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"We Are All Mozart"

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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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The audience experience is personal and terrifying. An intimate audience combined with a small audience combined with an audience of those you know, in a space of privilege, is most terrifying of all.

Aside: Recently, I wrote about Mary Jane Leach's performance space in Valley Falls, New York, and my fear of performing in this converted Catholic church -- most of its icons still in place -- where she helped resurrect the works of Julius Eastman. Aside from being an extraordinarily gifted composer, Mary Jane is also a welcoming host, a fan of baseball, a bass clarinetist and vocal performer both, and a consummate music professional. We share a birthday year and a love of gardening, and we crossed paths in our moves (she from central Vermont to New York, me from New York to central Vermont). We share so many close interests and near opposites that we might have been siblings. The good humor of Mary Jane, Daniel, Bill, Michael, and my wife Stevie made yesterday possible.

The concert included a good mix of the ten audiences, consisting of composers, colleagues, performers, and volunteers. There were no buyers (the presentation was our choice), no critics, no students, and certainly no captives. Some of the curious volunteers came as a result of the newspaper article.

The three sets could not have been more different. Michael Farley performed a single 35-minute laptop improvisation. Daniel Goode and William Hellerman (co-directors of The DownTown Ensemble) performed the latest in a series of text pieces with improvised accompaniment. I performed a set of four pieces for voice, three of them with fixed electronic playback.

Three composers. Three creative genres. There was one old piece was from 1991, but the rest were from 2003 onward to the newest, composed on the spot. That fact alone is a test of the relationship with an audience. More than that, all three performances played with the relationship of meaning and expectation.

Michael incorporated found sounds, including speech, in a looping weave that moved from collage to soundscape to beatbox and back. Familiar sounds arose and dissolved, and the largely unprocessed mix shimmered with a déjà-vu kind of unspecific familiarity. A casually dressed, slight man with a soft face that would not look out of place hovering above an account ledger and calculator, Michael sat nearly unmoving at a table before the audience, staring at the screen, making tiny muscular movements and occasionally glancing at his mixer. It was a visual show of plastic sculpture, a kind of acoustic sandwich that couldn't be bitten, where sound emanated from the immobile and steadfast religious icons, including Michael.

The second set presented an immediate contrast. Bill is an imposing and serious figure, tall and high-domed, while Daniel presents an aura of warmth that includes an occasional studied goofiness with flying eyebrows. It's somehow evident that his imp awaits release. The presentation saw Daniel seated facing forward in the pews (still in place and not yet sold to open up the audience space) and Bill leanng forward into the audience not from a raised stage but rather from the center aisle. The booming text was almost delivered as a sermon -- full of political irony, incorporating enough wordplay and humor to effectively disguise a serious subtext of fury, and with a calculated sense of bewilderment as Bill alternately scowled and smiled. A sparse reflection of delicate pitches by Daniel's clarinet was supplemented by brief sonic heckles from Mary Jane and me.

The third contrast was my performance of four individual pieces, with me presenting a somewhat lumpy and hunched character on stage, moving from solid stillness (but not peace) to manic hyperactivity. The four pieces were a setting of John Dowland's Flow my Teares as a hushed quasi-whispered ballad with electronic accompaniment entitled Call Me, a solo extended voice rendering of Geof Hewitt's poem The Moon, a resonating melody with complex syllables of the words Memento Mori in the eponymous piece, and Spammung, the emotionally confounding riot of nonsense words acted with a wide range of applied emotions but with stiff processed electronic speech-reading, all based on spam subject lines.

The concert ended with a brief, gentle improvisation among Daniel, Mary Jane, and me.

I admit to being unable to understand how an audience can listen to a set from a concert (a social engagement as well as an acoustic one) in which there is no interaction between performer and audience. This not only applies to purely electroacoustic playback concerts, but also to those in which the action is infinitesimal. The only mediator is the environment itself -- and from a fixed position in a seat, the options are even more limited. This is no criticism of Michael's music, but of the nature of this specialized kind of non-interaction, where the performer is not observing the audience, but the audience is observing the performer; where the performer is interacting with objects, but the audience cannot observe the interaction itself. One might consider a concert to be primarily an acoustic event, but this peculiar state of composer-object minimal activity seems impenetrable. Indeed, for me it is a distraction as I wait for something to take place before my eyes, and close them ... at which point I begin to wonder, "Why am I at a concert? Why cannot I take this home instead?"

