Monday, July 10, 2006

Say Aa

The apartment in Williamsburg where I've lived for nine years is quite unmemorable. Some have remarked that it has "personality" (isn't that usually a synonym for 'ugly'...?), but if that's true I've never noticed. There's wood paneling on the walls, a heinous blue carpet, a bed-room (New Yorkers will know what this means...), an elegant drop ceiling, and a blinding fluorescent light in the kitchen. Outside, warehoused trucks belching clouds of exhaust mix with the endless glockenspiel of the Kool Man ice cream truck and a pre-recorded faux-carillon of a nearby church, as the relentless jackhammers, bulldozers, and cranes drone incessantly, toiling to meet the impossibly bloated housing needs of this newly yuppified neighborhood. All this and more in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: the 'it' place to be.

My buddy Michel van der Aa, who hails from olde Amsterdam, loves New York. Michel is one of those composers whose music seems to be constantly seeking; it has a unique and pungent, often unsettling flavor, mixing acoustic and electronic components in unusual and highly personal ways. A few years ago, Michel had an itch to stretch his mind and his creative vocabulary. He decided to abandon composing for several months and study filmmaking in New York. I was living in Rome for the year, so he proposed renting my classy digs for a semester.

When I arrived back in the States that summer, Michel confessed (somewhat guiltily) that he had shot a 10-minute film in my apartment as a final thesis for his course at the New York Film Academy. He had written the screenplay himself, taken out an ad in the theatre magazine Backstage, and hired an 80-year old actor to play the lead - and only - role. He had then cleared much of my clutter into a corner, lugged cameras and lights up the steep staircase (Dutch folks are experts at negotiating impossibly narrow staircases), and sent my landlord into a panic by blowing several fuses while gathering footage inside my apartment and on my stoop.

Upon my return, Michel allowed me an exclusive V.I.P. screening (on my computer) of the film, Passage. Witnessing my drab apartment transformed into a cinematic backdrop was, to say the least, surreal. The protagonist's bizarre habits - capturing jars of steam from a kettle, dressing up for his own funeral, and freezing in one-eyed hallucinations - utterly transformed my habitual living environment. Suddenly my abode seemed to be a sinister, living presence, reminding me that I was living only one mundane life out of a million possible alternate existences.

Contemplating the multiple possible incarnations of my shabby apartment catapulted me back to my waylaid astronomy studies. The existence of simultaneous universes is inferred by M-theory (a theory that encompasses various realizations of superstring theory). The concept that our three-dimensional existence is one of an infinite number of posited 'shadows' thrown by an eleven-dimensional universe is in fact a very plausible - if mind-boggling - possibility to ponder.

When I was a kid, I was enthralled by those fascinating old TV shows in which Leonard Bernstein demonstrated alternate versions of the exposition in the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth. Bernstein had written out several realizations, each of which began with the famous opening motive. But they quickly moved in wildly different directions. And Bernstein would explain, "Now, see how Beethoven could have done this"... "or this"..."but Beethoven finally did this," the dramatically divergent incarnations revealing the endless possible versions of melodic and harmonic invention from which the composer chose.

In any case, I heartily recommend allowing a filmmaker (doesn't necessarily have to be a composer/filmmaker) to transmogrify your living space into an alien landscape. For me, familiar objects were suddenly objectified, coming to life with startling vigor. And a sense of spontaneity and mystery was restored to a space that had long ago been rendered bland, inert, and pedestrian.

A bizarre footnote: I hadn't thought about Michel's movie in a while, but last week the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble sent me their concert program for the summer. PNME is a group that was recently radically transformed by its new artistic director, Kevin Noe, into a group that presents multimedia works of all stripes. Lo and behold, they had unconsciously programmed my piece Tied Shifts on the same concert as Michel's infamous Passage. So on July 21, my music shall be reunited with the very rooms in which it was written; and the audience will have a chance to witness the haunting apartment-doppelganger through the twisted, nefarious lens of director Michel van der Aa.

1 comment:

Paul Henry Smith said...


This reminds me of something that seems to happen often in NY ... a place you live in is transmogrified for a movie that you later see.

The funny thing is how the movie transforms the place, even for those of us who had been living in the place well before the movie came (and went). For example, there is a strange little triangular block down in the Village that always just seemed quirky. One day a white truck was parked there with a giant hole in its side. The edges of the hole were smoking. Walking past, and peeking inside the truck, I saw a bunch of those disposable charcol grills (NY'ers know and love these things) making smoke.

Strange, I thought. But somehow not so out of character for this little space.

Then, months later while watching Men in Black ... there it was! Who knew the hole in the truck was "actually" caused by an alien ray gun or some such silly thing!

Now, I just can't go by that area again without some sort of gnawing trepidation that I might get zapped. The place's doppelgänger, alternate universe has intersected with my own. And in my experience of the spot, it seems life is again imitating (or at least reflecting) art. The filmed experience melds with the real and changes its character and meaning. This happens all the time in NYC.

And now, one more example that's sort of the inverse of this ... I was in Manhattan working on 9/11 when the twin towers fell. I watched it from my office rooftop. Not able really to summon a sense of the obviously required pathos because I was watching it in the real world, with all the blue sky and warm air kind of dwarfing the awful spectacle not so far away. All it took was a tiny shift of my eyes down to the street below (31st street) to see life going on ... cabs, people walking about, etc., or up to the sky to see a "beautiful day."

I did not realize at that time, until much later actually, that everyone else in the country (the world, in fact), experienced this event mediated by the television screen, and situated within the theater of the serious. What TV crew in their right mind would let their lens wander to the ordinary, as my eyes had done?

So, for most other people, the filmed and mediated experience has constructed a much more intensely focused and horrifying narrative than the direct observation of the real event evoked. (Granted, those who were closer than I was probably have a very different take on this.) Afterward, I was initially surprised at the intensity of reaction from people from, say, South Carolina, who (I thought) didn't even see it!

Never underestimate the power of mediated narrative (and, of course art) to change or even create the world in the mind of the audience ... even if that world is your own apartment!