Thursday, April 16, 2015

MoMA on Björk

I was in New York City and had to see Björk’s “mid-career retrospective” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The show opened to nearly terrible reviews, promptly followed with a backlash of positive reviews. Knowing plenty about music, Iceland, and Björk’s career, I thought this would be the chance to make my own informed decision.

I first entered the small theatre space set up for the MoMA-commissioned piece ‘Black Lake’ off her newest album, ‘Vulnicura’. This piece, despite being in a cramped space, was by far the best of the show. The ten-minute piece spies on Björk writhing around in a chillingly dark wet lava tube in Iceland, from which she emerges to battle her own inner turmoil, before finally walking with a calm and acceptance through a mossy green lava field. The experience is filmed on two opposing screens, and some of the footage is identical, though much of it deters off the path, filmed from a second angle or edit. The surround-sound recording with intense bass presence is moving, and well-suited for the space. This is Björk at her finest, the merging of nature and technology, of concept and delivery.
After this, the rest of the show was all over the map. I didn’t even venture into the small theatre featuring all of Björk’s music videos, as it was brimming over right to the door with guests. And mind you, this was a Tuesday morning, not even a weekend. Some of Björk’s custom-made instruments are on display, like the gamaleste, a fusion celeste-gamelan, and her Biophilia-era ‘gravity harps’ which look a bit like hole-borers strung with harp strings.  Sadly, the instruments are placed in cacophonous lobby spaces, which prevents people from looking at them for long or hearing the music uploaded to them.

I looked at the sheet music on the walls of the waiting area, which were enlarged copies of instrument parts from musicians covered in notes and scribbles, reminders to listen for a cue or for changes to the music at the last moment. It was a reminder to me that despite all the magic that Björk’s music holds, all of its seemingly-organic nature, it takes practical technicians of all sorts to put it together and communicate it into recorded form.

The main portion of the show was billed as an interactive tour of Björk’s seven albums, led by a poetic audio-guide experience. An older couple behind me said in a thick Long Island accent that they were just going to skip the audio tour and breeze through. Maybe I should have listened to them. The audio tour is an iPhone with headphones, and its tracks change as you move through the rooms. Mine was malfunctioning. It didn’t recognize that I was moving into a different room until about three rooms ahead, whence it got very confused. Nevertheless I listened to the poet Sjón’s text about Björk, in elaborate, flowery prose. It did little to serve the show, and it was too long for someone to patiently wait in each room for it to be over; there simply weren’t enough objects in the galleries to pause long enough. What was interesting about the audio, however, were alternate mixes of Björk’s music interspersed throughout the text. Stereo sound effects would loop in, like wind noises and ice melting. A soundtrack of remixes or simple soundscapes would have been a delightful alternative to this text tour, giving the show an otherworldly quality.

The tour of Björk’s memorabilia was also hit and miss. Some objects were fun and fantastic: the red boots worn in the ‘Hyperballad’ video, the Iris Van Herpen plastic dress from the ‘Biophilia’ tour, and the robots from Chris Cunningham’s exquisite ‘All is Full of Love’ video. The costumes from the ‘Wanderlust’ video and 'Volta' album showed Björk’s innate genius to collaborate with designers, and the details were really given a chance to shine.

Other items seemed oddly pristine. The bell dress from the ‘Who Is It’ video was sparkling in its glory, but I’ve seen it in the basement of a record shop in Reykjavík looking like someone went to a rave in it. Which is sort of how I wanted to see it again. Björk's "costumes" are more like "clothing"; they’re made to be worn, worn in and worn out, danced around in, part of what makes her human.
Bell dress at MoMA

Bell Dress at the old Smekkleysa Records, Iceland

Bell Dress at the old Smekkleysa (2007)


The most captivating elements of the show by far are Björk’s notebooks. Among them are lyrics, photos, cutout magazine clippings, and scrapbook-like details of her career. A small notebook at the entrance of the exhibit has Björk’s childhood diary, writing about her parents and grandparents. Another notebook has lyrics to ‘Harbor Song’ from ‘Debut’ in both English and Icelandic, opposite a sketch for organ music, the staff lines drawn by hand onto lined paper. Still another notebook has the words to ‘Mouth’s Cradle’ from ‘Medulla’--who knew it was originally titled ‘Ghost’s Cradle’, where all the instances of ‘ghost’ were later changed? One can see her editing process at work. What gets saved? What gets scrapped? What never made it to the recording studio?

