LAST NOVEMBER, my partner at Rock Fish Stew, Ivan Weiss, and I flew from Raleigh-Durham to New York City to work on a documentary project at the Morgan Library. You could say we were following a digression of a digression.
A month earlier I’d wandered by the Morgan and noticed the library was exhibiting Cy Twombly’s epic, thirty-three-foot painting, Treatise on the Veil (Second Version) (1970), the first time the work has been on view in New York in thirty years. A longtime Twombly nut, I went to the show twice. I discovered in the Morgan’s publicity pamphlet that the JACK Quartet would be performing in front of the painting on November 20, playing compositions by Matthias Pintscher, who was inspired by Treatise a decade ago. Ivan and I had met members of the JACK earlier this year: in March, while documenting the music festival Big Ears in Knoxville, and then again in September, when they played with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the Wordless Music Orchestra at the Palace Theater in Upper Manhattan.
This unanticipated convergence appealed to us. We knew neither what to expect nor where it would lead, only that it was something worth paying attention to, something that might be lost to history if we didn’t document it. That’s the way things seem to work for us. We pursue hunches, welcome distractions, give ourselves space to associate freely. There’s something indulgent in this approach—childlike, some might say—but we try to balance our impulses with learned rigor.
Our friends at The Paris Review have invited us to expose our methods in a series of documentary pieces over the next several months—in effect serializing our uncertainty. We’ll offer combinations of video, audio, photography, and writing in various arrangements and states of completion. We’re calling it “Big, Bent Ears,” bringing together parts of our current projects on legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell and on the Big Ears Festival, as well as unlikely overlaps between them and any other digressions that may arise.
The first chapter in the series will appear next week, on March 11, and you can expect subsequent chapters on a periodic basis through mid-October.
BY THE WAY, if you thought from the name Rock Fish Stew that our enterprise was a restaurant, you weren’t entirely wrong. I grew up on the inland, brackish coast of North Carolina where rockfish (aka striped bass, Morone saxatilis) stew is a staple dish. The words rock, fish, and stew have stuck with me over the years and have come to symbolize our approach to documentary work. In our projects—no matter the subject—we seek the solidity of rock and the nimbleness and elusiveness of fish.
There’s a slight difference between stew and soup. Stew is thicker, a main course. It is prepared over a long time, and the flavors change depending on how long it cooks, how long it sits, and on the variable nature of the ingredients on a given day. Stew can be a noun or a verb.
Each entry in this series will be a sample of what we’re stewing. This week, as an appetizer, we asked our friend Ricky Moore, owner and chef of Durham’s Saltbox Seafood Joint, just a half mile from our offices, to make us a pot of actual rockfish stew. In Ricky’s process, we recognize a bit of our own.
JOSEPH MITCHELL is not the first author one thinks about in terms of music. His prose isn’t overly lyrical or musical; although he adored James Joyce, particularly Finnegans Wake, he never attempted the sonic invention in Joyce’s work. Mitchell was a correspondent reporting from the field, and even when he wrote fiction, it came out of his journalistic instincts. But from this platform he achieved something mysterious. At his pinnacle, in long, deep pieces such as “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” (1956) and “The Rivermen” (1959), Mitchell builds a scaffolding of details and facts only to make it dissolve, leaving us to question what just happened.
He is rarely discussed without references to his uncanny ear, his ability to hear and retain voices. “Mitchell is so genuinely curious and so dogged a listener that he eventually gets it all—the whole culture as well as a representative individual,” William Zinsser wrote in The American Scholar. He let his subjects talk on and on until they revealed something unique. His ears were connected to a prodigious memory—and a conceit: working in a time before portable tape recorders, he rendered thousands of words of uninterrupted quotations in his essays. His first book, a selection of his newspaper articles from the thirties, is titled My Ears Are Bent. In the introduction, he writes, “The best talk is artless, the talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves, women in the sun, grouped around baby carriages, talking about their weeks in the hospital or the way meat has gone up, or men in saloons, talking to combat the loneliness everyone feels.” A few lines later, he adds, “Now and then, however, someone says something so unexpected it is magnificent.”
Last fall, we traveled to New York to work on two different projects: one on Joseph Mitchell and the other on an eclectic experimental music festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. We spent one day in a private room on West Thirty-Seventh Street documenting rehearsals by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the fifty-piece Wordless Music Orchestra, led by conductor Ryan McAdams. At the end of the day, we walked over to the offices of Mitchell’s longtime employer, The New Yorker, and pored over his work in the original editions that were printed five, six, and seven decades ago. The two projects seem to share little: one concerns a wordsmith, a chronicler, and preserver of fading traditions; the other, musicians challenging tradition and musical forms on a sometimes radical basis. That we were working on them at the same time was coincidence.
At some point that week, though, the word ear began, well, ringing in ours. The Knoxville music festival is called Big Ears, recalling Mitchell’s “bent” ones. We now wonder whether the type of careful, concentrated sonic experience on display at Big Ears—where the audience is invited to move outside their comfort zones and immerse themselves in new sounds—is analogous to Mitchell’s old-fashioned manner of venturing out into the back alleys of New York to hear people talk.
WE FIRST MET ASHLEY CAPPS last year in Knoxville, his hometown. He’s president of AC Entertainment and founder of Big Ears, but he is better known for the other festivals he organizes: Mountain Oasis, Forecastle, and the heavyweight of all American festivals, Bonnaroo. By any measure, Capps is a successful promoter, one of the best. But with Big Ears, drawing crowds isn’t his primary goal.
The week before last year’s Big Ears, we grabbed a drink with one of the festival’s marketers, a man with many years of experience creating buzz. He confessed to us, in almost a whisper, that Big Ears presented a unique problem: how to draw an audience to a festival with this range of music. The festival exhibits a number of musicians at the top of their field—2014 featured, among others, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, the National’s Bryce Dessner, John Cale, and a reunion of Television and was headlined by minimalist icon Steve Reich—but Radiohead, Wilco, and the National perform at Bonnaroo, whereas Greenwood, Kotche, and Dessner perform their classical compositions at Big Ears. This might not be unusual in Brooklyn or downtown New York, but this is Knoxville, where residents like to say there’s not a direct flight here from anywhere.
Which, of course, is why we were drawn to document it.
We asked Capps how Big Ears came to be and what its purpose is. He told us, “Certainly, one of the programmatic themes of the festival is about listening and taking the time to listen. So much of the music unfolds over the course of a certain period of time—it’s not packaged for quick and immediate consumption. I think people are hungry for that kind of experience. As everyone says, we live in a short-attention-span world. And it seems for many people, when they are given the opportunity to take a step back from that and immerse themselves in an experience that takes time, it’s something they’re very much ready for.”
AS EARLY AS THE 1930s, Joseph Mitchell was weighed down by decreasing attention spans. The theme figured into his writing over the subsequent three decades.
His subjects lamented change and the speed of modern life, which they felt prevented them from experiencing it properly. Mitchell’s stories—particularly the later ones, written after the advent of television—unfold at a crawl, if they unfold at all. The stories have little in the way of narrative or plot, and he lets his characters talk as long as they please. “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” is fifteen thousand words, twelve thousand of which constitute quotes attributed to Mr. Hunter. Digressions are everywhere. Mitchell focuses on a side character, or he lays out a multicentury history of a peripheral detail. Mitchell was a lifetime walker, a wanderer, and his essays evoke the feeling of a long, casual stroll, with no particular destination.
The protagonist of “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” is an eighty-nine-year-old African American man who lives in a once-bustling neighborhood on Staten Island founded by freed slaves. When Mitchell finds it, the neighborhood is hollowed out and decaying. All that’s left are remnants of forgotten buildings and neglected people, like Mr. Hunter, who is jovial and pleasant but saddened by change and loss. Mitchell quotes Mr. Hunter describing a walk he took in Staten Island’s boondocks, where he inspected wildflowers before making a wrong step and ending up knee-deep in mud: “I floundered around in the mud a minute, getting my bearings, and then I happened to raise my head and look up, and suddenly I saw, away off in the distance, miles and miles away, the tops of skyscrapers in New York shining in the morning sun. I wasn’t expecting it, and it was amazing. It was like a vision in the Bible.”
We wonder if the audience at Big Ears sometimes feels what Mr. Hunter felt gazing at the skyscrapers of Manhattan from his bygone position on Staten Island: awed by the sudden encounter with another world.
Since beginning to document Big Ears last March (we will return with our team later this month), we have become more aware of a movement to break classical music out of its confines and to move avant-garde rock, for lack of a better term, into more sophisticated realms. The old record-store categories have disappeared. Big Ears is indicative of this new landscape; classical, indie, jazz, folk, and electronica overlap.
Jonny Greenwood personifies these merging and shifting forms. After we met him in Knoxville, we followed up with him and the Wordless Music Orchestra, a collective we also first encountered at Big Ears, in New York last fall. The Wordless orchestra is itself ever-shifting: it was a fifty-piece iteration when we documented its rehearsal of Greenwood’s score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood in a large classroom-size space on West Thirty-Seventh Street; a few days later, they performed the music live during two screenings of the film at the United Palace Theatre, a three-thousand-seat, early twentieth-century baroque gem in Washington Heights, in northern Manhattan.
One of the musicians in the orchestra was Greenwood himself, playing the ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument favored by Messiaen that Greenwood also plays with Radiohead. In the small rehearsal room, which was barely large enough to fit the fifty-piece group, he would sit at the front of the room and listen when he wasn’t playing, engrossed by the orchestra. Later, he told us that the rehearsals are a magical space for him, more than performances. “Because no one’s watching,” he said, “and you’re hearing the orchestra at their most relaxed, and they’re kind of playing for each other and it’s a bit fun. It’s a privilege and I feel it keenly every time I’m sitting with an orchestra and watching them play. Your ears are lucky to hear this.”
We’ve met Greenwood twice now, and both times he has expressed passionate concern about the experience of the listener. He doesn’t trust microphones, speakers, and amplification; they distort the true sound of the instruments. He favors intimacy between the performer and audience, and he laments the distance most venues create, both physically and culturally. “When I’m touring in America and have a night off,” he told us, “I will usually go looking for orchestral classical concerts to see what’s happening. And it’s true, you see the elderly, well-to-do ‘society’ out for their evening, and it is all quite staid. Those concerts can be interesting and enjoyable, but you can see why it’s become a sort of closed thing to anyone younger.”
Greenwood wishes that classical concerts had no assigned seats or printed programs, musicians could revise the set list on stage, and audiences could hear an orchestra or ensemble without expectations. The experience would be visceral and tactile. Most importantly, Greenwood wants people to be able to wander the hall freely and think to themselves, “Listen to that violinist, that is amazing! He’s only ten meters away and I can hear and see what he’s doing.”
IN 1964, JOSEPH MITCHELL stopped publishing. He was fifty-six and in his prime. The last half dozen of his published works are arguably his greatest, but they became longer and longer and the intervals between them increasingly prolonged. He continued walking the streets of New York, exploring neglected corners, listening to people talk, noticing their clothing and body language, but instead of producing words for publication, he collected notes and objects, the latter a strange achievement: old seafood forks, discarded bricks, other people’s restaurants receipts, rusted coal-burning stoves, doorknobs, bits of house trim with ornate floral patterns, postcards illustrating early twentieth-century hotels and restaurants in downtown New York, and more—some six thousand remnants by the time he died in 1996, all of it worth, in a monetary sense, nothing.
The day after the final There Will Be Blood concert, with Greenwood’s score lodged in our brains, we took the New Jersey Transit North Jersey Coast Line out of Penn Station to visit Mitchell’s eldest daughter, Nora Mitchell Sanborn, at her house near the shore. Nora and her younger sister, Elizabeth, who lives in Georgia, maintain their father’s odd collection. Archivists are interested in Mitchell’s papers and, to an extent, his wife Therese’s photographs, but no one seems to know what to do with the objects. Nora uses many of them to decorate her house and yard. She’s curating and preserving her father’s life in this manner, but she seems puzzled by the collection’s future. We’re not sure Mitchell would have said what he was doing was “collecting,” in the sense one collects art or stamps or 78s of early music, with a desire to preserve and showcase them. There is a tradition of collecting as performance, as public presentation, but Mitchell didn’t treat his acquisitions this way. According to Nora, her father hid the objects, stuffed them under beds, secreted them in the attic, placed them in the crevices and corners of their West Tenth Street apartment. She told us he was attracted to particular objects for their lettering and graphic patterning. He loved making visual connections, for example, between ancient Greek architecture and the tiny designs on the back of old silverware or skeleton-key bottle openers.
Nora recalls that her father began collecting in the late sixties, when the older buildings in downtown Manhattan were demolished to make way for the World Trade Center. This was the area of town featured in so many of Mitchell’s stories. He hated the thought of its disappearance. In his surviving files there is a folder entitled “World Trade Center” with pamphlets and brochures expressing civic and commercial enthusiasm for the two towers, the construction of which represented everything he couldn’t stand.
Mitchell the storyteller rarely used inciting incidents, rising action, or climaxes; his works reject resolution. Often there is not even a main character. He compiled quotes, facts, images, details, words—lists of things he didn’t want to be forgotten—and arranged them in sequences that feel effortless, a poetry of plainness unique to him.
RONEN GIVONY IS IN HIS MIDTHIRTIES but looks younger. In conversation, he is as unassuming as Ashley Capps. Twenty-five years, five hundred miles, and two worlds—downtown New York City and Knoxville—separate these two men, but they are brothers-in-arms in presenting new music. Givony founded the Wordless Music Orchestra, and he programs music at SubCulture, a pioneering music club on Bleecker Street.
Givony is careful to admit that he is not a musician, that he doesn’t read music. As a listener, he was always a “rock-and-roll person.” After college, he worked as a grant writer at Lincoln Center. There, he developed a love of classical music and a distaste for its presentation. “There’s a series at Lincoln Center called What Makes It Great?” he told us. “It’s obviously a nice, well-meaning thing, but it perfectly captures what’s wrong with the sound world. As in, ‘You wouldn’t know what makes it great, so we’re gonna tell you, and these are the ten things that make it great.’ And this is this cup of wisdom that is being handed down from the mountain.”
