The stages and studios that shaped American music

Among the best of my many road trips across the US, the destinations that highlight the roots and raves of American music memorably shined especially brightly. Driving to Austin, Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis, Nashville, and more, I happily sang along in the car, listening to the songs of master musicians along the way, imagining “us” doing duets together. (Do you do that too?) At each stop, I was thrilled to enjoy behind-the-scenes tours of arenas and auditoriums, ballrooms and bars, stadiums, stages and studios. For example, on Nashville’s Music Row—a central hub for record label offices, recording booths, and radio stations—I had the opportunity to play the piano. (one song, just for fun!) in legendary Studio B at RCA Victor Studio (now on the National Register of Historic Places), where artists such as Chet Atkins, David Bowie, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Charlie Pride and Hank Williams have played , recording singles and albums. So I enthusiastically welcome the upcoming publication in October Rona Bittnernew hardcover book Listen: The Stages and Studios That Shaped American Music (Rizzoli New York).

Prompted by the 2006 closure of New York’s CBGB, which attracted an eclectic array of magnetic musicians and fans, spawning new musical revolutions known as punk and new wave, Bittner launched an ambitious 13-year project to photograph 395 notable locations. “I realized that the internal architecture of American music history needed its own record,” says Bittner. “Feeling music, listening to it is a collective and personal act. I stood alone in the open spaces. Space is freed up for memory, which in turn takes time. And time is the heart of all music.” This quest pushed Bittner to 89 cities in 26 states to visually document these haunting music venues, such as Elvis Presley’s music room at Graceland in Memphis; Jimi Hendrix’s recording studio in New York’s Greenwich Village; Aretha Franklin Family Baptist Church in Detroit; Macon City Auditorium in Georgia, where 14-year-old Little Richie was discovered, launching his career (and where James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding wowed crowds); and the Hibbing High School auditorium in Minnesota, where student Bob Dylan (then still Zimmerman) shook the rafters.

Scores of sites — ravaged by time and decay — are shells of their former glory: “ghost ships of American music,” the Godfather of Punk astutely writes Iggy Pop (singer, songwriter, producer and actor) in the foreword to the book. “Can you look into the past by staring long enough at these eloquent photographs…? Yes, yes, you can. There are places to find love here.’

A Perfect Collaboration: Natalie Bell (Art World Curator), John Hammer (Writer, Researcher, Artist, Musician), Greil Marcus (author, music journalist, cultural researcher) and Jason Moran (jazz pianist, composer, teacher) also contributed bright, informative comments to the book. The editing was handled by Eric Reinhardt (novelist, publisher), who followed up with clear, richly detailed annotations about each location, which were placed separately from Bittner’s photographs on contrast paper as a useful organizational format. Plus, dozens of live images of famous, beloved musicians, songwriters, singers, and producers (from other photographers and from the archives)—such as Chuck Berry, David Bowie, James Brown, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Berry Gordy, Elton John, BB King, Carole King, Freddie Mercury, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, The Mamas and The Papas, The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols, The Temptations are included, filling the pages with human vitality.

“Let’s say it’s First Avenue in Minneapolis…you’re on stage and you realize that your right foot, just a step ahead of your left, is in the same spot where Prince planted his. One can almost imagine that there is an imperceptible depression on the stage. That he left a mark. And so you push harder, as if you will too,” writes Greil Marcus. “This book is a public history of those private moments. It is absolutely ephemeral — there are no people, no ecstatic faces, no circling bodies in the places Rona Bittner photographed. You have to imagine yourself in these places… If you listen carefully, [the walls] will tell you what they heard.’

“As much as it is about sound, music and listening, Bittner’s series is also about absence and silence,” writes Natalie Bell. “It’s a photographer who puts a cloth over her head to take a picture, and then also invites us under… Sit in the silence and stillness of these spacesit seems, Bittner says. Now what do you hear? In the silence, the image becomes more radiant, and – unlike the cacophony of photos of a concert or performance – in the silence of Bittner’s spaces, we hear our memories arise.”

“You have to play the room,” says Jason Moran in the afterword to the book. “This phrase is often used by touring musicians because they spend countless hours performing in venues they are completely unfamiliar with. When a heavy metal band comes to a concert hall like Carnegie Hall, they will find that the acoustics of a stadium and a room built for acoustic music are very different. The artist is tasked with finding a way to “play the room.” This usually means: learn the parameters of the room enough to make your music feel the audience. Throughout Rona Bittner’s depiction of these spaces, we see rooms that are often empty, yet completely bright.”

There is a deeper need and trust in each of these spaces photographed by Bittner. “Letters in words are not accidental silent and to listen are the same,” Moran continues. “A reminder of the power of silence and an appreciation for the sounds listeners pick up in their bodies…Find the vibe from the front porch to the concert hall.”

Already thinking about your vacation? Listen: The Stages and Studios That Shaped American Music could make a thoughtful gift for your American music lover who appreciates its colorful history and important sense of place.

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