Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Inaccurate Conception

Yvonne Rainer at REDCAT explores what it is
to sit on a sofa and call it choreography

by Joseph Mailander

Conceptual art unfolds not in the plane of the subliminal, but in the supraliminal. It’s above consciousness, not underneath it. In fine art, this means resorting to text and slogans as artwork; in poetry, it means offering a typed geometric pattern rather than rhyme or meter; in dance means a woman who lies prone on stage rather than one who moves with agility and grace.

Yvonne Rainer, an unrepentantly conceptual choreographer, often brings her own intriguingly androgynous identity to her choreography, that’s for sure. But even more assertively, she is willing to bring conceptuality itself into the staging of expressive human movement. As choreographer, she works the margin of the margin: her main inquiry is into where dance ends and human movements that may or may not be worthwhile watching or even identifying as artistic begin, and what kind of background noise can ferry them along. It’s very difficult on all but the most tolerant audiences; unless, perchance, they might also be entertained by the extra layer of artistic expression she may bring to a piece.

Fortunately for Rainer as a conceptual choreographer, she’s very good at choosing that extra layer. Her provocative Stravinsky interanimation RoS Indexical at REDCAT last weekend is her telling of the telling, by a BBC film, of The Rite of Spring’s riotous debut night. This is a wonderful work to see interpreted in dance; it’s a brilliant concept. Everybody knows the story of the riot that broke out on the occasion of the first performance of The Rite of Spring; upstairs from RedCat in fact, the vaunted and tame Disney Hall itself hauled out the once avant-garde chestnut for one of its own galas in 2003. While the tale of the riot is well-known, few, even among those who know the piece well, have had a chance to visualize or consider what the evening must have actually been like. The film, and Rainer's "indexical" interpretation of the soundtrack, aspire to work us through the shock, bedlam, raspberries, whistles and staircase wit as though we were ringside to it all.

High concept: and anyone choreographing it may do something intriguing with it. Unfortunately, Rainier can’t—or simply refuses to—match movement to concept very much, and lets the piece drift toward the banal throughout.

Only one of her dancers, in fact, is worth mentioning as a dancer; all performers are very studied choreographers themselves, and maybe too little in the line of movement is conceded to them. They mostly perform as dancing mimes who make manic faces and turn the evening into something like a Civil War Reenactment. (One tried to go on point a few times but only got less than halfway there.)

Rainer more often asks her quartet of girls to perform pantomime and certainly not ballet, and they the mimicry often comes with a gimp; when hurling tomatoes, for instance, they have not bothered to learn what leg a right-handed rioter typically pushes off of. Sometimes they’ll even flail a phantom tennis racket, noisily, and the result comes across more as a victory for one time Roland Garros clay-court specialist Monica Seles rather than music hall specialist Stravinisky.

In short, three of four of her dancers rarely dance at all, they are mostly miming concepts that may or not be related to Stravinsky, a riot, music, Nijinsky, Paris, boxing…hodgepodge…dance. When they are at their most intriguing, they are simply piling onto a prop sofa and rearranging their limbs, the way we do in high school when there are too few seats at a party. But even this is desexualized and mimed, and the bodies are variously more bored or panicked than alive and searching for something in either the music or the mayhem. Always, whether on sofa or floor, they are dancing Rainer’s idiosyncratic idioms, often completely unrelated to the piece or to tradition, and they might as well be dancing your auto mechanic’s idioms for all we are invited to care about their individual talents and abilities. (In the performance I saw, Rainer herself was obliged to step in for one of the dancers, who was obliged to leave for the sake of an emergency family illness, and the choreographer pleaded to the audience that it might not find her own presence on stage distracting; alas, it was a hope against hope.)

In case you miss the conceptuality of it all, pennants bearing heavy nouns—nouns freighted with far too much meaning than is ever evident in the choreography—suddenly drop at a key point, and hang and twist slowly, but they still provided more kinetic amusement than the listless dancers provided at any given moment.

I most liked the second piece, Spiraling Down, especially the first third of it, because it flirted even more than RoS Indexical with the boundary of what dance can be: not only an accompaniment to music but an accompaniment to recited text. The four women assembled as joggers for the beginning of the piece and executed a fabulous front-back-front-back slow-mo conga line that almost brought some adrenalin to the evening. Alas, after a lap and a half of chugging locomotion they broke off into alternatively puzzling spheres of mime and narrative meant more to fetch ironic laughs than to celebrate running, another joyous but fatiguing stripe of human movement that one feels could have set up far more. The text itself—I don’t know whose it was—disintegrated towards its end into a narcissistic pile of rubbish, with the author duly noting that at 33, turning to fiction at last, not only was he past peak and ready for the morgue but also the same age of Christ at His Death. Rainer does manage to locate the killjoy in everything, not only dance.

Much caught up in her own identity, Rainer’s most special concept of all in conceiving work is to remorselessly desexualize and demystify that most sexual and celebratory art form of all, dance. She variously goes too far and not far enough. It is as though she wants to provoke a riot herself, but not with the shock of the new; instead, she wants to shock with the vulgarizing of the tried and true. Hoping to say something to everyone, it ends up saying nothing much to anyone, nothing other than, “Yes, this too might be art, if the right critic thinks it is.” Which is often the conceptual case, and makes for a very marginal exploration, whether you agree or dis.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Ojai Music Festival 2009: The Long Goodbye

“Workers Union” performed as the finale at Ojai Festival 2009
Photo: Robert Millard

Sunday, June 14, 2009, 11:00 a.m., Libbey Bowl
STEVE REICH: Music for 18 Musicians

Sunday, June 14, 2009, 2:00 p.m., Libbey Park

TRIMPIN demonstration of interactive sound installations

Sunday, June 14, 2009, 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., Libbey Bowl
MARATHON FINALE IN THREE PARTS (Program in text below)

Review by Rodney Punt

Sunday lived up to its name. After three days damped with gray skies, a bright sun greeted concert-goers as they filed into their seats at Libbey Bowl for the 11 am performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Composed in 1976, it has long been acclaimed a high-water mark of Minimalism. Although I have heard this piece more in a groove in other venues, it got the audience off to a pulsing start for the last day of the festival.

