Skeleton Piano Dances: Emotional disconnect

Creative multimedia concert is long on virtuosity and inventiveness, short on emotional engagement


As far as I can tell, this world and our lives are terrifyingly shaped by things completely outside of our control or comprehension. Think I’m full of shit? Then why art? Why music? Why do we dedicate hours, weeks, years, and decades of our lives to jotting down specks of black ink onto five lines for someone else who has gone and dedicated the same goddamn amount of time to interpreting those black specks?

Composing and performing are standing on the precipice of existence, screaming into the void that amidst chaos your insignificant little self created something coherent, and that’s beautiful. Not that music shouldn’t be chaotic – it often needs to be chaotic! — but it should offer a humanistic insight into the chaos. Its creation must be propelled forward by emotion, for what else understands the daily human condition? Without emotion there is no philosophical human condition; it just is what it is what it is what it is what it is what it is. . . just cold chaotic reality. When the predominant motivation for a work of art or music is not emotion, but something secondary such as the technicality of recording, form, or physical performance, only the physical reality of music is being realized: sound.

Jennnifer Wright plays her Skeleton Piano at BodyVox Studios this weekend.

Jennnifer Wright played her Skeleton piano at BodyVox Studios.

I have nothing but respect for the logistical capabilities of Jennifer Wright and Agnieszka Laska Dancers putting together Skeleton Piano Dances and furthermore effectively marketing the show, which happened at Portland’s BodyVox Studios October 3 and 4. As far as I could tell the first show was sold out, AND with an average age that has relatively low personal experience with colostomy bags! Not a small achievement in the “art” music world. The venue was hip or whatever – seriously though, having chamber music presented outside of academies and churches is refreshing. Odd as it may be, I also think the program book deserves an honorable mention: thick card stock, quality color printing, and creative design may seem like trivial details, but they go a long way for the perception of professionalism.

All this to say: great planning and professionalism, but for me, there was no emotional communication.

Looking Back by Dan Senn opened the show with some very intriguing timbres. However for a composition to hold my undivided attention, it must engage me rhythmically, melodically, texturally, contrasting presentations of the aforementioned, and the forever-impossible-to-quantify emotionally. My timbral attention was certainly caught, but only to wither and die for lack of further material for the imagination. I don’t know, blame it on the ADD, but the piece felt like an etude for recording, withlittle development musically or emotionally. When the whole goal is to record pot lids ringing like Tibetan prayer bowls, that’s about the emotional evocation I get out of it: “Huh, that’s what pot lids sound like.” Is that really all there is to say about existence?

Sounding the Furies by Portland composer Jack Gabel was a strong exploration of the saxophone’s possibilities, achieved beautifully by Tom Bergeron. The electro-acoustic and visual conglomeration was engaging to witness in a variety of creative aspects, my personal favorite being the presentation of the score laid out on the floor with Bergeron walking to follow along. I just get so used to chamber musicians being stale on stage that even slight deviations towards activity is stimulating, but it was just too damn long with too little to say. I can’t quantify why Sounding the Furies didn’t emotionally communicate with me, but it didn’t. The burden of proof is not on the reviewer to explain the lack of communication; it is on the one who is wishing to communicate, the composer.

It would be easy to gloss over the fact that Jennifer Wright reinvented the piano, to Western musicians the same analogy as reinventing the wheel, but still wasn’t satisfied. Dedicating tremendous amounts of time to become agile on this new creation, Wright does not just own the Skeleton piano: she possesses it, bends it to her will. The Portland composer’s talent and dedication are what made the actual performance of the final work on the program, her Obscure Terrain, all the more disappointing for me. Each movement was an etude for a different effect/affect on the Skeleton piano without a unifying theme. Wright’s own program notes support this interpretation as each movement’s short snippet predominantly discusses which extended (very extended) technique of piano performance she employed to create the sound.

This is not to say Obscure Terrain doesn’t have some devastatingly poignant music buried under a little sound. Wright is a born performer who couldn’t give a performance devoid of emotion if her life depended on it. It doesn’t matter what else is on stage – including choreographed dance – all eyes are instinctively on her. The only thing left is for her to decide what she wants to communicate to those watchers: the virtuosity of her pianism or the depth of her soul?

