“If our imaginations can lead us to profound, performative empathy, I believe even more strongly that the space of performance must be harnessed to imagine love instead of hatred. I need to believe that theorizing and documenting, witnessing and creating performance will continue to grace our lives with meaning, generosity, understanding, and memory, however provisional and fleeting.”
-Jill Dolan, forum on tragedy after 9/11
Before coming to Wesleyan, theater lacked definition in my life. I understood why I did it, to some extent, but I didn’t completely understand its role in society, in the broader picture of how I interact with the world. I loved doing theater with children for its educational and confidence building qualities, and I loved performing with my peers for its incredible power to build a community over a common goal.
Throughout my time at Wesleyan I’ve been given the opportunity to look at not just how we perform, but why we perform and what our performances mean. For my senior thesis this year I was particularly inspired by an essay called Notes About Political Theater by Tony Kushner. The essay is something of a manifesto on why the playwright chooses to make political theater and what in fact that term means. Mr. Kushner sees political theater as theater that responds to, that is reflective of, that understands events in contemporary society. He recognizes the stigma against political theater that prevents audiences from wanting to see plays that make them think, or make them feel guilty, then goes on to call to all theater makers to make good political theater that negates this stigma and allows theater to be used as a tool for understanding and sparking change in the world.
It’s a big idea. Yet, at the same time, it’s not. We live in a beautiful, awesome, marvelous world filled with pain, hurt, violence, and destruction. Mr. Kushner is not asking us to fill our plays with decay and depression, but rather to engage
with the world that we all must be a part of in everything that we do. Theater cannot simply be an escape from that world. It must be a response to it.
My thesis, Lift Your Head, was on Euripides’ Trojan Women, an ancient story about the devastation of war that has survived to resonate and share its wounds with modern audiences who still suffer through war. It was a capstone project for me in many ways, not least of which in helping me define what kind of theater I want to watch and be a part of in the future. I have come to realize that if and when I make and watch theater in the years to come, I want it to be political theater. I want to be a part of theater that understands that the world we live in is both challenging and amazing and attempts to address that world. This is not to say that I don’t and won’t enjoy the occasional musical or light comedy, but the theater that is most enjoyable is that which makes me reflect on how I inhabit, how we all inhabit this world, and the choices we make that affect it.
I am entering a completely different industry when I graduate at the end of this month, but theater will always play a huge role in my life. The ideas and ways of talking about theater that I have learned here will stay with me as I move forward from Wesleyan into that grand, awesome, and terrifying world.
Rebecca Seidel ’15 reviews the Thesis Art Exhibition, and sits down with Kamar Thomas ’12, to discuss his seven-painting thesis series, “me, myself, & i”.
For an incredible dose of fresh ideas manifested in artwork of all dimensions, I recommend heading over to the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery, where the Thesis Art Exhibition is currently in full swing. This annual showcase features select works from the thesis projects of seniors in the Department of Art & Art History‘s Art Studio program.
Each senior had a chance to display a larger sampling of his or her work last month, in more specialized five-day exhibits featuring five or six students each. This final exhibition brings all the senior theses together into a comprehensive spectacle. It’s astonishing to observe all the different concepts and media these seniors chose to explore. Even though each senior only gets to display one piece of art in this final showing, the walls still brim with evidence of all the thought and creativity that went into each project.
Evidence of this creativity is not limited to the Zilkha Gallery. If you’ve visited the main dining hall at the Usdan University Center recently, you’ve probably noticed that the back walls have a new infusion of color. Those vibrant faces that have caught your eye are two paintings from the thesis series of Kamar Thomas ’12, me, myself, & i. The Usdan University Center bought these paintings from Mr. Thomas and now has them on display.
All seven paintings in his thesis are self-portraits, each contributing to an exploration of self-conception and identity. As he explains in the description mounted next to his painting at the Zilkha Gallery, issues of identity are especially important to him because of the life transitions he has experienced: “I grew up on Jamaica and spent my entire life there, only moving to the United States to study at Wesleyan University four years ago. I have encountered the need to be flexible while staying connected to my past as I navigate my ever-changing present.”
For each self-portrait, Mr. Thomas would cover his own face in paint, then have his face photographed. He would then edit that photograph in Photoshop. The resulting image would be the inspiration for his painting. The resulting works of art are eye-catchingly colorful and hard to forget.
I got a chance to sit down with Mr. Thomas and talk to him about his artwork. Here is some of what he had to say.
Tell me a little bit about your thesis.
Well, it’s inspired by my own biography, having moved from Jamaica to here. Each of [the paintings] in the series is my way of making another identity that isn’t directly connected to anything else. So, for instance my skin is dark. You look and say, ‘Oh, it’s a black guy.’ But if you paint it, then what is it? It really is an exploration of the flexibility of what identity is.
