When pianist/composer Vijay Iyer and poet/hip-hop visionary Mike Ladd joined forces in 2003 for In What Language?-a meditation on airports, global travel and the post-9/11 suspicions greeting people of color-they gave an entirely new meaning to the term “musical theater.” Their follow-up work, Still Life With Commentator, ran at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) for four nights in December, having premiered earlier this year in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Salzburg, Austria. Conceived as an “oratorio” and directed by the polymath artist Ibrahim Quraishi, Still Life deals with the aesthetics of American news culture and the “psychic displacement” it effects. “We do not merely live with the news,” the program note announces. “[I]ncreasingly we live in the news. And, with greater frequency, we find it necessary to become the news…reality television, the blogosphere and YouTube are but a few examples.” The piece offers a theatrical and musical portrait of news media as “our life-sustaining atmosphere,” or less benignly, our addiction, in which both real war and “virtual war” draw us in, desensitize us and prompt our own defenses. While the thrust of Still Life is overtly political, the message isn’t obvious or didactic. Its amorphousness is a strength and a weakness.
Much like In What Language?, Still Life is a potent mix of multimedia stagecraft and high postmodern theory. But it is a very different experience than the earlier piece. For one thing, it is less of a live-band affair, more of a laptop symphony. Centered under a forbidding three-tier complex of scaffolds and catwalks sat Iyer at the piano (also synthesizer and Mac). Near him were guitarist Liberty Ellman, cellist Okkyung Lee and electronic percussionist Guillermo E. Brown, all at some remove from the main spectacle. Brown, however, joined Ladd, operatic vocalist/laptopper Pamela Z and actors Pálína Jónsdóttir and Masayasu Nakanishi as one of the work’s main “characters.” The libretto, not unlike the 24-hour cable news “crawl,” flashed line-by-line on a narrow screen at the foot of the stage. Another screen loomed horizontally, high at the very rear, displaying images to purely impressionistic effect. In keeping with Quraishi’s aesthetic, there was no linear narrative, but rather a succession of poetic-musical episodes divided into three parts. Iyer the jazz instrumentalist did not loom large here, aside from a brief solo piano interlude called “Redemption Chant.” In a post-performance discussion, however, he invoked Ellington and Monk as inspiring his attempts to create sound “environments” rather than highlight virtuosity. In What Language? holds up as a more satisfying balance of the two, although the varied electro-acoustic beats and textures of Still Life have an allure of their own (a CD is on the way from Savoy Jazz).
Brown (for several years David S. Ware’s drummer) enacted two of the most effective-albeit starkly contrasting-moments of the show. In “Shep’s Brook,” an indictment of Fox News Channel pundit Shepard Smith, he sang while hooded like an “enemy combatant.” “Vile specter these vicious memes/Poison drops from splashes fly/Then land to burn your eye,” he cried out. But in “Jon Stewart on Crossfire” Brown was all levity, striking an ’80s MTV pose and turning Stewart’s famous entreaty into a pop chorus: “Please stop/You’re hurting America.” The song captured Stewart’s appeal as an escape valve, a vessel of our subjective political needs: “Jon Stewart is my action figure/All his limbs are posable/But I do not move him/I pretend he acts on his own/Kicking ass/Do you kick ass?”
Ladd snapped into focus in part three, when his recitations took on a new rhythmic sharpness. In “Holocaust Blog” he spoke of “The distance of atrocity/As far away as stars” and alluded to a disquieting tension-bearing witness to history versus being entertained: “There’s got to be a plug-in/To make the DVD stink/A doc that reeks of its contents.” Jónsdóttir, in “Blog Mom’s Anthem,” broke the fourth wall by sitting directly in front of an audience member and reading intimate lines from an unknown diary. Some of the staging was brilliant-Ladd, for instance, standing in a rectangular box of light that zapped and buzzed whenever he touched the edges. Other details made less sense-like Nakanishi striding the rearmost catwalk in red undies and red boxing gloves, or wearing a suicide bomb belt, or gazing emptily at the audience after stripping naked. A reference to the random, merciless exposure of media culture? Overhyped terror alerts? Still Life depicts a process of alienation, and so the piece itself can be alienating. The harsh industrial set, with office-type fluorescent bulbs deployed now and then as strobes, made one long for the warm-hearted minimalism of Meredith Monk’s Impermanence, which played on the same BAM stage in November.
Yet the strength of Still Life was its focus on that very paradox: the deeply artificial news environment becoming natural, “like actual weather,” to quote the program note again. Thus there were three “Commentator Landscapes,” depicting not only Shepard Smith but also Aaron Brown (“Lake Aaron”) and Dan Rather (“Mount Rather,” “stone wise man mountain”). Similarly, in “Cyber-Nut Bucolia” Jónsdóttir gushes: “Our blog is a grassy dale/A bowl full of flowers,” replete with “moss pillows of information.” Here, Ladd has explained, he was consciously emulating the 19th-century Naturalist poets. There were numerous appeals as well to an elusive, perhaps illusory, solidarity: “Call us all Homer,” Ladd intoned. “We are all journalists,” sang the brilliant but under-utilized Pamela Z. “We will podcast all therapy sessions/With a link to Dr. Phil/C-130s over the Sudan airdropping/MRE’s and Oprah clones/Grab a snack, tell her how you feel/Text me back, we are all in this together,” Ladd shouted during the finale, “The Last Atrocity,” while over a dozen life-size soldiers-plastic cutouts of some sort-descended from the ceiling, guns at the ready.
At the center of this overstuffed drama is a new human type: the information refugee, or “infogee,” a figure that has snuck into some of Iyer’s recent work (see “Infogee’s Cakewalk” from Reimagining or “Infogee Dub” from Fieldwork’s Simulated Progress). “The infogee,” states the program note, “is a stand-in for all of us, engulfed by the multitude of news and commentary, weathering…the daily data storms.” A bleak picture, perhaps, but the “infogee” imparts a certain hopefulness. “It is not our agenda to issue a knee-jerk critique of our symbiosis of the media,” write the three principals, “but rather to try to reimagine its expressive and redemptive possibilities.” Still, their ambivalence runs deep. They bemoan the “insidious inner workings” of American media, and take justified aim at blogger hubris in “Cyber-Nut Bucolia”-“Oh clasp your partner’s hand/And gasp at our revelations/Do-si-do the ooh-aah and revel /In our freedom of expression”-though the sarcasm could seem flippant in a world where bloggers and journalists are routinely harassed, imprisoned and even murdered. For all its pervasive dysfunction, the American media landscape still looks comparatively good on matters of free speech. We’re entitled to some reveling.
Problems aside, these Iyer-Ladd creations are unfailingly imaginative and significant. Honed by the live engineering (and studio production) of Scotty Hard, Still Life is awash in “post-human” beatmaking but often pulses with lyricism. Ladd’s delivery is throaty, peculiar in the best sense, a hip-hop vernacular with highbrow dimension. Iyer’s deserved acclaim as a jazz composer and pianist also makes him noteworthy in a wider world of art-not unlike another Monk-inspired player, Jason Moran, whose Artist in Residence album features work in partnership with the conceptual artists Adrian Piper and Joan Jonas. By refusing categorization in an overly rigid jazz field, these musicians further jazz’s purposes by ingraining its sensibility among different publics-one important way for the music to operate in the 21st century.