To experience “Frolic Architecture” is to enter into a world that feels both familiar and bizarre. The piece, a collaboration between composer David Grubbs and poet Susan Howe is a delicate sound collage, rich with layers, solemn, and mildly, comfortably disjointed. At times it evokes a church; at other times, a summer evening; at still others, something so basic and pre-language that it suggests the existence of a unifying human voice, tentative but true.
Howe, whose textual art exhibition recently closed at Portland’s Yale Union (and who has work in the upcoming Whitney Biennial), is a poet of the eye as much as of the ear. On the page her work is difficult to read in any standard sense, made up as it is of fragments and snippets of other preexisting texts. What gives the YU show coherence is the installation format: the pages are arranged so that the viewer can walk around them, building a story through the experience of the room rather than simply allowing the story to unfold as a book might present it. Movement makes sense of the work.
“Frolic Architecture” — named after a line in a Emerson’s poem “The Snow-Storm”; Howe has also produced a book with the same title — can be most simply described as an act of fortified reading. Howe’s live speaking is mixed with previously recorded and manipulated sounds, including recordings of her voice, which are played by Grubbs. The piece is composed but active: the voice (sound, not syntax) is the primary structure to which Grubbs responds. In a 1995 interview with Lynn Keller, Howe used the frame of psychoanalysis to discuss her work: “Who knows, maybe that’s why Freud’s patients lay on couches rather than sitting across from him. Because he didn’t have to look at them nor they at him. They followed each other’s voices and silences.” For Grubbs and Howe, it is much the same: during the performance, they hardly look at each other — he focuses on the computer and sound board, she on the page — but they work together with the generosity of listening.
After the performance I was able to discuss the conceptual underpinnings of “Frolic Architecture,” as well as the pair’s working process, with Grubbs. He refered to their collaboration, like Howe’s works on paper, as a kind of layering: “Layering is all important. Just a few do the trick, and not too thick. Isn’t the layering — the co-presence — suggested by the two of us seated side by side?” This particularly interested to me, as I often think of collaborative works as blending: rendering the contributions of individual artists inseparable as they come together in a single, coherent universe. In “Frolic Architecture,” it’s exactly the opposite: to work together is to create a space where both players are “co-present,” where each layer remains visible and active on its own. That simplicity requires that each element have its own clarity and value, both tonally, through a careful non-mixing of frequencies, and linguistically, through limited words. Layering is a way to hold moments together, a captivating rather than obfuscating force.
When I asked Grubbs about the associations of architecture, and to what extent he and Howe were creating a system, he spoke instead about the importance of the frolic: “The title comes from Emerson’s memory of being a child impatient with a sermon and looking out instead at the ‘frolic architecture’ of a snowstorm. I think that the emphasis is on the frolic — the riotous non-architecture. I don’t particularly think that the collaboration works towards or counts as a system.” Yet what felt so clear to me throughout the performance were the ways in which the play and interplay between Howe and Grubbs worked to create and hold the room: the program activated the site, rather than vice versa. This is a work wherein architecture comes from frolic, but the results are solid. “Frolic Architecture” suggests a new outcome for poetry: from the fragment to the page to publication within space.
Susan Howe: TOM TIT TOT was on view at the Yale Union (780 Southeast 10th Avenue, Portland, Oregon) from October 5 through December 1.