gifts of focus
Empty Words. It’s a coming. Less than a month now until we string together 12 hours of Cage for your enjoyment, edification, collaboration, wonderment, etc. So much is in the works that it’d be difficult to summarize it in a single post, but I’ve got something pertinent on my mind and I feel the need to stir the blog pot about it.
In June, Paul & I had the distinct pleasure of performing a section of Aaron Siegel‘s opera Brother Brother. The setting was an enormous church in Brooklyn Heights on a lovely Friday night in early summer. The other pieces on the program were compellingly played, and the turnout was nice. The time came to go up to the priest’s platform (I know it’s not a bima but I forget the right word…) and speak our parts, and I found my head was a rush with thoughts. Not that I was nervous, I very seldom get any kind of nerves when performing. It was just that my head was crowded with thoughts, some the stereotypical “don’t say the wrong thing” type and other more ponderous. “Do Dalmatians really come from Dalmatia?” or something like this. Head was buzzing, but I was able to perform the task at hand. Probably no one knew the difference is what I say to myself, thinking that I had done something aberrant and sneaky.
Gelsey & I were several weeks later doing a residency in the Catskills (we’ve developed music for a new piece by Kimberly Bartosik) and we had a long conversation about one’s focus while improvising as well as performing more fixed music. I said that regardless of what I’m doing, my mind is usually very much outside of itself when I’m performing. I might be thinking about who I’m seeing in the audience, how I feel physically, math problems from eighth grade, whatever. But the precious moments for me are the moments of performance ecstasy that come when you get so worked up in what you’re doing that you’re no longer conscious of your thoughts, you’re completely subsumed in performing. Gelsey was a bit incredulous – for her, the focus needs to be there or it’s never gonna to sound/look right to her or anyone else. (Incidentally, the middle section in this piece is for me, after having this conversation, a consistently ecstatic moment)
This applies very much to what Varispeed has done and where it’s going. Our mission is to tackle the epic, and with epics come new states of awareness and ability for performers and audience members alike. While 27 minutes an episode in Perfect Lives is not exactly a feat of stamina, performances of that duration seven times over twelve hours gets to be, and doing it all in a day creates waves of performance adrenaline and exhaustion that are otherwise unavailable. Having the chance to focus on a huge work for months before performing it also creates a kind of effortless slipping in to effect for the performer – for me in the Church, I had been living with the song, its feel & ideas, for so long that there was no concentration in the normal sense. To quote a favorite rapper of mine, “All I do is open up my mouth and just rock, see?” I’ve never had such a clear head when performing – there are no decisions to make, everything just flowed out in a very controlled way and I became the thing that I was transmitting. Like a loudspeaker. The challenge in setting up this kind of performance is making all the little understandings beforehand and then steering the experience to suit the moment a bit when it comes out. You learn a lot when you’re performing, but the normal, quotidian concerns of hitting marks are gone.
The challenge of Empty Words is in a totally different direction. These are not stories, they’re ideas. While poring over the text has revealed beautiful minor narratives in how Cage put the thing together, these details will never be apparent to the first time listener. We’re trying in this realization to highlight natural states and processes, and the kinds of connections that listeners make with this material is more like looking at a compelling painting than listening to a well-told joke. The state of performing for the five of us is also significantly different – rather than 30 minutes on, 90 minutes off as we did in Perfect Lives, we’re now going for 2.5 hours performing and then we have only a 30 minute break (during which we’ll attempt to set up for the next episode, mingle, and rest our voices). Having performed long Cage pieces before, such as the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, I fully expect a lot of mental wandering. But the benefit of such long stretches of time, four of them back to back, seem to me to be ultimately a focusing device. Particularly in Episode II, when we’ll be performing simultaneous solos for the duration of the episode, I’m looking forward to a beautiful ebb and flow of focus. Not that this will likely be outwardly apparently to any major end, but it’s a special variation on trying to pay attention to a long performance – trying to be clear & compelling at length despite weariness and while trying to execute a nuanced task. I feel like that’s a big part of the mission of Varispeed – putting ourselves in situations where we can push ourselves in this sort of way and delivering it to you in a way that initiates a similar process on your end. Flesh is being added to the bones of this hope as we speak, but come by on August 3rd & 4th and maybe you can find a kind of focus that you didn’t know was there before.