The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

All Issues
MAR 2014 Issue


“My husband loves trees as much as I love music.” — Annie Imbaud

“Everything I've lived I am.” — Cecil Taylor

“I want to exceed my own language.” — Richard Serra

“Hi. I'm here. Where am I?” — Man on a cell phone in front of a C.V.S. on Bleecker Street

We are all traditionalists in a sense and though it’s rare, when an artist manages to find a new approach to an old tradition, infusing it with a fresh sense of individuality, while at the same time paying deep respect to its original form and intent, we invariably end up with the likes of one Joseph Keckler.

Joseph Keckler, Bessie Smith, and a Minotaur. Illustration by Megan Piontkowski.

Keckler, a fan of Bessie Smith and a trained opera singer, is well aware of his origins and continually shows that, and though he’s irreverent about those origins, he never disrespects them, even as he goes well beyond their borders. He is a rare breed: the comedy that surrounds “una furtiva lagrima” and the tear itself. And as he declares in his recent, self-titled, one man-plus-minotaur (near the end a beautifully muscular shirtless male in black jeans and boots wearing a bull’s head makes a brief appearance in Keckler’s nightmare/apartment, stomps about, and just as quickly drops dead) piece, “I am an Opera.”

In a little under an hour, Keckler, through recitatives and arias, takes us on a chocolate covered ‘shrooms trip gone bad, with his angelic voice ranging from rich baritone to contratenor, the music going from grand opera to pop/operetta in classic style. We are led through the labyrinth of doom and joy that is his life, from his roots, to his apartment in Bushwick beneath the J train, to his walk up St. Marks Place in search of a bondage store to buy “goth” clothes in order to feel like a lonely, oddball teen again. He takes us on this odyssey through opera’s four main languages, making seamless transitions to each, so that if you weren’t listening closely you’d never notice: Italian, into French, into English, into German, and back round again, even throwing in a Shakespearean sonnet and playing Debussy on a rickety old rented upright. He never misses a beat. His timing is impeccable, his wit sharp. His tragic voice convinces us he is doomed, until we look up and read the hilarious supertitles on a big screen. We also see his voice teacher, who relays her own story in a post-Guy Maddin-esque silent film.

Keckler sets about proving to the audience that he is indeed “an opera,” totally engaging, embracing, enticing, and at one point joining the audience, while never forgetting, rejecting, or letting us down. He even manages that crazy, manic operatic “HA HA HA” several times, in all of the above languages, while trying desperately to both invoke and exorcise his demons, of which there are plenty. I’m usually not a big fan of multimedia pieces, but this one worked from beginning to end for me. Kudos go to director Uwe Mengel for helping to keep this wild ride from derailing. Keckler mentioned that a fan and friend once called him a Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner’s term for a “total work of art/synthesis of all art forms.” What I can add is that it is not so much whether Keckler created a masterpiece, but that he himself is the masterpiece.

Best surprise soundtrack ever in a film: Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s music for the recent revival, at Film Forum, of a rarely seen Alain Resnais “science fiction” film from 1968, “J’taime, J’taime.” The film proved to be a beautiful, melancholic journey of time travel into the past by a dreams-torn-apart, failed, suicidal writer and a white mouse, replete with a weird, rubbery, brain-shaped time machine with spikes coming out of its top. This is a trivialized over-simplification on my part. A must see.

