lies like truth: November 2008 Archives

I don't often devote blog posts to highlighting upcoming events. But the other day my eyes alighted upon a flyer in a cafe promoting an intriguing Festival that's happening next week in the Bay Area. So I went online to find out more about it and decided I had to spread the word.

The non-profit arts organization Crosspulse is hosting what may be the world's first Body Music Festival. Here's the scoop from the event's media release. (Again, I don't normally regurgitate press releases in blog posts. But this one is very well-written and provides a lot of pretty interesting, in-depth information about the Festival and its artists. So I decided to bend the rules on this occasion and include it here in full):

Hambone. Gumboot. Palmas. Kecak. From the tundra to the tropics, people can't resist the urge to snap, clap, step, slap, holler, and sing artful music. This universal resonator--our bodies--and its myriad global sounds will ignite audiences at the First International Body Music Festival in San Francisco and Oakland (December 2-7, 2008), featuring body musicians performing traditional and contemporary pieces from the U.S., Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, Canada's Arctic, and other popping, stomping, humming corners of the world.

Along with presenting world-premiere pieces and USA debuts, the Festival will reach out to educators and young people via workshops; to families with a kid-friendly matinee; and to aspiring body musicians with what might just be the world's first body music open mic.

Body music pioneer and Festival director Keith Terry's vision of a global musical shindig goes beyond trading rhythms or belly-slap techniques. It's about a cross-cultural conversation touching that visceral place that only the world's oldest instrument can reach, as Terry was reminded recently while directing a workshop. "I was teaching a rhythm that involved touching the chest and then snapping, stepping, and singing. I wasn't looking at the class; I was just listening," says Terry, who won a Guggenheim Fellowship for his body music work. "It was beautiful so I let it go on for a while and when I turned around I saw most of the room in tears. There was something about the act of touching the chest that moved everyone. It was about the heart."

Until recently, body music's global adventure in deep connections and corporeal rhythm was unfolding independently across the globe, its pop culture presence ebbing and waning as interest in hambone or Stomp came and went. Then came YouTube.

Terry was surfing for body music videos on the Internet when he came across the eye-opening work of a São Paulo ensemble called Barbatuques. "We were on parallel paths, but with obviously different end results," Terry explains. Eager to find out more, Terry got in touch with director Fernando Barba, one of Brazil's body music trailblazers, only to discover that Barba had just been planning to shoot Terry an email himself. This "blind connection," as Terry calls it, was the beginning of a great online friendship.

Barba and Terry's virtual connection lies at the heart of the Festival, in the form of a long-awaited, world-debut collaboration between the two body musicians' groups--Slammin All Body Band and Barbatuques. Oakland-based Slammin brings together globally inspired beatboxing and Terry's masterful, graceful body music with four soul-stirring vocalists. Barbatuques has been developing their unique "circle orchestra" of twelve musicians who rock out stunning versions of samba and maracatu classics by moving and vocalizing. Rather than focusing on body rhythms or vocals, the two groups use both. Although the two are from radically different cultural perspectives, they both emphasize groove and there are unexplainable parallels in the ways that they transpose instrumental music onto their bodies.

Yet the ties that bind body musicians are about more than psychic connections, streaming video, and stomping choruses. Many body musicians first fall in love with their instrument through childlike play, in lighthearted contexts. Barbatuques' Barba first discovered that his body was "a toy with sound" as a teenager: "When I walked, I daydreamed, imagining melodies and putting rhythm to my steps. Without noticing, the hands followed, looking for a drumming sound, mixing sounds on my chest, hands, and snapping. It was a new game," Barba recalls. In the same spirit, Terry's body music was influenced by his work as the co-founder and drummer for the Jazz Tap Ensemble and sound effects guy for the Pickle Family Circus.

