Tilting the Frame: Notes on an Alternative Education

In looking at our community of musicians, I see a lot of folks freshly graduated from school and flailing wildly (socially, financially, artistically). This is happening in the art world as well, but I’ve seen the art community react more quickly to create support for these post-graduates (is this the right term?) than our own musical commune. (As a note, I’m for the dissolution of the boundaries between the two communities and surround myself with thinkers and makers from both.) I’ve found more support from the experimental art community than the musical community in terms of performance opportunities as well as in the critique of my work. Why is this? One of the reasons is that my work is fairly unconventional, but the other is that the visual art world has thought about this issue and developed ways to cope, to grow, and to invite people into the conversation of reckless making at the intersection of art, music, and performance.

If our aim is to become smart and savvy makers of sound and performance, what models can be adopted from other fields to encourage the development of new works, new ideas, and new musics hitherto unknown? How can we best support the newest generation of composers, performers, sound artists, and thinkers?

We already have a few key models of post-graduate support: the residency, mentorship, the peer-to-peer relationship, and the community surrounding a performance venue. But how can we do better for our graduates? In what ways can we encourage an environment where musicians can extend the self through experimentation, focused critique, and social support? With this question in mind, I’ve collected as examples three of my favorite art and food groups that have successfully incubated new ways of thinking about collaboration and making work in a dynamic way.

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Machine Project
Form: Storefront // Collective // Alternative Space
Location: Echo Park, Los Angeles, CA
Founded in 2003 by Mark Allen

Full disclosure: I’ve worked closely with Machine Project since 2008 as an artist and curator, collaborating with Mark Allen and Elizabeth Cline on projects at their storefront location and at neighboring museums. The thing that I find interesting about Machine Project is how it encourages our community of artists, musicians, scientists, designers, and makers to create works in a highly permissible environment where failure is embraced as part of the process. In contrast to our typical practice in music where the composition is finished before the concert, Machine Project would be more interested in finishing the piece with the public at the concert. At Machine, my work is often critiqued by a group of my peers, and curated into performances that yield surprising and exciting results. Works at Machine often elicit a reaction that is a mixture of surprise, intrigue, and awkwardness. It offers artists the chance to make experimental works with the public, or experiment with the public on art itself. And on a personal level, in dispersing a sense of authorship and folding my name into the Machine Project heading, I’ve acquired anonymity in which to experiment and try new things that I wouldn’t normally take on myself.

Description of an event at Machine Project

Infantcore: Experimental music by babies for adults. Mark Allen came up with this idea to have babies perform experimental music, and in conversation I thought that this would be best accomplished with video tracking, by someone like Scott Cazan (a tech genius and experimental musician). For this event, Scott created motion tracking software that converts the baby’s movement into sound. The music is really dense, beautiful, and rigorous, and created by unknowing toddlers crawling across a “Storefront Plaza” created by the artist, Nate Page.

Infantcore was a technically and logistically complex idea that needed to be implemented in a matter of weeks,” Cazan explains. Coming from a what if question about experimental music by babies, he had to create a musical solution for the work that correlated to babies and their movement. “In the end perhaps the most interesting outcome was the relation between the intense music indoors being created by the infants and the infants themselves unassumingly peering back at their parents through the glass.

“The babies were called and the software was written in the course of a few days, and then more babies than we had imagined showed up and made some bleak music.”

The Main House at Mildred’s Lane.

The Main House at Mildred’s Lane.
Photo by Fritz Haeg

Mildred’s Lane
Form: artists’ residence, pedagogical summer program, radical experiment in living, and site for creative exchange and learning deep in the woods.
Location: on 96 Acres in Northeast Pennsylvania

If Machine Project operates a bit like a hyperactive, open-source think tank for ideas and events, Mildred’s Lane works from a meditative set of aesthetics that govern their communal living in rural Pennsylvania. Mildred’s Lane is an ongoing collaboration between J. Morgan Puett, Mark Dion, their son Grey Rabbit Puett, and their friends and colleagues. In an attempt to sidestep the omnipresent debates about what art/design/architecture is, the group works deep in the woods of northeastern Pennsylvania to create a collaborative artist colony that investigates a complex mashup of art-making and life-making. The work manifests as installations, a small-run press, and private and collective performances set deep in the woods.

What I find so interesting about Mildred’s Lane is that the space operates a bit like some of the established musical retreats in the Northeast, but with a more experimental ethos: They are focused on the everyday and allowing time and space for experimentation–much like a traditional residency, but I get the sense (having never been there) that there is something very special about the place in the way it’s able to captivate the imagination of the artist. They have created an antiquated and highly curated environment that lets life into the work through a kind of farmstead commune that cooks together, binds books, makes art, writes music, takes walks, and breathes. By offering this alternative present they have found a unique way of asking questions such as: Where is the future of art and society going? What do we really need in our 21st century?

A Bookbinding workshop at Mildred’s Lane.

A Bookbinding workshop at Mildred’s Lane.
Photo by Fritz Haeg

Cook it Raw
Form: Annual Chef Retreat and Meal
Location: International, site-based
Created in 2009 by Rene Redzepi and Alessandro Porcelli

In the Japanese prefecture of Ishikawa in 2012, 15 chefs from around the world were invited to meet for the fourth installment of Cook it Raw. Over the course of a few days, the chefs researched local sake at a distillery, went foraging in the forest (for mushrooms, wild wasabi, sorrel, yams, and parsley), went to a fish market to observe the seafood industry, and finally hunted ducks using traditional Japanese nets. On the final day, each chef then prepared a plate in a multi-course meal for an audience of 50, using the materials foraged and collected over the course of the week.

“You don’t come here to learn, but you learn. You don’t come to teach, but you teach.” – Quique Dacosta, chef

What makes it unique?

Cook it Raw is a peer-to-peer model that takes a group of chefs through firsthand experiences with food that reach into the ancient rituals of eating and embrace the modern avant-garde of microgastronomy. A group of equals is collectively put into new and possibly uncomfortable positions, during which they learn about local practices in food production, foraging, and cooking. This model disarms the avant-garde chefs, stripping away their established egos and inviting them to re-evaluate their culinary instincts. A big part of Cook it Raw seems to be the lasting impact that this three-day intensive leaves on the chefs, encouraging them to be mindful of their own local food culture.

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Missing from this particular article are all of the alternative spaces that continue to do more for the musician, helping the work to grow in new and unexpected ways. I often wonder what incubators are yet to be created, however. What spaces are yet to pop up and serve the community in a new way that engenders new work, new ideas, new forms? Each one of the groups above have answered this question in a different way, seating themselves on the fringes of their respective worlds and engaging young artists in fresh ideas. The learning that arises through actually making work is invaluable to those looking to learn, grow, and evolve their process (compositional, performative, or other). For now, I hope each musician can act as an amplifier for their community, organizing platforms to help evolve the work through sharing both publicly and privately.

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