It was hard not to feel dumbstruck and exhausted following the last two weeks of gratuitous arts activity in Dallas. Last week’s art fair began with an elaborate spectacle so conspicuous that I found it hard to leave the front patio of the Fashion Industry Gallery, lest I miss any surprises from the dancing colorful blobs in the courtyard. And it’s fair to say that the obvious climax of the past two weeks was the Philips/Schnabel opening at the Dallas Contemporary, where celebrity as art, and celebrity as artist reached hair metal levels of screeching garishness. The gallery was eerily empty when I went in, with the art party outside. It seems that people are less likely to crowd around the art if they aren’t allowed to take their drinks. But Dallas Arts Week itself ended in opposite fashion, with an almost painfully nuanced show at the Reading Room earlier this week.
It was there that an interpretation of Robert Ashley’s composition, In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women was performed, by sibling duo, Nicolas and Andrew Miller. The text is by the incredibly mysterious 20th Century writer, John Barton Wolgamot. Composer Ashley died quite recently, in March 2014, and the artist is currently enjoying a somewhat lovely posthumous acknowledgement as a multimedia pioneer of electronic music, composition, avant garde opera, and beyond. His many tentacles seem too abundant to neatly summarize.
The story behind the original marriage of music and text is one of such vast happenstance and intrigue, that it rivals the bizarreness of the work itself, in both sound and literary structure. That is no small feat.
The text and accompanying music are almost unlike anything you’ll ever hear, especially considering when they were respectively made. Wolgamot’s experimental stanzas are far ahead of their time (originally published in 1944), and Ashley’s synthesizers were early in the development of electronic music, circa 1972. I say “almost” unlike anything you’ll ever hear, as the recent performance by Kenneth Goldsmith at the Reading Room was similar in its bubbling cadence. Coincidentally, Goldsmith himself hosts the definitive story of poet Keith Waldrop’s original discovery of Wolgamot’s rare tome on his site, Ubuweb.
The Reading Room itself is the small, ivied space facing the controversial deco paradise of Fair Park, right on the edge of where South Dallas begins. It sprouts from the concrete like a single flower or a salad left on the sidewalk. The gallery explores the complex relationship between the visual and the written word, setting it apart quite distinctly from other North Texas art entities. This makes it the perfect setting to pore over the intricacies of both Wolgamot and Ashley’s contributions to the canon of the unconventional, as normal considerations for the assumed chasm between words, sounds, and images becomes mercifully bridged in this tiny room.
Nicolas Miller surgically tweaked a custom-made synthesizer out of an L-shaped Eurorack case to his brother’s almost breathless recitation. The audience was told to “bear with” the performance, as its 128 stanzas are delivered in one endless, aggressive whisper. Andrew Miller wore sunglasses, but this plastic wall of classic detachedness could not obstruct his passion for the material. Each verse-ending refrain of “very titanically” was given greater and greater power; the words seemed to snowball with emphasis, rather than evaporate into panting exhaustion. Meanwhile, Nicolas’ synth sounds chirped, pecked, and snaked, either in contrast to, or in unity with, the gorgeous listing of heroes from various disciplines throughout the ages. Tolstoy, Margaret Kennedy, Gauguin, and of course, H.L. Mencken appear, disappear, and reappear over the course of the reading, in what is essentially the same sentence over and over. Wolgamot was almost writing fan-fiction to the yet untold biographical legacy of Mencken himself. He speaks of the death of Mencken’s wife, Sara, which understandably spooked Mencken. According to Mencken, she was still alive when the book was being written.
The mostly calm but sometimes menacing synth noise threatened to knock the speaker off balance, but he never wavered. We are told that each slightly different grouping of names correlates to the instrument voicings. Remarkably, it was the first time that the two had ever performed In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven….
When I later listened to Ashley’s original 1972 recording, I was struck by how historically accurate the Miller Brothers’ cover was. It sounds wildly similar. But there was a slight difference. The original composition is a daunting 40 minutes and 55 seconds. The Reading Room performance? 45. This slight indulgence was a gift, an intellectual detox after a spectacular week.
All images courtesy of the Reading Room.