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Battering Down the Walls: Isaac Schankler’s Notes from the Studio

14 Mar

NOTES FROM THE STUDIO
This week your friends at Catalysis Projects introduce the sixth in our series of new columns – brief notes from the studios of our Core and Resident Artists. This week our Resident Artist composer Isaac Schankler posts the first in a series of entries looking at connections between speech and music.

I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between speech and music, maybe partly because they employ the same medium (sound waves, with an approximate visual notation) yet carry such different kinds of information.  Speech is representational, while music is expressive — okay, but this delineation isn’t as clear-cut as it first seems.  Certainly speech is capable of being expressive in its rhythms, cadences, rhetorical flourishes.  And music can be used to represent cultural codes (e.g. what subculture(s) you belong to).

So where can the boundary be drawn?

When the two are combined, interesting things happen.  Both change shape to fit the other.  In opera, the distinction between recitative (parts where the needs of the text take precedence) and aria (parts where the needs of the music are paramount) is an old one.  Many composers seem to have been dissatisfied with this distinction and have tried and batter the walls down from one side or the other.

Leoš Janáček was a champion of “speech-song” theory, in which musical ideas were driven by the rhythms, pitch contours and inflections of normal Czech speech.  (But, a bit like Ornette Coleman’s harmelodics, it seems to be next to impossible to find out what “theory” actually was behind it, other than some vague principles.)

Janáček filled notebooks with musical transcriptions of everyday speech, and when his daughter fell ill, he even went so far as to transcribe her final, dying breaths.  This strikes me, somehow, as a uniquely composerly act: a bit obsessive, yes, clinical and detached and at the same time incredibly sentimental.

I think this gets to the core of my fascination with speech and music; when you put them together you are able to be at once abstract and personal.  They seem to be the same thing, even.  The world seems to be at peace, almost.

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Lying in a Ditch on a Stormy Day: Quintan Ana Wikswo’s Notes from the Studio

10 Feb

by Quintan Ana Wikswo

This NOTES FROM THE STUDIO column features CP Core Artist Quintan Ana Wikswo, who creates work in text, photography, video, installation and performance.  Visit her work online here and here.

When I was a teenager, some fortuitous creature slid me a copy of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.”

Since then, I’ve been mesmerized by the indefatigable pursuit for a practical space for private creation and cogitation, with a door that locks. My first studio was the lower limb of an apple tree – when I got older and heavier I graduated to a maple tree – then a steamer trunk, a closet, a semi-abandoned sweatshop, my lap, the bathtub, the kitchen table.

A studio is a great place for scraps.  It’s like the manure pile of art: mostly shit, but very rich in nutrients.

Nowadays my studio is located on an upper floor in a 1920s building in downtown Los Angeles, with huge chickenwired windows peeking into the bleached out well of a courtyard. I have always considered chickens to be my muses, and perhaps it is the chicken wire windows that draws me into this vista with fantasies of transcendence.

My view is all soot stains and articulated smog, the cool hues of concrete and charcoal asphalt, and a monochrome obstructed light. All the chemicals are in flux: every visible surface is oxidizing, peeling, rusting, dissolving. Somehow, I find this galvanic activity very exciting.

It’s because of Virginia. Her command for studio is unconventional:

“Lying in a ditch on a stormy day, when it has been raining, then enormous clouds come marching over the sky, tattered clouds, wisps of cloud. What delights me then is the confusion, the height, the indifference and the fury. Great clouds always changing, and movement; something sulphurous and sinister, bowled up, helter-skelter; towering, trailing, broken off, lost, and I forgotten, minute, in a ditch.”

Required qualities in a studio: confusion. Height. Fury and indifference. Great clouds ever-changing. The smell of sulphur. Everything sinister and lost. Broken off. Bowled up.

And I forgotten. Perhaps that is the most important part – the humility of beginning with scraps and growing shoots from the muck.

Next to me on my workdesk today is a glorious bit of deliciousness sent my way from a musician friend. It’s a rejection letter sent to Gertrude Stein by a publisher.

I think it’s very much appropriate this week, when VIDA released its new report about the shameful, bigoted disparities in “the publishing world” between female and male writers. As the Guardian writes, “The gender imbalance at the heart of the British and American literary establishment has been laid bare by a new study confirming that leading literary magazines focus their review coverage on books written by men, and commission more men than women to write about them.”

In essence, women are writing, but their work is not seeing the light of day in major magazines, including Tin House, where my own work has been published. Then again, many people think the name Quintan could only be attached to a man.

One argument – made by a rather smug and odious editor Peter Stothard of the Times Literary Supplement, suggested that women don’t read and furthermore don’t know how to read quality literature, so why allow them to review quality books?

I offer him a sulphurous and sinister “screw you.”

Guardian books editor Claire Armitstead writes: “My own feeling is that there is an issue of confidence among women writers.” Hm.

So must we believe that women don’t submit our work to publishers, but rather keep it locked away in our hope chests with our tampons, barbie dolls and cooking aprons?

These are hardly credible alibis in any editor’s quest for misanthropic absolution – publishing is still a segregated industry, with women writers consigned to women readers, and the male writer deemed best at representing the literary expression of humanity.

But as long as we’re on the topic, it’s important to “submit” work. Without being submissive. Gertrude Stein didn’t get where she got by listening to fools like Arthur C. Fifield, whose role in advancing literature is surely as pathetic as the creature at the Times Literary Supplement.

Shortly after I read A Room of One’s Own, someone gave me Alice Walker’s retort, with her call for all women (not only wealthy white women) to have studio space. Today is her birthday, and her consistent efforts to get all women to the table is especially resonant.

Let’s have all the chickens in studios.

From within the fury and bowled up sulphurous confusion of the studio, it’s good to be forgotten, but only while mucking around in the manure pile. Afterwards, let’s send all the chickens out into the street, squawking.

I love the ridicule of this rejection letter, sent in derisive rebuke of Ms. Stein, who shouted her poems into the streets of Paris unabashed, furious and sinister and helter-skelter. And look where it propelled us.

Studios should be locked and then unlocked. When the work is done, send it out, ladies and gentlemen.

Send those chickens out beyond the wire and let them spread their icky little feathers everywhere.

And to catch up on the hoo-hah about the VIDA report, check out these articles: