Episode 006: The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away
In which we discuss Laurie Anderson, polka dots, and a great final act
When I was a teenager my mother was a huge fan of the performance artist Laurie Anderson. I think she once went to see Anderson at Madison Square Garden. She even wore out a couple of videotaped PBS Anderson performances.
I was too young to get it. I think I dug that my mom was into something that was seemingly kind of hip, but my teenage artistic appreciation was focused on cranking Ronnie James Dio as loud as humanly possible.
As I got older, my creative influences thankfully expanded. Then in 2005, my very hip aunt asked me to meet her in Central Park to see Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates – and I really started getting into public art, multimedia art, and installations.
Yoyai Kusama is my all-time-fav atypical artist: she is one of the baddest creators ever to grace us. It seems only fitting that the first non-painting/non-drawing piece of art to inspire one of my beats comes from Kusama. Thank you for The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away.
How do you write music that sounds like you are hurtling through space?
That was the central question I had when I started working on this beat. All those lights and mirrors, they just scream infinite space. So we had to try to travel there.
That sort of trip requires some serious movement:
rolling, hypnotic bass line!
churning, propulsive drums!
swooshes and swishes!
stacks of reverb!
And those lights [stars]! Some are big, some small. At first, I thought a melody line played with some sort of airy bell sound would do the trick. Nope. Too cheesy.
Eventually, I pulled up an old beat-up piano sound, started in with some two-hand unison lines a couple of octaves apart, and that was it! It gives the melody movement, while the space between the octaves imparts that feeling of floaty emptiness you might experience out there.
I decided my best attempt at capturing infinity would be by transitioning from the melody to a modulated solo, still in octaves, and back again, all the while using the same piano sound. I did a bunch of takes of that solo, recording the whole time, but I ended up using the first one just as I played it, warts and all. The original vibe felt pretty on the nose.
Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity.
Trying to figure out how to musically depict hurtling through space was only the first problem I faced. How am I supposed to do one of my right-angle reductions when everything is round? Circles don't have right angles. Polka dots don't have right angles.
I guess squares are my way to infinity.
Then came the issue of depth. Kusama’s installation uses mirrors to create the unending depth of The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away. How could I bring some depth to my 2D reduction, when I allow myself no shadowing or shading?
I found it worked best to (mostly) assign blues and greens to the tiny distant lights – and reds and yellows to the larger ones up front. That is kind of how I see it in the original work, but it’s hard to tell whether that is only because the further the lights reflect in the mirrors, the harder it is to see what colors they are. It’s a bit of a blur. I should really get to The Broad in LA to experience this installation in person.
After a life dedicated to her art, Kusama has suddenly become a celebrity in the art world in her 90s. What a ride she’s had.
I am always fascinated by artists who, regardless of their level of success during most of their lives, blow up when they reach an advanced age.
George Burns was the OG of this phenomenon back in the 70s and 80s. Leonard Cohen. Betty White. Tony Bennett with Lady Gaga. Sean Connery voted the sexiest man alive in his 70s.
AND, it’s not just that they become popular, it’s that they became improbably popular with young people.
I’m personally holding out for this.
Until next week, thanks for reading Polyester City. If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment by clicking the link above. If you know anyone who likes Music and Art and Stories [and polka dots], which is pretty much everyone, please consider sharing by clicking the link below.