Monday, October 29, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "A World of Endless Picnics" (on Maureen Huskey's The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man)

by Douglas Messerli

Maureen Huskey (writer and director) The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man, music by Yuval Ron / Los Angeles, Son of Semele Theater / the production I saw was on Sunday, October 28, 2018

You might describe the Son of Semele Ensemble’s small, hole-in-the-wall theater—which I attended for the first time yesterday afternoon—as being a haven for believers in drama the way many religious believers perceive their store-front churches. For this small company preaches “bold and imaginative theater” (what they describe as risk-taking work) that “embraces the friction between emotion and intellect.” In Greek myth Semele’s son, fathered by Zeus, was Dionysius.
      Clearly, they have found just such a playful and risk-taking work in Maureen Huskey’s science-fiction musical, The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man.

The play, however, is not quite as inexplicable as its title, for this work recounts the strange story of real-life science fiction author James Tiptree, winner of several Hugo Awards (given annually to the best science fiction or fantasy writing), who was beloved by fellow writers Ursula LeGuin, Joanna Russ, Philip K. Dick, and numerous others, and who had a large group of admirers with whom the author corresponded for decades. Tiptree was known for a masculinity of tone, much as was Hemingway; but the plots of these works did not always favor the male heroes, who were often destroyed, killed the entire population of earth, or themselves were destroyed—as we observe in the opening tableau—by the author’s female characters, as in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” when, after being saved by a crew of female astronauts, the males cannot resist their tendencies to rape and abuse. Seemingly inexplicably, in this first theatrical image, while the women crewmembers inject vials of poison into the males on the rampage, a woman (Betsy Moore), who appears to be the pilot of ship, sits, stage center, with a gun held to her head—obviously contemplating suicide.
     For those of us who have never heard of Tiptree, let alone read his works, the stage actions seem almost like some bad science-fiction film that makes little sense. Yet soon after, another of Tiptree’s female characters, Mira (Megann Rippey) appears in full extraterrestrial garb (beautifully realized by costume designer Lena Sands) to guide the suicidal Alice back through the history of her life, which unravels and helps to explain what we have just witnessed.
     One might have feared such an obvious structural device of unspooling the central character’s past could lead to a rather predictable series of interactions that psychologize and simplify what has just begun as a fantastical mystery. Yet Huskey’s play, fortunately, retains its playful confusion, in part by introducing sung music by composer Yuval Ron, that functions a bit like such whacky musical interludes in the plays of Mac Wellman, charming us at the very moment that, in their unexpected appearance in what might have been a simple genre play, deeply enrich the work.
     Even if we are taken back down the yellow-brick-road from the Emerald City to the land of the Munchkins, we are never quite certain where we are. We begin, in this instance, in Alice Bradley’s (later Alice Sheldon’s) childhood (with the lovely Isabella Ramacciotti playing the 12-year-old little Alice) as she appears on what she later describes as one of her “endless picnics,” this with her mother, Mary (Anneliese Euler) in the wilds of Africa where, it appears, the imperious woman has just shot her first elephant, apparently an absolutely normal activity for her and her husband of the elite class (reminding one a bit of the Trump children). Surely, the wealthy socialite Mary seems to presume that the entire world belongs to her, including her own daughter’s childhood writings, which the mother quickly incorporates into her own published travelogues, which celebrate the fact that she has undertaken such a dangerous journey with a young child. The newspapers later shouted the fact that in their travels it was the first time the pygmies had even seen a young white girl.
     They hardly have time to return home before Alice, now 16 (played by Paula Rebelo) is told that it is time for her Chicago appearance at the debutante ball. But by now Alice is clearly resentful of her mother’s heavy-handed control of her life, and impulsively elopes with a handsome young man who is also a drunk and, somewhat like the men in “Houston…” regularly beats her. Six years later she divorces, enlisting in the army where she serves as a World War II intelligence officer.  
     We also now perceive that Alice may have some lesbian tendencies, but she quickly squelches any such desires and, almost again on a whim, marries another veteran, Col. Huntingdon Sheldon (Alex Wells), with whom she keeps a romantic distance, while he fondly looks after her. By this time she is also working on graphic art (she had a work shown at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C) and some manages to obtain a Ph.D in experimental psychology (these things not featured in our theatrical presentation of her life), but yet she obviously still feels vaguely unsatisfied.
      Part of the problem is her conflicting notions of her self-worth—and who wouldn’t be uncertain about oneself given the complete self-assurance of her mother—she becomes determined to write, not the travelogues of mother, but in a genre she had long admired, science fiction—insisting that her husband never tell her mother of her new venture.
     We suddenly realize who that woman sitting it the spaceship’s pilot-seat truly is, as the now Virginia housewife determines to take control of her life by writing under a pseudonym (James Ferrero taking on the role of her pseudonymous self), James Tiptree, Jr. So begins her incredible career, wherein as she put it elsewhere, “His pen was my prick,” allowing her to perhaps create a kind of transgender self in a time when it was simply unthinkable. For decades, through her imaginary self, Alice made not only a new career, but a new identity filled with the possibilities of being a male in a world that still held women in their homes. She could create strong men and kill them off, weak women and give them dignity. She finally had the power to kill off whole universes if she chose.
      Only when her own mother died, and she took a small break in her writing, did it become apparent who James Tiptree, Jr. really was. Her science-fiction fans were shocked by the revelation, and questions arose about what masculine and feminine writing was—the inklings, we can imagine, of the gender issues that are still being struggled with today, particularly given that the Trump administration has just announced their intention to define individuals only by their sexual parts.
      Even though she continued to write under the Tiptree name for another decade, she understandably must have felt she had lost control of her voice, and when her husband was in ill-health and could no longer care for himself, and she herself was suffering from bad health due to years of smoking, she shot her husband and put the gun—the one we see in that very first scene—her head, creating a double suicide.
      Huskey does not give us any easy answers to this tragedy. We must work them out of her purposely fragmented work ourselves. But the issues here are not only contemporary ones but force us to go back in time to wonder how many others—and there were far too many—who felt they had to tamp down their talents and their voices for fear of cultural shunning. I think its so fascinating that this author chose an alternative reality, both imaginatively and in terms of gender, to demonstrate her talents. When that was taken away, there was little left. She was simply a little old lady in Virginia writing well-crafted fantasies.
      I should add, that besides the cast members I mention above, all the ensemble players, including Kamar Elliott, Emma Zakes Green, Nathan Nonhof, Robert Paterno, and Ashley Steed were quite convincing. The lighting by Rose Malone was memorable. I’ll be back to worship at the altar of this small space soon.

