Sunday, March 22, 2009

Daniel Perlin's Visuals for the band Nettle

The marvelous "geography-defying" band Nettle, which draws on North African, European and U.S.-based musical histories and sensibiliites, has just completed a three day residency (Nettle: Music for a Nu World) at Brandeis, culminating last night in their first concert in the United States. I've been especially fascinated by the group's partnership with the New York-based visual artist Daniel Perlin, who has developed elaborate visual projection works integrated into the musical performances. These are not entirely pre-scripted: the artist manipulates a configuration of pre-sets as the music and the spirit moves him. (The band's founder and organizer, DJ Rupture, refers to artist as an integral member of the group: "Daniel Perlin on visuals"!)

I love the way that Perlin, like the musicians of the group, moves so skillfully between the nettlesome, that which gets under our skin, and the compassionate, between the provocative and the nurturing, between sensory assaults and an imagery of hope. For one complex, variegated song, Perlin starts us off with an array of audio speakers, on which which green flickering images are glimpsed; these transmogrify in time into the angular rhythmic zig zag lines of the oscilliscope, which in turn expand into pulsating, three-dimensional angular mountainscapes. Yet, quite beautifully, the edgy mountainscape is then graced by white birds in flight, back and forth across the screen. I am reminded by the classical motif of the bird in flight in Islamic poetry, a metaphor for the soul straining towards the Divine (echoed in Rumi's Sufi celebation of the time of love as the moment when the "soul of the bird may rise in flight"). All this complements the progressions in the musical piece, in which out of seeming cacaphony one comes to discern the rising, clear tones of the stringed instruments, granting us unexpected moments of reprieve.

A comparable integration of aural and musical progression informs the song Tabla (named for one of DJ Rupture's old presets). Perlin starts us off with a shot from above of Chinese calisthenics, each figure moving gracefully in perfect (if, to many western eyes, somewhat disturbing) parallelism. He then reduplicates the scene into more and more boxes so that hundred, perhaps thousands, of coordinated exercisers seem to fil our view. As the music itself intensifies and discordant tones are introduced, the boxes themselves begin to distort and unravel, with different segments of the visual field errupting and going them own way across the screen in unxpected trajectories. By the end, we are left with a series of singular, geometric shadow boxes, each of them unique and arresting in their own way.

I found myself thinking of the memorable scene in Werner Herzog's Antarctic documentary "Encounters at the End of the World," in which he mischeviously takes apart "The March of the Penguins" and its collectivist (and pro-natalist) celebration of an entire species moving in lockstep towards ever more perfect Darwinian inclusive fitness. In "March," all the penguins travel and breed together in perfect coordination. In contrast, Herzog loves the rare, eccentric penguins that inexplicably break off from the March of Reproduction and waddle off, with irrespressible tragicomic determination, away from the pack of breeders towards the distant mountains, towards their doom and, Herzog suggets, towards a measure of freedom.

At the same time, I read this sequence (in a way that Daniel Perlin might not quite share) as a celebration of the imaginative possibilities inherent in ascetic discipline. This is derived in particular from having been present during my wife Ellen Schattschneider's fieldwork in northeastern Japan on women's ascetic discipline (shugyo) and her book, "Immortal Wishes: Labor and Transcendence on a Japanese Sacred Mountain" (Duke, 2003). Ellen argues that asceticism at Akakura Mountain Shrine (and many other places in Asia) is not exhausted in the seemingly coercive rhythms of collective movement; rather, ascetic discipline is the ground that nurtures the spontaneous emergence of creative insight and novel explorations of the self and its entanglements. These explorations, in turn, are exemplified by new individual spiritual dreams and visions, which the worshipper seeks to capture through creating votive paintings that are supreme offerings to the divinities. Something similar seems to be happening in Perlin's singular vision in this piece, which is grounded in the highly choreographed movements of collective calisthenics, which give birth to an entirely novel, idiosyncratic series of shapes.

Perlin's visuals deftly intensify the meanings of another number, the band's version of a beloved Morrocan song. The lyrics, I understand, convey the sentiment that cities may crumble, finery fade away, but what remains of value is guarding and nurturing our children. Perlin starts us with somewhat abstracted shadowed forms that recall sand dunes. Out of the dunes emerge spiraling white shapes (evoking the sands of time, perhaps) creating an ever-shifting geometric interior space. The immediate sense conveyed, in keeping with lyrics and the music, is one of calm and protectedness. In time, as the varied strands of the music intertwine, the white shapes shifting into intense blue, evoking, to my eyes at least, the life-giving waters of an oasis. The entre field of vision then begins to shimmer, like a desert mirage, a transitory vision of an earthly paradise. In the final images, a circle of delicate black shapes surrounds the dunes, as they themselves dissolve into pixilation. What is left behind, as even the physical dunes and oasis fade away, is a circle of loving, inward looking care.

An oasis of purity and quiet and care endures, even as the mirage of the physical oasis itself shimmers and passes away. Such, in Perlin's video art, is the gift of Nettle and its singular music, which ruptures and integrates, collides and colludes, in a way that leads us, at the end of each work, to hear silence itself in an entirely new way.

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