Friday, March 23, 2007

Cornell Box

(Above photo: Cornell in Window 2, Copyright 1972 Harry Roseman, Used by permission of the artist)

I’m shifting gears again here on this online journal to talk about an unusual piece I’ll be presenting on my upcoming March residency with Racoco Productions. The piece, entitled Cornell Box, is inspired by the work and life of artist Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1972). In addition to his ground breaking films, Cornell is known for his completely unique box constructions filled with a carefully chosen objects evoking in their combinations both his own hermetic existence as well as his expressed passion for literature, history and popular culture. When I first saw a show of his boxes at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, I didn’t know that he lived most of his life in a home on Utopia Parkway in Queens, New York. That connection would come later to me. The Menil show was lit with incredible care so that each box was like looking into Alice’s rabbit hole: you looked into a small box and saw an entire universe expand before your eyes. Later, after relocating to New York City, I began to learn more about this influential yet reclusive artist.

Cornell Box (2004, rev. 2007) is performed on laptop using a PC program called AudioMulch to cue and mix live a collection of recordings (i.e. samples) that indirectly reference Cornell’s life and work. Sound is played through four speakers one in each corner of the venue. The samples move from speaker to speaker surrounding the audience in a complex quasi-quadraphonic manner creating an aural “box” of music and memories. Some of the prerecorded samples I cue are piano performances by my friend Daniel Kelly improvising freely in an ersatz Classical style that references Impressionism (Debussy, Faure) as Cornell loved French piano music. These piano samples (which I recorded on a handheld tape recorder) are mangled and colored with excessive vinyl and mechanical noise to evoke the sound of old 78 rpm records or similar attic treasures played on a turntable in ones mind. Another set of samples I cue and mix simultaneously with the piano samples are excerpts of actress Lauren Bacall’s dialogue from the film To Have and to Have Not. Cornell was an avid moviegoer and even created a beautiful blue-tinted box in homage to Bacall entitled Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall (1946). In addition to feelings of nostalgia I am also touching on the emotionally charged fan relationship between a moviegoer and a (female) star on the screen.

Choreographer Rachel Cohen (director of Racoco Productions) created a visual / theatrical element for Cornell Box. Three dancers with only their arms visible inside of three Cornell-like boxes are placed before the listening audience in an asymmetric fashion. Inside the boxes, the dancers’ hands manipulate various objects chosen to reference Cornell’s life and work. The idea here is to have the visuals be confined to small areas while the sound immerses the audience like water in an ocean.

In this most recent revision of Cornell Box, trumpeter Lewis ‘Flip’ Barnes improvises with the live mix while walking around the seated listening audience – adding yet another dimension of moving sound to the experience. Guitarist Lynn Wright provides a bubbling bed of sometimes gentle sometimes abrupt tremolo and feedback sounds from his instrument again reacting to the piano and film dialogue I’m cuing and mixing. The piece has a short prelude – another live mix – of sounds I’ve recorded in the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (with their permission) and various subway platforms evoking the experience of a reclusive artist of living in a noisy metropolis.

At the pre-concert talk March 31st at 7pm at Studio 111 (111 Conselyea), choreographer Rachel Cohen and I will discuss how we collaborated on Cornell Box.

Thanks to Harry Roseman for allowing me the use of his photograph of Joseph Cornell for this journal.

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