Other Forces 2013: James Moore Performs John Zorn’s “The Book of Heads” at Incubator Arts Project
Completing the triad of Incubator Arts Project’s Other Forces is multi-instrumentalist James Moore’s performance of The Book Of Heads, a series of 35 études for guitar written by downtown luminary John Zorn at the age of 25 (that’s 1978). As primarily a student of acting and theater, I feel a little sheepish but excited to be writing about this show. Ready?
Moore, familiar to minimalism-goers from his appearance in Richard Maxwell’s Neutral Hero this season, wears brown pants, black socks, brown shoes, and a cream button down. The atmosphere is a relaxed and convivial one of not not endurance where, with a kind smile and warm vibe he encourages us to clap after each miniature. What might an emerging rabid clapping culture in downtown language theater look like? And how (and why)?
This series of postmodern ablutions calls for an extended technique that repudiates and reimagines the instrument. Such material horizontalism constitutes an unexpected musical interface, as percussive as it is chordal, dehierarchizing the strings and satirizing melodic/linear orientations at once. One esp. awkward rendition of “Blackbird” tickles the crowd. What does extended technique acting look like?
If the guitar has been a signifier of white heteromasculinity, what are the political valences of contorting it? What were they in 1978 and what are they now? It remains pleasurable to witness this still ubiquitous strap-on in a process of unbecoming.
The instrument reads as an extension of Moore’s normative body at the same time as it recalls the feminized and racialized bodies that pop music produces as empty objects and depends on as sources of appropriation and commodification (note the pull-string white girl doll among the art materials). The guitar’s claims to authentic expressivity and hipness are always being renegotiated and might this deconstructive project actually shore up hegemony rather than critique it?
Moore follows notation from a script on a stand and the performance feels both very rehearsed and like anything could happen. Actors with scripts can be interesting. What are your favorite levels of memorization to see, reader?
The fragmentary score is marked by repetitive proposal and erasure of gesture. Trying to play everywhere at once, Moore appears like a juggler keeping indeterminacy aloft in a virtuosic display struck with curiosity, sensitivity, and parody. Is it also a bid at self-sufficiency and adaptability? Fear of commitment? What is doubt-based acting besides bad acting?
We see 5 guitars, a concert ukulele, an amp, a carpet, a stool, finger cymbals, a chair, floor pedals, nail files, a talking doll, an empty liquor bottle, and a lot of little pastel balloons. What about actors presenting études besides the Wooster Group studying Grotowski?
Balloons lend an aspect of the fun fair to the one-man-band-as-time-based-sculpture. At one point, Moore concludes each chord with the stomping of a balloon until the final inflatable, resting on a volume pedal, delightfully cuts his amplification as it bursts underfoot. At another moment, he plays them with a bow. Sometimes, like pseudo-prosthetic objects, they replace his plucking fingers.
Pop phrases irrupt only to be revised indefinitely. “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is reconstituted by floor pedal, revealing a beautiful growling sound at the depths of the nursery rhyme.
The cartoonish sonic palette features much squeaking, tapping, popping, and knocking. Who’s there? He shakes the guitar to rattle the aural space. Is is a coin? Can you hear interiority? Lots of licking and rubbing seem to mark sexual longing. Moore wets the guitar with a sponge and squeaks it with a finger. What is the guitar: himself or another (us?) or both?
In a delightful penultimate moment, he cuts one of his D strings only to begin rapidly restringing. Is this a view to the contingencies and exigencies of a musician’s life? Something that is normally an obstacle to performance is here a source of fun and weirdness.
Sadly, James Moore Performs John Zorn’s The Book Of Heads concluded its brief run this weekend.