Daniel Silliman

Daniel Silliman is an American writer now living and working in Southern Germany. He has worked as a gardener, gas station attendant, tree cutter, Wal-mart shelf stocker, college teacher and a crime reporter for a daily paper. He is married to a minister and thinking about getting a cat. More of his writing can be read at www.danielsilliman.blogspot.com.

It Sounds Weird

When one of the members of April Smith’s band, the Great Picture Show, hauls a small suitcase up on the stage and turns it into a rhythm instrument, slapping it and hitting it with a tambourine, he connects the show to a whole tradition of American displacement and weirdness.

April Smith, whose recent single I can’t stop hearing in my head and whistling to myself, clearly falls into the sub genre of indie-inflected Billie Holiday followers, of young white women jazz singers, like Norah Jones, but there’s also a pop sensibility and, with the make-shift instrument, a connection to this other, reoccurring element of American music. We saw it a lot with the “freak folk” side of indie music, this injection of strangeness. Sometimes it was a weird voice, a weird look, weird religious references or references to secret histories, weird stage settings or costume design, though maybe the most common thing was the weird instrument. In some cases this is a common instrument that just isn’t used in pop music, like Bob Dylan’s recent use of the accordion or Joanna Newsome’s harp, and other times it’s stranger. Other times it’s like an instrument you might find moldering in the attic next to Civil War photos, somehow always known and never, historical and imaginary, familiar and so profoundly freakish.

Tom Waits specializes in exuberantly using strange instruments and strange things as instruments: the calliope! glockenspiel! harmonium and chromelodeon! chairs, brake drums and Indonesian seed pods, battery-operated bullhorns and pianos hit with 2x4s! He started doing this with the album Swordfishtrombones, which, obviously, is named for exactly the kind of instrument that doesn’t exist but which, if it did, would be found with owl-eaten mouse carcasses filling the horn end and covered in dust in the attic where the one-legged German immigrant and Union vet would have left it when the band broke up in 1884 and he had to skip town with the sister of one of his wives.

Waits, when he talks about his use of strange sounds, tries to emphasize the diverseness of music, and question what counts as music, and to make a point about the richness of natural sound.

“I remember I was doing Swordfishtrombones,” he says, “and somebody took a stool – a metal stool – and started dragging it across the studio floor to move it out of the way. And I said, ‘That’s really thrilling. Do that again and abundantly and carefully and repeatedly, please.'”

There’s a sense, here, that the weird instrument is like the musical equivalent of the noble savage. And there’s something American about that. There’s also, I think, especially with some of the freak folk stuff I find to be annoying and trying too hard, this idea that the make-shift musical instruments bestow an authentic “something” upon the proceedings. That lo-fi and makeshift is always better, always realer. There is something else to these instruments too, though, something I like a lot and something that made me like April Smith and the Great Picture Show more when I saw the man beating on the little suitcase. It’s the sense of displacement, of strangeness. Of mystery. The sense that America is, finally, weird and exciting and unknown.

Greil Marcus, writing about Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and the idea of an “old, weird America,” says this element of American music is “an insistence that against every assurance to the contrary, America itself [is] a mystery.”

There is, most of the time and in most fields of American rhetoric, in music and also politics and 12th grade social studies, American studies, the way we normally talk and in our collective memory, the idea that America is simple. It is knowable and known and uncomplicated. It can be incorporated into a political message or dismissed by a suburban kid who has spent a semester abroad. It is simple enough, already so known and intimately familiar, that it doesn’t even have to be discussed except for some code words and waves, the names of types and some icons. Marcus says this is the “known history” that, when a weird instrument is played, just dissolves.

“There is,” he writes, “a theme: displacement, restlessness, homelessness, the comic worry of ‘a people,’ as Constance Rourke wrote of Americans as they were when the Civil War began, ‘unacquainted with themselves, strange to the land, unshaped as a nation.'”

America is a strange place and we are, still, “strange to the land.” There’s a temptation to sanitize America, to scrub it up for conventions, but this a place where rich and powerful men like William Randolph Hearst go a little crazy and build nonsensical castles. This is a place where fortunes have been made on the manufacture of dynamite, and moguls like Howard Hughes become recluses worried about germs and send out underlings to look for clean blood and bring back a sandwich at 2 a.m. This is where old Quaker heretics have their skulls dug up by newspaper editors and inspire poets to imagine new, American religions, where preachers can make millions on TV, where there are Bibles in every hotel and every state has sites of failed utopias, and former cults and communes.

It’s cacophony, and, as President James Buchanan once said, cacophony is the “sound of democracy.”

America is a weird, weird place, where high school math teachers devote their retirements to trying to debunk Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and Einstein’s brain is kept in a glass jar. This is a place where lives are still shaped by what’s on the radio. Whole cities of people are out on the interstate and tent communities of registered sex offenders have formed under bridges. We invented jazz and the Klu Klux Klan. We invented the six-shooter and the celebrity impersonator, support groups and happy hour, slam poetry and art exhibits in airports. This is a place where slaves could buy themselves and then go on to own others. We annually reenact Civil War battles, complete with cannons and puffs of dirt and smoke set to explode in fields. One of our greatest books is about a whale. Another’s about fishing for Marlin.

This is fantastic, though, and so much more interesting and fascinating than the flattened version that most of us have in our heads. It’s easy to turn America into a jingle, a slick, 30-second spot with a message that’s crisp and actionable. When we say, as we are always saying, what America means, we make it simple and leave the clutter and confusion, the contradictions and craziness. But America is also cacophony. America sounds weird.

