Comments by Gail M. Burns, September 2008
“Time, like an ever rolling stream,
bears all who breathe away;*
they fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.”
- Isaac Watts
I have always loved that verse of the old hymn O God, Our Help in Ages Past. The analogy of time with a course of water is perfect. A stream/brook/river is always there but always different – the molecules of water flowing past are never the same, but the overall effect is. This is exactly how we experience time.
Nick Brooke’s work is all about time and motion, and so it is not surprising that the new work being shown was called Time and Motion Study and inspired by the time and motion studies made by Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Sr. (1868-1924) and his wife Lillian Moller Gilbreth (1878-1972) early in the 20th century. The Gilbreths are best known nowadays as the parents of the twelve children whose adventures were chronicled in the popular biographical novel Cheaper By the Dozen, but Frank Gilbreth Sr. was originally a brick-layer and it was this task that he first studied and dissected, reducing the number of hand motions necessary from about eighteen to the five Brooke’s performers intone as they build four walls out of large wooden blocks or bricks.
While MoCA first announced that it would be presenting a work-in-progress showing of Nick Brooke’s Time and Motion Study – the third part of a proposed tetralogy inspired by sound technologies on the verge of collapse (the phonograph, the radio, Muzak, the walkman) – but on the night of the performance it was decided to present the second part Mass (2006) beforehand. I am not sure if Mass and the first part, Tone Test (2004) have ever been performed back-to-back, but I would assume that Brooke’s goal is to eventually present all four parts of the series sequentially in one performance.
Being a theatre critic, I generally assume that everything I see and hear on stage is being performed live as I watch it. This is probably an erroneous assumption more times than I am aware, but here I confess I was duped into believing that all the singing was live even though the advance press clearly stated that both live singing and lip-synching to recorded singing were included. In fact the entire piece is one long karaoke performance, since there don’t appear to be any live musicians involved. Most of the instrumental and sung music is recorded and only the dance/acting and some of the singing is live.
This presents a mind-boggling challenge in the timing and coordination of the recorded and live performances.
The major difference between live and recorded performance is time. For instance, if you walk into a film fifteen minutes late every evening you will always enter at precisely the same point, but if you do the same with a live theatre performance there will be variations, and the audience has a large role to play in them. A film will keep rolling whether the audience laughs or cries. It will roll while the theatre floods, it will roll while audience members have coronaries and die, it will roll whether anyone is in the house or not. A live performance will be affected by every breath the audience takes. The relationship between performer and audience is as symbiotic as that between mother and fetus. They are completely dependent.
So the performers in Brooke’s work are doubly dependent – on the audience, which is completely unpredictable, and the recorded score, which demands precise adherence to its timing. There is no room for the slightest error of movement on their part, because every second literally counts.
Brooke has created a safety valve in the cacophony of his score, and he and co-director Jenny Rohn have mirrored that physically in the chaos of the movement. Since this is not a work, like, say Oklahoma! where the audience will immediately miss an omitted word or note, it is possible here for the performers to completely screw up, so long as they catch back up with the score and don’t trip anyone else up along the way.
I was not aware that Muzak was a direct result of Gilbreth’s studies, but I am not surprised to learn that it was intended to regulate the flow of energy in the workplace. The crescendos and diminuendos of the music, have a direct, if subliminal, effect on the speed and vigor of the workers’ activities.
Brooke’s score includes snatches of recognizable popular songs on the theme of time and place – most notably As Time Goes By, The September Song, and There’s A Place for Us (Somewhere) – along with recorded sounds of breathing and physical movement, scat singing, exercise routines, and Wagnerian opera. The result is exhilarating and often funny, but being a Word Woman I was often frustrated that words took a back seat to sound and movement. Words, too, have a weight and rhythm that affects movement and emotion.
The liturgy of the Mass is a clear example of time, motion, and music combining in a ritualistic structure designed to influence human behavior, and so it is not surprising that Brooke would include a piece by that title in his tetralogy. This Mass is marked by a man intoning “This is the beginning of the end of the third part of the Mass...” a literal version of the mental time keeping we all do during rituals as our interest and attention ebb and flow.
