Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Art, in three sizes

The Annual Hong Kong Arts Festival is in town.

This year, I chose to restrict myself to two shows, and then a third one got added on by diktat of the Power That Be's. As it happened, the three shows were all within a few days of each other.

The first of these was last Friday. I was in pretty bad shape due to an attack of food poisoning, but it's not that often that good music comes round this way. So skipping Friday's show wasn't even an option. It was a jazz show, the performers were called the San Francisco Jazz Collective. Going into the show, the only thing I remembered about this gig was that the brochure had said they'd be playing an evening of Monk covers and Monk-inspired tunes. What more does one need to know, anyway? As Manuel would have put it, I knew naaathing.

Our tickets were excellent -- just a dozen rows from the stage. Taking my seat and picking up the program, I was pleasantly shocked to see that Joshua Redman was headlining. I've never had the privilege of seeing him perform, but he's definitely up there with the best these days. So that was good. The other thing I learned was that this Collective was an annual coming-together of band-leaders, each one a composer in their own right. This is the fourth year they've been playing together, and each year they pick on a different ATG whose work they build on. Sounded good.

The band came on stage. It truly was an all-star cast. As this review from the Arborweb puts it --

Redman is the front man, but the Collective is a multigenerational mix of first-class musicians, most of whom are leaders in their own right. Redman shares the front line with the majestic trumpet player Nicholas Payton, trombonist Andre Hayward, and Miguel Zenón on alto sax and flute. ... Payton seems able to fit in any style without sacrificing his individuality. Hayward, who also plays with the Lincoln Center orchestra, is a rising star on his instrument. Zenón is a fiery soloist with a distinctive cutting saxophone sound who combines modern jazz with Latin elements to great advantage. They are joined by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, a leader in the experimental movements of the 1960s and one of the most original instrumentalists in jazz. Indeed, Herbie Hancock was a sideman on some of Hutcherson's classic late-1960s Blue Note albums.

The rhythm section ... consist[s] of Renee Rosnes on piano, Matt Penman on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. Rosnes has established herself as a powerful modern jazz pianist with a fabulous technique, but she's also a distinctive composer. In sum, this is an all-star group of top-notch soloists, but it has a collective identity that is defined by the arrangements of older material mixed with wonderful new compositions.

And that's exactly how it was. For two hours they transported us to a different place, which is exactly how great music should be. They played a number of Monk classics (of which my favorite was their take on Bright Mississippi) interspersed with their own compositions. The highlight of the whole show for me came right at the end -- with a piece called Union, written by the drummer. It started off with a wonderful long snaky duet between Redman on tenor and Zenon on alto. They played long winding lines that twirled above, beneath, around, and between each other, mirroring ideas, bouncing, lines, completing phrases. This was like Garcia and Lesh, and that's the highest praise I can give. Eventually, the rest of the band came in, one by one, and built to a thundering climax. (At least, that's how I remember it.) It was great.


The next show was the very next evening. Same venue, almost the same seats -- just one row ahead. Youssou N'Dour -- I knew we were in for a very different kind of treat. His band, the Super Stars of Dakar, consisted of three percussionists -- a regular drummer, a gent wielding a djembe flanked by bongos, and a magician with a talking drum. There was also a bassist who double on keyboards, a rhythm guitarist, a lead guitarist, and a female backing vocalist.

My first exposure to Youssou's music had been way back in 1988 when he'd visited Delhi on that Amnesty International tour, with Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and that crowd. Even back then, his searing crescendos had burned into me, and I remember that sound clearly all these years later. At my parents' place in Delhi last month I'd come upon a CD of his, which my mother had picked up in Dakar recently. I played it, but the sound had seemed different. Going into the hall on Saturday, I was hoping for a screaming hot performance.

We got one. If the drum solos, duets, and trios didn't get you out of your seat, nothing ever will. The band was tight and they knew how to put on a show. Youssou took a few songs to warm up, then opened his throat and let it soar. And to top it all off, there was a dancer -- an extroverted gent who bounced onto the stage at various random points and pulled off running backflips and somersaults for fun and profit. It was a riot.

