Friday, March 6, 2015

Abbie Conant at the Outer Limits

As March is Women's History Month I've decided to dedicate all my blog posts this month to badass women in music and film, and hopefully my goal of praising the underpraised will help out in its modest way in the march towards equality.  The better news is that I'm starting out with a musical figure that is nearly unclassifiable, trombonist/performance artist Abbie Conant.

I was introduced to Conant by my good trombonist friend Kevin Shintaku.  He had been studying Luciano Berio's wicked Sequenza V for unaccompanied trombonist and had found her standout interpretation of the work.  The piece calls for the performer to wear a clown costume and employ a wide variety of extended techniques to imitate a clown act Berio saw as a child.  It's a singular concert experience and Conant had added to her already illustrious career by doing a lecture tour on the work.  This precedent was not only met but exploded when Kevin got her to come to the University of Puget Sound (our school) with her husband to do a pair of their musical theater acts, and just talking about the daring and creativity she brings to musical performance art doesn't even begin to compare to what I witnessed.

Before we get to those works, however, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the incident that got her international repute.  In 1980 Conant won a blind audition for the principle trombone position in the Munich Philharmonic, beating 32 other candidates.  The conductor at the time, Sergiu Celibidache, was rather hostile to the prospect of a woman holding the principle trombone chair, and after two years Conant was suddenly demoted, and Celibidache explicitly told her that he wanted a man for the position.  Conant turned around and sued the city of Munich to recognize that her demotion was unlawful as per the city's work equality laws, and after some 12 years she won the case and got her seat back.  The case is recounted in detail on Conant's website and in this hilarious Cracked article.  It's good to know that even if you don't like her music we can rest assured that she's a civil rights champion.

I saw her much later in her career, obviously, and since her departure from the Phil she has crafted a number of striking stage shows with her husband William Osborne (she write the libretti, makes drawings and performs, he writes music and does video editing) and the two I saw are unlike anything I've ever seen live.  In both cases Conant performs on the trombone as well as reciting and singing, all part of multi-media storytelling with wild and often satirical ideas.  The satire is especially evident in the first, Cybeline.

Cybeline is about the titular Cybeline, a cyborg, trying to prove her humanity as a talk show host in a future where everyone's thoughts are programmed.  As such, her thoughts can be projected, and these thoughts and other images are manipulated live by the performer with a glove controller.  Cybeline was heavily inspired by Jungian psychology and works on the notion that humans create images that control both the dreaming and waking worlds we perceive, and the conceit of watching a mind-controlled talk show allows for both contrived showbiz acts and stream-of-consciousness ramblings to intermingle and flow over the audience.  You might be able to tell from the screencap on the video that the drawings, and Conant's costume, look very silly.  You'd be correct, and that's part of the point; it's satire at its most Crayola'd and loopy.  Talk shows are rarely a venue of dignity to begin with (aside from Charlie Rose or Dick Cavett) and their canned humor and stiff lip service paid to old-school notions of class are ripe for identity-crisis plots.  That video contains the complete performance and some would say that I've said too much already, but if you watch it expect more hummingbirds and cowboys than you'd normally see on a talk show run by a cyborg.

A far cry from the freewheeling schizophrenia of Cybeline is Music for the End of Time, a 50-minute meditation on the monolithic austerity of the Catholic apocalypse.  Once again using music and video effects by Osborne, Music dispenses with plot and focuses purely on trombone and electronics fed through an enveloping quadrophonic speaker setup, trading wackiness for hypnosis.  The work showcases Conant's beautiful lyric tone on the trombone and the graphics, while straight out of 1993, reminds us of an era when computer graphics for the sake of abstract art was still a welcome possibility.  These two works put together are an unforgettable emotional contrast, sort of like how Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro were originally shown as a double bill.

The great thing about their website is that the scores for these works are included in their info pages, a move both charitable and wise, as it would be nice if the works outlived their creators and electro-acoustic stuff is difficult to reproduce without good preparation.  And there's plenty to choose from, as you can see on the page for their musical theater act, The Wasteland Company.  If you should glean anything from the site it's that Conant is a widely accomplished and exciting performer that makes the listener wonder why more women aren't encouraged to play the trombone, much less expand its potential.  Women's History Month marches on at Re-Composing and my other blogs, so stay tuned for more explorations of the Woman's Century and great underappreciated Classical music.


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