A word on Edgewise

The Mondavi Center explores the untraditional with the 2005 Edgewise series

What exactly does Laurie Anderson do? She’s not telling.

What exactly does Laurie Anderson do? She’s not telling.

Visualize the Mondavi Center: a big, beige, boxy building deliberately placed squarely in the sightlines of drivers sailing east and west on Interstate 80. What comes to mind when you think about what happens inside? Distinguished symphony orchestras? Touring dance companies? World-music concerts?

Those images are understandable. Dance, and classical and world music were the focus of the Mondavi Center’s brochures during the arts center’s first two seasons. However, presenting new, challenging and untraditional work has always been part of the Mondavi Center’s programming agenda, as well.

It’s no secret that Brian McCurdy, the Mondavi’s director, is personally committed to this. He sometimes books groups that many local entertainment writers have never heard of, much less seen. Last year, when this writer asked to borrow a recording of Kristjan Järvi’s Absolute Zappa program, the CD he received was loaned out of McCurdy’s personal collection at home. McCurdy talked about the disc track by track—he didn’t leave the task to his publicist.

Most people who enter the Mondavi Center never meet McCurdy. He keeps a low profile, and his calm Canadian demeanor and dapper suits could lead you to the wrong conclusion about his programming goals. The truth is McCurdy likes to push the envelope, in terms of audience expectations, by showcasing emerging works in progress by significant artists throughout the world. He’s even happier when he gets to commission a new work.

If you look at the Mondavi Center’s current season brochure, you’ll notice something different: a symbolic shift in emphasis. During the Mondavi’s first two seasons, the new and challenging offerings were featured on page 20-something, after the famous orchestras and big-name dance companies. This year, the challenging stuff that’s harder to sell to general audiences—what the Mondavi Center calls its Edgewise series—has moved to the very front of the brochure. Performance art has gone to the head of the list.

“We encourage you to experiment this season,” McCurdy wrote in the brochure’s introduction, wearing a Cheshire cat’s smile in his photograph. But McCurdy hasn’t thrown all caution to the winds. The artists he picked for the three shows of this year’s Edgewise series are names that many will recognize. Performance artists Laurie Anderson and Rinde Eckert, composers Paul Dresher and Terry Riley, and the Kronos Quartet all have been active for decades. But though they’ve got track records and established credentials, few people would describe them as part of “the establishment.” Neither are they pop crossovers, though it would be fair to observe that each has some sort of following.

Anderson, a member of that first generation of performance artists who emerged during the 1970s, opens the series, appearing in the Mondavi’s Jackson Hall on January 27. She’s bringing a piece that’s so new that, when the Mondavi Center’s brochure went to the printer last spring, it still didn’t have a title. As of November, the center staff knew it was called The End of the Moon but was still unclear as to whether it had an intermission.

The challenge of describing any new Anderson piece is the sheer difficulty of trying to sum up what she does. She sings. Lately, she plays the violin, as well. She’s classically trained, but she doesn’t always play the instrument in the usual way. One hesitates to call her appearances “concerts.”

Even </i>Slow Fire<i> is too quick to capture on film, as this photo of Rinde Eckert demonstrates.

She’s a storyteller, for sure. There’s a lot of the written and spoken word in her presentations. She’s given to big ideas but also to observing small details. And in terms of her style onstage, she’s a bit “out there,” but she’s not scattered. She lives in the moment, but it’s not all improvised.

Anderson’s unconventional style also is reflected in her offstage life. She takes time to do things most of us don’t. She periodically takes long walks—as in 10 days long. A couple of years ago, she pulled on her sneakers and walked across Greece from Athens to Delphi (where the oracle delivered cryptic messages to the ancient Greeks).

There’s a bit of the oracle in Anderson. As she told an interviewer last July, “My work is more about trying to ask really good questions, and not trying to come up with really big shows.”

The End of the Moon opens with a question: “Who taught you what beauty is?” Anderson’s notes, written when the work was still untitled, asked, “How do we define our enemies? What is it to be free and also afraid?”

The Vancouver Sun described a mid-November 2004 performance of the piece: “A few dozen candles on the floor, an easy chair on the left, balanced by an image of the moon’s surface on the right, the stands and various electronic equipment front and centre. Anderson moves from station to station.”

As the article continued, “Anderson is all about exploring the thin, fuzzy line between ‘popular’ culture and ‘art.’ Her perspective, with its references to Mission Control, Houston, post 9/11 New York, the Iraq War, and Zen retreats in Northern California, is unmistakably American. In essence, she’s successfully reinvigorated the tradition of the cracker barrel philosopher for a new century’s urban villagers.”