The capstone performance again came at the end, but it was a solo. Youssou introduced the song by saying -- "When people (I love the way the accent makes it go "peepol") think of Africa, they normally think of three things. 1. Poverty. 2. AIDS. 3. War. This song says that there's more to Africa than just that. Africa is also for happiness." With that, he launched into this slow, haunting melody which stretched out and built up to a spine-tingling climax. I caught a couple of the last few words. They were -- Kwame Nkrumah! Steven Biko!

I clapped.

The only downer of the whole show came after I returned home and found this clip online. It showcases an excellent performance -- a teeny little worse than the one we'd just seen. What bothered me was that the two were almost identical in every sense.
Oh well.


The third evening -- Tuesday -- was an unmitigated disaster. It was a Cantonese play, called Tian Gong Kai Wu, or The Practical Guide to Imaginary Inventions. Sounds good enough, I daresay. (I mean, I'd almost definitely never go to a play on my own steam any more. I used to be such a huge theater freak, but the thrill is gone.) I allowed myself to be taken there. The brochure had said there would be subtitles. Actually, they flash them on a little screen above the stage, so they're called "surtitles". Anyway, no kicking, no screaming.

It started off a little strangely, with the set consisting of ten footstools arranged in a row downstage, and three women who came out and sat along the left wing, reading from identical white books, even as the lights were up and the masses settling in. Eventually the lights dimmed and they started talking -- to the audience. Each woman said one line in turn, and each line started with the words, "I, Hui-Hui, ..." The essence of the message being conveyed was pretty much, "I, Hui-Hui, don't know if I exist."

We realized it was an avant garde play. Not just regular avant garde, but what we used to call a-vantt, garr-dee.

A single light-bulb came on upstage. A man sat at a table, typing on a laptop. The voiceover-track sounded like a typewriter. The man was typing sentiments that were similar.

Eventually the story started getting a move on. It was set in the 1930s, and featured a young man whose passion it was to make radios, and a young woman he met by virtue of the fact that she could hear the frequencies at which he transmitted his Morse code. She was wilful, but that didn't stop him from marrying her. Even in those days, presumably, it was hard to find a receptive wife.

The story meandered on at the pace of a bullock cart (an entire scene featuring a bullock cart journey where the newlyweds pointed out landmarks in the middle distance). Every once in a while, a random cast member would walk onstage and place something - such as a sheaf of hay, or a typewriter - on one of the footstools that were lying there. Meanwhile the man continued being passionate about radios. The woman developed a crooked spine due to a genetic disorder that none of her descendants seemed to suffer from. Most of the plot development came at moments when all the characters stood to attention and one of them spoke to the audience, telling them about things that had happened. Eventually the World War started and the woman died.

That was pretty much the first act. As the lights went up, we checked our watches and realised an hour and a half had passed. We stretched and were preparing to make sarcastic comments about pointless plays, when we heard the numbing announcement: "There will now be an intermission of fifteen minutes."

The second half of the play has to be the worst performance I have ever seen. It started with a "robot" -- a woman dressed like C3PO, perched on a footstool upstage (the old-fashioned one had now been replaced by modern folding stools). The robot spent about fifteen minutes discovering how to move its limbs in modern dance manner, while sitting and then standing on its footstool. It then went and did its modern dance thing around the rest of the stage, which had now gotten filled up with 1960s style bric-a-brac -- sewing machines, a 12" b&w television in a cabinet, and so on. Several people stood around, frozen.

We realized that some years had passed, and we were now looking at the son and daughter-in-law of the couple featured in Act 1. The son was crazy about a lathe; the daughter-in-law was a myopic typist. They told us about their life, just as their parents had. Suddenly everyone came to life and presented a bunch of advertisements -- for hair gel, clothes, sewing machines, and a couple of other things.