Los Angeles, October 29, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2018).

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Going West" (on Puccini's La funciulla del West)

going west

by Douglas Messerli

Guelfo Civinni and Zangarini (libretto, based on the play, The Girl of the Golden West, by David Belasco), Giacomo Puccini (composer). Giancarlo del Monaco (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) La funciulla del West / 2018 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

Rather oddly, given Howard’s and my adoration of opera, I had never previously seen a production of Giacomo Puccini’s 1910 opera, commissioned by the New York Metropolitan Opera (a production conducted by Arturo Toscanini, with Emmy Destinn as Minnie and Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson), La funciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West). I’d heard many of its pieces on disk and radio, but never actually experienced the production itself.
     Attending the production alone, I found myself seated by a local gallerist friend, Ruth Bochofner, a joyful coincidence.
     I’d always thought about this late-career Puccini opera as a kind of last gasp, followed only by his La rondine and his series of three short operas, also first performed at the Metropolitan in 1918; yet, I now realize this was a terrible misconception.
     Supposedly Puccini thought that this David Belasco-based opera was his very best, and almost all of the performers argued for its difficulties with, in the case of Eva-Maria Westbroek, arguing that it was one (if not the) very favorite of works in which she had performed. The personable Italian conductor Marco Armiliato, who directed the score from memory, seemed impassioned about its difficulties and argued how more contemporary, given Puccini’s highly romantically-based operas before this, it was.

