Monday, November 16, 2009

Bandage A Knife Review

This wonderful review by Catherine Thomas was published in the Oregonian today: Incohesive 'Bandage' intensely cinematic: the production marries a choreographer's and composer's best. "perversely witty" - that's good.

I actually prefer the web title Prepare to be Disoriented in several mediums. "Incohesive" suggests unintentionality, while "disorienting" allows for the possibility of a purposefully fragmented structure, which Bandage a Knife certainly has. Anyway, the review is extremely attentive and discusses all the elements of the show - video, dance, sound, dialogue.

The performance was developed as a spinning out of various tangents from the source material. One of our goals was to experiment with all the different interactive possibilities we could imagine between live dance and recorded video, live voice and recorded sound and voice. That process resulted in a large number of "moments" - and then moments accreted to moments, with an intention towards maximum disjuncture. Threads, echos, mirrorings and repetitions provide a loose web of connections.

I think incorporating narrative elements within the context of dance was the most difficult aspect - perhaps for the audience as well. The lack of narrative consequence creates a possibly uncomfortable "no-man's land". It's a place I want to explore more.

Alongside this fragmented structure, the "performance within the performance runs parallel on a suspended television monitor. Kaj-anne Pepper's solo within the all-white dripping wet "weatherbox" was a single hour-long take. A bravura action for an intimate space and an (original) audience of three.

Here's another excellent review from Lisa Radon.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Field recording gear

I don't usually write this kind of post, but I'm pretty excited about finally having a semi-professional field-recording setup. I'm now using a Marantz PMD671 with a pair of Sennheiser ME66/K6 shotgun mics in shockmounts with a stereo bar and a hand grip. (Beware of the kit, by the way, the shockmounts are NOT universal). I should say "will be using" as I haven't yet put this rig to the test. When I receive the backordered Gator broadcasting bag and the rechargable battery unit for the Marantz, I'll finally be ready for fully mobile, high-quality recordings.
I haven't been making too many so-called "field recordings" in recent years, largely because of my problems with the whole urban/rural dichotomy. Recordings made around the city are sure to include distracting automobile and airplanes sounds. Recordings in lightly rural or more wild areas get caught up in issues of "nature-ism" that I find equally distracting.
At the same time, I treat all of my recordings as "fields" - I have very rarely recorded in studios, and I'm always interested in the whole range of factors which might influence the acoustic character. The size of a room, the materials of the walls, the number of participants, the placement of the mics and sound source(s), the mediation of varying quality speakers or analogue distortions, and the choice of acoustic source itself, all influence the sound. That's why Shaeffer's solfege of musique conrete is an impossibility, as well as any comprehensive notation.

Anyway, I've briefly tested these new mics and I'm quite pleased. My next purchase will probably be a pair of ME62 omnidirectional capsules (the adaptability of the K6 series is pretty great). Eventually, I would love to own a pair of the Sennheiser MKH series, my dream mics at this point.
I'm wondering if anyone has thoughts on battery-powered mic pre-amps to complete this current rig. Are they necessary? Is there anything that might come close to the Sound Devices mixpre?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Growth of the Author

One of the things that draws me increasingly to performance-oriented work is the complexity of authorship. I do enjoy the isolated, private give-and-take of the studio experience, but collaboration tends to be more fun, more unpredictable and more unstable. And the result is more than can be contained by any one brain - a sharing and dispersal of responsibility.
A piece like Bandage A Knife (which runs for 5 more nights!) explores so many variations of authorship, it becomes quite difficult to determine a point of origin. Some moments, such as the trio of Anne, Kaj and Rebecca with mirror, flashlight and mirror came directly out of my notebook sketches and my scripted monologue, but were developed through improvisation with Linda and are brought to life in performance through Rebecca's intonation and Kaj's elaborate and absurd facial translations.

Some moments, such as the dialogue between Kaj (below the plywood) and Linda (standing on top) were developed through improvisation, but injected with my dialogue (which is itself an interpretation and extraction of the filmic source material). Other moments were written in a back-and-forth manner between Linda and myself, with much laughter. Laughter was used as an evaluative tool throughout.

