The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2018

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APR 2018 Issue

Shelley Hirsch: The Flourishing Fields of Reception

Shelley Hirsch. Photo by Walter Rovere.

Shelley Hirsch is internationally renowned, and a major presence in the New York avant-garde music scene. She is a critically acclaimed vocalist, composer, and storyteller. Her improvising skills are acute. She can sculpt dialog, rhythm, and tone into swirls of sonic imagery. Pulling subject matter from a network of visceral, cultural, and abstract associations, she delivers thoughts poetically. Her work is often autobiographical and fluctuates from light-hearted themes to serious cultural and political experiences. She finds musicality in the present and past.

Shelley has followed her passion for performance and music from an early age. When asked about her childhood, she describes the apartment in East New York, Brooklyn, where she grew up in the ’50s. She describes the atmospheric sounds of the tenants’ music and conversations. Her mother worked as a switchboard operator. Her father, a laborer, came home after long days of work, and spun records on the turntable. She recalls how he transformed the living space into one of enchantment, through music and dance.

Shelley loved listening to her voice in different areas of the building. She was intrigued with how sound travels and is altered in different spaces. She sang in the corridors, stairwells, and hallways, and led choral processions with the other children.

The neighborhood back then was full of tension. Shelley said she hated the racist attitude of the neighbors on her block and went to the East and West Village, to join protest marches and to find other like-minded people.

Her teachers recognized her enthusiasm for performance. With no formal training, Shelley won acceptance into the High School of the Performing Arts, in Manhattan, which enrolled around five hundred students. Amongst many classically trained dancers, actors, and musicians, her unique approach to performance made it difficult for the teachers to classify her. Shelley realized that she didn’t want to play traditional acting roles, so she dropped out, just before being cast as Tinker Bell in the school’s production of Peter Pan. She began attending her neighborhood high school in East New York, with approximately five thousand students. She describes this school as having employed many artists, and political activists who took on teaching to avoid the Vietnam War draft. It was a radical time in New York City and she became very politically active.

Without a financial safety net, Shelley’s passion, propensity, and charm, has been her ticket to adventure and success. She refers to her life as a series of accidents. 

At seventeen, she got a job locating misfiled poodle cards, at the American Kennel Club, across from Madison Square Park. She dropped out of school and moved to an apartment on Ludlow Street with a painter named Connie. Shelley was enthralled with the art and experimental film she saw at this time. Connie soon left to study at The San Francisco Art Institute. Several months later Shelley came home and found her apartment ransacked, so she decided to join Connie in San Francisco.

She intended to study to become a Kabuki dancer but discovered that men played all the parts. She found a teacher to study Noh Theater with, but all of her money was stolen, so she moved on to the next plan. 

While hitchhiking, she met an actor who convinced her to join an experimental theater workshop that he attended at the San Francisco Mime Troupes Building. The Theater of Man, led by the director Cecile Pineda embraced natural movement and the work often had a ritualistic tone to it. They read Antonin Artaud and studied the work of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski. They visited sonic environments, recreating them with their voices in the rehearsal space. She began leading the group in those vocal explorations. Her interest in finding memory and language through the body, and finding where language and abstract sound meld together began with the early work she did with this group. She was nineteen when they toured the Bay Area. 

Several members of the ensemble lived in a large, beautiful house in an affluent part of town. It was owned by a doctor who was too ill to live there, but came once a week to sit in the extraordinary library. The housemates formed a childrens theater group when the Theater of Man was on summer break. The night before the group’s debut was going to air on television, the house was busted for drugs by the police. The show never aired and Shelley had to move out of the house.

She decided to go to Amsterdam in hopes of joining another experimental theater company, first stopping back in NYC to earn more money. Back in the Big Apple, she met many inspiring artists and wound up in Robert Wilsons Byrd Hoffman School of Birds workshop, led by Andy DeGroot, while Wilson was away. She met Stephan Brecht, an author, and theater historian who has written about many of the city’s experimental theater artists and filmmakers from the mid ’60s to the mid ’70s. He introduced her to many works of art that impressed her.

She was twenty when she hitchhiked from Luxembourg to Amsterdam, but when she arrived, she discovered that the theater she hoped to join had vastly expanded, and was not the intimate setting she had envisioned approaching. She lived on a houseboat at first, worked as a model at The Rietveld Academy of Art, and sang with a swing band on weekends.

Then with a she and fellow model, Maxime Cardon, she found an abandoned factory filled with garbage, which they decided to make their home. She remembers how the movements she made while painting the walls felt like a new kind of choreography to her. She found joy in the renovation, singing as she swept up needles and syringes. They transformed the squat into a glamorous living environment.

An adventurer, with a deep appreciation for art, she hitchhiked from Amsterdam to Kassel, to attend the International Art Biennale Documenta in 1972. She really loved living in Europe, so she decided to get her possessions from New York. When she arrived, she found out that the factory in Amsterdam was being torn down. A metro line is now in its place.

