Wednesday, February 8, 2017
BILL HELLERMANN R.I.P.
I remember three performances of "compositions" of his that blew me away at the time and still do just remembering them. One took place in the sculpture garden of The Museum of Modern Art on a warm evening in Spring or Summer. Bill was an amazing guitar technician, but his piece "Tremble" performed that evening was more about stamina than technique. It was an exercise in sustaining notes.
He began at the top of the neck of the guitar, strumming rapidly and slowly, very very slowly, almost imperceptibly, worked his way all the way down to where the strings stopped, (and I think he would continue onto the body of the guitar itself, tapping it until he ran out of guitar). So that by the end of what I remember as a forty-five minute piece, his arm and hand were trembling, adding to the tremolo sound of the strings so slowly sliding down the scales from high pitched to below low. (Or vice versa, I saw him perform this more than once and my memory is of him doing it in either direction depending on the performance.)
Another totally original piece, I think called "Drip," took place in an art gallery (I no longer remember which one) downtown. When the audience was let into the place, we saw a series of hoses, like garden hoses, snaking throughout the gallery at various heights and below them a seemingly random array of various size pots and pans.
When everyone was settled in and completely quiet, Bill got up and slowly turned on a faucet which he manipulated throughout the piece to change the rate of flow of water and thus the sound of the various drops hitting the pots and pans the audience now realized were strategically placed under holes in the hoses to create various sized drops of water. It was one of his most tuneful pieces in this era as I remember it. Pure genius.
The third performance I no longer remember the name of, nor where it was, but the setting was a theater with a stage. A spotlight beamed on a fair sized object in the kind of soft case I used to use for my upright base when I played that instrument for a few years in my late teens, the kind that's padded and you unzip to remove. You could tell this wasn't a base, since it was shorter, maybe a cello?
Bill entered the stage, bent down to unzip the case and revealed an old wooden office chair, the kind with arms and that swiveled on a base that you could rotate and bend backwards or forwards etc. And that you could find in the many mostly used office furniture stores along Canal Street, the center of commerce for the downtown scene in those days. I owned one of those chairs myself.
After removing the case, Bill sat his long lanky frame down on the chair and leaned back. The chair made the kind of squeak I was familiar with. He closed his eyes and slowly, again almost imperceptibly, leaned this way or that, and each slight shift of his body made a different toned squeak. It was another unique sound composition, something no one else had thought of but Bill (and yes I know it could have been inspired by John Cage who pioneered this kind of "natural" sound "music" composition, but Bill built on that legacy like no one else).
Bill also made works of art, I have some in my archives (at NYU if they ever digitize it and make it available), and always had some on my walls or bookcases (many were three dimensional, and almost all incorporated "music"—like various notes in plastic ice cubes in an ice cube tray etc.)... He was always a delight to be around, or maybe I should more realistically say, often a delight to be around. I loved hanging out at his loft and having him at mine. My friendship with him felt like a mutual admiration society, which was so necessary to my growth as a creative person.
My condolences to his family and friends and fans. Another light has definitely gone out in my world, but the memory still inspires.