Song and Dance

I’ve been ranting for about 10 years now about how things don’t really change, how we live in Romantic times, overcome by pathological neuroses, insanities, ethnic hatreds, sexual perversions, atavistic beliefs. Good times, good times. But I must admit I’ve been corrected in my views, and pleasantly so.

The culprits responsible are Vesturport and The Reykyjavik City Theatre, who brought their production of Woyzeck to BAM last week. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. The play, as much of it that Büchner finished, is the exemplar of Romantic insanity par excellence, and it’s central character, a man who is stupid, insane and suffering from hallucinations, is both alien and alienating. I love Berg’s Wozzeck as a work of operatic art, but it does not make me feel any more connection to or understanding of the character. The idea that the play is proto-Modern because it has no set structure is nonsense – it is so because the Büchner died before the work was finished, and he hadn’t yet set the order. It’s not a Modern work at all, which is why it is both fascinating and unapproachable.

There’s something anthropological about it, a study in how people thought 150 years ago, what they felt was possible, realistic, what they could imagine. Frankly, I cannot conceive of any contemporary person who could think that an incapacitated, stupid, clinically insane person suffering from hallucinations and prone to violence would be anywhere except shunned on the sidewalks or medicated to an incapacitated numbness, much less that a drum major with high hat and tall stick would be a dominating social and sexual figure, and that the rivalry between the two over a prostitute would result in murder and suicide. Isn’t it Romantic?

But this production makes you believe, and brings you into an experience with identifiable people. Instead of a military context, the play is set in a water factory, which both explains hierarchical relations and still offers something disorienting; they’re manufacturing water. And the Drum Major is transformed into the “Drum Major,” a recognizable rock-star/CEO who comes on stage from the ceiling, dangling from a trapeze and bungy-jumping into the audience, while singing a rock anthem celebrating himself. Yeah, it’s spectacular.

And so it’s a production that makes sense, and dazzles. Just when it seems all spectacle, comes the denoument, the beating, the drowning, the death. Woyzeck is a person onstage, driven insane by humiliation, uncontrollable and regretful in his rage. After the fantastic staging, great songs from Nick Cave, thrills and delights, there’s a real tragedy which is, finally, truly upsetting and moving.

Order was restored through Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s dance concert set to a great selection of music by Steve Reich. Except for Eight Lines, the accompaniment was live, and made this just as much a concert as a dance performance – the group Ictus played Marimba Phase, Piano Phase, Four Organs and the first part of Drumming and did so with tremendous skill and energy. Keersmaeker’s choreography went from producing close visual parallels to Reich’s process, as seen above, to acting as an equal and opposite compliment on the music. It was refreshingly Classical, like the greatest ballets. I don’t know much about dance, but have been fortunate to see a lot of great dancing, including the Kirov ballet performing Scheherezade, another high point in my life. The spelling of musical phrases in the air, like in the great work of Mark Morris and the triumphs of Stravinsky and Balanchine, is beautiful in the way that music is – there one moment and gone the next, leaving a trace in the memory and a sensation of pleasure that seems one of the high points of living. This was deep, thoughtful and full of a grounded and focussed sense of joy, especially the festive encore of Music For Pieces of Wood. Reich himself was there – I see him everywhere nowadays – and it’s a measure of his stature over the history of music that his work is living through so many different musicians and different forms. I hope he lasts as long as Elliot Carter.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.