Several Iterations of Spring
this event will start during astronomical twilight
minor third abstract (2011) by Michael Winter
though nobody had read it, you knew there was a script [“The End of New England,” Eileen Myles] readings 44 (2012) by Mark So
MARCH 31, 2013 THE WULF., LOS ANGELES
Since 2008, the wulf. has been one of the pre-eminent venues for experimental music in Los Angeles. It’s housed, along with its two founders and directors Eric KM Clark and Michael Winter, in a downtown loft, which means that attending performances is a close-knit affair: the audience sits on dining room chairs, or couches, or on the floor, and there’s always a bottle of whiskey and bags of snacks on a table next to the bowl for cash donations. The wulf. is both a space and a community. All events are free, and performances feel like shared rituals rather than attempts at entertaining a crowd. As a result, artists can plan events that require flexibility, intimacy, or unusual conditions.
Such was the case with this event will start during astronomical twilight, a recent performance of works by Winter and Mark So, another Los Angeles-based composer, scheduled to begin between 5:16 and 5:46 a.m. on a Sunday that also happened to be Easter. When I arrived shortly before 5:00, the assembled group was both beginning and ending its day; some had been awake all night, and others, like myself, had woken up early.
The score for Winter’s minor third abstract (links to scores, and sometimes performances, of all of Winter’s compositions, are provided at his website, unboundedpress.org) is a single sentence: “with a very gradual, natural, and continuous shift of setting.” The subject of the piece is the experience of steady change in the ambient environment, and the sounds made during its performance frame a transition over which the performer has no direct control.
Shortly after 5:30 the lights in the room, already dim, were turned down further and Winter seated himself at the piano. The nocturnal purple and orange of the pre-dawn sky, mixed with the glow from the sodium streetlights, provided the backdrop through the industrial windows behind him. The performance began with several minutes of silence, as if to allow the darkness and stillness to sink in. Winter then began playing a single note toward the center of the piano, often allowing for considerable duration of silence between striking the note again. After five minutes, one of these silent stretches allowed for a bunch of vociferous birds to contribute their morning song. I measured the changing light by the white of a page in my notebook. There were moments early on when I worried that I was writing over my own notes, but the sky, like the page on which I was writing, slowly began to turn white.
Winter eventually began to strike the second note, completing the minor third to which the work’s title alludes. While the first note framed the ambient changes at the conceptual heart of the score, making me more conscious of my surroundings, the second set up a sense of relation, casting my consciousness as a figure in those surroundings too. They started to remind me of church bells ringing, marking time and calling the mind to attention. One stood in for the worshipper, the other for the place of worship. The interval between them became an analogue for perception itself, and for the specific kind of noticing that happens when a formal structure, however basic, is put into place.
After 40 minutes, So, who had been seated with the rest of the audience, approached a laptop computer placed in front of the piano and pressed a key to begin his own piece. Winter continued playing for another ten minutes, during which both compositions could be heard at the same time. Though he eventually stopped, there was no distinct pause between the two works, emphasizing that this was one event comprised of contributions from two composers; one piece simply turned into the other, like night into day.
So’s composition, though nobody had read it, you knew there was a script, makes use of “The End of New England,” an essay by the poet Eileen Myles about class, language, poetry, and the American project. It is a 90-minute recording, originally made on a cassette tape, of So reading the essay over and over again, starting and stopping the tape depending on nuances in the text. The composition therefore consists of So’s voice, Myles’ writing, ambient noise, and periods of silence recorded when So advanced the tape while reading the text but not reciting it—silences, in other words, that measure reading and language as units of time.
The performance of the piece was a playback of the tape, which So had transferred to the computer as two separate tracks. Both 45-minute sides of the cassette were heard simultaneously, one from the left speaker and one from the right. Phrases and fragments of language overlapped and overwrote one another. I thought again about trying to take notes in the dark, the ways in which this was like thinking, and how new thoughts obscure old ones by replacing them in the mind. It was impossible, of course, to assign each fragment a specific place in the narrative of Myles’ text, but I oriented myself by listening for recurring phrases. Hearing them for the second, third, or fourth time was like watching a character enter and exit a stage.
Other phrases stood out for different reasons. One was “And look at this, it’s spring,” from a passage in which Myles is describing a vernal scene in midtown Manhattan. A man has a parrot on his shoulder that repeats the word ‘goodbye’ in “the voice of a very polite woman who is sneering you at the door,” but
[t]hen a little brown bird, a brown bird with some red on its feathers came sailing into the day, hopping around on the flagstone the metal tables were standing on. It was speech too. Women were walking away from the parrot who kept saying loudly goodbye, goodbye. One of the women looked at my face, any human face she could get further reflection from as she walked away. This is just total mania and joy. And look at this, it’s spring.
Several iterations of spring were cropping up: there was the spring that appeared in the essay, and another that So read out loud on the tape as he uttered the phrase, and the most tangible one that was taking place in real time, on an early Sunday morning at the end of March. Together, they emphasized that coincidence and heightened attention are dependent upon one another, and that in concert they can take hold of the senses and direct them to their own ends, revealing unexpected beauty, symmetry, and congruencies of form. This is the kind of awareness that arises when art is treated as an active agent of simile, a force intent on bringing disparate things into proximity. It’s about more than the perfect mimesis of the obnoxious parrot. The whistling of the little brown bird—the wilder, unpredictable utterance—“[is] speech too.”
As the event drew toward its conclusion, the sun was visible for the first time as a pale, distinct orb through the wulf’s tall industrial windows. On the one hand, it was just a sunrise, like any other. But any sunrise is also a special event, at once completely arbitrary and indicative of order on the largest scale, just as Easter Sunday has both everything and nothing in common with other Sundays. The sun began to glow blindingly. It bathed the room in light, as if to confirm that it was the star of the show.