Saturday, October 24, 2009

Anne LeBaron @ U of C

Anne LeBaron presented this past Friday to a (rather poorly -- yikes!) attended colloquium in Fulton Hall. The subject: her opera, Sucktion. LeBaron's work sounds immediately fascinating. Here's a random selection from her very impressive CV: she won a Guggenheim, studied with Ligeti (not in that order), has written a "dance opera" called Pope Joan, and Wet, another opera about the big business of water and the horrors of floods and she, I'm quoting, lectures at CalArts on the "concept of HyperOpera." (I don't know what this means but surely it is meant to address the hyper, erratic, overblown aspect of opera--aspect, or sine qua non--that is, the histrionic too-muchness of opera, perhaps in order to address what happens when the "Opera/Too-much" dial continues to be turned even further up, up, up?)

In the beginning of her lecture Anne charmed us by revealing a years-long fascination with old vacuum cleaners and vacuum cleaner sounds. She played us early samples of her work, female vocalizations layered on top of recorded & processed vacuum sounds. At times the two seemed uncannily to merge, and at one point, LeBaron had the vocalist spit and buzz into the vacuum mouthpiece to produce a series of fun sounds that would probably make Kaija Saariaho jealous. LeBaron's collaborators on Sucktion include the poet Douglas Kearney, whose libretto is a clever homage to Marinetti typeface. This all seemed promising.

LeBaron saved the nugget of her presentation for last -- that is, the semi-finished, workshop staging of the opera in L.A. But this is where things started to go downhill. LeBaron later mentioned she feared that 40 minutes of vacuum sounds weren't in and of themselves interesting enough to justify the ticket prices (okay, I made that part up, but she did say she was worried the vacuuming lacked moxy) so she crafted a heavy-handed scenario to go along with them. (For the record, vacuum sounds are TOTALLY interesting. Maybe not for forty minutes, sure, but for at least 25. If John Cage can get away with Points in Space, I say go for it!)

Oppressed housewife cleans house, anticipating the arrival of her husband home from work. (The singer/actress in this case was Asian, and one grad student floated the thought that LeBaron intended the opera as a critique of interracial marriage. Or better, I thought, that the Mail Order Bride phenomenon in this country replicates/updates in the 21st century the phenomenon of the overbored, undersexed housewife of the 1950s? But LeBaron seemed uninterested; or else this was my private flight of fancy. Anyway.)

The husband arrives home (a recorded voice-over, "Honey, I'm Home"; i.e. there is no "husband"), finds the place a mess & retires for the night. Depressed, the housewife turns melancholy. A vacuum arrives. A present from her hubby. She falls in love (with the vacuum), sprawls on it orgasmically and thus the comedy endeth.

To put it simply, the problem? Too much scenario and too literal.

1. Put the husband in a locked closet stage left so that the "housewife" (or is she a dominatrix? an updated Alcina?) controls his exits and entrances.

2. Or make it Erwartung Appliance! Instead of losing her fiancé, this poor woman is in denial over the death of her beloved vacuum.

3. Or make the husband's cleanliness phobia the center of the (o_p)/e(r?)a and his hapless wife the Mrs. Haversham of the Ace Hardware Cleaning aisle.

A dash of the intellectual wit that has made LeBaron such a successful composer and a writer is needed. Instead, the staging we saw consisted of the soprano (who, by the way, is a musicologist and member of the group that commissioned the opera) putting on and taking off rubber gloves, stuffing them into her oversize apron pockets, dropping them, and putting them on again. LeBaron's score, and her ideas, play happily far off of the beaten path. But this opera needs a director so that the curiosity that motivated its inception gets taken up a notch. Staging, to honor its points of origin (the ideation of the opera, the wit and spirit of adventurousness that composers like LeBaron bring to the table), should amplify, qualify & problematize that origin; not bow to it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I think I might be famous...

... but I'm not sure. Does a photo in the Hyde Park Herald constitute arrival, recognition, everything I've been waiting for?

(Confirmation pending.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Lucinda Childs at the MCA

I fell for it. No, I TOTALLY fell for it.

