streets with gas lanterns, revolutionizing the urban landscape forever by transforming the city with light.”

I’m not entirely convinced that’s accurate. Yes, on June 11, 1816, Baltimore businessman-slash-artist Rembrandt Peale used gaslights to illuminate galleries—or a gallery, I haven’t been able to determine if it was one or more rooms—in his for-profit museum located at 225 North Holliday Street downtown, the site where artist Abigail DeVille is installing Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See The Stars, her new body of work as a project of the Contemporary. Peale was part of a five-man business team that formed the Gas Light Company of Baltimore—the company that would become Baltimore Gas and Electric—in June 1816, and it set to work laying pipe that would run gas through the city. As noted in an October 10, 1998, Baltimore Sun article by Frederick Rasmussen, “[i]n 1817, the new company was contracted by the city to erect its first gas light at the corner of Market and Lemon streets, today Baltimore and Holliday streets.”

Rasmussen continued:

“At the end of World War II, there were some 16,000 gas lamps still in operation in Baltimore. By the early 1950s, when Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro began conversion of the city’s lighting to mercury vapor lamps, there were still more than 10,000 gas lamps casting their wonderful soft, yellow-greenish light across the city.

It was on Aug. 14, 1957, that D’Alesandro extinguished the city’s last gas lamp in Little Italy, thus ending the city’s 140-year affair with gas illumination.”

Elsewhere in the Sun‘s archives, a letter appeared in the November 10, 1957, edition that brought up conflicting sources as to who had the first gas lights in the U.S., Baltimore or Richmond, Va. Depending on what sources you check today, that question hasn’t been entirely settled.

I’m not mentioning these factoids here merely to be a prick—marketing claims probably don’t get fact checked—but to mention how events such as Light City Baltimore participate in history rewriting whether they are intentionally trying to or not. I don’t know if the fest’s organizers tried pitching the festival to local civic and business leaders without the bicentennial hook, but I do wonder if this historical truthiness makes it a juicer sell. Because the festival wasn’t marketed as, We want to have a light festival because we think it’s cool. Instead, part of what’s being sold with this festival is the idea that Baltimore was an innovator of something at some point in time and, ergo, it can be again. We should remember this great moment in the past and use it as a springboard into the future. Light City is one of many ways a city’s past gets retold to remake a possible future for itself.

Of course, the complications come in when we starting getting down into the particulars of whose past we’re talking about, whose future, and who gets to decide, participate, and profit from the making of that future. Right now Light City is but a small plot point in the ongoing postmodern novel that is Baltimore’s central business district in the postwar era. (See David Harvey’s “A View from Federal Hill” for a different chapter.) And it’s following in the footsteps of many chapters that use “art,” vaguely defined, as a black box to generate tourism revenue.

That’s a predatory strategy that I’ve suggested elsewhere doesn’t work. What I didn’t mention then is that the strategy more consistently than not makes utterly underwhelming art, an argument that this light festival does little to dispel.

Light City, however, is taking place in a post-uprising Baltimore where its citizens are refreshingly wrestling with and reckoning the city’s past. And wandering around the fest and then doing some cursory reading about city’s gaslight history, briefly excerpted above, didn’t have me thinking about the Baltimore of 1816. The Baltimore that the festival sifted to the surface was that of the Mayor D’Alesandro that extinguished that last gaslight, and the ways power players in Baltimore, and the vision they produce for the city, remain concentrated in such a tiny pool of people.

Consider: Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. was the father to both Minority Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Thomas L. J. D’Alesandro III, the city’s mayor from 1967 to 1971. That D’Alesandro returned to the newscycle over the past year because he occupied City Hall during the uprising that ran April 6-14, 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was succeeded by William Donald Schaeffer, the four-term mayor who oversaw the habor’s transformation into a tourist mecca. Thomas L. J. D’Alesandro was also mayor when the Morris A. Mechnic Theatre opened in 1966.

I’m wicked cheap, so when I went to Light City I parked a good stroll away from the Harbor and not at one of the garages charging roughly $20 for the night. And while heading back I walked by the site of the old Mechanic. I usually pass through downtown by bus, cab, or bike, and I’m rarely around this area at night, so I hadn’t seen the destruction up close and personal, when it is slightly illuminated by the ambient glow of nearby streetlights and buildings. I’m no champion of Brutalism, but walking by the hole in the ground stopped me in my tracks—simply because for a few years I would sit behind the theater waiting for a phone to ring.