Sadly, for most non-Icelanders, about half of the journals will be hard to read. There are no wall texts or descriptive cards to help translate the Icelandic. One vitrine has photos of the inside of the singer’s throat, presumably related to her recent surgery. The average viewer not knowing that, Björk might just be the crazy singer who collects pictures of endoscopies.
There are too few objects in this Planet Hollwood-like tour. Most 'rooms' only had about three or four objects in them. There is also a corner of the ground floor which plays visualizations of the ‘Biophilia’ music, though the songs’ audio are drowned out by passers-by. Björk’s show at MoMA presents similar challenges to any museum faces showcasing works with sound (especially sound art). How can you possibly contain sound from turning into cacophony, but still offer it to scores of viewers? What are alternatives to blocking off every single sound-making element with its own room? These questions have yet to be solved completely.

There is little doubt on the legitimacy of the Icelander’s compositional voice--the sparseness of objects in the show actually reinforces the fact that Björk’s music still outweighs her visual presence in pop culture. Her work will be remembered for more than the swan dress and the hairstyles; all of the Michel Gondry videos, the CGI graphics, the costumes and the props, would be nothing without the songs that inspired them. As much as the cramped quarters of MoMA might try to do, you cannot contain Björk’s voice.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

DAM Residency, one week down.

My residency at the Denver Art Museum is over one week underway. I’ve installed several projects, had my “open house” for my first piano office hours, had a rehearsal, and my first performance!
The week felt like a whirlwind. But it also seemed less uncertain than the weeks of pre-planning before it. The piano office installation went really well, and there were so many people on hand to help set up harmonicas and pedestals on Level 7 that I felt like such a big shot. Almost 300 people played harmonicas in the first week of their installation, thanks to a busy free Saturday for families.
My favorite elements of the residency so far have been small moments. I saw two children in the American West Gallery looking around to find the source of the water sounds they were hearing (one of my subtle additions to the room, an unmarked sound piece disguised under the sofas).  Several friends and colleagues sent me pictures of themselves playing harmonicas in the galleries. And my piano office was a big hit with school groups—lots of people came by to ask me questions, say hello, record their musical sounds for the “Corridor Voices” project, and even get pictures with me.
The “American West” performance went really well and almost 75 people roamed the galleries and listened to the ambient and folksy performance. There was a technical difficulty with audio recording, but I think the video turned out well. Judging by all the guests recording things on their phones during the performance, they enjoyed the experience, and that’s paramount. The tree branches that were so difficult to get approved for galleries were a big hit, and sounded beautiful in performance. It was a really special atmosphere that’s hard to describe- something a bit lonely, a bit nature-inspired, and a bit ephemeral.
I’m completely humbled by the amount of work and staff it takes to execute these projects. I knew there was a lot of logistics needed, but I didn’t expect this much! Installing electronics for the “Corridor Voices” this past Monday was the most challenging yet, but even it went quite smoothly, and the DAM staff are incredibly nimble and creative with problem solving. There will be a few minor glitches with the speakers and iPods in the piece as I continue to trouble-shoot, but this has been a really good challenge for me to work with technology!
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Monday, February 23, 2015

Residency planning, budgeting, shuffling, visiting

 My residency at the Denver Art Museum begins in less than two weeks! Almost all of my materials are purchased, but I’m still waiting for a couple last-minute items. The past few weeks of logistics and safety meetings have been a learning experience for me as well, teaching me to build into future budgets a “buffer” for unexpected costs.

