Monday, January 14, 2008

Empyrean Ensemble: Challenging expectations in tHe sPirIt oF CAGE

As I entered the Studio Theater at the Mondavi Center last Sunday to experience the Empyrean Ensemble, I felt as if I were entering a cafe/cabaret. Seating was set up around small round tables where the audience was welcome to enjoy their food and drinks during the show (Amen!). Since we were invited to join any table with a free chair, there was a wonderful co-mingling of patrons, which might not happen at either a show or a bar. The concert was the second event in the Creativity Project Series, and paid tribute to Merce Cunningham through a program inspired by John Cage, a frequent collaborator of his.


"You won't hear a thing; you'll hear everything" -- John Cage

The first piece, entitled "A Musicircus," was composed in 1967 by John Cage. It starts innocently enough as Thalia Moore earnestly launches into Bach's Cello Suites. Just as I begin getting lulled into the beauty of the piece, things begin to disrupt the melody. First, some plinking from the pianist, then some plunking from the percussionists, who play "found objects" like cacti, mugs full of hot water, and cookie tin lids up in the balcony. Standing in front of her iMac, Pamela Z creates a soundscape with her voice and dynamic gestures. Her BodySynth gesture controller allows her to instantaneously create and manipulate her sounds through her bodily movements. Boom boxes and violins roam the space, and a percussion band (seen and heard through the large window behind the performers) flourishes by. It was just what the title implied: a delightful circus of sound events.

Craig T. Walsh's world premiere of "Cookin' the Books" was next on the program. The three part piece was commissioned specifically for this event, and moved from a frenzy of energy created by the strings to a more epic Leonard Bernstein-esque musical soundtrack dominated by the piano, to a slow mysterious mood. Overall, it felt like a palimpsest of sound - melodies textured and piled upon percussion.


“It’s simply a question of what sounds we intend and what sounds we do not intend...But is this music?” -- John Cage

There's an old rule in writing stage plays: "If there's a gun on stage in the first act, fire it before the end of the second." "Inkless Imagination," a world premiere from Luciana Chessa, had an "everything and the kitchen sink" feel, and I was reminded of this stage rule as I stared at the incandescent light bulb sitting randomly on top of a ladder mid-stage. This piece, to me, was really about creating sounds with familiar objects. Sort of like Stomp (especially with the hanging arc of cooking pans played by the percussionist) mixed with Hollywood Foley artists and a dash of multimedia video. Some of the more interesting choices: an electric toothbrush used in lieu of a bow on a violin, and a remote control UFO (in the form of a Mylar balloon) which hovered noisily over the space. Sometimes I heard a sound and thought, "What made that sound?" then searched the stage for the culprit, and other times, I thought, "What is she going to do with that?" and was surprised by how familiar objects could produce innovative sounds. "Inkless Imagination" felt like Cage for the MTV generation. The sound collage was referential and whimsical, but, in the end it did create an experience of a surreal, almost Seussical journey, while posing the question, "What is an instrument?" Oh, and the incandescent bulb was indeed smashed at the end.

During intermission I had a chance to peruse the interactive installations set up throughout the lobby. In one, a space was partitioned off and filled with hundreds of crumpled up pieces of paper. Audience members walked through. Some stopped to frolick in the paper as if a child in a pile of leaves or a mound of snow. Some tossed the paper, others laid down and made "angels". In doing so, they created a soundscape of rustling paper and appreciative laughter. In another installation, a 20-foot tall piece of rebar emerged from a concrete base and PVC pipe. It was accompanied by a screwdriver and a hammer. Everyday building materials in another context, but here in the lobby of the Mondavi, in the hands of this audience, they became instruments. People "played" the installation alone and in teams - often with a vigor reminiscent of Lars Ulrich (drummer for Metallica). The other installations were a little more technical, but all had an interactive component where the audience members were responsible for creating sounds in one way or another. In the most interesting of these, there seemed to be a complex algorithm where different actions and inactions (pulling out drawers, lifting up tabs) created different sound scenarios. It seemed like a fun challenge to try to "figure out" the algorithm (which created an incentive to interact more with the exhibit). I was reminded of some of the new fancy children's play walkers with different shapes that, when pushed, pulled, twisted or bopped, create sounds and songs.

"There is no such thing as silence" - John Cage


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That was my homage to Louis Horst's (blank New York Times) review of Paul Taylor's 1957 "Seven New Dances" (where he did nothing). But in the interest of discussion (and the Creativity Project), I will write more. Cage's 1952 composition, "4'33"" is simultaneously a listening exercise, and a dramatization of music performance. The performers (pianist and page turner) perform everything that goes into a musical piano performance. They come out, acknowledge the audience , and sit down in their chairs. The pianist takes a moment, then opens the piano. The expectations are clear: he will now play the piano. But he doesn't touch the keys . Instead he sits still, but remarkably focused. We listen. Instead of hearing what we expect (fingers hitting keys which then, through the mechanisms of the piano, transform into the sounds we have come expect to hear from the piano), we hear the audience shift, cough, giggle uncomfortably, and murmur to each other. The page turner turns the page. The pianist looks down at the piano and up at the sheet music intensely, then closes the lid. The page turner turns another page and the process repeats twice more. This theoretically goes on for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, though I'm not sure if anyone was actually timing. The piece not only makes the audience hyper-aware of sound, but it reverses the role of the musician. The soundscape is created by the audience, and the pianist gives the audience the silence and the space to create this soundscape. The reversal is somewhat akin to how Stephen Colbert mixes up the host/guest dynamic in his "Colbert Report".


"...have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry"

Maybe it was how the cello moaned it's opening note, but "Coming Together" by Derek Bermel, to me, seemed to be a music visualization of what it would be like if a cow (cello) and a flamingo (clarinet) met in the street, flirted, got in a fight, decided to take a jog, then tossed back a few drinks.

Referencing Cage's use of chance and probability to structure his work, Pamela Z presented a wonderful world premiere composition for the Empyrean Ensemble appropriately titled "Twenty Answers". In it, the performers have to complete 20 tasks which are determined by the answers each receives from their Magic 8 ball. Text from the 8 balls ("It is decidedly so," "Signs point to yes," "Without a doubt no") fill the air. The musicians read these predictions aloud, stating them matter of factly, or with doubt in their voice, or in a whisper, or loud and emotionally. They play snippets of melodies, or create sounds by bumping the 8 ball against their instrument, or they sit in silence. Each time a performer offers a prediction, from "Ask again later," to "Don't count on it," the audience laughs...because we get it. Pamela Z unveils the composition process by stripping it down to a series of instructions. And we attach meaning to the words we hear. When someone whispers, "Outlook not so good" we can't help but project the questions we might have posed that could have elicited this response. And while it is accessible and fun to be sung our forecasts, the piece is ultimately successful because of the way the instrumentals are layered with this text. Over the arc of the piece, the music creates a changing emotional landscape off of which these words bounce or are absorbed.

Throughout the evening, the Empyrean Ensemble paid tribute to the style, ideas and spirit of John Cage. They unpacked the meaning of music by throwing into question what we think of sound, music, instruments, composers and musicians. By doing so, the audience became part of the creative process. We helped literally create music, both with through our actions and through the way we processed the disjointed information they provided. In doing so, the Empyrean Ensemble truly accomplished the goal of the Creativity Project: "to engage audience members in a deeper relationship with contemporary art by creating a context for understanding how that work came to be."


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