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Monday, May 4, 2009

David Greenberger and Paul Cebar’s Shared Memories

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David Greenberger met Herb on a trip to Palm Springs, Calif., when he was in his 20s, and their encounter changed his life. Herb wasn't like anyone Greenberger had ever met, and they quickly hit it off. Although Herb was more than three times Greenberger's age, Greenberger didn't view him as just some octogenarian. He saw him as a friend.

Shortly after his trip to California, Greenberger, who had recently graduated with a degree in fine art, took a job at a Boston nursing home. Intrigued by its inhabitants, he started printing his own zine named after the center, Duplex Planet. The publication, which still runs today, compiles short, fractured narratives spoken to him by those suffering from varying degrees of memory loss.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Center on Age and Community chose Greenberger this year to explore artistic ideas on memory loss during a three-month residency. Greenberger's artistic work with the elderly has earned him segments on NPR's "All Things Considered" and residencies in cities like Portland, Ore.

During his stay here, Greenberger and iconic Milwaukee musician Paul Cebar teamed up for a spoken word album, Cherry Picking Apple Blossom Time, which combines Greenberger's monologues (taken from interviews with elderly Milwaukee residents) and Cebar's wide-ranging ear.

"His musical character and bearing really fit perfectly with some of the stuff that matters most to me, which is giving out a real sense of dignity and character and a soulful bearing to these fragments of people," Greenberger says.

Cebar's musical breadth fuses gently with Greenberger's cadenced narratives. From jazz and country to contemporary pop and alternative, each song has its own genre that serves to illustrate a character.

The album features 38 narratives from Milwaukeeans suffering from different stages of memory loss. Greenberger interviewed residents from St. Anne's and Luther Manor, among other nursing homes and day centers, taking pieces of conversations and creating a character from the encounter. His mission isn't just to paint a portrait of these people's lives, but to register a personal emotion in a listener about their conceptions of memory.

"This is not a documentary about the people in it," he says. "Instead it's using these real people and real events as a starting point for me to create these paintings that take a look at the common humanity in these aspects of aging and decline."

He hopes the album pushes the limits of a listener's own short-term memory. Since each track varies between less than a minute to a little over two, it's hard to recall every story. But there's a certain ambiguity about the tracks that leads to deep intellectual thought.

"I'm interested in the things that linger and are mysterious, that don't necessarily yield up answers right away," he says. "And that somehow say something about the final years of one's life."

David Greenberger and Paul Cebar perform Wednesday, May 13, at the Pabst Theater at 8 p.m.

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