Cabrillo Festival Unearths the Hidden World of Girls

Many NPR programs have made the jump from the airwaves to center stage in order to gain attention and grow an audience. In the case of Hidden World of Girls: Stories for Orchestra, which kicked off the 50th anniversary season of The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the theatrical leap was managed with grace, earnestness, humility, and an eye towards arts making.

Based on the eponymous NPR series, The Hidden World of Girls chronicles the stories of female trailblazers and unlikely heroes through the interweaving of spoken word radio stories, live orchestral accompaniment, and visual projections.

The program’s ultimate goal was to create a work that bridged divided communities, engaged curiosity and conversation, and addressed issues sometimes difficult to broach all while attempting to explore the complex and shifting ways we experience contemporary culture through media. (A tall order and one that inevitably fell short because of its demands on the audience coming in with prior knowledge of the material or a stomach for complicated, cerebral art.)

This ambitious world premiere, the brainchild of Cabrillo Festival execs and radio producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva (known as The Kitchen Sisters), was three years in the making and the largest commissioned project in the festival’s history to date.

The bulk of the evening was scored by Laura Karpman, the project’s creative director and lead composer. In building out a team for the project, Karpman invited young female composers Alexandra du Bois, Clarice Assad, and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum to contribute compositions in response to stories featured throughout the night. The resulting performance was a compelling, perplexing, and, at times, anxious tapestry of competing sonic voices.

Courtesy of HerryLawford via creativecommons

In Beneath Boundaries, for example, Alexandra du Bois explored the work of Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian. Ghadirian combines and juxtaposes traditional and modern images, as a means of reflecting the complexity of her culture’s gender norms. Du Bois’ work, while at times lush and moving, drowned out these statements in favor of her own opinions. Surging percussive lines, restrained viols, and declarative brass fought form, melody, and key, which stretched the subject of gender identity beyond contemporary art and into social critique. The resulting composition was an audacious political statement on the plight of Middle Eastern women; without use of Middle Eastern instruments or non-Western chords; and ultimately pitied a culture whose customs, while seemingly oppressive, can also be quite empowering.

Clarice Assad, a festival participant in 2004 and daughter of famous Brazilian guitarist Sergio Assad, also skirted the line of editorial overstep in subverting the hidden story of her subject. Her piece, The Disappeared, was by turns contemplative and an instrumentally- explosive, sardonic jaunt that opted to reflect general statements against authoritarianism rather than converse directly with its source material—the story of Claudia and Patricia Bernardi. Assad’s work hinged on a circus theme making for vivid and delightfully expressive moments; but any dictatorial regime under the gun, and even unfavorable candidates in democratic societies, has been painted as clownishness, pompous, unsavory, and violent. Without reflection on the Bernardis’ situation, this piece could have been performed on any stage—to both its benefit and detriment.

Projected visuals were equally misplaced during the performance. Photos and video had been collected by The Kitchen Sisters and redesigned for the concert by Obscura Digital (the design team behindthe YouTube Symphony). Viewing these materials on-screen was difficult due to an obstruction caused by a large window-like installation hanging above the orchestra in front of the screen. Not only was the installation distracting, but when the source material was displayed in and through the installation, media was imbued with unintentional meanings. The work of photographer Deborah Luster, for example, was hailed within The Kitchen Sisters’ radio program for its vulnerability, humanity, and character insight, which is tough to accomplish live when a large window thwarts that view. Luster’s photos came off caged and calloused, which is certainly unintended, as Luster herself was shooting these photos within a Louisiana prison.

[Editor’s note: The installation also called upon the specter of the glass ceiling and, worse, drew comparisons to Laura Mulvey’s objectified female of the cinematic male gaze.]

Hidden World thrived when the potential in its medium was fully realized—or, rather, when some media kowtowed to others to reveal both source and created hidden stories. Double Adventures, written by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, was masterfully balanced in this regard. Charming, whimsical, and not too ostentatious given its service in a contemporary music festival, Kroll-Rosenbaum’s piece on childhood sci-fi fantasies was one of the successes of the evening.

The night, however, belonged to Karpman, whose brilliant underscoring showed her cinematic chops through and through. Karpman is a true craftswoman, whose sensibilities in, and understanding of, multimedia served to uncover new emotional dimensions. Her compositions were bold and self-assured; and though she surrounded herself with big names, like Herrmann, Schifrin, Williams, and Bernstein, Karpman certainly proved herself worthy of the associations.

