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The Wolf(e) Tone: An Exercise in Listening

10 Apr

Grandfather Singing “The Guilford 4” 

“Believe that we too love freedom and desire it. To us it is more desirable than anything in the world. If you strike us down now, we shall rise again and renew the fight. You cannot conquer Ireland you cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom: if our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom then our children will win it with a better deed.” — Patrick Pearse

“The history of what could be called revolutionary subjectivity should be written.” — Michel Foucault

A trip home from the hospital in a winter snowstorm after chemo treatment has me bone-tired and depleted. I’m sitting in the back of my grandparents’ car; these grandparents that have raised me after my father’s coma (from which he later returned–back from the almost-dead, where he lives now on the interstices of almost-life) and my mother’s flirtation with suicide and affairs with rehab clinics around New York and back again–always, back again. My grandfather puts in the Wolfe Tones CD, and I’m half-listening, half-dozing off as our car navigates through the snowy roads of Long Island. The Wolfe Tones are named after Theobald Wolfe Tone, a leading Irish revolutionary figure who started the 1798 Irish Rebellion. Suddenly, my grandfather begins singing loudly and I’m awake, sitting up and smiling, to a song that I remember hearing him sing as a child but never understanding the lyrics. The name of the song is “The Guilford 4” and the lyrics my grandfather sing along to are as follows:

Behind those English prison walls

So innocent and tortured all

They call for justice and for peace

and a chance to live again

for in their dark and lonely cell

There’s no justice, there’s no freedom bell

For those Irish men and women there

in prison without crime

So free the people let them go

You can’t hold them anymore

But remember too it could be me or you

Behind those prison walls

He interjects after the lyrics “But remember too it could be me or you” to add, “It could be Meghan” and I chuckle here (see 1:04). Quickly, I’m removed from the space of listening (or “pricking up the philosophical ear”) to the lyrics, to hearing my grandfather’s joke–a part of his Irish humor that sweeps me briskly away from a moment of pain that refers to a tense moment in Irish history. Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Patrick Armstrong, and Carole Richardson (later known as ‘The Guilford Four’) spent fifteen years in English prison for IRA bombings in 1974 in Guilford, England; they were sentenced under false confessions made days after torture by the Surrey police.  My grandparents, my father and his siblings, having all been a part of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) until 1980 when they immigrated to the United States, relate to these lyrics differently than I do… but I’m still listening.

As Jean-Luc Nancy writes in Listening, “To be listening is to always be on the edge of meaning.” (7) It is to “capture the sonority rather than the message.” (4) Is is possible, then, to listen (in the Nancian sense) to revolutionary songs: songs that depend on the message? Perhaps more important than this question is one that Foucault poses in his later years of writing: is revolution even desirable? Foucault states, “You know full well today that the problem is whether revolution is desirable”. Perhaps, revolution is desirable in that it enters the subject into politics and not politicking (something Foucault warns against). Foucault engages in a language of rights that does not appear in his earlier works (in fact is mostly resisted). This is arguably because of Foucault’s understanding of power and how it operates. Foucault is particularly interested in the micro-level workings of power; he is not talking about monarchical power, in which sovereignty exists as an ‘absolute.’ The management of possibilities in monarchical power is transparent. What is more interesting for Foucault are the power structures in an apparently ‘free’ society (e.g. in liberal democracies). The foundational mechanisms of power specifically point to the “way in which some act on others” (137) and how those actions upon actions mark the transition to management–the management of individual bodies and, more broadly, the population. So certainly, revolution (which for Ireland is not exactly happening within a ‘liberal democracy’ but in a state of colonial occupation) isn’t what makes power interesting. However, Foucault’s later question about the desirability of the revolution is a critical one in thinking about cultural memory, intervention, and the community of the governed–the multiplicitous. As he states in Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collége de France, 1977-78, “No more or less that that which is born with resistance to governmentality, the first uprising, the first confrontation.”  My question, which stems from the query over revolution’s desirability, is this: what does song do to the revolution and, more specifically, to revolution’s desirability?

The ‘live’ performance of my grandfather over the recorded performance of the Wolfe Tone’s enacts a kind of dissonance in listening and hearing. What are the words of the revolution, the beats and tones and notes of the revolution, doing to me in this moment of my post-chemo self in the back of our car in 2012? Am I even listening? Was my grandfather’s interruption into the song (“It could be Meghan”) a call to history? Was it a call for my own involvement in this revolution that is so deeply tied to my own cultural and to Ireland’s collective history?