My wish for her future presentations of Obscure Terrain and creative endeavors in general (to borrow some imagery from the program) is to be unfettered by external trappings, including technical display; to not just show us metaphors for the universal human experience, but to let us into her experiences; to systematically demolish not just barriers of music tradition, but of emotional generalization – so often found within the arts – preventing non-generalized specific discussions of our individual human experience. There is not and can never be a list of what does or doesn’t achieve this experience. It’s just exactly that, an experience: something to be felt, not intellectualized.

Don’t be so shy Jennifer. Oregon is listening.

Tristan Bliss is a music composer currently living in Salem, Oregon. Engaging in all sorts of shenanigans ranging from motorcycle dirtbaggery to navigating his way through the bullshit bureaucracy of earning a Bachelors of Music with a focus on modern composition; trust me, it’s not as fancy as it sounds. Also, apparently he is now reviewing concerts he goes to.

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13 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Gestalt Disconnect

    In other words: PDX music/dance lovers, we’ve got a problem here! Why NO details about the dance component of this paired program?

    If Tristan doesn’t feel qualified to discuss how dance & music interacts in an evening of, uh, interactive music & dance, heck, next time i hope OAW will send someone who is up for the full meal deal.

    • I’d be happy to have multiple reviews from dance and music perspectives, and we’ve done something like that a few times in the past. I did forward the announcement to our dance writers, and one of them did write a preview for us in addition to my music preview, but they were otherwise engaged that weekend (lots of dance going on in October), which is why I specifically tagged this review under the Music and not Dance (or, for that matter, visual arts, since there was also a video component) categories. Better to have a review of the music alone than none at all, but I am sorry that none of our dance writers could make it. This time of year brings lots of conflicting performances, unfortunately.

  2. Jeff Winslow says:

    Our lives and art are shaped by love as much as fear. (Well, all right, I can’t speak for the Tea Party.) And as you hint in the second paragraph, so should our music, and much more directly. “Here is beauty I discovered that I want to share with you.”

    I almost never get emotion out of a piece of unfamiliar music on first hearing; it’s something that comes later if I want to keep listening to it. I would be happy to hear any of the works on the program again, even though my personal preference would be if Obscure Terrain had a harmonic interest that matched the “orchestral” (because what Jennifer does with the piano is indeed akin to orchestration) and rhythmic interest. I seem to be in a minority these days though.

    Particularly notable to me was, intuitively, the melding of the sax with electronic background in Sounding the Furies. Maybe once or twice did I have a feeling they were at odds. In contrast, in the Oregon Symphony’s earlier performance of James MacMillan’s Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, which was still fresh in my mind, there often seemed to be very little connection between the orchestra and the solo part.

  3. Jennifer Wright says:

    Thank you, Tristan, for writing this review! I’m glad that many of the details that I and my collaborators sweated blood over did not go unnoticed! Yet, as Bob mentions, a big shout-out should go to Agnieszka Laska, the ALD dancers, videographer Takafumi Uehara, and my composer colleagues Jack Gabel and Dann Senn. The grueling/beautiful/insane 16-month process of bringing this huge show to life has been the exact opposite of emotional disconnect for all of us! We really knocked ourselves out to attempt some large-scale beauty on as many levels as possible: visually, kinetically, aurally, intellectually, and of course emotionally – because every audience member responds to something different and they all deserve something fabulous!

  4. Maria Choban says:

    I was at the show the second night. I found the dancing distracting; not the dancers’/choreographer’s fault. I would have preferred a pas de deux: Jennifer with her piano because to paraphrase Tristan, she can hold a stage (and me rapt) all by her lonesome. I asked the person with whom I came (a well rounded musician in many genres including classical) what she thought and whether she’d recommend this show at that ticket price to her friends. Her answer was no. And for the reasons Tristan stated (void of emotion) and I felt (the multi media worked against Jennifer’s strong committed presence on stage).

    Bob: Would you prefer no one reviewed the show? Because all the dance writers certainly knew it was happening. I happen to love dance and I think Mark Morris melds music and dance as well as Quentin Tarantino melds music and film. It just didn’t work for me this time.