How did you come up with the idea for your thesis?
Playing around, coming up with a couple of ideas, bouncing ideas off my advisor – many, many things. I can’t really spend such huge amounts of time [on a project] unless I have a personal connection to it. So it was experimenting – finding something that interested me that I know other people wanted to see, too.
What have the reactions been like?
They’ve been so great. I felt like a rock star at my own show. There were so many people. I even sold some of [my paintings]. You know how great that feels? If you become an English major, it’s like writing a thesis and having a publisher going, ‘I want to sell your book.’ I still can’t believe it.
It must be cool to walk upstairs at Usdan and see your paintings on the walls.
It’s just so weird. If anything is filmed at Usdan, my paintings will be in the background. That’s my claim to fame.
In your description of your thesis series, you said that you ‘select images to paint based on their emotional impact and on how exciting they will be to paint.’ Do you think your paintings have had an emotional impact?
Yes, I would say they have emotional impact. At first, people will see it and think, ‘Oh my God, this looks great,’ and they won’t really think why until long afterwards. Then the intellect will kick in and go, ‘Well, how did you come up with this idea?’ As much as I like high art, I don’t want to be the person where you need to have taken nine Art History courses to even begin to grasp what these things mean. They’re very loud. They’re kind of like pop music – a lot of people like it, but there are still some hipsters who are like, ‘This is too mainstream for me.’ At the show, people were like, ‘Well, I don’t really like it, but it took a lot of work, so congratulations.’ It’s all right – I don’t want everyone to like it, anyway.
How did you publicize your own work?
The school helps you. The school prints out the flyers and whatnot, and the senior thesis exhibition has happened every year since painting has been offered here, so it’s out there. Also, I had a Facebook event. All the painters in my week had a Facebook event, so their friends were coming. I told a few people, and these few people told some more people – so it was word of mouth, Facebook, and people who I met randomly at dinners.
Each of your paintings is unique, but they all have some common characteristics. How did you go about creating these pieces? Did you work on them all at once?
At first, I did them serially. The real learning curve happened during my Christmas break and spring break, when I had nothing to do except paint – so I’d just get up and paint. I started working on each of them at the same time. It was, I would say, far more fun than doing any other thesis. It wasn’t difficult at all. It took work, but once you stopped complaining about that – I mean, you’re painting. You’re not digging a hole sixty feet below the Earth’s surface, searching for shiny rocks. You’re painting.
How long did each piece take you to paint?
The first one took forever. The very first one took from September to the beginning of November, I believe. The second one took three weeks. The third one took all of Christmas break. I took from January till spring break to do another one, and then during spring break I finished three. And then I was done early, and I didn’t know what to do with myself.
I guess you never got tired of painting?
Hell, no. I know some people are burnt out by it. But, you know, if you’ve already decided to disappoint your parents, you might as well do it on a grand, impressive scale. Even if I was tired of it, I would never mention it or bring it up. So no, I never got tired of it. And right now I have a lot of ideas for my next paintings.
That must be exciting.
Oh, extremely exciting. I’m moving to New York City, and seeing how that plays out. I’m going to move somewhere and paint in my apartment, wherever I am.
I know that in order to create a thesis, Art Studio majors have to raise funds themselves. What was that like?
I begged like I have never begged before. I worked like I have never worked before. Because I’m international, I can’t work off campus, and I’m only allowed twenty hours a week to work. So at the end of my sophomore year, I realized, I’m going to have to start painting and selling now. Otherwise – no thesis. No money, no thesis.
My thesis in total cost between three and five thousand dollars – I was talking to a few people, and they were shocked that the school didn’t provide the materials. It was harder to raise the money than it was to make the paintings.
Do you think the University should supply more funding for Studio Art thesis work?
Definitely. If I ever have large sums of money, I’ll do it myself. The formula is so simple: no money, no thesis. No one cares how much talent you have or what you’re trying to do. Because, I mean, you’re not the next Picasso, and even if you are, you won’t know, because you don’t have any money to try.
Have you always liked art?
Nope. [In Jamaica], I didn’t know about the concept of a museum or art as a means to sustain yourself, or art as a means of expression or making an emotional impact. I came here and took some art history courses and saw that there were textbooks written on it – just a whole field dedicated to it.
What about actually painting – doing it yourself?
Growing up nearsighted, poor hand-eye coordination, born broke, I just wasn’t exposed to it. But once I was, I liked it; loved it.
Was painting self-portraits a self-reflective process for you?
That’s putting it mildly. You want to know yourself? Paint yourself seven times. You really want to know yourself? Go outside in broad daylight with your face in full makeup, with two women holding up a mirror and a background behind you and another woman taking a picture, and having school children walk by. You will develop a level of confidence that you didn’t even know you had.
