An Exhibition in Sound: Portable Shrines Magic Sound Theatre Vol. I and the Future of Translinguistic Other
When I started writing Translinguistic Other in October of 2008, I was inspired to do so by the fact that I felt that there were some interesting stirrings within the Seattle art community that weren’t being documented/discussed elsewhere (at least not to the degree and from the angles I thought they ought to be.) My first post on this blog—a review of Anne Mathern and Chad Wentzel’s brilliant two-person show at the now-defunct Crawl Space Gallery—identified the idealism in these young artists’ work with a new wave of counterculture sincerity that has slowly but surely been gaining traction for the past several years:
For the better part of a decade now, a crop of youthful, more-or-less underground artists and musicians in urban centers across America have increasingly used self-descriptors like “primitive,” “tribal” and “outsider” with varying degrees of sincerity to indicate that their work seeks, among other things, to identify positively with the marginalized “otherness” of those on the outskirts of so-called civilization. This generation has grown up watching the dominant culture show nothing but wanton disregard for their future, and so its members have spent their whole lives preparing for an immanent apocalypse, drawing inspiration from those groups outside our civilization that seem to have both the tools and cultural values we’ll need to weather such a thing. […]
There is a danger, of course, of the unintended consequence of further marginalization of the groups one seeks to identify with by the very act of one’s own superficial fetishizing of “otherness.” But at its best, the work driving this trend is interesting to me because it represents the first intimations of a viable and coherent counterculture since the wide-eyed optimism of the 1960s showed the first sad signs of becoming a caricature of itself. It won’t come easy, particularly because the longstanding dominant trend of bored, self-defeating irony still stands in opposition to a genuine self-expression, but in the end I think everyone stands to benefit from a meaningful renaissance of sincerity, ecologically informed spirituality, and a corresponding shift toward less narcissistic art.
Since I wrote this post, a lot has happened, both for me personally and for the art I set out to document.
For one thing, the counterculture trend has blossomed, bloomed, and exploded back in on itself in a sort of Möbius Strip of post-sincere, post-transcendent self-transcendence. As well it should. After all, to declare oneself “counterculture” in our endlessly nihilistic age is to plant oneself on the side of the living: the continually evolving, growing, and yes, dying antidote to the suspended animation that passes for intellectualism in the dominant culture.
For another, I personally discovered sound.
That’s ridiculous. I didn’t discover sound. I discovered my own ability to produce music.
Okay, that’s not true either. This is me, performing in un-ironic(?) tie-dye with my band Bulldozer Puppies when I was, like, 15:
We played a few shows, released a criminally ridiculous cassette and went our separate ways. I studied art at the small state university in my hometown because I was hesitant to leave my close-knit family out of fear that something terrible would happen if I left. (It did.) In 2005, I moved to Seattle for grad school, where I made some art that attempted to encode my dissatisfaction with the options available for Americans to be “spiritual.”
I got married. My parents died violently, it nearly destroyed me. I got divorced and came surprisingly close to joining a cult harem, though admittedly not in that order.
By early 2008, much of the dust that was going to settle had settled. I met a very understanding boy named David who introduced himself to me as a wayward musician. Despite his background in composition—(my man once took courses with Stockhausen!)—he had little creative work to show for the years that had slipped by since college. We remedied this by jamming together on some songs whose lyrics were revealed to me in dreams by my dead mother. We called ourselves Midday Veil, an anagram of our first names. At long last, playing music became my life.
In October of 2008, David and I attended the first Frisco Freakout, a psychedelic music festival organized in part by Ripley Johnson of Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo. We decided that not only did we need to expand our fledgling musical project into a full-on rock band like, immediately, we needed to figure out how to make a festival like Frisco Freakout happen in Seattle. We didn’t have a fucking clue how to accomplish that goal, but we knew we wanted it.
The missing piece fell into place when we met Aubrey Nehring through a mutual friend, the artist Shaun Kardinal. At the time, Aubrey was in a rad band called Backward Masks. I found them on MySpace and wrote them a rambling fan letter, filled with utopian fantasies of a mythical future Seattle in which people came out in droves to trip out to psychedelic drone rock.
Aubrey put me in touch with his bassist Darlene Nordyke, who filled me in on their master plan. She and Aubrey wanted the same things we wanted, and they were actually doing something about it. The two of them—working under the mysterious moniker “The Portable Shrines Collective“—were about to start curating rock shows and providing custom projections, with the goal of working toward producing a festival in the fall. The first Portable Shrines show happened in January 2009 and featured Eternal Tapestry, Idle Times and Tiny Light. David and I immediately signed on to help Portable Shrines with anything they needed help with, which turned out to be plenty.