Reich’s second featured work that day, Double Sextet, kicked off the nearly five hour marathon finale later on. Composed in 2008 for eighth blackbird, it won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. Sextet is a much shorter work than 18 Musicians, with a lyrically languorous second movement, its outer movements in more familiar Reichian territory. Had critical perceptions been in sync with historic judgment, the Pulitzer might have been given at the time of Reich’s 18 Musicians, but, in the manner of film actors who are given the Oscar a year after their greatest performance, the recognition is still just and welcome.

MacArthur “genius” grant-recipient Trimpin had earlier installed musical artworks at Ojai’s Libbey Park for the weekend. They took to their new environment like scrub jays to sage. One could see in the main entry his ground-level dialing disc trigger whale-toned water pipes in a periphery, in another area a guitar-toy, and in the Libbey Bowl itself his clanging discs added to the din of the last concert. Between the morning concert and the marathon, he gave demonstrations of his installations at the park.

QNG (Quartet New Generation), four German-Austrian women with a pan-European outlook performed contemporary and classical compositions on a vast collection of recorders (wooden flute-like instruments originally from the renaissance and Baroque eras). Some of the recorders were tiny enough to be hidden in a sleeve, others taller than the tallest of the performers. Their all-contemporary music late evening concert on Saturday had already opened eyes. At the afternoon marathon, their three-works-in-succession were at turns playful and profoundly moving, especially the Kites Flying canon of Victor Ekimovskij and In Nomine by renaissance composer John Taverner, presented in quadraphonic projection from the four corners of Libbey Bowl's seating area.

Other highlights of the marathon, which kicked off at 4 pm and lasted until almost 9 pm: Stravinsky’s Pastorale (Russian songs) sung by a sensitive Lucy Shelton with Jeremy Denk her piano collaborator, combining heart-felt allure with peasant bite, a piquant reminder of the iconic 20th Century composer who contributed so much to the history of this festival. Lee Hyla’s We Speak Etruscan was a wild dialogue for bass clarinet and baritone saxophone that elicited as many chuckles as awes. Steven Hartke’s Meanwhile: Incidental music to imaginary puppet plays and his Oh Them Rats is Mean in My Kitchen showed off this composer’s flair for brilliantly executed miniatures, full of wit and humor.

John Cage's Construction No. 3 gave me one of the biggest thrills of the entire weekend, and should be required listening for anyone who says Cage was more a conceptualist than a composer. A very pregnant Carla Kihlstedt’s violin-cum-vocal performance of Lisa Bielawa’s Kafka Songs was something of a tour de force, but the set outlasts its inspiration. David Rakowski’s Études reinforced the leitmotif of whimsy in the marathon finale, and Nathan Davis’s Sounder attempted to tie in Trimpin’s ill-timed clangs with other percussion.

Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union fittingly ended the whole shebang. This was no Haydn Farewell Symphony of limping one-at-a-time departure. It was more like a new music version of a Woodstock Love-In. Waves of accumulating clanging, banging, rhythmic charges grew like a twister in storm season, as every musician on the weekend’s roster joined in one-by-one, two-by-two, in a Noah’s Ark habitation on the stage. A thunderous pitch, and then suddenly it was over.


Postscript: There are a lot of people to thank and some to remember in saying good-bye to Ojai 2009. In the thanking category, Executive Director Jeff Haydon and Artistic Director Thomas Morris can be justly proud of their fine preparations for this festival. Their respective back office and production staffs performed marvelously. In the realm of remembrance, two fitting tributes were given in the excellent program book penned by Christopher Hailey and edited by Gina Gutierrez. Let me add also a wistful good-bye to Lukas Foss and Betty Freeman, with both of whom I had enjoyed happy associations.

In 1973, as a green-horn in arts management, I worked a year at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and during that summer with Lukas Foss at the Hollywood Bowl. The orchestra’s then Executive Director, Ernest Fleischmann, had hired him to head up the innovative marathons the Bowl gave in those days. For the Beethoven marathon, Foss asked me to obtain the stage “soldiers” for the composer’s potboiler, Wellington’s Victory, a really funny task. He also gave me the far more rewarding job of obtaining electronic music selections to open the contemporary music marathon. He let me make the suggestions. Among the works I landed were those of Morton Subotnick, Edgar Varese, and Pauline Oliveros. We were all wary of how this music would sit with audiences, and programmed it as a kind of prelude to the main proceedings. In the event, electronic art music in the out-of-doors was a huge and unexpected success, due to the simple fact that audiences are more open to the “random” sounds of this music in the outdoors than the same sounds in a concert hall. Foss was ecstatic (often his state of being) and very appreciative of a nervous kid getting his start in the business. With his all-embracing smile, he burst out, “Wadney, tank you so much. Dat musik vas so vunderful.” During that anxious year, it was just the encouragement a green-horn needed.