The Thesis Art Exhibition will continue in Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery until Saturday, May 26, 2012. There will be a reception on Saturday, May 26, 2012, from 2pm to 4pm.
Katherine Clifford reviews the annual West African Drumming and Dance Concert, held on Friday, May 11, 2012.
The West African Drumming and Dance Concert was held on Friday, May 11, 2012 in the CFA Courtyard. West African Dance classes I, II, and III, taught by Artist in Residence Iddi Saaka, performed traditional West African dances with the accompaniment of the West African drumming class, taught by Adjunct Professor Abraham Adzenyah. The CFA Courtyard was filled with Wesleyan students supporting their friends, as well as professors and their families, on this warm Friday afternoon, the first day of reading period before finals. The upbeat music and dancing was the perfect anecdote for the stress accompanying impending final papers and exams.
The dances performed by the West African Dance classes were traditional dances from different ethnic groups of Ghana. These dances traditionally served different purposes; some were originally performed on special social occasions such as weddings or funerals, at times of war, or as harvest dances. The emphasis on tradition was also revealed through the attention to elaborate and colorful West African costumes.
The dances were composed of series of rhythmic movements set to the beat of the drums. Together, the dancers created a pulsating, collective energy that was contagious. Indeed, the audience cheered on the dancers and drummers, creating a supportive and energetic atmosphere. Although each dance was quite different, the style of West African dance consistently uses a lot of hip movements, stepping, and rhythmic motions. It also engages geometric patterns, in which the dancers moved collectively in circles and lines in series of repeated movements. The dances were largely about group movement to create certain feelings suited for the purpose of the dance. This was accomplished through mutual experience through movement. However, the individual was also showcased through solos and duets. Each dance contained twists and surprises that held the viewer’s attention against the backdrop of the sustained rhythm of the drums.
The ensemble of dancing, drumming, and chanting created a culturally rich and dynamic experience. The performance was a fun and engaging way to end the semester; and both the Music Department and Dance Department’s events, as well as to showcase the hard work of all the students in these classes.
After weeks of seminars, movement labs, bus rides, and a lot of bonding time, our “Ritual, Health, and Healing” class has come to a close. We had our final movement lab on Tuesday, which gave us a chance to reflect, share our thoughts, and be together as a group for the last time; half the class will be graduating this month. We sat in a circle, drinking lemongrass tea and allowing time for final words, though we found ourselves still talking, laughing, and shedding a few appreciative tears for an hour after “class” had ended. One student sent an email to all of us this week that began with “Hey fam!”; we definitely feel like we have moved beyond classmates to become a family because of the work we did together at Wesleyan and especially in Brooklyn.
I’ve been blogging for the past month and a half about our trips to Brooklyn, where the class has been working at the St. Nick’s Alliance and in surrounding Greenpoint-Williamsburg neighborhoods. We’ve met, interviewed, gone on walks, had tea, and celebrated with community members who taught us about their lives’ work. Pat and David Dobosz are public school teachers who talked with us about the harmful social and educational effects of charter schools’ division of neighborhoods, and have been very inspirational for the future educators of our class, including my fellow blogger Shira Engel ’14. Guido and Tish Cianciotta are the founding directors of Greenpoint Renaissance Enterprise Corporation, and have worked for decades to keep the Greenpoint Hospital complex serving the needs of the community; a group of students created a Wikipedia page for their organization. Jan Peterson is a tireless (and very spunky) activist, feminist, organizer, and founder of the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, among several other activist/feminist groups; several students interviewed Jan and Tish among other lifelong residents of the neighborhood for an oral history project on the women of Greenpoint. I could go on for pages about many more incredible people we have been so lucky to learn from.
Stepping outside the classroom walls taught us things we can’t learn from professors; it is a privilege to sit down with neighborhood residents and hear their stories of health issues due to environmental damage, struggles with educational equality, building rights, and organizing strategies, and we have truly come away with a new sense of what it means to be a neighbor. As I’ve written before, Jan Peterson’s best advice to us was “if you live here, you have to do something. You can’t just have brunch”.
We all began the course wondering how West African shamanism, Brooklynite activism, Japanese dolls, Wikipedia, and Peruvian water rituals would fit together. During our final lab, we were asked to say one word each to sum up the course: I said “us”. Any ritual, health, or healing requires a community consciousness, a sense of group wellbeing. My classmates growing closer to each other was the overall lesson of the class: whether you’re fighting a disease, spirit loss, or a trash dump, healing comes through a healthy community; it’s about us.
For more reflections and information about the course, check out a recent article about the class here.