     I must agree that this work, given the remarkable vocalizations of Westbroek (as Minnie), Jonas Kaufmann (as Dick Johnson), and Željko Lučić (as the sheriff Jack Rance) is something I had never before imagined. And yes, this is definitely not the usual Puccini concoction of beautiful arias and character types as in
La bohème, Tosca, or Madama Butterfly—even if, clearly, there is some of the last-named opera’s exoticism that creeps into his vision of Belasco’s wild west—with many quick references to Turnadot—wherein, like the proud queen of Peking, Minnie refuses her love to the miners from all over the world who have gathered in their mad desire for gold to offer her their treasures.
     On the surface, in fact, they seem mostly to be good friends, almost making up the foundation, sans wives, of a future civilized community. They gather in the local bar to drink, gamble, and to release some of their aggressions, but their trust in their mother/potential lover, owner of their bar, Minnie, is so very touching that we quickly comprehend why they use the lower shelves of her bar, overseen by the gentle bar-tender, in which to hide their life savings. The local Wells Fargo rider tries to get them to bank their wealth in his company (terribly ironic today given what we know of that institution’s 21st-century actions), but the stagecoach has often been robbed by a local bandit, Ramerrez, and they trust the virginal Minnie as the better banker.

Together they vie for her attentions, Rance believing, just because of his position as a sort-of-law-and-order ex-gambler and heavy drinker, he has the best chance of wooing her. While Sonora (Michael Todd Simpson) believes he might be her favorite, given his status as a kind of group representative of the goldminers. If the various challengers for Minnie’s love sometimes break out in violent confrontations—this is after all the violent West of Hollywood myth which still suffers brawls and violent interchanges when a gambler is found to have been cheating—they seem to be a rather affable group, with even an ability to help out a fellow, very depressed miner, who is desperate to return home to England, by taking up a collection to send him home. We might almost imagine that this will soon be the “well-intentioned” Western town of Hadleyville if only some women were to arrive. What might be the desire for immediate violence could eventually turn into a refusal to get involved if you give these crude believers enough time.
     In the meantime, the gun-toting Annie Oakley-like figure of Minnie has to serve as both the vision of law-and-order and the mentor/educator of this rough community, calling them to order, serving up their liquor, and then reading to them from the Bible about King David and other major biblical figures. She’s a tough teacher, scolding them for their lack of memory, but also a loving and caring being who, we later discover, has served as nurse, confessor, and supporter of many of these toughs.
      She also, as she later puts it, is herself a kind of gambler/capitalist, one of them really, who sees herself as a kind of coarse, uneducated woman, who survives through her instincts—without even realizing that it’s truly been her kindness and intellect that has allowed her continued existence. For she is, surprisingly, a reader, having stashed away a complete library in her mountain cabin, reading late into the night, mostly, she admits, love stories—while still rejecting the advances of many of her would-be suitors such as Rance’s (with the angry and moving “Laggiù nel Soledad”) through her claim of  attempting to find “true” love.
     Minnie is a remarkable combination of a tough Western survivor and a naïve innocent, who goes through her life saved simply because of that impossible combination.
    Given this rough-and-tumble world, and Minnie’s and her community’s own mixed emotions, Puccini must have realized that he had to create a different kind of opera. Here, for one of the first times in his music, beautiful wrought musical passages are again and again interrupted, as if almost suggesting a kind of modernist composition, as characters cut across each other’s would-be spiritual expressions. It’s a bit like an early intonation of jazz: the moment a phrase begins, another instrument (in this case an intrusive voice) interrupts to express his or her own viewpoint. People in this opera get in the way, constantly, of all the others, shouting down the arias they may have sung, refusing to hear any of the melodic sentiment of a standard Puccini opera.
     So what you get here are wonderful flourishes of romanticism—the wonderful theme of the golden girl herself, the almost Rodgers and Hammerstein early greetings, the somewhat clumsily American-intonations of the miner’s greetings of “hello,” and the painful interludes between the past and present when the bandit Dick Johnson and Minnie first meet, recounting their early accidental meeting as almost kids—constantly interrupting one another's sweet memories, without truly being able to communicate what they both feel is a sudden passion.
      Minnie becomes immediately becomes so girlish after inviting Dick to come to her isolated cabin in the sierras, that she does truly remind one of the corny Doris Day film when Annie Oakley tries to dress up for Wild Bill Hitchcock. It’s the trope: suddenly get out of your slickers, put away your gun, and put on a dress (in this case with a rose stuffed into your bosom) to attract the man of your dreams—even if, she quickly discovers, he’s worse that you might even imagine yourself, a simple bandit who has been consorting with a local Mexican whore.

