Tonight was one of extreme contrasts. Open Ears is, at its best, capable of surprising you with a mix of contrasting styles and approaches...two hours and two blocks can span the corners of the globe and the moodiest of moodswings. Tonight was one of those nights.
But first, let me mention the common threads woven through this year's festival: the ubiquitous on-stage Macbook, the ever-present whispered spirit of R. Murray Schafer, and the venue-bracketing duo of mismatched photographers who -- for lack of an introduction -- I think of as "Yo-ho Jack" and "Bungie!"
Elevated with David Lang
The show started with a friendly, goofy-looking dog attempting to get a treat out of a glass mason jar. It pawed and chewed, knocking the jar around. The dog didn't have a plan, its approach showed no evidence of learning or consideration...instead, endearingly, he just worked at the problem with no sign of ever giving up.
Despite the sad piano accompaniment, this film was funny at the beginning. People in the audience laughed at the bumbling, innocent, silly and simple animal.
Then the glass jar broke, and the dog started chewing at the sharp edges, trying to reach the treat that was still inside. The piano's downbeat tone took on a totally new meaning. As the animal continued to chew on the broken glass, a palpable wave of disbelief, hostility, and betrayal rose up around us. We, the audience, were shocked to the core.
So, with the film "Treat Bottle" (by William Wegman) and a song called "Wed," the show began, and though the rest of the performance was somewhat less visceral, the mood continued to be one of futility. Then futility again. Then a darker, more oppressive futility than the futility that had come before, with an emphasis on "futility."
I loved it all.
The films were accompanied by professional musicians playing in total lock-step: not a note out of place, not a baffling beat dropped. For a totally miserable ten-minute adaptation of "Heroin," Nadine Medawar sang with perfect pitch, yet fragile and halting and emotionally devastating. They went about this performance like a business and it suited the mood perfectly.
The show ended with the film "Elevated" by Matt Mullican, consisting of slow fades of irregularly-cut 1935 New York scenes: Madison Square Garden, Central Park, burlesque shows, Christmas shoppers, Luna Park. Meanwhile the musicians performed "Men" for trombone, english horn, bass clarinet, baritone sax, two pianos, percussion, viola, cello, and double bass.
Most of the instruments played single extended notes, sometimes harmoniously, usually with a slight dissonance. The man at the bass drum kept time in an almost -- but not quite -- regular tempo, signalling the instruments to change their notes after an uncomfortably long span of time. This created a repetative and disturbing drone that might have been somewhat lulling...
...except for the constant staccato tinkling of single piano keys, and the endless scraping of a brake drum, going on and on and on against those scenes of long-ago people smiling and bustling and shopping...
...and after five minutes you began to get agitated...
...and after then minutes you didn't think you could take it anymore...
...but after twenty minutes you realized it could go on forever and there was nothing you could do to stop it, and it felt like the aftermath of a speed-drug high when time is dragging and you're unable to sleep and even the most pleasant things leave you with a feeling of terrible emptiness...
...and after thirty minutes you've stopped hoping for change and lost all track of time...
...and then forty-five minutes later it stops. And you feel so good.
So while the first show was a rigidly-constrained evocation of the most hopeless emotional depths, the second -- The Ellis Tanguay Cram E.T.C. Trio -- was a wild, joyful jazz improv. It was like finding out that the doctor was only kidding when she said you had cancer, and what's more you just won a car. YAY!
I used to hate free jazz, but over the years -- thanks mainly to exposure at past Open Ears festivals -- I've begun to learn how to relate to it. When the musicians start down a particular path I get a sense of the parameters they're setting themselves, and I can follow along with some degree of competence. When the drummer seems to be ripping the song into impossible and ever-unravelling shreds, I can find the beat makers that hide underneath. In short, I've learned to simply loosen up and have fun, and it helps when the musicians are having as much fun as E.T.C. were.
I'm exhausted after a day of work and shows so I can't give the guys their due, but...wow. They brought me up and made me happy, and I certainly wasn't alone. I could have listened to them all night long.