Posts Tagged ‘O Monsters’

Ambivalent Cosmic Matter: An Interview with Bhob Rainey

Posted September 6th, 2017

Bhob Rainey is an artist that should need no introduction, and yet, here we are. Over the course of the last two decades he has tirelessly pushed against established musical idioms—with consistently revelatory, mind-melting results—like few contemporaries. In the process he has collaborated with some of the most innovative composers and musicians working today, and even helped define the lowercase movement in non-idiomatic music with Nmperign, his seminal duo with Greg Kelley.

Though he has sought interdisciplinary collaborations throughout his career, his commitment to such projects has deepened as of late, particularly in his ongoing partnership with New Paradise Laboratories. This week sees the world premiere of NPL’s latest show Hello Blackout! and—as he did with the show’s predecessor O MonstersRainey has been composing original music essential to the development and execution of the piece. However, unlike last time around when the sublimely unsettling score was prerecorded and blasted through the theater, Rainey has drafted an ensemble of distinguished and versatile musicians—as comfortable in the world of classical music as they are in the deepest ends of the avant-garde—to help shape and execute his idiosyncratic vision. “We had this idea that it’d be fun to find musicians who could stimulate Bhob to even greater heights of sonic experimentation, so he has assembled a unique ensemble, a quintet,” NPL artistic director Whit MacLaughlin recently told the FringeArts Blog. “They’re some of the finest instrumentalists of alternative timbres in the world. I’ve been to the sessions and am always having my mind blown as this music comes together.”

I spoke with Rainey last year ahead of the premiere of O Monsters, but seeing as his compositional approach has changed, I had to touch base to learn about the unprecedented sounds that engulf the Kissimmee family before, during, and after the Big Bang.

FringeArts: You crafted the music for O Monsters by harvesting data from various phenomena and translating those numbers into long, very compelling, very alien musical events. How has your compositional approach changed since then in order to fit the world of Hello Blackout?

Bhob Rainey: The data sonification from O Monsters was largely used to find “shapes” of events that, while they might have beneficial or catastrophic effects, exist in spite of us. A lot of that music was meant to be a confrontation with a world that is utterly ambivalent towards the people in it and that only happens to be hospitable by chance. Why not follow this thought a little further and say that this ambivalent cosmic matter is also us—our bodies, our consciousness? Part of the human experience, I think, is a struggle between what we strongly feel is our “self” and this ancestral, non-human dust that’s already operating by the time we get names and ideas and desires, etc.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas had a pretty succinct, everyday take on this nameless companion. Speaking of insomnia, he said, “I do not stay awake: It stays awake.” He’s not merely talking about “the unconscious.” He’s trying to capture an anonymous life that persists even in the basic matter that composes us. And while the “it” is not an ethical being, I think that any kind of large-scale, inter-being “goodness” involves an engagement with this non-personal part of our existence. The problem is, not only is it difficult to think clearly about what an engagement of this kind entails (without falling into some kind of dogmatism), it is also easy to get devastatingly lost in the process. So, if the music for O Monsters was largely oriented towards an ambivalent, sometimes sublime cosmos, my thoughts for Hello Blackout are directed towards how this cosmic matter plays out within us.

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Making Art in 2017: Whit MacLaughlin on Hello Blackout

Posted August 30th, 2017

Whit MacLaughlin

Name: Whit MacLaughlin

Company: New Paradise Laboratories

Show in 2017 Festival: Hello Blackout! also screenings of O Monsters.

Past Festival shows: Curated shows: O Monsters, The Adults, 27, Freedom Club, Extremely Public Displays of Privacy, Fatebook, Batch: An American Bachelor/ette Party, Planetary Enzyme Blues, Rrose Selavy Takes a Lover in Philadelphia, The Fab 4 Reach the Pearly Gates, This Mansion is a Hole. Self-produced: Gold Russian Finger Love.

FringeArtsTell us about your show. 

