Sunday, October 27, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Shrill Charm" (on Dmitri Shostakovich's The Nose)


shrill charm
by Douglas Messerli
 
Dmitri Shostakovich (libretto, based on a story by Gogol, and music) Nos (The Nose) / 1929, the production I saw was the Live HD transmission from The Metropolitan Opera, New York, on October 26, 2013

Yesterday Howard and I saw, for the first time, the rather raucous, even, at times, rackety opera by Dmitri Shostakovich composed in the last wave of Soviet Futurist experimentalism in 1927-28, and premiering in Leningrad a year later.

      I cannot imagine a more innovative and stunningly visual version of this short opera than William Kentridge and Luc De Wit’s dynamic production which combines small, beautifully lit (by Urs Schönebaum) “realist” sets upon and behind which is projected a stunning collage-film of Russian visuals and English-language and Russian-language words that creates the entire world of Leningrad whirling out of control around the fairly simple story of a lower bureaucrat, Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov (wonderfully played by Paulo Szot), who one morning wakes up without his nose.

     The nose has been found in a piece of bread baked by the wife of the local barber, who the day before has attempted, unsuccessfully, to shave Kovalyov. The barber, Ivan Yakovlevich, immediately attempts to get rid of the discovered nose, but has a great deal of difficulty as he is met throughout the streets by friends and enemies alike, establishing the almost always mix of wildly exuberant and severely controlled world of Gogol’s story. Finally, attempting to throw the nose into the Neva river, Ivan is spotted by a police officer who immediately arrests him.

     As Kovalyov wakes up to bemoan the missing appendage, the utterly absurd story begins it dramatic arch as the nose, suddenly now as large as a person (played in this production by Alexander Lewis), is seen running through the streets, and soon after is encountered by Kovalyov in the Cathedral—now dressed in the uniform of a State Councilor, who, compared with the Collegiate Assessor, is of so high a rank that Kovalyov dare not even address him. When he does demand that the nose come back to him, the appendage declares to have nothing to do with him and, in the crowded service, again escapes.

      Outraged, Kovalyov visits the chief of police, only to be told, as in so many tales of the slipperiness of those in power, that the chief has just left his office. A too-long encounter with journalists at the local newspaper follows, wherein they refuse to post Kovalyov’s notice of his lost nose for fear of discrediting the newspaper; who would believe in the loss of a nose: When Kovalyov finally reveals his face, however, they are convinced, but still refuse to post the advertisement, ironically offering him some snuff in recompense. In anger and self-pity the bureaucrat leaves them to return to his room in despair.

      The real pleasure of Kentridge’s sets and film reveal the nose in various “adventures,” linking itself, at one moment, to an equestrian statue, at another dancing upon head of Anna Pavlova. Mostly, the poor nose roams the city, attempting, like the murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, simply to not be noticed and trapped. As the artist-director described his interpretation of Gogol’s story in an engaging conversation with Met manager Peter Gelb before the opera, he sees the nose as something like a writer reading his failed words in despair, the words unable to match what in his head. The nose, a bit like one’s words, simply desires a life of its own, a life apart from its humdrum pimpled existence upon the face of the failed human being, we gradually discover, who Kovalyov is. Adding another layer of irony to the story, Kentridge modeled the opera’s nose upon his own quite sizable proboscis.

      Throughout the opera, indeed, much is ironic and everything is almost always satiric, without being truly funny (despite the constant chortles that issued from the elderly woman sitting next to me who obviously confused attention to the opera with the need to issue vocal clues to her appreciation). Indeed Shostakovich’s piece, one might argue, presents itself as a kind of one-liner. Without character development in the narrative, and basically shrill in its scherzo ostinato and high tenor and baritone squeaks, the work, despite its often exciting score, generally overwhelms its subject matter, particularly in the crowd scenes, both in the train station and on the streets as the large wonderfully-costumed cast run about in chase of the nose and scream out their fears for the dangers the escaped nose represents. At times, one sought just a few moments of tonal relief, but when those moments arrived, as in the comic balalaika song sung by Kovalyov’s servant or the somewhat quieter moment when, after everyone has rushed to a park to see the nose, one viewer summarizes the “nothing” he has seen, the momentarily quietude was quickly swept up again in the frantic action and sounds of Shostakovich’s busy city life.

