Michael Ondaatje, with Art of Time violinist Julia Wedman.
“Words and Music,” Art of Time Ensemble‘s newest production now on at the Enwave Theatre, is, in a word, inspired. The company is marking its tenth anniversary this year, and if the season premiere is any indication, they’ve got a great deal to celebrate.
First off, a bit of explanation, since the troupe doesn’t fit neatly into any genre. Art of Time is an ensemble rooted in jazz and classical music whose mandate is to break down barriers between different kinds of music and between music and other performing arts. The company’s roster of artists is comprised primarily of musicians, but also includes dancers, writers, actors, and choreographers. Lest you worry that all this results in a mishmash of unfocused or poorly executed interdisciplinary nonsense, rest assured that this is not the case. The performance last night was, like almost all great performances, deceptively casual: it seemed effortless only because it was beautifully conceived, deeply nuanced, and confidently executed.
“Words and Music” is an evening that explores “literature inspired by music and music inspired by literature.” It consists of six pieces, each of which includes both a spoken-word and a musical component. Andrew Burashko, the company’s artistic director, opened with a few remarks, saying that while literature and music have always been understood to meet in song, he was interested in imagining other possibilities for the art forms to interact. This he has done incredibly well. Each of the six pieces brought into focus a different kind of relationship between music and the written word; collectively, they amount to a genuinely revelatory exploration of the creative experience. The result was something like being a fly on the wall of a bar where an eclectic group of artist friends are knocking back drinks and riffing off of each other’s energy. It felt free and open-ended, a picture of what “high” art (Proust, Ondaatje, a violin sonata) might be like if it were relieved of the obligation to be Proper. As Ted Dykstra assured the audience while lounging on stage, waiting for some microphones to get repositioned, “You can talk amongst yourselves. It’s not Roy Thompson Hall.” Immediately afterward, he launched into a recitation of Ginsberg’s “Howl,” with a riotous, jazzy cacophony accompanying him. The point—that serious art need not be stuffy or formalized to do its work and do it well—could not have been better put.
Actor Rick Roberts, as Jimmy Swaggart.
One of the highlights of the evening was the second piece: a reading of selections from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, interlaced with a performance of a violin sonata by César Franck. Swann (Proust’s protagonist) describes the experience of being at a musical performance, hearing a violin sonata being played; the sonata by Franck is one of the pieces that scholars think Proust may have had in mind when writing. After beginning with a passage of the Proust, the sonata began and was punctuated with further bits of reading in the pauses between each movement. The audience was, in the process, invited to adopt Proust’s stream-of-consciousness; that effect was slightly surreal, out-of-body, like experiencing a performance from another person’s vantage point. This was literature helping us into a different way of listening.
The Proust/Franck piece was followed, immediately and without visible interruption, by a hilarious excerpt from the musical Fire, loosely inspired by the relationship between first cousins Jimmy Swaggart (the Pentecostal preacher) and Jerry Lee Lewis. One moment a reader was giving us a measured, civilized Proust and the very next, on the same set and in the same clothes, he was preaching fire and brimstone in a Southern drawl. An evangelical pulpit sermon was pitted against the raging energy of rock ‘n’ roll—the two characters performed simultaneously, each working themselves into a frenzy, arguing in opposition to each other but building up to the same kind of fever pitch. It was a wry commentary on the emotional effects that the art forms can have, regardless of their subject matter; whether you’re expounding on the Lord’s wrath or playing the piano with your feet, the emotional tenor of the experience is the same.
The evening also featured performances by Michael Ondaatje, Justin Rutledge, and a host of other surprising but wonderful collaborations. As a whole, “Words and Music” felt like pulling back the curtain on the process of artistic creation by sharing with its audience, in concrete form, what it’s like at the exact moment one artist is inspired by another.
“Words and Music” continues tonight at the Enwave Theatre.
Photos by John Lauener.