Friday, March 30, 2007

Having Dreams

I've had dreams, well actually, it is an old dream now, of collaborating with a choreographer and performing select Bartok Mikrokosmos to original choreography. This would be a serious undertaking; the rhythmic complexities and precise lines of counterpoint should be danced to, and I liked to muse that perhaps Paul Taylor (or some Taylorite) would be the best choreographer for such pieces. I can see it even as I listen to my favorite pieces from volume 5: the deft footwork and the clear and decisive arcs of musicality, all of it innocence and playfulness amidst strict pedagogy. I imagine that Taylor and his dancers would understand the structural details of these simple-sounding miniatures.

That is a little dream, kept on a shelf.

"Some people dream of playing in Carnegie Hall; I'm ok with Yerba Buena Center. Really." I said this less than a month ago to a close friend, not imagining that my début, as it is, would come so soon. My "dream" of performing at Yerba Buena involved composer-me, the computer, my little USB keyboard, maybe an acoustic instrument or two, and all of us tucked halfway down in the pit, at the feet of contemporary choreograpy, perhaps as danced by my darlings of the ODC Company. This is the dream I so recently described, and in its dancey way, it is distantly related to the Bartok/Taylor dream.

Funny how dreams work out. Tonight I will play the piano for the Paul Taylor Dance Company as they warm-up for their performance at YBCA! It is just class (ballet barre) but it is onstage, so I'm thrilled, regardless. I shall try to play very well.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Near the Terrace

It feels unspeakable.

The second piece on Shen Wei Dance Arts' program at Zellerbach shut me right up. That's all I really want to say. Inspired by the work of Paul Delvaux and set to music by Arvo Pärt, Near the Terrace, Part I obliterated my experience of the Rite of Spring. Only a sacred litany can describe it: weird, intense, deliberate and patient. The nearly decrepit postures, sustained through almost the entire dance, wore a kind of knowing wisdom. Dressed in Romanesque half-togas, dancing on and in front of a massive, austere white staircase, bodies chalked white, and hair loosed in shocking, Medusa-like "arrangements," the dancers at times suggested holy sages and seers. At the same time, I couldn't help but think of their beautifully awkward movements--the strategic lifts and precious cradlings between pairs of dancers--as movements only a newborn could make. The entire piece felt wrapped in a caul, and as much as I wanted to remove it, I wanted to leave it alone, for luck.


But I'll quibble a bit, anyway. Pärt's Fur Alina and Spiegel im Spiegel did not form a musical whole on par with the rest of the piece. The spaciousness of Pärt's soundworld probably appealed to Shen Wei--the correlation of the music and movement as spatial explorations was dead on--but since neither of the pieces, alone, equaled the length of the dance, he just stuck them together, back to back. There are more graceful ways of handling such compositional dilemmas; of this I am sure. My other quibble is with the lighting design, which did not always reach into the range and far corners of dynamic subtlety presented by Wei's choreographic, costume, and design visions. This is a young company, however, and I will be keen to follow its developments in years to come.

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Views from the Field


welcoming spring...

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Sunday, March 25, 2007


What is the Rite of Spring without the bassoon? What is the Rite without the flutes and piccolos? What is the Rite without the double basses and cellos frenzied chunk-chunk-CHUNK-chunkchunk? What is the Rite of Spring piano four-hands version? Just what -- the hell -- is that -- about?

Once I finally calmed down, I decided that the Sacre sans orchestre was essentially the Rite without color. The piano is a fantastic colorbox, but the opening of the Rite of Spring? Give me the bassoon! It saturates the ear with its seductive, nimble call. The piano version, by comparison, sounds a little washed out, and the decision to use it colored (or decolored?) the lens with which I viewed the dance.

I went to Zellerbach on a whim last night to see Shen Wei Dance Arts. As my mind worked furiously to come to terms with Stravinsky's desaturated version of what, for me, is oh-too-familiar music, I realized that the visual impression was complementary: the dancers wore drab grey and moss colored "dance class" clothes, and both the garments and the stage floor looked as if they'd been rubbed with chalk. This muted, grey Spring reminded me of country dawns and the dewey webs that I used to try to count before the sun melted them away. Shen Wei's vision seemed to represent the nervous cusp between winter and spring, and it was a far cry from the Easter egg pastels or other bright colors that we often use to dance in the season.