Daniel Goode's collaboration with Bill Hellerman was at a different behavioral place. It was a composed concert piece entitled Misinterpretation made of unprocessed, live words, together with expression and physical presence that was meant to involve. It was still a performance, an event to be taken in (despite its apparently random heckling) -- a sermon in a church, touching on meaning and humor and ethics and politics, in plain words, without processing or disguise. Yet what sort of concert composition was it? What was the clarinet commentary? These interactive mysteries compel my attention, but I think there's an observer inside the observer here.

During my own presentation, it was important to sense the audience's reaction. Each of these pieces is mutated by the audience reaction, or at least colored by it. As a vocal performer in intimate settings, I try to engage audience members' eyes one by one, sense their body language, and observe how their faces change. It's a difficult task, because some of my pieces incorporate humor as well as sensuality and confrontation.

The new piece, Call Me, was the easiest piece, but still a tough start. It called for me to use an unclassical vocal style -- not pop, but kind of a tenor Tom Waits. I slipped off it quickly, leaning toward the way I'd sung the Dowland's Flow My Teares melody years before in my early music ensemble. The desire to keep the voice rough didn't hold, but the audience did. Filled with long gaps of vocal silence and constant electroacoustic motion, it seemed to have substance enough to keep fresh for six minutes.

The shift to the extended voice The Moon generated an immediate sense of relief in the audience. It wasn't until I saw the video that I realized that my physical expressiveness was greater than I had expected -- or even hoped. Composers are often the worst interpreters of their work because they know what should be in the music and so 'hear past' the missing pieces or the mistakes. The effort needed to separate the composer from the performer is very high. I had lived with The Moon for fifteen years, performing it perhaps a dozen times. The words are stripped of an immediate meaning because of the complexity of the looped repeats and development of individual syllables. The word 'bound' goes through a dozen manifestations, from its initial b, the following ou and oun, and the concluding d. It's expressed and assembled until the phrase 'bounded by' is audible ... by which time the previous connective tissue of meaning is torn away. It's erotic and manic and formal and funny because of the sounds and the confused meanings and double-entendres and, to my surpise, my own physical presentation.

Memento Mori is a kind of trancelike harmonic singing, more akin to Call Me in that my physical presence is only essential to place the focus on the cyclic melodic sound that is alternately swamped by and loosed by the waves of hundreds and hundreds of syllables. This sort of writing reminds me of Ornette Coleman's Lonely Woman -- the still, simple tones chanted above a quiet but frenetic rhythm. It's an experiment I've used in such pieces as Gardens: A Love Song to considerable effect -- but also considerable difficulty for the performers (string quartet and English horn). The only disappointment in Memento Mori was the absence of the eight channels. This octophonic piece is conceived spatially, where the cascades of syllables slowly move in upon the audience, meeting the voice of the soloist at their greatest intensity, and then slowly move away and out of the space, retreating back into the speakers. This personal, intimate effect was only heard at its premiere -- a voiceless one, as our car was sliding off the road during a fierce Vermont snowstorm.

By now I'd sung nearly 20 minutes. Following Michael, Daniel and these three pieces, I could feel a slight flagging of the audience's energy -- and my voice and mental state as well. Spammung is my full-throttle piece, using every verbal, sonic and emotional state that I can achieve, wrapped into about 12 minutes. The vocal part switches genders and accents, draws pitches from the full extent of the vocal range, uses full and nasal and head and chest sounds, throat singing, harmonics, and direct interaction with the audience.

There's more to say about Spammung's effect and its deeper meaning for an audience -- and my own surprise again after watching the video. Maybe tomorrow or another day for that, when I also have the sound and perhaps video samples ready for streaming.

Important documentation: Eating after the concert
The food. We must have the food. The pot-luck reception followed the Valley Falls concert.

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