What does music look like?
That was the question that Squonk Opera proposes to answer with its latest show, Mayhem and Majesty, which opens the second week of a four-week run tonight, 12/17/13, at the 59E59 Theaters in Midtown East.
Pittsburg-based Squonk, now in its 21st year of performing the creations of composer/artists Jackie Dempsey and Steve O’Hearn, has been asking (and perhaps less-importantly, answering) provocative questions for two decades. This is their first time performing Off-Broadway since 2000.
Based on this weekend’s press preview, I’m not sure that particular question was ever answered. But then, it may be unanswerable. Music, after all, doesn’t look like anything. Instead, it is what music evokes in people, whether performers or audience, that is is the answer. In some ways, the artists don’t have much control over that. But that doesn’t stop Squonk’s Dempsey and O’Hearn from working hard to evoke as well as provoke.
In contrast to Squonk’s 2012-13 Go Roadshow, a multimedia extravaganza which has toured the country playing outdoor gigs on the back of a flatbed truck, Mayhem and Majesty takes place in the more controlled environs of a theater. Thus, the circus atmosphere and even the “operatic” feel of a larger show were less apparent. Mayhem and Majesty feels more contained by its space.
Though it is presented as a theater piece with a “cast,” not a “band,” I experienced it as neither opera nor theater, but as music with visuals, in the tradition of theatrical rock concert, or performance art piece with music. In that way, it is still more akin to a rock concert than theater. And while the visuals were interesting – the opening and closing umbrellas near the climax (pictured) were hypnotic and simultaneously mechanical and organic in feel, and there were many charming visuals, such as having Dempsey play a ghostly synthesizer while it was suspended on long beams and “floated” in front of her – what was most striking was the music.
Dempsey and O’Hearn seem to divide their duties somewhat, with Dempsey focused on the composing, and O’Hearn on the visuals, but O’Hearn is also a magnificent wind player, someone able to blow hard and fast at one moment, and to make an entire song out of the rhythm of one well-played note, on another (“One Note Wonder”). He is also a charismatic presence, with an apparent wit and whimsy.
The music in Mayhem and Majesty ranges from minimalistic and slightly discordant to lush and ethereal, and I caught references (real or simply evoked) to the jazzy math-rock of Frank Zappa and the minimalist lyricism of Philip Glass. Drummer Kevin Kornicki was hard-hitting on the kit and subtle on the Zendrum, a midi-triggered electronic percussion instrument, (on “Open Waves”), and his sustained aggression was one of the signatures of the performance. Cue the mayhem.
Contrary to most concert layouts, Kornicki was at the front of the stage, as was Dempsey’s grand piano, while guitarist David Wallace stood behind the piano. But his outbursts of hyper-distortion, contained yet ready to burst out at any minute, as he did on “Dr. Feedback.”
Singer Anna Elder, a more recent addition to the band – sorry, “cast” – is a dynamic singer, combining classical styles of nearly operatic vocalizing with a physical presence that added to the theatrical nature of the show. She moved around the stage interacting with the others, in a sort of acting as she sang about “Melodious madness/Combusting concordant chaos/Burn it to build it/Mostly made of trash and magic.” But the lyrics were hard to make out at many points, so the focus was squarely on her voice, so beautiful and precise, soaring especially free on “So Long Song.”
That the content of the lyrics was hard to make out, even when audible, was OK. The show-opening introduction of Mayhem and Majesty warned us not to expect narrative, and told us that the show would be done “without words.” So even after Elder opened her mouth to sing, I wasn’t expecting explanation from the lyrics; and I didn’t get it.
Which raised another question: What the hell was THAT about?
It doesn’t matter, really. If it’s about music, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Squonk captured “what music looks like.” The music was so dynamic and compelling that I, for one, didn’t feel the need to understand it in any other way, lyrical, visual or even theatrical. Just listening to it unfold in surprising and satisfying ways was enough.
Miss jackie jack jack jack
Squeezebox straps, straps, straps
And silver spring, spring, springs
Coming from her back, back, back
Says to her band, band, band
Everybody play, play, play
And on her command, command, command
We do what she say, say, say
She says jump and we jump
She says fly and we fly
And when the devil come, come, come
We spit in his eye, eye, eye