Music

Cannibal Club

Terri Hanlon as “The Rancher,” 1981. Photo: Fern Friedman.

SHE’S MORE WILD . . . released last month by Black Truffle, was recorded in 1981 at the Center for Contemporary Music (CCM), the studio at Mills College in Oakland, California, then codirected by composers David Behrman and Robert Ashley. CCM was a hub for experimentation, outfitted with otherwise inaccessible amenities such as a multitrack recording setup and analog synthesizers. The studio was open not only to Mills students, but also to Bay Area composers, artists, and community members at reduced or no cost. This combination of communalism, cheap rents and tuition, and the nascent possibilities of computer technology made the center a significant meeting ground for a cohort of musicians that included, among others, Ashley, Behrman, David Rosenboom, Jacqueline Humbert, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Peter Gordon, Paul DeMarinis, Joanna Brouk, and IXNA—all the subjects of recent reissues, and together constitutive of something like a stable of near-past “pioneers.”

She’s More Wild . . . is a collaboration between Behrman, DeMarinis, and performers Terri Hanlon, Fern Friedman, and Anne Klingensmith. San Francisco State University MFA alumnae, Hanlon and Friedman had previously worked together, with dancer Deborah Slater, under the moniker the EVA Sisters, stringing together a choreography of quotidian events, object theater, free association, and symbolic wordplay wrested from the vocabulary of postwar Americana. What House?, their 1978 theatrical work about three diner waitresses, is demonstrative: droll repetition, an acerbic critique of gendered labor, and intermittent acts of comic relief, like the balancing of four plates on one arm or a sudden linguistic collision.

Postcard invitation to She's Wild! at the Kitchen, New York, March 10th & 11th, 1981.

The album, originally titled simply She’s Wild!, was first devised in 1981 as a theater piece for the Performance Gallery in San Francisco, and soon after reprised at the Kitchen. Though its creators planned for its release as a proper long-play record on Mimi Johnson’s Lovely Music Ltd., for unclear reasons the label turned it down upon completion. Hanlon and Friedman, not to be discouraged, reimagined it as a seven-inch issued on their own one-off Record Records. Black Truffle’s release restores She’s More Wild . . . to a fully realized concept album, spanning a variety of approaches: the straight-ahead saloon waltz (“Cannibal Cowgirl”); send-ups of New Age drones and Puccini’s ungainly Orientalism (“Archetypal Unitized Seminar” and “Japanese Disease”); and an inspired fusion of West Coast minimalism and pop (the immaculately titled “You Pay Rent on your Brain”) among them.

The album’s subject is California’s multivalent frontier mythos. Most prominently featured is the plight of the Donner Party, the westward-bound caravan reduced to cannibalism after being stranded in the Sierras, but references to fading showbiz starlets and the self-realization seminars of Werner Erhard also crop up. Hanlon, Friedman, and Klingensmith each deliver a syntactically mirrored monologue as the Recording Star, the Former Movie Star, and the Rancher, stock characters fabricated from pulp tropes and family histories. (Hanlon, a third-generation Californian, channels her rancher grandparents; Behrman’s father, S.N. Behrman, was a playwright and New Yorker contributor who penned just shy of thirty Hollywood productions, among them the 1938 western comedy The Cowboy and the Lady.) Wordplay exposes the chains of myth smuggled into everyday life. In a spoken word epilogue, composer Maggi Payne invokes the pejorative etymology of the term gold digger, which originated as the title of an Avery Hopwood Broadway play, and of the cannibal, derived from the Spanish conquistadors’ legends of the indigenous Carib people. Meanwhile, the album’s title gestures at the origin of the word California itself, named after a fictional island of warrior women in Garcia Rodríguez de Montalvo’s Las sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián, 1510).

Anne Klingensmith performing “Cannibal Cowgirl,” 1981.

The prevailing tone is morbid deadpan, reminiscent of Mills alum Jill Kroesen’s cabaret “system portraits” or Cecelia Condit’s later cannibal fantasy Possibly in Michigan (1983), fellow dream-logic deconstructions of Western chauvinism. Spoken word gives way to electronic sound, as the women’s voices trigger interactive microcomputer-generated environments of primitive drum machines and homemade-oscillator whirs. Behrman and DeMarinis each perform on instruments of their own design, the former on a synthetic and stringless pseudo-guitar, the latter using a sensor field controlled by the placement of a wineglass on a chessboard—though, without visual cues, the comedy of these contraptions diminishes slightly. On “I Feel Like a Martian,” DeMarinis wields his signature instrument, a hacked Texas Instruments Speak & Spell that sputters out garbled half-vocalizations, the unsettling sounds of an algorithm approaching sentience. That computer audio is generated from “memory,” the same subconscious substance from which thoughts, dreams, and words spring, is not far from mind.

She’s More Wild . . . was never the full-fledged statement album it was intended to be, but here it is now: a document of the fabled moment before computer music and performance art were codified, their possibilities foreclosed. Like the origin stories that its creators skewered, the record is a vision of the past fastened from the desires of the present, a convenient Wild West of spontaneous interdisciplinary collaboration, alternative art spaces, and subsidized educations. It’s not a bad myth to burrow into: The album’s imperfect medley of rough-hewn electronics and frontier free associations makes it fertile territory, the sort of raw, mystical material that keeps people forging forward.

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