An expectation for this show at the ARC Gallery was that “This will prove to be an intense concert, an immersive world of sound and visual art.” The scheduled program lists an untitled piece, fragments, and the segment of many words, while an immersion can mean to enter into a body of water, or overtaken over by a flood. So with this, how will we be immersed by parts?
According to the curator, Shawn Lucas, each moment will happen all around us, in a different part of the space. He sets up the rule that we can adjust ourselves and our chairs as necessary, to best experience the individual works. He walks off, and a clip light is clicked on, and Shanna Gutierrez enters from behind a tall white flat, beginning with a work by Kaija Saariaho. Gutierrez speaks in a language I don’t recognize. She speaks directly to the audience, looking at us in the eye, but it becomes clear that – for those of us who can’t decipher the meaning – we can use the sonic qualities of the language as a template to the proceeding sounds. She streamlines from speaking to blowing into her flute, and immediately there’s an interplay between her spoken words and the run of the notes she plays. Where the speech and language makes us lean in anticipation, the notes take us in, and move with us. The composition feels like a ride, where Gutierrez is driving without needing a navigator. Phases of rolling scales that carry us up and down ranges of feeling. I keep picturing rolling hills, but not the grassy kind, following the flight of a bumblebee. More like dunes off of a beachhead. That’s a good thing, as there are more surprises. There is something that is severe about Gutierrez’s playing, and her take on this work by Saariaho. These notes building up into a frenzy occasionally stop for her to take a breathe, and then to let out a screech, or a full and fat tone that trembles the gallery walls for a moment, and then rests. Gutierrez is skilled and confident, and it shows. She knows how this should go, and where we will end up, and we follow her there. And she stops and bows and we clap for her in appreciation and once she steps away Isaac Stevenson steps from behind the tall white flat and he clicks off the clip light and moves to a large bass drum, lying flat on the ground, between two speakers. Michael Pisaro’s “July Mountain” begins with field recordings of birds, while massive, static sounds are layered on top. The piece — usually done with a large ensemble of percussionists — is performed solo by Stevenson here, who controls the slowly layered sounds electronically, aside from the consistent circular running of the drumhead with a rounded disc. While it seems the piece wants the sounds to slowly creep up on one another, and build to a certain point where it’s a harmonious balancing act of sustained high and low tones, as well as static noise, something in Stevenson’s execution feels too frontal. In the room, the large drum takes over, and any subtle dynamics in pitch seem to get swallowed. It’s difficult to breathe with the piece. At times I zone out. Maybe it’s because his head’s down the entire time, concentrating on the devices that control the noise, none of which we can see. It’s virtuosic that he is creating this world as one person, but where is the moment that we feel we are there together? He fades the volume and raises himself to take a bow. The lights shut out and our direction is pulled to the far right, where a display of multiple flashlights are rigged with toyish-looking sticks and blocks, like tinker toys. In the center, a pane of glasses suspended upright. Everyone shifts their chairs to get a better look. Shawn Lucas’ “Helio” has three performers playing with a collection of small flashlights aimed at a white wall, periodically opening and closing blinders that are attached to the lights. The performers also hold up tiny colored gels, casting multiple colors across the white surface. A pattern is established, where one light will shine, then the other, and then clicking out. The third performer, centered, backlights the pane of glass while pushing a single painted dot onto its surface. We watch the gob of paint drip down. The performer (Stevenson, from the previous piece) cuts his brush three times into the line that develops. This motif repeats, with different colors flooding the wall, changing the colored surface of this visual gesture. Stevenson erases the image, brings it up again, distorts, and wipes it clean. What’s most impactful here is Stevenson’s relationship to the glass, and the threatening sounds he gets out of it. It seems possible that the thing could shatter with the force of his body. Tension is successfully built from the sounds of these materials – the flat of the glass, the sides of it, with brush, paint, water and rag – whereas the colored lights feel arbitrary. Their main utility is to act as a revealing mechanism to whatever shapes are made with the painted glass. One time the lighting works cohesively is with a green that floods the entirety of the wall, as Stevenson makes long messy lines from the damp rag. Something is being taken away here, and the stakes feel suddenly high, whereas before the display felt demonstrative. The lights are brought up to full as our attention is brought to center, for Nina Dante (soprano) and Rachel Brown (violin), playing György Kurtág’s “Kafka Fragments.” With the room the brightest that it has been all night, it’s like we all just stepped inside their living room. Dante and Brown bring a very different energy in this last piece. Brown is set up at a music stand with sheet music, and Dante posts up at a chair, posturing herself like Mother Courage and eyeballing the crowd, before she sings out. The “Kafka Fragments” are short excerpts from the diaries of the Franz Kafka, transposed here to short interplays between violin and voice. In Dante’s interpretation, she takes on subtle physical gestures to go along with the music. Those gestures are heightened but not overly dramatic, letting us follow along to the chaotic story of an expansive mind at work. Dante and Brown do a good job of putting us in this internal world, primarily through their ability to keep the work light and funny. The whole time I felt like I was spying on someone talking to themselves, unaware that I could see them, working through a mix of petty grievances and deep shame. Brown bends, pulls and punches each short series of crackling, staccato melodies, and Dante clearly grasps the shape of how we should hear this piece in this room, somewhere between giving a lecture and an attempt to recall a lovely tune that was lost from memory. Their set feels human, and shared.
Immersion can also be a way to teach a new language, throwing you into a pool of rapidly connecting sounds, that without understanding or context add up to nothing, until the point where something finally clicks.
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-turis experimental orytelling show The Arrow in collaboration with Lily Mooney. Other credits at The Neo-Futurists:Saturn Returns (lead deviser/writer/performer), Mike Mother (ad deviser), The Neo-Futurists: Body (co-editor), Haymaker (director), BEER! The Music (performer), Burning Bluebeard (choreographer & installation artist), Picked Up (performer/sound design), Contraption (performer), The Foo (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 taugh 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, includin After School Matter, 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.