I'm happy to announce that my coverage for Know No. can be found on the Boston Music Intelligencer's site as well. For that, click here, or just read below!
Thursday, March 2nd, I braved the cold and trekked to Boston Center for the Arts for a unique experience: to witness Masary Studio’s site-specific commission, Know No., in the historic Cyclorama. An interactive, multi-media work of performance art, it combined four percussionists, eight vocalists, poetry, installations, and dream-like lighting and projected imagery that moved and morphed in sync with live music.
Masary Studios—an amalgam of the first two letters of each artist’s name—is comprised of composer and percussionist, Maria Finkelmeier; new media artist and designer, Sam Okerstrom-Lang; and interdisciplinary artist Ryan Edwards. Because the trio specializes in site-specific, immersive performance and installation art, Boston Center for the Arts approached them to create a “risk taking” project that would celebrate the Cyclorama. This has been the first major commission in the space in decades.
Originally constructed in 1884 to house massive murals of the Battle of Gettysburg, it has since been everything from a roller-skating rink, fringe theater, boxing ring, horseback riding corral, industrial space, site of the spark plug’s invention, and home of the Boston Flower Exchange (which added the present, towering skylight to the dome). One is immediately struck by its immense ceilings, vast open space, and smooth, brick walls and floor. A monumental metal grid by Buckminster Fuller hangs just below and across its giant dome. The grid’s narrow, interconnected metal beams combine with surrounding brick, wood, and glass to make the space a cathedral-like industrial fortress.
Know No. is an exploration of the repercussions of no. It uses the words and voices of Boston-based poets reacting to the narrative of “no.” It engenders music that exploits the extraordinary acoustics of the space—which due to its construction, echoes and reflects sound in sensorially mysterious ways. On her blog, Maria Finkelmeier, who composed the project’s music, explains that no’s two letters represent a variety of things: “an abbreviation for “number," a scolding term, one of the first words a child learns (and misuses), an abstraction of justice, a tool to empower, or the spelling of ‘know.’” While the audience gathered in the space surrounded by four strategically constructed mini stages of varying heights and myriad iridescent fabric installations, four performers stood on one stage shaking their heads in sync from left to right in silence. With lights dimmed and a faint, otherworldly rumbling beginning from somewhere in the distance—or was it right next to you?—we hear the lyrics from Fred Marchant’s A Spell to Stay the Hand:
No not only word / neither fetish nor totem / not only thought
No not even feeling / not a face or shadow / not a seed on wind
No not stop signs on fire / no not hands held up / and up up…
…No not fires no/ not at them there at the end / of who we are
A graceful cacophony permeated the room, as percussionists painted an intermingling of patterns that engulfed the standing audience and invited them to explore. Timpani pulsations underscored a jarring foreboding while vocalists glided away from their starting places and from each other, tracing a triangular maze along the grid’s beamed paths. Maria Finkelmeier explained on her blog that she created her composition based on formulas used by Fuller to construct the grid: “Numbers…triangles…war….pain….victory….hope…structures….”
Then out of the darkness and from the elegant intermingling of scattered metallic timbres, a single abrupt drum explosion activates large-scale human portraits—living portraits—that morph and melt on ceiling-height strips of fabric flowing from the grid and along the smooth walls of the chamber. The faces emerge one by one, until two sides of the large space are dominated by them. Their transforming expressions are hypnotic—akin to the perceptions of an acid trip—with bulging and dilating eyes that melt eyelash into eye line, nose into lips—expressions verging from sorrow to elation, hurt to forgiveness, calm to worry, hate to evil. They all communicate “no”— some shaking their heads and mouthing the word while others solely use expression.
The intensity dissipates as large metal chimes cast reverberations into the chasm. The performers weave through the room carrying make-shift instruments comprised of keys. White, pleasant lights bathe the room as the singers chant sounds that vaguely sound like “yeah.” The ambience feels positive, almost delusional. But then, a quieter mood descends upon the place and activity slows. We hear human voices once again as the percussive instruments weave a relentless onward march, which is then mirrored by eight performers—all dressed in white—who unite on the floor and slowly emerge from beneath the cascading fabric—now colored hot pink by projected lights and lit by bright, white lights from below. The performers line up side by side and slowly march forward through the space, as audience makes way, creating a path. One observer stares them down, seemingly frightened at their forward march, staring at them agape as they continue towards her—her feet stepping backward, face facing them—until the hypnosis is broken and she becomes aware she must step aside.
Finkelmeier makes eye contact with the other percussionists on far sides of the room, exchanging glances that signal critical changes requiring careful syncing. Layer upon layer of drum pads, marimbas, drums, blocks of wood, chimes, gongs, and more embrace the room as a colorful light show erupts onto the cascading fabric and the space suddenly feels like an avant-garde dance floor.
The interactive performance space is now filled with poetry: “We are the children of those that grow up without choices, so we grew up without options…So we grown, we know, everyone has their maker…No is a pause. We say selah to the knowledge that is sought—the end result of stop—We know we are no.” A harmonious resolve embraces the space, a feeling of resolution; and now the same kettledrums that felt jolting in the beginning instill a sense of confidence, in sync with the rhythmic web. The lights go out. A continuous rhythm cycle resumes. The voices reemerge. We are returned to the primordial mix in which we began.