Saturday, November 17, 2012

Music—a cool stream of water amid hermetic dioramas

The Hilliard Ensemble, showing versatility as movers. Photo: Mario Del Curto
In I went to the house but did not enter, Heiner Goebbel's music-theater work in the White Light Festival, originally produced by Théâtre Vidy de Lausanne, the four singers of the Hilliard Ensemble appear trapped—nearly static figures frozen in three hermetically sealed diorama-like settings. In the first act, to a faint dripping sound, the members of the renowned Hilliard Ensemble—David James, Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold and Gordon Jones—are dressed in trench coats. They pack up the furnishings of a stuffy parlor, dismantling the curtains and vacuuming the rug before rolling it up, in advance of singing Goebbel's musical setting of TS Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. They then do it all in reverse, replacing the furnishings at a glacial pace. The vocal section evokes liturgical songs—repeating tones in close intervals, with one line shifting a half-step. It's glorious sound amid mundanity, tedium, and the implications of a life-changing event, whether it be simply changing locations or the possibility of death—or the reverse. 

The changes of the elaborate sets in the Rose Theater proved to be the most action-packed sequences, performed by the stagehands in near darkness with the curtain raised. The second setting is the front of a house, complete with clay tiled roof, gutters, a dumpster out back, and venetian or vertical blinds that open to reveal the house's occupants in three apartments, plus a workshop hidden behind a garage door. The men alternate sung lines by Maurice Blanchot about life and death as birds chirp and airplanes and police sirens pass by. A stark, leafless tree's shadow is cast on the house. Again, the banal is elevated to the universal through song.

Before the next set change, the singers gather around a bicycle like spies exchanging information and sing a lovely song setting of Kafka text, with the refrain of "I don't know" in close, shaded harmonies, ending with a big verbal wink: "It's a wonder we don't burst into song." Touché.

The third set seems to be one corner of a rose-wallpapered hotel room, complete with an oversized bed, a thermostat, and a cheap tv. Beckett is the source for the text, phrases like pretzel nuggets popped into one's mouth—salty, crunchy, nearly meaningless. The men wander in the room; one turns on the thermostat, which hums. They gaze out the tall windows which let sharp light into the dark room. They set up a slide projector and screen, showing nostalgic images of family vacations. The final image gives hope: instead of a still image, it is a film of a stream which burbles and glitters—like music, a source of life amid the stasis of a man-made world.

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