The Operating System

COMING TOGETHER / ATTICA :: A COLLABORATIVE [RE:CON]VERSATION WITH CHOREOGRAPHER REBECCA LAZIER and COMPOSER / MUSICAL DIRECTOR DAVID T. LITTLE

Photo: Anna Finke

Photo: Anna Finke


JUNE 12 – 15, 2013 
The Invisible Dog Art Center
51 Bergen Street, Brooklyn

Music by Frederic Rzewski (1971) 
Text by Sam Melville (1971) 
Performances:

  • Thursday, June 13 at 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.
  • Friday, June 14 at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, June 15 at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.

Last week we announced the premiere of this exciting new collaborative venture between choreographer Rebecca Lazier and indie-classical ensemble Newspeak (led by composer David T. Little, featured previously here for “Soldier Songs” and “Dog Days”), as they present the NY premiere of Coming Together/Attica — an immersive, site-specific dance work set to Frederic Rzewski’s iconic scores — the libretto for which is based on a letter from Sam Melville, an inmate killed in the infamous Attica riots.
In the interim, you might have noticed some deserved attention as tonight’s opening nears: in the NYTimes, in this segment from PBS’s NYC-Arts News, on Culturebot, and on the great music and technology blog, I Care if You Listen.
Today, we are even more excited to offer you the latest in our [RE:CON]VERSATIONS series, in which I had the distinct pleasure of engaging with Lazier and Little over several weeks of nonlinear, evolving conversation in the format unique to this series. I invited the choreographer and music director into dialogue not only about this piece but, in OS style, to expound upon the role of collaboration and creativity in our cultural climate.  I hoped, as I always hope with this platform, to give both participants a space where the agenda is their agenda — a space to air their process, a place to share the work of this (and future) work.
What follows is inspiring, elevating stuff — rare to find so deeply considered in traditional media spaces. The time and space given to this dialogue by both Lazier and Little speaks volumes not only to the value of their words, here, but to the type of committed, thoughtful creators both are — and the type of consideration each brings to artistic practice. These are innovators not only committed to excellence in their field but to the power of this work as a public medium, a conduit for cultural evolution…and it shows.
Note: If you’re unfamiliar with Rzewski’s piece, you can listen to (or download) both Part 1 and Part 2, as well as view the score and the composer’s original “Performance Procedure” here. For a full sensory experience, why don’t you put it on in the background while you read this interview? …just a thought.

[RE:CON]VERSATION PARTICIPANTS:

REBECCA LAZIER [RL]
(CHOREOGRAPHY)

DAVID T. LITTLE [DTL]
(DIRECTOR, NEWSPEAK)

LYNNE DESILVA-JOHNSON [LDJ]
(MANAGING EDITOR)

LDJ: What is your relationship to this piece? when did you come into contact with it, and what made you want to work with it?

RL:  The first time I heard Coming Together was when a friend sat me down with a set of headphones and told me to listen. Immediately I identified with the multifaceted  juxtapositions: it was complex yet simple, mysterious yet clear, it took me somewhere yet had an unchanging pulse.   At the same time, I’m not a choreographer who suddenly pronounces “I must choreograph to this music!” I need to know more about the score and the composer: the context, history, structure, content, form etc..  If my subsequent research is stimulating choreographic prompts will surface.   I bring these questions into the studio and design improvisational structures for my dancers.  Together,  we discuss our findings then apply new directives or limitations, and continue a cycle of research.  This process may continue for several months before I decide if it will become part of the performance.  I generate material from other fields for many of my dances — from scores,  text,  software,  architecture, linguistics etc. — that does not  always end up in the final work.

One of the most choreographically compelling aspects of CT is the ways in which each iteration is similar and different.  Although there  is a definitive score of continuous 16th notes, the score also includes instructions for the musicians to make in performance: pick one note per measure to play in one section, only play  the B flats for another, etc.  I am interested in how the score balances the authorship of the composer with the agency of the performers.  I am continuously asking this in my process: how can I ensure a sense of discovery in each performance? I am not interested in creating unisons that attempt to generate a kind of  ‘equal temperamant’ of movement.  (Meaning: we create a sequence of movement  that looks exactly the same on everyone’s body.)  Rather, we generate movement and structures that highlight difference and explore ways to be  unified without being in unison.  Rzewski’s instructions provided a new way to look at this question.

