Monthly Archives: November 2014

Healing Wars by Liz Lerman

Healing Wars was the most powerful performance I have ever witnessed. Liz Lerman’s combination of dance, music, speech, and media was ingenious.  Her exploration of humanity from the civil war to the war in Iraq was extremely sensitive, moving many to tears.  The amount of research Lerman did was obvious, from facts about medical procedures and technology to military training procedures to personal letters and interviews with soldiers and veterans. Lerman masterfully combined multiple storylines and small scenes throughout the performance without any disconnect. The layers of meaning and development of characters happened naturally. One of my favorite small details was the doll in a hoop skirt frame that the female soldier was holding during therapy, recalling the first museum scene where the same woman was in a hoop skirt frame waiting to receive medical attention. The scene changes were paced extremely well, offering moments of relief after intensely emotional scenes. With audience members saturated by iphones and computer screens, the incorporation of multi-media projections was smart, helpful, and refreshingly nuanced, including pictures, videos and text.

As I walked through the backstage museum scenes, the dancers moved in character, and at times engaged with the audience. I lost a staring contest to the dancer playing a civil war veteran driven mad and locked in an attic, another girl got a letter from the dancer playing Clara Barton, the freedman character was holding an electric light over some people. Part museum, part haunted house, I felt curious at some exhibits and passed others quite quickly. I lingered the longest listening to the middle of a conversation the navy veteran with a prosthetic leg was having about donated blood. Seeing his prosthetic leg, made me realize that this would be a very real, maybe even raw production. Not being able to answer the question, “Where were you when the Battle of Baghdad began?” made me wonder if I was ready for it.

I was expecting modern dance, but I was not expecting such truthful movements. Since dancers are normally silent, I was alarmed when they began to speak, loudly and directly to us. I was decidedly against their speaking, but as the performance continued I was anxious to hear what they would say next. Their early movements seemed heavy and difficult, without many stylized dance moves. It seemed too labor intensive, even when they were only moving a few feet. Watching them longer, I realized they were moving like real people: crawling, fighting, and dying.

A scene full of struggle was the dance against a wall of the civil war surgeon and the disguised female soldier. The harsh angles their bodies made were visually gripping.  It was a physical struggle for both of them: for the doctor, the lifesaving maneuvers were brutal, and for her it was pain to live and difficult to die. The music during this scene was slow, with a haunting melody that underscored the emotional turmoil. For an early rehearsal of this scene see this video: .

One scene that did feature more stylized, synchronized dancing was the dance of the suicidal soldiers. With sounds of a military drill team playing, the dancers began marching and saluting in time, moving around each other, simulating a drill team. The marching continued, but the movements suddenly changed to actions of suicide: a shot in the temple, slitting wrists, hanging, drinking, stabbing. How many soldiers march to this end?

A fun scene that provided a moment of relief for the audience happened when Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” started playing and the dancers let go and danced as if they were in a club. In the background, videos of soldiers dancing played.  In the audience talk back, a young veteran thanked Lerman for including this light-hearted side of soldiers.

In one of the final scenes, the navy veteran removed his prosthetic leg, and I ached at his vulnerability. The civil war freed man came to him and they began to move gently through a cathartic reenactment of the car crash that injured the navy veteran. By the end they were sitting side by side and the tenderness with which the civil war freed man sat and held his hand made me cry.

There were many different kinds of music used throughout the performance: “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a gospel hymn,  sound effects of chirping crickets, Lady Gaga, tonal melodies, and music that sounded like a sine wave/drone tone with slow pulses. Silence was a prominent sound throughout the production, most of the time it felt heavy. There were explosions, unprepared and extremely loud, that gave a jolt to my system. These explosions prevented me from getting lost in the intellect or emotions. When I jumped at the noise, I was reminded of my own instincts, my fear response, my body.

The back wall of the stage was a mirror, used strategically to reflect the dancers.  The entire production was like a mirror, reflecting our humanity. I am still wondering, what did I just see?


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Composers Are In Town!

Such an impressive treat to end the weekend with outstanding contemporary music from 10 different composers!

As a Season 49 Concert VIII, the University of Iowa, the Center for New Music presented “Composer’s Workshop” On Sunday evening, November 9 at Riverside Recital Hall, featuring works by Luke Kottemann, Alexandros Spyrou, Nima Hamadi, Andrew Thierauf, Barry Sharp, Leonid Iogansen, Jonathan Wilson, Christine Burke, Joshua Marquez and Jason Palamara.

