Monday, April 21, 2014
Works in Progress: Searching for Sebald with Howie Kenty
What is your role in Searching for Sebald?: Primarily, I am the composer of music! During the production, I'll also be performing a bit of guitar, bass, electronics, or whatever is called for, along with the rest of the ensemble (violin, piano, and percussion). But as with all the members of the team, it's also been a lot of fun for me to step in and help the performers when needed during our rehearsals, and to give feedback on the work in progress.
Tell us a little about The Deconstructive Theatre Project: This is my first production with DTP. My introduction to the group was via my friend Adrianna Mateo, who played violin on DTP's previous production, The Orpheus Variations, and she had heard that they were seeking a composer for this upcoming piece. From the description, it sounded like a really innovative and experimental group, and I was mightily intrigued. I met with the Founding Director Adam J. Thompson, and in our discussions, it was immediately clear that we shared a lot of artistic ideas, and that this new work was going to be something quite unusual and unique.
How is the creation process going so far?: After beginning "The Rings of Saturn", the text on which Searching for Sebald is based, I had a few ideas for what the music might sound like, but nothing concrete. Attending the rehearsal workshops, however, was really inspiring and gave me a whole slew of new ideas and methods of developing the music. At the first rehearsal, I was thoroughly delighted by what I found. Earlier, Adam had developed exercises for the performers that involved them interviewing each other and recording their reactions to and thoughts on the book, and at rehearsal, in a darkened room with a spot lit stage, each performer listened to the recorded interview of another on a headset, while simultaneously acting out this performance, becoming a different person reacting to a work written by another entirely different person. The way this played with identity was quite intriguing (parallel to the ambiguity of identity Sebald cultivates in his narrative), and the words themselves, performances, and lighting all together created an effect that was magically indescribable.
What is the developmental process like for you as an artist?: When I've worked composing for this project, so far, it has been at home with a piano, and sometimes also with a computer. (I tend to compose using different tools for different projects, and for this one, the piano seems to fit best.) Part of what I've created is inspired by my own interpretation of and reaction to the book itself. But I also find that attending the rehearsals is great for new inspiration. For instance, from that first rehearsal, with the focus on shifting identity, I realized that it would be very interesting to represent musically, and one way this could be done is through a technique called heterophony, which a former teacher of mine described as follows (to paraphrase): imagine that both of our great-grandfathers learned the same folk song, but perhaps from different teachers, and since they were from different areas, also with slight variations. If the two met and played these songs together, at the same time, they would end up mostly playing in unison, but their little differences would create interesting and occasionally divergent lines. So that's one example of the kind of collaborative feedback particular to this production team and project that I find very inspiring.
What is it like working with mixed media? What are some challenges, benefits, risks, etc.?: I find that, aesthetically, it's often easier to become immersed in works that engage more than just one sense. So the way this project uses text, live performers, video and projections (of both the digital and analog variety), physical objects, music, and sound creates a very powerful work.
That said, working with more formats does invite more complications and ways for things to go wrong. Analog tape breaks, microphones feed back, computers crash, etc. But the team here has done a good job so far of figuring out where these problems can occur, minimizing these places, and successfully managing the fallout when things do go wrong.
Tell us a little about W.G. Sebald and "The Rings of Saturn": "The Rings of Saturn" is quite a singular book, a semi-fictional travelogue written by Sebald after he, or the book's Sebald character, suffers some kind of existential crisis of both the body and the spirit. There is a marked focus on death and decay, which vacillates between acting in the text's foreground versus underlying one of the many excursions Sebald takes into topics as diverse as the cultivation of silkworms, Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson, the skull of Thomas Browne, and so forth. These digressions often occur without warning, emerging suddenly from Sebald's walking journeys though the coast of England, exploring the subjects at great length, and disappearing just as quickly, either to return to Sebald's explorations or to descend another level into a different excursion. There isn't ever a stated or implied goal, or a straightforward narrative of any kind, so what follows is always something of a surprise. It's frustrating, tortuous, wonderful, and brilliant, and thoroughly unlike other books.
How do W.G. Sebald and "The Rings of Saturn" inspire you as artist?: It has been a terrific challenge to capture the mood of the text in just the right musical fashion. There is this deep darkness underlying much of the book, but at the same time, there seems to me to be a real sense of wonder, and an appreciative astonishment at natural and manmade objects, systems, and environments. So while this darkness is a great resource to draw on musically, there needs to be a balance. Additionally, the shifting of focus and topical lines is an integral characteristic of the book. I've found that one way to represent all three of these features is to create musical sections that shift unexpectedly between moods, either quickly or by the introduction of a dissonant element that undermines the harmonic ground and initiates a transition to another gesture or section. Incidentally, while working on the music for Sebald, I've also been working on another unrelated piece, a trio with electronics, for a group called First Construction. I had initially expected that piece to follow one aesthetic path, but it turns out that the music for Sebald has had a huge influence on that piece's style, and totally changed the way it has emerged. That piece is a bit more aggressive, free, and improvisatory, but has ended up sharing a great deal of the same musical vocabulary. So the book has had a significant effect on my recent musical output. (An observant friend also noted the delicious “First Construction” and “The Deconstructive Theatre Project” pairing. Ha!)
What is the importance/relationship of memory and the wandering mind to you as an artist?: Memory is our own subjective collection of our experiences. It helps us to process new material, giving us connotations and associations when presented with things we haven't seen before. I think most artists have wandering and playful minds, because sometimes one has to sort through a lot of information before something sticks out as artistically relevant to our own style. Once this happens, our memories become invaluable in drawing out meaning from this new artistic inspiration, and allows us to take it from an individual experience to once that is collectively relevant to many people.
What is it like exploring neuroscience through creativity?: The brain is one of the most complex individual units in existence. Picking apart how it processes input, and for artists, particularly how it processes a work of art, is fascinating. Searching for Sebald is exactly that: an exploration of interpretation and response via the creation of a new work, itself open to new interpretation and response.
Why Searching for Sebald now?: Sebald seems to be a natural progression for DTP, evolving from the explorations in The Orpheus Variations and other earlier productions. But for me as a newcomer to the company without that back history, Sebald also seems somehow timeless, an exploration of an exploration of the most intimate musings on memory, life, and death.
What can we expect to see in Searching for Sebald?: A thoroughly unique theatrical multimedia meta-production! This is a really special work, put on by an exceptional team, and I don't say that lightly.