February 16, 2011 § Leave a Comment
February 14, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Canadian publisher Drawn And Quarterly has spent the last two decades distinguishing itself from the pack by producing artful and challenging graphic novels that part from the mainstream, but never in a shoddy or simplistic way. Rather than settling for whatever the underground might have to offer, Drawn And Quarterly picks from a high range of contributors for their releases, cascading the graphic novel world with an elevated artistry that is sometimes missing from the mainstream American publishers.
Several recent books highlight the company’s placement as a nexus between the world of contemporary art and the world of graphic fiction.
In “The Wrong Place,” Belgian cartoonist Brecht Evens brings graphic novels into the realm of art books with his vivid and evocative watercolor work, capturing a world narratively with the same confident brush as the visuals. In the simplest terms, Evens’ book revolves around the elusive Robbie, who we first meet without meeting at all — he’s invited to a party, but only appears as the other end of a phone conversation with host Gary.
As the book unfolds, Evens takes you on a magical tour of the city Gary and Robbie inhabit through their interaction with their tribe. Secondary characters dart in and out as linkage between the two, and when the two are finally together, it’s a dour dichotomy that examines not only Robbie’s glamor, but Gary’s self-effacing relationship with it. Each page is a fully realized work in itself, and as strung together, it’s gorgeous tapestry of the threads through modern urban tribes, and Evens is a invigorating, fine artist deserving of international recognition.
In Palookaville #20 this regular takes a different turn — it goes from comic book to book, adding a hard cover to give the work within its proper presentation. It’s a change that Canadian creator Seth duly deserves. He’s a multi-faceted storyteller to be sure, but his skills in other artistic realms, including his astonishing graphic design work on projects such as Fantagraphics Complete Peanuts series, soar above those of many other.
Though it contains the fourth part of Seth’s “Clyde Fans” industrial saga — itself an example of Seth at his best — the volume finds Seth the Fine Artist standing out out in front. The central piece of the book is a riveting and awkwardly personable essay documenting his recent gallery show, which featured a miniature cardboard version of fictional locale Dominion City that he built in his basement. It’s a wonderful work that brings to life what goes on inside of the head of one of the most vital creators in modern comics. His rich sketchbook work and an autobiographical tale of self-loathing round out this must grab book.
In “What It Is,” cartoonist Lynda Barry combined autobiography with art instruction, melding them into a book of stunning collage work. For its follow-up “Picture This” Barry mines less coherent territory in order to examine what might be described as the more spiritual points of drawing.
What unfolds is a stream of conscious visual journey that incorporates more gorgeous collages with some cartoons, as Barry examines the very beginnings of the urge to make art that lurks in everyone, and as well as the moment when someone rejects that effort and pushes the artist into more effort.
As part of her contemplation in the matter, Barry centers in on seemingly innocuous and childish forms like coloring books and doodling as examples of normal self-expression that manifest themselves in just about everybody — and celebrates a child’s imagination in a dark bedroom at night by relating the shapes imagined and how that links to the creative spirit.
Barry’s two books are vital reading for anyone working in the arts, or just fascinated by the process of arts-making. She mixes the idea of drawing as a conceptual mode of self-expression with the reality of it as a vocation, and dances through the ways it touches us all from the inside out — making marks is a primal, natural thing for people to do, so much so they they must do it, and the marks come out of them when they least expect it. Barry’s books are simultaneously a celebration and revelation about this part of human existence.
Review: Landscapes of the Passing Strange: Reflections From Shakespeare by Rosamond Purcell and Michael Witmore
February 3, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Author Michael Witmore writes eloquently about the idea of the brain as being the motor of vision, and therefore the idea that the brain “sees” more than the eyes, but it’s his collaborator, photographer Rosamond Purcell, who puts these ideas into solid action.