We asked Givony about the name Wordless. He said, “We did start out performing only work by instrumental groups, and it more than occasionally leads to confusion because people say, Neutral Milk Hotel’s music has words, so how can they be in the Wordless Music Series? I learned after a while it was less about who was instrumental and who sang and more about who the musicians and composers doing cool things are.”
A couple days later we asked Pauline Kim Harris, the concertmaster of Wordless and lead violinist for the There Will Be Blood shows, what the word wordless means to her. “After the Blood shows,” she said, “when I was writing e-mails to everybody to say thanks, I found myself writing, ‘I can’t really express in words the feeling of …’ and ‘There are no words…’ And then I realized that whatever prompted Ronen to come up with wordless is pretty genius.”
Our interview with Harris was the last one on our New York trip. She talked about the sounds, not music, of New York, the ones she heard walking around during her daily routine. Her words brought our two projects together.
“I don’t know if the city’s getting louder or what, but I save my ears,” Harris said. “I don’t want to miss out on anything, but at the same time I try to tune in to interesting sounds, not just noise. There’s a rhythm to the city’s movement—the subways, the taxis, the lights changing, people walking, the dogs, the bicycles. Just being able to take in five minutes of that, you start to listen to that rhythm.”
“There’s a music to it?” we asked.
“I don’t know if you can call it music because music has to be … composed? Or made? Music is made?”
“What is music?”
“See, that’s the thing, now we’re getting into another topic.”
We all fell silent. A moment later Harris said, with finality, “Just noise and sound isn’t music. It’s what you do with that.”
MARS IS A SWEET and vigorous mutt. Though fourteen years old, any tinkle of the leash or car keys transforms him into a seventy-pound puppy. He belongs to Sam Stephenson, my partner at Rock Fish Stew. Mars was our office companion as Sam and I prepared to document last year’s Big Ears. Our first order of business was trying to get a handle on what Big Ears was. We spent a couple weeks cranking music by the bands and performers we would be hearing live in a few months—a diverse lineup of indie rock, modern classical, heavy metal, new age, and everything in between. Yet no matter the sonic environment, Mars rested, chin on paws, largely unconcerned.
A week into our listening, we blared a song that made Mars crouch and whimper. He slinked around the room as if there were a danger he couldn’t locate, finally finding solace under a standing desk. We later determined that this spot was equidistant from the two speakers, or the furthest point Mars could find from the alarming sound.
The music was by a band called Nazoranai.
ON A SUNNY THURSDAY MORNING in Knoxville last March, the day before Big Ears kicked off, our documentary crew fanned out across State Street, just behind the Tennessee Theatre. Built in the twenties as a silent-movie house and impeccably restored about a decade ago, the Tennessee is the largest venue at Big Ears, with eighteen hundred seats, and a beautiful relic of an age long gone. As we waited behind the theater, two moving trucks pulled up and parked out back. A half dozen men emerged and over the course of two or three hours carefully unloaded six Steinway grand pianos covered in thick industrial quilts.
On the other side of the street, stretching down a hill and bordered by a wrought-iron fence, is the historic cemetery of the First Presbyterian Church of Knoxville. The oldest cemetery in town, it dates to 1800. Knoxville’s forefathers rest there, among them James White, the city’s founder.
Many of Joseph Mitchell’s stories feature cemeteries; one of his most famous is called “Mr. Hunter’s Grave.” Cemeteries begat in Mitchell a reflective and creative state of mind—a heady potion made up of time, space, familial generations, and silence. I often feel the same way around cemeteries, which is probably what drew me to Mitchell. My proximity to this graveyard, even as I focused on Big Ears, sparked in me a strong and unexpected sense of the slow passage of time, which was perfectly reflected in what we were shooting.
We soon learned, for example, that the piano-moving company, Mountain Movers, spans four generations of one family. “Careful! There’s no point to rush”: the mantra of these robust men as they lifted thousand-pound instruments fifty yards or more, over sidewalks, up ramps, through doorways, onto cargo lifts, and into rehearsal and concert spaces where musicians from around the world will play them.
In the midst of all this, a tall, slim man in his fifties, with thinning hair, emerged onto the sidewalk, laid his briefcase on end, and sat down on it, in no hurry at all. This was Tim Kirkland, who had been hired to tune and retune pianos at Big Ears all weekend. He had learned the craft from his father, Oscar, who was also working at the festival, as was his sister, Melinda. A family of piano tuners.
You might think, as I did, that a piano tuner would shy away from the limelight. Not Tim. At one point, we had three cameras on him, and instead of demurring, he lit up.
Big Ears brought an eventful weekend for Tim, with thirty-one tunings in total. Sometimes he would have less than an hour to tune a piano before rushing to a venue fifteen minutes away. We were drawn to document the unloading of the pianos by the headline performance of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” by the Rochester-based Ensemble Signal, a performance that required four Steinway Ds—the largest grand pianos made, give or take—on stage at once. But while talking with Tim, I forgot about the instrumentation. All I could think about was figuring this guy out.
On the surface, Tim appeared straightlaced and unassuming. He would look at his notes and rattle off the details of his job in a shorthand I could barely understand. In fact, for most of the interview, he wore an impish look, as if waiting to outsmart us. He often would suddenly say something so strange and unexpected I wouldn’t know how to respond. He drew me in like a performer, like a Big Ears artist—I didn’t know what I was hearing, but I had to keep listening.
“Every now and then, when I’m tuning, I can make myself cry,” he said at one point. How can a piano tuner make himself cry? I thought to myself. What in the act of tuning would cause someone to do that? When I reviewed this footage months later, I could hear how dumbstruck I was. “When do you make yourself cry?” I asked.
Tim responded with an explanation that, in one fell swoop, answered the question, created a bigger mystery, and effectively ended that part of the conversation.
“This is getting sort of borderline religious here,” he said, “kind of with the f-word mixed in with it … When you say, God, I’m here—I’ll do the motions, you do the work.”
WHEN BIG EARS ENDED, Sam and I returned to Durham but immediately had to devote ourselves to another project. It was summer before we were able to begin sifting through our trove of material. But where to begin? We had interviews with musicians, audience members, stagehands, sound technicians, the heating-repair guy, passersby who had absolutely nothing to do with Big Ears. We had hours of footage of stage sets being erected and taken down. We had rehearsals, sound checks, and performances. We had slice-of-life moments around Knoxville and intimate moments with audience members discussing sets between shows.
We began with Tim. I don't know if it was the right place to start—or if there is a right place to start. I only know that Tim had lodged in my mind.
After Tim, the next stop had to be Nazoranai, that band that meant doom for the sweet, elderly Mars. To mention Tim and Nazoranai in the same breath is absurd. Nazoranai was perhaps the most challenging group in a festival that contained many of them. Tim, in contrast, expressed a fondness for the Eagles. But there was a moment with Nazoranai that nagged at me the same way my interaction with Tim did. In both cases, our respective roles—musician, tuner, documentarian—fell away, and the interviews became moments of revelation, though of what, I wasn’t yet sure. There’s no way to predict when that might happen or how it will come out.
Nazoranai is a side project for its three members. Stephen O’Malley and Oren Ambarchi are both in their midforties and have worked together for a decade in the band Sunn O))). Their Nazoranai bandmate is legendary Japanese guitarist Keiji Haino, now in his sixties. They have been performing together since 2011, yet O’Malley, Ambarchi, and Haino live on different continents—residing in France, Australia, and Japan, respectively—and rarely get the chance to see one another. The group’s two extant albums come from live performances, in 2012 and 2014, not from studio recordings. Big Ears provided a rare opportunity for them to connect onstage and off.
As I look back now, almost a year later, with another Big Ears approaching, I think of O’Malley’s perfectionism as he set up his equipment in pursuit of highly specific sounds and textures; Ambarchi’s affection for Haino, one of his heroes and inspirations; and Haino’s earnest gentility cloaked by loud, engulfing, sometimes brutal waves of sound. But nothing hit me more viscerally than the encounter between Haino and Ami Connolly.
Haino speaks some English, but he wanted to do our interview in Japanese. We didn't think about finding a translator until it was almost too late. With the help of AC Entertainment’s long-bearded resident badass and the company president’s right hand, Bryan Crow (who wouldn’t have been out of place on The A-Team), we found Connolly, who was born in Japan but has lived in the Knoxville area for more than thirty years and works as a translator at industrial trade shows (several Japanese automobile manufacturers have plants in east Tennessee).
Much like a piano tuner’s, a translator’s success hinges on not being noticed. Their job is to facilitate a connection, to make us forget the border between us and what we’re encountering. Despite Connolly’s extensive experience, Haino took her by surprise. He is rail-thin, wears his silver hair long with straight-cut bangs over his forehead, and is rarely seen without sunglasses. Even among the eclectic crowd at Big Ears, Haino’s appearance is striking. What’s more, he is blunt and philosophical—he says exactly what’s on his mind.
During the course of our interview, I became increasingly aware that something was happening with Ami. Haino was talking to her as much as he was to us: he would interrupt her, correct her, or elaborate on her translation, but not contentiously. When they spoke in Japanese, they behaved like a long-married couple, and she was visibly moved by him.
After Haino departed, a charge hung in the room—something between Connolly and Haino that was outside of our comprehension. Before she left, she tried valiantly to put it into words, but it was an impossible task. Still, watching her effort, I started to understand what Tim Kirkland meant when he talked about doing such a good job at tuning pianos that he wanted to cry—with the f-word mixed in, of course.
WHEN I BEGAN THIS INTRODUCTION last week, Ivan Weiss and I were assembling our team in Knoxville to document this year’s Big Ears. The festival—like this series, like Joseph Mitchell’s writing—is a slow boil. None of the artists in the festival’s lineup are chosen because they can draw large crowds; it’s about listening and paying attention. Big Ears asks a lot.
We’re asking you to spend about fifty minutes watching our documentary on the experimental improvisation trio Nazoranai, which was part of the Big Ears lineup last year. Writer Ben Ratliff, who appears in the film, has said that “it’s good for the brain to watch this.” We hope you agree.
AT FIVE-THIRTY P.M. ON FRIDAY, MARCH 27, Big Ears 2015 kicked off in Knoxville. At nearly the same moment, our six months of planning to document the festival began to unravel.
The half dozen keys that unlocked our production headquarters didn’t work—we’d copied the wrong master. A number of the musicians who had happily agreed to interviews were now off-limits; either their managers had decided otherwise or time just didn’t allow it. Laurie Anderson, who we’d intended to focus on, had a delayed flight, and her sound check was cancelled. An interview with Tanya Tagaq came together at the last minute, but who was available to conduct it? Meals for our thirteen documentarians were delivered to our headquarters, but who’d been left with a working key? Tyondai Braxton was scheduled for a lengthy interview, but when it came time to talk, we hadn’t yet seen his show. And when had the wind started blowing so hard? The gusts would ruin the recording of our conversation with Bill Morrison, which was supposed to take place while he walked over to Holly Herndon’s show.
And on and on. Each night or early morning—the distinction quickly lost meaning—we e-mailed tomorrow’s schedule to our team. By the time we woke up, it was already out of date.
On Monday, the team began dispersing—back to Chicago, Portland, Baltimore, New York, and Raleigh-Durham. A couple of us stayed in Knoxville for another night. After dinner, I retired to our apartment in what was once the JFG Coffee plant on Jackson Avenue, with videographers Alex Boerner and Mika Chance. It was the first spare moment we’d had in a week, and we wanted to spend it reviewing the weekend’s footage to see what we’d achieved, what gems we’d managed to capture. It would be the perfect way to spend our last night in Knoxville—a reflective respite to punctuate months of anxious preparation and days of chaos. I began setting up my projector and screen, eager to lay eyes on our hard-earned material.
But I couldn't find the power cord. Where could it be? A laptop wouldn’t do—we needed to see these images on a large screen. Our only choice was to drive from the old coffee plant to the big-box suburbs to scour Walmart or Best Buy, if they were still open. It was already nine.
ALEX BOERNER HAS TWO DECADES of photography experience at newspapers across the country, but in college he trained as a competitive wrestler. His speech measured, with long pauses as he formulates his thoughts. I imagine he was methodical and effective in the ring. I see traces of this in his cinematography: he is exhaustive, diligent, and adventurous.
I asked Alex about his childhood and youth, about some of his earliest visual memories. He responded in his customary manner—calm, measured, and thoughtful, traits that apply to his camera work, too.
I grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, with my two younger siblings—twins born on Valentine’s Day. We spent a lot of time in my dad’s bar, working as cleaners on weekends. We would peel quarters off the floor underneath the bar that had gotten stuck there after sitting for days in spilled beer. We used them to play the arcade games that were in the bar. My favorite was Centipede. One Saturday morning, a man came into the bar still drunk from the night before. He stumbled over to the Centipede game and threw up all over it. He had long, greasy, curly blond hair, and his vomit was backlit by morning light streaming through the windows of the bar. That image is burned into my brain.
My mom was a child-development teacher, and every year she’d have her students over to our house for a party. I saw new faces with each class. It was always a happy event, and I got to see a side of my mom I didn’t see too often—she also moonlighted as a bouncer at the bar. My dad sold the bar when I was eighteen. When I was twenty-two, he had a heart attack and died.
As a kid I devoured the photographs in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that was delivered to our house every morning. I really admired the Tribune’s staff photographers. They were good, and I got to see how strong photojournalists saw some of the things I saw everyday.
In college I learned more about William Albert Allard, a National Geographic photographer and fellow Minnesotan. Allard is a master. Connection, light, color, composition, poetry, interpretation, romanticism—it’s all there. His photos have layers upon layers, and when these layers are woven together, they tell a rich story.
