Surrender to the Situation, Part 3: In Motion Images, Videos & Text by Ivan Weiss

Author's Note: This is the third and final installment of "Surrender to the Situation," which interweaves a train journey from North Carolina to New York with footage from Tyondai Braxton’s HIVE installation and a pair of shows by Australian musician Oren Ambarchi in June of 2015. This article was originally included in "Big, Bent Ears: a serial in documentary uncertainty," published in 2016 in The Paris Review Daily.

Check out Part 1: Oren Ambarchi & Tyondai Braxton and Part 2: Ensemble Virtuosity.


I WAS IN THE RESTAURANT CAR on the Carolinian 80, en route from Durham to New York, when two people sat down in the booth across from me. One was a thin man in his seventies who walked with a limp. The other was a woman at least a decade younger. Even after all these years of documentary work, I get butterflies in my stomach when asking strangers if I can take their picture. What encouraged me this time were their hats. His was the kind of leather hunting cap a folksinger might have worn in the sixties. Hers was a leopard-print fedora. They didn’t look old-fashioned exactly; it was as if they’d stepped out of other times and found each other in this time, on this train.

After I took their photo, we started talking. Their names were David and Julia, and they had in fact just met. “I took one look at him and knew he was marines,” Julia said, and they decided to have a drink together in the restaurant car. Julia told me she served in the army in Germany in the late seventies. David said he’d been called up for Vietnam on April Fools’ Day in 1966. During his tour of duty, he was stabbed in the leg and shot in the head. Almost 50 years later, his injuries still plague him.

A conductor passed. “Did anyone tell you we were handicapped?” Julia asked him, suddenly incensed. She seemed to be responding to an earlier slight.

“Ma’am, I’m just doing my job,” the conductor replied.

“Look me in the eye,” she said.

“I don’t have to do that, ma’am.”

He walked away, and at the next stop David stepped out for a smoke. Julia turned to me: “People need to give us respect.” I nodded in agreement, and we were both quiet. She cracked a smile. “I guess there’s no reason to let it ruin my day.”

David and Julia aboard the 80 Carolinian.


Sarah Frankel at sound check. The Kitchen, NYC.

FOUR DAYS LATER, on June 6, I made it to the Kitchen to document the final performance of Tyondai Braxton’s HIVE installation. I felt my way through darkness and faced what I thought would be an empty auditorium. A tiny light shined at the back. Sarah Frankel, HIVE’s lighting designer, was programming a new console after a malfunction the night before—it’s an involved process that takes hours to complete.

Frankel is the non-musician of HIVE. Her specialty is visual, not aural. “Certain parts of my brain are total chaos,” she told me, “but spatially I understand things. If I walk into a room, even if I’m in conversation and not paying attention, I can see it in my head. Spaces have a pattern, a rhythm, that just makes sense.

“When I was a kid, my dad built and managed nightclubs, huge dance clubs. He would do it all—the set design, the lighting design, the layout of the space. He hated the social interaction aspect of it, but he would let me walk through the clubs when they were closed. It’s funny, working in clubs in New York these days, at the end of the night when everyone is gone, that sticky, gross smell of alcohol and emptiness—it feels like home.”


crys cole setting up at Fitzcarraldo in Bushwick.

ON JUNE 29, the night after Oren Ambarchi performed in Red Hook, Brooklyn, he played a more intimate set at Fitzcarraldo, a bar and restaurant on an industrial street in Bushwick, Brooklyn, performing as a duo with his frequent collaborator crys cole. cole is a sound artist who creates improvised and composed work and has had numerous gallery shows of her sound installations. She’s the artistic director for the send + receive festival in Winnipeg, Canada, her hometown. She is also Ambarchi’s romantic partner. “She invited me to a festival that she runs in Canada,” Ambarchi told me. “On the last night of her festival, there was an after-party. I got a look at her iPod, and it had all this really obscure experimental music that I love and these really amazing pop tracks that I love. It was almost too good to be true.”

Ambarchi and cole recently released Sonja Henies vei 31, an album only comprising field recordings they made during a week together in Norway. In one, a radio or TV plays in the background while someone slurps and chews on what must be an overripe peach.

It reminded me of something cole had told me about her childhood. “I have so many visceral memories that are sonic,” she had said, “like floating in the bath as a kid so that your ears are under the water, and all of a sudden you can hear the distorted sound of the TV in the living room or someone walking in the hallway. Or waking up as a child camping, being in a hot tent early in the morning and hearing the fire crackling outside because my parents were starting to make breakfast and coffee—some of it sounds exaggerated, other parts subdued, but all of it completely blurry and strange.”


North of Philly.

