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A Month in the Life of Allison Clendaniel by Samantha Buker

In the Medieval gallery of the Walters Art Museum on a central pedestal, an ivory statue of Mary is the only surviving one of its kind. The Metropolitan Museum has a similar Mary in wood polychrome with an ivory head, but the one here in Baltimore is unrivaled. Once thought an imposter from the 1700s, carbon-14 dating assures us that she’s over 800 years old.

This statue, titled “Vierge Ouvrante” — opening virgin — unfolds her mysteries to Baltimore based musician Allison Clendaniel upon each visit. Clendaniel, who forms one-half of the duo Nudie Suits with Ruby Fulton, chose this ancient seat of holiness and blessing as the point of departure for their latest musical collaboration titled “Marian Triptych.”

Each summer, the Walters Art Museum selects local musical artists to reimagine the gallery experience in aural dimensions in their Art/Sound/Now Performance series and the Nudie Suits strove for an all-encompassing sonic experience.

“It was certainly heretical,” declared Clendaniel.

Although this was her first secular performance of faith-inspired music, on Sundays you can find Clendaniel in the choir loft of Mount Calvary Catholic Church at 816 N Eutaw Street.

Walters Curator Christine Sciacca explained that many of the medieval objects in the galleries were originally intended as part of multi-sensory experiences, with incense burning, chantings, rings to kiss, and icons to touch. “Hearing the Nudie Suits’ music resonating around these pieces restored a lost aspect of how people perceived these incredible artworks,” she says.

In this case, what was a small detail of the trifold Mary sculpture became the focal point lyric in Clendaniel’s composition. Sciacca watched as Clendaniel immediately zoomed into the tiny image of Three Marys at the Tomb on one side of “Vierge Ouvrante.” To Clendaniel, they were a mystery waiting to be explored.

“When I enter a cathedral,” Clendaniel says, “I feel my split-personality in full glory.” In “Marian Triptych,” Nudie Suits used the Marian madrigal form to explore ideas about Mary, Mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. She looks up to both women, as a creator constantly experiencing her own duality.

“Lyrics,” Clendaniel says, “are always the hardest.”

Nudie Suits has plumbed the depths of Frank O’Hara poetry and taken on Baltimore’s claim to local poetic fame, Gertrude Stein. In this case, Clendaniel wrote her own poem, taking a line from Madeleine L’Engle: “She is unprepared to see what he had become.”

The line was apt for both Biblical Mary’s. One was unprepared to be impregnated by God. The other was unprepared for a Risen God to appear to her in the woods. Perhaps Clendaniel was expressing her own lack of preparation for a spiritual experience.

Check out Nudie Suit’s Mobtown Microshow here.

As a child, she struggled with religion, wondering, “What is God?” And further, “Why are all these people telling me not to have sex?” She was, in a word, repelled. But now her faith is reinvigorated at last. “If I had to define my faith, I’d be a Gnostic with a heavy dose of Buddhism and hedonism,” she says.

You could hear that devout decadence in the Nudie Suits sold-out Art/Sound/Now performanceon July 27, 2017. Like Janet Cardiff’s work, “The Forty Part Motet,” the jumping off point for the performers was pure 16th century Thomas Tallis to begin their loop. To this, Clendaniel added a live cello track and Ruby Fulton layered in tambourine and worked furiously with her pedal, and also with electric violin so that sounds drop in and out, back and forth.

Clendaniel punctuated a passing silence with finger cymbals. Synth sound sparkled from the speakers in various gallery corners before Clendaniel began to sing-read her lyrics. Finger taps signaled a Morse code of love and light through which her voice glowed.

When dismissing us from the performance, Clendaniel said she hoped that, “It was like all the times you imagined what it would be like if you took drugs at church.”

“Growing up in the middle of nowhere, my only theatrical or musical experiences were around bonfire with a guitar or at church,” she says. Now she is in hot pursuit of creative communal experiences in every dimension her life.

In this, she’s as manifold as the statue of Mary at The Walters. Case in point: “Feral Woman,” her project with puppeteer Madison Coan, her lover Connor Kizer, and Rjyan Kidwell (aka CEX). Religion, as usual, waits with bated breath to enter her performance. They mined Flannery O’Connor for their theatrical production A Good Man is Hard to Find. Its run at the Mercury Theater from August 10-20, 2017, was sold out.

The set by William H. Chapman was simple and effective. The main set piece, the family car, was a living cartoon of cardboard. The headlights were graced with frowns. The steering wheel, manned by Kizer, as Bailey, the put upon father, really turned. The sound design, by Clendaniel and Kidwell, gave us the perfect highway drone. When the kids pointed out the front windshield, several audience members turned to look. We were in their spell, transported to a summer trip from hell, on the way to Florida.

