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Recap: The Church

June 24, 2011

Back to June 7th.  After the Supermarket, we returned to Gelsey’s to change, deposit unneeded items, and plan out Episode 6: The Church.  As with most of the episodes, the piano part is harder to pin down than it seems, so Brian got to work on planning out his “Blue” Gene impression.  Gelsey opted for her most wedding dress-like attire, Aliza also went for a more formal dress, and I removed my tie in favor of a purple scarf (in my head, it was like wearing a tallis… also, when I was a teenager I insisted on wearing this white suit for much of the day on Yom Kippur because it was the closest thing I had to a kittel… I was raised quirkily Reform if that’s not painfully apparent).

The Church we selected was the Russian Orthodox Church in Northern Williamsburg/Greenpoint, right across the street from McCarren Park.  Noel Givens it ain’t, but for an iconic place of worship, it’s second to none.  I found throughout the day that the simple immersion in the idea of the place, if not the place itself, aides the resituating of oneself into this story.  When dealing with abstract language on the theme of a supermarket, the ideas flow more clearly if one can physically touch a melon.  Now, ideally this would mean that we would have been inside the church, but you can’t win ’em all, so I felt happy with the church’s brick facade backing us up.

Not pictured: onion dome

I haven’t discussed my own preparations for the day’s performances, and this is a good place to do so, so here’s thoughts in a few directions:

I wanted to be the lead reader on Episode 6 (and 4) because it’s the most dense, and to some extent the most overtly philosophical episode.  There’s a variety of vocal virtuosities involved in reading the seven episodes, but I was interested in demonstrating the rapid-fire delivery, frequent and varying chorus interactions, changes of tone and character, joke-telling, etc. required in The Church.  This is very much playing against type for me.  When I write music, I consider 90 bpm to be awfully fast.  As a clarinetist and a guitarist, sixteenth notes make me nervous.  But over the last seven years, Perfect Lives has given me a whole different perspective on speech as music and my facilities as a performer of speech.  I took up the role of Noel Givens in part to hone/demonstrate my concept of content-heavy performative speech.  I have a lot to say about the slower deliveries demanded in Episodes 1 & 7 as well, but speed was important to me here.

I don’t mean to say that I’m a virtuoso – although I do have as much experience talking as just about any other thing – but there’s a long-term trajectory in my life towards performing heightened speech.  This comes from many directions: certainly teaching involves balancing speed with message delivery, as does what acting I’ve undertaken, and speed & intelligibility are always at play when one ventures into speaking another language (something I’ve done for the first time in the last few years).  I think my approach to all of these things has been greatly influenced by attention to speech and its ability to play with content in Perfect Lives, and in Episodes 4 & 6 especially.  Undertaking Episode 6 is in some respect taking a step towards Chris Mann-esque vocal control .  I’m rambling, but here’s a point or two: in my preparation, I worked on getting a consistently fast pace going through the sermon with enough inflection to keep the musical part of the ear engaged while keeping a clear picture of the guts of the text (abandonment at the alter, change being affected in a church, the inertia of change, etc.) clear.  I found that attacking the text with increased speed and increased melodic speech contour made me more able to grasp the meanings, particularly when performing as compared to rehearsing – just the opposite my usual expectation.

 I had also decided that in the portions of Episode 6 with lines divided equally between leader and chorus, I would maintain my delivery, creating situations in which the chorus and the lead presented the same thoughts in necessarily different manners, pointedly not in rhythmic unison with one another.   The desired effect was achieved in this sense: the chorus is not so much heightening meaning, as it is in other episodes, but given the frequency and textual disjointedness of its input, its more like a traditional musical chorus in a call and response religious setting, reinforcing the audience’s participation and attention.

Episode 6 was the clearest example of shifting the (tele)-visual materials of our source material to the basic set up we had as an in-the-flesh quintet.  In the definitive Perfect Lives, the five voices in Episode 6 (Givens, Gwyn, Ed, Dwayne, & the Captain) are spoken from the single voice of Robert Ashley, with back up from Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem.  Without the possibility of visual recharacterization of these voices into the Illinois quartet and the Indiana preacherman, we decided each of the five of us would read one of the roles (Dave = Givens & other narration, Gelsey = Gwyn, Brian = Ed, Paul = Dwayne, Aliza = Captain of the Football Team).  This goes against the prevailing way of reading the libretto that held sway the rest of the day – roman means the leader, italic means leader + chorus – but after the characters all said their piece and the sermon began, the standard meanings were restored.

Finally, the setting for Episode 6 afforded more long-term passerby audience members than any other episode.  This was a treat, although the location being a church, it may have been the most suspicious, in a sense, to stumble upon.  Or the best juxtaposition of art and setting.  Art & commerce is one thing, art & religion is another.  N.B. – no one pictured below was a passerby.


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