Sunday, April 22 was our last in Brooklyn, and the culmination of all the conversations, tours, library research, video editing, and personal interviews we’ve conducted over the past month. We’ve been traveling to Greenpoint-Williamsburg nearly every weekend in April to the Arts@Renaissance space of St. Nick’s Alliance to learn about the area from locals. We developed projects to document the neighborhood’s rich history and bring awareness to issues of trash distribution, educational equality, pollution, health, and space preservation. Our goal for Sunday was to present our findings to members of this community and to talk with them about their viewpoints on these issues, and we are very happy that the weekend succeeded in promoting neighborhood communication, honoring long-time local activists, and beginning plans for our professor Jill Sigman’s upcoming project in Arts@Renaissance.
We spent Saturday finishing up and rehearsing our presentations, and were happy to get a taste of the local food scene in Williamsburg! Our class has grown very close since January, as we meet two to three times per week; the same can be said for our relationships with both of our professors. We’ve been very lucky to spend weekends with Gillian and Jill outside the classroom environment; hierarchal boundaries dissolve and a more egalitarian group-consciousness arises when working on real-world projects such as ours.
On Sunday, we invited anyone living in Greenpoint-Williamsburg to stop by Arts@Renaissance during the afternoon to hear about our projects and to join in a community discussion. We were a little nervous and very excited to see the final products of our classmates’ hard work. There was no need to worry; the room
was full of community members the entire afternoon, ranging from their 20s to their 80s, both lifelong Greenpoint residents and new transplants. The afternoon began with a witty ukelele performace from a former Ms. Greenpoint, who sang of public bath houses, Brooklyn’s trash issues, and the Exxon oil spill. Then we moved into student presentations. Several of my classmates made an incredible short film to document the overwhelming number of open-air trash dumps in Williamsburg and locals’ accounts of their asthmatic effects; another group created a walking tour past these transfer stations. Another group focused on the inequality and self-confidence issues that arise with charter school invasion, and my group led attendees through a short history of the hospital complex that now houses St. Nick’s. Interactive stations around the room allowed community members to draw their memorable neighborhood places on a big map, to look through news archives, or to listen to interviews with local members of the National Congress of Neighborhood Women. The afternoon was a fantastic break from the chaos of everyday life for everyone involved; we gave ourselves time to reflect, connect, plan, and learn about each other.
It is this separation from the ordinary that allows a ritual, and its subsequent changes in consciousness or action, to occur. What we’ve learned in this class is that one need not travel abroad or join a religion to participate in ritual since we do it all the time. The next part of the afternoon employed a ritual familiar to most of us: that of serving tea. Jill, one of our professors, has built six “huts” around the world, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts; in preparation for hut #7, she set up a tape scaffold on its upcoming site, and prepared tea in the center made with herbs grown in a nearby urban garden. We sat in a circle on her handmade T-shirt pillows and invited attending community members to join us in one-on-one conversations about their visions for the hut and opinions about pollution and garbage in the area. I was surprised and enlivened by the openness of every attendee to our project. Eighty-five year old men sat down on floor pillows and drew on small squares of paper, imagining what this hut will look like. Tea continued for an hour or so, biscotti and fresh bread were passed around, and we “talked trash”.
By the end of the day, nearly everyone who’d shown up was still there, talking with neighbors or with us,
listening to interviews, or marking their childhood homes on the map. The hut scaffolding was covered with clothespins holding pieces of paper; people had drawn ideas for the hut or written down which items of trash should be included. We were exhausted from the weekend, but so thankful for the community members’ participation and fantastic ideas. Though our Brooklyn trips have ended, we’re continuing to finish up our projects here at Wesleyan and will have final products ready in several weeks!
Rebecca Seidel ’15 reflects on her visit to “work divided by time,” a sound installation by Assistant Professor of Music Paula Matthusen, on display in Van Vleck Observatory through Sunday, May 13, 2012.
Energy. Power. Work. Time. We use these words rather casually in everyday conversation. But when we delve deeper into these theoretically simple terms, we begin to realize the depth of their meaning. The concepts of work and time carry an endless variety of historical and cultural contexts; they mark a place where science and culture merge.
work divided by time, Assistant Professor of Music Paula Matthusen’s new sound installation at the Van Vleck Observatory, reflects and renews these ideas. The installation quite literally echoes a historical conception of time in a way that is simple yet evocative.
Dr. Matthusen’s work on this piece was inspired by a visit to the small town of Spillville, Iowa, where Frank and Joseph Bily spent all their lives constructing huge mechanical clocks. The clocks, now on display at the Bily Clocks Museum in Spillville, feature intricate visual designs and moving figurines – as well as the captivating sounds of chimes and music boxes. work divided by time takes sonic recordings of the Westminster Clock, one of the Bily Brothers’ first clocks, and manifests them using simple electric circuits.
