Autumn Newsletter 2019
I greet you from Brest, France, where I have come to work on my year-long writing project on the traditional music and dance of Finistère, Bretagne. I arrived here in the rain and wind, a little concerned that I had made the biggest mistake of my life. According to Wikipedia, Brest resembles most closely in its weather patterns, Neah Bay. Neah Bay, in the very northwestern corner of Washington State. I grumbled. This place reminded me of Puget Sound's naval city, Bremerton, if Bremerton had gorged itself on crêpes. I told myself that I was not here for the quaint cobblestone streets, nor the tropical weather. On a dark night during a downpour, I forced myself to walk to the harbor, where I entered a damp and crowded bar.
My eyes took in the mass of young and attractive bodies. Overwhelmed by my own foreignness, I found some comfort in the fact that the smell here was familiar- wet clothes, sweat, and beer. I further relaxed, the moment I realized that the bodies were moving, together. The people were dancing! In pairs, in circles, in forms they'd learned somewhere. I felt I'd entered a parallel universe to the square, contra, and partner dance environs I am familiar with in North America. Some of the dancers' faces even resembled faces of old friends and acquaintances back home. Surely their smiles were the same.
Sounds streamed from the harpist, guitarist, and piper, who played the Breton bombard. The music sounded to me something between Irish traditional and a medieval melody. Tears welled in my eyes as I pushed myself into the coats and umbrellas lining a wall. The miles I had traveled now took on their meaning. The dancers taught each other steps. I noted an absence of cell phones. This dance in a round, this music, this Monday night, came right up through the floorboards, as though through the land itself, and into the bodies of the young people, reënacting the motions of the departed. I remembered a meme I saw this summer, "Tradition is Just Peer Pressure from Dead People." Here, that peer pressure is strong.
As the past connected to the present, I had the sensation that I was witnessing Bretagne for the first time. Brest is not its post-World War II architectural austerity, but a space where a long-lasting tradition emerges like moss through the fissures in the cement. Though I couldn’t bring myself to speak to anyone that night, much less to learn a dance myself, I felt assured of my purpose here. After a long summer of movement, I have encountered une racine profonde, a deep root, where I can grab hold and stay a while.
The artistic collaborations from this summer are many. I am excited to release all we have created over the upcoming year. There is a new album, an EP, and three short films / music videos. In spite of this productivity, I have battled self-doubt. My friend Molly Baker and I created and gave an original performance in Nambé, New Mexico, on August’s full moon. A member of the audience took issue with our work, left before intermission, and as a result, our show at his venue the next night was cancelled. He wrote that our performance had made him sick.
Sickening. This adjective has stuck with me and made me question my instincts. Perhaps I should not make art, and instead suppress the visions that spring into my mind. Perhaps I should go back to playing string band music for square-dancers, as that never seemed to make people mad. As the days progress in Bretagne, I feel France giving me a different kind of perspective. I am coming to understand that my ability to create unsettling work may be my greatest asset.
I have challenged myself to read Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex in French. Though concepts and new words sail over my head, this reading experience is enlivening to me. I can imagine the way this text may have been received at its publication in 1949, laying bare the truth of the female's subjugation over the course of history. I am sure de Beauvoir's work sickened many, men as well as women. I am sure that la vérité, the truth, in its nascent form, looks by nature of its newness, indigestible. But there are those that willingly suck at this oyster, live through it, and teach others of its deliciousness. The raw meat of the unknown brings on exciting sensations when encountered bravely, and yes, sometimes, violent sickness. But through encounters with the incomprehensible, the potential of the present is revealed. I feel this when I stand at the edge of a crowd that doesn't speak my language, or at the edge of a creation that has no genre. It is a terrifying and beautiful feeling, of having no form, of falling through.
Love and Autumnal Graces,
Melanie Beth Curran
Upcoming Performances, Releases, etc.
