Concertsdebby -- Sunday, June 08, 2003 -- 03:27:16 PM
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I went to what has to have been one of the most magical, hysterical, sincere, ironic, silly, glorious, hip, nerdy and just plain cool concerts ever performed, pretty much on the spur of the moment since I only heard about it a few hours before I went, last night. An "opera" of Strunk & White's Elements of Style, at the Public Library, to celebrate the publication of an illustrated version of the book by Maira Kalman, scored for soprano, tenor, viola, banjo, and assorted percussion elements performed by Kalman and some of her friends including Isaac Mizrahi and artist Bruno Jakob.
terrilynn posted a link to the New York Times article about this and I figured, what the hell, it's only $15, it sounds like it will be if nothing else a unique experience, let me head down to the library and see if I can get in.
Before the Show
In a very smart move I got there about an hour and a half early, when there were only three other people already waiting in the "No Tickets" line. It was a lovely night, mild, and surrounded by the fairy lights of NYC at night, including a straight-on view of the Chrysler Building, just hanging out against the library wall was a fun activity. The library workers seemed completely overwhelmed by the response, told us it was extra-super-duper sold out but we figured we'd take our chances. And what do you know, as the crowds began coming there was a regular stream of people with extra tickets who would come by and offer them to those of us in the line! What was truly wild was that the woman who came by with an extra ticket when it was my turn lives in my building! She didn't recognize me but she's a famous film producer and for various reasons the sort of person you'd notice if she lived in your building, so I recognized her and we had a good laugh about that. I offered to pay her the face value but she waved me off and I felt better because I happen to know her partner worked with Kalman and her husband at their design studio so I guessed they probably got it for free themselves.
We were ushered into this jaw-dropping room inside the library: . A cross between Grand Central Station and a robber baron's mansion's ballroom. The walls are lined with 7' bookshelves, and all along the top were votive candles. In the center was a diamond shaped open bar with water, soft drinks, wine, beer, and possibly even mixers though I didn't ask. Waiters were circling with trays of wine and water. Around the room, on easels, were some of Kalman's original paintings for the illustrations:
I didn't see this one there but it's the one the Times used. In one corner a tv was playing a black and white video Kalman must have made that was very French Surrealist in feel and featured, among other quirky things, the basset hound who must have posed for some of the illustrations.
Autographed copies of the book were being sold, so I lined up to buy one for my sister's birthday. Just people-watching in this crowd was entertainment enough. You had the older society types dressed for opening night at the real opera mingling with grungy hipsters with funky glasses, jeans and messenger bags.
Eventually we were herded off to the elevators. This proved problematic. Imagine trying to get a couple hundred people out of a grand room through a hall and into two elevators. Bottleneck! To keep us entertained along the route and as we waited was a scattering of young volunteers wearing t-shirts each with a different illustration from the book. Each volunteer remained silent but held up a piece of cardboard with a different excerpt from the style manual or a silly message in handwriting that appeared to be Kalman's. Frequently misspelled words. "Why Must You Go So Soon?" "Polly Loves Cake More Than She Loves Me." Some had line drawings of chairs on the verso.
Once we made it through elevator hell we arrived on the top floor and were entertained by more volunteers with signs and the majestic architecture and ceiling paintings as we once again bottlenecked at the entrance to the Reading Room.
It turned out part of the cause of the new congestion was that more volunteers were handing out the Program to the event. The Program which deserves a post of its own. It's a set of oversized postcards held in a brown paper sheath with a comb attached to the front. The comb has "The Elements of Style" embossed in gold on it, and the sheath is stamped with "hand-pinked" and indeed the top is clearly hand-pinked. Inside is one postcard with the details of the event, listing the performers, including the members of the "Omit Needless Words Orchestra" who are credited with "Playing the typewriter, eggbeater, duck call, assorted bells, clattering cup and saucer, CANunDRUM, cherry-pitter, meat-grinder, whistle, loud books and other humdrum but beloved objects." Then, nine other postcards each with an illustration on the front and the words to a movement, plus description of the accompanying music, on the back. Here are a couple of these stage directions:
Soprano solo with very light ensemble backing. Random, gentle events from the percussion table.
