Sat through a fascinating trio performance on Friday. But it wasn’t a concert.

Or was it?

The theme in our Composition Department this year is collaboration. On Friday, we brought in three guests — choreographer Brenda Daniels, sculptor Greg Shellnut and poet/film editor Julian Semilian – to discuss their creative processes, allowing us to bounce our experiences off of successful practitioners in other art forms.

Brenda Daniels (pictured left) danced and taught in the Merce Cunningham troupe in the 1980s and 90s, which has given much of her choreography a strong modernist bent, evidenced in her collaborations with her husband Jefferson Dalby, a composer of fascinating sound collages. She showed a video of her Kandinsky-influenced “Point At Line and Plane,” for which, Cunningham-like, the dancers didn’t hear the music until the dress rehearsal. Dalby’s tape piece was comprised of found-sound, arranged into rhythmic configurations. (One passage was derived from a recording of their dog, who drinks from his bowl in 7/8 time.) The choreography emphasized linear movement and striking shifts in balance and visual texture.

But Brenda grew up in a household full of Classical music, which has left her with a strong attraction to more traditional modes of expression. She showed another video of a piece of hers that used familiar Spanish guitar music and more conventional partnering steps.

When she speaks of all of her work, her concerns are practical, technical: how can I make this dancer look his best? How shall the male and female figures pair up? Every dance brings with it specific challenges, problems that need to be solved. She seems to have little patience for generalizations, which I admire. When the discussion turned to dealing with creative blocks, her advice was, “Just work every day, do something every day, even if the results aren’t earthshaking, just keep going.” She described Merce Cunningham, now in his 80s, going to the studio to work 365 days a year — Christmas, New Year’s, you name it — even though he can’t even walk any more.

Greg Shellnut, whose 1003 Redux is pictured at left, focused on the desire to keep his work fresh, to avoid repeating himself, even if he created attractive pieces by doing so. And, indeed, his style is hardly recognizable from one work to the next. He spoke of how we learn more about one another by the masks we choose to wear, giving the example of the message we get about someone who dons a Ku Klux Klan hood.

He showed slides of his work, starting with what he called his proudest co-production, his daughter. He described watching her closely during her preverbal infancy, seeing her straining to express herself and understand her environment without the benefit of language, a lesson he has tried to adapt to his own artistic thinking.

“You should be able to make sculpture out of anything you have enough of,” he says, and his pieces abound in creative uses of materials he finds around him in his daily life. Chunks of rubber, suitcases, shoelaces – all become fodder for experiments in design.

He also spoke passionately about the benefit of travel for an artist, how seeing another culture helps one get a better perspective on the meaning of ones own work.

When the discussion turned to collaboration, Greg talked about his work with another sculptor. At one point, they jokingly decided to “do one another,” each one creating work in the style of the other. But they found it was impossible — as much as they felt they understood what made the other’s pieces work, they couldn’t duplicate the process.

Julian Semilian (pictured left) grew up in Romania, spending countless hours in little movie theaters as a boy, taking notes on how his favorite films were put together. He arrived in Hollywood in the 1970s, becoming an apprentice to some of the most successful film editors of the time. By the late 70s and 1980s, he was so much in demand that he was able to put very specific stipulations in his contracts, such as “Every time someone screams at me, I get another $1000 in my paycheck.” (We all should have that one.) As he gradually worked his way up in the system, however, he found himself increasingly stifled, hardened by the intensely capitalist atmosphere. Eventually he realized he had lost his love for film, so he left Hollywood to teach, and has since revitalized his artistic roots through poetry and editing as an art form.

Julian talked about the audience for art, claiming that true artists don’t create for a huge, amorphous concept of “audience,” but rather for one or two or maybe three people at the most. He recounted how a few days earlier a package had arrived in the mail. When he opened it, inside was his latest publication of poetry, and the first thought that went through his mind was, “If only my mother could see this,” at which point he had to wonder if that was really what all of his years of efforts boiled down to.

He also emphasized the importance of economical thinking, of being able to regard an object – whether a line of poetry, a film clip or a phrase of music – and immediately break it down into its essential components, to be rearranged as necessary. He attributed this ability in his life to his mother’s ability to feed and clothe a family living in poverty, just by making the most of the materials she had at hand.

There was far more to digest in the 100-minute seminar, but that was as much as I could get in my hastily scribbled notes.

So, no, it wasn’t a concert, but it certainly delivered everything I hope to get from a concert: lively ideas, vivid expression, and the alchemy of artistic interaction. The students have now been assigned to attend classes taught by these artists, and report back to us what they’ve learned next month.

I am expecting more inspirations and revelations when they do.

Leave a Reply