Atlanta new-music ensemble Bent Frequency performed to a full house this past Saturday at the Goat Farm. The group’s forceful program tackled the hard, disturbing subjects of prisons, inmates and unjust incarceration.
Percussionist-composers John Lane and Allen Otte were guest artists, invited to present their collaborative work “The Innocents,” inspired by Taryn Simon‘s photographs of people who were wrongly convicted of violent crimes they did not commit, served time in prison and then were eventually exonerated through DNA evidence.
Simon’s words about the images seem an apt fulcrum for the concerns the concert explored: “Evidence does not exist in a closed system. Like photography, it cannot exist apart from its context, or outside of the modes by which it circulates. Photography’s ability to blur truth and fiction is one of its most compelling qualities. But when misused, [this ambiguity] can turn fiction into fact.” It is arguable that music and the other arts can do the same, motivating observers down paths to alternative conclusions.
Otte opened the program with the Prologue from “The Fall of the Empire” by Frederic Rzewski. With only a single dried poinciana pod rattle and the spoken word, Rzewski sets the following text from Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.” The spare texture isolates the quotation, drawing it into focus, re-framing it into new potential meaning.
Even that line of text calls to mind how art can blur the line between reality and fiction. The quote Rzewski uses appears within a larger passage on Panel Three of quotations on the Jefferson Memorial. But wait: Panel Three is misleading. That purported quotation is a mash-up of phrases extracted from five completely different documents and quilted together, a blurred fiction in that Jefferson never wrote the passage as it appears. The text quoted by Rzewski appears in one of those source documents, Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII.” The perception of that line’s meaning, as Simon suggests, is revealed by the context, while the mash-up engraved on the memorial, unquestioned, blurs truth and fiction.
That kind of mash-up as method was evoked in the next piece, “Too Much Doubt,” a musique concrète work by Alex Marse. Marse, a graduate student at Georgia State University, recorded comments by demonstrators at Woodruff Park who were protesting the execution of Troy Davis. He extracted samples to construct an audio collage, grouped into relevant sections. In his notes, Marse writes about how he “used these different sections to form a unified train of thought that represents how I feel about the execution,” and his perspective about how the events of the case progressed.
Inevitably, individuals such as Davis become symbols in the struggle between conflicting moral ends, and where such symbols are raised, larger-than-life cultural mythologies can take root and supersede objectivity. Art thrives on mythologies. It tends to leave the relentless pursuit of objectivity to science and history.
The lessons of hard objective reality, in terms of proof of innocence, are present in the story behind the “The Innocents.” The presentation featured text spoken by Lane and Otte, or sung by soprano Maria Valdes, over a panoply of mostly “found objects” used as percussion instruments, including beating, crushing and tearing sheets of newspaper (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Creative Loafing were featured in the demolition of media), along with some electronic audio tracks.
The music under Valdes’ warm, round-toned singing was gentle, mostly accompanied by the melodious plunking of African thumb pianos. These sections contrasted starkly with passages of visceral emotive power, most notably one featuring the strokes of hammers on stone, sounding at first like court gavels after a convict’s name is read, then becoming more frequent and regular and morphing into the sound of sledgehammers busting rocks in sync, and finally forming a driving rhythmic beat under an audio track of a chain gang singing.
The first half of the concert closed with a video of three men who were wrongly convicted and later exonerated, speaking about their own experiences of injustice.
For the second half, Bent Frequency’s own performers took the stage with more music by Rzewski. His “Coming Together” featured text drawn from a letter by Samuel Joseph Melville, who was convicted and sent to New York’s infamous Attica Correctional Facility for his role as a principal conspirator and bomb setter in the 1968 Columbia University riots. While an inmate at Attica, he became one of the leaders of its violent 1971 riot, in which he died.
Tenor Richard Clement boldly narrated over an incessant, prerecorded eighth-note running bass line that was augmented by live strings, winds and vibraphone playing long legato tones at times and sharp, punctuated chords. Melville’s text declares his “objectivity” within Attica’s vicious environment, touting his ability to withstand the situation with mental and emotional resolve.
Rzewski uses repetition and recombination of Melville’s words throughout, driving them home in a way that makes it ultimately apparent that Melville’s claims may themselves be a fiction, a self-delusional defensive posture, a bottling up of rage and an underlying hysteria that’s ready to explode.
By contrast, the music that followed, titled “Attica,” is an atmospheric piece based on warm, diatonic major-key sonorities, in which Clement sang the words of another Attica prisoner who, upon being released and asked what he thought of the place, enigmatically remarked, “Attica is in front of me.” Despite the inmate’s having forfeited so much while imprisoned, the music draws from his words a sincere sense of equanimity and at long last being at peace with oneself.
Across the board, the concert was well performed, and the audience was moved by it. (To say “enjoyed” is perhaps entirely too blithe an expression.) And to a deeper point, Bent Frequency presented a tightly and thoughtfully structured, thought-provoking program that embraced not only the quality of the art itself, but the immediacy of the cultural context in which adventurous art may thrive and flourish.