The playwright Kirk Lynn once said in an interview that he wanted to abolish all experts in art. He loathes the energy we waste carping about our dislikes. “I find Shaw to be really stuffy,” he admits. “But people who authentically like Shaw aren’t lying. They’re not idiots. … And if I place myself in [Shaw’s] proximity, I can learn to appreciate … any kind of art.”
I thought about this during the intermission for That Which Remains, day two of the 2014 MATA Festival. Maybe I should have been thinking about dissonance, or vibrations, or piccolos. But I thought about Kirk Lynn. And I thought about the little girl sitting to my right who, during Rubens Askenar Garcia Hernandez’s El Puerperio (2012), had turned on a flashlight to read a book about horses. I thought about how if you drew a diagonal line from her flashlight to the front row, you could spot the glint of a glowing screen as one of the evening’s earlier performers scrolled through his phone.
MATA, whose lineup was culled from almost 1,000 international submissions, must locate that middle ground between taste and merit. As Lynn would stress, you aren’t supposed to “like” everything. We can’t approach contemporary compositions with the empty passivity of a Facebook tic. And yet, I believe that musicians are responsible for a kind of theatricality. I don’t mean beauty or comprehension, but I mean engagement with the dark room of semi-strangers before them, in all their diverging associations and perspectives. We need to be let in.
Alex Weiser gets this. In search of a “super instrument” and “one big sound” in a fresh “context,” Weiser composed Rumbling Waves (2014): a cerebral and surprising duet. Vicky Chow’s pedal-driven piano playing vacillated from the luminous to the mournful, while Matt Evans’s percussion moved from brisk punctuations to expansive phrases. They clashed and coalesced, building toward what Weiser dubbed a “wistful” crest. But the piece truly ended when Chow threw Evans a small smile—a streak of the human beneath this electric, almost otherworldly partnership.
MATA-commissioned composer Carolyn Chen asserted herself as the evening’s other standout. A multidisciplinary piece investigating the sensation of falling, Relationships with Gravity (2014) invoked video projections, personal interviews, and the ancient Chinese guqin (a seven-string zither), to forge a gratifying discord often interrupted by Marina Kifferstein’s stunning violin. Perhaps most inventively, Chen and her ensemble interspersed the score with melodies from mundane objects such as pebbles and ping-pong balls—and even dumped popcorn onto the unsuspecting audience. It was satisfyingly cinematic in its sensory overload.
El Puerperio began with similar promise. Chow and Karl Larson banged, rattled, and plucked the insideof the piano; the result was urgent in its sonorous doom. After a while, audience members become voyeurs intruding on this intimate taming of man and “beast.” With little regard for each other, and their backs turned to us, Chow and Larson dug their way through the caverns of this colossal instrument while the audience was left alienated.
An equal sense of alienation emerged during electronic musician André Damião Bandeira’s em_bruto (2012). The cacaphonous static pulsing initially seemed bold, but quickly stagnated. The “values” and “meanings” Bandeira claimed to attach to these “abstract shapes” and computer glitches were difficult to locate.
If we merely look at art through a dismissive lens, it will surely die. But endowing everyone with equal genius is just as unwise. That Which Remains highlighted the divide between work that merits public performance and work better suited for private exploration.
ContributorStephanie Del Rosso
STEPHANIE JOY DEL ROSSO is the Dance Editor of the Brooklyn Rail.