Archive for July, 2010

Tonight: Free chamber music at the DeYoung

Does this look like what Debussy sounds like?

The Cypress String Quartet is performing Debussy’s luminous String Quartet as well as a piece by Pulitzer Prize winning Jennifer Higdon at the DeYoung tonight at 7pm in the Koret Auditorium. The general idea is to capitalize on the connection between the impressionism exhibit on loan from the d’Orsay and the impressionist musical movement largely associated with Debussy. I’m wary of drawing connections between styles of visual arts  and music but like it or not, there’s an almost unshakeable association between the work of Ravel and Debussy and gauzy representations of lakes and ballerinas.

But who’s complaining? This is going to be great music performed by a top notch ensemble. And it’s free! (Although I think it costs extra to see the actual exhibit.) Come on out.


Jul 2010

The Little Death Vol. 1 (aka Who Would Jesus Do?)

Please. Please please please. PLEASE!

As reported a few months ago, Richard Foreman has left the building. To be precise, he’s left the performance space on the second floor of the St Marks Church in the Bowery. In his wake remains the Incubator Project, the spin off of his Ontological Hysteric theater, dedicated to fostering works from emerging experimental theater artists.

This year is the Incubator’s first full post-Foreman season and the summer kicked off with a charming, if somewhat slight exploration of the tension between religious abstinence and post-adolescent sexuality via a poppy, toe-tapping two person opera, The Little Death Vol. 1.

The tone is set as soon as the doors open, the two performers (composer Matt Marks and collaborator Mellissa Hughes) greet the audience from behind a table, bright eyed, earnest, and wholesome, offering homemade chocolate chip cookies and lemonade (and copies of the CD).

He was right THERE!

The walls are painted a garish yellow, the brightly lit space transformed into some rec room or middle school gymnasium. (I had never before seen the space without any scrims or curtains. It was disorienting. Ghosts of Foreman productions past seemed to haunt the room. “Last time I was here, there was a padded, one eyed green thrash-spewing demon pacing about right THERE.”)

We were all encouraged to put our names on the complementary nametags and watch for the step as we took our seats. It was all very quaint and sweet and strangely out of place, ironic, considering that the space really is a church.

What follows feels less like an opera than a somewhat staged concert presentation of a series of songs. The songs themselves are infectious concoctions, part Lemon Jelly, part Aphex Twin, part Michael W Smith with gestures to a panoply of other styles. The lyrics are minimal, songs rarely consist of more than two or three phrases, first repeated by one character, and then the other. The entire libretto consists of maybe twenty distinct sentences. The characters are drawn in the broadest of strokes, with almost no distinguishing personalities. He’s horny and a maybe a little religious. She’s religious and maybe a little horny. That dynamic remains fairly static throughout. Not much happens, no one really changes. It’s tough to get any drama or nuance out of material so slight and vague.

Yet despite the wisp of a plot involving a boy named Boy and a girl named Girl, the show is somehow still an awful lot of fun. Both Marks and Hughes are charming performers and the roles seem to have emerged from genuine aspects of themselves. Marks is affable and passively desperate. Hughes is positively aggressive in her refusal to submit to any sort of non church sanctioned pleasure. Add the never seen but often invoked Jesus, and they form their own trinity, a bizarre love triangle of repression, devotion, and lust.

But the music is the star of this show, the driving force, the thing that grabs your attention and makes you forgive the lack of… well… the lack of much of anything else. Having spent some time with the CD (I sprung for the “CD, Lemonade, and Two Cookies” package), it’s not clear that a staging really adds much. The tracks are all prerecorded, including overdubbed and altered versions of the performer’s voices for harmonies. (In the performance I saw, the live voices were too often lost in the mix.) And listening to an album doesn’t drag along the expectations of character development or narrative drive, both of which are in short supply.

So why not just leave it as an album? In retrospect a staging imposes cumbersome theatrical conventions and expectations on a perfectly good art/pop album. And if you’re looking for a wider audience, why not do what most good art/pop albums do? There’s a reason the Buggles didn’t write “Opera Killed the Radio Star”.

Ah… I see. They’re not dumb. They’ve got that angle covered too. They teamed up with the Brooklyn video collective Satan’s Pearl Horses and put together a video for their breakout single “I Don’t Have Any Fun”. And what do you know? It’s fun!

But doesn’t this sort of make a strong case that the song is not tightly melded to the staging? It’s a separate thing that can be adapted to multiple visual/theatrical contexts but not particularly rooted in any one? The songs are “formless” relative to the staging (as in the formless vs definite discussions from months ago). They can be translated from one visual realization to another.  Some will be more effective, but there is a separability. Even theatrically, this narrative feels “formless”.  With characters this broad and lyrics so sparse, the scene could be injected into just about any story that calls for a boy to want a girl who isn’t sure she wants him.

These aren’t criticisms as much as observations. It’s what the piece is. Right now. After all, it’s just volume 1. I expect that there’s more to the story.  Some gaps that will get filled. Probably some more begging, some more praying, a bit more bleeding, and a lot more toe tapping. For now we’ve got an incomplete opera rooted in a contemporary popular idiom that doesn’t suck. And in my book, that is some very Good News.


Jul 2010

Review: Lovesong of the Electric Bear

It's cooler with the projections...

Lovesong of the Electric Bear
by Snoo Wilson
dir Cheryl Faraone
July 13-August 1
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 W 16th St
Performance reviewed 7/11/2010 (preview)

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a taste for the surreal and irrational in theater.  What they may not know is that I happen to have a degree in computer science.  My wife knowing both those facts (either that or she got REALLY lucky) brought my attention to a show opening in NY this week that was described as the biography/fever-dream of one of the founders of computer science, Alan Turing.

