From Graphic to Sonic: New Works at Outsound 2012

Starting tomorrow, Sunday, at the Community Music Center in the Mission is the week-long Outsound New Music Summit, an annual festival, now in its 11th year, showcasing the best from the avant garde and new music scene in the Bay.

Like last year’s summit, this year opens with the (free) “Touch the Gear” expo, a chance for you to wander around and play with all kinds of sound-making gear, everything “from oscillators to planks of wood with strings attached.” Monday night is the (also free) “Composers Symposium” where John Shiurba, Christina Stanley, Benjamin Ethan Tinker, and Matthew Goodheart, four composers who will premiere works at this year’s festival, talk about their various composition techniques and creative processes. Three of the four featured composers will be presenting their work at Thursday night’s “The Composer’s Muse,” an evening curated by flautist, composer, and Outsound organizer, Polly Moller.

I talked with Polly about her curatorial choices and what to expect that night.

Christina Stanley, Matthew Goodheart, John Shiurba

“I picked composers whose work I had experienced before and who I was confident anything new they did for this festival would be really interesting, deep, and accessible and engaging,” she says. Of the three new works being performed, Moller has heard just one piece—John Shiurba’s—and that is only because she is performing in it. The other two will be complete surprises, though as Moller says, “I have faith in these artists.”

The evening opens with composer, violinist, and vocalist Christina Stanley, who will present two graphic scores, both 40×40 oil and charcoal on canvas. One will be performed by her Skadi Quartet, the other a duet for cello and violin.

“Christina Stanley is a fairly recent Mills graduate,” Moller says, “and I had the opportunity to see her work performed at their Signal Flow annual festival of student work. I made note of her at that time because she had this beautiful, large graphic score and she was playing violin and singing as part of the ensemble. The visual aspect combined with the beauty of what was being played made me remember her.”

Next up is sound artist Matthew Goodheart, who combines unusual piano techniques with sonified metal percussion. Moller chose to include a piece by Goodheart because “he has impeccable academic credentials and I’ve always admired the sheer intelligence and complexity, and yet just sonorousness of his work.” She asked him to create new work for this year’s festival and he said that “he would evolve and elaborate on his amplified symbol works. So, this is what we’ll be getting this time around.”

Headlining the evening is composer and guitarist John Shiurba with his 9:9, a suite of nine pieces to be performed and interpreted by nine musicians, including Moller, though lest anyone thinks otherwise, “it was after I confirmed with him that he would present this work that he asked me to be a part of it. The two are not connected!” His 9:9 follows a previous suite he did using a number matrix called 5:5. You can read an interview Moller did with Shiurba about his work earlier this month.

Like Stanley, Shiurba’s work also involves a significant graphic element. As Moller explains, “Some of the music is written out in standard notation and some of the music is written out on musical staves but using numbers instead of notation. And the graphic score part of it is small cut-outs from newspapers, and graphs and charts from newspapers, but with all their captions removed so they can be interpreted musically. There are also small cut-outs from the comic pages.” Laughing she adds, “There’s one of Garfield and the musicians have been arguing about who gets to play Garfield.”
The very idea of a graphic score is something I find fascinating. Until recently (specifically at last year’s Outsound New Music Summit), I had never heard of this technique. Without a doubt, the highlight of last year’s festival for me was a performance by Italian guitarist IOIOI (Cristiana Fraticelli) who performed an unseen (by the audience, that is) and rather mysterious graphic score by Kanoko Nishi. I was so blown away by that performance that I awarded it a Live ‘n’ Local Completely Non-Arbitrary, Totally Objective, and Fully Informed 2011 Music Award!
I was glad to hear from Moller that for Stanley, unlike Nishi last year, “it’s an essential part of her artistry [for the audience] to see the graphic score.” I’m hoping I might develop a better understanding of the curious process involved in musically interpreting a non-standard visual. I asked Moller, as a musician, how she works with graphic scores.

“The graphic score is used to convey instructions to the performers in a way that standard notation can’t get across,” she says. “This is a more organic and more abstract way to communicate composer to performer. And when I’m given a graphic score to perform with, as I’m doing in John Shiruba’s piece, I take the composer’s instructions about it very seriously. But ultimately the picture that’s there is connecting with my musicianship on a non-verbal level, on an improvisatory level, and it’s cuing me in the moment to do something. And I decide what that is based on color and form and just inspiration in the moment.”