I found an original copy of his book Vanishing Breed in my college library and “forgot” to return it after I graduated. Allard had a book signing once and I brought the book with me. It was in pretty bad shape, well worn, but it still had the library stamp and cardholder glued to the inside cover. He asked me where I got it, and I lied and told him I got it from a library book sale. I didn’t want to tell him I had borrowed it and kept it. Maybe one day I’ll place the book back on the shelf in that library, with the signature and all.
MIKA CHANCE CAN SIT QUIETLY observing a scene for hours, and then suddenly come to life, fluttering her arms and hands as her words flow out in a rush. I met her in graduate school. Though ten years my junior, she was a year ahead of me and often talked me through my projects, asking tough, critical questions and challenging me to think in different ways. She is the ideal little big sister: effervescent but attentive.
As with Alex, I asked Mika about her past and how she saw the world as a kid.
I was always a sensitive kid, with too many thoughts and feelings. I remember being ten or eleven years old and sometimes not being able to fall asleep at night and hearing distant freight trains and feeling so sad and lonely, being the only one awake in our house. I was scared. I felt out of step with the world.
I’ve always had a wandering attention span, too—noticing things on the periphery and thinking really hard about what it all means. When I was fifteen, I took driver’s ed, and my teacher was a weathered Southern woman from the country, in her forties or fifties, a chain smoker. She taught me to have soft eyes, a diffuse focus when driving. She’d say, Don’t focus too much on the car in front of you or you’ll miss the car swerving toward you in the next lane. Pay attention to the whole picture at once. I’m sure she was getting this out of a teacher’s manual—she wasn’t any kind of sage—but it stuck with me. It was the only human part of driver’s ed. The rest was about equipment and signals and techniques.
OUR SEARCH FOR THE PROJECTOR CORD took us to Walmart, where we found a ten-dollar cord that saved our evening. After three days focusing on other people’s experiences while barely registering our own, we could go back in time.
Since Big Ears, Joseph Mitchell’s 1952 New Yorker magazine story “Up in the Old Hotel” has loomed large for me. The story centers on Mitchell’s friendship with Louis Morino, the owner of a bustling seafood restaurant in the Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan. The restaurant is situated on the ground floor of a building that was formerly a hotel, but the upper floors are vacant and have been sealed for decades.
“I’ve rented this building twenty-two years, and I’ve never been above the second floor,” Morino tells Mitchell. “The reason being, that’s as far as the stairs go. After that, you have to get in a queer old elevator and pull yourself up. It’s an old-fashioned hand-power elevator, what they used to call a rope-pull. I wouldn’t be surprised it’s the last of its kind in the city. I don’t understand the machinery of it, the balancing weights and the cables and all that, but the way it’s operated, there’s a big iron wheel at the top of the shaft and the wheel’s got a groove in it, and there’s a rope that hangs down one side of the cage to go up, and you pull on the part that hangs down the other side to go down. Like a dumbwaiter.”
As the two friends talk about the history of the building, they grow curious about what might be in the closed-off floors above. After discussing it for a long time, they step into the rusty lift and go up, pulling themselves by rope.
Up above, they don’t find anything. “There’s nothing in here, only rusty paper clips,” Morino says. A bit later, he adds, “I didn’t learn much I didn’t know before.”
What’s left are the people and things that Mitchell cares about, the deep histories he traces in his work, while searching for a past that never materializes.
IN APRIL OF 1997, I flew from Raleigh-Durham to Tucson for a week of research in the archive of W. Eugene Smith at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. During breaks, I wandered down to CCP’s ground-floor gallery to look at the exhibition of black-and-white prints from Robert Adams’s “West from the Columbia” series. Adams made the photographs with his 4x5 viewfinder near Astoria, Oregon, looking into the Pacific Ocean from the mouth of the Columbia River, the end of Lewis and Clark’s long route, a frontier no longer.
Rivers comfort me, having grown up on one in North Carolina, but I’m puzzled by the competing values, human and natural, evident on their banks, more so than in any other landscape. Those interests drew me to Pittsburgh, an industrial city forged in the nineteenth century on four rivers (I include the Youghiogheny). By the late 1990s, though many of its football field–size steel mills and regal churches were abandoned and had been overtaken by vegetation.
I naively wrote Adams a long letter asking if he would consider collaborating with me on a project on Pittsburgh. I would research archives and collect oral histories; he’d wander the city with his 4 x 5. He responded generously with a letter telling me that if he were two decades younger he’d do it. He recommended that I reach out to Richard Rothman, a 4 x 5 film photographer originally from Philadelphia now based in Brooklyn. Adams said Rothman demonstrated depth, dedication, and skill in evoking the enigmatic relationship between natural and built environments.
I looked up Rothman and liked his meditative, black-and-white photographs depicting nature’s subtle presence in the urban settings. We met and became friends, but our Pittsburgh project never gained traction. My obsession was eventually sated when I attempted to resurrect W. Eugene Smith’s photo-essay on Pittsburgh from the 1950s. Rothman continued carefully crafting his quiet studies of human imprints on landscapes.
THE BIG EARS PROJECT might not have been conceived if the festival weren’t located on the Tennessee River and on the same downtown Knoxville streets as two autobiographical novels: Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree and James Agee’s A Death in the Family. It’s hard to think of another midsize American city documented by two more potent novels. Agee’s book takes place in the 1910s and follows a modest family’s struggle in the wake of the death of its patriarch in a car crash.
In Suttree, McCarthy documents the sweeping and apocalyptic loss of a marginal way of life along the Tennessee in the 1950s, which he experienced firsthand during his youth and early adulthood in Knoxville. The unstoppable human churn, represented by early suburban America, is paving over the rough edges McCarthy wants to preserve:
Where hunters and woodcutters once slept in their boots by the dying light of their thousand fires and went on, old teutonic forebears with eyes incandesced by the visionary light of a massive rapacity, wave on wave of the violent and the insane … mindless and pale with a longing that nothing save dark’s total restitution could appease.
We are come to a world within the world. In these alien reaches, these maugre sinks and interstitial wastes that the righteous see from carriage and car another life dreams. Illshapen or black or deranged, fugitive of all order, strangers in everyland.
In the final pages of the novel, freeways are in the process of being constructed over the banks of the sludgy river, where now only bottom-feeding catfish and carp can survive. It’s the onset of urban renewal, which was then occurring, disastrously, all across America.
Taken together, Agee’s and McCarthy’s books span the first half of the so-called American century, from the rise of automobiles to the beginning of suburban flight and urban downtown decay. Today, many downtown areas are experiencing a revitalization, especially in small and mid-size Southern cities—including Knoxville.
When I met Rothman, in 1997, he was working on a decade-long series of large-format film studies of urban landscapes around New York City, mostly in the outer boroughs, places where he found an evolutionary struggle between concrete and plant life. His New York work was the first part of what became a trilogy. The second and third parts, made over the past two decades, concern a faded logging town in northern California (resulting in his 2012 book, Redwood Saw) and a small Colorado community dominated by a federal-prison complex (he won a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship to complete this part). Early in his career, Rothman had been involved in music. One of his first jobs after moving to New York from Philadelphia was working as Laurie Anderson’s assistant. He also photographed Miles Davis and others before turning to landscapes.
In the months after last year’s Big Ears, as we digested materials from our first attempt to document the festival, we looked ahead to our return to Big Ears this year, with an eye toward expanding our documentary team. We wanted, for instance, more material about the landscape and geography of Knoxville in order to more firmly root the festival in its setting. I thought of Rothman, and we asked him to join us. The only assignment we gave him was to read Suttree.
ROTHMAN SPENT TWO WEEKS last March exploring Knoxville and the surrounding Smoky Mountains for twelve to fifteen hours a day, accompanied by an assistant from New York and a tour guide, a resourceful staffer for the local tourism board.
“One of the first things you notice about Knoxville,” Rothman told me, “is how many highways crisscross through it. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which employed Cormac McCarthy’s father, I learned, was dispossessing tens of thousands of people from their homes, without the benefit of judicial review, to make way for the highway system. So it’s not surprising that McCarthy was drawn to exercise his imaginative powers on a cast of marginalized, mostly doomed characters relegated to squatting in the odd, unoccupied pockets of space along the Tennessee River waterfront.”
When Rothman and I first met, we discovered a shared fondness for Joseph Mitchell, so his response to Suttree didn’t surprise me. Mitchell’s collection, The Bottom of the Harbor was published in 1959, roughly the same year McCarthy began working on Suttree, which could also have been titled “The Bottom of the River.”
It’s not hard to imagine McCarthy reading Mitchell’s work when it was originally published in The New Yorker. His father was an attorney for the TVA, and his two older sisters were editors of their high school newspaper; well-to-do and literate, McCarthy’s family could have subscribed to The New Yorker in the forties, when McCarthy was a teenager, or, at least, they might have read it in libraries, in waiting rooms, or at school. (I could be projecting here: when I was in public high school in eastern North Carolina in the eighties, our English and journalism teacher assigned us to read The New Yorker each week.)
Given that death is the central theme of his adult writings, McCarthy in his youth might have gravitated to Mitchell’s relentless obsession with loss, an element of Mitchell’s work perhaps disguised by his beautiful, plain prose and comic hints of nostalgia. Contemporary novelists bored by Mitchell’s sympathetic treatments of fishermen and other obscure characters might be more satisfied by McCarthy’s fictional derelicts, suicidal drunks, thieves, and watermelon humpers. In any case, it’s the same cast portrayed in the same postwar era, when culture at large is eager to leap toward the future and erase the recent past.
Mitchell’s renowned exercise of wandering the back alleys looking for stories was the same method McCarthy used for Suttree. Knoxville psychologist and historian Wes Morgan has produced extensive research indicating that Suttree’s characters are substantially based on people McCarthy knew. One character’s real name and phone number were published in the novel.
Suttree is also the one novel by McCarthy that employs Mitchell-esque “graveyard humor” to describe human foibles: The hapless watermelon humper tries to rob a bank by digging a tunnel underneath Knoxville’s downtown, beginning on a river cliff, under a viaduct, where he makes a home. He digs and digs and digs, intending to emerge through the floor of the mighty vault, only to find his way blocked by a creeping wall of sewage seeping from a broken main. The biological lesson is clear: no matter one’s economic striving and efforts of consuming, the only sure outcome is fecal.
Encouraged by a mutual associate, I wrote McCarthy two letters earlier this year. I mailed them to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he’s lived for the past couple of decades, rarely returning to Knoxville. I asked him if he’d read Mitchell during his formative years. I also asked if he is aware of the Big Ears festival, and, if so, what it means to him for the nation’s most challenging music festival to be located in his hometown. Some of the musicians featured in Big Ears are as marginal to modern show business as his Suttree characters are to suburbia.
Not surprisingly, he didn’t respond. He’s only ever granted two interviews.
THE FIRST NIGHT of Big Ears weekend, at the Square Room, a standing-only venue in Knoxville’s Market Square, Rothman found himself drawn to a solitary woman in the audience of a performance by Steve Gunn, the guitarist whose band can sound like a jazz quartet, a minimalist chamber ensemble, a jam band, or a bluegrass band, often in the same song and all drenched in hypnotic, cyclical Indian raga.
“She was unaccompanied and about four rows back from the stage,” Rothman explained. “I could see exceptional intensity in her face, in her listening experience. She was more focused on the music than the usual person, than just about anyone else in the room. She gave me a lovely smile, and she didn’t turn away when I took her picture from a couple of feet away. I took one shot of her with a flash, then I moved on.”
He continued: “I didn’t know she was a musician until the next night when she was performing as Grouper in the same room. I realized that she was the woman I had photographed who stood out in the crowd. She was the woman transfixed by Gunn’s music. I could tell I was in the presence of an uncompromising artist. She was sitting on the floor toward the back of the stage in almost total darkness. She was focused inward, as much as anyone can be while performing in front of a couple hundred people. She had made it nearly impossible to photograph her.”
Liz Harris performs solo and releases albums as Grouper. Before Big Ears, she politely and persistently declined our overtures for an interview, one of the few musicians in the festival to do so. Online evidence indicates she’s only done a few interviews in her career, all apparently by e-mail.
Harris’s Web site is repeatingpattern.com and it features her visual art—mazelike, black-and-white designs indicative of the Web site’s name and of her music. She meshes guitar, piano, vocals, and electronic loops to create sound that is somehow loud, engrossing, simple, and quiet at the same time. Her latest album is titled Ruins, inspired by her residency in a coastal area of Portugual where abandoned buildings marked her daily walk to the ocean. The repeating swells of her music evoke ocean waves lapping onto shore.
Her music fits into a deep yet relatively obscure contemporary tradition well represented at Big Ears—music that can be described as atmospheric, enveloping, droning, repetitive, hypnotic; music that ends where it begins, that could go on for a long time, more meditation than pursuit. In one of her few interviews, Harris revealed that she once played a set in Europe that lasted eight hours.
A few weeks after Big Ears, Rothman e-mailed me a photograph he’d taken at the festival of Harris onstage. I asked him if he could describe the mood in the room during her performance and this document of it.
It was as though she had placed a veil between herself and the audience, but one that only served to draw them in and give her a heightened level of attention. The lyrics she offered up were as illegible as tombstones polished by time and the elements. The words, or what could be made of them, seemed to be shrouded in shadows—just as she was—while filmy guitar loops decayed into richly modulated, shifting patterns that oscillated between the technological and the human.
I also asked if he’d drawn any connections between his photographs of the festival and his landscapes made around Knoxville and in the surrounding mountains. His reply was enigmatic and apt:
Far away from the city lights, on the night of a full moon, things are half revealed or revealed in shadows. Just as the loss of our great forests reveals the shadow that hangs over our times, so this music reveals neither joy or sorrow, but rather a solitary attempt to summon a dark rapture from melancholy.
