Vinyl Equations is an experiment in non-fiction narrative and storytelling; an opportunity for reminiscence and nostalgia; and a moment of genuine appreciation for sound and physical media. It illustrates our multi-faceted relationship to music and its role in the life and development of the artist. Summarizing storytelling is like slowly deflating a helium balloon, so instead, here are six memorable moments and sounds heard during Robin Deacon’s Vinyl Equations presented at the Winningstad Theatre as part of PICA’s 2018 TBA Festival.
Clicks and Crackles
The clicks and crackles heard throughout Vinyl Equations are intentional grooves that the artist put on the record used as background noise. A metronome, a ticking clock, a dripping noise, or an allusion to sleep, as Robin describes falling asleep while listening to records as a young man and dreaming over the leftover sounds at the edge of every album. A reminder that everything we are hearing is in the past and bordered by noise. The present is always dissolving away; the future has yet to arrive, and so our lives are made out of the days they’re made of and nothing else.
Paying homage to Isaac Hayes, who spends a whole eight minutes talking while a simple bass riff plays and a ride cymbal rings and sizzles against that deep and iconic voice, right before he starts singing “By the Time I get to Phoenix.” The clicks and crackles heard during Vinyl Equations are the foundation upon which the performance is built. A reminder that even what is happening on stage is a version of the past and the only way the artist’s past can be shared with an audience in the present is as artifact.
“I am not a dancer”
At the beginning of the performance, Robin speaks into the microphone and says, “I am not a dancer,” and later follows, “but you will watch me dance on this stage tonight.” Watching him run around on stage while listening to Joy Division like some amped up teenager, and very much channeling that energy, serves as such an effective reminder that for many of us the beginnings of our relationship with music were utterly visceral. Much of what we remember has little to do with knowledge or record keeping. That before any of that knowledge existed, most of us, including Robin, just wanted to jump up and down and run around.
From Soulful to Soulless
There is no pleasant way to bring up Richard Nixon. If the present ever creeps into Vinyl Equations, this is when. As we listen to Mr. Nixon say, “Last June 17th…” one cannot help but wonder what other awful things happened on that date this year. Or any other year in American history. When we think of offenses forgiven. Of individuals pardoned. And the war crimes of America in Vietnam and elsewhere, we are reminded that all of this has happened before. And will happen again.
A standalone tone arm and stylus allow Robin to play Richard Nixon on top of Isaac Hayes. So we hear Nixon’s speech over that same bass riff and ride cymbal. No amount of good vibes can undo Nixon’s voice. Some sounds, it seems, are impervious to artistic intention. Yet the soulless drone of Nixon’s voice fits in with everything else in the performance as a whole, because everything in the past is already written and must be accepted even if profoundly unpleasant.
Climbing the Furniture
Physical media is front and center in Vinyl Equations. Imagine a room, a table, a record player, and a tall shelf with a small collection of records. Vinyl Equations reminds us that physical media isn’t just about the act of holding a record, or playing a record, or adjusting a turn table. Physical media reminds us of the physical activity that comes with having a personal relationship with music. Even if it means literally climbing on the furniture. So watching Robin climb atop the shelf holding a microphone is a reminder that one’s visceral relationship with music can be rekindled at any time. Furniture not included.
Oh no, is he really going to cut that record in half with a circular saw? Yes, yes he is.
Earlier in the performance, we watched Robin take sand paper to a mint-condition reissue of Nina Simone’s Black Gold. But it was not until Robin retrieved the clamps and the circular saw from the opposite side of the stage that I realized how unique and hard to replicate this performance was. Like our memories, analog media is so finite and yet its resolution is endless. And so our relationship with media used to be not only physical, but inherently material. It is here, in the material world, that we can recognize that power tools and a little elbow grease could ruin a record forever. In our current relationship with media in the digital era of copy-and-paste culture, digital rights management, and cloud storage, it is important to remember that art used to be something so frail that you could break it.
Memory and Story
Deacon himself introduces Vinyl Equations as “the pathetic nostalgia of a forty-five year old man.” Yet, he delivers specific moments and stories that feel so important and lived-in, being mixed-race, having a mother from Trinidad and a British father, his mother leaving Trinidad a year before it gained independence from Britain. All without explaining what any or all of it means, Vinyl Equations centers less on the history than on specific moments of lived-in life and the sounds associated with it.
Watching Robin tell of his desire for an individual story. Him wishing that the album of Trinidadian Folk Music he found on an online auction site, would feature his mother as a soloist, only to discover that she was part of a choir or group, and that her voice is buried along with the voices of so many other women. This longing for individuality against the collective is a null desire, a moment in belonging rather than standing out, a reminder that the past, especially the past before our own birth, belongs to everyone, not only our ancestors.
A.M. Rosales is a multidisciplinary artist from Cochabamba, Bolivia presently based out of Portland, Oregon. They hold a Literature degree from George Mason University and their favorite rodent is the capybara. A Pride Foundation Scholar, a Teacher Apprentice at Writers-In-The-Schools, and an MFA Fiction candidate at Portland State University, they draw on the liminality of their immigrant and transgender experiences to create visual, written, and performed works of art.