The liturgical Hours were developed as timekeeping and regulating devices when mechanical clocks were scarce. The pealing of the church bells ringing matins, nones, compline, etc., told people when it was time to work and rest. Standing in a small, rural cemetery following a family burial the other day, we mourners were all startled to hear the noon whistle blow. It feels anachronistic in the 21st century, but that secular sound from the industrial revolution would have signaled to farmers in the field, school children at their desks, as well as mill works on the assembly line, that it was time for rest and refreshment.
This corollary links Mass and Time and Motion Study, but Brooke is more focused on making statements about popular music and culture in the former than in the latter. The opening segment of Mass is entitled 12 Stations, which refers not to the Stations of the Cross, but to the call numbers of various radio stations across the United States. NBC still uses its distinctive three-tone chime as a station identification on television, and everyone who grew up listening to radio can immediately sing the call numbers of their favorite station, to which Brooke affixes the repetitive chant “More Music.”
Indeed there is more music, and more, and more, as eventually the four performers in Mass end up fighting for the microphones atop a chalk outline of the 48 contiguous states. There are enough microphones to go around, but this does not stop the spirit of American Idol-style competition from provoking the performers to physical assault to gain access to the one they covet at the moment. Slowly the states vanish, erased by the rolling, dragging, and scraping of the performers, until Kansas alone remains (I think the state outline was created by tape rather than chalk), surrounded by echoes of the word “Somewhere...," as in Somewhere Over the Rainbow and There’s A Place for Us (Somewhere), both songs of yearning for a freedom and harmony that don’t exist in real life, except in this mythical Kansas where everything is black and white.
I had never realized before how centrally located Kansas is within our national boundaries.
But this kind of vigorous physical interaction, which opens the door to the possibility of all sorts of blunders in time and space, brings me back to the amazing precision with which Brooke and Rohn have trained their performers to interact with the recorded score. It is one thing for a performer to get him or herself from Point A to Point B in 3.5 seconds, but the margin of error increases every time they interact with each other. Mass requires only four performers, and is physically more daring. Time and Motion Study brings eight performers into contact, but, as its subject matter implies, it’s physicality is more closely regulated.
Brooke’s publicity keeps referring to the score as “a dense electronic maquette of sound effects.” Huh?
Here’s a dictionary definition of maquette:
n. A usually small model of an intended work, such as a sculpture or piece of architecture.
I don’t understand how this word, which clearly refers to something tangible and three dimensional, can be applied to music. Of course there are pages of written music (I would be fascinated to see how Brooke notates his scores!) and recorded disks and sound equipment which represent and reproduce the score and they are tangible and manipulated, but the score itself is heard, not seen. Furthermore, it isn’t particularly small. Time and Motion Study runs about 25 minutes, and it is indeed dense both visually and aurally. Theatrical designers frequently create maquettes of proposed sets, but since the performers constantly manipulate Sue Rees’ setting, even that would not be possible here.
I think someone just thought “maquette” sounded high-falutin’ and avant-garde and threw it in to the publicity for the heck of it!
As we were leaving the Hunter Center, my companion asked me how I was going to write about the performance. I replied that essentially Brooke’s work was musical theatre – performers moved, spoke, sang, and told a story on stage, on a set, in front of an audience, under very specific lighting (designed by Michael Giannitti) – this is no different from Oklahoma! or Cats except that when I write about those more traditional performances I have a standard vocabulary to work with. It is only audience perception that makes Brooke’s work any different from Rodgers and Hammerstein.
And I found these two pieces entertaining. Brooke might tell me that I understood nothing he was trying to say, but in my mind I made connections and found a narrative that engaged and entertained me, which is all that is required. I am under the impression that the majority of actors, directors, and audiences don’t understand what Rodgers and Hammerstein were writing about, but that doesn’t stop their works from being popular and bringing people pleasure. An artist can only present his or her work to the public, s/he cannot make them understand it.
The show ran 70 minutes with one intermission and was suitable for ages 10 and up. Go to Nick Brooke's's Web site for more information about the artist and his future projects. For information on future programs at MASS MoCA please call 413-662-2111.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008