In “Landscapes of the Passing Strange,” the two direct their talents to investigating the words of William rather than merely grammatical ones. And, yes, Shakespeare’s words were pretty, as the quotes within the book prove again and again, but they also evoke unseen worlds that cannot be qualified in any manner other than visually. What cannot be put into words, Shakespeare managed to do so, and it takes a special kind of photograph to reinterpret those into a visual form.
Purcell does so with great beauty and an entirely odd technique.
Utilizing old apothecary bottles that she picked up in an antique store, Purcell takes advantage of their imperfections to function as a filter that reveals an entirely unseen dimension — at least unseen by human eyes. The inner layers of the bottles are coated with liquid silver which has become oxidized over the many years, creating visual distortion when the peering through the bottles.
Purcell aims her lens through the bottles and lets them act as physical filter between subject and shutter. Vision is the result of light bouncing off — and through — objects, then interpreted by the brain. Purcell takes this very process and messes with it, to create warped realities that pour across the page. The figures in her photos make some sort of vague spatial sense, but everything in the image is dissipated through the intangible — this is what the unseeable looks like.
When paired with smidgens of Shakespeare, Purcell’s visions capture as much of reality as possible, but it’s mostly a world inhabited by ghostly figures and mysterious fossil-like creatures, of tangled growths and underwater ripples, demonized animals and foreboding atmospheric conditions.
At least it seems that way — such is Purcell’s work and the nature of the venture that you never know for sure, and just as Shakespeare’s words mean more than the verbiage printed on the page, there are many ways to look at what Purcell presents.
This is all vision in the mind, not the hard physics of the eyes —and Purcell has created work that manages to live apart from its imposing source material.
February 2, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Religious films can be instantly divisive, with controversy beginning long before their official release and stemming from expectations rather than reality. It’s rare to find films with that subject matter that speaks to both audiences, though the works of Andrei Tarkovsky certainly come to mind. “Vision: From the Life of Hildegarde Von Bingen” manages to achieve that status by presenting first a compelling historical drama and then a religious tale — and even then, there’s something for both the faithful and the doubting to latch onto.
Von Bingen was a real nun who lived in 12th century Germany and is renowned for an enlightenment that surpassed the era. While no one is perfect — some claim she exhibited anti-semitic tendencies — Von Bingen took great strides for her gender, certainly, but also in the name of knowledge — she was active in the arts and sciences, including poetry, playwriting, music composition, botany and astronomy. In later times, she would have been called a renaissance woman.
Never officially a saint, she is often referred to as one by the papacy. At one point, the motions were gone through, but never completed, and it begs the question of whether a saint — and let’s put aside the supernatural overtones here and just concentrate on the thoughts and deeds of the person — really needs official and officious recognition in order to mean anything.
The film follows Von Bingen’s introduction to the abbey of Disibodenberg as a little girl through to the point that she decided to travel Germany on preaching tours half way through her life. As portrayed by Barbara Sukowa, Von Bingen is a complex creature, alternately the voice of rational calm and unhinged emotionalism. Von Bingen is following a plan — which she claims is from “the living light” — that will not only service her faith, but also her ambitions. At the same time her goals, by being the suggestion of a divine presence, she isn’t often called on her self-indulgence that are surely against the sanctity of her station as a bride of Christ. Such is the presentation and performance that you can never quite come down on Von Bingen for breaking from the sanctified control of the church, nor for apparently believing her life is guided by divine intervention — given the times in which she lived, it just all seems both natural and heroic.
And it’s the times in which she lived that may well be the real star of the film. Director Margarethe von Trotta unfolds this era with a mystery-filled starkness that, without covering everything with grime, captures the grim reality of life in … These are dark times, quiet times, an era of subservience and hardship. Rather than offering the viewer a wider scope of Von Bingen’s place in it — and, therefore, history — von Trotta keeps it intimate, offering bits of information here and there. It all moves as if you are there witnessing the events firsthand — von Trotta doesn’t even bother to illustrate Von Bingen’s visions, letting her words capture their intensity and leaving it up to the viewer to approach them as real, imagined or manipulation depending on whatever baggage is brought to the viewing.