Musical exchange, the Festival's bread and butter, helps unlock a whole range of human perspectives that Terry feels are often overlooked. "Rhythm and body movement across cultures reveal not only a sonic diversity but a breadth of world views, allowing us all to break out of our everyday perspectives, to understand each other at a more meaningful level," says Terry. "If I listen carefully and find your timing, your rhythm, it accelerates our relationship. When you walk in step with someone, you breathe together. And the conversation can go much deeper."

The language of body music varies from culture to culture, but the core impulse is rooted in a deep artistic expression through the human body. Moroccans have their own way of clapping, producing pops with fingers spread. Sumatrans slap their bellies just so, in a way unheard elsewhere. In the crevices and curves of human existence, in the resonating chambers of the human body and soul, discoveries are made and brought to aural and visual awareness for audiences and celebrants worldwide.

In Balinese kecak, the interlocking monkey chant associated with the epic Ramayana (and as popularized in the film Baraka), a large ensemble of vocalists resounds with the same rhythmic complexity heard on the gamelan. Body Tjak, a collaborative project Terry has been co-directing for twenty years, weaves body music and kecak into a seamless blend of movement and sound. The Kecak Project, the joint effort of extraordinary young Balinese composer Dewa Putu Barata and two Oakland-based gamelan ensembles, Gamelan Sekar Jaya and Gamelan X, will create a new kecak piece specifically for the Festival.

A very different conversation unfolds in the work of Turkish body musicians KeKeÇa. The duo, with backgrounds in theater and folk music, transform Turkish traditional songs into gentle pieces for the body with a flowing subtlety--an elegant departure from the athletic prowess sometimes associated with body music.

In a more traditional tête-à-tête, Celina Kalluk and partner sing Inuit vocal games from Canada's arctic territory of Nunavut. To play, two partners sing into each other's mouths, only a few inches apart, and interweave breath and voice until one of them gets tripped up or hyperventilates. The sound simultaneously evokes ancient history and futuristic sonics of electronic music. Terry recalls the first time he heard Inuit throat games live, "Every tune would end in laughter, because of the hyperventilation. The audience would anticipate the end, and then the entire room would break into laughter. It was contagious. It's such a playful form."

One local tradition highlighted at the festival and stretching far into the African-American past is hambone, which uses high-speed slaps to the thighs and chest as its musical palette. Perfected on the plantation when drums were prohibited, and later performed in vaudeville, hambone hit the airwaves and the white mainstream in the 1950s, with the Hambone Kids' hit "Hambone Hambone." Sam McGrier is one of those original Hambone Kids, and one of the few older artists still performing. Sam has been invited to perform with Derique McGee, whose youthful fascination with hambone has helped to keep this lightning-fast African-American tradition alive and clapping. Derique is an accomplished clown, proving that the serious art of Body Music can be hilariously joyful. Festival goers will have the unprecedented privilege of seeing these two hambone greats of different generations performing together.

On the experimental side, Montreal-based percussive dancer Sandy Silva blends the hard-hitting passion of Celtic step-dancing and flamenco with modern dance techniques, for a solo performance that blurs the boundary between body percussion and movement. Her musical versatility has taken her from jazz festival stages playing with Bobby McFerrin to "A Prairie Home Companion."

Beyond the compelling history, musical variety, and physical artistry of body music, "It's really about being human. It's a very visceral connection with all these different people. We're all playing our bodies," Terry reflects. "I'm excited about all these styles going on around the world, and I'd like more people to see them and enjoy them. It's a reminder of our humanity on a very basic level."

Ticket information for the Festival is available at
November 28, 2008 8:14 AM | | Comments (0)
I saw Dawn Upshaw perform on stage a few nights ago in Berkeley. Now household chores will never be the same again. The mezzo-soprano performed Gyorgy Kurtag's Kafka Fragments at Zellerbach Hall under the auspices of Cal Performances, a series of 40 short, atonal vignettes for solo voice and violin based on snippets from Franz Kafka's diaries. As Upshaw sang against a back drop of moody, black and white video projections, she washed dishes, scrubbed the floor and did the ironing among other thing. I don't think I have ever seen such intensity radiating from a singer.

