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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Dignity of Craft: Sō Percussion's artisanal collaborators for Where (we) Live

by Adam Sliwinski of Sō Percussion

When Sō Percussion conceives big projects of our own work, we always start with a source of inspiration outside of purely musical ideas. We look for a kind of libretto, but being rather non-linear guys, we quickly abandon the source and allow its discourse to inform our process. 

For Where (we) Live, that source was Jane Jacobs' manifesto of urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. We found in it an analogue to something that we had been thinking about for awhile: what about attempting a unified creation with multiple and sometimes chaotic inputs? In Jacobs' book, she rails against the well-meaning but (in her mind) hopelessly short-sighted urban planning of the 50s and 60s by the likes of Robert Moses, where whole communities and use areas were conceived together as one design. She claims that a truly vibrant city must have stages of growth, unplanned diversity, and mixed uses on every block.

It sparked in us the thought that our art forms are often planned and segmented in exactly the same way, and we feel that it requires only a simple act of outreach to experiment outside of its boundaries. Just as with Jacobs' mixed-use block, what if we practice our craft, but ask other folks to share the stage and practice theirs? Would it just be a big happy mess, or could we hammer out an aesthetic shape and purpose?

We decided to ask specific artists and artisans to join us on the stage and make things. We visited each in their own studio before the performance, learning about their process by observing the idiosyncrasies and rituals of their work. They then bring tools to one rehearsal, where we hash out the parameters of our brief collaboration. We strive for the uncanny sense that our simultaneous and disparate activities are part of the same ecosystem, a created community on stage.

The Dignity of Craft

The concept of "craft" came up over and over again. Why, when we have the ability to fabricate massive quantities of perfectly symmetrical and consistent objects, would somebody still labor over creating them? The question applies just as well to music: At this point, I can barely tell the difference between a programmed marimba in Ableton Live and the real thing.

For me, the question was answered vividly when we visited Dave Berger's forge. I had never actually been close to a skilled blacksmith (or I guess any at all). Something deeply human in me thrilled at the physical gesture, the smell of burned ash, the proximity to melted steel.

It brought to mind my favorite quote by the composer Iannis Xenakis, which may surprise those who think of him as a mechanical composer:

The hand, itself, stands between randomness and calculation. It is both an instrument of the mind—so close to the head—and an imperfect tool. ... Industrialization is a forced purification. But you can always recognize what has been made industrially and what has been made by hand. Industrial means are clean, functional, poor. The hand adds inner richness and charm.

Steve Reich, another of my favorite composers, talks about the joy of discovering how much he liked hearing imperfect humans attempt phasing in his music. Mathematical perfection pales aesthetically in comparison with our experience of identification with the performers who exert themselves in achieving it.

Our increasingly digital lives, while conferring many benefits, detach us from this thrill. Live performance, and craft by hand, jolt us back into a basic humanity.

Our Artists

The four performances at BAM feature a different Brooklyn-based artist each night. Their creations, and the aesthetic experience of watching them make things alongside us, change the musical and theatrical environment. We encourage anybody who comes out to check out more than one night and see how the show changes.

Paula Greif, ceramics (Dec 19) trained as a graphic designer and has always had an interest in rock. Her first job was in the art department at Rolling Stone; she was art director at Mademoiselle, Condé Nast, Barneys New York, and Richard Avedon’s studio and designed album covers as well. At MTV in the 1980s, she made her first Super 8 rock video for The Smiths, “How Soon is Now,” and directed many rock videos and TV commercials. After marrying and becoming a parent, she began making pottery and glassware, taking inspiration from 20th-century artisans such as Lucie Rie, Beatrice Wood, and Rosanjin Kitaoji. She has a studio in Red Hook and in the summer is potter in residence at old Field Farm in Cornwallville, NY.

Marsha Trattner, blacksmith (Dec 20) is the owner of She-Weld, which specializes in welding, blacksmithing, custom metal design and fabrication. She gives workshops and private instruction, and runs a “Girls Night at the Forge.” Trattner also creates sculpture, drawings, prints, and designs lighting, jewelry, theatrical sets, and artifacts for the home and garden. Marsha's studio in Red Hook was ravaged by Sandy, so we'll be donating a portion of our proceeds from merchandise sales at BAM to the Red Hook Initiative, as well as to Marsha's personal restoration efforts.

Riccardo Vecchio, painter (Dec 21) was born in 1970 near Milan, Italy. Vecchio is a faculty member at SVA and has won awards from American Illustration, Communication Arts, and other publications. His work has been published in a wide variety of magazines and books, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Penguin Books. He lives and works in New York City.

Victoria Valencia, woodworker/furniture-maker (Dec 22) hails from California and upholds a respect for materials in their natural state while introducing urban clean metal as a complement. The resulting work retains the imperfections of the varied source materials. Largely self-taught, she worked in house remodeling and then as a head designer in set design. She views her work as a collaboration between the client, the space, the materials, and the external environment.

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