Wednesday, January 25, 2006

APAP Performance 1: "A Series of Unfortunate Events"

Scanning my previous entries, I see I didn't tell the full story of the first APAP performance. (APAP stands for "Asscoiation of Performing Arts Presenters.") Robin Becker, my modern dancer colleague (on the faculty at Hofstra University) and I did short performances at this past weekend's APAP convention in New York City. We were part of what was essentially a professional talent show; in a large studio at City Center in NY (just a block from Carnegie Hall), presenters were able to watch a series of 8-minute performances by numerous small dance companies represented by Robin's agent.

In Robin's 8 minute slot, she presented a trio (two men and a woman, all young professional dancers) called "Landing" and a newly-choreographed solo, "Leaving," to music I composed. My piece is a set of variations over a continuously repeating set of chords. In classical music, we call this musical structure a "chaconne" or "passacaglia;" in more popular vernacular, the repeating part is called a "groove" or a "loop." The term loop is used especially when the repeating portion is recorded and being played back.

"Loop" applies well to my piece. This fall I've been relearning to play with my cello amplified and using what is called a "looping pedal," in this case a "JamMan." A cord runs from the pickup mic attached to the bridge of my cello to the JamMan, and then another cord carries the signal from the JamMan to the amplifier/speaker. The signal can pass through the JamMan virtually unaltered. But if I press a footswitch (i.e., pedal), the JamMan begins to record what I am playing and continues to record until I push the switch again. Then the JamMan countinuously plays back the "loop" I've just created. By repeating the process, I can record additional layers, so that the loop can contain harmony, counterpoint, melody, etc.

The music for "Leaving," (the piece itself has the current unimaginative working title of "the G major piece for Robin") is based on such a loop. And the basic loop has been recorded, stored on a compact flash card in the JamMan itself, so that whenever we do the piece we know it will be the same exact speed (which is more important to Robin, the dancer, for the obvious reasons, than it is to me).

Once the original loop startes playing, I record (overdub) two additional layers, creating a nice, warm harmony. Then while all three layers continuously repeat, I play a set of melodic variations which grow in complexity to a climax, after which the music relaxes. Through a series of rehearsals in December and January, plus working from audio recordings and video tapes of sessions in which Robin and I improvised together, she worked out the choreography and I worked out the exact music. The work has evolved from free improvisation to a finished choreography done to fully-composed music.

All well and good. And when we performed it on January 17 at a private performance Robin held for donors to her dance company, Robin Becker dance, all was well.

At the APAP convention, there were additional challenges. First, doing two pieces in eight minutes made for a dangerously tight schedule. Second, the technical people at APAP were geared only to playing recorded music and running lights, and didn't have the staff to help with things like setting up the cello amp and chair, and made it quite clear to Robin that they would not be of any assistance with this. Until we actually got to the APAP technical rehearsal (all of ten minutes!) we hadn't even been told where there would be an outlet to plug in the cello amp.

Robin hired one of her Hofstra students, Greg, to help with the amp logisitics. What he and I worked out was that we would have the cello amp strapped on a portable luggage rack with wheels)\. The amp and the foot pedal would be plugged into a powerstrip on the back of the cart, in turn plugged into a 50-ft. orange extension cord (we bought a 50 footer since we didn't know how far away the outlet would be). The JamMan would sit on top of the amp, with the cable from its output already plugged into the input on the amp.

Greg would wheel out the cart and plug the extension cord into the outlet (which turned out to be right behind the curtain at the side of the stage where we were setting up). I would bring out my cello and a folding chair. First I would set the cello down, then unfold the chair, and the first one of us free to do so would set the JamMan on the floor by the chair. Then we both had to scurry off the stage so that the trio could dance their number.

Then would come a brief period while the three dancers left the stage, and Robin and I took our places. I would pick up the cello, plug the cord from the JamMan into the pickup mic, and be ready to push the foot pedal to start the loop and begin the piece once the lights went up.

We seemed to have it all worked out well in the rehearsal.

