The latest tooth-and-nail effort to save contemporary composition from its untimely death--you know, death before any more of it gets written--is to package it as theater. Local composer Mary Ellen Childs did this with Dream House, a chamber music-meets-video montage-meets-fancy stage-lighting piece she presented at the Southern Theater last fall. The show's artistic and box-office success seems to have awakened Minnesota's cluster of composers to revive the multimedia concert, the kind of fare that escapes the daunting-to-some classical-music designation and instead fits somewhere between the theater, film, and dance listings.
If there's something happening in new music, you can bet the St. Paul-based quartet Zeitgeist will be in the middle of it. Zeitgeist's Lowertown studio, affectionately known as Studio Z, is a Twin Cities epicenter of experimental sounds, a place where rehearsals, salons, jam sessions, and listening parties have a home. The place is littered with vibraphones, marimbas, and mismatched office chairs, which seems a comfort to Heather Barringer, a Zeitgeist percussionist. During our interview, Barringer maintains a courtly composure--legs crossed ladylike, blond mane freshly brushed, cat eyes fixed on mine. Studio Z will soon be cleaned up, she assures me--I imagine with buckets of bleach and sheets of muslin shrouding the cement walls--just in time to host Shape Shifting, the first in a string of Zeitgeist's anti-genre presentations. (Functioning as what Barringer calls a "living laboratory" for area composers, Zeitgeist has a half-dozen more mixed-media collaborations on its calendar.)
The first composer to get his multimedia chops on Zeitgeist was Scott Miller, a St. Cloud-based music professor and composer with a jones for electronically manipulated music. A few years back, Miller lugged his space-age sound-bending machine, or KYMA, as the hardware/software suite is known, into Studio Z for some playtime. Using a 15-pound black-box recorder, KYMA processes sound through a laptop, where it can be synthesized in real time. Understandably, the Zeitgeist musicians--two percussionists, a pianist, and a woodwinds player--were tickled by the chance to tinker with this high-tech toy. "Once we got the hang of it, we could tell that things were really clicking and we got some really fascinating music," says Barringer, "so we decided to put on a show."
Inviting a poet and video artist along, the troupe took KYMA for a ride and arrived months later at a production that ponders the kind of transformation KYMA makes possible. Shape Shifting is a non-narrative, 75-minute "sonic bath," according to Barringer, who handed me a CD recording of the music, a DVD recording of the video montage, and a sheet of paper with the libretto.
It was a perplexing puzzle to piece together atop my kitchen table, more of a muddle than a bath, with its discs and papers piled over one another. I quickly learned that no Shape Shifting element stands alone. The poetry, for example, jumps between kisses and fig trees, flames and silk, and reads like an adolescent beat knockoff before I set it to music. But as the text zigzags between sex and death, blindness and burning, so too does the music. One minute it swishes weightlessly in diffuse language and instrumentals, the next it's cheek-to-cheek in tango. When clarinet and percussive strokes accompany whispery, French-accented spoken word, Shape Shifting feels peaceful, intimate, and painstakingly crafted. Later, music swells to a full-band effort with loud Latin piano and drumbeats while the Gallic alto seems to be hollering about something licentious.
Rather than taking a cinematic, MTV-style approach, Zeitgeist and company have produced video tableaux that function as party favors, mood-makers. Abstracted lava, clouds, and subway trains connote movement and transition, painting impressionist pictures of where the music and poetry is headed. The pictures heave us from underworlds or distort, dissolve, and disappear altogether.
Pieced together, these elements evoke sense of place, be it an ambient underwater plunk or the thin-whistle mountaintop wind. Still, Shape Shifting is a mystery in that KYMA's wand disables the discerning listener from matching sounds to the instruments they came from--and that's precisely what Zeitgeist finds so alluring. "There are times when all I'm doing is playing with a pair of finger drums and you wouldn't believe what it sounds like," says Barringer.