Another aspect of the score that draws me in is the  text and Rzewski’s treatment of it.  Early in my research I heard him describe how he decided on the accumulation/decumulation structure. (At a Newspeak performance at Brooklyn Lyceum in 2008) When he first read the letter he found himself going back to the beginning over and over trying to decode the text.  What do these words mean?  They were written by a prisoner who knew the letter would be censored.  To understand meaning(s), you have to read and reread until an interpretation emerges.  This struck me.  He took an experience and translated it into a musical structure.  This is something I think about, what is the experience of walking down a street? Not the physicality of what I am feeling, but what is going on in my perceptual activity?  How could this be a dance structure? How could an audience experience the changing path of attention?  He was able to notice the process of his thinking and replicate it in a form.  I wanted to try this. 

The treatment of the text also creates the possibility for  ‘universal’  readings.  You do not have to know the history/context of the words to feel their impact. I read something David wrote about the piece (see below)  where Rzewski  discusses his intent to make a piece that can be felt by all humanity, not just those who have been incarcerated.  My intention is similar, I do not aim to create a narrative piece that illustrates time in prison.  We started by investigating the movement outgrowths of the demands of trying to keep order and identity under various types of oppression.  What do you do to keep from screaming, crying, and shaking?  Repeat activities incessantly? Talk to yourself? Breathe deeply? These were some of the prompts for movement research.

The works drew criticism from the both the avant-garde and political establishment alike.  According to Maoist Cornelius Cardew, these works “do not make a reasoned political statement about the (Attica) event,” but rather create a kind of “ambiguity between the personal, emotional, and meditative aspect of the texts.” He continues, “this ambiguity can be either a strength or a weakness in performance,” but from the perspective of communication—as opposed to strictly revolution—this aspect can be a major strength. Rather than preaching doctrine, Rzewski pursues communication on an emotional level. In this, the listener is invited to explore both emotions and related political issues on their own. It creates a different type of teaching piece—an evolution of the Brechtian Lehrstuck—in which the audience is not force-fed so-called facts, but is invited to seek the truth on their own.

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Photo: Anna Fink

RL: Though there is certainly an official “truth” to these pieces—i.e. that the American prison system is an unjust and cruel means of State control and that the inmates at Attica were essentially murdered by their government—Rzewski allows the listener to arrive at this conclusion on his/her own, ever confident that s/he will.”

I knew early on I wanted the audience to be confined within the same theatrical space as the performers, this piece wouldn’t work on a proscenium stage.  I hope that by experiencing the work both  kinesthetically and aurally can heighten its intensity and bring new audiences to dance and music. Ultimately, I choose to choreograph with these scores because they expose troubling political actions still resonant today and challenge me  in new ways.  The dance is a personal inquiry into the effects of enforced solitude and a reflection on the tenacity of human perseverance.

DTL: I first encountered this piece in 2000.  I was attending the Bowdoin Summer Music Festival in Maine, and had presented one of my works–a totally crazy, now-withdrawn theatre pieces called The State Of Our Union Is… .  The piece generated a really lively discussion in the composition class about the relationship of music and politics–something I was extremely interested in and still am–and in the course of the conversation, Frederic’s work came up.  I had already heard his monumental The People United Will Never Be Defeated! for solo piano, but wasn’t aware of this pair of earlier works.  So immediately after class, I went to the music library, found an old vinyl copy of the original recording–with the late Steve Ben Israel narrating–and put it on.  It blew me away, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since, not only of the works, but of their particular approach to the questions/problems of music and politics.

 
LDJ: Did you have any previous awareness of the history of the Attica riots? Both of you have a creative practice that has long been engaged in social and cultural examination and representation, both historic and contemporary – what was it about this subject matter and/in relation to this piece of music that drew you?
 

RL:  I was minimally aware of the riots and, being Canadian, the history of riots in the USA in general.  Even though I say above that I want the piece to be read more broadly than as a  representation of a singular event in history, I am drawn to the depth of the content and social commentary  in the score.  How could dance, a form that  traffics in abstraction and  has a tricky relationship to representation,  take on a BIG subject without becoming  a ‘depiction,’ ‘illustration,’ or ‘portrayal’?

