Jandek in Avanto
Jandek's performance was the most awaited event of the sixth Avanto Festival in Helsinki, Finland. Since his surprising debut live performance in Glasgow last October, this outsider music's most prominent cult figure – paradox I won't grapple here – has thrown a handful of gigs in US and Europe, dismantling his self-imposed legend of complete withdrawal from publicity. The unlikely situation – that no more than 13 months ago seemed strictly impossible – of hearing Jandek perform live in Helsinki lured a nice crowd of curious on-lookers to witness his gig, maybe not knowing exactly what to expect but finding themselves surprised no matter what they had prepared themselves for. Jolt must have been considerable even for the most devoted UG-aficionados when Jandek emerged to the stage not as a sublimely raw champion of atonal guitar and forlorn blues howl but sitting himself in front of a piano for a long, uninterrupted improvisation accompanied by a harpist! No singing nor songs – and no songstructures either. Instead a complete inward musical journey, going places but leading nowhere. Now three days later I recollect my impressions of standing in the front row, gaping with awe at this man few meters from me, sinking completely into his own musical universe.
First his appearance draws my attention. He's all dressed in black: thick black shirt with a collar, black pants, black hat. He looks thin and rather fragile, and as he sits himself in front of the piano and plays the first tentative notes, I notice his hands look old, older than his face. He starts in the mid register, both hands play a note or two and then gently start to walk away from each other. After a while I realize he's playing only white keys and remember my girlfriend's uncle, who started to play keyboard on his older days and never conformed to playing the black keys, which he said, "sounded ugly". Never heard him play, pity, I think to myself and then concentrate on the music again. Tempo seems to be steady, slow and dreamy. The harpist – exact opposite to Jandek's gloomy figure in her beige shirt, pants and long blonde hair – takes the task of following the piano's train of thought as accompanist. Jandek watches keenly his fingers as they slowly travel up and down the keyboard and yet seems to drift away somewhere at the same time. At some point he closes his eyes and stays that way for a long time.
He plays mostly two notes at a time, building melodic patterns out of scalas, but there's no suspense-release model that the keyboard so easily hoodwinks one to. Nor does he seem to concentrate on sound-color. It's more like a long scala exercise, making music out of the most conventional relations between notes. There are changes but they're not chord changes. When the changes occur, they are more like changes in lighting or atmosphere: he shifts to the black keys, invoking allusion to "chinese" melodies, that kids find so appealing when they get to goof around with piano; or he moves to the upper register and repeats a line few times thus establishing a phrase before letting it melt back into the amorphous flow of memory and expectation where it sprung from. In fact Jandek plays no chords and only a few times he plays note clusters or raises his tempo. His attack doesn't vary much and his fingers hit the keys as predictably as a steady heart goes on beating.
Listening him play resembles trying to understand an introspective, calm monologue spoken in strange but beautiful language. I wonder how far the thought is justifiable: is there syntax and semantics at work in this music? That's probably stretching the metaphor, I decide, because as hard as I try and listen to the musical development, I'm compelled to surrender: I can't grasp a logic that would put the pieces together. Much more it's like a one big fragment of thought that assembles itself from pictorial and language-like parts, not giving too much weight for the consistency or development and concentrating instead on the matter at hand, on the sounds' quality of being right now, not "functioning" for a bigger picture. His expression is solemn and dedicated, creating an air of intimacy that's almost intimidating. It's like he's alone in the room and anyone sharing the space is there by a mere accident, or even intruding. But the music moves on its own: it doesn't push the listener away, but neither does it invite her inside. At times I find myself questioning his motivation and intention, but I can't sustain my scepsis for long. Instead I let myself sink with the music, not trying to judge it with external criteria. Of course it's simple, technically easy and at some points clumsy. But it's also disarming, beautiful, cathartic.
Hour goes by and the crowd gets restless. Though I'm tantalized myself, I can't really blame them. Maybe if I had had few extra hours of sleep last night, I couldn't take it either. Maybe festival fatigue turns out to aid my experience. Maybe my body would alert me not to follow this unruly abandon to a personal universe if it were in stronger shape. Who knows? In any case the background noise keeps on rising and is soon so loud that I wonder can it not affect Jandek's playing. Though he still looks stoically calm, I sense a friction between the improvisation that lingers on completely self-satisfied, and the crowd that expresses its craving for something new by babbling louder and louder. Even the harpist starts to look embarrassed, her expression turning sour at times when Jandek passes up a possible place to exit his music and rambles on to another digression – in a performance that's been nothing but a great digression. Then I notice Jandek looking at the audience for the first time: it feels almost like a spell is broken. The hands wonder on the keys for a minute or two more, and then, after an hour and five minutes, Jandek stops playing. As the audience starts to clap, Jandek and the harpist leave the stage. His expression is surprisingly sad as he goes, not looking at the crowd again. I'm left feeling serene but slightly awkward having to face other people to discuss the performance, because I know I don't have the right words to describe my feelings. But I feel content, not unlike an inner glow of being touched by something utterly strange, but benevolent. An old Minutemen lyrics comes to my mind later, walking home from the venue: "I live sweat, but I dream light-years".
Photo by Mikko Rikala
-- Taneli Tuominen (2 July, 2006)