From the Margins: Nouveau Classical Project @ Galapagos Art Space

Galapagos Art SpaceTwo weeks ago, the Nouveau Classical Project presented an ambitious production at Galapagos Art Space, in DUMBO, that included live and electronic music, spoken poetry, video, and fashion.  And while the evening had its intriguing and evocative moments, and every element was technically very accomplished (especially the strong and solid performances by the NCP musicians), in the end I did not feel the work succeeded.  This is partly to blame for why this review has taken me so long to write. It is very difficult––both on a writerly as well as just a personal level––to criticize any work done in a field in which I am also a participant.  I know from firsthand experience just how much work goes into a show like this, or any show at all, and the production values across the board were consistently high.  That alone deserves praise and admiration.  At the end of the evening, though, the work must stand on its own.

The Nouveau Classical Project – Photo by Frank Wang

In any collaborative project, as the number of collaborators increases, so, too, does the danger that one or more elements of the production will not pull its weight, or actively detract or distract from the whole.  One literal example of this was the unfortunate decision to place enormous flatscreen televisions on stage in front of the musicians, rather than projecting the video onto a screen, resulting in the complete invisibility of the majority of the performers––which ordinarily would not be a problem, except for the fact that these performers were wearing custom-made fashions by Maja Gunn, and, aside from the musicians’ opening catwalk down the center aisle, I couldn’t see for the life of me what they were wearing.  That was a shame, because what I did see, playing with proportion (as in enormous hoods and puffed sleeves) and high/low fashion, I liked very much.

The musicians were often hidden acoustically, too––the electronics were mixed very high, and there were multiple instances when I saw the performers playing (of course, only those performers I could see at all), and playing intensely, but the electronics rendered them completely inaudible.  When the electronics came down, or the instruments were scored in friendlier (read: louder) registers, their material was often quite beautiful.

Overall, I felt the Nouveau Classical Project’s contributions to the whole––music and fashion––were the strongest.  The music, by composer Bryan Senti, a Yale School of Music alum, too often slipped into ambient-background art-film-score land, and had long stretches where it seemed the entire ensemble was resting (hard to tell when you can only see half of them) while the electronics did all the work, but when the music stepped to the fore, it was original, striking, and wondrously strange.  Perhaps the high point of the whole show was when, toward the end, the ensemble let rip what was almost a rock shout chorus, but with bizarre, acidic harmony and sliding, swooping winds and strings.  It was that perfect combination of exciting and weird that makes you sit forward in your seat.

The Nouveau Classical Project – Photo by Frank Wang

It also made me want to hear it on its own.  The program booklet said that the piece “immerses the audience in the pathos of a young girl in decline by exploring various issues such as isolation, depression, sexuality, spirituality, and social class, among others.”  Whoa there, I thought, that’s an awful big suitcase to unpack, you know?  Even one of those big issues can’t be explored very much in an hour, but when you list five of them––et cetera!––the most you can hope to get  out of any of them is pretty superficial.  The video, by Satan’s Pearl Horses, had several arresting images––a cloud of smoke emerging in slow motion from a girl’s mouth, viewed from above; a sandbox-sized frame of fluorescent lights transposing itself, Kubrick-like,back and forth between a plain white room and the middle of a forest at night––but spent a lot of its time on HD-slow-panning across pretty landscapes (a field, a stream, a dirt road with a puddle in it) and on gob-smackingly literal images: the girl is alone (isolation!), she looks sad (depression!), she looks seductively at us as the camera zooms slowly into her open mouth (sexuality!), she struggles to get a drink of water from a pond with her hands roped together (she’s oppressed/repressed!).  And yes, at the end, she jumps off a building.  I wish they had picked one of those buzz-word issues and really gotten into the meat of it.  It’s not like there’s a lack of things to say about any of them.

The poetry, by Kat Mandeville, was the inspiration for the music and the video, and was the lynchpin holding everything together.  With contemporary poetry, presentation counts for a lot in terms of how we perceive it.  Free verse tends to work best on the page, where the visual impact of line breaks and stanza breaks gives––gently––a sense of the poem’s internal rhythm, what’s often called the poem’s “music.”  Singing a free verse poem does the same thing: the music gives shape and rhythm to the text where it would otherwise be less readily apparent.  Read aloud, a lot of free verse poetry––even very good free verse poetry!––can come across as highly stylized prose, and it is very difficult, nigh impossible, to read highly stylized prose aloud and not sound a little ridiculous.

Mandeville’s poems––read by a pre-recorded unidentified male voice––had lots of genuinely heartfelt emotion, and displayed a skillful economy of language, but every time a poem seemed to be zeroing in on an emotionally truthful, vulnerable moment, there would be some inexplicable metaphorical use of a poet buzz-word––think “razor blades,” “painkillers,” “crucifix,” etc.––that took me completely out of the moment and felt written, in the sense that I could feel The Poet writing it, steering it in a direction it did not want and did not need to go.  Words like that aren’t, of course, off-limits to poets, nor should they be.  But when poets use such highly loaded words metaphorically––when they don’t mean actual painkillers or razor blades or crucifixes––there is almost no way to avoid ripping the reader/listener out of the poem, or, at the very least, to avoid falling into cliché.  The pre-recorded voice reading the poems did not help matters, luxuriating in these words, accenting them, calling even more attention to them than they already commanded.  In the group sitting next to me, several people chuckled every time the reader got to some of that language.

And I guess that’s a good way to sum up what I felt didn’t work about the show in general.  It all felt written, which is why that one musical moment toward the end stands out in my mind in such stark relief, even two weeks later: it was the only moment when all the elements clicked into place, and the creators got out of the way long enough for the piece to take flight.  I forgot about them, I forgot about Galapagos, I forgot about myself.  I was transported.

I was told that this is a revised version of a piece that had been staged several times before.  There is potential in this material.  What’s needed now is a major tightening and deepening of the work’s focus, a lot of dispassionate editing, and a willingness to do what the piece wants, rather than what the creators want.

Jeremy Howard Beck is a New York-based composer, as well as an active trombonist. Follow him on Twitter: @jeremyhowardboo