Music We Care About #5

Jenna Lyle’s Bewilderment of the Bodily

Ray Evanoff

Jenna Lyle’s work evokes supra-acute sensation. The most basic sights, sounds, and tactile encounters are magnified. They overwhelm. Perhaps she is overwhelmed by them too. This might explain why the artist is often performer as well as composer. Her work seems an extension of subjective experience. If she already finds herself in the midst of such intensity, she may as well explore it. Her artistic practice reveals the world she encounters.

Jenna Lyle - Textile Improv.png
Jenna Lyle, Textile Improvisation (2016)

Lyle’s work is patient. This patience is rarely due to contentment. It is often implicitly or overtly unsettled. Agitations abound, of the throat and hands, in a cluster of bodies, from disruptive sounds. Constituent elements are imbalanced yet it is we who are destabalized. The work’s incongruity persists in irrational perpetuity, defying laws that apparently do not apply to it.

She introduces us to a realm with its own ordering and operations, like the distinction between micro, macro, and observable physics. The characteristics of her artistic domain are discovered through testing. Performers and audience alike undertake the investigation. What emerges is hard to reconcile with what was previously understood. Definites are undermined, contradictions revealed. We are left with not just more questions but less faith in whatever answers may come. While disquieting, these explorations are not motivated by antagonism. It is more the natural discomfort that results from unburdening oneself of a false understanding of the world. Boundaries on what is possible are found to be permeable. They may be crossed, and who knows what is on the other side. Again like the history of natural science, where absolutes have given way to relativities.

Lyle’s work practices an acute investigation of the phenomenological. It is an empiricism that chooses its subject without discrimination. Everything is a potential test case, an opportunity for further discovery.

This investigatory empiricism leads to magic. We find a world of new possibilities and practices underneath the one we already know. Ritual play in its broadest sense gives access to a means of interacting with the material world that elicits reciprocation. The inanimate pushes back. It meets us with its own strangeness, and we find a new depth in the mundane. Neither party is fluent in the others’ language, but our empathy with the bodies and movements and sounds before us partially translates. Our feeling is a kind of knowing. Our threshold for perception is raised in the process. The work heightens sensitivity. This is one of its powers. We are imbued with such acute awareness as we travel through her art.

Jenna Lyle - By-Of - Close up.pngJenna Lyle, By/Of (2015)

Lyle’s work often unfolds cautiously, parabolically. A stillness pervades. This stillness is weighty, and imparts a corollary gravity that pulls us in. It slows us down. We become aware of our breath and our watching. Such slowing enables her to parse and examine the eyes, ears, bodies, and sounds that occupy her art. They are individuated, framed, and foregrounded. We become immersed in them. We are saturated. We become sensitized to their nuance and aware of their depth. They gain a significance that was always present but previously obscured. The everyday comes to hum with import. Her performances illuminate this sublevel of meaning. We are given this knowledge and left to use it as we may.

The world is her subject. Living is her subject. History and its accruements are also her subject. Instruments thus find a place in her world. They are examined for what they are, objects of utility and culture and happenstance. They are paired oddly but not ineffectually with the more basic phenomenological material that is her distinctive concern. Each is allowed to be its own self. They play off of each other or stand parallel in turn. Identities commingle in unusual ways. Correspondences emerge. We learn that this secret depth of the material world has relevance on our more conventional perspectives on our environment, on sound. Those understandings are enhanced, enfolded by what we have learned. This is how we can carry the insights we have gleaned back into the everyday in a way that is lasting.

Jenna Lyle, Inkblot (2012), performed by the Spektral Quartet

There is a sense throughout Lyle’s work that something is at stake. It is palpable. It lingers after viewing. I cannot yet determine what is at risk. And do artist and audience share the peril? Or is it a personal construct that is jeopardized, my own biases, presumptions, and views? I grapple to comprehend the experience and digest its implications. Meaning stays stubbornly obscured even as the significance burns brightly. The work itself is so clear, an array of self-evidences, people and sounds and movements laid bare. This starkly contrasts my inability to interpret them. The contradiction speaks to an underlying unity I cannot yet grasp. It is like hearing a conversation in an unknown language, an incomprehensible dialogue undertaken in certitude. The work knows itself and speaks plainly in this knowledge, so any lack of understanding is on my part. It is vexing. But I will return to her art regardless of my ability to comprehend it. I am compelled to experience it more than I am compelled to know what it is and what it is doing. I want to know, too; I am just unsure if I am able. But even understanding would be incomplete. Lyle’s art merits much more than that.

Jenna Lyle, By/Of (2015)