Betty Freeman was another constant smile over many years. In the late Seventies, when I was at the L. A. City Cultural Affairs Department, one day a lady walked in and handed me her card, “Betty Freeman, Girl Photographer.” In the nearly thirty years of bumping into each other at concerts, occasional attendance at her home salons, or, in recent years greeting her at her customary last row seat at the Jacaranda music series in Santa Monica, or at her Ojai Festival seat, she was always welcoming and gracious. Yes, she had opinions; she did not care for Olivier Messiaen, which toward the end became a crimp on her attendance at Jacaranda’s two year OM Century tribute to the composer, but she did come whenever a work interested her. And she cared and she supported to the very end. We will all miss her terribly.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ojai 2009: A Pierrot lunaire for the Ages

Review by Rodney Punt

Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, a prototype of today's avant-garde music, is closing in on its centennial anniversary and hasn’t a cobweb on it. In some ways the composer’s most enduring work, it just had a world premiere performance at the Ojai Music Festival in a new theatrical format, with a decidedly confident flair.

Coming in the middle of the composer’s expressionist period as one of his first bona fide atonal compositions, Pierrot lunaire bridges genres: it is both chamber music and a cabaret song cycle, with a narrator who half sings and half speaks (“Sprechstimme”).

Schoenberg set some 21 poems in a German translation of Belgian Symbolist Albert Giraud’s longer poem cycle of 1884, based on the commedia dell'arte characters of Pierrot and Colombine. Arranged into three groups of seven poems, Pierrot narrates his dream-like, ill-fated story: his carnal and spiritual love for Colombine, his rejected love’s violence and blasphemy, and his sad and haunted return home to Bergamo.

Although composed shortly after the composer’s angst-ridden Erwartung, the intensity of which can be challenging on a listener, Pierrot’s narrative is not so much a living nightmare as a detached dream. It has just the right tone of irony and stoic humor to give it an accessible charm that many of Schoenberg’s other works of the period lack. (Pierrot's music and text is linked here.)

Capturing that tone in performance can be elusive. Happily, eighth blackbird and friends - director Mark DeChiazza, experienced narrator Lucy Shelton, and a mime and dancer - found the right combination of sight, sound, and innovative stage movement to translate the work’s full potential to the audience at Ojai’s Libbey Bowl a week ago Saturday.

The stage setting was effectively lit and equipped with props in a monochrome black and white that suggested the look of silent films in the early 20th Century, with performers in complimentary period cocktail dresses or slacks.

The insertion of a Magritte-like umbrella and movements that anticipate Theater-of-the-Absurd reinforced the detached irony of Schoenberg’s score and chime with the Symbolist origins of the poems that pre-date the Expressionist movement, and will continue its spirit later through surrealism and its influence on the theater.

A round white light was the poetic stand-in for the ever-evoked moon, the challenge of moving it up, down and around mostly successful. (One future adjustment could have that moon freed from its wire holders for an even more plastic use in the narrative as a weightless, glowing object.)

Lucy Shelton’s Sprechstimme was captivating in the nether world between song and speech, and her gliding musical tone was just right as a compliment to the mercurial instrumental colors of eighth blackbird’s – and Schoenberg’s - ever-changing, inventive combinations. All performers had memorized their parts and were in perfect synchronization, theatrically and musically. (This is no mean feat; in Schoenberg’s time, performers insisted on a conductor.)

The theatrical addition of a dancing Colombine benefited from a similarly mimed Pierrot, the latter performed by eighth blackbird percussionist Matthew Duvall, who has no musical part in the score. All musicians and performers interacted in a manner that might be gratuitous were it not so aptly mirrored in the poetic abstractions and dream imagery of the text.

To these eyes, at no point in the performance was there a sign of strained effort or stretched effect. The ensuing spell cast on the audience was another example of eighth blackbird’s magical incorporation of theater into music. (Incidentally, it is Pierrot lunaire’s instrumental complement that subsequently has inspired similar compliments of performers in eighth blackbird and other modern ensembles.)

The performance will be toured around and undoubtedly further tweaked, but when it is fully seasoned, it should be preserved on DVD and given an even wider exposure in venues like public television.

Before the interval came the West Coast premiere of David M. Gordon’s Quasi Sinfonia, a work that has high ambitions and shows considerable craftsmanship. The first and last movements, Allarmi and Allarmi e campane are sufficiently aggressive to match their titles, and its second movement, Ritual, rather spooky. While I found textures in the central movement, Tema con variazioni, too thick sustain interest among the variations, the work overall was promising enough to anticipate that others of more finely-gauged instrumentation should follow.


DAVID M. GORDON: Quasi Sinfonia (West Coast premiere)
ARNOLD SCHOENBERG: Pierrot lunaire (World premiere of semi-staged version)

Who:eighth blackbird (Matt Albert, violin/viola; Tim Munro, flute/piccolo; Michael Maccaferri, A/Bb/bass clarinets; Nick Photinas, cello; Lisa Kaplan, piano; Matthew Duvall, mime actor in Pierrot lunaire, percussionist. (Also with others in Quasi Sinfonia)

Lucy Shelton, Narrator (in Sprechstimme)
Elyssa Dole, dancer
Mark DeChiazza, director

When/Where: Saturday, June 13, 8:00 p.m., Libbey Bowl, Ojai, California

Photo by Robert Millard, with permission of Ojai Music Festival: eighth blackbird and Lucy Shelton in Pierrot lunaire
Rodney Punt may be reached at: [email protected]

Fête with Tété

above, Kaplan on stage at Levitt; below, Tété, then Kaplan

by Joseph Mailander

"We didn't do a soundcheck," Tété tells the crowd at Levitt Pavillion at last Sunday's Fête de la Musique, France's annual summer solstice global celebration of music. It is too breezily perfect an afternoon for anyone in the audience to wonder why they didn't. Between songs and sometimes during them, Tété asks the mixing board engineer for more 60, less 62, less around the vocal edges...

