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 fiancĂ© 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.

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