Monday 22 March 2010

Travelogue: Transformative Art

New York is seen as an intense centre of the arts and, having spent four days there last week, OnFiction's correspondent-at-large is able to report that this is still the case, outdoors as well as in.

Outdoors, with some friends and starting at the corner of 20th Street and 10th Avenue, I visited the High Line, which was once an elevated railway and which recently has been artistically transformed into a walk-way park. The time of year wasn't ideal for the flowers, but everything else was perfect, from the ironwork stairs up from street level, to the reiterated motif of something like concrete sleepers laid lengthways along the path, to the pieces of railway track (still there), to the sight (off to one side) of the new IAC building by Frank Gehry, looking luminous even on an already-bright day, and views towards the Hudson River with its sadly-now-deserted piers.

Indoors the arts were seen at their exuberant best in a smallish side-room at St Marks Church over on the Lower East Side, where a theatre company called the Ontological-Hysteric Incubator does its thing, uniting, as it says in its handouts, "elements of the performing arts, visual art, music composition, psychoanalysis, and literature." The play we saw was Three Pianos. The only thing wrong with it was the title, because although three pianos are characters in the play, being pushed energetically around the stage—sometimes while being played—this title does nothing to hint at the what the play is really about. The play is a transformation of Franz Schubert's twenty-four-part song-cycle, Winterreise.

I realize that one could not call a play: Schubert and German Romanticism … Ehem. But that would be a closer title than the one it now has. The play was written, and is performed, by Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, and Dave Malloy. All act brilliantly, each in several parts, to represent Schubertian goings-on at the beginnings of both the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries. All play the piano(s), exquisitely. All sing, beautifully. And, although for the most part they speak in English, all of them occasionally also make a bit of a hash of German. For a couple of the songs, for which they didn't like the music Schubert provided, the writers have composed some of their own. The play includes a professor giving a lecture on the history of commercial pressures on Western classical music in which Church authorities, seemingly stuck with monastic chanting, were delighted at the invention of the idea that two notes could be sung by different people at the same time. It includes, too, a biography of Schubert, and an enactment of one of his parties in which plastic glasses and opened bottles of wine are passed out among the audience.

The Winterreise—winter journey—is a series of poems by Wilhelm Müller that Schubert set to piano and voice. At the beginning of the first song comes this: " I remember a perfect day in May / How bright the flowers, how cool the breeze / The maiden had a friendly smile." As one of the actors explains, the poems are about a wanderer who seems to have lost, or at least mislaid, his loved one. So he goes on a journey, in winter-time. The plot is that nothing happens. As the play-recital started, it reminded me of a formal dinner of about 20 people in honour of a distinguished classical singer who was visiting our university. I remember asking her what she thought of the relation of music to emotion. "Music is all about emotion," she said. "The greater the singer or instrumentalist, the more profound the emotion expressed." That was interesting enough, but then—even better—with the volume of her finely-trained voice turned up slightly too loud for the room we were in, she started to discourse on the difference between German and French romanticism. "In a song, they both start off in the same way," she said. "The sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, and over there on the other side of the valley, is my beloved. But then," she said, "they diverge. In the German version the singer asks 'Why, oh why, can my loved one and I never be united?' The French version is quite different; in it the singer says: 'And I'm going over to the other side of the valley, right now, so we can have a really nice fuck.'"

Three Pianos evidently grows out of a profound love for Schubert, expressing the emotions of his Lieder in beautiful piano and voice performances, whilst at the same time making hilarious fun of German romanticism. Onto something like a blackboard, in mixtures of German and English, are projected the titles of the songs: Die Wetterfahne (The weathervane), Erstarrung (Benumbed), Die Post (The post), Die Krähe (The crow), Täuschung (Illusion), and so on, as well as some of their words. In the way that often happens in poetry, the poems in Winterreise are metaphors: metaphors of how the outer world of winter reflects an inner world of desolation. One encounters such passages as this: "The wind is turning the weather vane on the roof of my sweetheart's house." Well, yes …

I like some of Schubert's Lieder, quite a bit, but Winterreise was one of my least favourite of his works, perhaps (as depicted in this play), because Müller's text goes on, rather, and then goes on some more, without anything happening. Half way through the play, one of the actors explains: Schubert's music brought meaning to pieces of poetry that previously had been incomprehensible. Well, yes ...

Ontological-hysteric: I should say so. When I returned home to Toronto, completely incubated, I listened to some of the songs of Winterreise again, and really enjoyed them.

Photo, New York Times, March 18: Rick Burkhardt, in his role as Schubert, holds aloft his heart.

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