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.

*     *     *

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.

From the Archives: On two novel by Boris Vian

Note: This review originally appeared in the Baltimore City Paper.

Rays of sunlight stream through windows and congeal into honey-golden droplets on a tile floor, which are gathered like jewels by a friendly house mouse. A “pianocktail” concocts wild libations inspired by the jazz songs played on it. Rifle barrels are grown like flowers in coffin-shaped planters, which have to be warmed by naked human flesh. Metal-frog-powered Rube Goldberg machines crank out a pharmacy’s medications. Cops tool around in skin-tight, bulletproof black leather and heavy metal boots. A weapon kills by attaching to the torso and ripping out the heart. Welcome to the wonderfully alive and terrifyingly human world of Boris Vian.

Born in Ville-d’Avray, France, in 1920 and passing away a short 39 years later, the fearsomely talented Vian crammed nearly a dozen careers into his brief life. Educated as a engineer, Vian abandoned the steady life to pursue his other interests, turning himself into a novelist, playwright, journalist, poet, writer of pornography and sci-fi, translator, actor, musician, jazz critic, instrument inventor, and, because that wasn’t quite enough, opera librettist.

Most baffling, Vian miraculously squeezed out his original, imposing output during a life that sounds lifted from a bohemian fantasy. He was a member of the College of Pataphysicians, a parody of an intellectual society dedicated to imaginary solutions. A habitué of Paris’ post-war St. Germain-de-Pres, Vian befriended Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, writing a column in Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes under the name “the Liar.” A jazz fanatic, Vian introduced a young Miles Davis to his friend Louis Malle, and the American jazz giant eventually scored the French filmmaker’s debut, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. Vian wrote “Le Deserteur,” the scathingly sardonic make love/not war song during France’s Algiers troubles. He famously drank for sport; women liked him, and he liked them right back. His “debut” novel—a pulp dashed off in a fortnight called J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Shall Spit on Your Graves), published under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan— became the American Psycho controversy of late-’40s Paris. When his congenital heart condition took his life—since Vian couldn’t even die mundanely, he passed during a screening of the unauthorized film adaptation of his J’irai—Vian’s acclaim was on the rise, and by the spring of 1968 he was a revered French cult figure.

[Some copy missing here, but at this point the essay is referring to L’ecume des jours, which has been translated into English as Foam of the Daze, Froth on the Daydream, and Mood Indigo] . . . a mash note to pretty girls and the music of Duke Ellington, the book follows the fabulous misadventures of two young couples, Colin and Chloe and Chick and Alise, through an imaginatively bustling and otherworldly Paris. The independently affluent Colin lives with his manservant Nicolas and a mouse, and after marrying Chloe gives his friend Chick 25,000 doublezons (the novel’s monetary unit) so that he can marry Alise—which Chick blows on the publications and collectibles of his favorite writer/philosopher, “Jean-Sol Partre.”

Vian vibrantly paints this quartet’s good life in colorful gestures—ice-skating where valets come and broom-sweep the fallen from the ice, dancing the oglemee at bawdy parties, and Colin and Chloe’s magical wedding. Yet just as Colin and Chloe become gaga newlyweds, life turns bleak. Chloe becomes mortally afflicted with a water lily growing in her lung, and Colin spends his entire fortune, sells his belongings, and finally submits to the ultimate indignity—employment—to fill their bedroom with flowers, the only medication comforting her condition. Their radiant apartment begins to shrink, until the jovial mouse has to flee. From the crucifix above an altar, Jesus mocks Colin at Chloe’s funeral, wondering why Colin didn’t spend as much money as he did on the wedding. The cops come after Chick, and the cast-off Alise goes after the vendors of Partre paraphernalia with the heart-snatcher.

That weapon’s made-up French word—”l’arrache-coeur”—plays on the euphemism for “heartbreaker” (“crève-coeur”), and Vian’s final novel carries the heartbroken’s heavy weight. Heartsnatcher, though less playfully animated, is Vian’s most mature work, the shadow of his lifelong knowledge that his heart could stop at any moment cast over every page. Set in a phantasmagoric small town where the old are auctioned off and the congregation assaults the priest, Heartsnatcher follows the mounting obsessions of Clementine, a mother of three—twins Noel and Joel and a third, Alfa Romeo—who loathes her husband for putting her through the rigors of birth. Clementine grows more and more overly protective as her children age, and though town psychiatrist Timortis tries to assuage her neurosis, she ends up going to extremes to shield her offspring like animals eating their young—to put them back—eventually imprisoning them in cages.

