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some reviews and chorus thoughts

February 10, 2019

We’re three shows in with four shows to go of our run of Improvement at the Kitchen. Tickets are sold out, but there’s a small chance you might get in off the waitlist if you show up an hour before the show. Thanks so much to all who’ve come out already or are planning to next week. It’s been amazing so far.

We’re recuperating for a couple days (two of us are also part of this on Tuesday, and Paul is doing a show of Nick Brooke’s after our show on Thursday). If you want to hear a couple takes on the show, try Zachary Woolfe in the Times, George Grella in NYCR, or Steve Smith on Twitter.

I’m pretty amazed at how quickly people new to the piece pick up on subtleties. Friends who came to the show last night got that the painter’s name referenced in Junior, Jr’s letter to Linda (Sc 19) is Picasso on one listen. One listen! It’s so obscured! How do they do that?

As with any piece you spend so much time with, the visceral impressions of your first couple listens fade. There are the parts that still really grab you each night (for me, that’s been Sc 23 at the very end, as well as the last choral part of Sc 18, “Years pass/it’s forgotten…”), then there are the parts that surprise you from night to night and you occasionally receive freshly, the parts you have to really gear yourself up for each time, and the insights that you get about the whole piece that you’ve never had before that arise once in a while.

In that final category, I was appreciating this week the choruses in Improvement, that is, the variety of lines given to the ensemble rather than to a soloist. Some of these are “captions”, mostly spoken in unison, e.g. at the ends of Sc 1 and Sc 4 the “reaches the airport, finally/goes to the counter and undergoes questioning…”. Others are more sung and given specific melodies like “Linda sees the contents of her purse in retrospect” at the end of Sc 8. Others are interjections by characters other than the main voice of that scene, e.g. “Afraid of the sun he thinks to himself” during Sc 11. Other ways of thinking about the chorus include the entirety of Sc 4, the “Ride to Town” or Sc 17, “A Place in the Country”, where there’s more built-in harmony and the personas of the specific vocalists color the meaning of who’s in the chorus. There’s also the gossiping people at the next table in Sc 15, and of course there’s “Tarzan”.

It’s not as though there aren’t remarkable chorus sections in Bob’s other pieces. A shortlist of my favorite would include:

  • “Superior Seven” in el/Aficionado
  • the chorales in volume 1 of the released parts of Atalanta
  • the one-person-at-a-time echoing of Bob by Jackie, Tom, & Sam in Act 1 of Now Eleanor’s Idea
  • all the chorus parts in “The Supermarket” from Perfect Lives

When you consider these chorus moments and their function in their pieces, they’re inventive and remarkable. But what sets Improvement apart is both the high incidence of chorus parts and the large variety of approaches within one piece. The voice of the chorus, who they are, and how they function is mostly consistent in Bob’s work, but there are definitely shadings and gradations, particularly in Improvement.

The moments in Improvement we spend with each character, and particularly with Linda (I suppose you could call these arias if you were so inclined) have much clearer analogues in other Ashley pieces, and in preparing these parts, we are no doubt very influenced from our work on Crash and Perfect Lives, as well as our listening to the whole catalog. I don’t mean to minimize how central these are to the piece and how much work we’ve put into them. But a big part of the rehearsal process for this, and a big part of the brilliance of the piece is in getting together on this choral material.

Again, this is probably pretty apparent for people seeing this for the first time, but it struck me this week, a fish noticing the water.

– Dave

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We open in three days!

February 4, 2019

Improvement is three days away from being a thing you can see IRL. 7 shows at the Kitchen coming right on up. Tix are here if you don’t have them yet!

I have a few more thoughts that’ve been in my head about the piece to share.

1.) You can kind of hear it on the album version of Junior Jr’s Scene (“Golf Left-Handed“) in the last minute of the track, but there’s a kind of pitched drum sound that’s down in the mix that articulates the passacaglia (the first ten pitches you hear in the intro). It’s pretty magical. In this new live version, it’s (I think?) higher in the mix, and it’s real tasty. Keep an ear out.

2.) Also, right at the end of Scene 11, same scene, when Mr Payne says that Linda “likes loneliness”, that’s pretty messed up, right? You split up with someone and justify that they’re happier being alone. C’mon Mr Payne. Not cool.

3.) Also also, I was appreciating something structural about the piece. I like that you don’t get full scene from Linda’s perspective until Sc 6. You hear from Don first because Bob, writing the piece, is both Don and Linda in various ways, but in structuring things this way, it says to me that he’s more Don. Don tells you what’s up with him and that he’s leaving, and then he leaves, and he has his own story to tell later (Foreign Experiences) and he’s done for now. It acknowledges a certain perspective or bias, and then with that framework and grounding, with the Unimportant Family having said their peace, Linda gets the mic and has it for most of the rest of the show. Good construction, that.

And hey, if you missed it, Gelsey & Mimi & Jackie are in the New York Times talking about the piece!

– Dave

voice of myself from then and now

January 31, 2019

Empty Words, the Varispeed album that just came out contains some personal history I’ve been chewing on. The album was drawn from 2.5 hrs of material we performed at Roulette in August 2012. It’s hard to remember exactly what you were doing for all of a 2.5 hour performance, particular when that’s just one of four sections of the whole piece. For reasons I’ll go into in a separate longer thought, I don’t totally remember parts of that night. But something I’m really happy about it how my voice sounds.