When I worked as a bike messenger in the pre-cell phone and hand-radio days of the early-to-mid 1990s, a pair of pay phones behind the Mechanic was where you were sent if you ended up clear of deliveries downtown. You and whoever else was clear would sit around, lean your bikes up against a concrete slab, and shoot the shit, grab a quick bite, smoke, whatever, until the phone rang and you got a pickup. I spent many days chilling there in good weather and bad. If it was wintry wet you were looking to get moving as quickly as possible. On slow, sunny days you didn’t mind the downtime. Maybe you’d get lucky and the law firm of Venable, Baetjer, and Howard, now known as Venable LLP, would have a stack of filings that needed to get run up to the State Department of Assessments and Taxation at 301 West Preston. Multiple stops at the same address were easy money. I remember one slow spring day a number of us pooled up a nice chunk of change that would be awarded to the first of us able to ride our bike down the up-moving escalator that climbed up from the underground parking lot. Nobody dared try, though a few of us stood at the top looking down, trying to determine just how wrong it could go.

I hadn’t thought about of such things since the ’90s. I didn’t live down there. I didn’t even work at a nearby office building. I merely spent some time there off and on during the years I worked as a bike messenger in college because the money was better than waiting tables. And the sight of its annihilation triggered a small but potent wave of nostalgia.

What if this destruction took place in my neighborhood? What if where I grew up looked like this? That’s what EBDI and the Johns Hopkins University (note: I’m a Hopkins alumnus who now works for the university, and it is a Light City sponsor) did to the Middle East neighborhood when in 2001 they identified 750 households for removal to redevelop 88 acres of East Baltimore. That’s what the city did to Harlem Park in 1969 when it wanted to build a highway connecting the central business district, where renewal investment was taking place, to Interstate Highway 70 in Howard County, destroying more than 950 homes, more than 50 businesses, and displacing roughly 1,500 people. Both are/were economic development projects designed in full cooperation with civic and business leadership.

In both instances the populations affected were overwhelmingly African-American. Previous commitments prevented me from getting down to Light City on Wednesday night, where Luminous Intervention’s “Pipelines” installation at McKeldin Square—which involves projecting the faces of victims of police violence onto the fountain’s concrete walls—coincided with the 140th West Wednesday, the weekly event held by the activists who have fought for justice in the murder of Tyrone West by police on July 18, 2013. On Monday night at this site I caught a bit of a forum on police violence and on Tuesday some of the music performances—Son of Nun and Dev Rock, I think. The installation is, thus far, the rare work and public space at Light City that addresses the uprising, the urban policies and practices that created and sustain the violence of economic disinvestment, and the citizens affected by it in any meaningful way.

Light City hasn’t been coy about the fact that it’s hoping to boost tourism in and around the Inner Harbor during its week-long run, hoping to draw 350,000 visitors to the area. In the 1970s and ’80s the Mechanic was part of the city’s tourism industry, too, managed by a quasi-public corporation that also ran the Pier 6 concert pavilion. At one time the Mechanic was considered such a part of the city’s entertainment package that Omni International Hotel began targeting entertainment tourists in the late 1980s, and planned to make a “Skywalk to the Stars” attraction on the walkway that once passed over Baltimore Street. “We feel that Baltimore is increasingly becoming an entertainment attraction,” Henry J. Knott, president of the development company that owned the Omni, told The Sun in 1988.

While I was standing by the Mechanic—I mean, the massive hole in the ground where this entertainment attraction once stood, the bikes modified by Thick Air Studios, a Light City participant, rode by. It was a group of cyclists whose bikes had flags attached to them that each bore a red neon letter. Together they spelled out DEAR BALTIMORE. Well, I found out the next night they were supposed to spell DEAR BALTIMORE when I saw them again. That night the first few riders got a little jumbled, and what rode up Charles Street and eventually turned left onto Fayette read DARE BALTIMORE. If only.

Had I any electrical know how, creative chutzpah, cash that wasn’t going toward debt, and didn’t fear authorities, I’d look into finding a way to illegally illuminate the Mechanic hole in the ground as a kind of guerilla Light City installation. Just obnoxiously flood it with klieg lights and get a bunch of those glowstick rave necklaces and use them to spell out TOURIST ATTRACTION in the chain-link fence that surrounds the site. Because that’s all our tourism-dependent economic development strategy is doing for us: creating large-scale event holes in the ground into which we hope people and businesses pour money, funds that never actually reach or sustain the citizenry at large, until these things become of no use to the city’s civic and business elite.

