Up to 11

Learning to let go and tune in

“My kid could make that” or “My dog could paint that” are expressions I’ve often heard quipped when a person is confronted by a work of art that feels confusing or unconventional. I’ve taught many art students over the years who have said things like, “How could this scribble-scrabble painting end up in a museum?”

Generally, the way I’ve tried to foster an appreciation for difficult work in my students is to have them consider the culture in which the work was produced. Or even better, to have them create art in a similar manner. Sometimes it comes from simply learning to let go and tune in to the mood of a piece. Whatever it takes to get there, it’s a beautiful thing when one is eventually willing to open up to a piece of art.

Teachers are notorious for not always following the advice they give to their students. I know I can be impatient and stubborn. I often stick to what I already know and like. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to open myself up to new influences. When it comes to music, avant-garde free jazz always struck fear and reluctance in me. It seemed way over my head, like I would probably need to do some extensive homework before even attempting to listen. However, when I learned of an opportunity to see a live performance by a trio of world-renowned musicians working in this genre (Peter Brötzmann, Hamid Drake and William Parker) at an intimate Louisville venue, I decided to get over myself and check it out.

Dreamland had a packed house. Old black-and-white film footage was being screened before the show started. The films all related to rhythm: people working in a factory, newspapers being printed on a press, track athletes jumping, people rubbing mud onto their bodies, synchronized swimmers performing a routine. The repeating visuals made for an interesting prelude to a performance that featured odd rhythm as a key element.

The three musicians walked onto the stage and, without a single word, picked up their instruments and dove into a frantic piece. Brötzmann’s clarinet chattered like a flock of birds while his face glowed beet red. In the second piece, Parker’s fingers flew up and down the neck of his upright bass with great speed, and Drake answered with a complex drum rhythm. The two instruments continued the call and response until Brötzmann crept in with his droning clarinet and wandered into an almost-melody that turned into a spastic flutter hovering above the rhythm. At times during the set, the chaos, volume and duration of noise became so intense it was almost overwhelming. At the end of the sixth piece (55 minutes into the set), Drake finally took his first break on drums of the night.

In a more subdued piece, Brötzmann traded his clarinet for saxophone and Drake played raindrop-like tapping sounds. Parker bowed high-pitched notes on the bass that fluctuated between sounding like a horn and like wind chimes. It was hard to tell which instrument was which as the saxophone and bass swirled around each other. Drake’s drumming was unlike anything I’d ever seen: In one piece, he rubbed his hands all over the drum heads, creating soft, swirling rhythms, then switched to a technique where he would drop the tip of a drumstick onto a floor tom, sliding his fist down to punctuate it with a light echo. At one point, the trio’s dynamics grew so soft that when Drake took two brushes and simply tapped them together in the air, it felt every bit as intense as the earlier chaos in their set.

I was fascinated by the huge variety of sounds these musicians created with their instruments, particularly since they were entirely organic: no effects pedals, no samples and no electronic doodads. The complex musical landscapes that emerged were created simply through explorations of the instruments.

After the show, I walked out into the warm summer night feeling grateful to have had an opportunity to see such phenomenal musicians here in Louisville, and eager to learn more about music that once intimidated me.

Carrie Neumayer plays in the bands Second Story Man, Julie of the Wolves and Early Age. She is also a visual artist and educator.