Mocrep//Radical 2//On Structure 7/10

By Lily Mooney, photos by Jeff Kimmel and Tim Porter

*

This is happening in a second-story Wicker Park art space called No Nation. We, the audience, either stand or sit on the floor, which creaks beneath us. The lights are low & warm. People live here, off the gallery; there’s a cat, and later, a chili smell, and a sense that many here are friends. At No Nation, with no paper program & no explanatory preamble, Andrew Tham of Parlour Tapes+ tests the mic-- first too quiet, then just loud enough. He introduces the opening ensemble with an inside joke: “...Mocrep-- more like more crap, am I right?”

Not everyone gets it. But it isn’t alienating. It’s got the tone of a funny invitation, without really worrying to where or for what.

Andrew mutters the joke’s context inaudibly into the mic, and directs our attention to “the comedic stylings of Zach ‘Is This Music?’ Moore.”

*

This is a man telling jokes that end in sounds, alongside or instead of punchlines. Behind him the flute, clarinet, trombone and cello stand ready, and break in with intensity when a bit finds its peak. Moore cracks a joke about making music for no pay, and the instruments screech. Next to his laid-back delivery, these moments highlight the limits of verbal communication, and the visceral, physical potential of live sound. But the act doesn’t give itself over; sound interjects but does not overtake; we stay in a mode of commentary, skipping to the edge of something more absurd, then away. The act circles an honest idea said once out loud, that “it’s hard to be a musician,” hard to be heard, in a milieu filled with noisy analytical discourse. A violent burst of staccato notes: “That’s what music school sounds like,” Moore jabs, then sighs and moves on.

Over the sound of a train rumbling past the gallery’s open back door, Moore ends on a bit about hecklers. The chance of being heckled attracts him to comedy. He tells us what he really wants (but what he won’t get from us): a loud, rude interruption, asking him to do something. This is the kind of contact he craves.

Altogether it’s funny, but not totally ironic. That jokey question that introduced him - “Is this music?” could be a genuine frame for his whole act, and maybe for the night. This artist isn’t performing at a comedy venue, but an art music show. He’s reaching towards music, offering it his humor, seeing if it’ll take. In this moment, Is this music? becomes Does this go here? Will you listen? Can this stay? Something a little plaintive appears, underneath what’s wry.

*

This is another man, standing still, empty-handed. In the second piece, a new work by Christopher Wood, distorted sound plays through speakers behind a stoic performer as glitchy recorded speech breaks through. We hear a broken “hey,” another “hey,” and later, other words. Wood makes eye contact with us, and speaks aloud sometimes, but is barely audible below the recording. An emotional narrative emerges through small gestures - a smile, put on, dropped, and re-adopted; a two-fingered peace sign, held weirdly long; his hand on the back of his head, pulling somberly downward, before baring teeth again. Wood’s body, before us, is in public, and moves as if posing again and again for a picture we’re failing to take. Do you see this? (See me?) Is this music? The recording builds in intensity while repeating itself, giving a disastrous, cyclonic feeling. Alongside Wood’s posing, we’re enduring rough sonic weather that seems to take place very privately inside the head. More words, live and recorded, break through: “lonely,” “socially,” “connection,” “I,” “you,” “deeply,” “no one.” There’s a reaching-out again, either towards the audience, or past us. A hand extending into space - struggling to touch - a loneliness is conveyed. Towards the end, another train goes by.

*

This is moving, this is movement, producing sound and noise. The final piece from Mocrep, Bethany Younge’s Orbits, reconfigures the room. Half the audience sits inside a circle taped on the floor. Along an outer ring, a percussionist and clarinet, flute, and trombone players take places behind stands, next to the raised ends of PVC pipes fixed with tape to chairs. The pipes point downward towards us. From inside, close to the action, I notice the musicians wearing strange jewelry, necklaces of strung-together wood or stones, which rustle when they walk. At the room’s edge, the rest of the audience looks in.

Orbits proceeds theatrically, feels as much like drama as music, if not more. We’re immersed, and this time I almost don’t hear the train when it comes again. The performers circle the audience, walking sometimes forward along their path, sometimes backward, passing each other. They share space rarely, shuffling, floating, and moving at varied speeds along the singular path, stopping only at the pipes, to just barely play. In this piece, playing seems to be a huge, hard-to-approach thing, but still the approach,  the circling and the blowing, the anxiety and the anticipation, produce sound. So is this music? The percussionist manages only a few hits on each drum (of which there are three, spaced apart along the path) as he orbits faster and faster. (He must have bells strapped on under his shirt, like the others’ jewelry; he jingles when he walks.) The softer, anticipatory sounds of air through plastic fill out, become whistles, moans, gasps, and screams. The players get bolder and faster, with the sounds of their breath & the creaking floor as much a part of it as anything. They’re constrained by their path, maybe trying to talk across it. Playing instruments before an audience becomes a foreign ritual, as the musicians are re-oriented towards their own bodies, their placement in the room, towards each other. Each musician, each sound, reaches across and above us, towards the others, but connection is fleeting. I wonder if it’s our fault - while bearing witness, are we also in their way?

