As you’ve probably figured out by now, Nashville is a words-and-music town whose devoted practitioners of song can stint on the music. Whether that is an unfortunate aesthetic miscalculation or simple common sense — many folks like a well-turned aperçu and down-home metaphor — it’s always a relief to encounter a Nashville musician who dispenses with most of that words-and-music linkage. Brian Siskind first made waves in Music City a decade ago with the kind of ego-less, ambient music that doesn’t boil down to such simple concepts as “commercial” or “avant-garde,” and he’s once again a Nashvillian. After living in New York for four years, Siskind made his way back to town last fall, and he’s released a fascinating new full-length, Live at the Rothko Chapel, which finds him exploring just the kind of site-specific, contemplative and non-verbal art such pioneers as Morton Feldman and Brian Eno have made a part of the global musical landscape.
Siskind, who recorded in the last decade under the name of Fognode, is releasing Live at the Rothko Chapel under his own name, and he captured the July 2011 performance at the famed Houston, Texas, building — which features 14 paintings by American artist Mark Rothko — as a way of immortalizing a unique event.
“The music was very much geared to the concepts of the site itself,” Siskind says. “There’s not a central forward-facing apse or a typical raised stage or focal point there. The last thing I wanted was for people to be looking at me when I was in a room full of all these monolithic Rothko murals. I set up my gear in the center of the space, and set rows of chairs facing away from me, toward the paintings.”
The result is an hour of music that moves from drone to drone, with unidentifiable sounds that seem drawn from nature, and a metallic percussion sound that naggingly repeats throughout the first section. It’s calming music that manages to suggest underlying tension, with later sections of the piece sporting shimmering bits of sound supported by percussion patterns that surge and recede.
Researching the history and characteristics of the building, which was built in 1971, and the Rothko paintings themselves, Siskind strove to make music analogous to Rothko’s monolithic, monochromatic art. Much like Siskind’s earlier work, Rothko Chapel takes incompleteness as an artistic principle. “Well, if you don’t get past minute 37 in the piece, there’s a lot of complexion change — beats and things start to come into the picture,” he says. “You know, it’s not party music. I think it’s really funny that I’ve put my absolute heart and soul into my life work, but I really wouldn’t hold it against anyone if they never listened to the whole thing.”
Born in Virginia in 1972, Siskind grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., and began playing drums with local bands. Moving to New York in the early 1990s, he worked sound for avant-garde mecca The Knitting Factory before going to Seattle to become drum tech and general assistant to Santana drummer Michael Shrieve. Siskind finally made his way to Nashville in 1998, where he took on the Fognode moniker and made what remains his most accessible full-length, 2001’s superbly melancholy Beat Hollow, with a cast of musicians that included Dobro player Al Goll and guitarist David Dawson.
During his first Nashville tenure, Siskind also worked with such singer-songwriters as Cortney Tidwell, Mindy Smith and Clare Burson. His Fognode recordings include 2003’s Thin Faces, which points the way toward Live at the Rothko Chapel, complete with Siskind’s drums, plenty of ambient drone and some artfully integrated found sounds. I also like Fognode’s 2008 full-length The Last — it’s one of Siskind’s more relaxed and groove-heavy recordings, with beautiful piano playing.
Siskind was successful enough in Nashville — his composition “What a Day May Bring” was featured in a 2002 American Express television commercial, and some of his ambient lap steel sounds were used in Béla Fleck’s acclaimed 2009 full-length Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol 3: Africa Sessions. He moved to New York to pursue a Media Studies degree at Hunter College before returning to Nashville last September to work for a software company.
He plans to do a Nashville show in early May under another of his musical pseudonyms, Good Rester (“I would define it as pseudo-ambient synth-pop,” he laughs), and says he’s contemplating doing another performance of the Rothko Chapel music at a suitably atmospheric Nashville location. Maybe he can bring a little bit of big-city ambiance and creative alienation to the land of three chords and the truth. As he says of his New York sojourn, “The stillness that’s possible there is really amazing, and counter to what people think of the city. It’s a very meditative place. I guess a lot of people would say it’s a pretty solitary place, even though you’re around millions of people.”