In music, a wolf tone occurs when a note matches the natural frequency of the body of the instrument, creating a continued artificial overtone that aids in amplifying the frequencies of the original note. This tension between the original and artificial note that produces the wolf tone is very much like the tension that occurs between the live (original) performance of my grandfather singing and the recorded (artificial) performance of the Wolfe Tone’s CD. The uneven frequencies create a friction that causes my grandfather to pause and interject: It could be Meghan. It could be me or you.

Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jochanaan

14 Jul

I keep promising, idly, not to become an opera queen. The contemporary stagings of the operatic repertory of femme fatale at the main houses in Berlin, however, are not helping. Compared to the youtube clips of the famous divas playing the role, Morenike Fadoyomi as a singer was hardly exceptional. But in this case, too great an emphasis on the virtuosic soprano’s voice distracts, from the pathos and perversity of what is after all a form of theatre. Her acting was fierce. That is where the Komische Oper version stands out to an opera newcomer like me. It is not just that Salome starts out looking like Rihanna, and ends resembling both Janet Jackson and Madonna, circa American Life. It is that these pop references (made in the staging and costume design, by the way, not the singing, which as far as I can tell is traditionally done) keep Oscar Wilde’s play and Richard Strauss’ music fresh and relevant.

Some of the updating felt like a stretch, an overreaching attempt to propose the opera as an allegory for contemporary conflict in the Middle East. This was confusing in part because the play itself is imagistic and symbolist. Ironically, adding layers of allegory to such image and symbols had the effect of making them more, not less, realist, narrowing their range of meaning.

But overall, I confess I approve setting play in a militarized anyplace of the present (Gaza? Guantanamo? Syntagma Square?). One could almost apply a Hardt and Negri reading of this staging (although more likely the German intellectuals behind the production have already read their Hardt and Negri) and its updating of Empire as everywhere and nowhere. The contemporary Roman empire is and is not the US, Herod is and is not Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Silvio Berlusconi, a postmodern tetrarch betrayed by his own lust for power and nubile flesh.

Under this description, our identification with Salome surpasses the femme fatale’s customary idolization by the gay male gaze. She becomes the Joan of Arc of the contemporary multitude, the pervert-saint who founds our new military religion, which is perhaps why this production ends with her standing in iconic defiance, dressed in military fatigues and a Che beret, rather than crushed under the blows of Herod’s soldiers.

Ann Liv Young’s Fireworks

18 Jun

Ann Liv Young, The Mermaid Show. performance still by author. 2011

Pop music is so ubiquitous now as an element in performance, video and installation art, that it’s easy to ignore or dismiss its role. Isn’t it presence, after all, tautological? Pop music is used as a medium to establish a common basis with an audience because it is, after all, popular. The medium is the message, and that’s the end of it. Or is it?

From the standpoint of affect theory, the use of popular hooks and melodies, and the participatory frisson of karaoke and the fan singalong, is all provocative grist for the mill. Indeed, opinions for and against the use of pop music in art contexts can recapitulate a standard distinction in affect theory (which also serves as a rough division of labor between two main camps in affect studies): the distinction between affects seen as impersonal, asubjective flows, and affects seen as instantiated, stylized and consciously experienced by particular subjects and communities. Music can also be divided in this way (or seen from these incompatible two vantage points that produce a parallax shift). It emerges out of and indeed is noise, particularly at its bleeding edges of distortion, feedback, and (a word made famous by American Idol judge Randy Jackson) ‘pitchiness.’ But pop is also experienced as a specific emotional response, it colors the affective tonalities of the multitude, it possesses shape, depth, organization; it envelopes and even threatens to overwhelm us with a direct address to who we are in ourselves, whatever that is. Pop is divisive because someone else’s pleasure is always threatening to earworm itself into becoming our own.

For such reasons of its power, pop is used in a variety of ways in performance, ranging from the ironic (of course) to the almost painfully sincere, from the deliberate courting of schlock to the surprising selection of pop as a pathway to musical sublimity.

This ‘Hipster Arial’ is doubly apropos for Ann Liv Young’s Mermaid Show, which I caught last Thursday at HKW in Berlin. It was my first time seeing a Liv Young show, although her reputation definitely precedes her. Someone who knows her work better described this as ‘minimal Ann Liv Young’ which I can definitely see. Underneath the hype-generating fights, scat, and naked is a rigorous conceptual experiment, and stripping down the show really brought this aspect to the fore for me.

