It’s a naïve, self-flattering assumption to believe that your art is a direct, gashed-vein expression of your experience, your larger world and your inner life. You may feel that it is, just because you want it to be true so badly. You deafen yourself to all of the cultural and aesthetic factors that intervene. On the other hand, it is a buzzkill to go all-in on that old ‘80s cokehead intellectual perception that art is primarily an insular game, an “inside” conversation between artifacts within traditions, and that art’s subject is always primarily art itself – that each new love song, for example, is ultimately “about” the phenomenon of the love song, its tropes, traditions and innovations; not about, say, love. Art is a mirror held up to a mirror held up to a mirror held up to nature, maybe, by the first guy. In Greece.
Where does meaning live? Is it a property dwelling minerallike within the art itself, there whether or not anyone perceives it? Is it a controlled reaction between the intentions of the artist and the experiences of the audience within a shared cultural context? Or is meaning the ongoing output of a complex cultural process, activated when the work, loaded with all kinds of intended and unintended volatile content, drops in the pool and immediately starts gabbing and interacting with everything that has gone before it and that is going on around it: a dynamic vision of meaning that privileges the critics who “read” culture rather than the dull-headed makers, whose leaden statements of intention are pretty much irrelevant to what the work actually becomes and means. The art doesn’t even need to be great (though it helps if it is sexy; this we have learned).
In the old days, it was pretty simple: The artist had a great idea and great skill and made some great art, and the critical apparatus jumped in to help expose and celebrate its greatness and advocate for its position in the canon, which the work would continuously justify because of an inherent and obvious greatness that goes boom on your head, all heads, all heads that are ready. This starts to get shaky, for me at least, with the dawn of 20th-century psychology and urgent questions not only about whether the artist gets to control what her work means, but also whether she should even want to, if Jung and Freud were right about where the real energy lives. Long before psychology, of course, some people believed that the artist is just the poor conduit: a vehicle that the art uses and then discards roughly when it is done with her. No art is great if it’s not just a little mad, if it doesn’t say some things that we can’t rightly understand. Who is to be the arbiter of such wildness?
You know, I dropped out of Critical Theory 101 early in life, and so can’t get too much further with this; but I think it is a good thing that I absorbed just enough to keep my mind working on the problem. I am too sensitive to ideas. I get overexcited when I start to understand a single one. I worked with a songwriter once who was so sensitive to music that she had to control strictly how much she exposed herself to. Otherwise she would be overwhelmed by all the freshness and energy and sounds and grooves out there, and feel herself drowned out before she gave her own frail and lovely songs a chance to germinate. She needed a protected and mostly empty psychic space in which she might discover for herself all of the things that had already been discovered. Mostly empty: She let a few things in, just a few, dwelling on them and loving them well until they told her everything. But the borders were patrolled with vigilance.
I think that this is a fabulous life strategy: getting more meaning out of fewer artifacts. Throughout college and grad school, I was admonished to read constantly and read everything. (I think it was obvious to my mentors that I wasn’t doing anything of the sort.) Now, I am more of the mind that if you read a few very, very good books when you are young (I mean, really good, like One Hundred Years of Solitude or Writing without Teachers) and then think about them the rest of your life, you’ll eventually spin out all the other ones on your own anyway.
But the idea that art is all style grabs and references, and that meaning is socially negotiated, as joyless as it might sound to an old Romantic like me, is a powerful one. Once you let it do its work of making sense of the culture storming around you at all times, it explains a lot. I do worry, though, about some of the young artists for whom this idea has always been so deeply assumed that they don’t even recognize it as their operating assumption. What are their prospects for growth? Don’t you need the Romantic myth if you want transformation?
In the last 20 years, I have seen the aesthetic of cultural “sampling” grow way beyond its obvious digital/electro home base. More and more organic and old-school bands playing guitars and banjos and garbage cans strike me as essentially meatware samplers involved in a complex and single-point-of-focus cultural acquisition. When you first hear the lovely neo-psychedelic band Quilt, you will be struck – astonished, I tell you – by their easygoing mastery of one very particular period, one geographically and chronologically fixed vibe. Call it the psychedelic folk/pop of the California of the ‘60s. Especially amazing is the way in which they cop the distinctively naïve vocal harmony of the period: the Mamas and the Papas, Moby Grape, the Byrds, of course, and (while they are seldom admitted into this discussion, thanks to hipster blacklisting) the Grateful Dead, whose take on the Bay Area vocal harmony thing on Workingman’s Dead is probably the most bizarre of them all.
Quilt are naturally gifted arrangers. Their guitar noodles are clean and beautifully orchestrated in a way that reminds of the former locals Widowspeak, with whom they must be buddies (I do not know this for a fact, but I will take bets). The studio is their friend, and they are utterly at home in it, setting some rigid chronological boundaries that they seldom violate. To their credit, it never sounds like tribute or parody. Their voice might be instantly recognizable as an old and geolocated one, but they inhabit it fully.
If there is one aspect of first-gen folk psychedelia that Quilt, Widowspeak and many others don’t quite capture, it is the goofy harmonic sophistication that crept into the original stuff via Tin Pan Alley. Quilt end up sounding comparatively monochromatic in a way more indebted to the Velvet Underground and even dream-roots bands like the Cowboy Junkies and Mazzy Star. This is not a deficiency, as the relatively inert, slow-paced chord changes enhance the dwelling raga feel that is a big part of their sound.
2014’s Held in Splendor is Quilt’s definitive statement of identity. 2016’s Plaza tackles the difficult proposition of change for any band that is formed so fiercely around one specific moment in time and space. The record is slightly more abrasive and electric, definitely a little more New York. It is coming unmoored in time as the doctrinal ‘60s-ness of the core sound starts to yield just a little. But also this: The non-historical basic musical properties of Plaza are better than before, the hooks shapelier and more concise, the grooves more buoyant, the harmonies as fantastic as ever. I suppose that some questions hover, regarding what a band like this is supposed to do when its growth can no longer be contained by its original referential premise. It is an exciting time, however, when the façade just begins to show signs of crumbling.
Quilt performs at BSP with Mutual Benefit and Donny Dinero on Sunday, September 25. Tickets cost $12 in advance and $15 at the door. For more information, visit www.bspkingston.com. BSP is located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston.
Quilt/Mutual Benefit/Donny Dinero, Sunday, September 25, 7 p.m., $12/$15, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; www.bspkingston.com.