Cally Spooner's Muse Music
The filmmaker and artist on how Lou Reed, Puccini, and Katy Perry inspire her pop-influenced performance art
Cally Spooner has a love/hate relationship with pop music. “I’m interested in industrially produced popular culture,” says the British filmmaker and performance artist, who has staged shows at the Tate Modern, the ICA, and Performa 13, “but I don’t always listen to it for pleasure. Really, I’m interested in places where there’s a loss of ‘liveness’, places missing that indeterminacy, improvisation, negotiation and person-to-person exchange.”
Just how precision-built pop records such as Roar by Katy Perry mesh into both the lively and deadened parts of daily lives, and what these say about relationships and desires is something Spooner’s films and performances seek to cover.
Spooner and her long-term musical collaborator Peter Joslyn often piece together original choral works and threads of pop songs, into ensemble, musical-theatre style works, which are performed by a professional, dedicated cast.
Visitors to last year’s Frieze London fair might have caught a series of commercial-style trailers for her forthcoming film, And You Were Wonderful, On Stage. Art lovers visiting Milan’s Zero gallery 20-31 January will be able to take in her show About a Work #2; our German readers can take in her show at Bielefelder Kunstverein im Waldhof from 31 January to 12 April, entitled The Anti-Climax Climax; meanwhile, visitors to EMPAC in Troy, New York, can catch And You Were Wonderful, On Stage on 13 February.
Yet, Cally’s musical tastes range far and wide. Read on to discover how Puccini and Italian torch songs all influence her work.
_Yazz - The Only Way is Up _ When we were making a piece for the ICA, as part of a longer term project, Collapsing In Parts, we knew we wanted this pop hook that also referenced a moment just before that late 80's early 90s everyone-for-themselves era, where collectivity and the potential of working together fell away, giving way to entrepreneurship. This is an interesting song when you deconstruct it; the bass is amazing. At the ICA we had a band just play an amped-up, layered arrangement of the bass line, while a performer delivered a monologue. It’s a strange song, because its a piece of dance music, to be enjoyed collectively, but the sentiment is very solitary and opportunistic.
Peter and I looked at a lot of songs, but this one really fitted. He sent me this deconstructed version of the bass, which he'd build up on Logic. It was just so exciting - hilarious and so catty. We built the work around this a piece, which itself was about the way in which the language of political action and the collective has been appropriated and derailed by high performance economies and rhetoric.
Katie Perry - Roar It’s a super industrial pop song, full of lines pretty much appropriated from other stadium songs, like ‘the eye of the tiger’, or ‘I am a champion’. It’s ridiculous how much is squeezed in. In the video Katy conquers the wild surrounded by jungle animals. I’ve interested in these highly constructed pieces of pop music that are drawn from cabaret and theatre; pop music that is made in a pop factory. I study its mechanics and I’ve used parts of it in my work, specficially the drumming, which I extracted and re-performed as the soundtrack to a work. But also, its so out-of-control, ridiculous and over-the-top you’ve got to go with it.
Patti Smith - Ain't it Strange There’s a lot of wailing in this. It’s like she’s spitting it out. Her body is producing these sounds somehow. There’s a relationship between her body and her voice and her past and her memory, and it’s all expressed there. Opera singers do something similar when they perform. Whenever I hear that song I want to totally give up my work, and try to become a proper performance artist who doesn’t hire people to produce her stuff.
John Adams - Song About The Bad Boys And The News It’s song about media, which emulates the movement and logic of women gossiping. It's taken from a longer work called I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky. It’s not quite a musical or an opera; Adams calls it a song play. It’s influenced by Kurt Weill, and again marries high and low culture. My friend Peter Joslyn sent it to me when we were working together. I enjoy it because, like Rhapsody in Blue, it plays on all these different registers and genres. Peter and I used this as a point of reference a lot for a work we made together called And You Were Wonderful, On Stage. Something like a musical, something like the mechanisms of a gossip machine.
Lou Reed - NYC Man The thing I like about Lou Reed is that he’s just a good storyteller. Quite a lot of his songs appear to be about the same group of people, which I really like. Plus he also combines romance and self-awareness with a sense of irony and humour. That’s a perfect combination.
The Velvet Underground/Lou Reed - Stephanie Says/Caroline Says (II) Caroline Says (II) is a rewrite of an earlier Velvet Underground song, Stephanie Says. It retains quite a few of the lyrics, including the line ‘It’s so cold in Alaska’. I really like how, in an artist's work, those lines repeat. It’s the sort of thing operas and musicals will do a lot, but you don’t hear it so much in rock music. I love how it serves as a kind of hook, to take you back to that earlier song. I’m into people’s relationship with language, and that’s why I love Lou.
Puccini - Madam Butterfly Madame Butterfly is the first opera I saw, and it completely blew me away, perhaps less because of that particular production at the National, but more because I’d simply never seen an opera before. I think opera is really wild. There is somehow no pretending or acting in between the content and delivery, so you end up with a very unmediated, mechanism of dramatic performance, generated purely through the voice. That, for me, is awesome. The story of Madam Butterfly is of course super tragic, and this particular opera has some special moments, such as when the group of young Japanese women, whom Butterfly is affiliated with, arrive from afar, their singing sounds like gossip, giggling, wafting into this other musical space, which is the patriarchial, stiff world of the American expat, in act one. Or this reoccurring heraldic, bombastic motif of the Star Spangled Banner, which always accompanies Pinkerton, mixed with traces of Madam Butterfly’s incredibly delicate aria. I use opera singers a lot in my work, specially to close this gap between delivery and content and drama, somehow folding these things into each other so that, via the technical delivery of content though an operatic voice, you end up with drama, without faking it.
George Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say you like this, because Woody Allen has almost stolen it, by sticking at the beginning of his film Manhattan. Still, I love its epic-ness; super long and super dramatic; I could listen to it forever. I As soon as you think its settled in one place, it flips itself up and does something else. I’d love to make work that had this much drama, and this many changes in register in it.
Mina - Se Telefonando__ It’s an incredibly dramatic theatrical song from the 1960s, a real classic Italian production. Again, I think Mina is a kind of showgirl, though one who can actually sing. Songs like this were designed to be delivered live, but with high production values, embodied by this massive orchestra behind her.
_Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - The Weeping Song _ Nick Cave has an amazing sense of humour. There’s something painfully poetic and extraordinarily beautiful about the song, but it's also hilarious. The lyrics go: ‘This is a weeping song, a song in which to weep... ...but I won’t be weeping long.’ So, essentially it references itself. It tells you exactly what it is and what its for. I really like that gesture.
Find out more about Cally's Zero gallery exhibition here; for more on her show at Bielefelder Kunstverein im Waldhof go here; and for more on EMPAC in Troy, New York go here; meanwhile, for greater insight into artists like Cally pick up a copy of The 21st Century Art Book