But then came the first performance. As Jody, Robin's agent, got up to introduce Robin, who would make a few remarks to the audience, Greg and began our tasks. But As Greg got halfway across the stage, the JamMan fell off the amp (which was being wheeled on the luggage cart). He picked it up. By the time he got it over to the side of the stage, I had the cello down and the chair positioned. But now the various cords were tangled to the point we couldn't even set the JamMan on the floor! So I quickly unplugged everything to untangle and replug; it all went fairly smootlhly, in fact, and didn't take all that long. We were off the stage in short order.

But then as the dancers for the trip were taking their places, the sound and light guy, evidently worried we were behind schedule, started the trio music and bringing up the lights before the dancers were fully in place. This was, well, less than optimal from a theatrical ppoint of view. They dealt with it beautifully, though, and the piece looked gorgeous nonetheless.

Then it was time for me to take my place (and Robin hers). The stage, though, was so black, and I was nervous and feeling a bit panicky, and I couldn't see well enough to get the cord from the JamMan plugged into the pickup mic. I kept trying to shove it in, but it wasn't working!

The lights started to come up on Robin, so I figured I'd go ahead and start the loop, and use the light on Robin to help me see what I was doing. (I might have taken a bit more time, but I had heard the tech guy making whispered complaints to Robin's agent that we were taking too long, and I didn't want him or Robin's agent angry with us.) The first loop plays by itself in the piece, anyway, and this would give me plenty of time to plug in the cord and be ready to add the second layer.

I pushed the pedal. No sound came out of the amp!

A new wave of adrenaline surged through my body. My "inner critic" started yelling at me about what a screw-up I am. I told myself to stay calm. I realized the mute button on the amp, which is right next to the power button, had been inadvertently pushed. So I pushed it to disengage it, and voila! there was sound.

Except it was now in the middle of the loop.

Which, not surprisingly, caused Robin her own bit of internal discomfort. Being the professional, seasoned artist that she is, she looked totally unperturbed, but I knew that on the inside she was wondering what the heck was going on over on my side of the stage.

Meanwhile, I was back to plugging in the cord to the pickup, and still having troubles. Finally it went in, but now we were into the second or third pass of the loop. What to do?

Well, I did what musicians are trained to do if we are playing in an ensemble and get lost. Keep track of where the music is, and come back in as if you had already been playing. Sort of like when there is a news bulletin that interrupts a television program and the viewer is returned to said program, already in progress.

I assumed that Robin had done essentially the same thing: doing the choreography as if I was playing what I would have been playing had everything been playing smoothly.

Wrong assumption. Robin was improvising, pretty much waiting for me to start from the top. So she was now confused, too, but looking great, just as I was smiling and acting confident and delighted while I played. Finally Robin reached a point in the choreography which we have carefully worked out to be at the start of a particular musical variation. So I jumped to there in the music, and from then on we were totally in sync. She danced gorgeously, and I played the (rest of) piece the best I ever have. It was in tune, musical and flowing, I felt I was really in tune with her energy, that there was synergy happening, etc.

When we finished, I was on a good-performance high. Endorphins aplenty. I was actually delighted that we recovered so well from the minor disasters with the set up. I felt great.

We returned to the common dressing/warm-up area. Robin was as upset as I was happy. She was angry about the music and lights coming up too soon for the trio, and while she tried to ask in a nice and respectful way, she was clearly quite frustrated, to put it mildly, with the musical confusion at the start of her solo. She did as amazing a job as I've ever seen anyone do of not acting out her anger and fury. I couldn't help imagining that she was reminding herself that she loves and respects me, when what she really wanted to do was throttle me.

My explanation about the pedal falling off, the cords getting tangled, the mute switch, the problems with the darkness, etc., she understood intellectually and was quite reasonable about, but clearly internally she was quite upset and feeling that the whole thing was a disaster.

I remained confident that while certain things may have felt like disasters to us, to the audience both pieces probably came off beautifully. And that given the lack of technical support, and difficult circumstances, the way we recovered and managed not to have an actual disaster were something to celebrate. And, egocentric musician that I am, I sounded great and so I was happy with myself.

So we learned from that experience what could go wrong in the next, and I worked out a new strategy for setting things up so that in the second performance we wouldn't have those same problems.

And in that second, Monday, performance, those problems didn't happen. But that doesn't mean that all went smoothly . . .


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