The set piece for me occurred early on, with Liv Young, seated in a lime green kiddie pool wearing a mermaid costume and sporting fright contact lenses, is suddenly thrown a mike and begins to sing along to Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ as two other performers — men in sailor suits — try to reel her in with the microphone cord-turned-fishing line. This worked well as allegory, particularly when prefaced by a spoken text about mermaids in folklore. Like their sisters the sirens and maenads, mermaids seduce and consume men with their sensuality and song.

Frederic Leighton, The Fisherman and the Syren. circa 1856–1858

We routinely call pop singers ‘sirens,’ defanging that word in the process, since the original sirens lured sailors to their shipwrecked doom. Caught on the line of the pop ‘hook,’ the mermaid thrashes as she belts out Perry’s lyrics of bland self-affirmation.

You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July

Later on, Liv Young inserted some scary shark teeth and flopped around threatening the front row of the audience, who giggled and snapped photos until she started to tear into the real dead fish she was carrying, at which point most backed up. By the point she was being spun around by her fins in a mess of bloody water, to the tune of Willow Smith’s ‘Whip My Hair,’ the alienation/identification effect was complete.

I whip my hair back and forth
I whip my hair back and forth
I whip my hair back and forth

Here was pop lyric as found instruction piece, with Liv Young opting for the Lacanian tactic, not of simple transgression of the dominant order, but of ‘persisting to the end‘ finding in that persistence a sublime doorway onto creativity.


Sherry confronts an audience member, The Sherry Show. Performance still by author, 2011

I went back on Saturday for a second helping of Liv Young, this time to see the Sherry Show. I continued my informal audience research on her performance. One person felt she was unable to discern the intent of the Mermaid Show because Liv Young “had a lot of trouble with her costume” and therefore the performance didn’t come off for her. That was an odd response, as I was pretty sure the grappling with the costume was part of the show. But another’s eyes lit up and called the piece “soulful” which was not the word I would have thought of, but seemed apt as soon as he said it.

Soul, r&b, and rap are certainly major components of her show, given her US southern roots. But these black musics are not delivered in anything like an Amy Winehouse or Adele ‘blue-eyed soul’ style. Instead she sings raucously over original tracks, layering her voice (badly) with the preexisting vocal track so as to prevent any comparison with the professionalism of karaoke.

This lingering in the negative allows the show to achieve moments of extraordinary force, such as one in which she confronted a male heckler until she somehow got him to talk about his deceased father, and how much he missed him calling up to ask how he is, at which point Sherry dedicated a song to him — T.I.’s “Dead and Gone.”

This is known as ‘taking it too far.’ But rather than bad taste, it rather seemed to me a palpable brand of stranger intimacy I longed for. After lingering on the edge of the performance, I scooted into the front row, but my eagerness to participate was perhaps discernable, and Sherry overlooked me for more aghast prey.

Another male skeptic (this one an art critic, poor sod), got Lionel Richie’s “Stuck on You” dedicated to his 9 month child. The humor and pathos of this particular title is only occurring to me now, as I write this.

Geo Wyeth at Joe’s Pub

12 Jun

Geo Wyeth at Joe's Pub, June 11, 2011.

Novice Theory no longer, Geo Wyeth played original songs and some choice covers (‘Long Black Veil,’ ‘Ain’t Got No/I Got Life’) at Joe’s Pub last night. No shorthand does justice to his sound, which has developed in the years since I began catching his shows. The songwriting is more imagistic than on the first Novice Theory CD, the voice raspier, the performance style even more furious, possessed, incantatory. Last week, by coincidence, I had caught his first show in Berlin, at an alternative art and dance space, and that short set was different (although it also featured ‘Long Black Veil’): he banged his drum so hard on the cement floor that he snapped his guitar cable in two, and had to scramble for a new one. He also used live looping in that show: this one featured a horn player. I bought the EP “Black One” by Jive Grave, Wyeth’s “experimental rock ensemble,” which is a great amuse bouche for this fall’s LP “Alien Tapes.” Also amusing is Cole Escada’s interview with Wyeth at East Village Boys.

Arts and Crafts

10 Mar

Attended a read-through of Justin Bond and Sandra Bernhard’s new show at Joe’s Pub Monday night. Then watched “Without You I’m Nothing” last night with Chris. He pointed out (admiringly) Ms. Sandra’s “vulgar vibrato,” to help me as I try to put into words exactly what makes certain vocalists “sound queer,” as I think Bond, Bernhard, and Kalup Linzy (who I also saw earlier that evening in a separate) all do.