Talking to God — or, at least, receiving missives from him — might well be a sign of insanity nowadays, but I believe it was something more vague a millennia ago. It was a tool for legitimacy, it was a way to get an audience. Human psychology is such that regardless of what those with an ear open to the divine must have believed when any of them first report their experience, by the end it becomes part of the necessary role-playing that isn’t much different from any public figure now playing out a specific agenda. Each era offers its shortcuts to get attention, whether for shallow or lofty purposes.
It’s in that context that Von Bingen rises as a fascinating personality and, yes, admirable, despite the tinges of religious fanaticism inherent in her tale. Through von Trotta’s own vision, the we secular folk are allowed to measure up this woman by her thoughts and deed — meanwhile, the spiritual can accept that side while still being asked to do the same. Either way, this is an evocative and compelling film that whichever form of soul you might possess.
February 2, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Drummer Sunny Jain has always included the sounds of his Indian heritage in his music, but with his band Red Baraat, he’s been able to take it further by trading the drum kit for the dhol.
Red Baraat will play Mass MoCA on Saturday, Jan. 29, at 8 p.m.
The dhol is currently Jain’s instrument of choice — it’s a double-sided Punjabi drum that dates back to the 15th century. After years of hiding behind drum kits, Jain can now take center stage in performances, which not only adds to his excitement, but also to his job as band leader.
“It’s very difficult to lead when you’re a drum set player, sitting behind everyone,” he said. “You’re often having to shout out things to the band to get things the way they ought to go, so at the end of a song the guitar player and saxophonist don’t sit there noodling off for the next two minutes to end the song.
“Part of it was that it’s great to be front and center playing dhol, where I’m in a little more control, but at the same time I get to play the instrument and get an opportunity to play what I’m practicing in my studio.”
Jain began playing dhol in 2003. He picked one up in India while touring with his jazz trio, as well as a dholki (a small version of a dhol that you play with your hand) and a tabla set. It was the dhol that won his heart, though, and when he got home, he took a few lessons from a friend.
“It was a sound and an instrument I had heard growing up and just decided to pick one up and try and see what I could do with it,” he said. “Often, wherever I travel, I end up buying different instruments and just trying to mess around with them. The dhol — the feeling and the sound of it — just resonated with me instantly.”
Part of the appeal — and the reason he had never quite settled into tabla as a regular instrument — was that dhol actually made use of bamboo sticks, and required a grip similar to the one used with traditional drum kits. Jain felt it would be easier to translate what he already knew rather than learning a whole new instrument that required hands and finger prowess.
“For me, music is an ongoing process,” he said. “I still study — I’m always trying to learn something on my instruments and learn about different other instruments. I know I might not be a maestro or incredible at some instruments I might pick up at this age. It’s still appealing to me because at the end of the day, I love music and I love playing music. That’s why I play it, for the joy of it, and not just because I need to be an expert at some instrument.”
Jain’s first big break on dhol was the Broadway show “Bombay Dreams,” and he continued to pick up gigs on with the instrument, as well as drums, but was frustrated that he didn’t have as many opportunities to play dhol as he wanted.
“The main reason I started Red Baraat is that I wanted a gig where I could just play dhol,” he said. “Most everything else I was playing drums in, but I was doing some dhol gigs. I was at the point where I just really loved playing the instrument and I wanted to play it more. I thought I should just start a band where I play dhol and have different drum set player.”
Prior to starting the band, Jain had created a reputation for himself in the world of jazz. He began studying drums as a kid in Rochester, N.Y., and during that time became exposed to jazz
“All I knew was John Bonham and Neal Peart,” he said. “The only reason I stayed with jazz and was interested in it was that, rhythmically, it was very, very different music from what I had ever heard, and that’s what motivated me to study it all — because I just wanted to be able to play that stuff on the drums.”