    As one of the commentators noted between the acts of this marvelous production, this opera projects the sense of a kind of early movie, with the music and events tumbling over upon one another so quickly that sometimes you can hardly catch your breath. Musical phrases literally pile up only to collapse into more profane chords of everyday commentary. For what seems like hours, a tense three-hand poker game—during which Minnie cheats Rance to escape his desired rape of her and her own attempt to claim the man (just like he was a gold mine she has suddenly discovered and determined to claim)—tamps down all music except for sort of percussional tempo—that is unlike anything you’ve before encountered in Puccini’s previous scores.
      Minnie’s final song of love in Act II, after she illegally wins, might almost be perceived as a kind of mad scene out of Strauss’s Elektra or Salome. And Puccini has suddenly moved away from the late 19th century into new territory. Even Westbroek had to admit, during an intermission chat, that she had completely “nailed” it.” It was a moment of opera to remember forever. And the audience went wild.
      And, finally, unlike almost any Puccini opera before it, this is not a tragedy. Despite the attempt of the miner’s community to get their revenge, the impossible strong woman at the center of this work, returns, guns in hand, to righteously claim that her man escape the local noose, despite the odds, releasing her lover from their actual legalistically-justified arguments by reminding these locals of all she has done for them.
     In the end, the freed couple walk off together into the rising sun to never return, perhaps moving on to a new southern paradise, I’d like to think, of Santa Barbara or the then-nascent Los Angeles. No snow there, which is what almost got Dick killed in the second act.
      I agree, this may be, as Puccini himself believed, his very best opera. Not a work that displays his immense melodic skills at music-making but expresses a kind of new Italian-Wagnerian notion of what opera can become. Had he only lived long enough to continue that transformation!

Los Angeles, October 28, 2018

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Redeeming the Future" (on the Los Angeles Mater Chorale's production of Orlando di Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro-Tears of St. Peter)

redeeming the future
by Douglas Messerli

Orlando di Lasso Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St. Peter), performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, directed by Peter Sellars / the performance I saw was at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts/Bram Goldsmith Theater in Beverly Hills on October 20, 2018

The very last of the 20 madrigal and motet sections of Orlando di Lasso’s masterful Renaissance composition Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St. Peter), “Negando il mio Signor,” summarizes and transforms the saint’s tortuous sufferings for having denied Christ three times before the resurrection. Jesus, himself, had foretold the denials of the man who became the first leader of the Christian church, who might never have imagined  it would be uttered through his own tongue.
     It is that tragedy, his love of Christ and his own betrayal of that love and his faith, that tortures St. Peter and constitutes his near-endless remorse as expressed in this beautiful work. That last madrigal which—as Thomas May writes in a remarkably insightful essay published in the theater program, straddles “the usual distinction between vocal compositions for the sacred (motet)” and the secular, vernacular works (often involving erotic and pastoral topics) of the madrigal, the opera form of its day—bemoans the saint’s own life-long recognition that “By denying my Lord, I have denied my life.” By betraying his beliefs, in short, he has betrayed the individual behind them, his own existence. It is such a modern psychological perception that it is almost breathtaking to hear it sung today.
     More importantly, the fact that it is not sung, as in opera, by a single individual, but by the chorus, the symbolic representation of the entire community, and, in this case, representing the early Christian community who themselves must carry the guilt and pain of their first leader’s temporary cowardice, shifts this work into another dimension. Lasso rather wonderfully, particularly through the more communal form of the madrigal, makes this an issue that shakes the entire religious community rather than simply one man facing his creator, which makes the final resolution of the motet that follows, “See, O man!” something that has meaning for all of us, not just the individual who has denied his own values.
     The “life too guilty,” the desires for “life, go away” is not simply Peter’s cries, but those of the whole of mankind who will not be able to fully embrace their own values. Somehow this has even more meaning at this moment in history than I ever might have imagined.
      The fact that director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and director Peter Sellars determined that instead of a production of this work the way it had usually been performed, with a stolid chorus standing in position accompanied by a few instruments, to instead create a truly a cappella work, conducted by Jenny Wong, and moving the chorus into vaguely conceived choreographic positions, brings a completely new perspective to this Renaissance piece.
      A friend of mine, attending the work, was not certain that the choreography entirely worked, particularly given the problems of attending to the English text on a small screen placed at the back of the stage, which was difficult to scan given the various “positions of suffering” that chorus members, often facing off as two opposing groups, enacted on the front of the stage.
      And there is, I must admit, some credence in her position. Yet, those terpsichorean movements also enlivened what, later in the work—after the group retreated to chairs in order to sing the final dramatic madrigals and the last motet—I felt the work had lost some of its energy. If the dramatic bodily interchanges between chorale members might not have always made total sense, they charged it with a kind of bitter anger for their pope’s (and therefore their own) betrayals. This after all was a religion still in fight with the rest of the world, and they desperately needed to justify all their beliefs and actions, not only to the world at large but to themselves.
      Lasso, fortunately, created a work so tonally beautiful that you cannot doubt these early believers’ (or later spiritually-committed singers’) purity of intent, and their dedication to the continuance of their faith.
    Grant Gershon has continued to lead the Chorale in a remarkable direction of great singing and performance, and this is one of the very best works I have heard them interpret.
     The costumes by Danielle Domingue Sumi (mostly dark blues and grays) reiterate the concerns of the work, while the lighting by James F. Ingalls re-informs the passionate concerns of the chorus, literally enlightening them with his intense flashes of white light.
      May argues, in his program essay, that at the time of this work’s composition, Lasso himself was an elderly man, having undergone his own series of doubts and melancholy during his creation this moving work. And, if that is true, Lagrime di San Pietro might be described, in fact, as a work of old men, a melancholic composer and an older scion looking back on his atoning sainthood (despite all the younger performers and artists who this evening brought this piece to fruition). And that fact, ultimately, makes this a very sad work, a long regret for having lived a life involved with doubt and failure.
      Still, it is also a very forgiving work, a passionate plea for the younger generations to forgive their elders for their failures with a desire, so marvelously expressed in Lasso’s music, for what they have left behind. Would that all of us old men and women could bequeath such a masterwork of redemption to our children and younger friends.