Playwright Snoo Wilson shows excellent choice in subject material. Alan Turing’s life is operatic in its trajectory right out of the box, from the early mathematical successes at King’s College, Cambridge through his heroic breaking of German naval codes during WWII, to the tragic unraveling of his life due to his homosexuality and his ultimate suicide.  Wilson connects the strands of this tragic biography with a host of fanciful theatrical inventions, most predominantly the interjection of Turing’s beloved Porgy Bear into almost every area of his life as confidant, advisor, narrator, protector – a sort of deus ex ursa. Alex Draper as Turing and Tara Giordano as Porgy the Bear are the only actors on stage who maintain their roles throughout the show, the rest of the ensemble playing multiple roles (although in a clever turn, while the other actors play different characters in name, they each play consistant roles in Turing’s life, Alex Cranmer as the Father/Bully/Drill Sergeant, Peter B. Schmitz as the Mentor/Schoolmaster/Colleague, Nina Silver as the Mother/Judge, Cassidy Boyd as the Boyhood Lover/Fantasy Lover).

The challenge in biographical works, Read the rest of this entry →


Jul 2010

The OTHER other side of Guitar Hero

When measuring success, if you haven’t yet inspired a YouTube parody, you’re probably an also-ran. When you’re REALLY successful, you become a template for parodying other things. That would make Guitar Hero pretty successful.

The earliest Guitar Hero parody I know of was forwarded to me by the internetally omniscient non-aardvark Curtis Chen (who runs the very worth your time  The gag is even funnier if you’re familiar with the More Cowbell skit on SNL.

While not exactly a YouTube parody, the Onion had it’s own take on the Guitar Hero phenomenon with their report of lackluster sales for Sousaphone Hero. I love the idea of 135 virtual sousaphone players competing in Marching Band mode, and any brass player will sympathize with the need to keep the controller’s spit valve drained.

And most recently, we have the world cup edition: Vuvuzela Hero. Well played, sir, well played.


Jul 2010

The other side of Guitar Hero

I wrote last week lamenting how Guitar Hero provides a quick fix that discourages people from actually learning how to play an instrument (although as several friends have pointed out, the new Rock Band 3 that is scheduled to ship this winter includes a real Fender guitar and pro mode that matches ALL the real notes!)

On the other hand, it certainly exposes a generation to music that they may never have paid attention to otherwise, and in such an interactive and engaging way that it actually becomes their music. I’m thrilled that my younger cousins have been exposed to the staples of my college experience Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails, as well as the staples of my high school experience The Beatles, The Who, and The Rolling Stones.

But that’s only part of my youth.  What about the rest of my high school experience, The Stravinsky, The Bartok, and The Schoenberg?

While I don’t expect to see a Guitar Hero version of Bartok’s String Quartets or Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex any time soon, why not a Guitar Hero version of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint?

It turns out that the new music supergroup Bang On A Can felt similarly.  As covered on Amanda Ameer’s blog Life’s A Pitch, there are now three Rock Band tracks available so you can play along with the polyrhythmic minimalist supergroup and become a Modern Music Hero.

Yo Shakespere – Michael Gordon

Shadowbang – Evan Ziporyn

Pretty catch stuff,. If only it was notated so you could keep track of the downbeat it would be a lot easier to play. This scrolling note thing is just a pain in the butt.

The mechanism of Rock Band seems to lend itself well to minimalism. Serial work may not be quite as effective. You can only generate so much material out of five-tone rows…


Jul 2010

Is Guitar Hero good for music?

I really dig Guitar Hero. From the first time I picked up a four buttoned plastic guitar and jammed out to We Got The Beat at the 2007 SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference I was hooked. Having a reasonable amount of musical aptitude, I took to it pretty quickly.  I can usually sight read songs at the hard level without failing (on guitar at least, drums are a bit harder for me). I’m pretty sure I’d be able to get through expert, if only there was a display mode that showed real rhythmic notation (e.g. eighth notes and quarter notes) instead of the scrolling piano roll that makes it hard to keep track of the beat.

But is Guitar Hero good for music?

Growing up I was magnetically attracted to music. My dad was an athletic director for a high school and every autumn weekend I would go with him to the football games.  I never paid attention to the games, I just wanted to hear the marching band play. There’s a picture of me at the age of 3 sitting inside a sousaphone, trying to blow into a mouthpiece about half the size of my face.

As soon as I was old enough, I started learning how to actually participate in music.  First violin, then trumpet, and then (much later) piano.  I would spend countless hours practicing so I could play some role however small, in creating the ensemble sounds that I found so enrapturing. Sitting in a band or orchestra, playing the right notes at the right time, contributing my voice to something greater than the sum of it’s parts remains a deeply enriching experience.

But the funny thing is, these days, when I play Guitar Hero, I feel that same musical itch scratched to a surprising extent. It really FEELS like I’m playing that music, like I’m a great guitar player. I find myself wondering, if I could have had this semi-instant gratification, the illusion that I’m creating music when I was 10 or 11, would I have bothered spending those countless hours learning how to be at best a middling trumpet player? Or would I have spent those hours learning how to press the right buttons on the Guitar Hero controller at the right time, rewarded by the perfect strains of The Who or Led Zeppelin from my speakers.  To be sure Guitar Hero does require a real level of expertise, but with the possible exception of the coordination needed for the drum part, that skill doesn’t translate into anything involving the actual creation of music.

Perhaps Guitar Hero will end up being a kind of gateway, encouraging kids to eventually graduate from the plastic toggle switch to a real guitar. I’m not so sure. A friend of mine who is a pretty accomplished guitarist often says that the only way to become a great guitarist is to truly enjoy being a crappy guitarist for a long time. I wonder if folks will bother suffering through the crappy guitarist portion of their lives when the illusion of rock legend status is just a power button away.


Jul 2010