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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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