Confession 1: I went into this concert almost totally cold. When asked to review this show the line-up was listed as Gabriel Birnbaum and J.R. Bohannon, with the other act still TBA. Being unfamiliar with either, I determined that I would go in as a fresh listener, ready to experience whatever happened and only research after the fact.
Confession 2: I have been not a little unsure about writing a music review. Though I work at music and sound focused organizations, all my formal training or education is in the visual arts. My upbringing in Austin, Texas was a montage of rooms with guitars; Houston, Texas traded guitars for microphones and turntables; and Chicago has brought a whole onslaught of new sounds via innumerable instruments known and unknown. Thus, my expertise is as a curious, though uninformed listener, making my approach to this particular concert par for the course. I am the everyman audience member.
An entirely enjoyable Sunday night at Elastic Arts foundation with J.R. Bohannon, Gabriel Birnbaum, and Dusted (Ryley Walker and Michael Vallera) brought me back into a room with guitars.
As the duo Dusted, Walker and Vallera played a swelling instrumental set on electric guitars. There is a foreign familiarity to their music, which brings on the feeling of déjà vu or a borrowed memory. This is music you want to sink into – indeed the only complaint I had was with the plastic chair I was sitting in, its rigid flimsiness somehow misaligned with the moment. This is not in any way a critique of the venue, but rather raises a separate issue I have with the traditional performance set-up of audience members in chairs facing the performers, who are isolated on a stage. Of course, often this set-up is perfectly functional, however just as often I wish it were acceptable to orient myself in some other way.
Musician, composer, and scholar Vijay Iyer describes listening as a form of embodied cognition dependent on physical constraints as well as the “ecological and sociocultural environment in which our music-listening and –producing capacities come into being.”1 Both Walker and Vallera are clearly attentive listeners, reacting to and engaging with one other not just musically, but also in their expressions and body movements. In the same essay, Iyer goes on to say that “the experience of music requires the listener’s ‘co-performance’ within a shared temporal space.” I suppose I wish for the same freedom to treat listening as a more literally embodied action, to situate my body in a way that feels more conducive to engagement with the music. If freed to sit on the floor near the musicians or dance or throw my feet up on the chair next to me, my embodied listening would reflect the context within which I learned to listen, in this case harkening back to my experiences listening to music in living rooms and backyards growing up. It would be interesting to see how, if given social permission to break out of the prescribed chairs, each audience member would situate themselves in accordance with their own historical relationship to the music.
In the second set Gabriel Birnbaum and J.R. Bohannon ping-ponged back and forth with solos. Birnbaum, who normally plays with the band Wilder Maker, presented a singer songwriter set that I found difficult to latch onto. Skewing towards a folk country sound, Birnbaum punctuated the songs with momentary changes in volume or technique that served more to interrupt the flow of the song than to add anything innovative or experimental feeling. His lyrics were largely uninteresting and whereas I quite enjoy the music of Wilder Maker (I listened to their entire available oeuvre the next day), I felt his solo performance fell flat, something that I might like to have in the background, but which certainly did not necessitate full concentration in a performance setting.
Bohannon on the other hand delivered a riveting performance of acoustic guitar solos. He was the definition of embodied listening even as a solo performer, leaning into a phrase of melody with savage enthusiasm before suddenly reacting to what he heard, shaking his head, pulling back, and then seamlessly leaning into a totally new musical direction.
Throughout the performance, I was torn between feeling like this was a bit of an odd couple and finding it to be a fairly fresh combined performance. The back and forth kept the presentation as a whole engaging whether or not the music itself was interesting. At the end they joined forces, Bohannon taking up an electric guitar and Birnhaum a saxophone. I’m not sure if I would classify the result as a success, but it was captivating.
In all the performances from the night I found myself wondering what qualifies any type of music as experimental and thinking about Henry Flynt whose hillbilly tapes claim innovation in their subordination of academic or technical approaches to his own purposes as a “folk creature.” This launches us into a conceptual line that exceeds the confines of this short reaction, so I’ll end with this parting sentiment instead: if the evening’s performances brought anything innovative or interesting to the table is difficult to ascertain, however I can say that they all held me as a listener until the end and even made me want to move in closer.
1 Vijay Iyer, “Improvisation, Temporality and Embodied Experience,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3-4, 2004, 159.