Sometimes documentary work—the process, not the finished products—can be uncanny and beautiful, and a bit intoxicating. A line from Grouper’s album AIA says it best: “Alien observer / In a world that isn’t mine.” Those qualities revealed themselves to me again recently while working on this chapter, when I realized that Robert Adams, age seventy-eight, and Liz Harris, in her midthirties, both reside in Astoria, Oregon, population 9,500, the end of Lewis and Clark’s trail.
LEXINGTON, VIRGINIA, is a small town tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains that is home to around seven thousand people. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are buried there: Lee in a mausoleum on the grounds of the Virginia Military Institute, and Jackson in the center of a tree-filled cemetery that bears his name, three blocks from downtown. Old Virginian chivalry, grandeur, and discipline are condensed in this tiny mountain cradle, partly preserved by the two universities adjoined on a hilltop in the center of town—Washington & Lee and the Virginia Military Institute, or W&L and VMI, as they are known; Athens and Sparta, one might also say. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century architecture—Greek revival and Queen Anne—prevails in the central part of town. Even the most modest structures—whether residential, commercial, or institutional—are fronted by venerable columns.
Cy Twombly was born in Lexington in 1928. He grew up four blocks from Stonewall Jackson’s grave. His boyhood home on Edmonson Avenue feels apart from Lexington’s heritage, even though it’s only a short walk from the town center. It is a sturdy, efficient, two-story middle-class house, similar, if not identical, to other houses on the block. The house would have been relatively new when Twombly was growing up there in the thirties and forties. When he wandered the gridded blocks toward downtown as a boy, he must have felt as though each step was a step back in time.
Despite Twombly’s extensive travels as an adult—calling him nomadic wouldn’t be a stretch—Lexington remained for him one of two grounding points. The other was Italy. He spent half of each year of his last two decades living in a house five blocks away from his childhood home, on a more regal street, even closer to the cemetery, where both of his parents were buried. He also kept a storefront studio a block away. He spent summers and winters in Gaeta, Italy, a seaside city between Rome and Naples. Twombly was at home when removed from the tedious details and expectations of mainstream life, both ordinary and those of the high-end art world. Oddly, and perfectly, his hometown offered the requisite distance for him, and increasingly so as he aged, with the help of a salaried local who ran errands and did his driving.
There are relatively few traces of Twombly in Lexington today, mostly just memories. He was a familiar sight around town; he ate at the same pub and diner every day. A waitress named Carole, who has worked at the diner for thirty-five years, fondly remembers the “Cy special”— two poached eggs, grits, and an English muffin with his favorite marmalade.
A BASIC PROBLEM of biography is that a subject’s formative years are the least documented and the least available. Twombly is no different; the boy and young man are difficult to find, difficult to feel. W&L’s library maintains a file on him, even though he matriculated there for only a year, but it provides little new information. The file includes a registration form from September 1949, and in the “Studies Section” of the form, there are checks next to English and fine arts. When asked to specify which degree he was working toward, the word no is entered, as if he knew a college diploma would be of little use on his eventual journey. Or, perhaps as an entering freshman, he simply wasn’t far enough along. In any case, he left school after one year.
In his high school yearbook photo, he resembles a young T.S. Eliot: slim build; short, tidy hair with a far-left part; sizable ears bent outward. His face is long, smooth, almost pretty. He has the clean-cut look of an eager member of the student government—charismatic but not exceptional. The description that accompanies the photograph draws a different picture: “Tall, dark, and very outstanding—Cy is really one of the boys. He’s the only one of our class to have gained state-wide recognition (with his educated brush). Unlike many of us, he’s often seen with some weighty volume on a deep subject, and is well acquainted with the best in music—long-hair stuff, see? We know we’ll have even more reason to be proud of you, Cy.”
W&L’s archives also contain information on his father, Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly Sr., who was as a legendary swimming and golf coach and the school’s athletic-department director for fifty-three years. The elder Cy made a more tangible impact locally; the Cy Twombly Memorial Pool is named after him, not his famous son.
Twombly’s parents weren’t Southern by birth. They were originally from New England, his mother from Maine, his father from Massachusetts. Cy Sr. eventually took a job in the athletic department at W&L, and the Southern roots quickly went deep, especially for the younger Cy. In a 1983 interview with W&L’s alumni magazine, Twombly says, “It all came from here. All those columns. There are many, many things I never would have done if I’d been born somewhere else.”
TWOMBLY TOLD Sir Nicholas Serota, director of London’s Tate Modern, in a 2007 interview, “Virginia made me very Southern in a way. They say that they are not creative in the South, but it's a little rare mentality, it produces writers like a hothouse … Faulkner, for example but also Tennessee Williams and others. And it's a literary tradition that I admire, it's totally different from paintings. So in Lexington I always meet professors who hold classes, and someone from Charlottesville said, 'What are you doing, a painter in academia?' I never really separated painting and literature because I've always used reference.”
In a 2008 catalogue for a retrospective of Twombly’s work, artist and filmmaker Tacita Dean compares his art to James Joyce’s manuscripts for Finnegans Wake, which she viewed frequently in the British Library while she was a student:
The pages were very scored out in red pencil, with horizontal lines and crosses, and were ineffably beautiful and completely visual. I imagined beginning my lecture with a slide of a page from one of these manuscripts. Joyce had very bad eyesight and was, in fact, almost blind. He would turn over his notebooks and unknowingly write over pages he had already written on, often making them indecipherable. I learned from Roland Barthes that Twombly had been in the army and was used to drawing at night when he couldn’t see the page: drawing over drawing in the darkness …
This is how I imagine Twombly working: trance-like concentration with his pencils and crayons lined up and ready, and with his tubes of paint, advancing to make preliminaries, retreating, advancing again to make progress by undoing, and then retreating; not allowing himself to break off the connection but working towards the moment of contact: his actual encounter with the great god Mars, or gentle Apollo, god to all poets.
In her 2011 film, Edwin Parker, Dean documented Twombly in Lexington only nine months before his death. In an essay accompanying the film, she wrote,
For Cy, painting is pure behavior and that’s why he doesn’t talk about it. I asked him if he worked in spurts and he replied that he wasn’t “nine to five.” He is an artist blessed with pictorial instinct and with a true ability to work beneath his conscious level, and that is rare. Much of his working time is spent getting to this point. There is no preparation, or rather his preparation is sedentary, spent reading and reflecting and being.
At one point in Dean’s twenty-nine-minute film, Twombly is seen holding the book Posthumous Keats by Stanley Plumly and telling someone off-camera about his impressions of it. He mentions that Keats sought Italy’s climate in a failed attempt to cure his consumption. “He was brought from Naples in a carriage ride to Rome,” Twombly can be heard muttering. The carriage went so slowly that Keats’s friends walked beside it gathering flowers. “[They] stuffed all kinds of flowers in the carriage with this dying creature,” Twombly says
Keats died in Rome in 1821 at age twenty-five. Twombly died in Rome in 2011 at age eighty-three, having made a home there long before he got sick.
TWOMBLY CREATED HIS EPIC PAINTING, Treatise on the Veil (Second Version) and its dozen studies (drawings made into collages) in his studio in Rome in 1970, during a time of severe social chaos in America. After the Civil War, the year 1970 is perhaps the most conflicted period in American history. By May of that year, casualties in Vietnam totaled 50,067 dead and 278,006 wounded; Nixon invaded Cambodia. During protests that same month, four students were killed at Kent State, two African Americans at Jackson State, and six African Americans in Augusta, Georgia. National Guard troops wounded sixty-five others during demonstrations at the University of New Mexico, at the University of Ohio, and in Buffalo, New York—all in May of that year.
On May 26 and 27, Twombly was in Rome working on his studies for the Treatise. We know the precise dates because he stamped them on the drawings. On several studies he also jotted the phrase “4000 miles,” which wouldn’t be a bad estimate of the distance across the Atlantic to his troubled homeland. But like all of his cryptic scrawling, we’re left only to surmise its meaning. We know his method consisted of long stretches—days, weeks, months—of thinking brought to a sudden end by an eruption of painting, with the new work completed, start to finish, in a day or two.
IN SALLY MANN'S NEW MEMOIR, Hold Still, she quotes Twombly as saying, “Virginia is a good start for Italy.” The two places were connected in Twombly’s mind by palpable histories, including a sense both of tragedy and of mythology. In her memoir, Mann quotes a passage from British historian John Keegan, who compares the defeated qualities of Europe to the American South: “Pain is a dimension of old civilizations. The South has it. The rest of the United States does not.”
Mann was born in Lexington in 1951 and has lived there ever since. Her parents met Twombly when he was fourteen, and he gave them a sculpture when he was a senior in high school, in 1946. Later, Twombly and Mann became friends, and peers to some degree, linked by personal history and a creative fever. Mann devotes twenty-three pages of her memoir to Twombly and connects him to their shared culture and landscape in deliberate and sometimes surprising ways, including this description of a vista Twombly sought over and over again:
On pretty days, he would sometimes ask to be driven to the Walmart store, built on a commanding hilltop, where he would sit out on the benches by the exit doors and watch the spectacle of shoppers and the sun rays sweeping across the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. The light and mountains, the breezes and the green of the mayapples, the warmth of the sun finally soaking into the earth and into his sometimes painful bones—being in Virginia gave him great sensual joy.
Last December, we found another vantage that Twombly visited repeatedly. Colonel Robert McDonald, a professor of English and the associate dean of academic affairs at the Virginia Military Institute, often accompanied him on his visits to the military parade grounds on Friday afternoons. McDonald said Twombly returned to the same corner of the grounds each time, gazing westward over the organized, fluid movements of the marching cadets toward House Mountain and the sky behind it: “Cy said to me, more than once, that he’d been all over the world, but the VMI parade ground—surrounded by all this neo-Gothic architecture, including the barracks, and with House Mountain in the distance—was near the top of the most beautiful places he knew. It was always hard for me to process that, but he clearly meant it.”
FROM 2004 TO 2009, the contemporary German composer Matthias Pintscher composed a suite for strings, Study I–IV for Treatise on the Veil, inspired by Twombly’s work. About this project Pintscher wrote, “‘Veil’ is a term that, when used with an audio or visual reference has multiple meanings—and these are particularly welcome when listening to this piece of music … Amongst other things, the process of veiling/unveiling are achieved by the preparation of the instruments, thus prising open the actual audible result of articulation and having it appear in a ‘different quality.’” By preparation, Pintscher means requiring the musicians to install ordinary paper clips on their strings.
"Cy Twombly: Treatise on the Veil" was recently on view at the Morgan Library. The exhibition featured Twombly’s dozen studies for the second version of Treatise (the first was created two years earlier, in 1968) and the painting itself, which stretched thirty-three feet across the back wall of the gallery. Partly because of its size, the painting hadn’t been displayed in New York City in three decades. The Morgan asked the JACK Quartet to perform Pintscher’s suite in the gallery, with Treatise as backdrop.
We were first told about the JACK Quartet by Lauren Radnofsky, the cellist and director of Ensemble Signal, which we documented rehearsing and performing Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as the centerpiece of Big Ears 2014. Radnofsky studied with the members of the JACK at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. She described them as putting on “clear and precise and amazing performances of incredibly difficult contemporary music.”
The JACK has worked closely with Pintscher on the Studies for Treatise on the Veil, and Study IV was included on the cover of the JACK’s most recent album. But the group had never been in the same room as the painting. “It surprised me how much the painting influenced my experience,” John Pickford Richards, the JACK’s current director and violist, told us during the hour break between the two performances at the Morgan. “I found that having the painting right there, so close I could touch it, really fed me more than I expected it would. The music requires so much concentration, and I felt that the painting was giving me concentration while we were playing.“
He said he tried to empty his mind and not to think too much, but, he added, “one thing I think about a lot is Matthias’s perspective, observing how he observed the painting. I’m responding to someone else’s response to something that’s really beautiful. It’s like this daisy chain of beautiful responses.”
I FIRST MET PHOTOGRAPHER KATE JOYCE in 2003, at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. Just out of college at San Francisco State University, she was there on a year-long Lewis Hine Fellowship. I had already been there several years researching the photographer W. Eugene Smith and directing the Jazz Loft Project. Joyce and I sometimes passed each other in the hallway.
We didn’t really meet until 2010, when Joyce and her partner, the bassist Anton Hatwich, attended a Jazz Loft Project event in Chicago, where they live. Three months later, we learned by happenstance that we were both in New York City. I was having breakfast at Spoon on West 20th Street, waiting to meet the artist Mary Frank to discuss Smith (Mary and her ex-husband, Robert Frank, had known Smith well), and Joyce was only a few blocks away. I invited her to meet me at Frank’s studio. Bring your camera, I suggested, needlessly.
That afternoon was the beginning of a collaboration that has continued for five years. In 2011, Joyce met me in Wichita, Kansas, to walk in the footsteps of Smith in his hometown and in the tiny farm town of Severy, where his grandparents had lived, fifty miles due east of Wichita. I wasn’t sure what a fine-art photographer could add to my research until one day when we were wandering around the Catholic church where Smith had been an altar boy in the twenties. I muttered the question that haunts biographers who have little access to a subject’s critical formative years: “What can we find here today that’s relevant to Smith’s childhood?”
Joyce paused, then said, in her casual low-toned voice, “The shadows would be the same.”
KATE JOYCE WAS BORN in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and graduated from high school there in 1998. Her father is a sculptor and a blacksmith, her mother and sister both former professional dancers. Handcraft and movement were daily parts of her childhood and are elements that show in her work today.
I’m struck by something I once heard Meredith Monk talk about on WQXR’s Meet the Composer—that music is movement. I can’t do my work without a lot of movement of my own body, from one place to another, usually by walking. Taking one step after the next affects what and how I see. There’s something really calming about that. I need the world to complete my imagination.
As a child, Joyce wanted to be a detective, and she maintained file folders of hypothetical cases. Today, her instincts for investigation are relentless, except that instead of files, she gathers images—a different kind of evidence, one that doesn’t tend to resolve questions.
