Avid supporters hooted, while others in the Radcliffe Gymnasium applauded generously. Throughout a rapt affect obtained, until, as a detailed blow-by-blow account in the program noted, this electroacoustic piece of Steven Kazuo Takasugi ended after exactly 56 minutes and 50 seconds.
Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s show featured the nine-member Talea Ensemble with Kazuo’s composition for amplified octet and electronic playback from 2009 to 2015. The composer writes. “Based on the dark sideshows of Coney Island’s amusement parks in the early part of the 20th century, Sideshow is a meditation on the virtuosity, freak shows, entertainment, spectacle, business, and the sacrifices one makes to survive in the world. A cycle of aphorisms by the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus runs as a subtext through the work.”
Though much, if not all, of Sideshow emphasized the freaky, this was emphatically not a freak show. Lining up face to face with the crowd, Talea enacted visual assignments. Expressionless faces alternated with manic stances hinting of German Expressionism. Takasugi controlled Talea’s audio input at a mixing board and distributed it through eight loudspeakers placed around the room. “Human” touches cropped up when the amplified instrumentalists were allowed more power to speak without their sounds being rechanneled through electronic alterations. Still, the instruments were not their usual selves, rather more like ghosts of themselves.
If it could be said that amusement parks were at one time a human experience, this “lookback” had devastation written all over it. The extended techniques required of the instrumentalists were dehumanizing for better or for worse. I mention a new one on me, that of the violinist, violist, and cellist blowing on the strings of their instruments. When the musicians were called upon to breathe in order to furnish sound, the result resembled somewhat wind or air, not breath.
Midway through Sideshow, performers gulped for air as if drowning; this seemed to signify mightily for Takasugi’s esthetic. The work reminded me of an unforgettable dance I had seen many years ago where a body was hemmed in a sack, all the dancer’s movements being created from her frantic attempts to escape.
Tension, and, more usually, hypertension, continued even when pauses, or silences, broke through. There was little if any space for repose—what we consider to be normal breathing was absent, as were normal human gestures.
The “Table of Contents” registered two parts and five movements each of which came with a bundle of subtitles requiring a list that went from A to Z, then AA to MM2. My plan to follow along these minute by minute program notes, though, was thwarted when the room darkened.
Sideshow mostly saddened. Deprived of a literary subtext, I could not help but dwell upon devastation such as the atomic bomb left on Hiroshima. Thinking of this music-play as sideshow also brought sadness, yet in another way. What can be determined as human or inhuman can and does change over time, as this piece can tell us.
Steven Kazuo Takasugi’s sui generis Sideshow has its moments, several immensely striking. Its freakishness and dehumanization are unspeakably personal and —not soon to be forgotten. The absolutely absorbing performance by Talea cannot be over-praised. Their vacant stares, their every variant toot, pluck and gulp coming with raw force, fully intensified Takasugi’s electroacoustic neo-expressionistic music-play. Have they recovered? Have I?
Talea Ensemble members are: David Adamcyk, electronics, Barry Crawford, flute, Stephen Gosling, piano, Chris Gross, cello, Alex Lipowski, percussion and vocals, Rane Moore, clarinet, Ryan Muncy, saxophone, Yuki Numata Resnick, violin, Beth Weisser, viola.
Takasugi is the Rieman and Baketel Fellow for Music, Radcliffe Institute and associate, Department of Music, Harvard University.