It’s been an eventful couple days for Jesse and me. Jesse’s big event was in NYC this past Saturday night, reading from his contributions to Jiz Lee‘s anthology Coming Out Like a Porn Star alongside such icons of porn Stoya and Lorelei Lee at a packed-to-capacity crowd at Bluestockings Books. This was Jesse’s first time standing solo at a microphone; he’s much more accustomed to having company on stage when he appears in front of a crowd, and he was nervous. But being my charming goofball hubby, even when he had a spectacularly funny Freudian slip of tongue moment, he had the audience laughing right along. Video of Jesse’s segment of the reading can be found HERE.
Right before we went to NYC, though, we were in Baltimore, where I was part of a performance of a relatively new piece of music. I don’t post often enough, I know, but I wanted to take a few minutes to share some photos and some responses to Friday night too.
The music, a multi-movement piano work titled Tame Your Man was written by Denver-based composer Nathan Hall, and presented by the ensemble Tenth Intervention as part of the New Music Gathering festival held this year at my own Alma Mater, Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, MD. In the course of the work, the pianist is progressively bound to the piano, slowly increasing the limitations on the range of his movements and possibly his expressiveness. Quoting from the printed program notes,
The pianist willingly gives up his power and mobility to the bondage artist. The bondage artist must in turn trust the pianist to communicate limits. Though the work touches on the eroticism of power and submission, these communications of power and trust can be complex, but also quite beautiful.
When Adam Tendler, the pianist, first approached me about performing this work with him, I didn’t need to know ahead of time that the music was as beautiful as it is. The very theme of intimacy between two performers in an ostensibly dominant and submissive role is a potent one with me. I’ve written before about the parallels I perceive between making music with other people and making love to them, and to my astonishment, here was a work which took that dichotomy to the next level. Of course I jumped at the chance!
It doesn’t hurt that Adam’s a good friend, a stupendous pianist, and a handsome man. Again, I’ve written before about how much easier a porn scene is to shoot when the chemistry between two scene partners happens organically, and doesn’t need to be coerced or simulated. Most of you would agree that this applies to love and desire as well. The same is utterly true of making music, and in this instance, where the connection between the two performers is as physical as it is musical, having that trust and connection can only make this musical message (or any musical message) more palpable to the listener.
The work has been performed before, and in that instance there was a difference in opinion between the pianist and the bondage artist as to what the meaning of the piece was. As I understand, that bondage artist thought the work was about the pianist ceding his voice and will, a highly literalistic and one-sided viewpoint. Adam and I agreed more that the message is that the music becomes simpler the more bound he is, but that it continues. For a few movements his wrists are bound together, and the music becomes very densely “localized”; for one movement his right hand is bound behind his back, and he must play the duration with his left hand alone. At one point his music is removed, and he must perform from memory; then he’s blindfolded, and must find his notes on the keyboard by feel. The last movement in fact has the pianist with his hands tied at the furthest extreme, at the piano endblocks; he can only play notes at the extreme ends of the keyboard with his fingers. The performance directions at this point ask the bondage artist to assist the pianist to play clusters of notes in the middle of the keyboard with his chest, pressing against his back. While the other performer saw that as his voice finally coming through, Adam and I understood this as the final joining of our voices, him trusting me to play through him, and me understanding that despite the restrictions placed on him, he is still able to play. The music in this segment becomes rarified, simple, trancelike; there’s a luminous peace to it. After the frenzy of many of the earlier movements, there’s a calm, an ease to it. We didn’t hear a squelching of anything in these sounds; much more, it felt like the final release. Indeed, in Adam’s notes, I was pleased to see him call this “aftercare”, which for anyone with any versing in BDSM, will mean volumes.
We must have done something right, as we’ve had some splendid responses from friends and strangers alike, a few of which I’d like to share:
Good morning Jesse and Dirk, the show was… strangely I have no words to express what feelings it brought out from me. It was very sensual and to see Dirk in touch with Adam and the trust between them the whole time was… again no words. In regards to Adam Tendler, he is an amazing pianist, he has so much emotion when he plays.
From one of Jesse Jackman’s fans:
The way he loses himself in the music. It’s like he’s ready to fly away and Dirk’s restrains are the only thing keeping him grounded. Beautiful. He’s soaring…
Taking a deeper tone, here’s a response from one of the attendees and a fellow composer, whom I’d the pleasure to get to talk to at length after the performance:
[The] 20-minute piece Tame Your Man was one of the most moving and important performances I’ve seen in years, not to mention gorgeously resonant with NMG [New Music Gathering] ideals. Perfect concept perfectly realized, with a depth of maturity, expressiveness, and beauty I’ve never seen in any other piece of concert music directly engaging sex/kink topics.
The performance is radical on a few levels. The surface level is deceptively easy to describe (a ritual fusion of music performance, rope bondage scene, and minimal poetic narration), but the meanings and experience for the audience run deep. One key example: the focus throughout on both the top’s and the bottom’s creative agency/voices and perspectives – a stunningly elegant and non-didactic articulation of how the scene depends on intense mutual focus and co-creation, *shared* creative power and agency (as opposed to virtually every other depiction of bondage in either pop culture or high art contexts).
And the resonance of that new lens with the broader NMG ideas of radically reclaiming the power of cooperation with our colleagues / resisting false, externally imposed notions of competition and hierarchy.
This performance was so beautiful and so joy-infusing I couldn’t focus on anything else after it. (And that’s a lesson I’m still learning: at a transformative moment, you really can just let go of adding other stuff that won’t fit meaningfully into that moment – even stuff that would be incredible under other circumstances. ‘Fear of missing out’ has to concede to ‘joy of sustaining and building on the moment.’)
And from a good friend in the Boston area, an author and novelist, who caught Jesse’s live stream of the event:
I struggled to find the words to express my appreciation for your art, and I’m still processing… but I wanted to let you know I was profoundly moved by your elegant performance last night with Adam Tendler. Even watching through the lens of live stream, I could feel the pull of the ropes and the subtle brush of your hand against Adam’s back and smell the rich, creaking leather as you moved gracefully around the stage.
For me, one of the most stunning elements of the piece was the perpetual motion of the bound performer. We’re used to seeing the submissive held down, unable to move, while the dominant is responsible for the forward motion of the scene. Here, with Adam producing the music while you puppeteered from behind (…below, above…), the submissive was fully engaged in the artistic creation. Your depth of understanding and respect for Adam’s needs were met equally by his deep trust in your skill, and the resulting performance evidenced the tremendous power in such a talented pairing.
The end brought tears to my eyes. When you mounted the bench behind Adam, your clothing melded with the leather upholstery of the bench and became a part of the instrument; when you bent over Adam, you two became one musician, and then both of you dissolved into the piano itself, taking the poetry and music with you, leaving a single, unified element to represent the whole work.
Just wanted to thank you both for a brilliant choreography of music, eroticism, and poetry I will not soon forget. Coincidentally, I was writing the end note to a m/m BDSM story, where trust and respect are highlighted as the driving forces in the relationship. Nothing like a master in leather to inspire!
I’ve been trying to find a good way to express these parallels — between sex, BDSM, and music — in words myself, in some way that perhaps a reader who has never played a musical instrument in an ensemble or has never dipped their toe into BDSM however lightly might comprehend. I can’t begin to say how lucky I feel to be part of the performance of a work of music that conveys exactly these sentiments. Thank you, Adam, Tenth Intervention, and New Music Gathering for inviting me to be part of this. And watch this spot and my Facebook page, as there’s talk of further performances in other cities for us. If so, I can’t wait!