Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Matthew Shipp: I’ve Been To Many Places, Thirsty Ear, 2014

Since Matthew Shipp has known the piano, the way he plays it has inevitably changed. Not that he has refuted traditional methods or those derived from musicians who have influenced him; rather he has used all these methods as a means to break musical language barriers in order to merge with his intentionally vast expansion of the piano’s sound, so vast that he reaches into an unknown personal space and time.

In his solo release, I’ve Been To Many Places, Shipp looks retrospectively at several pieces he has already recorded and filters them through the way in which his playing has developed.  These selections as well as improvised works constitute the album. Those unfamiliar with Shipp’s music would by nature hear the recording as all brand new, just as Shipp believes it is himself.

On the whole, the music bears a relaxed, though beautifully pristine, feel. It isn’t that Shipp has tossed away many of the Shipp-isms which are recognizable in past recordings or performances.  Instead he has simply let go of the tension and tightness that sometimes informs his signature style.

His journey on the keyboard is fluid, often moderating between mid-keyboard and treble pitches, not addressing many of the huge, heavy, black block chords that he is adept at integrating into his expression. The rhythms are always switching, especially noticeable in the standards, “Summertime” and “Tenderly,” and identifiable in Shipp’s compositions: for example, in the beboppish “Brain Stem Grammar,” the elegant “Waltz,” the delicate “Symbolic Access,” the quasi-swinging “Blue Astral Bodies” or the deeply moving “Life Cycle.” 

Dissonance is often crucial to the musical discussion as is repetition, giving way to abstraction, the deconstruction of some tunes and the construction of others.  Coltrane’s “Naima” and Walter Gross’ “Tenderly” are hardly recognizable due to Shipp’s shift in emphasis on the phrasing of what we are accustomed to hearing. Most surprising is the pianist’s rendition of Donny Hathaway’s “Where is The Love?” and its rhythmically dilated reprise after the steadied, clutching, chordal “Light Years.” The insertion of “Where is The Love?” is surprising because Shipp throws in an aspect of “the popular,” not only for the reason that it reflects his recording experience, but also because it is a downright cool thing to do. Shipp is human, after all. And very cool.

Shipp is a master of the piano. He will never let anyone forget it. And he will embrace every chance to make it known by surrounding his audiences with unusual approaches to the keyboard every time he plays. He knows that the universe is everything; that we are only atoms; and that sound is the never-ending expedition of the wave. The twenty-three seconds of resonance coming from the last chord of the concluding “Cosmic Wave” proves it.


Copyright 2014 Lyn Horton


Track Listing: I’ve Been To Many Places; Summertime; Brain Stem Grammar; Pre-Formal; Web Play; Tenderly; Life Cycle; Brain Shatter; Symbolic Acces; Waltz; Reflex; Naima; Where Is The Love; Light Years; Where Is The Love (reprise); Blue Astral Bodies; Cosmic Wave.

Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano.



This music review will be the last one that I will be writing. Since 1995, I have written well over five hundred articles about the art of music and its musicians. I have attended many concerts, listened to many recordings and have advanced my education in ways I would have never predicted prior to my engagement with the music. I know many musicians personally and love them all. Thanks to the musicians who have given to me freely and spiritually. And thanks to the record companies who have allowed me to open my ears with their recordings.  



Friday, April 18, 2014

Fay Victor Ensemble: Absinthe & Vermouth, 2013: Greene Ave. Music



A voice can do something that no other musical instrument seemingly can really do. By its very inflection combined with its wide-ranging tonality, Fay Victor can evoke emotional and attitudinal responses and mold an atmosphere that rings of an ever-changing context. Because she is aware of a spectrum of music to include Arnold Schoenberg, who is said arguably to have changed 20th century music for rest of time; and because she has inhabited Europe, specifically Amsterdam; and because she has, for many years, composed with her Netherlander husband, Jochem Van Dijk; and because she is a rare autodidact, when she sings, she is singing outside of her mature self. She is radiating into the world her passion, intelligence and a sensibility to the absurd.

The Fay Victor Ensemble, or FVE, has made a mark on the viability of the small musical group genre beginning with its first album, The Freesong Suite, released in 2009. (From Fay Victor's websiteThe Freesong Suite was the only all original vocal project to be voted the 2009 Village Voice Jazz Critic's Poll Best Jazz Vocal.) Suite is a beautifully consistent and fluid recording where Victor’s versatile voice establishes itself as a force as strong as the instruments which play along with her. Her group here is made up of truly solid musicians: Ken Filiano on bass; Anders Nilsson on electric guitar; and Michael “TA” Thompson on drums.  In Suite, Victor and Van Dijk have constructed a piece of music that bears the textures of a work larger than expected for a quartet to produce. The music reveals light and dark, the soft and hard, the busy and calm, the expressive and quiet within a complete framework where no interruptions, only transitions, occur. The musical instruments create the environment where Victor can float freely, understandably, interacting with this experimentally alive composition. 

