Review: Fresh Voices X, Goat Hall’s festival of new works

Letter from Linda (Alden Jenks, text:Frank Polite)
Sutter Creek (Robert Denham)
Medea Alone (David Garner)
Theresa Kren (Mark Narins)
The Hunger Art (Jeff Myers, text: Royce Vavrek)

A recurring theme in this blog seems to be how hard it is to get people to care about new music or theater.  An artist blows hundreds of hours creating something, it gets performed once (maybe twice if they’re lucky), some friends and family may mumble some befuddled congratulations, but more often then not, the tree falls in an rather empty forest.

I believe that composers want feedback, preferably positive, but barring the most thin skinned of temperaments, negative feedback would be preferable to the icy silence that accompanies most new works.  Well considered, articulate, direct and honest feedback is perhaps the best gift you can give an artist. In that spirit I decided to write a bit about the works presented by Goat Hall’s Tenth Annual Fresh Voices festival last weekend.

Goat Hall is a scrappy bare bones company run by Harriet March Page and Mark Alburger, both seemingly tireless advocates for new works by unknown composers. Earlier in their history they would stage existing works in cabaret style (I was the music director for their 2005 production of A Little Night Music) but in recent years they’ve concentrated primarily on their annual festival of new works (in cabaret style when the venue allows). The fact that they’ve produced ten festivals of new material is a testament to their perseverance.

Truth be told, the works presented in the festival are often rather uneven. There is a reason some of these composers are unknown. But even with frequent misfires there always seems to be at least one satisfying piece to make the endeavor worthwhile. Keeping that in mind, let’s take a look at what was offered last Friday night.

Letter From Linda

Alden Janks has a fairly illustrious biography, working with the likes of Terry Riley and Karlheinz Stockhausen while participating in the influential (or domineering, depending on who you ask) Darmstadt International Summer Courses during the 60s. He helped develop the electronic music program at the San Francisco Conservatory in the seventies and remains on the faculty today.

In this piece, Jenks sets a poem by Frank Polite, which is actually a piece of “Found” literature, an authentic letter that Mr Polite found in Youngstown, Ohio. The structure is simple, an actress reads a snippet of the letter, four or five sentences at the most, and then a singer repeats smaller snippets of the text we’ve just heard, all the while a pianist provides accompaniment (long time Goat Hall accompanist Keisuke Nakagoshi who shares duties with Hadley McCarrol).

The text is vague, making references to people and situations that are obviously familiar to the author of the letter and its intended recipient, but for the audience the subject of the letter is largely a mystery. There is a sense of general sadness and dissatisfaction, and a smattering of references to names and activities, but no context that would provide the connective tissue between those specifics and the greater condition.

I imagine that this is probably more successful as a poem than a performed piece. The repetition of the text that we just heard spoken is tiring. If the whole attraction to the original poem was the direct and natural quality of the prose, forcing this text into the heightened state of song hardly suits it. The music (and singing) was pleasant enough, but ultimately the piece felt dramatically static and music was pretty and occasionally evocative, but left little impression.

Sutter Creek

This piece seems to be a song cycle dedicated to the composer’s (Richard Dehnam) memories of childhood trips to the titular California town. It opens with a narrator of sorts (Wayne Wong) singing what appears to be a travel brochure description of the town. (Population, elevation, founded by, etc). This first movement was accompanied with a single slide containing the entire text  as if it was an old timey sign in front of a visitor center. This meant the entire text of the piece was discerned in the 10 seconds it took to read the slide, and the subsequent singing of the text felt superfluous. We already know all the information. This fact was exploited to comic effect by Wong’s repeated gestures to the sign during his rests, as if he wasn’t quite sure himself, why he was there. I doubt that this was part of the composer’s vision, but I found this bit of post-modern self consciousness the most interesting and entertaining part of the piece.

The movement that follows was some sort of memory of someone’s mother in a schoolyard. The material didn’t grab me.  The third movement veered into comedic territory, portraying three dotty old woman playing a game of Po’keeno. There are a few strained gags about characters mishearing phrases (the “four corners” of the Po’keeno board transform into “four corns” on their feet) and the song would have been mildly charming had it not outworn it’s welcome, riffing on the same ideas without adding any development or interest or conflict. The cycle concludes with a tutti choral restatement of the material from the first movement. Again, pleasant enough, but largely unremarkable.

Medea Alone

A bit of a disclaimer here, I’m close friends with both the performer and composer of this piece (as the thuggish Secret Police Officer I terrorized Kristen Brown in the Cinnabar production of Menotti’s The Consul and have studied composition with David Garner). Despite my justification of honest criticism, if I hadn’t liked this one, I may not have written this post at all. Fortunately, I loved it.

This is a tough piece. It’s a tough sing and a tough (though rewarding) listen. From the start of the dread filled drumbeats that herald Medea’s lumbering entrance, already drenched in blood, we are in a very heightened space. This is a woman on the brink of madness driven to unspeakable acts that she either just committed, or is about to commit. Garner’s text illustrates this beautifully, oscillating between seemingly rational justifications and manic cries of despair. Brown clearly relishes the opportunity to explore these dark places and is well equipped to do so. Her voice is powerful, unerringly accurate, and expressive. She is a singer who knows how to act and an actor who knows how to sing.

