Last night I went to the Hot Air Music Festival's Musical Textual at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, featuring Anne, a performance piece by Wolfgang Thompson using the poetry of Anne Sexton; Murmur, Matthew Cmiel’s setting for vocal quartet and hand-percussion of a poem by Muriel Rukeyser; and A Mirror on Which to Dwell, Elliot Carter’s setting of six poems by Elizabeth Bishop.
Anne was performed by Ella Barros and Wolfgang Thompson, and is in three parts. She is dressed all in black and lying on the floor. She loudly chants Sexton’s words (in the first part, from a series of poems about Jesus). Thompson, who sometimes grunts or yells but is wordless throughout, performed a series of movements while she recites: he jumps over her supine body, he slaps the floor with his hands, he scuttles over her in a sexual position. In the second part, they are sitting at a table, with a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread, but this section doesn’t use the Jesus poems. In the third section, using poems from The Death Notebooks, Barros is again lying on the floor, with her arms wrapped straight-jacket style in her black top. Again, Thompson performs the repertory of gestures, with looks of concern or anguish.
Kind of to my surprise, I enjoyed the piece, despite several issues. First, the textual part of the evening: it seems they had problems printing the program (though I did manage to find a stray piece of paper that gives the names of most soloists, but otherwise I’m relying on my memory of Cmiel’s announcements from the stage) so I don’t know if they had planned to reprint the texts, but only stray lines and snatches of text were intelligible. I could go either way on printing or projecting the texts, by the way; on the one hand, you want people to pay attention to the performance, not keep their eyes glued to the word-book; on the other, it’s difficult to make out sometimes obscure or knotty verse when it’s shouted from an acoustically unpromising position, and if the meaning of the words is important to you, you might want to help people out a bit.
And the words themselves . . . despite the weird surreal appeal of many of the lines, maybe it’s just as well to experience the piece through sound rather than sense. When Sexton (and Plath & Co.) started publishing, the voice of an openly angry woman was a shock in lyric poetry (please note I am specifying lyric rather than dramatic or epic poetry). A generation later, it’s a cliché, and there comes a cultural point after the initial eruption when suddenly it all just seems incredibly narcissistic and overdone – we all know what sound and fury signify. This might just be me – I find I follow the same pattern with people expressing strong (and ultimately simple) opinions: after initial fascination, I begin to know already what they’re going to say, and finally find it unsatisfying and sort of boring; irony and nuance last longer than rage.
Maybe it’s an effect of growing older: life fills you with anger? Take a number and get back in line, sweetie. But it may have to do with the passing of time in a larger sense: in one of Woolf’s essays, she mentions how we – she – would come across a Victorian sentiment (in her case, I believe it was a letter from George Eliot correcting a conversational slip from the day before: she had meant to refer to Marivaux to prove whatever point she was discussing) and would “burst out laughing” at the earnestness, the ponderousness, the sheer previous-generationness, of the remark. This morning I picked up The Death Notebooks, which I hadn’t looked at in years, and faced with pages of bald blatant rage, what can you do but smile and shrug and reflect that it probably wasn’t a picnic living with her either?
Given all that, the piece lasted too long (about 40 minutes). Between each of its three sections, the stage went dark and the valiant stagehands came to rearrange and clean up. But the three sections were not different enough from each other for the pause to do anything but break the mood and momentum. Continuous action would have helped, and so would shortening the piece by ten or fifteen minutes generally: what we essentially have here is a woman bellowing at a man for 40 minutes. After a while, especially if he’s not responding, the situation starts to look comic in a James Thurber way. It’s no knock on the piece to say the part that affected me the most was seeing that beautiful loaf of bread ripped up and thrown about in the second part. Maybe I was just hungry. But kudos to Ella Barros for stamina; I kept thinking, like Demetrius in Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Well roared, lion!”
