In the loops
Chris Jonas has had his eyes on— and his hands in— a certain plot of land for some time now. He chose the parcel wisely, prepared it thoroughly, put in the seeds carefully, and has provided plenty of fertilizer and water ever since. He’s brought in expert friends for advice with an eye to making the harvest strong and plentiful.
In September, the acreage put out some colorful though not quite mature buds. They were promising but needed some serious intensive care— a bit of repotting, as it were. Three months later, and after plenty of intense culling and pruning and sweating, Jonas and his friends are ready to open the gate and let everyone in to watch what they hope will be a riotous, brilliant outbreak of dark-blooming fruit, complete with blossoms.
We’re talking symbolically here, of course, but the plant symbol is apt. After years of work, Jonas will unveil “Night,” the first movement of an ongoing, multidisciplinary art/music/theater piece titled Garden. The five performances this weekend at the Center for Contemporary Arts involve Jonas, the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet, videographer Robert Drummond, photographer and network technician Petr Jerabek, director Acushla Bastible, and movement artist Echo Gustafson of Moving People Dance Theatre. Interns from the Santa Fe-based nonprofit Littleglobe, founded by Jonas, have also assisted.
“The September performance actually necessitated a growth spurt for me,” Jonas said recently, just after he returned from a final rehearsal in San Francisco. He was referring to the Del Sol’s performance of a Garden excerpt, along with other contemporary music, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. There were serious problems then, not creative but technical; and in a work so dependent on microcircuitry and programming and projection, even one problem is too many.
“I learned that technological stability is really important,” Jonas said with understated ruefulness. “Now we have multiple redundancies built in. It’s one of those balances between a realistic budget of resources and what it takes to make a piece successful. If you’re going to spend a year writing a piece, you can’t have a computer crashing on you!”
Thus the inclusion of Drummond, “a wonderful video artist, who has contributed so much in terms of technological perspective,” and Jerabek, who is “a networking guy and computer guy but also an artist in his own right and a very fine photographer. We’ve gotten to the point where we look at a photo we plan to animate for the video, and I frankly can’t remember if I took it or [he did]. Acushla has been involved with the creative side since Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera, and then there’s her strength in stagecraft and musicology.”
Jonas’ first meeting with Del Sol — violinists Kate Stenberg and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Hannah Addario-Berry— was in July 2007, when the quartet was in town for the premiere of Dun’s Tea: A Mirror of Soul. That fall, Addario-Berry came back to Santa Fe for the High Mayhem Festival, where Jonas and she did improvisation work with other musicians. She liked what she heard there of the Garden project, which was based on a 1998 duet Jonas wrote for bass clarinet and soprano saxophone with three-screen projection. She took it back to the other members of Del Sol, a San Francisco-based group that concentrates on contemporary music, and back-and-forth artistic work has gone on ever since. Jonas visited San Francisco in June 2008, bringing a number of musical lines and fourpart pieces for the quartet to experiment with.
After September’s experience and feedback, Jonas kept writing furiously. “I delivered a full draft of the piece to the quartet a month ago,” he said, “but I wasn’t sure what would work and what wouldn’t. The quartet was committed to the creation of the music and video, but I gave them 10 times more material, both video and music, than we ended up with. It’s a very intricate balance. It would be much easier just to write a string quartet!
“We invited an audience to come to the final rehearsals in San Francisco,” he added, “to make sure we had a strong artistic flow. I’d say it was 87 percent there. People were very supportive; we had a marvelous response. I couldn’t be happier.”
Originally, Garden was conceived as taking place within spatial layers created by six large screens hung in parallel. The quartet would occupy the inner space, with the audience seated in the outer sections. As lights raised and lowered and video projections came and went, listeners would sometimes see the quartet, sometimes those seated beyond the central space, and sometimes only opaque screens.
That’s changed now, Jonas said. It was a case of practicality and production ease as well as suiting artistic aims. “The big configuration change is in the screens,” he said. “We realized that with six parallel screens, we’d have to spend 40 grand on projectors. Now we’re going to have screens as a box around the players. It still functions in an immersive way, but it also works better for seating the audience. The experience will be just as strong artistically.”
Musically, the Del Sol players will interact with both aleatoric and planned sonic sequences — what Jonas calls open and closed forms. “I certainly derive some of that from Lutoslawski, who utilized a lot of that stuff. Stockhausen and Berio, too. A lot of composers have experimented with the use of a cell or loop of some complex sonic form. The duration of the loop is up to the performer. If you feel good, you can stay in it for a while.”
The loops can be entered and exited at the performers’ whims or cued by an outside operator. In San Francisco, Jonas said, “I did all the cueing, because I was still using the rehearsal as an opportunity to try things. We’ll see how it turns out. You might get exciting musical silence or video silence when the screens go dark.”
After this weekend’s opening, Garden will become an installation piece, on display at CCA from Dec. 11 through January 2010. A video of the quartet and its live performance, including the debut audience reaction and presence, will be projected onto the screens in a 45-minute loop. Del Sol plans to take “Night” on tour in 2010 and will remain involved as Jonas keeps working on Garden’s other movements for the future.
“The project is so full-bodied right now,” Jonas said. “There are so many bits and pieces and concepts. It’s been bursting me awake. Come mid-December, I hope I remember how to sleep again!”
Hannah Addario-Berry and Charlton Lee of the Del Sol String Quartet
Kate Stenberg of the Del Sol String Quartet