Bed (Duet)Soprano and tenor together with viola and Maira playing fake viola. Gentle, lilting.
Clutching our programs, we did our best imitation of the Tokyo subway at rush hour to squeeze into the door to the Rose Reading Room:
We all took seats at those long reading tables. You can kind of see in the vertical picture that there is a catwalk above the bookshelves which then crosses the room and has a small round clock at the top. Along that catwalk were tons of photographers and camera and boom operators. In the center of the room were the instruments. We all sat and waited and waited and waited.
Finally, 40 minutes late, the director of the NY Public Library Live! event series got up to the mic and talked way too long introducing the concert. Then the musicians filed in and a woman in bright orange and a man in a suit appeared on the catwalk above the clock. The men were all in dinner jackets but without ties. Mizrahi was grinning from ear to ear. They all were clearly enjoying the experience immensely. The music itself lasted about half an hour, a little more. With each song the two singers would walk to different places on the catwalk. There were nine songs and the style of music ranged from full on beautiful soaring arias to medieval minstral type rounds to something that could have been done by the Tiger Lillies. Some of the music illustrated the text being sung: the part on hyphens started out with a tenor solo but when it came to "The steady evolution of the language seems to favor union: two words eventually become one" at "two" the soprano joined in to duet. Sometimes the music was ironic: "Do not affect a breezy manner" was sung very breezily with the singers swaying back and forth and laying on the melisma.
The amateur percussion instruments were hysterical. In addition to the ones listed on the Program I noted: crystal glasses clinking together; silk fans; dice inside teacups; squeaky toys; a tid bucket marked "LARD"; a glass jar full of buttons, and my two favorites:
For the last line of Be Obscure, "Clarity, clarity, clarity!", all the percussionists took up Slinkys and shifted them up and down;
For An Approach to Style, a laundry list of rules whose stage directions were Amateur percussion introduce each line with a loud noise. Musicians and singers declare each line., each line started with a couple of the percussionists yelling the first word or simply grunting through megaphones, and in the middle of the piece one of the gentlemen and one of the ladies left the percussion table and walked solemnly to a nearby ladder which had an open dictionary at the top. The gentleman held the ladder and the lady climbed up. At the end of the line "Avoid fancy words", she slammed the dictionary shut.
For one piece Kalman, who was one of the amateur percussionists, went up into the balcony and played the "fake viola". She stood right above the clock with a viola and bow and acted out playing the viola as the real viola player played for real below. It was hysterical.
Needless to say there was a long standing ovation. My friend-for-the-evening gushed "That was amazing!" and I, by then feeling woozy from lack of food agreed and said "and if there's really free food downstairs it will get even better!" Little did I know. Back in the gorgeous room downstairs was a spread worthy of a black tie event, all free. Same open bar and four buffet stations. One had swordfish, beef, sausage, chicken and vegetable skewers with a variety of dipping sauces including a tomato based one and a mint mojito dip. One had veggie, chicken and beef panini being grilled and cut into bitesizes right there. One had little rounds of sweet breads with meat and relishes: cornbread with chicken, pumpkin bread with turkey (and cranberry relish), challah with brisket and red pepper jelly. The last, which I never made it to because my plate was overflowing, had smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers on pumpernickel. It was all delicious. I had stolen a mini pencil and scrap paper from the reading room and I took my personal groaning board over to a candlelit table and took notes as I ate and people watched. It was a satisfying end to a truly extraordinary event.
I think they may do this again. They were clearly overwhelmed by the response and it was so fantastic. Even if they don't, it was taped by more than one camera so I hope it will end up on tv at some point; PBS, most likely. Keep an eye out: the sound quality of the room was pretty bad so the sound might not do the music justice but it would still be a lot of fun to watch if you weren't there.
Sorry for the long post! I just couldn't bear to leave any details out, since part of the overwhelming charm was that they were so numerous and so wonderful. All that attention paid to something that was only $15, or in my case free! Amazing.
