Should you find yourself at a party with friends of a certain age and someone casually inquires, “Whatever happened to happenings,” you may answer with complete confidence that this avant-garde phenomenon of the 1960s is back with a vengeance. The creative imaginations of Project [BLANK] co-founders Brendan Nguyen and Leslie Ann Leytham have created Working Title, a smashing group exhibition and musical performance that opened Thursday evening at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Bankers Hill.
This delectable melange of visual art, projections, sculpture, performance art, dance, as well as live music and poetry transformed the somber sanctuary of the Episcopal Cathedral into a vibrant, pulsing performance gallery. The nave remained dark and mysterious, with scant illumination provided by lighting brought in for the art installations. The opening musical offering, a pair of extended improvisations by the duo of Timothy Gemeiner on keyboard and Ben Guerette on computer, was performed in the dark. They were encircled by LED lights on the floor that pulsed and changed colors with their rhythmic ostinatos that paid homage to the dense scores of Philip Glass.
Some of the installations engaged creatively with the cathedral, especially Brian Black’s “40 buckets: many paths to the light,” an arrangement of pails with colored lighting and filters that encircled the cathedral’s marble baptismal font. Located at the nave’s west end, the font stands below a magnificent rose window, whose shape and colors Black’s installation mirrored. Above this scene Anna Lavatelli’s “eyes” projection with its myriad disembodied blinking eyes hovered impassively.
In the middle of the Chapel located behind the chancel, Nellah Byrd’s massive fabric sculpture of a brightly-hued serpent designed as a bed dared viewers to recline on it and observe Allison O. Evans’ projections on the Chapel ceiling. Recalling the serpent’s role in the Genesis creation myth, no one at the event appeared willing to give in to the serpent’s invitation.
At the east end of the nave banked by rows of glowing candles on the steps to the chancel, Melissa Evans Tierra played three recent solos on an acoustic grand piano. Jacob Adam’s 2020 Prelude “Hostility” exploded with vociferous animated themes, often pitting contrasting themes at opposite ends of the piano’s range. In her verbal program notes Evans Tierra suggested screaming with this music could prove therapeutic, but since the audience screams broke out in unison, I suspected allies had been coached before hand. Her dreamy account of Chetan Tierra’s 2022 “Eye of Sound” suggested the gentle chordal meanderings of Erik Satie.
With ample digital assistance vocalist Zane Alexander crafted in real time a multi-track fantasia around the traditional Shaker hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing” that filled the cathedral with a rich vocal and digital texture. Playing four short solos from the edge of the chancel, cellist Peter Ko demonstrated that even without amplification or digital processing, a single instrument can fill the cathedral with embracing, resonant sound. I found Ko’s projection of the unadorned dignity of Tobias Hume’s 1607 “Pavan” particularly moving. Hume’s majestic arched themes formed adroit contrast to the pianissimo discrete tones of Morton Feldman’s 1950 “Projection 1.” But I did think Ko’s dynamic level for John Cage’s iconic 1952 4’33” was overpowering.
Any group that chooses the name Pruitt Igoe, the colossal St. Louis public housing fiasco of the last century, clearly has a taste for irony. Poet Ted Washington declaimed his 2010 poem “Nothingness” while his cohort Krista Coppedge droned dense rumbles that bloomed into sheets of white noise from a Moog synthesizer. Clad in white, dancer Andromeda Breeze evoked the image of Botticelli’s Venus on the half shell as she posed and essayed tentative steps between her Pruitt Igoe mates situated at the edge of the chancel.
Working Title is presented by San Diego’s Project [BLANK] at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul January 5 – 7, 2023. The January 5 opening was attended for this review.