The power of the performance partly stems from the contrast between Kurtag's austere yet gut-wrenching musical settings and the slack-jawed everyday-ness of director Peter Sellars' mise en scene. Upshaw and violinist Geoff Nuttall appear on stage dressed in drab, homely clothes -- the extra-large plaid shirts and baggy jogging bottoms that most people wouldn't be caught dead in outside of their own homes. They move their own props around -- in this case, an assortment of plastic buckets, sponges, mops and other cheap household cleaning equipment. They move with a mixture of unselfconscious ease, as getting on with their own stuff at home, unobserved. The effect of this makes us feel rather like voyeurs, peering in on someone's most private moments.

But the music operates in another realm entirely. Kurtag demands a great deal from his performers. They use the extremities of their ranges. They jump all over the place and make their instruments purr, shriek, coax and moan. They engage in lyrical duets only to remove themselves entirely from each other and suddenly appear bitter and lonely. Upshaw infuses every single note with emotion. By the end of the Fragments, she looks completely depleted -- fragmented, even. And we feel the same way.
November 27, 2008 10:21 AM | | Comments (0)
Productions that are specifically geared towards a local audience can swing two ways. Because such shows tap into the regional knowledge, culture and concerns of a particular locale, the relationship between what's going on on stage and what's going on in the stalls can be very powerful. Stand-up comedians often emphasize regionalism to great effect as it builds warmth and a common basis for comedy. On the other hand, audiences can also get a bit bored with work that reflects themselves and their direct environment too closely, especially if the artist is simply telling theatregoers stuff about their surroundings and lifestyles that doesn't shed any new light on what they already know.

The latter is the case with the latest incarnation of Blixa Bargeld's long-running global performance project, The Execution of Precious Memories. Since 1994, the postmodern musician (who is best known in his native Germany as the founder of the experimental rock group Einsturzende Neubaten and in the US as guitarist with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) has sporadically created a series of performance pieces based on the specific cities in which they are staged. The project started out in Berlin. Between 1994 and 2001, Bargeld collaborated on pieces in Osaka, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Yaounde, Stockholm, London, New Delhi and Krakow. The show in San Francisco, which played last week at Theatre Artaud, represents the first Precious Memories production since 2001 and the first ever in the US.

Bargeld has lived in the Bay Area since 2001 so he has quite a bit of local knowledge at this point with which to create a work that reflects the lives of local residents. Certainly his entrenchment in San Francisco life is beautifully reflected in his choice of collaborators for the piece -- the experimental dance company KUNST-STOFF and the six-member new music ensemble, Nanos Operetta. Nanos Operetta's live musical score is the most riveting thing about the project. A combination of fierce percussion, strident strings and shimmery accordion, the ensemble-composed soundtrack does more to capture the eclectic spirit of San Francisco than all of Bargeld's vague, husky-voiced ramblings about the impact of 9/11 and his favorite local haunts.

In a way, Bargeld occupies a bit of a no-man's-land in terms of his relationship with the city. Because he's lived in the Bay Area for seven years, he no longer has the freshness of perspective of a tourist. But he hasn't lived in the region for long enough to be able to really get to grips with San Francisco's soul. Thus, the production mostly conveys a fairly superficial and standard image of what the city represents to the world and what it means to its residents.

I'm curious to know if Bargeld actually lived in all the cities in which he previously created shows or whether he just visited them. It would be interesting to explore all the pieces in the Precious Memories cannon to date to find out whether being an outsider or tourist inspires a more intriguing artistic take on a city's culture than being a permanent resident.
November 26, 2008 8:06 AM | | Comments (0)
I got back from Europe last Wednesday night. Normally after I travel long distances, I try to give myself a few days to catch up on sleep before hitting the theatres, cinemas and concert halls. Turning up to see a show jet-lagged doesn't do me much good, and it hardly helps the artists or fellow audience members if someone's slouched in their seat and possibly snoring.

