Saturday, February 24, 2007

Reducere in Pace

Ten years ago, on the trusty (now in computer heaven) Macintosh SE, I spent an entire spring on the critical analysis of modernist literature and painting, including this work of "political" art:
In Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937), a woman throws her head back, wailing for the dead child in her arms. She recalls the Pietà, the figure of Mary cradling the body of Christ. ... The woman's stretched and mauled figure, her vacant stare, and the simply sketched facial features are Picasso's response to tremendous social upheaval, from the rise of industry and urbanization to, of course, war. The great modern destruction encompasses Picasso's Pietà in Guernica.
I looked at art by Manet, Cezanne, and Picasso and read works by Cather, Joyce, and Faulkner:
William Faulkner constructs Caddy Compson from a number of perspectives. Indeed, Harold Bloom observes that we "come to know a single Candace Compson, but only as a heap of broken images. Caddy is an extraordinary composite of ... symbols, attributes, associations, comparisons, and connections." Faulkner's technique of fragmentation essentially draws attention to the parts of rather than to the whole itself.


Faulkner buttresses the contrasting Benjy and Quentin sections against each other like angular shapes in a cubist portrait. Our attention to these individual pieces--to each brother's perception of Caddy--nearly belies our understanding of the whole person. One can no longer rely on a standard form of the heroine; synthesizing her portrait becomes each reader's challenge.
And I tried to draw connections between things:
Ultimately, what we perceive is a consummate figure that surpasses the sum of her (quite literal) parts. ... Similarities between the two characterizations--Guernica's wailing mother and the Compson boys' sister--are striking. Picasso and Faulkner both respond to war, destruction, social struggle and injustice with piecemeal, deconstructed representations of humanity. With Picasso, what seems simple "in parts" (a lightbulb, a horse, a mother, a child) becomes almost impenetrable as a composite. Likewise, Faulkner's poetic language abstracts the story at the heart of The Sound and the Fury.
I put my old thesis aside, pleased with some of the insights and the beauty of the language, but frustrated that I did not extend the discussion beyond the threshold. Once I'd reconstructed the characters in my mind (for crying out loud, I did not even describe what the composite picture looked like or meant to me) what did I make of them? What larger meaning could I extrapolate from the style of their depictions? What interpretation would another reader make? I write so surely, "from Picasso to Faulkner, the image of the woman is at once quite obvious and resoundingly convoluted," and yet shy away from what might have been pages and pages of fascinating conjecture on those images.

Conjectures reveal truths, about the work itself, about the world at large, about the artist, about the viewer, and yet, 1937 or 2007, I sense that viewers (or readers) resist making a personal conjecture about a work of art. It feels inconclusive somehow. Picasso? Faulkner? Is it surprising that their fragmentary, indirect style is still so hot? I could very well take my thesis and discuss William Forsythe's Three Atmospheric Studies, which I saw Thursday and Friday at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. There is a reason that the performances made me dig into the ten years ago files ... and I intend, this time, to address the remaining big questions. Via Forsythe.

continue reading...

Friday, February 23, 2007

Last Night's Dream

Punctuation. Fast garbled sentences and exclamation points, then comma, comma, semicolon, full ... STOP. Contrasts of noise and movement and then the absolute. Quiet and stillness. Dancers who can, all of them at once, stop on a dime together. And when they "run," they RUN! Fast! Faster than most modern dance people even think of moving. And then, without scripted directions or a musical mark, they STOP. Full stop. I was never so aware of punctuations, never so content to let the murmurings and whispers and unintelligible shoutings and screamings go to the recesses of my mind.

Three Atmospheric Studies is very theatre, quite minimal on pure dance except for the first segment, and visually stunning as only Forsythe can do. What eyes he has. What a vision: the angles and intersections, and the dancers knowing their corners and facings, all so right and perfect and executed with clarity. The punctuation of physical geometry. And then the colors--khaki and drab and primary Crayola colorbox--and the lights--sterile interrogative fluorescents and the soothing ellipses (a low natural stage glow) into the beginning of each Part. This was the dream of last night.

continue reading...

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Perception of the Whole

Students say, "I just want to learn to read the recipe and chop the vegetables. I can think about what spices to use later." That baffles me. You have to think about the spices from the moment you pick up the knife, because the way you chop--the way you use technique--depends on the spices, even if you add them "later." You make different shapes for nutmeg, tarragon or cilantro.

