Every now and then, I encounter a performance so dense with sensory information and so utterly unlike anything I'd previously experienced that, as a writer, I'm left struggling to conceive of a way in which I might describe what I've seen and heard in a way that does justice to its scope and impact. It doesn't happen all that often, but when it does, I wonder how to do my job in the event -- and maybe even just what that job is, if I'm feeling so challenged to distill my impressions into something legible and useful.
That was my experience this evening at the Chelsea Art Museum, where the multidisciplinary performance-art organization VisionIntoArt presented the second of two current performances of a work-in-progress, Sounds. Inspired by Wassily Kandinsky's 1912 book of the same name, which juxtaposed 38 poems with 56 woodcuts in an exploration of crossdisciplinary aesthetic connections, the roughly 90-minute presentation wedded the work of three composers -- Nico Muhly, Paola Prestini and Milica Paranosic -- to contributions by actors, a performing poet, a choreographer, a filmmaker, an animator-photographer and a historian. A lighting designer and a sound designer should also be included in that list, so extensive and necessary was their participation this evening.
Muhly's Winter Sounds, which opened the evening, proved a handy appetizer, a readily digestible morsel before the two heavier courses that followed. A short piece for two violins, viola, clarinet and percussion, all amplified, the gently lyrical work was suffused with a sort of plainspoken luminescence that I'd admired in the handful of his works I'd previously heard. Surrounded by relative decorum, Nadia Sirota's viola sang and throbbed with the same sort of passion she'd previously brought to a performance I heard last year of Muhly's Keep in Touch, a weirdly wonderful score that also features the prerecorded voice of sanctified alt-pop androgyne Antony. That piece is included on Muhly's forthcoming debut CD, Speaks Volumes (on the Icelandic label Bedroom Community), which ought to be on everyone's shopping list. Placid photographic images projected concurrently were less than ideally visible from where I was sitting.
Prestini's Hymn of Love in Scarlet and Blue and Paranosic's Root -- both long, substantial pieces run together without pause -- were far more difficult to parse, though this had nothing at all to do with the music either composer presented. Speaking in gross generalities, Prestini's music shared some common ground with Muhly's: a penchant for long, limpid tones and shimmering percussion; a straightforward melodicism sometimes augmented with electronic resonance (one early section might have been performed in a cistern); a happy adaptation of minimalism's more sensual effects, served in smaller doses. Paranosic's piece leaned toward more electronic textures and sharper rhythmic contours. And if Steve Reich, Philip Glass and even Brian Eno are canonical for Muhly and Prestini, Paranosic seems just as happy to induct the Residents and the Ramones into her pantheon; ritualistic drumming and Balkan dance also found their way into her music.
But to discuss a VisionIntoArt presentation in terms of its musical content alone is to miss the point; in fact, the relative directness of the compositional idioms employed stood in stark contrast to the near cacophony that resulted from the interaction of music with image, motion and language. Nor were these elements assembled in any conventionally narrative sense; this was more a theater of spectacle and sensation.
Opening with prerecorded bird song and watery swooshes, Prestini's piece afforded -- inspired? -- both ritualistic poses wrapped in lengths of scarlet cloth, and the handsomely musical, near toasting cadences of poet Roger Bonair-Agard. Singer Haleh Abghari contributed to the musical ensemble while slapping paint-daubed fingers against the stretch of paper she knelt upon. The intoxicating profusion of seemingly unrelated impressions, as well as Prestini's wedding of disparate styles, reminded me of nothing so much as the similarly disorienting scores assembled by Simon Fisher Turner for Derek Jarman's later films, such as The Garden and Blue. Late in the piece, percussionist Pablo Rieppi played a vibraphone solo to electronic accompaniment, while the rest of the performers cleared the rose-petal strewn floor and exited.
As the lights went down, a childlike song sounded out from a back room; a chunk of Rieppi's massive kit was moved out to center stage, where he kicked off an undulatory beat. This, I surmised, was the segue to Paranosic's Root. The ensemble, all singing, processed back out to the stage area, where Rieppi's drumming took on the ebb and flow of a grandstanding hard-rock drum solo. Cellist Claire T. Bryant strapped on a bass guitar, actor Holter Graham picked up an electric guitar, and suddenly, the entire ensemble -- Prestini and Paranosic included -- pogoed wildly to a genuine punk-rock blurt. It was as surprising a moment as any I've ever seen during an ostensibly high-art presentation, and one that could only have been pulled off by a composer for whom punk rock was a fact of life, as opposed to a sensation borrowed on the cheap.
