"everyone is from somewhere even if you've never been there"
Another Christmas Song Ian Anderson Hope everybody's ringing on their own bell, this fine morning, yeah Hope everyone's connected to that long distance phone Old man, he's a mountain, old man, he's an island Old man, he's a waking says, "I'm going to call, call all my children home" Hope everybody's dancing to their own drum this fine morning, yeah The beat of distant Africa or a Polish factory town Old man, he's calling for his supper, he's calling for his whiskey Calling for his sons and daughters, calling, calling all his children round Sharp ears are tuned in to the drones and chanters warming, yeah Mist blowing round some headland, somewhere in your memory Everyone is from somewhere, even if you've never been there So take a minute to remember the part of you That might be the old man calling me How many wars you're fighting out there, this winters morning? Yeah Maybe it's always time for another Christmas song Old man he's asleep now but he's got appointments to keep now Dreaming of his sons and his daughters, yeah Proving, proving that the blood is strong
Take a Phrase, Wrap It in a Song, E-Mail It on Friday
By ANDY LANGER
Most Monday nights when he’s not on the road, the Austin singer-songwriter Bob Schneider tests at least one new song in front of an audience at the Saxon Pub.
It is often just a few verses and a chorus, with a quirky working title like “No Need For Candy,” “The Day My Sweater Played Golf Without Me” or “Your Father’s Money.” Each is written two or three days before it is performed, and each is the result of his weekly songwriting game, which involves an invitation-only e-mail list that challenges musicians to turn in a new song every Friday. The song has to incorporate a preselected term or phrase like “mailman’s tears” and “can you keep a secret?”
Mr. Schneider has been running the game since 2001 with a rotating cast including high-profile participants like Jason Mraz, Patty Griffin and Matt Nathanson. The game has no winners or losers. Its sole goal is to force productivity.
“It’s all process, all utility,” said Mr. Schneider, 47, long one of Austin’s most popular and prolific musicians.
Bob Schneider Credit Jeff Swensen
“If this game were a business, it’d be an office with a desk and nothing on the walls,” he said. “There’s no master list of the titles or even any kind of real documentation of who’s been in the game. It’s about turning out songs, not keeping score.”
Virtually every song from Mr. Schneider’s last five records can be traced back to the game. Earlier this month, he released “Burden of Proof,” a 12-song set featuring 11 from the competition. In recent years, Mr. Schneider said, he has struggled to find time to write; he believes he would not have written one-fifth of the songs he has completed if it were not for the game. For him, the key component is the deadline.
“The primary factor stopping people from finishing songs is the critical voice in your head that says it isn’t good enough,” said Mr. Schneider, who in 2001 created the game with his bandmates Billy Harvey and Bruce Hughes and the songwriter Steve Poltz. They wrote 20 songs on a 21-day tour. “Then there’s the part of your brain that thinks every idea you have is wonderful. Those two are in constant battle when you’re writing. With this, you simply have to turn it in. If it’s bad or mediocre or half a song or maybe just a good idea not realized in a workable way, it doesn’t matter. Even the worst songwriter in the world, forced to write a song every week, is going to write some good songs from time to time. Law of averages.”
Turning in a song each week or facing expulsion from the game is one of only two rules. The other involves incorporating the phrase of the week somewhere in the song. “The less it means, the better,” said Mr. Schneider. “The more esoteric, the better. The less it can be taken literally, the better.” He said that “bicycle versus car,” which was one of the required phrases in 2004, was the hardest one he had encountered. Nonetheless, he turned it into a song that closed out his 2009 album, “Lovely Creatures.”
Mr. Schneider said that to his surprise no two songwriters had ever paired a phrase with a similar rejoinder or rhyme. Titles are another story: on numerous occasions, songwriters have released albums featuring songs with the same title.
Near the beginning of the game’s run, Mr. Schneider and the Austin singer-songwriters Jeff Klein and Kacy Crowley each put out albums that included songs called “Holding In the World.” (Full disclosure: With Mr. Schneider’s permission, I appropriated the game for three Esquire magazine articles that included songwriters like Dierks Bentley, Raphael Saadiq and Rhett Miller.)
Mr. Schneider’s favorite strategy is to ignore the phrase of the week until the last possible moment; he says that helps him not to feel handcuffed by the phrase or simply to use it in an obvious way.
