Table of the Elements Festival No. 4: Bohrium
8/31/06 -- 9/4/06
An overwhelming sense of time groaning to a halt swept over Atlanta’s Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery on Thursday, August 1 as Loren Connors wandered onto the stage, hidden under a veil of darkness. A massive movie screen towered over the blackened gallery, flickering with life as scenes from Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc played out. Somewhere in the background, Connors was motionless. His frail figure silhouetted against small red and white lights emanating from amps, pedals and other pieces of sound-bending gear. The only real signs of his presence were the resounding, reverb-drenched washes of guitar tones wafting through the air, hovering in the heavens somewhere between dreary and angelic. As the slow motion scene unfolded, each droning pull on the strings bled into an atmosphere, demanding onlookers to slow down. Don’t try to wrap your head around any of this too quickly.
This was the beginning of Table of the Elements Festival no. 4: Bohrium, a five-day journey into the wilds of avant-garde music and film. From the mammoth peaks of Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Army to the hidden valleys inside Tony Conrad’s violin drones, Bohrium surveyed a spectacle of abstract articulation channeled through the beauty of imperfect sound and vision.
Connors kicked-off the festival with an evening dedicated to John Fahey. Just as Fahey had picked and plucked a truly alternative legacy to mountain man guitar playing, Kentuckian Keenan Lawler and the Atlanta’s San Agustin offered their own takes on phantasmagoric strumming.
Lawler’s played a resonator guitar, subjected to a universe of pedals, slides and bows, winding through subtly mutating interpretations of rustic strumming.
San Agustin followed with a morphine dose of warm, staccato drones; each note lingered in dark resonance.
The second night placed an emphasis on film. Tony Conrad hosted “An Evening in the 1960s Underground,” showcasing works by experimental filmmakers, Jack Smith, Ira Cohen and Piero Heliczer.
Together these films were a heavy load to take in during just one sitting. Smith’s Flaming Creatures invoked the twisted mind of the psychedelic 60s. Images of supple human forms morphed into grotesque objects of torment. Writhing bodies blurred the lines between ecstasy and torture, unfolding in what Conrad called “the earthquake orgy scene.”
Before the film, Conrad’s co-host and Atlanta film buff Andy Ditzler described the film as a work of “ecstatic comedy,” which was somewhat misleading. Ecstatic horror would be more appropriate, and might have better prepared viewers for those “earthquake orgy” scenes. When the film ended handfuls of distraught viewers fled the gallery looking puzzled and somewhat violated.
Atlanta’s Hubcap City provided the sole musical respite for the evening, churning out malformed folk dirges that culminated in a gait of out-of-tune guitars, wavering junkyard ballads and cling-clang clatter.
On the third night Austin, Texas duo One Umbrella and Atlanta’s Deerhunter steered the festival back toward the realm of rock music, though both acts have their feet planted firmly in the traditions of the avant-garde. Pip Chodorov’s 2002 film, Charlemagne 2 hit the audience with a dose of thought-scrambling motions as pianist Charlemagne Palestine methodically pounds away on the keys. With each plod the color of the screen changed blasting on-lookers with an unrelenting flicker effect.
Rhys Chatham headlined with a show dedicated to his compositions from the 1970s and ‘80s. As his guitar army took the stage the festival had turned a complete 180 degrees from Connors’ opening set. Chatham stood before a rapt audience, beaming at both onlookers and the seven young players he had recruited for the show. Chatham is the closest thing to a rock star the TotE pantheon will ever know. He exudes a presence that’s part Chuck Berry and part John Cage.
Intense concentration came over the players as he approached them all, face-to-face, strumming the chords of “Guitar Trio,” bringing everyone into the hive mind. As layers of overdriven chords crashed into each other, a shimmering distortion created a sense of majestic harmony.
The following night Conrad performed behind a long white sheet covering the stage as flood light blasted his silhouette onto the sheet as he grinded away on a violin. An oscillating fan provided a ripple effect, causing his shadow to dance, shrinking and expanding with each wave.
Shifting pitches and subtle changes in tone collided, exposing entirely new dimensions of sound revealed when rhythm and melody are removed from the music. It was the perfect head-cleaner, making way for Rhys Chatham’s Essentialist to bring the show to a close.
With Essentialist Chatham deconstructs the basic components of heavy metal by drawing out the riffs and complexities of more recent metal group’s, such as Earth, Sunn O))) and Sleep. Guitarist David Daniel is the group’s secret weapon. Before the show Chatham proclaimed that he had always wanted to play like Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi but never could until Daniel taught him how.
The group consisted of four members of the guitar army from the night before. Arcing riffs swelled with long, repeating motions over drums that spun like the blades of a helicopter.
This was Essentialist’s grand unveiling; a showcase of a new and powerful work from one of the old guards of the downtown, Manhattan art rock scene, and it was the peak of the festival. Just as Chatham broke new ground in the ‘70s by merging minimalism with the power of a punk band, like the Ramones, this foray into the black metal avant-garde plants his methods into a modern context.
A flood of fresh faces filled the gallery for an evening of members from Acid Mother Temple and the Ruins playing musical chairs in a show of noisy, psychedelic folk music. This finale was a cross-town competitor that jumped onto Bohrium at the last minute. But after four days of sensory overload from TotE’s epic display of music and film, for anyone left standing, the fifth day became a day of rest.
(Published by Signal To Noise Magazine. December 1, 2006).