Posts Tagged ‘gamelan kusuma laras’

Culture Vulture: Jackson Pollack, Kiki and Herb, A Fish Called Wanda, and more

May 2, 2016

My unusually culture-crammed weekend started Saturday afternoon with a spin through MOMA. I walked through the Degas show and the Marcel Broodthaers retrospective, which didn’t interest me, on my way down to the Jackson Pollack show finishing its run. I was surprised at how small the show was but I got a lot out of it. Never having seen early pre-drip work, I was fascinated to bear witness to Pollack’s very particular version of exploring the overlap of abstraction and representation. Some paintings and drawings clearly look back at Picasso; others intriguingly look like precursors of Basquiat, both in the scribbly drawing (see “Untitled (Animals and Figures)” below, and below that a detail from Basquiat’s “Glenn”) and in the sense of large-scale performance across the canvas.

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4-30 untitled animals and figures
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I’m similarly mesmerized and bowled over by Pollack’s masterpiece “Number 1A” (detail below top) and the Basquiat masterpiece “Glenn” (below bottom) which has been hanging on the second floor of MOMA for a while (I never get tired of seeing it).

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4-30 most of glenn

It’s so strange how not every Pollack canvas leaps out at me, but certain ones do – in this show, “Full Fathom Five” knocked me out with its depth and texture.

4-30 full fathom five

I also checked out Rachel Harrison’s show Perth Amboy, a strange installation with a lot of cardboard and enigmatic tableaux, including this one featuring a Becky Friend of Barbie doll:

4-30 becky friend of barbie.JPG

I spent the late afternoon revisiting A Fish Called Wanda, a movie I saw at a screening when it came out in 1988. Andy has watched it so many times that he has certain speeches memorized, most notably when Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) goes off on Otto (Kevin Kline):

“To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I’ve known sheep that could outwit you. I’ve worn dresses with higher IQs.” Seeing it again was fun. Kline absolutely earned his Academy Award for this audaciously gigantic comic performance as a handsome, sexy scoundrel. Curtis is hardly the world’s greatest actress but she’s good and game and never looked more beautiful than she does in this movie, which was directed (Andy reminded me, mining IMDB for all the trivia he could find, since the DVD came without a commentary track) by Charles Crichton, famous for British comedies such as The Lavender Hill Mob.

kiki and herb poster

Saturday night we headed to Joe’s Pub for the long-awaited reunion of Kiki and Herb, tickets for which Andy had snapped up last September in the half-hour they were on sale before they sold out. Their show, Seeking Asylum!, was a blast from the get-go, when the offstage announcer introduced them by saying, “Please be aware that these performers are in their eighties, and they’re doing their best, considering…” In the years since Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman took a break from their legendary gig, Bond has embraced a transgender identity and really stepped into the role of artist-as-activist, which has only upped her game as Kiki DuRane. Behind the mask of superannuated chanteuse and clown, she delivers depth-charge commentary on everything that must be said today from a sharp, queer point of view. Kiki narrates her travels since the day of President Obama’s inauguration, which took her from one turbulent political hotspot to another where she delivers her own brand of savage love. “What the world needs is less othering, more mothering!”

kiki and herb cropped

As usual, the setlist constantly surprises with savvy semi-obscure singer-songwriter selections (Suzanne Vega’s “The World Before Columbus,” Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine”) and crazy hilarious medley-mashups (“Make Yourself Comfortable/When Doves Cry,” “Seasons of Love/The Rainbow Connection/Edelweiss/Tomorrow Belongs to Me”). The indisputable highlight of the generously long show kicked Kiki into shamanic mode, channeling the fury and frustration of Nina Simone on “Mississippi Goddam,” no longer a relic of bygone civil-rights movements: “Everybody knows about Carolina/Everybody knows about Alabama/Everybody knows about Tennessee/Everybody knows about Mississippi/Goddam!” We laughed, we cried, we peed in the Public Theater’s trans-friendly bathroom.

gender neutral bathroom

Sunday afternoon we found ourselves clicking around HBO and landed on Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary The Out List. Along with what might be considered the usual suspects (Neil Patrick Harris, Cynthia Nixon, Ellen DeGeneres, Wanda Sykes, Larry Kramer), I dug encountering a few LGBT heroes not previously on my radar, including Janet Mock (below, center), Dallas County sheriff Lupe Valdez, Wade Davis (below, left), and Twiggy Pucci Garçon (below, right).


