Tag Archive: avant-garde

  1. Long Live the Revolution! (But Keep out the Wannabes)

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    Two pieces of information for the artistically inclined regarding the Beinecke’s new exhibit, “Fun on the Titanic: Underground Art and the East German State.” One, Céline Dion and James Cameron are nowhere to be found, so no worries there. Two, when you go, don’t take any poser hipsters. The exhibit surveys the samizdat (underground art) culture of East Germany in the final years of Communism. Most of the exhibit consists of pages from underground zines and black-and-white photos of dingy rooms in which groups of artists congregated. A lot of it feels eerily similar to the American underground of the 80s and 90s. Their art takes cues from German Expressionism, just like Jean-Michel Basquiat. They adore the Sex Pistols and Patti Smith. They’re sort of exclusive, and, by extension, cool; you have to know the right people to access the samizdat. As its name promises, the exhibit is fun; it’s also cool, sick and totally subversive. Take the wrong friend, however, and that’s all you’ll exclaim to each other: “This is so cool!” “Oh my gosh this is sick” and “Wow, totally subversive.” The colorful, grotesque work immediately strikes you, but there’s a distinct iciness that’s easy to miss.

    The exhibit tells the story of several artists who risked their lives to create their art. In fact, the deleted “entire” movement was spurred by the expulsion of Wolf Biermann, a popular folk singer who criticized the East German regime. Artists aimed to attack the communist government through underground zines made using labor-intensive silkscreen and Xerox machines (presses were off-limits). Performances and parties had no proper venue. Instead, artists had to use private homes or dingy bars.

    Viewed in context of the regime, the art samples and photos take on a sharper, darker edge. The Jesus fish with sharp teeth isn’t just funny. Graffiti that says “Make Love Not War,” isn’t just empty hippie posturing. The exhilaratingly angry and beautiful neo-expressionism becomes more grounded than the cerebral art created in America in recent decades.

    In spite of the anger and ice, the exhibit makes clear that resistance was thrilling. The exhibit and its accompanying essay provide a solid overview. Around the peak of the movement, artists founded a workshop called “Eigen+Art,” a play on the German word for idiosyncrasy so that it became “Our Own Art.” Like the punks they loved, these artists found freedom in transgression.

    “Fun on the Titanic” takes a dark turn towards the end, chronicling artists’ departure from the movement under government duress and interrogating the samizdat movement’s legacy. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a key member of the movement, Sascha Anderson, was revealed to be a member of the secret police. (One artist later dubbed him Sascha Asshole.) This fact led many to question the entire samizdat as a project of resistance. Was the underground simply a tool of the state like the chimerical Brotherhood in Orwell’s “1984”?

    Maybe not. After all, many of the artists continued to denounce the ruling regime when capitalism was instated in a reunited Germany. Coca-Cola replaced Big Brother as the avant-garde’s enemy #1.

    In 1990, after the Wall had fallen, the underground zine Bizarre Städte published these words: “this revolution … is perhaps: a smile in the clinical pathology of human history.” The Titanic might still be sinking, but we may as well make some art on our way down. Long live the revolution — but keep out the posers.

  2. Talk of Our Town

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    “Wherever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense,” says the character of Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”

    These words resonate with many of our day-to-day frustrations. It is the role of theater, though, to cut through that nonsense. The best art takes the human mess of experiences, beliefs and commitments and finds in it something intelligible and beautiful.

    One leaves “Our Town” with a swelling sense of the preciousness of life: a feeling that is sentimental but also undeniable, like the play itself. Set in Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, it is really about every town, and every human community. It follows two next-door-neighbor families, who could stand in for any family. The play’s strength is its universality.

    Long Wharf Theatre’s production, which opened last week, tries to pull the play into the 21st century. About half the cast are people of color, for one thing; this diversity seems to be the result of choosing the best actors around rather than a political statement.

    But there’s a fine line between universality and being generic, and other choices are less successful. The actors wear modern middle-class clothes — jeans, flannels, t-shirts — and in doing so take away the play’s specificity. In a work already in danger of feeling generic by attempting to represent everyone, the highly specific setting — small-town, turn-of-the-century New Hampshire — grounds “Our Town” and shouldn’t be forsaken so quickly.

    The two lead actors’ approach suffers from the same miscalculation as the costume design: in trying to be every couple, they fail to register as convincingly unique people. They are appealing and charismatic but feel too much like caricatures.

