Polyvinyl Records and Joyful Noise Records recently announced the release of Testimonium Songs, a studio album composed by the iconic Chicago band, Joan of Arc, and performed live in Every house has a door’s latest performative work — debuting this week in Chicago — Testimonium. Every house is iconic in its own right, tied directly as it is to Lin Hixson and Matthew Goulish’s prior collaborative project, Goat Island. While I was grateful for the opportunity to interview Hixson a little over a month ago, I wanted to dig a little deeper into the composition and collaboration present in the musical component of this project. What happens then when two organizations, drawing on two respective aesthetic discourses — rock and roll, and performance art in this case — meet to create something new? In this case, objectivist poet, Charles Reznikov stands at the center for both, creating a platform on which both musical composition and embodied choreography rely. In the following interview I asked Tim Kinsella — a member of Joan of Arc and author in his own right — to talk about his experience creating this record.
Caroline Picard: How did you start working with Every house has a door? Were you expecting to make a new album with them?
Tim Kinsella: Bobby and I used to play in another band together called Make Believe and that band toured non-stop for a few years. We acquired a pretty good collection in our van library – a cardboard box under the backseat. Matthew’s book, 39 Microlectures, somehow ended up in there and the nature of that book invites rereading. So by the time I went back to school for my MFA at SAIC he was the person in the program whose work I felt the greatest familiarity and kinship with. And we’re neighbors. So we ended up bumping into each other all the time and pretty quickly realized that not only did our sensibilities have some commonalities, but some practical eccentricities (is that a good way of saying ‘constant travel?’) also seemed compatible. The starting point for our collaboration was “falling between two chairs” and it’s the only way it could’ve been. Our band has always failed to be what anyone wants it to be and Every House, though maybe in a more sophisticated way, seemed invested in frustrating and confounding expectations. And the album is essentially a byproduct of the collaboration. I don’t know if I’m saying that exactly right, but what I mean is — and this is true of the entire Joan of Arc discography — the process is determined and the limitations and indulgences agreed upon, etc. The subsequent record just happens. At the risk of somehow sounding both overly analytical and hokey with earnestness, as far as I can tell, records exist only because the people making them somehow enjoy the process of making them together after agreeing on how to make them.
CP: What was your experience like composing new music for this particular project? Was it different from how Joan of Arc usually composes albums?
TK: It was the exact challenge that we were prepared for but didn’t know exactly how we would focus. We had been writing longer pieces — an 80-something minute score to Dreyer’s Joan of Arc that we had to pull of live; a series of records in which each piece was determined by how long one side of vinyl can be. One record was toured live before it was recorded and then recorded live in the studio with no overdubs and the one before that was made entirely in the studio, showing up the first day with no songs written and no instruments in hand, using only what we found at the studio. So writing in response to particular constraints was already our thing. A few years ago we had a giant and liberating break-through as a band — the realization that our own tastes had very little to do with what might be potentially expressive. Becoming comfortable writing against our own tastes simplified everything. I really just like Bad Brains and Lungfish. I guess I sometimes listen to Bauhaus and Can and Slayer. But I’m not interested in trying to sound like them. I guess people often write songs about their feelings or whatever, but I’m a grown man so I don’t really have a sense of what my feelings would be like and even if I could somehow locate them, they hardly seem like a relevant standard of value to me. So it’s good for us to have a standard by which we can determine success or
CP: On the one hand, the album feels like an autonomous project — something that one can sit down and listen to in a living room — however, in the live performance of Testimonium, the Joan of Arc portion is one piece of a longer performative event with Every house. How did that structure come together?
TK: Lin and Matthew are superlatively inspiring in many ways. The structural and formal balance that defines and sustains the tension of Testimonium is a demonstration that daringness and sensitivity are not contradictory impulses. It’s been such a privilege and joy to see how they operate and compose. They contradicted my every intuition and in doing so created this thing with some weird Life in it.
CP: What are you aware of when you’re on stage with Testimonium? Does playing live music in a performance context feel different from playing at a music show?
TK: Oh yeah. All the rituals of live music performance are undermined and we love it. The whole catharsis-spectacle is frustrated and maybe we’re grizzled old cynics to find that liberating, but I promise that Testimonium will equally frustrate those expecting a rock show as it will irritate those expecting a performance piece. We’ve done 5 weeks of Joan of Arc regular rock club shows this fall. I just got home yesterday. And I am aware that I internalize certain shortcuts or tricks to keep count. Muscle memory is subconscious and essential — my weight is on my left foot for the 2 and 4 of this song and my hip knocks out on this accent. But the potential promise of a rock show is that everything can blow apart to smithereens at any second. It remains almost constantly on the verge of falling into chaos. Testimonium on the other hand is so controlled. The quiets so drawn out. The blocking so precise. It removes that essential sense of tension and by simply reframing how a band is set up on stage, the entire experience gets broken down to its core components. It’s thrilling and perverse while also so simple. And its greatest threat, it might bore you. Nothing in the fucking universe is more boring than watching the rituals of mediocre rock clichés constantly begging to be paid attention to. It’s embarrassing for the performers and the audience. But people not interested in seeing their live music stripped of those kind of cliches will find this difficult and maybe even painful. So of course we’re taking on a certain kind of associative baggage. But if that’s what it takes to draw attention to the usual baggage a rock band brings to performing, we’re fine with it. Thrilled in fact!
