by QUINTAN ANA WIKSWO
On October 29, 2011, Issue Project Room Artist-in-Residence James Ilgenfritz presents The Ticket That Exploded: An Ongoing Opera. Based on William Burroughs’ 1962 dystopian novel about identity disintegration, oppression of humanity’s collective consciousness through technological influence, and revolution through the subversion of those very technologies.
There are only a few artists whose grip upon my adolescent sensibilities was so thorough, so relentless, and so transmogrifying that I actually feel I absorbed them into my atomic matter. William Burroughs is one such artist (Kathy Acker is another). A few hours after my own peculiar live performance works premiered last month in NYC, I happened to have a restorative beer alongside the delightfully insightful Brooklyn composer, bassist and educator James Ilgenfritz – he mentioned that my aesthetics seemed imbued with a certain Burroughsian hue, a certain WSB stink.
Yes, I said, with a fanatic, quivering gleam in my eye. Are you, too, an admirer of his existence?
When James said he was in fact creating a new opera based off Burrough’s The Ticket That Exploded, and that it would be premiering at the end of October at Issue Project Room in Gowanus, Brooklyn, I knew I would soon have to dissect the whorls and fissures of this likeminded brain over a nice pint of Belgian hops.
And so a few weeks later we adjourned to BierKraft in Park Slope to talk about the re-sexualization of narrative structure, the infliction of aesthetic discomfort, the kinds of weeds that are engulfing William’s old car in the back yard, and James’ kickstarter campaign for the project.
QUINTAN: It seems that while some people are immune to the Burrough’s bug, some of us come down with it pretty badly and learn to treasure the aesthetic infection. To create an opera seems highly symptomatic of this kind of full-fledged chronic infestation. I am fairly confident at this point that you’re highly contaminated.
What initially attracted you to Burroughs’ writing, and to this project in particular?
JAMES: I read Naked Lunch in high school in the mid-90s and was drawn to both the unapologetic approach he took to disturbing imagery and the unorthodox structure to his writing. At that time there was a wealth of information on his work– the film came out, which was extremely inspiring though not necessarily related to what intrigued me about the book. I was fascinated both by his persona and by his bizarre creations.
I’ve long been fascinated by art that both elicits an immediate visceral response and then also requires a fair amount of consideration after the fact in order to begin to understand. I’ve read that this is what initially confounded listeners when they encountered Charlie Parker, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman for the first time. This definitely happened for me with Ornette’s music, though I was more prepared for both Cecil and Bird.
Naked Lunch definitely did that for me. I spent a long time considering the implications of opening that door, and I’m doing that now with this opera. When the residency at Issue Project Room came along, I knew I wanted to find ways to both challenge myself to create more ambitious work, but also to find a way to more fully address the unspoken force that guides my artistic hand, so to speak.
I quickly recognized that Burroughs’ work had a resonance that I’d been overlooking for a while, probably since the early 2000s when I last read one of his books. My copy of The Ticket That Exploded found its way into my life in 2010 in a very capricious fashion, and I tend to appreciate those fleeting moments- I like to build something big on a foundation that could almost have not happened.
QUINTAN: The most phenomenal artworks really are a kind of pathology – there is the initial shock of contagion, and then a long time living with how it unfolds in the body, its repercussions and consequences and how the host adapts…or doesn’t. It requires a whole different kind of aesthetic outlook to create work that unfolds perhaps weeks or years after that initial encounter…an encounter that can often be quite unpleasant or uncomfortable or distasteful. A sort of Darwinian approach to audiences, perhaps [laughter].
When I talk to people about Burroughs, the idea of Lawrence, Kansas often emerges as an imagined place – some sort of epic spacetime coordinate that lives only in mythos.. I went on a pilgrimage there as a teenager and it ended up being quite a bizarre, beautiful experience – I suspect it’s nearly impossible to have a normal, tidy, sane experience of his domain.
How did you end up making your trip to WSB’s house in Lawrence, Kansas, and what was that like? I half-expected to see his corpse in the driver’s seat of that car. A datsun, perhaps?