Disarmingly funny and catastrophically tragic, Vian’s novels take place in parallel worlds much removed from this one, yet their emotional landscape couldn’t feel more familiar: love and art and sex and life and music and everything can be great, but things can always go horribly, monumentally wrong. Vian confronted his own unknown by injecting his ceaseless talents and infectious humor into everything he did, leaving behind a body of work that inspires by example: that it’s what people choose to do with their life, however troubled and brief, that makes it the intoxicating folly worth caring about.

Words are living things: a quick appreciation of the creative crew who gave NBC’s Hannibal its savage beauty


I probably won’t even get around to watching tonight’s series finale of NBC’s Hannibal until sometime tomorrow or later this week, but before this cancelled gem of a network drama, which was insultingly dumped to Saturday nights back in July, ends for good I did want to give a quick shout out to a program that never quite got the recognition it deserved. Yes, it had its TV critic champions, and for the usual reasons. The writing is top notch—it’s a deliciously quotable program. The performances are consistently impressive—Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter now seems excessively campy after Mads Mikkelsen’s unflappable, stay-thirsty-my-friends take on the intellectual, epicurean psychopath. And its unsettling view of human psychology makes it one of the conceptually darkest network TV programs since Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse.

But if I’m honest about what I dug about this show, all of that was beside the point. This Hannibal was one of the most visually decadent TV programs that I can think of, and I hope that whatever networks take away from its modest ratings performance and subsequent cancellation, it isn’t that TV shows should refrain from aspiring to create utterly intoxicating imagery.

Think about it: this so-called second golden age of TV we’ve been witnessing is, in addition to being overbearingly male, a narrative era, driven by writer showrunners and writing teams who put a great deal of heavy lifting into their characters, universes, and mythologies. That’s peachy—I’ve been an enthusiastic fan of many of those programs (but not Mad Men, fuck Mad Men). Few of them went the extra mile to be as ambitious with their imagery as they are with their storytelling. Yes, yes, yes, most are quite thoughtfully art directed and had their moments of cool sequences, but so many of those programs adhered pretty safely to some sense of realistic narrative, from The Sopranos and The Wire through Breaking Bad and Homeland, even if they were in some ways sci-fi, speculative, horror, or fantasy (e.g., Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story). Again, not that no TV show has ever tried something visually dazzling—David Lynch’s Twin Peaks certainly had its moments—but few make their visual language as integral to the overall endeavor of the show’s universes.

Hannibal creator/producer Bryan Fuller has attempted to do such with his precious series—Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daises, none of which, I should point out, I ever pursued after the first one or two episodes—but Hannibal is something else entirely. (Fuller is also partner in a designer furniture studio in Los Angeles, so the guy has an eye for how he wants things to look.) Yes, it helps that Fuller’s been able to attract some top-notch directors to the series: Michael Rymer (Battlestar Galactica, his slept-on and crushing 1995 feature debut Angel Baby), cinematographer-turned-director Guillermo Navarro (he’s lit most of Guillermo del Toro’s films), Vincenzo Natali (Splice, Cube), David Slade (30 Days of Night), John Dahl, Peter Medak, James Foley, and Neil Marshall. More importantly, the show’s production crew has been together for almost the entire run: cinematographer James Hawkinson, production designer Matthew Davies, art director Rory Cheyne, set decorator Jaro Dick, and their teams/assistants.

They’ve made this show gorgeous, and allowed its visual world, outlined since the beginning by the opening credits—flowing blood against a stark white background, those rivulets eventually pooling into a face that could be Lecter’s—to be echoed again and again and again during its three season run. How many times have images of people and creatures disappearing into or emerging from some kind of liquid recurred over the course of its three seasons?


Admittedly, a few other programs are certainly trying to operate on this level, where its visual universe is working in intentional concert with its narrative themes. Dennis Kelly’s Utopia is one. This short-lived Channel 4 series—only two six-episode seasons—is a paranoid conspiracy drama worthy of a short Thomas Pynchon novel or Alan Moore comic, complete with shadowy quasi-governmental agencies and their hit men, science being used for evil instead of good, and group of ordinary people thrust together to stop a global calamity from happening. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to look like The X-Files or Fringe; instead, it looks like a David LaChapelle photo come to life, all bright colors and brightly lit ordinary spaces. This hot palette made the narrative’s murkiness all the more unsettling, be it the red-orange glow of car explosion against a blue sky being offset by the circling black birds on the opposite side of the frame, the fresh-cut-grass green of a child’s sweater and his classroom’s walls undercutting a moment of incomprehensible horror, or the bizarre site of neon red lights in a warehouse visually echoing the lines of a self-inflicted wound. Utopia‘s pop palette boldly distinguished itself on the small screen, but it was mostly setting, defining the show’s universe.


