Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Kerplunk goes nihilist: Tim Root's performance piece at Good Shepherd Center, 3/22/13

About five minutes before arriving at the venue for this performance, I suddenly had a recollection of that most horrific and blood-curdling moment in all of mainstream cinema, the chest-bursting scene in “Alien”. I don’t know why this abruptly came to mind (I actually still can’t watch the scene all the way through), though it turns out to have connections, at least in mood, to the performance of “Kerplunk!”.

Both the music and the stage setting had an emphasis on the macabre. Beth Fleenor vocalized and played clarinet next to a gruesome sign labeled “severed leg”, and often froze with a happy/creepy expression that was both a grimace and a smile (“Welcome to my nightmare!”). Eric Barber, likewise, played sax behind what was obviously meant to look like a blood-splattered television screen, as if the horror show were no longer contained (safely) within the video. The other three players (Bill Horist, guitar; Naomi Siegel, trombone; and Tim Root, keyboards and electronics) were more in the background, at least visually, though their playing was obviously part of the texture of the whole. Yet, ironically, the whole piece was based on the children's game "Kerplunk".

Composer Tim Root stated that the piece would be between thirty and forty minutes because it was partly improvised (it was closer to fifty-five). Then it began with Ms. Siegel rolling croquet balls (?) down an amplified chute, followed by a spate of strange vocalizations (from all players) and sampled sounds from a prepared piano. The piece was in several sections. For most of the first, Ms. Fleenor carried on a stream of consciousness monologue with details about eyes that had been plucked out, agonizing pain, a bad smell, and (longer) about the aforementioned severed leg. Some of the tension of this was relieved when she paused to sing in the manner of Meredith Monk, or to draw straws out from a cylinder set up with random items held in place by the straws (like the game). In the second section, Ms. Siegel came out from the shadows to continue the monologue, now with themes of both existentialism and regret, and just a little of the gore from the first part. Her voice, and perhaps the character she was playing, were much more soothing – though the background music began to recycle samples from earlier sections. An interlude of sorts was provided when Mr. Horist set down his guitar and played a home-made (?) instrument that looked (and sounded) like a cross between a sitar and a very large pi-pa. During this, the others alternately played modal melodies or ruminated about calculating what is incalculable and/or dissecting a dog. Sampled snippets of previous material continued to flutter about. Ms. Siegel danced slowly with her trombone on a couple of bags filled with packing peanuts (?) to give a crackling, snapping sound. All climaxed in a dissonant spasm of freeform improvisation – though the first attempt at this build-up was abruptly halted by Mr. Root shouting “Freeze!”; and then the piece ended with drones – quietly – after Ms. Fleenor had removed the last straw, and the last objects dropped (disappointingly noiselessly) to the bottom of the cylinder.

It was all pretty entertaining, though in the end I wasn’t quite certain exactly what I had seen or heard (that was probably the point). Certainly there was an air of death and Kafkaesque horror about it, including more than a trace of gallows humor. Obviously this was a function of the words, but the instrumental sounds themselves often had a sinister edge – particularly the sampled prepared piano, which (with its amplification) was much louder than it “should” have been and gave a kind of hollow, scary resonance. The entire work was probably “about” mortality in the way that “Finnegan’s Wake” is about dreams and the subconscious, or “The Lord of the Rings” is “about” Christianity, friendship, existentialism, environmentalism, and WWII (of course it isn’t “about” any of these, but it is also about all of them). The metaphor of things dropping (beginning with the balls in the tube and ending with the objects falling to the bottom of the cylinder) was simply about everything ending, and it seems that it was an ending where all of reality drops into a bucket of gore and is never heard from again. No possibility of redemption was offered, and therein lies its nihilistic tragedy.

After a short intermission, the “band” played two free improvisations. The first started with grumbly drones and evolved into a chaotic free-for-all (ending with a sudden hush and some Balkan-inspired vocals from Ms. Fleenor). It quit before Mr. Horist had a chance to play the cymbal that he’d been diligently threading through his guitar strings for a minute or two beforehand. The second (“Let’s play a short one for the road!”) began with a one-note trombone flourish (“Wow – that was short!”) and then began again, loud, and settled back into quiet drones. All in all, these were lighter pieces that provided a welcome contrast to the darkness of “Kerplunk!”.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Radiophonic Abstract Expressionism: Amber Cortes’ “Signal to Noise” at Jack Straw Productions

I went to “see” this installation twice between the time it opened and when it closed, too soon, yesterday. I thought I should, finally, make a new posting in this blog and write about it…

“Imagine a space where all broadcasts are possible along a "radiophonic continuum," where voices and sounds mingle with spontaneous white noise, existing away from time and place, separate and uncontrolled and triumphant in their ephemeral power. This is the magic of radio. 4 imagined radio stations will be transmitted from four different radios, each station a testament to how freeform radio space can be reimagined, re-purposed, and revitalized.” - Jack Straw Website

Walking into the room, first one hears the “noise” – accumulations of static and fuzzy voices squawking from four radios placed on stands. At first I thought that they were simply recordings, with the “radio fuzz” added digitally. Speaking with Ms. Cortes, however, told me otherwise: these are actual “radio stations”, broadcast only into the one room, and picked up with the small radios, tuned out slightly.

The content of these “stations”? Looped, from CD’s in the other room. One consisted of old broadcasts from KRAB, the (real) station that was run by Jack Straw in the 1960’s through the 1980’s. “Random” pictures and program listings – all organized in a regular grid on the wall – emphasized KRAB’s eclectic mix. Another station was a punk rock amalgam, complete with the expected witty and vulgar digs at society, the broadcast media, and particularly the FCC (presented with altered initials). The third, broadcast from a speaker behind the shell of an antique stand-up radio, was the “internet ephemera station”, dedicated (in the year 2030 or thereabouts) to preserving old sounds from the early days of electronic communications. The old radio emitted dial tones, busy signals, dial-up modems, and “your call cannot be completed as dialed”, as well as a soothing female voice announcing the origin of each sound. Lastly, there was a CB radio, adding bouts of static and rougher voices to the mix.

The idea was, of course, that the radio media needn’t be as regulated and monetized as what is usually found on the FM dial (one of the placards of the installation said this), and it might be fun just to imagine the possibilities of what actually could be (and in some cases is) broadcast outside of the mainstream. Apart from this, though, is the experience of the installation itself. This experience is, in some sense, similar to viewing wall-sized abstract expressionist paintings. The “non-mainstream” stations don’t match up, either in programming or any type of synchronization. What one hears, then, is a continually changing collage of sound – a sort of Jackson Pollock splatter of tone paint. Sometimes the sound/color is as loud and strident as a track by Merzbow (or a De Kooning painting); less frequently, it settles into a quieter murmur, more reminiscent of late pieces of John Cage (or Mark Rothko paintings). I found it fascinating to just sit there and listen in exactly the same way I would sit there and look at certain visual art.

Note to readers of this blog: It appears that "Blogger" has changed their formatting, and it is no longer possible to insert graphics in the same manner as I had been doing before. My apologies to those who liked the little abstract "bullets" at the start of each post.