Story and photos by Brooke Hall
The synergy in this city right now is brilliant. I believe Bethany Dinsick is big part of what makes Baltimore… Baltimore. Her DIY spirit, creative energy and relentless determination is a reflection of a place teeming with underfunded, yet highly productive artists. We are a part of a generation brimming with energy, who like to “fuck, drink, dance,” make art, and save the world. We know we don’t need 20th Century thinking to improve our life. We are urban survivalists.
The thing with Bethany Dinsick is that she’s been through so much and still manages to do more than most people ever attempt. What some people would consider a handicap, she fancies a catalyst. Where some people play it safe, she experiments like mad. This is the magic, the quiet strength, that has already made her a prolific artist and musician at 26 years old.
In high school, Bethany made music alone in her room, with an acoustic guitar, quiet enough so that her parents couldn’t hear. Her experience with making music was, at that point, extremely private. It took a long time before she could perform publicly, and since then she’s proven herself to be a visionary songwriter and performer. It will be no surprise to anyone, if decades from now, when speaking of the great experimental musicians of our generation, Dinsick’s name is on the short list.
Around here, she’s known as a musician mostly, but there a lot more to the story. She dances, she paints, she makes video art, she sings in two distinct solo projects of her own, designs costumes and builds instruments, keeps a blog, and sometimes locks herself in the bathroom to record an improv album.
It’s as if she could dive into any conceivable medium and manage to deliver work that is both beautiful and, at times, peculiar. Another gift: She’s not afraid to try. Bethany is unyielding and talented, a powerful combination that often times, and definitely in her case, elicits a rich body of work.
From her descriptions, Bethany experiences the world a bit differently. But it wasn’t always this way. When she was 12 years old, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The tumor was removed fast, but the operation left her with chronic migraines, vision problems and other neurological difficulties she’s been dealing with ever since.
Bethany has an uncommon relationship with adversity as a potent creative tool, which she tackles with grace.
With perfect acceptance, Bethany describes her life after the brain tumor:
I had to relearn everything: thinking, organizing my thoughts, moving. I was too stubborn and difficult to let anyone help me so I developed my own ways of doing everything and over the years have had to just adjust to the way most people do things.”
“It takes a lot of energy to do logical things but creative, intuitive, and emotional things are like second nature for me. I have a hard time learning things unless I teach myself, so I always just end up creating by myself.”
Bethany sees visual patterns of light and colors that fluctuate in intensity throughout the day; she hears songs in white noise and melodies in repetitive beeps, clicks and vibrations. Imagine seeing colorful trails and piercing oscillating lights as part of your everyday experience. Toss in the debilitating effects of migraines several times a week and you’ll begin to get a picture of how Bethany experiences life.
Bethany explains: “I have chronic migraines as a result of the surgery, so I have vision problems throughout the day. I have ‘auras’ in and out all day so I regularly have issues with movement, perception and light. I see trails throughout the day, visual distortions, visual patterns, colors become super bright. I am super sensitive to light, just being in the sun outside for ten minutes without sunglasses can make me feel sick.”
It basically heightens and distorts my senses in and out, throughout the day so it’s like being on natural drugs that you can’t control. It is sometimes amazing and sometimes annoying.”
She lets none of this curtail her creative flow. Bethany perseveres. Already she has produced four albums on which she writes the music, performs the music, and sings. We’re talking highly experimental music, using loops, and all kinds of objects she’s transformed into instruments.
She is also a co-founder of the Baltimore Experimental Dance Collective (BXDC). With countless videos, paintings, collaborations and who knows what else, it’s obvious that Bethany Dinsick is making shit happen.
“Since January [ of 2011 ], I’ve played Metro Gallery twice (once with my band with my friend Sam Garner D.F.D (Downward Facing Dog)), played music at the copycat Theatre twice (one with my self named project and one with Teaadora my old tourmate as Square Pi), also danced with BXDC at the Rooms Fundraiser Variety Show, Performed in Rooms Play with BXDC, and created installations, the Dance Round Robin at Lumberhaus, and performed music and danced at the BXDC event at Moves Gallery in Brooklyn NY. I also had a video in Videopolis at Metro Gallery.”
Photo by Theresa Keil
If you were fortunate enough to experience Rooms Play at the Transmodern Festival this year, you’ll remember the room where all the angelic ladies were dressed in white spandex and wore crowns of flowers on their heads while they fawned all over you. That was another extraordinary performance by Baltimore Experimental Dance Collective (BXDC), co-founded by Bethany Dinsick. The collective is Sarah Autry, Bethany Dinsick, Sigrid Lauren, Sarah Magida, Sophia Mak, Sophie Moore, Madeline Tess Peters and Monica Mirabile, and surely others as the collective grows.
