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Henry Threadgill at Tilton Gallery

Kurt Gottschalk By

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Henry Threadgill
Tilton Gallery
Plain as plain, in plain sight
New York, NY
November 17, 2017

Henry Threadgill is writing a memoir. Or has written it. Or is asking people to write it for him. It may be an audiobook. It might not be about the events of his life, but it seemingly is, or will be, about the events of Nov. 17 and 18. Or maybe none of this is true.

On Nov. 17 at the Tilton Gallery on Manhattan's Upper East Side (and again the following night at the Luhring Augustine Gallery in Chelsea), Threadgill presented excerpts from his memoir-in-progress in what was very much like a concert, with two basses, three cellos (including Marika Hughes and Christopher Hoffman, the latter a member of Threadgill's Zooid) and himself on flutes, along with prerecorded voices. And video. And orange and yellow cut-out human figures standing before the musicians.

The program, like the memoir-in-progress, took the name Plain as plain, in plain sight, just the sort of poetic twist of phrase Threadgill is so good at. Everything was laid out for the invited audience, but little was explained. Putting the pieces together was left to them. In fact, attendees were asked if they were willing to be contacted after the concert to give their impressions, which would comprise the final chapter of the book.

Threadgill has always been a perplexing and enigmatic figure. He has an unusual knack for suggesting stories without telling them. This is a man who had a band called "Very Very Circus" that recorded a composition titled "Jenkins Boys Again, Wish Somebody Die, It's Hot." He's quizzical to say the least.

But here he was, in part, quite direct. The readings (he seemed to read some live while others were prerecorded, although he was often obscured from view by the cut-out in front of him) were, for the most part, scenes from his life. They were not, however, scenes of great moments in a remarkable career. Instead, he spoke about everyday annoyances, about the obstructions of multi-tasking and the perils of technology, all delivered with a cynical humor.

"Things are happening now that are causing life to be very cloudy," he read at one point. He went on to consider a smartphone app that would help you find money on the ground, suggesting that would be a way to make them useful. Then, regarding GPS programs, he proclaimed that "the negotiation from one block to the next is just terrifying now. This is danger with a capital 'D.'" (The irony of three different cell phones ringing during the concert was likely missed by few in attendance.) "This is a real bad day for a pencil," he announced later. "This is a real good day for a smart car or a smart phone.

The evening began with an unaccompanied bass solo, then a video played in silence, showing Threadgill examining a pair of glass dice and other talismans and arranging them on a mirror laid flat. Pyramid, Virgin Mary, crescent, all reflected in the mirror and in his mirrored sunglasses. He exited the scene and we heard a cello trio, Threadgillian lines atop lines. The music stopped short and Threadgill initiated the first of his several readings. And so the program went, the parts laid bare. The readings, the video and music, could all have been presented at once, but this wasn't in the cards. Instead, they were dealt out one by one.

While the reading and video were unlike anything Threadgill has done publicly before, it was the music that was the most surprising. Fragmentary interludes that seemed more like soundtrack music, but they were divorced from the movie. Lilting strings, deep contrabass groundings, a resonant bass flute, a couple of engaging songs (with a singer on tape) all spoke in Threadgill's familiar tongue, but seemed like sketches. The presentation of Plain as plain, in plain sight may have been a work in progress or it may be something that'll never be seen again. The only thing plain about it was that there was nothing plain about it.

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