JAMES: As my idea to turn Ticket into an opera turned into a strong determination, two issues arose: one was that I felt that I wanted a more direct connection to the man. The creative work I’m doing is based on my personal experiences encountering his creative work, but I wanted another level of personal connection to Burroughs the historical figure. The other issue was that I wanted to make sure that I would be allowed to do this! Elliott Sharp helped me get in touch with James Grauerholz, who was a close friend and professional associate of Burroughs for the last couple decades of his life. James was very helpful on both counts.
It turned out that that day I could be in Kansas was a Thursday, a day where traditionally Burroughs and many of his associates in Lawrence would get together for a pot luck. So James and Tom King, who lives at the house and maintains the property, invited everyone back over and we had a wonderful evening full of stories and some incredible food.
Towards the end of the evening I gave a short concert, which was recorded and is now on Youtube. The experience was really great, because it gave me a chance to get some first-hand accounts from folks who knew him quite well. They were all quite gracious– as one can imagine, there are a fair number of random people who show with somewhat voyeuristic intentions because of his notoriety, but they were quite appreciative of my work and were all quite helpful– I’m definitely grateful for them referring me to Andre Perkowski, who has made an incredible film based on the Nova Express.
QUINTAN: Burroughs had a really shattering impact on many artists’ sense of narrative – not just textual, but visual and cognitive as well. He has the ability to take a subject that could be highly coherent and smash it over your head, leaving you to assemble the pieces within your own consciousness…or not. That smashing gives a lot of respect and power and responsibility to the audience, and serves as a reminder that our brains are capable of abstract aesthetic sleuthing. Fragments and shards force us to do the heavy lifting. It’s one of the aspects I love the most about his work.
Given the number of shifting components available within opera – text, voice, plot, stage setting, narrative, instruments and the multivalent score itself – how are you approaching Burroughs’ unorthodox deconstruction of narrative?
JAMES: Burroughs’ approach resonates with those of some of my favorite musical innovators– Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Feldman. These are all artists from whom I have learned things about texture, methodology, and structure. They have created work that challenged the concept of linearity and narrative, all in very different ways.
Opera is, in my mind, one of the great formats for synthesis, juxtaposition, cross-pollination, and appropriation, so I am looking to assemble a variety of performative methodologies in this work. The structure itself is modular– there are numerous discrete episodes which will be assembled in real-time during the performance. This is why I am referring to this as an “ongoing opera”– the materials will always fit together differently. Not only because the sections will not necessarily happen in the same order every time, but also because many of the sections incorporate indeterminacy and improvisation as well as notation with more implicit directionality.
I came up in a time where many filmmakers were experimenting with nonlinearity, from David Lynch to Quentin Tarantino. As I began to learn more about compositional structures that dealt with nonlinearity, I really started to see something that attracted me in a deep way. This opera actually has a big mixture of linear structures and various curved structures.
QUINTAN: I would be unforgivably remiss if I didn’t steer our conversation towards the significance of gender and genitalia in these poly-matrix narrative constructions and compositional structures. You take 20th century queer artists – Burroughs and Kathy Acker and the phenomenal Monique Wittig, for example – who looked at how sexualized biological forms impacted narrative structure. That the “plot arc” is a male orgasmic structure. That linearity is rather penile. That a circular structure with multiple climaxes is a feminine construction…and so forth.
Their work has a conscious scatological, genital “obscenity” to it that really startles us out of these static forms and encourages us to tell our stories within a far broader framework of structures.
JAMES: Absolutely, I think Burroughs’ work shatters linearity in this violent and beautiful way. I’ve been inspired for a while by artists whose work identifies linearity as a phallic structure that needs balance. It was a great experience for me, seeing Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum– a pretty deep experience, as was an experience I had a the Whitney a while back with the work of performance artist Hannah Wilke, whose work Through the Large Glass, which was represented in an exhibit called Off The Wall: Thirty Performative Actions (which inspired the title to my work Three Performative Acts, premiered earlier this year at Issue Project Room).
What was included in the show was a couple large images of Hanna’s performance in the 1970s– images of her standing naked, photographed through the shattered glass of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare. Meanwhile, one floor down was a work by Christian Marclay that included film footage of Duchamp discussing the shattering of the glass, and how he felt it improved the very sexually explicit (though profoundly abstract) work.
