Setting :: At Black Mountain College Museum

During its twenty-four-year existence, the experimental Black Mountain College was said to have a fraught relationship with the small mountain hamlet from which it took its name. In the 1940s and 50s, conservative residents of the North Carolina village of Black Mountain looked askance at the students and faculty of the cooperative arts college who appeared in town —male and female, black and white, foreign and American—and presumed that the campus (a few miles away on the shore of Lake Eden) was a haven of nudism, free love and communism. There was, after all, something improbable about one of the most important incubators of the postwar American avant-garde springing up, not in New York or San Francisco, but in the Carolina backcountry, not too far from where the Swannanoa River meets the French Broad.

Black Mountain College folded in 1957. A Christian boys’ camp promptly took over the grounds. Since 1993, the institution devoted to preserving the college’s legacy, The Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, has resided in the arguably more congenial atmosphere of the upscale, liberal enclave of nearby Asheville.

Inviting the Durham, NC trio Setting to perform at the Museum last October was an inspired choice. Comprised of Nathan Bowles (of Pelt, Black Twig Pickers and a clutch of indispensable solo albums) on strings and keyboards; Jaime Fennelly (of Mind Over Mirrors and Peeesseye) on harmoniums, synthesizers and piano zither; and Joe Westerlund (of Megafaun, Califone, Jake Xerxes Fussell) on drums, percussion, and metallophones, Setting emerged from a regular COVID-era jam session outside Westerlund’s place in 2021. In their open-ended experimentalism, Setting honors the legacy of an institution that once nurtured the aleatoric music of John Cage, the pure movement of Merce Cunningham, the abstract expressionism of Elaine and Willem de Kooning and the open-field poetics of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. But in their mastery of the musical homespun of Appalachia, they spare a thought for the downhome folks in the surrounding valley as well. In their radicalization of folk forms and instrumentation, Setting recalls another North Carolina visionary, the great Henry Flynt, who made “avant-garde hillbilly music” in the post-Cage minimalist scene of 1960s New York City.

Performing just a few weeks after the release of their outstanding debut Shone a Rainbow Light On (which was featured on Aquarium Drunkard’s 2023 Year in Review), at Black Mountain College Museum finds Setting in a decidedly less astral, more earthbound mode. The performance begins in a vast gamelan of drones and chimes. But Westerlund’s staggering, polyrhythmic drumming imparts a heaviness to the proceeding. By the time Fennelly’s immense harmonium and the sustained chords on Bowles’s keyboard fill the air like colored smoke, Westerlund is positively shamanic on the toms. But it is in the third section, when Bowles pulls out the banjo that something truly remarkable occurs. Harmonium swells, knotted banjo figures and Westerlund’s almost Sunny Murray-esque free jazz drumming lock into a maniacal groove, like some kind of rustic Horse Lords. The intensity eventually gives way to another passage of massed drones and distant percussive thunder, while Bowles’s softly pulsing keys impart a minimalist air to the proceedings. In the closing section of the performance, redolent of La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, cymbal wash and waves of ringing metallophone lap against the gallery walls. Watching a portion of the concert here, the initial instinct will be to rigorously account for everything you’re hearing. But Setting’s total sound is greater, and stranger, than the sum of its sources.

In Setting, the trio of Bowles, Fennelly and Westerlund have lit upon an improvisational ensemble of astonishing force and inventiveness, fluent in a musical language that melds roots, jazz, drone and minimalism. Their work is as swirling and cryptic as the abstract expressionists who once called Black Mountain College home. Even as a chaser to their proper album from last fall, at Black Mountain College Museum shows the group relentlessly evolving. It possesses a gnarled, terrible beauty. Like Appalachia itself. | b sirota

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