Annals of layering and nullity

An observant friend draws my attention to the classic New York Times article by Philip Lutz: “Art meets environmental activism in ‘The Crossroads Project.’” Lutz reports on a performance piece that is to have its New York debut next month, and he’s pretty excited about it:

This month’s blast of arctic air may have roused climate-change skeptics. But the composer Laura Kaminsky and the painter Rebecca Allan were unfazed. Holed up in their apartment in Riverdale in the Bronx on one of the coldest days in decades, these longtime artist-activists were doing what came naturally: fighting the planet’s warming.

The vehicle for their fight was a gathering, in person and by Skype, of principals in “The Crossroads Project,” a performance piece that draws on music, painting, photography and scientific research in an attempt to entertain, enlighten and, ultimately, encourage people to live sustainably.

The piece, which will have its New York-area premiere on Feb. 9 at Purchase College — where Ms. Kaminsky is a professor of music composition — is distinctive in a number of ways, not least its layered approach to mixing art and environmental activism. By operating on multiple levels, Ms. Kaminsky said, it “can potentially energize and activate the audience member in a way that just going to a lecture might not.”

“The big challenge,” she added, “was to create a narrative that ebbed and flowed.”

The thing ebbs and flows like crazy, occasionally without the benefit of a note:

The score for “Rising Tide” follows the conceptual framework Mr. Davies has laid out, with three movements evoking natural systems (“The Source of Life (H2O),” “Bios” and “Forage”) and a fourth representing human systems (“Societas”). In performance, each movement follows a Davies soliloquy as images are projected on one or more screens.

In Ms. Kaminsky’s writing — as in Mr. Davies’s disquisition — the fourth movement diverges sharply from the first three, adding qualitative instructions in English to the standard Italian-language dynamic markings and offering a window into the composer’s thinking. From the opening instruction (to play “serenely, with reverence; still, yet wandering”) to the closer (“again with reverence, and a bit of resignation”), a cautionary tale unfolds — without a note being played.

Please go to the article for a description of the piece. I’m not sure I get it. Of this much I am sure: some heavy symbolism will be generated. Analyze this:

In choosing a selection to play for the gathering, the quartet steered clear of the legato-heavy “Societas,” opting instead for its lead-in, “Forage,” a vivid exercise in sustained, neatly articulated 16th notes. Looking past the shaky sound quality of her studio laptop, Ms. Kaminsky offered praise for the performance, tempered only by doubts about the balance between the second violin and the rest of the ensemble in a single passage.

Maintaining balance, it turns out, is an issue that extends beyond the aesthetics of any given performance. In making a string quartet central to the undertaking, the project’s leaders say they are positing that musical format as an ecosystem, a kind of metaphor for the interconnectivity of the natural world. Any loss of equilibrium in the musicians’ interplay thus becomes a commentary on the fragility of that world.

The piece has not only generated some heavy symbolism, it has also given rise to creative tension — among the artistes. We’ll get to the audience in a minute:

Just as the balance between the musical parts has been an issue, so too has the balance between the project’s artistic and scientific priorities. The issue has occasionally caused “creative tension,” Mr. Davies said, noting that, over some objections and at the expense of the piece’s pacing, he had added graphic material that helped drive home his points about sustainability.

“I think it’s a little bit longer than what we might ask for artistically,” he said.

Tension city! “Sustainability” may not be “sustainable.” Doesn’t that have a heavy symbolism of its own?

Audience reaction is also heavily symbolic, though Lutz is given to overinterpretation:

Meanwhile, Mr. Davies acknowledged not having offered enough commentary on big money’s influence in shaping environmental policy, even as he expressed confidence in his decision to eliminate photographic references to specific corporations. The references, he said, often came across as heavy-handed and, with Garth Lenz’s photos of degraded landscapes and other scenes of devastation left in place, the piece has emerged stronger without them.

Not that this measure of restraint has mollified all skeptics. Mr. Davies said a performance in Libby Gardner Concert Hall at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City last April — one of eight performances since the work in its current form had its premiere in September 2012 — prompted critical letters and a handful of walkouts. Mostly, however, audiences have been sympathetic to the project’s message and, in some cases, motivated to take action.

For you cynics out there, I should add that walking out on the piece doesn’t count as “taking action.”

The piece has not only inspired a handful of walkouts, it has also inspired imitators (inspired by way of assignment). Here’s the beauty part:

Ms. Kaminsky said exposing her students to “The Crossroads Project” and requiring them to respond artistically to climate change has yielded “Freeze, Melt, Flood,” a multimedia piece that will be performed in the upper lobby of the Recital Hall before “Crossroads.” The piece will feature students’ original music and artwork, including an hourglass-shaped plexiglass sculpture through which melting ice will drip, symbolizing global warming and the passage of time. Microphones will capture the sound of water dripping as an actor reads deconstructed texts by the author Naomi Klein.

Let me run that by you one more time: “The piece will feature students’ original music and artwork, including an hourglass-shaped plexiglass sculpture through which melting ice will drip, symbolizing global warming and the passage of time. Microphones will capture the sound of water dripping as an actor reads deconstructed texts by the author Naomi Klein.” Apocalypse now!

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