San Francisco: Literally Spellbinding—Ropes Included

Roddy Schrock
Roddy Schrock
Photo by Hideki Kubota

On a recent Saturday night, a modest audience gathered in a small living room of an intimate wooden home seven blocks north of UC Berkeley. The lights dim, a young violinist stands under a landing, the audience seated in a semi-circle facing her. She is wearing clothes that seem like a lite version of designs by Helmut Lang, with added metal loops sewn into the sleeves and shoulders of a jacket made of sturdy synthetic materials. A massive page from a score lies on the floor in front of her, the notation looks like a child’s crayon drawing. Andre Vida, also appearing highly costumed in a fashionably deconstructed jacket and hat, walks in and begins unraveling bundles of rope, tying and looping it around her body, and finally tossing one end to a woman perched on the landing above, the other end to a bearded eccentric-looking man sitting cross legged on the window of the library on the second floor. The girl with the violin begins playing but is unable to complete a full gesture, the ropes suddenly tugging at her arms as she tries to perform. The character sitting on the window sill seems to tease her, yanking the ropes quickly, while the silent woman on the landing pulls them slowly and deliberately in the opposite direction causing the violinist to be unable to make her instrument sound. At one point the ropes are yanked so suddenly as to make her throw her bow across the room. Eventually she is forced to attempt empty gestures at her violin, her hands pulled away such that she cannot reach the strings. The ritual continues, more violinists join, more ropes are connected to their bodies and pulled taut. It is confusing and messy but certainly intriguing. Finally they start to play in unison while walking to the library upstairs. The window is closed with a bang, the door slams, one cannot see them as they have ducked outside of the view provided by the library window, all that is seen is the conductor’s hands while loud violin tones are heard through the wall. Soon, by the light of a single desk lamp, one can make out the shadows of performers walking in circles, sawing away at their instruments, the sound heard by the audience is muffled violin noise. Suddenly without warning the lights are cut, the screeching violins stop. Silence. Then applause.

This is Vidatone, a group of performers from Los Angeles led by composer Andre Vida. Conceptually their approach succeeds brilliantly, building on ideas of liberation through restraint, calling to mind the work of Brian Ferneyhough. And while Ferneyhough’s art is generated from intense conflict between innate human limitation and formal compositional constraint, Vidatone is suggestive of visceral and quite literal constraint not from within oneself, but from others to whom one is tied, with less-than-subtle references to the visual aesthetic of bondage. In this preoccupation with physicality, the group also seems to be influenced by the work of Sylvano Bussotti, one who never shied away from exploring the intimate relation between the body and musical performance.

But the problem with musicians doing theater is that often the theater suffers. Viewed as theater Vidatone takes a surprisingly mild approach considering the issues they are exploring. Listened to as music, their sound is unique in its vague disinterest in its own musicality, but the disinterest comes across as affectation, one cannot escape the sense that ultimately they want to make, well, good music, whatever that might mean. The strongest points in the performance happened when they forgot about music, when the giant score was used as metaphor, the violin only a prop, and the sounds produced only suggestive of music rather than being overtly musical. At other moments they veered dangerously close to earnest musicality causing the whole conceit to collapse into a pile of composerly self-seriousness. Their strength lies in the unique theatrical experience they were able to conjure, but ultimately they are rather timid in style, not quite able to break free from the slipknots of respectable musicianship. Yet one is struck by the sense that they have caught onto something exciting, and I for one am looking forward to see where it takes them next.

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Roddy Schrock is a sound artist who digitally mines everyday sound for the profound and canvasses the glitzy, rough edges of pop for its articulate immediacy. He has lived and worked in Tokyo, The Hague, New York, and San Francisco, with performances in the Czech Republic, Holland, Japan, and North America. He is also an educator, currently teaching at De Anza College (California) and will be giving a summer workshop on Supercollider software at STEIM (Netherlands).