Medea: Exploring the Total Field of Senses

“If John Cage was alive and heard this, he would go nuts,” – said an audience member of Medea, a Pasolini-inspired butoh-opera, staged near Olimpiysky sports complex in Kyiv on June 12, starring butoh dancers Valentin Tszin and Flavia Ghisalberti with music by Audrey Chen (vocals), Phil Minton (vocals), Henrik Munkeby Norstebo (trombone), Thomas Rohrer (rabeca), and Michael Vorfeld (percussion). Of course, such reaction could address a myriad of outdoor performances, and, coming from a pianist who had performed Cage a number of times, was just too obvious. That night, however, another idea of Cage could take on a new meaning, if we replace “sound” with “sense,” which isn’t too much of a stretch, given 21st century urge to multisensory experiences. It seems that this is exactly what the show’s organizer, a highly imaginative music agency Ukho, does best: making Kyiv’s audiences of all ages believe that music is not just sound.

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photo by Lili Viter

It is the time of the day when the sun breaks up into pieces and scatters over the sky like – cherry blossom? pieces of flesh and blood? I walk past Olimpiysky stadium up the hill, until the voices of football fans recede into silence and the stadium’s UFO-looking roof emerges in front of my eyes – the place’s mysterious view indeed reminds of Pasolini’s desert landscapes. Few hundreds of unordered chairs await the audience; Medea is about to start.

Supposedly without a plot, this genre-bending opera has no melodic lines, let alone arias, but can be perceived as a counterpoint of sensorial threads, on the verge between stasis and narrative. Barefoot dancers, barely dressed in skin-colored clothes, emerge from the audience, writhing with pain. Their suffering becomes our suffering – we could almost touch them and do feel the cold of their freezing feet hitting the asphalt. Humming screams of Minton and Chen can hardly be perceived as sound, but rather as shades of silence that at once project agony and fill up the void. Complete silence would be just too intense – too intense to leave the audience one-on-one with the thriller thread of the performance, by Tszin and Ghisalberti. After several wild acts, such as Tszin getting up the metal construction, the couple meets in a static movement. Their Zen-like concentration and emotionally-charged slow motion vaguely reminds of New York’s Japanese dance couple Eiko and Koma. The subtle eroticism and the dancers’ cruelty to their own bodies, however, is definitely Pasolini’s: replace the mystery of this mixture of beauty and pain with his mysticism, and you arrive at realism – “only those who are mystical are realistic.” Once Jason tears off Medea’s “perfectly real” silicone skin, she scratches her real leg over the sharp edge of a wooden platform.

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To add to the opera’s perfect combination of music and movement, yet another sensory line: some thirty butoh-village performers, steadily moving from backstage through the audience, their gaze steadily fixed on the horror which only their eyes can see. Barefoot, with cobblestones on their heads, they slowly walk over freezing ground, and the audience, again, can empathize with no effort. Yet another thread is our freedom to move across the space, choosing a different perspective each time, yet another – the sun going down slowly, in its own pace.

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photo by Volodymyr Osypenko

Once the listener immerses into visual agony and is completely captivated by the couple, something remarkable happens. The sun goes down, the music switches from lightly-colored silence to scream, the thirty dancers “suddenly” emerge behind our backs, and, having passed the audience, they acquire voice. Once everything reverses, the suffering experienced by Medea and Jason is no longer there – it reverses into silence and stillness of our tortured hearts, from realism to mystery.

Erlena Dlu

©2016 by Extended Techniques. All Rights Reserved.

Medea is a part of Architecture of Voice project, vol. 2: around stadia, curated by Sasha Andrusyk of Ukho Music Agency (Kyiv). Previous shows included: “Blumenstudien” by Lucia Ronchetti in sub tropic orangery of botanic garden, Phil Minton and Audry Chen in paleontological museum, David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion in a church, Victoria Polyova’s Ave Maria Stella in a swimming pool, among many others.

Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Music Renders Time Impotent

Having bumped into memory, time learns its impotence.
Joseph Brodsky

One of the many questions triggered by Silent Cranes: The Music of Mary Kouyoumdjian, Performed by Kronos Quartet and Hotel Elefant presented on May 12 in Roulette, is the fragility of the boundary between political art and overt political statement. A descendent of a family that went through the Armenian Genocide, Kouyoumdjian shares Sartre’s belief in committed art, and, as Sartre suggests, in her works she recovers this world “by giving it to be seen as it is.”

Striving to approach controversial issues through the arts is especially apt with respect to the difficult topic addressed by Kouyoumdjian. Indeed, it is more common to learn about a century-old tragedy of the Armenian genocide by experiencing the artworks created by the descendants of exiled Armenians, rather than by means of a history lesson. I did this with Ararat (2002), a film directed by an Armenian-Canadian Atom Egoyan, that shares many images and themes with Kouyoumdjian’s work: pomegranates, Arshile Gorky, Turkish soldier cutting the stomach of a pregnant woman, Hitler’s infamous inquiry, 1.5 million killed.

One of the great qualities of Kouyoumdjian’s music is the ability to transmit state of madness, exemplified in two portraits of genocide survivors – composer Komitas who suffered post-traumatic disorder after his deportation to a prison camp, and painter Gorky, who lost his mother to starvation. Sea of Two Colors (2011) transports the listener to the realm of a restless soul of Komitas; flowing piano trills of the sea can also be heard as dark sinister clouds that cover once clear mind of a legendary composer and, with a brief moment of transfiguration, dissolve into eternity. Gorky’s voice in Everlastingness (2015) sounds completely detached from the accompaniment (reminding of Schumann’s songs), as the protagonist, consumed by his memories, lives in a fever dream beyond the reality.

Photo by Dominica Eriksen

Gorky’s ruminations didn’t engulf me as strongly as the last piece performed by Hotel Elefant: This Should Feel Like Home (2013) indeed felt like contemporary Armenia the way I imagine it, with all the imprints of the past. Folk melodies, marching band, distant voices, Orthodox church singing returning time and again – these recorded sounds naturally blended with their own reflections on the piano, flutes, clarinets, and strings.

The title piece of the concert, a four-movement multimedia work performed and commissioned by Kronos Quartet, seemed somewhat less integrated. The first movement appropriately introduced some highlights of Armenian cultural heritage: projected images of beautiful rugs and ceramics, traditional costumes and architecture, an old recording of Komitas music and his portrait on the screen. In the following movements pomegranates decomposed into blood as my ears submerged into survivors’ testimonies, my heart pierced with every word. I felt that these words were too numerous and too literal, leaving the music no role other than an accompaniment to a documentary film. After so many atrocities copied from the reality and pasted into the piece, some of the conclusions in the last movement seemed redundant. Shocked by the work’s content, I felt imprisoned by the abundance of words. One of my inner voices resisted the idea that the facts, the images, the narrative and the conclusions were all thrown into my face so literally, leaving no room for interpretation.

Photo by Dominica Eriksen

I’ve always believed that in order to create a real work of art one should favor the figurative over the discursive, especially in the music; but further reflections on Kouyoumjian’s Silent Cranes proved that its case might be different. I realized that  the piece bears many similarities to Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) so heavily (and to my mind unfairly) criticized by Adorno for literal depiction of suffering. The subject in each piece is personal to both composers, both works are based on the reports of survivors (although Survivor has a fictional narrative and it is not clear whether any reports at all are quoted directly), and the text is clearly recited. Moreover, both works stress the role of memory, although, ironically, in Schoenberg’s, written right after the Holocaust, the narrator “cannot remember everything,” while Kouyoumjian digs a hundred years into the past to give voice to someone who “was young, but still remembers.” One more twist of irony: in 1915, The New York Times systematically reported on the mass murder of the Armenian people, while the atrocities of the Holocaust were not immediately disclosed. And what do we remember today? Perhaps the artists who talk about the events which political will is trying so hard to sink into oblivion, have a right to be fully committed (i.e. realistic) – this is the only way time can lose its battle to memory.

Erlena Dlu

©2015 by Extended Techniques. All Rights Reserved.