The score both exposes a horrific moment in American history and poignantly reveals current issues. There is a national prison crisis; an unprecedented proportion of our population is incarcerated. The perverse lack of rehabilitation services and use of isolation to treat symptomatic behavior is tantamount to a humanitarian disaster and demonstrates questionable educational, cultural, and political policy. My drive to create this dance has been guided by questioning how art can use history to reveal new perspectives on personal experience.  The performance aims to provide a place where audiences can  imagine social change. [RL end]

 

DTL:   I had heard Attica mentioned when I was a kid, but I didn’t really know the details.  And I didn’t learn them really until, inspired by Frederic’s pieces, I researched them.  Many of my most important history lessons are ones that were initially triggered by art; through music.  That might sound strange, but it’s true.  In school you learn the “official history,” but it’s almost never complete.  So it was through a series of encounters with artists like  Frederic, Public Enemy, Rage Against The Machine, Dead Kennedys, Hanns Eisler, Christian Wolff, Hazel Dickens, Utah Philips, Bob Ostertag and others that I started to piece together a more complete look at our history.  These are artists who name names, you know, and these names would serve as starting points for me to research.  I’d learn about Attica via Rzewski, for example, then look it up and read about it.   It was then through the research that I would eventually make up my own mind about things–so I wasn’t just doing what Chuck D told me! But as a result, artists (especially Utah Phillips) really established the roots of my political education.  So I have to laugh when people say that art and politics should stay separate. In a way, I think that might be the most dangerous thing they could do.

newspeak

Newspeak Ensemble. (L-R): David T. Little, Caleb Burhans, Brian Snow, Eileen Mack, Taylor Levine, James Johnston, Mellissa Hughes, Peter Wise. Photo: Stephen Taylor

LDJ : David – I have read about Rzewski’s composition and its instructional components, but would love you to explain a little more to our readership about how the composition itself works and responds to the material, as well as how you approached Newspeak’s interpretation/performance?

 

DTL: Frederic believes that Melville’s message (in Coming Together) was a secret code, not uncommon when communicating in situations where mail is going to be read by authorities; here, prison.  Rzewski has said that he believes Melville was writing to say something like “help, they are going to kill me.”  The piece itself can be heard as an exploration of Frederic’s experience reading it for the first time. Since the text doesn’t really make a lot of sense–has a cryptic feeling to it–Frederic found himself reading it, re-reading it, and re-reading it again.  This process is somewhat replicated in the additive and subtractive process of the piece.  The speaker reads the first line, then the first and second, then first second and third and so on, until we’ve had all of it.  Then we go backward, undoing what we’ve just built, until we’re left only with the final line.  It’s as if through this process, Frederic hoped that some secret truth might emerge, and in a way–through his piece–I think it does.

For our interpretation, we’ve really found it together. And it’s going to be a little different each time.  We’ve played Coming Together a fair amount over the years, and it’s always different.  Attica is a newer piece in our rep, so it’s been really great to find the piece together. In a way, this is in itself a political component of the work; that there is a freedom in how the performers choose, through consensus, to organize the work.  I think this is somewhat similar to how Rebecca created the dance…

 

LDJ: Rebecca – how directly did the choreography respond / play off of the composition/score itself in terms of its technical components and/or Rzewski’s instruction vs. the sound/text/feeling of the piece?

RL:  I used very different choreographic devices/processes in Coming Together and Attica. In Coming Together the 49 measure blocks delineate time.  The persistence of the score stops the dancers in their tasks, they must change even if they have not finished the series of prompts.  For some of the sections, there are 8, the dancers have specific movements that they are manipulating in time and space in response to each other, in others they have a series of tasks that may be performed differently each night, but each are defined so tightly that I do not think you would notice a difference.  For example, in the opening one dancer must fold their partner into a box. At first the partner is complicit, then begins to resist, and by the end  must overcome the perpetrator.  Meanwhile, they must start with different body parts each time, move in a set spatial pathway, use stillness, never look at each other, etc.

attica3

Photo: Anna Finke

Towards the end of CT chaos reigns and we push through the parameters of time.  I imagine riots have no sense of time, they are filled with the action.

After I heard the piece live for the first time I knew we couldn’t start Attica right away. There needed to be a transition in silence, a place to experience ‘timeless time.’  (Rzewski also says in his notes for the scores that Attica was meant to follow Coming Together after a short period of silence.) For the creation of this section I was influenced by Adam Gopnik’s article, “The Caging of America” in the New Yorker, January 30, 2012.