The hush of the ritual allowed me to appreciate what felt like a wholly original dance vocabulary. The dancers executed yoga-like postures with a speed and precision (and in sequences that you would never attempt in yoga class) that continued to surprise. (Well, ok, my attention was on the verge of waning when the chunk-chunk-CHUNK kicked in, and even though the strident chords were just coming from the piano, I was pulled right back into the piece.) This wasn't just the token yoga-fusion-modern-dance thing that I've been watching on bay area stages for the past five years, either. The strings of motion built from these still poses seemed purposefully abstract, bestowing importance on movement and not on story or geography or cultural identity. The fierce, rhythmic punctuations--a leg here, suddenly replaced by an elbow, instantly obscured by one standing foot--showcased the dancers' flexibility: their range of movements seemed physically impossible sometimes, but not in that highly emotional, all-about-extensions way. Rather, Shen Wei's dancers folded and unfolded like pieces of living origami.

And then they stood all in a line and did nothing but twitch for a few minutes. Twitch. Hand. Knee. Twitch. Twitch.

This Sacre du Printemps--its muted tones, (the desaturated score!) the sprightly movements and highly individualized attention to the group (no passionate pas de deux and very few soloistic moments to speak of)--made sense to me even if it's not the Rite that I would make. (uh, ask me in a few years...) Shen Wei's spring came in as a quiet shadow, a murky grey memory of all the springs past.

And do you think that the Rite could pale in comparison to another piece on the same program! Well, it did. be continued

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Still & Moving (II)

I do still play the piano. I really do. It's just that lately I've been consumed with thoughts about video and image. (Ladybugs and butterflies, the game of jacks, and a pair of scissors, to be precise.) Video is a wild beast. Given thirty seconds, I feel I'm looking at thirty years. I am a perfectionist who wants to lavish attention on every frame, and there are thirty of those per second! The sensations are too much sometimes. The images overwhelm the imagination.

Certain photographs by Alfred Stieglitz satisfy my aesthetic requirements of a still image. A single frame, the captured moment in time, creates an expanse in my mind of all the time around it. My imagination thinks of all the frames that could have been captured by Stieglitz's eye: what did Georgia hear just before she turned her head, did she smile after he took the photo, did her hand leave a smudge on the automobile's shiny chrome wheel cover? It was one blink for the camera, but it is blink, blink, blink-again-blink for my mind's eye. A great still photo (or even a painting or other work of visual art) lets my thoughts wander three hundred and fifty nine degrees around the single viewpoint with which I am presented.

If I approach video with this mindset, it is no wonder I become overwhelmed. The two forms may share chemical genes, but one is still, and one is time-based. This is obvious, yet I seem to forget the fact every time I curl up to edit footage! I want to still the moving image...and then let it move again. I swim against the current, perhaps. To edit video with a photographer's eye will be a painfully detailed--painfully sensual--process, but one that just might yield poignant and intense and concentrated results. I may learn to tame the moving image, or I may find that I am really just taunting the still image into moving behaviors.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

In the Mind of Nursery Rhyme

My favorite bartender is highly amused when I read my nursery rhyme book while drinking a glass of good wine. He'll pour me another and tease that I must know how to read them for their double (naughty) meaning. I have to laugh at that one. More seriously, though, I like studying these nursery rhymes and children's fables because my current musical projects (er, compositions) demand it. (Projects seem to go where they will, all of their own accord, and I simply follow them them around, trying to guide them into a shape that others will enjoy, too.) The following sentiments (from the preface to The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book) sum up much of what I am trying to accomplish in the music (and video, too):
The nursery rhyme comes at the transitional stage between the picture book pure and simple, and the first story book. ... The child probably has not previously given the verses any meaning. Now, he looks at the pictures in the book in relation to the words being read and begins to identify...and understand.

These are fancies and frolics, of lunacy and yet logic.

The poetic view of life is maintained in the riddle. Common objects are to be found dressed in the apparel of other objects. Ostensibly they have been so dressed for puzzlement, but the choice of costume has been the poet's.

In the nursery rhyme, a story is told more quickly, and arouses more laughter in less words than ever is possible in prose.

An illustration for a child need not be large, nor should it attempt to out-do the text; in fact it is an advantage if it is a simple statement matching the verse. There is, in fact, a particular pleasure in examining and re-examining the precise miniature world of a small engraving.

