A Third Letter

The most unexpected, wonderful thing has happened. A reader of our letters has intervened in our correspondence (or piped in, as she puts it.) Julia Ulehla is a vocalist of extraordinary presence. She is classically trained in opera and was a resident actress with the Jerzy Grotowski laboratory theatre, and just received her PhD in Ethnomusicology from UBC. I have been fortunate to see her perform the songs her great-grandfather collected in Moravia, live with the band Dálava. 

Julia Ulehla

This excerpt from her bio says it well: “Drawing upon ancient cosmological strata imbedded in the folk songs and their texts, pre-Christian Slavic folk beliefs, myths, and symbols, the “incandescent” (Musicworks), “captivating Moravian magician” (Downbeat) reanimates the archival materials into sound and body. A meditation on the role of heritage in the modern world, her project Dálava is often described as shamanic and primordial.” In my opinion, Julia is as close to being a goddess as it comes. 

 You can find more about Julia here: https://www.juliaulehla.com 

 Dear Heather and Barbara, 

Your correspondence has been wonderful to watch from the sidelines. You have given me lots to think about. 

Please forgive my intrusion – these are the ideas I was hoping to add:  Is there a sonic analogue to the messy, underside of an embroidery? Are there sounds that should not be heard? What does it mean to ask someone to hear them? Will the messy threads/sounds always be less desirable? Not worthy of attention? Needing to be concealed? Is it selfish to want someone to see/hear them? What parts of ourselves are recovered when we allow the underneath to enter publicly visible/audible/perceptible domains?   

Aram and I had a concert last Saturday, and the entire performance was akin to the underside of the embroidery. I make the analogy because usually when I perform, something is prepared with care to be seen by others. But we improvised throughout the show, and we did in public what is usually only done in private, in our home. We did in public what is part of daily practice—the hidden labor that no one hears, tended to in domestic realms. I might say that usually, when performing, we primarily dwell in the top side with a few forays into the underneath, but this performance was all messy underneath. I am not even sure I could call it an aesthetic work, or at least only secondarily so. It is more about spirit. (I’m not sure we will agree about what that means, but I’ll take the risk and leave it in anyway.) The venue—which feels midway between a living room and the Red Room in Twin Peaks to me—affords intimacy, and on a number of past occasions, I have found myself exchanging a few words with audience members in the middle of the performance. This time was no different. In the middle of the show, a woman interjected that our performance was making her feel protected, and she likened it to being in the presence of her grandmother. After shows, usually a range of folks come to chat, but this time only women did. And I know there were a few disappointed customers, and that bothered me. “It’s like a different band,” one said. My perception of the situation was that the disappointed customers were mostly men. I found myself faulting myself for my inability to give them what they wanted or what they came for. I felt accountable to them, to create something that they valued, more than I felt accountable to myself or to serving the underneath part. 

But then I was mad at myself for not being more of a champion for the underneath part. Part of me was also protesting, “For too long have too many people cared for productivity and beauty! What about the dark, messy tangles we all have hiding? If not now, after these last two years, then when? When can we love the underneath as we love the topside?” I felt these disappointed customers didn’t want to see or hear what I was offering, and that they were making me invisible by turning away. 

Visibility asks for participation. It asks that someone not turn their eyes away. It asks for sustained attention and a willingness to engage, to notice. Things can be made invisible when they are not interesting/valued by the beholder or when they cause someone discomfort. 

What would it mean to give attention to something that is not interesting/valued or something that causes discomfort? Is it coercion to ask someone to look/hear when they don’t want to? Who are the ones turning away? Who and what are the ones they are turning away from? Why? How does power figure into this, and longstanding inequalities and violence? What kind of bargain do you make when you try to be visible to those with more power? Especially when that visibility requires you to exile things you love?  

As I anguish about failing to give the disappointed customers what I imagine they wanted, I am mad at myself for caring.  

But does caring have to do with accountability? As you asked, Barbara, to whom are we accountable? The ones who taught us? The audience members or gallery goers? Only the ones who like us or approve of what we do? Only the ones who are critical? All members of our community? Our ancestors? The ones who come after us? Our more-than-human relations? The song-beings we co-create with? Our collaborators? Our practices? Ourselves? What is the metric/currency of accountability in art-making? Pleasure? Impact? Agreement? Value? Ethics? Performativity (in the Nietschean/Stengersian sense in which things are considered according to their capacity to catalyze unimagined afterlives…it’s a little bit like the “repercussions” described by Warren Ellis that you mentioned, Heather)? 

Barbara, you name giving attention to the hidden, underside of work as the honing of a skill of humility, of thinking carefully and quietly about labour that will not be seen, of learning to respect the real effort of process. And you notice your own anxiety about being invisible, and maybe after airing and considering, that anxiety begins to move a little differently. I guess that is part of why I wanted to write to you both: to exorcise the anxiety a little by bringing it to the surface. For me there is something wild and something feminine and something healing about this kind of exorcism.   

I’ve started a practice of improvising with other improvising vocalists over Zoom. We watch and listen without asking each other for anything. We don’t need to produce, or be coherent, or beautiful, or moving, or valuable, or in tune, or anything. There is something really wonderful about a situation in which someone is willing to show up and listen and see without asking anything of you. Willing to accept what comes. It is also wonderful to show up and listen and see without wishing what you hear and see to be anything other than what it is. 

The more I experience it, the more wonderful it feels. The more I think about it, the more radical it appears. I don’t think I am talking about an abdication of responsibility, or willful naiveté, or a refusal to think critically. I think what I am talking about is creating small, temporary spaces where the mess is invited in, and where dissolution becomes knowledge-creating. Maybe it is also a practice of finding ways of letting oneself be seen and heard, of seeing and hearing others, that slip past deeply sown habits of thought around productivity, value, and beauty.  

I am drawn to Heather’s statement that there are many ways to be seen. Heather, you introduced me to the work of Leonora Carrington, who I LOVE. I will be forever grateful to you. Her work is so wild, and I can’t help myself, I am infected by it. Her work enters my dreams in crazy ways, and I suspect she had some serious capacities that continue to reverberate. Her book The Hearing Trumpet is about a group of octogenarian women who do truly wild things that are incomprehensible/invisible to most of the world, but that are, at the same time, exceedingly potent. Their acts are made potent by the women’s accountability to certain kinds of dissolution, and to a kind of motley collectivity. 

I am so drawn to similarly emergent, contagious, messy assemblages, and I think that is also why I had to interject in your correspondence. In the spirit of messy assemblage, I pose these questions to you both: how, if at all, is invisibility linked to dissolution and/or to wildness? How do you understand wildness and dissolution in yourself, and in your practice (or ecoterrorism or any and all other pursuits)? What does it mean to ask someone to see/hear something that is usually private or hidden? Are these letters a certain kind of making visible what is private/hidden? Why do we need or want to do that? What kinds of collectivity come into being? 

I know that I would have stayed in solitary self-doubt about the performance if I had not brought it here in the open, to poke through it with and alongside you. My fear is that it is a selfish confession. My hope is that it is a needed piece of learning and metabolizing that has generative repercussions. Or maybe it is about stoppage giving over to flow—Warren Ellis reverberates again. And I also have to ask—do you prefer the beautiful topside to the messy underneath? Why? What meanings can we make of our momentary attractions to perfection or messiness? What meanings can we make of our desire to share those perfections or messinesses with others? Wait—not just to share them, but to have life be shaped by those perfections and messinesses, together? (I’m thinking also of your grant application, Heather…care, community, highbrow, lowbrow…)   

Thanks for reading and letting me pipe in!  

Love, Julia