Music for Meatyard

The Blanton’s award-winning music series, SoundSpace, returns this Sunday with its latest installment, SoundSpace: Musical Outsiders. This program features several new works of music that have been written in response to the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, whose works are currently on view in Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Adam Bennett, the Blanton’s manager of public programs, spoke with the composer of one of these new works, the Houston-based bassist Damon Smith, about his piece “Music for Meatyard.”

Adam: You’ve written a really interesting description of this new piece you’re going to do at SoundSpace that references Meatyard but also William Carlos Williams and Sigmar Polke. Where did you get the idea to combine those three artists into your music?

Ralph Eugene Meatyard Motion-‐‐Sound #28, ca. 1970Gelatin silver print, 6.75 x 6.75 in. Photography Collection, Harry Ransom Center © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard
Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Motion-‐‐Sound #28, ca. 1970, Gelatin silver print, 6.75 x 6.75 in., Photography Collection, Harry Ransom Center, © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

Damon: I have one of Polke’s artist books, this big book of lithographs called Daphne that features all these xeroxed machine works. I work at an arts supply warehouse so I have access to a Xerox machine, and having the materials is sort of one of the first steps, I guess! I’ve used it to make my own graphic scores before.

When I looked at [Meatyard’s] sound motion studies I actually thought there was a little bit of a similarity to what Polke was doing with the Xerox machine. The sound motion studies are pretty flat—some trees are moving and that’s it—and so I thought the Xerox machine could add some disruption to that, to sort of isolate the movement.

I also liked this idea of this blue-collar intellectual guy who worked as an optician, you know, and had such an interest in concrete poetry—which is fairly well-known now but not really back then in that time period. I thought that was kind of an interesting aspect of Meatyard: it put him in a different class of awareness compared to the accepted photographers around him who might not have known about concrete poetry. So the idea then was just to turn Meatyard’s favorite Williams poem [Paterson] into a concrete poem by tearing it up and dropping it onto the Xerox machine.

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Music for Meatyard, Damon Smith

Adam: I love in the description when you say that you tore up the poem and “dropped the bits on the copy machine, carefully making sure the text was facing down but without moving the pieces.” So you’re creating an element of chance by dropping them but you are careful about where you drop them!

Damon: Yeah, I wasn’t like Hans Arp where I was hardcore about their position. If they moved a little bit in the flipping-over process, I didn’t care that much.

One other connection to Meatyard is that we’re going to do some free improvisations. The idea behind that is that Meatyard is really like when you meet a grizzled old free improvisor! There are a couple of musicians that I wouldn’t necessarily name their names—they might get insulted, you know— but they’ll have a house full of books and they are super well-read and they might not have gone to college but they have a wealth of knowledge about all kinds of music and literature and film and art. And instead of thinking of them as outsiders, they sort of took the route to a Ph.D. that takes 40 years to get, always out digging and researching. So I think that the whole life of an improvisor sort of mirrors the way Meatyard was doing things. In the same way, free improvisation is not 100% accepted academically. It’s getting there but there is still a preference for notated material.

Adam: Do you remember the first time that you saw or read about Meatyard?

Damon: Oh man. I had one of those Phaidon books with the history of photography that I used to keep in my bathroom in the 90s. And I actually thought about his position as this sort of a super accepted artist but who also had that outsider tag. And then I immediately thought of trying to do a duo with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. I actually don’t have a degree in bass, but I studied with a lot of super academic classical bass players and stuff like that and got a fairly formal education and my approach to the instrument is actually super formal. Whereas Ingebrigt has a degree in bass and then plays way more like a hardcore self-taught American jazz player. But it’s a choice that he makes and I just immediately thought of that combination as being super interesting.

Damon Smith
Damon Smith

Adam: How do you think about this notion of the “outsider” being applied to Meatyard?

Damon: I think that it’s weird to think of Meatyard as an outsider at the same time that someone like Bjork has a major museum show. If you read about Meatyard, he talks about how he wants every photo to be perfect. He references these great photographers that he knows and the history of photography. He knows all the contemporary photographers of his time. He already knows all this great modern jazz and he’s friends with all these great writers like Guy Davenport. So I think artists like Forrest Bess and Meatyard are a lot more—those people were hardcore artists. And Bjork is too, but she’s still part of the corporate structure—as much as I like her music, and I think she is really good, I know people who have worked with her, she is still part of corporate pop music. Her whole reasons for doing things aren’t in line with Forrest Bess or Meatyard or Rauschenberg or even someone like Titian.

This SoundSpace brings up the idea of what an outsider audience is, and also the relationship between the art world and popular music. You’ve got the Bjork show and the young kids doing rock’n’roll karaoke at their openings and that sort of stuff and that kind of unhealthy obsession with pop music. The establishment is now corporate culture and corporate pop music and not the universities or the museums. Those museums are sort of our frontlines of defense to protect intelligent ideas.  I think that it’s important that Texas has all these great institutions that are doing this, like the Blanton and the Menil and MFA-Houston and CAM. It’s an interesting place to do this sort of work.
SoundSpace: Musical Outsiders is this Sunday, June 14, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Blanton.

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