Everyone knows that Seattle is a great music town, but through our involvement with the Portable Shrines Collective, we quickly learned that much of the most interesting stuff happening was hiding deep below the surface. Wholly undiscovered bands like Geist & the Sacred Ensemble, This Blinding Light and the Night Beats were making shockingly awesome music with virtually no recorded output to show for it. Part of this could be accounted for by economics—making records is fucking expensive!—but it also seemed to reflect an overall unresponsiveness on the part of indie rock-entrenched bookers, labels, and media to foster and promote the kind of music we were into, with a few notable exceptions: The Comet’s Michelle Smith, The Stranger’s Dave Segal, The Lo-Fi’s Scott Behrens, The Funhouse’s Brian Foss and KEXP’s Clarita Hinojosa and Alex Ruder have all embraced the Portable Shrines agenda as though it were some long-awaited psychedelic messiah.
Meanwhile, I was taking in all this information and learning about what kind of artist I wanted to be. Crossing out the Bible to reveal a hidden grimoire of hatred and fear was instructive, but depressing. Assembling kaleidoscopic shards of textured paper into spiritual diagrams is rewarding, but tedious. As it turns out, returning to my rock roots and fostering the work of similarly driven artists has been the most socially, artistically and spiritually rewarding art project I have taken on to date.
About a year ago, having decided to found a record label to release Midday Veil’s debut studio LP, I wrote to Aubrey, Darlene and David with the proposal to produce a vinyl-only double album consisting of unreleased music by as many of the bands who had performed at Portable Shrines-curated events over its first year of existence as possible. The idea quickly took form, as musicians and artists we had worked with began submitting their secret improvisations and idiosyncratic outtakes for our consideration. By the time Portable Shrines Magic Sound Theatre Vol. I was sequenced and mastered, the record had become arguably my all-time favorite human artifact in any medium (with apologies to the Ghent Altarpiece).
Then another exciting thing happened. At one of our regular DJ nights at The Living Room, longtime Portable Shrines supporter Dave Segal introduced me to Pat Thomas, a musician, scholar and journalist currently working for Light in the Attic Records, who immediately recognized the potential in what we had made. Pat introduced me to LITA co-founder Josh Wright, who hooked us up with international distribution through the label with a Record Store Day release.
Today, April 16, 2011, is Record Store Day, and in a few hours Portable Shrines Magic Sound Theatre Vol. I will be available in stores for the first time as a Record Store Day exclusive. It is the biggest thing I have accomplished with my little life thus far, and I stand in awe of the immense talent and energy that it encapsulates.
The album contains experimental synth improv (Brother Raven) and studiously crafted ambient drones (A Story of Rats). Idealistic spiritual chants (Prince Rama) and ego-annihilating mantras (Purple Rhinestone Eagle) mingle freely with faux-Vietnamese insanity (Master Musicians of Bukkake) and outré instrumentalism (Diminished Men). The compilation houses works by Sub Pop veterans Kinski and AFCGT and it represents the first ever vinyl release for Geist & the Sacred Ensemble, Tiny Light and This Blinding Light. Nearly half of the bands have women in their ranks or are entirely comprised of women and all of them either live in or have deep ties to the Pacific Northwest.
There is, as it turns out, a direct lineage which may be traced from the shamans of pre-history to the emergence of rock and roll happenings.* Music has always played a role in mankind’s communal spiritual practices, and however jaded we are by consumerism and colonialism of the soul, our age is no different.
I would humbly submit that the art and music documented within the Portable Shrines Magic Sound Theatre Vol. I represents, above all else, the inspiring, audacious spirituality inherent in much of the music and art that is currently gaining traction in our culture. Maybe not all of these bands would identify their work as “spiritual,” but I think most of them would.
At any rate, this release marks Translinguistic Other’s full transition from a blog into a manifester of physical artifacts. We have released our own music before, but this is the first foray into documenting and distributing the work of others in our community. I am pleased to announce that it is the first of many such forays—a batch of cassette releases is slated for the summer, more info on that soon. A second installment to the Magic Sound Theatre is likewise on the distant horizon.
If you are a longtime follower of my blog and you have been disappointed with my lack of verbiage in the past year, rest assured that my absence has been productive. Music goes places where words can’t, thankfully.
And that’s why I plan on devoting myself to it for the foreseeable future.
*For an indepth exploration of the link between shamanism and rock music and showbusiness in general, see Rogan Taylor, The Death and Resurrection Show, Frederick Muller Ltd., 1983.