Taylor Ho Bynum

*Photo by Peter Gannushkin

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Dreams 2: Madeleine, Movies, Myths, the Met, and more

My head has been in the dream clouds lately (as evidenced by my last post, a true story, or a true dream, I guess…). Tonight, I start the rehearsals for a new piece I’ve been thinking about for years, Madeleine Dreams for my ensemble SpiderMonkey Strings. It draws text and inspiration from my sister Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s amazing novel, Madeleine is Sleeping. (Yes, I know I’m biased, but I can’t recommend that book highly enough. It captures the permeable border between sleep and waking, and between fairy tales and reality, as well as anything by Calvino or Carter or Murakami.) Like any rude awakening, my computer crashing unfortunately erased a good bit of the dream, but I’ve mostly recovered, gone back to my notes, and think I have a pretty good piece to work with. (Though it might grow over time, it doesn’t feel finished yet!). I am deeply honored by having an exceptional group of musicians to work with: Jason Kao Hwang (violin), Jessica Pavone (viola), Tomas Ulrich (cello), Pete Fitzpatrick (guitar), Joseph Daley (tuba), Luther Gray (drums), and Kyoko Kitamura (voice & electronics). We’ll be premiering the music at Roulette in NYC on Sunday March 30, and bringing the music to the deSingel Theater in Antwerp, Belgium on April 10 and the Bimhuis in Amsterdam on April 12.

As much by coincidence as by design, it seems all the art I’ve been consuming recently has had a dream theme. I just hit this passage in the novel I’m reading, Tintin in the New World, Frederic Tuten’s fantastic riff on the classic Belgian comic.

In the chill night before dawn they briefly woke. Not fully, not with the clarity of waking that brings the new day sharply to life and leaves the dream of sleep forgotten in the haze of the past. They woke with the recognition of what they had dreamed, each feeling they had lived the dream as fully as if they had experienced it in waking life. They had experienced it, and it was now etched forever in their living tissue, though perhaps not forever in their living memory.

For a moment they looked at each other in the full wonder of what they had just dreamed–had lived–and with the drowsy indulgence of those who would wake and continue living, they returned to sleep, the memory of their dream fading with each breath.

And the last two films I’ve watched have also dug into the land of nod, Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep and Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. I think the descriptive ambiguity of literature lends itself to dreams more than the visual specificity of cinema, but both directors manage personal and touching takes on it. Certain moments in both films felt a little affected, some of the claymation in Gondry’s movie was too cutesy for my taste, and I didn’t buy Martin Scorsese playing Van Gogh in Kurosawa’s. But there are moments of real brilliance. In The Science of Sleep, Gael Garcia Bernal’s confusion and slow dawning comprehension as reality turns into dreams, or vice versa, is sometimes joyful, sometimes heartbreaking; his character is never sure which is which, and daily conversations turn either magical or terribly inappropriate. In Dreams, Kurosawa’s visual poetry is, as always, stunning, and his embrace of abstract narrative is both surprising and effective. The scenes with children are particularly convincing: a little boy lost in the forest watching the wedding march of the foxes, or talking to the spirits of a clear cut peach orchard. And I love how neither movie even tries to resolve; true to dreams, they simply wander off at the oddest moment, either to the next passing thought or back to waking reality.

In true Jungian fashion, many of Kurosawa’s vignettes are as much Japanese folks tales or mythology as dreams. So obviously, as with any discussion of mythic archetypes and modern art, this brings us to Wagner!

OK, that was a slightly forced transition. But last weekend, my mother, a true opera buff, had extra tickets to see Tristan und Isolde at the Met, so my wife and I joined her for the experience. I must admit, I’ve never been totally sold on Wagner, I find the whole thing a bit much for my taste. But obviously, I recognize his importance and influence on so many musicians I admire, so I figured I had to give it a chance. (As Anthony Braxton has said to me, “I spent my life hating Wagner. Hating him!! Then all of a sudden, I find myself at fifty, sitting in my room, listening to Parsifal, with the tears streaming down my face. I love this man!!!”)