At about age 16, Jain embraced jazz, which he mixed with the sounds he had grown up with to define and expand his personal pop culture.
“Around the house, with other Indian families when we hung out, when we went back to India, there was the sound of the dhol, the sound of Indian percussion and Indian music in general, from Bollywood music to some Hindustani classical music to religious songs,” he said. “These were sound that to me were very familiar — growing up, they were as familiar as Led Zeppelin or Rush.”
Jain has released three jazz CDs, all of which combined Indian sounds and jazz styles, and set the tone for his musical interests and careers. In that way, Red Baraat isn’t far off from the jazz work.
“It’s always been in me, but it’s not strictly jazz or Indian music, just like Red Baraat isn’t just funk or Punjabi music,” he said. “To me, it’s a tapestry of who I am as an Indian American.
“There is a side of me that is Indian, but there is a side of me that grew up with the sound of Led Zeppelin. I also love the sound of New Order and The Cure and really got into Radiohead and electronic music and drum and bass, and I studied Brazilian music for a little bit. To me, it’s not so black and white but a lot of gray areas of what it comes around to and what sounds make up who I am and what I put out into the world in terms of compositions.”
Jain had several goals in forming Red Baraat. One was to correct what he saw as a failure in most fusion of Indian and popular western styles to include dhol in their mix.
“I was often thinking when you hear Indian fusion, not the genre but the melding of genres, you often hear tabla or you hear sitar, or you hear vocals, but you don’t hear dhol, which to me is bizarre because dhol is the dance drum of Punjab,” he said.
“It’s the dance rhythm; it’s Bhangra music; it’s music that is throughout India, and I found it interesting there are no real bands that have a front and center dhol player. I thought it would be interesting to have a really big band that was completely acoustic.”
The other was to bring together musicians of various interests, some with plenty of experience in Indian music, and others with something entirely different to offer. One thing was for certain — Jain didn’t want Red Baraat to be perceived as a jazz project.
He brought in soprano saxophone player Arun Luthra, trumpet player Sonny Singh and tabla player Rohin Kehmini, who all had experience in South Indian and Punjabi sounds. The rest helped usher in rock, ska and funk textures.
“The rhythmic roots are definitely Punjabi and Bhangra; the melodies are definitely Punjabi,” Jain said, “but then it opens up into different things — the solos that come, the background, certain rhythms that are played. Everything’s really a mish-mash, and even if you play an Indian melody in that band, it might not come out sounding Indian because they player may not approach it necessarily like an Indian musician would.”
The band came to life to perform a one-time gig Jain had booked through a friend. They rehearsed and resolved to play and see what happened. That first show had a big turnout, which led to an immediate festival and further gig offers to which they couldn’t say no. The band had six shows the first month of its existence.
“I figured I have no idea how long this is going to last, but there was a nice vibe happening,” Jain said. “So it was just documenting it — going into the studio and recording the band from these six gigs. That ended up being our debut CD, which we literally recorded after eight gigs — after the first month playing.”
As the band has progressed, its upcoming second release will feature more diversity because different players are contributing different pieces, rather than centralized songs and arrangements coming from Jain. It’s what he’s been working toward as he’s melded cultures into music — people are a part of that mixture and, together, Red Baraat is furthering his multifaceted sonic journey.
“Ultimately I’m the quarterback, but everyone comes to the table and brings great ideas,” Jain said. “We rehearse together, we try out things, we arrange things together and we see what works and what doesn’t and we go from there.”
February 2, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Artist Sean Foley is fashioning a wall painting that spans the long space in the Hunter Hallway at Mass MoCA that utilizes the space’s length in its evocation of The Invisible Man as a stand-in for many of artist’s interests
Foley’s work, “Ruse,” will open on Sunday, Jan. 23, and run to the end of the year.
The work was born from a philosophical struggle about the very nature of painting — its status as a living form and validity as something to do at all. He wondered whether painting was actually a dead pursuit.