Bethany collaborates on musical performances too: “I collaborate with other vocalists and do experimental vocal improvisation. I frequently collaborate with the vocal percussionist Shodekeh, opera/folk singer Claire Plumb, beatboxer Max Bent, experimental vocalist/artist Gerry Mak, and I grew up dating the beatboxer Kenny “the Bow-Legged Gorilla” Johnston so i am really used to singing with beats and beatboxers.”
This is BXDC at the Dance Round Robin at Baltimore’s Lumberhaus in March 2011. Notice the hats and fingers. Bethany made them with Twist Ties. Just another one of her many talents: Twist Tie sculptures.
Bethany said the main reason she wanted to dance more was because she wanted to experience music in a different way, rather than just hunched up over a board or a guitar, “I love to dance. But it’s always been about the music.”
“BXDC started as just people who were interested in dancing, learning new stuff and experimenting together. We didn’t start it as a performance thing but then we got asked to do Artscape’s Exotic Hypnotic 2010 and we scrambled to make choreographed dances that utilized everyones ideas. Now it has become a rotating unit of energy that is now doing not only dance but performance art and videos. Dancing is one of the best ways of non-verbal communication, you can completely connect with someone without even knowing them, connect with your internal physical body, or you can connect completely with the music or air around you,” insists Bethany.
Photo is of Madeline Tess Peters, Sigrid Lauren, Monica Mirabile, Sarah Magida and Bethany Dinsick.
Photo by Tedd Henn
I first became aware of Bethany when she performed at the 14 Karat Cabaret for Normal’s Books and Records 20th Anniversary last year. Her pipes must be laced with honey and cream. Seriously, like an angel whispering sweet nothings into your ear.
Her music has been described as “haunting folk music,” “etheral loop-pedal folk,” and “ascent melodies,” which are all apt. But she prefers to think of her “Bethany Dinsick” project as “Meditational R&B.” She has another solo project she calls Square Pi, which is “vocal-focused, wordless, meditational and improvisational music.”
Bad Lil Boy Video
Bottle Tree, Bethany Dinsick’s 2009 release, is definitely more rhythmic than her first album, Growth (2007), which washes over like gentle lullaby, comforting and sleepy. I can see why she calls the new album “Meditational R&B.” Her self-proclaimed pop song, Bad Lil’ Boy, is brilliant. The music video she made for it — all ‘80s neon stripes and over-sized kiddies — is at once hilarious and strange.
“It is about making fun of myself and a bad breakup situation. It is a light and fun song on an emotionally intense CD. I especially love playing this song live because the hypnotic loops (which sound robotic but were all made from either my mouth of hands) make people dance around and have fun.”
VIDEO above: Bad Lil Boy from the album “Bottle Tree” written by Bethany Dinsick. With producer and costar Chris Freeland in 2009. Directed and Co-edited by Eric Alexandar Gonzalez. Art Direction and Co-edited by Bethany Dinsick. The video short also features dancers Pilar Diaz, Monica Mirabile, Caroline Marcantoni, and Katherine Ralston.
On Bottle Tree, you’ll hear all manner of sounds including, but not limited to: A recording of an MRI machine scanning Bethany’s brain, a vibrator, a Lion King audio storybook, a baby’s white noise machine with wind sounds, womb beating, and babbling brook, a children’s spring, “magic microphone,” wine glasses, beer bottles, real cicadas, flower vases, and various hand sounds (including scratching on surfaces, clapping, snapping), a rainstick, percussion, concertina, keyboard (drum machine, bass, gunshots), tin whistle, guitar, and vocals.
Bethany explains “It was all written as as an autobiographical account of my life from that point including references to my crazy past, a devastating break up of a five year relationship, a spiritual awakening while traveling through the south documenting amazing visionary artists, as well as a three day surreal illegal machine gun toting adventure in the house of a rich crazy aristocrat in Mississippi.”
The album is an introverted emotionally intense album which I had never intended to share with anyone at first. It was written during and after an intense job while working in a Neurobehavioral Unit for severe Autistic children which helped me reach a truthful and emotionally raw state of honesty within myself.”
“It is a very special album for me because it really was a turning point in my life in which i faced the many demons that I had and cleansed them as if through a “Bottle Tree.” The superstition of the bottle tree in the south is that evil spirits will be trapped within the bottle and will be evaporated by the sun.”