Any five-hour opera is going to be something of an event, but we caught something special on Friday. I knew going into it that Ben Heppner, the lead tenor, was out sick, and his last minute replacement on opening night had been rather savaged by an unforgiving audience and press. So they brought in yet another sub, a fellow named Gary Lehman, to cover the part. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, actually made a pre-show announcement pleading sympathy for Lehman, who was making his debut both at the Met and as Tristan. (No pressure, dude…I wonder if there are the equivalent of Jamey Aebersold play-along tapes for opera. Instead of “The Music of Wayne Shorter”, you get “The Best of Mozart” or something: a-one and a-two and Don Giovanni starts up.) But through the first act, he certainly seemed to be holding his own, and the orchestra was really magnificent, that overture that launched a thousand film noir soundtracks sounded great.

In the second act, it got interesting. Halfway through the big love duet, star soprano Deborah Voigt abruptly walks off the stage. Lehman keeps singing for a couple of bars, but the curtain comes down and the orchestra stumbles to a halt. (I can only imagine what was going through Lehman’s head. It’s the biggest night of your life, you’re nervous, but everything seems to be going ok, then all of a sudden…talk about a nightmare scenario. If only he had walked onto the stage without his clothes on, all classic anxieties would have been in effect.) It seems Voigt was hit with some kind of intense stomach bug (though a couple of the high notes earlier in the act sounded like they could have caused some damage too). On my mother’s opera glasses, I spied conductor James Levine in intense consultation over the score, with the concert master on a phone line to the backstage. I mean, where do you start over in a Wagner opera? Each act is pretty much 90-minutes of music straight through! Finally, a second sub comes out, this time a soprano named Janice Baird. Pretty crazy…I’d be surprised if Lehman and Baird had ever even met before, let alone sung one of the most difficult operas in the repertoire in front of 5,000 people in the country’s most famous opera house.

This is where I began to really enjoy it. Up to this point, I was intellectually engaged, whether or not I love Wagner it is certainly fascinating and immersive music. But now the piece had become almost performance art! This was improvised opera, on the biggest stage possible. Anything could happen. Someone might tumble off the stage, someone might totally forget their lines. The open risk of abject failure gave the performance an edge I rarely get in classical music (honestly, an edge I rarely get in much jazz anymore either) but that I relish. And the singers pulled it off! You could definitely hear them searching a bit sometimes, and often they didn’t really seem to know where to go, but they got through it, and often quite beautifully. (Having that beast of an orchestra pulling you along certainly helps.) It was far from perfect, but perfection is boring; this was on the edge of my seat excitement. With my mother’s passion as catalyst, I’ve seen more than my fair share of opera. With the exception of the truly magnificent performances I’ve seen (like Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Handel’s Hercules, or Lisa Saffer singing Berg’s Lulu), this had to be one of the most satisfying artistic experiences I’ve had in an opera house, something I never expected walking into it. And it seems like this kind of Tristan production is becoming a habit for the Met, see this article on the last performance! (I told you someone could fall off the stage.)

A few quick, final asides to this very long post. Watching the drama at the Met made me think of the Canadian TV show Slings and Arrows. I just finished the last of three short seasons on DVD (each season is only six episodes), but it is one of the best things I’ve seen on TV, up there with the new Battlestar Galactica and the best of The Wire or Six Feet Under. The show captures all the layers and emotions of a working theater company, with much humor and a touch of the surreal, and uses Shakespeare as a framing device without dumbing it down or being too pretentious, which is an achievement in itself. There’s an episode in the second season about an actor having to cover Macbeth that seems particularly apropos to last weekend’s Wagner, but I’d recommend all of it; the final season with King Lear is truly beautiful.

Positive Catastrophe’s extremely fun Monday night run at the Tea Lounge continues for the rest of this month. In a strange coincidence, the film we played on Monday night was 2001, the night before author Arthur C. Clarke passed away. As the band’s bassist Keith Witty said, “I hope someone plays my record my last night alive.”

And finally, I rarely venture into politics here, but I have to say, I was impressed, even moved, by Obama’s speech yesterday. To have any politician talk about race in such a nuanced and honest way is incredible, let alone a major presidential candidate. My immediate family happens to be about as wildly diverse as Obama’s: asian, white, black, jewish, you name it; my friends run the gamut from those openly advocating for revolution to those working within the political system. I’ve had loving and complex relationships and discussions with all these friends and relatives similar to what Obama describes with his pastor and his grandmother. It is beyond refreshing to have an intelligent national conversation about this, it is potentially transformative. If only it lasts, and becomes part of our waking reality, rather than than the vague memory of a compelling dream.

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