I particularly agree with the idea that some songs and rhymes are "beyond precise visual interpretation." When I play with video, for example, one of my foremost mantras is: do not "stunt the imagination [of the audience] with some exact interpretation."

Ultimately, I must condense and whittle away on these ideas, turning text into lovely program notes and concepts into fun pieces. Yes, it's just a matter of getting those pieces made! Alex agrees. Barfly, barfly, fly away home!

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Nicky Hamlyn at PFA

Earlier this week I attended a screening of half a dozen or so experimental films at the PFA. Filmmaker Nicky Hamlyn curated the program, pairing films by Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, Annabel Nicolson, Simon Payne, et al. with works of his own. The majority were silent, and while the "unaccompanied" moving image appeals to my aesthetic sensibilities--I truly like the idea that a film or video creates a visual rhythm or melody--silent studies of simple subjects challenge my imagination. I still want to experience aural music along with the visual. (Chalk it up to inexperience with the medium; I have no problem, for example, listening to music sans image.)

Hamlyn works extensively with time lapse technique, and his subjects range from the whimsical (bedsheets and towels on a clothesline) to the austere (a gravel road lined by cypress trees). The dancing, jittering clothesline pieces teased me out of my boredom. The laundry became, in my mind, silly characters wanting to tango. In Object Studies, Hamlyn engages the viewer with the saturated yellow of a common bath towel; the "subject" satisfies because it inspires me to make free associations with the color. My mind is engaged in ideas of its own but doesn't forget, either, that this is a film...of a towel...on a clothesline. Line, geometry, color and shadow form the composition just as a traditional still picture might be rendered, but the flittering, moving, unavoidable element of time adds another dimension. An odd dimension. A pay-attention-to-me dimension. A dimension that is sometimes music...and sometimes just a towel.

That crux fascinates me, but is still not enough, aurally speaking.

Hamlyn discussed his method after the screening at the Q&A, and I listened with a growing sense of familiarity. "I do not use the camera as a gathering device as some people do, partly ... for economical reasons, but also because I pretty much know what I want to get, and how much I can get, out of a shot." In other words, Hamlyn does not see the benefit in gathering numerous takes of the cypress trees along the road. If the light is less than brilliant, or if it varies throughout the day in ways that another filmmaker might find unusable, Hamlyn plays and works with the footage until he likes it, or, until he comes to understand why he does not like it. From the latter viewpoint, he often finds and creates an entire new piece.

This approach made complete sense to me. When I record sounds, I generally make a shortlist of what I want: what instrument, whether I want some harmony or a melodic line or a particularly peculiar "effect," and then I play...and then I just go home with the sounds and make of them what I will. Even with instruments other than the piano--a cymbal, for example, or sheets of tissue paper--I generally know what I want, and what I am able, to get out of them. I see no point in spending countless hours recording take after take in the hope of the ultimate cymbal scratch or perfect rhythmic wrinkle. If I am dissatisfied with aspects of the session, I continue to listen and play with the recordings until a new piece or idea springs to mind. It's not always easy,'s an approach, and I gathered that Hamlyn works in a similar fashion.

It is a refreshing aesthetic, though some video artists might feel shortchanged by it. I seem to hear no end about perfect shots and reshoots, chased light, hours spent color correcting or arguing with the color lab technicians, and the neverending search for more storage (GB) space. I'm left feeling that they equate their video work to the work--the work! I just want to experience their vision! I guess I expect from experimental film what I expect from any other art form, whether that's dance, chamber music, or opera: I like the end result to feel effortless. Hamlyn's jazzy, time-lapsed bedsheet on a clothesline felt effortless to me (even if it was silent and I nodded off here and there).

Film and video becomes difficult to assess when I don't know what I'm "supposed" to be looking at. An absence of sound doesn't help matters. (You would think otherwise, no?) It should be this incredibly scintillating medium and yet sometimes I just find it trying. The screening Tuesday night turned serendipitous, however, as I felt that I'd met a kindred spirt in method and process.

The SFCinematheque site provides a link to an annotated list of select pieces by Hamlyn. Give it a read.

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Monday, March 05, 2007


One does not only wish to be understood when one writes; one wishes just as surely not to be understood.

--Friedrich Nietzsche

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