When it’s my turn I bend deep over the guitar as if nearness to the strings is all I need as if I could live a whole long life eating and drinking it without opening my mouth as if it is a cardboard box and I am a cat measuring myself by getting all the way in as if it’s a body lying still in the road and I am checking for a heartbeat. I cannot get close enough what with all the desire everywhere I want the highest string to slice my finger I want to grind the pickups into dust I want to pull the frets out and pick my teeth with em I want the damage irreversible piled up costly I want to pay it off forever a penny at a time a slow drip until I’m bled out dead. Every time a vibrating string comes to rest back where it started I bend deeper down I want to break it I want it never the same I want to pull a pin twist a knob and something comes undone that can never return never nothing ever again the same. I will kill it or I will die both in equal rapture so it doesn’t really matter what happens.
I am performing a piece of music called Sheer Frost Orchestra by Marina Rosenfeld. Sheer Frost Orchestra is 17 women playing 17 electric guitars with maybe 300 bottles of nail polish for 22 minutes. I performed this piece with 16 other women on December 3, 2017 at Constellation during the Second Sexing Sound Symposium.
Sheer Frost Orchestra is a 22-minute performance and it is also an opportunity for women to gather rehearse listen and come to consensus about interpreting a score. We meet and talk and move amps and put them in our cars and drive each other home or to trains at night.
Sheer Frost Orchestra is about power. Power in the sense that it distributes opportunity and responsibility among women but also power strips extension cords turning up plugging in latent hum. It is about volume. Hearing and being heard but also the volume in a space and the beauty and severity of straight lines it is about boundaries and the aggressive assertion of space for women. It is about temperature. Coolness hotness. It is about touching and declining to touch. It is about time and keeping time and losing track of time. It is about anticipation. It is about obtaining 17 guitars and 17 amps which in 2017 still means a lot of women borrowing from a lot of men. It is about sex. It is about sex. It is about sex.
Days later starting to write this piece, I write a note to myself, you really gotta use words to describe the desire. Nothing about it doesn’t touch desire, I write.
December 3, 2017 The New York Times published victims’ accounts of sexual abuse by conductor and former music director of the Metropolitan Opera James Levine. In the dim house at Constellation someone showed me the headline on their phone when Sheer Frost Orchestra was over. It’s really bad, he said.
The next morning in bed I read about a bassist Charles Brown who had been 17 in 1968 when Levine made him principal at Meadow Brook. Brown had been proud because he had only just finished his junior year at Interlochen Arts Academy and other players in the section were older and more experienced. Turns out it was a quid pro quo and Levine 25 that summer expected to masturbate Brown and for Brown to masturbate him.
When I was 17 I lived and studied at Interlochen Arts Academy too and when I read Brown’s story I thought of the crude cinderblock dorms and the late afternoon darkness in winter there deep in the woods in Northern Michigan. I thought of the grandiosity mixed with desperation discipline and ambition that pressed us all of us exactly between teenage delusions of greatness and the possibility of real unironic stardom. Back home in Ohio Maryland South Korea or Macedonia we had been big maybe but here we were doing real shit like accepting presidential medals graduating early to start gigging in New York and beating out working professionals and conservatory darlings for the principal bass spot in James Levine’s summer orchestra. Sometimes it is hard to remember but young people on top of having really no idea what life is going to be like are only just feeling their agency for the first time. I read Brown’s story and couldn’t imagine how he survived February senior year locked between two ice lakes. For his part he did make it he played bass in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for more than 30 years.
Me and 16 women sit on the floor to perform Marina’s piece. Our guitars sit on the floor in front of us. Behind us a row of 17 amps. In front of the guitars a row of nail polish bottles. Wall after wall after wall. Every woman’s score is on the floor too printed on a folio sized sheet of special paper that allows markups in nail polish. The score is a handwritten series of boxes each representing a minute. Certain techniques and textures are meant to fill each minute though details are not specified. Dynamics are notated but pitches are not. For the first three minutes everyone is meant to strum strings with the bottom of a nail polish bottle barely audible at first then steadily louder until we max it out all 17 of us beating and bruising all 17 guitars all at once. Then in minute four the floor falls out everyone presses the ribbed bottom of a bottle against the strings and twists. Sometimes performers are instructed to play anything they want. Some minutes feature soloists in groups of two or three sometimes alone sometimes with the rest of the ensemble droning softly below.
