Sunday, November 10, 2013

Jandek, "Athens Saturday" review by Bill Shute of Kendra Steiner Editions

Bill Shute of Kendra Steiner Editions, who appeared on a few of our 
Jandek Study Group Overnight shows and whose work was featured on 
our podcast, has been one of the few writers out there to continue to provide 
thoughtful coverage of Jandek's recent output. We've said it time and time 
again, Jandek is producing some of the most ambitious and groundbreaking 
music of his long and storied career, yet there is a surprising lack of commentary 
that goes beyond the tired "outsider-with-a-detuned-guitar" insight. Bill is able 
to contextualize these works in a meaningful and engaging fashion, so we are thrilled 
that, as with The Songs of Morgan, he has kindly allowed us to re-publish his review of 
Jandek's latest live set, Athens Saturday. Like all Corwood Industries releases,
this 2-CD set can be purchased at a reasonable price ($12 U.S./$13 overseas)
from the most reliable mail order service around:

Corwood Industries
P.O. Box 15375
Houston, TX 77220


Jandek’s appearance at the Orange Twin Conservation Community in Athens, Georgia was of great interest to me, primarily for two reasons: 1) it was the next show after the Austin, TX Jandek concert that I organized/curated in June 2012, so I was excited to see how Corwood would follow-up that stunning performance in Austin; and 2) Orange Twin seemed like a fascinating and unique venue. Here is a brief description (not a recent one, alas) of the concept of OT, quoted from a Google Sites article: 

The Athens, GA based Orange Twin is currently working on an “eco-village” on the northside of the town. The ultimate goal of the eco-village is to create a “pedestrian-based eco-village while preserving 100 acres of woodland five miles from downtown Athens.” Orange Twin’s vision statement is to live with one another and all forms of life, flora and fauna, in a way that respects all life, is considerate, and open to growth. The village would encourage diversity of all types. They hope to be understanding and open-minded to other’s ideas, they hope to learn and grow hand-in-hand, and to offer what they learn to others. They will also support each other, to encourage creativity, and to share their discoveries. They hope to create an integrated community that supports all aspects of life in a way that will not harm, but heal the planet. 

One uncommon aspect of the show’s organization was that ticket prices were lower if you DID NOT bring a car and carpooling was actively encouraged. AND if you bicycled there, you got a voucher for free food! Also, the amphitheater was an old Girl Scout Pavilion. Thus, this was going to be a fascinating venue for the show.

Corwood has now released the recording of the concert on a two-cd set called ATHENS SATURDAY, which has made waves in the Jandek community because for the first time, Corwood has released a show out of recording sequence. Many of us used to joke about Corwood having gotten to the end of 2006 in its schedule of Jandek live albums and how a particular show we enjoyed from 2008 or 2009 or whatever might get released by 2019 if we were lucky. Well, all that is over now…evidently, Corwood will be releasing live albums out of recording sequence…yet another wild card in the full-of-surprises Corwood/Jandek CD catalogue. After all, who was expecting a nine-cd set of solo piano earlier this year?

Of course, any performance titled WAITING TO DIE is probably going to be of a weighty and deep nature. I have previously made analogies to the process of a method actor in my descriptions of Jandek’s lyrics being given life in performance—-an actor finding hidden aspects of his/her psyche and then exploring character within the parameters of those areas. Much like the way in which the sparse but dense and rich dramatic texts of Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett or late-period Tennessee Williams, which may seem skeletal and minimal on the page, become fully sketched out when inhabited by an actor, it seems to me that Jandek gets into a deep “performance zone” prior to recording or live performance and brings to life, “in character,” the existential monologues and dialogues of his texts. Many early critics of Jandek’s work did not seem to get that. Shakespeare is not “mad” because he wrote King Lear; Jim Thompson was not a murderer because he wrote “The Killer Inside Me.” Jandek explores deep places inside the psyche and explores profound existential questions—-questions about ultimate meaning and about identity and about the meaning of EVERY MOMENT of everyday life, not just the ones we designate as “important.” For many reasons, Jandek is one of my favorite contemporary poets–he just happens to bring his works to life through live performance, as part of a unique music-and-voice collage, whether we are talking about one of his own solo albums with guitar and voice or a live performance, as we have here with an ensemble, where the Rep is one voice, one thread woven through the quilt.

The text here (just google “Jandek, Athens, lyrics” and you can find an excellent transcription of the lyrics by “Greg F” if you want to read along) is a kind of interior monologue that splits into an interior dialogue. Someone once commented that the setting of most of Edgar Allan Poe’s works is the mind, and one could make a similar observation here, although as often happens with a Jandek lyric, it’s full of poetic phenomenological particulars….the matter-of-fact pieces of experience that tend to make up our days and nights: sitting in chairs, debating whether or not to do some mundane activity, wondering about ice chests and naps and baseball games and shoes and peaches. The central section of the piece features either a bickering couple, finding themselves taking the opposite sides out of habit and out of spite, or perhaps more likely an internal dialogue, as we question every move we make and undercut ourselves. Remember the old Warner Brothers cartoons where Elmer Fudd or some similar character has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, both whispering into his ear, both trying to influence his behavior? Just imagine both of them INSIDE the narrator’s head, aspects of his own psyche.

The moods of the narrator’s flow of ideas and images is brilliantly mirrored by the musicians–in particular, the cellist and the bass clarinet player set the beyond-time pace early on and create a languid sound-canvas that the other musicians and the Representative himself swim in, sometimes diving to the bottom, sometimes coming to the surface, sometimes treading water, sometimes in pursuit of something in the water, always moving in relation to the other swimmers in a kind of underwater dance. While the tone is in many places solemn, it varies and is in some passages witty, mirroring the nature of the lyric. Jandek himself plays keyboards, set both to “acoustic” and “electric” and moves seamlessly between them. As part of an ensemble, his playing tends to be pointillistic, and he on occasion provides pianistic shading while delivering the lyrics…and often provides a keyboard “commentary” on the text between or right after particular lines. The subtle playing of guitarist Bradford Cox and percussionist Eric Harris should also be praised—though some referred to this as an “all-star” ensemble, there were no star turns at this performance, no showing off…just organic ensemble playing (by musicians who are listeners first), strands in the weave. Overall, this is undulating yet understated music that breathes. Those who liked Jandek’s MAZE OF THE PHANTOM should like the music here, though this lacks the exotica element of PHANTOM.

Except for getting up to change CD’s in the middle of the performance, I lost any sense of time while listening to ATHENS SATURDAY. It took me into its world, almost in a cinematic way, and in a place beyond time, a place beyond time-keeping beats and traditional theme-variation-theme development of ideas, the next thing I knew, the album was over…and I had the sense of walking back into daily reality from some kind of wooded area within the mind…richer for having taken this journey.

WAITING TO DIE? We’re all waiting to die…and those of us who realize that find an incredible freedom once we stare into that void. We also realize that time’s-a-wasting….these dialogues are, in the end, time-killing….it’s best to do, to achieve. I have the feeling that an artist who has released 70+ albums has come to that realization long ago…but we all must keep making the commitment, keep silencing the doubting questions and the dissonant dialogues…

As this piece closes, the final three lines are:


The performance WAITING TO DIE is no less than a musical and lyrical deep venturing into the psyche, airing some painful truths and putting the spotlight on aspects of the psyche that are not usually discussed—-not because they are evil or because they are incomprehensible , but because they are taken for granted. Jandek takes nothing for granted.

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