Los Angeles, October 23, 2018

Friday, October 19, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "The Past Becomes the Future" (on Gob Squad's Creation (Pictures for Dorian))

the past becomes the future
by Douglas Messerli

Gob Squad Creation (Pictures for Dorian) / Los Angeles, REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater) / the performance I attended with Deborah Meadows was on Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Berlin-based Gob Squad, as they describe themselves, “a seven-headed monster”—consisting of Johanna Freiburg, Sean Patten, Sharon Smith, Berit Stumpf, Sarah Thom, Bastain Trost, and Simon Will—have been creating, over the past few years, major performances in, as they put it, “all continents except Antarctica,” and presenting “a schizophrenic…and multiple split personality: hermaphrodite, binational, and bilingual.”
    Their newest production Creation (Pictures for Dorian) hobbles together notions from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray—you recall, that novel in which Gray sells himself to the devil, so to speak, by allowing a hidden painting to represent his aging and morally corrupt life, while he himself remains endlessly young and handsome—with the actual lives of the performers invited to engage in this work: Mallory Fabian, Natasha Liu, Nic Prior, Dan Guerrero, Tina Preston, and Amentha Dymally, all of whom have had young and long-life careers in the Los Angeles scene.
     Nic Prior, who evidently identifies—at least in one role he played, as he recounts—with a kind of transgender identity, serves as the young Dorian, perfectly willing to transform himself into a stage figure with whom we can all identify; he presents himself as a kind of shifting gay/female figure with whom the audience might find intriguing, and plays the central figure with the alluring ambiguousness of Wilde’s hero.
    Fortunately, however, this is not a story of a hidden-away painting that reveals the major figure’s moral bad behavior, but, through the multi-generational actors’ recounts a true tale of the desire to engage with the spectator—we the audience. These are, after all, theatrical figures, bigger than life and smaller than life simultaneously, who want to engage us in their personal histories or, at least, the figures they perform as representations of their personal lives. Young and older, they are determined to face the audience (they turn away at various personal demands), despite their doubts and fears, to create the notion that Wilde proclaimed what art is all about: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art truly mirrors.”
      Through the wonderful probings of the narrator, demanding dramatic endeavors and personal answers for their life-time behaviors, the actors in this work gradually reveal their relationships to theater, their favorite moments, their serious doubts, and their always intense desires to be front and center-on-stage for most of their lives. Each revelation is slightly devastating: a moment when the younger Preston studied with Jerzy Grotwoski (she has also performed in major works by contemporary playwrights whom I’ve published, including John O’Keefe, Maria Irene Fornes, John Steppling and Murray Mednick), Harlem-born Dymally recalling a moment with her co-actor in James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, and, perhaps most touching of all, Dan Guerrero’s memory, at the age of 24, (as the play jokes, he is caught in the 1960s), of his appearing in a summer-stock production of The Fantasticks, where he was a bit unsure of his heterosexual relationship performance of the wonderful “Soon It’s Going to Rain.” He achieved it through taking out his co-actor to a park bench, perhaps explaining why he later turned to a career as an agent, only later to return to performing in ¡Gaytino!
     These now somewhat elderly figures, at least in their bodies, may seem trapped in another time, consigned to their own performative eras, just as Dorian was in his locked-up painting, but yet they remain, so they proclaim, to hold their youth still within their souls. Indeed, the narrator defines some of them as the future, while describing the younger figures as the past.
      Perhaps stage actors are more alive as they age than the younger figures desperately attempting to create their new images for the audience. Certainly, the beautiful Prior, the model-actress Liu, and the talented Fabian, are prettier for our eyes; but the elders live on, like Dorian, keeping their own beauty in their hearts and—yes—through their continual actions upon the stage, not only the theatrical one but upon the theater of life.
      We all know that the past will be become the future, that the younger talents designated as something now gone will soon become the talents we want to see. But as Wilde demonstrates through Dorian Gray, they too will too quickly become something embalmed in their own talents. It’s sad; but surely that is the way of life, and it energizes this tragi-comedy to become a celebration of life.

