By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
A decade on, in a century anew, it's not so easy to distinguish black and white. Now Wilco's country-rock gets french-fried with musique concrète, guitar-pop shares software, and hip-hop is held together with more cutups than funked-ups. Echoing such palimpsests of post-millennial fever, Table of the Elements returned late last year to the vinyl market with the Lanthanides series, 14 single-sided transparent records silk-screened and slipped into clear polyurethane sleeves. Observed separately at a distance, each tablet reveals its distinct artistic intent and accompanying image. Pressed together, though, they turn into a messy cylinder of mashed meanings, wrinkling time in their iconography: A lithographed Icarus plunges through arcane star maps; Harry Smith's Christmas ornaments and Mike Kelley's silver balls dangle from kabbalistic trees of life. Simply pulling the discs out involves a prying at fussy layers; the metallic and luminescent paint clings to the plastic sleeves in humid air, and the loosed virgin vinyl throws crackly tantrums on the turntable.
Holdovers from previous series are lady-killers like O'Rourke and Loren Conners, the latter conjuring feedback for Joan of Arc. John Fahey, forever cracking quarter tones from beyond the grave like Monk live on the levee, plucks variations of Skip James's "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues." But the most surprising entries are from the underappreciated women composers. Along with Zeena Parkins and Pauline Oliveros, they now number five of the 14 elements. Rather than return with sterile petri platters, these scientific ladies incubate gooey ooze that bears out further testing than any of their counterparts.
Birmingham's LaDonna Smith based her improvisations of violin and viola on a Web-found blurb of her assigned element, ytterbium. Going at the malleable and ductile metal like a gypsy in a lab coat, she pressurizes the sawed Bartók lines until they squeal like Stockhausen, her severe processing of the strings proving the piece's resilience "when subjected to very high stress," and it sprays vicious sparks throughout.
The two components of Radio/Guitarsince their element, holmium, oxidizes rapidly in moist airquickly change their valence on "Thrum." Former no wave toy player for Y Pants, Barbara Ess makes her guitar gurgle between lost transmissions and atmospheric interference. Similarly, Peggy Ahwesh attunes knobs to pick up both shortwave and shore waves, the two ladies playing like buoys between pirate stations and fog-ensconced ships.
Perhaps it's just synchronicity that Fahey planned a collaboration with banjoist, composer, and computer programmer Laurie Spiegel shortly before his passing. She may yet transform some of his tapes, but in the meantime, we've got her Table entry as promethium. Funded by Dr. Carl Sagan's payola, hers was the leadoff cut on Voyager 2's golden record, launched into the cosmos in 1977. Realized on Bell Labs' computers, Spiegel's compositional algorithms made audible to earthling ears Johannes Kepler's Hamonices Mundi, first composed in 1619. Finally available on terra firma, what does it say now about the harmony of the spheres, so crucial to exacting beardos, from Pythagoras to Harry Smith? A shrill merger of frequencies and tones that quickly abandon gravity and liquefy ear crystals, no matter what the heavenly sphere: It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world. And it wouldn't be nothing without a woman or a little girl.