William Tyler’s Corduroy Roads
305 South, Durham
Friday, Nov. 21, 2014

If you hoped to keep warm Friday night, during the second show of William Tyler’s four-evening world premiere of his new multimedia work Corduroy Roads, you either needed to pack a heavy coat or not mind nestling near a space heater. Both could be considered alien asks for those who frequent productions of Duke Performances, the well-appointed organization that commissioned the piece; its audiences are familiar with the relatively regal rooms of Baldwin or Page Auditorium or the occasional Durham rock club, not spaces with bare brick walls and plywood windows.

The Nashville-born guitarist unveiled Corduroy Roads at 305 South, a former produce warehouse near the edge of downtown Durham and East Durham. For much of the last decade, the massive structure has sat fallow after a brief but flourishing period as the weirdo Bull City thrift space and arts incubator The Anti-Mall. It’s now slowly morphing into a “raw” multi-use venue for Durham performers and artists. On Friday night, in one of the facility’s widest and deepest spaces, a few rows of chairs faced two large rear-projection screens. Scattered space heaters lined the walls, and a small but adequate PA flanked the divide between Tyler and his audience. An expensive camera in the back of the room was a pointed reminder of the evening’s auspiciousness, settings notwithstanding. Still, for a world premiere by one of America’s best emerging instrumentalists, especially one that sold out well in advance, the accommodations might have seemed like a slight.

But for Aaron Greenwald, the director of Duke Performances, the appeal stemmed from the room’s ability to handle the necessary projections and for the way they enabled Tyler to connect with intimate audiences for the launch of this new project, rather than struggling to do the same in a half-capacity major concert hall.

The move was appropriate—poignant, even—for another non-mechanical, entirely implicit reason: Corduroy Roads combines Tyler’s electric and acoustic instrumentals with photographs, sketches and insignia of the Civil War from the very rare collections of Alexander Gardner and George Barnard, both recently acquired by Duke’s Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Selected readings about the war and its lasting impact on the nation dot the set. Just off Pettigrew Street and a quick walk from Highway 147, 305 South sits near a former battleground of African-American progress and Jim Crow-like prevention in the South. Though the area once prospered, becoming one of America’s leading black commerce centers, policies of “urban renewal” and the construction of Highway 147 helped destroy it. Despite the renaissance of downtown Durham only a few blocks away, it doesn’t take a map or even a car to see the surviving symptoms of those decisions. We’ll be 150 years removed from the end of the Civil War next year; we grapple with its side effects every day. On Friday night, the modest space rose to meet the situation.

In his 80-minute program, Tyler, who comes from Nashville but extends from a long Mississippi lineage, took care not to romanticize Dixie or pretend that the accord in Appomattox meant that America’s problems had been, or have yet to be, solved. In the personal essay he read after starting with an acoustic guitar instrumental beneath the light of a single lantern, Tyler talked about how his relatives had hidden in dorms during the riots that stemmed from James Meredith’s Oxford enrollment in 1962. He discussed how the land of the South is still very much carved by the war’s battles, dotted by the sites of the skirmishes of its century-plus fallout.

That was Tyler’s in media res moment, his opening testimony for the relevance of the work at hand. Before long, he’d backtracked into images of Sherman’s march and Lincoln’s visage, of generals who had led troops and of former slaves who had joined them. During the show’s most stirring passage, he built dynamic drones of guitar noise and pre-recorded samples while images of corpses and skeletons and battlefields shuffled between the screens. “War is hell,” goes the quote famously if somewhat errantly attributed to Sherman; Tyler refused to give it the heaven of a clear melody.

Such a psychedelic undercurrent flowed through much of the performance, whether in the rapid-fire animations of faces and wartime logos or the anachronistic combination of these very old images and Tyler’s updates of familiar music styles and sounds. Tyler plundered the confusion of a war fought between brothers or blood shed over a cause that, as he put it, was never really a cause at all. “How did this happen?” he seemed to ask, still perplexed by the answers that we’ve all accepted.

In the closing segment, as Tyler played a galloping electric number, images of the South as it stands now flashed across the screens. Modern tintype photographs blended in with the works of Gardner and Barnard. Those portraits—a white family standing together during a time of quasi-domestic peace, a black man moving about town of his own volition, so on—suggested that we’d come a long way as a country but that we still exist in the war’s smoldering glow, unable to escape entirely the traps of its techniques and troubles. Antebellum and post-millennial worlds melded into a single sequence of trying to understand and operate America, now as then.

As with most premieres of Corduroy Roads’ scope and audacity, there seemed some room for improvement. The movement between the sections underplayed the obvious if implicit narrative, sometimes making the show seem a bit more like a traditional set backed by images than either Tyler or Duke might have hoped. A more cohesive and compelling structure, one expects, will emerge over time and with tinkering.

But the net effect of the work—to explore the era’s lingering romanticization, horrific reality and perpetual aftermath—was magnificent and eye-opening. Tyler’s use of the past as a vehicle for grappling with the present recalled Timothy Tyson’s
Blood Done Sign My Name (and Mike Wiley’s one-man portrayal of it) and not the fawning histories of Shelby Foote, who Tyler judiciously prodded at the start. Due in part to the topic, Corduroy Roads felt like a worthy update to the work of Bill Frisell, another guitarist interested in the multimedia extrapolation of history.

At a few points during Friday’s performance, a train whistle blew into the cold room from nearby tracks. Each time, Tyler would smile sheepishly to himself. In those moments, it was hard not to let your mind wander past the images on the screen and to the realities of the war in question, especially to the railroad failure that helped defeat Dixie and allowed us to begin mending national fences, a process we’ve yet to finish. History didn’t feel alive, exactly, as much as it felt like something different altogether—something to keep addressing and analyzing, if ever we’re to turn its lasting vestiges into real ghosts.