The MCA press for its Lucinda Childs show last weekend advertised not "Lucinda Childs Dance" or "Lucinda Childs, Adapted, Updated" but "Lucinda Childs." Period. And the only accompanying photo on their website is a lithe Lucinda Childs doing something extremely cool with her arms that I can't reproduce. (I tried.) I don't mean to accuse the MCA of false advertising, but they really had me: I thought, despite her being 70 years old, Lucinda Childs herself was going to walk up on the stage and dance. And come on: I'm not insane. Dancers age better than the rest of us. Look at frigging Baryshnikov! But I should have known. There's an age at which respectable artists of all stripes stop publishing photographs of their current selves and use the same one indefinitely. Lucinda looks a little too gorgeous in the photo to be 70. But then, who knows? It seemed to me at least plausible that if she were 70, and that picture had been snapped when she was 60 (it's a stretch, but not totally ridiculous) it might be the case that the show was not just a showcase of her work, but that Lucinda would appear in the flesh. And in a way she did.

"Dance" is a reconstruction commissioned by the Richard E. Fisher Center at Bard. The original piece (1979) comprises three 20-minute pieces with music by Philip Glass. Rather than simply reenacting the piece and having done with it, the creative team last weekend thought it would be a good idea to project a live recording of the original, 1979 version on top of the live dancers. A very, very thin scrim divided the audience from the stage making this possible. The video was rarely in sync with what was going on onstage and the projected dancers were also very, very large by comparison so that they dwarfed the live performers.

Childs' choreography Mickey Mouses Glass's music. (Translation: it's repetitive.) 20 minutes kinda crawls. The problem wasn't that the dance was boring. In fact, the video projected dance was riveting. If the MCA had shown an hour of the video only (by Sol LeWitt) I would have left, a happily paying customer. The problem was the discrepancy between the live and the video-projected dancers. On the video (which included a breathtaking solo dance by Lucinda for Lucinda), Childs' choreography worked. It was repetitive, but in a good way, because the ingenuity of the movements bear repeating. The dancers are poised on a giant grid, 12X12 squares. They skip along the grid at breakneck speed as though it were propelling them along. LeWitt's camera follows the dancers, making it seem as if they're actually hopping up and down in place on a moving sidewalk. The effect is a bit like Irish dancing, to use a terrible comparison -- the torso stays totally upright; the feet do all the work. Childs' facial expression in her own dancing is also unusual--rather than looking out at an imagined audience, she looks inward. She's doing this dance for herself and we're incredibly lucky to catch her in the act. I almost felt voyeuristic watching the video. But the live dancers on Friday dispensed with everything that made the original dancers so unearthly. Theses were rule-bound, balletic, posed. Less skittish, more robust, more effortful. They looked like they were trying very, very hard.

In case you'd rather hear it from someone who actually knows something about dance, read the Laura Molzahn review in the Trib.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Chicago Humanities Festival

I'm directing a show at the Chicago Humanities Festival here on the University of Chicago campus this afternoon: come!

The show, which is improvised, is based on an incomplete fragment of a commedia dell'arte pantomime Mozart sketched out for himself and his pals to play in Vienna during carnival. Mozart reserved the role of Harlequin for himself and had his dad Fed-Ex his Harlequin outfit for the occasion. Unfortunately for us, only Mozart's violin line survived the centuries, along with an extremely spare, and often confusing scenario (including, for instance, that Harlequin goes from being alive in one scene to stone dead in the next for reasons that are not apparent, or the instruction that the "Doctor" is to exit and then that the Doctor then ... exits, again [from offstage?!])

Fortunately, the violin part alone is worthy of an Animaniacs appearance -- it does half the work of inventing action for us. Roger Moseley, who found the pantomime & engineered its musical reconstruction is jaw-droppingly good at revivifying 18th-century musical topics. He directs the ensemble from the piano bench.

I also decided to insert a couple other extraneous Mozarty bits into the score this time around: 1. Mozart's Turkish March for piano solo (which accompanies the otherwise totally unmotivated entrance of a "Turk" in Mozart's scenario, hence the appropriately out-of-place music) and 2. an aria for Columbine -- at Martha Feldman's request, Barbarina's aria from Figaro. The aria (accompanied by Pierrot) is a total red herring (no one has uttered a word thus far, let alone belted out opera), recalling, I hope, Christina Ricci's completely bizarre and wonderful tap dance in the middle of Buffalo 66, which has a similar effect.

As an additional layer, thinking the commedia relationships bear a striking resemblance to day-to-day academia (lecherous old professor, scheming post-doc, emo undergrad, innocent English major from Minnesota) the characters are dressed in U of C nerd wear.

There is a typo on the Chicago Humanities official webpage, which, alas, lists Roger Moseley as the sole director. Anyway, come, and while you're at it, try to pass yourself off as an "Educator" at the door so you can get in for free (think pocket protector, bedhead, fanny pack).