Expanding on something I wrote awhile back about a relatively new independent label, Relative Pitch, begun by two hardcore fans of music (who met while waiting in line at a show) with good taste, Kevin Reilly and Mike Panico; all I can say is that in a relatively (see how many times I can use that word) short time they have managed to produce, out of sheer love and dedication, 20 C.D.s, with more on the way. Some of the finest music by some of the best masters of the craft, young and old, is being made available to the discerning listener. One interesting aspect of the label, which may be purely coincidental, is the number of duo and trio records it has produced. Aside from a quartet led by veteran West Coast reedman Vinny Golia that I reviewed upon release, and a mixed bag of musicians on Jemeel Moondoc’s upcoming recording, thus far 10 C.D.s have been duos and nine trios. The duos range from two of Bill Frisell with Joey Baron and Greg Cohen as leaders, under-appreciated alto player Jack Wright and his son Ben Wright on bass (a true gem), tremendous sessions with Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey, two C.D.s featuring bassist Jöélle Leandre, Golia’s latest: a C.D. from the amazing Austrian reed player Urs Leimgruber, and two musicians previously unknown to me, Chris Abrahams and Magda Mayas, playing in an enlightening and unique piano, harpsichord, and harmonium setting. This list also includes Moondoc’s first release for the label in a duo with pianist Connie Crothers, and pianist Matthew Shipp, who has both duo and trio C.D.s on the label. Some of the trios include such exciting voices as Taylor Ho Bynum, Mary Halvorson, Philip Greenlief (who also appears with Leandre), Jim Hobbs, Nate Wooley, Joe Morris, Agustí Fernandez and John Butcher, plus more voices new to me: Carmina Escobar and Milo Tamez, in a trio rounded out by monster pianist Thollem McDonas. All are worth picking up and listening to for their diverse qualities and, in many cases, one-of-a-kind musical ambitions. Other projects in the works for 2014: Paul Flaherty/Randall Colbourne with Ironic Havoc; Stephen Gauci, Kirk Knuffke, Ken Filiano with Chasing Tales; Bogan Ghost (Liz Allbee/Anthea Caddy) with Zerfall; Jemeel Moondoc’s The Zookeeper’s House; Evan Parker/Sylvie Courvoisier with Either Or And; Mary Halvorson’s Reverse Blue; Michel Doneda solo; and Tomas Fujiwara Trio with Brandon Seabrook and Ralph Alessi. Keep your ears peeled.

There’s a recent resurgence in mix-and-match storytelling, resulting in intertwining tales that eventually meld into one story. One such project is GENET PORNO, first viewed at the annual Culturemart festival (showing works-in-process from artists in the HERE Artist Residency Program) at Soho’s long time staple, HERE theater, one of the few bastions of culture left in my capitalist infested neighborhood.

The play interjects Jean Genet’s heartbreaking “erotic” masterpiece Our Lady of the Flowers, into the real-life story of a bored, low-key video blogger, Damon Dogg, who tells us about his daily routine while deciding where and what to eat for lunch. With umpteen scenes of jizzum ejaculated from mayonnaise squeeze bottles, and huge rubber cocks, it’s a classic Genet-style porn shoot, replete with dark humor and the pathos of the original tale blurring the lines between eroticism and pornography, and public and private language. GENET PORNO is a three actor, all male work-in-progress from Yvan Greenberg. The fusion of low-end porn and high-end eroticism shows their similarities and differences. To bring characters from both worlds into one movie set is startling, if not jarring, and has a lasting effect as high and low art merge almost seamlessly. The actors were all true to character, and the impeccable, tortured, sincere, beyond-the-call-of-duty-Obie-deserving acting by Oleg Dubson, as the transsexual Divine, is a must-see, truly tour-de-force performance. The mostly French background music, including works by Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen, helped keep focus. Once the kinks get worked out, and the comedy somewhat subdued, there is major potential in this exploration of the dark side.

And speaking of the dark side, Matthew Barney’s six-hour epic, River of Fundament also melds many stories, including Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings which, among myriad things, speaks of the Egyptian rite of walking through a river of shit at least thrice after death in order to achieve reincarnation, sparked the film. Mailer gave the book to Barney with the advice that “This will make a good film.” It was a catalyst, along with Mailer’s death (Barney had cast Mailer in his Cremaster series and they became very close), and Barney’s fascination with Hemingway, Native-Americans, spawning salmon, and especially Harold Bloom’s original review of the book. The film contains more shit and hand jobs than one can ever imagine. It is beautifully shot, though it is a bit over-the-top. Did I say a bit? I have a small part in it, though all my lines were eventually cut. The music, though at times in excess, was extremely eclectic, with such impeccable players as the Flux Quartet, Zeena Parkins, Jeff Berman, and an amazing, if a bit frightening, tour-de-force performance by legendary percussionist Milford Graves. Too complicated to go into all the details now, both critically and feelings-wise. Call or e-mail me if you want to know more.