Western Female's 5 song EP with Molly Baker, recorded at Frogville Studio in Sante Fe, should be available before the next newsletter. This will be released alongside a video from our performance at The Nambé Mill House, with visuals by Shayla Blatchford. This video contains material that made someone sick.
Western Female's first hit single, Hollywood Splendor, and its accompanying music video /short film, will be released in November. This film is directed by the brilliant Allyson Yarrow Pierce of Pear Juice Productions. She is also responsible for art direction and the film's VHS cinematography. The analog tale of a Hollywood hopeful, is an exacting recreation of a 70's variety show.
No performances are upcoming that I know of, for I am in libraries, listening to the other musicians, and learning the lay of a new land.
Calling all Dreamers! Are you a person who dreams at night? Do you ever wonder what those symbols and stories are trying to tell you? Do you live in the Pacific Northwest and have access to Bainbridge Island? Then you should sign up for one of my mom's upcoming workshops. Amy Curran has a gift for helping people gain meaning from their nocturnal dreams. Six week group sessions will start in November and run through December. One session meets Tuesday mornings, and the other on Thursday evenings. Sign up or find out more by contacting Amy at email@example.com. You can also visit her website.
The Organizations I am working with in Brest are: Centre de Recherche Bretonne et Celtique at the Univerisity of Western Bretagne, and the Centre Breton d'Art Populaire. If any one wants to know more about this land, check out their resources.
French film inspiration from Katherine Deneuve: To prepare myself for France, I watched a healthy amount Deneuve's oeuvre. If you like fantastical and classy french femme-ness, check out: Belle du Jour, Peau D'âne, or Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.
MOMBOD Zine: This publication was just released by editor and mom, Mirabai Troll. It features work from moms exclusively, focusing on both the light and dark of motherhood. "Included are stories about challenging moments, confusion, and beauty of raising a human."
From My Summer Reading:
Sing Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward was a beautiful and complex tale about race and the presence of ancestors the American deep South. I recommend for anyone interested in trans-generational trauma, or how the mass-incarceration of black men today relates directly to the history of slavery in the United States.
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, illuminated for me what I continue to fail to understand regarding the gravity of slavery in the United States. There is a serious lack of education around this subject, at least in my experience, and Mr. Whitehead renders it clearly through the truth-telling tool of fiction.
A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry by Grace Paley, is a collection of her decades of work. Most beautiful to me are her short stories, which contain so much in such compact amounts of text. I dream of being as brief and concise as her. She is truly the peoples' writer.
This is my last chance to recommend The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, as I have finally finished the fourth. If you have not read this series, you are making a serious mistake, akin to not reading THE BIBLE when it WAS WRITTEN. Sorry, that is a crappy analogy. But this living, breathing, anonymous entity called Elena Ferrante has given to us, for the low low price of just call me and I will send you the copies of the books that I have, the most well-rounded gift of literature in our time. Why would you not read this? If you want a little taste of her, start with her column in The Gaurdian.
In a moment of craving self-help, I turned to a hot pink spine on a Boston train terminal bookshelf. I read The Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You by Lydia Fenet quickly, and was surprised at how tips from her life as an Auctioneer for Christies, translated to my own as budding musician/author/desperado in New York. It's never a bad idea to read books about being a successful business woman. Because its still pretty emotional for women to break into the higher echelons. Lydia taught me, that when asking for what I want in a professional context, to refrain from crying. But to absolutely cry the night before asking.
Also in a self-help moment, I read Hunger Makes me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein. She's not a good writer, in my opinion, as I have never seen the word "ersatz" so many times in one text. But it was and is always helpful to see how a young woman from the Pacific Northwest escapes the social feedback loop of Olympia and becomes her own kind of rockstar. Sleater-Kinney is quite possibly, as Greil Marcus wrote, America's best rock band.
From my Podcast Bender: Podcasts are books without paper! For this I have put them in the reading section... Driving around as much as I did this summer, I listened to many podcasts. They are becoming one of my favorite mediums of sharing information.