Eccentrically, for Tété uses his guitar mostly to keep time, and his voice rarely reaches anything approaching a musical edge. It is, in fact, his undressed and earthy qualities that have brought him comparisons not only to troubadours but also to poets.

Two numbers in, the sound finally pleases Tété, who performed alone and also with bluesy Frenchman Eric John Kaiser, who now resides in Portland, Oregon and mixes French urban grit with, say, "Ziggy Stardust." Once satisfied with the sound, Tété animates a little more towards the crowd itself, introducing his songs with tiny pomo quirks: one is not about finding a kindred spirit but rather never finding one; his latest release Le Sacre dues Lemmings, complete with social view in title.

A French Senegalese, Tété mixes in more American idioms than he does world music, but his pulsing guitar, the rhythm of which dominates even the percussion in most albums, demonstrates connections both to Africa and to French banlieues.

The Pasadena crowd was much appreciative of both Tété and blusier rocker Kaiser. Also a documentary film maker, Kaiser's access to musicians such as David Bowie and Arctic Monkeys has informed his own songwriting and performing style, but not inordinately so; he has not been absorbed by any single identity and remains his own performer. We will undoubtedly see both these men at future Fêtes.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Jeremy Denk channels the wanderer Ives and the wonder of Bach

Jeremy Denk, Ojai Music Festival -------------------------- Photo: Robert Millard

Saturday, June 13, 11:00 am, Libbey Bowl,

Ojai, California

IVES: Piano Sonata No. 1

J.S. BACH: Goldberg Variations

Jeremy Denk, piano

Review by Rodney Punt

What a difference a day made at Ojai. The program stumble Friday night would quickly slide from memory with world class music-making the next day. Jeremy Denk’s Saturday morning piano recital paired Charles Ives’ rarely heard first piano sonata with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, an unusual program choice that ended up making a lot of sense. Later that evening came eighth blackbird’s theatrical production of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, with Lucy Shelton as narrator. (We review Denk’s recital here and the Pierrot in the next posting.)

Some works are effortlessly famous from birth; others seem destined to be born orphans. In the earlier category, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, which premiered in 1801, was so popular during his lifetime it irritated the composer, even without the catchy title added after his death. Exactly 100 year later, Charles Ives began his Piano Sonata No. 1, but it took 18 years to complete and more than half a century to be published. It’s quite a story.

Ives composed the five-movement parts between 1901-10 and assembled them 1915-19. The completed work was promptly lost and has never been found. Three decades passed before composer Lou Harrison rescued its early sketches from the dust heap in 1948. He and pianist William Masselos painstakingly deciphered and reconstructed the sonata, obtaining the ailing composer’s approval for publication just before he died in 1954.

But that was just the first hurdle. The work’s huge technical challenges prevented most pianists from attempting it, and its thorny textures have kept audiences at bay. But slowly, over the last five decades, its rightful place as a major Ives work is reaching the public ear, nearly a century after the work’s composition.

Was it worth the effort? In the immortal words of Sarah Palin, “You betcha.” (We’ll return to her later.)

If the Concord Sonata - Ives’ second work in the genre - is a kind of supreme reflection on the composer’s New England heritage, the first piano sonata is much closer to his actual experiences in the region where he was reared. The work’s five movements chart a loose narrative, in Ives’ words: “the family together in the first and last movements, the boy away sowing his oats in the ragtimes, and the parental anxiety in the middle movement.” It's a rite of passage of a wandering boy to his adulthood, where capers of all sorts abound, replete with Ives’ topical quotations of popular songs and hymns. The last movement’s return to home finds the boy more self-reliant and confident. He is also more reflective, striving now for transcendental connection to the great why of human experience. The perennial unanswered question ends the piece with an enigmatic three note motif: c-b-f#. Can anyone answer this unanswered question?

Yes, in the serene certainty of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The work is a mature systemization of the earthy but pious Bach’s lifelong assimilation of styles and techniques. It leaves no doubt that God is in his heaven with Bach channeling his supreme order on the keyboard. As in the Ives’ sonata, the high and low of life’s experiences share time together, but in the Bach it is within confident rules of a divinely ordained order. Fugues, dances, arias, overtures, cannons - all mix but also match. It’s an encyclopedic work where the art and science of baroque music find a perfect marriage.

We have pianist Jeremy Denk to thank for bringing these two composers together. The Ives piano sonata is full of jagged edges and nervous, irregular phrases; Bach’s Goldberg Variations is self-possessed with a jewel-like precision. The fearless pianist, in the prime of a young career, conjured this audacious recital of seeming opposites. But could he bring it off?

As recently as May 23 – just three weeks from his performance at Ojai - Denk enters on his blog, think denk (sub-titled: the glorious life and thoughts of a concert pianist): “I need to finish memorizing that monster of a piece (the Charles Ives Piano Sonata 1) before I go off to the delightful Ojai Festival.”

