Gary Heidt is a wide-ranging dude. Heidt, who moved to Greensboro in 2015 from New York City, is a guitarist, a D.J. on college radio, a poet, an artist, a songwriter, an independent scholar, a literary agent and a father of a one-year-old. Even within those pursuits there are counterbalancing components. There’s a Janus-figure element to much of what he does.
As a guitarist, he’s made both avant-garde, free improvisation work, and tunes that might strike one as folk leaning, tipping his hat to his Texas childhood. His poetry is visual poetry, which combines both words and images by making the placement of the words on the page or canvas something to look at and ponder as much as something to read and make sense of. So, it’s part visual art and part poetry. He has two radio shows, one on WQFS, and the other on WUAG. Both play music by idiosyncratic American originals like Sun Ra, Conlon Nancarrow, John Cage and Ornette Coleman.
“I’ve just been going full and steady for the last 30 years,” Heidt (who is now 46) said.
His full and steady going continues to branch out into other realms. Heidt has started hosting a monthly gathering of nonamplified experimenters at the Glenwood Community Bookshop. It’s on the third Saturday of every month.
“It’s all improvised and it’s all acoustic,” Heidt said. “Part of that is because I hate setting up equipment.”
The bookstore makes for a nice space in which to let the sound waves bounce around, Heidt said.
“There’s something about the acoustics of all those books on the wall,” he said.
Greensboro guitar avant-gardist/sonic outsider artist Eugene Chadbourne has participated in the series, which, like most of Heidt’s projects, goes under the Perceiver of Sounds heading.
The name comes from Buddhism. In Buddhist scripture and artwork, there are Bodhisattvas, beings on the way to a type of divinity through the pursuit of enlightened consciousness, following the teachings of Buddha.
“They’re helping out,” Heidt said by way of explaining the role of Bodhisattvas. There’s one named the Perceiver of the World’s Sound.
“Sort of like a deity of compassion,” Heidt said. “The one who’s out there listening to everyone’s complaints.”
So, maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to say that for Heidt (and some of his like-minded collaborators listening) is about more than just passively receiving or appreciating sound; it’s an act of understanding, of potential empathy, potential humility, of comprehending one’s spiritual place in the Cosmos.
But it must be said that free-improv–music that does away with the constraints of composition, and possibly, depending on the mode of attack, with regular notions of rhythm, harmony, and melody– is off-putting to some ears.
Some listeners don’t have the compassionate fortitude to wade into this sometimes-challenging musical realm.
“A lot of times, when people hear the words ‘improvised music,’ they just run screaming,” Heidt said.
To reduce potential frustration among his listeners, Heidt keeps some of his more traditional material, (the songs with chord patterns, lyrics, and hummable tunes) sort of bivouacked online on separate Bandcamp pages.
Heidt’s more traditional songs can bring to mind the brooding poetics of artists like the Silver Jews, Tom Waits and Terry Allen. One project involved taking inspiration from centuries-old writings by Chinese Buddhist figure Guan Yin, whose name is short for Guan Shi Yin, which means “[The one who] Perceives the Sounds of the World.” So, all of Heidt’s different efforts have a kind of spiritual through-line.
The lyrics are very loosely based on the writing, but one doesn’t get the sense of listening to devotional poetry exactly.
“I started this project where I was gonna do 100 songs that were all interpretations of these different quatrains because it seemed like it would be a good project that would keep me busy for a while,” Heidt who seems to like being busy, said.
“I really take liberty with them,” Heidt said.
One of those songs, “Is It Real?” Heidt asks the question: “Who are you except everything you do?” It’s a perspective that sheds a little light on Heidt’s relentless productivity.
In the interest of making more sound available for the world to perceive, Heidt is also kicking around the idea of a record label — mostly digital for the time being — devoted to releasing some of the acoustic improvisations and other experimentations. Heidt hopes to release some of the material recorded from the acoustic improvisations series at the Glenwood Community Bookstore and some of the music made live on the air as a part of his radio shows, the Perceiver of Sound League, which airs from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sundays on WUAG, and the Earth Matrix, which airs Mondays from 8 to 10 a.m. on WQFS.
Leaping from free improvisation to Buddhism-inspired song cycles, the distance to Heidt’s other work as a visual poet doesn’t necessarily seem like a huge leap. Some of Heidt’s poems look a little like the letters from an intense game of Scrabble or a crazed crossword rendered on a canvas, hand-drawn (some blocky and dark, some wispy and tiny) — like the colorful cells of a Chuck Close portrait, where each component functions like a square on a grid, making a big mosaic-like picture of letters and words, one that you can look at as writing or as an image, depending on your distance and frame of mind. Like his music, it’s far out and hypnotic.
“It’s kind of weird because you can’t point to something that most people would think of as poetry,” Heidt said. Some of the pieces have appeared in literary magazines, and others have been featured in gallery shows of his art.
As an independent scholar, Heidt has written about the repetition-obsessed modernist writer Gertrude Stein, whose more experimental work struck some as transcending meaning, sometimes operating on rhythm and musicality more than overt coherence.
Heidt seems to prefer operating in a zone of “either/or, this-and-that, or everything-and-nothing,” where his work, like Stein’s, may confound, but still addresses the idea that mental attention is meaningful independent of what it focuses on and that creative action is worthwhile no matter the end result.
The next Perceiver of Sound League live acoustic improvisation event at the Glenwood Community Bookshop will be held on July 15 at 4 p.m.