Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)

October 31, 2019

in Concerts, Performance Art

Concert, Performance

Produced by Arktype
In Cooperation with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Composed by Bryce Dessner
Libretto by Korde Arrington Tuttle
Featuring Words by Essex Hemphill and Patti Smith
Directed by Kaneza Schaal
Music Direction by Brad Wells

Featuring Roomful of Teeth
With Alicia Hall Moran and Isaiah Robinson

ArtsEmerson
in association with Celebrity Series of Boston
Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre
October 30 – November 3, 2019

Roomful of Teeth: Sarah Brailey, Martha Cluver, Eliza Bagg, Viginia Kelsey, Thomas McCargar, Thann Scoggin, Cameron Beauchamp, Eric Dudley

'Alistair Butler' by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1980

“Alistair Butler” (1980)
Robert Mapplethorpe
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Courtesy of ArtsEmerson

A performance by the amazing vocal octet Roomful of Teeth featuring photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe.

This beautiful, eerie, somewhat monotonic, but still engaging concert/performance is a kind of religious oratorio. With the outstanding and innovative Roomful of Teeth populating the stage, no moment passes without recognition of their superb musicianship and the effects of their profound and extensive explorations of the possibilities of the human voice. Though the music has a superficial uniformity to it, the incantation-like effect is salutary and the subliminal vocal extensions by the performers give a subtle interplay to that singular overall surface shape of the thematic lines.

A libretto of disjointed but evocative poetry is displayed on screens above, behind, and sometimes in front of, the singers and the accomplished orchestra which sits behind them. As the words appear in conjunction with their being sung, Mapplethorpe’s photographs are displayed in sequence. Many of them are male nudes, but there are also plenty of portraits.

The effect, overall, is mesmerizing. Though the words are disjointed and the music is fairly monotonous, there is something about the quality of the performance that suggests a modern variant on the Gregorian Chant. It repetitiousness and lack of dramatic alteration provides much of its continuous charm, but, as noted above, is subtly modulated by the voices to fill out a rich environmental sense of the invoked tonalities.

Check out the Roomful of Teeth site to get a sense of all of the different international vocal styles and techniques that inform their performances. It’s kind of amazing.

The effect of listening to this superbly rendered chanting along with the sometimes dramatic photos suggests a kind of meditative requiem for the decades in which AIDS ran rampant. Though that is not invoked specifically in the libretto or the photographs, the history and placement of the Mapplethorpe photographs, and Mapplethorpe’s own death in 1989 of AIDS, suggests that motif.

A singular African-American actor sits facing the audience at the outset and positions himself on the corner of the stage throughout the performance. He serves as a kind of witness to the goings-on and a dramatic invocation of the subtitle of the work Eyes of One on Another. His presence suggests the active and intentional kind of observation that Mapplethorpe sought in his work and is a reminder of the focus, intensity, and passionate disposition of that stance.

– BADMan (aka Charles Munitz)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Kendall November 9, 2019 at 7:50 am

Leave it to BADman Charlie to create such subtle distinctions between sounds and emotions and imagery. Can always rely on nuanced interpretations- a pleasure to read even if the show is long gone.

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