Four Wild Nights In A Brooklyn Music Incubator

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British-Bengali composer-performer Bishi starred in her one-woman show ‘BISHI: The Good Immigrant,’ for voice, electronics, and amplified sitar, during the Ferus Festival at music incubator National Sawdust. (All photos © Jill Steinberg)

By Anne E. Johnson

BROOKLYN – “Ferus” is Latin for “wild.” It’s a useful word to describe the programming at the 2018 Ferus Festival, a four-night event in the National Sawdust music space in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. The two programs I saw were wild in various senses: unrefined, coming from nature, daring, and slightly magical.

The festival opened on Jan. 11 with British-Bengali composer and performer Bishi, a 2017-18 National Sawdust artist-in-residence, presenting the world premiere of BISHI: The Good Immigrant. This piece, for voice looper, sitar, and electronics, was inspired by the book The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla, a collection of essays by BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnics, as the British refer to people of color) “ruminating on race and identity in contemporary Britain.”

Bishi revealed a huge vocal range with melismatics, vocal doubling.

Bishi, alone on stage with her electronics and black-lacquered hooked-up sitar, looked like a rock star. She wore a black body suit, stiletto heels, and a shimmery cape that billowed as she stalked and vogued. The style was heavily influenced by retro electronic pop, more Klaus Nomi than Ravi Shankar.

Much of the six-part work featured thickly layered electronic instrumental sound with textless vocalise. But Bishi was at her strongest when she had language to help her. Unfortunately, the sound design by Jeff Cook, who was also co-producer, sometimes worked to her disadvantage. Snippets of spoken interviews from participants in the essay collection were largely unintelligible, buried in the other elements. An easy and inexpensive solution might be to project their words on the wall behind her.

But in two of the movements, Bishi herself declaimed lyrics clearly and gave a short intro about what we would hear: Her settings of the poems “Shade” by Salena Godden and “Where the Mind is Without Fear” by Rabindranath Tagore had distinctive shape and real power. She has a huge vocal range, and moments when she sang very high melismatic ornaments above the rich chords she’d created – or alternatively, doubled her own lines at the lower octave – were compelling. There’s a lot of potential in this work, which the composer describes as “a call to Arms to explore our differences so that we may find more unity & empathy in a divided world.”

The Jan. 12 program, which I did not attend, was Tessellatum, a film, animated by Steven Mertens, with live score for 11 bass viols and five violas by Donnacha Dennehy, performed by Nadia Sirota and Liam Byrne. If you’re curious, you can hear Sirota and Byrne’s recording of the score here:

While the first two programs seemed determined to limit the number of participants, Sxip Shirey’s sold-out, standing-room crowd on Jan. 15 was nearly outnumbered by the performers. Shirey is the living embodiment of the spirit of John Cage, committed to the tenets that music is play and listening to music is an active endeavor.

He proved that second precept in the opening work, The Gauntlet: Sing me a Lullaby, as Under Water. Two rows of chairs lined either side of a long strip of floor, forming a riverbed. Singers from the volunteer choir of new-music enthusiasts Choral Chameleon stood on low footstools along the inner rows of chairs, leaving just enough room for audience members to pass between them, a head lower than the singers.

Sxip Shirey’s musical hand-offs gave the impression of kelp rippling under water.

Every few seconds, Shirey fed a word or two of sung poetry to the nearest chorister, who then “handed” it to a colleague, literally leaning forward, hands outstretched as he or she sang it, with the other singer reaching out first to take it and then again to offer it onward. As the audience walked through, the mish-mash of musical fragments flowing around us did give the sense of being underwater. But even more striking was the physical sensation of gracefully stretching arms and fingers everywhere, like blades of kelp rippling in a current.

In Latency, an Elegy for David Bowie, Shirey wrote a eulogy to the British rock icon, another artist who understood how much play lies at the root of music-making. Inspired by the image of “Bowie’s soul waiting for his voice to catch up to him,” the composer focused on the principle of delay. He and dancer/choreographer Coco Karol sang into cellphones, and their voices re-emerged moments later, smaller and distorted, on the other’s device. This communication grew faster and faster and the performers closer and closer, until the phones were passing beeps back and forth on their own like an alien language (something else Bowie would have appreciated).

‘Amelia Found’ was a haunting evocation of things that have disappeared from our lives.

The next phase of the piece journeyed effectively back and forth between the joy of play and the sadness of loss. Shirey, along with singers Rima Fand and Lacy Rose, sang a poignant lyric that began “You were on the radio,” often using Shirey’s favorite medieval technique, hocketing, to pass musical phrases person to person, note by note. The delayed amplification of falling and rolling marbles, vintage Fisher-Price Melody Push Pull toys, and long-spinning weight plates reminded us of the serious fun of building with sound.

Jonny Rogers coaxed celestial tones from the glass harmonica, lifting the music beyond this plane to a place where spirits might witness the proceedings. I have no doubt that Bowie’s was among them.

It was clear that Amelia Found would be extraordinary when Lacy Rose tuned Shirey’s grandfather’s Morse code key machine to the F of the glass harmonica. Rose, who learned Morse code from her Vietnam vet father, operated that quiet, haunting F throughout the piece, spelling out the names of things and people that audience members had earlier identified as having disappeared from their lives.

The work gave Karol, costumed as a ghostly pilot, the full performance space to weave the story of Amelia Earhart’s lonesome last voyage in spooky movements that capture flight, loss of control, and a kind of dissipation; as Shirey remarked, “She didn’t die, she disappeared.” Rogers played glass harmonica at one end of the room and Shirey rolled and arpeggiated piano chords (in an acknowledged tribute to Debussy) on the other.

Perhaps to represent the downing of the airplane or the shift into an ethereal existence, puppeteer Basil Twist wielded a massive crimson banner on a staff, twisting it until it billowed into heaven-bound structures. Then puppeteers Chris Green and Erin Orr followed, causing delicate wooden birds with propeller wings to dance and swoop like the pilot’s untethered spirit.

All the while, in those ceaseless bursts of F, the Morse code key never stopped trying to reach all the things we’ve lost.

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.

Date posted: January 18, 2018

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