AN INTERVIEW WITH ALANNA HEISS: PART ONE

by Daniel Rothbart

DKR: Having won a scholarship to the Lawrence Conservatory, your first creative venue was music. What do you see as the distinctive potential for sound to convey narratives and experiences in art?

AH: I come from a family of musicians. My uncle was a composer who eventually became the Head of Composition at Julliard here in New York. He was one of two people who ran a fantastic program at Iowa which brought out everybody from Robert Wilson to John Cage. My uncle was a traditional composer. His daughters,

who all went to good conservatories, were trained as violists and violinists. That was also true of my other cousins. In fact, almost all of my cousins and their children have made their living by playing stringed instruments. I was the person who was least good. I played violin, harpsichord, and piano. I trained in piano for twenty years, but Iwasn’t what anybody would consider a good solo instrumentalist, though I probably thought I was, because I came from a very small rural town, Jacksonville, not so terribly far from Saint Louis. We had a lot of traffic between Saint Louis and Chicago which was one of the arteries used by black folks who were coming up from the south and headed towards work in Chicago. I attended school in Jacksonville, where we had a sizable population of black parents and their children. The town was not segregated, thank God. Most of my musical experiences were formed by the classical lessons I took, and by practicing a requisite number of hours a day.  But they were also shaped by my experiences with the children I grew up with, who performed post-spiritual, early pop music compositions. They were doing four-part harmonies, blues was starting to go into rock and roll, and the feeling was if these kids could get any recognition, they could get out of the desperately poor situation they were in. So I learned at that time to record and write music as it was sung to me. This kind of training was invaluable for learning how to listen, and especially how to listen without elitist concerns, and how to listen in order to help another musician. These were all non-performance experiences which were very important. The last thing that I learned, before the conservatory, was to be an accompanist. I made a little money from this, and though my parents were schoolteachers and we weren’t broke, money was always very welcome. So I accompanied church choirs, sometimes two or three times a week. That meant I had to learn how to play rudimentary organ, which I could do, and I needed to be able to watch directors, accompany the choir, and try to see and understand the relationship between a large group of people trying to collaborate on a single action.

Learning how to accompany was one of the most valuable things I learned in order to work in the art world and in museums. I would accompany single artists, other people who were destined to become concert artists, and also choruses. It’s watching the artist for the sign of the cue, about what they want to do, and which they will communicate to you non-verbally, that makes you a good accompanist. It’s that very skill which has made me very good at working with artists, because I watch them all the time.

It became very apparent during my first year that I wasn’t going to ever perform in solo concert violin. My teacher suggested that if I continued to do this I would be disappointed. I asked, “What would be my future” and he said, “You could be second violin, second chair, in a third-rate symphony.” I said, “Oh my God! That’s terrible! Where would that town be?” (because I’d never been anywhere but Jacksonville, Illinois or Appleton, Wisconsin). He said, “Well probably somewhere in Nova Scotia”, and although I’ve since learned to respect Nova Scotia as a site of orchestral music, at the time it seemed a very unpleasant place to be because it was so much colder than Wisconsin. Although I did get my degree in music, I also got a degree in other artistic and cultural areas, which broadened my experience greatly over those of my conservatory friends, who often had to concentrate on one thing and do it over and over again. 

You asked me about conveying narratives and experiences in art. This classical endeavor I learned through Max Neuhaus. Max and I met at the Clocktower Gallery, where you and I are sitting now. He came in to talk to me because he knew I had a musical background and he wanted to know if I could advise him about sound installation. Max and I were together as a couple for maybe four years. Max was a really unusual man, and I don’t speak lightly. I’ve worked with a lot of unusual people and a lot of unusual performers, and I’ve been the manager of rock bands and traveled around the world. But he was very eccentric. Max, who was quite shy and didn’t want to be in a room with a lot of people, was able to convey to me attitudes and issues that I had never encountered before. One, which I quickly adopted to be my own, was his observation that the music world –and he’d been a protégé and performer at Carnegie Hall and had traveled around the world as a percussionist– only wanted people to play repetitions of works that had probably been written more than two hundred years ago, or at least one hundred years ago. It was impossible to compare this with the art world because they were not the same generic items. Artists and the art community of New York City wouldn’t be interested in painters who were able to duplicate in a craft-like sense a painting which had been made a hundred and fifty years ago: that wouldn’t be considered a very interesting way to extend the narrative of new art. By that very simple comparison, I began to realize the great gulf between classical music and contemporary fine art. I essentially dropped classical music as something that I remained involved with –its narrative really had never been of great interest to me– and I became involved with the outlaws of classical music who, at that time, were Phil Glass and Steve Reich.