Harlequin: Jon Eliot
Pantalone: Greg Anderson
Pierrot: Peter Schultz
Columbine: Majel Connery
Doctor: Jonathan DeSouza
Violin: Emily Norton
Clarinet: Danny Gough
Piano: Roger Moseley
Cello: Emily M.

Mandel Hall
1131 E. 57th St.
Chicago, IL 60637

Adults: $10.00
Educators & Students: FREE

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Monday, Oct 12 Workshop on Peter Maxwell Davies

Oh, shameless plug!

My work on Peter Maxwell Davies (dissertation in embryo) is finally taking form. I'll be presenting next Monday, October 12 at a newly-constituted workshop in Theater & Performance Studies at the University of Chicago, run by David J. Levin & Christopher Wild. The paper is slated to appear later this winter (don't be deceived: it isn't actually winter outside, though it feels to be) in the Oxford University Press journal, The Opera Quarterly.

Come see me embarrass myself:

Monday, Oct 12
Germanic Studies Department
Wieboldt Hall, Rm #206
there will be wine


The French are So Unimaginative

This was passed along to me by a friend of mine but it belongs in a museum. It's the graphic on the vomit bags for Polish Airlines. I haven't flown to Poland lately, but really: could there be a better way to say VOMIT HERE NOW than Torba Chorobowa? ... but then, what about Spuckbeutel? A close second. Oh, my.


Or is it MCoP? Or MoCoP? Here's what I don't understand: Mo = Museum, right? Yes, I know, MoMA started it, and little 'o' stands for 'of.' Fine. It still looks bizarre. I think MuCPhot works much better.

ICE never does anything half-assed. David Bowlin was the only ICE'er on the program last night, but there were more in attendance. Claire Chase had an outfit that would have made David Bowie jealous if only he could fit into it. The exhibit at MoCP (MusoCoP) was spectacular and went well with the spectacular program. The image they have on the museum website really doesn't do justice to it. Behind David was what appeared (from my position 40 feet back) to be either a shattered adult toilet seat (the kind you put over top of the regular seat, presumably to make it ... more accessible to the adult butt?) or a life raft exploded into about 7 pieces. Each of the pieces had wild colors all over it & it was positioned at times more or less directly above David's head when he moved toward it, making him appear to have a psychedelic halo radiating from his brain. On the opposite end, equally thrilling, was a bird's eye view of a small city coming directly out from the wall in 3-D. The image I want is the expensive holiday cards with complicated embedded origami that shoots out at you when you open the thing. Except 10 times larger.

David played the first piece, Sciarrino's first two capricci from 6 Capricci far fresher than I've ever heard Sciarrino played. It was so fresh I kept thinking someone with a crush on Sciarrino had cribbed his style. Like the Borges story where someone other than Cervantes writes Don Quixote exactly over again, word for word. But it's somehow different, because it comes from a different person in a different time & place. 6 Capricci written by Barry Manilow wouldn't be 6 Capricci written by Prince, even if they'd written the exact same piece, because their authors are such different people. Is anyone following me? It was fresh. Fresh, I tell you! And Berio's Sequenza VIII was stunning.

The people who actually had seats experienced Nono's La lontananza nostaligica utopica futura (and, forgive me because my Italian is awful but I'm guessing the piece is something about a faraway nostalgic, utopic future) in surround sound. The piece is for 8-channel tape and solo violin, so there were four speakers placed around the audience & David's playing was seconded by violin, vocal and other unidentifiable sounds that flitted between the speakers. I'm not qualified to judge the piece because I couldn't really hear it. Nick and I got stuck in the back of the room due to the unfortunate route Nick chose to get to the museum. But I might go ahead and judge the staging of it -- yes: the staging!

The piece itself is ages long and so the sheet music that corresponds is likewise long. 6 stands long, to be exact. Rather than having David play from stand 1 through to stand 6 all in a row, which one would expect, the stands were instead distributed around the playing arena at odd angles so that when he finished with one stand, he would then be forced to head off to the next. But someone had had the bright idea that he should not simply move to the next, he should be gripped by the need, the desire to find the next stand! He should be compelled by a strange interior voice: where, where is your stand, David? Thus, one ream of music finished, David would stop playing and pull a sudden, odd "what's that smell?!" face, and then would appear to be following the sounds of the music coming out of the speakers as though they sang a sweet, sweet tune only he could hear, as though the music, not he, was leading him blindly on. Then suddenly (what, ho!) he would land smack in front of the correct stand in the sequence and then begin playing again.

I'm making it sound funnier than it was. It was actually just a little hokey, so my thought, I suppose, is that actors should act, and musicians should play music.

Anyway, the concert was fabulous, and I'm sorry it was only one night.