There has been much going on behind the scenes leading up to being “officially” working in the galleries. Things that I thought would be relatively simple ideas, like putting harmonicas in the galleries, have actually ended up a bit complicated, dealing with trash cans, pedestal placement, repainting/touching up, and bringing in organic material (in this case some live branches). The museum staff reassures me that this is all part of the process; they’re as new to dealing with these things as I am. Other things which I thought would be relatively complicated, like bringing in a choir’s worth of people for a piece, or having dancers in a gallery, have actually ended up being quite easily navigable.

A few parts of my project have had to be tweaked a bit, mostly due to budget. I don’t think that the pieces I’ll be doing will lose any of their value or quality, but it has been a test of creativity in being flexible!  For ‘ENGI’, I was going to have a large set of bells on several tables. The bells weren’t available in the price points I was looking for, however. I hope that adding other hand percussion to the bells will give the public an even more curious set of instruments to play. For the ‘Corridor Voices’ piece, I originally thought of having a computer processing several channels of voices, which would come from both sides of the hallway. Safety issues prevented speakers from reaching across the floor of the corridor, and I decided to use ipods instead of a laptop in the high-traffic area. This lower-tech option is more stable, concealable, and replaceable if (heaven forbid) broken or stolen.
The Calder Meditation piece evolved slightly from a singing bowl for public use into a set of more durable bells with mallet.

I’ve also learned to go back and visit the galleries often, usually before or after every meeting. The size of the galleries changes in my mind, and it’s surprisingly hard to remember the sense of scale. Little pieces of information (inspiration?) seem to come from repeat visits, like needing a conductor from the ground floor of the Atrium (rather than the second level as envisioned) for the ‘ENGI’ piece. The ground floor is the only area that a leader of a performance can see all levels of the atrium! 

Revising the American West galleries, I found the entire middle gallery now closed for re-install; one must walk in a circle around the floor plan. The space looks physically different and sounds more intimate as well. It reminds me that the museum is a constantly changing and evolving place, and my projects there are evolving with it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Creative in Residence

In March I begin a three-week residency as Denver Art Museum’s first Creative in Residence. I’m nervous and excited about the experience. I don’t know exactly what to expect; I have participated in just one other residency before, in Catskill, New York, but the setting was quite different and very pastoral. I have also traveled abroad as a Fulbright Fellow to Iceland, but that experience immersed me in a new culture and landscape, rather than a setting much closer to home.
             I have brainstormed so many project ideas in advance, and I am looking forward to realizing a handful of them, knowing that they will change and evolve along the way. I may even find that being in the galleries for an extended stay may conjure entirely new ideas. Having a budget helps me set goals for the projects. I am slowly whittling down a list of materials I might need and people I will want to invite in to assist.
            I have worked with the public on music-related projects before, but rarely have they been pieces that can live on in some way when I am not present. I am also curious to see how I can create work while in the galleries, interacting with visitors while I prepare for works or involve visitors in process of creating. Music composition is often a solitary act, so I wonder what kinds of pieces might be intriguing for visitors even if they are only half-completed…or even if I am able to concentrate amidst commotion!
            My personal goals for this residency are ones from which normally cause me a little anxiety. I would like to become more comfortable with sharing my work in an unfinished state, allowing my process to be more apparent. I would like to take more risks in my work, knowing that I might make big mistakes in front of people, embarrass myself, or perhaps make guests uncomfortable in stumbling into a piece in progress. But as history has shown, my favorite (and usually most personally ‘successful’) projects have been the ones that I have been the most uncertain about, or pieces that I felt vulnerable, having shared something quite personal.

            Professional goals are also important for me to set. I feel honored to be able to realize ideas that have gone previously rejected by other institutions, and I want to use my time and resources to their best benefit. I am striving to get great visual documentation of my work—I have a feeling that this residency could be a huge boost for showing future supporters some of the harder-to-categorize works I make! Finally, I would like to use this residency to explore more of the potential of music and musical instruments within physical spaces. My creative experience has been primarily in recital halls and in recordings, so I want to challenge myself to think more three-dimensionally. Through sound, I want to capture the spirit of the works in the collection and bringing that spirit out into physical space.