Say the word “lied” to the average classical listener, and they probably won’t think of a post-tonal heavy metal band roaring about gay sex in front of lurid, psychedelic projections. But audiences were treated to just that — among many other raucous, exuberant offerings — at last night’s 21c Liederabend at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Conceived by the Beth Morrison Projects and VisionIntoArt and co-directed by Beth Morrison and Paola Prestini, the 21c Liederabend project seeks to update the 19th–Century tradition of Schubertiads and liederabends for contemporary audiences, bringing in not just living poets and composers but also visual artists to create an immersive multimedia experience. Updatings of this sort sometimes feel like painful pandering to passing fads, but the 21c Liederabend was nothing of the sort. Rather than a gimmicky shoehorning-in of disparate elements, the evening was a gripping celebration of the possibilities of song at the start of a new century, an exploration of the range and capabilities of music and the human voice.
On entering the hall before the show, the audience was greeted not with the “instrumental warmups overlaid with chitchat” that usually precedes a classical concert, but instead with a pre-recorded playlist of the sort usually reserved for plays, rock shows, and other less stuffy occasions. It was a perfect choice. Without calling undue attention to itself, it set a relaxed atmosphere of openness, and, with a few carefully selected pop numbers mixed in with the rest, foreshadowed how far the concert would venture away from standard classical fare. A brief video skit involving a muppet and Deborah Voigt introduced the project, and then it was on to the first piece of the program, the world première of Juhi Bansal’s “Begin”, a setting of a text by Neil Aitken and the only work of the evening scored for voice and piano alone (performed exquisitely by Peabody Southwell and Richard Valitutto, respectively). Beginning with barely a murmur in the piano and the quietest of hummings, it is a leisurely, lyrical piece that takes full advantage of the time it has to build to its impassioned climax. Drawing inspiration from the life of Charles Babbage, the piece conveys the yearning desire of dreaming of a world half seen, as well as the loss that getting lost in such dreams can cause to the people around you. Radiant and transcendent in its final passions, “Begin” is a testament to the continuing possibilities of the voice+piano art song.
Next was a set of songs from John Adams and June Jordan’s 1995 “song play” I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky about the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake. These selections focused on the arc of Dewain, a black man arrested on trumped-up charges whose prison cell is rent asunder by the shaking earth. This was the first piece with amplification on the program, and it took a while for the balance to settle; from where I was sitting, the backing ensemble came close to overpowering the singers at times, though by the end balance had been restored. Adams’s music was at its dynamic, twitchy best, and felt constrained by the limits of a concert hall. During the “Song about the On-Site Altercation,” especially, the stillness of the actors felt like a let-down next to the tension and forcefulness of the music. Still, “Dewain’s Song of Liberation and Surprise,” a slow ballade from the second half of the show, gave me goosebumps for its entire duration, not least because of the plaintive clarity of Cedric Berry’s voice. (The slow transformation of the backing projection from a drab, decrepit wall to a pure and open sky didn’t hurt either.)
Going slightly astray from the printed order, this was followed by the world première of Jacob Cooper’s “Ripple the Sky.” The text was by Greg Alan Brownderville and incorporated snippets from Ophelia’s lines in Hamlet alongside quotes from Robert Schumann’s personal diary from around the time of his 1854 attempt at drowning himself in the Rhine. Unsurprisingly, then, the music had much to do with death by water, but it was far from a programmatic depiction of ripples and currents. Backing the singer Theo Bleckmann was an ensemble of strings and electronics (including some pre-recorded vocals by Mellissa Hughes), and together they spun a sere, arid landscape, devoid of any breath of air. It was paradoxical, but it worked, capturing something of the vacancy and inertness of a deep depression — including that strangest of states where the world seems brimming over with undirected feeling and yet action is a hopeless proposition. Built on a foundation of uneasy drones and skittery gymnastics from the strings, “Ripple the Sky” is a gaunt voyage across a landscape of sun-bleached fragments.
