George Herms takes a bric-a-brac opera to REDCAT
Monkish junkman Herms, with slide of protégé.
by Joseph Mailander
Towards the end of George Herms' musical-assemblage bricolage, The Artist's Life; a Free Jazz Opera, the lanky septuagenarian is hoisted into the air, far above two other suspended pieces of urban junk, a metal spiral staircase and a 600-pound buoy, that have also been lifted, spun, and "played" in performance. The stress load on REDCAT's rafters endures, and so does the point: there is lots of junk in the world, and the human spirit is both kin and transcendent to it. Like plants, as critic Robert Hughes has said, we need the shit of others on which to feed, and nobody in contemporary multimedia takes this to heart more than Herms.
Herms is equal mixes ad hoc artist and structured entertainer. While engaging, his constructions of detritus and his over-serious North Beach-circa-1960 stage presence play as much to giggle fits as to solemnity. He is possessed of as much gravitas as a boulevardier falling into a manhole, Chaplinesque in his solemnity.
His current work is scored as a "Free Jazz Opera" and two formidable jazz ensembles run away with the music to it. There are moments that make you laugh, and moments that make you wince. The first musical piece is pure brazz loft jazz and you wonder if you are in for ninety minutes of Eric Dolphy times seven. Through the piece, Herms stamps papers with various stamps on paper plates, makes unrecognizable impressions, and then holds them up to the two music ensembles, as though they are sheet music. They are not, of course; they are spontaneous conceptual art, and don't mesh with music at all.
But as much of the rest of the media are the recognizably found-objects we see in assemblage sculpture, much of the rest of the music is recognizable west coast jazz, some of it as friendly and refreshingly familiar as Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers ensembles of old. The music is pumped out by Bobby Bradford Mo’tet and the Theo Saunders Group, and these two units are split on stage, delivering sturdy, brassy, spot-on bop and modal jazz through the evening.
If there is disappointment, it is that Herms does much not explore the musicality and tonality of the found objects he fetishizes. A spinning staircase and later a spinning buoy--rolled out on dollies and hung from the rafters--end up exceptionally large gongs emitting exceptionally small dongs. Herms taps them, somewhat rhythmically, somewhat curiously, and appears to have no special talent for percussion, In fact, the production's highly talented and multi-faceted soprano, Diana Briscoe (she not only sings and dances, she helps Herms slip into his hoist), invited to play the buoy by rapping it with a short segment of a 2x4, brings far more musicality to the exploration than Herms, who seemed satisfied to pound one of the buoy's indentations that consistently resounded a perfect B perhaps because he recognized the note.
Highlights for me included a very solemn construction and erection of a makeshift cross during the piece that celebrated death and the final dance in which Herms shoulders a helter-skelter stepladder riddled with detritus and dances with his sporting soprano.
It does not require genius or even much irony to announce a makeshift--everything is makeshift--encore entitled "Concerto for Saw and Cellphone" in which the audience is invited to take out their cells and take photos. But it does take an affable amount of panache to pull such a thing off, even such an evening off, and ultimately Herms leaves you laughing over his bric-a-brac, and appreciative of art for entertainment's sake. I took a photo too (below), and left very pleased to have taken it, and very pleased to have come.