If you're free tonight and feeling playful (or in need of playfulness), head over to the de Young Museum to see artist-in-residence Shawn Feeney lead a group of local musicians in his game Raw Shack. A sort of aural Rorschach test where musicians are cued by cards sporting words and phrases such as “DINOSAUR TOOTHACHE,” Raw Shack asks musicians to respond on the spot. There are rules, but no score, so the piece is propelled by improvisational energy and is different each time it’s performed.
[jump] Feeney tells SF Weekly that he was inspired by John Zorn's 1984 game piece Cobra. Feeney began using Cobra as a means of musical exploration with group of improvisers in Austin, Tex., where he created Raw Shack in 2004.
“Many of the prompts in Raw Shack are specific enough to provoke a certain texture — like 'DRONE' or DRUNKEN BAR FIGHT' — but how they get realized is always different. My aim is to both inspire the musicians and push them to explore their playing in new ways (with cards like 'NO HANDS' or 'Play instrument upside-down,' for example). I consider the piece 'open source' in the sense that anyone can create their own cards and use the same performance mechanics.”
Feeney’s background includes stints in the art department of Industrial Light and Magic and as a forensic artist for the New York Police Department, and his skills as a draftsman are on view in his show, Musical Anatomy, at the De Young. His drawings depicting an organic melding of human beings and musical instruments might inspire thoughts about alternative evolutionary paths.
“I enjoy imagining scenarios in which human evolution led to more musical forms. What if our larynx was more like the syrinx of birds, able to sing two different notes simultaneously? Or what if we could produce the low frequencies that elephants can, sounds we can't even hear? The human voice is perhaps the original musical instrument — maybe an 'ultimate body' would have a voice capable of creating any sound.”
Feeney invites visitors to experience music from the inside, creating installations such as a drum station where listeners place their legs against the tom drum and hold the cymbal stands with their hands. As Feeney plays the cymbals right next to their ears, listeners hear the sounds through skin and bone conduction as well as through the air. Listeners at the de Young have expressed a deeply personal experience of the sound.
“One person said it made him feel like a mountain, his arms made of lava, and each strike of the drum was a volcanic eruption. Another man, deaf in one ear, said he was actually able to hear the music in a centered way.”
Feeney's own experience of sound healing in Bali led him to pursue a certificate in sound and the healing arts from the California Institute of Integral Studies. He is clearly a conduit himself — connecting audiences to new sense experiences and encouraging other artists to use a little bit of structure to set themselves free. He has also created a guide to the de Young Museum's musically inclined pieces, which include one of Nick Cave's Soundsuits and African drums and harps decorated with humanoid shapes — “as if the instruments have their own sense of agency and character.”
Come on down to the Kimball Education Gallery at the De Young and hear what a hummingbird trapped in ice sounds like. Tonight’s lineup is
Shireen Amini: guitar, melodica
Sheila Bosco: keyboard
Fountainetta Coleman: percussion
Janetta Coleman: percussion & vocals
Ayla Xander Dozier: vocals
Tina Fagnani: drums;
Altay Guvench: bass guitar
Gregory Hagan: viola
Josh Marshall: saxophone
Scott Roy: accordion
Bill Wolter: guitar
Raw Shack (Musical Game Piece), by Artist-in-Residence Shawn Feeney, through Sunday, June 28, (performance Friday, June 19, 6 p.m.) at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, 415-750-3600.