Slow Fire, with music by Dresher and featuring performer Eckert, comes to the Mondavi Center’s Studio Theatre February 9-12. Dresher and Eckert conceived Slow Fire while touring Europe with another piece in 1984, and they developed the concept through 1988. The main character, Bob, is both funny and sinister. His preoccupation with security gradually slides into paranoia, and his outfits shift from a geeky garage-hobbyist’s jumpsuit into paramilitary lunacy.

Eckert, a big man with a shaved head and an operatic voice, plays Bob. It’s a highly physical performance, one that he’s been working out for four months to take on. “It’s like being in a football game every night,” he told SN&R in a recent interview. “I’m covered in bruises by the end of a week [of performances].”

Dresher plays electric guitar, backed by a synthesizer and electronic drums. “The music borrows from the traditions of white gospel, jazz and classical,” Eckert said. You also will hear evidence of Dresher’s investigations of Indian and Indonesian musical traditions.

The Kronos Quartet orchestrates the music of the spheres in </i>Sun Rings<i>.

Eckert recalled that he and Dresher had trouble talking about Slow Fire in interviews, because it didn’t fit into any particular category. They compromised by calling it an “electric opera.” Eckert explained the term: “We didn’t want to call it music theater—it ain’t South Pacific. … Opera aficionados would blanch at the idea that it’s ‘opera.’ On the other hand, it has a kind of seriousness of purpose that I associate with high culture, and a kind of tragic cast to it. It also inherits some ironies and comic traditions from earlier opera. It has satiric elements that one would associate with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.”

What does Slow Fire satirize? “It was born in a kind of aggressive world of President Reagan and the posturing of America in the world as policeman,” Eckert said. “There was a lot of talk about communism, and we were positioning ourselves to be this bellicose entity.”

Slow Fire earned enthusiastic reviews in the late 1980s; the San Francisco Chronicle called it “a classic.” At the time, several critics likened Slow Fire to Anderson’s work—a comparison Eckert always felt was somewhat far-fetched. “It was a breakthrough for me into this kind of ‘hot’ world that I was interested in, as opposed to Laurie Anderson’s sort of ‘cool’ world. Slow Fire was much too theatrical for a lot of performance artists’ tastes,” Eckert said.

Dresher and Eckert toured the show on and off through 1996, giving upwards of 200 performances—a huge number by performance-art standards. Two years ago, they decided to revive Slow Fire, sensing its time had come again.

“Some of the cautionary themes are still relevant today, alas,” said Eckert. And people are still asking to see it. February’s performances at the Mondavi are part of the show’s 20th-anniversary reunion.

The Kronos Quartet, along with the UC Davis University Chorus—and a whole lot of recorded sounds from space—will close the Edgewise series with Sun Rings on April 27.

In the 1970s, Kronos Quartet made the counterintuitive decision to specialize completely in contemporary music, and it has managed to thrive for nearly 30 years despite the odds. Sun Rings came about when NASA approached David Harrington, first violin and spokesman for Kronos, with an idea for a collaborative project that utilized a recording of electromagnetic space sounds made by the Voyager spacecraft and other probes (phased into wavelengths humans can hear).

Harrington’s mind immediately flashed to Terry Riley. Riley, a somewhat reclusive Nevada County composer, has been at the forefront of contemporary American music for 40 years. His 1964 composition In C is credited with kicking off the minimalist movement. Riley has written several pieces for Kronos, starting 25 years ago with a string-quartet arrangement based on Riley’s earlier piece for electronics, Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector.

Riley took NASA’s space sounds, loaded them into his computer and then spent months listening and organizing his thoughts. As he explained in the concert’s promotional materials, “I pictured an imaginary audience traveling with Kronos in and around the planets, hearing the quartet and choir as they journeyed through the distant sounds of exotic atmosphere.”

Riley emerged with an evening-length piece organized into 10 movements, with titles like Planet Elf Sindoori, Venus Upstream and Beebopterismo. Willie Williams, who’s done light shows for David Bowie and U2, put together the visuals, which run the gamut from interplanetary to intrauterine.

Riley doesn’t do many interviews, but he gave one to New York public radio station WNYC prior to a performance of Sun Rings last October at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “This is the biggest thing Kronos has ever done, and it’s the biggest thing I’ve done in a way,” Riley said then. “It’s the most complicated piece I’ve ever been involved with. … It’s scary to perform because there’s a lot of stuff that has to be coordinated.”

Life is bound to be scary when you’re performing on the edge.