Los Angeles, October 19, 2018

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "The Sweet Sound of Dissonance" (on John Beasley's MONK'estra)

the sweet sound of dissonance
by Douglas Messerli

John Beasley’s MONK’estra / Santa Monica, California, The Broad Stage, the performance I attended with Pablo Capra on October 12, 2018

Beginning as a jazz pianist, composer, and arranger, John Beasley for the last few years has reimagined the great songs of pianist Thelonius Monk with, at first, a small combo, finally expanding that into a larger jazz orchestra, MONK’estra, which successfully demonstrates just how great of composer Monk truly was. Indeed, the two albums the group has recorded garnered several Grammy nominations.

For lovers of Monk’s often eccentric piano poundings and endless chordal embellishments, it may be hard to even imagine a big band sound—with a row of saxophonists (who double as clarinetists and flautists: Bob Sheppard, Tom Luer, Tommy Peterson, Adam Schroeder, and Danny Janklow), trombonists (Wendell Kelly, Ryan Dragon, Lemar Guillary), and trumpeters (Bijon Watson, Rashawn Ross, James Ford, Brian Swartz), along with percussionist Peter Erskine, bass and acoustic player Ben Shepherd, and Beasley, himself, sporting a Monk-like tam, at the piano and occasionally stalking the stage as the director—yet Beasley’s arrangements incorporate much of the punch and yet complex texture of Monk’s works.

      The night’s list of songs at the The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, a performance which I attended with Pablo Capra, was announced from the stage, and since I standardly do not like to take notes at events and I don’t know Monk’s entire oeuvre, it’s difficult to recount all the titles. Yet I do recall Monk’s notable Round Midnight, Little Rootie Tootie, Going on the Hudson (one of my favorites), and possibly Dear Ruby. There were many others; in all, Monk wrote about 70 songs.
       What is totally unforgettable is the sound of this group, as if the Duke Ellington orchestra had suddenly shifted into Monk’s extreme dissonance, which, as one group member argues, “he [Monk] makes sound normal.”

