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TBA Series: Vinyl Equations: Robin Deacon’s Sonic Visions of Childhood Enlightenment

Ashley Couch

I’ll never hear The Beach Boys the same again.

A recent transplant to the Pacific Northwest, never before had I the opportunity to attend Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s “Time-Based Art Festival,” so I had no idea what to expect. I was immediately drawn to the listing “Vinyl Equations” because in a past life, I had a dream I worked in the music industry – and who doesn’t love vinyl?

The repetitive click of the needle on the spinning vinyl, fused with the poignant pauses between dialogues and songs familiar, each with its own story shrouded in history and place, serves to string together Deacon’s performance. He invites the audience into this reminiscence of childhood, exploring life’s questions through timelines, equations and epic music. With a presence both disarming and deeply introspective, and with hints of humor mixed in for effect, Deacon serenades the audience with the lullabies of the mad, meshed with protest songs of oppressed artists, as viewers delight with each new selection of vinyl from Deacon’s collection stage left. Deacon dances with the terminology of the record business in his multiple monologues, instructively analyzing and dream-weaving while familiar voices echo through the concert hall. He explores the meanings of his own childhood stories of enlightenment and losses of innocence, addressing “questions of memory, absence and fiction in performance, through a constant reconfiguration of his role as an artist—as journalist and biographer, operator and technician, imposter and stooge.”

A discourse on what lies beneath—or rather what’s scratched into the surface—manifests as a multi-part melodic sequence which includes the cries of musicians hailing from the past, each memorialized on vinyl chosen and handled with the utmost care and delicacy. He begins with Joy Division, exploring the music to which he escaped in youth, recounting a story of his questioning the meaning of “joy division.” He then leads us into an encounter with a high school friend who shifted his reality, unexpectedly juxtaposing the blaspheme of hip hop into the anticipated lulls of the “white” music he had been taught was “appropriate” in their society, at that time and place. Then came the haunting echoes of Syd Barrett and Nina Simone, which he describes as “babbling, as if drifting off to sleep before the singing starts.”

From this point, Deacon leads us into a dream state that moves from musical phantoms to family ghosts, as we travel with him into the subconscious zones between songs. He recounts his search to find a recording of his mother singing on vinyl in Trinidad, created during a revolution which ultimately led to her relocating to the United Kingdom and shifting the course of Deacon’s family history. We share in his dismay and disappointment upon realizing her voice was indistinguishable from the chorus. Onward, next Deacon leads us through a recording of Richard Nixon’s Watergate tapes, pointing out that adding soul to the words changes everything, as does fusing Nixon with the sultry seductions of Isaac Hayes. In a grand finale, Deacon delights with a violent reinterpretation of The Beach Boys which ultimately results in the utter destruction and subsequent rebirth of their album in an unexpected fusion with Public Enemy, evidenced in sound, spirit and form.

Beckoning the audience through auditory and visual cues projected from turntable to big screen, Deacon’s employment of music in tandem with his deadpan temperament spin an analysis of history as seen through adolescent eyes and underscore the notion of records as cherished childhood treasures permanently pressed, with ideas forever suspended in the wax.

Photo: http://pica.org/event/robin-deacon/