Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Gail Wight at Stanford University

Gail Wight became a heroine of mine this fall. Our paths had crossed during my time at Mills College, but it was not until 2& became artists in residence at Stanford that I began to explore her work more fully. I sat with her exhibition for a long while yesterday, moved to tears for many reasons, including those that ask the tough hard questions about the personal in your art, about the honesty of your aesthetic, and about the committment to ideas and ideals that maybe you've carried with you for a very long time. Maybe, even, since you were a child.

In Sliding Scale, one finds scientific subjects (microscopes and labratory mice, drawings of chromosomes and old texts on evolution) as well as modern technologies (interactive video monitors and video projections, ambient and wryly popular soundtracks) yet Wight's intersection of the two is so playful. She keeps things beautiful, simple and sincere. The pieces, whether a pristine series of prints on the wall or a video encased in a nineteenth century viewing box, are naive and direct and not trying too hard. They do not try to be something that Gail herself is not. To have kept true to her vision, to this sort of austere, quirky simplicity, without "showing off' as either scientist or technologist...well, I admire that, and I want to be sure that is always me. I too aim to find a way to use technology in art that is not immediately perceived as fast, flashy and furious. Demonstrative virtuosity might be kept in mind, of course, when studying a music programming language or developing techniques with a new piece of "gear," but I always want my end product to somehow remain quite at a distance from that, from what I see as new technology's lure...and its pitfall.

Gail Wight has found that distant place. Even with its cerebral emphasis, how it places you in a world of science and experiment, electric wiring and detailed diagrams, her art is never just a demonstration of digital technique. No. It is personal and true and, for me, a perfect balance between an artistic vision and the means used to realize it.

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In the Moment

As performers, one of our most common mistakes is giving up the moment too soon. People talk about living and being "in the moment," and the experience of a live musical performance is special because it is precisely that: it is in the moment. And yet, as performers, we must prepare in advance for the moment. Furthermore, we must sustain belief in the moment even after it has passed. If you give up "the moment" too soon--if your shoulders drop, if you scratch your nose, if you break your posture even the slightest bit--the audience will not believe or experience "the moment" that is actually contained within this framework of preparation and suspension.

A piano teacher once put it another way. She drew sets of parentheses on either side of a note: ( ) [quarter note] ( ). She said very seriously, "Heather, your work is entirely in the parentheses. There is all of this," and she circled her pencil in that hollow space between the first set of parentheses, "and there is all of this," and she pointed to the interior of the second set of parentheses, "and that is your job. What you do in the parentheses is what sets you apart. What you do in the time before and after is what determines whether this arrangement of notes works, if it convinces your listener, musically speaking. The actual note?" She shrugged, "The notes take care of themselves." My lesson ended early that day. At the time I did not appreciate why. Thinking back, and remembering it as if it were just yesterday, I realize this was one of the most profound lessons of my entire life.

Maybe the moment will take care of itself. It is the past and the future that need more of my attention.

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2& Presents

Now installed in the lobby of Cummings Art Building on the Stanford University campus through December 4.

Audible Memories (2006)
Video monitor, microphone, a/v prompt and recording system

Audible Memories examines the complexities of aural memory. The installation, consisting of a prominently placed microphone and a video monitor, prompts people to confide something audible. In addition to a single line of text (cuing the curious visitor to speak) the monitor displays the image of a glass jar. Words spoken into the microphone trigger the video, and the jar slowly begins to fill, symbolically collecting and containing various stories, remembrances, or observations. The audio samples are digitally recorded, playing the real--fixed digital technology--against the nostalgic acts of preserving otherwise ephemeral moments.

The final component of Audible Memories is a musical performance that remembers and recontextualizes what was spoken at the installation site. When placed amidst diverse musical material, one that may include toy piano melodies and electronic beats, tin cup articulations and ambient noise outbursts, the recorded samples assume another meaning. As musical motifs, the selected sound bytes suggest how memory transforms the exact and precise into something much more figurative and imaginative. The performance pays distant homage to the style and form of musique concrète as well as the Surrealist game of exquisite corpse, yielding delightfully mercurial arrangements of discrete known elements.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

On Thursday in the East Bay

November 16, 6:30pm
Grand Lake Theater
3200 Grand Avenue, Oakland, CA
Emerging filmmaker Jenessa Joffe screens her short film, "Shank"
Original soundtrack scored by composer Anne Hege

November 16, 7:30pm
Mills College Concert Hall
5000 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland, CA
Songlines Concert Series presents Tony Martin, pioneer video artist

November 16, 8:30pm (or, avec moi, a fashionably late 9pm)
The Starry Plough
3101 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA
8 x 8 x 8 choreography curated and presented by Randee Paufve|Paufve Dance

Whew! See you at all three!

