Thursday, March 4, 2010

Review: 'Slide'

eighth blackbird
with Rinde Eckert & Steve Mackey
March 3, University of Richmond

The contemporary music sextet eighth blackbird concluded its sixth season in residence at the University of Richmond with "Slide," a theatrical song cycle by writer, singer and actor Rinde Eckert and composer-guitarist Steve Mackey. The piece is a multimedia, multi-layered parable on "the lengths we will go [to] to preserve our illusions, our guesses about the world and our experiences," as Mackey puts it in his program notes.

Reynard, a psychologist (portrayed by Eckert), reviews an experiment in which subjects view a slide show, first asked to identify blurred images, then shown them in focus, and then exposed to them with a planted "shill" insisting they are not what they appear to be, as the subjects’ reaction times are measured and their perceptions challenged. Looking back on the experiment, Reynard discovers that his grasp of the real and the illusory is as unsteady as those of the people he has been testing.

The audience experiences a comparable perceptual challenge, starting with the title of the piece. The slide show is visual (slides are screened), aural (Mackey’s tumblin’ tumbleweeds-meet-Hawaiian steel guitar slides) and dramatic, as Reynard slides between his present and past and his outer and inner selves. More layers are added in wordplay (puns such as "slide of hand" as an image of hands is accompanied by sliding tones); as all hands weave between music-making and acting; and as the mood of the piece see-saws between the playful and the emotionally wrenching.

As Eckert’s Reynard character refuses to stay in focus, Mackey’s music veers between dreaminess and assertiveness, and draws into its mix most every style of art and pop music heard in the past century or so. The ’birds negotiated every stylistic twist with aplomb and made the most of solos and cameos – notably Nicholas Photinos in his big cello solo and Matthew Duvall in his percussion atmospherics.

The (mostly) slowly animated tableaux of director Mark DeChiazza underscored the ambiguities of Eckert’s text and Mackey’s music.

This performance was amplified too loudly for the bright acoustic of UR’s Camp Concert Hall. Eckert’s emotive outbursts were largely unintelligible, while Mackey’s narration in a normal tone of voice and the Greek Chorus-style contributions of the eighth blackbird players could be understood. One more challenge to the audience’s perceptions – I’m guessing it was unintentional.

"Slide" works as a stage piece, but does it really want to be a work of videography? Or would that impose one stream of perception when many are the point?