      There is ultimately a kind of sadness to this satiric work, as when, even when Kovalyov’s nose is returned, it still is determined not stay upon his face. The Collegiate Assessor even fantasizes, briefly, an evil spell cast upon him by Madame Podtochina, whose daughter he has refused to marry, and continues refuse even after the fracas has died down.

     In the end it appears that the nose has just been worn by all the hubbub of the citizenry and police stalking the Nevsky Prospekt and other parts of the Russian city. It is only then, when Kovalyov discovers upon awakening the next day, that his nose has returned of its own will, that Shostakovitch’s opera quiets down into a fetching polka, as the gossipy city-dwellers—similar to the officials proclaiming the Stalinist-imposed restrictions—chastise the writer for even thinking of such a silly and unbelievable story—although admitting, in true Eastern European manner, that, of course, such things can happen. That even the unbelievable can sometimes occur.

     If Shostakovich’s first foray into theater and opera is not a great work, it is, nonetheless, a kind of hidden treasure, despite its often strident narrative and sounds. And William Kentridge has transformed this work into a true visual pleasure which I will not soon forget.    

Los Angeles, October 27, 2013

Friday, October 25, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Nothing on a Lecture" (on Robert Wilson's performance of John Cage's Lecture on Nothing)


nothing on a lecture
by Douglas Messerli
 
Robert Wilson (director and performer) John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing, Music by Arno Kraehahn / the performance was presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA at Royce Hall, Tuesday, October 15, 2013 (world premiere)

Given his penchant in Einstein on the Beach and other operas and performances for repetition and long, slow movements, one might well comprehend Robert Wilson’s attraction to John Cage. Cascading the Royce Hall stage with long white scrolls on which various words and phrases of Cage had been written, Wilson himself dressed in white with white face, Wilson's performance promised to be interesting. But almost from the beginning, with a piercingly loud electronic blast lasting for seven minutes, during which an actor with a telescope appeared scanning the horizon, presumably searching for “something” as opposed for the promised “nothing,” much seemed amiss. I immediately perceived in these theatrical tricks the vast difference between Wilson and Cage, bringing me to increasingly wonder, as the performance moved on, why Wilson had chosen to reinterpret Cage’s famous piece.

     I did not ever hear Cage perform in own work, but having known Cage I can imagine how he might perform it and others have attested to the fact that when the author read the work it was spoken quietly, honoring the spacial pauses of the written text—which I, myself, republished in my From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990. Wilson, at first, seemed also determined to honor these tactics. Much of the Cage work is memorable and quotable, and, for a few moments I simply took the pleasure of Cage’s talk, “Slowly, as the talk goes on, we are getting nowhere and that is a pleasure.” At one point Cage indicates the whole structure of his talk: “We need the glass and we need the milk.” As Los Angeles Times critic, Mark Swed, pointed out, however, it is neither the glass nor the milk on which Cage focuses, but the pouring, the process of creating this piece—which, in fact, is the “something” the text itself seems to deny.

     As always with Cage’s pieces, there is also significant interchange between the speaker and listeners. Early on in Lecture on Nothing Cage notes “If anyone is sleepy, let him go to sleep,” repeating it from time to time, as if encouraging those disinterested in his pursuit of silence and nothing to remain silent and accept the work as “nothing.” But for Wilson, quite obviously, desperate, so it seems, to make it clear that Cage was indeed saying an important “something,” one of these repeated phrases leads him into a theatrical and outright corny gesture where he stands up and moves to a bed, crawling into to be and pretending to fall sleep. A visual of the Russian poet Mayakovsky appears, smoking a cigarette while, as, for a short period, we hear Cage’s gentle and probing voice instead of Wilson’s (Thank heaven!).
 
      When Wilson died return to the table, articulating Cage’s fascination with the process of his speech, naming its various parts and sections as if it were a work of music with various movements  (which, in some senses, it is), he soon seemed frustrated by this naming and framing process, moving in the text faster and faster while continuing to raise his pitch until he ended in a kind of angry scream, not unlike the original blast of electronic noise—something so unCagean that it seemed to come from different planet.
 
      I am no purist, and I truly don’t mind different and, in this case, a far more theatrical reading of one of my favorite texts. But I cannot comprehend why Wilson decided to tackle Cage’s work or why he performed it as he did. The marvel of Cage’s Lecture on Nothing is that in its silences, pauses, self-conscious statements of its own structure, and denials of grand ideas, it truly becomes a beautiful something, If you search too hard, without bothering to listen, you will not find it. Wilson’s personal interactions do just that, distracting us from the text, leaving us with much less, almost nothing.

