SINCERITY IS THE NEW AVANT-GARDE

Photo credit: Michael Yu

Photo credit: Michael Yu

An Interview with Gelsey Bell about thingNY’s opera, This Takes Place Close By, opening tonight at The Knockdown Center.


This Takes Place Close By is a new opera about storms and their aftermath. The opera, written collaboratively by New York-based ensemble thingNY, presents vignettes of characters dealing with a storm’s devastation. One character is a woman crushed under the weight of a building, one is a bureaucrat experiencing disaster for the first time, one is an empathic musician volunteering his time, and one is a shop owner continually having to rebuild.

Described as a “hypnotizing sonic landscape of voices, acoustic sounds, and electronics,” the opera will premiere in Queens at The Knockdown Center on September 24th-September 27th, 2015. Knockdown’s enormous space, with high vaulted ceilings, will be filled with sound design by Daniel Neumann, lighting design by Sarah Abigail Hoke-Brady, projection design by Brad Peterson, and sets designed by visual artist Jesse Greenberg. Audience members can move throughout the space, experiencing performances both up close and from a distance, in the same way one might experience weather.

The piece features thingNY’s talented collective of six composers, Gelsey Bell (voice, microkorg, and Sequential Circuits Six Trak), Andrew Livingston (voice, upright bass), Paul Pinto (voice), Erin Rogers (voice, saxophones), Dave Ruder (voice, clarinet), and Jeffrey Young (voice, violin), under the direction of Ashley Tata. The play asks how, in the midst of climate change, can we challenge and reevaluate our civic responsibility and our empathy for one another in a storm’s wake?

Both experimental and sincere, This Takes Place Close By invites us to contemplate the nature of our relationship to storms and suggests that, rather than reacting in isolation, we can recalibrate our reactions and learn to see storms as something imminently close to us all.


Culturebot Contributor Alaina Ferris sits down with thingNY core member Gelsey Bell. The two discuss thingNY’s upcoming performance and the group’s collaborative process.

“THE MOST REAL CONCEPT THAT ALL OF US REACTED TO WAS THE IDEA OF AN AFTERMATH OF A STORM, WHICH OFTEN INVOLVES ABSENCE OR ISOLATION”

Alaina Ferris (AF): This Takes Place Close By does not feature a traditional narrative or plot structure, but vignettes of characters. I’m interested in what makes the piece cohere in the absence of narrative.

Gelsey Bell (GB): The subject, the storm, serves as our point of meditation. What’s very interesting about this show, and certainly about the collaborative process, is that we all make sense of the show in different ways. Our responses are very individualized. In that way, it’s very honest.

AF: What are some identifiable qualities of each character?

GB: What makes each character unique is their musical idiom. For instance, what I do is a lot of pitched singing, song form, and melody, whereas Dave Ruder sing-speaks during one of his solos. Jeffrey Young’s character has a solo where he seems to be delivering a monologue but you begin to hear in that speech a musicality, a sense of the operatic.

AF: Absence of narrative and the absence of language in a time of grief and disaster feels very important to the context of this piece.

GB: We all reacted to the idea of the aftermath of a storm, which often involves absence or isolation. And that shows up in different ways. For instance, my character is the one person who is killed in the storm. That said, that plot point is not really the point. This is not the kind of show where it’s like “[gasp] now this happens, and who did what and why.”

Jeffrey Young’s character plays with the idea of being disconnected from people who were affected by a storm and that sense of “I’m fine and I know this is happening right there, but my life hasn’t really changed that much.” In those moments, ideas about privilege creep in.

“THERE WILL BE MORE STORMS. SO HOW DO WE START THINKING ABOUT HOW TO HANDLE THAT AS HUMANS IN ARTISTIC FORMS?”

AF: What was the inspiration for this piece?

GB: We certainly started talking about the piece after hurricane Sandy happened. But, as opposed to it being a response to Hurricane Sandy, it comes from the knowledge that there will be more storms. So how do we start thinking about how to handle that as humans in artistic forms. We’re not giving anyone solutions, we’re simply meditating on that idea.

AF: Would you consider this an urban or New York piece?

GB: No. It’s really easy to think, ”This is urban because that’s the only thing that exists for us as New Yorkers.” But, I grew up in a small town.

AF: Where did you grow up?

