Friday, September 17, 2021

Counterproductive Media Overload at SFJAZZ

Githinji Wa’Mbire, Omar Sosa, and Amaury Acosta taking a bow at the conclusion of Motherland Journey with Wa’Mbire’s “motherland” creation in the background (screen shot from video of last night’s performance)

Last night Cuban pianist Omar Sosa returned to the SFJAZZ Center, having presented there, three months earlier, the first public event since lockdown conditions were imposed in March of 2020. That earlier occasion was a solo concert. Last night, on the other hand, involved roughly two uninterrupted hours of Sosa at a diversity of keyboards (along with an African xylophone) accompanied only by percussionist Amaury Acosta, who had an electronic keyboard of his own.

However, this performance, entitled Motherland Journey, was not so much a concert as it was a multimedia happening, somewhat in the spirit of the happenings of the Sixties but with far richer technology. In the spirit of the Sixties, however, center stage was occupied by Kenyan-born visual artist Githinji Wa’Mbire, suggesting that the music was there primarily to establish an environment in which Wa’Mbire could “do his thing” (as we used to say in the Sixties). That “thing” was basically a bricolage assembled from the array of materials that Wa’Mbire had laid out in the center of the stage; and his acts of assembly were supposedly inspired by the music improvised by Sosa and Acosta.

Relatively early in the process, one realized that the shape of the object resembled that of the African continent (presumably the “motherland” of Sosa’s title). That shape began to emerge about half an hour into the performance with no suggestion that roughly 90 minutes remained until its completion. After about an hour I found myself sympathizing with Pope Julius II (at least as portrayed by Rex Harrison in The Agony and the Ecstasy), who commissioned the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and then spent at least half of the next three years nagging Michelangelo about when it would be finished.

Under better circumstances, an uninterrupted two hours of improvising by Sosa and Acosta might have been more appealing. However, that improvisation deserved attentive listening unimpeded by distractions from the breadth of inventions deployed by both musicians. Those distractions came not only from Wa’Mbire but also from the conversion of the Miner Auditorium into a venue for a monstrous light show. For those in the audience, this probably amounted to an “immersive environment,” which may have been intended as context for the three artists on stage.

My own vantage point, however, was through my computer screen. Over the course of two hours, I was able to establish a relatively thorough catalog of the many visual effects that were being experienced by those in the audience. Nevertheless, this was no easy matter, because the video direction for the live-stream was, at best, haphazard, meaning that, at its worst, it was little more than irritating distraction. Indeed, even efforts to appreciate what both Sosa and Acosta were doing with their respective instruments were undermined; and, if that were not enough, too much of the overall duration involved audio levels that made many of Acosta’s polyrhythms virtually inaudible.

I am sure that Sosa had the best of intentions in conceiving Motherland Journey. Indeed, there was something visibly joyous in how he executed his keyboard work. Unfortunately, little of that joy could permeate through the overloaded multimedia treatment. Should Sosa choose to revive this project for another performance, he might do well to dwell on the less-is-more precept.

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