In an interview Moller did with Stanley, the composer explains how the various visual components—different media, colors, and shapes—come to have significance for the musician performing her work.

“Each shape has a technical or timbal meaning for the performer,” Stanley says. “Intensity of color always translates into intensity of sound, but the color itself is up to the performer to interpret. I personally don’t have synesthesia, but color has an extreme emotional impact on me, much like music itself. The gradations of the color in the score are relative to gradation in dynamic or timbre, or both. I usually create a key for performers, and though some forms are consistently interpreted throughout multiple scores, they do change and new ones are introduced.”

Of the other nights of the festival, Moller says she is most curious about Friday’s percussion night, “Twack! Bome! Chime!” She elaborates: “I have a lot of faith in Pete Martin’s ear as a curator, and I’m interested in a whole concert made up of percussion, because I know what diverse timbres and sounds can come out of that. And I’ve never heard most of the artists, so I’m looking forward to that one.”

Wednesday night’s performance, “Sonic Poetry,” will present three distinct collaborations between some of the Bay Area’s leading poets and music improvisers, the first of which features one of my personal favorites, percussionist Jordan Glenn. For an in-depth look at the collaborative work of Wednesday night’s headliners, composer Jon Raskin and poet Carla Harryman, check out the Wedge Radio blog.

The final blow-out on Saturday night, “Fire & Energy,” features four different free improv-inspired ensembles.

All the details for each night can be found on the festival schedule.

Meanwhile, Moller has just started a regular radio slot called DJ Post-Pink’s Inner World, which you can hear Tuesdays from 3am to 6am on KUSF-In-Exile and also archived later on her blog. Explaining where she got the title, she says, “It came about because Amar [Chaudhary], when he’s writing his blog, he often has auto-correct errors, and he was writing about something and was trying to say ‘post-punk’ and instead it came out ‘post-pink’.”

And I had thought Moller was making a feminist statement! Turns out, she was. She liked the auto-correct error for that very reason. “That’s exactly what I mean by it, because I detest the color pink and its anti-feminist implications. So I am saying: I am DJ Post-Pink.”

Now, there’s a graphic waiting to be sonically interpreted!

Polly “Post-Pink” Moller will be presenting “The Composer’s Muse” on Thursday July 18 at the Outsound New Music Summit at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, San Francisco. The evening will begin at 7:15pm with a Q&A with the three composers, followed by the performances, which start at 8:15pm.

Hidden Depths

In the past year or so, I’ve not been attending so many dance performances, primarily because I was finding myself routinely bored out of my mind by most of what I was seeing. I kind of gave up on dance.

Last weekend, however, Liss Fain Dance premiered its performance installation, The Water is Clear and Still, a collaboration with designer Matthew Antaky and composer Dan Wool, with selected text from Jamaica Kincaid‘s collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River. It sounded like a performance I ought to check out, not least because of my pal Dan’s contribution to the piece, a subtle and evocative sound score that conjured a variety of shifting moods, landscapes, and textures.

Matthew Antaky’s installation at Z Space. Photo by Frederic O. Boulay

Entering the Z Space (the old Theatre Artaud), a venue in which I’ve seen many multidisciplinary dance performances (and co-produced two!), I was immediately struck by its radical transformation. The front bleachers had all been removed, leaving a dark emptiness where the audience normally sits; and the stage, at its full 60-foot depth, had become like a dreamy, under-water forest. Antaky’s installation consisted of several towering, geometric-looking, tree-like structures made with panels of what at first appeared to be mottled green glass. Closer inspection revealed the panels to be ingeniously constructed from pipe and plastic wrap! The majestic “trunks”—all straight lines and angles—were crowned with thin, wiry branches, sparsely adorned with leaves, creating a surprisingly organic effect. Fallen leaves dotted the black Marley.

Although the audience was invited to move around the space and perceive things from different perspectives throughout the performance, the dance area, upon which no audience member ought trespass, was clearly delineated by three adjacent white rectangular spaces. Sepia-toned images of twisting branches floated like shadows across the floor, and the green lighting gave the whole environment a sub-aquatic feel. The total visual effect was quite stunning.