A visit to the installation will bring you to a tiny room, surrounded by faint tones and snippets of static, bathed in the meditative heat and glow of candles. The candles sit atop small handmade wooden boxes embellished with rosette patterns, from which the tones of the clock emerge. Above each box and set of candles is a rotating propeller, powered by the heat of the candles. If you lean in close, you’ll see that each setup forms its own little circuit – its own microcosm of energy.
“As the propellers turn on the modules, certain blades dip lower than others, at times intersecting with a wire that closes a circuit, allowing an audible tone to emerge, as well as a grit of noise as the connection is made and then re-broken,” Dr. Matthusen explained. “Small rhythms emerge as the blades move at different rates, and gradually slow down and/or stop alltogether.”
Certain propellers do indeed slow to a halt occasionally, though a light tap will get them moving again. You never know what patterns of sound will result – a factor which adds an intriguing layer of unpredictability to a space that is visually balanced and uniform. The simplicity of the installation’s design makes all the small nuances of sound spring to life.
The mechanisms of work divided by time were constructed mostly by hand, recalling the innovation and technical skill with which the Bily Brothers fashioned their clocks in the early 20th century. The brothers never once strayed further than 13 miles from their hometown – yet their clocks display an incredible level of worldliness and a boundless spirit for adventure. The clocks are huge and majestic, some reaching over nine feet in height. The setup of work divided by time is nowhere near as grandiose – quite to the contrary, its beauty arises from its conceptual simplicity and the subtlety of the sounds it produces. The installation evokes the time and energy put into Frank and Joseph’s creations, while also transforming their legacy into something entirely new.
In a speech at the installation’s opening reception, Dr. Matthusen talked about her experience at the Bily Clocks Museum, and how it shaped her ideas for work divided by time:
“When I was first there, I heard the audience gasp as the music box gears engaged, and figurines began to rotate through the intricate mechanisms of the clocks. I heard expressions – and certainly thought them myself – ‘I can’t believe the amount of work that went into that’ or ‘I can’t imagine the amount of time it would take to build that.’ Part of what is intriguing about these reactions are the very general concepts we’re accustomed to throwing around – ‘work’ and ‘time’ (perhaps in having too much of the former and not enough of the latter) – and in the work of the Bily Brothers, we encounter a world that has a radically different relationship to both.”
The installation stands alone as an immersive soundscape and physical space, but having this sense of its background makes the experience more meaningful. Because of the room’s small size, only a few people can step inside at a time. This ends up enhancing the experience, allowing visitors to really settle into the space and the sounds – as well as the occasional lapse of silence.
work divided by time was commissioned by the Center for the Arts as a part of the ongoing project Feet to the Fire: Fueling the Future. As Dr. Matthusen pointed out, this installation has “the unique status of being the first Feet to the Fire commission to use actual fire.” It’s also the first sound installation of its kind to ever be set up in the Van Vleck Observatory.
But work divided by time is memorable beyond these standout details. It infuses meaning into simple circuitry, in a way that is quietly powerful (no pun intended).
The installation is open every afternoon through Sunday, May 13, 2012. You can see the exact hours here.
Jack Chelgren ’15 reflects on the many contrasting performances from the Annual Organ Romp, held on May 3, 2012.
Sitting in the pews of Memorial Chapel during the Annual Organ Romp, I came to realize that I don’t listen to enough organ music. I arrived at this conclusion amid a thunderous torrent of sound gushing from the pipes at the front of the hall, as I discovered that, however doggedly I tried to divorce myself from such associations, the sound of an organ kept evoking for me a clichéd sense of impending doom or peril. I’m a little ashamed to admit this, because I worry that it reveals in me a kind of musical callowness akin to someone who associates the saxophone with Kenny G or Beethoven with a St. Bernard, and it occurred to me that if I listened to more organ music, I might be disabused of this rather inaccurate association. I have the sense that I’m not alone in my ignorance, however: the organ, as I understand it, holds a specific and somewhat ironclad place in the public consciousness as the soundtrack to either a church service or a horror film. And although it was billed as a performance of “new music and non-standard organ repertoire,” the Organ Romp did not necessarily reject such stereotypes about the organ and organ music, or even avoid them. Instead, the performances seemed to contend that while the organ can and has filled such roles, it is certainly does not need to, and is in any case a vital and diverse player in contemporary music.
