Meredith Monk's Songs Of Ascension has been a public work in progress, continuously shaped by its environment. When the multi-dimensional composer had an afternoon devoted to her work at the Whitney Museum Of American Art (February 2009), the piece took on the shape of a formative musical performance, but a month later, at the Guggenheim, further Ascension Variations were made, in a full locational manifestation.
This five-day run at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music felt like the finished version, now corralled within a conventional theater space. During its first half, it was maybe too minimalist, even for a seasoned admirer of slowly-uncurling stasis. Monk and her fellow singers arrived from all aisle-points, starkly exposed as they made whooping calls that might have descended from the Sami village traditions of the Arctic Circle, or maybe the goat-chasing mountain-yelps of further southwards in Central and Eastern Europe. The Todd Reynolds String Quartet (sometimes a quintet, with a singer, Alison Sniffin, guesting on violin, or maybe a violin guesting as a singer) was mobilised too, wandering about the entire theater-space. Even the cellist, Ha-Yang Kim, played with an instrument slung from her neck. The similarly mobile percussionist John Hollenbeck made singing tones with his array of small gongs, bowed to resonate with the massed voices.
The visual staging was sparse too, as flickering image-tunnels made by video artist Ann Hamilton were projected onto various wall-spaces in the deliberately- and gloriously-preserved crumbling distress of BAM's Harvey Theater. A lone light made long swings on a long cable, and a dancer worked through a series of rotary-then-held poses. The costumes of the performers were more Planet Of The Apes than Star Trek.
The most effective part of this hour-long work was the climactic section, where full ascension is actually achieved, and Monk's core voices are joined by a chorus gathered up in the theater's highest levels. It was this rousing intersection that triggered a deep sensory flashback to the Guggenheim experience, as Monk sat alone, legs akimbo, in the middle of the stage, caressing a harmonium. Slowly, she was joined by the rest of the ensemble, who all carefully laid down in a spread-out pattern. This was the most profound realization of the piece, making the preceding evolution appear less wandering. It's a catchy tune, too.
October 22, 2009
Speaking of tunes with thistly exteriors, the English folk troubadour Richard Thompson is a master of such songcrafting, and this three-night City Winery residency was billed as an all-request extravaganza. Thompson didn't always seem happy with this situation, frequently deciding that he couldn't recall the words or the music, or lining up two or three numbers drawn from his stool-top metal urn, procrastinating until he found a song that he felt the right vibration towards, or setting up a retro-active sequence that eventually felt appropriate. Much of this dithering was theatrical, of course, adding to the dry humor of the evening. In the end, Thompson did manage to perform most of the audience selections.
The large wino space was sold-out on all three nights, and this middle show was populated by a remarkably well-behaved audience. Even those punters who yelled out usually had something worthwhile or amusing to impart. When Thompson was singing and playing guitar, they were suitably attentive. This is the mark of an authoritative performer, who can maintain interest through substantial storytelling verses and dexterous finger-picking solos, using what could be viewed as limited tools to weave out epic musical tales. He placed "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" quite early in the set, which was a surprise move given that it's probably Thompson's best-loved song. He also traipsed through "I Feel So Good," "Beeswing," "Time To Ring Some Changes," and "From Galway To Graceland," but this was certainly no greatest hits package. Given his swift patter and casually off-the-cuff remarks, it's surprising that the American majority managed to decipher Thompson's quips. As ever, he's a master entertainer, though never at the expense of musical integrity. 'Twas a night of morbid laughter, doomed sentiments, and understated guitar-hero moments.
Wu Man's Taste Of China
October 23, 2009
The pipa player Wu Man has taken a major role in Carnegie Hall's timely Ancient Paths, Modern Voices season celebrating Chinese culture. As its title suggests, the scope is wide enough to present ancient traditional approaches side-by-side with modern works. Near the beginning of the series, Wu Man presented Taste Of China, which was designed to give its audience a sampling of some perhaps unfamiliar styles. This was the first of two showcases where she personally oversaw the artist selection. Wu Man has been living in the USA for around two decades now, so her recent film-making journey to rural north-west China was probably a fairly alien experience, even for her.
It's a shame that she limited her own playing-time so much, but Wu doubtless felt that her guests needed to be prioritized. She didn't have to search too deeply for qin player Zhao Jiazhen, as the pair had studied together at Beijing's Central Conservatory as young girls. It was the other two groups who presented a less familiar form: the Dong Female Singing Group (who broke the usual local rules by featuring two male vocalists) and the Ba Da Chui percussion quartet. Both of these ensembles play music that's an intrinsic part of daily community life.
The pipa and the qin are not totally dissimilar in the ancient timbral zones that they inhabit. Variations on lute and zither constructions, respectively, they both glory in silvery cascades and sharply struck punctuations, metallically ringing yet gracefully adorned with subtle flourishes. Usually, the qin is considered to be a solo instrument, but Wu Man briefly joined Zhao Jiazhen. The latter, of course, also gave a concentrated solo display that formed an attractive contrast with the far more boisterous vocal and percussion groups. Her technique involved an extremely sensitive string-bending, making often unpredictable flurries, flirting with near-silence before issuing a dense fluttering.
The Dong group, from the mountainous southern region of Guizhou, set out to re-enact scenes from village life. It's something akin to a musical soap opera, with the honorary male members allowing wider dramatic potential, as their high cries overlap, building up criss-crossing patterns.
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