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Ten Transcendental Etudes

During the pandemic I started working on an evening length theater piece, ten etudes for 6 performers.  The work has been supported by fellowships at Bogliasco and Millay. Most recently I did a workshop @ Bennington with performers Paul Pinto and Hai-Ting Chinn, and co-director Ashley Tata.

The Etudes is an evening-length piece for 6 performers that melds sampling, sound design, and physical theater, and looks at how songs dominate how we talk about each other. The 10-movement theater begins with a phonemic breakdown of a single Elvis phrase (“I can’t help falling”), then blooms into dense fugues of text, song fragments, and visceral movement, using familiar pop and recorded sources while recursively sampling itself, creating a work that is “operatic in scope, unfolding in layers that constantly reveal new meanings.” (Culturebot).

Like my previous work, the Etudes weave sampled collages with physical theater: productions start as a collage of many recordings, which the ensemble learns to imitate, creating a gestural vocabulary in lock-step with the samples.  The Transcendental Etudes pushes this multidisciplinary language further, riffing on Liszt’s transcendental etudes, piano studies meant for learners, but only playable by virtuosi. The Etudes looks at listeners’ ability to transcend the microphones, speakers, and instant-replay love songs that surround them.

The performance is in the round. A rotating circular stage, something between a 45rpm player and a merry-go-round, forms the platform for the 6 performers. Circular projection hoops above and behind the audience announce, translate, and phonemically parse each etude. A seesaw, chairs, prop mikes, and elaborate sound design and lighting fill out the minimal stage. The ultimate effect is something between arena rock, a decathlon, and a 19th-c. amateur circus.

Over the course of the evening, and the 10 progressive etudes, the performers learn new languages—either through phonemes, songs, mash-ups, or simply speaking in tongues–and a fractured snapshot emerges of how we create new ways of communicating, made up of the songs around us.