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Luminous Intervention’s “Pipelines” isn’t the only politically modulated Light City installation that works. Paul Rucker’s “In Light of History” does a fair job of tapping into the city’s checkered past. For “In Light” Rucker has installed a small street light at 11 places along Pratt Street that were sites of businesses involved in the slave trade. The light posts are modest, maybe six feet tall, and their lights are glowing areas that slowly change colors. Each lamppost supposedly had a pamphlet Rucker designed about this slave trade history, but even by 8:30 p.m. on Monday night I didn’t come across a single post that still had this publication in stock.

“In Light of History” is the lone Light City installation that I’ve come across thus far where the Inner Harbor’s overbearing presence amplifies the work’s thematic intent. Rucker’s lampposts are easy to walk right by and not even notice. Or you might see one and think it’s just a different kind of sandwich-board placard for one of Pratt Street’s many chain stores. Is this lamp telling me where the Starbuck’s is or where human beings profited from the selling of other human beings? Both.

Rucker’s performance on Monday night, however, was just a breath of fresh air. He set up with his solo cello right there at the Inner Harbor amphitheater where Light Street bends into Pratt, a pond of blinking star lights surrounding him. He announced that he wrote a piece of music for each of the sites in his installation and was going to play three of them, and the first went off without a hitch. The next two were plagued by technical difficulties—a looping pedal wasn’t working appropriately—and he eventually ended his set playing the prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 (I think, my classical music knowledge isn’t what it should be).

But despite the technical difficulties, Rucker was everything the festival needs more of: genuine joy, sincere interactions with attendees, and above all a respect for the intelligence of the general public. He talked about liking the family friendly festival because kids were up late and out of the house with their parents, and toward the end of his set he invited all of the age seven-and-under tykes up to grab one of the blinking stars that surrounded him, causing the kind of adorable chaos that ensues anytime a group of starter humans trundle about. He asked the crowd history questions—What year and amendment gave women the right to vote? (1920, the 19th Amendment) What year was the Emancipation Proclamation issued? (1863) What year did Maryland outlaw slavery? (1864)—and people yelled out answers. The entire set never once felt like an eager-to-entertain tourist sideshow, and was a brief moment of good-natured fun in the presence of a grown-up human who happens to be an artist.

John Somers’ performance on Tuesday night was something else entirely. The guitarist/electronic artist was joined by Liz Meredith, with whom he put out the five-LP drone monolith The Disposition of Vibrant Forms in 2013, and three other musicians: two flutists and somebody who switched from xylophone to musical saw. Somers and Meredith set up their gear on the street in front of the Concert Stage at Harbor East, located at the intersection of Lancaster Street and Central Avenue. Somers’ laptop played a gurgling a wash of shifting sounds and textures, which he augmented with barely perceptible electric guitar hums and buzzes, sustained notes he sang through a megaphone while walking through the crowd, and melodica. Meredith alternated between two different violins and also wandered through the crowd bowing long notes. Ditto the two flutes and the xylophone/musical saw player. They all held single notes with no perceptible shape or structure to the composition, and for long stretches they were standing or walking among the twenty to thirty attendees milling about taking in this gentle ooze and staring at a bunch of gear sitting on the pavement.

And they kept this up for nearly an entire hour. It felt like part endurance test, part radically sheepish disdain for the festival’s middlebrow commercialism. When I turned around to see what one of the musicians was doing behind me, my eyes inevitably tilted up to see the Legg Mason Tower. Following one of the flutists as she distractedly walked east down Lancaster and my eyes came to alight on the under-construction Harbor Point monstrosity that the city awarded $107 million in TIF funding in 2013—the largest TIF request to the city prior to Under Armor asking for $535 million earlier this month.

And down there on the streets of Harbor East, where you typically hear some kind of radio-friendly pop flotsam floating out from a bar or car, five musicians performed an uncompromising, hour-long drone that wrapped itself around the head like a bucket of gelatin. Joggers passed through. People wearing workout lycra stopped by to stare for a few minutes at a time. Three people, shit you not, tossed a Frisbee around. One couple made out. Occasionally loud sounds from some place down the street or around the corner cut through the drone. Real-ass yuppies sat on the patio of Ouzo Bay next to some fake-ass fire while drinking red wine. At one point a street cleaner came through, grabbed a cup with one of those metal claw thingies, and then accidentally dropped the cup, which bounced around the street and became the only rhythmic element my ears had heard in what felt like a lifetime. Somers and company didn’t jibe with any aspect of Light City I had experienced thus far, and not only am I glad they were a part of this festival, I kinda hope Somers recorded the performance and Bandcamp releases it with the Eno-ish title Music for Branding Campaigns just to complete the apathetic middle finger of the performance’s entire steez.

