Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival and professor of Cinema, Photography and Media Arts at Ithaca College
Last night in the intimate Iger Recital Hall at Ithaca College in upstate New York, baritone Brad Hougham and pianist Deborah Martin reminded me why I love programming the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF).
Collaboration. Interdisciplinary exchange. Big, messy ideas. Problems to be resolved. Brilliant colleagues. Learning to see, think and hear in new ways. Figuring out how to get new audiences for experimental works. Music. Projected images. Risk.
After a long day of teaching in Ithaca College’s internationally recognized School of Music, Brad and Debbie arrived to do a master class with 50 FLEFF interns.
The purpose of Hougham’s and Martin’s visit to Iger last night: to explain why they are pairing The Rite of Spring (Stravinsky) with the Ruckert Lieder (Mahler)-- two pieces of modernist music at opposite ends of the musical spectrum-- for the opening night concert of the Finger Lakes Lakes Environmental Film Festival on Monday April 11 at 8:15 p.m in Hockett Recital Hall at Ithaca College.
Hougham started with a question: what’s the theme of this year’s FLEFF?
He explained that he, Debbie and Jairo Geronymo, a Brazilian Berlin-based pianist who will also be performing, developed the concept to checkpoint these different musical styles against each other--Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Gustav Mahler's Ruckert Lieder.
Both emerged out of the early years of artistic modernism that disposed of classical symmetries and representations. The Rite of Spring premiered on May 29, 1913, to riots from the audience (somewhat disputed by historians, who debate whether it was the music or the experimental ballet that ignited the crowd). Mahler died two years before, in 1911: a historical period where music jumped into new ideas, scales, tonalities, dissonances, structures.
As higher education becomes more and more corporatized with so many dulling-the-senses administrative meetings on policy and curriculum, it’s easy to lose touch with what made us all endure the grind of graduate school in the first place: a love of getting lost in complex ideas beyond the self with others.
I often marvel at how FLEFF forces me to slow down and interact with colleagues across the Ithaca College campus in their professional, more public, more national intellectual and artistic capacities—not as professors on some committee, or teachers overwhelmed by grading research papers. But, rather, as intellectuals and artists alive with risky ideas in conversation with the world. It is an incredible privelege. My music school colleagues' insights into music and their incredible concerts transport me to a place I would never have imagined without them.
Phil Wilde and Ann Michel of Insights International, who are also the FLEFF’s producers and internship coordinators, experimented with projections of ambient media of clouds in a digitally-altered red sky as the students arrived for the interns practica.
Multimedia concerts solve some very difficult outreach problems for festivals, classical music, and experimental works: all face taxing challenges of attracting audiences beyond the committed and the converted.
The alchemy of juxtaposing ambient experimental digital imaging, custom-designed screens built to be held rather than hung, and Stravinsky/Mahler performed live catapults all three into a one-time-only spectacle that pulls in curious, energized audiences. And it aggregates niche audiences into one big one: classical music fans, experimental film/new media mavens, performance art, the curious, rockers, cinephiles. Some people come just to dress up.
It’s not a film that will drop to live streaming a week later, a disposable, migrating commodity. It's not a pirated copy of a concert ready for MP3. It’s live and it lives. And it packs the concert hall.
Wilde and Michel have collaborated with FLEFF and Ithaca College for the last 8 years on the Onward Project, an initiative to explore new commissions and new ways of projecting/performing new music for silent film. Each project presents problems to be solved, new musical idioms to be learned, and new collaborations to gel.
They wanted to test out various ambient and archival images to see what would work for the multimedia projections on traditional screens and mobile screens cut in shapes evoking the graphic angles of early modernism for the actual performance on the opening of FLEFF’s 2001 edition, Checkpoints.
Harkening back to the historical roots of The Rite of Spring as an experimental ballet, FLEFF interns will enter the stage holding these screens cut apart in odd shaped triangles and distorted squares.