The blog’s title tells you already Denk has a playful side (Denk means “think” in German). Once you have browsed a few entries, you get the picture that he is 1) a whimsical romantic flirt, 2) finely attuned to expressiveness - his take on Sarah Palin’s speech patterns is already a classic, 3) self-aware, self-deprecating, and spot-on as an ironic humorist, and 4) something of a sleuth in esoteric musical matters.

He’s also a damn good pianist, with a near flawless technique that can articulate musical phrases that he also knows how to shape into meaningful paragraphs. He can thunder, as he did in the Ives sonata, but he's not heavy-handed; his is a light touch and fleet on its fingers. His most remarkable performance moments are often in the quiet, reflective passages in both the Ives and Bach, where his natural empathy penetrates the composers' intentions. His sense of mimicry (just as with Sarah Palin) can nail the alternatingly rough and tender New England humor of Ives.

Denk also has an acute insight into the subtle dignity of Bach. Baroque manuscripts contain few dynamic markings or tempo indications. They stare at the performer unadorned with expressive direction. Denk’s instincts add flesh and heart to Bach’s sturdy bones, and considerable character to the material in the variations. In this performance he also moved the musical argument along smartly by taking few repeats, but those he did, as in Variation 13, were exquisite.

As a Bach interpreter, one might be tempted to pigeon-hole Denk as having more affinity to the romantic than the clinical, but any such label would be misleading. His performance was satisfying and memorable, and as "authentic", whatever that may mean today, as any I have encountered on modern piano.

Jeremy has at least as much Herz as Denk, and thank goodness for that.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Slide: Ambitious Concert Theater Work slips and slides at Ojai

-------- ----------Photo: Robert Millard

Friday, June 12, 8:00 p.m.

Libbey Bowl

SLIDE: World Premiere (Ojai co-commission)
eighth blackbird ensemble
Rinde Eckert, singer/actor
Steven Mackey, electric guitar/narrator

Tin Hat, contemporary ensemble
Selections by Tin Hat

Review by Rodney Punt

The biggest buzz at this year’s Ojai Festival concerned a new piece called Slide, a “Concert Theater Work” by composer Steven Mackey and librettist Rinde Eckert, which premiered last Friday night at Libbey Bowl, both creators and the eighth blackbird ensemble performing it.

A project underway from 2003, it has enjoyed co-commissions from no less than nine prestigious organizations, including the 2009 Ojai Music Festival and some thirteen funding sources headed by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Before a note was heard, Slide already carried the heavy weight of public obligation along with a heady freight of private curiosity.

Much of the buzz at Ojai had been generated by the two creators themselves. First came a longish, enigmatic essay in the Festival’s program book, followed on Friday afternoon by a seminar in which Mackey and Eckert gave the audience and host Ara Guzelimian explanations - lots of explanations. Mackey joked that their work together in vague conceptual sessions had served mainly to “justify their time to the IRS.” At the seminar Eckert said he was really an allegorist and wanted the work’s scenario left to suggestion.

Mackey, on the work’s origins: “I envisioned, like a kid in a candy store, a kaleidoscopic marriage of movement, image, text, and music that moves freely within a wide range of performance paradigms. I had no idea what the piece would be about; I just had a vision for the texture of the performance. I left it up to my longtime friend and collaborator Rinde Eckert to contextualize the performance, to imagine a scenario and personae from whom this music emanates.”

Eckert, on the work’s origins: “The work is more of a song cycle than a play with music or an opera. The text, images, and movement all contribute to a musical logic (italics Eckert’s) which by its nature opens more windows of possibility than it closes with answers. Rather than link events into a story, the 11 tableaux trace a poetic arc and sketch a suggestive portrait.”

Let’s see if we understand. Mackey has no idea what the piece will be about and asks Eckert to contextualize the performance, while Eckert’s relies on Mackey’s music to supply the logic. One wonders if hot potatoes were being passed back and forth between two old friends who didn’t have their hearts in this project. When you have this much money invested, however, you are obligated and pretty much stuck with the results. Sometimes you can be stunk with them too.

The scenario, worked out later by Eckert, centers on a psychologist, Renard, who some years before had asked stool pigeon subjects to identify scenes in slide projections which are left purposefully out of focus. Now he gazes at the slides with the guilty feelings of having acted in a tyrannical manner, engaging in the ritual humiliation of his subjects. A second thought process centers on his own loneliness; he lives by himself in a motel room. He pines after a woman pianist in a band he rehearses with, with whom he has never shared his feelings because he is traumatized by another woman having jilted him years before on their wedding day. The tables have turned; he who had once controlled is now out of control.

Eckert envisions the final emotional state of his protagonist: “…when it comes to expressing his unrequited love for his pianist, and in spite of his ostensible rationality, Renard prefers the infinite potential of the unfinished thought to the finite limitations of a clear and complete picture.” So he sits in his motel room and stares at his hands.

In its world premiere, Slide meandered most of its 70 minutes trying to make significant the shaky premise of its scenario. The work is a thudding bore.

The character of Renard begins with promise, but soon loses us in his irrelevant musings and self-pity. The role could have been a tour-de-force for Eckert. He speaks in a melodrama with the music, sings occasionally, moves about with increased agitation, and dances for a few delusional moments – all with technical skill. But the utter banality of his lines and lyrics block any sympathy we might feel for his character.

Mackey’s music sounds like an eclectic pastiche of rock riffs and referential musical tidbits grown large, and bears little psychological relationship to the theatrical goings on. His electric guitar wails away with seeming enthusiasm, but without a real connection to the character Renard. It’s not that the music is bad per se, it just feels as from a different emotional space. (However, two days later, the talented Mackey's performance of his piece Heavy Light was a treasure.)

