General 2-16-2004

My Favorite (Walker) Things, Part 3: More Good (Mostly)

To commemorate the Walker's closing for a year, we're running a series of reminiscences of performances at the Walker by Richard Paske, musician, radio host, and writer. This is the third and final installment.

I’ll begin this section with a study in contrasts: the work of iconoclastic theater artist Robert Wilson as presented by the Walker in 1977, 1978, 1984, and 1999.

1977 brought Wilson’s electric I was sitting on my patio this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating to the enveloping intimacy of Highland Park’s Edyth Bush Theatre. Wilson used his trademark hypernatural lighting and disembodied, electronically altered vocal projections to fantastic effect in this work where most of the action takes place on a chaise lounge. At least while Wilson performed it solo before intermission, the action was so confined.

After intermission the dancer Lucinda Childs presented another solo performance of the same piece. Her version was more physically active and was of high quality, but only Wilson’s produced the kind of tingling of consciousness that the best live theater can create in its audience. Once critical mass had been achieved in my mind and body by the theatrical gestalt in which I was seated, once the light had been switched on in me, the piece kept saying, “you are alive, you are here, you are here now, this is really happening…” If you’ve ever experienced this light and this gestalt, you know what I mean.

In contrast, Wilson’s other Walker performances ranged from mildly disappointing to embarrassingly bad. His 1978 performance with Christopher Knowles, the autistic youngster with whom he had worked for years, was uneventful and aesthetically unsatisfying. No critical mass was achieved, at least for me. But it gets worse. 1984’s Knee Plays were an absolute disaster—at the preview performance I attended the flimsy set broke like a Tinkertoy construction short a few connecting pieces. The performances were uninspired, the set broke, could it get any worse? Yes, it could: David Byrne’s banal music for brass instruments made it so.

My disappointment was exacerbated by high expectations established when I saw two performances of the Rotterdam section of the monumental work of which the Knee Plays were a small part: the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down. In September, 1983, I had seen both the Rotterdam premiere and a subsequent Parisian performance that were awesomely beautiful, especially in Paris. Finally, Wilson’s most recent visit to the Walker, cosponsored by Northrup Auditorium, was Monsters of Grace, a 1999 collaboration between himself and Philip Glass. Yikes! Neither of those avant-garde emperors had any clothes on at all!

Enough of this downward trajectory–on to more good! Before closing this series, I cannot not mention at least four more of the many performances I have been involved in at the Walker over the years. My native-born Minnesotan modesty dictates that I refrain from doing so, but for now I’ll cast modesty aside in the interests of honest disclosure—starting with one that still makes me smile:

– October,1981: The previous year Bill McGlaughlin, associate conductor of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, had asked me to compose a piece for them, so I did. My Singing Space, a drone-based harmonic improvisation for orchestra, solo voice, audience, and digital synthesizer of my own design and construction, was premiered at the Walker in September 1980. I was moderately pleased with the performance, but that’s not the memory that makes me smile. A year later Bill asked me to play tuba with the SPCO in their Walker performance of Ligeti’s Melodien. Little did he know that my tuba chops were not really up to the task. Long story short: I flubbed the pianissimo, altissimo note at the end of the piece at every rehearsal. On the gig, I nailed it right on! Best note I ever played! After the gig as I walked through the stage door with tuba under left arm, Bill grabbed my right hand and pumped a handshake with the vigor that only the exceedingly relieved can muster. Whew!

– November, 1983, Wingless Transportation: Dean Granros (electric guitar), Phil Hey (drums), and I (electric bass) burned down the house in a gig of soaring, free-wheeling electric jazz. Someday we’ll release our recordings from that era. We were something else.

All right, enough about me. Well actually, I’m involved in the next one as well, but the focus will be as it should be: on Maryanne Amacher (ah-ma-SHAY), who created quite a ruckus at New Music America in 1980 by turning Dennis Russell Davies’ Crocus Hill mansion into a gigantic sub-woofer. Unfortunately, I had a supper club gig that Friday night so I missed the sonic blast that shook St. Paul to its very core. I only heard in retrospect about the myriad irate phone calls to St. Paul Police from as far away as the East Side where residents could hear Maryanne’s music as if it were coming from their home stereos. Conversely, her Saturday piece was virtually inaudible and featured Petri dishes filled with mythical DNA that would someday grow new musical creatures. Maryanne was very ahead of her time.

In September 1974, I had the great fortune of assisting Maryanne in preparing her Everything in Air for performance. This piece was performed in the auditorium late one Saturday night and featured taped and electronically manipulated environmental sounds (these days they’d call it a remix) merged with live sounds piped into the auditorium on hi-fi phone lines attached to microphones spread throughout the city. Prior to the gig, my role was to drive her around to potential mic-sites suggested by myself and others. The night of the gig my role was even more fun. Armed with a bottle of Mead wine Maryanne thought I should have to keep warm, I lay on top of a dump truck hood tucked under a University of Minnesota building on the banks of the Mississippi. From there I played tuba to my heart’s content—Maryanne had said “let the site inspire you,” so I did. A microphone hanging above the truck’s hood captured my playing and started it on its journey to the Walker auditorium where Maryanne mixed it with the tapes and other live sounds, including a banjo player stationed by some grain elevators near University Avenue. If memory serves, I was instructed to play from about 10 – 11 PM. From there I drove back to the Walker to listen to the rest of the piece. Getting into the auditorium was a challenge. Maryanne was mixing in quad and the rear two speakers (big Altec Voice of the Theater’s) were in the entryways between the lobby and the auditorium itself. The sound was so loud I had to plug my ears and dash through one entryway to make it safely into the auditorium. Afterwards, Maryanne told me that when I was playing she mixed it so high that the walls, ceiling, and floor of the auditorium were shaking as if an earthquake had hit. Talk about having an impact on an audience!

As is probably obvious, I could go on and on and on with these memories—memories of the famous (Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, Robert Ashley, Pauline Oliveros,…) and of the not-so-famous (Sid Farrar, Eleanor Hovda, Leif Brush, Tommy Thompson,…). I could write a book, and might someday. But until then, thank you, thank you, thank you, Walker Art Center, for all the grand, delightful, abundantly meaning-filled memories. My life has been challenged, illuminated, and (yes) blessed by your presence in it. May you do the same for so many more in the so many years ahead.