Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Seance Concert 3: Toward The Flame

Real theatrical magic is rare indeed, requiring the perfect alchemy of performers, audience, crew, place and time.

So when the magic does occur, there is a feeling of the miraculous being encountered and an air of celebration.

The three "New Music Seance" concerts at the 1895 Swedenborgian church were quite definitely magical, though until they actually occurred, nobody involved was quite sure the event was going to come off all that well.

During the break between the second and third concerts, a delicious meal was prepared by Carol Law and Victoria Shoemaker...

...for the performers...

...and crew...

...who were happily intermingling...

...with the composers.

In many theatrical situations, there is an unspoken hierarchy of composers/writers, principal performers, lesser performers, and crew.

This evening none of those hierarchies existed. It felt like early 20th century bohemianism, which the combination of eccentric music and church only emphasized.

Another reason the concerts were so successful were the audiences, one of the most raptly intelligent and appreciative groups of people I've ever been around.

About a dozen listeners opted in for the entire marathon of three concerts, including the Hillbrands above. "Why are you here?" I asked them, and they replied that their son Kyle was studying to be a composer in Manhattan and he had taken them to an Other Minds Music Festival when he was back in the Bay Area. So they'd taken a chance and were having a great time.

Charles Amirkhanian, the Artistic Director, had a vision of the church in total darkness with circular seating around the grand piano, which would require titles of some sort since it would be too dark to read the program. The vision proved to be impractical, and the stage became more proscenium-style, with candles lighting the perimeters of the church which turned out to be a perfect visual touch.

The titles idea remained, however, so I created a series of screens to be projected with the names of the composers and their compositions. For the deceased composers, I animated photos of them young and old across various earth/air/fire/water backgrounds. For reasons of sheer practicality, the projector needed to be in the back of the church above the fireplace so that the images were huge, and the photographic ghosts flew to the ceiling and the altar. It was great, and a happy accident.

As an audience member, the musical revelation for me were the four works by Henry Cowell (1897-1965). It made me want to hear everything he's ever written. The composer was raised locally in Menlo Park by very interesting sounding bohemian parents, and he went on to basically invent modern American classical music. For more on Cowell, including his four-year incarceration in San Quentin for being a homosexual during the 1940s, there's a good biographical essay in Wikipedia (click here).

There's also a wonderful appreciation written by Kyle Gann (click here), the composer and music writer for the "Village Voice" during the rag's salad days. Two of Gann's pieces were also included in the concerts, including the eponymous "Nude Rolling Down an Escalator" for player piano, which was great, wild music.

The concept of a seance involves conjuring spirits and there were plenty of those popping in during the day and evening for different people. A friend in the Oakland Hills, Nora Ellis, had been living with one cancer or another for the last 20 years and she had survived through sheer force of will until her son was grown. She died during the night on Friday, just before the concerts, and made an appearance at the church while Sarah Cahill was playing on the strings of the piano during Henry Cowell's wild and weird "The Banshee."

The program notes from Cowell explain the myth:

"A Banshee is a fairy woman who comes at the time of a death to take the soul back into the Inner World. She is uncomfortable on the mortal plane, and wails her distress until she is safely out of it again. The older your family, the louder your family banshee will wail, for she has had that much more practise at it."

As the hours wore on, many of us became exhausted, but the pianist Sarah Cahill seemed to be gathering strength and energy as the night continued. She was literally radiant for the final "Graceful Ghost Rag" by William Bolcom. What an extraordinary day.


Anonymous said...

this is fabulous - in a transcendent way. That must be why yr audience is in awe. We'd love to hear the music. Am I right that it was all recorded?

AlbGlinka said...

These are awesome posts Mike... you should quit your day-job and just be a music photo-journalist/critic. (and of course, still do freelance supernumerary work!)

My LucasFilm gig went sour! :-(

Kimo said...

It's like Camp cinema. You can't really choose to make that it way, but when it happens, it's a wonderful accident. Or maybe like Obscenity, You can't describe it, but One feels they know it whan they see it.

btw David Lynch retrospective at The Castro this weekend.

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