Archive for the ‘Reviews and Criticism’Category

Schick Machine: A One (White) Man Blue Man Group

Tryouts for the SCA? No! It's Schick Machine!

Part sculpture, part monodrama, part concerto for virtuoso percussionist, Schick Machine is a genre defying performance piece that combines its disparate elements into a surprisingly delightful 80 minutes. This collaboration of composer Paul Dresher, percussionist Steven Schick, instrument builder Daniel Schmidt and writer Rinde Eckert may not be life altering theater, but it is a heck of a lot of fun.

Entering the space, one is confronted by an array of large contraptions with a sole tinkerer, Schick, wearing an apron out of a 19th century laboratory, fussing with a batch of blueprints. Soon this rustling and crinkling of paper seems to take a life of its own. Surely it’s deliberate, a transition into a world of noise and sound. The fun of the show comes from discovering how each of these strange machines, with the assistance of audio looping technology, works to produce a unique sonic landscape. Music comes from less imposing devices as well. Schick teases polyrhythmic miniatures out of wood blocks, metal hoops, modified organ stops, and an entire pantry of kitchen implements.

The evening is oh-so-slightly held together by a few short snippets of narration that identify this inventor as an isolated genius who has forfeit human relations in an obsessive effort to create this machine that will “reconcile the past with the future” (isolated geniuses are something of a recurring theme in Eckert’s work). If these bits of spoken text were the crux of the piece, they may well be criticized as lacking substance, but to my ear, Read the rest of this entry →


Mar 2011

Music without words is poop. Discuss…

Newspeak: Chamber ensemble most likely to steal your new metronome

(Reviewed in this post: eighth blackbird, red fish blue fish, Newspeak, Frederic Rzewski, John Cage, Stefan Weisman, David T Little, Matt Marks, Louis Andriessen)

Does music have the power to express anything? Igor Stravinsky says no. Chinua Achebe says if it doesn’t, it’s poop. Stravinsky says your MOM is poop. Achebe says is that the best you can do? Stravinsky says take THIS! and composes a piece entitled “Mrs. Achebe Smells Like Dog Poop.” Achebe says pretty expressive piece, Mr. Seewhatai Didthere. Stravinsky says D’OH and facepalms exactly 11 times.

OK, I’m paraphrasing a bit, but this is the conversation that eighth blackbird has been engaging in with their recent programs presented as part of the Tune In Festival at the Park Avenue Armory. The former concert, PowerFUL, makes the case for music’s ability to communicate directly and (lest it ends up in Achebe’s pooper scooper of history) politically. The latter, PowerLESS, is an exercise in absolute music, music that expresses nothing other than the music itself.

Looking at the programming choices, one notices immediately that almost all of the pieces in the PowerFUL program involve text, either spoken or sung, and those that don’t, Read the rest of this entry →


Feb 2011

Jake Heggie explains it all for you

Jake Heggie is kind of a big deal. If his own story were made into an opera, it would be laughed off as contrived and unbelievable (even more so than most opera plots). A working stiff writing copy in the PR department of a national opera gets noticed by the right people and is launched to superstardom (by opera standards) by a series of highly successful commissions. But amazingly this story is true. From his first commission, Dead Man Walking, and to his recent triumph with Moby Dick, Heggie is one of a handful of living composers who actually get to see their operas produced multiple times.

Last night the San Francisco Opera hosted an interactive workshop with Jake Heggie as part of their Adult Education program. The stated goal of the workshop was to explore the evolution of new opera, focusing on the adaptation of existing works. Read the rest of this entry →

A Tale Of Two Spaces (em and Z) Review: Companion Piece and A Hand in Desire

I’ve been heard to complain about the lack of experimental theater in the Bay Area, but this week has paid off quite nicely with two pieces that make me feel quite a bit more optimistic about San Francisco’s willingness to take chances with non-narrative theater.