    What this production has in abundance is polish — from the sleek online ads that appeared on my computer last week (with a laudatory review by the New Haven Register, which also happens to be the show’s “Media Sponsor”), to the changeable backdrop and smooth lighting. The cast is strong, and the iconic role of Stage Manager, who acts as narrator and tour guide, is played with warmth and authority by Myra Lucretia Taylor.

    The venue is an expansive room with seating on three sides of the stage. “Our Town” kicks off Long Wharf’s 50th season, and most of Wednesday’s audience came straight from a party marking the occasion, held for season-ticket holders. Illustrious guests included former New Haven mayor John DeStefano Jr. and a nephew of Thornton Wilder himself. The audience’s ritzy evening wear made for a peculiar contrast with the working-class life celebrated in the play, but the intermission schmoozing revealed that these people made up their own kind of community. The woman I was seated next to told me many of the audience members had sent their kids to the same schools.

    When originally staged, the play’s unconventional form was too progressive for many. Its risks still feel bold and fresh: the thoroughly broken fourth wall, the actors planted in the audience, the surreal cemetery scene, its division into acts called “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage” and “Death and Dying.”

    Yet “Our Town” is avant-garde without being cold. The third act builds to an intense emotional pitch and eventually had my whole row in tears. How many shows can you say are imaginative, warm, beautiful, heartbreaking? Those are adjectives I am reluctant to throw around, but “Our Town” demands that you give in to its all-embracing humanity, brought alive and writ large in this big-hearted production.

  3. Loud and Awesome: My Take on Classical Music

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    I may be the person least qualified to write this review in a five-mile radius. Me reviewing contemporary classical music by Yale graduate students is like George Bush having a fine art exhibition. But that happened. So, let’s call it a Davenport tradition.

    My ears are really happy. I don’t think that’s how The New York Times critic would have phrased it, but it’s probably how he would have felt. “New Music New Haven,” held at Sprague Hall on Thursday night, featured four strange, beautiful and wildly divergent compositions — three by current School of Music students and a finale by guest composer Paul Dresher.

    One string-quartet piece, by 23-year-old Jesse Limbacher MUS ’15, was billed this way in the program: “Inwardly expressive, elusive, and mystical; its inevitable paradox is its human nature.” Just as unhelpfully, Limbacher introduced it as being akin to walking around an abstract sculpture. But he sold himself short. The music was muted, as though heard through a fog, with flashes of clarity. It summoned up its own cinematic world, dark and in flux, starting with barely-audible scratching. Its moments of lush beauty were brief and powerful.

    The first two pieces were only slightly more conventional: The one by Michael Laurello MUS’15 sounded like a deconstructed rock or jazz band, with indecipherable rhythm but undeniable verve. The trio by William Gardiner MUS ’15 also had bounce and a compelling arc. The piano was used for percussion at times and like a synthesizer at others. Gardiner’s past as a studio engineer informs his work, which sometimes involves actual electronic media and amplified instruments, according to the program.

    The star of the evening might not have dwarfed the Yale students who performed before him, but he certainly made the most bewildering and awe-inspiring impression. Sometimes described as “post-minimalist” but witty enough to prefer the term “pre-maximalist,” Dresher is a composer, academic, performer and instrument inventor whose mind clearly works at a frenetic pace. He prefaced his segment with a whirlwind explanation of the instrument he would use (his own invention), how it works (don’t ask me), what his collaborator would be doing (hitting a black panel with mallets) and how the black panel works (don’t ask me).

    The instrument was a sort of oversized electric guitar but with only four strings. Called the Quadrachord, it was 10 or 15 feet long and hooked up to a laptop. As Dresher began to pick at strings, his collaborator manipulated and intensified the sound with his four electronic mallets, each of which produced its own set of notes.

    It was loud, and it was awesome. Vaguely Indian melodic progressions yielded to a wild percussive performance by the duo. The electronic manipulation was complex: There were loops and delays, and at some moments the lag between the men’s movement and the music created a sort of hallucinatory, disorienting experience. The two were wizard-like, to say the least.

    Afterwards, the audience members were free to examine the equipment onstage, which, though it had a futuristic shape, was all actually quite simple.

    Before the whole thing started, a fellow attendee warned me that I was in for a “weird kind of music that gets boring after 10 minutes.” Presumably he was trying to relate to someone my age, but he underestimated the appeal of the avant-garde music. Though I retired my Stradivarius in fourth grade, the concert held my interest for well over 10 minutes. There are more concerts in the “New Music New Haven” concert series in November, February, March, and April, each following the same format. Until then, you can find me building the Pentachord — watch out, Paul Dresher!