But owing to an unfortunate confluence of deadlines and truncated production runs, I've found myself in performance venues every single evening since I returned from my trip, bar one. (All I could manage that night was to slurp some soup and, at 9pm, crawl gratefully into bed.)

Seeing shows on jet-lag isn't ideal, but many culture lovers and professional critics do it anyway. So having lately become rather proficient at the art of experiencing art when my body's internal clock is on the other side of the world, I'd like to share a few tips on how to make it through a performance without doing damage to one's health, upsetting the people on stage or annoying fellow audience members.

1. Call ahead and see if you can get seats near an exit. I say this not because you might want to leave early, but because theatres are pretty dark, and therefore sleep-inducing, places. By sitting near a door where, generally speaking, a little light filters in, you stand a better chance of staying awake.

2. Eat a light meal about an hour beforehand. Don't drink more than one glass of wine. Red wine, in particular, induces zzzz's.

3. Have a cup of coffee or black tea after your meal. Repeat during intermission if necessary.

4. Keep a pencil and paper handy. Even if you don't generally do this when you go to the theatre or there's nothing in particular to write down, try to take notes at least sporadically throughout the show. Staying "active" throughout a performance rather than simply sitting there passively and letting the stuff happening on stage wash over you helps you to keep your eyes open.

5. If your clothes are slightly uncomfortable, you're more likely to stay awake than if they're very loose like pajamas. So wear tight jeans. But not too tight -- you don't want to constrict the blood flow to your legs so much that they go numb and/or you faint.

6. Bring a friend who isn't afraid to poke you if you nod off.
November 25, 2008 7:35 AM | | Comments (1)
I never understood the fascination that special/traveling exhibitions exert upon museum goers. What's the fun of lining up with hundreds of people (and, in the case of many art institutions, paying a premium) to spend a few hours in a packed, overheated gallery straining to see a bunch of paintings over people's heads when you can enjoy the museum's permanent collection in relative quiet and spacious ease?

The pleasure I get from permanent collections isn't just to do with the fact that I don't like crowds. A traveling exhibition might be full priceless masterpieces or provide art lovers with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the entire gamut of works by a famous painter or group of artists. But it's the permanent collection that reveals the true character of a museum. So I don't often bother with special shows. More often than not, I'll make a beeline for those dimly-lit, whispering enclaves where fewer people go and an old, uniformed guard sits snoring quietly in a corner.

It doesn't take long to find this hallowed spot in the Beyeler Fondation. I visited this cozy, Swiss museum located on the outskirts of Basel a couple of weeks ago. It was a rainy Tuesday and the place was packed. But happily for me, few people were interested in the permanent collection. They were all there for the museum's special exhibit of Venetian landscapes, Venice: From Canaletto and Turner to Monet. I shouldered past the thundering hoards and soon found peace among the museum's airy exhibition halls.

Gallery owners Hildy and Ernst Beyeler built up their world-class collection of works by 20th century masters over a period of 50 years. The collection, which currently comprises around 200 works, was first publicly exhibited in its entirety at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid in 1989. The opening of the Renzo Piano-designed Fondation Beyeler in October 1997 provided the Beyeler Collection with a public museum. The museum includes works by modern masters such as Cézanne, Picasso, Rousseau, Mondrian, Klee, Ernst, Matisse, Newman, Bacon, Dubuffet and Baselitz as well as a few objects from Africa, Alaska and Oceania.

What's breathtaking about the museum is the relationship between some of the art works on display and the space itself. An entire room devoted to Monet lily pad paintings is offset by sight of real lily pads in the pond just outside the wall-length windows. Even on the dull, wintry day that I visited the museum, the link between art and nature seemed beguilingly porous. A huge square room with high ceilings made for the perfect setting for four enormous Anselm Kiefer canvases including the dizzying 1997 cityscape, "Lilith". I felt cowed by their imposing dimensions and barren atmosphere.