Companion Piece

On Tuesday I saw a very early preview of Z Space’s ‘The Companion Piece’. I believe this was the first public performance of the piece still in development, Read the rest of this entry →


Jan 2011

Review: Our Basic Nature (aka Bedtime For Bonzo – The Opera?)

The Love for Three Bananas? Reagan in Africa? I give up.

Ah the seventies. Vietnam, Watergate, key parties, and brown corduroy as far as the eye could see. Not a great time for ethics (or fashion) in the United States.

So it should hardly be a surprise to hear about a series of experiments where infant chimpanzees were introduced into homes and raised as children, in a bizarre attempt to see how much of their chimpanzee-ness (ie non-human-ness) was due to their environment and upbringing. Read the rest of this entry →


Dec 2010

What Technology Wants: Better Musics

No. Not Mel Gibson.

Molly Sheridan’s Mind The Gap blog has gotten particularly geektastic this past week as she hosted a virtual book club. The book in question, Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. This certainly tickled the computer scientist in me, Kelly’s Out Of Control changed the way I thought about computing in the mid 90s.

Kelly has long been on the forefront of technological thought, hanging with Stewart Brand and his buddies back during the Whole Earth Catalog days through the WELL, and these days with the Long Now Foundation. And along the way he co-founded Wired magazine. Despite a long history of underconsumption and a fascination with Amish and other ‘anti-progress’ cultures, Kelly is cautiously pro-technology, believing that progress is inherently good while prescribing a very specific set of guidelines towards adopting technology more responsibly than we tend to. Read the rest of this entry →

Review: Jerry Springer – The Opera

Jerry Springer The Opera is the best piece of theater I’ve seen in San Francisco this year. Irreverent, blasphemous, profane, sure. That’s a given. What’s surprising is how effective this immensely challenging work is, how well suited this subject is to a full operatic treatment.

And there should be no doubt about it, this is a full opera. The score is sophisticated and varied, a kaleidoscopic blend of musical theater, baroque oratorio, pop, rock, and occasionally branching into it’s own dissonant vocabulary. And it is fiendishly difficult, not just for the soloists, but for the entire ensemble. Ray of Light has assembled an astonishing array of singers for this production, one that has renewed my faith in the depth of talent here in San Francisco.

The first act is simply a rendition of any episode of Jerry Springer, with the slight modification that everyone on stage (with some important exceptions), is singing. All the obligatory Springerisms are on display, Read the rest of this entry →


Sep 2010

DC Shorts Redux

Hey Look! We won! (Goofy beard courtesy of Burning Man)

Phew. Three weeks since my last post, but definitely three busy, busy weeks. Most of that time was spent in the high desert of Nevada being deeply involved with the Burning Man arts festival. It was equal parts exhausting and exhilarating, as always, and the full details of what transpired out there is largely outside of the scope of this blog (although I am planting a nugget of an idea for a future large scale Burning Man project with a certain high profile new music ensemble).

Last weekend was spent at the DC Shorts Film Festival, and thanks to all of you who went and voted for I Got Mail as the best original song, we won! I can now be called an “award winning composer” (since I Got Mail’s previous mention as “runner up for a cappella comedy song of the year” doesn’t quite count).

The DC Shorts festival is a wonderful festival. Unlike many other festivals (where they give you a free ticket to your screening and then charge you for little things like the opening night party and the closing awards ceremony), it’s truly designed with the filmmakers in mind. Founder Jon Gann is a filmmaker himself and set out to create a festival that filmmakers would want to attend, and by all accounts he has succeeded. Little things, like making sure that the credentials indicate clearly who the filmmakers are so you know who you’re talking to when you meet them in line at the many parties, makes networking and socializing easy.

The films themselves are also very strong, and that’s not something to take for granted. I saw three of the nine possible screenings and while not every film was precisely to my taste (Tarantino knock-offs in particular turn me off pretty quickly, and for some reason every time a poverty stricken minority youth has a beloved dog, you just know the dog’s going to bite it before the end credits) I had a hard time choosing just three for the audience choice award.

