Music/Theatre Workshop

at the Hild Library

April 29 and 30 and May 6 and 7

Music/Theatre Workshop’s Light Music, a performance installation mounted in the currently empty Hild Regional Library, was a monumental disappointment. The scale of the piece, erected throughout the library, coupled with the expertise of the four artists collaborating on the work–all have impressive credentials–created huge expectations. They were only meagerly fulfilled. While Light Music aimed to explore and celebrate the expressive potential of the latest audio and visual technology, juxtaposing light and music in a joyful dialogue, the piece degenerated into a flat, unexpressive drone. Performed at a deadeningly steady pace, it was sorely lacking in subtlety or insight.

The former Hild Regional Library is about to be remodeled–it will become the Hild Performing and Visual Arts Center–so the space is in a transitional stage. When the house opened, we were invited to tour it, to wander between rooms, up and down stairs, among the empty stacks, and to view the bewildering, strategically placed array of electronic and computerized equipment. A complex maze constructed of white gauze twisted through the empty stacks, with slide projectors and theatrical lights positioned here and there. In another room, two banks of slide projectors were I stationed on opposite sides of a freestanding projection screen, projecting an eerie checkerboard image. When I stood in front of this screen, my image was magically splintered, appearing only in every other checkerboard square. On the library desk was stationed a barrage of computerized control boards. It was what I imagined the air traffic control tower at O’Hare to look like.

In contrast to these technologically advanced setups were small altarlike structures arranged throughout the space. On top of them a variety of simple tools were displayed: coaxial cable, lighting gels, a slowly ticking metronome. The artists–Ken Bowen as lighting director, John Boesche as projectionist, and Victor Sanders and Robert Stern as musicians–wanted us to see their tools, from the most rudimentary to the most complex. “We are craftsmen,” they seemed to say, “and we want you to enjoy the fruits of our labors.” I could hardly wait to see what these modern-day wizards would come up with.

First, a glib introduction welcomed us to the library and explained the rules of library etiquette: “Jazz will not be allowed in the library. . . . Please check your thoughts at the circulation desk.” Then Sanders and Stern, stationed on a balcony among the stacks, began to play jazzy music on synthesized and acoustic instruments while lights flashed on a huge white sculpture suspended in the library’s atrium. The lights simply turned the white object blue or yellow or red, and once in a while patterns of fractured white light spread across its surface. These effects seemed a nice beginning, a simple juxtaposition of light and music. After ten minutes, however, without any progression or complication of effects, I began to worry that I was expecting far more than this piece could deliver.

I was correct. By the end of the evening, I had probably spent 45 minutes staring at colored lights flashing on that big white thing and wondering why I was doing so. Or more accurately, wondering why these artists were asking me to do so. Not only was the sculpture itself visually uninteresting, like a big white bed sheet draped over a misshapen metal skeleton, but the effect of the lights projected on it was entirely unmagical. Imagine hanging a white sheet over a traffic signal and you get the idea. And since, for so much of the piece, I wasn’t given anything else to look at, I spent a lot of time looking at my watch.

Throughout the evening, highly complex, carefully placed electronic equipment produced visual and aural effects that didn’t engage me or the environment. When slides of foliage were projected onto the white gauze maze, for example, the resultant images were almost impossible to see: Walking through the maze, I was either too close to comprehend them, or there were too many people in my way to see much of anything. But if I stood on the atrium floor and looked up into the maze, a variety of metal supports blocked my view. All that I could think was, “What are these projections supposed to accomplish? What do these artists want me to see?” These were images for which there was no best vantage point, which demanded more physical and imaginative effort to see than I was willing to expend.

In short, these artists seemed unable to exploit their own materials in a way that could intrigue or engage me. Nor could I understand what it was about this project that excited the artists. What had they seen or heard while they were preparing this piece that compelled them to continue? Certainly the idea of projecting images onto a structure as architecturally interesting as the Hild library is ripe with potential. I tried to imagine all the dramatic shadows that could be created, all the passion that could be engendered by the beautiful building around me. But such notions stayed within my imagination. More often than not, I found myself watching lights flash or slides change and wondering, “Is that it, or is something not working?”

The music, performed with great precision and adroitness by Sanders and Stern, was so uniform that it became numbing. Each piece consisted of a multilayered arrangement of electronic instruments with a live track played on top. The music was lush and flowing, filling every nook and cranny of the space with its thick, penetrable strains. These sounds didn’t call attention to themselves or invite any exploration of their intricacies. Unlike the Chicago performance composer Seth Green, whose sound scapes create dense, complicated, and ever-changing acoustical images, Sanders and Stern produced a wash of sound, essentially background music. But the artists hadn’t provided an interesting foreground. I was in a state of continual anticipation, waiting for some of this potential to pay off.

Not only did these artists fail to explore their own tools, they failed to engage the space around them, which is perhaps the biggest fault that I can find in a site-specific performance. The Hild library was merely a convenient space to perform, rather than the form on which the content of the piece was to be molded. With the exception of Sanders and Stern’s banging on a metal support like a drum–which produced beautifully resonant tones–the performance benefited little from its library location.

Finally, and perhaps most frustrating, Light Music failed to engage me in my role as spectator/participant. By giving me ambulatory freedom, the artists were asking me to participate, or at least they created an expectation that I might. But I was given no opportunity; more often than not, I was in the way, blocking a slide projector or some other audience member’s view. Out of place as a participant and enengaged as a spectator, I was forced to meander on the outskirts of the piece.

From talking to some of those involved with Music/Theatre Workshop, I learned that the artists had had limited time to work in the library due to financial constraints. Still, the lack of stimulation the evening offered can’t be excused by lack of preparation time. I have to assume it was the artists’ lack of vision. Something about that space must have spurred the piece, but a sense of play and intrigue was never demonstrated. It was a great disappointment that so much machinery and talent should produce so little.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tanya Tucka.