Damn! The Edit window has passed and I forgot to mention one of my favorite of the pieces.
Well, Susan (Instrumental)
The tenor simply spoke, not sung, the single phrase
Well, Susan, this is a fine mess you are in.
Then the entire percussion table grabbed everything they could and proceeded to bang, squeak and rattle it as cacophonously as possible.
OH!!! Imagine me jumping up and down with glee, while turning peafreakinggreen with envy. That sounds AMAZING.
I sent an email to the person on whose blog I found the links, linking your report. The internets, they are wonderful.
Artie, thanks for the wonderful description. I almost feel like I was there. Such serendipity in your wonderful city!
That sounds so extraordinarily fab! As does a Kalman-illustrated Elements of Style. Who is buying me a copy for Chanukah?
I saw the (late) Tibor Kalman show SF MOMA had some years back and got a kind of permanent nerd-crush on the Kalmans.
Thank you so much for the detailed report, rtb. If I couldn't be there, that's the next best thing. It sounds absolutely wonderful.
rtb, I heart you absolutely! You write the best damn reports ever. Your description could have been twice as long and it wouldn't have been too long.
(Meanwhile, Barthy, I have a two long poems about punctuation and prepositions you could sing to a clinking drinks and snarfing snack accompaniment. . . .)
Morning Edition's piece on the new "Elements of Style" edition. That link has a link to a gallery, links to some of the music plus the link to the audio of the original NPR piece.
J-Ro., I'll volunteer to be the giftee.
Last night we went to see The Tiger Lillies with The Grindhouse Marionettes.
I suspected I wasn't going to like the Marionettes because there were no music samples on their website, the video wouldn't download or play and the art was lots of photos of old grungy fucked up dolls.
We arrived at the Middle East at a bit after nine pm and there were maybe 100 people there, everyone was very quiet and clustered around the stage. On stage a woman in a sort of half assed playing dress up in a ball gown and clown nose costume was standing on a stool behind a man who was playing the banjo and he had strings tied to his wrists which she was operating like a marionette. He was playing the banjo and singing Americana type songs. It was a long, drawn out rather tedious sketch involving her wanting him to fall in love with him and him not. Or something. But every one was watching intently and applauding enthusiastically. I applauded like I would for a middle school production where you want to encourage the kids to keep trying.
There were 3 still photographers, a cinamatogropher and a videographer. The ratio of photographers to audience reminded me of my wedding.
The second half of the Marionettes was even more disappointing. Its like a band of art students put their heart and soul into their home made costumes but the skit was kind of gross for grossness sake and not very funny.
By the time the Tiger Lillies came out there were maybe 200 people in the audience which led me to the thought I have anytime I walk into a used book store, How do you guys make any money at this?
I spent most of the show doing the math, airfare from England, hotels, the tickets were only $12, how much of the door are they getting? Is that their piano? are they dragging that piano around? They must have rented a van...
At first I was wondering how an act that had made something as sublime as Shock Headed Peter could possibly be playing to such a small audience in Boston on a weekend night.
Then I heard their music. Shock Headed Peter was a little sick and twisted, grotesque, and very funny and focussed. This music was just sick and not nearly as uplifting as SHP had been. Some of their songs sort of reminded me of, say, Lou Reed's Street Hassle, only not as optimistic.
And though they are sick its not in a mainstream Ozzie Osburne, Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper way. Its more of a novelty act with the accordian and theatrical make up and playing the drums with toys sort of way.
During the show all the people from the Marionettes were enthusiastically photographing them. The audience was obviously very devoted and loving every second of the show.
After the show the Tiger Lillies went straight to the table at the back and began selling their own CDs and autographing them and posing for pictures and much to my surprise nearly every single person in the audience got in line and bought a CD and had it signed.
All in all it was a very odd night.
debby, that's hysterical. I bought the Gorey End CD and liked it a lot but now I realize I only listened to it once. While I was listening I took a phone call and my friend almost immediately asked "What the hell are you listening to?" and pronounced it "Very disturbing sounding" in the "you're not thinking of commiting suicide, are you?" voice.