So, in no particular order, here are films that stuck with me:

Delmer Builds A Machine
Very short and very awesome. May be my favorite film of the festival.

The Moon Bird
Gorgeously surreal animation. Story gets a bit drawn out (creepy thing makes little girl scream and run away, repeat until finished) but the look makes up for it. One part Brothers Quay, one part Studio AKA.

A triumph of casting. Real actors make a difference and this short demonstrates why.

The Incident at Tower 37
I saw this at the Sonoma Film Festival as well, and was impressed even before I realized who the director was (Chris Perry is an old friend of mine from the computer graphics industry). It’s thoughtful and lovely and stops just shy of being heavy handed. Quite an achievement for a film made primarily by students.

Manual Practico del Amigo Imaginario (The Imaginary Friend Practical Manual)
Laugh out loud funny mockumentary from Spain about an imaginary friend sharing tips on how to avoid obsolescence as their humans get older. Features a convention hall filled with a bizarre conglomeration of friends, including a giant Burt head, flower costumes, and… Alf? Why is there a full sized Alf costume in Spain?

Very funny (and again, very short) short that got unfairly overlooked for the awards. It’s very well conceived and executed.

Haunting and beautiful. About three quarters through I decided I hated it, only to decide I loved it in the last few minutes. Now I want to see it again.

Marius Borodine
Another very funny mockumentary. For a brief moment, it seemed like there was a French film maker with a sense of humor, but then we realized that it was a French-Canadian film, and all was right with the world again.

Enter the Beard
Audience and filmmaker favorite, this is all flavors of charming. You just can’t go wrong with a bunch of goofy costumes and beards in Alaska. What’s not to like?



Sep 2010

Review: Eighth Blackbird and Jennifer Higdon at the Cabrillo Festival

Why don't the guys have their belly buttons showing too?

Just got back from the opening weekend of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, a two week celebration of orchestral music written by folks who are actually alive and (with the exception of 87 year old George Walker) present. You couldn’t cross the street in downtown Santa Cruz without falling under Music Director Marin Alsop’s gaze from from atop a signpost. Down by the teeming boardwalk, however, the banners still prominently featured advertisements for Circo Brazil and Flock of Seagulls. You know something’s going on when the music offered in the symphony hall is newer than the music being played on the free stage on the boardwalk.

This weekend’s headliner was composer Jennifer Higdon (continuing her Very Good Year) who presented two concertos composed for specific artists, one for percussionist Colin Currie and the other for chamber sextet Eighth Blackbird (who, in addition to their numerous prizes and awards and Grammys, also has the distinction of having Interlochen Arts Academy student class president Matthew Duvall as their percussionist.  I was vice president. Furrealz.) Also featured were three separate offerings from Mark-Antony Turnage and pieces by younger composers Michael Hersch and Anna Clyne.

The concerto may be the most inherently theatrical page out of the orchestral playbook. With your garden variety contemporary orchestral piece, about the only thing you can say about it with any certainty is that sounds will occur. But with a concerto, by necessity you have a solo voice (or voices) and an ensemble voice. The piece will be forced to deal with the interplay between a soloist and a larger ensemble. Sometimes the soloist will play, sometimes the orchestra will play, sometimes they will play together. Add the tightrope wire of virtuosic playing and you have pretty much all you need for some drama.

So audiences have a bit of a headstart with contemporary concertos. They’ve got something to grab onto, expectations that can be met. Concertos are crowd pleasing. And this was certainly true this weekend. Both of Higdon’s pieces were enthusiastically well received, for however “perplexing” (as one audience member was heard to lament at the Saturday evening talk back) some sounds may be to those unfamiliar with the past 80 years of contemporary music, a good ole fashioned display of virtuosity will cut through the most obscured tonal practices.