The same is true of the 2013 release, Absinthe & Vermouth. Clearly a toast to the turn of twentieth century Europe in the strangeness of lyric and sometimes in the phrasing of the music, this recording possesses an inimitable fascination with the variations of sounds and how well they work with or are contrary to the main verbal content.  The music comes from a trio: vocalist Victor, guitarist Nilsson and bassist Filiano. There is no drummer.

Aspects of rock are reflected in some of Nilsson’s guitar licks. Aspects of blues and jazz are heard in quick rhythmic components from all members of the trio. Aspects of classical are heard in Filiano’s virtuoso bass playing. Aspects of synthesized and live non-electronic music are interwoven into Nilsson’s sculpted electric guitar lines. And aspects of broadway-style and folk song stories come through the patently stellar vocalizations of Victor. Created is an album that is more than unique. It challenges the ear with its brashness and subtlety, coolness and fire.

Victor alone takes tone for a walk along a graph line of high pitches, painfully well-enunciated spoken words, dissonance that lurks in the shadows of Pierrot Lunaire, impulsive swooping crescendos and cabaret-like songs. Her lyrics are extraordinarily basic, clipped and unromantic.

Absinthe & Vermouth is just that: a mix of the bitter and the sweet in a well of contrasts that ensues in the dynamic that naturally emanates between opposites.


copyright 2014 Lyn Horton
Photo: Michael Weintrob

Personnel
Fay Victor: composer and vocals;
Anders Nilsson: electric guitar, vocals;
Ken Filiano: double bass, vocals.

Tracks
Big Bag; Crystal; I'm On A Mission/Paper Clip; Gunk; Robot Clown; Seashore; Talk Talk; The Sign At the Door; Shaded in Grey.





Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Laos: A Memory of Far Away



Walking in Vientiane, Laos, January, 2014

Preface

This is a story about a trip I would take that I never imagined taking. The places which I describe are those which impressed me the most vividly. A trip like this actually loses its continuity when the memories of it take over. Reporting it would be fruitless, resulting in a boring enumeration of the scheduled events rather the events that are meaningful. No doubt, I have forgotten many occurences. The time went by so fast and was so filled with activity that I have every reason to have forgotten. The whole experience is indelibly inscribed in my being.
                                               
Here I Went

On January 10, 2014, the first leg of my journey to The Republic of Lao, PDR, began. This day was preceded by weeks and weeks of anxiety. The trip had been postponed once. Not since I was eleven years old, when I took a two and a half month tour of the East Coast of Africa with my grandfather, had I traveled such a long way from home. And this time, I was by myself.

Laos is a country I have only known in relationship to Viet Nam. The period of time of the Viet Nam War when I was transitioning out of high school into college. The years of demonstrations against the war. Intolerance of a belligerence for no reason. The years when I went to a college nearby my own to hear Abbie Hoffman, David Delinger, and Jerry Rubin deliver their opinions. I had never thought about Laos in terms of its culture, its people, its government. At the time, Far East Asia was, for me, simply generic. The atrocities, the hundreds of bombs we dropped on the country to ward off the Viet Cong, a daily news item.

The backstory of this trip, riding on planes and wading through airports, is that the Curator for the United States State Department’s Art in Embassy Program, Virginia Shore, saw a large drawing on paper of mine in its first and only exhibition at the Cross MacKenzie Gallery in April, 2012, in Washington, DC. But, the “Velvet Installation,” the main event of my second showing at the gallery, which was solo, grabbed her attention.

Velvet Installation at Cross Mackenzie Gallery, Sept., 2012
Based upon viewing that piece, she commissioned me to do a permanent installation in a US Embassy. The new Embassy in Serbia was the first choice; however, another artist replaced me. Shore decided to situate my work in the yet to be built Embassy in Vientiane, Laos, a dramatically dissimilar culture than that of Serbia. That Shore changed her mind made me happy. I felt that my work suited Laos over Serbia. Oriental instead of Slavic. Conceptually fluid vs. stiff; colorful vs. monochromatic. Warm instead of frigid.

No serious conversation about the trip began until the fall of 2013. I began asking questions about visas, plane reservations and hotel arrangements. Learning the answers, everything fell into place for a November jaunt. Then the US government went through its shutdown debacle and my trip was postponed, yet again, until January, 2014.