Mackey’s narration does exactly what his librettist had indicated in earlier symposium comments he wanted to avoid: it has to explain action that makes little sense (and which becomes increasingly too absurd to care about). The evening’s producers, eighth blackbird, who perform the rest of the musical score with Mackey, take on token acting roles, as it turns out more decorative than dramatically essential.

For example, the object of Renard’s love, the pianist, performed in pantomime by eighth blackbird pianist Lisa Kaplan, is not really a true player in the drama, but a phantom of Renard’s fantasy and longing. Were his obsession about the fiancé who jilted him, we might have become acquainted with at least a memorialized personality of that lost love. But, as Renard apparently knows nothing of this pianist’s character, his fixated fantasy for her is dramatically static to us.

Not to beat a dead horse, but an absurd morphing of meaning of the word “slide” is another grating reminder of this work’s weakness. Initially “slide” means a common photographic transparency. Later it takes on the meaning: “One too many drinks… And you slide into addiction.” Are these guys putting us on? This is the kind of pseudo-significance from a pun that gives double meaning a bad name.

The performance had been preceded before the interval by smoky blue jazz numbers from the composer/improv collective Tin Hat, the emotional substance of which, ironically, could better have served the narrative of Slide.

Sometimes too much money and attention can just kill off creativity. Such would seem to be the case with Slide.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Mozart effect with other composers

----------------The Wagner effect? Let's hope not.

Anonymous observation just received over the internet (slightly edited):

A recent report says that the Mozart effect is yet another urban legend. But what if recordings of other composers had been played during the kiddies' developmental time?

LISZT EFFECT: Child speaks rapidly and extravagantly, but never really says anything important.

BRUCKNER EFFECT: Child speaks v-e-r-y slowly and repeats himself frequently and at length. Gains reputation for profundity.

WAGNER EFFECT: Child becomes a egocentric megalomaniac. May eventually marry his sister.

MAHLER EFFECT: Child continually screams--at great length and volume--that he's dying.

SCHOENBERG EFFECT: Child never repeats a word until he's used all the other words in his vocabulary. Sometimes talks backwards. Eventually, people stop listening to him. Child blames them for their inability to understand him.

IVES EFFECT: The child develops a remarkable ability to carry on several separate conversations at once, in various dialects.

GLASS EFFECT: The child tends to repeat himself over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

STRAVINSKY EFFECT: The child is prone to savage, guttural and profane outbursts that often lead to fighting and pandemonium in the preschool.

BRAHMS EFFECT: The child is able to speak beautifully as long as his sentences contain a multiple of three words (3, 6, 9, 12, etc). However, his sentences containing 4 or 8 words are strangely uninspired.

CAGE EFFECT: Child says nothing for 4 minutes, 33 seconds--exactly.

NOTE: A recent survey has determined that the potential for the CAGE EFFECT is preferred by 10 out of 10 classroom teachers.

Perhaps you have an entry for our consideration? Please comment below.

Spaced-Out Synchronicity

Avant Garde overtakes Rear Guard
In "La Didone" at REDCAT

Spacesuit, ukelele, baroque

by Joseph Mailander

The idea of intertwining two entirely unrelated works for the sake of making a still more entertaining third is not as novel as we who are ever anxious to call something avant garde would like to believe. Used extensively in modern music from contemporary classical to Outkast, such interanimation works very well with the music of our highly fractured, synthesized and sampled, post-whatever time. The one that comes to mind is the way college students in the 1990’s discovered that the soundtrack to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon worked very well running against the first hour or so of The Wizard of Oz—Dorothy and Auntie Em came into scenes precisely as the music brightened and darkened. It happens in theater too: I once saw an Orestia trilogy at Theater Odeon in which Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot obligingly served as the foreboding “Greek” chorus. And Peter Sellars’ mid-eighties stagings of the Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations flung Don Giovanni and others in unlikely settings such as fifties diners to intriguing and occasionally instructive effect.

Comes now a highly entertaining, obligingly scholarly, and surprisingly fluid coupling of two works to produce a new whole: the Wooster Group's La Didone is at RedCat through this Sunday. A restaging of an almost unknown baroque opera, Francesco Cavalli’s La Didone is in this production overlaid by the 1965 sci-fi cult classic “Terrore Nello Spazio” known in American release as “Planet of the Vampires” to bring something altogether new forward.

The overlay works in surprising ways. Critics—and there have been several highbrow ones—feel comfortable and even enthusiastic about the work, with the New York Times and Wall Street Journal both providing good ad copy. But few have tried to grapple with precisely why it works. Our own LA Weekly got closer in interviewing the creators and letting them explain themselves; explain they did, but even they shied away from the key point. The reason La Didone works as both performance and entertainment is the fact that the best element of marriage here is not that the two works' story-points blend so well—although there are a satisfactory number of story-points to compare and contrast—but of the way in which both forms, the baroque opera as well as the old sci-fi flick, occupy our minds: as remote, overindulgent, tinny, static, and above all camp. In short, the Wooster Group’s staging of La Didone works because not only sci-fi but because baroque music itself so often comes off on today’s stages just as camp and precious and wooden and static as old science fiction flicks do. In La Didone, the direction has made mincemeat of both ordinarily static works to bring something truly raucous to the stage.