Six dancers moved between the spaces, seamlessly shifting from solos into duets, into solos again. A dance would begin in one space while attention was already on another, these shifts in attention prompting corresponding shifts in physical perspective. A voice was heard, at first distant and disembodied, but nevertheless fully present. Then amidst the surrounding busyness, the compelling figure of actor Val Sinckler emerged from the proverbial shadows, slowly but surely revealing the true heart of the performance.

Val Sinckler in The Water is Clear and Still

To say that Sinckler “spoke” or “performed” selections from  At the Bottom of the River might be an accurate statement, but it would utterly fail to capture the depth of her relationship to Kincaid’s “stories” (more on that later). If flesh and blood can become a text, then this is exactly what Sinckler did. She embodied Kincaid’s words and images with such clarity and presence that many in the audience, apparently, assumed she actually was the author.

My favorite part of the evening was a section called “Girl,” a story consisting of a series of directions from a Caribbean mother to her daughter (the troubled mother-daughter relationship being a recurring theme) on the proper way to do sundry tasks: “Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil.” During this section, the dancing and the text were at their most integrated. Sinckler moved amongst the dancers, gracefully mirroring their movements, while she offered them various instructions (“This is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well.”). It felt, for the first time in the performance, that the dancing had penetrated to that deeper layer Sinckler’s character already naturally inhabited.

It’s hard to know what to say about the text that could truly capture its power. Before this performance, I had never heard of Kincaid, though some of my more literary friends assured me she was a writer of significant talent. During the piece, there was so much going on competing for attention, it was difficult to devote enough cognitive bandwidth to fully absorb the text. And it was clear that it was a text that warranted complete attention. Although described as a collection of short “stories,” Kincaid’s writing jumps between disjointed moments without any over-arching narrative. There are fragments of conversations, recalled impressions, pictures painted. Many things are suggested, though never explicitly spoken. Scenes move between shadows and light, between the beautiful and the grotesque.

I wished I was already intimately acquainted with the text, or (given that I wasn’t) that I was better able to focus on it during the performance. At times, I wished the only performer in the piece was Sinckler. While I appreciated the precision and control of Fain’s dancers, I didn’t find the choreography especially interesting. I wanted to see something with more edge, something that explored the full three-dimensionality of the space, that played more with the particularities of Antaky’s installation, rather than relegating it to the background shape against which some dancing took place. But mostly, I wanted to see less, and understand more. I wanted the dancing to have a smaller role in the entire performance, for it to be used more selectively (and thus, more powerfully).

But despite my best efforts to concentrate on the text, it was the dancing that ultimately managed to dominate much of my attention. I suppose, sudden or rapid changes in the visual field is something we are naturally inclined to pay attention to, like when you repeatedly find your eyes fixating on that TV in the bar, even though you have no interest in whatever is happening on the screen.

The water at the bottom of the river may indeed be clear and still, but I wonder if the most effective way to communicate that is by pointing to the obvious perturbations on the surface.

Outsound New Music Summit Celebrates 10 Years

The annual Outsound New Music Summit, possibly the best kept secret in local music festivals, is celebrating its tenth year of showcasing the most exciting new music, experimental jazz, sonic gadgetry, electronics, and noise art from the Bay Area and beyond.

Inventor Walter Funk will be performing on Saturday's "Sonic Foundry Too!" finale event.

This year’s festival, which runs July 17-23, promises to be full of surprises, both for the uninitiated and for summit veterans. Taking place in the San Francisco Community Music Center in the heart of the Mission District, each evening’s events are organized around a different theme.

Starting things off on Sunday night is the aptly named “Touch the Gear” expo, a free event that attracts kids of all ages. This is a unique chance to play with lots of different one-of-a-kind gadgets and inventions, acoustic and electronic instruments, and effects pedals of various sorts. And yes, you can push the buttons.

Monday night’s panel discussion, which is also free, features four local composers in conversation with Outsound’s Polly Moller. Despite the scary-sounding title of the event—”Elements of Non-idiomatic Compositional Strategies”—Moller assures us it will be an informal conversation, not too cerebral or stuffy. Imagine hanging out with your composer friends over a couple of drinks and quizzing them about their creative processes. Later in the week, you can hear world premieres from the four featured composers.