My very favorite part of the Beyeler Fondation's collection is the weirdest-looking Rodin sculpture I've ever seen. With her earthy limbs akimbo, Rodin's bronze "Iris, Messenger of the Gods" looks like she might explode off the pedestal. The work is one of the most kinetic sculptures I've ever seen. My heart beat faster ever time I came close to the bronze statue. I visited her four times that afternoon and each time I got the same result.

I felt so invigorated by the time I had breezed my way through the Beyeler's permanent collection that I found myself with energy to spare. So I decided to tackle the Venice exhibition anyway. I did my best to enjoy the carefully curated selection of paintings, but I didn't stay for long. There was always someone breathing down my neck trying to get closer to the canvases. I couldn't concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds before feeling pressured to move on. If only I could break in one evening and prowl around the exhibit in the moonlight on my own time.
November 23, 2008 5:15 PM | | Comments (0)
It's not unusual to come across people in California think that the state should secede from the rest of the country. Until yesterday evening, however, I'd never heard of a group of Californians who want to secede from the state.

But in light of the recent madness surrounding Proposition 8, namely the state's decision following the November 4 election to overturn a previous verdict to recognize same-sex marriages, America's longest-running queer theatre company, Theatre Rhinoceros in San Francisco, has decided to secede its main stage from the state of California.

The 2008 Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) award-winning company (and a producer of generally great, or at least frequently interesting, work) has decided to undertake this plan in order, according to a media release, "to create a safe/legal space for Married Same-Sex couples in the State of California." The company is marking the decision with a secession ceremony tonight, Friday, November 21 at its space in The Mission district of San Francisco.

Here is the company's proclamation, written by artistic director John Fisher:

For thirty-one years our Mainstage has been a space of hallowed ground for Same-sex couples and it cannot continue as such if it does not recognize Same-sex Marriage. In recognition of the thousands of queer lives portrayed on our stage and the thousands upon thousands of queer people who have inspired, witnessed and been inspired by those lives, our Mainstage must secede from the State of California. The Board of Theatre Rhinoceros and I therefore declare our Mainstage seceded ground and proclaim our theatre an extraterritorial state that recognizes, encourages and condones Same-sex marriage. A "plaque of secession and proclamation" will be unveiled on Friday, November 21, 2008 at 10.00 pm, immediately following the performance of 100 Years of Queer Theatre. Come and raise a glass in recognition of this event and the eventual triumph of same-sex marriage over the forces of repression, exclusion and intolerance. Admission is free and open to the public.

If I make it to the ceremony, I'll report back about the event. Regardless, I think it's a bold move on the company's part. Even if it seems like a bit of a publicity stunt (and let's face it, the more hype surrounding Proposition 8, the better) I'm very glad to see such a prominent member of the local arts community taking a stand in such a deliberate, public and creative way. Let's hope the authorities sit up and listen.

Newsflash! Fisher just sent me the following thoughts about his company's decision:

"This is a publicity stunt, but not for the theatre. It's a publicity stunt for same-sex marriage. I can't imagine why anyone new would come here to see a show because we seceded. Our audience is loyal and dedicated, they'll come regardless - but in talking to them every night at the show I hear that they're angry and upset and suspicious of their neighbors. They want -- they expect -- some sort of statement of this kind from every queer organization. So we secede. It was a board member's idea. I loved it. It's also a way of making a statement without demonizing a certain group of people. There's a lot of hate speech out there about who as a group is responsible for getting the proposition passed. I think that's all spurious. The fact is something bad happened and we all need to clearly align ourselves with the cause of righteousness. America was created as an action of civil disobedience when we seceded from Great Britain - we didn't secede from certain people in Great Britain, we seceded from the nation as a whole to express our dissatisfaction with the governing agency as a body. This expresses clearly our disappointment with the State (and the state) of California.

