at the Dancespace Performance Center

March 23

Four men, each nude except for a white loincloth, sit cross-legged in a circle facing one another. They break into a solemn, rhythmic chant. They shout, bark, mumble; their voices rise and ebb in unison. Occasionally their babbling resembles comprehensible phrases–perhaps “I’m tired of this shit,” or some other choice expression. They punctuate their incantations by beating their chests, slapping their thighs, shaking their heads vigorously. Most of the time their faces are expressionless, their activity an enigma. What are these paunchy middle-aged men up to? Is this some sort of male-bonding ritual? Are they reliving the toga parties of their college days? Whatever, there’s definitely humor and pathos in this spectacle of grown-ups reverting to child’s play. Suddenly one of them keels over. Drunk or dead? His companions try to wake him, but he remains inert. Dejected, they pick him up and slowly carry him away.

William Doerrfeld’s teasingly titled (Naked Men Music (1985) was one of the audience favorites in “Naked Neon,” a multimedia potpourri presented recently by CBE, a performance group consisting mostly of wind instrumentalists. (Naked Men Music also wowed the crowd at the New Music Chicago festival four years ago.) According to a program note, Doerrfeld has studied the lives of the Humbanee people of Africa. An acute observer, he’s cleverly taken elements from what must be a tribal rite and transposed them to the “civilized” confines of a concert space. By having a quartet of white men (in this case, music educators Russell Clark, George Flynn, Jeffrey Kust, and Philip Morehead) enact slight variations on that rite, he’s at once calling attention to the similarities and incongruencies between cultures. At first we’re amused by the (mock?) seriousness of the proceedings, then drawn to the intricacies of the chant rhythm. When everything comes to a halt, what had started as inspired silliness ends on a note of poignancy.

Just as appealing and rewarding in a whimsical yet thought-provoking way was John Cage’s Child of Tree (1975), which followed. An array of commonplace objects are laid out on a table. They include aluminum foil, dried leaves, pods, a tall cactus, and a popcorn maker. The “orchestrator” (percussionist and master of comic timing Dane Richeson) consults the I Ching throughout to determine the sequence and types of sounds he might produce using these objects. At one point, he rubs the cactus against a mike; at another, he crumbles a strip of foil; at yet another, he drips water. Then he strips a cabbage, bites into a carrot, then a stalk of celery. The resulting collage of ersatz sounds of nature is not unlike the sound track for a National Geographic special. With eyes closed, one can almost imagine oneself in a friendly jungle savoring the aural minutiae that might escape attention under normal circumstances. And that’s not all: Cage, the wily Zen master, always seems to have a trick or two up his sleeve. The tempo picks up as popcorn begins to pop. The “orchestrator” hurriedly manipulates the objects while making sure that none of the popcorn reaches the floor. The ensuing cacophony builds into a madcap finale worthy of Chaplin.

Whereas the Cage and Doerrfeld pieces focus, in their engagingly idiosyncratic fashion, on the myriad sounds we can make without resorting to “musical instruments,” music making of a more conventional sort was represented by the other four pieces on the program. Mad Song, written by Janice Misurell Mitchell using text from the poem by William Blake, has an a cappella chorus (conducted here by Philip Morehead) mimicking an onrush of sounds: moans, murmurs, clucks, breathless sighs. These could be the hushed, tormented voices–effectively conveyed through Sprechstimme (sung speech)–a woman gone mad might hear in her head. Indeed, as the program notes make clear, the sleepless narrator gradually succumbs to emotional turbulence, becomes at one with the voices. In this performance sounds were accompanied by images: wraithlike dancers (Susan Bradford, Leslie Crawford, and Laurie Kammin) writhed in movement choreographed by Bradford, swirled like primordial spirits haunting the imagination. They added spookiness to the well-crafted maddening patter.

C Factory, a brand-new collaboration between Mitchell, Bradford, and Tampa-based sculptor Richard Santiago, is about the genesis and power of light. In the darkened room, a trio of dancers (Bradford and company), dressed like ninja warriors with neon helmets, brandish neon rods of different hues (designed by Santiago). They first hide behind nylon-screen panels, so that all we can see are embryonic pools of undulating colored light. Gradually, to the desultory accompaniment of a cello and flute and some vaguely percussive sounds, the dancers approach the panels and the neon lights of the rods come into focus. When the dancers emerge and begin to move about, because the room is dark their movements are revealed in ever-changing traces of color, and we hear whispers and shouts–praises, excerpted from various poems, of light as vanquisher of darkness, of despair. Toward the end the xylophone chimes in with swelling celestial sounds. At times the performance looked like a sword fight out of Star Wars; this novel attempt at Lucas-style industrial light and magic is too bland and precious for its own good.

Patricia Morehead’s Flares and Phasers (1987) was composed for two local flutists to celebrate the acquisition of their alto flutes–the kind of old-fashioned gesture of friendship appreciated by all instrumentalists. The piece is skillfully written in an idiom we’ve all heard before: a flutter here and a twitter there, as the two flutes (played by Caroline Pittman and Mary Stolper) go from solitary solos into a world-weary duet. Morehead wisely has kept the piece brief enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Morris Knight’s Del Camino (1990), by contrast, could’ve benefited from more brevity. Basically it’s an electronic duel between an insistent guitar (masterfully played by Jeffrey Kust) and a prerecorded lute whose sounds come across loud and clear and just out of sync through a pair of boom boxes placed in front of the guitarist. The exchanges meander, though the piece supposedly has something to do with Antonio Machado’s poem: “What, poet, do you seek in the sunset?” “Some peace and quiet” would have been an apt retort. It was the only unpleasantly pretentious stretch of sound in an otherwise stimulating evening.