“Sometimes I’ll write a chorus or the verse without pulling up the e-mail with the phrase,” Mr. Schneider said. “Then I’ll have to wedge it in. And that can take the song in a direction or place it would have never gone if it didn’t have to be incorporated. It can do some really cool, nonlinear things to the song writing. “
Mr. Schneider generally records full-blown demos of his game entries, although some participants record rudimentary acoustic versions on their cellphones. When it’s time to make a record, Mr. Schneider typically picks one favorite — for “Burden of Proof” it was a song titled “Hop on the World” — and tries to find other songs from the game that would add up to a cohesive album. Even at the fast clip he has been making records — he has released 12 solo albums since 1998 — Mr. Schneider said the game had given him a backlog that could cover his next five releases. He doesn’t plan to stop writing, though.
“By the time I get to that fifth record, I hope I’ll have enough songs for five more waiting,” Mr. Schneider said. But there is no guarantee. “That’s what makes it fun. I could write what I think is an incredible song this week. But next week, I’m starting from scratch. With this game, there’s no way to rest on two-week-old laurels.”
I discovered Varujan Boghosian's work just a few days ago. I am drawn back like loose nails to a magnet. At first The Bride Vanishes captured all of my attention. Then the others slowly crept into me. Plus, I learned a new word from the article, detritus.
Master of the Lost, Neglected, and Overlooked
John Yau on December 20, 2015
Varujan Boghosian, “James Joyce in Dublin” (2003), collage on hand-colored photograph
A number of innovative artists of the first half of the 20th century discovered and worked with collage and the related practice of assemblage: Pablo Picasso; Georges Braque; Marcel Duchamp; Max Ernst; Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Hoch; John Heartfield. The fruits of their explorations traveled across the pond and flourished anew in America: Robert Motherwell; Anne Ryan; Joseph Cornell; Hannelore Baron; Bettye Saar; Jess; John Outterbridge; Bruce Conner; George Herms; Joe Brainard; Ray Yoshida; Romare Bearden all made original works in this decidedly modern art form. And while these practices have been thought of as chiefly 20th-century art forms, they are still alive and thriving in the hands of artists, poets, and filmmakers such as Renée Stout, Peter Williams, John Ashbery and Guy Maddin. Another artist who deserves to be mentioned is Varjuan Boghosian, who began showing in the early 1960s at the legendary Stable Gallery, and later showed with Cordier and Eckstrom, which also represented Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Isamu Noguchi and Romare Bearden.
Varujan Boghosian, “The Bride Vanishes” (2012), hand-sanded toned found silver print, 20 3/4 x 16 3/4 inches
What this diverse group underscores is how wrong it is to think that digital technology and Photoshop have supplanted collage and assemblage, rendering them obsolete. The world is awash in detritus, and there is much to be found if one is in the business of looking. Varujan Boghosian is certainly in that business and has been for a long time. If Varujan Boghosian: Master Bricoleur, currently at Kent Fine Art (November 12–December 23, 2015), offers us a window onto what he has been up to throughout his career, it seems as if he is particularly disposed to distressed and obsolete things: children’s blocks, penmanship exercise books, and tin toys portraying young circus performers; stained wallpaper, scientific diagrams; outdated currency; musical scores, photographs of artists and authors; bridal portraits; found drawings; floor plans; written and found language.
Boghosian adds something new to collage: erasure. Working with found photographs and drawings in an additive process that also involves used and unused paper, he sands away part of the image in a found photograph or a drawing. In the photographs, it is as if time has intervened, making a remote moment even more distant, like a lover whose face you cannot remember, much less describe to someone else. In the sepia-toned photograph “The Bride Vanishes” (2012), Boghosian has sanded away the face of the bride as well as the surrounding area. It is as if the effects of light and time have worn away her visage, leaving behind an incomplete memory.
Varujan Boghosian, “Tight Rope Walker” (circa 2000), antique children’s toy, string, on paper with a wood frame 35 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 1 3/4 inches
In the found drawing “Bride & Groom” (2012), Boghosian has sanded away the groom and most of the bride, leaving behind the bridal bouquet, one of the bride’s hands and her comb, which echoes her hairline. She is otherwise absent, a memory that never comes into focus. Here is where Boghosian employs an innovative process: by using sandpaper to erase part of the bride, he is accelerating the action of time as an agent of constant and irrevocable abrasion. Procedure and meaning are inseparable.
Boghosian’s brides can be understood as evocations of Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)” (1915–23), but I think these works do more than allude to Duchamp’s unattainable bride. Photographs can be memory aids; they document a moment and are part of a history or, in the case of wedding photographs, a deeply personal narrative. The erased face caused by time suggests that we are ultimately inconsolable, that our storehouses of memories do not help to heal us. And yet, at the same time, Boghosian has used the sandpaper to lovingly caress the surface of his found materials, accepting time’s grinding indifference.
