Ausland's austere programming is reflected in the architecture; it's a bare, stark concrete box, like a little Evangelical-Lutheran church hidden in a basement. Instead of a lectern, there's a trestle table on the stage. This is a "trestle table venue". Have you ever noticed that the legs of a trestle table form two big capital As? Each of those As stands for "Art". On top of the trestle table -- this cheap wooden plinth for art -- sits a mixer spilling with a spaghetti of wires. This is the format for an avant garde concert. We know it. It's safe, even comforting.
We take our seats. On our right is a serious young man, hunched intensely over a copy of The Wire magazine. Ah, The Wire. A magazine from whose pages I've been so thoroughly, so inexplicably banned that even the review of the You Are Hear Sessions (2002-2006) in the current issue mentions just about every artist on the album except me. Will they ignore my brilliant forthcoming collaboration with Germlin? Well, they managed to review just about every Anne Laplantine record except the one she made with me.
On our left sat a woman who "introduced" herself when taking her seat with a snatch of singing, so it was clear she was an artist of some kind, and a bit of an eccentric to boot. She was meeting and greeting various people in the audience, but I noticed something a little half-hearted about their enthusiasm. They'd only acknowledge her at the last moment, then express great surprise ("Oh, hi Shelley, you're here too! How's it going?") and be all hand-squeezy, cheek-kissy with her, then melt away after briefly hearing her news (she's working at Tesla right now, has a presentation of her work coming up). In fact, some acquaintances seemed to drift away, mentally, even while standing in front of her, twisting their heads around to look for other friends, and only snapping back to her when she said "Oh, I bumped into Constantine recently..." at which point they'd seize her hand again, as if to say "Darling! You're still here in front of me! How wonderful! Constantine! Where?"
This woman -- she turned out to be vocalist Shelley Hirsch -- was clearly someone pretty nodal in the scene. Yasunao Tone came over and chatted with her for a while. He's over 70, yet so cute and compact and beamy with smiles (one of which he threw at us as we eavesdropped) that Hisae and I discussed kidnapping him and taking him home to replace our rabbit. We imagined him playing in the garden, leaping around the flowerbeds in delight.
His performance, though, was disappointing. I'd heard just one piece by Tone before coming to his concert, his Anagram for Strings, a beautiful slidey acoustic piece full of his Fluxus roots. His live show, though, was entirely made up with bombastic glitchy digital textures played off CDs (he invented the damaged CDs trick long before Markus Popp adopted it). It lacked musical dynamics, variety, subtlety, vulnerability. Lit by a table lamp, Tone cut a dignified and humane figure on the stage in his small steel-rimmed glasses, the essence of serious concentration. Yet it felt like he was doing little more than assert his authorship of a thing too random really to have been authored in the first place, and too abstract to appeal to the human ear.
There was certainly something liberating in Tone's self-awarded freedom from the imperatives of entertainment. In a world where entertainment is the main source of bombast, though, it was a shame that his alternative to entertainment had, itself, to be so bombastic. One precious moment when he framed some sounds with valuable margins of silence aside, there was little respite for the ear. But still, you could feel sort of special to be in here on a Friday night. You could feel virtuous that none of the sugar of entertainment was in your chosen... entertainment.
When I got home I googled the unpopular lady sitting next to me, Shelley Hirsch. I actually found her work very impressive. Sort of Robert Ashley meets early Laurie Anderson by way of Meredith Monk. Shelley engages (though ostranenically) with the world of entertainment, parodying all sorts of pop and jazz styles, and isn't afraid of telling stories. This, in purist circles, is frowned upon -- perhaps it's too close to the entertainment values that prevail in the big world outside. A New York Press review of one of Shelley's records, for instance, says:
"Half the album is wasted on embarrassingly corny narrative pieces. Straight narrative somehow seems at odds with avant-garde experimentation; it's very hard to pull off and the examples of those who have succeeded are few... Jean Luc Godard famously said that movies should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order. If Shelley Hirsch had taken his advice and applied it to her new album States, she would have created a masterpiece." It sounds remarkably close to a silly parody review I once wrote of Stars Forever, ostensibly from a magazine called The Mire. "The tragedy is that, had Momus erased the story-telling tropes and released this record as thirty instrumentals," ran the review, "it would have been one of the best albums Warp never released".
This may be the explanation for my inability to get into The Wire's hallowed pages (laid out by my sleeve designer, James Goggin). Shelley too seems pretty much banned from the magazine. For some purists, narrative is taboo. Storytelling sucks. If you tell stories, you're apparently able to hack it out there in the big world, with its big sugary entertainment values. You're banished to the heart of Friday night, with its idiot drunks, its greedy promoters, its fucking, brawling, kissing and stumbling. Out there, everything is a story.
The Far In, Far Out World of Shelley Hirsch (PS1 Radio): Real Player or iTunes.
(By the way, the reason I don't think storytelling and the avant garde have anything to fear from each other is laid out in The Electroacoustics of Humanism.)