That said, I’m still looking forward to a hitting a few things, such as Friday’s Open Beats hosted by the Llamadon Collective over by Mondawmin Mall and the LabBodies performance in Station North, the Saturday event at the Clifton Park bandshell and Dan Deacon that night—chiefly because the performances have been the most satisfying events thus far. (Note: I’m not attending any of the conferences for lack of interest and, frankly, it takes a certain amount of temerity to hold a conference that claims to “focus on promise in overlooked neighborhoods” and charge $200 to get in, so I couldn’t afford to go even if I were curious.)

I just wish the light art was more interesting, or more interestingly installed, but that would mean moving it away from the Inner Harbor’s gaping maw of mediocrity. Even something that should be compelling, like the “Lightwave: Baltimore’s Beacon” combination of oral histories and dancing light, ends up feeling like a highway traffic sign. Light City isn’t bad; merely inconsequential. And I shudder to think what artists and communities could actually do with a fraction of the capital that went into this tourism gamble—what would a Transmodern or Abdu Ali’s talk about making Kahlon a festival look like with a $100,000 cash infusion? I don’t know. I’m pretty sure that neither would aspire to bring some 350,000 people to the city. But I’m also not convinced that bringing 350,000 people to the city is a good enough reason to sink any amount of capital into the creation of middling spectacle.

Micro’s Macro:On Andrew Bernstein’s The Great Outdoors (Ehse)

What feels like nearly a minute and a half of silence lingers between the first two tracks on Andrew Bernstein’s new cassette/digital EP, The Great Outdoors. Six-minute opener “Black Noise,” a wash of propeller-blade textures and oscillating electronic tones, begins its glacial fades to silence at around the five-and-a-half-minute mark, and the following title track spends about 50 seconds before what sounds like a tenor saxophone’s low murmur haunts the headphones. Only on the fifth or sixth spin did the ears detect a subtle something lurking in silence’s shadows at the tail end of “Noise” and the beginning of “Outdoors,” and those faint notes—and the patience necessary to go looking for something in that presumable negative space—feel to be part of Bernstein’s close-listening request here. This quiet isn’t the digital blank tape hiding a hidden track at the end of a CD; it’s an attempt to draw the ear into what first reads as sound’s absence, to pay attention to the musical details that aren’t up front demanding attention.

Thus far on his solo recordings Bernstein, a percussionist/saxophonist in Baltimore quartet Horse Lords—whose upcoming new album, Interventions (Northern Spy), is a dizzying jolt—and former Teeth Mountain member (a band whose Outside the Dream Syndicate tumults and hang-up-in-the-time-machine drones have aged quite well), explores texture combinations in subtle variations and layerings. The three pieces on Outdoors fall someplace between Unnatural Music for Cassette‘s long-form electronic odysseys and Cult Appeal‘s sax and electronics experiments, as witnessed in the “Thought Forms” I to III variations, which felt like an abstract painter exploring a new idea. Outdoors‘ “Black Noise” and the closing track “Exhaust” hew closer to Bernstein’s deliberate electronic works. The latter, particularly, is affecting, stretching past the 14-minute mark and achieving a mesmerizing, meditative tension through a series of layered, sustained tones that slowly build to an old-cathedral menace before the track slowly slips away. “Exhaust’s” fade to silence is an uncomfortable two minutes of barely perceptible volume diminishing, and it leaves you feeling like you’ve been blindfolded and left alone in an unfamiliar abandoned building.

If it sounds like there’s more purpose behind the sounds on Outdoors than Cult, credit the suite of four generative sound art pieces that accompany it. Each takes a relatively simple design element, varies it, and repeats it over and over and over—such as a screen-filling series of horizontal lines, the distance between each line slightly changing to make whole groups of lines appear to buzz—establishing the album’s leitmotif headspace: minor adjustments in small parts can yield profound variety in the overall work. This idea finds it most potent realization in “The Great Outdoors,” 13 minutes and 45 seconds of what sounds like tenor saxophone played via circular breathing and extended techniques. In my ears it brings to mind those disarmingly dense solo outings by Evan Parker, such as Whitstable Solo and Conic Sections, where repeated patterns sound the same the first time through but repeated listening rewards the ears with a strange lushness, where minimal subtly piled upon minimal subtly becomes a baroque tapestry. Bernstein’s playing here produces that kind of opaque beauty, where the smallest of shifts in tone and timbre again and again and again snowball into a voluptuous curtain wrapping itself around the ears.

Andrew Bernstein plays an album release show for The Great Outdoors March 11 at the 5th Dimension with Tigue, Alpenglow, and Anna and Elizabeth. See: Facebook event page.