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$20 Ticket Detective: “Sounds from the Black Box”

Sounds from the Black Box: The Music of Philip Miller for the films of William Kentridge—presented on two nights at the Winter Garden—offered another chance for New Yorkers to experience the South African artist William Kentridge this season. His current MoMA exhibit was previously covered in SundayArts, and his production of Shostakovich’s The Nose is near the end of its run at the Metropolitan Opera this month.

The work is an outgrowth of Kentridge’s earlier Nine Drawings for Projection collaboration with Miller, and it is intriguing, to say the least. The wonderfully evocative movement titles are Journey to the Moon, Medicine Chest, Felix in Exile, Memo, Monument, Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old, Weighing and Wanting, Stereoscope, Hot-el, Chambre Noire/Black Box: Dance of the Rhino, Chambre Noire/Black Box: Priest’s Lament, and Tide Table.

Sounds from the Black BoxKentridge’s technique of showing a rapid sequence of charcoal drawings, with subsequent images being erased away to create new ones, can be breathtaking. It all goes so fast that you can miss something crucial if you look away even for a second or two—say, to watch the musicians onstage. The images are almost all in black and white, except for a very few moments, such as a blue line to show water and sometimes to symbolize violence; there’s also a blue spiky-furry cat in several movements. A major theme of the piece is violence and poverty—shootings, bombs, bleeding bodies, clearly malnourished people. The wide-ranging 70-minute program wraps in a story about an artist named Felix (a stand-in for Kentridge?) and a “civic benefactor” named Soho Eckstein, whose empire crumbles. You don’t really develop much sympathy for Soho, yet his plight is strangely moving as he stands alone on a barren piece of land with the title card “Her Absence Filled The World.” In a rapid-moving section called “Stereoscope,” the trumpet plays in tandem with a moving blue line, and when the music gets loud enough it “erases” the images.

Ensemble Pi—a new-music group based in New York, consisting of a string quartet plus trumpet, and piano—played directly under the projection screen. They were joined onstage by the composer, who added effects like a live ticking metronome and sampled audio to create the score’s soundscapes, which included a whole range of things, including trickling water sounds. The powerful-voiced Tshidi Manye (Rafiki in The Lion King on Broadway) sang in several movements, including a lovely bit that accompanied images of the seaside, with disturbing undercurrents of violence. The music veered from almost Chopin-like piano passages to strings using bent pitches to emphasize pain. The humorous Dance of the Rhino sequence featured a triple-meter cello passage as images of a dancing rhino (sometimes just the rhino’s bones) flipped and sashayed about on screen.

I’m not sure what Sounds from the Black Box all meant, but has a strange sort of power, and I expect I’ll be puzzling over it for some time. You can see excerpts from the presentation on YouTube: Journey to the Moon, MonumentFelix in Exile.

Image courtesy of arts>World Financial Center

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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