Also, we're only seceding from the State (which hasn't provided us with funding for a decade) not with the City or the Country - the City has always been generous in its support of our work and the country, well, don't get me started but I don't want the Feds in here with their shot guns. Right now the only people the State can send after us is the highway patrol.

And it's all in fun. We will not, like the 1776ers, defend our theatre with blood. It's not that dramatic, it's theatrical. It's a statement, like a march or the proposal that all gay people not go to work one day - it's meant to make you think about the contribution of a place like Theatre Rhino and the people who make it happen. Usually we're proud to be a part of this great state, and we want some love back."

I also asked Fisher why only the main stage of Theatre Rhino had decided to secede. Why not the whole theatre? Here's his response:

"Again, we want to protect ourselves from too much legal action - it's an out. That was the board's suggestion. If anyone comes after us we can run out into the offices which are still legal and claim CA citizenship. Also, I think of the Mainstage as extraterritorial sanctuary, like Cathedrals of old. I tell the audience that if they're ever being chased by the Yes on 8ers they can run into the theatre for safe haven. I think the Mainstage is entitled to that, given all the same-sex positive stories it's husbanded over the years. (Or wifed, as the case may be.)"
November 20, 2008 3:11 PM | | Comments (1)
I've just been on a business trip to Basel, Switzerland. I didn't think I'd have the time to take in any of this lovely, small city's culture during my workaholic week-long stay, much less catch a recital by Andreas Scholl, one of my favorite vocalists in the entire world.

Turns out the German countertenor spends quite a bit of time in Basel: he teaches at the Schola Cantorum in the city.

If I had realized this beforehand I would no doubt have tried to wangle an interview with the great man, no matter the craziness of my work schedule. As it was, I felt incredibly lucky to be in town to hear him perform. I'm a Scholl groupie and proud of it too. Some of Scholl's students were present atthe concert. I heard them talking excitedly in English to a couple of middle-aged women (who may well have also been professional singers or singing teachers) outside the church where the singer was about to perform.

The gig was wonderful because of the intimate setting and format. My previous experiences of going to hear Scholl perform live have always been on the large scale. I've heard him in 1000-plus seat concert halls and opera houses, often with full or chamber-sized orchestras.

This time, however, the singer was performing a series of 16th-17th century English songs by the likes of John Dowland and Thomas Campion such as "I Saw my Lady Weep" and "Have you Seen the Bright Lily Grow" and numbers from his Wayfaring Stranger album (a fabulous collection of old Anglo-American folk songs like "Down by the Sally Gardens" and "Black is the Color") in the smallish Leonhardskirche with just a lutenist/guitarist (Crawford Young) to accompany him.

Scholl's ringing tone, feeling phrasing and pristine intonation were all present that day, as was his dramatic delivery of some of the songs. What was missing from the performance, though, was the singer's usual gusto. Scholl gave the impression that he was feeling low and tired. Instead of standing while he sang, he mostly sat next to Young on a stool. This helped to create the casual and cozy atmosphere of the gig, but it made for a rather contained performance that lacked true communication and electricity.

What was also curious was the selection of songs. You can always count on Dowland for melancholy. But the singer seemed determined to avoid anything genuinely upbeat. Lost love, wretchedness and death permeated the repertoire from "In Darkness Let me Dwell" to "I Loved A Lass".

The final song, a long strophic dirge entitled "Lord Rendall", made for the most peculiar recital climax I think I've ever witnessed: I couldn't believe that Scholl picked a song about a guy being nagged by his mother on his deathbed to send his audience off. Thankfully, he stuck in the more feisty pirating ballad, "Henry Martin", which shows off the singer's warm baritone chest voice as well as his trademark countertenor, as an encore. If Scholl hadn't sung that encore, I think I would have left the church feeling very puzzled indeed.
November 20, 2008 7:03 AM | | Comments (0)

Me Elsewhere


About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by lies like truth in November 2008.

lies like truth: October 2008 is the previous archive.

lies like truth: December 2008 is the next archive.

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