Willie Reviews Timo Andres’ “Work Songs”

Willie Reviews Timo Andres’ “Work Songs”

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Timo Andres’ Work Songs includes no sea shanties or marching songs. His compositions greet the wonderful world of poetry to assess what it means to work on art. He tackles it as a labor in its plainest meaning. The artist performs labor out of some compulsion both invisible and unexplainable. Work Songs is a tribute to process, problems, and the ultimate results of art-making. RPM’s review:

I’m fascinated reading about the daily routines of artists, especially those who adhered to a bizarre, stubborn schedule. Honoré de Balzac rose at 1:00 in the morning, for example. He worked for seven hours, then slept for 90 minutes, then worked some more, all the while downing coffees. Joan Miró painted for hours straight each day before exercising to keep away depression. I know most of these stories are apocryphal, or at least generous retellings of the truth, but they are intriguing because they establish difference between me and The Artist. Any artist lives differently and more purposely than I do, I like to think. But still, there is a cult of the routine that drives many a creative, and it often works out. So it is no surprise that these creatures obsessed with the mysteries of the routine end up subjecting it to their artistic eye. There is a whole genre of art dedicated to the pursuit of artmaking. One art form that has long embraced this self-examining theme is poetry. Poets are constantly fixated on their form and process. Timo Andres’ Work Songs uses this poetic inclination to guide a short study of interior process in artistic works. His five art songs are set to texts that are curious about artistic “work.” The labors of art are truly that: labors. Andres’ goal is to open up the compositions and let the opaque process of construction sing.

The first question that must be asked in addressing artistic process is “why?” Andres’ compositions address the insecurity of wondering about that question. Does an artist create in order to share their interiority under the assumption that it’s worth knowing, or is it a more personal fulfillment that drives them to organize their scattered thoughts? The voices of Work Songs seem to believe the latter. All the conflict of these pieces takes place within the author’s mind. The first song, “Art,” is set to Herman Melville’s poem of the same name. It includes the lines, “In placid hours well-pleased we dream / Of many a brave unbodied scheme. / But form to lend, pulsed life create.” Immediately, the moment of artistic conception is unexpected and difficult to explain. The artist is visited by thoughts which must be shaped into art, whether they want to or not. This “brave unbodied scheme” may well be the best explanation of the album’s sound. It lives in the moment of the shaping. The songs have a Charles Ives-like aversion to satisfying resolutions. There’s the annunciatory first chords of both “Poet’s Work” and “Unemployment” are dissonant and ring out uncomfortably. Andres throws ideas at the songs and creates that unbounded atmosphere. On “Unemployment,” set to Mark Levine’s “Unemployment (3),” the narrator admits they are “Not listening; I don’t listen / Anymore. I make music / But I don’t listen.” If we think about the impetus of art-making as something uncontrollable, artists are liable to proceed with blinders on, only checking the status of their personal work.

Timo Andres, photo by Michael Wilson

Andres also creates an image of the actual work energy that comes after the origin. It sounds like an engine, requiring difference to generate power. Back to the language of Melville’s poem, he describes a wrestling match made of opposites: “A flame to melt—a wind to freeze.” This friction is the key to creation. Andres uses close vocal harmonies to simulate this interaction. They leapfrog one another, competing for the upper hand, but perfectly aligned rhythmically. So, if there is mechanical work going on, “Poet’s Work” can be understood in a literal sense. Andres draws out all the industrial elements of Lorine Niedecker’s poem. For her, the work of a poet is “to sit at desk / and condense” (even dropping extraneous words). Andres uses piano, accordion, and overlapping vocals to build story after story of a large building. It is an illustration of process, in poetry and music. The steady rhythms, almost a musical quote of Steve Reich, are expansive and wave-like. It seems to say that art is constructed in layers, each of which relies on the mental labor underneath it.

Then there are the moments of artists admitting their allegiance to the process, work and all. The last and longest song is set to Woody Guthrie’s bulleted list from a notebook called “New Years Rulin’s. The text is a great example of the simultaneous benefits and perils of a working routine. Some of his items, imply a dissatisfaction (“Work more and better”), some are reminders (“Wear clean clothes — look good”), and some have internal conflict (“Have company but don’t waste time”). The list reveals routine to be harmful when you return to the spot of your stifled creativity and sit in it, but helpful when you return to a spout that has been overflowing. In Andres’ musical style, the inherent drama of the list is teased out. It stays very much a list, as each phrase is separated by empty space on either side, but makes a narrative out of its progression. Just as Guthrie’s list is a catalog of wishes, Andres’ project in creating Work Songs is a way of releasing the burden of work into the art object itself. The explicit feelings of poetry urge the music to be honest about its concerns and conditions of creation.

Score: A tasty routine.

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