A Rainbow In Curved Air
Matt Mancini, Meg Leary, Lesley Jackson
Curated by Danny Floyd for Chicago Artists Coalition October 6 - 26, 2017
“And then all wars ended / Arms of every kind were outlawed and the masses gladly contributed them to giant foundries in which they were melted down and the metal poured back into the earth / The Pentagon was turned on its side and painted purple, yellow & green / All boundaries were dissolved / The slaughter of animals was forbidden / The whole of lower Manhattan became a meadow in which unfortunates from the Bowery were allowed to live out their fantasies in the sunshine and were cured ...”
The quotations herein are excerpted from the liner notes of composer Terry Riley's groundbreaking 1969 piece A Rainbow in Curved Air, a masterpiece of both keyboard virtuosity and improvisation. Somewhere in the mix of technical mastery and the freewheeling, hippie spirit emerges a utopian vision not only of peace but of personal happiness and pleasure.
We often find improvisation steeped in utopian idealism. Sun Ra's revolutionary free jazz, for instance, spawned the Afro-futurist ethos of intergalactic emancipation, but it's important to remember that Sun Ra valued precision and discipline over total freedom. In the 1980 documentary A Joyful Noise by Robert Mugges, Sun Ra reflects on what is learned from the work of ancient Egypt. In their hieroglyphs, “the stones are speaking though vibrations of beauty, vibrations of discipline, vibrations precision,” he says. “If teenagers are lost, it is because they have been fed upon the word freedom, not discipline.” It's easy to see improvisation as a break from craft, but that couldn't be further from the truth. It's a craft of its own.
A Rainbow in Curved Air is a psychedelic haze of fluttering notes, but it also has a starkly limited palette of (then) new electronic keyboards (along with some dumbek drumming sprinkled in). It is arranged into meticulous overdubs, a practice rarely, if ever, ventured in the classical world before. With a fast-slow-fast composition, it's also – surprisingly – a sonata, one of western music's most traditional forms. All of these details are meant to point to a methodological ideology shared by the works in the exhibition. The works move with a fast-slow-fast mentality, cycling between idleness and concentrations of activity. Within rigid, clean surfaces (figurative and literal) the artists find space experimentation and welcome the unforeseen. Matt Mancini, Lesley Jackson, and Meg Leary harness the extemporaneity of lived experience and channel it through carefully structured forms to evoke an alternative to the bleak political quagmires of this era. The movement we see in dialectics of structure and improvisation, control and contingency, virtuosity and failure is progressing forward artistically, and we hope also socially.
“People swam in the sparkling rivers under blue skies streaked only with incense pouring from the new factories / The energy from dismantled nuclear weapons provided free heat and light / World health was restored / An abundance of organic vegetables, fruits and grains was growing wild along the discarded highways / National flags were sewn together into brightly colored circus tents under which politicians were allowed to perform harmless theatrical games / The concept of work was forgotten”
Meg Leary's video: