Hot Air: Our Half(-mad) Century

Truth is, I love living in a college town. Why? Because I get to do things like participate in the Wounded Galaxies 1968 festival. I read some Rikki Ducornet work Friday night at the I Fell Gallery and then, last night, at the Blockhouse, I read from Studs Terkel‘s recollection of the fabled ’68 Democratic National Convention in Chi.

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Organizers Joan Hawkins, Charles Cannon, Tony Brewer, and the rest are doing a bang-up job thus far, with the academic conference part of the 50-year anniversary festival beginning Thursday. But wait, there’s more pre-conference stuff: New Zealand composer Annea Lockwood performs her legendary 1968 opus, “Piano Burning,” tomorrow, Wednesday, from 5:30-8pm in Dunn Meadow. Here’s Lockwood, in a 2005 essay, describing how this work came about:

It was 1968 and we were burning American flags, political effigies, the status quo, so when the choreographer, Richard Alston, and I started planning “Heat,” a dance work in which the performance space would be heated to the maximum tolerable temperature, and I was casting around for something sonorous to burn and record, it was no leap at all to decide on a piano. I discovered that defunct, discarded pianos were collected at the Wandsworth Borough trash dump. A festival planned for the Chelsea Embankment was willing to haul an old upright from the dump, and I had it over-tuned. Harvey Matusow had several old microphones he no longer needed, so we wrapped them in asbestos and with Hugh Davies’ invaluable assistance, set them inside the piano, and ran the cables into a portable Uher tape recorder. I sprinkled some lighter fluid down in one corner and lit it — only a little fluid is used to start it off, because it is essential that the piano catch fire slowly, and watching the flames move about, catching here and there unpredictably, is mesmerizing.

Lockwood at work.

I had not expected it would be so beautiful. At first a large crowd of onlookers talked their heads off, utterly defeating the tapijng, bu then they fell silent, absorbed. It is a long process, over three hours. A piano’s interior structure if beautiful and the fire reveals it gradually. The various kinds of varnish produce brilliant blues and greens, and snapping strings often sound very resonant. For the corwd at that first bunring, this became an absorbing meditative experience. At the end, with writer Alex Gross as the medium, we repaired to a tent and held séance to arouse Beethoven and ask him to comment — which someone also taped, unbeknownst to me. After Alex had called “Ludi” several times, an electronic-sounding noise appeared on the tape (not audible to us in the tent, and not a malfunction signal we could recognize) and faded. That was my first “Piano Transplant.” Since then it has been repeated several times in England, the USA, New Zealand and now, so many years later, here in Perth (during the 2005 festival*). For something so pragmatic in origin, and so transitory, this persistence is surprising.

[ * Lockwood is referring to the inaugural Totally Huge New Music Festival staged that year in Perth, Western Australia, and again every year since. ]

Coincidence: My idol, Studs Terkel, referred extensively in his writings to the Uher brand, old-school, reel-to-reel tape recorder he used in gathering the countless interviews he would compile into his oral history books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War.

The Uher 4000, a “portable” recorder (c. 1961).

In any case, after I’d finished reading Terkel’s reminiscence, I chatted with former Caveat Emptor owner (and now gentleman of leisure), Janis Starcs, who reminded me that as the chant “The whole world is watching” blared out from seemingly every television set in the nation on Wednesday evening, August 28th, 1968, with protesters meeting the police and the Illinois National Guard in the Battle of Michigan and Balbo, many Republicans cheered as if at a football game.

Starcs nailed it. Those Republicans were watching the unraveling of the Democratic Party. It can be argued — and I’ll make that argument — that the effects of the ’68 chaos are being felt to this very day.

We’re Getting There

With the completion of the Super Bowl on Sunday night (some team won, I understand) we’ve hit the first of my several spring harbinger landmarks. See, in order for me to survive the mental, spiritual, and physical ordeal that is winter I have to look for calendrical mileposts, otherwise I’d roll myself up into a ball of utter depression like a dead spider.

So, yeah, landmark No. 1 is the end of the football season. Check. Next up? Valentine’s Day. Then it’s on to my birthday on March 4th and a bunch of other mileposts in quick succession.

Huzzah! Football’s Over!

Before you know it, it’ll be spring and I’ll be able to breathe again.

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