The night opened with a string quartet performing Train on the Crandic by Luke Kottemann. The skillful string players and their solid performance as a group created the sense of what the composer indicates “the combination of the old and the new”. The piece begins with the train effect, also at the end, reminding me a story of the train adventure starting off from the origin to the destination. The train stops by an old town presenting in the middle section featured American folk music, which the composer was inspired by. The other piece by Mr. Kottemann was Stranded, Bewildered, and Forgotten for solo violin. From what the composer describes the title “You are alone, you don’t know where you are, and no one is looking for you,” the picture came to my mind clearly when Tim Cuffman started playing, lots of long dragging of the bow, dissonant harmonies and sliding notes creates the feeling of sadness and loneliness.

There were three solo clarinet pieces performed by Thiago Ancelmo de Souza including Thravsmata, Sinews and Gap fill. Thravsmata was composed by a Greek composer Alexandros Spyrou. I was amazed by the performer, in terms of his performance technique and the effects that have been created by his instrument. A mosaic-like texture clarified the title of the piece, which is a Greek word meaning broken, fragments, wrecks and pieces. Sinews was written by Barry Sharp. A sinew is “a piece of tough fibrous tissue that connects a bone to a bone or a muscle to a muscle.” Mr. Sharp wanted to create the piece that is reminiscent of this idea of connectivity. The shorter, longer and tremolo motives are presented throughout the piece in the various registers and timbres as “connective tissue” according to the composer. There was a repetitive screaming-like passage near the end, which leads the piece into the climactic moment. Gap fill was composed by Jonathan Wilson. From the composer’s description “to explore register in terms of large leaps; and line by a pervasion of chromatic lines moving at variable rates,” exactly, with the dramatic playing of the clarinetist, I found extreme amounts of chromatic elements, register and dynamic contrasts.

Iranian ensemble?! Yes! When Permutation is on the stage. Permutation, composed by a Persian composer, Nima Hamidi, was written for soprano, tenor, clarinet and piano based on the text by Sam Collier. Male and female voices are arguing to each other simultaneously with timbral features of the clarinet and piano creating atmosphere.

I was stunned when Andrew Thierauf started pronouncing speech-like German syllables on the stage; later I realized that was a part of the composition Drumming on Ursonate. Andrew Thierauf, acting as both performer and composer, specializes in the creation and performance of contemporary music. This piece is a setting of Kurt Schwitter’s poetic work Ursonate. Mr. Thierauf took motives from the original poem and expressed them rhythmically on the drums along with nonsensical speech-like German syllables, which became a terrific show.

Music For the Rain and Time by a Russian composer, Leonid Iogansen was written for violin, horn, trombone, piano and percussion; the composer himself played the violin part. This piece seems very ‘narrative’ to me. The ‘arched-like’ structure would be the best term for it as a whole. The piece begins and ends softly with calmness, in contrast to the loudly climactic section in the middle. The composer indicates that “this piece is inspired by his childhood memories of growing up in Russia,” which could be told by the opening melody of violin and the mouthpiece of horn being reminiscent of folk singing. The piece gets more exciting building up to the climax, as if the volume button of the radio gets turned up gradually and then your hear the bass drum and brass players play rhythmically leading to the rain theme, which blasts out the moment.

Unequal Means, “is a vehicle for exploring slow growth and expansion of ideas,” by Christine Burke is really fun to watch. Performers are set into two teams, solo bassoon up front, oboe and clarinet as a duo behind the bassoon. Most of the time, bassoon is leading the piece and joined by the duo behind. My favorite part of the piece was the low flutter tongue passages in the bassoon part.

Matingkad (Tagalog for “bright”) was written by Joshua Marquez, a Filipino-American composer. This was performed by the Ensemble 319 (septet). As described in the program “Matingkad explores slight changes in color and texture through the expansion and collapse of the harmonic spectrum.” The effect was apparent to me! The hall was filled with mysterious sound-effects and atmosphere. I also heard the interesting motives pass between the players. The piece gets faster later leading to the percussion’s solo section, played by Wannapha Yannawut. This was my favorite moment of the piece, it excited me with those effects of percussion instruments set and the precisely strong playing of the percussionist bring the piece to the explosive moment. The piece’s timbral explorations are due in part to various contemporary techniques used for the composition like plugging and pressing strings in the piano, and bowing on crotales and cymbals.

The concert ends excitedly with LOUi, the Laptop Orchestra at the University of Iowa presenting, “past every exit…”, a composition of Jason Palamara. This was totally a new experience for me watching laptops create an orchestra in place of acoustic instruments. There was a laptop conductor keeping the beats, with which all the performers and their laptops had keep pace, in addition to creating improvisations and playing recorded materials from their laptop instruments.

If you are either a fan of contemporary music or an ordinary listener seeking the freshness of music by a new generation of composers, then you should keep the University of Iowa, Center for New Music in mind and on your calendar!

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