by Kurt Chiang, photos by Jeff Kimmel
~ in parts ~
I get lost easily. But the Hungry Brain is easy for me to find because I can picture the Western Avenue viaduct that scales over Belmont. When I take the bus down there, I keep my eye out for the bridge, and that’s a clue that I should get off. Recently though, that bridge was obliterated. Rubble lays stacked behind temporary fences and stone traffic walls. It’s surprising to see this, and there’s an aching, to see the geography shift so dramatically. I don’t think I had a sense of what a bridge could be in all its fractured parts.
~ formulating ~
Most everyone knows each other here, friends or family of Emily Beisel. Nina Dante cuts that quickly. She’s a member of Fonema Consort, and kindly greets me and asks that I sign up for their mailing list. It makes sense to do it, and I do it. There’s an atmosphere of anticipation and playful risk being built in this dark bar, lacking the old cool vibe of a lot of the free and improvisational jazz I’ve seen here before. The people here want to see Beisel play. Before she does, Fonema Artistic Director Pablo Chin begins an informational announcement. The event slowly ramps up into what seems to be an unconventional setting for this kind of programming. There are background noises of the bar, most notably a large A/C duct over the whole space. Chin introduces Beisel and she takes the stage. She gives an overview of the program: Tim McCormack “RAW MATTER” (2015), Mark Andre “iv 3” (2008), and Ray Evanoff “Narratives” (2014). (These would be segmented with two improvised gestures, in duet with Eli Namay on bass.) She also gives some context behind the scores, their characteristics and intended effect on the listener. She begins with the McCormack piece, solo for bass clarinet, blowing into the mouthpiece with a measured control to introduce a steady flow of air sounds to the room. She moves with the sounds. An idea behind this piece, according to Beisel, is it’s not fully formed, like magma within a volcano. Heavy key clicks fall in and dissolve. Notes and multiphonics appear briefly and disappear. Someone stands to ask the bartender to turn down the A/C fan, but it will remain part of everything tonight, the most finished, complete sound throughout.
~ cracks ~
At the end of RAW MATTER, Beisel pushes. She’s laid out a lot, and now there’s build up. The sounds are loud and harsh, characteristic of the smaller ones that came before but now there’s nowhere to go. It’s kind of like she’s trapped with these things, rattling the cage with them, or they’re together traversing the side of a cliff into a hailstorm. The sounds disperse, or they retreat, and she breathes and moves on.
~ breaks ~
Namay joins Beisel on stage. He takes up his bass, and she stands with her bass clarinet. They study something on a music stand for a moment, and then enter into a simultaneous barrage of sounds between them. They seem affected by what came before, and by each other. There’s an even exchange, in between compositions. They move on, finish and bow. And Dante tells us there’s an intermission, so we can ‘clear our brains,’ which rings funny to me.
~ returning ~
We come back to place and Beisel comments on the next piece, Andre’s “iv 3.” She tells us these will be small sounds, that it’s a study of the interior of the instruments themselves, as if they are under a microscope. Setting up now with a Bb clarinet she stands behind a timpani, to her side is a digital radio. This begins with slight blowing into the mouthpiece matched with articulated key strokes. We’re listening to her fingers hit. It’s tempered, and without the dramatic sweeping and circulating of the McCormack. Beisel delivers the sounds carefully, and listens to them herself. This has my attention, and imagination. An image of someone leaving an important voice message on a cassette tape answering machine: intimate and measured. Beisel continues and goes through a gambit of rich, varied and lush moments in this. It can come off as a demonstration, a collaged showcase of extended technique, but each moment is examined thoroughly, and the mixture of long tones and radio static and the careful crinkling of aluminum foil recalls something human, like waiting and remembering. She takes the instrument from her mouth and lets out aching, hollow sounds from her throat. I recognize everything here, briefly, and it’s gone again.
~ breaks ~
Namay takes the stage again, and the two of them play another gesture. Another exchange, this one more aggressive. Particularly Namay, simultaneously clawing and bowing at the strings with one hand. Later I find out that they’re improvising based on loose notation they gave each other, music they’ve shared, and long discussions they’ve had. It feels they’re searching for what comes from the pressure of them together. It’s incomplete here, but it’s building.
~ plotting ~
This last one, “Narratives” by Ray Evanoff, is handsy. Beisel tells us we might recognize similarities to “RAW MATTER,” in its incomplete, fractured grouping of sounds. In this, however, the fractures talk to each other, directly, rather than attempt to surface into something. Runs of notes and sounds start and stop abruptly. There’s screeching, some singing. All sorts of sonic textures are manipulated and ripped by Beisel from the unwieldy Eb clarinet and the effect is stimulating, but I can’t get the word ‘narrative’ out of my head. They’re talking to each other, but do they respond to each other? What story develops from these sounds? And where does it take us? I’m lost, until Beisel stops. She breathes into the instrument and there’s a transformation. It’s a refrain, repeated with no verses in between: a few timbrous multiphonic wails, appearing and disappearing in and out of air. It goes like that for a few moments, and Beisel takes time with them, and closes it all up. Those last sounds reverberate my memory. They are grounding. I take them, and I can recount them later.
~ in place ~
I leave with that word still in my head. I try to guess what story could have best informed the sounds. I think of The Lovers on the Bridge. French film, Leos Carax, Denis Lavant is a street rat and Juliette Binoche has an debilitating eye disease. He charges through the movie, his feet rubbing pavement, kicking off wall into a flip, blowing fire from alcohol spit into the air to a silent, attentive crowd. A plastic bottle punched from her mouth. Arson in a subway, to keep her close, while her condition worsens. A little bit of fireworks and David Bowie and Arvo Part, but mostly desperate sounds of people whom I don’t understand when they speak but certainly when they play and love, negotiating for space on a bridge. I take that, too, on my way home.
Kurt Chiang is Artistic Director and an Ensemble Member with The Neo-Futurists. Since 2008 he has written over 200 plays within the show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind: 30 Plays in 60 Minutes. He is the creator of the Neo Prime-Time show Analog (2013). Currently, he is developing the recurring Neo-Futurist experimental storytelling show The Arrow in collaboration with Lily Mooney. Other credits at The Neo-Futurists: Saturn Returns (lead deviser/writer/performer), Mike Mother (lead deviser), The Neo-Futurists: Body (co-editor), Haymaker (director), BEER! The Musical (performer), Burning Bluebeard (choreographer & installation artist), Picked Up (performer/sound design), Contraption (performer), The Fool (Returns To His Chair)(writer/performer). Outside the Neos, he has read his work at various readings, including Paper Machete, Write Club, West Side School for the Desperate, The Marble Room, and Wit Rabbit. He is also a Company Member with Barrel of Monkeys and has performed in That’s Weird, Grandma, as well as taught and performed in their writing residency programs at Chicago Public Schools. He has taught writing, performance, and Neo-Futurism as a guest teacher for many schools and organizations throughout the city, including Louder Than a Bomb, North Park University, Lake Forest College, National High School Institute, and School of the Art Institute of Chicago. For two years, he was an Artist-in-Residence with Snow City Arts, providing bedside arts & creativity workshops for youth admitted to Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. He originates from Maryland and the DC Metropolitan Area, and has lived in Chicago since 2005.