It all begins with the heartbeat. At least, eighth blackbird‘s recent performance at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington D.C. on Saturday night did. Specifically, an amplified heartbeat and Yvonne Lam‘s (violin) amplified breathing to lead in to the opening half of the program — four love songs, three arranged by ensemble members, on two sides of the pendulum of time. The Grammy-winning new music group ensemble out of Chicago also premiered Amy Beth Kirsten‘s stunning, musical fantasy “Colombine’s Paradise Theatre” this weekend.
Richard Parry‘s “Duo for Heart and Breath” (2012) opened the love song set with its rising pitches in piano and violin reminiscent of the minimalism in which Arvo Pärt delights. “The idea is less about ‘performing’,” the composer is quoted in the program notes, “and more about directly translating into music the subtle, naturally varying internal rhythms of the individual players.” The last piece of the set, Lisa Kaplan‘s arrangement (2009) of Bon Iver‘s “Babys”, also makes subtle use of varying rhythm. A steady pulsing rhythm emanates from Kaplan at the piano and is joined by Timothy Munro (flute) playing toy piano and the rhythmic relationship is Matthew Duvall (percussion) while it is the strings that soar above with the romantic melodies.
Sandwiched between these two thoroughly contemporary pieces were new arrangements, both by Timothy Munro, of two beloved 17th century pieces. Claudio Monteverdi‘s “Lamento della ninfa” and Carlo Gesualdo‘s “Moro, lasso, al mio duolo” both explore the sorrow of love and loss. Munro played with the sonic textures by including the subdued qualities of the viola and the alto flute but also by including a section that turns to a sense of a medieval minstrel show complete with a frame drum, the toy piano, and Nicholas Photinos transforming the cello into guitar sounds. Similar to the vocal tradition in madrigals of the time, Munro skillfully wrote for the instruments to delicately emerge on the same pitch as another instrument faded away time and again.
Amy Beth Kirsten has a radically distinctive compositional style. Her newest work for eighth blackbird, “Colombine’s Paradise Theatre” (2010-2013), is the fullest expression of her vision as a composer to date. Encompassing instrumental performance, acting, choreographed movement, and vocalism, she envisioned a comprehensive artwork that is utterly mesmerizing in performance. The 60-minute work directed by Mark DeChiazza was captivating throughout. It is simply unlike anything I have ever seen before.
“Colombine’s Paradise Theatre” is based on the commedia dell’arte style of theater which has its roots in 16th century Italy and relies on specific characters symbolized by the mask and garb historically worn by that fictional individual.
And our explanation must begin with the eternal triangle of Pierrot, Columbine and Harlequin… Pierrot, at least in modern times, wears a black skullcap, white floppy pants and jacket, a pale, gaunt makeup. Harlequin wears tights, designed in contrasting diamonds of color, often spangled and carries a stick. Columbine is sumptuously and sensually adorned. The naïve, defenseless, moonstruck Pierrot adores the lovely Columbine, who has wit and feeling enough to appreciate his worth but is too light-minded to resist the coarse and brutal Harlequin, who is himself bound to Pierrot in a mocking, rueful, treacherous comradeship. – from Triumph of Pierrot: The Commedia Dell’Arte and the Modern Imagination by Martin Green, John Swan
Kirsten’s work is a musical fantasy that is inspired by the commedia tradition but takes on its own language, form, and color (or lack thereof.) The stage, also designed by DeChiazza, is set with the piano in the center surrounded by a playing space delineated by percussion instruments and some chairs draped in that tell-tale diamond pattern. The fibers of the ‘storybook poem’ begin to weave as a solitary column of light illumines Colombine, played by Kaplan, lying on the stage. The poignant lighting design, by Mary Ellen Stebbins, allowed for unexpected shifts and changes by the players on stage. Kirsten uses the audible inhalation and exhalation of breath to add emotional meaning as well as specific musical/sound elements. Colombine is wooed by Harlequin, played by Munro, about the stage from place to place. Munro is a fantastic Harlequin because he is able to use the full range of his lanky body and expressive voice to physically persuade Colombine’s movements. He sings, “I bind her here in the moonless night I wind her I alone can touch her pain I alone can know my Colombine again…”
While it is not absolutely essential to know the elements of the commedia dell’arte style to enjoy this performance, it helps to have an understanding of the exaggerated physicality that accompanies the acting to be swept up in the story. Lam, Munro, and Michael Maccaferri (clarinet) were plausibly committed to these corporeal affectations especially with their instruments in hand. In one of the movements, Lam and Kaplan sit together at the piano and play as though in a ballet of arms and hands – leaving one unsure of whether Colombine is being tormented or soothed. In a rather quiet moment, Duvall releases the bass drum from its hanging spot – lit like a full moon – and brings it downstage center to play a tender duet juxtaposed with Kaplan responding at the toy piano.
Kirsten plays with time as much as she does sound textures. There is always a sense of forward motion in “Colombine’s Paradise Theatre” but it never rushes anywhere. There are plenty of places for breath, for pause, perhaps even a chance to catch again that heartbeat the audience heard in the first moments of eighth blackbird’s performance.