This production trashes the static at every turn. While baroque music is often staged as archaically as the one-to-one sung-note-to-plunked-note recitative may suggest, with just-hanging-in-there oratorio even when there should be some—any—drama, and would-be gelded countertenors pony up tremolo after tremolo—it all can become truly even more camp than a sci-fi film. You are left wondering after most pure baroque performances: did Venice really do this to itself in the Seicento? But in the Wooster Group's staging of the most famous book of the Aeneid, Dido and Aeneas are running, leaping, dying here and there in their spacesuits, as screens blast all over the place like a suburban sports bar, and tech and sex and Cupid’s exaggerated arrows and a wild stag hunt and a guy with a ukelele muddle the drink—This…Worked. The hunting song for the stag hunt alone brings out ribald comedy likely never seen before in any baroque staging.

There are really three works at work here, not two, and audience members might like to revisit Liber IV of the Aeneid before attending a performance, as the Cavalli work veers in many subtle ways from Vergil's telling of the passions of the queen. For instance, the opera ends significantly more tidily than the Vergil. But the idea of creatures from outer space inhabiting the bodies of earthlings--hey, that's not oh so far from gods and goddesses inhabiting the minds of mortals, such as Dido's sister, to drive human action. As I have noted, the compare and contrast points run through the performance and in fact fairly pop out for all to note.

One quibble I had, and it was likely an ego thing: as a troupe, the Wooster Group does not take individual curtain calls after the performance. But really, the stunning mezzo, Hai-Ting Chinn, who may have as many as a third of the lines in the opera, and who is obliged to run, leap, hang on, make out, stand before an arrow, as well as sing her role to perfection, should really have her own follow spot at the end.

As Clement Greenberg said, if art as an avant garde, it must also have a rear guard. The rear guard is kitsch, and the Wooster Group has found a way to bring two static stand-alone kitsch pieces into a fully-realized and entertaining comic drama for music, noise, squelches, synthesizers, fine operatic voices, and air-ukelele. If you need something to do this weekend, this is it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Ojai Festival 2009 - Opening Concert: MUSIC FOR A SUMMER EVENING

-------Theirry de Mey’s Musique de Tables - Photo: Robert Millard

Thursday, June 11, 8:00 p.m., Libbey Bowl

THIERRY DE MEY: Musique de Tables
(3 pairs of hands, 3 plastic tables)

JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: Dark Waves (2 pianos)

(2 marimbas, vibraphone, crotales)

GEORGE CRUMB: Music for a Summer Evening - Makrokosmos III (two amplified pianos and percussion)
I. Nocturnal Sounds (The Awakening)
II. Wanderer-Fantasy
III. The Advent
IV. Myth
V. Music of the Starry Night

Lisa Kaplan/Jeremy Denk, piano
Greg Beyer/Matthew Duvall/
Todd Meehan/Doug Perkins, percussion

Review by Rodney Punt

Viva percussion! The 63rd Ojai Festival began with a bang, in fact, lots of bangs.

According to eighth blackbird pianist Lisa Kaplan, the group determined early on that George Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening - Makrokosmos III should be featured at the end of the opening night concert. (This work is to a percussionist what the rainbow is to a prism; it contains everything but the kitchen sink in that family of instruments.) The puzzle then became what to program first. How they solved it was not explained, but here’s an educated guess.

Three works were carefully chosen and strung together for the first half of the concert, joining the Crumb to form a proto four-movement work that operates on two levels: as program narrative for a nocturnal creation story, and as a nifty subliminal music appreciation class. In the process the four become greater as a whole than the sum of their parts. It was a canny plan to familiarize us with uncanny sounds.

The resultant narrative on the idea of night music takes us on a musical journey from simple origins to vibrant complexity in one long arc. The narrative scheme can be put in fanciful terms as: 1) “the spark of creation”, 2) “watery masses emerge”, 3) “life-bestowing rain falls on the land”, and finally 4) “movements in the night; visions of heaven.”

In achieving this narrative, our ears accept unusual but relatively accessible sounds in the early works, becoming subtly accustomed to wilder, more far-out timbres when the denser Music for a Summer Evening arrives.

Theirry de Mey’s Musique de Tables (Table Music) starts where music itself begins, as pure rhythm. Three pairs of hands tap and scrape in percussive precision on three plastic tables (see illustration above). These rhythms are later elaborated, going in and out of phase or in contrast with one another. Spotlights on the hands working their rhythms give them a visual life independent of the black-clothed bodies of the three performers (and suggest the cinematic out-of-body shoes of Deco era dancers like Fred Astaire). We know immediately that visual effects and a theatrical flair will be integral to the music festival. We also know that music-making at Ojai this year will be at least as playful as it will be thought-provoking.

John Luther Adams’ Dark Waves moves us into the deep waters of a primordial sea. Fearsome depths in the opening bass rumbles of the two pianos slowly arise in vast watery movements to a state of emerging creation. Ominous power transitions to something lighter, with a gradual layering of arpeggios and spiky figures in ever higher registers that resemble emerging flecks of light. Oscillating loud and soft volumes lead to a concluding sustained chord, suggesting a first calm in the sea of life.

Toro Takemitsu once said that composition “gives a proper meaning to the ‘streams of sounds’ which penetrate the world that surrounds us.” With his Rain Tree we are on terra firma hearing the streaming sounds of marimbas, crotales and a vibraphone depicting dizzy, tingling raindrops on all kinds of surfaces. This rain will sustain life. The evening’s lighting engineers tease the audience with alternating spotlights in a playful game of dueling marimbas. Although a bit arch, in the context of the festival’s theatricality it celebrates whimsically the evening’s narrative of creation.

