Despite some unseasonably cold summer rain, my wife and I set out to Mass Moca to take in the sights and sounds of the conclusion of Solid Sound 2015.
As an artist who’s consistently staked out adventurous musical territory over the course of my own career, I’ve sought to support venues, promoters, and events which present ambitious visions which fall outside the common perception of “mainstream” taste and still manage to reach a mass audience. Solid Sound is a festival that aspires to achieve this goal and by and large, succeeds. That said, there is a little bit of a stuffy and oppressive air to the whole thing. Needless to say, holding a music and art festival at a museum is going to have a bit of a THIS IS ART vibe to it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but such a self-congratulatory atmosphere creates its own aura of stultifying conservatism. I measure the success of any art by how successfully it balances its various ambitions and most importantly, whether it manages to convey some basic humanity and soul. What is this artist saying about life and the human condition fundamentally?
The three acts we saw managed to present music that was simultaneously virtuosic, visionary, and futuristic, but occasionally lapsed into antiseptic and sterile intellectualism. Some more than others.
This tendency was perhaps best exemplified by the Nels Cline and Norton Wisdom’s Stained Radiance. Since I was familiar with Mr. Cline’s work, I was looking forward to this set. Stained Radiance featured Nels doing his solo guitar thing with various looping devices, delays and effects while Norton accompanied with a painting improvisation and three dancers added a movement element. This certainly had all the ingredients and potential to be a pretentious wank, but ended up having enough of an emotional center to engage. To my surprise, the real glue of the performance was Mr. Wisdom. He painted on a semi-translucent canvas which was projected on to the main screen in the hall. It had the effect of being a white board so he could create negative space with a wiping tool and wash away an image with relative ease. His style had a phantasmagoric quality to it. The color palette was dark. His opening image appeared to be a surreal impression of Mr. Cline. Strange monstrous humanoids were conjured from amorphous blotches of paint. Anthropomorphic animals and human forms with wings took shape. The surface allowed the paint to run and gave each form a melted quality that was naturally very creepy.
Mr. Cline churned out subsonic drones, shards of harmony and melody, shrieking spears of noise, ghostly pulsations, and icy riffs at various moments throughout the piece. The two aesthetics were complementary.
One of the dancers was outfitted with a diaphanous fabric sheath which lent itself to a performance which resembled either an aquatic plant or a flame burning in slow motion. Another dancer did a passage with a long piece of fabric that was meant to convey imprisonment or a struggle to be free from some kind of bondage. The physicality of the dancers certainly lent the piece some much needed drama and made it more of a performance, but it still felt a little aimless and pretentious.
What did they intend to convey with this performance? I’m not entirely sure. Clearly, they were content to let the process unfold and allow the audience to generate their own experiences and interpretations. I find that leaving it entirely up to the audience to extract a message from abstract art can be a cop out. Abstraction for its own sake can be an evasion and a way to avoid risking any real emotions.
This performance suffered from that pitfall a bit. It felt non-committal. I sensed vague allusions to gender based conflicts. I sensed some struggle to be free. I sensed a small appeal to love buried beneath the layers of darkness and abstraction.
It had a foreboding and ominous atmosphere. It more or less held my attention. It was among the most successful attempts at this kind of performance I’ve personally seen and I’ve actually done gigs that were almost identical conceptually. However, I was not deeply moved. I’m going to seek out one of Mr. Cline’s bands next time.
One of the great successes and recurring themes of Solid Sound is that Cool is ageless and that making vital art is the pursuit of a lifetime. The greats may not draw the attention of the pop culture spotlight, but they are always creating and cultivating their own unique language without regard to which direction the winds of popular taste are blowing. The booking of Richard Thompson, NRBQ and the great Charles Lloyd were testimony to this.
Charles Lloyd is one of the last remaining giants of 20th century modern jazz and his CV is indeed impressive.
Not only was he backed up by a first rate rhythm section comprised of Gerald Clayton on piano, Kendrick Scott on drums, and Joe Sanders on bass, he was joined by Bill Frisell too! This more than compensated for the unsatisfying and uninspired pairing with Sam Amidon.
Mr. Lloyd exuded the ease and confidence of a true master. His music was equal parts post-bop modernism and blues inflected spiritual exploration. It is big hearted and filled with romanticism but still leaves ample space for experimentation. Most importantly, it was always swinging. Frisell’s languid, cubist Americana avant-bop was totally complementary.
We concluded our afternoon with the sedate bleeps and bloops of Quindar. Quindar are an electronic music duo comprised of Mikael Jorgensen and James Thomas.
Their unique angle is that they’ve been granted access to NASA mission video and audio recordings and their performance is meant to emulate a journey to the moon.
In theory, I should love these guys. I’ve spent the better part of my career playing music that hews very closely to this artistic territory. My current band Mission Creep has cosmic ambitions of its own.
The music is very tasteful and the execution is flawless. There are identifiable melodies and riffs amidst the pulsations, oscillations, and layered beats. It’s just a little too tasteful.
They were wise to utilize video because they would be insufferably boring to watch without it. Public Service Broadcasting from the UK are doing the exact same thing conceptually, but are utilizing live instrumentation and subsequently have a more dynamic sound.
Sadly, King Sunny Ade was held up at the Canadian border and was unable to perform.
Mass Moca and Wilco are producing a quality festival and I’m genuinely hopeful that it was a financial success. I look forward to next year’s incarnation.