I find similar beauty in the way Burroughs’ work, especially in the Cut-Up trilogy (that includes Ticket, along with The Nova Express and the Soft Machine) seems to shatter linearity. My hope is to do that with this opera.
QUINTAN: I encourage everyone to check out the opera itself on October 29th at Issue Project Room in Gowanus, Brooklyn, and to contribute your available pocket change to your Kickstarter campaign. Keep us posted with your progress, and let’s go have another beer.
ABOUT THE OPERA:
On October 29, 2011, Issue Project Room Artist-in-Residence James Ilgenfritz presents The Ticket That Exploded: An Ongoing Opera. Based on William Burroughs’ 1962 dystopian novel about identity disintegration, oppression of humanity’s collective consciousness through technological influence, and revolution through the subversion of those very technologies. Featuring live vocalists Ted Hearne, Nick Hallett, Anne Rhodes, and Megan Schubert, video vocalists Melissa Hughes, Steve Dalachinsky, and Ryan Opperman, an ensemble of thirteen instrumentalists, and live video projections from Jason Ponce, the opera will be organized using the same cut-up techniques and emphasis on fragmentation of language that distinguishes Burroughs’ literary work.
An ongoing opera is one which has set material but is perpetually reconfigured during the performance, mixing composed material with indeterminate composition strategies and conducted improvisations. With zero staging, all visuals are conveyed through projected live video manipulations. Pre-recorded video performances will facilitate vocalists to interact with other vocalists who are not present, or even to sing a duet with themselves. These efforts to perpetually repurpose the musical and visual content of the opera are a direct effort on my part to draw comparisons between the performative and the generative– to make the very act of reorganizing materials function both as a blueprint for making art and as art itself.
Anne Rhodes, Megan Schubert, Ted Hearne, Nick Hallett: Voices
Steve Dalachinsky, Ryan Opperman, Melissa Hughes: Video voices
Jay Rozen: tuba
Sam Kulik: trombone
Douglas Detrick: trumpet
Justin Wood: alto saxophone, flute
Mike McGinnis: clarinet / bass clarinet / flute
Julianne Carney: violin
Nathan Bontrager: cello
Denman Maroney: piano
Andrew Drury, John O’Brien, Vinnie Sperazza: Percussion
Taylor Levine, Ty Citerman: Guitar/Electronics
Nicholas DeMaison: Conductor
Jason Ponce: Video Artist / Live Processing
ABOUT JAMES ILGENFRITZ
Brooklyn composer, bassist, and educator James Ilgenfritz has been active in creative music since 1999. His work has been praised in Time Out New York, All About Jazz, and Downbeat Magazine. Recent performances include work with Lukas Ligeti, Pauline Oliveros, Elliott Sharp, Steve Swell, John Zorn, and Anthony Braxton. James has received grants and residencies from Issue Project Room, the American Composers Forum, and OMI Arts Center.
Notable performance venues include Roulette, The Kitchen, The Kennedy Center in Washington DC, The World Financial Center Winter Garden, Symphony Space, and the New Museum in SoHo. James hosts the Ten Thousand Hours Podcast, featuring conversations and duets with such musical innovators as Robert Dick and Pauline Oliveros.
In 2011 James is Artist-In-Residence at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan and the University of California San Diego. James is on Faculty at the Preparatory Center of Brooklyn College and at Brooklyn Conservatory.
ABOUT QUINTAN ANA WIKSWO
Quintan Ana Wikswo is a multidisciplinary artist whose projects integrate photography, original text, multichannel and projected video and film, site specific installation, and performance collaborations with composers and choreographers. Working with damaged antique battlefield cameras and military typewriters, Ms. Wikswo explores unmarked locations where obscured histories and crimes against humanity have taken place. Her projects appear in museums, galleries, performance spaces and publications throughout Europe, Asia and the US.
The first major solo museum survey of her work appears at the Smithsonian-affiliated Yeshiva University Museum in Chelsea/NYC from August 2011-Feb 2012.