You can see bran(...)pos perform at Wednesday's "Face Music"

After a break on Tuesday, the summit returns with Wednesday’s “Face Music,” an extraordinary-sounding event that features Theresa Wong, Joseph Rosenzweig, Aurora Josephson, and bran(…)pos (AKA Jake Rodriguez), four musicians who all use their faces in weird and wonderful ways to create a variety of sounds and textures. Don’t be surprised to see mics being put in places you never thought you’d see a mic! As summit and Outsound Presents director Rent Romus says of this event, “You never know what to expect…”

Thursday night’s “The Freedom of Sound” performance is focused on non-idiomatic, free improvisational music. There will be three very different performances ranging from operatic avant-rock to free jazz, with Tri-Cornered Tent Show, Positive Knowledge, and Grosse Abfahrt performing. Apart from the poem libretto in the first performance, everything will be freely improvised.

Krys Bobrowski's metal pipes and balloons

“The Art of Composition” on Friday night premieres new works from the summit’s four featured composers, Krys Bobrowski, Andrew Raffo Dewar, Kanoko Nishi, and Gino Robair. Each piece has been composed especially for the event. Some of the descriptions of these new works sound very intriguing, like Bobrowski’s—a “series of short pieces exploring the sonic properties of metal pipes and plates and the use of balloons as resonators.” Can’t wait to see what that’s all about!

Saturday night’s big finale “Sonic Foundry Too!” co-presented by Thingamajigs, brings together ten sonic inventors—one for each year of the summit—to collaborate on five different performances. The ten inventors are Tom Nunn, Steven Baker, Bob Marsh, Dan Ake, Sung Kim, Brenda Hutchinson, Sasha Leitman, Bart Hopkins, Terry Berlier, and Walter Funk. None of the paired collaborators have worked together before, so it should prove to be an interesting performance.

Dan Ake is one of the inventors featured in Saturday's Summit Finale

For anybody who is just a little curious about checking out the festival but not sure which evening to attend, Saturday night may well be the winner. Not only will you be exposed to cutting-edge sound installations and novel instruments made from metal, wood, string, plastic, rubber, and paper, but the display itself will also be visually stunning. One of the invented instruments that will be unveiled that night, for example, is over 12 foot tall! The evening promises to be an architectural and sonic treat, the likes of which you’ve never seen or heard before.

The danger, of course, of waiting till Saturday’s finale to attend, is that then you’d have to wait a whole year to have another chance to see such wild inventiveness and creativity in action.

Perhaps you’re more curious than you thought?

The 10th Annual Outsound New Music Summit (July 17-18 & 20-23) takes place at the San Francisco Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street @ 21st, San Francisco.

Zero Point

I should just stop going to see dance. That’s, at least, what I concluded the other night after attending Zeropoint, yet another underwhelming (though aptly titled) dance performance.

While I don’t want to place the entire burden for my feelings on this most recent performance—it was, after all, just one in a series of disappointments—it certainly put a nail in the proverbial coffin for me. And it reaffirmed the growing disillusionment I’ve been experiencing lately with regards to dance, particularly contemporary or postmodern performances, which is the kind I tend to see most often.

So, what’s the problem? Why is it that while I enjoy most of the live music I attend these days, which is remarkable, given how many times a week I attend such performances, I’m routinely bored out of my mind when watching dance, which happens only a few times a month?

If dance were simply not up my alley, that would be one thing. But I actually love dance and have loved it for as long as I can remember. Back in the day when I lived with a TV, I would watch any piece of crap that had dance in it. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I watched the movie You Got Served not once, but twice, just because of its incredible dance scenes. That’s how much I love dance.

What’s the point?

The point is . . . well, the point is that it’s beginning to seem like there just is no point. I’m not “getting it” anymore. I don’t know why these dance works I’ve been seeing are being created, what, if anything the choreographer wants to communicate through the work, and what I’m supposed to take away from it.