Her inquisitive methods were put to exhaustive use in our recent Bull City Summer project, in which a team of artists converged on the Durham Bulls Athletic Park to document the AAA baseball team’s 2013 season. For some sixty games, Joyce arrived at the ballpark as early as noon and often stayed until after midnight. She found sights no sports photographer would: looking down into the bottoms of seat-back cupholders during rain delays, bubble-gum wrappers folded by bored bullpen pitchers into “lawn darts” and javelined into the outfield grass, the indentations on the outfield wall left by line drives—all relics of an iconic American space that usually go unnoticed, even by people who have worked at the park for decades.
In 2014 and 2015, Joyce was part of our documentary team at the Big Ears festival in Knoxville. Rehearsals and performances, loading and unloading, stages and streets—more iconic and routine spaces and moments, all fertile ground for Joyce to dig and sift through, finding things journalists wouldn’t.
It’s the periphery that draws me in. I don’t attend music festivals or baseball games on my own time, so for both of these projects, I didn’t really know where to start. I began doing laps around the center—the center being the concerts or ballgames. In Knoxville, I would walk out of my hotel lobby, follow roads away from downtown for several miles, and then double back on the same roads. I also walked from theater to theater, backstage to backstage, repeating this lap several times as the day went on. For Bull City Summer, I saw the stadium as a microtown and also cycled between batting practice in the early afternoon, the bullpen, press box, and dugout during the game, and the stands and outfield afterward, when ground and custodial crews took over. This constant movement can be dizzying, but it seems to keep me centered and my senses open. Familiarity is constantly being upturned.
WE’VE DOCUMENTED JONNY GREENWOOD twice now as part of “Big, Bent Ears,” originally at the festival in Knoxville and later in New York City. He is probably the most famous musician performing at Big Ears, although his most famous music isn’t the reason he’s there, nor is it the basis for our interest in him. I’ve long felt that Radiohead blends disparate musical forms—pop, rock, folk, jazz, classical—more effectively and infectiously than any band, but Greenwood’s classical music intrigues me more. His score for the 2010 film Norwegian Wood, based on the novel by Haruki Murakami and set in 1960s Tokyo, was my most-played album for two consecutive years.
Nonesuch released the sound track on March 8, 2011, three days before the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. I had left Japan on March 10, having just finished three emotional weeks walking in Eugene Smith’s footsteps in Tokyo, Okinawa, and in the fishing village of Minamata, and had flown from there to the nearby tropical island of Saipan. On Friday March 11, I was swimming off the former invasion beach, where fifty thousand U.S. forces had come ashore during the second week of June in 1944 (a battle photographed by Smith), when a man with a bullhorn emerged and bellowed, “Earthquake in Japan. Tsunami coming. Please get out of the water. Earthquake in Japan. Tsunami coming. Please get out of the water.”
We were ordered to evacuate to the upper floors of our hotel. Everyone was hysterical. I considered putting on my running shoes and jogging up into the nearby mountains. I walked swiftly to the hotel’s laundry room (I’d put two loads in the drier before swimming), where I noticed several Saipan locals who didn’t seem the least bit worried. I inquired. “The water around this island is so deep, it absorbs all tsunamis. Not a problem.” Feeling better, I put on dry clothes, assembled my computer and valuables in my backpack, and took the stairs, as ordered, to the upper floors, where a large group of Russians were wearing orange life preservers (nobody knew where they’d gotten them).
The tragedy in Japan forced the cancellation of my intended trip to Iwo Jima (Smith photographed combat there, too), and instead I made my way home to North Carolina. I felt beset by myriad unfamiliar emotions, not least, concern for my interpreter in Japan, a nineteen-year-old Japanese-British woman taking a year off before college; her parents were stranded outside the country, and she was at home in Yokohama alone during the nuclear scare following the disaster.
Back in North Carolina, I read Murakami’s novel, a tale of suicide and a left-behind best friend torn between two lovers and between Tokyo’s past and future. I also bought the Norwegian Wood sound track. Greenwood’s beautifully tormented mix of classical and modern sounds—made with traditional strings, his solo guitar, and the experimental rock band, CAN, and infused with moody spirals of melancholy and dream—moved me like no other music during this pivotal time in my life.
Three years later, at Big Ears 2014, the Wordless Music Orchestra played selections of his that score, with Greenwood present.
IN THE LEAD-UP TO OUR INTERVIEW with Jonny Greenwood in Knoxville, his manager told us that Greenwood rarely agreed to interviews on camera and that our penciled-in meeting might not happen at all; he was scheduled to play Steve Reich’s difficult “Electric Counterpoint” during the climactic Sunday-night concert at the Tennessee Theater, and if he wasn’t feeling confident about the piece, he might need that time to practice.
Late in the afternoon, I saw Greenwood in a backstage hallway and he said he’d be ready in fifteen minutes. We scrambled. Who on our team was free? Which room was available?
In a move curious in hindsight (we aren’t entirely sure how it came about), we had Kate Joyce shoot video. She’d been shooting stills, her preference, all week. We set up quickly in the same room where Greenwood had rehearsed all day with the Wordless Music Orchestra. Joyce set up a shot in which Greenwood was hidden in near silhouette.
She later thought back on that moment:
That shot just happened. I hadn’t thought about it before we started setting up. I remember as a kid watching shows like 60 Minutes when they’d darken the faces of interview subjects to protect their identity. It’s a weird technique—it creates a mysterious unease, almost inviting you to lean in and listen.
But more important, I was looking for a way to bring the outside in, to invite the street into the room. The way we framed that shot was to have Greenwood sit nearly in front of a window and focus the camera lens through the window on the exterior. I had spent so much time walking around Knoxville, photographing scenes around town. I wanted to see if there was a way to combine the street with the interview. I remember when the interview was over being disappointed that more things didn’t happen outside the window.
I prepare a great deal for interviews but don’t form a list of questions. I tend to feel my way through, the interview never really being done, if I can help it, until the subject cuts it off. It’s a method that might frustrate some (the writer Nat Hentoff once seethed with impatience and then anger at me), but it’s also a method that is capable of rendering things no script could. Yet when Greenwood sat down before us, I immediately wished I’d prepared a few questions. I was a bit undone by my respect for his music and his shyness.
The interview went for about a half hour. Greenwood left to prepare for his concert that night. We packed up our equipment, not sure what we had achieved.
I forgot to ask him about Norwegian Wood.
WE HAVE WORKED WITH the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) in Raleigh for the past couple years, first with the “Bull City Summer” project and now with an experimental, installation version of “Big, Bent Ears” on view until the end of the year. CAM welcomes our philosophy that nothing is ever finished, everything evolving.
Joyce arranged three sequences of images at CAM from her two years in and around Big Ears. We asked her to describe her logic behind one of them.
The sequence is sandwiched by an image of a man sanding a piece of marble outside and an image of light bouncing down a stairwell with an out-of-focus woman in the foreground. These two photographs are in tension.
You can read the sequence in either direction, but I’ll start at the left and work right. In the opening image of the man working, his gesture is one of labor and effort and exhaustion. The draping of his shirt is really interesting to me. I like the yard he’s working in—the house is ramshackle and there’s a large tree in the center, and a TV set on the ground, surrounded by scraps of marble in the grass. I later learned that the man is a third-generation gravestone and marble cutter, recently returned to Knoxville to help his ailing father with the family business.
This year at Big Ears I kept an eye out for things around Knoxville that felt like a rhythm, that were pattern based. I was thinking about some of the electronic music we’ve been listening to from the festival’s lineup, or even just notes on a page and what those markings represent. This image of the tulips was an impulsive shot along those lines. I was responding to a pattern of naked ground and groomed beauty.
A portion of the music at Big Ears is difficult—it grinds and grates and challenges the listener—maybe that smashed flower is the dissonance. There was an attempt at perfection and beauty by planting these tulips, but then someone or some dog came along and stepped on one of the flowers and now we have an irritant. The irritant, as my friend and sculptor John Massee calls it, highlights everything pleasing around it. A lot of viewers may not even see the smashed flower. I like that.
The next image is high contrast, a picture of a generic lion statue (one of two that flank the doors of our hotel). It’s a study in light and shadow. The lion is staring straight at the camera, or I guess really I’m staring straight at the lion. It’s cement, so it can only confront in the imagination. This image helps still the momentum of the sequence. It stops us. The tulip photograph is minimal, but your eyes are bouncing around all the dots and shadows and orange tulips and green leaves. The lion is a pause. Also, to be acknowledged by a statue, rather than a human or live animal, is fun, like something from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The deep shadow below the lion leads our eye down to the next image in the sequence, a picture of tape on a stage floor. The tape is different fluorescent colors, marking where different instruments and stands should be placed. This is another study in pattern, but also a picture about the nuts and bolts of the performance trade. This is how tUnEyArDs laid out her position on stage, the tape indicating where to place her keyboard and drums and mic. It also looks like a constellation or a video game or a dashboard console. It’s very simple.
In the next image, we go back outside, to a spot in the road a few miles down from the man polishing marble. I like the momentum of the Buick that’s lurching into the left corner of the composition. And we’re also looking over the lurching car at a driveway of more cars—a Suburban, a white muscle car, something vintage under a tarp on a trailer. It’s set in the woods. There’s a swing set between all the cars. This picture says we’re in America.
The Buick is moving through the frame from left to right, and that moves our eye into the final photograph of the sequence, to the woman who is out of focus in front of, reflected light from a stained-glass window in the stairwell at the Westwood, a historic home that now houses Knox Heritage, the city’s main history center.
The woman, a docent at the Westwood, is staring straight into the camera, but she’s not really the subject of the photograph. It’s not a portrait of her. I was only interested in the light in the stairwell, but when she popped into the camera frame, she created a welcome visual tension. She was intent on being a good docent, but I was thinking something like, Leave me alone. All I want to do is photograph this light. She wouldn’t go away, then it kind of worked out.
Our instinct is to look at the human in any photograph, but my focus is pointing us elsewhere. I liked thinking about all the sunlight that has passed through those stained-glass windows (the Westwood was built in 1890). This picture also relates back to the lion. The blurred docent feels similar. She’s looking at us and she stops the sequence to give us a moment of self-reflection.
I don’t know what all of this has to do with Big Ears. But it does. We just say it does. Maybe it should be called “Making Imagery Under the Influence of Big Ears,” because these pictures would not exist without that framework.
A FEW MONTHS AFTER BIG EARS 2014, Ivan Weiss, Kate Joyce, and I met Greenwood again in New York City. He was in town to perform his score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood with a fifty-piece version of the Wordless Music Orchestra. Greenwood requested that we omit the camera during this interview. “It just makes everyone happier,” he said. We talked for nearly an hour.
By now it’s clear to us that Greenwood is an accidental rock star; he shuns the spotlight and is bemused by all forms of iconography. In videos of Radiohead performing on, say, Saturday Night Live, it’s often hard to find Greenwood; he’s kneeling down with his back to the audience and cameras, finessing electronics, never standing at the front of the stage shredding on guitar, which clearly he could do if he desired. Radiohead’s collective approach suits him. He also loves writing music for relatively anonymous classical musicians.
Beginning this work, I have to get over an emotional hurdle that comes from romanticizing a situation as an outsider. Within that romanticism I end up alienating myself. At Big Ears I experience a particular kind of loneliness as I’m making work around the world of musicians (or ballplayers, in the case of “Bull City Summer”). It’s a tight-knit world, and I’m closed off from it, even though I’m physically given a lot of access. I see camaraderie between the musicians that’s not accessible to me, nor should it be. I struggle with how to make work in a space of intimacy that I’m not part of. And yet, it’s this feeling of alienation that seems to prove most fruitful. Even though it’s lonely, I’m comfortable with strangers in strange places. And yet, it’s this feeling of alienation that seems to prove most fruitful. Even though it’s lonely, I’m comfortable being a stranger in strange places.
AT THE BIG EARS FESTIVAL in March of 2014, we almost didn’t meet Oren Ambarchi. On the eve of his thirty-plus-hour trip from Melbourne to Knoxville, his visa request was rejected. The North American premier of his sound trio Nazoranai (with Keiji Haino and Stephen O’Malley) almost didn’t take place. Our film about the band almost didn’t get made (or become chapter four of this series). At the last moment, the visa came through. Rumor has it, it took an act of Congress, or an act of God.
We met Tyondai Braxton at Big Ears a year later, where his installation HIVE ran for three nights. Originally, it was to be housed in the Knoxville Museum of Art, but a week before the festival, Braxton saw the space: windows everywhere, it was too bright; HIVE requires a cavernous atmosphere. Braxton’s manager, Brian Hultgren, took a deep breath and called Big Ears director Ashley Capps. Although it would upend the festival’s lineup, Capps didn’t flinch—he relocated HIVE to another venue, an old factory now called the Standard, which overlooks the city’s central train tracks.
As the dust settled on Big Ears 2015, I learned that both Ambarchi and Braxton—who don’t seem to know one another—had shows in New York in June. Was it chance or fate? Inspired by the train tracks in Knoxville, I jumped on Amtrak—the 80 Carolinian—from Durham to Penn Station. The final three chapters of Big, Bent Ears comprise my experiences with Braxton, Ambarchi, their collaborators, and even the train itself.
ON JUNE 28, ISSUE Project Room, a nonprofit that brings a wide variety of experimental music to New York, put on a concert at Pioneer Works, a factory-turned-artist-center in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The space is soaring, cathedral-like. It was a cool summer night, and people chatted in the garden outside. Around sunset, Ambarchi, the opening act, went onstage. He sat at a small table overwhelmed by wires and electronic gear and cradled a beat-up electric guitar. Despite the elaborate assemblage of equipment, he took up almost no space in the massive room.
