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Reflection: Magic in the 'Intervals'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 22, 2010 - The audacious and stunning performance of Shahrokh Yadegari’s composition “Intervals,” starring sopranos Christine Brewer and Elizabeth Zharoff, cast a spell on the sold-out house at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts Tuesday evening.

“Intervals” is a dynamic element of Ann Hamilton’s project “stylus,’’ now on show at the Pulitzer (through Jan. 22, 2011). Like Hamilton’s project, the composition (for lack of a better term) is defiantly difficult to categorize and even more difficult to describe.

It is syncretic, bringing together, among other things: live and recorded music; projected images; readings; incidents of light, both natural and artificial; and sustained movement, as in the graceful sweep of projectors panning back, forth and around as they sent out light and images. And of course there was sound, at times so dense, so thick, so sustained it filled the building and was palpable. There was stillness, too, hushed quiet, as if everyone in the hall was holding a collective breath.

The audience members sat close together in folding chairs, arranged to offer different vistas and listening posts. But the viewer-listeners, like the performance itself, were anything but static. Once assuming permission was granted to fidget and to move about, heads were craned in pursuit of fugitive images and sounds, moving up onto the ceiling, down a hallway, down onto the lower level of the gallery then around and up-up-up to watch as the singers ascended ladders that could be read as promontories or watchtowers.

Also for the inquisitive and appreciative eye there were vivid colors and absences of color and patchy views of water, interrupted by Hamilton’s yard’s long haberdashery of hands, ripples glistening in a reflecting pool, then disappearing in the gloaming. Regularly, frequently, iconic images from the exhibition – the waving hand and the scratching of the stylus – appeared as reminders that the show is all about connections and conversations and communications.

So there was all of that, contained, compressed, compacted inside the silky cool of the concrete walls of Tadao Ando’s masterpiece, in the magnificently proportioned spaces resilient enough to accommodate with astonishing grace whatever is thrown at them, be it old master paintings, aboriginal ancestor poles, early renaissance panel paintings or, in this instance, the delicacies of silences and subtleties of images along with the roiling and thunderous forces of sounds that swept through the building.

“Intervals” creator, Yadegari, is a composer and teacher in California, and a collaborator as well with the show’s conjurer. Ann Hamilton, who lives and works in Columbus, Ohio, is professor of art at the Ohio State University. She has been in St. Louis off and on for a couple of years now, collecting material (real and ephemeral) for this project. She is an artist of rare vision and energy, and seems at times to pluck ideas and images out of thin air, then weave them together into one of her projects.

At one point, toward the end of the performance, she stood at the landing of the stairs to the lower level of the building. She has a head of striking white hair. Light came from behind her, creating a halo. For sheer drama, it was electric. For incandescent beauty, it was as matchless as it was momentary.

Soprano Christine Brewer, whose powerful, dramatic voice brings special luster to “Intervals,” said recently, "something rather miraculous happened" as she prepared the piece with the composer.

As part of the composition process, Brewer worked with Yadegari in advance of the performance, recording a phrase from a song over and over. The music she made was then dubbed over as well, creating a composite “other” voice to which, and with which, she could sing in performance. In the process of preparation for Tuesday night’s performance, she heard not only her voice but also three or four different voices, she said.

"One of them was my mother's. At that moment," she said, "I began to cry."

Her musical partner and vocal collaborator is an ascendant young soprano, Elizabeth Zharoff, who has sung with Opera Theatre of St. Louis for three years, most recently in the 2010 production of "The Marriage of Figaro." Her voice is bell-clear and haunting. Zharoff was more than up to the task of participating in this emotionally and musically challenging composition.

Hamilton, who has collaborated with Yadegari before, was a participant in the piece as well. I was unable to hear more than snatches of the text she read, but I caught a meditation on the circle, described as the primary (or fundamental) shape, based on the iris and the pupil of the eye.

There are repeated suggestions in this work of objects having distinct, almost animated personalities. A digital character named Lila is an essential performer in “Intervals.” Yadegari is the creator of Lila, which is an instrument, programmed by him to respond to ambient sounds, last night, specifically, sounds coming from Brewer and Zharoff. Sometimes the instrument is referred to as “it,” and other times as “she.”

Lila, Yadegari said in an recent interview, “has been constructed technically in such a way that it provides meaningful tactile control for the electronics performer to react musically to the singers.”

Before the creation of Lila similar efforts produced mechanisms the acoustic performer would use as an effect rather than as a colleague, or the performers had to follow the rigid form of the electronics, he said.

"Now,” Yadegari said, “it is a real conversation, a conversation with herself and with me, because I will respond to the musical gestures she makes," he said. As, indeed, all the participants responded to the musical and visual gestures made by others in the creation of an evening so moving and difficult to describe without resorting to the convenient nevertheless accommodating and entirely appropriate redoubt known as magic.

"Intervals" was a co-production of the Pulitzer Foundation and Opera Theatre of St. Louis. The performance Tuesday was dedicated by Emily Rauh Pulitzer to the memory of James N. Wood, who died this summer. Wood was a long-time member of the board of the Pulitzer, and served as its president. From 1985 to 1990, he was director of the St. Louis Art Museum. While there he was responsible for many of the most creative, innovative exhibitions and programs ever accomplished in the history of the Museum.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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