"Modernism is very structured but it's like a house with no roof on it…"
- NYU student in Village Diner to his two friends
"There goes history again."
- Man on MacDougal Street pointing to what I think is ME
I've seen so many gigs that are all smoke and mirrors. It's really bringing me down. Gimmicks and language that have been used so many times before. Folks playing for what's outside and not for what is inside. There's nothing new under the sun but hey, though the moon only mirrors the sun's light it is after all an entity unto itself. Listener and player are easily fooled. When the music is at a standstill one must use one's chops and imagination to change it up, try to inject something different when possible. The overall object should be concentration, focus, listening, connecting, and freedom on both audience and artist's end. This may seem a contradiction but how else can either grow? And clap. Hoot. It's old school but vital.
I met Sarah Halpern through Anthology Film Archives and knew her as a collagist and filmmaker, but when I heard her music, which goes beyond the limits of the genres it evokes, I was completely smitten. Her solo performance at Sunview Luncheonette where she played table top guitars, at times hitting her tuning forks on the table while striking the strings and singing in her incredibly soft, touching voice, really got to me, as did her projects on the ZAP label. Her music is a mindful extension of what I can only describe as traditional folk music. But rather than try to unravel her process, I've asked Halpern to do it for me. Here are her fascinating responses:
"As you know I work in many disciplines. I've been playing guitar forever but have always struggled with trying to relate it to my other artwork. A few years ago I saw the Shirley Clarke documentary Ornette: Made in America, and at one point he was talking about his first encounter with the music and practices of the Whirling Dervishes. He was comparing it to gospel music. He made a differentiation between emotional music and creative music. He said that gospel is emotional, and described the music of the Whirling Dervishes as generative or creative, much like jazz. This idea really struck me deeply and has influenced my development. For so many years the music I played was deeply emotional, which after a while it started to feel very limited and at a certain point became somehow fused with heavy drinking. It was almost as though the music would give me a way into myself, but then leave me there with no way back out. For a period of time I quit playing altogether and just focused on artwork, which had a more positive effect.
"After many years of trying to figure out how to sing and play guitar in a generative way I think I am finally beginning to touch on something. The more improvisation I am able to bring into the framework of a song, the closer I can get. So when I compose a song I try to make the composition itself as minimal as possible. I use a lot of open tunings and the lyrics will often consist of just a few words to play around with. I am pretty focused on trying to figure out how I can physically relate to the guitar and try to create a range of sounds percussively, out of the way in which I touch the instrument, rather than out of playing a series of notes. I draw pretty heavily on American folk music as a place to start. I deconstruct the songs and figure out how I personally relate to them. Then I change them pretty substantially and figure out how I can leave as much room as possible for the performance itself (meaning the sounds or conditions within the room and any improvisation). This is really how my music relates to my other artwork. In my film, collage, and performance work I always try to leave a lot of space for interpretation and always try to trust the audience/viewer as much as possible. Sometimes there are a lot of quiet parts in the songs, or sonically delicate parts. I often sing without a microphone if I can get away with it. So far I have found that this tends to work out. Most of the time people seem to make room for it, I think I've been lucky with very focused audiences most of the time."
Her second set at Sunview was in duo with H. Honne Wells. The two have released Ottomotty on ZAP as well.
Halpern says Ottomotty "is a collaboration . . . I was invited into. Hank had already figured out some of the technical parameters. We both play electric guitar and the overall sound is very much a result of the particulars of our equipment; the amps were manufactured by Danelectro in the 1960s for the Sears Silvertone line. The microphones are modified Baldwin speakers, and we use effects pedals. There is a similar process of referencing American folk songs (we reference a lot from the Child Ballads collection), deconstructing and subsequently building on them. We reach back to the roots of American music and pull bits and pieces forward into a densely electric environment. By nature, the microphones have a narrow gate on them so this adds an interesting constraint for singing and word choices. For example 'on' would come through pretty well, but "in" would be entirely blurred and no one would hear it. So the equipment relates to the composition on a basic level. We recorded everything on reel-to-reel tape, to suit the final cassette format."
The pieces I experienced live from the duo were: "Dreary Dream," "Lie Down," and "Lord of the Sea," which are all on the tape, though they are all somewhat improvised and sounded a bit different than the recordings, which were made a year ago. Her solo set consisted of "Blue Eyes" which, as she claims, is "an abstracted, somewhat improvised version of the second track on my [solo] tape, Silvered Golden, titled eyes. The song is a reinterpretation of 'Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,' recorded by the Carter Family, which was itself an interpretation of a much older Appalachian folk song." Halpern did a few other re-configured tunes, also on the solo tape, and each took me deeper into an almost trance-like state. I strongly advise you pick up both tapes. A must hear.
As for ZAP, the label's producer is archivist and film preservationist John Klacsmann who also works at Anthology Film Archives. It is mainly a cassette label that includes the odd LP. It's been around for some ten years and its catalog, though primarily music, contains some spoken word such as from Craig Baldwin, Jeff Perkins, and me.
Keeping it in the family, Halpern is a producer on the new film, The Unicorn, about gay, outsider country and western singer from Queens, Peter Grudzien, directed by Tim Geraghty (her husband, also part of AFA) and Isabelle Dupuis. The film covers 2005-2007 and includes later home movies by Grudzien. It is a painful journey about a totally dysfunctional family, consisting of Grudzien, his ninety-nine-year-old father, and his twin sister, all now dead. To say their unkempt insanity runs rampant is an understatement, yet the tenderness that dwells inside Peter and his sister is astounding. To my mind, though he experienced much abuse in his life, Grundzien is a well-founded paranoiac, more eccentric than crazy, who, since childhood, never abandoned his art. To render the emotional depth of this film and to share my insights is a column unto itself. I strongly suggest you experience it and pick up his classic self-produced LP, Unicorn.
Towards the film's conclusion the cameraperson asks, "Do you feel like you get looks walking around dressed as you are?"
Peter: "Yeah, they call out from cars and laugh and everything."
Cameraperson: "How does that make you feel?"
Peter: "Look where it's coming from." Indeed, Peter. Who are the crazies for real?
I dedicate this to mentor, poet, filmmaker and founder of AFA, Jonas Mekas.