And here we are. The trip happened and I am telling this story.


Touching Ground

When the Mekong River was pointed out to me from the airplane window by a sweet girl traveling from the US to visit her family in Laos, my heart fluttered. 
The Mekong River way in the distance,
nearly invisible

I really could not believe that I was about to land half way around the globe from where I lived. Vientiane, the capital of Laos, borders Thailand along the Mekong.


The ground appeared green but not lush. It was mid-day, Far East time. 

Upon entering the airport, the passengers on the plane rushed to purchase visas. I already had mine. I had copied the form from the Lao Embassy website on the Internet, filled it in with requested information and exchanged it for the visa in December via snail mail in the US. So, happily, I went marching up to the passport desk, first in line. 

On the plane, the passengers had been given immigration forms to fill out that we would carry with our passports. The form asks questions about the reasons for coming to Laos and personal contacts in the country. When I handed my passport, in which the form was inserted, to the uniformed officer behind the desk, he pointed out that I had neglected to fill out both sides of the immigration form. He directed me to a place where I could sit down and complete the form. Just as I sat down, a crowd of people filled the aisles in front of the entry desks. I was no longer first in line. Once I reached the line, it did not take long to assume the same first position, facing the small camera positioned on the desk so that my presence could be recorded. Once the officer had stamped my passport, he waved his left hand in a back sweep to usher me in the direction of the baggage claim area.

The hotel where I was staying sent a car to meet Welmoed Laanstra, the Curator of Cultural Programs at the State Department, who was going to accompany me throughout my travels. She was staying at the same hotel. Just inside the entrance to the airport, a driver stood holding a sign with Welmoed’s name on it (the prefix as Mr. rather than Ms.). Amused, I went over to him and said that Welmoed and I were together and he could take me in his vehicle to the hotel as well. Welmoed was coming from Bangkok; her flight landed later than mine. I sat in the hotel van while we waited for her. Looking at an airport parking lot filled to the brim with small motorcycles, I asked the driver why the motorcycles were parked there and he told me that they belonged to the employees of the airport. I thought, How frugal.

As soon as Welmoed arrived, we began talking and my attention switched back and forth from the conversation to the view rushing past the van window. The land was surprisingly dry, flat, dense with buildings and people; not as tropical as I thought it would be. Every motorized mode of transportation possible was zipping around never seeming to intrude in anyone’s path.  A nearly perfect mechanized symbiosis. 

The hotel was situated on a street that was literally two car widths across. The steps to the lobby ended at the street. There was no sidewalk. One would never believe that a building as large as the hotel could fit where it was fitting, crammed up against other buildings.

When I left Welmoed, having agreed on the time we would meet later, I was intending to rest. Once I reached the hotel room, I unpacked and took a shower. The porch outside the room invited me to step onto it through the sliding doors. The views: so telling of how wedged in the hotel was within the rest of the neighborhood. Of course, I took pictures. The temperature outdoors was not really hot, nor chilly. It was pleasant.
From the porch of my Vientiane hotel room


I lay down on the bed, closed my eyes, and nothing but hazy images of my trip to Laos ran through my mind. Welmoed had said that she was going to walk around when we parted. Hoping she would be back, I decided to call her room. When she answered, I said: “Welmoed, I cannot rest or sleep. I am thinking here: I am in Laos. What am I doing lying on the bed in the hotel?” We decided to meet in the lobby and do some exploring together. It was late afternoon. It became dark quickly. 

Welmoed and I were wandering around the streets of Vientiane trying to find a restaurant she knew of where we could have dinner. We were looking for street signs and I could not see a one. Welmoed has a good sense of direction so all I could do was follow her. When we crossed the street, we did have to wait for the stoplights to change in our favor, otherwise we would be negotiating our way through motorcycles, cars, bicycles. Welmoed casually remarked: “We have to be careful, because I’ve heard that people get hit in traffic.” Okaaaaaay, Welmoed, will do. That ruined my idealized notions of symbiosis on the roads...

Eventually we found the restaurant we were looking for. It had moved down the street from the location where Welmoed thought it was. A lovely, though almost empty, French restaurant. I cannot remember if we had our dinner early or late. I do not remember what we ordered, we simply ate.


Street View, Vientiane

Welmoed had said that we had to keep moving in time with the time patterns in Laos so that our bodies would adjust more quickly. This advice coming from a lady who travels all the time and is accustomed to jet lag and time change. She is originally from the Netherlands; she speaks with a hint of a Dutch accent.