In a number of other works, Boghosian pays tribute to artists, writers, and poets — James McNeill Whistler; Vincent van Gogh; James Joyce — some of whom, such as Louise Bogan and Stanley Kunitz, were his friends. Boghosian will often tear an image out of its source before incorporating it into a collage. The torn edges infuse the subsequent artworks with a melancholy murmur, while the pasting of one image on top of another underscores time’s passage as process of accretion and covering over. Such formal underpinnings in the realm of collage, where process and meaning are intertwined, is as rare as an albino rhinoceros.
Varujan Boghosian, “Twenty Dollar Bill” (2010), currency and book cover, 13 1/2 x 16 1/2 x 1 1/4 inches
In “James Joyce in Dublin” (2003), a torn image of the writer’s legs and signature cane become the lower trunk and roots of a tree: any visitor to Dublin who looks at this picture would quickly realize Boghosian’s evocation of how thoroughly Joyce has become a part of Ireland’s soil and atmosphere. In a recent work, “Homage to Louise Bogan” (2015), Boghosian gouges out the lines of the poem on the assemblage’s rough wood surface, turning the words and the act of writing into a deeply affecting material presence. You don’t have to know Bogan’s poetry to be touched by this work.
Varujan Boghosian, “Homage to Louise Bogan” (2015), letter block on carved wood panel, 25 1/4 x 20 3/4 x 2 inches
A sheet of blue paper filled with a child’s penmanship exercises recalls that part of childhood we tend to forget: rote memory and constant repetition, dullness. Through the particular materials that Boghosian incorporates into his collages and assemblages — be they a poem, piece of wood, found photograph or drawing — Boghosian has his fingers on the pulse of everyday loss and pain, the essential tragedy of being human. And yet, in his hands, the tragic never turns maudlin, never devolves into sentimentality or staged angst. There is a tenderness and humor running through the work, a sense that one is always on a tightrope, as his assemblage “Tight Rope Walker” (circa 2000) suggests. A vintage toy walks on a string angling down from the right to left, and ending in mid-air, its ends frayed. The abyss is on either side of us as we go through our day, but, as Boghosian also makes gently and comically apparent, it is also our destination, and we are headed downhill to get there.
Many years ago when I was in college, I performed a solo piano recital. Even though I prepared for months, on the day of the recital I was a nervous wreck. I still had several passages that I hadn’t been able to master, and that was just enough to shake up my confidence. I was all too familiar with every spot in those pieces that could trip me up. I remember taking a deep breath and walking out on stage with a smile plastered on my face, but behind it I was carrying a huge sense of dread.
To make a long story short, the recital worked out fine. I got a big round of applause, and lots of congratulatory hugs from my teacher and friends. But the sad thing is I missed the whole thing. I was so busy worrying about not making mistakes that I never really heard my own music-making or took in the experience. I was fortunate that the recital was recorded, so I was able to listen to my performance afterward. All those supposedly obvious and horribly embarrassing mistakes I thought I had made — in the whole scheme of things they were negligible. Most people probably didn’t even notice.
This was the beginning of my learning about the nature of fear. I tend to be a pessimist, so it’s much too easy for me to see all the ways that something can go wrong. And when I climb aboard the train of those thoughts, my view of reality can get very skewed. In fact, my negativity probably ended up to some degree becoming the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy. Even though nothing disastrous happened, I also didn’t play anywhere near my best. I was so worried and self-absorbed that there wasn’t room for all the grand and beautiful moods and emotions that the music called for. And above all, I wasn’t there to share the experience with my audience.
In the years since, I’ve taken up meditation and have reflected often on the nature of mistakes and fear — not only in music, but more broadly as part of life. Too often we go about thinking that mistakes are bad things that we must avoid. But what are mistakes? It’s true that things often don’t go as we intended — an unfortunate fact of life — but does that make them “wrong”? Despite all my mistakes, wasn’t it ultimately my humanness (wrong notes and all) coming through the music that my listeners appreciated? Aren’t “mistakes” often opportunities in disguise?
And what about fear? Of course fear is essential for prompting us to act when we’re in danger. But was my life in danger when I walked on stage for my piano recital? What was I afraid of? And by allowing myself to be guided by fear, didn’t I limit my ability to see all the other possibilities in the situation?
Over the years, I have come to understand mindfulness as much more than slowing down to appreciate the beauty in life. I think of it as living life to its fullest — and learning to move beyond my fears, judgments, and stories that keep me from seeing and experiencing things as they really are. It’s when we’re able to be present with our experience — even when it’s scary as hell — with a calm, steady mind, that we get past our self-created fog and move out to a place of freedom and possibilities.
I think a master jazz improviser like Miles Davis is a great model for what mindful living looks like: confident and completely, fearlessly open to the present moment. That to me is the promise of mindfulness.