The utter talent of this group allows for a showcasing of the individuals, with a couple of baritone sax solos (particularly of interest to me, since I played that instrument in high school), a couple of trumpet and a trombone features, alto and tenor sex solos, and special focuses on the drummer and bassist, along with, of course, Beasley’s own very Monk-like piano renditions.
       If at times there may seem to be a bit of sweetening-up of Monk’s more improvisatory approach, MONK’estra does capture the spirit of the jazz legend and reveals, moreover, as Beasley notes, how much of his work included elements of the history of 21st-century sound, including “hip-hop, bossa nova, Afro-Cuban jazz, funk, fusion and free jazz.”
       The near sold-out performance was filled with people who couldn’t get enough of the highly energized sounds, awarding the performers two well-deserved standing ovations, and demanding an encore.
       What I think we all recognized, despite the negative press Monk received throughout his life (jazz critic Philip Larkin once describing him as “the elephant on the keyboard”), as the arranger / pianist argues:

                 I discovered how pliable his music is, like any 
                 great composer—for example Bach, who sounds 
                 great in any tempo. Monk’s music is so open 
                 to interpretation because his compositions have 
                 such a solid story. I figured out how to elongate 
                 his sophisticated melodies and voice things in a 
                 non-traditional way. And through it all, those 
                 unforgettable melodies just stick with you.

       Even if the titles Beasley announced didn’t all stick with me, yet those melodies are still replaying in my head this morning, and the next time MONK’estra performs in town—they now travel the globe in their performances—I hope to be there.

Los Angeles, October 13, 2018

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "What Is Sound?" (on Reidemeister Move)

what is sound?
by Douglas Messerli

Reidemeister Move (Robin Hayward and Christopher Williams) / Los Angeles, REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), the performance I attended was on Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Named after the mathematical theory of knots, the performers of Reidemeister Move combine theories of music developed by Berlin’s echdtzeitmusik scene and Fluxus leader La Monte Young’s ideas of “Eternal Music,” often described as “dream music” or “drone music”: undertones, noise, spatial resonance and overtones are fused together to create a kind of ethereal mix of sounds.

     The two players of the group, British-born Robin Hayward and University of California, San Diego educated Christopher Williams, combine an oddly shaped microtonal tuba (Hayward) and a contrabass (Williams), this one that looks a bit like it has been stored in a painter’s studio, to structure overlying sounds with alternating long tones which challenge and define each musician’s following passages.
     The last piece of the evening, Borromean Rings (by Hayward, created in 2011) does just that, as the tuba and contrabass take turns in musical refrains which either resolve or stimulate each other to new refrains. If there is often a sense in this piece that the phrases may sson resolve and lead to a hushed standstill, the second player often follows with a different tonal register which the challenges the first to take it in yet new directions, and so on, Williams occasionally tapping the strings to create new rhythmic possibilities which keep the piece moving forward in a series of tuba chugs and long bow antiphonal responses that help put us on the edge of the seat as we wait for what seems like a resolve and/or closure of the piece. We feel, time and again, this must be the final bowing only to have the closure challenged by a different harmonic register, almost as if the two players were challenging one another to go in new directions or to “give it up” to harmonic resolution.
      One feels time and again excited and a bit uneasy with the intense playful shifting of the opposing instrumental variances. But it is just the oddity of tuba and contrabass that create a tonal dissonance that makes everything endlessly entertaining.
      The first piece of the evening, by Williams and Charlie Morrow, from 2012, emanates from André Breton’s “occultist” work, itself modeled on his relationship to women and to tarot cards. The book was written on the eastern coast of Quebec at Rocher Percé, and thus the composers incorporate the sounds of the sea, gannets, flapping flags, and somewhat surrealistic-sounding emanations of the stars within the piece. In this work the tuba, at moments, often has the feeling of a fog horn lost in the dark met by the lower and higher responses of the clearly more feminine aspect of the work through the long tones of the contrabass.
      This piece had a particular significance to me, since my Sun & Moon Press published the first English language translation, by Zack Rogow, of Breton’s work with a colorized picture of that great coastal rock. I reprinted it several times in my Green Integer series.
      Certainly, this group’s music is not for everyone—although I wish it might be—but in indirect ways La Monte Young’s music and the later works of this group might be said to be related to the compositions of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, music that in its very repetitions and shifting tonalities demand careful listening and learning of what sound is all about.