I wanted to find a purse that accommodated everything I would carry during the day. “Let’s go to the night market,” Welmoed said.  We crossed a busy main street to a flat field which was covered with an array of colorful tents, under which the Lao marketers were selling their wares.  Thousands of items from clothing to household goods. Welmoed turned to me and jokingly said: “You wanted a purse, right?” I laughed. Needless to say, there were hundreds to choose from. For some reason, I was drawn to one…perhaps it had to do with the way all the color contrasted with a black background. I bought it; it is an example of Hmong embroidery, I have learned since then.  

Welmoed and I both could have lost our minds in consumerism. Instead, we made our way back to the hotel; the roads we followed to reach there I do not recall. Without jay-walking, in the dark, we crossed several streets avoiding moving vehicles. 

I was in a daze. Tomorrow was another day and the beginning of the reason we were there: to search for textiles for my installation piece.


Discovering Textiles

Monday

When we first arrived at the hotel having come from the airport, Welmoed and I were each handed a very official folder from the US Embassy. The folder was packed with information, including a detailed schedule for Welmoed and me. The schedule was timed out in a list of every activity that Pam DeVolder, the US Embassy’s Public Affairs Officer, had planned for us.  Pam was definitely in charge. Pam is a young, vibrant woman with wide eyes and a wonderful smile. She dresses as would a Laotian woman. She has a great deal of knowledge to share and her enthusiasm is contagious. She was especially happy that the four of us were going to study textiles, because she loves them and when this opportunity presented itself to her, she took it in a flash.

Monday started with a brief meeting at the hotel where everyone met each other for the first time. We discussed our “schedule” and Pam stressed that we could be relaxed about it, yet had to carry through with meetings that were “confirmed.”

In this sun-laden open-air meeting, my eyes were taking in the plants, the environment. Of course, I had no idea, as we gathered casually around a dining table, how these three women, Welmoed, Pam and dear Vimol, Pam’s assistant and Cultural Affairs Specialist at the Embassy, would affect me emotionally.  In the meeting, I merely listened to Welmoed and Pam, discussing the importance of certain destinations. I had to listen, because I had no clue as to where I was going and what I was going to do.

The initial stop that morning was the new Embassy, still under construction. The campus is large, the building’s architecture rigid and polished from what we could see on the exterior. The interior was no different really, although scaffolding and construction equipment was scattered throughout. We toured the building, wearing hard hats and oversized work boots. Welmoed asked the questions. Again I listened. My purpose there was to understand the scale of the interior and see the wall where my installation would be.

Funny, I never saw the wall where my installation would be. The experience of the building was all that was necessary. In my own mind, I was going to adapt the installation to any area to which it was assigned. 

Tapestries and Everything in Between

Unbeknownst to me until this trip, the craft of weaving is an integral part of Laotian culture, practiced by most of the ethnic groups living in eleven provinces of the country.
   
We began our textile search at the Taykeo Textile Gallery, situated in a Colonial French style building with a French style interior, that is dark wood trim offset by white walls. 

Traditional Tai Deng Pattern
I was taken aback by the number of textile pieces housed in one place. On one table, I was drawn immediately to a ten to fifteen foot long piece, which happened to be an antique. The center of this piece is extremely complex; it is a Tai Dang pattern. On the tail ends, branching out of the woven section is indigo blue cotton cloth. This introduced me to all I had to absorb and, for heaven’s sakes, choose from, for I went to this country to purchase, not merely look. 

Pam and Welmoed reminded me that this was only the one of many galleries we were going to see and we had yet to go to Luang Prabang, where tapestry factories and their products are abundant. So even though the first tapestry that I touched substantially impacted my visual mind, I held back from buying it, until I had seen more. I had to overcome a strong impulse to purchase this piece.

As I grazed through the products on display, Pam and Welmoed spoke at length to the owner. Welmoed snapped copious photos. And even modeled material that could be fashioned into a skirt. We were having fun.

I was so pleased. The reason that the four of us were there at the Gallery exemplified the premise supporting subsequent visits to every  museum, shop, gallery and factory. That premise is, for me, that the United States and the countries of the world can understand each other in the cultural sense, hopefully. That I, an artist, yet uneducated and na├»ve in the art of textile making, would be in awe of the amazing colors and textures and pattern dissimilarities between one textile and another, is a step towards bonding with people I would never have expected to meet and whose artisanship I would never have expected to observe in its process. If the populations of the world could simply honor each other, as we four honored every person we met in this cultural environment, the problems of the world would be easier to cope with. As populations, we could stand on the same ground. The cultures of the world could be as tightly woven as the tapestries I sought to integrate into my own art work for the Embassy.