Then I ran off to the second rehearsal in three days with Gamelan Kusuma Laras gearing up for our gig at Asia Society May 14 and 15 performing a wayang kulit (shadow-puppet play) with renowned Javanese dhalang (storyteller) Ki Midiyanto. Afterwards I met Andy and several friends at Mystery Room NY, one of several venues operating in a genre popularized by Escape the Room that combines immersive theater with group puzzle-solving. We were locked into a laboratory for 60 minutes charged with the task of solving the mysterious disappearance of a veterinarian engaged in high-level research involving dogs. Besides being fiercely competitive, Andy turns out to be ferocious when it comes to puzzle-solving – he went into total “Doctor Who” mode leading our team through a series of fun discoveries, although we didn’t manage to free ourselves before the hour was up. (The cheerful Kiwi gal who checked us in and fed us cues throughout the hour informed us that only 15% manage to solve all the puzzles in the given time.) It’s a fun party activity for people who have had their fill of karaoke.

escape the room

Andy went off to watch Game of Thrones with a bunch of fanboys while I hunkered down with a bowl of popcorn and Andre Téchiné’s Unforgivable, an absorbing novelistic pansexual romantic drama set among the crumbling villas of Venice with a good cast that included Carole Bouquet as a bisexual French real estate agent, André Dussollier as her much older, highly impulsive, somewhat paranoid novelist husband, Adriana Asti as her ex-girlfriend who’s now an alcoholic semi-retired private investigator, and handsome Andrea Pergolesi as a cash-poor aristocrat turned drug dealer.


Also this weekend I read Samuel R. Delany’s graphic memoir Bread & Wine, a collaboration with artist Mia Wolff, which tells the remarkable story of how the great pioneering gay black sci-fi/fantasy writer met his partner Dennis Rickert when the latter was homeless, selling books on a blanket at Broadway and 72nd Street and sleeping in a doorway on the Upper East Side. His pungent description of the first night they spent at the Skyline Hotel – the smell that emerged when Dennis took off his shoes, the color of the water after the two baths he took, the powerful sex they enjoyed – charts new territories of erotic intimacy measured in poetic language and evocative black-and-white drawings.

Events: Gamelan Kusuma Laras at Roulette

November 16, 2015

Gamelan Kusuma Laras, the Javanese music ensemble I’ve been playing with for several years, will give a concert Saturday night at Roulette, the prestigious new-music venue in Brooklyn. Javanese gamelan is stately, meditative, polyphonic, sometimes shockingly rowdy, quite exotic and not for every taste. You can check out samples online but you can never really get a true sense of gamelan music except by experiencing it live. This concert officially begins at 8 pm but we will start playing at 7:45 with a couple of pieces traditionally used to welcome the audience. Then we’ll play three long-ish pieces, one of them composed by our music director, the phenomenal I. M. Harjito. And the show ends with a dance piece featuring guest performers Anang Totok Dwiantoro and Triwi Harjito in full costume and makeup. Check it out and let me know what you think.

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Culture Vulture: Dancenoise, Gymna Dalang Cilik, THE LAST FIVE YEARS, and CYMBELINE

August 4, 2015

7.24.15 I’m no expert on Dancenoise, the performance art duo Annie Iobst and Lucy Sexton (below), but they’re legendary to me nevertheless. In their heyday (late ‘80s/early ‘90s), they never did shows that had long runs. They were more likely to manifest in late-night club dates (at 8 B.C. or King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut) and one-off festival appearances while I was busy going to sit-down shows in theaters. I did glimpse them occasionally doing walk-ons at the Bessie Awards shows or group-show galas but never felt I’d really gotten the full whammy. So thank you, Whitney Museum, for “DANCENOISE/Don’t Look Back,” a mini-retrospective inaugurating the performance facilities at the new venue in the West Village. There was an installation, some film screenings, a variety show, and then a three-night full-length performance of new and old material.