You can also visit this site to pick up your copy of the Every house/Joan of Arc record, Testimonium Songs, Magenta vinyl limited to 550 hand-numbered copies. “In a departure for the band, these highly structured compositions, developed over a two-year rehearsal period, emulate Reznikoff’s poetics by shaping themselves according to a mosaic method – rotating a fixed set of musical units in warping permutations. The lyrics re-invent the strategies of Objectivist poetry, by turns surreal, ordinary, testimonial, and explosive, releasing the undercurrent of emotion in the poems while (almost) never quoting them directly. Beyond collecting the Testimonium Songs, the record has a life of its own, with the contributions of stellar musicians David Grubbs, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Michael Zerang, and Jim Baker, additional vocals by Melina Ausikaitis, and musical material not included in the performance. The cover art was made by renowned Chicago artist Jason Lazurus.”
February 10, 2013 · Print This Article
This weekend, Every house has a door will be performing their original work, Mending the Great Forest Highway, on February 15 and 16 at 8pm, and then again on February 17 at 7 pm as part of the IN>TIME festival at Links Hall (3435 N. Sheffield Avenue) $15 general/$10 students. For information on this and other upcoming events, please visit IN>TIME’s website. You will find an interview between myself and Matthew about this same piece on the Art21 blog here. More recently, Matthew submitted the following piece of writing about MTGFH’s latest iteration. – B@S
Returning to They’re Mending the Great Forest Highway
by Matthew Goulish
When people ask about the name Every house has a door, I say it has to do with aesthetic hospitality. In a sense the name stands as an invitation, and the invitation takes two parallel courses. First, each performance as a project assembles a team of specialists in response to the specific demands of that performance’s set of ideas. In this way, the company remains open like a house, and collaborators come and go like visitors. Second, each finished performance demonstrates our ongoing interest in separating the elements of performance and weaving them in some configuration particular to that work. Different aspects of the work may appeal to different audience members. In this inflection, each mode offers a different door, standing open for a different audience member as an invitation into the house of the performance.
We made a performance called They’re Mending the Great Forest Highway. The Chicago Dancemakers’ Forum supported the original version, because choreography lent this work its core. We borrowed the title from a song by the twentieth-century composer Béla Bartók, but the choreography derived from his trio for clarinet, violin, and piano, Contrasts, composed in 1938 in response to a commission by Benny Goodman. We had the idea that three men would dance the parts of the three instruments, transposed from music to movement, adhering to the composition’s precise timing. Brian Torrey Scott danced the part of Benny Goodman’s clarinet, and John Rich that of Joseph Szigeti’s violin. We listened to the original recording by those great musicians, with Bartók himself on the piano. I claimed that part for myself. It was only fair. I had worn out the record through repeated listening in my undergraduate years, and already had it nearly memorized.
We presented the piece at the Holstein Park field house gymnasium in June 2011. Lin Hixson had guided the three of us in the first months of rehearsals, giving us directives for generating movement to retrofit to the score. The directives suggested a second degree of translation from the music; for the first movement: a dance in daylight, movements of labor, social/club movements, army recruiting song; for the second: sounds of a summer night in the country; the flitterings of nocturnal frogs, automatic insect chirping, a bird taps its beak on a hollow wooden tree trunk … concentric circles … restful … volcanic … human singing rises from far away in the darkness; for the third: the fast dance, furious, interrupted, side-slipping tri-tones reminiscent of the end of Berg’s Wozzek.
We invited Charissa Tolentino to compose a score that combined found sounds and samples with original sonic inventions, and to present this live, sharing the stage like a DJ with us dancers. This music, twice removed from Bartók’s composition, responded to the movement, largely free from the score’s constraints, but retaining its broad structure.
Finally, Lin and I collaborated on the writing of an extensive prose introduction. For this part, she, the director, would speak directly to the audience, detailing our intentions and processes, as well relating relevant, if somewhat fictional, autobiographical background from her director’s notes and journals. Lin would not deliver this herself, however. Instead we invited Hannah Geil-Neufeld, a young performer whom we had known since she was a child, to perform the part of the director Lin Hixson. We had in mind a contemplation of youth and aging, with which the introduction concerns itself, as well as that strange area in which the familiar becomes just unstable enough to appear unfamiliar. Hannah returned to conclude the piece, after the roughly 21-minute dance, with an epilogue that included all the performers in the staging of the last moment’s of Büchner’s Woyzeck, taking those liner notes literally. Guided by the tone of Hannah-as-Lin’s semi-autobiographical monologues, a tone lifted from the dual inspiration of J. M. Coetzee and Robert Bresson, the piece somewhat unexpectedly became an indirect meditation on the fraught and sometimes brutal relations between generations, the anxieties of production and reproduction.