*

This is one hand finding another & holding on. After a break, we reassemble facing front, and the percussion duo Radical 2 is introduced. They perform three complex pieces with swift, remarkable confidence. There isn’t a question for me here, not at the beginning. It’s music, of course it is, the performers are sure of that. As with any duo, part of what we’re watching the relationship of the performers to each other; Levy Lorenzo and Dennis Sullivan coordinate impressively. Though this is nowhere in the content of the first two pieces, their execution suggests a steadiness, a trust that underscores the performance, though the first two pieces are outward-facing, not particularly intimate. The first, Simulcast, seats the performers at a table, facing us. At the same time, each delivers a bizarre, radio-style broadcast, composed of live sounds and scripted text, into a mic. With machine-like precision, the voices sync, clash, and sync again. Complemented by errant clicks, cymbal hits, and measured breath, they feel like more than two voices, like many. It’s as if we’ve deliberately stopped the needle between two radio stations, to see what strange music exists there. Some text rings out clear, makes me listen harder - for example: “he wishes the others would be quiet just so he could remember the question he wanted to ask.” This builds tension and leads into a second piece, a “duo for hacked joysticks” called Modified Attack. Lorenzo & Sullivan stand facing each other across the table, and with the joysticks make percussive sounds of game play: chirps, punches, power-ups, bumps and falls. Sounds not usually called music, borrowed for a new context, easily become it. However, the emotional content of this piece stays tricky and obscure. We’re hearing something like a fight, but watching a tight collaboration, as two players exchange sounds with stoic focus.

Radical 2 turns off the lights for their last piece, Altered States of Elasticity. As they set up, Dennis, the piece’s composer, shares that it’s only the second time this will have been performed. The first was last night, at a festival in Nebraska. They drove all day and arrived just before the show. Knowing and acknowledging that something is new opens certain doors in the mind, relaxes certain boundaries, makes room for a little vulnerability. Not for the first time, but just the second, the duo stands facing each other again, each with custom instruments, mic, and lights in front of him. Even between longtime collaborators, a new endeavor brings something unexpected, some amount of risk, and for the first time with Radical 2 there’s a hint of the question: this is us - but this is new - and we know it will be music, but is it music yet?

*

This is a man alone onstage, again, but this man has equipped himself with toys. Bryan Jacobs performs two short solo pieces before On Structure closes out the night. During his first piece, a stream of speech distorted and made unintelligible when spoken into the mic, I think about control. He’s manipulated the electronics so that he can speak without being heard. He pretends to communicate, with little concern for meaning, which leaves us free to marvel at the mechanics, and to laugh. The filter of absurdity seems to make connection easier. Who cares if this is music? I like it, it’s weird. The second piece, a “trio for speakers, air compressor, and balloon” enacts a conversation (or an argument) between inanimate things. The air compressor groans, the balloon fills, then squeaks and screams, the speakers hum and amplify and warp. It’s all rehearsed, feels less spontaneous than the first, but it’s a good scene, really funny, another moment of a communication, even if Jacobs is just talking to himself. Without a firm grip on a partner, or on any particular content, Jacobs vigorously shakes his own hand in front of an audience, and hilarity ensues.

*

This is two voices, speaking as one, talking about an ending. Jessie Marino and Natacha Diels are the duo On Structure, and they begin the night’s final piece crouched in the corner, comically narrating a series of video title sequences into a mic as they appear projected on the wall in front of us. Eventually the titles introduce the piece we’re watching, The Portal, and the performers enter the space, dressed identically and mirroring each other. They perform in tandem in front of the video, which projects two similar twin figures, called “Heroine 1” and “Heroine 2.” There’s a feeling of something epic, a feeling of a relationship culminating or resolving, that persists throughout the piece. Throughout they echo the movements of the figures on screen, standing and swaying backwards and forwards, arranging candy on a plate, seating themselves at the table to perform a series of gestures while remaining synchronized the piece. There’s a feeling that this is a familiar ritual, one the pair has performed many times. The small table recalls an altar. They sit close. In contrast to their matching movements, Marino & Diels converse very casually about what they are doing, how they’re feeling - seemingly off-script, off-the-cuff, one of them mocking the other for asking a weird question about gazpacho. Their talk seems to resist the choreography even as they perform it, and they say something about this being the “last time,” as a final train passes behind us. Maybe that’s another inside joke, not something they actually intend, but it leaves a winsome feeling. I wonder if they always perform this piece in this way. Something about it seems unique to this night. The video shifts and displays a desktop filled with browser windows containing other images of the two performing, calling a shared history into the space. It’s an odd thing to witness; it feels like looking in a mirror, or many, and it’s hard to know what’s real, but I think I’m watching an entity saying goodbye to itself, splitting in two. Any moment the twins will set off in different directions - or they’re only thinking about it, and they never will. They lower their heads into the crooks of their arms, and the lights fade down, and it feels like something genuine has occurred between these two, speaking and listening to each other, and though I can’t articulate exactly what, I don’t feel excluded. The question seems less relevant right now.

*

Jenna Lyle of Parlor Tapes+ stands before us when it’s over, leads us through a series of movements that echo those that the heroines just performed. It’s funny; it’s another little joke, and it dissolves into music played through this speakers. People are talking, relating, relaxing. This is a party, starting. It’s been a long night, and I can’t stay, but I hug a few familiar folks on the way out. Walking down the stairs, I feel a little bummed to so quickly depart the strange, secret, porous world evoked by this show. But there’s also a sense that I’m not leaving, that I can’t leave - that I’m always in it, or a part of it. It’s all music.