In the summer of 2015, at a backyard party in Bushwick, a lone woman — Cammisa Buerhaus — performed a confident set of songs with distorted electronic accompaniment. It was hard to hear the lyrics, but fragmentary references to violence — including the displacement of Syrians — gave an eerie tone to what proceeded: a bulletin from a nightmare world, the soundtrack to a disaster movie that isn’t a movie.
Buerhaus is multitalented and not easy to classify. Trained as a visual artist, she came to music via sculpture. Balzac once said, “I learned to write from the other arts.” Buerhaus seems to have taken a similar lesson to heart, that each art has something to lend, something to teach, to its sister, cousin, rival. “I wanted to blow up a room,” Buerhaus says of a sculptural project she once conceived. It makes sense — the limit of sculpture would be an explosion, a sculpture that “unworked” itself. And if it were not physically possible, for whatever legal or technical reasons, to blow up a room, then in something of the same way David Lynch transitioned from painting to film, Buerhaus would move from sculpture to music.
In turning to music, Buerhaus created a transitional object, an organ — a musical sculpture, one might say. The organ consists of ten rectangular wooden pipes of varying lengths, which, when connected to a compressed air source, generate low tones from E to … not quite E. Asked about the notes the pipes are able to play, Buerhaus says she followed directions “up to a point” to produce something close to a chromatic scale, but that eventually she started to build smaller pipes to produce tones with a microtonal relationship to one another. In other words, rather than allow the Western conventions of music and math to dictate the construction of the pipes, she allowed her hand and her eye, her sculptor’s sensibility, to shape the instrument. The result is, as she says, “her scale” in more ways than one. It’s a unique sequence of tones, but it is also made to the scale of her body.
When performing with the organ, Buerhaus brings yet another art form into play, namely, dance or at least gesture. The compressed air source, in the shape of a cube, can connect to four pipes simultaneously. While allowing some notes to sound continuously, Buerhaus tends nevertheless to modify the sound actively by disconnecting and re-connecting some pipes and by bending and squeezing the plastic tubing that supplies them with air. This constant manipulation of the apparatus lends a visceral quality to the performance. One sees the movement and the effort involved in eliciting and altering the sound. At the organ, Buerhaus seems familiar with its idiosyncrasies at the same time as she is listening for new sounds to emerge from it. “I can never get it to sound exactly the same from one performance to the next,” she says.
The sculptural pipe organ can be heard on the recently released recording YUU, a collaboration between Buerhaus and saxophonist Tamio Shiraishi, under the name of Daikyo Furoshiki (Wild Flesh Productions). The album begins with the sound of compressed air starting to flow, a coming-to-life that also sounds like a type of life support. (And what is an “organ” other than an uncanny prosthesis for the human body and voice?) “One of our rules is always to play high and low,” explains Buerhaus. Indeed, the organ tends to establish a drone against which Shiraishi blows freely at high pitch and high volume. Curiously, this mingling of air produces a chiasmus, the mechanically induced air of the organ sounding more human than the human breath at the basis of Shiraishi’s spectral and aggressive sax playing. Upper and lower limits of the sound, the two modes of breathing provoke each other across an uneasy distance.
“A sound, unfortunately, can’t be nothing. A sound is always something. But our music is about the space in between,” says Buerhaus. Because each player inhabits a register considerably distant from the other, the music of Daikyo Furoshiki immediately establishes a sense of space. This spatial aspect is emphasized even further in their live performances, in which Buerhaus frequently leaves her organ to roam about the venue playing percussion, striking the floor with a large wooden stick. These hits unsettle an audience used to separation between performers and listeners, and beg the question: “Are we inside or outside of the music?” One hears the same strategy of making indeterminate percussive sounds on “The Boy I Want to Share My Money With” from Buerhaus’s more “pop” project, Eliza and Parry. On this cassette release, noisy, metallic sounds threaten to overwhelm the plaintive song to which they are obliquely related. Rather than a soundscape, the combination of song and noise becomes more of a “soundscrape.”
Lately, Buerhaus has been acting as much as making music or visual art. She performed a lead role in Richard Maxwell’s The Evening, which premiered last year at The Kitchen. Currently, at Brooklyn gallery Moiety, she is collaborating with sculptor Lia Lowenthal in the exhibition Long Lasting Loveliness. The exhibition/performance involves Buerhaus posing as an art dealer, leading guests on a neurotic tour of Lowenthal’s semi-wearable, somewhat ominous looking pendants and figures. Visitors to the gallery can listen to the audio on headphones or book an appointment in order to experience, in person, Buerhaus’s hyperbolic sales pitch, one that is undergirded by pitches of another sort, piano notes that mimic the rhythms of her voice. In touring the space, Buerhaus mixes reflections on the objects with apparent memories and injunctions to buy. Somewhat in the way her collaboration with Shiraishi on YUU generates dialogue across a noticeable distance, her work with Lowenthal establishes an odd form of counterpoint, unexpected configurations of word, music and object. One must ask how each supplements or possibly takes away from the other, how the fleeting quality of sound interacts with the more durable bodies in the room. Having explored the space of the gallery, the music venue and the audio recording, this latest iteration of Buerhaus’s (and now Lowenthal’s) work will continue to pose the question of what is internal, what external.
Long Lasting Loveliness continues at Moiety Gallery (166 N 12th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through July 17.