The Netflix series Sense8 took a more interesting, if flawed route. Trying to untangle the universe created by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski is a little pointless—eight people around the globe begin to realize they’re somehow mentally/emotionally tethered, stuff happens, some nefarious people chase them—but how it all plays out is where it gets interesting. Built into the series’ film language is the fact that it’s going to switch subjective perspectives on the fly; that’s just a given. How it ends up doing that is often quite deft—the global “group sex” is episode six was probably the show’s most inspired moment—but also inconsistent. The show never quite gained any narrative momentum though it kept playing fast and loose with point of view. It was often thrilling to watch—it certainly helps that virtually every person in the cast is attractive (I perhaps unfairly quipped to a friend that it could’ve been subtitled “The United Colors of Donna Haraway)—but rarely satifying in its overall storytelling, and by the end this ambitious concept for a TV show started resprting to standard genre conventions. And it took forever—like, seven or eight episodes—just to get all its character pieces into place.

That said, Sense8 reached an operatic high point that few movies, much less TV shows, ever hit, and did it without uttering a word. At the end of episode 10 one of the characters goes to see her father perform at a symphony hall. What happens is that she, and by virtue of the whateverthehell psychic/mental/neural The Matrix connection, all seven people she’s connected to, experience the emotional roller coaster of their parents at the time of their own birth as if they’re watching a movie in their minds. Yes, it sounds incredibly corny, but with this sequence the show attempts a feat of emotional daring and absolutely sticks the landing.


This sequence was the kind of visual storytelling that TV shows think they’re doing with those musical montages that often wrap up story arcs but which never put the work into making character arcs and visual language intertwine so effortlessly as it does here. By this point Sense8 had established a template for its fluid subjectivity shifts, so when this sequence transpires it compoliments both its plot and visual universe. Some of the shots in this sequence last but a few seconds, but they’re done with such exquisite attention. The remebrance of Mexican actor Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) of his family crowded around his mother and TV set has the dramatic complexity of a Gregory Crewdson photograph, and the sequence actually pulls off allowing a character crying a single tear not be a visual cliché.

Neither Utopia or Sense8, however, aim as high as Hannibal, which has created more stunning single frames than any program in recent memory, from flames engulfing a human face at the top of this post to a slow fade from passing countryside to snails that becomes a surreal transition, a reverse tracking shot impersonally watching a man bleed in which the drops of blood seem to be falling up into the sky, or using a woman’s profile reflected in a cleaver’s blade as a reaction shot. Bravo, Hannibal creative team. You made watching TV about an extremely cultured and well-educated cannibal the most sumptuous meal of the week.


Please Note: All photos screengrabs I did on my computer, hence their inherit shittiness. I’m a word guy who appreciates the images, but me working with the images is inevitably an epic fail.

Ad hoc rock: On Dope Body’s Kunk and Holy Ghost Party’s Bayou Music


DOPE BODY‘s ZACHARY UTZ IS one of the odder lead guitarist in rock right now. Take any snippet of his work on Kunk, the band’s piercing new Drag City album, and it recalls typical guitar-god acrobatics: the distortion growls in “Dad,” the fuzzy notes bent into squeals the pepper the entire thing, the metallic chugs rippling around “Obey,” the feedbacking purrs reverberating through “Void.” They’re familiar sounds to anybody who has listened to the rock of the past 40-plus years. But like some fellow contemporary nonmetal guitarists—see also: Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster—Utz is too irreverent to use guitar pyrotechnics simply as a display of ostensible virtuosity. On Kunk he sounds far more interested in taking a lead guitarist’s full Malmsteem bag of tricks and instead using them to serve the song—or what the song could be.

