Music, Visual Art Make Absorbing Piece At The Shed

‘Reich Richter Pärt’ is an opening commission for The Shed. Here, Ensemble Signal performs music by Steve Reich as a Gerhard Richter video by Corinna Belz is projected on the far wall. (Installation photos by Stephanie Berger)

NEW YORK – Habitually suspicious New Yorkers regarded the city’s newest performing arts center, unpretentiously named The Shed, with particular wariness. Looking at the building’s pillow-like exterior from architects Liz Diller and David Rockwell, you might initially wonder if the 170,000-square-foot structure is unfinished.

Inside, opera star Renée Fleming was somehow cast as a stenographer in the Anne Carson play Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, with Ben Whishaw dressing in drag as Marilyn Monroe. (Reviews were not respectful.) Guilt by association may also be at work, since The Shed is part of the massive Hudson Yards, a super-high-end real estate development that might seem to take Manhattan one step closer to being a gold-plated Disney World.

Oh, we’ll get used to it.

Tapestries by Gerhard Richter hang in one room of the installation.

Or at least get to know it better. The structure is designed for versatility,  with a retractable open-air concert shell – and how that plays out can only be assessed over the next year or so. One hallmark of The Shed is large open spaces that are meant to accommodate works of magnitude. And if audiences don’t care for what is “written” on these blank-slate spaces, the architecture inevitably shares the blame. The reviled Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, for one, seemed to have a damning effect on the 500-seat black box theater that it was in.

A more concrete instance was an untitled art installation by Trisha Donnelly in a semi-darkened room that has several massive redwood tree trunks lying on their sides, with branch stumps covered in bandage-like fabric and Leontyne Price singing the Habanera from Carmen on loudspeakers. The connection? Redwood trees exist in families with a shared root system; the smaller trees tend to suck life out of the parent tree. Sort of like what Carmen did to Don José, maybe.

One indisputable success, however, is Reich Richter Pärt, which is ostensibly an installation, though much more of a foreground experience than you might expect in something with a four-daily-performance schedule, Tuesdays through Sundays. It was absorbing at every turn.

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, dispersed, sang a work by Arvo Pärt.

In a prologue of sorts, the Choir of Trinity Wall Street circulated through the crowd singing Pärt’s 2014 a cappella choral work “Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima” in a large room decorated with Gerhard Richter tapestries. Less than two minutes long, Pärt’s prayer-like German-language piece was repeated four times – though with ongoing repetition of the word Allelujah, it felt continuous, especially with the singers wandering through the crowd individually like a congenial flash mob, ending in a circle in the middle of the room. Pitch problems are bound to occur when singers are dispersed, though the sense of the music emerged clearly. More important, what did that have to do with Richter’s art? Nothing specific.

It’s possible that Pärt collaborates with no one, but through tightly integrated effects elevates whatever else is in the room. In an earlier version of this installation, the Richter images were darker, taken from Nazi concentration camp photos. Richter’s art at The Shed was radically different – tapestries that resembled highly ornate, strictly controlled Rorschach ink blot tests, only suffused with red-dominated color palettes. Richter lite? Not on close inspection, which revealed that these images were printed over more random background patterns in the improvisatory tradition of Jackson Pollock. The tension between extreme order and something bordering on chaos gave everything more dimension. The change of scene was no problem from a musical standpoint. In the face of tragedy, Pärt’s music can offer comfort. Amid cheerier reds, the same music allows the listener-viewer to “connect the dots” with an elegiac undercurrent. Either way, what you hear makes you look beyond the surfaces of what you see.

The artist Gerhard Richter is seen with one of his paintings. (Hubert Becker)

The Reich Richter section, held in an adjacent room, was longer, more substantial, and more of a genuine collaboration. The 22-musician Ensemble Signal was stationed at the far end, facing a large screen on the other end onto which a Richter-based video (made in collaboration with Corinna Belz) was seen. Along the side walls were two of Richter’s most basic creations with simple, horizontal bands of color, much like his 2011 book Patterns. The subtitle of the book, “Divided, Mirrored, Repeated,” encapsulates the visual procession that followed. Reich/Richter, the title of the piece that Steve Reich created around the film, was in a sound universe similar to that of Music for 18 Musicians, though with a richer range of musical content. A larger wind instrument contingent had a softening effect on the percussiveness of two pianos and two vibraphones.

The music wasn’t a film soundtrack by any means, but something functioning on a more equal basis, like Michael Gordon’s score in Decasia. The music didn’t in any way depict what was happening visually – how can music characterize abstract patterns anyway? – but certainly reacted to it, though sometimes with a distant wave of the hand. As Richter’s horizontal lines of colors began to vibrate, taking on a machine-made quality, Reich’s score was dominated by a more synthetic instrumental texture. Something resembling a whole-tone scale from Reich came in close proximity to Richter’s more organic, expansive visual evolution.

The Shed as it neared completion, December 2018. (Brett Beyer)

Soon, not all activity was horizontal. Vertical partitions made themselves felt – it’s the “Divided, Mirrored, Repeated” aesthetic – creating mirrored patterns. If this sounds like an acid trip, it was. Abstract images seemed to issue forth from each side of the north-south line, somewhat like the Rorschach images in the previous room.

Time and again, descriptions only seem possible when using contradictory terms. Some of the imagery suggested benevolent gargoyles. The center line was like a reverse vortex. Instead of swallowing the imagery, the vortex issued colors and patterns. Or were the viewers actually being led in the opposite direction, not with the film pouring images toward you, but drawing you deeper into Richter’s inner world? Heralded by some weighty keyboard chords from Reich, that vertical vortex multiplied. Well, everything multiplied. At one point, I saw multi-tiered images suggesting the galleries of saints that cover the front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (I saw this before the fire). Then, from the center of the vortex, something white began to issue forth. My Roman Catholic heritage suggested that the Holy Spirit was paying a visit.

Visitors watch Richter video while Reich’s music is played behind them.

Some extremely attractive melodies came and went or stayed for a while. At one point, Reich’s signature sense of rhythmic propulsion dissolved almost completely along with a blurring of the visual images. The audio/visual correspondence wasn’t exact, but you felt synchronicity at work. At one point, Reich’s music began to exercise a bit of pointillism with far-flung notes playing off each other, only to coalesce into a more traditional scale. At one point when the music’s pulse began to calm down to practically nothing, the visuals morphed from a lot of busy, diverse formations that reminded me of  Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights to something more decorative and less aggressive. Those ornate, wallpaper-ish images returned to the simpler horizontal lines that began the piece, though vibrating with an intensity not seen earlier; Reich’s music reached a climactic crescendo, signaling that the piece was coming to an end after about 40 minutes. And unhappily so. I could’ve done another half hour.

Both Richter and Reich are in their 80s, and yet vigorous, collaborative work seems more possible than ever. Richter’s film reportedly came first, though it had to have drawn, consciously or not, on many decades of listening and responding to Reich’s music. In this piece, Reich circles back to Richter with music that doesn’t exactly sum up everything he always was – that would be impossible – but has a complexity, command of structure and a yielding sense of charm that reflects the composer’s station in life. I already have tickets for a return visit. It runs through June 2 with rotating live performers, including the International Contemporary Ensemble and the Brooklyn Youth Choir. For information and tickets, go here.