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Phil Kline’s staged song cycle: Better seen or heard?

Phil Kline’s far-flung output is like a family with many parents. While many composers find a creative vein and mine it for as long as possible, Kline is more conceptually similar to Stephen Sondheim or Igor Stravinsky, establishing stylistic and emotional perimeters for each new work and creating a language that best inhabits it.

Out Cold, his new 10-song cycle I heard Oct. 26 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music performed by singer Theo Bleckmann and the ACME ensemble, was a bigger departure than usual, if only because his tendency toward creative probing was offset by a purposefully imposed suaveness that I’d never known in his music before.

In past pieces, Kline has sometimes put forth a series of emotional neutral images through which the listener assembles a composite meaning. But Out Cold uses arched-eyebrow superficiality to riff on the world of cry-in-your-beer lounge singers. Musically, it has the smooth outlines of pop songs, though with lyrics (the composer’s own) are about end-of-the-line desperation.

Not for the first time did I get to know a piece in advance of the premiere through sound files made for rehearsal purposes. I studied the first version of John Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic in a midi reduction that gave a surprisingly accurate picture of what I heard at its San Francisco roll out, and one so convincing that I was astounded at the mixed reviews – and was sorry when the creators revised the piece.

The Kline situation was quite different: He’s working in such a hybrid medium that the piece was less easy to envision. Yes, Out Cold is a song cycle, but one accompanied by a small group that could be heard as some lounge mutation of the Pierrot Lunaire instrumentation. And then there’s Bleckmann, a performer with such a unique convergence of talent that you’d wouldn’t want a piece’s future to rest on his availability to perform it. Few singers have his gymnast-like physicality –  used effectively to execute most any possible theatrical concept this side of Cirque du Soleil.  Bleckmann’s voice doesn’t fall into any traditional category. For years, he was among the light-timbre voices of Meredith Monk’s ensemble that’s neither tenor nor baritone, pop or not.

In the Zippo Songs (a Kline cycle based on the dark words of Vietnam War soldiers that were left scratched onto their lighters), Bleckmann showed you the face and body of people that you wanted to know better, so deep was their angst and evil. But Zippo Songs creates a more homogeneous body of characters that collectively reveal the rotting-from-within aspect of the Vietnam War. In contrast, every song in Out Cold is an unrelated character sketch, and only some of these characters intersected with the piece’s exterior conceit. Details were sacrificed for a whole that didn’t quite exist, and wasn’t meant to exist.

Bleckmann was a lounge lizard in a shiny, oddly colored suit who alternately sipped drinks and moved around the stage, even interacting with a balletic female dancer who arrived for one song to portray a memory. The total package of staging and music was absorbing and will no doubt bring people to this music who wouldn’t discover it otherwise. Like the gargantuan productions that Harold Prince gave to Sondheim scores such as Sweeney Todd (giving a sociological buttress to the music), Kline’s piece benefits from a visual point of reference. But even on a purely musical level, each song seems to have its own plan.

“On the Bowery,” for example, juxtaposes poetic objects that seem to flow together harmoniously but are all saying different things. The melody is so simple that it borders on being sing-song. The words tell the story of a derelict saying “Save me.” In contrast to this dead-end life, the accompaniment perks along smoothly with cheerful determination. The song is going places; its protagonist has been to all the places we don’t want to go in our lives.

Ironic? No – Brechtian with a light touch – the art of collage in which objects that don’t normally belong together are juxtaposed with a proximity in which one reveals the other in a new light – but only in a balance in which no one poetic object dominates the other. Such democracy is hard to maintain amid the complexities of a staged performance.  In contrast, “You Again” took to the staging beautifully, but that song has a conceptually different blueprint: The music characterizes the text. The Latin flavored pizzicato accompaniment suggests the memory of impossible love with the stubborn insistence of a stalker. The song tells you a hopeless relationship could work again despite all odds, much like a drug addict trying to chase the first high that actually worked for them.

At the end, the woman I sat with commented that Out Cold made her crave a good stiff drink. That’s one of the laws of the theater: The more onstage characters drink, the more you want to do so as well  (one reason why Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh inspires record-high bar business).  But Out Cold should have the power to do more than that. Returning to the rehearsal files with the printed score, Out Cold pushed me into fields of thought that are quite alien to me. Do we endlessly crave what we’re incapable of having? Are we in fact lone creatures who wrongly talk ourselves into mating for life? The fact that I don’t believe that stuff but contemplated it anyway is yet another symptom of his importance as a composer.

Long may Bleckmann continue performing Out Cold, whose production may have a portability that could accommodate touring. But by no means should other singers be frightened away from it because Bleckmann’s charisma can convince you ,momentarily, this is the way the piece should absolutely be. Is it too much to hope that other singers are studying the songs as we speak? They should be since this is one of several viable futures to the song cycle medium, and one that audiences can love immediately.

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