Or, if the point is clear, then I can’t seem to figure out what the point in making that particular point is, why anybody is supposed to find it interesting, or, at least, interesting enough to pay money and sit for over an hour just to be hit over the head with it.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that a lot of the work I see tends toward the avant-garde, or has obvious pretensions in that direction. I choose to see these kinds of works because I’m looking to be challenged in some way. I’m looking for a more active engagement with the piece. I want to be stimulated, provoked, surprised. I’m not interested, for example, in watching some anorexic ballet dancer perform a series of technically perfect movements that a thousand other dancers have performed a thousand other times in precisely the same way. Yawn.

The danger with avant-garde works, though, is that they can go too far in the opposite direction, eschewing so many of the traditional conventions of their respective art form that they become abstruse and inaccessible.

As Tyrus Miller, in his essay “Avant-Garde and Theory: A Misunderstood Relation” says, many people simply don’t understand avant-garde art:

In their perplexity before a painting with a goat’s head sticking out of it, or a recording that seems to consist mostly of shrieks and vaguely erotic grunts, or a poem that seems to have been written either by a moron or some sort of highly intelligent space alien, they may feel outrage, contempt, or just indifference. A slightly more servile response—from the person who knows it is supposed to be art, but still doesn’t get it—may be to fall back on a kind of low-level theory of the avant-garde: it’s avant-garde, it’s not supposed to mean anything. A more tutored response, perhaps shored up by literature or art history courses at the university, might be: the artist must be demonstrating a theory. None of these responses, I want to underscore, is foolish, but the last of our hypothetical art-consumers—the one who thinks a theory must be behind it all—is certainly more in tune with the tone of many of the current claims made by artists and by their publicists, apologists, and detractors alike.

The artist is demonstrating a theory. I can buy that, but here’s my problem with it. The artist may not be entirely clear on what precise theory she is trying to demonstrate. Or, she might know what her theory is but not know how to communicate it to an audience. Or, the theory might just be boring, obvious, and not very well thought out. And, good God, I came to see a dance performance! Is this really the medium in which to be demonstrating your theories? Write a goddamn book, or something.

It’s possible, of course, that the artist is not trying to demonstrate a theory at all, but rather is trying to provoke a reaction. Maybe I’m supposed to feel bored, confused, or alienated because the artist is making some commentary on how boring, confusing, or alienating life is. Or I’m supposed to reflect on my own boredom, confusion, and alienation, discover its source within, and somehow find that interesting enough to pay to see the show?

It could also be that the artist just doesn’t give a shit what the audience thinks or feels, if they “get it” or not. It certainly seems that way sometimes.

According to the description of this last performance I attended, the “part dance, part video, part radical social experiment” piece was supposed to tackle “questions of nuclear meltdown, multidimensional perception, and transformational world healing.”

What I got out of it was that both the choreographer and video artist have progressive politics and think that mainstream “news reporting” in the US is a joke. Great! Me too!! I think it’s safe to say that 99.9% of the artsy-fartsy audience in this hip Mission District theater also have progressive politics and hold similar views on the news media. Isn’t it so wonderful that we can all come together and share like this?

I would have found it a little more interesting had there been some new insight offered, something to challenge or subvert my own assumptions. If there was, then I didn’t get it.

As for the dancing itself, while there were enjoyable moments, as there usually are at these performances, I rarely see anything I haven’t seen before. With performances that utilize improvisational techniques a lot, the problem is that they can start to look like a Contact Improvisation jam with lights and costumes. I love to watch my friends play and dance together, but in a contact jam I’m able to join in or leave, manners intact, whenever I feel like it. And it costs a lot less money.

So, I find myself frustrated and disillusioned. I don’t want to subject myself to any more of this pointlessness. I want to be amused, thrilled even. I want to leave the performance with unforgettable images stamped in my mind. I want to find myself returning again and again to these images and to the thoughts and associations they have ignited in me. I want it to resonate in my body. I want it to inspire me.

Maybe the next one will be better.

I’m Not an Artist, I Just Play One on TV

Last month in Chiang Mai, I had some friends, Ichi and Magic, come visit from down south. We threw a party. With art and performances and stuff. Lots of people came. It was cool.