In July I met the producer behind the podcast Caliphate, and felt that he came off as very full of himself. Then I listened to the podcast, the first one I've ever listened to, and I realized, he had the right to be proud. It's an amazing and deep-diving look into ISIS recruitment practices. I learned more about the last 20 years of conflict in the Middle East with this podcast, than has ever been taught to me in school, at protests, or via the news.
I started with the Bobbie Gentry episode of country music-centered Cocaine and Rhinestones, and became irreversibly hooked. The voice of this podcaster, child of David Allan Coe, is very abrasive. It is as though he is making hard-hitting journalistic discoveries around every turn. But, this is one of the most well-researched podcasts I've encountered. The episode about Rusty and Doug Kershaw is a wonder.
S-Town was beautiful. Its beauty is well-documented. But do podcasts about twisted American small towns actually do a lot more damage than good for their inhabitants? It's hard to tell.
Impeachment time! I enjoyed listening to season 1 of Slow Burn, focusing on the unfolding of the Watergate Scandal, and its parallel's to today's madness. The only difference was that Nixon had a sense of shame about his acts. I don't think I can say the same about the current American president.
Mr. Lucky Goes Latin - Album by Henry Mancini: Specifically the song Lujon: Look. The times are trying. The world is ending. Everyone needs a little escape. I have found the easiest and most effective way of transcending the litany of bullshit, news and otherwise, is to turn on this album. Suddenly, one is transported into an idyllic afternoon, lounging on a beach in the 60s, wearing glamorous silks, waltzing back to one's boudoir, lying on a piano with a white cat purring, smoking out of an opera-length cigarette holder, before taking a bath and retiring for a siesta with a martini in hand. Enjoy!
The Music of Ann O'Aro: And this is the opposite of the escape mentioned above. Ann O'Aro uses her experience of being abused as a child by her father, while growing up on the French department of Réunion, east of Madagascar. Her lyrics are in the Island's native Créole, and her melodies are haunting and ancient. The words speak specifically to what happened to her- but foreign ears will not understand their meaning. Instead, what is transmitted is raw female rage, and ownership over sexual trauma.
Heather Littlefield's New Music Video, Loving Like That Has Only Made Me Blue: This song has been described as a Polyamorous Anthem. My friend and collaborator has created a beautiful piece of country-music history here, bringing her rule-bending social material into communication with the genre's inclinations for hetero-normative narratives. Basically, Country music says Stand by Your Man, and Heather says Stand by Your Men, all of them, unless you want tears, beers, and the blues.
A little 10-year High School Reunion Nostalgia!!!
I had my high school reunion this summer. So, in an act of self-deprecation, I will now reveal to you albums I liked in high school, and still do, because I listened to them all again in the last few months.
Bright Eyes' album from 2005, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning: Way deep into the AM of my birthday party in Los Angeles, I professed my love for this emo classic. And I'll do it again. The lyrics are pretty good, pretty New York, and are made nearly timeless by the presence of Emmylou Harris' harmonies.
Sleater Kinney's album from also 2005, The Woods: Like I said above, I read Carrie Brownstein's book. The amount that had to go down The Woods was made, makes it the most powerful work the group ever created. The guitar is tuned to the voice, the drums beat a coming death, and the women do not shy away from the darkness. REAL DANK ROCK. They are seriously screaming and making that screaming gorgeous.
Tom Waits' album from 2006, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards: This. This collection is the Holy Grail of Tom. In it is every reason I have ever made music. I just had to listen to the CDs again while driving around to realize it. I am this 3 disc set. I am.
Cat Power's album from 2008, Jukebox: Fine, Cat Power, fine. You have a beautiful and subtle voice and even when you are doing covers they are yours and yours alone. You have a finesse that is like a cat, and a cat from which you have harnessed power. Your songs are beautiful and sound like they are coming through a sock, which is the best possible texture for music to have. Good job. Fine.
Until next time! As they say in Breton, Kenavo!