a tribute to Susan Allen
All the music students at CalArts loved Susie. As associate dean she was our den mother, but at CalArts that was like being the den mother of a hundred mythological beasts. She was so genuinely enthusiastic and supportive of each and every one of us. Her name was legend, and upon meeting her, she was immediately recognized as a Goddess. We were of course already fantastically lucky to be there; to have been chosen among hundreds as the most promising creative young minds in avant-garde art. Susie thoroughly impressed all the incoming students right away by giving a performance, and she was an absolutely stunning performer, a brilliant inspiration, a master of her craft; and her commitment to her students knew no bounds. So we paid rapt attention to her and soon learned, as loving and as intellectually rigorous as she was, what surprised us the most was her foul mouth. She was not only our guardian angel of music and teaching, she was a demonic force. The flames of hell shot out of her ass when she defended music and her students, when the political landscape of the day was less than supportive. She was never without a glass of wine in her hands at parties, she was an eternal best friend to all the young women, and she attracted the admiring company of dozens of younger men even in her later years. She taught a class, Composing for Harp, which told us how to, and how not to, write for harp. When a piece of music was legitimately too hard for a harpist to play, she would demonstrate why, show us, and call it a "pig fucker." In improv class, she encouraged us to let go of our mental barriers by saying "Play anything! Play shit!"
Susie's very being was a paradox that unified heaven and earth, body and spirit, angels and devils. She was Kali, goddess of creation and destruction. She was Beauty and the Beast. This fecund mysticism was in fact the perfect environment for the seed in my mind. Sheltered in the foothill of her volcanic majesty, I drew the inspiration I needed for the idea I had come to nurture: singdancing, a combination of singing and dancing in which movement affects vocalization to create melodic potentials which the ear can specify. This involved hours of me rolling around on the ground vocalizing and letting my movement affect my voice. I sounded and looked like a dying animal. Susie supported me. She let me use my singdancing voice-in-body as my instrument in our improvisation class. She let me perform with everyone.
I eventually developed singdancing to be an artform I could choreograph and compose in, but I continued to use improvisation as a vital tool in my practice, and one time I returned to CalArts to visit and Susie Allen invited me again to improvise in a group performance, generously and spontaneously providing me the opportunity to show my technique in its further development.
Susie praised my work with eloquence and recommended me often; once in a letter she said she wished she could live as long as I so that she could recommend me "for life."
I choreographed my latest singdance video right around the time Susie died, and I did in fact think of her while creating it, and in its first performance I dedicated it to her and to a brilliant astrophysicist man I knew who had recently committed suicide. I thought about all the gifted people who do not achieve recognition for their work. This piece is for them.
The Silver Swan (© 2015, video © May 2017)
sing the body!