The piece was originally conceived to be sung entirely a cappella, but late revisions added a very sparse prerecorded score, punctuating vocal phrases with unearthly arpeggios and intonements. The score added to the ghostly effect, creating a sense of space, something external for the actor to bounce off of.

My only criticism would be that the piece went on a hair too long. There seemed to be several places where I felt confident that we had arrived at a conclusion, only to see that there was apparently still more to be said.  There are certainly enough moments of great theater in the piece. Particularly memorable are Medea’s denials to an (imagined?) Jason, her lullabies to her (already murdered?) children, and most grippingly, a line spoken directly to the audience, asking them if it would be fair for Jason’s misdeeds to go unpunished. This is the only piece of the evening that reached the level of both music and theater.

Theresa Kren

Speaking of tough listens, if the first scene is any indication, Mark Narins’ (as yet unfinished) epic opera seems destined to be one. Again, from the opening strains of the piece, we are in a very heightened space. While the harmonic vocabulary of Garner’s piece stems from the middle of the 20th century, Narins’ vocabulary is firmly entrenched in the middle of the 19th. We’re assaulted with pounding diminished harmonies and descending minor scales that feel more appropriate for the climax of an opera than an opening scene and it doesn’t let up for a second. The composer clearly wants to express the anguish and misery of a couple whose young daughter has died tragically young. In more nuanced or subtle hands, this could be effectively communicated in a scant few minutes. But subtlety or nuance does not seem to be something Narins is interested in. This mere wisp of an idea is stretched into an almost unbearable 20 minute barrage, retreading the same ideas. We get it. The daughter was young. They’re sad. It’s all very sad. It’s all horribly horribly sad.

Except, why exactly is it sad? Why do we care? Who the heck are these people? What is it about this story that warrants such overwhelmingly, relentless overbearing music? We have no idea. We don’t know anything, nor do we really learn anything, other than the fact that the dad went to work, the child seemed fine when he left, and then she died, and he feels like maybe if he stayed home, she wouldn’t have died. (Huh?)  And the mother personally blames fate for her death. (Huh?) But it goes on and on, complete with expansive orchestral interludes with no accompanying action, each more exhausting than the next. Any given minute of this music might have felt appropriate as the dramatic peak of a multi hour long emotional journey, but here we are expected to digest it with no context, no connection, no action, no nothing.

Michael Tilson Thomas relates a story of a 1971 performance of Steve Reich’s Four Organs at Carnegie Hall when at some point “One woman walked down the aisle and repeatedly banged her head on the front of the stage, wailing ‘Stop, stop, I confess.'” For the first time in my life, I understood that desperation.

I don’t write this to be mean spirited or petty or vindictive. I write this because I sincerely believe that an artist deserves to hear honest opinions of their work so they can incorporate or ignore at their leisure. I hope Mr. Narins listens, since I have a sneaking suspicion that my reaction was not a unique one. I hope Mr. Narins surrounds himself with people whose opinions he values, who have created work that he admires, and who care about him and his work enough to share their thoughts freely. If these conditions are all met and this excerpt is what results, then by all means, Mr. Narins should ignore my opinion, since it is likely that he is creating exactly the work that he wants to create, and I am clearly not the intended audience.

The Hunger Artist

It would have been nice to have taken a bit of a breather after Theresa Kren so I could digest this next piece with a somewhat cleaner palette, but no respite was given. Fortunately, Jeff Myers and Royce Vavrek have a better sense of dramatic proportion than Narins. It was immediately a relief to see things actually happen on stage that I might care about, albeit in a surreal Kafka-esque universe. (Is it correct to say something is Kafka-esque if it’s actually based on a short story that Kafka wrote? Maybe not.)

The Hunger Artist starts with a chorus of grim butchers expositing their world, in which oneself is a seemingly legitimate artistic enterprise, and their role, which is to ensure that no food is sneaked in. Our hero (beautifully sung by Justin Marsh) is well on his way to a record breaking fast while his companion (also well sung by Eliza O’Malley) is falling victim to her pangs of hunger. The addition of a female counterpart is an invention of the authors, which facilitates a mash up of the original Kafka tale with the Garden of Eden as she is seduced/enticed by a butcher/snake who convinces her to take a single bite of an apple (why the butcher does this is unclear, I mean, isn’t that his job?  Making sure she doesn’t eat?). The piece is rich (perhaps overweight) with allegory, but the relative theatrical economy on display was a welcome relief. Things actually happened on the stage. We learned things about the characters. Characters actually did things and said things that affected other characters. We cared about what was happening. Well. A little. I can’t say I was particularly moved by the piece, or that it will stick with me for any length of time, but I was well positioned to appreciate it’s merits at the time.

This represented only one of two programs of new work in this year’s festival. I’ve heard reports from several sources that I saw the weaker of the two evenings. I greatly regret not being able to see John G. Bilotta’s and John F. McGrew’s murder mystery Trifles, Chris Whittaker’s reportedly hilarious sendup of George Bush: The Last 100 Days, or Mark Alburgers adaptation of Job. Daniel Felsenfeld’s impressive bio made me quite interested in his reimagining of the Bluebeard legend, The Bloody Chamber. Unfortunately, I had prior commitments every night that program was being offered, so I suppose the inevitable YouTube videos will have to suffice.