A moment such as Rebecca with projected hand gestures and a percussive score depends heavily on my studio-based video and sound composition, carefully constructed (though again, the video was assembled from an editing of Linda's improvised gestures). Rebecca's hands-behind-back trajectory within that video/sound moment was then developed from my broad suggestions which asked for her interpretation.

I am thankful for Linda Austin's willingness to allow me to develop my own directorial ideas within the safety of her studio. And it was fascinating to observe the wide variety of methodologies which make up her own choreographic practice. These ranged from predetermined and taught movement, to suggestions for improvisation ("imagine your eyes are a camera"), to a kind of aleatoric mirroring ("catch my gestures as I improvise and assemble them into your own phrase") to free-form improvisation by the dancers, videotaped and then painstakingly relearned from the tape, among others. These elements then meet discussion, suggestion and editing from the directors and the group.

What makes this issue of authorship even more complicated is the way a distinct voice shines through such an enfolded and complex development. (A standard example being that of John Cage - if he's so interested in subverting the authorial ego to allow indeterminacy, why do his pieces always sound like his?) For this reason, it's understandable that Lisa Radon would mis-attribute moments from this piece in her thoughtful review. Linda's quirky movement and choreographic preoccupations with bodily awkwardness are suffused throughout the piece - and influenced me too. This raises the open question of how the dancers subsume their own bodies within the director's aesthetic, and to what degree they are "allowed" or willing to insert their own movement idiosyncracies. The meeting point is diffuse, complex and, to me, deeply interesting.

Within cinema - another highly collaborative form - it is somewhat understood how the cinematographer, sound designer and others operate within a directorial vision. What would Ingmar Bergman be without Sven Nykvist? I'm sure that each director and each film explores these relationships in variously shaded ways, but we at least know how to think about such structures.
Modern dance/performance work, on the other hand, seems to rely much more broadly on what Catherine Sullivan calls "unique methodologies". It seems that the author's role in this kind of work becomes one of providing frameworks for improvisation, contexts for material, strategies for assembly and, of course, a guiding voice and a kind of generalized "veto power". Authorship gathers, disperses and re-gathers within the unique methodology of a director, as each participant gives him or herself to the collective creative process.

photos by Michael Degutis

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Gutierrez and Sullivan

I've been thinking about Miguel Gutierrez' Last Meadow since seeing it two months ago during the T:BA festival. I wrote a compressed, fractured and somewhat melodramatic description of it on the PICA blog (see below). It seemed useless to give a blow-by-blow account of a performance which was so centered in mood, repetition and groove.
In general, there seems to be something about the relationships between cinema and dance. There's an interesting tension between the repeatable and the ephemeral, the narrative and the abstract, the continuous and the montaged. These questions are certainly part of Bandage A Knife, and perhaps I was thinking through some of my own problems in response to Gutierrez' work. I loved the intensity of Last Meadow and its willingness to be dark.
I can feel myself getting darker. I continue to be drawn further toward genre film, but especially horror flicks. In some way, perhaps returning to my deep regard for transgressive images such as Passoloini's Salo, or my childhood experiences of seeing Dracula, King Kong and Phantom of the Opera for free in the University cinema. I always liked these archaic images which seemed so foreign and intriguing. I like the way form and content can seem to split apart and operate in parallel - the symmetry in each shot of Salo which intensifies and counteracts the brutality; the utterly artificial lighting and acting of Argento's Suspiria which is subsumed by mood.
Right now I'm feeling a real affinity for Catherine Sullivan's work, her manner of using source material, the way she has feet in cinema, theater and modern dance, the use of what she calls "vestigal narrative". I've been wondering how to bridge these realms, how to work in the cracks between, how to make something that belongs nowhere. This talk with her collaborators Dylan Skybrook and Sean Griffin is answering so many questions, and raising others that I hope to apply to new processes. I find she's taking the words out of my mouth.
I especially appreciated the discussion of accessibility and difficulty from around 1:10:00

