by Leonard Gill
Say you're traveling about town the first week of May, and you come across an offer on the street for a free CD. No strings attached. It's yours for the taking. You could even be in on the making, because the CD will be part of a public-art project by Anita McKeown and she's asking right now for inspiration.
The idea is this: Memphis, Tennessee, in sonic form. Not its well-documented music, but its "found sounds," the everyday, overheard, and overlooked noises, major and minor, that generate the city's rhythms. It could be the sound inside a laundromat. It could be the sound of a bus stopping and starting. And, as a contributor, you could be anybody -- a doctor, a construction worker, a lawyer, a musician or artist even. Send your sound ideas, along with information on where to find them, to firstname.lastname@example.org. The mailbox is open. She's ready to read.
Then she'll be recording, sampling, manipulating, and producing 3,000 limited-edition audio CDs that she's planning to make available in time for the Beale Street Music Festival and throughout Memphis In May, which this year is saluting Ireland, which also happens to be McKeown's native country.
"I'm interested in the idiosyncratic, day-to-day sounds in your life, the sounds you hardly notice," the artist said recently by phone from London, where she makes her home. "And maybe, in the process, people will begin to think, God, I never really gave it any thought.
"This is my motivation: to provoke, in a nice way, something new, even if it's just a thought, and something different, especially in a city that's already culturally loaded in relation to music. It's all about reconsidering the mundane. How even the everyday can be a rich source of material and ideas.
"What is the sonic landscape of Memphis today? It can't be only blues, soul, and rock-and-roll. No city is that non-multidimensional. The answer is going to be different for different people, and I want there to be a potential for dialogue -- that's what I'm interested in. Of course, it's going to be mediated by me, by what's happening inside my own, for want of a better word, psyche.
"The CD -- seven three-minute versions in all [inspired by the three-minute classic 45 pop single] and available at seven "listening posts" [locations to be determined] -- may be quite abstract. It may even be quite uncomfortable to listen to. But it's an artwork. And it's a giveaway."
It will also be just one element in a multipart project McKeown is calling "Memphis 45s": a site-specific DVD in May to be projected in a public space (yet to be determined); a Web page with all source material freely available, including an ongoing virtual gallery; and future plans to expand the project. A Bravo Award by First Tennessee Bank is funding the project.
How McKeown, an artist with a major interest in public art and community participation, found herself in Memphis in the fall of last year is a story in itself. She'd traveled the United States before but never the South. So when the UrbanArt Commission and the Memphis College of Art agreed to a research residency in 2004, McKeown booked her flight. Without a car but with eyes and ears open, McKeown fell for the city in ways that came as a surprise, a pleasant surprise. (Added surprise: The artist grew up a few miles from the ancestral home of Andrew Jackson, one of the city's founders.)
"I felt at home in Memphis," McKeown said. "More at home than I've ever felt in the 15 years I've lived in London. I mean, the way people in Memphis interacted, the open, friendly atmosphere. I'd walk down the street, and people actually said hello! I thought, It's easy for me here."
It wasn't necessarily easy for the Irish in 19th-century Memphis, however, a history McKeown wants to continue to explore. Nor for race relations in Memphis then or necessarily now, an issue she's particularly attuned to having grown up in a divided Ireland. Even her London neighborhood is in some ways a mirror image of Memphis: Deptford, in South London, is near the Thames and has a history of river trade. According to McKeown, it's also one of the most ethnically diverse areas of Europe, the site of some 15 spoken languages, which may have Memphis beat, given Deptford's compact size. As for the "soundscape," does Memphis compare?
Anita McKeown is listening. In May, we shall see -- and hear.