MIAF: DJ Spooky, The Book of Longing ~ theatre notes

Saturday, October 18, 2008

MIAF: DJ Spooky, The Book of Longing

Festival Diary #6: Wednesday and Thursday

Terra Nova Sinfonia Antarctica by Paul D Miller aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, performed with Alterego. Visual design by AJ Weissbard. Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until Sunday.

The Book of Longing, lyrics, image and recorded voice by Leonard Cohen, music by Philip Glass. Directed by Susan Marshall, musical direction by Michael Riesman. Set design by Christine Jones, lighting by Scott Zielinski, adapted by Doug Witney. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, closed.

It's a bit like a riddle. What do you get when you take the "urban" out of urban music? On Thursday night, when he presented the premiere of his multimedia symphonic portrait of Antarctica, DJ Spooky provided one answer: you get something that looks very like contemporary Romanticism.

Certainly the Romantic notion of the sublime, the subjective response to vast, incomprehensible natural beauty, can't but be in play in a meditation on the most inhospitable continent on the planet. The Terra Nova Sinfonia Antarctica emerged from a four week visit to Antarctica, with the idea of making a film about the sound of ice. As Paul Miller says of being there: "It was vast, silent, calm...the sun didn't set for most of the time I was there. Things like that blur your normal sense of duration and time..."

For Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the greatest poetic theorist of Romanticism, the sublime was not, as it was for others, an experience most deeply characterised by terror. Nor was it expressive of the struggle and crisis of human consciousness when faced with something vaster than itself, with human reason breaking the crisis by recognising its own absurdity and so asserting its superiority. Rather, the sublime was an expression of transcendent unity, and the natural world which provokes this state of subjective being was the medium "through which the mind discovers and presents itself".

This might almost be a modus operandi for Sinfonia, which is above all an exploration of the human imaginings - mathematical, geological, topographical, political, artistic - that have been projected onto the idea of Antarctica. There are, of course, several important differences between Miller and the Romantics: since Coleridge's time, our relationship to nature has changed radically, to incorporate not only the possibility of nature destroying us, but of our capacity to destroy nature. The very notion of climate change, the possibility that something as constant as the seasons could be disturbed by human activity, violently upends the few certainties of the 19th century, which was a time which prefigured our present era in its social turbulence.

This reality - mass species extinction, global warming, planet-wide industrial pollution - is paradoxically enough why Romanticism, which only 30 years ago seemed old-fashioned and naive, is back in a big way, refashioned and reformed for a new century. The godlike "I AM" of Coleridge's "primary poetic creation" has decayed and broken with the certainties of the West, leaving in its wake something very like what he called "secondary creation". Foremost among the practice of many contemporary poets, and signally in the remixing and "creolising" of culture by artists like DJ Spooky, is the imagination that, as Coleridge put it, "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create".

Which maybe is a way of saying that, while this lush sonic portrait of a continent might seem like a radical departure for DJ Spooky, who is more usually associated with the sounds of urban hiphop, it looks rather more like a logical step for this least easily categorised of artists (Miller has worked with artists ranging from Iannis Xenakis to Yono Oko). Here he moves from his preoccupations with how "the mass-media landscape inadvertently invades and splinters the private mind of the individual", to how the realities we create impact on a continent.

The Sinfonia is performed live by the three musicians (violin, cello and piano) of AlterEgo, mixed on stage by Miller. It creates an insistent wall of sound, a landscape of always various arpeggios that leap from the work of Philip Glass, music that swells up from grand brooding chords and is continually richened by echoes and repetitions. Wound in with this is the collage of animated images, projected in mirrored double screens behind the performers.

The images begin with footage of Antarctica - icebergs like cathedrals, endless snowscapes, harsh spines of rock draped with rags of white. Then there are the many ways we imagine and map realities: the votatile national borders of maps, graphs of temperature change, dynamic topologies of attractors and Mandelbrot diagrams, microscopic images of the crystal structure of ice, dancing molecules of water. A major component is extracts from a Soviet propoganda film (the cyrillics liberally littered with exclamation marks) about the Progress of Science in the service of the People's Revolution, with huge trucks blasting through the landscape and heroic drivers with iced eyelashes, man subduing the hostile natural world with technology and reason.

At several points, underlining and questioning the relationship between abstraction and reality, the score we are listening to becomes part of the animated dance. The effect is to at once reinforce and destabilise the connections between fiction and reality, human imagination and the material world, giving some idea of its true complexity. The performance was wholly absorbing; I found myself in an interesting state of alert meditation. The music never became the background noise to thought, but rather its rhythm and stimulus.

The Sinfonia was, paradoxically enough, a truer tribute to the musical inspiration of Philip Glass than The Book of Longing, Glass's collaboration with Leonard Cohen. A record company executive is said to have once told Cohen: "Leonard, I know you're a genius. I just don't know if you're any good." There's no denying Cohen's achievement as a songwriter: he's written some of the great ballads of our time, as attested by their countless covers. As with most artists, his strengths are also his weaknesses: emotional passion can too easily turn into mere sentiment, lyric simplicity into lyric simple-mindedness, tormented inner examination into, well, plain self-absorption. And the lesser sides of his virtues are abundantly on show in The Book of Longing.

The stage is dominated by a collage of Cohen's own drawings, which reveal that he has a considerable, if ultimately derivative, gift for a line. In the centre of a Mondrian-like grid behind the performers is one space where drawings continually change, so we get to see a lot of them. There are enough self-portraits and tasteful Matissian nudes to launch a thousand feminist essays on the possessive eye/I. The nudes in particular got old rather quickly, as did the songs about deceptive, alluring Woman. I felt like I was trapped in some middle class loungeroom sometime in the 1970s. But somehow, and perhaps most tellingly, it was all strangely inoffensive.

It's presented as a theatrical concert, with the ensemble on stage and four singers entering and exiting on cue. It was pretty much what was written on the box: if you went expecting Philip Glass and Leonard Cohen, that was what you got. The music was signature Glass, and it made me reflect that it's been a long time since Einstein on the Beach. The highlights were the musical solos, which lifted the music to another place, in particular Gloria Justen's vivid violin.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect was that the collision of Glass and Cohen resulted in pure Broadway. I'm not quite sure how to explain that: perhaps it was the Broadway voices. It was all beautifully performed and realised with style, and it came with a gorgeous little booklet of Cohen's lyrics, which would be an excellent idea for all libretti. Definitely one of those pieces where you knew you were getting your money's worth, and which makes clear that getting your money's worth is not quite enough.


Chris Boyd said...

Water molecules you reckon, do you? I had the agitated M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E heads pegged as CO2, not H2O. But both are apt I think.

I thought the fractals were a low point. Ugh. Like The Bank ! The Soviet stuff was the best for me.

But, yes, the sublime was on my mind throughout.

Alison Croggon said...

You're probably right Chris. But they were blue! Water is blue! Poets have very literal minds.

Alison Croggon said...

Out of curiosity I did some image googling. My vague memories of Year 11 chemistry seem to be correct: cartoon representations of CO2 molecules look more like DJs with huge earphones than mickey mouse, hydrogen being the first element on the periodic table. But no doubt your guess is as good as mine...

jean poole said...

greetings, in contrast, I found the sppoky show quite underwhelming, my review here : http://www.skynoise.net/2008/11/21/dj-spookys-sloppy-ice-adventure/