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What Becomes A Legend? 

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Women's Avant Fest '97
Lounge Ax, October 12

Who knows why some artistic events go down in history and some don't--why some moments attended by a dozen people 30 years ago have become legendary while others, wildly and successfully hyped, linger only as vague collective embarrassments? It's a precarious intersection where PR meets zeitgeist, and one that's almost impossible to predict. Thank God for that: if it were possible, the concept of the historic moment would be meaningless--if radio and the Web and Margie Korshak had been around in 1916 to tell every critic and photographer and scene maker and all their plus-ones that Tristan Tzara was about to announce the simultaneous birth and death of Dada, the backlash would've started before he could ever have opened his mouth.

I have no idea if the Women's Avant Fest '97--planned as a first annual event--will turn out to have been such a moment, though the relatively low hype and the sparse attendance would seem to work in its favor. But then we have to look at the zeitgeist factor: this is a lean and ungenerous decade for the arts, far removed from the free-spirited 60s and 70s and even from the 80s, when the New York scene at least had Reaganomics and the AIDS crisis to kick it in the ass. It's not that our enemies are vanquished; it's that we've learned to wisecrack them out of mind. Any further effort seems overblown, destined to be smothered in irony.

What gives me hope about this particular event is not the focus on women (which may in fact handicap it in the race for legendariness) nor its alleged focus on the avant-garde (former Texas Ruby Jane Baxter Miller's acoustic country ballads were beautiful but about as avant-garde as a wood-burning stove). It's something harder to describe in marketing terms, the desire on the part of artist and organizer Kitty Brazelton to bring together a wildly diverse mixture of artists from New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, and elsewhere on the presumption that gender and dedication to doing one's own thing constitute greater common ground than the security of a local scene.

It's the willingness to risk spontaneous collaboration in the interest of pushing art and forging bonds: New York composer Marie McAuliffe sent scores to her local accompanists, Sara P. Smith, Liz Payne, and Michael Zerang, by mail, and Payne told me before the show they'd all rehearsed together only once. AACM member Rita Warford compensated for the distracting presence of a photographer by incorporating his flash into her performance. Her goddess-oriented, spirit-and-body vocal and percussion piece was beautifully performed, but she seemed to be preaching to the choir--until she got a few male audience members to sing "I am spirit--expressing as woman."

Virtuoso balloonist Judy Dunaway played off the novelty-act baggage that nearly all female virtuosos had to face not so long ago, mugging and leaning into her collection of inflatables, building squeaks and squelches and whines and groans into a noisy but eloquent soundscape that would have to be taken seriously if it were coming from a bank of electronics--raising once again the question of what is and isn't a "legitimate" musical instrument. Bostonian Janet Underhill's two pieces--one an elegant Japanese flute piece performed on bassoon and the other a collaborative "self-portrait" with contrabassoon and taped sounds, fluctuated from the tranquil to the hilarious (the chugging of her beater auto, the ridiculously amplified baritone meowing of a cat). And Chicagoan Olivia Block's minimalist drone piece "based on the breath," with winds and horns mixed and looped live, drowned out the conversation from the bar and focused attention on the human microcosm.

Part of the charm of this nine-and-a-half-hour marathon was its mixed-bag quality and its willingness to jump radically across moods. I found Minneapolis poet-rocker Wendy Lewis, with her band Mary Nail, rather unengaging, with a forced urgency in her voice (and a bad sound mix that drowned out her words). Isotope trombonist Sara P. Smith's group Kalaka, which features three (male) drummers, lost its initial fire in a slough of drummer overindulgence. And Own, from Minneapolis, rocked as hard as any guitar-based band, but is "avant" only in its instrumentation (electric violin, electric cello, and drums), and only slightly at that. They were a letdown after the Claudia Perez Trio, even though Perez's Cuban and Brazilian jazz ballads weren't particularly forward-looking either.

At the end of the evening Brazelton and her collaborators Dafna Naphtali (who is on the Music Technology faculty at New York University) and drummer Danny Tunick returned to the stage with their group What Is It Like to Be a Bat?, reprising both the themes from their opening set and the concert's unspoken themes; they were sexy, fierce, disjointed, unpredictable, humorous, and not necessarily always even in control. On her way up to the stage and during their hasty setup Brazelton kept declaring, "I'm fried. I am so fried," but we were all friends by then and the Bat's inspired loopiness pushed us all past exhaustion into a giddy state of acceptance and delight, like a good mild natural psychedelic. Brazelton seemed to have drawn energy from, rather than being drained by, the creative chaos of the concert. (Still, maybe next year they could reserve a full weekend. I got hungry and missed a set by harpist Elizabeth Panzer, an original member of Brazelton's experimental-rock group Dadadah; listening to her CD You Are Here later, I regretted it.)

If the first Women's Avant Fest was not entirely successful as a completed, slick presentation, it was a smashing rough draft, introducing audiences to underexposed artists and musicians to likely future collaborators. And therein lies both its claim to avantness and its potential for making history.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rita Warford, Judy Dunaway, Kitty Brazelton photos by Marc PoKempner.


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