Still Life with Commentator: An Oratorio
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 7, 2006
I found Still Life with Commentator, the new oratorio by Vijay Iyer (music), Michael E. Ladd (libretto), and Ibrahim Quraishi (director), tremendously disappointing.
The subject matter, laid out in a long and occasionally murky program note by the creators, is the new and growing virtual world:
And, with greater frequency, we find it necessary to participate in the news, to deliver and comment on it, to become it. Perhaps this impulse is our only defense: reality television, the blogosphere, and YouTube are but a few examples. These are the new narrative forms of our times. Digital reportage, punditry, and testimony are now integral to the way we define ourselves.
Still Life with Commentator presents this world, occasionally with authentic sharpness. In the opening sequences, we see Iyer and the other musicians on the stage floor hammering out their eclectic electro-sounds, while Ladd and the other vocalists sing and/or move within prescribed spaces above; at ceiling level is a bombardment of abstract video images, and at floor level are projected subtitles. Beyond the obvious notions of noise and overload, I understood right away the alienating aloneness that the work's creators are illustrating: though obviously a collaboration of the highest order, Still Life felt, in this segment, like an unconnected collage of random creations/events: each of the artists is working alone, a solitary voice in this physicalized blogosphere. It's up to the audience to pick out what to observe and what to listen to and to figure out what it all might signify.
The metaphor even extends to the materials we've been provided to abet our enjoyment/understanding of the event itself. There's a libretto in the program and I was provided another, different libretto in my press kit; neither fully corresponds to what occurred on stage. Frequently the subtitles don't match what's been sung; in one case, subtitles are projected for an instrumental piece that's not sung at all. My companion concluded that this was all intentional: more noise and inaccurate "reporting" for the spectator to sift through. Even if it's not intended, it's a neat cautionary by-product of the work, reminding us to be vigilant as we receive information from even presumably reliable sources.
This stuff is fascinating; so is Pamela Z's performance of a song called "Been There Done That," during which she mixes and otherwise electronically processes her gorgeous, clear voice, live, on cutting-edge deejay equipment. Some of the music is beautiful, too: the instrumental "Redemption Chant," played on piano by Iyer himself, deeply impressed my companion.
But much of Still Life's 75 minutes is repetitive. Once the main ideas have been communicated, they're not particularly amplified or extended. Too often, the show feels like a single artistic construct stretched, with plenty of "noise" in the form of such distractions as elaborate scenic elements moving up and down for no real reason, performer Masayasu Nakanishi miming a boxer and later taking off all of his clothes (again, for no apparent reason), and bright fluorescent lights flashing on an off (ditto). Sure, it's all part of the show's concept, but none of it added anything that I could make out—eventually, it began to feel like nothing more than a way to justify a big budget.
Some hot-button anti-war material surfaces in the show's second half, reaching a crescendo in a sequence in which a dozen or more giant soldier balloons descend from the ceiling as the vocalists intone about the Holocaust, the Iraqi War, and American apathy toward suffering. It's utterly without subtlety; presumably everyone in the BAM audience arrived in the theatre well-versed on all these issues, so I'm not really sure what we were expected to learn from this display.
Ijay, Ladd, and Quraishi clearly have talent and they also clearly care about the state of the world. I'd like to see them explore their themes with more originality and depth than they ultimately display here.