Pam, Welmoed, Vimol and I bowed to everyone when we said Sabai Dee, hello, and Khop chai lai lai, Thank you very much, when we offered our good-byes. We left our shoes at the door when we arrived, and put them on when we departed. The exchange of kindness, as we stood in our bare feet, discussing how textiles are made, the sources of materials, the threads of silk, the cotton, was inspiring. Our delight in the interaction with the women who owned and managed textile factories and the women who operated the looms was a beautiful rarity.

When we reached the morning market, which extended seemingly for a mile, but it must have only the length of a city block, the artisans sat in their small booths with their products. In my mind, I assessed that they represented the core of the country’s population. I wanted to buy something from each marketer. The goods were not inexpensive. There were silk scarves and wraps and embroidered pieces. Yards and yards of color to choose from, carefully laid out on tables or suspended on racks. My vision was utterly spoiled. I photographed purchase prospects instead of actually purchasing any because we were still going to Luang Prabang, and I thought that I was returning to Vientiane long enough to return to the market or the Taykeo Gallery. I also only had so much money. I had to calculate mentally what I might spend.


My creativity was kicking in and I was sub-consciously putting together how I could use the tapestries with the velvet rope. This was one level of improvisation I would use towards constructing the final work of art in the Embassy. Believe me, it was not easy.

Having concluded our day with Pam and Vimol, Welmoed and I were delivered to our hotel. The two of us each returned to our rooms for a bit and afterwards searched for another restaurant where we could have dinner.

One that Welmoed had seen on her morning walking tour had appealed to her. We went there. It was not fancy. The table we were shown to was nestled in a back corner isolated against a trellis-like divider, appealing and quiet. We sat down at the table for two. A gentleman from the table across from us leaned over and exclaimed: “Four people before you have left that table for another…”  Welmoed and I both thought that his statement was strange. And we sat waiting to order. 

Welmoed excused herself for a moment. When she returned, I said to her that I knew why people had moved from the table. We were sitting right in front of the garbage and the smell was just a bit disgusting. Welmoed asked to be moved to another table. As it was, that table was situated way over on the other end of the restaurant against a wall. Neither of us wanted to fuss around anymore so we sat at the table and eventually ordered. Welmoed asked for a pizza and I asked for prawns. The pizza was good and the prawns were messy. We were almost finished eating and Welmoed leaned over to me and said, “Can we go back to the hotel…I am exhausted…” She was close to dropping into her leftover pizza. I said, “Of course.”

We had arrived on a Sunday. This was only Monday.  Tuesday was planned to the minute. It included a brief visit with Ambassador Daniel Clune.


Tuesday

After breakfast, when I was served the best coffee I have ever tasted, Pam, Welmoed, Vimol and I met in the lobby of the hotel. We loaded ourselves into the Embassy van and took off for the Phaeng Mai Gallery and Houy Hong Textile Museum and weaving center.








It was at these two places that I became exceedingly interested in the weaving process. I watched the weavers attentively, making an effort to see the pattern of their movements. My observations were not altogether 
futile.








Even though I do not completely understand the way that the weft (threads mounted from side to side on the loom) works in coordination with the warp (threads mounted in the opposite direction or perpendicular to the weft), this is how I remember the weaving process: the one weaver, whom I watched, lifted the warp threads with a curved edged piece of wood to open up a way to the woven area; passed the shuttle, holding a spool of thread in its center, through the opening which had been revealed; pulled the comb down towards the woven area; and packed the thread several times against the already woven area;  then she turned the curved edge piece of wood down to flatten the warp threads again. She repeated the same process, lifting different warp threads through which to pass the same shuttle. The result was the evolving tapestry. 

The key to the pattern of the tapestry is called the hettle; it is strung vertically towards the middle of the loom. The entire loom is a rectangular solid. The hettle holds the “information” that the woven tapestry is predicated upon.  

The hettle being constructed by one of the weavers

Weaving is more than mechanics; weaving is an art, especially in Laos where its tradition is being preserved with zeal. The women at the Phaeng Mai gallery create patterns to weave based on traditional textile from certain provinces. An example is shown below.


The female spinners at the Houy Hong Textile Museum and weaving center. were sitting on the floor with their simple spinning machines, spinning silk. The male dyers were stewing silk in a steaming pot. The odor was almost overwhelming. The men wore masks. They did not like to have their pictures taken. The female weavers were in a separate room. I watched one weaver closely.  Observing her work instilled in me her dedication and her own appreciation of her livelihood.












We hurried onto the US Embassy to meet Ambassador Clune. On the way, I complained about my swollen right ankle. It was bothering me.