Just between you and me: Anthony Braxton’s Trillium J is the future classic

On April 19, having rushed to Roulette leaving behind the last minutes of an international Sound and Affect conference in order to experience Anthony Braxton’s Trillium J (The Non-Unconfessionables), at first I could not stop thinking: how does this performance affect me and why? And – “whose are these emotions?” – as Deniz Peters questioned earlier that day.

I fail to describe my feelings having never experienced anything like this before. Perhaps one could compare Trillium J to Richard Foreman’s plays in the way it captures the absurd, the unexpectedness and ambiguity of contemporary world. Weave these into the voices of 12 vocalists and the sounds of 12 instrumental soloists with full orchestra, excellent acting, pseudo-philosophical digressions, visual projections, young skipping-rope Jazzy Jumpers and two of New York’s best contemporary dance improvisers Rachel Bernsen and Melanie Maar, and you get the mix.

At any specific moment I could not  recognize what exactly (music, words, acting, etc.) made me smile in a very strange way – the smile that sometimes comes from experiencing the misfortunes of Daniil Harms’s characters. This is perhaps the genius of a gesamtkunstwerk artist (Braxton wrote both the music and the libretto) – to blend all the media so naturally that a spectator cannot recognize the source of their feelings.

How does the absurd feel?

As an interlude before the Second Scene of Act IV, Jazzy Jumpers entered with their skipping-ropes and the choir started improvising “random” sounds to their movements. I sensed tears in my eyes, obviously neither out of sadness or joy. What catalyzed the sublime was (perhaps?) the excitement that something so contemporary and so musically apt was composed –the genre of opera has a future; at least it definitely has a present.

But the climax was still to come. The interlude could either feel like just another meaningful nonsense – the ridiculousness that was so fittingly at the wrong place, – or depict a stratum of society to be juxtaposed with the final scene – the trial of Sally Wanton. Despite the obvious references to social injustices of American society, Ms Walton reminded me of Russian President Vladimir Putin in her ability to pour complete nonsense and reject obvious evidence of crime with complete confidence (as well as accept it and immediately render crucial statements trifle). This is where, perhaps, “the concept of affinity,” the opera’s major theme, lies. Everyone walked out with a radiant face – those who thought of multiple possibilities of political connotations, or those who just took “the poetic transiency” and “undefinition that seeks its own level” as a flow of beautiful nonsense.

George Crumb once said that he was “frightened of a possibility to write an opera, nothing comes close to Wozzeck.” Whether you agreed with that or not in the past, you would definitely have to consider replacing Wozzeck with The Non-Unconfessionables.  Should 21st century opera, and music for that matter, only be political? It is not always this or that, it is often the other.

Erlena Dlu

©2014 by Extended Techniques. All Rights Reserved.

Valentin Silvestrov’s Melancholic Universe

Tonight’s program of Alfred Schnittke’s World presents two piano pieces by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937) that embody two features of his creative character – a disregard for political pressure and a melancholic soul.

The first one is reflected in Elegy (1967), where atonal piontilistic gestures exhibit modern aesthetic that was considered unacceptable in the Soviet Union for several decades. As many of his coleagues, Silvestrov faced oppression when he was composing music using avant-garde techniques from the West, and many of his works were not performed in his native country for political reasons.

However, it was not the oppression that prompted Silvestrov to change his style, but the discovery of his inner lyrical and poetic universe. In 1974-77 he composed a melancholic song cycle Silent Songs, written in deeply lyrical, reminiscent of romantic songs, but still original music language. Since then, many of his piano works, including Hymn2001 sound almost as if they were Romantic fragments. Almost – but one can virtually hear their timelessness in the long reverberating silences. Silvestrov believes that music becomes music only when it doesn’t limit itself to such things as an époque. As he stated during one of his public lectures:

People say it’s romanticism, but [tonality in my work] does not stand for romanticism, rather for the return of music to poetry. Originally romanticism was meant to marry the music and the poetry. Consider, for example, Shubert. People composed songs before him, but he made this meeting of poetry and music possible and people called it romanticism. That was the time when the human soul had acquired not only poetic language, but also musical.

