As part of the LA Phil’s FLUXUS festival the LA Phil New Music Group teamed up with The Industry to produce John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2—a late work by the American Experimentalist that submits Europe’s great operatic repertoire to a radical fracturing and re-compiling that divorces all aspects of the music, production, and lighting from one another (and even from itself in the case of the orchestra and singers). As independent voices, music, lights, and staging overlay one another in a new, atomized context, the audience is left “wandering through the forest of opera” as director Yuval Sharon put it in a promotional interview with music advisor Marc Lowenstein.
Europeras 1 & 2 were originally conceived by Cage as a sending-back of the robust opera repertoire imported to American opera houses from Europe–albeit after undergoing a particularly Cagean postmodern treatment. Now staged at Sony Pictures Studios some 30 years later, it was perhaps appropriate that this imagining of the work introduced a further degree of de- and re-construction in which the audience was privy to action taking place off-stage, to the sides and behind the stage. This was effective in helping to incorporate the sounds of production (e.g., ropes and pulleys, rolling props, actors entering and exiting the stage) into the sound world of the work, though the pre-recorded tape component would have better suited the production had it been panned across the stage (perhaps even through separate speakers on stage) rather than across the audience. As it stood, the recording felt too removed from the action of the production to be perceived by the audience as an incorporated part of the work. The taped excerpts aside, though, the sound was good and The Industry rightfully resisted the urge to micromanage the balance of particular combinations for more traditional aesthetic effects. It was a clean and measured performance that carried a calm, well-rehearsed sense about it. If there was something to criticize musically, the performers themselves might have been given license for a bit more of the “delight in noticing” that Sharon and Lowenstein mention in the taped interview; instead of the wonder of unexpected moments of collision and harmony between elements, the various components felt very separate and compartmentalized.
Admittedly, I understand the impulse to let the individual components speak for themselves without heavy-handed coordination. But I think the trap that a work like Europeras confronts is that the absurdity can easily become admired for its disjunct comedy rather than for the beauty of its composite subtleties. It is no doubt that a work of this length and style will have moments that are funny, chaotic, disjointed. But other moments must be allowed to breathe, to embrace, to demonstrate that beauty and art arise naturally and without our intervention if we are open to experiencing them.
To quote Sharon once more, as he described this sentiment so eloquently: “Opening up to chance allows us to see that our perspective of things being as they are limits us to the potential of how things can be.” At moments I felt the production focused too heavily on the importance of chance itself as an anti-rhetoric or aesthetic, rather than as a tool for exploring and embracing new coincidences that resonate with us as humans. The moments that did revel in that admiration of how things can be, of suprise, of resisting ego, though, were powerful.
The red paper lanterns above Chinatown’s Chung King Court bobbed in the nighttime wind and bathed Automata Arts in a warm glow during Southland Ensemble’s season opener celebrating Fluxus on November 10. As the audience gathered in twos and threes around the courtyard, the performers suddenly took off, holding tapered candles aloft that invariably died in the wind. Unperturbed, the players repeated the action several times over before careening into the gallery, concluding Larry Miller’s 200 Yard Candle Dash. A passerby stopped me as the audience, delighted and equally unperturbed, filed into the space. “What’s going on here?” she queried. “A music show,” I replied, before hastily clarifying ‘an art show’ when my first answer illuminated nothing based on what had just transpired. Of course, this perfectly encapsulates the Fluxus movement: that intermedia experience for both artist and audience valuing process over product.
The rest of the evening passed in an equally enjoyable fashion with selections from the Fluxus canon involving aspects of light. Some used it as a means to an end, as in Yoko Ono’s 1955 Lighting Piece: light a match and watch it until it goes out. Others used the cover of darkness to begin the process, as Tomas Schmit’s Sanitas No. 2 (of which there are 200) instructs the players to drop items on the floor and search for them. Audience members gamely made way for the artists as they searched with flashlights on the dimly lit floor for coins, corks, and other paraphernalia. Edison’s Lighthouse by Ken Friedman invites the creation of a gleaming passage of mirrors whose lights were slowly rearranged to mesmerizing effect.
On the sonic side of the Fluxus spectrum, Takehisa Kosugi’s Organic Music from 1964 calls upon the performers to utilize breath with or without incidental instruments. Southland Ensemble decided to encircle the audience while breathing in and out of harmonicas for a deeply meditative state. Candle Piece for Radios by George Brecht produced a medley of sonic events from white noise, radio ads, and praise for Jesus Christ.
The pièce de résistance was Robert Bozzi’s Choice 1, whereupon the performer brought out and unwrapped a bakery box containing a round, white frosted cake; affixed his safety goggles; and proceeded to light the cake’s candles with a blowtorch. He then blew out the candles and planted the cake in his face to close out the program.
The intrepid Southland Ensemble performed these and other tasks with a seriousness that avoided pretension yet gleefully embraced the more playful aspects of the evening. It was a refreshing take on a genre that can be anti-art and anti-audience, daring spectators to make sense out of seemingly nothing. With their welcoming spirit and engaging program, Southland Ensemble embarked on a communal journey to question the nature of performance; examine the mundane; and shine a light on a period of creativity that continues to remain fresh and relevant decades later.