Meredith Marsha Helga Jayhawk: a study in contrasting audience experiences

We attended a christening on Thursday night. From the stage of the Lied Center in Lawrence KS, the members of Brooklyn-based Sō Percussion took suggestions to name the cactus that they were using for the first time, a Kansas resident. According to them, cacti have female names. Therefore, Meredith Marsha Helga Jayhawk debuted on John Cage’s Child of Tree, played by Josh Quillen.

Meredith Marsha Helga Jayhawk

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My husband and I had been looking forward to this show for months. We don’t often get a chance to go to shows together, for fun, so we made a night of it. We had dinner at our favorite Lawrence restaurant, 715, which has through the years developed quite the strata of memory. The only thing I remember about our first meal there was the amazing butter, from a local dairy Iwig. Later, we had a happy hour snack with our friend Jake before catching a show at Liberty Hall. We ate there again for a birthday/father’s day celebration, the weekend before our son was born. Then again for brunch a few months later and a young woman offered to buy my baby.

This time, it was just the two of us again, contemplating the menu, drooling over the hock of prosciutto on the counter, generally enjoying and satisfying our palates as we scattered bread crumbs across the bar, taste-testing the variously-infused liquors, tossed between liquorice and Laphroaig.

After the show, we went back for dessert and a night cap and to add another stratum. As the kitchen staff cleaned up, putting the prosciutto to bed, and the servers gathered at the bar, the cute, freckled waitress served up hot buttered rum for me, cava for him, and we split the spice donuts and ricotta pastry – sure feels good to be a gangsta.

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Sō gangsta … going to see a contemporary classical percussion quartet.  They opened with Reich’s Pieces of Wood with KU professor Ji Hye Jung on the fifth (and hardest) part, playing consistent beats at 200/min for 5 or so minutes, though my geek-tastic husband “didn’t really like their wood sounds.”

The members of Sō wear many hats, as anybody who’s in the arts would tell you: performers, educators, administrators, and advocates; members Josh Quillen and Jason Treuting are composers, as well. They played excerpts from Treuting’s long form piece Amid the Noise, complete with video elements of Japanese street scenes. While they all played fairly improvised parts throughout, there were some stand-out elements: “Go” used Asian-influenced samples and sustains from melodica and bowed crotales (which is just about my favorite sound); “September” featured the manipulated snares of an upside-down drum.; “Fire Escape” used a Cagean effect with Quillen playing the radio alarm clock into the mike. Kansas Public Radio was in the middle of a pledge drive, but he shifted through the static to land on a contemporary Christian station. I wish he’d stayed on the static.

The set ended with Reich’s Mallet Quartet, a piece they had co-commissioned. I found myself phasing in and out, too. I’m not a marimba fan in the best of circumstances, and this piece didn’t do much to change that opinion. Overall, the first half seemed a little static and not as engaging as I’d imagined it would be, despite the various timbral effects. I think it was because each of the pieces had a continuous or mostly continuous beat and this consistency in programming bordered on boredom.

Fortunately, the second half offered much more. The group’s Extremes was fun and visually dynamic. They all gathered around an upturned bass drum and had little individual set-ups on the drum head. This piece also featured a metronomic through-line, but since each member accounted for a portion of it, the exchange was more exciting. Oh, and we decided that we need a full set of multicolored desk bells, now listed on my Amazon wishlist, if anyone out there is feeling generous. And a Tibetan singing bowl.

For the next 15 minutes exactly, we experienced Sō’s Double Music. The KU percussion department joined them for it, an expansive experimental improv piece that included audience participation, too. Quillen led the audience portion, starting out by explaining and demonstrating our roles, stating “We’re all weird friends now.” The other members supervised student groups, some at the keyboards, some with drums, some with an array of percussion toys and reading passages of text aloud.