The headlining act—a mix of musicians from indie-rock bands performing as Little Black Egg Big Band—came on an hour later. Their performance felt loose and casual, like an extended jam session in which anyone could participate. Ian Kaplan of Yo La Tengo played guitar sitting on the floor. The jazz-infused interplay contrasted with the austere, subtly shifting tones of the solo performance. I was filming from the second-floor balcony, where the difference in the audience’s reactions was striking. Throughout the opening set, the audience maintained a distance of about ten feet from the stage—drawn to the music but not daring to get too close. When Little Black Egg Big Band came on, that gap disappeared.
“I was opening for a popular rock band, and I knew the audience was primarily there for them,” Oren Ambarchi said the next day. “There’s always that thought at the beginning, where you hear the chatter and you think, Am I going to be pushing shit up hill? There may be only one person talking but it feels that the whole room’s talking. But the more I do this, the more I say to myself, Be patient. Be relaxed and try and get into the state where you can just do your thing, and hopefully people come to you.”
“WHEN I FIRST MOVED to New York, I was playing all these shows where I would sit on the floor,” Tyondai Braxton said. “A guy came up to me one day and said, ‘Man, every time I come to see you, I can’t see you. People stand in front of me, and it’s just sounds. Someone should build you a platform.’ I did another show maybe a month later, and the same guy showed up. His name was Uffe. I extended my hand to shake his, and he handed me schematics for a pod.”
Soon thereafter, Braxton got a grant to have Uffe construct a pod, and he proceeded to perform his solo shows on it. Years later he assembled a five-person ensemble for an ongoing installation he calls HIVE. It incorporates three live percussionists and two on electronics, including Braxton himself—all of whom sit perched atop Uffe’s pods. The project premiered at the Guggenheim Museum in 2013, and Braxton refined the music over the next two years. First and foremost a live experience, the project also resulted in an album, HIVE1, released on Nonesuch Records in March 2015.
For most of his life, Braxton has straddled the line between classical and rock. As a kid, he played clarinet. As a teenager, he picked up the electric guitar. In college, he studied classical composition. He played in the experimental rock band Battles for almost a decade. In 2008, he returned to solo work with an orchestral album, Central Market.
“In orchestral music, you have a level of nuance that’s important and very exciting, but the scale, the spectrum of dynamic power and intensity, is a lot more subdued. I do really love nuance. I want the music to go almost to nothing sometimes. I want negative space, but it doesn’t need to be relentless. One thing rock music gave me is a sense of having real power.
“Probably the best performance I’ve seen in the last four or five years was the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra do a piece by Edgard Varèse at Carnegie Hall. Varèse is my man, I just love this guy. They did ‘Amériques’—it’s for a 120-person orchestra—and they played it like they were at fucking CBGB’s. It was the last piece on the bill, and it made everything else sound so polite and dainty and refined.”
ALTHOUGH HE IS BASED in Melbourne, Ambarchi spends most of his time bouncing around the world, performing composed or improvisational works alone or with an ever-changing roster of collaborators. “I’m traveling all the time,” he says. “I’m constantly going through security and customs, and carrying heavy stuff. It’s really exhausting, but it’s exhilarating, too. When I arrive in a new place and a different language, different cuisine, different people, I feel a new energy.
“And when I come home, I don’t know what to do with myself. On the one hand, I just want to become a hermit and be with my records and my family—be normal. But on the other hand, after a week or two, I feel like a fish out of water. I can’t sit still, I need to do something. So I end up recording all the time and making records. I want to keep creating and to keep that energy I have when I’m traveling. I get a lot of ideas on airplanes. From Australia to Europe, it’s thirty-five hours. So what are you going to do? I surrender to my situation.
“Once I was on a plane listening to Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’. I heard the string coda at the end. I was kind of falling asleep to it and thought, Why can’t I just hear this string coda for a long time? But then they’ll just fade the music away, at the moment you’re thinking, Why can’t that go on for half an hour? When I made the record Sagittarian Domain, the last section was totally inspired by that moment.”
“I LOVE THE SOUNDS it makes,” Braxton said of the modular synth, the electronic instrument he plays in HIVE. “I love how watery and weird they are, and how hard it is to keep them stable. In the sixties, they called this thing an ‘electronic easel,’ and that’s an appropriate way to think about it. It’s a canvas, and you paint with sound.
“The detail I can get in orchestral music—I can’t get that in a machine like this. It’s temperamental, mercurial. There’s no way to corral your ideas unless you embrace the machine’s method. You have to surrender to it, which was really hard for me. How can you achieve the same level of detail with this that you do in a large orchestral work?
“I’ve been playing guitar since I was twelve, and after a while you play it and know it so well, and you only hear you playing it. You’re orbiting the same sounds every time. On the modular synth, a question like ‘Should I go to an E chord now?’ doesn’t make any sense. You’re reconciling all these functions the machine is generating, and it makes this impossible, beautiful music. And then you pick up your guitar and go, Do do do—it’s like, Who gives a shit?”
HIVE HAS BEEN PERFORMED thirteen times to date across eight venues, from the Guggenheim Museum in New York to the Mona Foma festival in Tasmania, the Sacrum Profanum Fest in Poland to Big Ears in Knoxville, and beyond. Every iteration has included Ben Vida sitting right beside Braxton.
Vida is an experimental musician who, according to Alexander Iadarola in The Quietus, “makes music that’s fun to imagine sending backwards in a time machine.” He’s built a reputation for his mod synth abilities, and recently played on tour in Will Oldham’s band. Vida first met Braxton when his band opened for Battles, but it was years until they connected on a personal and musical level. When Braxton took up the mod synth, he reached out to Vida. They discovered that they were asking a lot of similar questions, and, as Vida said, “We just enjoyed each other’s company.”
“There are parts of both of our practices that are conservative, and parts that are crazier, where our imaginations unfurl. I went through years where I would start out with an idea, an outcome that I was aiming for. Sometimes I would get closer and sometimes I would miss it, but I had a sense of what I wanted to achieve. I’m not interested in that process as much anymore. I’m much more interested in the experiment and seeing what comes from it. When there’s something outside your control, something is revealed. It’s a way of expanding.”
What’s it been like playing with Braxton in HIVE, I asked.
“It’s funny, when we do a string of shows, by the third night of performing I’ve dialed it in so well that I can really play the piece. But for Ty—and this is just my impression—he reaches for much more wild moments as we go along. And when he hits them, I’m like, Yeah, man, that’s a mess—I love it!”
BOB BELLERUE HAS BEEN the sound engineer at a handful of Ambarchi’s performances over the years. He is the technical director at ISSUE Project Space, which co-sponsored the Red Hook show, and he runs “Ende Tymes: Festival of Noise and Abstract Liberation,” an annual event in Brooklyn. He is also a musician in his own right, performing under the name Half Normal. This is all to say, the man knows sound. So I wanted to know what stood out to him about Ambarchi.
“Oren’s the only one who ever asks us to provide him a leslie,” Bellerue said.
“What’s a leslie?” I inquired.
“When you’re looking at him, it’s the big box on his right corner. It’s a spinning speaker. You can put sound into them, and the speakers spin at different rates. It’s kind of an old-school piece of equipment that you don’t see a lot these days. It came of age when Jimi Hendrix was playing, and it’s got a great classic, acid-rock thing. Oren’s got a massive bass stack, and he can get these really heavy, low-end, powerful sounds of it. And then he’s got those swirling speakers that he’s getting some feedback through, and when he changes the speed and is processing the sound further, he gets some really cool effects.”
“When I play solo, there’s so much margin for everything going wrong,” Ambarchi said. “A lot of what I’m doing in a solo context—it’s all feedback. I’m trying to harness the feedback, to control something that’s inherently out of control, that can melt a PA or destroy an amp. So doing a gig is very stressy, but it’s invigorating as well. It’s a push-pull between pragmatism and structure and freedom.”
I asked Bellerue what it was like engineering live performances like Ambarchi’s.
“Most of the time in life you don’t have such intense awareness. I’m in a really heightened state to make sure everything is audible and sounds good. I’m sitting there looking at the speakers. I’m looking at his fingers. I see him touch the string or pedal. I’m listening very intensely. It reminds me of something Dereck Bailey once said about recordings—Imagine if you could only listen to a recording once. I think about performance the same way—you have to be fully present to experience it, and then it’s gone.”
“ME AND MARCO FUSINATO, who’s a great visual artist and noise guitar player and a very close friend—we both had kids in the same kindergarten,” Ambarchi said. “We were these two weirdo artists among the parents. I used to show up in a black metal hoodie, and people must have thought, Who the hell is this guy? The woman who ran it said to me, You’re an architect, right? And I said, No, I’m a musician. And she said, Oh, you should play a concert here for the kids. And I said, I don’t think that would be appropriate. And she said, What do you mean? I said, Look, what I do, and what my friend Marco does, is quite experimental. It’s outside. It’s not conventional. It might scare the kids. And she said, No, that’s perfect, because they don’t know anything. They’re young, and they’re open. And I thought, That’s a great answer.
“So we did this thing where we just had our setups, and we showed them what we were doing—If you twiddle this knob, this is what happens—and they were really into it. My son heard Merzbow and Keiji Haino and the Beatles and all kinds of stuff in my house. He didn’t really know the difference between them. I want to be that way, too. I don’t want to be tied down to listening exclusively to anything. I want to be open to everything that’s going on.
“I used to fall asleep to records. I used to fall asleep to John Coltrane records when I was thirteen or fourteen. In the morning, my dad would come in my room to get me up to go to school. He’d turn off the stereo, and then I’d wake up.”
AT TEN A.M. ON JUNE 2, I boarded the Carolinian 80 at Durham Station and spent the next twelve hours looking out windows, observing passengers, and having casual conversations. At some point in Southern Virginia, I put on Tyondai Braxton’s latest album, HIVE1, the music blending with the rundown towns, overgrown fields, and webs of power lines. By the time we crossed the Delaware River, the sun had set, and my excitement about taking a train had worn thin. Out the window a neon sign glowed, TRENTON MAKES—THE WORLD TAKES. Around ten that night, we arrived in Manhattan.
The next day, I was worn out but ready for my shoot at the Kitchen, an experimental-art space on a quiet block of West Nineteenth Street, where I found Braxton rehearsing with Matt Smallcomb, Yuri Yamashita, and Chris Thompson—three conservatory-trained percussionists considered the core HIVE lineup. HIVE interweaves electronic sounds and acoustic performances; it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. “The most liberating thing I’ve learned from working on HIVE,” Braxton told me, “is that there’s no module that can be a substitute for human intuition.”
MATT SMALLCOMB IS A SLIM, lively guy in his midthirties. His conversation style is far more free-form than his disciplined HIVE performance would suggest. His family hails from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, “a coal-mining town,“ he explained. “My grandfather on my mom’s side was a miner. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a carpenter and also a drummer. My dad, my brother, my uncle—they’re all very good drummers. At our family parties, everybody would show up with their band. When I was six or seven, I sat in with my uncle’s band. I had to learn a Zeppelin tune on the spot—that was a big moment for me.”
I asked Smallcomb about his early inspirations.
“My uncle hipped me to this band Tower of Power, a horn band from California. There was a drummer in that group who was a big influence on my drumming. From him, I learned that it’s gotta feel good—if it doesn’t feel good, something’s wrong.”
TAKARAZUKA IS A CITY of around two hundred thousand in southern Japan, about forty minutes from Osaka. Best known today for a popular all-female musical-theater company called the Takarazuka Revue, it is also where Yuri Yamashita grew up. She was a shy kid with a fraught relationship to music. “I started playing piano when I was probably three or four,” she said. “My mom forced me—I think she always wanted to play an instrument herself and didn’t have the opportunity. I didn’t enjoy piano. I would intentionally stay late at school to miss the lesson. I was listening a lot to J-pop. I remember going to friends’ houses and standing on top of tables and singing for their parents. I would copy everything the singer was doing.”
In junior high, Yamashita joined the wind ensemble, and music started to take hold of her. “The band director told us to write down which instrument we wanted to play. My first choice was upright bass, but the director said I wasn’t tall enough. My second choice was flute, but he said my jaw wasn’t shaped for that. He said it was a good shape for the clarinet, but there were like twenty clarinetists sitting right in front of the conductor, and I wanted to do something a bit rare, to stand out. It’s weird, because I was always shy, but something about picking an instrument was different.”
CHRIS THOMPSON IS STOIC and contemplative, measuring every word with great care. He’s a striking contrast to Smallcomb, who is gregarious and sunny. The two are close friends and also play together in the experimental chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound. I interviewed Thompson before the final HIVE performance on June 6, after two days of observing his seemingly effortless ability. It‘s hard to imagine a time he couldn’t play percussion.
“I grew up in the Bay Area,” he told me. “My mother taught me piano when I was four years old, but it wasn’t until I was in high school and saw this activity called drum-and-bugle corps, which is like a marching band on steroids, that I was really inspired to be a musician. The thing that got to me, and the thing that gets to me in all the music I really love, is ensemble virtuosity, a sense of swallowing up the individual. You don’t see the individual as much as you see the interaction of the group.”
Thompson majored in music at UCLA. “I remember feeling like I was really behind. In fact, I was put into a remedial theory class because I had no knowledge of music theory whatsoever. The instructor came in the first day and said, You’re all here because you have no chance of being professional musicians. You should change your major, but if you’re really stubborn you can go home and draw a hundred treble clefs and come back tomorrow. I think I still have the piece of paper with the hundred treble clefs on it.
“IN HIGH SCHOOL, when you auditioned for the jazz ensemble, they only heard you play,” Smallcomb recalled. “They didn’t know if you were reading the music or not. So during the first few rehearsals, I faked it. I recorded the pieces and listened over and over and over and learned them by ear. The next day, I went in, and they were like, Wow.
“And you know, if I had had a teacher where I was taking—I don’t know if you want to call them ‘real’ lessons, but something where I had to learn to read formally, I probably would have quit. The best thing I ever did was listen to music and just try to emulate my favorite drummers.
