Tuesday, November 17, 2015

My Favorite Work of Art at the 56th Venice Biennale

At times one or both of "Work Songs" co-creators also performed: in the above image, Jason Moran, on piano, with Jamet Pittman and Roosevelt André Credit

My favorite work of art in the current Venice Biennale, Jason Moran and Alica Hall Moran's "Work Songs", strikes me as the fullest realization of the two qualities that the Biennale's General Director Okwui Enwezor said he had in mind when he decided to create a performance space in the very center of the Central Pavilion: "liveness" and "epic duration."

Of course, the piece I've been participating in since the exhibition's opening in early May, an ongoing public reading of the whole of Das Kapital in English, also embodies these qualities. Marx's huge work itself is both epic and epochal, and reading a little more of it each session--typically 3 times every day--is an exercise in endurance as well as duration. But as "live" as we readers may be, we don't stray from the text, whereas the various singers (solo or in pairs) who have performed "Work Songs" can, and do, make the project into something new with each performance.

So if you're lucky (as I've been) to see a lot of the performances, you can't help but be struck by the infinite variety of approaches and moods evident in each 40 minute performance. This is "liveness" in the fullest sense of the word, and each performance is both a reiteration and a furthering of the whole project--which itself starts to seem like a nearly 7-month-long epic song, progressing as a song does, through repetition and variation.

The basis of "Work Songs"--which is performed Thursday through Sunday at 4:40 pm--is a recorded 40-minute series of tracks created with a variety of instruments, electronic beats, samples, and/or field recordings. The singers are given a track list with each track's running time and the lyrics of each song that should "go" with each track, but the tracks almost never have any obvious melodic relation to the song. This ain't karaoke; there aren't the expected, recognizable tunes to sing along with.  Instead, for example, the first song on the list, "Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore", is accompanied by a rhythmic sound of chains, which returns this well-known song to its documented origins among slaves living on an island off the coast of South Carolina.

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs (at left) and Lisa E. Harris performed both as a pair and solo during their weeks in the piece

But the singers themselves are in no way bound to approaching the track list in a certain way. Which isn't at all surprising given the musical versatility, inventiveness, and just plain fearlessness of the project's co-creators who, three years ago, were given an entire floor of New York City's Whitney Museum of Art to do as they liked with for five days as part of that institution's own biennial (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/15/arts/music/alicia-hall-moran-and-jason-moran-in-bleed-at-whitney.html).

One afternoon last summer, Alicia Hall Moran mentioned (almost in passing) in regards to "Work Songs" that they had aimed to create something that the singers could perform in front of a predominantly white audience without embarrassment--the embarrassment, I took it, of being little more than the rote representatives of a stereotypical "Black experience," doing traditional songs in crowd-pleasing ways.

As she talked a little about creating the piece I got the impression that even in the middle of doing so they had a sense of the singers they knew who would be perfect for it. But this wasn't a just job they were putting together for those singers (though singers are always happy when those come along), this was the kind of project that would, ideally, draw some of their best work out of them.

Jason Moran told me that when Okwui first contacted them about creating a live piece he warned them it would be staged in an arena area that people would pass through on their way to see other galleries. Perhaps they'd sit for a few minutes, but then they'd move on. And the piece would be, probably, 20 minutes long. Jason agreed. Then Okwui contacted him again and asked "How about making it 40 minutes long?"

"No problem," Jason replied. But then, Jason said, he set to work on it and he realized it wasn't so easy to occupy 40 minutes of empty stage time. "That's work," he said, "filling up that time. There were times I wished we'd just stuck to 20 minutes."

Indeed, filling up 40 minutes of stage time can be hard on the singers as well, regardless of the fact that almost all of them are not only classically-trained opera singers, but adept and gifted in an astonishing array of styles, with extensive and impressive resumes.

In fact, one singer told me that the classically-trained part of herself was about ready to freak out when she was first given the skeletal set list and told to have at it. She showed me the few pages inside the slim hardback book each singer brings to the podium with her or him and said, "Really, where is the rest of the material? I was like: This is it?!"

In addition to performing with Steven Herring (at left), Anthony Mills is now performing the piece solo

"Work Songs," in other words, is not only all about work, but it is itself work, and the experience of this work for the singer, the process, is foregrounded. Paradoxically, the unchanging nature of the recorded accompaniment puts more rather than less pressure upon the performer to be present for each session, to explore each piece anew each time--taking it apart or embroidering it, or both--and risking that it might just fall flat, instead of simply presenting a tidy, rehearsed, predictable performance.

I asked another singer one day if, given the challenges of the piece, there were ever sessions when she was tempted to "take it easy"? Just deliver the songs as the crowd-pleasers that someone with her voice and training and experience and charisma could make them, simply overwhelming whatever complexity or discordance the recorded tracks might present?

"No," she answered without hesitation, "that would be hard, not easy. There's work and then there's work. That would be drudgery."

In other words, among the many things going on in "Work Songs" (and I'm just scratching the surface here), one of them has to do with the dignity of work (just as Marx concerns himself with the same issue in Das Kapital, and the British artist Jeremy Deller does in his small piece not far away in the Central Pavilion displaying the electronic monitor each Amazon warehouse worker must wear on his or her wrist that constantly monitors their efficiency). The list of songs begins with purposeful, hopeful effort (even if originally sung by slaves), continues with the energy of "Rock Island Line" (originating with railway workers, then prisoners) and the mythic impulse of "John Henry," before gradually giving way to something that can be as crushing in its own way as hard labor: joblessness.