The Ambassador’s assistant met us and guided us to the Ambassador’s office. Ambassador Clune is a quiet, reserved man, a veteran diplomat and not unlike gentlemen I had met so long ago in my growing up in Washington, DC. The Ambassador invited Pam, Welmoed and me to sit down. He exchanged small talk with Pam and Welmoed. And then he looked at me and said: “Well, how’s it going?” (His wife is an artist as well.) I cannot remember my exact words, but I said something to the effect that I was trying to determine the process of integration between my materials, the velvet rope, and the Lao textiles, which process will be essentially improvisatory. When I finished speaking, I looked at him and he was scratching his head. I said, “Am I making sense? You are scratching your head.” To which he replied, “As much sense as you can make right now.” “Ok,” I said as I smiled and chuckled respectfully. Briefly thereafter, we shook hands and said our good-byes.

A nurse met us in the hallway. I wondered why. She said she wanted to examine my ankle. Pam had arranged this as we arrived without my knowledge.  We went into a room and closed the door.  I sat down and the nurse took my shoeless right foot into her hands. She asked me several questions; she wanted to be sure that no blood clot was developing. I thought, Are you kidding? Then I asked about the real possibility of that happening. She counseled me to be sure to keep rotating my ankle and stretching. The swollenness was caused from sitting on airplanes for hours and hours and not really moving around enough to maintain blood circulation. The swelling went down when I started following her instructions. Whew.

We rushed to the airport for the plane ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang which lasted two hours. We arrived at our hotel, located where the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers meet. I was aghast. Really? The Mekong River? Wow.

The owner of the hotel is Swedish and greets his guests with glasses of white wine and a genuine smile. Before going to our rooms, we visited briefly with our host. It was dark and time for dinner. We sat at river’s edge in the outdoor restaurant. I felt as though I was dreaming. Welmoed and Pam conversed cheerfully; I listened. I think I said a few words…serious words…regarding my observations for the day. We talked, we laughed. We said good night.

I was looking forward to tomorrow. And after a restful sleep in front of the warming glow of an electric heater and under a down comforter on a comfortable bed, I awoke on my own at 6:30 am. Tomorrow had come.

Luang Prabang

Wednesday

January weather is not particularly warm in Laos. Since the hotel's restaurant is outside, I had to dress in layers, especially at 7 am. But the waiters always supplied the heating unit next to my table so I was never cold.

Although the menu offered American versions of breakfast, I did not eat any, while in Luang Prabang, nor in Vientiane, actually. I had soup with onions and noodles mixed probably with chicken broth. It was fitting to have hot soup on a chilly morning sitting beside the river. Coffee. Yes, I had coffee.


 












The Nam Khan River is down a steep hill from the restaurant. Where that river merges with the Mekong on the left from where I was sitting, directly ahead is an island. On the island is a Temple; it appears to be small. Across the river from the island to the beach below is a bamboo bridge. 

At about 7:30 am, filing across it in the fog were four Buddhist monks, dressed in their saffron colored robes, coming from the Temple or Wat. I did not know their destination. The mistiness hung over the island and river for the duration of my breakfast. Before I left for my room, the sun slowly broke through. And the day began.


Our first official stop on this day was the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center. We traveled by touk-touk. Vimol negotiated the price with the driver for the short trip to town. We traveled in the back for a semi-bumpy ride. 

Pam and Welmoed with touk-touk

Luang Prabang is a quaint, intimate city; at least what I saw of it. The homes are not new. They seem original from the time of the monarchy, pre-1975, and before. Their entrances are close to the road and hidden by plant life, large-leafed plant life, and vines. In fact, generally speaking, Luang Prabang is greener and not as flat as Vientiane. Luang Prabang is nearly directly north of Vientiane, in the center of Northern Laos.

I cannot remember if we road in the touk-touk or walked up the very steep hill on which the Traditional Arts Center is located. The building had a sharply peaked roof. All stucco exterior. The interior had been rehabilitated for the purposes of exhibition.

Traditional Art and Ethmology Center, Luang Prabang, Laos

We were met at the entrance to the museum by its co-directors. Pam and Welmoed took off with them and, after I bowed to them, I wandered into the exhibition area. The exhibits are not extensive but they are informative. The didactics and graphics taught me more about the ethnicity of the country than I could have gleaned on my own.

Photo of Akha Woman  
The exhibits show a multiplicity of objects, which display the Lao peoples’ ingenuity and faith in their capacity to exist in an incredibly creative world. On view were costumes for men and women from different eras, textiles, basketry, jewelry, wood carvings, and utilitarian objects. Each was made with patience, focus, attention to intricacy and detail.

It did not take much to convince me that the Lao people are beautiful. They have souls. They are peaceful. They deserve attention for how they contribute to the world, hidden away from the forefront.

