William Eggleston Has a New Album of His Synthesizer Music, and It’s Beautiful – The New Yorker

In the summer of 1976, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York,
commissioned and staged a new exhibition featuring seventy-five color
prints by the photographer William Eggleston, most of which were taken
in and around the Deep South. The images range from folksy (a dog
drinking from a milky puddle in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans) to harrowing (the
tiled interior of a mildewing shower in Memphis). The show was
provocative in part because, at the time, color photography was
considered garish and callow—a way for advertisers to pitch canned peas
to housewives, or for amateur photographers to boast to their neighbors
about their tropical vacations. “There are four simple words on the
matter, which must be whispered: Color photography is vulgar,” Walker
Evans said, in 1969.

Eggleston felt differently. In the monograph that accompanied the
exhibit, its curator, John Szarkowski, describes Eggleston’s work as
“sharply incised, formally clear, fictive, and mysteriously purposeful.”
Szarkowski’s monograph—itself a remarkable piece of criticism—was later
published as the introduction to a hardcover book containing images from
the show. That book, “William Eggleston’s Guide,” still feels like a revelatory text, a deep treatise on the American character, as essential
and edifying as “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “The Great Gatsby,” and
“On the Road.” Eggleston’s pictures—careless, yet precisely
composed—suggest something lurid about our interior lives. I can’t quite
articulate it, but it’s there, some uncouth, gnawing desire. An empty
swimming pool edged by concrete; a green tricycle parked adjacent to a
blazing hibachi grill. Each time I revisit them, I chastise myself for a
lack of vision, for becoming inured to the creeping threat of ordinary
landscapes. Have I never seen anything before?

Eggleston is seventy-eight now. This month, the indie-rock label
Secretly Canadian is releasing his début album, “Musik,” a collection of
untitled, improvised symphonic pieces (and two covers) that he recorded,
during the nineteen-eighties, on a Korg OW/1 FD Pro synthesizer.
Eggleston has eschewed digital photography for most of his career, which
makes his deep affinity for the Korg feel even more perverse. “Musik”
was produced by Tom Lunt, a co-founder of the Numero Group, a label
based in Chicago that specializes in lost music. Several years ago,
Lunt (who is a friend of Eggleston’s youngest son, Winston) began
recovering the musical pieces from forty-nine floppy disks, ten digital
audiotapes, and a few digital compact cassettes. “The material was
challenging, in that there was so much of it,” Lunt told me recently.
“Three different formats, two of them obsolete, one requiring renting
the last Sony DCC machine from Montreal, another found scouring eBay for
a Korg O/1W Pro with a floppy-disk drive.”

Yet he believes that the work is singular and important, as
idiosyncratic and as unpredictable as any of Eggleston’s photographs.
“He says he shoots democratically, and that composition can’t be taught.
This is the same sense of freedom you find in his music,” Lunt
explained. “Just like he’s the only person who could have taken those
pictures, he’s the only one who could have made this music.”

Eggleston lives in a high-rise building in midtown Memphis, on the
southern lip of Overton Park, which contains one of the only old-growth
forests remaining in Tennessee. His living-room windows overlook a
broad, green expanse, lush even in late September. When he answered the
door, he was wearing polished black leather shoes, a freshly pressed
white shirt, bespoke navy slacks, a wristwatch, and a loosely knotted
silk ascot with maroon and white stripes. Southern men of a certain age
exude a gentrified elegance—mannered, yet rascally—that can, on
occasion, manifest as sinister, as if they are perhaps harboring a great
deal of secrets. With Eggleston, I felt merely that I’d underdressed (I
was wearing a white skirt and heels).

Eggleston’s living room, in Memphis.

Photograph by Stefan Ruiz

I’ve spent enough time in Memphis and northern Mississippi to know that
it’s a singularly rich and complicated place. I mean “rich” in the sense
of having produced both literal abundance—that fertile Delta soil—and an
unprecedented number of extraordinary people. Robert Johnson, Elvis
Presley, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Otis Redding, Ida B. Wells,
Medgar Evers, Jim Henson, Barry Hannah—all in the same century, all from
the same three-hundred-mile radius!

Eggleston was born in Memphis, in 1939, and raised on a
twelve-thousand-acre cotton plantation in Sumner, in Tallahatchie
County, Mississippi. Though this was the precise time and place in which
country blues—an aching but dynamic music, usually played by a lone
troubadour on an acoustic guitar—was being refined and perfected (it was
surely being performed both on and near his family’s farm), race and
class divisions were exact, seemingly immovable. What gripped him was
Bach, tinkering with old electronic equipment, and staying inside. He
took up photography in college, at Ole Miss, but his first
fascination—still his primary fascination—was music.

“I started playing the piano when I was four years old, which was about
four hundred years ago,” Eggleston joked from his sofa. His accent is
light, genteel. “My whole family, until recently, had cotton
plantations. I grew up on a farm. My late wife was also from
Mississippi, though she lived with her grandmother in Memphis.” He
paused. “I wish you’d known her. I wish she’d walk in the door right
now.”