The thing with the guitar is that it is flexible it is loud it is powerful it is delicate. At first applying the nail polish bottle to its neck to its bridge to its highest string is like wrapping bandages on a teddy bear. But it is not fragile it can take your whole weight. Over two days of rehearsal and in the performance I gouge the body of my borrowed guitar in three or four places. I tell its owner he says, notches are fine. They’re good even.
After the first day of rehearsal I write a note to myself, shit I guess I have to buy a guitar now.
When Charles Brown declined Levine’s continued advances in 1968 Brown says Levine wouldn’t look at him for the rest of the summer.
Has a conductor ever looked at you?
Writing this piece I keep fucking up this very part the part about what it’s like when a conductor looks at you. Once in college I played piccolo in wind ensemble and when the moment came in West Side Story to frost the cake on “There’s a Place for Us” all benedictive and naive with picc solo and almglock and I don’t know probably a chime tree or whatever all it took for me to miss my entrance altogether was a look from the conductor. I didn’t even try to fix it his eyes let me know I could and then they let me know I should have and then they looked at someone else because my moment to pause at the top of the staircase all eyes on me was over and while Tony and Maria’s music box hopefulness had been interesting to everyone in the hall my shame apologies and worry were not.
I mean obviously eye contact between conductor and musician is a minimum necessary condition for an ensemble to do its work and it’s fucked up that Levine denied the whole orchestra an opportunity for their principal bassist to properly lead the section because a teenager wouldn’t jerk him off. All that is true and terrible but I read Brown’s story and remembered all the desperate eagerness I’d project at the conductor when it was about to be my moment to be brought into existence by his looking.
I’m yours, I’d say with my eyes. So yours. More yours than anyone here more than anyone has ever been. See me hear me I’ll do anything. Now I play the flute less but the posture is still there in fact I repeat it all the time projecting by yielding having by giving away being myself by being a container for someone else.
I am not a mother though I’ve held infants and I see what people say about mirroring. For a baby a person’s face looking at you is one of the first signs that you exist and all your life looking and being seen echoes this first realization of your ego through a parent’s face. Sometimes a person looking at you is all it takes to confirm you are alive you are sharing reality you are loved enough to be seen but not so much that you’ve been destroyed.
What is the proportion for the average person making oneself vs being made by?
Some women could tell you that yielding is powerful maybe the most powerful thing. It isn’t only about aggrandizing the other giving the power away. It offers a special freedom a kind of self-realization insulated from shame and fear. You can have the desire without having to hold it you can assert agency without responsibility. It is the difference between allowing a person to choke you and asking a person to choke you.
When I read about Levine refusing to look at the principal bassist in his orchestra because he couldn’t get a second hand job out of him I wrote to myself, who needed the eye contact more?
Marina writes a new score for each performance of the piece. Sheer Frost Orchestra is 25 years old but she still flies out to wherever the show is to coach a rehearsal and see the performance. We spend Saturday afternoon with her. Wow she is collected and cool with the free limbs and great skin of a Californian. Sheer Frost Orchestra is 25 years old and she has command of all the meanings it started with and all that have accumulated since.
She explains the name Sheer Frost Orchestra is a play on the language of makeup and an expression of the piece’s coolness. Electric guitar in the 90s still had some of its glam rock eroticism and taking the guitar off the body and laying it on the ground frees it from what Marina called the hot zone of the male form. By mediating touch through nail polish bottles the performers radiate still more detachment and coolness. Glass. Someone might get close enough to see the big digital alarm clock we use to keep time or our copies of the score all flecked with colored dots and they might wonder how it all works and that is perfect. It isn’t for them to understand.
In spite of all this remoteness Marina and I have a warm relationship from the beginning. In our daylong rehearsal she helps us find the techniques of the piece through kind of improvised games that let us listen to each other. During the course of the day she assigns solos to players. The score specifies the number of soloists the techniques they might use and when they should play but it does not indicate which players should fill which roles. Marina gives me two solos. I am the only one in the group with two. She assigns a kind of prized solo section—the last minute of the piece—to me and my neighbors on either side. I think Marina likes my playing. Maybe she likes me. When in rehearsal everyone asks her what we should wear for the show she says cool colors and points to my sweatshirt Malibu pink blue and purple. I might be the pet.