That’s me making a long story short. Now, here’s the long version…

Art & Performance Party at Baan Jing Jung

I met Ichi in 2010, when I was first living in Chiang Mai. He was one of the friends in our “Chiang Mai Vortex,” as we called it. A bunch of them were living at Baan Jing Jung, an artsy guesthouse just outside the old city. We were all creative types—artists, musicians, dancers, acrobats, writers, performers—who hailed from Thailand, USA, Canada, Kenya, Germany, Australia, and Ireland. Somehow, we all found each other in Chiang Mai and quickly became a hodge-podge family of sorts.

Ichi, an artist, designer, and DJ from Germany, is one of the few from our vortex still in Thailand a year later, though he is now based on Ko Phi Phi, an island on the Andaman coast. In January, he arrived in Chiang Mai with his friend Matinee AKA Magic, a beautiful Thai dancer who incorporates magic tricks into her dance performances. They were staying at the old haunt, Baan Jing Jung.

Co-host and magic dancer, Matinee Imchum

Ichi suggested we do “another one of those parties” at Baan Jing Jung while he and Magic were in town. Last year, we had collectively thrown a performance party at Baan Jing Jung that came together quite magically and blew all of us who were involved away. As they did not have very long in town, we decided to have the party six days later. I started inviting artists and performers to participate and, surprisingly, almost everybody I asked said yes.

Six days later, we had done everything we could have done in the time allowed. Ichi had designed a poster and flyer, I had been promoting like crazy online, and Magic had been networking around town. I was quite surprised that over fifty people had said they were coming on Facebook and I wondered how many of those would actually show up.

Nicholas Wiszynski

Nobody was prepared for the numbers that ended up coming. I was hoping for forty or fifty at best but well over a hundred people came. The place was so jam-packed with people that some late arrivers were unable to make it further than the garden path.

Chiang Mai, it seems, is thirsty for art and performance.

The evening started with Nicholas Wiszynski and a magic show that had everyone mesmerized and enthralled. Nick frequently had us in stitches too. A real professional. Then our English friends Shelley Halstead and Neville Powis followed with some hilarious improvised physical theatre.

Saran Suwannachot performing Fon Jerng

Suran Suwannachot, a local painter and musician, was next with a performance of a Lanna martial art called Fon Jerng. From the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries in northern Thailand, the Kingdom of Lanna reigned, which had its own distinctive language and culture. Chiang Mai was the kingdom’s capital and the people here are still very proud of their Lanna heritage.

Mostly when you see Lanna performances, they are of women dancing. It is rare to see men perform. Some of our Thai guests told me afterwards they had never seen or even heard of Fon Jerng before, so it was a real revelation to all of us gathered there. Many told me afterwards this had been their favorite performance of the evening.

The flying Kimberly Grace

Next, we had some drumming and storytelling by Paul Monson, who directs the newly formed Chiang Mai Playback Theater, an improvisational theater group in which audience members recount personal stories that are then “played back” for them by actors. The group were having their inaugural performance the following week, so adding another performance at such short notice would have scattered their energies too much, but Paul kindly stepped up to perform for us anyway.

Supreeda Wongsansee dancing Flamenco

Lorenzo Becchi from Italy, Kimberly Grace from Canada, and Daniel Anner from Belgium followed with a breathtaking acrobatic partner yoga performance.

Act I ended with Supreeda Wongsansee, who is possibly the only woman from Thailand who dances Flamenco. Her stunning performance was way too short as far as I was concerned, but that’s the way it was.

Act II, which featured a few short dance performances, was to take place inside the guesthouse. With the number of people in attendance, it wasn’t clear how we were going to fit everyone. We decided to have a leisurely intermission in the hopes that some people would leave before we had to herd everyone inside.

Contemporary dance by Komsun (Max) TimaryormThe available space in the guesthouse was somewhat challenging to work with. We had one big L-shaped room that had a staircase in the main corner. The smaller rectangular space in front we had designated as the performance space, so we asked everyone to crowd in together and sit behind on the floor and up along the staircase.

Komsun (Max) Timaryorm was first up with an impressive contemporary dance performance. Then Matinee (Magic) Imchum did a hot magic dance, followed by me and Edward Tio with two improvised Argentine Tangos, the second of which I performed blindfolded! I like to show off sometimes.

In the garden, two of my Thai artist friends exhibited their work. Orpan (Tikky) Sompim had some pastels and was drawing portraits of party guests all night. Sep Ilan (Pilan) brought fabulous new ink drawings he created just for our event and showed them with some matching dolls he had made.

