Kihlstedt’s Monstrous Success

Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, an extensive taxonomy of fantastical creatures from various folklores and mythologies, is the inspiration for Carla Kihlstedt’s latest project, Necessary Monsters, a staged song cycle that recently premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Kihlstedt, a highly-regarded violinist, singer, composer, and bandleader who spent seventeen years working and performing in Bay Area, just recently transplanted to the East Coast to take up a position teaching Contemporary Improvisation at the New England Conservatory. She is best known for her work with experimental rock band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum as well as with the acoustic composers’ collective Tin Hat.

Necessary Monsters, a collaboration with poet/lyricist Rafael Osés, is Kihlstedt’s most ambitious project to date. The song cycle is staged for seven musicians and one actor. Each performer plays a different character, each one selectively culled from Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings. While Kihlstedt’s Necessary Monsters has existed in various forms for a number of years, this most recent incarnation is co-directed by Rinde Eckert, a writer/performer/director renowned for an ouevre that integrates musical and physical theater with philosophical musings that penetrate deep into the human soul.

Monsters opens with Kihlstedt sitting alone atop a ladder at the back of the stage while Denmo Ibrahim, the actor who plays The Collector—part zoologist, part Master of Ceremonies—carries nondescript white boxes onto the stage and arranges them in front of the elevated platforms where all the instruments are positioned. Dotted around the stage are ragged-looking signs indicating the various characters’ names. The scene is somehow reminiscent of Yeats’ foul rag and bone shop of the heart from “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”

The musicians, each one decked out in idiosyncratic style to reflect their characters’ specific traits, trickle onstage and take up their respective stations. It is The Collector’s job to introduce the characters in turn, giving each both its common and Latin name, its usual habitat, and its distinctive features and proclivities.

While each of the fanciful beings—with names like “The Squonk,” “The One-Eyed Being,” and “The Lamed Wufnik”—has bizarre and exotic qualities, it becomes clear that each represents different aspects of humanity, and indeed, different aspects of a single, albeit fragmented self. Osés poetic script and libretto poignantly capture the frailties and foibles of each character, extracting, often with humor, the right emotional resonance while avoiding even a hint of hackneyed sentimentality, and Eckert’s theatrical direction adds a level of physicality needed to bring the various monsters to life onstage.

The seven musicians involved in the project are outrageously talented virtuosos and multi-instrumentalists. Many, like Michael Mellender (also of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), move from percussive instruments to strings, then to brass with such ease you’d think they were simply changing their shoes. Add to the mix Kihlstedt’s singing, which at once embodies something earthly and fragile, and also something superlunary, something transcendent, the combined effect is utterly captivating.

Despite Eckert’s welcome directorial input, at times I felt like the staging was a little static. I wanted more physicality, more movement. The musicians, particularly Kihlstedt, do move around onstage, and who could forget multi-instrumentalist Freddi Price, who almost steals the show, as The One-Eyed Being is wont to do, with his hilarious song and dance routine?

Perhaps it is an inevitable consequence for that monstrous half-breed, the staged song cycle. It’s not quite a play, not quite a concert, but has essential elements of each. Striking exactly the right balance, no doubt, is difficult to achieve, especially with the challenge of having many cumbersome instruments that need to be positioned in a particular place, which naturally leads to the performers tending to maintain a fixed position. But having seen some of Eckert’s previous work, I think Monsters can move a little more in the theatrical direction without detracting from what makes it work musically.

Interestingly, a number of people I spoke to afterwards mentioned that they could have done without Denmo Ibrahim’s performance as The Collector. Granted, these comments came from composers, who might be more likely to find the one actor in the production dispensable (an unnecessary monster, perhaps?). One commented that her delivery was too much like slam poetry, an assessment for which I have no real experience to judge.

However, there was something about Ibrahim’s delivery that made her seem more Master of Ceremonies than monster. She does not embody a character in the same way that the various musicians do, which is odd, given that she is the only actor in the bunch. Her role as collector of these imaginary beings is obviously distinct; she is not supposed to be a monster in quite the same way. Yet, surely The Collector is a meta-monster of sorts—the narrating self, if you will—the self that chooses which of the other identities to amplify in a given situation. That conceit, it seemed, was lost in the production.

I also found it curious that after Friday’s premiere, I couldn’t remember a single tune I had heard that night. Contrast that with my Saturday night, when I attended Stravinsky’s Les Noces and afterwards repeatedly found myself singing its melodies to myself. It was pointed out to me, by someone who had also attended both shows that weekend and had noticed a similar phenomenon, that we had both previously heard Les Noces, which, to be fair, was not the case for Kihlstedt’s Monsters.

Still, given how engaged I was during the performance, I would have expected some melody or other to have stuck, but that was not the case. And while there could be no doubt in anybody’s mind who attended Friday’s performance that we were watching musicians of the highest caliber, there were times when it felt like this was a fact more known to me from past experience than perceived directly on the night.

Take Rob Reich (also from Tin Hat) or Dina Maccabee, for example, both sickeningly talented and versatile musicians. I would have liked to see them be given more room to shine in this production as I know they surely can. I’m not sure if it was Kihlstedt’s musical compositions or her own dominating stage presence that gave me the impression that not all of her musicians were being fully utilized, but it was an impression others who know how good these musicians are shared with me.