He and Rosa Kate Dossett met when they were both still kids. Their
marriage lasted over fifty years, before she died, suddenly, in 2015, at the
age of seventy-three. “She was spared going through a painful illness,” he
offered, though his devastation was still palpable. When they were
younger, the couple was known around the Delta for driving a pair of
matching baby-blue Cadillacs.

I asked him about the timing of “Musik.” Why release these pieces now,
decades after their composition? “I had virtually nothing to do with
this. The original recordings were made on that synthesizer,” he said,
gesturing toward the Korg, which was in a corner of his living room,
awaiting repairs. “I pushed the correct button, and it instantly
recorded, and filled up a floppy disk. Some people from Chicago listened
to all sixty hours. I just let them edit and choose the pieces. It felt
like it was done yesterday. It doesn’t sound a bit dated to me.”

Eggleston found his way to the Korg incidentally. “One day,
twentysomething years ago, I walked into this music store here in
Memphis. It had just come out. They’d only had it for a few days. I
played it, and I said, ‘This is fantastic.’ I bought it at once. I
ordered two more. It’s so versatile, it can make a billion different
sounds. Each one, slightly different—strange sounds, man-made sounds.”

Pop music has never interested Eggleston much, although he admits to
liking some punk bands (the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith), and has
allowed several contemporary indie-rock acts (Spoon, the Silver Jews,
Joanna Newsom) to license his work for album art. His photograph “The
Red Ceiling
”—a
picture of a single burned-out light bulb, screwed into a red ceiling
and divided by three white extension cords—is on the cover of Big
Star’s “Radio City,” from 1974. Eggleston made the image in Greenwood,
Mississippi, in 1973; its color is so jarring and saturated as to feel
unreal. It remains hard to overstate the photograph’s particular menace,
although nothing especially fearsome is happening in it. In fact,
nothing is happening in it at all. Still, one immediately gets the sense
that this is not a room where polite events occur. Up there, by the
ceiling—that’s where noisome spirits drift, linger, and watch. Eggleston
knew it.

“Musik” recalls, on occasion, the work of early electronic-music
composers like Jean-Jacques Perrey, yet it also meanders in a way that’s
challenging to describe. The Korg’s approximations of classical
instruments are wobbly and surreal. This occasionally makes these songs
frightening, in the same way that an Eggleston photograph can become
frightening: something familiar is made odd. “The photographer hopes, in
brief, to discover a tension so exact that it is peace,” Robert Adams
wrote in the preface to “denver,” his pictorial survey of that city,
published in 1977. The sentiment feels applicable here, too. Eggleston’s
improvisations can be jarring, but the cumulative effect is nonetheless
placating. It is beautiful music to think to.

I mentioned that I’d spent the morning and much of the afternoon
visiting Graceland. Eggleston tilted his head, and gave me a look that
was nearly admonishing. “It’s a hideous place,” he said. In 1982, he’d
photographed the interior of the mansion for “Elvis at Graceland,” a
curious paperback book that was once sold in the gift shop there. (It’s
now out of print and fairly difficult to acquire; I bought mine several
years ago, on eBay, for a price that still makes me wince.) His pictures
emphasize the home’s claustrophobia, its uncanny and gruesome spectacle.
“In Eggleston’s photographs of Graceland, Presley’s home, are the
courtly pleasures of a portly king, cemented away in grandiose
cabinets,” the critic Richard Harrington wrote,
in the Washington Post. The final photograph in the book is of the
meditation garden—the little plot of land in the backyard, near a
fountain, where Presley, his parents, and his grandmother are buried. It
was taken at dusk. The fading sunlight fractures through the trees; the
way a beam illuminates a red wreath makes it appear devilish.

These days, Eggleston mostly listens to classical composers, the Western
canon. “My hero,” he said, gesturing toward a poster of Bach hanging on
his wall.

Then he remarked upon my height, and asked me to fetch him a fresh
package of American Spirit cigarettes from the furrow atop a kitchen
cabinet. As I reached up and fished around, I got the sense that perhaps
they had been purposefully placed out of his reach. I retrieved the box
nonetheless.

At exactly five o’clock, an assistant arrived, and fixed us each a
bourbon-and-ice. (Eggleston is allotted a precise amount of alcohol each
day, managed by his family and his physicians.) We ordered from a local
Chinese restaurant for supper. While we waited for the food to be
delivered, Eggleston offered to play for me. He sat down at his
Bösendorfer concert grand piano, and I pulled a chair over. He placed an
ashtray nearby. Certain stretches of melody felt familiar, but, mostly,
Eggleston was composing in real time. His face was so sweet and
peaceful. I knew the performance was not replicable—that he would never
play this exact thing again. I sipped my drink, closed my eyes. Unlike a
photograph, it was a moment, and we felt it, and then it was gone.

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