Their artfulness is endless: tradition is the only limiting factor from group to group. An Akha woman’s costume, made from a dark indigo material, greatly impressed me. The jacket and skirt were edged with multicolored bands and patterned strips of cotton, no one the same. It was at this point that I decided in my mind’s eye to let go of any preconceptions for the parameters I had to set for myself to choose tapestries for my installation.

Akha Women's Costume

I spoke out loud as I was taking the picture of the costume: “I am giving myself permissions here.” It was if a door had been opened and I could move forward. Time to begin purchasing tapestries.


In the gift shop, three fairly large cotton tapestries were hanging high on one wall. I stared at them for about a minute. I looked away and then turned my head to look again. I chose one. “May I buy that red tapestry?” I said to the shop attendant. He moved quickly to take it down from the hooks it hung on. I was thrilled. I said to Welmoed: “I just bought my first tapestry…” She replied: “ Gooooodt!”  There was no stopping me now. I had reached the place in my mind where it was supposed to be…the reason I had traveled so far. 

After lunch, we strolled along the street dropping in and out of shops. I could see possibility everywhere I looked for tapestries; I knew what I wanted now, in shape, in color, in type of material. Proper selection was essential. The structure for my installation work was falling into place.

Because we were not coming back to this city, the money flowed from my pocketbook. When an artist buys materials for doing a piece of art, not much can halt the process. This was certainly true in my case.

The sunny day penetrated the narrow streets which were filled with people, cabs, touk-touks. Dogs. Tourists. I did not feel like a tourist. Although I obviously appeared like one. I was there on a mission. It was as if a thread was pulling me where I needed to go. There were only a couple of shops that I saw no reason to go into. I was painting with cloth in my head, nothing short of an amazing experience, because I was doing this exercise in Laos.

Vimol negotiated with a touk-touk driver to take us back to the hotel. Pam, Welmoed and I stood to the side away from Vimol. When Vimol was satisfied, she nodded her head and we all climbed into the rear cab of the vehicle.

The first tapestries I purchased 
in Luang Prabang
Wednesday was almost over. The day had been long. I had made choices and acted on them. Welmoed suggested that I lay everything I had purchased out on my bed and take a photo to assess my future needs. Which I did. Doing so helped me immensely. Welmoed, a designer herself, knew what was going on in my quiet creative world.


That late afternoon, it was apparent that I was showing my exhaustion. Pam and Vimol urged me to get a massage. Where should I go? Why, right next door! Ok, great. I went next door for a Lao Massage. It cost $8.00.

I entered into the multi-bed-on the floor room, disrobed and lay on the mattress shown to me. For the next hour, the masseuse worked my body unlike it had ever been worked before. I have massages regularly in the US. But this massage won the prize for stretching, bending and kneading. When it was over, I could hardly move. It took a few minutes to regain awareness enough to rise off the mattress and walk out of the room. The massage was exactly what I needed, I think. I paid the owner and gave the masseuse a tip, turned to her as I left, bowed my head and said: “Khop chai. Ngam.” Ngam means beautiful.

I do remember making it back to my room. It wasn’t far. I took a hot shower to distribute the energy that had been released. However, I do not remember eating dinner at all. I must have.

The next day was going to be the last in Luang Prabang and in Laos. After figuring out with Pam and Welmoed that my plane ride back to the US began at midnight on January 17 and that I would not have that extra day in Vientiane as we thought I would, I had to pack for the trip home.

I separated the textiles from my clothes. Since Welmoed and Vimol were going to buy what I postponed purchasing in Vientiane, after I left the country, all the textiles would be shipped to me. I had to prep them for hanging once I was back in the states. I think that I had purchased over two dozen.

Sleeping was easy. I awoke again on my own at 6:30am.


Thursday

We were scheduled to visit one museum in the morning but wound up at another; somehow our directions were confused. The entire complex was situated at the end of a long driveway in a French colonial house.   

Some of the displays were set up in an open air room. Over the entrance were hung two carvings of a double-headed Naga. The Naga, Pam explained, was a protector; a creature of mythology supposedly living in the Mekong River. After hearing Pam describe this, I realized that I had seen replicas of this creature integrated into the architecture. Mainly at the temples. Golden Naga heads at the ends of their extended sweeping snakelike bodies on staircase banisters, roof eaves, roof peaks. Entrances, exits. Interiors, exteriors. Everywhere.

The four of us continued through the museum passing by old photographs and tools in display cases. We came out into an area where a woman was stirring a hot, dark liquid in a pot. She was dyeing silk with indigo, processed from the indigo plant. Vimol translated. I forgot to say that Vimol asked our questions and translated for us all the time, especially in the markets, even though Pam speaks Lao fluently. The Lao woman dyeing was alone in a room where there were tens of dyeing pots on shelves, keeping her company. 


