Earwitness at REDCAT
March 22, 2016, 12:00 am
March 10th saw REDCAT present another innovative, mixed-media performance by the Canadian artist Eve Egoyan. The evening featured three ingenious, interactive videos and four contemporary piano pieces entitled Earwitness “an umbrella name for projects conceived by Eve Egoyan that explore a hybrid art form, where sound and visual elements become equal creative partners”. The concert was an exploration into auditory insight and visual complexities.
A serious and prolific pianist, Egoyan commissioned all four of the selections heard at REDCAT. Ten of her eleven released CDs contain modern music written by an international array of living composers. Her remaining disc is devoted to Erik Satie’s century-old miniatures , predecessors of many new, minimalist pieces dedicated to Egoyan.
The all-Canadian program began with John Oswald’s brief, 6-movement “Palimpia” (2016), the only piece at the concert without video accompaniment. Egoyan played a Yamaha Disklavier and sometimes plucked or strummed its visible strings. The first movement, “silent mode”, consisted of audible thuds which sounded like the soloist’s fingers striking a closed cover (the fall board) above the piano keys. Unfortunately, the location of my theatre seat prevented me, most of the time, from seeing Egoyan’s hands or the keys. But a Disklavier is capable of many surprising sounds, even thuds, especially when augmented by Egoyan’s pre-programmed laptop and other devices on or near her bench.
Composer Oswald has written about “a new world of possibilities in which a player piano and a living pianist, interacting, can create a bionic symbiosis of performer and acoustic machine”. That’s what the audience experienced as the next five movements were played. Quiet, single notes hung in the air at first, followed by a rush of Debussy-like passages. Another bit segued from subtle melodies to a crash of sound, like a quick switch from Keith Jarrett to Cecil Taylor. The black outfit Egoyan wore was sleeveless for good reason: at one point, she stood, reached over and into the body of the piano and plucked the strings with her left hand to create zither-like sounds. Simultaneously, her right hand crossed under her chest in order to play, with great dexterity, notes on the piano keys.
Next on the program was the fascinating “David Lynch Etudes” (2016) by Montreal-based Nicole Lizee. Her own words offer the best description: “Sounds and visuals from Lynch’s film and TV catalogue are corrupted and merged with piano to form an immersive and psychedelic journey. The piano writing is a musical mirror of the absurdist, surrealist–and sometimes violent and disturbing–nature of Lynch’s work.” Lizee utterly transforms 2- or 3-second video clips from various Lynch projects–“Twin Peaks”, “Wild at Heart”, “Lost Highway”, etc.–by manipulating, twisting, stretching, repeating and compressing the images on the screen.
Lizee’s half-dozen selections are all compelling art pieces. Her “Mullholland Drive” fragment shows two actresses standing in a kitchen. Naomi Watts looks plaintively at Laura Harring and says “You’ve come back”. As the camera cuts between the women’s expressions, Lizee begins to distort those three words, endlessly repeated, with echo effects and Watts’ heavy breathing. Gradually the room, the two faces, the sounds–everything metastasizes into a blurry, almost molecular depth of perception. Lizee directs our eyes to a pane of glass in a window and slowly zooms in, reminding us that we are voyeurs, peeking into a complicated relationship.
Egoyan played live accompaniment to what was seen as well as heard–distorted voices, ambient noise, electronic hums and pulses. The written music, sometimes shadowing and at other times in counterpoint to the video projections, ranged from Bach-like fugues to raucous fragments recalling Bartok. Egoyan, always calm and focused, had to watch the screen for cues, adjust the Disklavier and follow her score.
A second work by John Oswald, “Homonymy” (1998, revised 2016), followed the intermission. In addition to exhibiting more of her exceptional skill as a pianist, the piece required Egoyan to speak , whisper and even translate English and French words that flashed by on the screen. In the mid-1990s, Canadians heatedly debated (and ultimately defeated) the Quebec province’s wish for sovereign statehood. Oswald’s piece, lightly spoofing those national differences, is a humorous jumble of two languages, a cacophony of music and our perceptions.
Homonyms are words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings. Oswald has words, phrases and numbers racing across the screen vertically, horizontally, even diagonally. He creates a joyous, Joycean collage of sound-alike, bi-lingual text play: “ennui”, “oui”, “non”, “know”, “infiniti”, “tea”, “ate” and the number “8” on its side (representing infinity). The tour-de-force visuals are fun to see, filled with puns, run-on sentences and abundant subconscious allusions. The partially recorded score has sounds of a combo–flute, percussion and horns. Egoyan played over, under and around all of this while simultaneously pronouncing aloud many of the words the audience was silently reading.
The evening closed with “Surface Tension” (2009). Video conceptions were created by David Rokeby, an artist who pioneered “translating physical gestures into real-time interactive sound environments”. The John Cage-like music was written or improvised on the spot by Egoyan. The program notes explain the process: “Eve’s performance at the keyboard…is transformed and interpreted by a computer into live visual images projected onto a screen rising from the body of the piano. The visuals respond to…dynamics, pitch…sustain pedal and the duration of individual notes. This extends the piano into a visual instrument as well as a musical one”.
There are five movements–ripples in water when a note “hits” the surface, falling snowflakes, the swarming patterns of insects, planetary trajectories and the virtual construction of a 3-D tower. As Egoyan played, each beautiful creation on the screen evolved organically. Again, from the program: “The result is an extraordinary integration of sound and image in which neither of these elements dominate the other”. Eve Egoyan’s gift is her astonishing combination of musical, visual and technical elements into a memorable and mind-blowing concert.