Then everyone froze again and C3PO came back onstage and danced around. At some point the grandson of the original couple indulged in some eve-teasing. At which the girl he was chasing vomited into a trash can she'd been carrying, and then everyone else also vomited in sympathy. Then (forgive me if this is sounding sketchy, my food poisoning misery had been supplanted by a badly infected throat, so I might have been blanking out in bits) all the cast members started coming out and putting more footstools on the stage, randomly. After a while, they'd put a stool, sit on it for a few seconds, then get up and walk off. Eventually, when the stage had over a hundred stools on it, eight of them appeared and stood on random stools and sang a song. Then everyone walked all over stage, sometimes stepping up on a stool, sometimes walking on the stage surface. Meanwhile the screen flashed Chinese characters that the surtitles translated as: "Man creates the Past". "The Past creates Man." "The Future creates Objects." "Objects create the Future." "The Future creates the Present." "The Present Creates the Future."

Finally, three and a half bewildering hours later, it ended. All I could say was that I was glad it hadn't been my choice.


Blogger Szerelem said...

food poisoning??? whatd you eaten?? (yes I know - am completely besides the point).

And dont talk about plays. It makes me miss London. They have awesome stuff.

3/08/2007 6:08 PM  
Blogger Revealed said...

LOL! Are you sure you didn't take some specially strong cough drops or something?

3/08/2007 11:21 PM  
Blogger km said...

Kawame Nkrumah! Oh my god, that's a name I hadn't heard in AGES. Damn you for making me feel SO old :)

You were there at the '88 concert? Just so you know, I *used* to harbor a deep resentment for all my Delhi buddies who did attend the show.

And I need to listen to some Youssou, man. It's been a loong time.

3/08/2007 11:36 PM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

So much more fun than the Other Cultured Person. Dare I say, "SO different from the family life of our own dear Queen!". (Can you trace that quote? Can you?)

Limewire is recalcitrant. gah.


3/09/2007 7:17 PM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

Hahaha - that description of the avant garde Cantonese play was phenomenal!
I can see that becoming a cult hit, if it ever makes it to YouTube.

3/09/2007 10:52 PM  
Blogger km said...

yeah, i was gonna ask, "didn't you have a video cellphone in there"? You could have been the king of YouTube (or gasp, even BoingBoing).

3/09/2007 11:09 PM  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

Food poisoning? Again?

Youssou N'Dour...Tracy Chapman, Peter Gabriel, Sting...and Springsteen! And, to this day I kick myself for having missed that show...even though I was in Delhi :-(

'The Practical Guide to Imaginary Inventions' - Now that's one play I'm going to cross off my list.

3/12/2007 1:23 AM  
Blogger Revealed said...

I would like to blogroll you...(?)

(that was an implied question)

3/12/2007 5:00 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

not sure, buddy. must have been something vegetarian.

i sure wish i had.

well, actually... i was a snob back then as well, so i made it a point to not go... :-D

i could if i tried, but i'm too lazy to switch on google right now.

well yes, but the surtitles might be too small to read. (and *then* where would they be?)

what, me video cellphone? shiva shiva.

what do you mean "again"?!

(how's that for an implied answer?)

3/13/2007 11:59 PM  
Blogger Revealed said...

Perfect :)
(since I can construe it to mean whatever I want :P)

3/14/2007 7:19 AM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

Hmmm....snide reference to my vegetarian food choice?
And you're back....mailing you as you requested.

3/14/2007 12:00 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

Only problem being I don't know you email add! and its not listed on your profile...
Anyway, I dont have any plans for summer. I graduate in April...everything is fluid re what happens after that.

3/14/2007 12:04 PM  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

Usually, "again" is a reference to things that have happened in the least once ;-)

Didn't you say you've had it once before...something to do with someone's cooking? I couldn't have imagined it all!

And, I'm with Szerelem...any snide reference to vegetarian food will not be tolerated!

3/14/2007 3:12 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

exactly. eye of the beholder, et cetera.

what, you're *still* vegetarian?! no wonder!
(oh, no email addy? darn, i do a good job of protecting myself. it's 'rastabula at gmail').

woops - i guess what goes round comes round, eh?

3/15/2007 12:13 AM  

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