The Rite of Spring is primal and violent, the Ruckert Lieder are translucent and transcendent. The Rite of Spring is propulsive disjunction, while the Ruckert Lieder elaborate a unity of feeling. The Rite of Spring is dense, while the Ruckert Lieder evoke an image of glistening transparency.
The music will be intercut, pointing and checking against each other. Dialectics pulse in both pieces. Stravinsky was a Russian living in exile in Paris; Mahler, who suffered profoundly as a Jew in Austria, an internal exile in his own homeland. The Rite of Spring was designed as a ballet but the aggressive syncopated rhythms were undanceable. The sadness and translucency of the Ruckert Lieder suggest what Brad Hougham dubs “smiling through tears.”
As Martin elaborated, contrast between works can “amplify their modalities and strategies, bringing a more dynamic and visceral understanding of musical complexities to an audience. “ The Rite of Spring’s violent energy, dissonances, and polyrhythms amplify more when paired with the Ruckert Lieder’s ethereal, wandering, probing lines.
Martin pointed out that music leading up to The Rite of Spring was inching towards “crossing over the line” to work with a whole new palette of rhythms, tonalities, forms. Stravinsky jumped completely over the line with The Rite of Spring, according to Martin. And, as a result, he wrote one of the defining compositions of 20th century music in the west.
Explaining the subtleties of the Ruckert Lieder, Hougham pointed out that if Stravinsky dove full head-on over the line into an uncharted musical domain, Mahler carefully placed one foot over the line, gentling stretching and morphing the lieder form. With its long lines, the Mahler's melancholy Ruckert Lieder “intermingle an overarching profundity with familiarity,” noted Hougham.
While Martin and Hougham explained the music and performed it, Michel and Wilde projected different images to test out what might work for FLEFF’s opening night performance. Some abstract processed images from Microcinema’s ambitious and one-of-a-kind ambient media that evoked the contours and jagged lines of early modernist art. Some archival film distorted by blurring and slow motion, in loops, of lovers walking in a forest.
Here’s what made me shift from being completely anxiety-ridden and nervous about putting together this multimedia concert that took the almost inconceivable idea of pairing Stravinsky with Mahler ‘s lieder and then making new kinds of screens for projection: Debbie and Brad performed for us in that little recital hall. They gave the interns a way into this gorgeous, complex, evocative, disturbing music.
Martin played some sections of The Rite of Spring on the Steinway in the room, demonstrating the way in which dissonant chords were mounted in complex, syncopated rhythms influenced by modernist interest in primitivism. She pounded out these chords. She played some of the more melodic parts of the score, demonstrating the contrasting elements of this music. She then played a range of ostinato sections (passages where the music idiom repeats), and showed where shifts and turns happen.
Hougham sang Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!/I breathed a gentle fragrance. His left hand waved at the piano, motioning how the piano accompaniment wafted in counterpoint to the musical line of the song.
Wilde and Michel keep experimenting with the abstract projections and slowed down archival images washing the screen behind the performers, working on the right mix. I was struck by how the interns got to see the process of collaboration, how experimentation means trying something out, discarding it, trying again, listening, thinking, brainjamming ideas with others.
Hougham and Martin reminded me that the greatest musicians are so much more than virtuosos (both Brad and Debbie are that, and more). Truly brilliant musicians possess an ability to open up a new world of complex sound and image to us. They invite us to cross that line Martin and Hougham talked about to take a risk with them.
Elegant virtuosos like Hougham and Martin go to the edge of their performances, someplace that is unknown, a bit scary, but gorgeous.
And they ask us to join them in this uncharted place of smooth melodic lines, dissonance, and abstracted projections. And to get lost in it.
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THE CHECKPOINTS CONCERT FOR FLEFF 2011 is MONDAY APRIL 11 at 8:15 p.m. in Hockett Recital Hall, Ithaca College. Dress is formal, or your version of it.