When a woman’s gonna hammer on her guitar, she has to use the right nails—even if they’re French manicured. No self-respecting riot grrrl-gone-wild ever stopped shredding her Elixir strings for fear of chipping her lacquer. Still, sometimes even the most serious musicians wonder: To make Gibsons hiccup and crackle as if Glenn Branca’s The World Upside Down were right-side-upping its wrongs, should one replace her guitar pick with a bottle of Mauvelicious or Va Va Va Bloom?
That may sound like a koan for cosmetologists, but Harvard-trained musician Marina Rosenfeld and her Sheer Frost Orchestra took the question literally. In April 2001, the group of 17 women (many randomly selected non-musicians—and all non-hand models) gathered at the Whitney, laid their electric guitars supine, and struck them with bright vials of Revlon and L’Oreal lacquer. (Metallic blue and pale yellow respectively, if you’re looking to ape the look in a Bust spread.) Drop, Hop, Drone, Scratch, Slide & A for Anything, whose title references the various improvisational “techniques” Rosenfeld taught her amateurs, unveils that live performance as a feminist declaration of the right not to remain silent. With virtuosos like Kaffe Matthews and Ikue Mori sampling and distorting the orchestra’s antivirtuosos via laptop, guitars don’t sound like guitars—they yawp like sirens through the fog. Movements collapse upon one another like melted wind chimes. They burble like didgeridoo bongs, jabber on in waggle code, release the last sad bloop of a thousand disassembled PowerBooks. They make you want to wrap your head in tin foil and scan Goodbye 20th Century for subliminal messages.
And Sheer Frost, refusing to believe a guitar god’s “performance” should be aimed toward cock-rock conquest, manages to champion chance over composition, play over technical prowess, cooperation over “Free Bird”-solo individualism—all without directly touching their instruments. Macho rock bands may make you feel alive, but the Sheer Frost Orchestra makes you feel human. If all improv music can be pulled off with such polish, then let us all grow nine-inch nails.