    Jeff: I do not expect someone shelling out $20 to walk away thinking they need to hear a piece a few more times before they’ll get it! I already know what they’re thinking because they’re bending my ear!!

    Jennifer: I’m glad so much was emotionally invested for so long. but the performers are NOT the audience! and to quote as closely as possible David Mamet, we serve at the PLEASURE of our audience!

    I need to see/hear more of Jennifer on stage. I think she’s a total gift. I just want her to stop hiding behind so much other stuff.

    • Jeff Winslow says:

      I didn’t say I needed to hear the works a few more times before I “got it”, whatever that nebulous phrase is supposed to mean. The corroboration you see in my comment is an illusion.

  5. jack Gabel says:

    as an artist (composer in particular), cited in this review, let me say this: I never feel burdened to communicate anything to anyone – that’s not why I compose music, write poetry, conceptualize multimedia productions, produce them with many various collaborators, produce and release recordings or anything else – I’ve no control over what anyone gets from any of this – to think otherwise would be insufferably arrogant, IMHO

    that said, I was thrilled at Tom Bergeron’s riveting performance (the 5th and 6th he’s given) and Takafumi Uehara’s breathtaking video (3rd multimedia presentation with Takafumi-san) – I feel extraordinarily privileged to work with such outstanding artists who both engaged from a position of deep emotion in this creation – one I will never forget

  6. Jennifer Wright says:

    Indeed, Jack. I must say, however, that based on the spirited standing ovations and audience response the show received on both nights, as well as the enthusiastic response I have experienced from a great number of people in the following weeks – a mix of artists, non-artists, children, and folks who normally elect not to partake in similar cultural activities yet gave this one a chance – all of whom were clearly moved and excited by Skeleton Piano Dances – clearly we created something that resonated deeply with a great number of people. For those of us compelled to create culture and present work of great personal significance despite the many attendant risks, this kind of audience connection and appreciation is deeply gratifying. We can survive without it, but it sure does help when one needs encouragement to continue one’s work!

  7. bob priest says:

    BTW, all grumbling aside (see my first note above), i sincerely appreciate Tristan Bliss giving his honest & detailed impressions as to what he did & didn’t care for in this program.

    Whether one agrees with his views or not, It isn’t all that often these days that a music critic sports adequate cahones, informed perspective & writing chops to be able to present & make his case as strongly as TB does in this review.

    I look forward to reading more from Tristan . . .

    • Jack Gabel says:

      cajones are one thing, experience another and Jennifer’s testimonial of a flood of enthusiastic congrats, clearly the most meaningful – Agnieszka told me an ALD follower reported liking this show better than Twyla Tharp’s – of course, just one more opinion – in this comment thread Mark Morris is cited – interesting in that Mark once wrote personally to Agnieszka, praising her work, and curiously, work from a show at which one of Portland’s most prominent critics walked out and chose to write nothing – an anecdote with a back story as gnarly as this one – best left to historians, if any ever find any of this worth writing about: “I don’t, live today – Maybe tomorrow, I just can say” – JH

      • bob priest says:

        Give us our daily Standing Os, testimonies, opinions, tangential musings, intense engagement possibly outpacing keen artistic judgement, etc. – what we have here is a “have it everybody’s way” kinda whopper.

        As for trotting out names like Tharp, Morris, Tarantino & Jimi in close proximity to those of ALD, Gabel, Senn & Wright, well, i’m not sure anyone is well or justly served by such doings.

        • Jack Gabel says:

          forgot Mamet and his notion of “service” – but again, no cigar – not here to “serve” – that was my last “day job”, serving drinks, and I was told I needed a “signature” cocktail – told them I save my “signature” for my art – if ever I get a “signature” cocktail, please do me the favor of shooting me on the spot- reveals the problem with modern online blogging – supplants duking it out over a dozen shots in a dank smoky boîte de nuit

          • bob priest says:

            Well, some serve & some get served their due ration of somethin’ or an udder @ this here art trough.

            More than anything else, this lively thread has reminded me of talk some months back about getting an occasional “town hall meeting” sorta thang going. If memory, uh, serves, OAW expressed some interest in possibly being part of such an undertaking. Could be fun, informative, blood boiling &/or instructive – we have much to share, pravda?

            Wanna play?

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