In this collection of work songs and spirituals the refrain of a panhandler on a city street--a field recording--is given its own place. "I'm looking for work," he repeats in the recording, "I'd rather work. Please help me if you can," in rhythms that are reminiscent of the songs we've heard earlier. As in them, the rhythm of these repeated lines seems to function as a defense against despair, a way to keep going, to mark time, and to assert one's humanity in the midst of conditions that would otherwise strip it away.

There's no way you can tap your foot to this, and it's often one of the most charged moments of each performance when the singers on stage take up this refrain themselves. Here, too, different singers (or the same singer on different days) handle this material in radically different ways. I've seen these lines sung with defiance and energy. I've seen them stripped of emotion and made strange like the found lyrics of some contemporary art song. I've seen them handled like lines of poetry, whose significance can only hope to be gleaned in the act of singing them: each word weighed in the uttering, each phrasing investigated for heft. I've seen them turned into the most heartbreaking or most anguished appeal you're ever likely to hear. I've seen them almost completely passed over.

Much of the time many people in the audience have no idea what to make of this part, and in certain performances the discomfort is palpable, and people simply walk out. In certain sessions it's been impossible to figure out if the singer really is asking for money--whether it's performance, in other words, or an actual request. Is it art or life we're dealing with here?

In fact, I've seen members of the audience give money to a singer--whose intention wasn't to actually receive donations, but who couldn't refuse them without destroying the performance.

I guess the question is at such times: is the singer working as an artist or working as a person in actual need? Or more generally: What kind of performance is this? Is it a performance at all?

Which, now that I think about it, are the same questions most of us ask ourselves when confronted by people in need outside the Biennale. As if the hard work that all of us find ourselves having to do involves at its most basic level simply seeing each other, recognizing what others need, and figuring out how (or if) to respond. 

In any case, where "Work Songs" goes from this point, how it moves toward its conclusion--its mood and its method--varies (like the rest of the piece) each day, even when performed by the same singer. There are performances which are pretty lighthearted, performances involving audience participation, others that are of operatic intensity, still others that are more like poetry. Some performances dive into the bleakest depths, others seem to reach some spiritual transcendence, and some few that I've seen from each performer, whether solo or in a duet, that simply blow apart the given form and take you on a ride you could never have predicted--and that can't be repeated.

It's this unpredictability, the inspired interplay between form and freedom encouraged (demanded?) by the piece, and the sheer talent of the various singers that has kept me going back to the piece throughout the summer (with the exception of its first weeks, when anxiety about doing my own job for Das Kapital Oratorio left me no room to take in anything else). I'd guess I've seen at least a third of all the performances; maybe closer to almost half.  

Those planning to attend the closing days of the Biennale still have the chance to catch one of the last three performances of "Work Songs" on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday (the 19th, 20th, or 21st of November) at 4:40, starring the immensely talented Anthony Mills.

UPDATE: 25 November: to listen to a full live performance of "Work Songs" by Anthony Mills visit: https://soundcloud.com/ghettotrance/work-songs-live-from-56-la-biennale-di-venezia


For those interested in checking out the just-released new album by Alicia Hall Moran, Heavy Blue, visit: https://aliciahallmoran.bandcamp.com/releases.

For those who might want to catch Jason Moran perform live (something I'd recommend), here's a link to  his upcoming shows (both in the US and Europe): http://www.jasonmoran.com/shows.html. Elsewhere on the same site you can listen to his recordings, etc. 


  1. Thank you again for a most interesting report (after 'Of Capital Importance 1 & 2). I really enjoyed reading it.

    I managed to watch 2 performances end of Oct, beginning of Nov, first by Lisa Harris (and a pianoplayer who was not introduced) second by Anthony Hall solo. The structure, the art and work of the composers, was the same, the performances absolutely different, as you say. No sheet music, no singing songs, but a convincing expression of the piece with both singers.
    Till today I don't get that clanking sound going with "Michael, row..." at the beginning and the end of the piece out of my ear, but I didn't recognize it as CHAIN. As a student I visited a huge steel works, unforgetable, that's what I heard (which fits as well, talking about work).

    I think you are a lucky man to have had this twofold extreme Biennale experience: participating in 'Das Kapital' and digging so deep into this extraordinary work of musical art and performance. Wonderful mosaic pieces of a life of special experiences, at the road's end. Thanks again for sharing.

    1. Thanks so much for you comment, Brigitte, and I did indeed feel quite lucky to see such performers so often. The times that Jason Moran sat in on the piece on piano during the summer he'd inevitably just be coming off a European tour--having just finished playing the famous Montreux Jazz Festival, for example--and there he'd be on stage at the Biennale, his performance included free in the price of admission to the Biennale.

      The pianist you saw play with Lisa was actually one of the Biennale sound technicians! Though, obviously, also a musician, whom you can sometimes catch playing various places around town when he's done with his day job.

  2. Could you please check your update, the link to "Work Songs" produces a piece "Bizarre Ride" or the like. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for letting me know, Brigitte: I just checked the link and it took me to "Work Songs", as it was supposed to. I hope you just encountered some momentary glitch--I don't know what it would be--and next time you try it it will work.

  3. Steven, you will not have missed this, but just in CASE... http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/21/arts/music/jason-moran-contemporary-art.html

    1. Thanks very much, Brigitte, I had not seen that. The piece does a really good job of laying out just how far-ranging (and deep-plumbing) his talents are. I think he's amazing, as his wife, Alicia Hall Moran, whose new album I think you can hear here: https://aliciahallmoran.bandcamp.com/releases