Los Angeles, October 24, 2013

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "This One Has Been Being Very American" (on Glass, Wilson, and Child's Eistein on the Beach)


this one has been being very american
by Douglas Messerli
 

Robert Wilson (direction and set and light design), Philip Glass (music and lyrics), Lucinda Childs (choreography), Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson and Lucinda Childs (spoken texts) Einstein on the Beach / 1976 / The performance I saw was at The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the LA Opera performance, the matinee of Sunday, October 13, 2013

With great anticipation I attended the now legendary Einstein on the Beach on Sunday, a work which I had missed for almost four decades, a performance likely to be its last American showing overseen by its original creators, Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, and Lucinda Childs. I was willing, I was wanting to be wowed!

      Unfortunately, I was not. When asked by my friend Marjorie Perloff about my reactions, I could only comment that they were very contradictory, some positive, others not so; but generally, unlike so many of my acquaintances who had seen it, I was simply not in awe!

      My feelings about this are not based, as anyone who has read my essays would guess, on the work’s impenetrability, on my not being able to—as critic Tim Page had described it in his lecture before the performance—find my own “gate” into the work. Indeed, the work seemed quite wide open to me. Its structure, vaguely suggested by writer Christopher Knowles around the motifs of “trials, jails, communication, and transportation,” almost all in some way loosely relating to elements of Einstein’s thinking and life. In the broadest sense, we might comprehend Einstein on the Beach as a vague, disconnected skein of events occurring during what we might call “The Age of Einstein,” from the earliest days of Einstein’s theories to the time of his death in 1955—although the work extends also beyond that period to Patty Hearst’s kidnapping and joining of The Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. Although the events of this “opera” are not presented historically, there is a sort of chronological rhythm, beginning with the simple idea (in the first of the remarkable Knee Plays) of counting, as the figures of the chorus and dancers move forward and backwards in rhythmic motions and spoken patterns, with the first long scene moving on to the inevitable train, recalling Einstein’s experience in a still train that, when passed by a moving train, gave the impression that he too was moving—ideas which led to his Theory of Relativity. Throughout the work also we are introduced to images of the sea, a place beloved by the scientist, and we presented in several beautiful instances with Einstein’s own love of playing the violin, as Jennifer Koh, her head topped in an Einstein-like hairdo, stunningly executes some of the work's most inspired passages of music.

      In between are various scenes about love, failed and fulfilled, and an almost random selection of social and political events of the era, from racism, women’s liberation, political revolution, to gay liberation (suggested by Child’s “Dance 2”), and provocative and disturbing international events such as the rocket sequence and, almost as an aftermath, the atomic bomb—also related, of course, to Einstein’s theories. Some of these, in particular the “Night Train” sequence, the “Building” sequence,  the “First Dance,” and the final Knee Play, are quite lyrical and intimate. Others, such as the first and second “Trials” are, at least to me—my companion Howard and others of my friends were not so taken with the language of either—filled with remarkably comic poetry. The first “Trial’s” “Mr. Bojangles” harangue, written by Christopher Knowles, is almost Steinian in its delicious illogic and repetitions argued by the court lawyer (Patrick John O’Neill):

 


                                   JUDGES

 This court of common pleas is now in session.

LAWYER : MR BOJANGLES

 
If you see any of those baggy pants it was huge

Mr Bojangles

If you see any of those baggy pants it was huge chuck the hills
 
If you know it was a violin to be answer the telephone and if
 
any one asks you please it was trees it it it is like that
 
Mr Bojangles, Mr Bojangles, I reach you
 
So this is about the things on the table so this one could he counting up.
 
The scarf of where in Black and White
 
Mr Bojangles If you see any of those baggy pants chuck the hills
 
it was huge If you know it was a violin to be answer the
 
telephone and if anyone asks you please it was trees it it it is like that.
 
Mr Bojangles Mr Bojangles Mr Bojangles I reach you


The scarf of where in Black and White
 
This about the things on the table.
 
This one could be counting up.
 
This one has been being very American.
 
The scarf of where in Black and White.
 