Varispeed came together to do our first version of Perfect Lives in June 2011, and that went so well we did it again that November as part of Performa. By early 2012, I remember meeting up at Aliza’s place uptown and talking about what our next project should be. Gelsey was writing part of her dissertation on Cage’s Empty Words, and made a great pitch for it as a piece that has a lot of room for vocalizing in all kinds of ways, bringing in electronics and instruments, for playing with spatialization and moving audience and performers, for making audience members gradually comfortable as performers, etc – all the kinds of things we were most interested in. We started dissecting and arrangement Empty Words.

Over the next six months, I wrote a few scenes of a quasi-opera with Lynn & Aliza called To Scale, had great stuff to sing in Panoply Performance Lab’s opera Nature Fetish, started making a second album as Why Lie? with Aliza, and started working on the first version of Kimberly Bartosik’s You are my heat and glare as a vocalist alongside Gelsey. I did a lot of vocal work! I was working on all this different vocal music of different stripes and getting some good guidance from Gelsey on using my own voice articulately.

To jump forward in time, by 2015, I had found a lot of the parts of my voice that I liked to use the best. I was still doing a lot of vocal work but it was less exploratory, things had congealed in ways I liked. Particularly for writing, performing, and recording songs of my own, I’m so much happier to hear my singing voice on the last album I released Qualms Rectified (from 2017) than I am to hear myself sing on the first Why Lie? album from 2011. I’m proud of the work I put into that and feel like I have a good expressive capability.

But when, about a year ago, we started going back to the audio from Roulette in August 2012, I was kind of shocked. Particularly by this track, starting at 6:55. I sound a.) really big b.) really fearless. The 2018 version of myself first listening back to 2012 me didn’t think 2012 me knew what he was doing. But 2012 me was doing all kinds of things 2018 me wasn’t. I’ve been trying to re-open that channel the past few months with some success. When we did the release show two weeks ago, I wasn’t trying to copy this minute and half recording, but I’m trying to get back into the “let’s go for it” headspace I was in. It’s great to have as a reference point.

I share this as a public reminder to myself and to anyone else it’s useful for that there were a number of past yous who were really wise and talented in ways that you take for granted now. You are smart now and you were smart in other ways then. Time travel, also. In a sense. Right. Right?

Also hey check it out Improvement opens in one week!

– Dave

slow junior

January 23, 2019

Hi friends. We’re two weeks out from Improvement opening. Wow. We’ve put in months of work on this one and have a lot more to cover still. We’re excited to perform it for you at the Kitchen real soon!

Two quick thoughts on the text:

1.) It just struck me that the chorus line “Slowly, to make the words understandable” at the beginning of the scene were Mr Payne takes Linda & Junior, Jr to supper at his mother’s house implies that either a.) Mrs Payne is a non-native English speaker or b.) Linda thinks that her English is worse than it is or c.) both. Not exactly a major revelation but something new to me.

2.) The name Junior, Jr has meaning from Bob’s biography if I’m not mistaken, and it occurs across several of the operas (first in Perfect Lives). I find it a little funny that in Improvement, it applies to a Jew.

If you aren’t aware, male & female names tend to cycle through Jewish families, but names are only reused after the previous person of that name has passed away. The explanation I was given is that you don’t want the Angel of Death to get confused and take the wrong one. Judaism: a long tradition of thinking that the Angel of Death is an idiot. I mean, it makes sense in the context of all the other superstitions in the tradition (I’m coming from Ashkenazi tradition, I imagine it’s quite different in Sephardi, Mizrahi, etc communities). And of course, Bob is having fun with names, see “all tap dancers are named George”, etc. ¡Que linda!

– Dave

Empty Words is out now

January 20, 2019

Well, Empty Words is officially out as of today. You can find the full album streaming on Bandcamp, or you can enjoy it offline in as a digital download or on CD.

Thanks to those of you who came out to Spectrum this afternoon to join us. It’s been a difficult weekend as we lost two dear friends from our creative community this week. It means a lot right now to be together. This album, a sonic snapshot from 6.5 years ago, is a reminder of the deep and amazing connections making this music lets us have.

Improvement Tix

January 4, 2019

Improvement tickets are officially on sale! You can buy a seat to one of the seven shows between 2/7 and 2/16 over at the Kitchen’s website.

we interrupt this stream of thoughts on Improvement to remind you about our album

December 29, 2018

Good people who read this blog: we remind you that we, Varispeed, are about to put out our first album in the history of the existence of time and the universe! It’s true!

Empty Words comes out in about a month on Gold Bolus Recordings. The album is about 45 minutes of highlights from the first part of our reimagining of John Cage’s 70’s treatise on transforming language into sound. We performed it back in 2012, and when we revisited it, it was too good to sit on. So: it’s gonna be available digitally and in a limited run of CDs very soon. You can preview two tracks here:

We’re going to be performing some of these highlights as part of a release show over at Spectrum in DUMBO (or thereabouts) in an afternoon show on Sunday, January 20th. We’re sharing a bill with the Witches from Baltimore, and it’s a 3pm show. More on this soon! For now, save the date and happy end of 2018!