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INTERVIEW: Beauty In The Bleak
Ned Raggett , January 23rd, 2015 14:17

From London, tQ favourite Kemper Norton and Thomas Bloch will be linking up with a disused silo-turned-musical instrument in a Californian dry lake for an intercontinental collaboration as part of the SAISONSCAPE series tomorrow. Intriguing, eh? Ned Raggett talks to LA visual artist Lauren Bon and Art Assembly director Julia Dempsey about the project

This Saturday a particularly interesting transatlantic recording event will be linking up artists in California and London. Lauren Bon, the visual artist and director of Los Angeles' Metabolic Studio, will see Requiem For Water, her permanent installation in the now-dry Owens Lake near the Sierra Nevada range, combined with the work of glasses performer Thomas Bloch and sound artist (and previous Quietus interviewee) Kemper Norton in the BBC's Maida Vale studios, with the resultant collaboration, Beauty In The Bleak, set to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 next week.

The recording will inaugurate this year's SAISONSCAPE series of experimental music, which will also include a new suite of compositions by tQ favourite Richard Skelton, overseen by Art Assembly, led by founder Julia Dempsey. As Bon and Dempsey discussed in separate interviews earlier this week, Beauty In The Bleak's origins come from multiple sources, initially growing out of Bon's larger work over the past ten years with the Metabolic Studio. Her specific focus has been water and Los Angeles' connections to it over time, most crucially the LA Aqueduct and its shipping of water from the Owens Valley beginning in 1913, the famed inspiration of Chinatown. Now emptied of surface water directly, the valley is a transformed, haunted area, the more so at present given the current California drought.

"When I moved from London, where I had been for a decade," remembers Bon, "I was interested in what Los Angeles was - where is this city, how does it function? I was especially fascinated by the intersection of the highest and lowest places in the continental US - Mount Whitney and Death Valley - and the Owens Valley, where we get our water. So I found myself in this location of immense beauty and geographic significance, 240 miles northeast of Los Angeles, at an incredibly important time in our consciousness in terms of the history of water."

Bon has been working out of the Owens Valley for ten years, and among her many projects centring around water (especially in 2013 when the aqueduct celebrated its 100th anniversary) is Requiem For Water itself. A massive aeolian harp-cum-wind flute-cum-broadcasting area located in a disused silo in the valley, it can be accessed any time via a live stream. The resultant combination of environmental sounds and the drones and musical notes generated is quietly compelling listening.

"It's a mature piece at this point," says Bon about Requiem. "It will be playing the sounds of the environment for as long as the building stands. The basic concept was to take the ruins of an industrial factory on the edge of the Owens Valley dry lakebed into a resonant instrument that plays itself. The concept behind that is that from nothing, something emerges by vibration. But it's a work in progress as well in that any sound that enters its silo can become part of its score."

"I'm an independent producer," Dempsey notes, "and events come out of ideas I have. William Basinski [a frequent Bon collaborator] introduced me to Lauren, and projects of hers like One Hundred Mules Walking The Los Angeles Aqueduct became very fascinating, prompting me to explore her work and discover new things with it. I had an opportunity to see her work in Los Angeles and to visit the Owens Valley, to do a pilgrimage there to see Requiem For Water, listening to it on the radio, driving in the car, hearing it, feeling it through the window - experiencing that made it work really well, especially in that devastated landscape."

The two-hour scheduled performance will begin with Requiem at its base, and feature the sounds produced by Norton and Block being fed through the silo, but, as Bon notes, a further key element comes from the participation of a unique choral group, one that draws together from a variety of local communities and which has performed at Requiem before.

"There's a quality of devotional sounds that happens whenever a group of people get together, speak together, pray together, sing together," she says. "For a number of years I've been inviting people into the silo for various performances, and one of the most powerful actions we've done is to invite people in to simply murmur together, a choir that gets together and speaks amongst themselves in very low tones, and that's what we'll be doing this Saturday. There will be about 200 people in this thirty-by-one-hundred foot silo just speaking with each other in an open-ended platform, and you'll hear it as almost like an incredible non-denominational choir."

The transformation of Requiem into Beauty In The Bleak fits into Art Assembly's SAISONSCAPE as the starting point for a full visit through the seasons of the year. Dempsey describes Beauty as something that's not simply being inspired by midwinter: "It's a theme I've been working out for a couple of years. Compositions and minimal landscapes, focus and reflection - a period of heartbreak, devastation that's self-reflective. In the context of the seasons, January is the grey and bleak period, and it's okay to take yourself 'out' for a while. To enjoy wallowing a little bit, it's almost necessary! In contrast, when we move into spring, the starting point is the landscape coming alive, which will be the focus of Richard Skelton's piece Landscape in March.

"The themes in Lauren's work, that in devastation there is creativity that can make change, made a logical starting point. Thomas Bloch's work as a glasses artist, with its use of water, connects as a further contribution, while Kemper Norton has done work with water before, as well as addressing the political fact of water, such as the Camelford water scandal of 1988. The way he works his 'folk miniatures', with aspects of folk stories overlaid on further elements, will be sonically trying to affect the whole, getting everything to reflect back on the Owens Valley."

As Bon concludes, much of the joy of this type of project is that not everything in the work can ever or should ever be fully predicted: "One of my most memorable experiences has been listening in the dead of night to the owls that live in that empty building. The cooing and hooting of the family of owls that have made it their home for as long as I've been going there has been very, very moving, because they're incredibly private animals. Somehow, having this acoustical window into their private space is really fantastic. And you never know when you're going to hear it!"

The live performance element of Beauty In The Bleak can be heard on Saturday 24 January from 10 am to noon PST and 6-8 pm GMT via the permanent stream, with the full version, featuring Bloch and Norton's contributions, set to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3's Late Junction on Thursday 29 January at 11 pm GMT. Richard Skelton's performances will take place from March 20-22 in Salford, Bexhill-on-Sea and London; for full details and tickets head to Art Assembly's website

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