The faults of this program—its competing voices, its many distractions, its missing the mark in spite of heavy responsibilities—are the very issues facing Feminism itself and ultimately distract from the true potency of this program: its ability to take on the typically male-dominated world of symphonic music and create art and advocacy with reckless aplomb and fearless celebration. The potency of this risk is worth commending.

Bold women are making strides every day by flavoring typically male spheres with their own suffragette voices: we bandied about in the health care debate, we petitioned teen magazines to change photo editing practices, we took over major media corporations, and we might even moderate the presidential debates. In Hidden World, we not only advance the medium of storytelling, but mold advocacy in an altogether new and artistic direction.

It may not be a Helen Reddy tune, but Hidden World reminds us of the secret worlds we have already conquered and the many exciting paths we have yet to forge.

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Boom Boom Thao

ImageHere’s my very messy, very self-indulgent original review copy–for you die-hards eager to know the new band line-up. Happy reading!

Thao w/ John Vanderslice

Bird by Snow

Garrett Pierce

Thursday, February 24, 2012

Bottom of the Hill/Noise Pop Music Festival

Better Than: Every live performance Thao has given to date

If anything is left standing at Bottom of the Hill after last night’s Noise Pop festival performance, it is certainly by the good graces of powerhouse indie songstress, Thao Nguyen. With a new band and edgier demeanor, Nguyen decimated last night’s performance with magnificent velocity.

The show was destined to make waves when it sold out a week prior to performance, in no small way influenced by the ingénue’s work outside of her band. Nguyen is known for lobbying government officials on behalf of musicians and works to benefit domestic violence shelters and sexual abuse counseling services.

She delved into film composition last year, providing the score for American Teacher, a documentary on our educational system. Nguyen has also written scores for WNYC’s Radiolab podcast and is set to perform in its latest round of touring shows.

This past December, she brushed elbows with the Portlandia crew (Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein), performing a cover of Salt-N-Pepa’s Push It.

Still, celebrity ascent aside, last night promised the same subdued, red dirt, guitar-heavy collective we have come to recognize as the Thao Nguyen sound. We all expected the same lyrical simplicity and child-like vulnerability that has often cast comparisons to Cat Power. Well, my friends, Cat Power is dead; and in her place, a hissing, yowling hellfire sex kitten.

Last night, clad in a denim jumper, thwacking her jet black hair about smoldering eyes, Ngyuen taunted, “Will you be off, be on, and be out of my sight?”  (Three songs later she broke into a cover of Ludacris’ What’s your Fantasy.)

There were signs. Know Better, Learn Faster released in 2009 was a propulsive, raw, and angst-frayed post break-up production. Its songs were hopeless tomes cheaply marinated in a sauce pop music. Live performances took on an increasingly strained feel—what hindsight calls artistic growth. Nearly three years later, and now deeply embedded in work on a new album, we find that a once broken inner child has emerged a fighter.

The new tracks performed last night thrashed together Nguyen’s countrified sound with elements of blues rock, gospel, and R&B. The result, exemplified in So Neck and Move, rests along the lines of R.L Burnside and Lou Reed Live.

The performance aspects of these new tracks are no less spectacular. New instrumentation and a smattering of fresh band mates, gave way to flourishes of Mr. Dynamite himself, James Brown.

“Baby, I was on your conscience, you were only on my mind,” Nguyen exploded; and later, took a swig of Jameson and thanked the crowd for indulging her.

The audience couldn’t be happier united under Nguyen’s thumb. It had been tied together all evening without a leader at its helm. The lo-fi offerings of opening performers Bird by Snow and Garrett Pierce hadn’t even warranted its attention (which both artists took in great professional stride).

Co-headliner John Vanderslice proved a worthy adversary. Dressed in a “Danielle Vanderslice 2004” t-shirt, the troubadour presented an intimate, ruminative, and experimental sampling of his vast repertoire. Vanderslice was as earnest and approachable as ever, but this did little to assuage the audience—which, on the whole, was more fascinated by its own self-importance to be bothered to show the artist the respect he deserved.

