Thursday, March 28, 2013

John Cage 101, Available Light

Anyone who’s read this blog even glancingly over the years can probably tell Available Light’s John Cage 101 had a particularly hard row to hoe for me because I’m such a fan of Cage and that whole ‘40s and ‘50s New York milleu.  While the new show – written by the company and directed by Matt Slaybaugh – isn’t entirely successful it reaches in a way you’re lucky to see a theatre company even attempt once in its day.  In a season – except for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – that has so far felt a little more like regrouping and circling the wagon, this grappling with a past that so infuses modern culture it’s like oxygen but is still rarely acknowledged and often scorned firmly replants their flag in front of the other theater in town and replants it in my head.

The four actors ingeniously billed in the program with the musical instruments they play instead of characters alternate as Cage (through a dark blazer passed among them) and everyone else who appears.  This is mostly successful and particularly good is that it doesn’t feel like each actor is meant to be a particular static aspect of Cage’s art or life – while I’d most enjoy watching Ian Short (who is phenomenal, getting the warmth that always comes through in interviews or footage of Cage and beautifully under-playing the humor so it never feels like a joke) for a whole play in the role, within a couple of scenes I felt like it moved beyond being a gimmick and just accepted it.  Of course, in a show about a composer and with a lot of motion and sound, the sound design’s important and Dave Wallingford outdid himself here.

Also good is the use of an overhead projector to show characters that appear for greater or lesser periods of time, it gives the supertitles a physical connection to the action, characters ripping transparencies off and replacing them.  In general, the physicality of the show is a strength, especially Meghan Durham-Wall’s dancing, she plays dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham (marked by a pale jacket in contrast to the dark jacket that shows Cage) and Marcel Duchamp marked with a bubble pipe (I assume a riff on the pipe he carved for Donati).  For her first acting appearance, she’s striking – I might have wanted an interpretation of Duchamp that was less kitten-ish and less equally in awe, but her Cunningham is a marvel - and having someone who clearly, really knows dance and has lived with those techniques immeasurably adds to the verisimilitude, when she dances under Carrie Cox’s pitch-perfect lighting (going from sharp to soft exactly when it needs to but never drawing attention to itself) everything on stage reads truer.

One of the strongest elements of the play is the heavy emphasis on the first Cunningham group (with Cage acting as their road manager) West Coast tour, apparently adapted from Carolyn Brown’s terrific memoir Chance and Circumstance.  These four dancers are the perfect humanizing point of view, true believers who were rooting for these new concepts at the start of a new age of music and dance but still coming across as people.  These tiny sketches are also the best showcase for Acacia Duncan, better than fine as Cage but really shining in putting across the glee of being in something new.  And the era – the very early ‘60s – coincides with enough early mainstream recognition for Cage and Cunningham to be able to book a solid month of performances and lectures.

What doesn’t work as well is the occasional bursts of the ensemble being a large group of people.  The other artists from his scene get the biggest shaft – there’s a dinner room conversation that’s frankly the only moment in the play where I cringed, with Rothko’s cartoonish coke bottle glasses and Franz Kline’s obviously fake mustache and Pollock showing up drunk, but Robert Rauschenberg came off even worse.  He’s used for one sight gag set up through a variant of scenes and has one scene on stage and is barely addressed – especially for someone who stage managed the Cunningham dance company and can be argued helped them found the company.  There’s a really lovely scene where Cage acknowledges 4’33” was inspired by Rauschenberg’s white paintings and I understand being loathe to reduce his contribution to just that but also not wanting to tack 45 minutes onto the play, but it’s the biggest thing that’s bugged me in the most-of-a-week since I saw it. Last significant complaint:  having modern fans/commentators/college students/whatever worked beautifully in AVL perennial Pride and Prejudice but here it’s distracting and feels a little desperate, saying “See?  No, he is important.”  The play hedges its bets in those scenes and it does more to throw cold water on the audience than the “improvisations” with various instruments.  The music doesn’t have that intricate beauty of the Cage compositions I know, he didn’t seem like he was prizing amateurism with indeterminacy much less equating the two.

All of that said, I’m glad I saw this and anyone I know with an interest in new music, modern dance, or theater I highly encourage to see this show and support the only company in town right now who cares enough about the art to make this from scratch and hit as hard as they do.

John Cage 101 runs through April 6.  Tickets available at

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Flying Away; Todd May, Rickenbacker Girls


never fence the silver range.

Stars are out and there is sea

enough beneath the glistening earth

to bear me toward the future

which is not so dark. I see.

Frank O'Hara, "Digression on Number 1, 1948"

A. said once (after Steve Earle, in case anyone who googles it jumps my shit), "Todd May is the best songwriter in Columbus and I'd stand on Ron House's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say it." And, you know, while the soil here is rich with candidates - House and Jerry Decicca, Marcy Mays and Sue Harshe, Andy Robertson and Lara Yazvac, all five members of Moviola - I'm not sure I could name three songwriters who move me as consistently as May.

