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In the Realm of Silent Film and Dreams--Snark Ensemble, Terry Riley

New classical music concerts, the forum where edge really cuts, are often hard to find. Universities with a mandate for teaching composition and the money to back up that imperative are where these concerts erupt with flair. The Dresser uses the word erupt meaning, "to emerge violently from restraint or limits," because not everyone, including regular concertgoers, supports the untamed refusing-to-be-put-in-a-box programming. Recently the Dresser heard two such concerts, one at Catholic University with spankingly new compositions set to silent films and another at the University of Maryland with an eye to the history of Minimalism.


What the Dresser loves about the programs that are presented at Catholic University is that professors like Andrew Simpson take wild and whacky chances with newly conceived work. On March 11, 2009, the Dresser attended "Silent Explosions, Invisible Jumps: Music, Dance, and Film Create a Ruckus--A Multimedia Performance Event Inspired by Early Silent Films of Georges Méliès." This program, one of many during CUA's President's Festival of the Arts March 9 through March 22, explored silent film and live dance through an exercise of new musical composition. In fact, Simpson, a composer himself, instigated the commissioning of seven new scores that were to take inspiration from seven short films by Georges Méliès (1861-1938), a French filmmaker known for his early innovations in filmmaking. One of those seven, "The Luny Musician" is Simpson's composition--here's a professor who leads by example.

The set up for this exercise and ensuing program was fairly complex despite the inspiration being based on silent films ranging in duration from slightly over a minute to slightly over four minutes. The composers' assignment was to view the film and then create music that "supports the on-screen action of the film" (Simpson's description from the "Program Notes"). The music was then handed over to three choreographers to create dance from the music alone. The choreographers and dancers were not allowed to see the films until the evening of the performance. Because the films each had some element of dance, the idea was to see how much commonality blossomed between dance and film as translated by the music, but more so to see how the process of creation unfolds.

SnarkEnsembleSmall.jpgOne additional layer was the music was played twice (once with the film and once with the dancers) by the talented Snark Ensemble, an instrumental chamber group dedicated to the creation and performance of new original scores for silent film. Two of the three Snark Ensemble members--Andrew Simpson (keyboards) and Maurice Saylor (woodwinds)--made up two of the seven commissioned composers. Perhaps, you, Dear Reader, are now shaking your head and wagging a finger at what seems to be an incestuous opportunity for CUA faculty (and there was a third commissioned faculty member Steven Strunk). Mais, au contraire, the Dresser counters. Given that all the composers only had four to six weeks to write the music and that the senior composers were willing to share the stage with the newbies as well as play all of the compositions, the Dresser sees the project as a freeing and joyful experiment in collaboration.

Of the seven musical compositions, the Dresser liked Steven Strunk's "Silly Music" the best. "Silly Music," an edgy and busy piece for the clarinet, was inspired by Méliès' 1901 film "L'antre des esprits" ("The Magician's Cavern"). The two-minute-55-second film shows the antics of a magician who animates such objects as a skeleton, which not only moves but dances. Dancer Elton Pittman and choreographer Shannan Quinn interpreted Strunk's music as a man bedeviled by some kind of flying thing that manifests in an active hand that zigzags around the dancer's head and pretty soon has him diving into break dance gyrations on the floor.

The Dresser was also impressed with the choreography of Shawn Short and associated dancers for John Maggi's composition "The Ballet Master's Dream" danced by Nicolette Jenkins and Dedrick Makle and for Simpson's "The Luny Musician" danced by Tisa D. Herbert and Prentice Whitlow. The Dresser felt the choreographer had a charming sense of the absurd and made good use of the limited time to show the prowess of his dancers.

While the Dresser did not hear any profound outpouring of the soul in the seven musical compositions, she believes that the sum effect, particularly with the added elements of the Snark musicianship and the live dance, will continue to ripple out in the universe to positive creative effect. Simpson's teaching methods in the field of new classical music deserve hearty recognition.


What drew the Dresser on March 29, 2009, to the University of Maryland's Bang on a Can Marathon that included percussionist Glenn Kotche with two of five pieces inspired by Steve Reich was an appearance and performance by Terry Riley, creator of "In C" (1964) and, with that composition, the composer at the foundation of the Minimalist movement in music. He takes credit for influencing Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams. While the Dresser remarked to her seatmate composer Janet Peachey that what they were hearing Riley perform (selections from his Autodreamographical Tales) reminded her of work The Kronos Quartet would present, the Dresser had failed to link together that she heard Kronos perform Riley's The Cusp of Magic last year and that she had recorded that Riley has had a long-standing relationship with David Harrington, the founding member of The Kronos Quartet, a group that first piqued the Dresser's interest in new music with their rendition of songs like Jimi Hendrix "Purple Haze." Of course seeing Riley perform, versus seeing another legendary group perform his music, creates an indelible impression.Terry Riley_credit Stuart Brinin-preview.jpg

Photo by Stuart Brinin


Photo by Stephanie Berger

Cut to the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center's Dekleboum Concert Hall as the Bang on a Can All-Stars (these musician have awesome resumes) Robert Black (bass), David Cossin (percussion), Mark Stewart (electric guitar), Felix Fan (cello), Ning Yu (piano), Evan Ziporyn (clarinets) and Riley dressed in his Indian holy man attire of kurta (long shirt worn over trousers) and taqiyah or kufi (a short rounded cap) enter and take their positions to play. Without explanation, Riley begins playing the piano and singing unintelligible words of what turns out to be an unannounced composition or maybe just an improvised warm up number. With Riley's background in jazz and Indian raga, improvisation to him is as natural as breathing.