And that cacophony, it seems to me, can be invoked with a swordfishtrombone. Displacement might be best played on upside-down plastic paint tubs, or a chair, an old calliope, a Sarrusaphone or a Stroh violin, which is like a violin with a horn appendage attatched. That mystery and weirdness, the familiar that’s strange and still unshaped and the known that’s forgotten but yet felt like the uneasy echo of a fiery, sin-centered sermon, might well fit into the little suitcase that travels with April Smith and the Great Picture Show, getting hauled up on stage and slapped to the beat of a joyous, catchy, quirky song.

Woodcuts in a Time of Destitution

The way I understand it, it was hard to find artists in Germany after World War II. Some had been killed, some had fled the country, and many, many German artists had connected their work so closely with Nazism that after the war, after the country stood shocked and ashamed of what it had done, the once successful artists were completely rejected. This left Germany desperate for artists. In a time when the country was confused and conflicted, feeling lost and guilty and trying to somehow come to terms with the vicious insanity of its own actions, there was a dearth of artists.

But there were a few. There were some artists who did not just navigate the politically treacherous times of Third Reich Germany, but also managed to speak to the times. One was HAP (Helmut Andreas Paul) Grieshaber. A woodcut artist who opposed militarism and war, he spent years silenced for his pacifism. He lived and worked in England, France, and Greece before the war, but got deported back to Germany because of his pacifism. In Germany, after 1933, he was only able to create art in secret. Grieshaber did manual labor and delivered newspapers to earn a living during WWII, but still continued to work on his woodcuts. It wasn’t until after the war and after Grieshaber was released from an American internment camp, when the country was desolate of artists and in desperate need of art, that anyone was interested in the work he was doing.

His art is medieval, and also modern. His techniques and even the art itself – cutting an inverse image into a block of wood to make a stamp – date to the 1400s, in Europe. Grieshaber, a traditionally trained typesetter and bookmaker, practiced a traditional art. He did not, however, practice an anachronistic art, and he didn’t try to hide in history, to escape or take a vacation from his own time. Instead, as he said, he took “everything from the present day” while practicing an old art form, an ancient craft.

In 1965 and ’66, for example, in one of his more well-known pieces, Grieshaber carved a modern version of the “Dance of Death.” Inspired by the 15th century relief carving in Basel, Switzerland, Grieshaber did his own version. His version is noted for being very faithful to the original, yet also using modern motifs, re-using mythical and Biblical imagery, and making a strong ethical statement. Grieshaber’s “Totentanz von Babel” is 40 panels of people joining in Death’s celebration. The piece is traditional, the craftsmanship old-fashioned, but the point is contemporary, the effect shocking. The dancing people include the Pope and also the artist himself. It indicts us all.

In a later, less political but just as ethically pointed period, Grieshaber did an entire series of couples, men and women in pairs. In some of these, he carved the individuals separately and then, using red and blue paint, joined them together in a print. The entire series seems to be a meditation on basic relationships, on the couple as a picture of peace, and on Jesus Christ’s “new commandment” – “love one another.”

Grieshaber died in 1981, and his 100th birthday is being celebrated this year with micro museum exhibits from Berlin to the Boedensee. The artist, a funny-looking man who described himself as someone who just wanted to live on a mountain alone with his animals, was an answer to an often-posed theoretical question. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger once famously asked, “What are poets for in a destitute time?” Theodor Adorno, who left Germany to escape the Nazis, gave a name to the “destitute time.” He called it “after Auschwtiz,” arguing that poetry or any art in an era dominated by ideological murder of millions “is barbaric.” As an Orthodox Rabbi posed the problem, what can we possibly say that is credible in the presence of burning children? Grieshaber’s woodcuts show an answer. His works speak of the way humans relate to nature and to each other. His works speak about recognizing violence, rejecting violence, and hoping and working for an otherworldly peace, the intervention of an angel, a dove, a spirit of love.

What’s especially interesting about Grieshaber, though, is that it’s not the themes of his art alone that demonstrate how to be credible in the face of history’s horror. It’s actually his whole art.

Throughout the 20th century, artists were caught between two answers to the ethical question of how to interact with history. One was traditionalism, quietism. These artists loved one idyllic past or another, with its craftsmanship and contemplation of higher things. They ignored the present and the future, left it alone, because preserving the status quo is the price of the peace you have to have if you’re going to dwell in an imaginary past. The other answer was experimentalism, where the art was always shocking, startling, seeking to shape history and usher in the future. These artists understood themselves to be shock troops, and they served one ideological vision or another.

Both ways of approaching history – attempting to escape into the past and attempting to provoke in the future – helped to make the Holocaust happen. Asked in Germany at the end of the war, asked with a concern about the answer’s complicity with the murder of millions, both answers to the question of art and history seemed severely wrong. While time and distance have allowed both quietists and experimentalists to reclaim their original positions, to defend themselves and disassociate with political programs of murder, Grieshaber didn’t have that luxury – but he had another answer, another way. Grieshaber chose a third way.

His art critiques as it contemplates higher things; it creates a space of quiet, but then uses the quietness to ask crucial questions.

Grieshaber’s art looks back to consider the elemental problems in how we relate to each other, and it looks forward to a hope that surpasses the political. There are others, too, who have done this, who have found this third way. In Germany, Erich Kästner’s realism for children, with stories like Emil and the Detectives, is similarly centered in the historical present, appearing regressive to some while actually being progressive in a conservative way. In America, the painter Andrew Wyeth and the poet Wendell Berry are both examples of this third way, rejecting pastoral and utopian temptations, creating art that responds and deals with the destitution of the times. But, more than anyone, Grieshaber seems to have really answered this problem with his art. It’s unfortunate he’s so unknown, especially outside of Germany. With his pacifism and his care for his craft, his ethical consciousness and his skill and obvious devotion to the materials with which he works, Grieshaber’s woodcuts are an example of art showing us how to be human.