Yet more mix and match. How’s this for travesty? There was a recent concert claiming to present the music of Cal Massey, Fred Ho (who is sadly very sick and couldn’t make the gig), and the unacknowledged Clifford Thornton, where the rarely heard Massey masterpiece “The Black Liberation Movement Suite” was performed. During the Massey piece, which had stunning moments and which spoke very much to its time while it remains timely and timeless, two mediocre, completely out of place rappers were used, one so bad he forgot his cue four times during his brief appearance. What made matters worse, the piece they claimed Ho had written only contained a third movement (and what a one) by him while the first two were by his student and sounded like thousands of other big band pieces. So where does Thornton figure into all this? Well, nowhere, except in the title of the faux-Ho piece, “The Scientific Soul Revolutionary Gardens of Harlem Suite.” Part of the title “The Gardens of Harlem” belongs to Thornton. It’s a piece he wrote way back. So why couldn’t they play at least one movement from that instead of NO THORTON AT ALL, since his name was invoked once and the advertising noted his music would be part of the evening? What gives, folks? So much for left-wing Revolutionary Eco-Music. The concert did, however, make me aware of the plight of American political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz, stuck in solitary confinement for more years than you’d care to know for a crime he may not have committed, not dissimilar from Abu-Jamal Mumia.

Yet another travesty: Stan Douglas’ film installation at David Zwirner Gallery titled “Luanda-Kinshasa.” It’s a reconstruction of “The Church,” the famous Columbia Records recording studio where everyone from Monk, to Miles, to Mingus, to Bernstein, to Gould, to Aretha, to Billie Holiday, to Dylan, to Pink Floyd, and so on recorded. At what I’m sure was great expense, Douglas had the studio re-built, then shot an imaginary band doing an imaginary recording in the imaginary 1970s. The band consisted of some fine younger veterans, like Liberty Ellman and Jason Lindner, but the music, which sounded like bad, late Miles, was loud, tinny, and did not do the aforementioned artists justice. The studio was replete with groupies. Douglas claims the emphasis was on “compositional process itself rather than on a finished composition.” Perhaps that’s why there were so many takes. To my mind the aim was to sell the piece and nothing more. I watched and, exhausted after 15 minutes, left, wondering why so many artists work so hard to create such bad and useless art. Okay, I know there are still folks who think Pollock, Monk, even Pink Floyd’s The Wall are useless. But give me a break. There’s useless; then there’s just flat out USELESS (as in manipulative). Poor van Gogh didn’t cut off his ear for nothing. Or did he?

I’m in Cornelia Street Café, out of the bitter winter night. It’s the first gig of a three-day run by saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Before the set begins I sit around with bassist Mark Helias and drummer Barry Altschul talking about the crazy old days and what we had going in our separate lives. Later, midway through the set, there is a momentary drop out in Helias’ solo, a possible auditory hallucination on my part, and I flash back to 1967: four others and I pile into a car in Berkeley and head out to catch Coltrane at the Monterey Jazz Festival. We make a detour at a local corner drugstore in San Francisco where we stock up on Amyl nitrate and Benzedrex inhalers. In the back seat I tear the cotton from the inhalers and pass it around. We all promptly start chewing it. Then the snappers get handed out. We are now on open highway, free, on our way. I break one, put it under my nose, chewing on the cotton, and I rise up out of my seat and my head hits the roof of the car. We’re driving along having a great time when the driver tunes the radio to the jazz station. Suddenly the music is interrupted and the announcer comes on to say that Coltrane died earlier that day. Our silence becomes palpable. The driver turns the car around and we head home, five altered heads not yet out of our teens, our lives now, for however briefly, on hold. Our chance to finally see the great man dashed forever. As it turned out, that was one of the most famous and vigorous festivals that Monterey ever held. My head still aches and somewhere inside I am still holding my breath in disbelief. The bass solo continues as quickly as it had stopped. The set finishes and what a fine set it was.

Day three paired Irabagon with guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Nasheet Waits for a night of pure improvisation. All three were inspiring. At one point I turned around and put my finger to my lips, politely signaling for the couple behind me to quiet down. They did, but soon the woman started talking loudly again whereupon, to my surprise, her companion said gently but loud enough for me to hear, “Just try to listen.” Well she did, at least for another five minutes.

As Keckler states at the end of his opera, “I wonder when we’re under / are we ever very far / from where we started?”


Steve Dalachinsky

Poet/collagist STEVE DALACHINSKY was a long time contributor to the Rail. His book The Final Nite & Other Poems (Ugly Duckling Presse - 2006) won the PEN Oakland National Book Award. His latest CDs are The Fallout of Dreams with Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach (Roguart, 2014), and the book/CD Pretty in the Morning with the French art rock group the Snobs (Bisou Records, 2019). He was a 2014 recipient of a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. His most recent books include Frozen Heatwave, a collaboration with Yuko Otomo (Luna Bissonte Prods, 2017) and where night and day become one—the french poems (great weather for MEDIA, 2018) which received a 2019 IBPA award in poetry.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

All Issues