Barros and Thompson came out smiling for their bows, and that was a side of a woman’s personality we hadn’t had a glimmer of during the performance. I found the piece a hoot – not in the sense that I was mocking what they did, but in that it put a smile on my face, which is probably not what they intended, but there it is. There was a lot of great energy and dedication between the two that carried the piece through. By the way, this is the sort of thing I usually see in seedy black-box theaters in the crackhead districts; what a pleasure to see it in the SF Conservatory’s small but elegant and comfortable recital room. And while I'm at it thanks also for the sensible 7:30 start time.
After intermission, Cmiel came out to introduce his Rukeyser piece, Murmur. I’ve already noted that she is responsible for two of the silliest lines of poetry I’ve ever read, and also for some of the weakest stretches of Dr Atomic’s weak libretto, but Cmiel found a poem that made me think I should give her another chance. (Though, again, it’s a little difficult to follow the through-line of a poem in a musical setting unless it’s a soloist, and even then sometimes. . . .) He told us that the form of the piece, which he’s been working on for a few years and will be continuing to work on, was inspired by David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion (which I’ve only heard on recordings), which also uses a vocal quartet with hand-held percussion. This piece uses mostly finger-cymbals which start the piece and sound periodically throughout, their fading vibrations lending a ceremonial sense of order to the music. The four vocalists (three women and one man; they are listed on the sheet only as the Hot Air Vocal Ensemble) trade off the main lines – the lyrics – while the others chant varying murmurs. I did hear the influence of the Little Match Girl Passion, but the piece stands on its own, with a lovely upward lilt on the final word, “soul.” And it was very effectively placed on the program in its almost meditative way between the rage of Anne and Carter’s song cycle.
It’s odd to go to a concert where a Carter song cycle is the best known piece, but that’s why I chose to go to this performance rather than the Merola finale. Carter has easily the best poet of the three; Elizabeth Bishop’s work not only doesn’t seem dated, it seems richer with each year and each re-reading. Unfortunately this wonderful piece brought out the bad behavior in the audience; one oaf actually took a flash photograph as the music started, and there was much whispering, some of it occasioned by Thompson's staging. Another unfortunate thing is that staging, by its nature, limits the way the audience is going to experience the words and the music, which is a shame given how much richer Bishop's poems are than the others on the program. A semi-crazed homeless-type woman (Trish DeBaun) comes in and does – well, nothing much – she walks up and down with her suitcase, then goes on stage, pretends to sleep during Insomnia, wanders around looking distraught or happy, and generally behaving like half the street-people I see in San Francisco, though at least they're not interrupting me when I'm trying to concentrate on Elliott Carter.
During the first two songs she was doing all this in the aisle, and since I was in the front row with my back to her, I assumed that someone in the audience was just moving seats or something annoying like that. Then I thought she simply was an actual street person who had somehow gotten past security and wandered in. There were whispers in the crowd about her antics. What I’m getting at here is that the staging not only didn’t add to the performance, it detracted.
I’m all in favor of innovative approaches to familiar material (I haven’t posted on it yet, but I loved the Beckett/Schubert evening I went to in New York last winter, and when Nathan Gunn and his wife did their conceptual monastic-life recital, it was only poverty that kept me from flying out to see it), but given the rarity of Carter performances, I really would have preferred just to hear the music, thank you, especially since this was a very fine performance. Cmiel conducted a group listed only as the Hot Air Chamber Players (I’m assuming they, and the vocal quartet, were conservatory students), who were excellent in what I’m sure is very challenging music to play, and soprano Shawnette Sulker was just lovely, with a strong and limpid voice used expressively to convey the nuances of the poems. Cmiel prefaced the Carter by talking about his love for the piece and Carter in general, and it was nice to hear tribute paid to one of the great American composers – if you only attended performances at Davies Symphony Hall, you wouldn’t even know Carter existed, much less is still composing wonderful music past the age of 100. Cmiel also noted that one of his professors of conducting once told him that if he ever had a chance to conduct Carter, he was required to take it, which amused me.
The program repeats tonight (Sunday, August 22), at 7:30, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak Street in the Civic Center area. Tickets are $15 at the door, which is an incredible bargain. I’d go again if I lived closer.