Friday, April 15, 2011

Guggenheim sinks the Titantic in style

I'd never really given much thought to Gavin Bryars' 1969 piece "The Sinking of the Titanic" (which originally came out in the mid 70's on Brian Eno's Obscure label) until 2007, when Bryars revived the piece with turntablist Philip Jeck and the Alter Ego ensemble (there's also a recording for Point Records from a few years earlier). The 2007 version was stunning- not only for the static that Jeck added to make it sound old-timey and historical but also the gravity and sadness that Alter Ego brought out from the piece. It was mournful but also sweet, thoughtful and touching.

I'd seen it performed as part of the Bang on a Can marathon recently but when I also heard that the Guggenheim Museum in New York was going to host a performance, it seemed irresistible considering the performance space itself. Also, this was a production from Wordless Music (to be performed by the Wordless Music Orchestra itself), which has a great reputation for putting on memorable shows.

Last night when they started us out an the museum's small below-ground theater, my heart sank a little as I wondered why they weren't going to use the main space of the museum, which would make for an incredible sonic and visual experience. But it was obvious something interesting was going on when I noticed that there were no musicians or seats or music stands on the small stage. Also, there was supposed to be a 25-piece orchestra and there was no way that they'd fit there.

About 10 minutes before the show, bells started clanging over the speakers and several men dressed in white uniforms came out to the sides of the stage as an announcer said "We will be boarding in 10 minutes." The bells and announcer came back at 5 minutes and then when the show was supposed to start, the announcer said that the stewards would lead us to the cruise.

Everyone got up and followed the stewards through some back doors and up a few flights of steps until we came into the main rotunda of the Museum itself. The orchestra was at ground level and we were scattered along the spiral levels of museum to look down below at them (see photo above). The group had a string section, horn section, percussionist, singers, a guitarist and a guy playing laptop/electronics.

The playing was sublime as each section traded off passages, esp. the clanging percussion. I also noticed that there were life preservers strung along the balconies and that there seemed to be lifeboats at some of the side areas.

About half-way through the piece, the stewards appeared again, walking past all of us and calmly saying "The boat is sinking, please follow me." They lead us down to the ground level to stand around the musicians in a circle as they played the rest of the piece right in front of us.

While this was going on, they had some elaborate lighting above us that scanned the upper levels of the museums and then slowly sank downward, no doubt to capture the sensation of the boat sinking.

It was a beautiful, sublime experience. An elderly woman asked me what I thought of the performance as I walked out. I only had one word for it: "wonderful."


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