by Emily Kerski
Photos by Tim Porter
Experiencing new music with the foreknowledge that I will later document the event for a public audience has caused me to think deeply about what it means to write concert reviews: the meaning of this, the significance of this, what I hope to convey, why I read about music, why one should write about music – themes which have been thoughtfully explored in recent Cacophony articles. What is there to be gained from reading about my experience of a work or event? What value is there in reading a review if you cannot attend the performance itself, or reading one before going to get an idea of what to expect? The conundrum of value between live and recorded performance takes on new meaning when considering this generation’s advances of technology - for instance: why should one attend a live performance instead of watching the livestream?
So: what can I tell you about this show from being there live and in person that you couldn’t gather from watching the livestream?
Objectively, ICED BODIES: Ice Music for Chicago was a performance and sound installation realized by cellist Seth Parker Woods performing upon a cello made of ice alongside sound artist Spencer Topel.
I can tell you that I am always impressed by the multi-generational audience in this space – The Arts Club of Chicago – and that this event was no exception.
I can tell you that this was a mesmerizing display from the outset, magnetic in its silent yet fierce demand for attention. I can’t look away from the concentration on the cellist’s face as he is giving everything to this performance, literally lying across the cello in the pursuit of sounds, cameramen leaning in closely to capture this historic re-imagining. There’s a hushed awe to the audience, many seemingly afraid to move and disturb the moment despite the encouragement that this is in fact a durational performance and moving around in the room is warmly encouraged. I scan the faces of the onlookers, wondering what they are feeling and hearing as they engage with this piece: horrified, captivated, completely fascinated, puzzled, amazed, certainly rapt as they wait for what will happen next. Even as I left the building I felt an urgency to know what would happen next, what shape the cello would take on, what new sounds would be created from the artist’s hands.
I can tell you – as one who was there in the room – of the powerful sensory immersion, being so close to the ice pieces chipped off of the cello as to feel water droplets and see chunks of ice hurling toward the ground next to you.
I can tell you of the broad use of space to convey sound: from the action on the body of the cello, the reverberating electronic effects hanging in the air, the resultant sounds of ice hitting the floor tiles, water dripping off the cello. A notable contributor also is the eerie silence that occurs when the artist is not moving. It’s a mystery how certain sounds are being produced, especially if you can’t see the tools (picks, a screwdriver, small shovels, metal rings on the artist’s wetsuit) being used, adding to the intrigue. According to the program, “the sound of dripping water and falling ice are electronically processed and magnified via embedded water microphones and bespoke resonators.” To me it seems pretty much magical, although quite evident how much careful effort has gone into elaborate placement and processing of electronic elements under the watchful eye of Spencer Topel. I look away from the cello for a second to watch Topel – and when I look back a bow of some kind has been procured. Parker Woods begins bowing the end of the cello where ice has been hacked off, revealing clear, sparkling innards in between the blackened outside. There is a visceral creative energy to the creation of this sonic experience based upon the artistic, intentional demolishing of the object at hand.
I can tell you about the adjacent room (which you cannot see in the livestream), where pictures are projected which provide context and background to this performance, pictures of the original performance as well as the preparation of the obsidian cello and electronic sounds for this one. ICED BODIES is a redevelopment on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of Ice Music for London (1972), which was developed by artist Jim McWilliams and performed by cellist Charlotte Moorman on frozen ice blocks using a plexiglass bow. The piece has had other performances since then, but this is the first major realization in nineteen years. The differences in the 2017 rendering serve the new inspirations of “commonly overlooked cases of mental disability in art, especially in the African American community, and the countless cases of police brutality alone in Chicago…an ode to struggling minds and bruised, tattered bodies on display.”
Meanwhile, back where the action is, things are starting to sound violent. There is sudden relentlessness to the scraping and stabbing of the ice on the other side of the wall and I can’t help but smile to myself as I notice the gallery security getting curious and peeking over to the side to see what’s going on. The neck of the cello has been dispatched into the small pool on the floor. The artist now uses only the body of the cello as he continues to excise sounds from within the ice. I can’t help but wonder how the piece will conclude. [I later learned the performance ended unexpectedly early due to the cello melting sooner than anticipated.]
I can tell you that I was present in the gallery during the earlier half of the scheduled four-hour viewing period. I would love to hear what other readers may have experienced toward the end of this daring exhibition.