Jackson, Wyoming, is a strange town. It contains only 10,000 or so residents and is surrounded by wilderness for hours in any direction. But the little spot, known for some of the best skiing and mountain views in the country, has allowed a certain kind of resident and culture to thrive.
Those residents (wealthy) and culture ( contemporary art) often collide in unexpected ways. Despite being hours from a major city, nationally known musicians regularly stop by to play venues below their pay grade. In fact, Brandi Carlile will be playing a 500-person room tonight.
Each week boasts both national and regional acts, and throughout the summer there are multiple free shows with headlining acts like Shakey Graves, Galactic, Shovels and Rope, and others. But rarely does the culture move past the audience-defined boundaries of folk or bluegrass music, or art that is more or less a creative painting of a bison.
Rarely, with the exception of last Friday night.
Friday night was when George Clarke of Deafheaven and Dana Wachs of Vorhees popped up in a little house turned DIY gallery called the Holiday Forever Gallery.
Clarke and Wachs were collaborating for an art exhibit called “Invocation/Remnant,” which was a prelude to “Rural Violence III," the third iteration of an ongoing performance-art piece directed by former Pitchfork editor Brandon Stosuy.
Since last year, Stosuy has been exploring the theme of rural violence in its many forms, and he called upon Clarke and Wachs to work with him for this third installment. He provided the lyrics, partially based on a ninth-century Anglo-Saxon rune poem, and the instruction that the song they created had to be about the 1998 killing of Matthew Shepard, which happened in Laramie, Wyoming.
“Brandon put the two of us together,” Clarke says of the collaboration.
Clarke says he sent some ideas to Wachs, who fleshed them out and created her own. The pair officially released what they created online Thursday, August 4, for sale (with profits going to the Matthew Shepard Foundation), but it was never played live until the day after, minus a couple of rehearsals.
The result of Clarke and Wach’s musical experiment, and Stosuy’s direction, is a twenty-minute ambient song that ebbs and flows. It starts off almost in chaos, with mostly static, before Wachs starts looping her voice, the line “Covenants are broken” echoing throughout the piece. It builds with Wach’s messy guitar solo before drifting away to a sense of catharsis in the final minutes.
“We tried to re-create something that was reminiscent of the Matthew Shepard experience,” Clarke says of the young man who was brutally killed because of his sexuality. “A violent section, then a more sorrowful section, and ending on a more enlightened note.”
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Friday night, a group of forty or so sat and stood on the floor of the gallery as the pair performed the song live for the first and probably only time. There were no lighting effects, and the only sound came from a speaker that was sideways on a box in the middle of the room. Twenty minutes of harsh noise and ambient drones can feel exhausting, but the song was neither one minute too long nor too short. With each passing note, the audience became more and more engrossed, wondering what was going to happen next.
As soon as it ended, the attendees almost rushed the pair, offering handshakes and congratulations.
It was strange, but not in content. No, the content was wonderful. It was strange that in this tiny house in this tiny town in Wyoming, two amazing musicians, under the direction of a nationally known artist, were creating something that would never be heard that way, or perhaps any way, again.
A block away was a Western bar where tourists were getting drunk and trying to two-step. In the opposite direction was the rodeo, where proper Wyoming cowboys were showing off their skills. In the middle were these performers, feeding off the energy and the violence (both human and nature-made) of this isolated place to create something. It was uncanny, surreal, strange and, yes, just a bit wonderful.