In it, he describes the crisis in America and pays particular attention to the effects of isolation.  It is a devastating article, I couldn’t move as I read it. I slipped into other psychological states.  In the dance, the performers sit. They endure time without counting (there is an outside clock that sets the limit).  They might need to scratch, the scratch leads to a lick, they stop and realize what is happening.  Start over.

Attica is almost the opposite.  There are 27 set movements that repeat  in and out of unison. There is an extremely complex set of rules that govern each dancers order and spatial direction, the pattern never occurs in the same way. It builds and builds and builds. We seek a physiological  fugue state, the release that comes from constant action.  We  imagined what it would be to rebuild a life after incarceration.  What does it mean to have  something that has ended in time but that never ends in memory?  In our treatment structure is the vehicle for transformation.

LDJ: What does the translation into choreography / site specificity / staging bring to the piece for the audience, as opposed to attending a live performance of solely musicians?

RL:  My first hope  is that it will bring new audiences to the piece, most dancers have never heard of Rzewski.  I think the sensory saturation that happen when kinesthetic, visual, and aural experiences occur simultaneously allow audiences to be within the work more intensely.  My hope is that the performance can deepen the act of listening and hopefully highlight layers of the score one would not otherwise hear. (I’ve noticed  it has become de rigeur for new music compositions to be presented with video and lighting design,  Ethel and So Percussion come to mind,  what does this say about the relationship of visual forms to aural experiences?)

I am interested in the dialogue that will grow from this presentation.  I know the piece is beloved by many composers and musicians and sometimes I feel I have taken on a sacred work.   I know my staging may not align with other peoples interpretations of the work.  Dance always deals with the audience’s familiarity with the score used.  If you make a dance and use a pop song, you are essentially making a dance with everyone’s memories associated with that song.  For this piece, the majority of the dance audiences have no association with the score, but  most of the music audiences know it well.   I really look forward to hearing thoughts/impressions/problems from differing views.

LDJ: How much did you have a vision of the space / staging / lighting when designing the choreography in this case? I know that you worked with the dancers to collaboratively evolve the movements — can you talk a little more about the evolution of this process, as well as to whatever interdisciplinary exchanges might have been happening during this time?

 

RL: This piece has developed over four years. Collaboration with dancers is an incredibly intimate process. ( I cannot express my gratitude and respect for their dedication enough.)  When I start I have no idea where  a piece will go, the questions are discovered in the studio while working with the dancers.  Communicating with the dancers intense, there is no preset score or text they can learn, everything must come from how I respond in each moment.  The subject and subtext of each sentence I speak must be clear.  If I want someone to do something I know is impossible, how do I present it in a way they will be willing to try it?  Their bodies are alive and speaking in each moment, not just when they are dancing, how can I listen and craft my instructions to take them to the where I want them to go?  It is very hard to translate the potential of what I see can happen into simple actionable words.  I am always speaking too fast, trying to say 3 things at once, making up new words – and then I have to describe that!  I ask for their feedback, what they experience inside the work is crucial information in the process.   Our work it is not the arrangement of a known vocabulary as in ballet.  If a ballet choreographer says “glissade, jete, assemble, pas de chat”  a dancer can do that in an instant.  We take time to generate the movement and the syntax and the structure.

attica2

Photo: Anna Finke

The collaborations with the lighting and costume designers began recently are a different kind of interaction.  They are  more of a continuous process of  trial and error.  We go back and forth between ideas and sketches trying to consider as many possibilities before making final decisions.  Practicalities and finances are limitations.  The Invisible Dog is perfect in many ways, the feel and size, but the need to avoid splinters demands we have shoes for one set of costumes.  I actually enjoy having limitations, and feel it pushes us to contemplate potentials we would not otherwise imagine.   There are always conditions in life.

LDJ: In this case, you were starting with not only an instrumental piece but with source text, contextualized within a familiar, relevant historical situation for a contemporary US landscape so beset by incarceration – can you talk a little about how the practice / process by which you developed the piece conceptually and/or in the studio and/or in regards to its educational/social potential?

RL: I think this brings up a deeper question to all art: what is the role of art in cultural change?  What is the role of dance in American culture right now? Is it positioned to create social change?  Well, no, not the ‘dance’ that exists in popular culture. Competitions are now the norm and most define choreography as a vehicle to feature the skills and physical attributes of the dances. Bodies are looked at as commodities for social capital rather than as sites of intelligence, creativity, and experimentation. If you switch to looking at dance within the museum/performance world of Marina Abramovic  and ‘live art’ and you can see the potential of time-based art, movement-based forms, to have educational, political, and social potential.