Friday’s concerto, On a Wire, commissioned by and composed for Eighth Blackbird, begins with a gesture both visually and aurally arresting. The six members of the ensemble all crowd around a single grand piano, extending their hands deep into the frame. It feels more like a medical consultation than the start of a piece, but soon a series of etherial pitches and rumbles emerge from the piano’s body. The entire ensemble is bowing the individual piano strings with what looks like dental floss (we later learned that they’re custom made from the same fibers used for bass bows). It’s a lovely sound and a striking gesture, capitalizing on the ensemble’s irreverent nature while still being an effective musical device.

Higdon did a fine job handling the concerto’s prime directive, namely the interplay between the soloist and the orchestra. In this case, since the soloist is actually itself an ensemble, there is an entire extra dimension of interplay that is available between the solo ensemble and the soloists within the ensemble. It’s, like, a meta-concerto! Or maybe a fractal concerto? The mind boggles at the possible soloist/solo ensemble/orchestral combinations. Fortunately, Higdon’s mind boggled just the right amount, and the combinations shown felt appropriately proportioned; each soloist had opportunities to shine while the group’s precision ensemble work was on prominent display during many flurries of rapid tuplets, particularly in the last minutes of the piece.

Saturday’s Concerto for Percussion is written for a single soloist, although with the battery of instruments strewn in front of the stage, that wasn’t at all apparent. Colin Currie played a marimba, a vibraphone, wood blocks, gongs, and a series of tom toms and cymbals. (Perhaps it’s just me, but I could have used more cowbell.) In something of a collective cadenza for percussion ensemble, Currie joined forces with the entire percussion section of the orchestra, first buzzing through dizzyingly fast tremolos on wood blocks (which Higdon referred to as “the woodpecker section”) and ultimately jamming out on an emphatically rock based rhythm. For a few minutes, the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium was the site of the most elaborate drum circle in the world.

These isolated moments were more than simple crowd pleasers. They were toeholds into the music, points of arrival and departure, gestures of clarity that were in short supply in the rest of the pieces performed. As much as I loathe to sound like a conservative fuddy duddy, the other pieces presented didn’t provide much that you could (or might want to) grab onto.

If I could identify a trend in the programming of the first two nights, it would be towards a sort of aural maximalism. Every orchestral sound was on display, no instrument remained silent for more than a minute before interjecting a few more notes. I must have imagined this, but I swear that each piece began with a dense crunching chord with full brass, accentuated by a clang from a brake drum. And did all of the pieces really feature a series of staccato dissonances puncturing more sustained, but equally dense sonorities? Is that really that common of a device?

Michael Hersch’s deeply (and I mean DEEPLY) felt Symphony 3 was relentlessly tragic with brass outbursts against painfully dissonant repeated chords in the high strings. Emotion was certainly on display, some sort of lamentation mixed with flashes of rage, but at over 30 minutes, there was little variation in timbre, no sense of arrival or destination, no sculpting of time. Mark-Antony Turnage’s works featured some fun Stravinskyan rhythms, particularly in his brisk Scherzoid (which was one of the rare moments in which the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra felt less than assured) and some expansive lines reminiscent of Berg but it was difficult to discern where the music was going or why. At times I felt like I was listening to the climax of Wozzeck stretched out to last 20 minutes. Anna Clyne’s dance (and John Adams) inspired piece <<<rewind<<< showed some charm and the introduction of prerecorded and altered orchestral sounds in the last seconds of the piece provided a welcome kicker.

If this is the state of the art in orchestral writing, I found myself scratching my head, perhaps not perplexed, but genuinely curious. When you take away functional harmony, when you remove melodic direction, when you have the entire palette of orchestral sounds to choose freely from, what do you do to create expectations? How do you prioritize time? How do you surprise the listener if you’ve already established that there are no rules? These are the challenges for the composer in the 21st century, a challenge that most of the pieces this weekend didn’t meet. Higdon’s work seems confident enough to draw more deeply from music’s traditions and is more effective for it.


Aug 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