Open your mouth to sing or deliver a line. Yes, sometimes that gesture is itself a spice, but often it is just a raw ingredient, and it needs to be an appropriate shape to make sense within the larger scope of things. Technique must perceive the whole. Who cares about your knife skills if the dish is bland and tasteless?

continue reading...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Forsythe & the Baroque

At San Francisco Ballet ten days ago, I opened the program and read, "ARTIFACT SUITE Composer J.S.Bach, Eva Crossman-Hecht Choreography William Forsythe." I then put on my Nancy Drew sleuthing cap. Music by Bach? I flipped the program over and over again but found nothing more specific than that. It was not enough; I wanted to know what Bach, what piece, the instrumentation, the date of composition, all so that I could anticipate how the music might play with or against what I knew about the style of dance. An orchestral suite? Surely not a choral work. Something for solo keyboard? (I pondered that idea because the program made distinct note of company pianist Michael McGraw.) What of Bach's oeuvre could match or even meet Forsythe's choreography?

The grating broken chords of the famous violin chaconne surprised me. So baroque, I thought. If any piece defines the style, it is the chaconne, where the number of independent and intertwined voices seems impossibly conveyed by just the one instrument, and where the snaking "melodic" lines and dramatic full stops create a musical fabric that is as oddly asymmetrical as it is balanced against the work's overwrought emotion. I could begin, however, to read "the baroque" in Forsythe's vision, from the schoolish yet physically exaggerated port de bras to the fierce, gravity defying duets performed by two couples. The extravagance of every stretch, pull and lift in the pas de deux, not to mention the sheer speed of their movements, was indeed another voice against the stoic border of the corps and their angular arm gestures. The chiaroscuro of lighting design further emphasized the baroque ideal, though the work as a whole read as thoroughly modern, thoroughly late twentieth century.

Forsythe did not stop with the chaconne. During its last plaintive strains, an electronics track picked up threads of the chaconne's harmonies and melodies, bending and twisting pitch and speed ever so slightly and providing the transition into the second part of Artifact Suite. Michael McGraw launched into a piano work that sometimes suggested Bach (though in a way that Shostakovich's piano music suggest Bach) but that grew into this dense mass of sound. Throughout the second part, I never questioned the visual magic: Forsythe uses the dancers to carve into space, printing illusory designs on the enormity of the stage and then moments later sweeping the dancers to the edges, as if unfurling the blank black canvas once again. I did, however, find myself wondering if the music ... worked. I had a hard time reconciling the very live and present pianoness of McGraw's performance to the (recorded) chaconne. (I am curious how a live violinist might have spiced the mix.) But as quickly as these thoughts arose, I dismissed them. The musical arc of Artifact Suite did not satisfy me completely, but it did not undermine my appreciation for the whole work either.

I am impatient. At the end of the week I shall see Forsythe's company in Berkeley. San Francisco Ballet gave me a wonderful performance as well as much--aesthetically--to think about, and I'm willing to bet that seeing his own company will be like cracking open that oyster and finding the barroco inside.

continue reading...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

In / On

Does sound travel in waves or on waves?

In an arc around the listener or on an arc around the listener?

Is the impetus of flight in the wings or on the wings?

Is the impulse to fly in the wings (or on the wings)? ((In sound (or on sound)?) Instinctual (or calculated)?)

Is sound my symbiont or my predator?

continue reading...

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Being Vulnerable

I'd be very comfortable singing with one candle--and that's it!

--Meredith Monk

continue reading...

The Children's Hour

Inspired by the eponymous song by Charles Ives, The Children's Hour is a 75 minute program produced by Sidecar featuring the music of Façade by William Walton, as well as art songs and piano pieces by Ives, John Cage, Jim Tenney, and Bunita Marcus. Sidecar's original audio and visual design, which includes interactive electronics and sound processing, tape compositions, and video, provides a nervy counterpoint to vintage texts by Edith Sitwell and Henry Longfellow. The menagerie of game and play is an eight year old's imagination cracked open, punctuated by expert vocal and musical evocations of intrigue and nightmare. "Between the dark and the daylight, comes a pause in the day's occupations that is known as Childrens' Hour." This third collaboration between Anne Hege and Heather Heise, their most thorough integration of musical theatre and new technologies to date, suggests nostalgia even as it speaks to a meaning of childhood in today's culture.

The production's high degree of flexibility allows for its performance in both traditional and popular venues, with or without sound systems, with or without pianos. The balance between acoustic and multimedia elements is scaled to each unique location.

The Children's Hour premieres this June.

continue reading...

Friday, February 02, 2007

Jeux: Tilden

Jeux: Tilden is to be a first video project. I stored the idea away for almost two and a half decades and am just now starting to make it my own. I hope, of course, to take it beyond the literal ('oh, it's a girl tossing tissues up at the Seaview Trail lookout') and create a playful poetic statement about imagination and flight. With the ability to cut, paste, filter, time remap and endlessly edit the footage, the project is also likely to investigate artifice--the artifice of birds (but they are not birds!) whose wingbeat rhythms, so obviously composed, no longer coordinate with what we perceive as natural.

continue reading...