Aesthetics

Bruce Conner Loves Sound (Part 2)

From Angels (1986) with Edmund Shea

In one visit, it is difficult to appreciate the welter of media, styles and experiences of Bruce Conner: It’s All True. Mandalas are framed and hung on the wall in one gallery- inked in minute, cramped detail. Intentional or not, it reminds me of the test patterns and countdowns that one often sees in his films. Those images make me “hear” the beeps and sine waves of the behind-the-scenes machinations of watching T.V. and movies as a kid. Sometimes the curtain would open and you would see and hear the wizard, or at least the technician, before the show started.

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#100 MANDALA (1970)

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1950’s  era television test pattern

Conner likes working with other artists.  Angels is one cooperative effort with Edmund Shea from 1986. The room for Angels is painted black and hung on the walls are several gelatin silver prints of heavenly light piercing a black plane. There are eight almost-full-sized portraits, each cutting through the dark in its own way. According to the information sign, Bruce liked making his gallery shows “theatrical”, so these images were originally accompanied by crickets in a box, chirping. MoMA shied away from this idea by playing a close recording of crickets into the gallery space. I guess bait shops and potato slices aren’t plentiful on 53rd street.

 

The chirping warms the room, accompanying the angels not with the sounds of  heavenly hosts, but with a summer night. The angels are made familiar by this friendly, earthy chorus. Angels is now associated in my mind with the sound of chirping crickets, and they are more alive in my memory. Clever how he attaches his angels to my memory with sound.

This is the second post of many about this exhibition. Please go! At MoMA until October 2nd.

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The Rake’s Progress (A Concert Review)

File_002The evening begins…

The venue for Eli Spindel’s String Orchestra of Brooklyn’s concert version of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Roulette Intermedium, sits within earshot of raspy-voiced island music thumping from cars on the street and within eyeshot of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower. The intimate theater (“Prime seats at the Met”) was perfect for this production. The concert-goers sported blazers and bowties, jeans and t-shirts and cocktail dresses. The small theater was full of young and old adults chatting. Dressed in black, the orchestra prepared for three hours of concentration the score demands. A screen hung behind the chorus on which to projected the super-titles. There were microphones in between the audience and orchestra which framed the evening as an inviting, open recording session.

The concertmaster, Gina Dyches, a staff member at Roulette, entered followed by the guest conductor Tito Muñoz, music director of The Phoenix Symphony and five year S.O.B. collaborator, who said a few things before the concert. He mentioned that everyone involved in the project was a volunteer, incredible considering the quality of the performance. Also, The Rake’s Progress is one of his favorite pieces of music. And with that, they began. The orchestra performed very well overall. There were moments of uncertainty, but the proper bounce, blend, and sheer concentration smoothed out any rough spots. Rebecca Steinberg should be praised for her trumpet solo in Act 2. Stravinsky always treats the trumpet player with respect and Ms. Steinberg reciprocated.

The chorus was small and rag-tag. The members offered unintended diversions during the performance. One was asleep in the front row during the first act; another pursed her lips in disapproval at the stage action later on. There was a thirsty bass on the back row three minutes after intermission and, another time, a snarky joke between two sopranos on the front. The chorus was on stage the entire night, so these discreet indiscretions helped move the evening along. I also enjoyed the unintentional gravitas added by Rebecca Pechefsky, the capable harpsichordist for the production, who occasionally descended and ascended the stage right staicase like Eurydice.

The audience enjoyed the production and singing. Both Tom Rakewell (Gilad Paz) and Anne Truelove (Stefanie Izzo) received ovations during the performance. Many in the audience stood to clap when the progress had wound its course. I enjoyed both the staging and singing as well. The petite soprano Izzo’s voice is anything but,and her Anne endearing. John Kapusta as Sellem the Auctioneer made an explosive entrance which made me laugh. He kept up the energy and character to steal his short scene. Mother Goose (Caroline Tye) was convincing as the Madam of a brothel. Amy Maude Helfer, who played Baba the Turk with skill, was difficult to hear with or without the veil covering her character’s bearded face. I expect more scenery chewing from Baba. Paul An (Truelove) was the granite presence that the small role requires.

