Kenneth Goldsmith + Joan La Barbara: 73 Poems

Fanfare, Sept / Oct 1994
by Mike Silverton

LA BARBARA/GOLDSMITH: 73 Poems Joan La Barbara, voice. LOVELY LCD 3002 [0001; 45:06. Produced by Michael Hoenig and Joan La Barbara. (Distributed by Allegro.)

New-music mavens need not blush at failing to recognize Kenneth Goldsmith's name. Goldsmith is a visual artist who employs text (and to a lesser degree letters and numbers) as primary image. From Braque to Ed Ruscha, numbers, letters, and words have become by now commonplace. As to raw materials, in the event numerals and the alphabet, John Ashbery, Public Enemy, and Hallmark's rhymed-greeting hacks share in a common source toward, qualitatively, wildly disparate ends, or so one likes to think-call it elitist chutzpah.

The insert reproduces six of the seventy-nine poem-drawings serving as La Barbara's texts. As to the overage, Goldsmith, who immersed himself in the project so thoroughly as to lose count, opted for the wisdom of "Waste not, want not. " That's one story. The other, provided by permanent Press's Ellen Salpeter: In order to keep to the plan, the use of the foreground of one poem-drawing as background of another (with several exceptions), the project requires seventy-nine drawings. I take the claim on faith. Someone, somewhere, will explain a disparity better than 1. May Goldsmith's art so flourish that exegeses become the thing. The repros of the first and last poem-drawings reveal words arranged vertically, top to bottom, against offset word-shadows. Number 79 reads "BROTHER / LOVER / MOTHER / OTHER / SMOTHER / ANOTHER / UNDERCOVER," and number 1, "CRUDELY / LEWDLY / NUDELY / RUDELY / SCREWED ME / SHREWDLY," its background the text of 79, with 79's background I's forward lines. Isn't that delightfully clear? Don't thank me, it's part of the job. As these insert examples suggest, some of the poem-drawings fairly glow with sexuality, as do some of La Barbara's interpretations. Others engage in relative abstraction, as in 44's triangulated zeros, front and back, and 25's lone letter 1.

The CD's release corresponds to the publication of 73 Poems as a soft-covered, 6-by-8 1/2-inch, beautifully printed book in an introductory edition of 1,000, numbered and signed by La Barbara and Goldsmith ($50) and three 22 x 30-inch lithographs in an edition of forty-five ($1500), both published by Permanent Press, Brooklyn, NY, which commissioned this recording. Inside the book's front cover resides the CD, otherwise identical to Lovely's, under Permanent Press's imprint.

Needless to mention, transitions of sight to sound are composer-performer La Barbara's doing, likewise the electronic transformations of many, but not all, of these seventy-nine tracks (with an acknowledgment of assistance from Michael Hoenig and Bradford Ellis). The longest, its visual basis a pyramid of l's, runs just over two minutes; the shortest, of the single 1, three seconds. Goldsmith remarks that from the thirty-ninth poem-drawing on, La Barbara's having agreed to do a version for the ear influenced the project's outcome. The insert repros of 44, 45, 62, and 68 differ from I and 79 in subject and design: numbers, as mentioned, piled in triangles; letters in outline, others solid, positioned more or less atypically, and so on. As composer and performance artist, the soprano is in a class of her own. I'm not saying anything particularly daring: La Barbara commands a sizable CDiscography, with more recordings certain to appear, thanks in irreplaceable part to labels like Lovely that even in these, for art especially, hardscrabble times keep to their difficult course. I've little doubt that the listener will be perfectly satisfied to hear La Barbara's vocalizations without the book, as stand-alone aural events. That said, for my own public and private needs, I judge the book necessary to a discovery of riches. La Barbara is simply brilliant! A personal favorite, number 45, a comically unpromising arrangement of zeros and ones, sounds like an incantation at the far end of a Tibetan nightmare. I don't exaggerate, nor do I select a particularly outstanding track-everything here is really quite remarkable. This one goes on the Want List. (Permanent Press's address is 223 Water St., Brooklyn, NY 11201. Phone 718 875-0124.)

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