Stately processionals and tribal passages followed, interspersed with masterfully composed electronic intermezzos. My head spun. Where was the storyline, the road map? Near the end, a long skein of red cloth reappeared. The performers whistled and twittered, recalling the recorded birdsong with which Prestini's piece had opened. Intentional or not, this did provide some sense of continuity and closure.
Throughout the evening, I found myself reflexively trying to discern underlying themes and narrative threads; as you've likely surmised, that hasn't quite happened yet. Still, to fault the performance would be a mistake, because in the end, I don't think VisionIntoArt is especially interested in sticking to any traditional rulebook. I might have done better to take my cue from the Kandinsky quote at the top of the program:
Beware of pure reason in art, and do not try to "understand" art by following the dangerous path of logic.
And in the end, if what I saw did indeed defy logical convention, it was certainly no less absorbing and provocative for that refusal.
I should add that the performance seemed to be at least somewhat constricted by the physical confines within which it was presented, a squared-off patch of floor surrounded on three sides by audience and on the fourth by the video screen, with massive columns reinforcing those boundaries. Certainly, that was true for the more overtly athletic choreography, which sometimes came across as affected leaps. Still, the performers gave their all to the work, with a fearless conviction that did much to carry the observer along in its bold sweep. Prestini stated early on that the final version of Sounds will be staged at the Whitney Museum in April 2007; I look forward to continued updates along the way.
Afterward, I headed over to the Stone, John Zorn's tiny arts laboratory on the Lower East Side, to catch the second set by composer-performer Robin Holcomb. A major player during the downtown ferment of the '80s, she and her husband, fellow keyboardist-composer Wayne Horvitz, moved to Seattle long ago, and don't visit as much as we might like. Holcomb, too, is an artist hard to categorize. Early on, she was a composer of knottily complex scores mostly played by jazz groups big and small. But her later albums, on the Elektra Musician and Nonesuch labels, offered a range of utterance that stretched from Stephen Foster, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland to Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. Holcomb's performance tonight was billed as "Larks, They Crazy," named for a now-impossibly rare 1989 album. I used to have a cassette dub of this record that I can no longer locate, and once recklessly chased a CD copy up to $65 on eBay before ceding the battle. (If I get another chance to bid, I won't give in so easily.)
Uttering scarcely a word to the audience, Holcomb led her band through most of the charts from that record, wholly original concoctions equally brushed by an avant-garde jazz vocabulary and a rootsy songfulness. Holcomb would revisit a few of these pieces on subsequent records, which moved ever further into a sort of Americana singer-songwriter vein -- albeit one ever stippled by a melancholy twilight. Stripped of the twanging guitars, vintage organ and gospel-like backing vocals with which it was adorned on 1992's Rockabye, "The Natural World" reclaimed its original starkness, drawing greater attention to Holcomb's tremulous vocals.
Reed players Marty Ehrlich and Doug Wieselman and bassist-tuba player Dave Hofstra -- all among New York's most versatile musicians -- reprised their original roles in this ensemble. The fly in the ointment was drummer Kenny Wollesen, whose pulse was far more variable than Bobby Previte's had been on the original album. At times, Wollesen completely abandoned timekeeping, instead prodding the music forward with variations of timbre and density not so far removed from those characteristic of Paul Motian. Holcomb closed her set with an arrangement of the traditional song "Buttermilk Hill," a melody that sings out freely in the tones of tobacco and cotton, indentured labor and armed conflict that underline so much of her recent work.
Ludwig van Beethoven - Fidelio - Christa Ludwig, Jon Vickers, Walter Berry, Gottlob Frick, Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus / Otto Klemperer (EMI Classics)
Wayne Horvitz/Butch Morris/Robert Previte - Todos Santos (Sound Aspects)
Simon Fisher Turner - The Garden (Mute)