Bethany has diverse influences: “Musically, I would say I learned how to sing by singing Billie Holiday, Jeff Buckley, Lata Mangeshkar, Edith Piaf, Josephine Baker, Anne Briggs, Erykah Badu, Etta James, Patsy Cline, Marvin Gaye and all the old soul greats. I am just really emotionally connected with the voice so would sing everything I heard, basically. But I also grew up listening to a lot of rap, pop and r & b, which I continue to do now.”
“Visually I always just loved every kind of art. I am really into things that are spiritually meaning to the individual. I always loved Freda Kahlo and felt a connection with her art and life. I am really influenced by visionary art, obsessive creation and religious imagery. I was immersed in it on my southern road trip and it just really moved me to see people boldly creating and expressing their sometimes weird religious beliefs without fear of judgement. I have always kept things in everyday life in the same category as art, the thing that defines it socially is if “somebody” states that it is art. Always create!”
Bethany’s paintings are just as intricate, chaotic and striking as one might expect after hearing her music. This is part of a body of work is called “Growth Monsters: Celebration/Cremation/Misinterpretation of Life After the Nuclear Holocaust”
Story and photos by Brooke Hall
Video of Square Pi: 3 Layers of meditational voice and video by Bethany Dinsick, 2008
Square Pi, her second solo project self-described as “my own private sonic language.”
On top of her other neurological difficulties, “I also have speech problems throughout the day which definitely made me developed my own style of singing. When I was still just playing guitar and singing my friends said they couldn’t understand what I was saying and that it sounded like I made up my own language. I was completely unaware of this because I was so private about my music my whole life so it was like my own private sonic language. My ‘Square Pi’ vocal experimentation also started by vocal exercises that I was doing to further explore alternative pronunciation and vocal structure.” This is how Square Pi came about.
VIDEO Devils and Saints. Song, stop animation, and artwork by Bethany Dinsick (2008), “Devils and Saints” song from the CD entitled ‘Growth’ (2007)
Bethany is a self taught video artist: “I have never taken a video class and I first started experimenting with video in my last semester at Towson. I wanted to make sonic moving paintings and further connect with the visual world I was developing through painting. I sat in front of a large painting and meditatively sang and then put it through my parents big screen television through the dvd player and sang in another layer over that and so on. That was ‘Sound Study 1’ and i just kept on doing them and have since taught myself Final Cut through editing all these music videos.”
VIDEO Mrs Officer (Lil’ Wayne cover), Music and video by Bethany Dinsick (2010)
“90% of my daily music ingestion is mainstream rap or pop. I really love the beats, vocal twang, and synths in southern club rap.”
I’ll always love Lil’ Wayne and my dream is for him to see my cover video of Mrs. Officer.”
“I like the immediacy, competitiveness, fun, cleverness and catchiness of it all. I am also really influenced by international folk recordings, I just really connect with strange vocal styes. I am also influenced more recently by the experimental scene in Baltimore. I never knew anything about experimental or noise music before a couple of years ago.”
The music video for Growing Down, Bethany’s song, was shot on the set of Rooms Play.
BXDC presents….. Bethany Dinsick’s ‘Growing Down’
Music and video editing by Bethany Dinsick. Set and costumes by The Baltimore Experimental Dance Collective for ‘The Rooms Play’ in Transmodern 2011 in Baltimore MD. Sarah Autry, Bethany Dinsick, Sigrid Lauren, Sarah Magida, Sophia Mak, Sophie Moore, Madeline Tess Peters. Dancers: Bethany Dinsick, Sigrid Lauren, Sophia Mak, Sophie Moore
Whore of Baltimore Video – Music by Bethany Dinsick (including sound recording of an MRI of artists brain as back beat, wine glasses, vocals, and guitar), with music production by Christopher Freeland. Costumes, installation, dance direction, and video by Bethany Dinsick. With Bethany Dinsick as the Whore of Baltimore, Claire Cote as Air, Sigrid Lauren as Fire, Monica Mirabile as Water, Madeline Tess Peters as Earth. Camera by Hermonie Only. Lighting by Rachel London and Hermonie Only. Filmed at MICA and the CopyCat Theatre 2011 in Baltimore MD
The beat for this song is from a sound recording that I did of myself getting my brain scanned.”
Whore of Baltimore – “The song references prostitution, deviancy, and the music scene. It implies neither negative nor positive things about the comparison of the three and the link is open to interpretation. It is also a personal statement about the amount of honesty that is in my music, the “whore-like” experience of putting it on display for others, and the intimacy of the experience. The listener is literally hearing my brain being scanned.”