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Class Interactions

Audience, Music, and Artist Constantly Influence Each Other in Jenny Graf Sheppard's Sound Universe

Evan Devine

By Raven Baker | Posted 9/3/2008

The only thing that is certain about the performance local artist Jenny Graf Sheppard is curating

for this year's High Zero Festival is that she has little interest in traditional boundaries, especially distinctions between performer and audience. Her loose compositions, which include a piece called "A Performance of Experimental Archeology by the Stone Carving Oraclestra," will be directed, in part, by audience members--whether they realize it or not.

"The musicians have been given instructions that whenever they see something that is, [for example], round, they play this," she says. "Or whenever they see something that is pink being picked up, they play this. The audience, just by doing various things, will be giving cues [to the musicians]. I haven't worked it all out yet, but some of it is going to involve eating, I believe, hors d'oeuvres."

It would not be the first time Sheppard has fed her audience. During an earlier interview, in a back booth at Canton's cozily old-school Sip and Bite diner, the multidisciplinary musician, sound artist, and filmmaker fondly recalled Taste Test, a performance she staged years ago involving snacks, homemade incense, and a group of musicians playing compositions drawn from field recordings of customers noodling around on various instruments at a Guitar Center in Chicago.

These days, Sheppard's crop of projects include an in-the-works solo album as well as new releases from her experimental electronic duos Harrius and Metalux, the vinyl LP release of the Proud Flesh film soundtrack on local label Ehse Records (made with Harrius partner Chiara Giovando), and an upcoming untitled sound installation at Chicago's Lincoln Conservatory that Sheppard describes as "sonic/ultrasonic composition for ferns"--which, she assures, will include bits that are also audible to humans.

Though 38, Sheppard, with her girlish laugh and wide, attentive eyes, could easily pass for a decade, or more, younger. And it's startling when she mentions certain dates, like 1991, when a German magazine contacted her for an interview, seemingly incredulous that Sheppard, then 21, was playing in Foo, a progressive rock band. "It was so primitive," she says of the journalist's questions, like whether her lyrics were about being female. But, as she quickly points out, women in rock were still seen as something remarkable, a rarity at the time. "Isn't it amazing?" she muses. "That was so recent, but it seems so ridiculous."

Even more ridiculous considering Sheppard got her start in music at an early age, making the coffeehouse rounds as a folksy singer/guitarist during her teen years in Bethesda and Washington. While continuing to pursue music as a young adult, Sheppard studied filmmaking and developed a strong interest in the social sciences and psychology, particularly ethnographic documentaries, but she was troubled by dominant methodologies that pushed for definitive answers and a false sense of objectivity in research. "Ethnographic film, even though I respect it, doesn't jibe with my personality at all," she says. "It's about categorization, objectification, and distancing yourself from your subject. . . . For me, my thesis will always have these fluctuations. I am always in a constant mode of dialogue and debate. I can't feel comfortable saying, `This is it.'"

These doubts led Sheppard to explore social issues on her own terms, as with her 2002 The Guitars Project. Bringing together her passions for music, cultural critique, and empowerment, Sheppard gave electric guitars to six older women who were living with Alzheimer's. Meanwhile, she documented the women's experiences--with the guitars, each other, and their changing sense of self--through a combination of video, photography, and sound recordings. For Sheppard, The Guitars Project implodes conventional notions about both the electric guitar, with all its masculine and youthful trappings, and older women, whom she sees as often absent or sheared of agency within mainstream cultural narratives.

"If I feel there is a lack of something, if I don't see something represented, I think it's fascinating to see it," Sheppard says, referring to the recurring theme of older women defying stereotypes in works such as The Guitars Project and Proud Flesh. "For me, it's like a fantasy to see a woman, an older woman, in a role you don't typically see her play. How would that read with an audience? Would it be uncomfortable or humorous or just confusing? Would it be exhilarating, a turn-on?"

Just as her work challenges audiences, Sheppard is challenged by people's reactions to her work--thesis fluctuations, as she might put it. One such fluctuation, which she recalls with humor, happened while presenting The Guitars Project to a predominantly Asian-American elementary school in Chicago's Chinatown a few years ago. "I started talking to them about what [it] is that you think your grandmothers and your grandfathers can do and what can't they do," she says with a wry smile, explaining that she assumed the images of older women playing guitar would be so alien that the kids would be surprised, maybe even scared. Instead, many laughed. "They all seemed to say: `Oh, my [grandparents], they do this and they do that. `They gave me the sense that their grandparents actually played a big role in their lives. I was like, `Whoa, wait a minute. This is a totally different part of American society.'"

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