If you see any of those baggy pants it was huge chuck the hills
 
If you know it was a violin to be answer the telephone and if
 
any one asks you please it was trees it it it it it it it it it it
 
is like that
 
………………
  
This about the gun gun gun gun gun...
     In this remarkable piece American stereotypes are called up from the roles played by Black dancer Bill Robinson to the Bob Dylan composition referring to a white street dancer in baggy pants, while simultaneously suggesting the American cultural history of the minstrel shows, all resulting in the kind of sophistic logic of sentences such as “if you knew it was the violin to be….answer the telephone” and the wonderful closing “if any one asks you please…it was trees,” all ending in the stutter of “it it it it it it it it it,” repeated in the final result of this aspect of the American experience  (“This one has been being very American”), in the violence expressed in “gun gun gun gun gun.” 

          Similarly, in the second Trial—also memorable simply because it is repeated almost 40 times—Lucinda Child’s Patty Hearst speech, performed from a large bed, is equally poetic in its effects, calling up, as it does, Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” and expressing the wacky consumerism of a woman in “a prematurely air-conditioned super market” attracted to bathing caps despite the fact that she has been avoiding the beach:

I was in this prematurely air-conditioned super market

and there were all these aisles

and there were all these bathing caps that you could buy

which had these kind of Fourth of July plumes on them

they were red and yellow and blue

I wasn't tempted to buy one

but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding

the beach.

Other texts are first embedded in nonsense phrases that gradually become rhythmic units that slowly turn into recognizable phrases and ultimately sentences:

 

      Would would it. Would it get. Would it get some. Would it get some wind.

      Would it get some wind for. Would it get some wind for the. Would it get

      some wind for the sailboat?

Or the earlier, What does he want? series of repetitions.

     Visually things move slowly in time and space back and forth, from horizontality to vertical positions. All is relative. But also all these create narrative links, often repeated in the intermittent Knee Plays.   

      Underneath, or perhaps one should say, on top of these scenes, is the continuously pulsing beauty of Glass’ music, like the texts, shifting in their endless repetition from simple pulses to widening layers of melody.

     So what is my problem, you might ask? Haven’t I just described an incredible piece of art? Yes and no. For the problem is that this work, which so purposefully resists all narrative structures, is, as I argue, extremely narrative. Admittedly, I see narrative (as opposed to story) in practically everything, and have long been convinced that we inherently think in narrative patterns (at least I do). But the work’s very resistance to those narrative threads inevitably creates a search for deeper links between the “opera’s” parts, which is insistently and sometimes meaninglessly denied. Had the creators of this piece been willing to simply describe their work as a kind of Cagean “circus,” we might have all been able to simply sit back and enjoy its various parts; but by portentously tying it to Einstein, and purposely toying with ideas that are vaguely Einsteinian, they merely frustrate all efforts to penetrate, while seemingly demanding that we still attempt to make a whole of the pieces.

     Why choose these certain elements of American cultural history in the Age of Einstein, and not others? Was it merely that the creators had already worn us and themselves out in the 4 ½ hours they had arbitrarily determined (it was, originally, even longer)? I am not asking for a fluid narrative rise and fall of action, nor even a kind of coherent and binding structure, but, I’m afraid, the creators seem to be, and that transforms the work from being an enjoyable series of musical, visual, theatrical, and terpsichorean episodes into an often frustrating endurance test.

      Finally, the work does not today seem as radical as its creators and faithful admirers describe it to be. Throughout, a great deal of the work is simply sentimental in both its images and language: a half moon gradually turns into a full moon as the silent lovers on a slowly moving train briefly come together in a gentle touch. The mellow jazz tenor saxophone solo of Andrew Sterman justifiably haunts all the urban street walkers—as well as the audience.  Although the judge of the first Trial (the excellent Charles Williams) brilliantly imitates a feminist from Kalamazoo who, tired of bearing babies, wants all her kisses back, the final scene ends with an oscillation of a kiss between park bench lovers. All right, I want love and peace as well, as I’m sure Einstein did. But I think I might never describe the depth of my feelings in the clichéd language of a lover, as containing more than the grains of sand on the seashore or stars in the sky. The work seems to have much more fun when it simply counts. And in counting it matters more than its simple-minded solutions proffered by a bus driver in the dark.

     Surely, if nothing else, this is not radical thinking, as Tim Page argued for it beforehand. The theater of language by writers of a decade or two later, like Mac Wellman (in Terminal Hip and The Great Magoo, the later also with music), Len Jenkin, Richard Foreman and Eric Overmyer, for example, are, to my way of thinking, far more radical. Let us just agree, that in its mix of forms and thematic arches, Einstein on the Beach is, in fact, “being very American,” at moments profoundly complex, at others, entertainingly hollow.                                  


Los Angeles, October 16, 2013