As if to establish right away that the concert wasn’t out to topple tradition, the program opened with a few Baroque hard-hitters, beginning with a first-rate rendition of J.S. Bach’s BWV 543: Prelude and Fugue in a minor, performed by Visiting Professor of Music Brian Parks. It was an even blend of power and reserve, metrical precision and tempo rubato; swirling sixteenth-note passages hurtled furiously toward the bass—some sliding down chromatically, others descending a staircase of disjunct intervals—then leaping back up to begin the descent anew. The fugue spooled out tightly coiled melodic threads that promptly unraveled into wider and wider intervals, phrases that were then woven together in an intricate contrapuntal braid. Olivia May ’14 followed with more Bach, BWV 615: In dir ist Freude (“In You Is Joy”), a major key chorale that glowed with a kind of autumnal wisdom, during which I realized that there is something incredibly knowing, almost prophetic, to Bach’s music. Though people often describe Beethoven as having a kind of inevitable quality to him, there is also something extremely inevitable in Bach. Bach is lighter, certainly, than Beethoven, but no less profound. The next piece, Buxtehude’s Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne in C, performed by Vivien Lung ’14, kept to the Baroque style, although, though no fault of Lung’s performance, it failed to reach the same levels of insight and verve of the prior two pieces. The prelude featured full, heavy chords and tight melodies corkscrewing over low pedal tones, but these aspects were more or less perpetuated in the fugue and the chaconne; rather than acting as independent components of the song, the latter two sections felt like mere extensions of the first. Again, however, this slight blandness was no doubt the doing of Buxtehude, not Lung.
Then things started to get a little weirder. Organist Daniel Parcell and cellist Jessie Marino took the stage to perform an excerpt from Vivaldi’s Sonata VI for ‘cello and organ, Parcell in an antiquated tailcoat, Marino looking like the Corpse Bride in a white wig and a gaudy white dress, both completely deadpan as the crowd dissolved into giggles at the sight of them. Marino, who is a member of the experimental music collective Ensemble Pamplemousse, took the lead voice, asserting the stately, handsome melody over measured downbeats in the organ. Yet Marino soon began “bleeding” from her mouth as she played, globs and bubbles of fake gore sliding down her chin and staining her dress. When they finished the piece, she and Parcell took a deep, deep bow, from which Marino, as though dead, did not straighten up until Parcell gave a tug on the back of her dress. They left the stage, still totally expressionless, to cackles and gleeful applause.
“How are you gonna follow that?” somebody asked Alex Cantrel ’14 as he climbed up from the audience to perform his own composition, On Bliss Hill. Yet Cantrel didn’t seem to feel any pressure to compete with Parcell and Marino’s antics; he made no attempts to be showy, but merely approached the bench modestly, sat down, and began to play. His piece sounded a little bit like the overture to a film score, set in a lively compound meter with racing, expectant arpeggios that unfolded over a lower sustained melody. It was admirable work, though, and lucidly rendered the sense of summery optimism connoted by the title. Rain Tianyu Xie ’14 subsequently took on the American songbook, performing Vernon Duke and E.Y. Harburg’s What Is There to Say? with a weird filter on the organ that made it sound like a cross between a violin and a bamboo flute. Xie executed the wistful, sentimental tune keenly and conservatively, and surprised me when she took what sounded like a short improvised solo between choruses of the melody. Ashlin Aronin ’13 kept up Cantel’s precedent by performing a piece of his own, Elegy, accompanied on bassoon by Jeremy Webber ’13. An adventuresome work full of close, new-agey harmonies, the song set off with a free meter exposition before settling into an almost sea shanty-esque canter.
Next up was Alan Rodi ’12, who had an almost playful manner onstage, quoting Monty Python—“And now for something completely different!”—as a projector screen lowered from the apse above the organ. Rodi proceeded to play a beautiful medley of Philip Glass compositions, including the famous Mad Rush, while a clip from the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi (itself scored by Glass) played on the screen. Jason Sheng Jia ’13 finished off the show with French organist and composer Jehan Alain’s Litanies, a forceful yet light-footed piece of fleeting dissonances and resolutions, traversing musical styles from Baroque to Latin in moving toward its tempestuous climax.
With its playful, almost anarchic connotations, the term “romp” is an apt descriptor for what took place last Thursday night: a concert that both embraced and toyed with the conventions of organ music. And indeed, the evening had a self-aware, almost Nietzschean character of accepting the very thing one knows to be flawed, at times adopting the well-known dramatic side of the organist (as did Parks, May, and Lung) and at others exploiting and lampooning it (as did Parcell and Marino). Yet the concert offered still another direction, that of Cantrel, Xie, Aronin, Rodi, and Jia, which neither opposed nor played into the stereotypes surrounding the instrument, and it was these performances that best represented the prevailing tone of the evening: one of inclusivity, a celebration of music.
Sarah Wolfe ’12 interviews Alma Sanchez-Eppler ’14 about her upcoming play “Junk Redemption,” opening this Friday, May 11 through Sunday, May 13, 2012 at 8pm, in front of the Whisper Wall (on Washington Terrace).