For this piece I have many random thoughts I am having a hard time organizing into sentences. Here are some of them: what is the role of beauty in dance? What is beautiful? What is my definition of beauty? Brutality has a kind of  beauty when performed by dancers in a safe manner.  What does the collective experience of beautiful brutality to do an audience? What does performance do? What happens in  the  collaborative space between audience and performer?   Am I avoiding the question?

 

LDJ: What do you see as the role of the performer/composer/creator/producer as public intellectual/didact? I often write about the ability of sensory, extra-institutional-curricular media (subjective as opposed to “factual,” evocative rather than descriptive, show not tell) to be the most effective educational platform existing today.

 

RL: This is what I am probing: show not tell.  I would like this performance to prompt conversation.  This piece isdefinitely sensory, extra-institutional, intra-media.    It has been interesting to see which media outlets have been interested in talking about the performance.  The two big NYC papers said while it had ‘artistic merit’ it needed a  ‘really good back story,’ for them to write about it, one inquired if it had been developed on or by prisoners.

DTL:  This is an issue that the piece–and Rzewski–have often encountered. As Rebecca quoted earlier, Cornelius Cardew said that Coming Together and Attica “do not make a reasoned political statement about the (Attica) event,” but rather create a kind of “ambiguity between the personal, emotional, and meditative aspect of the texts.”  That is, rather than preaching doctrine, Rzewski shows it emotionally.  For me, this one of the pieces greatest strengths.  It creates a different kind of political piece, in which the audience is not force-fed so-called facts–i.e. non-didactic–but is invited to find their own truth.  (There is also what I said before about the musicians finding their own truth as well.)  I agree that this is a much more powerful and effective approach, especially when dealing with political topics.  In a way it’s not so different than my own political education that I mentioned above.  These pieces are just starting points.  But for me, hearing this piece about an uprising in the 70s (!?) in a prison in upstate NY (!?) made we want to learn more about it.  In that sense, it was incredibly effective politically. 

Personally, I believe that part of the role of the artist is to document important things in our world that others might find convenient to sweep under the rug.  Attica is one of these.  The massacre at El Mozote (the subject of one of my compositions) is another.  I call this the “politics of bearing witness” and I think it is one of the most important things an artist can do.

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Photo: Anna Finke

RL – I agree. Rzewski’s work brought new perspectives to my experience of isolation and confinement, introduced possibilities for structural invention, provoked me to research the history and current conditions of imprisonment, and enabled me to imagine social change.

LDJ: Talk to us a little about your desires, intentions, and aspirations for your own work and for creative practice / your extended community / the public  in regards to this space where storytelling, art, beauty, and learning are so intertwined.  What are the next projects and steps for you? Will this production carry on?

Did I miss anything you’re dying to bring into discussion?

RL:  I would love to continue performing this production beyond the 6 shows at Invisible Dog.  Four years for 6 shows makes a strange equation. That said, creatively I am ready to move on and have already begun my next piece.  I am picking up some of the discarded discoveries from these rehearsals. When making CT/A  I noticed how excited I get when applying multiple formal constraints simultaneously  and developed insights into  the ways I can give the dancers more agency in the authorship of the work.  I came across the performer instructions and score for Terry Riley’s In C and think they will prompt a fascinating process. Overall my main aspiration is to have a sustainable practice, an ebb and flow of development and production.  Ideally, I would step into the studio the week after we close and start the next work, but reality is that  I will need to raise funds and find resources.  The time it takes to develop work makes it difficult to feel as if I have an ongoing dialogue with the public, I would like to find ways to change this limitation.  

DTL:  Coming Together / Attica is part of an ongoing project for Newspeak exploring the history of riots / uprisings in the United States.  Later this month, in Washington DC, we’ll be premiering two new pieces from this project, Ruby Fulton’s The Way Of The Mob, and Randall Woolf’s Blind Pig.   We’re also premiering a new work by Corey Dargel called Last Words From Texas, which is a setting of last words from death row inmates before execution.

We’re hoping we’ll have the chance to perform this project with Rebecca many more times, and plan to release a studio recording of our version of the Rzewski down the road.

 

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