No, the spotlight truly, and justifiably, belonged to Thao. The new Nguyen was a temptress slicked in thick garters of self-assuredness—a testament to resilience and the transformative powers of the will. It is no small feat suffering heartbreak while finding the means to stay positive, grow, and give to others. If last night proved anything, it’s that we’re all capable of making such waves, but this one belonged to one bad ass bitch—and her name is Thao.

Critic’s Notebook

Thao’s new band:

Andrew Maguire – drums vibes

Eric Kuhn- drums guitar bass

Rob Shelton- keys

Kacey Johansing – vox

Emily Ritz – vox

Jesse Cafiero – bass lap steel

Thao’s setlist:

Body

When We Swam

Swimming Pools

The Day Long

So Neck

Beat (Health, Life and Fire)

Move

Know Better Learn Faster

Holy Roller

Bag of Hammers

The Give

Age of Ice

Encore: If You Were Mine (R. Charles)

Favorite Quote:

“Fuck, I missed the end. I was so close,” said John Vanderslice after performing Plymouth Rock. “I won’t be able to sleep tonight if I don’t complete this.” (He then went on to repeat the final measures of the song with perfect execution.)

Random Notebook Dump:

Thao Nguyen: Bitches Are Hustlaz 2

D-Fyne

Packed Musica

“We’re just counting spaces to see how much room is left,” recorder player Judith Linsenberg shouted over the growing attendance line standing outside the Berkeley City Club venue where her ensemble, Musica Pacifica, was to play. Seating was so tight, in fact, that I, in an ill-advised decision that harkened to my days in arts administration, chose to review the concert from a standing position to allow my neighbors the opportunity of enjoying their concert experience sur la place. As physiology slowly outweighed circumstance—shaking arms, broken concentration, downtrodden spirit—I was forced to break concert-going’s cardinal rule and left. To those affected by my actions and to the performers especially: mea culpa, mea culpa.

Despite the close quarters, Musica Pacifica’s performance was a delightful and well-formed romp through the Irish, Scottish, and English dance and folk music collection that makes up their upcoming album, Dancing in the Isles (set for release October 2010). This was another mid-afternoon concert whose programming instilled temporary amnesia from things like heat, proximity, and for others, physiology; favoring the finer, sedate, and sometimes witty spectacle of 17th and 18th music. Dripping viols and powerful rhythmic precision guided the group on less a dance through the Isles and more a Viennese—though geographically and chronologically improbable—nevertheless, a romantic traipse through the subtleties and sonorities of music revisited. Some may have found Musica Pacifica’s penchant for broadminded recreation alarming, but the group’s proud adornment of change, as if fighting a Suffragette movement, credits them deserved respect. (Linsenberg on the absence of contrapuntal lines: “We’ve moved on since then.”) With the flock of dance followers herded tightly into City Club on Saturday, Musica Pacifica’s soul train proves one to board.

Greener Pastures

Championing the most iconic instrument of the early music period is not an easy task. Add the sweltering heat of mid-June and the small, dry-wall design of the Loper Chapel and soon what promised to be an intimate lute-focused concert, In the Garden So Green felt more restrictive and unsettled—lute as it decries its own worth and relevance in the 21st century.

This was an unexpected effect, given the concert’s impressive turnout, and perhaps the work of its commander, David Tayler. Tayler’s mastery over the instrument at Saturday’s Fringe event etched a blend of Scottish sounds—seasoned, admittedly, with instances of the harp—with more decor than what might have been intended by the composers themselves. Other times, his flourishes and Spanish-like ornamentation insolently turned the instrumentalist from wandering troubadour to early music’s version of redneck minstrel. The pieces flirted with being too metallic, too thwacking, too twangy; and left the sonorous aftertaste one might have hearing a tuning tool as it slowly drops inside a piano: pretty, robust, but a little odd.

But this review is a positive one. Despite it all, Tayler created the intimate setting demanded of a post-lunch lute concert and captivated his audience to such a degree that it willing sat in closed and silent session while temperatures rose to the point of intrusion. And there were some inviting surprises in interpretations of Fortune My Foe, Lachrimae Antiquae Pavan, and other such Dowlanditties.      Tayler’s battle between sensibility and sensation, old and modern, revered and popular mirrored much of the early music era itself. Romance, expressiveness, and new muted by the unseen force of tradition. If his lute be a woman: “She was stronger alone; and her own good sense so well supported her, that her firmness was as unshaken, her appearance of cheerfulness as invariable, as, with regrets so poignant and so fresh, it was possible for them to be.”