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It’s hard to describe what they do in their string of funny, savage, politically pointed vaudevillean sketches, except that they generally gravitate toward everything women are NOT supposed to do. The program notes at the Whitney quoted Tom Murrin the Alien Comic calling them “the premier practitioners of synchronized aggression,” which is a great succinct summation. After a brief funny freshly finished Charles Atlas film of them running through the museum on their way to the show, they made their usual famous entrance: completely naked except for high heels, flaunting their completely real now-aging unshaved untucked bodies with the fierceness of warriors. They ran through a multitude of costumes, pulled guns and shot each other repeatedly like tireless kids playing, they yielded the stage for scantily clad bump-and-grind boys (including the likes of hunky actor Jonathan Walker, drag clown Hapi Phace, monologuist Tony Stinkmetal, and Elevator Repair Service’s Mike Iveson), they flung fake blood everywhere. In my favorite section, the high-quality sound system blasted Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Loving Fun” while Lucy and Annie did some partnered ballroom dancing with genderqueer partners (Richard Move and Connie Flemming), all them in black bras and panties, eventually joined by a whole stage-ful of folks in the same outfit bouncing up and down to the music. No big verbal commentary, just a lot of anarchic energy and sexual vitality, which was exhilarating. Coming right after the revival of And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid at the Kitchen, it felt like a fun and funny time-warp. A lot of the same faces showed up in the audience – Andy and I sat next to Nicky Paraiso and chatted afterwards with John Hagan, Yolanda Hawkins, and William Niederkorn. At home I dragged out Cindy Carr’s anthology On Edge: Performance at the End of the Twentieth Century and read out loud her observant piece on Dancenoise, which was published in April 1989 but pretty much described the show we’d just seen:

“These are terrorists wielding a shtick, and with it they attack power in its many disguises. Their shows are always teeming with pop culture junk, since that’s where power hides and where it emanates from – the evening sound bites, the advertising arias, the fashion forecasts, the top forty wool-gatherers. The Dancenoise way of knowledge is to see life as one ungentrified unregenerate 14th Street, just a ramshackle boulevard where everything from Shakespeare to the unwritten law on how to wear a leotard can finally be destroyed and displayed in a bin. The performances level everything in their path, turning slogans into mantras, banality into ritual, pearls into swine. As a rule, they’re a riot and a gas.”

7.29.15 For gamelan musicians, playing for a wayang kulit (shadow-puppet play) constitutes an unusual challenge – although there’s a basic score with familiar notation, the music has to go wherever the dalang (storyteller) goes, so the players have to be alert to split-second stop-and-start cues. I finally got my first crack at playing under those circumstances when Gamelan Kusuma Laras accompanied the performance of “The Story of Gatotkacha” at the Indonesian Consulate featuring a dalang named Gymna Cahyo Nugroho, an eleven-year-old prodigy from Yogyakarta, Java, who was in the U.S. for the first time for two shows (the night before he was in Washington, DC).

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He travels with his father, his teacher, and some key musicians (including the kendhang player, who essentially conducts the ensemble with his drum), none of whom spoke much English. The afternoon rehearsal was a little rough, and afterwards Gymna looked very tired and wrung out, probably jet-lagged. But he put on a pretty amazing show, manipulating the leather puppets, singing and voicing the various characters, and improvising jokes and reactions to the audience.

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Most wayang kulit tell stories from the Mahabharata, and one thing you quickly learn is that there are tons and tons of battle scenes, which meant that a lot of our score required playing long sections of sampak — bang-bang-bang-bang loud and fast, kind of exciting and kind of monotonous.
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Sitting and playing for hours is pretty punishing on the body. But we had a full responsive house and a lot of fun. Gymna seemed shyly proud of himself and smiled a bit except when cameras pointed at him, in which case he snapped into a very solemn professional pose.

7-29 gymna kendhang carla leslie
7.30.15 I didn’t see the original stage production of The Last Five Years but I got a lot out of the original cast recording of Jason Robert Brown’s intimate musical, mainly because of the cast. Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz are arguably the finest musical theater performers of their generation, and the album displays them at their very best. The show runs on two conceptual elements. It portrays the arc of a relationship from  his-and-hers perspectives, proceedings backwards in time (from breakup to first meeting) by not-quite-making-it actress Cathy and forwards (from first date to walking out) by hot young best-selling novelist Jamie, and it tells the story entirely in songs, with very little dialogue. And Brown writes some strong solid songs: “Still Hurting” and “A Summer in Ohio” are highlights for her, “Shiksa Goddess” and “If I Didn’t Believe in You” for him.

