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On Letting Go: Joan La Barbara at The Kitchen

Joan La Barbara by Mark Mahaney

A friend recently introduced me to The Vegetable Orchestra, a Vienna-based orchestra which plays instruments that are created entirely from vegetables. Insane, right? I, too, was skeptical until I browsed The Vegetable Orchestra’s website. My friend was absolutely right. The group plays a variety of musical styles including contemporary, electronic and free jazz using instruments such as pumpkin drums, radish bass flutes, celeriac bongos, calabash horns, celery guitars and carrot recorders. Not only is the group brilliant, but their music is definitely enjoyable. Who knew that zucchini not only tastes great, but sounds great, too?

So,when a composer friend invited me to a sound art performance, I had to attend. I’m always eager to experience performances that I wouldn’t necessarily attend on my own. Dance and poetry are my areas of interest. Outside of that, I’m pretty clueless. Sure, I enjoy music. I own an iPod like many people do. I listen to quite a bit of jazz, indie, old school hip-hop (along with a few artists and genres that I would never, ever mention in a public forum). But when it comes to music, I have so much to learn.

On December 17th, I attended a performance at The Kitchen by Ne(x)tworks & Zeena Parkins with JACK Quartet. The first half of the performance featured work by Christopher McIntyre, Miguel Frasconi and Joan La Barbara performed by Ne(x)tworks, a collaborative ensemble and JACK Quartet, an acclaimed string quartet. The second half of the performance featured work by Zeena Parkins performed by Ne(x)tworks with JACK Quartet.

I was most entranced by “Persistence of Memory,” a work by Joan La Barbara, an acclaimed composer, performer and sound artist who is known for her experimental vocal techniques. “Persistence of Memory” featured two violins, a cello, a viola, a harp, vocal work, electronics, a piano and a trombone. The work was jarring. As a listener, I was tossed back and forth between sharp rhythms and thrashing percussive sounds. The sounds seemed to sneak up on me when I was least expecting it. But it was new and exhilarating nonetheless.

The part of the work that struck me the most was a moment when two wine glasses were filled with water. The musician then dipped his fingers into water and ran his fingers around the rim of each glass in a circular motion, creating a full, round ringing sound that echoed throughout the space. When he did this, it seemed as though the world stopped spinning. This was a sound that I’d never experienced before. Hearing it for the first time was breathtaking.

At first, the performance was difficult for me to swallow. There was no melody to follow. No beat to tap my feet too. My body and mind were constantly being thrown out of wack by a voice sputtering into a microphone or the crunch of a bow against the back side of a violin. But throughout the performance, I began to understand that as an audience member who doesn’t have much experience in the world of sound, I had to let go of my preconceived notions of sound in order to allow myself to really delve into the performance. Letting go was very hard for me. I didn’t realize that my body would react so strongly to certain sounds. But letting go also allowed me to realized an entire realm of sound that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.

Being an artist is wonderful not only because I am a creator, but because there are so many other creators in the world who are willing to share their work with me. And by sharing, these artists are constantly challenging me to unlearn, re-evaluate and reorganize my own notions of what art can be. I assure you, however, that the learning process is not always pretty. But there are handfuls of artists doing some really interesting, innovative, mind boggling things that truly deserve to be experienced.


Lauren Nicole Nixon
Lauren Nicole Nixon is a Brooklyn-based artist representative, teaching artist and poet. Nixon holds an M.A. in Arts Politics from New York University. Recent work can be seen in Bone Bouquet, Clockhouse, Puerto del Sol, Sugar House, The Tulane Review, Aforementioned Productions, Spillway and No, Dear. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her chapbook, There's a Jukebox in the Back, will be published in summer 2012 by Dancing Girl Press. http://www.laurennicolenixon.com/
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