“There was a eureka moment a long time ago where I was feeling frustrated by this kind of burden that was hoisted upon painting in particular,” Foley said during an interview this week. “It seemed like, especially when I was in school, things were especially cerebral and radical and I turned that back on itself and I thought, well, if painting is dead, then I consider myself as a kind of Doctor Frankenstein figure, and I don’t have to worry about it, and I can sail right through these problems.”
Foley found that he could engage with his works by qualifying them as monsters, which has been an interest of his through the years.
“I really like the different parts are incongruent things that are not supposed to go together but generate this other form,” he said. “That’s where I was able to pinpoint the grotesque. Maybe the monster is the
idea of the monster. They’re not necessarily monsters, per say. The monsters are a way of knowing painting to me. The whole function of a Hollywood monster, the Loch Ness Monster, is to collect paranoia and the unknown into this singular thing, and it’s allowed to shift — and actually it does. You try to pinpoint it, and it becomes something else — it shifts between readings.”
The Invisible Man stems thematically from many concerns that Foley has — if he considers himself the Doctor Frankenstein of the painting world, then The Invisible Man is at least a spiritual cousin.
“I’m interested in this guy. He’s a scientist like Doctor Frankenstein; he transgresses this certain natural law,” Foley said. “It’s sort of like the enlightenment ideal on steroids, where too much reason can actually spiral out of control and lead to a certain kind of madness.”
For The Invisible Man, madness is manifested in his physical state — it’s the same for Foley, who plays around with figures and abstraction within the same work. Like a man you can’t see, his images are figurative constructions that you can’t immediately comprehend — except at certain angles.
“When you are looking at the wall perpendicularly, you can’t actually see the Invisible Man,” he said, “and then there’s this little jolt of recognition from this one spot. But he’ll be buried beneath those panels, so he’s kind of hiding.”
Foley also sees a bit of himself in The Invisible Man — or, at least, some of his experience in regard to psychological struggles he has faced.
“I think that the most personal aspect in The Invisible Man image are aspects of depression and medication and things like that, trying to solve issues,” he said. “I like in the film where Claude Rains is trying desperately to get back to normal, and I laugh at that sometimes in relationship to clinical depression, which is something I deal with a lot. In a lot of ways, painting helps me through all those things.”
Ingrained with this expression of self through the grotesque is a presentation of self in a fractured way — as a puzzle. He describes his work as a soup — boiled down “idiosyncratic mush.” The parts that make up this mish-mash are best visualized in terms of either curiosity cabinets or the kind of puzzles that transfix him. In either sense, they are pieces that need to be put together.
“There seem to be these very specific ways of questioning things, or that, with the solutions to problems, there’s only one or two, and I think that a kind of cognitive flexibility is something that art can do,” Foley said. “It can provide those kinds of opportunities to exercise. It’s why people play games — to be challenged and also to be hopefully surprised at certain outcomes that were unexpected and were set up to be experienced, but you never know what’s going to happen at the end.”
His original intention of creating wall paintings and installations was to pull apart the pieces of the painting and create the puzzle to be put back together — his joy is that there is no one solution to his puzzles, but rather individual ones based on who is doing the solving.
“I just wanted to see what would happen if I could break these out of the rectangle and create maybe a more mysterious experience,” he said. “The painting always seemed controlled, and it was a painting. If I could break it up, it suddenly became something else, something much more suspenseful, where it had these gaps between the shapes and the different motifs, and in a way it mirrored a lot of the ways I think about content or my work and making synaptic leaps — very broad, associative connections to make something.”
It’s also part of the puzzle — and the fun — for Foley, who has been able to integrate his paintings with his installations in a way that keeps him engaged. His works are designed in such a way that he can swap or mix and match his paintings with installations depending on what mood he wants the work to evoke. He likens them to a deck of cards he can shuffle. This gives the artist the same flexibility as the viewer.
