Caught (up) in the act

Jazz by Paal Nilssen-Love and Ken Vandermark; Sound art by Aiko Suzuki

Music is very nearly my constant companion. As I write, make art, do chores, drive, sleep or endure an Abba earworm, tunes are always in the picture, whether as a minor distraction, or on occasion, actual entertainment.

I was not what you’d call an “angel” as a kid, but I wasn’t a reprobate either. I did the naughty things other kids did, certainly things I shouldn’t have, but I did seem to get found out with more frequency than others, and perhaps more harshly punished, which included being grounded for long stretches of time. I mention this because during these terms of backyard incarceration, I avoided a sense of isolation by idling away the days with a portable radio at my side.

Chicago’s WLS-AM and WCFL-AM battled for my pre-teen attention. And when the FM dial started to become more populated, I listened to hippie-rock on WDAI (94.7) and a late-night alternative program, Triad, which took over a classical station out of Elk Grove Village (106.9) at 9:00 pm. Call it escapism; I thought of it as the outline for an escape plan.

That plan didn’t pan out, so I enlisted in the Navy. With my first paycheck I bought a little red Hitachi transistor radio. Radios after hours were forbidden in boot camp, but I hid mine in my pillow. While listening to that radio in my bunk I learned Picasso had died.

Navy buddies at my first duty station introduced me to funk and jazz.

All of this comes back to me as I try to find a context to write about two events I attended this past weekend: jazz by Ken Vandermark and Paal Nilssen-Love, part of the Creative Music Guild’s Confluence Series, and Akio Suzuki’s sound installation piece, “Nami,” at PICA’s 2500 Sandy space for TBA:15. I am not a musician, I know nothing about music theory, and have a pedestrian knowledge of music history. I listen to be soothed or moved. And as sometimes happens when I am moved, I feel a need to write.

Another memory: Chicago in the 1990s at the bar and music venue The Empty Bottle. Tuesdays were for jazz, and more often than not, Ken Vandermark was playing in a quartet, quintet or some other iteration, sometimes as the front man, sometimes not. I was usually in attendance, and five minutes into the first set my eyes would close and my head would start bobbing and weaving. Taken up into pure reverie.

Vandermark has an international presence nowadays (Nilssen-Love is Norwegian and they have been playing as a duet for five years), but I still regularly listen to three albums from that time period: Vandermark 5’s “The Color of Memory” and “Sympatico,” plus a solo project, “Furniture Music,” on which one will find several pieces dedicated to visual artists. (Again, because I am not a music critic) I will describe the first two albums as rocking, and the latter as sparse. Friday night’s performance was very much the former, and I was immediately thrown back in time.

“Immediately thrown” because the first notes out of his horn and from Nilssen-Love’s drum kit hit the crowd like a brick wall of sound. There was no warm-up, no easing into a complex rhythm or abstracted melody. Just BAM. Only then did they begin to work their way backwards, quickly, then sideways, but always driving (my spouse, Gillian, calls it “muscle jazz”)—even when holding a single note, or during softer percussive events.

Vandermark does a little back-and-forth dance as he plays, and Nilssen-Love drums with his eyes closed, head cocked to one side. I could also mention that the concert took place at the Redeemer Lutheran Church at NE Killingsworth and 20th, and then play with the word “killing” as in “it.” Then, since Friday saw temperatures in the high 90s, and this venue was without air-conditioning, I also could burn through another couple of sentences heavy with innuendo about the passion behind the music. But I’d rather just shut up and listen to more of this duo.

Go ahead and watch. I’ll wait. It is impossible to do anything else but listen.


The following morning I went over to PICA’s 2500 Sandy building to see some of the visual art components of their TBA:15. As I was still revved from the concert the night before, I might have been predisposed to quickly key into Akio Suzuki’s sound art piece, “Nami.” Although a much more subdued experience, there was an aggression to the sound of loud radio static emitting from this simple piece.

Akio Suzuki, "Nami"

Akio Suzuki, “Nami”

A large lazy Susan slowly spins. On its surface are five silver Sony transistor radios and two larger, black Radio Shack portable radios. The antennas are set at various heights, with only one of each brand fully extended. I watched this carousel with my friend, Victor, and as we stood there, we began to notice an occasional suggestion of playlist music arise out of and then disappear back into the white noise.

I know next to nothing about the physics of radio waves, let alone the frequency and amplitude modulations that characterize FM or AM. However, I do know that I extend and move an antenna to get better reception, sometimes made even better because I am touching the antenna. Plus, there are times standing a couple feet away from the radio that I seem to impede the signal. And when at a stoplight, my car radio’s reception gets better if I move forward just a bit, usually no more than two or three feet. I could at least bring these things to bear in my understanding of “Nami,” and it did seem our presence had an impact on the sounds coming from at least one of these radios. Although transient, audience members become participants and perhaps necessary components for the full activation of the piece.

How “full” remained to be seen.

Victor and I said our good-byes and went to our vehicles. I was to order carry-out before returning home, and the restaurant had me on hold. As I sat there, I began to think about radio waves and realized my experience with any reception issues over the last 45 years had largely been limited to FM. Food ordered, I went back inside to see if Suzuki had set all of the radios to FM or AM, or he if he had mixed it up.

The lazy Susan sits about a foot off of the ground, so I had to get down on my knees and bend over—sometimes a bit of stretch—to see the little switches. I also tried to get an idea of where on the dial the tuners were set. If memory serves, three of the Sonys were set to AM, and it looked like all of the Sony tuners were buried on the left side of the dial. Both Radio Shacks were set to FM, one at 93.?, and the other 96.7.

As I was doing this research, one of the Radio Shack radios began to pick up an actual signal, and in that these radios were set at high volumes, the whole space filled with a station promo for music from the ‘80s. Immediately realizing I was likely the unintentional cause for this aberration, I raised my hands in the air and jokingly exclaimed to the nearest volunteer “sitter” that I hadn’t touched anything. I think she believed me.

The sitter in an adjacent room clearly thought otherwise, for as I stood up to leave, a young woman who must have been administrative, approached and gently reproached. I again stated my innocence, and as she accompanied me to the door, I told her what little I knew about radio reception. I did admit to being completely ignorant of the length of AM waves. (If by chance she reads this, I am posting this link for her edification alone, as I still don’t understand.)


For convenience’s sake, one might say Vandermark and Nilssen-Love play improvisational jazz, even though some will recognize a structure to their compositions. One can assume the same holds true for Suzuki’s “Nami.” The platform’s steady, determined rate of rotation, the length of the antenna above each radio, and the placement of each radio all have some purpose/significance. Not being privy to the precision does not lessen the effectiveness on the audience. And it is the generosity of this simple truth on which artists depend.

But this is not a rally cry. An acquired taste is a type of training, if you will, a regimen and discipline. Reception is the determining factor in this equation and there is no need to punish others. My poker buddies refuse to listen to any style of jazz while we play, to my table disadvantage; had I visited TBA at a time of day when there were more people present, I may have not been able to determine if any noise at all was coming from Suzuki’s radios. But no matter. My focus sharpens by somehow incorporating into my listening experience the sweat dripping into my eyes in that hot church, just as getting fingered for something I didn’t do gives the spinning radios a larger resonance. I have to remain open and vulnerable.

And suddenly, I am newly grateful for those childhood days of sequestration.


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