I was happy to learn that it was made into a movie by Richard Lagravanese and curious to see how it played out. The movie was released in an unusual manner – pay-per-view before theatrical release, which is several cuts above direct-to-video and mainly aimed at the theater-geek audience that made the live broadcasts of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan such big hits. Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan (above) are appealing actors with musical-theater cred, and their drama is touching at times. I confess I got a little tired of their voices, which were a little too nonstop theatrical for me, spoiled as I am by the warm, flexible, more singer-songwriter pop-oriented voices of Scott and Butz.

8.3.15 Daniel Sullivan’s production of Cymbeline is a triumph for Shakespeare in the Park. Especially given the play’s insanely complicated, even ludicrous plot, the show is unexpectedly entertaining. Sullivan smartly addresses head-on the absurdly dense exposition that happens at the top of the show and the equally dense final scene that has to wrap up every conceivable variety of plotline the playwright ever used (a program note mentions that “scholars have counted 27 revelations in the final scene alone”) with a sly attitude that makes merry of the play without trashing it altogether. And he’s assembled a terrific ensemble of solid veterans, all of whom get doubly or triply cast (usually with at least one surprise appearance.)

Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater are very fine as the young lovers, though Rabe is never very convincing disguised as a boy and Linklater is more fun playing the buffoon Cloten than the quasi-hero Posthumus. Patrick Page is excellent in the title role, as is Steven Skybell as hard-working servant to the Queen, played by Kate Burton a little too timidly for my taste. Raul Esparza absolutely steals the show, though, as flashy, fast-talking bad guy Iachimo. The production makes great use of Esparza’s razzle-dazzle Broadway song-and-dance chops but he also nails both the sound and the sense of Shakespeare’s language. These folks are amply aided by top-notch sets by Riccardo Hernandez, costumes by David Zinn (loved the Queen’s costume, which looks like something out of a Tim Burton production at the Metropolitan Opera), lighting by David Lander, lovely original score by Tom Kitt, and the other actors I haven’t mentioned: Teagle Bougere, Jacob Ming-Trent, and David Furr.

Events: Gamelan Kusuma Laras concerts, May 30-31

May 28, 2015

You may or may not know that I’ve been playing gamelan for several years now.  You may or may not know what gamelan music is….

Gamelan Kusuma Laras in rehearsal

Gamelan Kusuma Laras in rehearsal

Gamelan is an Indonesian percussion ensemble that comes in two varieties, Balinese and Javanese. Our group, Gamelan Kusuma Laras, is Javanese and specializes in music specifically from Solo, one of the cities in Central Java.  Javanese gamelan music is rich, dense, polyphonic, precise, meditative, quite exotic. There’s also a fair amount of singing, for solo voice and choruses, but the singing is part of the orchestral blend, not front and center the way it is in a lot of Western vocal music. Hearing recordings of gamelan music, it’s almost impossible to imagine how it is produced. Seeing the various instruments and how they’re played is a treat in itself.

Gamelan is definitely not for everyone. But if you’re curious about music from other cultures or know a little bit about gamelan, this would be a great opportunity to experience the music live.

The concert is about two hours long and is  preceded by 15 minutes of “welcoming music.” The
program includes a bunch of unusually intricate and cool pieces, and I’m delighted that I’ll be playing on all the pieces we’re playing. One of the guest  vocalists will be the extraordinary Jessika Kenney, and we will also be joined by a terrific dancer performing in full makeup and costume.

The concert takes place at the Indonesian  Consulate, a beautiful old New York mansion at 5 E. 68th Street. At intermission, very delicious Javanese snacks will be served free of charge. And the tickets are only $20. (You can buy them online here.) Check it out and let me know what you think.

concert postcard


Events: Gamelan Kusuma Laras at the Make Music Festival

June 17, 2014

This Saturday, June 21, more than 726 cities around the world will celebrate the longest day of the year with a global celebration of music making. In New York City, there will be over 1,300 concerts on streets, sidewalks, and parks across the five boroughs, all free and outdoors. As part of Make Music New York, Gamelan Kusuma Laras, the Javanese music ensemble that I play with, will be throwing a block party on East 68th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, in front of our home base, the Indonesian Consulate. We’ll be playing from 12 noon until 6 pm. Feel free to drop by for a few minutes or stay all afternoon!

klenengan logo

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