“It’s like building with Legos,” Foley said. “It’s like rearranging stuff and seeing what will happen when these things are put next to each other.”
His wall pieces are placed in such a way that the figures contained can only be viewed from a certain vantage point, and as the viewer walks down a long space, the work itself changes through a combination of the parts that make it and the light and shadows that mix in.
“I think of the installations more as events or things that are happening, which is different than the paintings, which are things,” Foley said. “With the installation aspect, I guess I still consider them paintings because they’re related to the wall, but I’m interested in how it can change as the viewer walks by and each person can identify their own particular point of view.”
Change is created in still imagery by smoke and mirrors, in other words, and it’s a trick Foley realized that he picked up from Looney Tunes. That led him to studying the DVDs meticulously, and within them he found the rudimentary parts of his own methods contained between the frames, within the animation cells.
“I started freeze-framing them to see explosions, and I remembered the smear drawing,” he said, “which is if Bugs Bunny is over here and then all of a sudden he’s over here — if you freeze-frame, there might be two frames in there where he starts here and Chuck Jones stretches the body and there’s like eight eyeballs.
“I remember being shocked. I knew about the smears, but to actually be able to freeze one just blew my mind. There was this monster lurking in this film.”
Foley, a visiting professor at Ohio State University, is a major art history buff, but the proof was right in front of him: If it was good enough for Chuck Jones, it’s good enough for him. Stretching his work down the Hunter Hallway in Mass MoCA is like his own huge smear drawing, without the two frames before and after. It’s that moment of transformation that creates a monster.
“Looney Tunes was an affirmation, oddly,” Foley said. “I never thought that would happen. But that goes back to curiosity and the way I move through the world, enjoying different paths to knowing things — not holistically or completely, but having a sense of things.
“When I found that. I just thought, ‘Yeah, I’m on the right path.’ There is some kind of non-verbal logic to these things, and it’s amazing to me, making those connections.”
February 2, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In helping to stage a legendary Yiddish play, musician Frank London’s first problem has been trying to describe it when someone asks about it.
“I still don’t even know how to tell people that one-sentence version of what we’re doing,” he said. “Is it a theater piece? Is it an opera? Is it a concert? Is it a multi-media work? It’s got a little bit of all of this.”
The 100-year-old play, “A Night in the Old Marketplace,” is the work of writer and folklorist I.L. Peretz. An adaptation of that play will be performed in its new format at Mass MoCA on Saturday, Jan. 22, at 8 p.m.
London, a trumpeter, is a member of The Klezmatics and has played with John Zorn, They Might Be Giants, Mark Ribot, Mel Torme and many others. With a script by Glen Berger — he wrote the Spiderman Broadway musical, as well as numerous PBS kids shows, including “Arthur” — and direction by Alexandra Aron, London has worked to wrestle the original work into the modern age.
It took Peretz six years to write and longer for the partners to get to this final stage of their adaptation. Peretz wrote the play because he could see the coming of the modern age and wanted to preserve the Jewish way of life in that era. The 115-character play was his way of capturing a disappearing society by including literally everything about it.
“I very quickly learned it’s one of the legendary works of Yiddish theater,” London said. “It’s written about in every history book of Yiddish theater and constructivist theater and theater in the early 20th century. It’s notorious, it’s an insane play, it’s gargantuan. In the original, there’s over 115 different characters, many of whom have one line each. It’s been performed less than 10 times in the last 100 years because it is an essentially unproduceable work of art and piece of theater.”
London was first introduced to the work when Aron approached him about writing music for it. The story involves a Badkhn — which is a sort of rude wedding jester who serves as the archetype for modern Jewish and insult humor and is kin to the legendary trickster figures in other cultures — and his war against God.
“He’s pissed at God,” London said. “He is totally pissed at God. He’s arguing with God the whole time. In fact, more than arguing, he’s trying to overthrow God’s rule — that’s the whole thing: God did wrong, God didn’t take care of business, and he’s going to overthrow God.”