Sep Ilan (Pilan) and his “Staying Alive” exhibit

Last, but not least, Meela Fenderhardt had a few old poems of hers hidden in various spots along the garden path. The lighting was not so good there, so I wasn’t sure if anybody actually saw any of it until just the other day when one friend mentioned how much she loved the poetry and that it had been one of her favorite contributions to the party. I’m guessing she figured out who had written it…

By all accounts, the evening was a major success and I was very happy to hear so much generous feedback from so many people. A common reflection on the event was that it had been “inspiring” and everyone wanted to know when the next one was going to be. While I remained coy in response to these enquiries, I had already decided that night I would try to do one for my birthday six weeks later. It sounded like a great way to usher in a new year.

Saran Suwannachot

So, here we are on the 25th. It’s my birthday. I’m throwing a party. A big-assed party. With art and performances and stuff. Lots and lots of people are going to come. It will be cool.

Thank you to Mark Meurs for the photos (including effects) and Noriko Yabata for the videos.

The Time I Almost Ran Away with the Circus

I was very fortunate to spend some time recently in Chiang Mai with Cambodian circus theatre troupe Phare Ponleu Selpak. Their week long visit here was coordinated by Ratchanok (Nok) Ketboonruang and her local art collective, CNX Art Connex.

I first learned about CNX and their work last December, when Japanese Butoh master Katsura Kan performed his Time Machine and taught a Butoh and Contemporary Dance workshop in Chiang Mai. I had just returned to Thailand after spending five months back in the Bay Area and was very excited when I heard that someone of his stature in the dance world was in town.

I immediately started spreading the word amongst the folks in my local dance community, Dance Chiang Mai, many of whom showed up to both the performance and workshop. Nok was very grateful for my help with promotions and thus began a series of conversations on life, dance, and art.

As I got to know Nok better, I started to learn about CNX Art Connex and their goals. She and I, we discovered, share a common vision for contemporary arts in Chiang Mai and find ourselves playing similar roles in our respective communities.

“Distant Haze” by Phare Ponleu Selpak

We became fast friends with an unspoken pledge to work together and support one another in our projects.

I had not heard of Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) when Nok started to tell me about CNX’s next project in Chiang Mai. PPS’s newest production, Distant Haze, which CNX was bringing to town, sounded interesting. Billed as a circus dance theater performance about children’s experience during the Khmer Rouge years, the few photos I saw from the performance captivated my imagination. I committed to helping out however I could with the production.

By then, I was part way through a long essay I’m (still) writing about Katsura Kan and his visit to Chiang Mai. Nok and I agreed that I should also write about PPS’s visit.

I was granted special permission to spend some time with the troupe and record a series of interviews with them, a privilege for which I’m very grateful. PPS are truly an inspiration, not merely because of the important socially conscious work they do, but also because of how, as human beings, they move through the world. It was always a delight to spend whatever time I could with them, to be in the presence of such joy.

They arrived to Chiang Mai late on a Monday night toward the end of January. On Tuesday evening, I made my way to the Alliance Française with much anticipation. There, at the pre-show Artist’s Talk, I got my first glimpse of the troupe and their talents. I also learned a great deal about PPS’s history and the incredible work they do with children and young adults in Cambodia.

I fell in love right away.

While seeing Distant Haze on Saturday night was certainly a major highlight of the week, so too was the day I spent with PPS out at a juvenile detention center on the outskirts of town. PPS brought a lot of joy and inspiration to the detained youth that day. I felt incredibly lucky to be there, especially as a Westerner.

One thing that really struck me about the experience at the center was the level of politeness and respect the detained youth displayed for their visitors, as well as the easy affection they showed to one another. I tried to imagine witnessing similar scenes at a juvenile detention center in the US, but it just seemed incongruous and not at all likely.

Over two weeks later, I’m still feeling the vibrations from the week that PPS spent in Chiang Mai. If you’d like to learn more about PPS and their time here, please read the essay I wrote (yes, this was just a preamble!) here:

Circus with a Social Conscience: Cambodian Theatre Troupe Brings Message of Hope to Thailand

And if you’d like to know when I’ve posted something new, please subscribe to the blog!!