Morton Feldman once said of the poet Frank O'Hara that "Secreted in Frank O'Hara's thought is the possibility that we create only as dead men... Death seems the only metaphor distant enough to truly measure our existence... Only the artist who is close to his own life gives us an art that is like death." (found on because I couldn't find my copy of Give My Regards to Eighth St) Frank O'Hara often makes me think of Todd May, or maybe that's the other way around. I've been knocked out by May's songs since I first heard them at 18 - and been knocked out every time, through The Lilybandits and The Plaster Saits and Mooncussers and Fort Shame and a handful of bands he didn't front but were graced with the honor of his guitar playing like Erika Carey and Lydia Loveless - and I've had the honor of calling him a friend for over a decade. But he's hit a new plateau with Rickenbacker Girls, the first record he's put out under his own name.

The title refers to an air base tucked into the south end of Columbus - more of a shell these days, transferred from Strategic Air Command to the National Guard in 1980, but once teeming with thousands of employees and their families - and this title, in conjunction with the airplane over the dark red image of Ohio on the cover speak to a gateway out and the longing of things missed. The songs bear this out - there's a duende soaking through everything here and there's an immense joy in living that doesn't happen without the other.

On "Why Don't You Come Around Lately", buoyed by some of the most subtle rhythm section swing from Steve and Pat McGann and the organ work of Greg Thurman, May addresses the what-ever-happened void in the pit of your stomach when people inevitably peel off from your field of vision, from your childhood, from your college town, singing "Saying that you died / Some Vegas suicide / Don't believe it's true / Nothing I expect from you" and going through "Miss a million, my dearest friend / I really want to see you again / Search the world from end to end" all tied together by the titular line as a hook, repeated and stuttered, lines drop off and the vocal swings back and forth from a croon to a snarl. That highlight's immediately followed by the parking lot dance of "Better Way to Build a Rocket" where the delivery is the kind of seduction that only comes out of truth and humility, a paean to growing up not knowing what the boundaries are wrapped around the image of building a model rocket and wondering what might happen if you never stopped - "Undertake / A glimmer in the radiation / Till the boosters go / Now I'm floating over / The old neighborhood" soars aloft on some of the best, purest guitar work on the record (I'm inclined to say Todd himself with Jamey Ball and Mark Spurgeon playhing those grimy soul chops underneath the solo).

These songs paint the picture of a hard-fought comfort, a joy in settling where you are but not ignoring the pleasure of the rest of the world. This comes clear with "Alphabet City" which rocks like early Steve Earle and the Dukes or the V-Roys or any classic of May's older band The Lilybands - "You're the kind of girl who rides on the hood / Of your cousin's black Camaro in the harvest parade / You're the queen of some vegetable / Bestowed / With a tiara and dress your Mama made" and winking "Nobody's gonna mistake you for Nico / Hell, no one is gonna mistake / Me for John Cale / You and I ain't built for that speed / Or that level of temptation / And that's just as well". And directly following "Alphabet City" is "Better Than You Ever Thought It'd Be" a whip-crack shuffle, sung with a deceptive ease, "Riding out by the station / Make a birthday with my friend / It's a long distance dedication / You're halfway through the end / You're getting old / You're getting old, my friend / Nothing up to now has ever turned out right / Still better than you ever thought it'd be", the specifics of the lyrics are as important but they're reinforced and undercut sometimes simultaneously, by repetition and stopping short, the song sounds like he's smiling all the way through it but with that look in his eyes that what he's saying is important whether you notice or not.

The title track of the record sums up the themes and is the best see-you-around song to come out of Columbus since Tim Easton's "All the Pretty Girls Leave Town" and Watershed's "Anniversary", with a catalogue of fading photographs held up to the older, shabby buildings of the air base - "She flew off to Califonia / Daddy was stationed at the AFB / Transfered out to some Spaniard's beach" or "Took the train out east to live with her Mom / And that sweet one / Was the same rule of thumb" all alternating with the chorus: "That night I did not go home / I drove down to the lock's / The tower splayed the light / Over an MP's watch / So clear, as the sea / Twilight shadow's mocking me".

I think I've given the impression that this is a lyrically focused record and while the lyrics are some of the best he's ever written, the production his voice, handled by Joe Viers who recorded the acclaimed Lydia Loveless record on Bloodshot, gets textures out of his voice that I heard in a million tiny bars here in Columbus but I'd never quite heard on a record before. And everything else, every instrumental voice and color, springs to three dimensional life and plays exactly the part it needs to. Not just the best singer-songwriter record I've heard all year, it's in the running for the soul record to beat. This is the kind of record that makes me pissed off I don't write more and makes me want to call a friend I hadn't seen in a while and say let's get some coffee, that makes me want to be more present in my life and reminds me to love the world more.