Narrative Before Music, In Transit: #thisrocks Review on New Music Box
Fifth House Ensemble deserves credit for the careful preparation and forethought that went into the multimedia “#thisrocks” installment of their In Transit series. So much of the experience was tailored to mirror our contemporary reality—lives overflowing with Facebook updates, Tweets, and an intense quantity of media that competes for our attention at any given time. With two video screens, a writer, director, media consultant, voice over artist, and sound engineer involved with “#thisrocks”—all in addition the piano trio at the heart of the production—there were plenty of competing focal points created for the performance itself.
The printed program took the form of a small deck of postcards wrapped in an “In Transit #thisrocks” paper band. One card detailed the three pieces featured on the program, one card featured the program notes, one card listed the players and producers of the event, and three cards were devoted to acknowledging the event’s many sponsors.
During #thisrocks, storytelling and live music operated along parallel tracks as a larger commentary on the nature of music itself and its ability to provide an anchor during life’s turbulent times. The fictional character of Miranda Rodriguez supplied the narrative thread—a young, aspiring concert cellist living in New York City as her early commitment and passion for playing cello (with the stated goal of sharing a stage with Yo-Yo Ma) is tested by a turbulent adolescence and an unsupportive home life.
The visual content projected onto two screens on either side of the stage was inventive, well-crafted, and easily visible to the audience. It consisted of a montage of social media updates, family photographs, written letters and emails, as well as spoken narration placed between the musical movements. Each element was carefully timed to give the eyes and ears every chance to follow the personalities and an unfolding narrative layered with the music. It was designed to keep the experience engaging at multiple levels.
The regular appearance of letters written to Yo-Yo Ma at various points along the young musician’s life provide a sense of the role models and aspirations behind Rodriguez’s drive to realize her dream. The story develops a powerful emotional arc that portrays music as something that literally saves the young woman’s life as she makes the difficult transition toward an adulthood that fulfills her dreams. The style of storytelling allows for a great deal of tension to form from the exposure of deeply personal details. This is particularly the case as the account works its way through a dangerous period of teenage rebellion and the tragic loss of a close friend to a drug overdose that triggers in Rodriguez a renewed commitment to her music studies. The pacing, presentation, and writing were extremely effective at producing a resonant experience. The final movement of the evening was accompanied by live Tweets from the audience responding to what they had just seen. The end result was an aggressively updated, multimedia approach toward a chamber music experience. The live music served as more than a soundtrack to the story. It was more like the narrative was providing an independent track to accompany the music. The performance maintained the thematic consistency and tone of our technologically saturated world while also inviting a real-time glimpse into the perceptions of an audience that plays a participating role in the production.
The music at the center of this experience consisted of three trios by three completely different generations of composers, brilliantly performed by Andrew Williams on violin, Herine Coetzee Koschak on cello, and Adam Marks on piano. The music was well-rehearsed and the players effectively negotiated several physically demanding movements while hardly breaking a sweat. They were a solid presence within a complicated presentation of fleeting parts.
Piano Trio no. 1 in d minor (1839) by Felix Mendelssohn provided a stylistic grounding in the Classical/Romantic music conservatory world of the protagonist. It is a beautiful piece that was beautifully executed by the trio. At the same time, it was the piece that felt most out of place within the swirling multimedia saturation that surrounded it. The initial experience of projected social media statements over the top of this music was jarring at the onset of the concert.
One piece that fit the modern sensibilities of juxtaposition like a glove was Nivea Hair Care Styling Mousse (1999) by contemporary Dutch composer Jacob TV. It is a churning, groove-heavy piece that acted as a welcome foil to the deeply sentimental qualities of the unfolding narrative.
David T. Little’s Brooklyn Alloy (2003-2004) was the 21st-century contribution to the program. It is a fiercely aggressive, rhythmic piece with musical parts that lock together at unusual angles and junctions, with textures that move freely between wide variations of independence and synchronicity between the instrumental parts. The materials were nicely sequenced into an intricate yet deeply satisfying sound.
While the performances of these pieces were nearly flawless, the decision to shuffle the individual movements of all three works was difficult to reconcile. The first movement of the Mendelssohn was followed by the first movement of the Jacob TV, then a movement by Little and then into a mad scramble between three profoundly different works. While this emulated the “shuffle” function of personal music players and matched the ethos of the overall experience, I felt that the formal integrity of these individual works suffered as a result. It was odd to feel that one had the detailed experience of the movements of these works played live while not ever having the chance to grasp the compositional form that unfolds when heard un-shuffled.
The order of movements was not a “random” shuffle, however. The sequence was clearly restructured in the service of the narrative. To this end, the emotional arc of the story was well served—it was a compromise that gave the linear story the most impact. It is the kind of musical manipulation that we have come to accept in film, but as a live performance this manipulation felt a little heavy-handed and transparent. I suspect that the narrative would have been compromised had the sequential integrity of the music been left intact.
Fifth House Ensemble deserves enormous credit for making this kind of multimedia presentation incredibly appealing to a broad audience in a memorable way that opens ears to new music. I hope those same ears may one day become attuned to forms that defy the fragmentation of contemporary life and offer a reprieve from the everyday experience.