Quibbles aside, Necessary Monsters was a stunning success for such an ambitious project and I’m sure it will see many more successes in the future. YBCA’s Novellus Theater is quite large, so it made sense that there were only two shows in this opening run. However, given the nature of this particular beast, it would make sense to have a more extended run, which would provide sufficient time to allow some of the creases from opening night to be ironed out.

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Stravinsky’s Les Noces Reworked for Five Voices and Four Hands

Toward the end of Stravinsky’s “Russian” period, before he dove into Neo-Classism and twelve-tone music, he wrote a rather unusual non-symphonic piece for four pianos, percussion, and a full chorus. Like Stravinsky’s The Rite of SpringLes Noces (translated as The Wedding) was composed for the Ballets Russes. It premiered in the Parisian Théâtre de la Gaîté with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska in 1923, though Stravinsky had been working on different versions of the cantata since as early as 1913.

Looking for a new and ambitious project, local composers Dominique Leone, Kanoko Nishi, and Regina Schaffer decided they were going to tackle Les Noces and make a difficult work even more difficult by arranging it for just two pianos and five voices. Their goal was to stay as true as possible to Stravinsky’s score and capture the fullness of the original arrangement with a much paired-down ensemble.

The results?

We’ll find out this weekend when the ten-piece Ensemble Épouser premieres Les Noces at Berkeley’s Maybeck House. Meanwhile, take a listen to this remarkable recording with Nishi and Schaffer on piano and Leone doing all the choral parts, including the soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass soloist parts.

In case you’re wondering how that was possible, Leone uses a computer pitch shifter to reach all the high and low octaves that are outside his natural range. He also uses voice amplification pedals to double or triple the voice and thus give the effect of a chorus.

The recording is all the more remarkable once you understand the circumstances under which it came into existence.

“Dominique actually tricked us into doing the recording!” says Nishi with a laugh. While she and Schaffer were still just learning the grueling piano parts, Leone spent a month recording them, often only eight bars at a time, apparently for “a demo” to help him learn all the vocal parts.

“It was a very arduous process of stopping and starting and stopping and starting,” says Leone, who later edited all the piano parts together and then recorded the voice parts over them. After Nishi’s initial surprise when Leone released the recording, she was very pleased with the results.

However arduous recording Les Noces may have been, this weekend’s live performance of the piece presents its own set of challenges. As Leone explains, the five singers will be continuously switching in and out of different choral and solo parts with no rest, like they would normally expect to have in a choral performance. They will also have to deal with a lot of the same kind of technology Leone used in the recording, which presents somewhat of an onstage logistical quandary.

Another major challenge for the small ensemble they have put together, says Nishi, is “trying to embody the power of the piece as it’s written originally for a bigger ensemble, trying to accommodate that.”

Her approach to adapting the eight-handed piano for four hands has mostly been to choose what seem to be the most essential parts in each movement. But she also has broken up the different piano parts so that at a given time one pianist may be playing one hand from one piano part, and the other hand will be playing from a different part. Blithely summarizing her approach, she says, “I just try to make it convincing when I play that it’s written for four pianos somehow, so I can get people to believe it and hypnotize them.”

The biggest challenge of all, though, is simply Stravinsky’s score in itself, independently of the way in which it is being adapted for this particular performance. “It is a very very hard piece to start with,” Nishi says, laughing again. “So, that’s been the main challenge, more than the fact that we are doing a different version of it. The parts are just very hard for every single player.”

Leone agrees. “Stravinsky is a very difficult composer for singers,” he says. “He wrote some but not a lot of choral music. He is much more of a instrumental composer. For the singers, that means they have a lot of very tricky lines, a lot of very tricky rhythms, big leaps, lyrics that don’t really seem like they go with the melody that you’re singing. So, it’s kind of odd. You always think that something’s wrong and you never can quite feel it. So, that’s really difficult.”

This, of course, is all part and parcel of what attracts these music adventurers to such a formidable project. While Leone has been a fan of Les Noces for many years, Nishi was unfamiliar with Stravinsky’s choral work till Leone proposed the collaboration. When she first hear it, she too immediately liked it.

“It sounded so contemporary, the way he used the voice in relation to the crazy orchestration he has,” she says, adding, “His writing for piano is just always really amazing. And the idea of having four pianos I thought was really cool.”

Friday and Saturday’s performance of Les Noces will be conducted by Kate McLoughlin with Diana Pray (soprano), Elise Cumberland (mezzo-soprano), Danishta Rivero (alto), Dominique Leone (tenor), Alexandra Buschman (bass), Kanoko Nishi and Regina Schaffer (pianos), Jordan Glenn (percussion), Jason Hoopes (bass), and Mark Clifford (mallets).

Stravinsky’s Les Noces by Dominique Leone, Kanoko Nishi, and Regina Schaffer will be performed at 8pm on July 29 & 30 at the historical Maybeck House in Berkeley. Advance tickets can be purchased here.