Marginalia: re-visioning Roy Kiyooka
February 20 – 23 2008, 8pm
Vancouver East Cultural Centre, 1895 Venables Street
by John Endo Greenaway
At the end of the Friday night performance of Marginalia, the woman sitting behind me leaned over and said to her friend, “He would have loved it!” “He” of course being Roy Kiyooka, the Japanese Canadian artist who died in February, 1994, and who was the inspiration behind the works we had just seen. It was an interesting remark as I myself had spent much of the evening musing on what Roy would have made of the performance. Would he have loved it? I’m not so sure. While I can’t claim any great insight into his thought-process, my suspicion is that he would have found much of the proceedings pretentious, stuffy and lacking in spontaneity. At the same time, I think he would probably have enjoyed some elements of it.
Personally, I found it a problematic show to critique. As I understand it, the intent was never to create a literal homage to Roy or his work, but rather to use his creative energy to inspire new works. The fact that none of the composers were familiar with Roy and his catalogue was deemed irrelevant from the start. Given this stated intent, it is difficult to criticize the show for having so little of Roy Kiyooka or his spirit represented in it. Yet I couldn’t help feeling that in many ways, the evening was the antithesis of how Roy approached his own art. While his early painting and sculpture showed an adherence to precise geometry, he eventually moved away from that in favour of a more extemporaneous approach. To attempt to capture Roy’s creative spirit within the constructs of new music, which tends towards the intellectual rather than the visceral, is in itself somewhat of a contradiction. Still, it felt like a brave effort and for the most part I enjoyed the evening—or at least as much as I can enjoy a show that I know I have to write about later.
The primary musical focus of the show was the Standing Wave Ensemble (along with violinist Mark Ferris), who performed pieces by four composers—Jocelyn Morlock, Stefan Smulovitz, Stefan Udell and Hildegard Westerkamp—all commissioned to write new works for the occasion.
Entering the theatre, audience members were invited to pick out a small rock to hold during the performance, each one labeled with a bit of wordplay. My rock was labeled gLOVEs, an apparent reference to Roy’s StoneDGloves, a photographic and poetic essay based on discarded work gloves at construction sites in Osaka, Japan at the time of Expo ‘70. This work was reflected again in an array of gloves that were hung from the ceiling above the stage.
The stage itself was decorated simply: the musicians were surrounded by a field of river rocks, among which several video monitors were imbedded. A screen at the back of the stage was set up for video projection.
There is no denying the virtuosity of the musicians or the complexity of the pieces they were given to perform. This was, after all, a new music concert, and true to form, very little of the music fell into a familiar pattern, in terms of either rhythm or melody. And while long stretches were given over to the deliberately intellectual (and non-populist) elements that so often characterize new music compositions, they were interspersed with moments of great beauty and sonic genius.
While the musicianship was uniformly excellent, I have to single out cellist Peggy Lee, a stalwart of Vancouver’s music scene, who provided some of the most sublime moments of the evening, particularly during one solo partway through the evening that she attacked with her customary verve and sensitivity.
The evening was treated as one long uninterrupted piece, with no breaks to distinguish one composer’s work from another’s. Still, one composition stood out from the others. Having known Roy since childhood, and being so familiar with the unique quality of his voice and laughter, Westerkamp’s MotherVoiceTalk moved me at an emotional level for the first time in the programme. It also seemed the most successful in terms of capturing Roy’s essence. Unlike the other compositions, it directly referenced Roy through fragments of his taped voice (and also included Roy’s mother’s voice, the composer’s voice and her own mother’s voice). Perhaps it is the fact that the spoken word summons an immediate emotional response on the part of the listener that elevated it (in my estimation, anyway) above the pieces that flanked it.
It was also the only time when the focus was taken off the musicians as they were shrouded in near-darkness, allowing the recorded score to take over, although a few of the musicians did provide some live accompaniment.
Westerkamp, clearly perplexed by the challenge presented to her by the commission, muses on tape about the difficulties she is having. “What have I let myself in for?” she asks herself. A bit later Roy can be heard echoing the same thing—“What have I let myself in for?” followed by his inimitable laughter, providing one of the few moments of humour in the evening, but also forging a connection, however tenuous, between subject and composer.
Sound poet Kedrick James added a spoken-word element to the show—appearing several times throughout the proceedings. At times, for brief flashes, the tone of his voice and his cadence almost felt as if it was channeling Roy’s, which was a little spooky. Still, the poetry felt somewhat superfluous to me, as if perhaps it was tacked on to add a multi-disciplinary element.
After the concert, we walked through the east Vancouver streets back to our friends’ house. I think we all needed a drink after what was a long time sitting in one place. My friend Richard, who never knew Roy and who is not familiar with new music, had an interesting take on the show – he thought it was approaching misrepresentation to use Roy’s name in the title of the piece, as he came away feeling no greater insight into the man or his art. It was an interesting statement, as I myself was unable to separate my experience of the music from my experience knowing Roy Kiyooka. While I thought the evening perhaps did not meet its full potential, I found it thought-provoking, and I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on Roy, his life and his art.