London said most of the process for the team has been taming the original beast. His first job — after reading the newly commissioned translation — was to figure out how to transform the work into a more modern musical.
“It wasn’t a musical in the sense that we think of musicals as ‘Cats’ and ‘Guys and Dolls,’” he said. “Music was implicit in the entire piece. Peretz was not only a great poet and dramatist, he was also a folklorist, a researcher and collector of Jewish and Yiddish culture. He was referencing all sorts of both known and obscure Jewish folk music when he wrote it, either writing words that could be set to those melodies or referencing different melodies and different songs.”
London began fashioning music that pulled from Weill and Brecht, and even Tom Waits, after a realization that he wasn’t compelled necessarily to use all the original music that was referenced. His big job was to serve the story. He and Berger also began writing game songs like those traditional at Passover — London compares them to “There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly,” in that they are additive songs with each part. The challenge is upped when the song gets faster.
“We were taking these folk song structures and then writing new words and music in that structure,” London said. “We were always dialoguing with ideas from folk culture. That was the most important thing about the research — it kept me in touch with that every time I went way too far away from that.”
The first presentations of the work 10 years ago took place in basement clubs and echoed the styles of vaudeville. The performances were energetic and insane, London said — and completely incomprehensible. He found that people loved the experience of the show but did not understand it at all. It was still a monster, and the team still had to figure out a way to stage it coherently.
“Structurally, it mimics these medieval presentational dramas where everyone would come out and say I am the butcher, I slaughter the animals and make the meat for the people to eat, and that’s his role,” London said. “He tried to sum up everything. We went through every possible variation of how you make a presentable and affordable play. We went through that reductio ad absurdum thing.”
The team continued to develop the work — after all, it had taken Peretz six years to write it; it would probably take as long for them to be able to stage it. And then came the big break in 2005 that almost broke them.
“It escalated to the point where, five years ago, we actually produced a full production, a real Broadway musical like you would think, and for all sorts of reasons, it flopped,” London said. “It was terrible, partially because the producers of the theater, having booked this weird play, wanted to make it seem like it was ‘Annie,’ and it was this horrible match of producers trying to make this weird non-commercial piece commercial and weird philosophical piece into some heartwarming love story when it’s really dark and depressing. We saw the whole thing acted and set, and it bombed.”
It looked like the end, but there was one dangling thread the team had to attend to — a radio concert they had already booked and couldn’t get out of. They decided just to do the songs rather than the whole production — Berger went back and reworked the script into a monologue of one narrator. That was the beginning of the road that led them to the Mass MoCA version.
“We had to go through this whole thing of it growing into a huge play and it not working for us to work out what this piece is,” London said. “We’ve spent the last couple years really refining the narration, the music, the way it all works together, and then adding multi-media onto it, adding video to it. We’ve done a couple of performances, fun ones, like in a sold-out opera house in Milano, where the people really understood it in the operatic sense, and we had this Italian Gothic rock star reading the narration in Italian, and that was great.”
London also recorded a CD of the music in 2007, featuring guest vocalists including John Flansburgh and John Linnell of “They Might Be Giants” and Susan McKeown, as a way of getting the work out there in another format.
For the current stage incarnation of the work, there is a heavier multi-media visual element, including animation, as well as some stripped-down theatrical ones, with some costuming and sets. The story is still told through a narrator, but with five singers who portray various characters in the piece and sometimes function as a chorus.
Once the residency and performance of this ultimate version is behind them, the company looks only to the future and taking the show to further venues. The group’s stay at Mass MoCA will have a direct impact on the venture and will finally bring the show to its full potential after the group’s first task — perfecting the show — is accomplished.
“Our second priority is that we’re going to document it there,” London said. “We have interest from different theaters and different festivals around the world. They want to see a good video. We’re going to get that at Mass MoCA. That’s the gift they give us.”