When dismissing us from the performance, Clendaniel said she hoped that, “It was like all the times you imagined what it would be like if you took drugs at church.”

Kizer’s Bailey, from the way he crammed his tan hat on his head to the way his cigarette dangled from his mouth, mimed for laughs. He didn’t need to speak but radiated his smoldering annoyance from his eyebrows alone, until he finally erupted in volcanic anger. Molly Marguiles, as Grandmother, was a scene-stealing wonder. We’ve all been stuck somewhere with the likes of her, talking about old beaux, better days, better ways, minding one’s mother. She even has a puppet prop of a cat, furry with a gruesome face under her arms. (Bailey told her not to bring it.)

Clendaniel shone bright in her role as the mystic Reverend Bevel Summers. With the spot following her, she walked up the middle of the aisle among us. She wore a straw hat for a halo and confronted the eye of every audience member directly, inviting us into her revival. Her bearing, so different from the swagger she later employed as Bobby Lee, criminal, evoked a wary sort of Magdalene — part saint, part bruised woman — just making her way in life best as she can.

The abrupt shift in the tone of the play was pure genius. The cat leaps, Bailey loses control of the wheel; the stage goes dark. Sound alone takes over the drama: screeching tires, crash! Metal on gravel and sickening thumps that are so prolonged a few in the audience venture an uncomfortable laugh.

We go from light comedy to In Cold Blood in a flash. The criminal, aka, the good man, took over. The sound of little John Wesley’s pop gun, that caused his grandmother to jump is now dwarfed by loud shots. We have no preaching, no epilogue as in Shakespeare. Instead the audience walked out into rain on Charles Street, holding the paradox of faith and chance, one in each palm, vacillating on the takeaway.

Clendaniel’s biggest role yet may be as co-artistic director of Mind on Fire. Her version of Mind on Fire’s mission is simple: Who do I love and how can we support each other?

Mind on Fire, a modular chamber orchestra for new music revives the variety show, welcoming the participation of puppets, poets, and actors onto their scene. She says she missed Wham City’s Round Robin shows. “We don’t want to make new music more exotic than it really is. It’s just notated music. And we’re a band.” For her, this project is not about what it is. It’s about where it is: Baltimore.

Consider the survey Mind on Fire sent out, it was one question: “Do you read music?” Forget about whether you’ve held first-chair in your instrument or graduated from conservatory. Clendaniel, a graduate of Peabody, majored in opera. Her supported technique frees her up to play with her voice in daring ways, which can take her from a bluesy yodel to dulcet croon.

On July 14, she participated in the Baltimore Symphony’s inaugural New Music Festival. For the chamber jam at Joe Squared, she transformed from an overalls-wearing keyboardist of Mind on Fire into a splendid dominatrix in tall heels taking a solo at center stage. The piece, “The Hypnodomme Speaks, and Speaks, and Speaks” from local composer, Jason Charney required her to take chances sounding ugly, even violent, lips so close to the mic she was kissing it. Only Clendaniel had the moxie to pull it off. In the North Avenue basement, the glow of cell phone screens trained round her, capturing every second, created her halo.

Another thing about Clendaniel: she’s unflappable and generous. When faced with technical dilemma, watching Charney frantically retrying plugs, she didn’t act the diva. Instead, she laughed, stepped aside from the microphone and offered it to her partner-in-crime, Connor Kizer, to tell us a little tale of esoteric import until the set up was right. Without a doubt she’s an ensemble player with the leadership and vision to take Mind on Fire far. Their next show, on October 14, will grace the stage of EMP Collective.

Mind on Fire has two big goals for Baltimore. One is an annual summer festival. The Toronto Creative Music Lab, an eight-day workshop for risk-takers and change-makers, set her reeling and made her want to create peer-to-peer experiences where you have the right conversations. How do you make music on a limited budget? How do you start a composer-led ensemble? Mind on Fire’s second dream will take longer to realize — perhaps five years away — of owning their own space that will bring together all investigations, musical and otherwise, under a single roof.

Asked to describe herself in one word, she’s inclined to choose mania. “If I’m left to my own devices, I have too many books to read.” Her bookshelf right now is loaded. Prometheus Rising is her “constant go-to” as is the “actual Bible” alongside Your Aura & Your Chakras. Topping her pile is The Devil’s Bargain — read just in time for Steve Bannon to fall from President Trump’s grace.

Her process can be fueled by anger or detoured by serendipity. She considers herself, like a nun, a member of our community. “I love the collaborative process of making art. I will make stuff forever, with whoever wants to make it with me.”

Baltimore, consider that her vow of stability.

Photo credits: Jason Putsche for The Walters, Additional Photos: Samantha Buker, Ted Henn, Dave Iden, and Sam Torres, courtesy of the artist.

For more information about Allison, and Mind on Fire.

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