Whit MacLaughlin: As a company, we have been drawn to big questions from the beginning: Why is there something instead of nothing? What is the big system we’re all a part of? What does Philadelphia, as a city, as a concept, really mean? Why do we die? Questions that don’t have answers. NPL takes delight in asking unanswerable questions. It’s an obsession. Now we ask: why do we have something called a “future” that is so hard to predict? Seems like a fundamental question, but one that’s almost pure nonsense. One might be tempted to say: “What a stupid question!” Of course we have a future, but we can’t tell what it’s going to be because it’s not here yet. There’s no answer. Yet. Maybe tomorrow.

Nevertheless, almost everything we do in daily life involves searching for a way to predict what’s going to happen. What’s going to come in the mail today? Should I take that job? Am I going to be diagnosed with something bad? Who am I going to marry? We say: the fun is in the finding out! But still, it’s perplexing and frustrating, this issue of the future. Almost all Greek drama is about trying to see the future. Tiresias, the blind oracle, is in many of the plays. A BLIND ORACLE. Drama, from the beginning, has always been about the problem of a future that’s unforeseeable. Like Hamlet trying to figure out what to do to remedy his father’s murder. We’re paying close attention to a newly developing school of thought, a philosophy, called Speculative Realism. It suggests that the only absolute in the world, the only thing that must exist, is “contingency.” The world weaves itself out of a chaotic state and the things that happen don’t necessarily have a reason. May seem obvious, but we think it’s worth considering a bit more deeply, especially now that technology seems to move faster than we can, that our political life seems off the rails, that we live in a “quantum universe.” What does any of that actually mean for us on a daily basis? NPL takes big questions and blends them into a big question cocktail, then gets everybody drunk on it.

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Life Before The Big Bang: Interview with Whit MacLaughlin

Posted August 23rd, 2017

Whit MacLaughin is the artistic director of New Paradise Laboratories (NPL), which has been astonishing audiences for years with their remarkably strange and riveting performances. The company is known for their artistic excellence in physical theater, and innovative uses of visuals, sound design, and choreography. The recipient of both Obie and Barrymore awards, MacLaughin helms Hello Blackout! NPL’s newest work, a horror-farce about a family of monsters who live before, throughout, and after the Big Bang. We were so glad to get the chance to ask MacLaughlin about how this production came to be, and how it might illuminate the world around us.

FringeArts: How did the title Hello Blackout! come into being?

Whit MacLaughin: “Blackout” has many meanings, political and otherwise: It’s what a government imposes when it doesn’t want the press to reveal a piece of news. It’s what you do to a window when you want to remain undetected by bombers flying overhead. It’s something that happens when you drink too much or when you faint. It happens in theater to punctuate the end of a scene or play. We have concocted another meaning. It’s what happens when a gust of wind blows out the candle you’re carrying, or when the batteries run out in your flashlight; suddenly, you can’t find your way. A blackout can be funny, infuriating, or frightening. It signifies that moment when you realize, again, that you can’t know what’s waiting for you in the future. Which is pretty much always.

This is in keeping with the basic notion at the heart of this current series of pieces: the world is not set, it continually evolves and changes. This is kind of a huge issue when it comes to live performance. And living in general. How much do you try to plan? How much do you make it all up on the spot? We’ve been studying ways that we try to tell the future: oracles, probability, fortune-tellers, astrology, intuition, algorithms. The fact is, there really isn’t a way to predict what’s to come with any certainty.

This truth has presented itself to us in a forceful way, recently, in our political life. We see the word “unprecedented” all the time to describe our situation.  The question: Is anything truly unprecedented or is everything? We want to make the case that everything is. Like that old Zen saying: you can’t put your hand into the same river twice. We have no choice but to get better at wrestling with unpredictability.  And, possibly, enjoying it. This is at the heart of everything we do at NPL.

FringeArts: What brings NPL back to the Kissimmee family and their adventures in the universe? What are some of the continuations from O Monsters as well as new directions that are being explored?