My feet are now so firmly planted in the contemporary art world, and this has been the joy and vision my whole life – I’m happy that I made this choice. When I hear a concert, and of course I still listen to classical music from time to time, I see these performers as almost robotic. Because of Max’s introduction to me of the variety of extraordinarily exciting abstract areas of sound and music, I jumped over to that. From 1974 on, I’ve been involved with the great composer and protégé Elliot Sharp. Of course we all knew La Monte Young because he was a visual artist posing as a blues band person, which he enjoyed as everybody does. And Max also taught me about Stockhausen and the whole scene that erupted in Europe, and that led me to understand more about the Wagner I had studied as a child but never understood.

At the same time I rejected classical music as a formative structure for belief in all things good, I also reverted to my early days of rock and roll and working with popular musicians. That was not anything Max was remotely interested in and he wasn’t patient with it, so I carried this out by myself. As soon as Max and I were going down different roads, I started spending a lot of time with bands, punk bands particularly. Joey Ramone was a close friend and I used to go to all those performances. I was a single mother who wanted to go hear a lot of bands and my child was very young. At first I started taking him, but he was such a baby. Robert Mapplethorpe, who was a very kind man, and a very careful person, encountered me I think at a bar, perhaps CBGB’s or The Mars Bar or Mercury Lounge, and said, “You know a baby shouldn’t be here, there’s too much smoke and there’s too much noise.” I said, “I just can’t afford baby sitters.” This was in the early seventies. He said, “You’re right, you can drop the baby off at my studio because I have studio assistants that work quite late, and I never go out until 3:00 am so it’s no problem for me.” So that’s exactly what I did - about twice a month I would drop my son off at Mapplethorpe’s studio, and these extraordinarily kind and careful studio assistants at the studio would take care of this bundle of joy who would sleep through it until my return. So my experience of New York and the music that was going on was actually quite unusual. The Kitchen was running substantially important programs through Rhys Chatham – they really had the right curators at the time for music. And I had my own peculiar connections with Debbie Harry and other English musicians because I lived in England for four years. Everybody knew who the Stones were, but I actually knew one of the Stones or knew a Stonish person.

Bringing all this together was something that was very much a part of the way I looked at life in New York City. I’m an outsider, I come from a small town and I’m full of wonder that all these people come to New York and do what they do. The wonder has not gotten any less even though I’ve lived here and I’m now sixty eight years old. I’m still just astonished by the talent that has accumulated here. With that humble sense of wonder I’d like to do everything I can to make those worlds come together, and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center was one such place. In the eighties we had a tremendous amount of what I guess would be called “traffic”. We had a lot of traffic with people who I asked to be curators, and who were often club organizers supporting themselves to do other things, like art or dance. I would ask these people to involve themselves and their thought process visualizations in studios at P.S.1. This was very much an eighties thing which made P.S.1 a center for people from all different kinds of arts. P.S.1 itself was like a velvet rope museum. Only the “in” people knew where it was. We had never put even one advertisement except once a year in The Village Voice we would put a full-page ad saying, “It’s an opening.” There were no published hours and many times people would come and they wouldn’t be able to get in. I closed it at random, always during the summer because everybody was running around doing something else, and there was no institutional methodology in the eighties. We started to change because P.S.1 became immensely important as a venue. It became a very powerful assignation for artists and institutions to have. 

I then started asking real curators to work there and having real programs. But one of the terrible things that happened was the effect AIDS had on New York City’s nightlife. P.S.1 was like a night museum (we were always there until ten or eleven at night), and it was this strange gothic headquarters. Europeans were there and everybody was there –painters, sculptors, filmmakers, dancers. After P.S.1 would close, if it ever did close, we all went to the city and then to clubs.  The club world and the art world were absolutely connected, and the club world and the musician world were very connected. This is before the DJs controlled clubs. When AIDS came, it supplanted every concern of every other kind. The only important thing was staying alive, and staying alive not in a marvelous anthem sung by a great female vocalist, but staying alive as keeping oneself from becoming one of the increasingly ravaged ghosts who were walking the streets. Everybody immediately put away concerns that had to do with music and sound and dancing and nightclubs and rock and roll. They turned to the visual arts as a more pure form of narrative, that was not temporal but something that would last.

My concerns changed, and although we were never a collecting institution, works did change toward presentations that could last in the sense that they could go into someone’s home. They could be a record of this or that. It’s my observation, and I don’t know if I’m right or wrong, but oddly the concerns in music turned back to more somber, elegiac, mass-like forms. Nobody felt like laughing. It seemed that people stopped dancing in New York City. I know this is something everyone my age brings up because we lived through it. But in addition to its global importance, in that it just killed thousands of the most important artists around the world, it completely changed the way in which those of us who showed art and those of us who made art in this city directed our energies. New York shifted – there was no longer any way to behave like we did in the early eighties.
 
To be continued…

Special thanks to Francine Hunter McGivern

© 2011 Daniel Rothbart. All rights reserved.