We finished the dance today.
It’s called They’re Mending the Great Forest Highway.
I didn’t think it was about mending when we started. I just liked the title.
Now think that thinking that – that the dance was in fact about mending after all – was what stopped me there on the sidewalk in the rain.
So says Hannah-as-Lin near the end. Each element – words, dance, music – had their own life, their own independence on the stage, no one of them as accompaniment to another, and often not even happening at the same time. Each performer, or set of performers, had been delegated to one of these modes. I hope the house/door metaphor is clear now. To divide the finished performance from the process of its creation is largely an artificial exercise, but one that helps clarify our intentions and the work’s meanings and energy. The introductory speech makes some audience members impatient for the dance to begin. Others concentrate on the music as central, and still others need the words as their anchor. The piece asks everybody to assemble the parts into a coherent whole after the 65-minute structured sequence of their presentation.
Now we return to the piece for three performances at Link’s Hall on February 15, 16, and 17, as part of the IN>TIME Festival, and with the support of an Illinois Arts Council fellowship. Brian Torrey Scott has moved to Providence, Rhode Island. Jeff Harms has taken over the violin part. Charissa Tolentino has also departed the piece. Now Liz Payne performs the DJ role, with her own original sound composition. In this series of rehearsals, Lin has asked us to revisit the third movement’s choreography. She put it this way in an email from January 2nd:
Dear Jeff, John, and Matthew,
At our next rehearsals, I would like to work on new choreography. Below are YouTube sources for these new movements, divided between Lower Body and Upper Body. I used the Mending video from Holstein as a reference to locate the choreography I’d like you to change, embellish, or hybridize. Many, many thanks, Lin
30:57 – 31:35
Embellish the repetition of this movement using the Lower Body sources.
John and Jeff
31:56 – 32:24
This is after the shaving bowl move and around 28 seconds of material. Keep all your timings and positions in the space but consider using a different vocabulary from the Upper Body sources. So, for example, if you are doing something together this would remain. What you are doing would change.
32:24 – 32:35
Matthew – replace somersault
Jeff – replace head movement
Both using Upper Body sources
32:36 – 32:49
Embellish leg slapping using Lower Body sources
Matthew, Jeff, and John
37:43 to end
Keep positions in space and timings but change the vocabulary using Lower Body/Upper Body sources
Lower Body Sources
Hungarian Folk Dance
Arms/Upper Body Sources
See a longer version of Forsythe’s Solo here.
Lin sent three links for each source, but I have only included one of each type here. I asked the performers about their thoughts on returning to They’re Mending the Great Forest Highway. John responded with this paragraph:
I counted my jumps one day. There are several hundred – not big jumps, mostly hops. I did not realize this in making the piece, did not realize it even until well after we finished and someone pointed it out. The dance acts as an accumulation that way. It is a complex field, but it is built by simple acts.
Jeff Harms wrote this:
The way in which I am finding the meaning of the piece is a physical process, born of patience and repetition. It seems that the art world often replaces meaning with “intention”, as if we were all in art school, or as if we all agreed on the path or even method art should use. The methods of Every house seem to be humble in this regard, and I think it’s for that reason, if we do succeed here, it will be a rich and meaningful experience for the audience.
In the years since we began working on this piece until our February performances, Hannah will have nearly earned her entire undergraduate degree from Macalester College. She answered this way:
What is exciting to me about They’re Mending the Great Forest Highway is the realization that one can mend something without being entirely sure of what one is mending.
We have been working for almost three years now to mend something that was not one thing to begin with. This is like darning a sock that does not exist before one begins to darn.
Bodies engaged in speaking the thoughts and dancing the labors of other bodies is, I think, necessarily an act of mending, regardless of the thing being mended.
We prepare for February by rehearsing, I imagine the way musicians would, our collected movements, playing and replaying them alongside Liz’s composition, to fix in the mind and body these odd new aggregates. In his book Music and the Ineffable, the philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch wrote of how a musical work does not exist except in the time of its playing. Can one say the same about a work of performance? He further distinguished that one does not think about music as much as according to music. With that in mind, please click the link below to hear a sample of Liz’s composition, from the second movement of They’re Mending the Great Forest Highway.
Thanks, and see you soon.
Matthew Goulish, dramaturg
Matthew Goulish co-founded Every house has a door with Lin Hixson in 2008. His books include 39 Microlectures – in proximity of performance (Routledge, 2000), The Brightest Thing in the World – 3 lectures from The Institute of Failure (Green Lantern Press, 2012), and Work from Memory: in response to In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, a collaboration with the poet Dan Beachy-Quick (Ahsahta, 2012). He teaches writing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.