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All These Engines Working Hard: A Review of DIRTY BABY

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Thursday’s performance of DIRTY BABY. Agree […]

Ed, Ruscha, The Uncertain Trail

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Thursday’s performance of DIRTY BABY. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Painter Ed Ruscha, one third of the collaborative visual-musical-poetic project DIRTY BABY, off-handedly remarked during the after-show Q&A on all the engines that made Thursday night’s performance at the McGuire Theater possible: not only his collaborators Nels Cline and David Breskin, but the other nine musicians who joined them on stage. Throughout the 90 or so uninterrupted minutes of DIRTY BABY, a sprawling two-part exploration of both the Iraq War and the long narrative of how America came to be—and came to be in Iraq—there were many other types of engines at work.

One of the most remarkable things about Dirty Baby was how it held many different narratives together in a constellation of meaning: David Breskin’s ghazals, Nels Cline’s music, and the “censor strip” paintings of Ed Ruscha that evoke the many black lines of redaction (he calls them “dumb blocks”), but which make us want to know even more what’s behind them. These are all themselves engines of narrative, not only the narratives made by these three artists, but the historical and cultural ones that they drew upon, played with, and subverted over the course of the evening.

Nels Cline’s music oscillated between audible references of music history (blues, folk metal, film noir soundtracks, punk, post-Bitches Brew Miles, guitar duets equally at home in Appalachia and Abyssinia, and more) and torrents of noise that, while having their own historical reference to post-Cage music making, seemed intended more for visceral affect rather than historical effect.

These snatches of musical history, however, are much more than the sum of their parts and in many ways share a affinity with the Cindy Sherman exhibition a few floors down. Both are highly referential, but such that conventional historical narratives are explored and questioned without being reduced to a kind of superficial pastiche. This isn’t a question of authenticity or truth, but rather the kinds of cultural and intellectual spaces opened up for viewers and listeners, a way for us to not only think about the conventions and narratives that give meaning to the world, but at the same time reflect upon our own role in creating and sustaining them.

In much of the “conventional” music, for lack of a better word, I kept getting an image of music made while riding the rails, hobos and drifters with guitar or harmonica as companions for the endless pulsations of the journey. The railroads and their accompanying engines were a symbol of progress in the 19th century, though much of it built on the backs of forced Chinese labor; in the Depression era, it became an unofficial means of transport not only for the destitute, but also the exploratory, already well-worn narratives of adventure seeking.

This is just one narrative of the many embedded within DIRTY BABY, which spent much of its time examining and exposing the underside of “progress,” showing that it’s not always in a single direction, and that it’s often not the right direction for those who fall victim to the edge of progress. Breskin’s poetry touched on a lot of these different themes, some more general (marriage, religion, language itself) as well as specific, that of American manifest destiny, the Iraq War, and the more general “War on Terror.”

Ed Ruscha, David Breskin, and Nels Cline. Photo: Peak

It was somewhat ironic to see and hear all this on stage, since the piece was never intended to be performed; in fact, it’s only been performed one other time. A big reason for this is logistical: the Walker needed to rent lots of gear (both Cline and fellow guitarist Jeremy Drake each had five guitars between them); there’s a whole lot more stuff in DIRTY BABY than can be performed in one evening (the group did about half the total project); and the challenge of making all of this music in a live setting, though Cline more than ably served as both lead instrumentalist and conductor. It was incredible to see the interactions between the musicians and how they negotiated the free-form, improvised, written-out, and conventionally rhythmic sections, as well as having Ruscha’s paintings projected on the wall behind them.

The only part I think I would’ve enjoyed more on record than in live performance is David Breskin’s poetry, though less about the poetry and more about his performance of the poetry. He took on an air of distanced irony not only about the live event (giving the audience a somewhat snarky and patronizing “what to expect” explanation of the performance) and some of his own poetry (his delivery made the poems sound Seussian at times, which seemed to undercut their weight). His persona, unfortunately, made it hard to feel invested in his words, rich as they were. To be fair, I’m not sure any poetry could be delivered in such a visceral way that it could compare to the music made by Cline and the other musicians. This was the only aspect of the night’s performance, however, that seemed to veer down the wrong track, just one piece in the vast and stimulating complex of narrative engines that make up DIRTY BABY.

For more on DIRTY BABY, read the Walker’s recent interview with Nels Cline and David Breskin.