GB: I grew up in a small town in California, Sebastopol. It’s in Sonoma County (where the wine is from!), just an hour north of San Francisco.

AF: Did you ever have to deal with a natural disaster?

GB: For me growing up, the specter of natural disaster is the earthquake. For this piece, though, we stuck with weather-related disasters: tornado, flood, hurricane.

AF: It’s interesting that even the word storm translates differently depending on the person you say it to. If you say “storm” to a New Yorker, they’re going to think “hurricane.”  If you say “storm” to a bunch of Midwesterners, it’s going to mean “tornado.”

GB: Yes, the idea is that the piece will have a broader reach and we’ve already performed it elsewhere: in Calgary, Edmonton, Philadelphia, and Staten Island.

“A MAN CAN ONLY BEAR SO MUCH”

AF: As a performer in the piece, how are you noticing theoretical aspects of the show manifesting in practical ways?

GB: This piece has become site specific, to a certain extent, to engage with this beautiful space we now have that allows us to play with distance. I am someone who gets a lot of inspiration from the site. For instance, I wrote a piece called Bathroom Songs which is all about being in bathrooms (shout out to Eliza Bent!). I really like composing in a way that takes into account the structure of the location where it’s being performed.

AF: Because you’re thinking about acoustics.

GB: Yes. And Knockdown has incredible acoustics. Even though a lot of our work is collaboration, I wrote two songs for this piece, one with Knockdown’s cathedral-like acoustics in mind. The voice ringing through these large halls poeticizes what we’re doing. I love that voice can have such vastness given the right acoustics.

AF: Can you talk about a specific moment where the piece’s location heightens your subject matter?

GB: There is this one Dave Ruder scene set up in this long banquet-like hall…

AF: An Icelandic kind of banquet hall?

GB: [Laughing] I don’t know I’ve never been to Iceland. This hall is not the Park Avenue Armory, but it is really very large. Dave Ruder’s scene was happening at the other end of the long hall, opposite where I was listening. And it just hit me in a kind of way that the piece had never hit me before. One can talk about how this piece is about emotional distance in times of disaster, but once you’re really there and letting the music and space emotionally hit you, it coheres in a deeper way.

In Dave’s scene, there’s a leak from the roof, and there’s a bucket filling up with water while he says this line, “A man can only bear so much.” Suddenly, there’s this real sense of “we are just like little ants here, aren’t we?”

Scenes like this invite the viewer to meditate on their relationship with the world around them–their spirituality, or otherwise. Part of what I think is exciting about this piece is that it gets into the cracks of something that language can’t get into, in the same way that music is able to do.

AF: Emotional cores.

GB: Yes. Particularly because I think that hurricane Sandy is only the beginning. In our lifetime, storms are only going to get more intense.

Then, there’s a whole section of the space where water is dripping into bowls and those bowls have contact mics on them so that we use that signal and process that.

AF: That sounds beautiful!

GB: It does sound beautiful! Our set designer, Jesse, is a sculptor. And this feels like a kind of sonic sculpture. We started using the idea early on in workshops of the project but Jesse has done a wonderful job implementing the idea in the space.

Another important aspect of the show is that the audience roams throughout the space. You can get that feeling you get when you’re in a dreamy installation–you as a spectator have a sense of agency, but you’re still an outsider.

AF: Agency seems essential to this piece, as opposed to a traditional theatrical setup which can dictate your viewpoint.

GB: We do have “traditional” moments where our set designer, Jesse, has set up a stage with a frame, so to speak, for the audience to look at, but we use that frame to highlight ideas of voyeurism. For instance, looking into someone’s deeply personal experience of a storm. Then we also use non-traditional staging. Two characters, mine included, move through the space.

“SINCERITY IS THE NEW AVANT-GARDE”

AF: What is your biggest takeaway from this piece?

GB: I think there’s also a real sense of…sincerity. We say we’re playing character, but none of us are really actors. I have a little actor training, but I think that my method of acting is very different than people who have equity cards.

We really put ourselves into what we’re doing. One of the members, Andrew, has this saying…he said it once five years ago and I’ve never been able to forget it: “Sincerity is the New Avant-Garde.” And I think that that fits us.

AF: It’s funny because when you say “avant-garde,” or even “experimental,” the synonym can be “alienation.” Those two words are triggers for preparing the audience to know that, in some way, they will be pushed away.