Whit MacLaughin: O Monsters was where the Kissimmee family first presented itself to us: a set of triplets, their carnivorous mother, and a father who vanished mysteriously some time ago. We thought it might be fun to figure out where they came from, this family of not-quite-human beings. O Monsters took place in a weird version of the present. Hello Blackout! happens in the distant past—actually, before the Big Bang. What a fun question: what was family life like before anything existed? Of course, there’s no answer, it’s like using nonsense to start a story. But that’s what creation myths do: they start with “in the beginning there was not-even-nothing.” It’s an unanswerable riddle. But we’ve challenged ourselves to imagine an answer. Imagining things that happened before there was anything requires us truly to empty our minds.

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Rapid Oscillations Between the Sacred and the Profane: an interview with Bhob Rainey

Posted April 25th, 2016
Rainey at a rehearsal of O Monsters First Draft (courtesy of New Paradise Laboratories).

Rainey at a rehearsal of O Monsters First Draft (photo by Kate Raines, plate3.com).

This week sees the premiere of New Paradise Laboratories’ O Monsters First Draft (tickets/info), marking the company’s second collaboration with award-winning composer, saxophonist, sound designer Bhob Rainey.

Rainey’s career is marked by a tireless push against preconceived notions of what music is and how it can affect listeners, and he has over 30 record releases to show for it. After earning a master’s degree in music composition from New England Conservatory (where he studied with musical luminaries Joe Maneri, Paul Bley, Ran Blake, and Pozzi Escot) he founded Nmperign with trumpeter Greg Kelley in 1998. The highly influential non-idiomatic improvisation duo have been integral to the development of the lowercase and electroacoustic improvisation genres and have to date collaborated with a veritable who’s-who of twenty-first century music innovators. In 2000 he founded The BSC, an octet of acoustic and electronic improvisers, as a means of exploring the dynamics of large group improvisation. Throughout his career he has sought interdisciplinary collaborations.

Though it is often the case that a composer’s work is done merely in service of a production, Rainey’s work on O Monsters First Draft has played an integral role in crafting this new work. “We’re treating Bhob’s music like spontaneous expressions of something in-the-world that can be used to craft out-of-this-world stage action,” Whit MacLaughlin, NPL’s artistic director, told FringeArts back in February. “Ultimately, we are exploring something we haven’t quite found a name for yet. Symphonic theater might be a good name for it.”

We caught up with Rainey to learn more about his background and his work on O Monsters First Draft.

FringeArts: Were you raised in a musical household?

Bhob Rainey: Not really. My dad is something of an aficionado of certain music, mostly blues and jazz, but I don’t recall him sharing a lot of that when I was young. My mom would often play one side of a Barbara Streisand record followed by a side of Barry Manilow. No one in the family really knew what it was like to be a musician. It is very much to their credit that they didn’t disown me when I decided to go the music route. I got to know a lot of music through endangered species like radio, record stores, and libraries. I was usually attracted to things that seemed to push boundaries, though it took a while for my idea of boundaries to grow large enough to be interesting. In truth, so much of the richness of my musical experience as a kid came from going to a public school with a good music program. It’s unforgivable how much of that has been taken away.


Rainey at work.

FringeArts: Growing up in Philadelphia, were you involved with any of the city’s music scenes?

Bhob Rainey: I didn’t get involved with any significant music scene in Philadelphia until the mid-90s. This was the jazz scene in ’94–’95. The scene was generationally and racially diverse, so there was a lot of sacred knowledge being passed around. I grew a lot from the experience and am deeply appreciative of the musicians I played with. You had a few downtown clubs like Zanzibar Blue and the Blue Moon, plus the old Ortlieb’s and some more neighborhood-y clubs like Natalie’s in West Philly. I played with Orrin Evans, Edgar Bateman, Mike Boone, Byron Landham, Duane Eubanks, Mickey Roker, and some other scene heavyweights like Bootsy Barnes and Larry McKenna. Byard Lancaster was helpful to me early on, introducing me to other players like Lucky Thompson and being generally—and somewhat aggressively—supportive. I don’t think I ever thanked him to the degree I would have liked, and I regret that now. I was playing out most nights of the week, and I loved it. But it ultimately wasn’t my voice. It was a voice I had learned and enjoyed using. It was a tradition for which I had and still have a deep respect. But I had something else that I needed to do, and that’s when I left for Boston.

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