In many ways the entire album follows suit. Everything about Kunk sounds and feels like the Dope Body norm: shades of Touch & Go Records heaviness, abrasive dynamic shifts, pummeling subject matter, all delivered with shirtless-dude intensity. But something in every one of the ten tracks feels a little off somewhere, whether it be Utz’ ear-grabbing guitar workouts, bassist John Jones putting a sleepy acid-house throb in the background of “Obey,” the stuttering tone-holes that echo through the 64-second exhale of “Ash Toke,” or the R&Bish pulse drummer David Jacober puts into the smooth operating “Down.” Kunk isn’t just another noise-rock outing, it’s something looser, more ambitious and impressive.

It’s the sound of a band shedding its skin a bit, and it makes these ears exited to hear where it’s going. Dope Body isn’t just stretching new songwriting muscles but being quite cheeky about it. The album was teased with “Old Grey,” the most conventionally Dope Body track here:

It’s everything expected from the band: Utz’ crunching chords, Jacober and Jones locking into a neck-snapping groove, Andrew Laumann’s vocals buried in the buzzing mix, cough-screaming what sounds like reports from the world’s end: “I’ve been sleeping on the street and woke up in a trash can” and “how we going to fit all these knives up in heaven baby.” But then there’s that whirly-gig cartoony sound marking time at the song’s beginning. And there’s that part about two minutes in when it sounds like everything drops out but Jacober and Utz, leaving Laumann to seek some kind of solace by asking “tell me it’s real/ tell me how to deal.” The band sounds like its’ figuring out what it wants from its sound on the fly here.

The band gets even looser on the album’s closing two tracks, “Pincher” and Void.” The former is a roughly two-and-a-half minute instrumental of darting ideas, flirtations with operatic math rock, and spectacular moments that it immediately abandons. The latter, at just over six minutes, is Konk‘s longest song, and easily the most haunting. Over a slab of Nuebautenish industrial sprawl the band patiently builds to a hectic rush, like a treadmill that keeps increasing the pace until you’re at a dead sprint trying not to get thrown off. But eventually you do get tossed, lungs depleted, legs shaking.

The album standout is “Goon Line,” genuinely gorgeous car crash. Utz finds that horrifyingly grating guitar tone that Paul Leary used in the Butthole Surfers “Graveyard” and dares to make it funky. Jacober hammers away like he’s laying railroad spikes. Jones’ bass line is an adventure into to the prog dimension. And Laumann hijacks the shrill long-“a” rhyme scheme that Bowie used to timestamp verses in “Fame”. Any one of those elements by themselves feels perfunctory; together they add up to a disorienting morass of manic joy.

THERE’S AN IMPROVISATIONAL FEEL to Kunk, and it sounds like Utz and Jacober used the same approach in the new album by Holy Ghost Party, their more indie-pop outfit. On HGP’s 2011 self-titled album the duo sounded like a perfectly acceptable dream-pop combo, complete with winsome sing-song melodies, moments of shoegazing grandeur, and Flaming Lips-like quirkiness. With the new Bayou Music (Ehse), the duo sounds like they spent a month listening to Skip Spence’s Oar, maybe a little Third Ear Band and Comus, the entire Jackie-O Motherfucker discography, and then decided to make a party record.

Bayou is equal parts pastoral psych-folk, stoner-rock head trip, and meditative outer-body experience, often within the same song. Closer “Fade” begins in the warm embrace of Jacober’s juggling beat and Utz’s cartwheeling guitar lines, over which one of them chants a Nag Champa mood. Three minutes in the song shifts gears, becoming a driving blast of sunny good cheer, and as the song approaches it eight-and-a-half minute end it’s achieved a Magic Hour majesty. Elsewhere, a song like “Earth Jam Memory” starts in what seems like standard “Cortez the Killer” mode and unfurls into a restless, shifting starburst, the way Tim Buckley’s backing band just tries to follow wherever he’s going in that righteous live version of “Gypsy Woman.” It’s a fun album, from the kaleidoscope-eyes tapestry of “Pinche”—nice song title there, gueros—to the third-eye massaging “Concerning Peace Bayou Music,” the kind of outta-sight excursion that takes it’s own sweet time meandering through its six minutes, putting shaking percussions behind a buzzing guitar that segues into the kind of sandalwood sway that momentarily makes a middle-aged dude consider doing some Stevie Nicks shawl dancing. And nobody needs to see that.

Dope Body plays an album release show Aug. 28 with Wume and Box Truck that you can find out about yourself if you know where to look. Holy Ghost Party, joined by Lexie Mountain, plays release show Aug. 30 at the Crown with Peter Nolan and Zachary Cale, and Dave Heumann.