I come very much from theater, and in theater you don’t have this highly directed gaze. Your eyes have the pleasure to wander and to enjoy things flickering peripherally. It’s about allowing yourself to give over to a landscape than it is looking at the installation and needing it to satisfy a kind of one-point perspective. It’s about how you look at images and what in the image is ambient or what is direct. So there’s a lot about the composition that tries to allow for, as I’ve said, the pleasure of the eyes to look the way they want to look. To me that says a lot about judgement. When you’re presented with a lot of information, the question you’re forced to ask yourself is “Well, what do I want to look at?” and that says something about your sensibility as a viewer.

At the same time, I wonder about the possibility of attention in a gallery setting. When I saw Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land at the Whitney biennial, I was unable to focus, a bit disoriented by the multiple screens, and feeling that I was unable to give the piece the time it required. Sitting down to take in a performance has a way of centering and allowing patience in a way that just doesn't happen for me in a gallery. Is there a special switch in the brain when an event has a set arc? We give in to the experience and can sensitize to its universe. (But maybe I just need(ed) to learn how to watch.)
Many of Sullivan's touchpoints are somehow dear to my heart - Poe, Muybridge, Tatsumi Hijikata - early interests that I've repressed because of the impression that narrative and melodrama should take a back seat to abstraction. Now it's all coming back. How does she have the courage to be this incredibly weird, this completely faithful to the process of collaboration, to the tenuous webs of meaning and to these beautiful images? I want to see more.

Here's my review from September:
Miguel Gutierrez & Powerful People Last Meadow

The script is a controlling device. The storyboard commands. The director is an egomaniac. The movie camera captures bodies within its lens, contains them -flattens them onto celluloid. Method acting infects actors like a germ, changing gestures, changing voices. Sometimes the role carries actors into a dark hole – they lose their edges, become the character, drive a car into a tree. There is a compulsion behind the machine of Hollywood, driving its makers into standard narratives, driving audiences into admiration and emulation. A nightmare of falseness. We forget that we are immersed in artificiality. Miguel Gutierrez wants to use the cinematic nightmare as an alarm clock.
Old age is frightened by youth. James Dean represented the uncontrolled force of the “juvenile delinquent” – the scary eroticism of Elvis’ hip shake, which reminded the 1950’s of an even more frightening “other” – the suppressed energy of the American experience. The monster which we ourselves have created, fed with blood, and tried to ignore.
Miguel Gutierrez & Powerful People throw off sparks. They are driven by a demoniacal repetition, swallowed by illusion. Free-floating scripts attach themselves, forcing the dancers to vomit lines over and over. Shouting directions, moving in perfect unison, these bodies are controlled. “Take 47! Again!”
Actors can forget where the machine ends, find themselves absorbed into the tabloids which have scripted romance, scandal, marriage and divorce. This is the “moral” of Lynch’s Inland Empire (with which I could compare Last Meadow). Dancers use their bodies as machines of expression. Who owns these bodies? Do we, as observers, bear responsibility for the actions and habits of dancers offstage, who must carefully prepare themselves for moments of white-hot activity? We shouldn’t forget that we are all human beings here.
Last Meadow carries each scene beyond the limits of “enough”. It displays a prickly exterior. It exists in the moment on stage, but also in the memory of a film (or films). This doubly and triply-layered moment creates complex refractions. Something is wrong here. I want to laugh but it hurts. “You’re tearing me apaart!” Actors live a multiplied existence. Where is their “authentic” identity? What parts of previous roles do they continue to play? What parts of previous films do we knowingly or unknowingly absorb and enact?
DVD extras now allow us to penetrate the machine, to examine the construction with all its visible scaffolding. And yet, the movies never lose their power to convince, to carry us out of our bodies and into other bodies. James Dean is resurrected each time we watch his image, a zombified body compelled to repeat itself. The steps, the swagger, the smirk. And somewhere offscreen, his car rams into that tree over and over and over.