“But when I was going to school for classical music, I had to catch up. I had about a month to get through a lot of stuff and had a great teacher who kicked my butt, and I got my reading together. But I still learn by ear a lot faster. I can feel what I need to do. You can’t write out all those subtleties. I have to hear it, and then take it inside. I have to have the sound in my head, and then go for that.”
YAMASHITA CAME TO NEW YORK in her twenties to study classical percussion at Mannes College of Music. “When I came to New York, I met a bunch of fashion designers from Parsons School of Design, and they took me to clubs. I’d never been to a club. I don’t think I’d ever had a drink. I was already twenty-four, but I didn’t do any of that in Japan. I don’t remember thinking, Oh, this is exciting. I tried to be a fun friend, but it was pretty clear—that was not my thing.
“After Mannes, I went to Julliard, and that was also an intense two years. Throughout all those years—from the wind ensemble in junior high to music in high school to college in Japan and then two schools in New York—it was very intense classical training. When I finished school in 2003, all of a sudden I was a freelance percussionist. That was a good time to ask myself, What do I really want to do? What kind of music do I want to play? Do I even want to keep playing music?
“I had an opportunity to go to Brazil with my friend, and I loved it—the culture and the music. It made me think I should sing. I started imitating Brazilian singers. I don’t speak Portuguese, but I loved the sound. And I didn’t hear it as language, I just heard it as sound—percussive sound, almost. I would write it down in Japanese or English letters, with no idea what the singer was saying.”
“AT UCLA, I WAS TAKING classes on Western music history, classical music, twentieth-century music, and then I was going back to my dorm room and listening to the Chemical Brothers and Orbital and Aphex Twin and Future Sound of London—a lot of electronic music,” Thompson said. “It was a bit of a paradox.”
I asked what drew him to electronic music.
“My mother and I used to take really long car rides when I was about six years old, and she had a record by this guy named Ray Lynch. I think at the time he sold cassette tapes out of the back of his car in California. It’s New Age music, synthesizer, very simple stuff, and I heard it over and over. It’s almost like we weren’t really thinking about what we were listening to. It was just a tape that we put it in. But that kind of listening can have a profound effect when you’re a little kid. I think the sound of that record instilled in me an affinity for electronic sounds and electronic music.
“I know Matt grew up dissecting jazz records. For me, it was more about the emotional impact, being aware that this music was transforming the way I saw the world when I listened to it. I knew I wanted to continue to seek out that emotional experience.”
“THERE WAS A TIME when I was kind of stubborn and ignorant, saying to myself, I’m going to drop everything, all the years of training, and just play Brazilian or Latin music because that’s what I really enjoy,” Yamashita said. “But then I understood the reality, and I’m actually very grateful I did all that training. Especially living in New York as a musician and percussionist, you take any gig you can. By doing it, you end up liking it. It opens yours eyes.”
I asked Smallcomb about his life as a freelance percussionist in New York and what he was working on, in addition to HIVE. “I’ve been practicing a lot the last few days, learning a new Broadway show to sub in, Something Rotten, and I was playing on Les Mis that week, too. And there’s an artist in town through a friend of mine who is in the studio, and we’re rehearsing to record that next week. Meanwhile, I’m practicing music for a couple Alarm Will Sound concerts at the Whitney. And I’m learning a part for drums for a production of West Side Story in Mexico. That’s right after the Whitney shows—literally the next day.”
What’s it like working with Tyondai Braxton?
“You don’t think there are people out there like that until you meet them,” Smallcomb said. “I’m really inspired by Ty. I grew up playing drum kit, playing jazz and in a hip-hop band, and studying with a symphony orchestra. And Ty is doing the same thing. He’s in a lot of worlds, and he’s really great in a lot of worlds. When he does his project, he’s bringing it all. I started thinking, Maybe it’s okay I’m doing all these things. I’m being me. That’s okay, right? I’m still not sure.”
I ASKED THOMPSON if Braxton had given him and the other percussionists any instructions about playing on the pods. “All Ty said was, You have to be seated, and we were like, Can’t you cut holes in the middle of the pods so we can stand? No, you have to be seated—that’s the point. But those instruments weren’t meant to be played while seated on the floor, and we’ve been trained to use the weight of our bodies in a certain way, so you have to retrain your body. I’m trying really hard not to fidget while I’m up there. There are legs falling asleep, lower-back pain. We’re human beings, after all.”
Yamashita said, “Musicians in jazz bands and rock bands, they often look at each other and groove together when they play. But Ty doesn’t want that—that I know. Be still. Don’t look around. Just play.”
“THE ONLY TIME Ty has ever really talked to us about the underlying meaning of a piece in HIVE was when he wrote ‘Boids,’” Thompson recalled. “He shared with us a YouTube video of starlings, masses of birds flying in huge flocks. They expand and contract and fly in beautiful formations. I think you can hear that in the piece.”
“I definitely hear nature in HIVE,” Yamashita said. “Some animals making sounds, a cricket, insects chewing—I hear that.”
“I’ve sort of made up stories about what each piece is referring to,” Thompson said, “but I’m scared to interpret it. I feel like the power is in letting people have their own interpretations. I love having the chance to come up with some kind of dream of what this is. The titles give you enough to start with. I mean ‘Boids’—as in, ‘Look at the boids.’”
Yamashita said, “I have to concentrate very hard during the show, but sometimes I glance around. I’ll see people in the center really grooving, really dancing. I’m wondering what they’re experiencing. It must go by very quickly for them. It’s forty-five minutes, fifty minutes, and it’s so much to see and so much to feel and so much to listen to. Sometimes I wish I could be on the other side.”
I WAS IN THE RESTAURANT CAR on the Carolinian 80, en route from Durham to New York, when two people sat down in the booth across from me. One was a thin man in his seventies who walked with a limp. The other was a woman at least a decade younger. Even after all these years of documentary work, I get butterflies in my stomach when asking strangers if I can take their picture. What encouraged me this time were their hats. His was the kind of leather hunting cap a folksinger might have worn in the sixties. Hers was a leopard-print fedora. They didn’t look old-fashioned exactly; it was as if they’d stepped out of other times and found each other in this time, on this train.
After I took their photo, we started talking. Their names were David and Julia, and they had in fact just met. “I took one look at him and knew he was marines,” Julia said, and they decided to have a drink together in the restaurant car. Julia told me she served in the army in Germany in the late seventies. David said he’d been called up for Vietnam on April Fools’ Day in 1966. During his tour of duty, he was stabbed in the leg and shot in the head. Almost 50 years later, his injuries still plague him.
A conductor passed. “Did anyone tell you we were handicapped?” Julia asked him, suddenly incensed. She seemed to be responding to an earlier slight.
“Ma’am, I’m just doing my job,” the conductor replied.
“Look me in the eye,” she said.
“I don’t have to do that, ma’am.”
He walked away, and at the next stop David stepped out for a smoke. Julia turned to me: “People need to give us respect.” I nodded in agreement, and we were both quiet. She cracked a smile. “I guess there’s no reason to let it ruin my day.”
FOUR DAYS LATER, on June 6, I made it to the Kitchen to document the final performance of Tyondai Braxton’s HIVE installation. I felt my way through darkness and faced what I thought would be an empty auditorium. A tiny light shined at the back. Sarah Frankel, HIVE’s lighting designer, was programming a new console after a malfunction the night before—it’s an involved process that takes hours to complete.
Frankel is the non-musician of HIVE. Her specialty is visual, not aural. “Certain parts of my brain are total chaos,” she told me, “but spatially I understand things. If I walk into a room, even if I’m in conversation and not paying attention, I can see it in my head. Spaces have a pattern, a rhythm, that just makes sense.
“When I was a kid, my dad built and managed nightclubs, huge dance clubs. He would do it all—the set design, the lighting design, the layout of the space. He hated the social interaction aspect of it, but he would let me walk through the clubs when they were closed. It’s funny, working in clubs in New York these days, at the end of the night when everyone is gone, that sticky, gross smell of alcohol and emptiness—it feels like home.”
ON JUNE 29, the night after Oren Ambarchi performed in Red Hook, Brooklyn, he played a more intimate set at Fitzcarraldo, a bar and restaurant on an industrial street in Bushwick, Brooklyn, performing as a duo with his frequent collaborator crys cole. cole is a sound artist who creates improvised and composed work and has had numerous gallery shows of her sound installations. She’s the artistic director for the send + receive festival in Winnipeg, Canada, her hometown. She is also Ambarchi’s romantic partner. “She invited me to a festival that she runs in Canada,” Ambarchi told me. “On the last night of her festival, there was an after-party. I got a look at her iPod it, and it had all this really obscure experimental music that I love and these really amazing pop tracks that I love. It was almost too good to be true.”
Ambarchi and cole recently released Sonja Henies vei 31, an album only comprising field recordings they made during a week together in Norway. In one, a radio or TV plays in the background while someone slurps and chews on what must be an overripe peach.
It reminded me of something cole had told me about her childhood. “I have so many visceral memories that are sonic,” she had said, “like floating in the bath as a kid so that your ears are under the water, and all of a sudden you can hear the distorted sound of the TV in the living room or someone walking in the hallway. Or waking up as a child camping, being in a hot tent early in the morning and hearing the fire crackling outside because my parents were starting to make breakfast and coffee—some of it sounds exaggerated, other parts subdued, but all of it completely blurry and strange.”
“THE WAY I BUILD the lighting for a HIVE performance,” Frankel said, “is similar to the way Ty runs his sound on his modular synthesizer—in the sense that he gives himself a general framework of a piece and a whole bunch of options, and the show sounds different every time. I actually run the show in a sort of janky way, on an old-school console. There’s nothing automated in HIVE. Maybe the sneaky, tricky part of me loves that the lighting isn’t completely in sync with the music. I’m creating new rhythms that aren’t audible but visual. So we’re playing off the psychology behind that—seeing a rhythm but not hearing it, and hearing all these other rhythms on top of it.
“There are moments during the show when I know Ty is a little less crazy and able to look up and see what’s going on—I always try to do something super weird and cool for him then. I have these moments with everyone in the show, where we will make eye contact for the first and only time.”
FITZCARRALDO IS AN INTIMATE SPACE with a wall-size window where patrons can view an endless stream of walkers, bikers, cars, and trucks, as if watching a movie. On that night, Ambarchi and cole performed in front of the window, their backs to it, while the sounds of cooking intermingled with their music. “It was an unusual environment to be playing in,” cole admitted. “But I think that worked with what we were doing in an odd way.”
Ambarchi’s setup was considerably stripped down from the Red Hook show the previous night—“way fewer pedals,” he said. He did retain his eight-by-ten-inch Ampeg bass cabinet, the leslie spinning speaker, and the electric guitar. cole was using a “cheap” Casio keyboard, her voice, and contact microphones. The contact mics amplified the surface of the table they sat at. cole said the mics were “played” as instruments, using various brushes to elicit sound.
Watching cole play the mics and brushes, I thought about when I played violin as a kid. I remember being as captivated by the instrument itself—the intricate carvings, the delicate build, the smell of aging wood—as by the music it could produce. I wonder now if that’s a reason I stopped playing. The instrument was too precious, too perfect—what could I bring to it? cole’s relationship to instruments was refreshing: in her hands any object could be transformed.
“When I was young,” she said, “I loved music so much, but I felt inhibited because I didn’t have a tool of my own. I was overwhelmed by the idea of playing an instrument. I moved to Montreal from my hometown and met an incredible community of improv musicians who basically said, you’re an avid listener, you’re a lover, you’re so knowledgeable. Just find a tool. So I started playing with broken electronics, busted turntables, and then contact microphones. And that sound, that sort of—Chweeew! That was that.”
IN 2012 WHEN BRAXTON was composing the music that would become HIVE, the Guggenheim’s Works in Process series commissioned him to debut the project at the museum. “It’s even now very uncomfortable for me to think how HIVE grew up in public,” Braxton said. Richie Clarke served as the sound designer for the premiere. Two years and ten HIVEs later, Braxton reunited with Clarke for the Kitchen shows.
Clarke is a well-established sound engineer in New York, having worked with musicians as diverse as Herbie Hancock, David Byrne, and Steve Reich. I first met him last September while documenting Jonny Greenwood performing with the Wordless Music Orchestra, where I was drawn to his warmth and relaxed vibe. Clarke grew up an only child in Suriname far removed from the music industry. “My grandparents had thirteen children, so there were always a lot of uncles and aunts around,” he said. “My family was very loud, a lot of characters. Most people who know me now don’t believe it, but I was as shy as they come. I’d walk into a room and be invisible, and music was always the thing that calmed the noise. It was where I found solace. I would go to sleep with the radio next to me and wake up with the radio next to me. Before my eyes would open, my hands would flick the on switch.
“I’ll never forget one day playing in the yard and having a radio wedged in the door and hearing Diana Ross’s ‘I’m Coming Out,’ with that very big intro—I froze in my steps—I couldn’t move. I was hanging on every sound in anticipation of how this incredible intro was going to morph into what I knew was coming. And that’s my relationship with music to this day. That moment never left me. I can still feel it.”
Until the Kitchen shows, Clarke hadn’t seen HIVE since the premiere. I asked him what had changed. “When we did the world premiere, I would say things to Ty like, Oh, that’s amazing, and Ty would say, No, it’s not there yet. And now listening to it two years later, I get it. The level of detail and movement, the spatial relationships—there’s no comparison. It’s like a roller coaster where at first you try to hold on, and then you’re like, Okay, I’m just going to scream and let it go, let it take me.”
DURING THE FIRST TWO DAYS of my HIVE shoot, the excitement in the air was palpable. Frankel, Clarke, and the musicians had watched the project grow from its infancy. Many of them had traveled to far-flung locales together, taking HIVE from Krakow to Tasmania to Knoxville. With no more performances scheduled, these shows felt like a victory lap and a bon voyage. But during soundcheck before the second show, something happened. We were in the theater, colored lights flashing, when the fluorescent overhead lights shot on, almost blinding us. With showtime in an hour, the antiquated lighting console had given out.