Ending the first half were two songs from David T Little and Anne Waldman’s Artaud in the Black Lodge, an experimental music theatre piece imagining a meeting between Antonin Artaud, William Burroughs, and David Lynch in some kind of afterlife or otherworldly plane. Little described the work as his imagining of what would happen if a heavy metal band tried writing art songs, and the performance (by Timur and the Dime Museum) lived up to that, complete with punk-inspired haircuts and distressed and re-sewn black clothes. Timur was a captivating frontman, standing way out at the lip of the stage, embodying the spirit of Burroughs while singing about the modernist author’s cut-up technique and the time that he cut off part of one of his fingers to impress a man he had a crush on. In keeping with the heavy metal influence, there were moments of overwhelming grunge and noise, washes of white noise that spoke to the fury of war and the urgency of desire, but there were also moments of intimacy and tenderness, as when Timur/Burroughs crooned a delicate “take it – take it – take it” (referring at times to his finger and to his body in the guise of a sexual offering), echoing the gentle yet irresistible urgings of Peter Quint in Britten and Piper’s Turn of the Screw. At one point, lights above the stage shone out into the audience, and on seeing the still figures in upholstered chairs, I found myself doing a double take and biting back surprised laughter — I had quite forgotten my surroundings and was half expecting to gaze out on a stadium full of cheering, dancing bodies.
Variety was a hallmark of the second half as well. Leaha Villarreal’s “Never Not” (text by Adara Meyers) brought us back from intermission with a pensive, cryptic meditation. The projections for this featured what looked like decontextualized shots from 1950s makeup commercials and nature documentaries, which blurred together with the music to create an unusual atmosphere — it was as though we had traveled back from the distant future, turning our eyes on the 20th Century much the way we in the present look back at civilizations before the invention of writing. We have tantalizing fragments that suggest echoes of continuity with how we live today, but shorn of context, their secrets and stories are lost, and we grope towards their meanings forever in the dark. In a similar vein, this piece and its video seemed to make the present distant and unreal, shrouded in the mists of forgottenness.
Excerpts from Ted Hearne’s Sound from the Bench (text by Jena Osman, pulled together from court decisions and ventriloquism manuals) followed, with members of the Los Robles Master Chorale presenting snippets concerning the fiction of corporate personhood and the financial ventriloquism of the current campaign finance landscape. Then came the world première of Paola Prestini and Royce Vavrek’s Hubble Cantata. Inspired by the Hubble Space Telescope, Aokigahara Forest, and the Nazca Lines in Peru, the piece felt unfocused and also a little long for its surroundings. Even so, there were some arresting moments, as when a blown conch shell melded seamlessly into the breathy whisper of a solo flute, or the searing passage where Nathan Gunn sang of a desperate hope to find someone beloved after an unspecified disaster: “I wanted to find you./Even in pieces,/I wanted to find/And assemble/Those splinters of you.”
Next and last were two excerpts form Jefferson Friedman’s album On in Love, where he worked with poet and singer Craig Wedren to create a set of songs that each did one single thing, instead of his previous, more complex approaches to structure and content. First was the rowdy “Fight Song” that seemed somewhere between a hyped–up encouragement to a football team and a jingoistic incitement to actual war, complete with vicious sections in 5 and imagery of blood and conquest. Then, to close the evening, came “Tarrying”, an achingly simple paean to the Christian conception of divine forgiveness. After the dizzying complexity on offer elsewhere in the evening, such a turn to the plainspoken might have seemed an odd choice to conclude things, but in Friedman’s hands, simplicity became transcendence. The final stanza of Wedren’s text is an unadorned repetition of the word “please”, a condensed prayer sent heavenwards with no caveats or conditions. A request for forgiveness, shorn of all explanations of extenuating circumstances. Earnest, despairing, profound. The projections overflowed their screens, painting every surface in Disney Hall red, blazing with holy fire.
I have groused in the past about concerts that don’t plan anything to cover extensive set changes, thus losing the audience’s attention and promoting tedium, so it seems only fair that I give praise when a creative team avoids that trap. To cover for each of the (many) set changes throughout the evening, pre-recorded videos of the composers talking about their work played, keeping the audience’s attention and providing interesting and illuminating context and commentary on what we were about to hear while stagehands scurried around moving chairs, stands, and pianos. The result was a truly integrated concert experience, one that felt like it had been consciously designed on every level from start to finish; I wasn’t watching a bunch of pieces that might be good in their own right surrounded by buffers of boredom, I was watching a show. This also had the curious effect of lifting my enjoyment of some of the program’s weaker pieces; since everything flowed seamlessly along a clear trajectory, each individual piece on the program became part of a greater whole instead of having to stand or fall on its own merit. There were a few glitches here and there (usually when the audience clapped long enough to produce a second round of bows, forcing the lights crew to hastily rewind back out of the set change lighting), but I hope that those don’t dissuade others from taking this approach. Planning out the logistical details at this level can be tedious, but it makes a difference, and I hope I see more groups embrace this level of thoughtfulness and artistic integrity.