We traveled by van to our next stop in Luang Prabang, the studio of Prince Nithakhong Somsanith. Or simply Nith. Nith is an accomplished artist and collector. His own art is exquisite gold thread embroidery. With a background that includes studies in France, his perspective is wide and he desires to make a community of the cultures of the Asia in which he lives. Now in his fifties, Nith is a very lively fellow. His French wife equally so. He showed us examples of his work, which he carefully folds and stores in archival boxes, stacks and stacks of them.


With gold thread, Nith embroiders images on heavy cloth, some of the images made directly from plant leaves.The process is tedious and time-consuming. As with any artist, it is his calling. His intimate space is saturated with objects. Pam and I bumped our heads on sculptures that were hanging from the ceiling. Nith is not tall. He has divided his house into spaces for doing specific projects. One does not have to walk far to move from one project to another. Fulfillment reels from the air.




Ock Pop Tok Living Arts and Crafts Center was the last active weaving center we toured. The Center’s entrance opens into a campus, alive with those who believe in the continuation of the Laotian craft traditions. Veo, the co-director escorted us around the school. It was evident by the way in which workplaces were laid out that teaching and learning were the prime movers. Veo is wonderfully generous in character. She imparts beauty; not only in her physical being, but also in the way she carries herself.

Display of dyeing materials and the results
at Ock Pop Tok Living Art and Crafts Center, Luang Prabang

The absolute high point of this visit was lunchtime. We were seated at a private table that was close to the weaving space yet far enough away from the restaurant to feel isolated and strangely apart from everything that was going on. I could lift myself out of my present and look objectively at the happenings surrounding me. Until I ate the food. The most scrumptuous of the entire journey.  For some reason, I started laughing without being able to stop. Everything Welmoed, Pam and Vimol were doing and saying was hysterical to me. One could say that I had reached a pinnacle of being fatigued and disoriented, satiated with wonder and enjoyment.

Pam, Lyn, Welmoed and Vimol

When the cook took a photo of us four women just as we were about to leave, I realized that this trip was the apotheosis of being away from home. The trip was focused on the generation of a work of my own art that I was commissioned to do as a representative artist of the United States. The honor. The commitment. The esteem.



The Spirit Houses

When I told a friend of mine months and months ago that I was going to Laos, he told me that I had plenty of time to “study up.” Time went by and I bought one book on Laos and researched textiles on the internet.

Essentially, I flew into the country blind and completely open to experiencing it. I only learned what not to do in polite company. But after that, I knew little. I did not even know that the country is Communist. This is how I do things. Learn as I go. I did not even look at maps. I am doing that now as I write. I am learning more now when writing than I did before I packed my suitcases.

Both in Vientiane and in Luang Prabang, one can frequently find, sometimes enclosed with vegetation and tucked back close to the buildings that line the streets, Spirit Houses. 
They are small replicas of Buddhist temples resting on top of pedestals which have enough room to place offerings of food, drink, incense, and special conical towers made of banana leaves and flowers resembling marigolds. The latter, Vimol explained to me, are stairways to heaven. They can have three, five or nine tiers. The highest number of tiers denotes the wealth of the owners of the Spirit House.

Spirit Houses reflect my spirit as well. I left so much of myself there. In a sense, when I return, it will be like going to another home. The four days spent in Laos were a blessing, a means to know deeply that we people on earth have the same needs and different ones. That we can feel the same feelings, yet express them differently. I will leave an offering to Laos. It will be the installation piece in the US Embassy.

When I arrived at the airport, the US Embassy driver made certain that I was taken care of when I reached Incheon Airport in Seoul, because one has to go through an immigration transition from Laos to Korea. With much gratitude, I said good-bye to Seng. I waited in the Wattay Domestic Airport until the passport line opened at 10:30 pm. 

The doors to the passport desks opened on time. I was the one person to go through them to proceed to the only desk at which an officer was sitting. I approached and stopped where orange footprints are painted on the floor. As I handed him my passport, he surprisingly said to me: “Sabai Dee.” I returned the greeting: “Sabai Dee.” This officer was the same officer who had stamped my passport when I entered the country.

After he canceled my visa and handed my passport back to me, I said: “Khop chai.” He waved me through silently, as he had done when I arrived. I proceeded to the departure gate.

The circuit had been completed. I was on my way home.







copyright 2014 Lyn Horton
Header photo by Welmoed Laanstra
Photo of Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center from its website
All other photos by Lyn Horton