Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Musiqa talks to CAMH Director Bill Arning

Bill Arning (photo by Eric Hester)

Thursday, Nov 17 at 6:30 pm, Musiqa presents its first Loft Concert of the 11-12 season at the Contemporary Museum of Arts Houston. These informal, intimate concerts are produced in conjunction with CAMH’s current exhibitions, the show this time being artist Donald Moffett’s “The Extravagant Vein.”

CAMH Director Bill Arning describes Musiqa’s programming as “a form of extended wall text.” For the Nov 17 program, Musiqa’s Artistic Board has chosen works that expound upon some of the themes found in Moffett’s work, including the pervasiveness and multiple guises of political oppression, as well as the sometimes playful, sometimes haunting redefinitions of what materials make a “painting.” The program includes works by Cornelius Cardew, Frederic Rzewski, John Fitz-Rogers, Ryo Noda, Pierre Max DuBois and Christian Lauba. Violinist Yung-Hsiang Wang, saxophonist Dan Gelok, Musiqa Artistic Board member Rob Smith, and composition students from Rice University and the University of Houston perform.

Musiqa’s Chris Becker sat down with Arning recently to talk about Musiqa’s Loft Concerts, audience attention spans, and Arning’s punk rock and No Wave musical roots…

Chris Becker: I want to talk about your punk rock past. I read you were in a band called the Student Teachers.

Bill Arning: Yes. We were all sort of the biggest music nerds around CBGB’s. The band started playing actively when we were about 16.

CB: Are we talking about the mid 80s?

BA: 70s. 75, 76. I remember just going regularly to see the Talking Heads, the Ramones, each doing two sets a night at CBGB’s with a two dollar cover. Dinner was two fifty for a bowl of chili, which we all took our lives in our hands by eating. But it was pretty good!

At that point Patti Smith had a record out, but nobody else did. There was a Television 45 (single). My high school was two blocks from Max’s Kansas City and about 20 blocks from CBGB’s and we just started living there.

We didn’t quite realize how special it was. There was a really interesting back and forth with the serious music world of that period. You had the Rhys Chatham generation of composers very much there at CBGB’s. I even remember having this debate about why couldn’t the term minimalism in music refer to Philip Glass and the Ramones. In visual art minimalism, the question was how many elements could you reduce and still have it have the catalytic effect of art? And I’m like, the Ramones are reducing in that the pop song doesn’t have to be more than two minutes, and it doesn’t have to be anything more than three chords and a 4/4 beat, and the simplest, dumbest lyric…Punk rock was minimalism in a different form.

CB: So you were you thinking about this stuff as a young person playing in the Student Teachers?

BA: Yeah!

There were a lot of visual artists who had bands at that point. One thing I like about this city (Houston) is that it’s a small enough so that the spheres are not really separated. If I go to see Catastrophic Theatre or NobleMotion Dance I see as many people from the visual arts, and the music world, and filmmakers who are based here, and writers, and I like the fact that the genres are next to each other and allow for a spirit of collaboration.

(Teenage Jesus and the Jerks single cover with photo by Bill Arning)

CB: Musicians often describe music in terms from architecture or theory like deconstructivism. In your role here at CAMH, do you find yourself considering, thinking or speaking about art, be it painting or sculpture or whatever, in musical terms?

BA: Very much so. I talk about the experience of exhibitions, no so much individual works, in that way. Exhibitions are a time-based art even when its static works on the wall. You gotta understand the experience of someone walking through the show. You gotta choreograph that.

When we installed the Stan Vanderbeek show here, it was a very different layout than (when it showed at) the MIT galleries. Here, it’s a giant trapezoid…and you can’t control someone’s experience here. So you figure out okay, if someone goes forward, what do they get in sequence? If they go to the left, what do they get in sequence? That’s really fascinating.

CB: Audience attention span is a real “hot button” topic in the classical world now. There’s this assumption that we can’t hold people’s attention for certain lengths of time. Do you think you can measure the profundity of an experience a listener or a viewer is having just based on the amount of time they spend in front of something?

People look at time spent in the museum as a quantifiable metric…I know from my own experience as a viewer that there are shows that I walk through for whatever reason not slowing down adequately. Part of the joy of art viewing is the slowing down, that fact that you gotta pay attention. But the resonances of things after the fact are often unrelated to the amount of time I spent before them.

CB: Moving on to Musiqa’s Loft Concerts that take place at CAMH. The first Musiqa concert I saw was at CAMH and I loved it. And these concerts are always packed. When you look at those audiences, do you see the potential for growth for both CAMH and Musiqa?

BA: Oh, definitely. I see the Musiqa’s programming as a form of extended wall text. They bring audiences (here) in a certain way, and help to extend the themes of the show, themes that have these other qualities, other elements that need to be brought out in the form of living art.

Visual art rarely exists without music in its natural environment. I go to a lot of artist’s studios. You ring the buzzer, you walk in the studio, and they go and turn down their iDock or their beat up second stereo. I remember when Sonic Youth’s Goo album came out…first off, Sonic Youth has incredible history of picking visual artist that are right at the cusp of super stardom for their album covers…I remember saying to a friend, “I want to do a show called ‘Goo’ and just ask every artist to send a piece that they remember they made while Goo was playing…” I never did do the show, probably would have been pretty silly.

It is the nature of (the visual arts) that it emerges from a nest that is music. And it sort of needs to be returned to that.

All (we) need really are patrons who are willing to support experimentation. There are a lot of Houston arts funders who love the idea of living composers, as well as funders who like to bring artists here and they get to realize new dreams. The funders are here. I would love to see all the organizations push the idea that this is a city that’s based on experimentation.

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