Russian Circles

Windmills of Your Mind

Russian Circles/Young Widows/Helms Alee at the Echoplex

A dreamy symphony scope of bearded hipsters, thick rimmed glasses, and skinny jeans permeated the Echoplex Saturday November 14. “I’m over music that just screams in the mic” wanes my friend Vicky, “I’m not 15 anymore.” But who was? Certainly not the troubadourian talent that had coagulated from Pasadena basements and studio apartments to see the Russian Circles. On the whole, the concert going experience touched on the jarring side, the flat beer seediness of a rock concert venue meshed imperviously with the self-determined smudgyness of openers Helms Alee and Young Widows- bands sawing away at the acoustical threshold of the house speakers. Patience is a virtue, especially for those dye-in-the-wool audiophiles too old to know that hip does not mean marinating in a stew of blown out noises until the wee hours of the morning. Still, the raw energy displayed at the Echoplex that night, improving sonorously as we neared the headliner, was a hedonistic intoxication. It’s hard to screw up live electronic music; so, on the whole, all three bands managed to captivate their audiences despite certain electronic improvisations easily forgiven. The Young Widows, with chant-like incantations and sounds bleeding metal over blues and jazz, much to the chagrin of the band I’m sure, were an all too loud precursor, and thus perfect opener for subdued Circles. The Circles, whose sounds ranged from pulsating to bleak, orchestral to animalistic, was certainly the most crowd-friendly, let alone musically and beautifully unconventional. Still their display was a fashion show of lights, glitter, and effects prompting the question: without their festooned glamour, what would these bands be? Though they are forward moving, I wonder if live performance was an apt turn for the band (just because you can, doesn’t mean you should); and not a gimmick sold cheaply to their furry audience following for increased revenue.

Gram Rabbit

What’s Up Doc?

Gram Rabbit
Presented by KCRW
SOhO Bar and Restaurant
Sunday June 1, 2008

Reviewed by Jessica Hilo

Experiencing a new generation of psychedelia puts a bit of the “blundering down the rabbit hole” feel into what would have been another quiet Santa Barbara Sunday. But such is the evening when Joshua Tree natives, Gram Rabbit, wascally fashion pop musicians, come to town. Gram Rabbit’s sexed up Aryan synth sound, electo peers of the Lovemakers and Ladytron, have garnered the band an occult following, be-rabbit eared revelers who call themselves “the Royal Order of Rabbits.” Though the ears were missing during Sunday’s SOhO performance, the sea of oddities in their place- best described as a mixture of classic John Hughes’ characters with Johnny Depp circa “Bennie and Joon”- enhanced the strange world of retro that Gram and opener United by Sound seem to enjoy.

United by Sound, Los Angeles based up and comers, almost outweighed their main act. With a polished cabaret style and new spin on crunkstep the band is destined for greater things should they find a label. Highlights of their set include tunes “Benjamin” and “Guns.” Their vocals, a Leslie Uggams meets old Nelly Furtado, were joyously received from frontwoman Jeni Ivey. Ms. Ivey’s talent completes the band’s sonorous masterpiece with a feeling of restrained energy- one that promises annihilation of nuclear proportions if ever unhinged. Gram Rabbit’s vocalist Jesika von Rabbit, on the flip of it, left something to be desired. Where her voice, early Madonna meets Gwen Stefani, is part and parcel to the band’s overall bunny-flected theatricality, tonight it waned meticulous and tired. So at times when the grandeur of the band’s ambience and harmonic layering faded, the performance felt a little less like Brian Eno and a little too much like defected Soviets gone American. Performance staples done well, though, include “White Rabbit” and “Dirty Horse;” with the best song of the night, and consequently the most ear friendly track on their newest release “RadioAngel and the RobotBeat,” “Something Fuzzy.” The band ended the evening with encore “Aloha,” the most offensive, countrified affront to Hawaiian culture since John Wayne’s “Big Jim McLain;” but indicative of an ominous and cynically gothic retrograde I hope the band explores as it hops its way down the briar patch.