Robin Paris and Tom Williams with writing by Gary Cone, Harold Wayne Nichols, Donald Middlebrooks, “Surrogate Project for Harold Wayne Nichols: The Night Sky Series” (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
NASHVILLE — Tennessee is the buckle of the Bible belt, situated below the state of Kentucky and just north of Alabama. The temptation of fried pies, which I was told grandma made (not my Jewish grandma, however), Elvis statues as tourist attractions, and as many churches as sex shops lined the horizon of my visit to this Southern state. The second night of my stay, I stopped by a show called Unit 2 (Part 1) at Coop Gallery in downtown Nashville. Organized by Watkins College of Art professors Robin Paris and Tom Williams, this exhibition is comprised of collaborations between students and 11 prisoners on death row in the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, in northwest Nashville.
The project sought to form connections between people on the outside — outsiders, as the prisoners call them — and insiders, the men inside who are scheduled for execution. The work in this exhibition, which includes drawings, paintings, collages, and photographs, presents a heart-wrenchingly honest portrait of our prison system, the people who are in it, and the opportunity for human connection regardless of the grim reality. The idea for this show came from the prisoners. Unit 2 (part 1) presents two types of artworks: the first is an “add on,” which almost reminded me of the Surrealist exquisite corpse game in which the previous drawing is covered up and the next person draws on, thus adding to the work without knowing what was made before. The “add on” of this exhibition felt more like a continued visual exchange, or an ongoing conversation through drawing and text. These works felt more like ongoing thought processes than finished projects, which added a rawness to the show overall that, as a viewer, was hard to handle at times. The conversation about the prison system in America is an ongoing one, and these visual collaborations are just the tip of the iceberg.
Upreyl Mitchell and Harold Wayne Nichols, “Untitled” (add-on artwork), acrylic and colored pencil on photograph, 13″ x 9″ in (photo courtesy Robin Paris)
“The system of legal defense for capital cases is shoddy and poorly funded at best; there are no rich people, to my knowledge, on death row,” says co-organizer Robin Paris. “We incarcerate more of our population than any other country. I could go on and on. It’s shameful. It’s not who we think we are as a country.”
The second type of artwork is called “surrogate” and cuts right to the heart of it all. A prisoner on the inside asks someone on the outside to do something on their behalf — something that they couldn’t do because they were in prison. One of the prisoners asked their “surrogate” to go out and gaze at the stars, to enjoy them — he, the prisoner, had not seen stars in 30 years. The outsider then photographed those stars, and the prisoner wrote his text request onto the photograph, which was displayed in the gallery space. Another inmate asked their surrogate to buy a homeless man some food and then let him know that everything was going to be okay. In another photograph, an inmate asked his “surrogate” to create a portrait of him with his family that, were he out of prison, he would have been able to take himself.
Robin Paris and Tom Williams with writing by Harold Wayne Nichols, “Surrogate Project for Harold Wayne Nichols: The Night Sky Series” (‘It has been 25 years since I have seen the stars in the open sky!’), photograph (photo courtesy Tom Williams)
“Getting to know these men who, although they may have done a terrible thing, are more than the sum of their worst day,” says co-organizer Robin Paris, “they have taught us so much about community and about the importance of many things we might take for granted. They are people who, through bad luck, poverty, poor schools, bad decisions, are in this place, and it’s not hard to imagine that many of us could be in the very same place, but for our economic privilege.”
According to statistics from the Department of Corrections, there are currently 79 inmates on death row, and all are in for either 1st degree murder or murder 1 charges. One of the men on death row, Donald Strouth, has been there since September 1978. This show was originally hatched earlier this year with an art exhibition called Voices from Solitary: Art from Tennessee’s Death Row, which was initiated by Vanderbilt University’s Lisa Guenther. This is only part 1 of a two-part exhibition, which made me wonder about the sustainability of such an intense collaboration.
“It will go on as long as we can sustain it,” says Williams. “The prisoners’ days are numbered, which is difficult to think about, but we’d like to work with them for a long time,” says Williams. “When you’re working with prisoners on death row, it’s often best to focus on the present.”
Mika Agari, Jessica Clay, Amy Clutter, Robert Grand, Kristi Hargrove, Robin Paris, Sharon Stewart, Tom Williams, Weng Tze Yang, and Barbara Yontz, “Surrogate Project for Harold Wayne Nichols: Breakfast for Dinner,” photograph
Nickolus Johnson and Zack Rafuls, “Untitled” (add-on drawing), mixed media on paper, 14 x 11 in
Sharon Stewart, “Surrogate Project for Kenneth Artez Henderson: Family Portrait,” photograph
Watkins students Jessica Clay and Robert Grand, who participated in Unit 2