Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Living Earth Show at the Sutro Baths

Travis Andrews and Andy Meyerson (from the Web page for the “Tremble Staves” program notes)

Late yesterday afternoon The Living Earth Show (TLES), the duo of percussionist Andy Meyerson and guitarist Travis Andrews, presented its site-specific performance of Raven Chacon’s “Tremble Staves.” The site was the flooded ruins of the Sutro Baths, located at Lands End and managed by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. As was observed in the preview article for this performance, Chacon’s work is “a synthesis of mixed media installation, manipulation of natural and artificial lights and sound, wordless opera, and theatrical performance.” TLES was joined in this performance by narrator Ashley Smiley, who prepared her own text, a quartet of electric guitars, and a prodigious number of percussionists distributed across the entire performance venue.

Attendance was by making a prior reservation at no charge, handled online by Eventbrite. Those “on the list” received preparatory material through electronic mail, including an account of the conditions at Lands End and a URL for program notes. That page informed the reader that the composition was in six movements, each titled with a noun for a particular body of water. Presumably it was no coincidence that the title of the final movement was “Sound,” thus concluding with a connection between the different categories for bodies of water evoked by the respective movements and the nature of the listener experience itself.

Chacon is Navajo and thus part of a culture that has developed in a context of scarcity of water. However, the issue of availability of pure water has become a global one. “Tremble Staves” is less a Navajo perspective on water and more a reflection on an approaching crisis of water shortage for the entire world, rather than the more modest southwest region of the United States. Nevertheless, contemporary thinking has tended to undermine concepts and value systems of this area’s indigenous population, including the basic precept that, due to its scarcity, water has a sacred value.

Nevertheless, “Tremble Staves” was far from a soapbox for the promotion of cultural perspectives and value systems. As consistently seems to be the case, a TLES performance is ultimately “about” exploring new approaches to performance. Whether what is performed can be called “music” is entirely in the mind of the listener. Nevertheless, no matter how far this duo pushes its what-is-music boundaries, I keep reminding myself of the fundamental question, “Have you got a better word for it?”

In my own approach to yesterday’s undertaking, it seemed as if the music was there to provide context for experiencing the environment itself. While I was free to wander around the space, I was content to remain where I was seated, letting my eyes do the wandering. I had an excellent view of the four guitarists being led by Andrews (who was dressed from head to toe in a mosaic of mirrors), most likely (but not necessarily) following a path through a series of improvisations. One of the many percussionists was sitting right behind me, allowing me the perfect view of Meyerson’s conducting work from a distant corner of the remains of a wall that used to enclose the bathing and swimming areas.

However, the most engaging moments probably came from the fourth (“Channel”) movement. This was apparently about a cello that drowned in the pool nearest to the audience. Meyerson went into the pool to tend to it and then assisted Smiley in bringing it to shore. Rather than attempting artificial respiration (willing suspension of disbelief permeated the entire performance), Meyerson took out a pair of his mallets and began to play the body of the cello as a percussion instrument. It was brought to the space he shared with Andrews, and his solo work evolved into a duet.

For me, “Channel” turned out to be the most memorable occasion of the entire composition. Perhaps that was because, for all of its absurdity, it had the most humane infrastructure. On the other hand it may just have been that it was easier for me to “get the semantics” than was the case in any of the other five movements. Nevertheless, it was the overall experience (including getting from the bus stop to the venue and then finding my way back to the bus stop) that made the deepest impressions on memory. Being there was as much a part of the performance as were any of the contributions by the performers themselves.

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