Los Angeles, November 11, 2018

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Rose Colored Glasses" (on David Roussève and his dance company REALITY,'s Halfway to Dawn)

rose colored glasses
by Douglas Messerli

David Roussève and his dance company REALITY, Halfway to Dawn / Los Angeles, REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, the performance I saw was on Thursday, October 4, 2018

One might not be able to imagine a better way to organize a dance concert as tying it to the life of black jazz composer, arranger, and performer Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn, writing (sometimes anonymously and sometimes receiving open credit) with Duke Ellington, not only gave the famed band a more coherent jazz sound but wrote and scored some of its most noted songs, including “Grievin’,” “Take the A-Train,” “Love Came,” “Blood Count,” and “Lotus Blossom,” the last song with which choreographer David Roussève and his dance group, REALITY (consisting of Bernard Brown, Raymond Ejofor, Dezaré Foster, Jasmine Jawato, Kevin Le, Julio Medina, Samantha Mohr, Leanne Iacovetta Poirier, and Kevin Williamson) ended their performance of Halfway to Dawn which premiered at REDCAT on Thursday night.
      The performance basically takes us through Strayhorn’s career with Ellington and others —another close friend was singer Lena Horne—in mostly chronological order, filling in some facts about Strayhorn’s colorful life with written information projected onto a back screen, along with images and innovative lighting by Roussève’s collaborators, L. MSP Burns, d Sabela grimes, Christopher Kuhl, Lean Phiel, Cari Ann Shim Sham, Katelan Brayer, and Aexsa Durrans that further elucidate elements of Strayhorn’s life.
      It doesn’t hurt, moreover, that the classically-trained diminutive composer, Strayhorn, looked more like a computer nerd than a jazz musician and that he lived an openly gay life—with two major lovers, African-American jazz pianist Aaron Bridgers, and a white man, Bill Grove—while smoking and drinking heavily through most of his career. Strayhorn was also active in racial politics and became a friend of Martin Luther King. Even Lena Horne wished she might marry him!
    In many respects Strayhorn might remind one of gay lyricist, Lorenz Hart, who under Richard Rodger’s collaborator also did not always get the attention he deserved. Yet, as the years passed Ellington did give more and more credit to the man behind much of his success.
    Ellington wrote of him: "Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” And later, after his friend’s death, wrote a beautiful tribute to the man, describing Strayhorn was living out "four major moral freedoms": "freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity (even through all the pain and bad news); freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might possibly help another more than it might himself and freedom from the kind of pride that might make a man think that he was better than his brother or his neighbor."
     In Strayhorn, accordingly, Roussève has found what you might describe as a kind of unspoken “saint,” certainly a man who deserves an intelligent bio-pic and is certainly worth a dance company’s attention.
     And in most instances the choreographer moves his distinct company through a combination of joyful struts, clever and sometimes humorous interludes, and anguished body positions which show what are clearly the various aspects of the composer’s life. I was particularly moved by the first act’s dances based on the composer’s “Grievin’,” “Take the A-Train,” “After All,” and “Your Love Has Faded.”
     Yet, ultimately, I found these pieces didn’t quite cohere in a terpsichorean whole, or even present themselves as a coherent ensemble of great dance moments. As those who know my writing realize, I adore narrative, but here its hand was just too heavy as we attempted to quickly read the written texts and assimilate information that in the end did not fully contribute to the pleasure of the dance. Perhaps a longer, written text in the program, filling us in on Strayhorn’s life might have better served the works.
      Clearly Roussève and his contributors must have sensed this even themselves, permitting, in the second act, the Strayhorn story to move into far more abstract territory—apparently, according to the choreographer, to demonstrate a life somewhat falling apart—and allowing the company to move into a less structural format in “I’m Checking Out Goombye.” “Lush Life,” and the beautiful ending number, “Lotus Blossom.”
     If there is something wonderfully ambitious and genre-bending in Halfway to Dawn’s mix of dance, biography, and story-telling, it is, in the end, only “halfway” there. As it is, we must keep adjusting our lens, moving in and out of the pure body movements and grand musical accompaniment with jibs and jabs of somewhat ineffectual story-telling. As incredible as Billy Strayhorn’s story is, perhaps dancing to his remarkable music might have to mean less attention to his life and more focus on the music and its rhythms themselves.
     Still, I suggest everyone in Los Angeles run downtown this afternoon for the final matinee performance, and when this moves on to the Brooklyn Academy in New York, everyone who loves dance should flock to see Roussève’s brave attempt to yoke so many genres. And, yes, there ought to be a movie, perhaps incorporating dance, a kind of musical theater surely, as Strayhorn himself, with Lester Henderson, started without completing in their Rose Colored Glasses.

Los Angeles, October 7, 2018