nytheatre.com review by Scott Mendelsohn
November 16, 2005
Described as a multi-media piece, Shelter is exactly the kind of hard-to-categorize performance for which the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival provides a home. Exquisitely conducted by Brad Lubman, the piece uses orchestra, film, and a trio of sopranos to meditate on the idea of shelter—an evocative notion which to this team of artists includes the simplest of protective spaces, but also the storms which need to be held at bay; the grandeur of architecture through the ages, but also the transitory nature of even the most impressive edifice. The imagery also asks us to consider the mundane comforts of home, the isolating nature of suburbia, and the longing for emotional refuge. With very little melody to be heard, waves of minimalist arpeggios and minor scales merge with a constant stream of film images and projections, all carefully orchestrated in an oceanic flow. Ultimately the piece is a sort of poetic thrill ride, evoking the vulnerability and ingenuity of human civilization in the face of the awesome natural and social forces of the earth, and distilling them into a compact construction of sights and sounds for concertgoers.
The BAM Harvey Theater is my favorite theater in New York; with its carefully and beautifully designed sense of decay and age, it is the perfect setting for this piece. The German orchestra musikFabrik sits onstage beneath a skeletal set of four natural wooden arches, but the performers relate themselves to the audience as they would in a traditional piece of concert music, leaving me to sit back in my chair and let the music and images wash over me. The sopranos who make up trio mediæval are dressed in '50s style white cocktail dresses, with white scarves and pumps, and form a sort of Greek chorus, observing the images and singing their responses in carefully sequenced scale fragments, extended contrapuntal polyphony, occasionally singing together in choral harmony. The words are carefully enunciated and beautifully sung in the disembodied straight tone of early music, though the dissonant minor music and driving rock / minimalist rhythms are anything but old-fashioned. The singers’ Norwegian accents further strip the text of any sense of normal conversation. Any sense of individual identity is held in abeyance to the larger formal structure of large-scale chamber music.
The film images move with the fluidity of a dream across an enormous theatre-sized screen behind the orchestra, and a second set of images on a scrim in front of the orchestra. These two surfaces create a light box in which lives a constant tide of images moving on top of images, in a visual equivalent of harmony. The visibility of the orchestra within this visual stream never lets us forget this is a presentation—not a movie of a story to get lost in. The first movement begins with footage of a stormy ocean crashing against a boardwalk, and the last movement shows 80-year-old, deteriorating archival film of a town adrift in a Katrina-scale flood. The severity of the flood images, displayed for poetry and beauty in conjunction with a symphony, sat oddly given my awareness of recent natural and human disasters. It was a curious luxury to sit in the shelter and sanctuary of a concert hall, contemplating such images of devastation.
Between these images of overwhelming natural power, the projections modulate through a haunting sequence of images: rapidly moving shots of the desert, like the opening to some existential road movie, fade into giant, abstracted images of frame houses, over which flutters a giant, ghostly lace curtain. Time-lapse images of children sleeping summon a parental desire to protect them from the storms and speeds that preceded. The fourth movement, “American Home,” reaches for a sort of grandeur during which the singers sing a list of materials used to build a house: “concrete – 20 yards / reinforced steel – 1000 feet / lumber – 1000 2 x 10’s, 2 x 6’s, 2 x 4’s.” Composed with a square bombast, the projections include exquisitely textured architectural drawings, epically filling the space over the stage. The projections move slowly, creating a sense of the entire room rising to the heights.
The fifth movement, “Porch,” displays comforting old home movies from the '60s of neighbors or a family relaxing in their yard. The music and text, however, prophesy modern, technological conveniences: “First came screens against the bugs / Then came glass against the chill / … The street became so loud with cars and trucks / Passersby diminished / Inside there is air-conditioning.” The movement of the films gradually fades into a long, electrical line across the stage, like an old TV set’s spark before shutting down. This allows the three singers to come downstage and sing a beautiful contrapuntal piece directly to the audience: “I want to live where you live.” For the first time, they sing directly to us, almost as if they had emerged from some cybernetic TV void to seek the simplicity of direct interpersonal contact.
For all the sturm and drang—literally!—the piece achieves only a very formal connection with the audience. The rhythmic intensity, the visual density, the polish and virtuosity of the ensemble add up to a remarkable clarity and directness that left me feeling alert and intrigued. Somehow, though, I wonder if the materials of the piece—involving 30 artists—might have more to offer than a sense of aesthetic satisfaction. Nevertheless, it left a pleasant taste in my mouth—a sign of how far the techniques formerly known as avant-garde have come.