Friday, December 10, 2004

In a Corner

Over this past week I performed and rehearsed in four remarkable locations: St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Old First Church, Mission Dolores Basilica, and the Paul Thiebaud Gallery. Jumping so quickly from one venue to the next caused me to consider the influence of setting on a performance. Always running through the back of my mind are the idealized contexts for my own creative work: what space best serves the show, what room effectively suppports, but never intrudes, on the musical piece?

St. Mark's, for example, is austere in that Episcopalian way, all dark wood and polished floor, not cavernous but not really intimate, either. The organ, a Flentrop baroque-style instrument, hearkens back to times long ago. For me this translates to simplicity. There are few stops and no pedal to open and close the swell box. Choices are limited, and I feel a great sense of calm performing on this (not-my-primary) instrument. The organ reflects the space: immediately accessible in its simplicity, easy to manage, and never wanting for more bells and whistles. Two friends at the concert remarked on the hall's excellent acoustics and entertained the idea of a contemporary music concert there. But then one of them said, "people don't want to hear 'modern' music in a church setting." And that was the end of that.

Old First Church, however, does indeed present concerts of all persuasions. Check out their mission statement and its enthusiasm for a broad range of performers and performances. In fact, I performed a chair-gripping rendition of Frederic Rzewski's "Coming Together" there in 2003 (with Ms. Sarah Cahill at the piano). Old First is also rather bare and sparse in terms of religious decoration, and the acoustics, though a bit tricky to initially figure out, favor the musician. Now that it's on my mind, I might agree with my friend at St. Mark's. Choral new music groups will have a much easier "sell" in a religious venue than purely instrumental groups. "Organized" choral music (as opposed, say, to the soloistic voice recital), from any period, plays well in a sacred space. Instrumental music, particularly modern ensemble music, is ill-fit by such a setting. Perhaps it has become ... too profane? Oh my.

Is a church appropriate for Bach but not Morton Feldman? Does this mean we musicians should seek the historic parallel in architecture to "accompany" our programs of music? Does modern music belong in a modern space? In an art museum? A gallery? The instant I stepped into the Paul Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood I thought, "what a perfect spot for my show!" (Ok, I admit that the "rehearsing/practicing" done here was entirely mental.) I could envision a piano angled in the back corner, my accordion, toy piano, and other small instruments scattered nearby, and the two about-to-intersect walls as the appropriate backdrop for projected visuals. Imagine three large, ornately carved picture frames on these bare walls--two here, one there--into which I could project "artistic" photos and crudely stitched together video images. 21st century production in a 19th century frame. The long shoe-box space could easily be truncated to accommodate a very small audience. The austerity, even more pronounced than at St. Mark's (blond wood flooring, smooth white walls, a high ceiling) would present no intrusion on the musical production. Never cluttered by furniture or oddly angled stages or a raised or sunken platform, an art gallery bestows importance to any visual component. The "art galleriness" implies that the visuals are specifically and meaningfully chosen.

The opposite trend occurs in most churches, and though I spend much of my working life in these "venues," I do not consider them as possibilities for my own shows. I would never describe Mission Dolores as austere. The Catholics tend to rely too heavily on props for my tastes: statues, stained glass, mosaics, icons, flowers, candles ... maybe even a few relics. And the immensity of the space means that you lose sight of "the corners." I guess this is appropriate for the worshipper who seeks envelopment by an infinite power, but to me it is unsettling. As I described above, I visualize myself performing "in a corner," a corner that gives extra dimension and an additional layer of meaning to an otherwise dreamily imagined bit of theatre. Perhaps it is understandable that in a place like Mission Dolores the corners fade away; the weekly "theatre" avoids becoming too real and acquires more magical overtones.

In my own eclectic way, though, I like putting square pegs in round holes. I like the juxtaposition of avant-garde music and a spiritually grounded space, of classical music in a dive bar. But there are definitely times when I consider the setting with as much importance as costume or character, when the package is made complete by the real edges or shimmering outlines of the performance space.


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