Apartment House plays Jackson Mac Low

Saturday 29 February 2020

It was great to hear “Is That Wool Hat My Hat?” performed at last. Getting to know Mac Low’s work has often been an exercise for the imagination, reading his poetry on the page and trying to hear it in your head. The layout of his words on the page is often a score as well as a poem, with a greater or lesser degree of explicitness. His introductions, with instructions on how to interpret spacing and typography, simultaneously inspire and frustrate the interested reader.

Which is why I’m so glad Apartment House – appearing this time in the form of a vocal ensemble – dedicated a free evening concert at City University to Mac Low’s work this month. A selection of pieces spanning thirty years, covering the spectrum from speech to music. A poem such as the set of variations “Phone” – given in an exemplary rendition by Miles Lukoszevieze – starts as speech, then breaks up its components into scattered words and syllables before reassembling itself into speech again, but transformed and heightened. At the other extreme, Phonemicon is almost pure sound, presented as a duet of extended singing techniques by LorĂ© Lixenberg and Elaine Mitchener. (The other singers were Leo Chadburn, Mira Benjamin and Anton Lukoszevieze – the latter two better known for playing violin and cello respectively.)

A couple of pieces from the early 1960s reflected the typical concerns of Fluxus at that time, compiling simple actions on simple objects into an irrational whole. Mac Low gets pigeonholed as a kind of analogue to John Cage; concerts like this show that things aren’t so clear-cut. Syntax and sense were never entirely eschewed by Mac Low; unlike Cage, his words were seldom empty. As seen (and heard) in “Phone”, he still found a lot of use for meaning. Even when selected by chance, allusions are welcome, if not encouraged.

Conversely, his use of spoken word seems to be more musical than much of Cage’s work in the same genre. The earliest pieces in the concert, excerpts from his Five Biblical Poems from 1955, were performed by all the voices at once. Mac Low’s use of flexible time measures of the page results in a kind of verbal counterpoint. The use of repeated, undifferentiated material in “100” from 1961 and 1980’s “Is That Wool Hat My Hat?” allowed variations in dynamics and colouration to come to the fore.

In the pieces from the early 1970s, Mac Low had developed his linguistic notation to morph between word and sound. As performed by Apartment House, these pieces were undeniably music, with sustained phonemes taking on qualities of pitch against the rhythm and timbral variations. Meaning kept returning, whether allowed through chance or guided to some extent. The final work on the programme, “Black Tarantula Gatha” draws upon the early Kathy Acker novel and sets the readers on a set of paths that lets them find a way to move from the confronting and obscene into a reification of the transcendent.