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Crash vs Perfect Lives

April 6, 2014

Tonight is Sunday.  Tuesday is our day to tech Robert Ashley’s Crash at the Whitney Museum.  We’ve been rehearsing what ended up being his final piece for a couple months, and we’ll perform the piece four times, from Thursday to next Sunday.  It’ll be a cathartic and intense time, I believe.  In Crash, we’re entrusted with recounting Bob’s (nearly) 84 years of stories with a few different voices – a voice that stutters and recounts the years, a voice that ponders as if on the phone to a friend, a voice that poetically recounts instances of not being able to handle certain situations, and a voice that chants rhythmically.  It’s a lot of material, and the five of us Varispeeders and the great Amirtha Kidambi are vocalizing for nearly 90 continuous minutes.

In preparing for this piece, I’ve been keeping myself familiar with the text, but it’s been a very different process than preparing for Perfect Lives (which Varispeed’s doing in Pittsburgh in a month and a half).  Perfect Lives prep (as a vocalist) requires a lot of poring over words, repeating phrases, looking for meaning, looking for melody and rhythm, thinking about abstraction, and thinking about interfacing with the arrangement.  Crash rehearsal is more direct storytelling, and the rhythms, except for the chants, are of a very different nature.  Most of the Crash text has to be delivered in concise, 30-second chunks, and feeling the macro-rhythm of 30 seconds and the micro-rhythms of the phrases, line breaks, etc, while maintaining the character and through-line, is what most of my practice goes towards.  In Crash, the six of us all inhabit the various voices at one point or other in the piece, and so listening to my compatriots and building off what they’re doing is a huge part of the work as well.

With Crash, we’re breaking new ground.  We got written instructions and clarifications from Bob himself, but since his passing, we’re in a new world of interpretation, led by Mimi Johnson, Tom Hamilton, and Alex Waterman.  Crash also has the added intensity of having our names in the score, the reminder that these parts were written for us, and we’re being counted on to bring our own sensibilities and individuality to the performance.  With Perfect Lives, vocalists are always in dialogue with Bob’s original performances (and since we’ve done the piece three times now, with one another), and the instinct to go with his style or go against it is something we’ve spoken of at length.

There’s the additional challenge of trying to be a musical arranger for Perfect Lives at the same time as being a vocal performer.  Often one or the other gets the short shrift.  Forget that Gelsey, Paul, & I are co-writing (and just finishing a residency to develop) a collaborative opera with thingNY, or that we’ll be recording Brian’s piece Institute_Institut this month as well.  I’m trying to keep my focus this week on being part of a six-headed organism that will tell Bob’s stories in Crash, and then pivot to setting the ground for a great new realization of Perfect Lives Pittsburgh on May 22nd.  We’re setting a high bar for ourselves, but this is what we do for the music we love.


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