Memorial concert in Houston
NOTE: This was written by Stephen Housewright in 1994.
The memorial concert for Jerry in Houston was given in the Rothko Chapel on January 29th by DiverseWorks, the contemporary arts organization for which Jerry had performed several times over the years and that had invited him last spring to give a concert on the 29th in connection with the John Cage exhibition at the Menil Collection. The octagonal Rothko Chapel is located on the grounds of the Menil, a park-like area near the University of St. Thomas and the Montrose district of Houston. The Chapel contains the huge, almost solidly black paintings of Mark Rothko; as one walks about the space, or sits on the benches, each of these somber works becomes a window opening inward to the darkness that he or she usually declines to see -- a darkness both of a personal dimension and of the world. The tiny square of light at the very top of the ceiling invites the gaze upward and beyond, but it is hard to keep the head back for very long.
On the 29th that gaze was, instead, led forward to the stage and its video monitor, microphones, and various nondescript objects cluttering the performance space. There was little sound as the 150 or so people assembled on the benches. Michael Parenteau began by reading a tribute to Jerry that described his career and his art and the influence Cage had on him and that he himself has on artists and audiences. For a minute nothing happened. Then Michael Galbreth started a videotape of Jerry performing on a stool, gesturing and waving some of the objects he made, to a background of his music.
No one would have been less likely than Jerry to invite people anywhere for "canned" entertainment, and the Art Guys, Ellen Fullman and Pauline Oliveros acknowledged that fact as they very slowly and deliberately opened the live portion of the concert by making sounds and gestures that had come to be associated with Jerry's own work. Michael began reading quotes from Jerry's letters and interviews by taking cards at random from a paper sack on the floor. The quotes pertained to music and to religion primarily, but several were anecdotal and of a personal nature. Many were funny. Sometimes Michael lay down to read them, like a little boy doing his homework. And sometimes he drew a card only to read it to himself; Jerry would have liked that touch.
Meanwhile, Ellen began assembling several objects on the other side of the performance space. She dragged a metal folding chair across the stone floor, then brought in a man's sports coat and a pair of shoes. She carried a picture of Jerry, one that had been taken in performance, through the audience, illuminating it with the flashlight that Jerry himself so often used.
Jack Massing accompanied the words and movement by making a variety of sounds. He held a yard-long glass tube filled with BB pellets, allowing them to roll first one way and then the other, producing a rushing, oscillating sound like ocean waves, or heavy, eerie breathing. Then he put on plastic gloves (another of Jerry's trademarks) and shook tiny bells and other metallic objects -- often quite close to Michael's face and body as he read. Most of these small instruments were taken from a suitcase sitting in full view of the audience, yet another Hunt practice.
And through it all, from the sides and back of the Chapel, and sometimes from places on the benches themselves, came the notes from Pauline's accordion -- plaintive, distant, occasionally angry-sounding, moving here and there. At one dramatic moment she appeared in a side doorway holding a black umbrella over herself as she played.
Within a few minutes, Ellen had completed her tableau: the chair now with the coat on the back, the shoes placed together in front of it, Jerry's picture in the seat lit by the flashlight lying in front of it, and the tilde (~) that Jerry always signed his letters with reproduced on a card and positioned just above the photograph. Then Ellen walked to her mike and read Jerry's words in a loud, strong voice: "If I don't get there, just put my picture in a chair."
The final minutes of the concert were devoted to a portion of another videotape Jerry made. We see only his head, above a broad, white Elizabethan collar. He whistles, blows, and breathes, all the while making a series of facial expressions that suggest, alternately, a magus and a clown; sometimes it appears that he has in fact been possessed. The lamps used to light the video recording are bright in Jerry's eyes as he looks directly out at us. The white brightness that had emanated from the center of the Chapel ceiling seemed to have moved to those eyes.
One by one the performers left the stage. Pauline's accordion stopped playing. Then there was a loud noise offstage, like a paper sack being burst. And Michael Galbreth walked out, looked at the audience, and said (as had Jerry so many times at the ends of concerts), "Well, I guess that's it."
Original Material Copyright © 1994 by Stephen Housewright. HTML Coding Copyright © 2001 by Michael Schell. All Rights Reserved.