GB: I don’t think that we’re trying to push anyone away. Yes, we’re coming from an experimental form of music, and experimental music, though shocking in the past, has also been simultaneously very sincere.

AF: Can you think of an example?

GB: You know, John Cage. His methods could be very alienating to certain people, with its very noisy, small sounds…

AF: You’re like, “Sure, put the screw on that piano string.”

GB: Totally. We’ve gotten through the shock of that proposal. We’re talking post-Robert-Ashley-opera: what was once just taken as spoken is now taken as song, as musical. Once you take those kinds of things as given, I think experimental techniques are really a very sincere place for searching and communicating. Though, communicating is a complicated term.

AF: Language fails. That was the avant-garde’s attempt: to deepen.

GB: And I would say that music’s attempt is to deepen. The ways that music does that are many. I would say that even in this opera there are so many ways that we do that.

AF: Do you think there are moments in this piece that are both simultaneously alienating and sincere?

GB: I think it really depends on the viewer’s experience and the frame of mind they’re bringing. But I think the aim of sincerity is there throughout. Even if someone is alienated by certain musical techniques, they will find moments where there’s enough textual grounding. My hope is that a range of listeners will be able to find something to hold onto. Some people will connect with the music, some will connect with the theater, and some will connect to the gorgeous visuals. My hope is that the piece will resonate on not just one but on all of those points for audience members.

“I WROTE THIS SONG TO HAVE A BASS LAYING ON TOP OF ME”

AF: To shift gears a little. Every musician in thingNY is a composer/vocalist!

GB: Yup! The whole point of the piece is that we’ve written it together. There are certain sections where it’s clear who has spearheaded the composition of that section, but we’re all composers. We all give a lot of support and feedback. Certain parts of the piece have been molded by all of us and certain parts didn’t need it. One of our goals as an ensemble is that we all vocalize, though we all come from different training backgrounds. Three of us, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and I also perform in Varispeed. We all just performed Perfect Lives in Jersey City and have performed other works by Robert Ashley.

AF: Are you all in the same room when you’re composing for this project?

GB: More often than not, we’ll work on something separately and then bring it to the table to be workshopped. Though, there have been plenty of times where two or three of us will spend an afternoon writing, composing, and tweaking each other’s writing. There are definitely different levels of ownership from song to song.

Part of what’s interesting and what has been very clear while working on this piece is that six of us have very different compositional styles and aesthetic tastes. For example, I’m more likely to have elements of improvisation and physicality to my compositions. The piece I’m singing in the photo has an upright bass laying on top of me because there’s a duet between the bass and I. For a moment, we discussed staging it a different way, and I said, “No, I wrote this song to have a bass laying on top of me.” If there is a written score for my music, it is very bare bones because I want people to listen closely and breath together.

There are composers in the group who compose with scores. In those cases, we’ll spend months rehearsing to achieve the level of artistry required for that piece before we think about physicalities, which is just coming at the performance from a different angle.

AF: Your process is more easily attuned to the capability of the performer at that time, whether they’re a virtuoso or not. But a Through-Composition

GB: That’s the level it is. You have to get to that level because that’s what it needs.

“CERTAIN KINDS OF MUSICAL WRITING DEMAND PRECISION OF THE SAME ARTICULATION”

AF: Do you ever spend time as a group working on syllables and diction?

GB: Yes, definitely, no question. We have different regional dialects. I’m from California. Erin the saxophonist is from Western Canada, near Edmonton. Paul is from Queens. Jeff is from Brooklyn. Andrew is from Dallas. Dave is…

AF: For pronounced as “Fur.”

GB: Our, “Hour.” Because one of the techniques that’s used a lot throughout the show is a kind of chorus. We’ve definitely had to figure out how we’re going to pronounce things.

AF: Are there ever moments where you allow yourselves to have different diction?

GB: Yes, there are. Certain kinds of musical writing, especially if we’re singing harmonies in very tight rhythms, demand precision of the same articulation. Then there are times where the arrangement has the space for different dialects to be heard, not that any of us have a comically strong accent…except Andrew with his Texan accent.

AF: Do you ever sing with a different accent than how you speak?

GB: Ha! Oh, yeah, I definitely do. Though that’s definitely dependent on what I’m singing.

AF: So it’s not even regional.

GB: It’s stylistic.

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