Shelley verbally portrays many of these early experiences on her commissioned radio pieces and CDs including, O’ Little Town of East New York, with David Weinstein, (Tzadik, 1995), States, (Tellus, 1997), The Far In Far Out Worlds of Shelley Hirsch, (Tzadik, 2002) and Where Were You Then?, with Simon Ho, (Tzadik, 2012).

In 1973, she moved back returned to NYC and made it her home. She continued modeling and creating new work. In 1977, the playwright, Len Jenkin, saw Shelley performing and asked her to audition for his play, New Jerusalem, produced at NY Public Theater. She played several different singing characters living in a penal colony. She played the role and made the music for and made the music for them; a Chinese country western singer, a go-go dancer, and a torch singer singing “Stormy Weather.” Shelley wrote some “ridiculous ditties” for a dance number which she, Sigourney Weaver, and Dale Soules performed. She found ways to vocalize the text for different roles, and beat on her chest to change the resonance of her voice. After rehearsals, Shelley dashed off to do gigs around town. One, around this time, was at the Kitchen;, with the jazz drummer, Steve McCall, in performing one of the composer, percussionist, Jerome Cooper’s pieces.

She was awarded two free years of study at the Manhattan School of Music in ’82. Her work continued to flourish. She was part of the thriving downtown scene and performed many kinds of music—notably with the soon to be revived band The Public Servants—at clubs like CBGBs, Hurrahs, Irving Plaza, and Tier 3, with the soon to be revived band The Public Servants. In the ’80s she was in several of John Zorn’s projects and formed collaborations with some of the artists she met at these sessions, including Christian Marclay and Fred Frith, both whom she still works with. In ’83, she began working in Berlin, where she received the DAAD residency. She considers Berlin her second home.

David Weinstein first heard her perform with the late German bass player Peter Kowald at a performance at PS1 in ’84. David had just acquired the Mirage, one of the first affordable sampling keyboards, and asked Shelley if he could record her describing a Picasso drawing. They became “life partners” and collaborated for seven years. David describes Shelley as, “…imagination and speed. She listens instinctively and grabs hold of detail and dynamics effortlessly. You cannot outrun Shelley. Then there are the words. Captured from her diary or a recent ride on the subway, she reflects, deflects, savors, puzzles, seduces, or hollers her subconscious into the mix. ”

In ’86, David composed and recorded “Power Muzak,” a nearly fifteen-minute track, for her to improvise with. A sophisticated conglomeration of synths and electronic, percussive sounds surge throughout the track as Shelley’s voice hovers and dips like a songbird’s. Shelley calls this track one of the greatest gifts she ever received. You can hear it on their duo LP and CD album Haiku Lingo, (Review Records, 1990). David founded Roulette with the trombonist Jim Staley, and Intermedia artist Dan Senn in 1978. To this day, Brooklyn based, Roulette, offers rich programming in music and multi-disciplinary performance. Shelley has been a board member at Roulette since 1993. One of the most mesmerizing performances Shelley ever witnessed was by the late composer/performance /video artist Jerry Hunt; at Roulette’s original Tribeca space, in ’87. Jerry was an enormous hero to Shelley during his lifetime. They frequently performed on the same bill. She was honored to be named in his will, as one of the artists chosen to work with his archives. She has made several large-scale multi-disciplinary homages and virtual duets for him. 

Shelley met Joke Lanz—a Berlin based, Swiss Artist whose music is marvelously frantic and convulsive—at a festival in Biel, Switzerland, where they were both performing solo. Shelley was struck by his performance—with a rhythmic mesh of electronics, turntables, and amplified voice, he propels sounds into exertion—and Joke admitted that he has loved her work since the early ’80s. Their sets are evocative. 

Shelley is featured on psych-folk legend, Peter Stampfel’s upcoming release, with two more to come. She will be improvising with Brian Chase, on April 8th, at the Bell House, in Brooklyn. In May, at Hunter College’s Festival of Creative Technologies, she will present a multichannel version of her ongoing project Book-Bark-Tree-Skin-Line, and also ToHuWaBoHu, which originated as a surround sound piece for visual artist Ursula Scherrer’s, visual installation, Alga.

Shelley’s own records, staged pieces, radio plays, and her installations span five continents. Her most recent awards are her 2016 NYSCA Music Commission and her 6th AIR at Harvestworks. In 2017, she was awarded The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in Music Composition and a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists. Blank Forms appointed her a 2017 Artist in Residence, for which she presented a choral iteration of her ongoing project Book-Bark-Tree-Skin-Line at Prismatic Park in Madison Square Park.

Shelley explains the inspiration for Book-Bark-Tree-Skin-Line: “The project is a continuation of my lifelong fascination with how language, stories, and song grow out of primal vocal utterances which are located in the body—the recorder and storage house of memory. It began with the connection I feel with trees and associating the place between the trunk and its branches with my own longing and then finding the beauty in the bark, the skin of the tree, skin lines of aging, the stories that live between the lines.”

This profile was generated from a series of conversations between Shelly Hirsch and MV Carbon.


MV Carbon

MV CARBON is a Brooklyn based interdisciplinary artist and musician. Her work encompasses live performance, recorded music, painting, and multi-media installation.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2018

All Issues