Frankel stayed in the theater to try to figure it out, while the rest of us headed up to the green room to wait. Everyone seemed nervous—it was clear how high the stakes were, how much the show meant to each one of them. Braxton was hunched in the corner, a plastic cup of wine dangling from his hand.
While the musicians worried over the latest complications, I was plagued by the question, Do I record this? I felt dirty even thinking it. Was I making a reality-TV show, hoping for any glimmer of tension or drama? Yet the moment was important, a window into the pressures of being a performer: you work so hard and at any moment it can come crashing down.
It was something I could relate to as a documentarian. I’m drawn to the fragile and ephemeral moments, when the unexpected can happen, yet the harder I force a situation, the more those moments tend to recede. So it was now. I chose to record, and instantly knew it was wrong. Everyone grew uncomfortable—I was making a painful situation worse. I turned the camera off and took consolation in the thought that I had hours of footage and interviews in the docket to explore later. Who knew what would be revealed?
By eight that evening, Frankel had gotten the console up and running, and the show went on without a hitch.
cole: “I was having a conversation with a friend recently. We were talking about the nature of collaboration, how watching it can feel as though you’re peering into some sort of intimate relationship. There is a particular thing that happens with bands or any long-term collaboration—it becomes like a marriage. I have a lot of friends who work in other artistic fields that are more isolating.”
Ambarchi: “You’re getting to know somebody, and you’re exploring stuff together, and you might not see them for two years, and then when you do, you continue from where you left off. It’s an ongoing conversation. I would say a big part of what we do is the meal after the gig, where you’re sitting around and talking about your personal stuff, or just having a laugh.”
cole: “I’ve played improv with people where you can feel a struggle for control. Someone is bashing away at something—‘I don’t like this safe zone we’re in, so I’m going to swhoosh! Push things somewhere else.’ Those shifts are sometimes exciting, but to me it shouldn’t be a conflict—it should be a way of dancing together.”
Ambarchi: “We don’t want to be complacent in life or what we do as artists. We want to keep moving and trying stuff, not saying, No we can’t do that, that’s not possible, we can’t go there. We can do everything—I feel that with crys. It’s exciting to work with someone you’re in love with.”
I FIRST INTERVIEWED BRAXTON with my documentary partner Sam Stephenson at the Big Ears festival last March. We sat in a renovated factory in Knoxville, in a room overlooking train tracks. As I was setting up the camera, Braxton looked out the window and noticed the tracks running alongside the building. Sam noticed his gaze and asked what associations they had for him.
“To keep us occupied as kids, my dad would buy us these HO-gauge train sets,” Braxton said. “I became obsessed with trains. As a matter of fact, every Sunday we would go to Union Station and watch the Metro North and Amtrak trains come in because I wanted to see them. It became sort of a family thing.” He went quiet, and a moment later added, “That’s a funny thing to start an interview with.”
Sam asked about a connection between HIVE and trains.
“In a weird way, the visual component for me is the confirmation that the idea is good. For my album Central Market, I was imagining ballets. Any time something felt like a ballet, I’d think, That’s working. So if there’s a correlation I can draw between HIVE and trains, it would be a sense of being a passenger and viewing a landscape going by. I’m trying to create not just music but an environment.
“When I was setting up HIVE today, I kept telling Sarah we should bring the pods closer to the audience. I like the straight line of it. It looks like the Supreme Court. We’re sitting cross-legged, we’re interacting very little with anything else but each other, we’re not looking at the audience, we’re just doing our thing. It doesn’t feel inclusive, yet it doesn’t feel alienating either. It’s like we’ve landed—and now you can experience the room.”
“THE FIRST TIME I TOOK A TRAIN in my life was between Montreal and New York,” cole said. “I would have been in my early twenties. It was such an interesting way of traveling, to have that constant movement, the endless landscape, even though it seems to take more time than every other method of travel.
“Oren and I often talk about inhabiting a temporary venue or space and distorting it, creating an atmosphere that transports people away from where they are. That links to travel and the kind of lifestyle that we have, where we’re always shifting into radically different spaces and mindsets.
“It’s sort of a dream space, something that pulls or lulls people into something strange. That’s the word we often come back to—strange. Something that’s unfamiliar, where things happen that people aren’t expecting, yet they’re carried along through it. There isn’t a defined beginning or end. It could continue for hours or just be this nebulous thing, like when you’re on the street and you bump into someone unexpectedly or see something unusual happen and time stands still. Then you move on, but it sticks with you, coloring the rest of your day.”
IN 1964, AT AGE FIFTY-NINE, Joseph Mitchell published “Joe Gould’s Secret” in two installments in The New Yorker’s September 19 and September 26 issues. Mitchell was in his prime, and the magazine recognized it: the long essay took up nearly 40 percent of the two issues’ combined page counts. What would Mitchell do next? He planned an expansive book-length work blending thoughts and observations from his four decades in New York City with his upbringing and life in Fairmont, a farming town of three thousand people in North Carolina’s coastal plains, where members of his family had lived since before the American Revolution. Mitchell and his wife, Therese, spent summers in Fairmont throughout their marriage; they are buried there today, next to Mitchell’s parents and relatives.
The ambitious work never materialized—at least not in written form. According to numerous first-person accounts, Mitchell showed up daily at his New Yorker office for three decades without submitting another story to the magazine. Some reported that he could be heard typing behind the closed door of his office. Over the years, this mysterious routine became legend. After Mitchell’s death in 1996, his biographer Thomas Kunkel found only three pieces of the memoir—fragments, really—among his papers.
During his long silence, Mitchell maintained his habit of long walks on the streets of New York City and on the soil of Fairmont, keeping his eyes and ears open. Instead of turning these wanderings into writing, though, he collected thousands of objects. His eldest daughter, Nora Sanborn, said he squirreled away rusty screws, varnished silverware, old doorknobs, yellowed postcards, and handfuls of rocks in his family’s cramped West Tenth Street apartment. He also collected arrowheads and abandoned farm implements in Fairmont. Nora has stories of him checking these objects on flights back and forth between New York and North Carolina, including a large coal stove that baffled airline staffers. Many objects were stored in glass jars accompanied with notes, sometimes typed on New Yorker stationery, more often scribbled in pencil on scrap paper and, in one case, on a paper plate. A note accompanying sections of rusted, painted-over metal signage reads:
July 3, 1973
from near Mercer St on Broadway
side—same bldg from where I took
the automatic fire alarm
Mitchell’s collecting began, Sanborn said, in the mid-sixties, when the city began destroying old buildings in some of her father’s favorite neighborhoods to make way for the World Trade Center. When the world of his stories started disappearing, he tried to hold on in a manner more concrete than language.
THIS PAST SUMMER, we sifted through hundreds of Mitchell’s objects and have been placing them in a progressive installation at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) in Raleigh. The installation, which accumulates work during its run (it closes in January 2016), is also called “Big, Bent Ears,” and though the installation was not something we envisioned when we began the online series, we think of it as extending the network of connections we’ve begun making here. In the CAM show, we’ve placed videos of Radiohead guitarist and composer Jonny Greenwood thirty feet from one of Mitchell’s old Brooks Brothers boxes filled with fragments of a shattered porcelain doll; a panoramic photograph of an entranced Big Ears audience, by Kate Joyce, faces an old red fire alarm, another Mitchell find; a snapshot of Mitchell and his grandchild amid rubble in Lower Manhattan is mounted on a wall outside a screening room where our film about Nazoranai, perhaps the loudest, most challenging band in a challenging festival, plays on a loop.
Near the back of the space, in the media lab, is a table containing a mini-installation we’re calling “Mitchell’s Objects, Teeming,” which has been arranged by artist and Rock Fish Stew collaborator Victoria Ralston.
At the other end of the media lab is our attempt to establish a kissa, based on the postwar Japanese examples that focused originally on American jazz but then expanded into unlimited genres. Oren Ambarchi, a composer, guitarist, and the drummer in Nazoranai, describes the kissa best: “It’s a small bar and there’s the owner behind the counter, and behind him is his entire record collection, and it’s usually a pretty big collection, and usually quite specific, and there’s a really good sound system, and you pick a record, and he plays the record, and everyone sits down and listens to it, and no one really talks, and it’s one of the most beautiful things.”
Loosely inspired by this Japanese tradition, the kissa at CAM provides a comfortable setting where music lovers can share their vinyl collections on a high-quality vintage sound system. M.C. Taylor, the leader of an ensemble known as Hiss Golden Messenger, took the reins of the kissa on August 20. His set list is not unlike one of Mitchell’s scrawled notes.
THE IDEA TO EXPLORE connections between Joseph Mitchell and the Big Ears music festival was hatched a year ago in New York during a conversation with The Paris Review’s managing editor, Nicole Rudick. We explained to her that we don’t want outcomes to dictate policy. Instead, for us, the form the final work is a function of the process itself. She replied that George Plimpton had once described his E.M. Forster interview for the first issue of the Review as “an essay in dialogue on technique,” and she thought the magazine was the perfect home for our ambitious project.
On that same trip to New York, we visited Michael Lieber in Jackson Heights, where he lives in the same building as “Big, Bent Ears” photographer Richard Rothman. Lieber produced a film adaptation of “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 2000. In the eighties, he reached out to Mitchell about adapting the work and to Lieber’s surprise, Mitchell, whose books were out of print at the time, welcomed the idea. The two became friends. They took long walks together around Midtown, near The New Yorker’s offices.
These walks were great because he’d say, See that building? Back in 1947, Meier Lansky used to have an office on the thirteenth floor. He was full of stories. Just around the corner from The New Yorker, on the northwest corner of Forty-Second and Sixth Avenue, which is now a gigantic eighty-story bank building or something like that, was an excavation site where a bunch of porn shops and pop-up performance spaces had been torn down to make way for something else. And there was this one guy, this bum, who had made a home there. He had improvised a cabin for himself out of debris, and Joe was fascinated by it. He always wanted to take a look. And I thought, This is exactly the Joe Mitchell thing to do, to be curious about this hobo, to wonder, Who is this guy living in a ramshackle shack?
We asked him what he thought of Mitchell’s collecting.
I think it’s a perfectly normal and natural thing to do. People are interested in objects for many different reasons—the historical resonance, the contours, the shape of it—and for Joe it was probably many different things, too. “Hey, I like the way this looks, I think I’ll take it home,” “Oh, this is a great remnant of what Dutch ceramic facades were like, I think I’ll take it home.”
What really interested Mitchell, I believe, were not the artifacts of life—but life, people, flesh and blood. Yeah, there’s the old hotel, yeah, there’s McSorley’s saloon, yeah, there’s Sloppy Louie’s. But what he was fundamentally interested in, as far as I could tell, was the human drama.
WHEN WE INTERVIEWED performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson at Big Ears last March, she spoke at length about the importance of objects. Describing how her recent piece, Landfall, came about, she said,
Landfall was written as a series of short songs, which is how I work on everything. Right at the end of this, Hurricane Sandy swept into New York. I was just at the end of writing the quartet. I lost a lot of things. I’m right on the coast, and my whole basement is filled with stuff—my old sculptures, keyboards, just tons of things. The water washed it all away. It was all suddenly, basically, garbage. Water is very, very powerful. Props from old shows, an oversize crutch I used in [my show about] Moby-Dick, vintage keyboards, and much more were lost. I inserted a list of these lost objects at the end of Landfall—the basement full of floating things that had rotted … all the props, a styrofoam plane … papers, keyboards … rust already in the projectors … states of emergency. At first, I really was devastated. You can’t replace things from your past. But then, a couple of days later, I was saying, Wait a second, I don’t have to clean the basement now, it’s already clean. A couple of days after that, I realized that I was actually happy about it.
Later in the interview, Anderson talked about her efforts to “fall into another world” and of “building a world where no one is for sale.”
I haven’t given up the big search for the thing that, in Captain Ahab’s case, will eat him alive. I’m a big fan of Melville because, as a writer, he had to go offshore to understand the United States, to look back on what this place is. You have to get distance from a place to understand it. I began my work as an artist in Europe because there weren’t many places in the United States to do my work. I was often sitting around after shows and the other musicians were saying to me, How could you live in a place like the U.S.? I said, Well, it’s really not that simple. So then I spent eight hours answering that question. United States Live is really an answer to that question.
Anderson told us that place is essential to her work: “Most of the things I’ve made start with the idea of a place. Try to describe where you are, even if it’s a nebulous place.”
Mitchell, too, found the balance of place and distance to be a crucial enigma: when he didn’t feel at home in New York City, he’d retreat to Fairmont; when he stopped feeling at home there, he’d go back to the city.
“BIG, BENT EARS,” the online series, is now at an end. On this side of our experimental “serial in documentary uncertainty,” we feel more convinced than ever that, ironically, uncertainty forms a solid foundation for our approach to documentary work.
Over the years, we’ve done hundreds of interviews, but our conversation with Laurie Anderson on March 29, 2015, stands out to us now. For one thing, she unnerved us by looking directly at the camera, not at us; she’s the only subject who has done so. This icon of performance art bypassed us, the middlemen, didn’t let us capture her on our terms, as so many documentary interviews aim to do. Her point was well taken.
Then, toward the end of the interview, Anderson shifted the ground beneath our feet again. She paused while talking about her efforts to point her work away from herself, and said, “I should say, you know, umm, I don’t actually think we’re here. It may be a little late in this encounter to say that. But I do not actually think that we’re here. So I base a lot of things on that … It’s quite a massive illusion. I usually don’t elaborate on that at all and I won’t now. But just as a note … just as a note.”
Much of the way Anderson describes her creative process hearkens back to seafood chef Ricky Moore in our prologue. “I’m a feather,” he said. “I’m floating along and trying to position myself in life for whatever is coming for me. I don’t want to force anything. Anything that’s forced—that’s not meant for you. I tried to force it, and it didn’t work out for me.”
We’re closing the series with extended sequences from Anderson’s interview. It is as appropriate an ending as we could find, at least this time around.