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Being a Little More Necessary

for T.T. who said to "write about it"

Dance might not need music, but it's a tried and true pairing, like oysters and champagne, prosciutto and melon, Christmas and baby J. In this sense, when I attend a dance performance, I consider the two as one, whether they rely on each other to tell a specific, external story (as in the great classical ballets) or intertwine so completely as to form a mutually reflective and supportive relationship (thus relating an internal story, about each other). I also love when the two creative forms pose as independents, keeping as separate as possible yet flirting with chance counterpoints (as in much great modern ballet). Ideally, even when the movement does not "go with" the music, there exists an implicit and necessary relationship between the two. Otherwise, why bother?

Perhaps I was too enchanted with their performance last spring, or perhaps I shouldn't have carried that enchantment to my seat this past Friday night, but Lines Ballet's fall season performance left me somewhat disappointed. The program consists of two recent pieces, Migration and Sky Clad. What with the sounds of small percussion instruments (including toy piano), electronics, sweeping symphonic strings, and birds--chirps and squawks, screeches and cries--I should have been completely taken with Migration, The Hierarchical Migration of Birds and Mammals. But at intermission I couldn't shake the uneasy feeling that, for Alonzo King, in this piece, any music would do; the dancers might just as well preen and stretch to a medley of Messiaen, John Lennon and Samuel Barber. Although somewhat raggedly stitched together (two composers, one score, multiple sections, last minute revisions), the music offers moments of pause and transition; the structure is all there, yet the dancers dance right over it, anticipating section-defining cadences, or wallowing in movement when the music has clearly turned another direction. This is not sloppy dancing; it simply shows no concern for the phrasing and dynamism of the music. It seems that this is choreography concerned only with itself.

The disjunct between choreography and composition continued in the second half of the program where live classical Indian music replaced the soundtrack of birds and instruments. Alonzo King tends to choreograph "piecey" ballets, with trios or quartets, a showcase solo moment, and a pas de deux--always a pas de deux--interspersed between full company numbers. Sky Clad is a suite of ten such sections, and as such, it fails to grow or develop, a point made all the more obvious in contrast to Rita Sahai's musical performance. Sahai moved fluidly from one raga to another, at times accompanied by viola or tabla or both, and her songs and transitions formed a satisfying whole. I wish that King could similarly build a larger, cohesive whole from his individual dances, but in both Migration and Sky Clad, he does not quite escape the dangers of composing à la suite. The repetition of movement--limbs that reach and pull into and against nothing but pure space, the pliable gestures between hand-clasped dancers--begins to read not as intentional, musical repetition, but as choreography that has run out of ideas. It is one-key, a bit redundant. At a certain point in Sky Clad, I wondered if this was simply the same choreography as for Migration, with a few nods to Indian dance (little intricate designs with flexed hands and feet) thrown in for good measure. I've seen great choreography and artistic vision by Alonzo King, but this program revealed a shortcoming: without a commitment--some kind of necessary connection--to the music, the choreography feels a little self-absorbed.

Such criticism is tough because the Lines dancers are beautiful, so strong, supple and graceful as to make one sigh. Yet two weeks ago, I witnessed a company of equally (if not more) beautiful dancers when Cloud Gate Dance Theatre came to Zellerbach. And I never questioned that musical score, a sparse offering of breath, gongs and woodblocks, and natural ambient sounds. I believed right away that the artistic vision found the music necessary, not as a mirror or an accompaniment to the dance, but as a respected, committed partner. I wish Alonzo King had somehow made the music a more necessary part of his choreography; I wish I hadn't walked out of there feeling like any music could do the job. It's not about dancing to the music, of course, just about setting aside singlemindedness to make respectful room for another.

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