The scenario is straightforward enough, but the welter of elements keeps you guessing. Anne is the heroine of the tale, but it’s hard to believe the sophisticated Auden and Stravinsky thought so. Anne shows up in technicolor OZ like a black and white Dorothy. I was taken with the coming and going of the characters. Each has their arch which undergird the structure and symmetry of the work. The progress begins with Tom and Anne together in Idyll. The progress is completed, after Anne, her work and charity finished, leaves. Tom in the asylum Bedlam with the chorus of mad accompanying him,dies. An epilogue with the five main characters is added a la Mozart. The work itself is an odd mishmash of seriousness and silly, romance and morality play, classical music and 50’s broadway, with scene, mood and character development turning like the flick of a playing card.

In tonight’s production, Tom’s death scene was very effective and seemed genuine, a rare feat on stage. Throughout, Paz was quite the leading man, giving Tom a kaleidoscope of feelings and character quirks throughout each tableau. His chemistry with Benjamin Bloomfield as Shadow was some of the best on stage tonight. Shadow had some moments of flubbing his lines here and there noticeable only because of the ever-present super titles. In spite of these small mistakes, his voice was nicely present and he certainly looked the part of Shadow by sporting a goatee and slicked hair. The menace of malice became real in his demeanor when he began to lose the impossible-to-lose card game to Tom near the end of the work.

Evil is very present in this work- Tom is easily talked into leaving Anne for money, easily talked into whoring and then a bad marriage. (“Marry Baba neither for desire or duty! Marry her because you can to be free!” Odd logic if logic it be.) Magic is present in this work, with Baba silenced like a canary simply by covering her head. Love is manifest by Father Truelove, Anne and Tom. Even when driven mad by Shadow, Tom as Adonis remains what he became during the card game – devoted to Anne, his chaste Venus.

Try and see this production tonight. The musicians work hard so there is no need for you to.


The Rake’s Progress

Music by Igor Stravinsky

Libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman

The String Orchestra of Brooklyn

Conducted by Tito Muñoz

8 p.m., July 23rd

ROULETTE INTERMEDIUM, INC

509 Atlantic Avenue (Entrance at the corner of 3rd Avenue)

Brooklyn, NY 11217

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Movie Music: Dead Men (1995)

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photo credit: © Gregory Briggler

Some times music chosen for movies plays against type and that makes the movie better. Dead Man Walking, Oscar bait for Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, is clearly made better by an unusual soundtrack. In the case of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, it can make a great movie grate.

What made Dead Man Walking so exceptional was director Tim Robbins use of music that didn’t have any cultural association with the deep South setting or even the United States. Instead of the boring, second-rate-slide-guitar-go-to of most films set in the exotic, gothic (hot, humid…) South, Robbins went with something exceptional. The music featuring the amazing, piercing voice of Pakistani Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, tabla and sitar, adds a lens of otherness. The beauty of the story shows through because the music removes tired stereotypes which allow the larger questions of the movie to come into focus. The worth of all is a people problem. It is not only a Louisiana problem or a United States problem.

The horribleness of Dead Man’s soundtrack cannot be overstated. The music is a Neil Young vehicle and in my memory consists of one electric guitar, one chord, and one chorus effect pedal. The stoic, solitary guitar is supposed to create an emotional connection to the enveiled main character, John Milton, played by Johnny Depp, as he wanders toward nothingness in the Pacific Northwest. Instead, the lonely guitar sounds stumble into the frame like an unwanted busker on a crowded subway car when you are reading a good book. The attempt to set a mood without orchestra swells and french horns playing open fifths is admirable but fell well short of effective.

(This post is the first in a rolling series about movie music.)

 

 

Tonal Refraction: Every Gig is the Same

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Photo Credit: © Larry Beckhardt

One of the mysteries of performance is that my part in making the music is the same. Pop, jazz, polka, symphonies or trombone choir, the job is the same. I need to put the right note in the right spot at the right time. I have participated in glowing, ethereal brass section tuning on a packed stage at two in the morning dressed like Freddie Mercury. I learned to push and pull the tempo of a group playing polka upbeats and how to apply that power from the cheap seats of the orchestra (when necessary). Even when “anything goes” making music, I help make it go within a musical structure.

These different groups and genres in which I participate have different ends but the same means – my playing trombone. The ends for some are for art, others for pleasure, and a few for “pure music”. Twelve notes, give or take, are spun into strings and bows and knots of melodies and rhythms and harmonies. The sounds I contribute can bray or sing; inspire or melt into the beer-logged background. If my playing notes and rhythms had a fixed meaning like a word or photograph how could they be heard in so many musical places and moods? However, my contribution is limited to the trombone and to me no matter how large my bag of tricks. So, I play and sometimes consider the sameness of the part I play.
I think about the beautiful refraction of that sameness: music filtered through the prism of me.