The JACK Quartet couldn't save it.

The JACK Quartet couldn’t save it.

Concerned citizen and Bwog Arts Editor Henry Litwhiler explores the good and the dreadful in Miller Theatre’s opening night.

Madness came to us last night. We anticipated it with a cheerful reserve, with the expectation of something quirky, imaginative, and unconventionally euphonic. And why should we have approached it any differently? What indication was there that could’ve warned someone unfamiliar with the work of Simon Steen-Andersen that the night would descend to become such an exercise in audiovisual masochism?

The promotional video put out by the Miller Theatre presents the man as a musical Rube Goldberg, a highbrow STOMP, with just a touch of dismal Scandinavia. Other advertisements for the show, which marked the opening of the Miller Theatre’s 2015-16 season, bill Steen-Andersen as a synesthete, a blender of sight and sound. I, tragically, imagined these two prongs to be of beauty; I learned only too late that they were to be of pain.

Indeed, I was warned before the performance to “buckle up.” A better formulation may have been “tie yourself to the mast.” For there was no risk that the metaphorical ride of the performance would toss me with its turbulence; there was, however, every chance that I would toss myself, sweaty and upset, out of the theatre, into the street, and onto the steps of the nearest church.

Yet I struggle even now to decide which aspects disturbed me most and, perhaps more inexplicably, which kept me in my seat.

Emotionally speaking, Steen-Andersen’s “Obstruction Studies Nos. 1-3” probably hit me hardest. All three of these Studies-in-video-form feature the otherwise delightful JACK Quartet performing Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3. In the first, the performers are made to play with partly-full milk jugs attached to their wrists, to more visual than audible effect. In the second, they are deafened by white noise played through headsets, causing them to drift apart like an elementary school ensemble. In the third, their bows are wrapped sporadically with masking tape, turning each note into a rough, shrill shadow of itself. None but the last is actually offensive to listen to, but in each there is a lazy, uncreative, and artless desecration.

Still, these at times felt preferable to nearly all of the other works performed last night. The “Obstruction Studies” are in poor taste and seem at times to mock the audience, but any visceral revulsion they bring up is manageable. The other works, so homogeneously bad as to warrant neither naming nor differentiation, might find a more receptive audience at DARPA than in musical venues. For one seemingly eternal stretch, I found myself covering my eyes and hunching over a bit as irregular strobing and horribly distorted noise drilled into my skull. Only morbid curiosity and the social inconvenience of asking my row-mates to move out of my way kept me from giving in to my instinct to flee.

Others were either less curious or more shameless. I saw at least a dozen people leave during a particularly tedious stretch of distorted monotony, which at times featured close-up black and white video of Steen-Andersen’s eye slowly closing. I longed to join them.

For there are musical works that I would, with ample pretense, call “difficult listens”: works that do not present anything close to their full artistic worth to the passive listener. The majority of last night’s performance may have plausibly fit into this category, but the more salient label here is “difficult hears.” It wasn’t just difficult to extract artistic value from the pieces performed by the JACK Quartet; it was physically difficult to be within earshot of them.

So why, then, did I endure? It must have been the strength of the opening video, Run Time Error, which, though ill-titled, lives up to the promise of the promo and represents a case of excellent judgment by the Miller Theatre. In it, Steen-Andersen glides through the recesses of the Miller Theatre itself, brandishing his microphone like a Geiger counter as he captures the sounds of his bizarre found-object creations. He also wordlessly directs a solemn, almost dehumanized JACK Quartet to serve as mere extensions of the theatre around him, itself already so pregnant with sound.

To all of this, Steen-Andersen brings a sense of omnipotence. He shows himself capable of effortlessly extracting the sounds he wants from fans, straws, and film reels; and of doing the same with his human-operated instruments. As if this weren’t enough, he also controls the way the audience perceives the now-past physical performance by speeding up and slowing down the film and replaying clips to produce interesting rhythms. In the moment and for some time afterwards, I was thoroughly charmed by the finesse of Steen-Andersen’s creation.

I now resent this experience. It lulled me into a pleasant state, but also a helpless one. I allowed myself to be drawn in by Steen-Andersen’s stern whimsy, and I paid the price for it over the next hour as his work became less constructive and more uncomfortable. In the back of my mind, there was always the hope, the expectation, that there would be a great resolution to the discordant mess on stage. It never came.

So, should you ever find yourself in a position to experience the works of Simon Steen-Andersen not entitled Run Time Error, I suggest that you politely decline and instead spend an evening with the music of Robert Schumann, whose String Quartet No. 3 is best enjoyed unobstructed.

Unwitting accomplices via The Miller Theatre