One of our tasks was to read from any text available, but we didn’t have enough light to read from anything, so that was a disappointment. We did, however, crumble paper and shake keys, and let out our glorious “woops” and he even somehow managed to get the audience to clap polyrhythms. That was cool.

Finally, it was Meredith Marsha Helga’s turn. She’s been taunting us from the front of the stage the whole concert, coquettishly surrounded by dried branches, with a huge bean pod on the table next to her. Quillen plucked and flicked the needles, creating a rattle-y rainstick-y noise; he crumbled leaves and broke a stick, each break creating a microtonal pitch change. When he hung up the branch on the stand again, some of the audience members started giggling. But when he held the bean pod aloft everyone’s attention was focused. Out of an audience nearing five hundred strong, we held our accumulated breathes as he held the bean pod up for quite some time – 30 seconds? 60 seconds? a month? – before giving it a forceful, prolonged shake, eliding straight into 3rd Construction.

I wish, wish, wish that he’d just put the bean pod down.  As much as I wondered what the bean pod sounded like, I would have rather had that sustained anticipation played against, frustrated, using the Taoist choice to play or play not and have the piece end in that continued, focused, breathless silence.

But if was clear that 3rd Construction is their money piece. They played, to be perfectly blunt, the hell out of that work, with both intensity and ease, something that the rest of the program had been a bit lacking. I have never seen the vibraslap played with such vigor.

They ended with Clapping Music. Then we had dessert. What a fun night!

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On Friday, there was no vibraslap in sight, though some talking of slapping a few of our fellow patrons at an unspeakable place down in the sea of warehouses in KC’s West Bottoms.

Cellist Matt Haimovitz played an impromptu set in the murky smoke swirl to a mixed crowd. Half were special invitees, half were just punk hipsters there for a cheap drink. This dichotomy was weirdly refreshing. Of course, I want people to understand and acknowledge the talent they were witnessing, but these very same hecklers also were a breath of not-so-fresh air from what I usually experience. Quite often, I attend a concert were some ticket-buying patron is acting like a total ass. Here, there were no pretentions.

Haimovitz was in town to play the following night for the Bach Aria Soloists’ Hauskonzert, but this appearance was organized at the last minute, a continuation somewhat of his 2000 “Listening Room” tour, wherein he played Bach suites in dive bars across the country, started the show with one such piece, the prelude from suite III.

This cello is older than the United States of America.

He’s also toured a set of works from living American composers and he played a piece by David Sanford, a nervous, busy work in reaction to 9/11.

Joined by violinist and BASer Elizabeth Suh Lane he played the Ravel Sonata for Violin and Cello. He preempted the run with some anecdotal program notes about the influence of Kodály and Debussy on Ravel’s writing. Other audience members were less interested and derisive shouts of “play something funky” were heard from off to the side. As far as violin and cello duets go, the Ravel kinda is, in a vaguely chinoiserie sort of fashion.

After the first movement, which was pretty stunning, the audience burst into applause. Now, there have been a million moments after a movement where I’ve wanted to applaud so, so badly and audience decorum has disallowed me, so that felt good. But then one dude in front started pleading ridiculously for another song. Haimovitz chuckled good-naturedly and said “we’re going to.” We clapped after every movement. And it was awesome.

This same fan pleaded with such volume and insistency for “just one more, for the love of God, one more” that it was difficult to gauge if he was sincere or just being a jerk, but either way we got an encore of the Beatles’ Helter Skelter. One chick (who I sincerely hope was drunk because she sounded like an idiot) asked conversationally during some quiet sustains “is it finished? … oh wait … it’s not finished … it’s not finished yet” before her friends quieted her, but he rocked the effects and gave a stellar performance of the work, complete with yelling Lennon’s “I’ve got blisters on my fingers.”

I can’t explain how happy this performance made me. Even the hecklers and idiots added something to the experience, the grittiness of it, the broken neon sign and the mounted marlin on the wall.  Great music isn’t defined by a polite audience and a concert stage, thank goodness.

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