Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

I, trombonist

November 05, 2007

Sandeep Bhagwati
Photo: Kate Hutchinson
While the two most over-hyped performances of the year were playing out upstairs at Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend, a much more auspicious debut was taking place below ground in the same building. Here the REDCAT presented the world premiere of a genuinely inventive musical theater work, Vineland Stelae, from Indian-born composer Sandeep Bhagwati. Bhagwati has trained and worked throughout Europe over the last two decades particularly in Germany. He has long been interested in the intersections between different artistic forms of production across genres and cultures producing a wide variety of both musical works and installations that exploit these collisions. Vineland Stelae continues in this tradition by exploring the dichotomy of improvised versus composed music and the tensions inherent in theatrical versus musical works. He accomplishes this by creating a piece that is less musical theater and more theatrical music. Widely improvised, the work operates within the context of a more rigid but non-conventional musical structure.

Vineland Stelae is organized around an untitled poem the author wrote in the mid-90s using only 9 letters of the alphabet – I, T, E, N, D, L, A, S, and V. The 29 musicians in his orchestra are grouped into small units each assigned to a specific letter with the letter I being represented by a solo trombone played in this instance by the renowned composer and performer Mike Svoboda. Svoboda is stationed in the center of the theater on a raised square platform with the audience surrounding him on all four sides in two or three rows. The rest of the orchestra is arranged in groupings of three to four players in 8 stations around the audience each corresponding to the remaining 8 letters. The vowels are stationed to the East and West while the four percussion groups (metal, wood, skins, and mallets) are located in the corners and the final two consonants, D and S, fill the North and South. Svoboda then engages each group in a dialog of sorts rapidly turning around and around again as each cluster is engaged in roughly the same sequence as the letters occur in the poem.

Mike Svoboda
At first this seemed like somewhat of a hollow proposition, but as the piece went on it grew progressively more hypnotic and seductive as it developed extended solo and duet combinations between Svoboda and Vicki Ray on the prepared piano, Aashish Khan on the sarode, Rachel Rudich on the shakuhachi, Vinny Golia on the contrabass flute and Swapan Chaudhuri on the tabla. The groupings began to not only interact with Svoboda but also with each other in ways that weren't always in the confines of the overarching poetic structure. The playfulness between musicians as well as Eastern and Western cultural elements was at times dazzling and heady. This is what I like to think of as the musical effect of a Jacques Rivette film where the work stops being about the contrived silliness of what it appears to be and enters a more sublime world with a language, economy, and beauty all its own. It was a wonderful evening as the 90 uninterrupted minutes flashed by seeming all too briefly. Three sold-out crowds were lucky enough to hear the piece which will hopefully have a life elsewhere outside of the REDCAT. But for those who want another local taste of Baghwati’s work, you’re in luck – Vicki Ray is scheduled to perform Inside a Native Land, a work based on the same poem and similar structure, next week during her Piano Spheres recital at the Zipper Concert Hall on Tuesday November 13th.


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