“THE WAY I BUILD the lighting for a HIVE performance,” Frankel said, “is similar to the way Ty runs his sound on his modular synthesizer—in the sense that he gives himself a general framework of a piece and a whole bunch of options, and the show sounds different every time. I actually run the show in a sort of janky way, on an old-school console. There’s nothing automated in HIVE. Maybe the sneaky, tricky part of me loves that the lighting isn’t completely in sync with the music. I’m creating new rhythms that aren’t audible but visual. So we’re playing off the psychology behind that—seeing a rhythm but not hearing it, and hearing all these other rhythms on top of it.

“There are moments during the show when I know Ty is a little less crazy and able to look up and see what’s going on—I always try to do something super weird and cool for him then. I have these moments with everyone in the show, where we will make eye contact for the first and only time.”

A light used in HIVE.


FITZCARRALDO IS AN INTIMATE SPACE with a wall-size window where patrons can view an endless stream of walkers, bikers, cars, and trucks, as if watching a movie. On that night, Ambarchi and cole performed in front of the window, their backs to it, while the sounds of cooking intermingled with their music. “It was an unusual environment to be playing in,” cole admitted. “But I think that worked with what we were doing in an odd way.”

Oren Ambarchi's audio mixer.

Ambarchi’s setup was considerably stripped down from the Red Hook show the previous night—“way fewer pedals,” he said. He did retain his eight-by-ten-inch Ampeg bass cabinet, the leslie spinning speaker, and the electric guitar. cole was using a “cheap” Casio keyboard, her voice, and contact microphones. The contact mics amplified the surface of the table they sat at. cole said the mics were “played” as instruments, using various brushes to elicit sound.

Watching cole play the mics and brushes, I thought about when I played violin as a kid. I remember being as captivated by the instrument itself—the intricate carvings, the delicate build, the smell of aging wood—as by the music it could produce. I wonder now if that’s a reason I stopped playing. The instrument was too precious, too perfect—what could I bring to it? cole’s relationship to instruments was refreshing: in her hands any object could be transformed.

“When I was young,” she said, “I loved music so much, but I felt inhibited because I didn’t have a tool of my own. I was overwhelmed by the idea of playing an instrument. I moved to Montreal from my hometown and met an incredible community of improv musicians who basically said, you’re an avid listener, you’re a lover, you’re so knowledgeable. Just find a tool. So I started playing with broken electronics, busted turntables, and then contact microphones. And that sound, that sort of—Chweeew! That was that.”


Approaching New York.

IN 2012 WHEN BRAXTON was composing the music that would become HIVE, the Guggenheim’s Works in Process series commissioned him to debut the project at the museum. “It’s even now very uncomfortable for me to think how HIVE grew up in public,” Braxton said. Richie Clarke served as the sound designer for the premiere. Two years and ten HIVEs later, Braxton reunited with Clarke for the Kitchen shows.

Clarke is a well-established sound engineer in New York, having worked with musicians as diverse as Herbie Hancock, David Byrne, and Steve Reich. I first met him last September while documenting Jonny Greenwood performing with the Wordless Music Orchestra, where I was drawn to his warmth and relaxed vibe. Clarke grew up an only child in Suriname far removed from the music industry. “My grandparents had thirteen children, so there were always a lot of uncles and aunts around,” he said. “My family was very loud, a lot of characters. Most people who know me now don’t believe it, but I was as shy as they come. I’d walk into a room and be invisible, and music was always the thing that calmed the noise. It was where I found solace. I would go to sleep with the radio next to me and wake up with the radio next to me. Before my eyes would open, my hands would flick the on switch.

Tyondai Braxton, Richie Clarke, Yuri Yamashita, and Sarah Frankel during a sound check at the Kitchen.

“I’ll never forget one day playing in the yard and having a radio wedged in the door and hearing Diana Ross’s ‘I’m Coming Out,’ with that very big intro—I froze in my steps—I couldn’t move. I was hanging on every sound in anticipation of how this incredible intro was going to morph into what I knew was coming. And that’s my relationship with music to this day. That moment never left me. I can still feel it.”

Until the Kitchen shows, Clarke hadn’t seen HIVE since the premiere. I asked him what had changed. “When we did the world premiere, I would say things to Ty like, Oh, that’s amazing, and Ty would say, No, it’s not there yet. And now listening to it two years later, I get it. The level of detail and movement, the spatial relationships—there’s no comparison. It’s like a roller coaster where at first you try to hold on, and then you’re like, Okay, I’m just going to scream and let it go, let it take me.”


Sarah Frankel before the final HIVE performance at the Kitchen.

DURING THE FIRST TWO DAYS of my HIVE shoot, the excitement in the air was palpable. Frankel, Clarke, and the musicians had watched the project grow from its infancy. Many of them had traveled to far-flung locales together, taking HIVE from Krakow to Tasmania to Knoxville. With no more performances scheduled, these shows felt like a victory lap and a bon voyage. But during soundcheck before the second show, something happened. We were in the theater, colored lights flashing, when the fluorescent overhead lights shot on, almost blinding us. With showtime in an hour, the antiquated lighting console had given out.

