Fire and Ice – this winter solstice time of year, this is everything. Everything in the world makes me want to listen to my sisters now. Nina Simone so real and shockingly improvising, speaking to right now December 2014 – and the calmest and the fieriest performer alive – at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976 in “I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free.” Joan Armatrading telling it so cooly for herself, her sacrosanct love, but for us all: “Peace in Mind” and “Cool Blue Stole my Heart.” Emily Dickinson saying a hundred years before: “We – Tell a Hurt – to cool it – ” with her syncopated jazz timing in “Black Berry – Wears a Thorn in his side -“. Clara Ward and the Ward Gospel Singers, spanning the gap, every gap – leaping right over it, telling us how, how to get over – how to use your light and how to keep on your traveling shoes. I haven’t even gotten to the beautiful fire and ice of those sisters right in my own time, my own family. Lead on, sisters – I will listen, follow, very carefully! I give tearful, frozen, fiery thanks that these women and these messages exist across space and time.
Pensive clown moment backstage. Not really characteristic of Pilgrimage onstage: Ara Fitzgerald and I were originally inspired for this piece by the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: bawdy five-husbanded, spiritual-journeyers with rosaries and little black prayer books. We talked about whether it was important for that original inspiration to be cited in program notes – always interesting to think about how much context is useful for an audience. Seems though that the image of a powerfully clowning woman is still new and even perverse, maybe needs explaining. Or just needs to be seen.
One of the key revelations of my weekend was seeing a photo in the lobby of the Alvin Ailey Center: a picture of an Alvin Ailey piece from 1961 “Roots of the Blues” in which dancers Carmen de Lavallade and Alvin Ailey shared space with musician Brother John Sellers on tambourine – and drumroll…musician Bruce Langhorne playing guitar. Can’t help but wonder about certain songs’ origins. Probably not. But anyway, this evidence of the intersection of the early 1960’s modern dance and gospel/folk music world really reached out and grabbed me.
We step onstage again: I’m happy to be performing as part of the American Dance Guild Fest at Ailey Citicorp Theater in NYC this Sunday December 7th at 7:00pm with the inestimably be-gifted Ara Fitzgerald, with whom I’ve been most fortunate to create (and re-create and re-create) a duet called “Pilgrimage” over the last few years, through the Dragon’s Egg and Triskelion Arts. We start from scratch each time. Does it ever get less maddening, terrifying, euphoric? I hope not.
Thanks to Peter Cunningham for the photo!
1) The universe is saying, endlessly, over and over – “Go!”
2) It means – “Go make nothing!”
I’ve noticed in dance rehearsals that when a phrase or section starts to work, it starts to disappear, or camouflage into its context. It becomes right or done; I can move on to the next thing when it loses its fussiness, sheds some extraneous stylizations, becomes essential. Becomes nothing. The meaning is able to beam or punch through. It isn’t ultimately about finding simplicity of construction, although sometimes it is. It’s about the material arriving at itself, or settling into the framework. I’m just starting to get a sense of this same phenomenon in music-making: how to make nothing in music, leave no extraneous imprints.
Dance studios, gyms: empty spaces to detail with movement, energy, rhythm. I spend so much time in them, I can forget. But I love these spaces, aesthetically and intrinsically, inside and out. I love the wooden floor and cavernous height of Mann Gymnasium where I teach and dance: its look, sound, smell, feel, slip and slide. I always end the semester in awe of my students. The energy they’ve given through sheer physical effort, creative intelligence, and instinctual daring hangs in the space, like the sunlight beaming its way across the floor. What does it all mean, a group of bodies gathered in an empty space to move/think together? It means something beautiful, radical, fundamental. Another image I’m thinking about: a person standing or sitting – or even lying down – playing a guitar. I find the whole image barely discussable.
Aislynn Taber and I played an unusual event last week: an evening of music and ceramics in tandem. The brainchild of brilliant art-connector Margaret Coleman at ONE Arts Collective, it featured artwork by Alissa Faber (the mugs are by Alissa, and we are drinking hot toddies out of them!) and music by Clare and Aislynn. It felt like a picnic, it felt like playing sitars, it felt like Keith Richards in the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.
Playing at the Radio Bean in October with Mary and Mark – a beautiful night. I thought after: Trust in the music. Let things come out. Day by day. Don’t weigh on the past – it’s gone skipping away, has its own work to do. It’ll circle back around in good time. The future: it’ll come too, without you worrying about it. Present: now there’s something to pay attention to. It’s the only ground to stand on, break, dig into.
It was great to late-night talk with Mary and Mark about music things like the best picks, pickups, and microphones, but also about leaving space in the music, time wise, tone wise. How a strum on the guitar is a lot of information. Use it wisely.
I’m gleaning little vital pieces of information from all sources these days: Steve Paxton, contemporary dance saint, who came through town with a talk and a show at the Flynn Center in Burlington last week; beautiful inspiring monks Francis I, Francis, a book by Carlo Caretto and Thomas Merton‘s Living with Wisdom ; my dance students, whose curiosity and pure unabashed chutzpah totally inspires me. I’m floored learning Keith Richard’s guitar solo in Wild Horses. It doesn’t take much to make me happy, just one pluck at a time.
Very excited to play with some of my big-time teachers and inspirations, right in my own family. My sister Mary Byrne and her husband and music partner Mark Rogers are touring their debut album, I Line My Days Along Your Weight. You can read a great review of it here. We’ll be playing along side each other for two cozy dates right here in Northern Vermont, at some neat spots: on Thursday Oct 23rd at The Whammy Bar in dreamy Calais – a bar brilliant enough to situate itself in a general store in a bucolic hamlet in Vermont – and on Sunday Oct 26th at Radio Bean , a venerable Burlington music venue with a really broad artistic outlook. As in they say, “oh yeah we like your folk music and experimental dance mash ups!” I appreciate that.
Mary has been making music brilliantly in the family for a long time, in several bands in Atlanta, and now with Mark in Brooklyn. I was lucky enough to have Mary and band Hot Young Priest perform live for my last full-evening dance in NYC (Rounds, or the First Last Dance, or the Last First Dance, Or An Ordination, 2007). And well, Mark is an amazing guitar player and teacher. He taught me my first chord on the guitar almost exactly four years ago. I told him I wanted to know everything that Bob Dylan knew in his early NYC days. A couple weeks later he supplied me with a three-inch stack of Xeroxes from music workbooks. I said, “Is this info for the next couple months?” He said, “This is info for the next couple years!” He was right, I’m still working my way through that stack.
Back in March, partner-in-crime Stefan Jacobs and I went down to our basement, took everything out of the canning cellar except the fermenting apple cider, and ran cable into some microphones. In that little cold space, all bundled up, we recorded every song I had – mostly one take each. Here is a one take from that rough cut collection, the Apple Cider Cellar Tapes.