JOHN CLAIR / JED SHAHAR
4 MP3 tracks. 49 minutes
At the beginning of John Clair and Jed Shahar's release, something strange happens. Two lies are spoken. White lies, perhaps, but still these innocent misunderstandings or nervous mistakes become an unique part of this work. They over-shadow what should be a simple exercise in 'electro acoustic improvisation' and create a fascinating recording of power relations between the musicians and an authority figure.
John Clair and Jed Shahar have stowed themselves away in the auditorium of Winchester College in New York. After classes have finished and there seems to be no signs of them being interrupted, John Clair and Jed Shahar begin to unpack their instruments and electronics and set up on the stage. The space is bright and clear and should afford a great place to record their performance. They play for a few minutes, completely absorbed, and completely unaware of a security guard until he walks up onto the stage.
Guard: Hi guys [inaudible] ahhhh..... building's closed.
Clair/Shahar: Oh it is. What time does it close?
Guard: Closes... school is closed. You guys in what?
Clair/Shahar: We're making a recording.
Guard: A recording. You're students here?
Clair/Shahar: We used to be.
Guard: You used to be.
Guard: You're not supposed to be here guys.
Clair/Shahar: No Problem.
Guard: You guys got ID? [sound of movement from Clair/Shahar ]Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on. Do you have ID?"
Clair/Shahar: We don't.
Guard: You don't have any identification on you. I've got to tell you that's hard for me.
Clair/Shahar: Well, I mean we'll leave. It's not a big deal.
Guard: Yeah, well. What kind of recording is this?
Clair/Shahar: It's... electro-acoustic improvisation.
Guard: Electro. Acoustic. [interrupted]
Clair/Shahar: It's like, ah, [guitar string] just experimental music, I don't know what you call it.
Clair/Shahar: Just like. Yes. [Glitch / Edit]
Guard: Want to play a bit? Nah, hit it, let me hear it.
Clair/Shahar: Do you have headphones?
Clair/Shahar: ....no not really
Guard: Oh you have to hear it through headphones.
Guard: How long to you guys need to do this?
Clair/Shahar: We were just going to record for like 30 40 minutes. We were just going to make a recording.
Guard: All right.
Clair/Shahar: We just wanted to use... you know the concert hall's such a special sound [Glitch/Edit]
Guard: Yeah the acoustics, I feel you on that.
Guard: All right, do your thing.
And so to the lies:
1. We don't have any ID.
2. Do you have headphones?
The first seems simpler to analyse. Clair and Shahar are scared, jumpy perhaps, and aware how it might look to a security guard to have covered the stage with power tools, home made electronics and wires. They must be quick on their feet - we have no identification. Does Clair know Shahar's pockets? Have they agreed to leave all forms of ID behind, knowing they risk an encounter with 'the man'? It seems unlikely. What is clear to the listener of this recording is that Clair and Shahar repeatedly miss the security guards openings. His questions are to help Clair and Shahar when they sound like they are ready to bolt. It is not: Do you have ID? (because you are in trouble), but: Oh if you're old students, show me some ID and I'll be happy to let you continue. The way Clair or Shahar explain what they are doing with the phrase, 'Electro acoustic improvisation' is without doubt the pinnacle of this work. Listen to how hollow it sounds in this context. Listen to this meeting of two electro acoustic improvisers and a security guard. It is a deeply evocative moment of how these three people relate to one other within the restrictions of what they are doing. On one side we have Clair and Shahar making elite cultural activity, on the other we have an individual playing the role of an authority figure. Listen to the context of how, as the unnamed security guard begins to repeat the phrase, 'Electro Acoustic...' Clair and Shahar have to interrupt him, because they can hear how uncanny it sounds coming from his mouth. The guard repeats a lot of what Clair and Shahar say, it seems like a standard way to diffuse conflict, to show the other party that you are willing to see their point of view. But in this context, the listener of this work is able to discern something which perhaps, in the moment of the recording, Clair and Shahar were not able to:
This man, this unnamed security guard, is only dressed as a security guard, but he is more than the limited problem that he represents to Clair and Shahar. We can hear that he is intrigued, he wants to listen to the music, his life beyond his role as security guard begins to seep through. And yet, just when this moment appears, instead of removing the power relations and interacting as equals, Clair and Shahar set up their own hierarchy to exclude the guard from their activity, with the second lie:
Do you have headphones?
The recording seems to show that both the voice and the instruments are being recorded using the acoustics of the auditorium. Therefore headphones are not necessary to hear the music being performed. And yet Clair and Shahar make the unnamed security guard believe that headphones are necessary. Do you have headphones? What could this mean? Perhaps Clair and Shahar are asking: Do you have the required knowledge to listen to this 'experimental' music?
Perhaps the question means: we are embarrassed to play in front of you, because we cannot treat you as an interested individual, only an authority figure. When trying to explain what 'electro acoustic improvisation' is to the guard, they say: 'I don't know what you call it.' Do they mean, I don't know what a security guard would call this music?
As the security guard becomes interested and open to Clair and Shahar's performance, perhaps even feeling sorry for scaring Clair and Shahar earlier, a second power structure comes into play. The hierarchy of elite cultural activity slides into place, just as sinister, just a stereotypical as our liberal feelings about security guards, but in this instance almost completely invisible to Clair and Shahar. As the guard relinquishes his power to stop the recording, his interest and his kindness are not transferable into Clair and Shahar's activity. He is patronised, he is lied to. The security guard is the one who facilitates the recording, who lets it continue. Though he can only do this by being a kind authority figure, his route as an interested citizen seems blocked by Clair and Shahar's unwillingness to open up to the person beneath this fašade of authority.
To me, this unwillingness is the most expressive and the most chilling part of the release.
Review by Mark McLaren