Frankel stayed in the theater to try to figure it out, while the rest of us headed up to the green room to wait. Everyone seemed nervous—it was clear how high the stakes were, how much the show meant to each one of them. Braxton was hunched in the corner, a plastic cup of wine dangling from his hand.

While the musicians worried over the latest complications, I was plagued by the question, Do I record this? I felt dirty even thinking it. Was I making a reality-TV show, hoping for any glimmer of tension or drama? Yet the moment was important, a window into the pressures of being a performer: you work so hard and at any moment it can come crashing down.

It was something I could relate to as a documentarian. I’m drawn to the fragile and ephemeral moments, when the unexpected can happen, yet the harder I force a situation, the more those moments tend to recede. So it was now. I chose to record, and instantly knew it was wrong. Everyone grew uncomfortable—I was making a painful situation worse. I turned the camera off and took consolation in the thought that I had hours of footage and interviews in the docket to explore later. Who knew what would be revealed?

By eight that evening, Frankel had gotten the console up and running, and the show went on without a hitch.


Oren Ambarchi with crys cole during sound check at Fitzcarraldo.

cole: “I was having a conversation with a friend recently. We were talking about the nature of collaboration, how watching it can feel as though you’re peering into some sort of intimate relationship. There is a particular thing that happens with bands or any long-term collaboration—it becomes like a marriage. I have a lot of friends who work in other artistic fields that are more isolating.”

Ambarchi: “You’re getting to know somebody, and you’re exploring stuff together, and you might not see them for two years, and then when you do, you continue from where you left off. It’s an ongoing conversation. I would say a big part of what we do is the meal after the gig, where you’re sitting around and talking about your personal stuff, or just having a laugh.”

cole: “I’ve played improv with people where you can feel a struggle for control. Someone is bashing away at something—‘I don’t like this safe zone we’re in, so I’m going to swhoosh! Push things somewhere else.’ Those shifts are sometimes exciting, but to me it shouldn’t be a conflict—it should be a way of dancing together.”

Ambarchi: “We don’t want to be complacent in life or what we do as artists. We want to keep moving and trying stuff, not saying, No we can’t do that, that’s not possible, we can’t go there. We can do everything—I feel that with crys. It’s exciting to work with someone you’re in love with.”


At 30th Street Station in Philly.

I FIRST INTERVIEWED BRAXTON at the Big Ears festival last March. We sat in a renovated factory in Knoxville, in a room overlooking train tracks. As I was setting up the camera, Braxton looked out the window and noticed the tracks running alongside the building.

When asked what associations trains had for him, Braxton said, “To keep us occupied as kids, my dad would buy us these HO-gauge train sets, and I became obsessed with trains. As a matter of fact, every Sunday we would go to Union Station and watch the Metro North and Amtrak trains come in because I wanted to see them. It became sort of a family thing.” He went quiet, and a moment later added, “That’s a funny thing to start an interview with.”

Was there a connection between HIVE and trains?

“If there’s a correlation I can draw," he said, "it would be a sense of being a passenger and viewing a landscape going by. I’m trying to create not just music but an environment.”

Later he continued, “When I was setting up HIVE today, I kept telling Sarah [Frankel] we should bring the pods closer to the audience. I like the straight line of it. It looks like the Supreme Court. We’re sitting cross-legged, we’re interacting very little with anything else but each other, we’re not looking at the audience, we’re just doing our thing. It doesn’t feel inclusive, yet it doesn’t feel alienating either. It’s like we’ve landed—and now you can experience the room.”


The Susquehanna River in Delaware.

“THE FIRST TIME I TOOK A TRAIN in my life was between Montreal and New York,” cole said. “I would have been in my early twenties. It was such an interesting way of traveling, to have that constant movement, the endless landscape, even though it seems to take more time than every other method of travel.

“Oren and I often talk about inhabiting a temporary venue or space and distorting it, creating an atmosphere that transports people away from where they are. That links to travel and the kind of lifestyle that we have, where we’re always shifting into radically different spaces and mindsets.

“It’s sort of a dream space, something that pulls or lulls people into something strange. That’s the word we often come back to—strange. Something that’s unfamiliar, where things happen that people aren’t expecting, yet they’re carried along through it. There isn’t a defined beginning or end. It could continue for hours or just be this nebulous thing, like when you’re on the street and you bump into someone unexpectedly or see something unusual happen and time stands still. Then you move on, but it sticks with you, coloring the rest of your day.”

Check out the first two sections of “Surrender to the Situation” – Part 1: Oren Ambarchi & Tyondai Braxton and Part 2: Ensemble Virtuosity.

Ivan Weiss is a documentary filmmaker and multimedia producer based in North Carolina. he teaches at Wake Forest University.


Images and video by Ivan Weiss © 2020