Playing for being heard being seen by Marina is a woosh of love relief and shame that lands three seconds before I make any sound. See me hear me I’ll do anything. On my knees bent over the guitar I recognize the old feeling as soon as it hits the old orchestra feeling but also the feeling from perfect report cards in grade school the feeling from dressing for work when you’re in love with your boss the feeling from catching someone’s eye on a late night train the life-threatening desire from when any you looks at any me.
Playing Sheer Frost Orchestra the you is Marina yes but it is everyone yes yes I mean everyone. You in the space listening you in the space playing with me you at my elbow you in the green room waiting for your turn to go you here last night you coming in tomorrow. You former classmates former bosses former crushes former friends friends on TV friends with jobs friends with kids I have been watching grow up. Kids I babysat once kids I taught to play “Jingle Bells” on the piano kids in public places being good kids sitting on the ground in airports playing Minecraft on cell phones. You sister brother brother-in-law Mom Dad long dead ancestors dust covered wanderers and ranchers everyone you men I danced with men who bought me drinks or dinner men who paid for the hotel room men who think of me and my body years later as if it belonged to them while I was around men who look at my ass when I walk by anyone who has ever.
Fucking everyone. See me hear me bent over with my ear drinking the strings and the knobs.
Playing Sheer Frost Orchestra I see everyone conductors professors the orchestra composers Marina men you for what they are. Unfit vessels for desire, I write to myself, and they’re all just right there.
You really gotta use words to describe the desire, I write. I think it is important to try and fail to describe the desire, I write, because in the absence of a female narrative about desire we all know what happens.
A favorite movie in my house growing up was The Professional. When Natalie Portman was cast in Star Wars Episode One at age 16 somehow all of us were proud to have been fans of hers since the beginning and by that I mean since she was 11 and cast in a movie in which her drug dealing parents are murdered by a corrupt DEA agent (Gary Oldman) and she is effectively adopted by a hit man. To the movie’s credit the hit man Léon (Jean Reno) doesn’t fuck or even kiss Mathilda (Portman) when she confesses that she is in love with him but in reality this is only because she is very very lucky.
I think it is important to condemn the sexualization of an 11 year-old girl (PS this is still important to do twenty years later re Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things) and of course we should correct a culture that encourages people to lust after preteens and of course this message is urgent enough that it should drown out all other readings of the situation for a time but equally important there is an opportunity to imagine what it’s like for 11 year-old girls watching The Professional who also fall in love with Léon. In the moment of Mathilda’s confession Léon does a spit take on his milk then rushes out the door and when I was 11 this was not funny or cute. When I was 11 this scene was crushing.
When I was 11 I knew it would be wrong to have sex with an adult man but that is about the only instruction I got while at the same time all the heroism beauty creativity and vitality I knew about was coming from their general direction. In fourth grade we read Lincoln: a Photobiograpy and I spent a long time staring at his overgrown eyebrows his high cheekbones his lazy left eye the impatient unseeing intensity of his looking. Chapter 1: The Mysterious Mr. Lincoln. Hot. The mythic combination of righteousness tenderness dust and sadness in Abraham Lincoln is obviously instructional to all fourth graders but how is it that Lincoln’s height (6’4”) and teenage wrestling record (undefeated) and correspondence with an 11-year-old girl (you’d look hot w a beard so he grows a beard) are all curricular and it’s just me and my therapist alone dealing with the fallout more than 20 years later?
I think it is important to name them all the sharp men with searching eyes on the inside jackets of books and in the liner notes of records that came and went while I was coming of age: Carl Sagan in a red turtleneck and a beige sport jacket Einstein as a young man with his tidy dark mustache and round cheeks Einstein as we all know him white and loose Bertrand Russell the twentysomething in an old-fashioned tall collar a young Yeats with or without the pince-nez didn’t matter Richard Feynman all California breezy smiley brilliant hands in his pockets in front of a marked-up chalkboard Leonard Bernstein with his arms open Leonard Bernstein with a pencil in his hand at the piano Leonard Bernstein in a tux looking direct to camera.