--George Crumb's Music for a Summer Night - Photo: Robert Millard

It is but a few paces from Takemitsu’s life-giving rain to Crumb’s nightscape of earthly sounds and heavenly visions that vibrate in the second half of the program. In Music for a Summer Evening we have entered the world of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and his Sonata for two pianos and percussion. Crumb’s own subtitle for his work, Makrokosmos III, further acknowledges his debt to the works of the Hungarian master, who was one of the first to use percussion instruments expressively.

As no other journalist will likely include the full, mind-blowing array of percussion instruments (in addition to the two amplified pianos - all illustrated above), here it is in all its glory: vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, crotales, bell tree, claves, maracas, sleigh bells, wood blocks, temple blocks, triangles, several varieties of drums & tam-tams & cymbals, two slide-whistles, metal thunder-sheet, African log drum, jawbone of an ass, sistrum, Tibetan prayer stones, musical jug, recorder, thumb piano and guiro. Whew!

The ears needed to be prepared for this fusillade. The real art, however, is in how Crumb uses these instruments in imaginative combinations to create his eerie sounds. As the composer himself explains: “Some of the more ethereal sounds… are produced by drawing a contrabass bow over tam-tams, crotales, and vibraphone plates. This kaleidoscopic range of percussion timbre is integrated with a great variety of special sounds produced by the pianists. In 'Music of the Starry Night', for example, the piano strings are covered with sheets of paper, thereby producing a rather surrealistic distortion of the piano tone when the keys are struck.”

To close our program narrative, from the spark of creation through the terror of ocean depths, rain engenders life. In Music for a Summer Evening , the “cosmic drama” is replete with struggle, yet we the living look ever upward at the starry night in transcendent awe of the heavens.

A minor miracle happened at Thursday evening's opening concert, an evocation of revealing, wonderful worlds of sound, without, by the way, a hummable melody to be found.

Every aspect of the performance of this and the earlier works was carefully gauged and skillfully executed. The performers were in fine form, the ensembles ready at every turn. Sound amplification worked unobtrusively but effectively. Lighting effects came off with flair and without a hitch. In short, a brilliant feat of programming, spectacularly realized.

The 63rd Ojai Festival was off to an exciting start.

63rd Ojai Music Festival: eighth blackbird and friends explore the new music cosmos

-eighth blackbird chamber music ensemble- ------- ---photo: Luke Ratray

Ojai, California, June 11-14, 2009

Overview by Rodney Punt

It was once said of Toru Takemitsu, the late composer of environmental sounds, that he simply loved the whole world. The 63rd Ojai Festival, which concluded yesterday evening, might just as well be called the music festival that loved the whole world.

Artistic Director Thomas Morris invited eighth blackbird (they prefer lower case), a contemporary chamber music ensemble, to be Music Director this year. Only the second ensemble in six decades to be so named – the other was the Emerson Quartet in 2002 – they took full account of Ojai’s aging Libbey Bowl and its leafy, tree-filled park for endless musical experimentation.

Over a four-day stretch beginning last Thursday, the amphitheatre was the main venue for an eclectic mix of sounds that stretched ears and eyes, to say nothing of the mind. Outdoor music installations by Seattle-based artist Trimpin were festooned about Libbey Park, one of them actually participating in a final collective musical number.

Cloudy skies and unusually cool temperatures the first three days lent an appropriately reflective mood to a couple of the darker-themed musical selections. The surrounding hills of Ojai, carpeted in their oak-green majesty, inspired eighth blackbird and a large number of guest musicians to make the whole valley resonate as their chamber.

The Festival offered a world premiere of a new work of Steven Mackey and Rinde Eckert, Slide, the world premiere of a semi-staged version of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, the west coast premiere of David Michael Gordon’s Quasi Sinfonia, major works of Steve Reich, the rarely heard Charles Ives Piano Sonata No. 1, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, George Crumb's Music for a Summer Night in an interesting program with works on the same wavelength, and numerous smaller works, some heard for the first time. One guest ensemble introduced us to the largest collection of recorders (old-style wooden flutes) I have ever seen.

Certain musical forces and artistic styles predominated: an extensive use of percussion; unusual instrumental combinations, timbres and textures; experimentations in form and style; showy virtuosity; cutting-edge musical theatricality; and bizarre intersections of visual, stage, and musical arts.

Big philosophic themes were examined: the origins of music and life, the power of Nature, humanity’s eternal quest for meaning and love, the nature and relationship of the divine in human experience.

The musical fare was almost too immense to digest in full, and concentrated in so short a time period, journalism can scarce do it justice. So we mention only highlights here and will select performances to cover in some detail in later postings.

Bottom line: the 63rd Ojai Festival was an enormous success, highly stimulating, occasionally puzzling, in at least one performance absolutely maddening, in many others lots of fun, and in a select few awesomely magisterial.

It was an essential dose of music for those curious to hear, feel and think in the differing worlds of organized sound.

Not bad for a music festival in a time of economic retrenchment.

-----------------------------------------Photo: Rodney Punt

NOTE: This is a first report on the 2009 Ojai Music Festival. Others will follow, but, as we post newer entries on top of older ones, look UP the blog for successive posts.

NOTE also: The Ojai Festival has an offer to hold ticket prices at current levels for early subscribers to next year's Festival, June 10-13, 2010. Visit OjaiFestival.org, e-mail [email protected], or call (805) 646-2094 for further information. And, while you are at it, book your favorite motel now too.