Poetry and melancholy are always present in the musical language of Silvestrov’s piano miniatures – his main specialties of the recent years. They are composed with an instant inspiration, and then carefully crafted, like platonic ideas that have always existed beyond human realm.

When there is no melancholy, there is no music…Sadness [is present in my music] not because the life is difficult, but because music is like fleeting beauty. Everyone who lives in this world seems to be happy, but short-lived. Only music remains.

©2014 by Extended Techniques. All Rights Reserved.

Symbolism in Sofia Gubaidulina’s Spiritual Music

Today’s program of FOCUS festival Alfred Schnittke’s World features a piece by Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931, Russia) In Croce (1979). Gubaidulina’s music is  symbolic and imaginative in terms of timbre, employing unusual instrumental combinations and extended techniques. The symbolism behind the sounds often carries spiritual connotation; in 1998 the composer even stated that all her works were religious, which in her understanding is not related to the church. This is one of the reasons why some of her music was unwelcome in the USSR and some works were not performed until its fall.

Gubaidulina is one of the most spiritually inspired composers of our time. The belief in the religious purpose of art has deep roots back to her childhood and was strengthened during her youth when she encountered writings of Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev and met one of the most brilliant pianists in the USSR Maria Yudina, who maintained her strong religious commitment despite political oppression. Gubaidulina’s first engagement with music-making in 1937 coincided with a spiritual experience of significant impact: at the age of six, when she began to play the piano, she came across an Orthodox Christian icon. As quoted in her biography by Michael Kurtz, she recalls: “Music naturally blended with religion, and sound, straight away, became sacred for me.”

The connection between Christian commitment and artistic creativity was further strengthened during Gubaidulina’s philosophical quest when she learned about Berdyaev’s idea of linking the inner and spiritual realm to the perception of time: “Creativity… is the flight into the infinite… [an activity] which transcends the finite towards the infinite. The creative act signifies an ek-stasis, a breaking-through to eternity.” The sacredness of art is a completely natural phenomenon for Gubaidulina, and her aesthetic statement is not that of a style, but of art’s relationship with religion through the re-linking of everyday life with vertical inner nature of human perception:

What is religion at all? For me this concept is literal, re-ligio – a ligature that connects horizontal line of our life and vertical line of our divine presence. Anyone who creates, for example a poem, enters this vertical realm. Such a person is capable of perceiving, at least a little bit, what exists in this dimension. (Interview with Aleksey Maniupov, 2012)

Gubaidulina believes that daily routine may lead a person to lose the connection with the inner world, and therefore people need creative activity as an inspiration to get outside of everyday life: “Life interrupts this connection: it leads me away, into different troubles, and God leaves me at these times… This is unbearable pain; by creating, through our art, we strive to restore [the link between us and God] (interview to Vera Lukomsky, 1998). In the same vein, art transforms the horizontal time of everyday life into a vertical time of inner, spiritual existence: “A person may not be conscious of it, and creativity can be … of any sort, but the shape of the outcome turns out as a staircase, vertical.” (Interview with Maniupov)

In Croce was originally composed for cello and organ, later arranged for cello and bayan, but tonight will be performed in its original version. The piece belongs to the period when Gubaidulina began to consciously construct her compositions on the basis of philosophical or spiritual symbols that shaped the form and the sound of the piece frequently requiring unconventional performance or extended instrumental techniques. In her biography by Michael Kurtz she explains the symbolism behind her choice of instrumentation and the form in In Croce:

In that particular combination I imagined the organ as a mighty spirit that sometimes descends to earth to vent its wrath. The cello, on the other hand, with its sensitively responsive strings, is a completely human spirit. The contrast between these two opposite natures is resolved spontaneously in the symbol of the cross. I accomplished this by criss-crossing the registers (the organ takes the line downward, the cello upward); secondly, by juxtaposing the bright major sonorities of natural harmonics, played glissando, and expressive chromatic inflections.

Erlena Dlu

 ©2014 Extended Techniques. All Rights Reserved.