This weekend Second Stage is presenting a new play, written and directed by Alma Sanchez-Eppler ’14. The play, Junk Redemption, goes up Friday through Sunday at 8pm in front of the Whisper Wall (located on Washington Terrace) in the Center for the Arts. Earlier this week I sat down with the student playwright to discuss the play, the process, and her aspirations as a playwright. The process of writing the play began in her Intermediate Playwriting class as an exercise in character driven playwriting, which was a new experience for Ms. Sanchez-Eppler. But as the writing process continued, Ms. Sanchez-Eppler found that historical facts from her own family history had trickled into the piece.
“It wasn’t until after the play was pretty much done and I was just editing it that I realized how much it relates to everything my grandmother has done in her life.”
The play follows the life of an isolated artist as she is discovered by a Baltimore gallery. Flashbacks narrate the story of why the artist began her work of creating sculptures out of available junk. Ms. Sanchez-Eppler calls the play “an homage” to her grandmother, who is currently suffering through the early stages of dementia.
“[My grandmother] was a social worker, and that’s a pretty big aspect of the show, and she was a tour guide in the New York Folk Art Museum for a very long time. She’s one of the most imaginative people I know. I love being around her because it is necessary for me to have an immediacy to my interactions with her. It requires a presence of being and a presence of mind and not much concern for referencing anything in the past.”
Ms. Sanchez-Eppler notes that she is someone who tries to find all of the interesting places on the Wesleyan campus, which is why Junk Redemption is not going up in a more traditional theatrical setting. The Whisper Wall, on the back side of the CFA facing Washington Terrace, is an interesting, if little known, architectural structure of the CFA. From the outside it is a semi-circle of concrete with a tree in the middle, but if one person stands inside the wall and whispers, the sound resonates so that a person standing on the other side can hear every word perfectly. Aside from this semi-magical feature, which is impossible to feature in a theatrical production, Ms. Sanchez-Eppler still felt something appropriate about the space for this particular production.
“It feels like you’ve entered this other world. It doesn’t feel like Wesleyan when you’re in that sort of enclosure, that semi-circle. The set required a tree and there was a tree there. It provides a natural stage.”
Ms. Sanchez-Eppler is a first time director, and spoke to the challenges of directing her own piece, which is what most student playwrights must do in order to show their work.
“I was lucky enough in high school to have one of my plays I wrote then directed, and it was really nice to push the bird out of the nest and just have it happen without me being there. I’d love for people to want to direct shows of mine. That would be dreamy.”
However, as she moves forward at Wesleyan, she is particularly interested in collaborative theater making. She cited Augusto Boal and The Medea Project as particular examples of theater that inspires her. Both tie into another focus of Ms. Sanchez-Eppler’s: work that is done creatively around prison reform. She has worked closely through her time here with Professor of Theater Ron Jenkins, whose classes bring students to local prisons to learn and teach about social activism through theater. She hopes to continue to have chances to learn about and create collaborative and empowering theater in her time at Wesleyan and after.
Come see Junk Redemption this weekend! The show is free and unticketed, so show up at 8pm at the Whispering Wall on Washington Terrace. Don’t miss this wonderful example of student creativity at Wesleyan!
As anything comes to a close, reflection seems to be in order. Journals emerge, nostalgic conversations take place, and commemoration and commencement activities ensue. College courses are no exception to this rule. This is especially the case for Ritual, Health, and Healing, a class rooted in the creative self-reflection of both the students and the professors.
My friend, Hannah Cressy ’13, hascovered wonderfully our trips to Brooklyn as a class to work with the St Nicks Arts @ Renaissance community center. Both Jill Sigman and Gillian Goslinga have emphasized for us the importance of deconstructing the invisible barrier between “process” and “product.” This course is all about process because that is what inspires authenticity and the ability for self- and group-reflection to take place.
To be perpetually engaged in process is not an easy task. As college students, we are, at times, taught to pump out ten-pagers and study, study, study, just for the end product of an exam. Process means to do, and then let go of results – to do for the sake of doing and let the results be what they are. This is, at least, my definition.
Two weeks ago, as we geared up for our final field trip to Brooklyn, we were a product-driven bunch. We were scrambling to find time to finish our offerings to the community. At the same time, we were unsettled with this shift in perspective – this constant doing. So, we used our Monday seminar to step back, take a deep breath, and see what it is we are actually doing in the process. We made a list on the board of the common themes of our offerings and of our experiences with the community. They included: reciprocity, interconnectedness of community, the power of listening, valuing lived experience, choosing engagement over disengagement, family, and teachers. Writing them up on the board to be seen was clarifying. It put the passion back into what we were doing and allowed us to see that the offerings we were making to the community were also offerings to ourselves, giving ourselves the gift of all that we had mentioned.
