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Why Make a Piece in the First Place?

October 13, 2014

I don’t have a regular blog of my own these days.  I have a stake in several.  I have something to say today, and it’s about the work of my fellow Varispeeder Brian McCorkle and his collaborators.  I apologize if it’s not exactly on topic for this blog.  There’s been some thoughtful words going around about Panoply Performance Lab‘ and Dreary Somebody‘s Any Size Mirror is a Dictator (aka ASMIAD), I direct you to the HufPo and Hyperallergic articles and very much to what Baxton wrote.  After reading the Hyperallergic article, I wanted to weigh in myself and strongly disagree that the fundamental thing to know is that the piece is alienating to an audience.  I think Baxton’s piece was a lovely rebuttal to that in a sense, but my relationship to ASMIAD is one of asking another question, which is why make a piece in the first place, or what do you want a piece to do?  I feel great joy (and a little jealousy!) that Brian, Esther, Lindsey, and the rehearsives, recursives, and band have done so much work in this department – to me this is one of the most successful art things (organisms?) that I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.

My own history is necessary here.  I’ve worked with Panoply Lab (aka PPL) on three big projects (TIME, Institute_Institute, and Nature Fetish) as well as various smaller performances.  I’ve performed and rehearsed in PPL’s space many times.  Brian and I have worked together in Varispeed for three years.  My label Gold Bolus Recordings put out their first record this past summer.  I participated in an early section of ASMIAD at Glasshouse Gallery in 2012.  I’m not a neutral party here.  I know PPL’s modus operandi, I know their working style, how they best succeed and where they struggle.  And as someone with this insider’s perspective I got to see this work develop over the last two years.

I first saw a performance of material from ASMIAD late in 2013 at a chashama space in Harlem, where the piece unfolded over two days in a gallery with a large window onto the street.  PPL, like most performance groups, works with a corps of performers I knew well, but in this case everyone I knew was either in the band or in the recursive cast, which Esther explained to me was responsible for developing theories and practices around the piece and making interventions of these theories into performance situations.  In Harlem, it took me about 45 minutes to adjust to the ebbs and flows of activity, to hone in on where attention was being directed, to find the hook.  That evening, performers used breathing on the window and writing the number of the next sub-piece (there’s at least 41 sub-pieces in ASMIAD) as a major method of communication, and once I figured that out, I was in.  I think the Hyperallergic review under-emphasized this experience of the piece as a major one – in ASMIAD, no effort is made to point out to the audience members what the operative forms of communication or expression or conflict are going to be at any given time, but putting in the work to find the seams is one of the major opportunities in ASMIAD.  And to me, that night in Harlem, having Lorene from the recursive cast point out some of the seams (it involved everyone trying to hide on a certain cue), made the piece feel incredibly open, expansive, and participatory.  Not like “can I have a volunteer”, but like audience members have active work to do.  For audience members who’d prefer to sit still and have the performance happen to them, ASMIAD will always probably feel opaque and indifferent.  But making a little of that effort revealed to me the ambition of its creators/realizers, and shifted the feeling of being an audience member from feeling like a concert-goer to feeling like an individual who may at any moment need to add my experiences and personality to the quest to communicate and to construct.

My ultimate goals in making art are squarely along these lines.  Making an art object, something clever or beautiful, be it temporal or physical or neither, is a nice hobby, a nice way to pass time and make people/yourself happy.  I ain’t knocking it.  However, using art to make a reality, or subsume reality in art or vice versa, has always seemed like the larger, more powerful goal.  I’ve always been a little sad when after composing all I have is a series of sounds.  My ideal would be to compose a way of being.  At the same time I’m loath to tell anyone what to do.  And yet I get further and further from improvisation as an MO.  So what does that leave?  To me the answer is usually sociological or anthropological.  The highest form of art is to build a society.  In ASMIAD, Esther, Lindsey, and Brian started with the trade off that they’d be the dictators, the framers of the constitution as well as the supreme court.  What’s most commendable is that they allowed time for enough to happen and that they found willing co-creators to make it interesting.  It’d be hard to call this production a collective; there’s more of a hierarchy than that term implies.  In aspiring to build a universe, it was decided that the most expedient (or interesting, or whatever, I can’t speak for them) way to get there was to have this initial prompt from the three dictators.  No doubt the dictators were not always perceived as benevolent.  No doubt the dictators’ interests were commonly in opposition to one another’s.  What I took part in this past Saturday night led me to believe that this process should continue on, and very fruitful things will continue to happen (of course part of the fruitfulness may be because the run of this show is finite and things must naturally come to an end… you couldn’t continue on without the core of the participants also, you’d have to start from scratch).  What happened on Saturday:

Actually, first I should mention what happened 8 days prior to that.  I attended that Friday night show as an audience member.  I’d seen the chashama show and another showing in early 2014 at Gibney Dance, in addition to watching other performances on PPL’s vimeo page.  At this point, the music was very dear to me.  I thought, of the sub-piece “The Space”, for instance, I wish that I could have this music in my home.  It is so lovely.  In other words, I was focused more on composed moments of ASMIAD, such as the choreography with six dancing singers in a line, all slowly spinning, rather than the sweep of the whole project.  Being at Momenta Art that Friday really opened things up.  I could see that the means of interaction had really deepened since chashama.  Gone was the feeling of people waiting around to agree on what to do next and the methods of communication seeming rusty.  Notably, still there was the implementation of forms of communication that are intentionally hard to work with – a movement based alphabet that makes speech very slow, repeating opening licks to suggest musical compositions, interactions with audience members being forcibly repeated and misunderstood in looping processes.  Watching ASMIAD at Momenta Art was like watching people at work.  I say that as a high compliment.  Things weren’t always centralized.  There was agency and frustration spread around.  There was unknown meaning, and listlessness, and humor, and song and movement, and none of it aligned in predictable ways.  It was a fresh experience.  I’ll say here that having the room set up that night as a gallery was a boon – folks could move around easily, study the objects on the wall, change perspective.  Not having that option this past Saturday would have been problematic for me as an audience member, I think free movement is essential for everyone in something like this.

Feeling very excited to take my turn as a guest musician, I came into a rehearsal this past Thursday and worked through the week’s tunes with Brian and the rehearsive cast & band.  Familiar habits started – in Institute_Institut I played a lot of clarinet obbligato, and as there were no parts written specifically for me, I bounced around from part to part.  I couldn’t stay for the performance Thursday night, but I returned Saturday afternoon to work through the material some more.  The seven or eight sub-pieces we rehearsed became much clearer over three hours.  But knowing those sub-pieces became not so important after a discussion before the “show” part of the evening began.  Lindsey suggested a “stuffing” structure for the evening.  Past experiences and content would be interposed with the scheduled material, via memory and via video projections of past performances.  The evening would be in three parts – a first pass with and then two repeats, with each repeat accumulating more “stuffed” material.  It was hard to square the rehearsal of the material we’d done with the stuffing – I myself had nothing to stuff.  The best metaphor I could think of was in Anthony Braxton’s music, wherein a group might play a piece, say composition #169, embellished with a language music, eg #3 – the trill.  So you’d play #169 as written but every sound event would be a trill in addition to what is said in the score.  And then you could do it again with every sound ALSO being a multiphonic.  Or something like this.

My one criticism of ASMIAD is that I feel the piece would be more consistent if the band were treated more like the rehearsive cast.  The elements are constructed and deployed rather differently – the movement is often relational, personal, interaction-based, and hence non-linear.  The environment ASMIAD takes place in (when it’s at its best in my opinion) is well suited for a non-linear experience (like a gallery without an imposed flow).  The recursive cast is inherently reaction-based, and they reshape things that are unfolding with an eye for dynamics and flow rather than working towards an end point.  But the musical compositions are generally linear (as are the texts that go along with them) and begin and end in succession.  Improvisation for me was very difficult, because the rehearsal of the music had stressed their linearity and “correct” performance.  Correct performance in the other domains of the piece was a matter of debate, and there was not as far as I saw it room for such debate about the music, ie if a mistake was made it was not addressed, unlike in other domains where such debate is one of the most notable elements of ASMIAD.  I think some degree of mismatch is fine, but to my taste, I would love to interact with a system in which the handling of the music was closer to the handling of the movement etc.  I know Brian is very clever at coming up with such relational musical schemes, but they don’t end up in the final presentation, which is PPL’s choice, and I respect it, but I’m just saying I might make a different choice.

But back to the stuffing.  What was abstract to me in the first pass through things became exciting in the second pass when the recursive cast tried to make clear to the rehearsive cast what they did in the first pass, while the rehearsive cast themselves were trying to be as alive with their memories as possible, layering one another’s past actions into their bodies, speech, movement, etc.  The third pass was something amazing.  Six people possessed.  Not succeeding in the impossible task of accurate execution of linear scores and memories, but completely alive and lucid in their interactions with the past and present performance situations.  I’ve never seen a collective history performed in such a direct fashion.  One couldn’t help but admire everything these people had been through.  It was mad or formless at chaotic at times, and it was as serious and vital as any performance I’d ever seen.  It wasn’t a piece so much, it wasn’t an interaction so much, that they had made.  They had made a society with a living, palpable history.  They had made a universe that ate itself.  If you were looking for the piece, I don’t even know where you’d find it.  It started out with scores and things like that, but it’s gotten much richer.  These 14 people, spending their time, striving with one another, were on some other level.  All I could do was play my clarinet along to try to help them through it.

It seems to me that the six performers of the rehearsive cast – Kaia, Lindsey, McSherry, Paige, Rene, and Thea – are the at the intersection of all of this material – musical, textual, movement, theoretical, etc.  There’s a million ways into ASMIAD, but for me, their performance is the greatest success.  This past week’s shows were about the history of the piece, and I’m not really sure what this final weeks is about.  Where on earth can they go from here?  Who knows.  All I can say, to paraphrase the musical composition from which the title of ASMIAD comes, is that I am rooting for them.

– Dave


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