I think it is important to see the collision of intellectual excitement and sexual excitement that’s inevitable when virtually all notable thinkers artists and political figures are men and wishing to be smart and powerful clicks right in with wishing to be seen and held and loved and fucked by the smart and the powerful. No wonder it is still hard to keep it straight sometimes what I want for myself and what I want for my lovers what is mine by birth or hard work and what came into being when somebody else almost always a man almost always tall and skinny with friendly far off eyes looked at it and told me it was good. Did you know I lived a whole life thinking my ass was too big until enough dudes saw and loved my ass? And that’s only the most obvious example.
Years before I fell for Gary Oldman (OLD MAN) as Dracula or Gary Oldman as Beethoven or Gary Oldman as the villain in Air Force One I daydreamed about Pepe Le Pew at naptime in preschool not because I wanted to be sexually assaulted of course but because I wanted something I didn’t have words for some attention or adoration maybe someone to hold me. Yes Pepe Le Pew is a creep no he shouldn’t model behavior for anyone yes he should shut up and let Penelope Pussycat say one word just one fucking word sometime. Yes of course—and—Pepe Le Pew is an instrument of a culture that considers female desire so radically disruptive that men are always rising up to hold it for us even as children. Pepe mediates the sexual shame four year-old girls are already conditioned to feel. He permits them to see themselves wanted irresistible powerful. Not coincidentally he equips them to weather lifelong abuse.
Months after the Weinstein story broke the conversation about sexuality and power in culture still revolves around men—what they literally did and who knew about it whether they lost their jobs whether they are going to jail whether they are better or worse or different than the other sexual predators out there whether they will continue to be President of the United States. I think it is important to ask these questions but while we are at it we could also talk about what sexuality is like for women given that this is the world that shapes our desire. We could talk about what living making music walking earning money falling in love and fucking is like for women.
I admit to exercising the power in my sexuality and I do not deny the weight of my choices but now thanks to many brave brilliant women and men we are all seeing that women don’t have a lot of options when it comes to sexual expression and attempts to correct this unfair imbalance can sometimes come out all miscarried. I think it is important to write that I have fallen in love with more than one of my employers professors conductors mentors and best case scenario it panned out like Mathilda vis-à-vis Léon except with responses on his part ranging from pretends we hadn’t been exchanging cute elevator eyes for two years to smells my dirty hair instead of kissing me because the former is ok but the latter would end his marriage. In a movie these scenes would set up a bit but in real life they made my gut freeze because these men these old smart stupid men I nonetheless admired very much these men instantly disavowed denied and unsaw all that I thought they had seen in me. They did it easily and without thinking. They did it because to for real acknowledge my beauty my conviction my power would disrupt the fundamental order of their lives the same order they might have been railing against by desiring me but one they had no plans to overturn.
Worst case scenario an affair with my boss lasted four years. That partnership mined all the experience intelligence and professional relationships I had at the time and I gave it all gladly because I was young and it took giving it to know I had it. I own my part in that mess but when things didn’t work out it was clear I was tenant and he was landlord I was the one who quit my job and moved away and he kept his company his donors his contacts and the projects we created together and then he slept with the woman who replaced me. So.
I read about James Levine’s teenage victims more than a month ago and write a note to myself, nobody knows desire even.
My neighbors and I spend a minute ending Sheer Frost Orchestra. The women on either side of me are close friends and frequent collaborators but I haven’t improvised music with either of them before. Listening to them I hear their willfulness surprising and bright. I hear their listening. I don’t know if it’s for me or for us or for you I don’t know if its real even and the answer is that it doesn’t matter. I feel shared affinity pride and intimacy with these women and I sense everybody in the room is a witness to our closeness.
Listening and dying to be heard I play a brutal fast glissando up the strings. Insisting and dying to be heard I play it two or three more times the desire so biting I can feel it in my mouth ooh-weep ooh-weep oooooooh-weep. Insisting and reluctant to say goodbye I let out a slow slide all the way up the neck while my neighbors tap and twist the highest strings.
After the show I need to find Marina to say hi one-on-one for the first time. Maybe we can share something with each other not quite teacher to pet or mentor to mentee but maybe I can or she can improvise the words to let the other know we had recognized something in her. Not too much just enough to see be seen without staking any claim. I find her by the bar and Marina tells me what her friend said about the show he said, wow they really found an ending.