Jack Chelgren ’15 attended the Jay Hoggard Quartet concert as part of the 11th annual Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra Weekend, and reflects on his impressions.
Last Saturday night, vibraphonist, composer, and Adjunct Professor of Music Jay Hoggard gave a concert that found Crowell Concert Hall more crowded than any performance I have been to all year. The room was unambiguously packed, inundated with a healthy blend of students, families, friends, faculty, and a host of others scarcely connected to Wesleyan beyond their interest in the performance. A student combo of musicians from the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra (which Mr. Hoggard directs) opened the show, playing faithful but lively renditions of standards by Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Jordan, and Sonny Rollins. There was a short lull, and then Mr. Hoggard’s band took the stage, the man himself with a theatrical strut, sporting an ultramarine suit and a flashy silver vest. Silence reigned after the initial applause had died down and the band readied its gear; you could hear people fidgeting in their seats as Mr. Hoggard took out his glasses case and slipped his spectacles inside. Then he glanced up at the audience, as if just realizing we were there. “Thank you, and goodnight,” he said flatly, and the ensuing chuckles broke the ice.
The group opened with “Swing Em Gates,” a bluesy, up-tempo chart Mr. Hoggard wrote for Lionel Hampton, one of the most significant voices in big band and an early pioneer of jazz vibraphone. Mr. Hoggard shared the melody with Marty Ehrlich, who played soprano saxophone, and each member of the group improvised. “Overview” followed, a slower, more expansive piece for which Mr. Ehrlich switched to bass clarinet and delivered one of his best solos of the night, a dextrous, well-crafted display that showcased his rich, vivid tone on the instrument. The next song, “Joyful Swamp,” brought out harpist Brandee Younger and hand percussionist Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng, kicking off at a breakneck pace with a scurrying marimba and percussion intro before dropping into its slinky, meandering melody, again in the vibes and soprano. This piece, Mr. Hoggard revealed, he wrote for another jazz great, the monumental drummer Max Roach. Next came “Soular Power,” an off-kilter, lilting tune that smacked heavily of Dave Holland’s quintet work with vibraphonist Steve Nelson. This, in turn, was followed by “You’re In My Heart All the Time,” a duet for piano and vibes and the most candidly gorgeous piece of the evening. The song had a stunningly spontaneous quality, floating in the air like a cloud between the performers, who, though not rhythmically or melodically in sync with one another, played with an astounding understanding and singularity of purpose. The subsequent medley “The Right Place / Lessons from My Dad” gamboled from a nostalgic, shimmering opening into a desolate solo by bassist Santi Debriano, whose hoarsely melancholic tone recalled the throatier, more progressive side of cellist Erik Friedlander, before giving way to yet another sinuous groove led by the soprano and vibes. “Convergence of the Niles” closed the first half of the show, a driving McCoy Tyner-esque bop on which Mr. Hoggard let loose with a fiery solo, pulling farther and farther away from the stormy rhythmic and harmonic structures of the song without for a second coming unmoored.
The group was joined by one last guest for the shorter second half of the concert, saxophonist-composer and Professor of Music Anthony Braxton, who kicked off the song “Piety and Redemption” with a soprano sax solo of his own, lashing out flurries of thirty-second notes and blur-like glissandi. Mr. Hoggard then lead the group into the world premiere of his multi-part composition Sonic Hieroglyphs From Wood, Metal, and Skin, the title of which sounds like a cross between Sun Ra and a Fluxus score. The group played only three of its four movements, beginning with the brightly optimistic “Let Me Make It Clear (We Need Nuclear Peace This Year)” before proceeding into “Live, Breath”—a serenely open piece with brooding and dissonant undertones which featured qigong artists performing onstage alongside the musicians—and then finally to “The Mutilation of Our Mother, Earth, by Perpetual War and DISPOSABLE CONSUMPTION,” a jaggedly collapsing tune à la Michael Formanek.
It was, in all, a highly memorable evening. There were times when I wished the orchestration had been a little lighter—it could have been the room or where I sat in it, but the ensemble sound often felt rather cluttered and muddy. I also noticed that communication among the musicians often seemed a little disjointed. Mr. Hoggard would frequently look up to cue transitions or solos and have to struggle to get the rest of the band’s attention. Yet the group held together nicely through these rough patches, in large part thanks to the indefatigable rhythm section of Yoron Israel, Mr. Debriano, and Mr. Obeng, giving a show at once through-provokingly erudite and fundamentally accessible.
To learn more about Jay Hoggard, visit his website. Click here to watch him performing “Joyful Swamp.”