Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Making rock music with Kathy Leisen

Oh Detroit, what have we done to deserve Kathy Leisen?

If you don't know Kathy, she's an artist, musician and singer with a voice like a smoldering, late night campfire beneath a big, starry sky somewhere out West, with some ragged clouds just starting to roll in and drizzle, but it's OK because you're with your friends and you've had a little whisky and you just spent the whole day outside. Her band Soft Location, with their mellow, slow-burn rock tunes crowned by Kathy's aching lyrics of love and longing, is a Detroit essential. Put on a Soft Location record and time slows; you drift a little. You melt. Here, listen:

Kathy also happens to be disarmingly graceful, forthright, and generous of spirit. I will perhaps forever associate her with the peaceful, matter-of-fact good vibes of the Detroit art community. She's one of the first people I met, seven or so years ago, when I started writing about Detroit art with any semblance of seriousness, and I won't soon forget the kindness and openness with which she welcomed me (nervous, unsteady) into the little sound art gallery in Eastern Market where she was noodling on an acoustic guitar.

Last weekend, she amply demonstrated that welcoming spirit in "Harmony By Any Means Necessary," an intimate performance at Popps Packing, the Hamtramck home, studio, and artspace of artists Graem Whyte and Faina Lerman. The concert was part of the Lounge of Saturn, an ongoing exhibition and performance series at Popps featuring work by a dizzying array of Detroit artists.

Popps Packing

For the occasion, Kathy donned a plain, billowy garment that her friend, the artist Chad Wentzel, created, a sort of giant apron that makes her one with her keyboard. ("I feel like I'm getting ready to go into surgery," she joked as she slipped into it. Chad told me that his ambition is to make a room-sized version of this piece, an environment, basically, that would join Kathy and her keyboard with the audience, a la James Lee Byars, maybe. Sounds like fun.)

As she set up the keyboard, Kathy placed five or six stones, maybe 2-5 inches long each, along the top of it, as well as a couple rolls of masking tape, and told the assembled company that she needed some help with the performance—or the game, as she put it. ("Art should be fun, shouldn't it?") The idea was that she would start playing, and then we would commence to shape the music together, with each audience member encouraged to walk up at any time and place a stone on a key, or group of keys, or else tape down a particular key. As the tones shifted, Kathy would correspondingly modulate the tone of her voice, producing a unique, improvised composition, co-created on the spot.

I've seen Kathy use her stones in a more straightforward solo performance recently, at the Shells record release party at Trinosophes, and it's a subtle but powerful gesture. Visually, tactilely, the stones carry a certain weight. They're of course such natural objects, freighted with idiosyncratic meanings about their (be)holder's connection to the natural world, about childhood exploration, ancient beginnings and environmental degradation. There is something fruitful, dialectical, about the relationship between the stones—with their utter simplicity, their mute, compact, essential rock-ness—and the keyboard, the big sound machine, hard-angled and complexly engineered. Their union (their reconciliation) could be gimmicky or precious, but it's not; instead, it's unexpected, a little whimsical, and quite elegant.

The sound, meanwhile, is notably...visual. There's the background, the pure, hard tones of the keyboard, which are minimal, even, unambiguous, and insistent: a drone. (A plane.) And the foreground: Kathy's voice, reverb-ed and echoing, freeform, soft, shifting, and abstract. (There are lyrics there, but they're fuzzy and indistinct—mostly you can make out an "I" here, a "you" there—all, perhaps, you need to know.)

With participation, of course, there is much more: you hold the rocks in your hands. You make choices, informed or not. (Kathy is definitely not worried about whether or not participants "know" music, which is in itself pretty incredible.) You perform the ritual; you walk up and make an offering, to...what? The god of music, maybe, or to Kathy, or to the Earth itself. And you do it in concert, with strangers, perhaps, or with friends. You play (in more ways than one) and then enjoy the remarkable result: that voice, that sad, silver voice, ringing out over the tones that you've manifested, together.

"Harmony By Any Means Necessary" was all over pretty quickly. Just three distinct compositions, maybe 15 or 20 minutes in total, but what a gift: a precious opportunity, these days, to shake off the weight of things, the anxiety, the despair, the ceaseless chatter, and to make something that stands apart—something simple and still, sacred and shared.

No comments:

Post a Comment