By the second piece, Riley made it clear he had launched Autodreamographical Tales, because he began talking about a dwarf that synced with the title of the first Tale. Next came "Long Bus Ride" and the Dresser nudged her seatmate and whispered, "this makes me think of Allen Ginsberg" and Dr. Peachey nodded and whispered back "Hydrogen Jukebox," a song cycle by Philip Glass based on the poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Now in writing her blog post, the Dresser is thinking the Magic Bus Trip by the Merry Pranksters who hung with Ken Kesey.

The third Tale "See them out there" begins with whistling that turns into a jazzy song. (It turns out that Riley presents all his dreams in spoken voice while his commentaries on the dreams are sung. The Dresser discovered this difference when she found a November 7, 2008 audio program from WNYC-FM where John Schaefer interviewed Riley and played some of the Tales.) The Dresser's favorite Tales came next. "The Miracle" is what Riley calls a "bopping riff" with a Gregorian chant overlay. The miracle of this tale is that Riley sights "Santa," which made the Dresser laugh loudly because "Santa" made her think of Santa Claus. What with the naïve storytelling style, the Dresser figured Riley was open to any and all interpretations in the free love approach of Stephen Stills' song "Love the One You're With." Oh, yes, Dear Reader, what Riley was presenting was soo retro. "Zuchinni" is a zany landscape starting in Italy, moving rapidly to London, but about a piece of music called "Zuchinni" that people in the dream say is Riley's but he does not recognize it. Maurice Chevalier, the old French movie star of musicals like Gigi, is conducting "Zuchinni" and the end of the concert allows his top hat to roll down his arm.

"Black Woman" concerns criticism Riley is subjected to by a black woman who tells him he is too stiff. The dreamer Riley turns it around by giving the same advice to a black man he encounters. Thereafter, the music turns jazzy and some kind of Dr. Seuss spiel ensues. "The Faquir" opens with the playing of an exotic instrument and an old man--the faquir--climbs into Riley's grocery cart but everyone including Riley starts smoking cigarettes in a place where such behavior is not permitted. "The War on the Poor" is a bluesy piece where All-Star pianist Ning Yu came to the mic to relate her own tale in Chinese. Accenting this Tale was the electric guitarist Mark Stewart also playing a kazoo that made the Dresser think what are these musical pranksters doing in the well-lit environs of a university stage when they belong in the smokey half-light of a club in San Francisco's North Beach?

The second part of Riley's presentation included two pieces from The Autodreamographical Anteriopod, which is essentially a marijuana-induced romp that includes "Cannabis," a Jabberwockyish song filled with nonsense words, and an extended tale into "The Hippy Encampment." In the later piece, Riley sings "Cannabis is a wonderful drug--sometimes you live like a cat on a rug. It makes you trip lightly; I like to take it nightly."

Standing back from the smoke, what the Dresser understands is that Riley's music has its roots in jazz and then Indian raga. Some of his singing in the Bang on a Can concert also demonstrated his skill of raga vocalization, which he learned as a disciple of the revered North Indian raga vocalist, Pandit Pran Nath. Yes, Dear Reader, this concert was more a cut of history than the sharp knife through the new music jungle and isn't it amazing what institutions now support if it comes packaged with an old holy man?

Brandel France de Bravo in "Ostracism" published in her book Provenance explores what can happen in a community if otherness becomes too pronounced. Using Lewis Carroll's poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter," the poet echoes the zaniness of these concerts where the music came out of silent films and dreams.


The time has come, the poet said,
to talk of many things:
of shoes and ships and sealing wax
and exile's cruel sting.

In agoras of ancient Greece
if six thousand agreed
by casting votes on oyster shells,
shards, you would--like a weed--
be uprooted, cruelly cast out,
your absence un-grieved.

Socrates, tried by a jury
and found guilty, might well
have been banished from Athens.
Rather than face that hell,
he chose to quaff hemlock, dying
with panache where he dwelled.

Let us not speak of suicide
but murder on the beach.
The walrus and the carpenter,
daring more than eat a peach,
invited bivalve pals to stroll
with them, hands each in each.
They led them to a lonely spot
and made that little speech,
then devoured their briny friends:
an aphrodisiac feast.

The sun still shone upon the sea.
No birds were in the sky.
Not even a lone ossifrage
dotted the clouds on high.
The long-in-tooth and sated pair
with heavy-lidded eyes
reclined against a rock
and heaved several happy sighs.
The surf had long erased
the memory of mollusk cries.

The empty shells--once ateliers,
coats--lay in bony heaps,
like an ogre's ossuary
overturned at their feet,
or the aftermath of some election
where winning spells defeat
and the popular are sentenced
to peristaltic heat.

In this sultry Siberia
the thermometer always reads
98.6 Fahrenheit.

Brandel France de Bravo
from Provenance

Copyright © 2008 Brandel France de Bravo


Comments (1)

I wanted to send a note to say thank you for your kind words and appreciation for my work as an artist.

I hope you can come to view us again at Catholic University on April 26th in Ward hall for the "Furies" an opera work turned in concert suite composed by Andrew Simpson with Dissonance Dance Theatre, my dance company, performing with the Women's Chorus of Catholic University.

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