Channeling Joseph Cornell, Hurricane Sandy and Bettie Page

United StatesUnited States “Digital Debussy”: Kathleen Supové (piano), The Flea Theater, New York City, 27.4.2013 (BH)

Joan La Barbara: Storefront Diva, a dreamscape (2013)
Annie Gosfield: Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind (2013)
Nick Didkovsky: The Triumph of Innocence (2013)

Kathy Supové in "Storefront Diva: a Dreamscape" by Joan La Barbara (Photo, costume and set design: Aleksandar and Marija Kostić)
Kathy Supové in “Storefront Diva: a dreamscape” by Joan La Barbara (Photo, costume and set design: Aleksandar and Marija Kostić)

Pianists don’t come more imaginative than Kathleen Supové, whose latest commissioning project, Digital Debussy, was unveiled at the Flea Theater. The challenge: to make reference to Debussy—explicit or implicit—and the three composers could not have approached the project in more radically different ways.

For Storefront Diva, a dreamscape, Joan La Barbara envisioned Supové playing in the title’s locale, being glimpsed by passers-by—inspired by the American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), who had a dream about Debussy playing in such a venue. (In December 2011, Supové, La Barbara, and Aleksandar and Marija Kostić performed an extended version of the piece, using an actual storefront in Greenwich Village – here’s an excerpt.) Cornell’s iconic, meticulously arranged boxes—one might say, tiny storefronts—are filled with drawings, feathers, jewels, paper cutouts, fabric, bits of sculpture. With a white Yamaha grand piano as the nexus, the designer (Ms. Kostić) evoked Cornell with a silhouette of a parrot on a far windowpane, a honeycomb of large circles against one wall, a headless mannequin posed as if offering mute advice. A trio of video monitors on the floor flickered with images by Mr. Kostić, and suspended from the ceiling, blown glass orbs, hanging almost at the feet of listeners in the front row.

La Barbara’s musical reference point is Debussy’s Prelude VI, “Des pas sur la neige” (“Footprints in the Snow”), which isn’t quoted verbatim (as far as I could tell), but creeps in with its timbres and note durations altered, and adds an electronic component derived from other pianos, vocals, bells, breathing, Tibetan cymbals, water, crows and storm sounds. Supové slowly walked out wearing a white dress, its bustle exploding white gauze (courtesy Ms. Kostic). La Barbara’s spare, glistening keyboard droplets were accompanied by well-framed, surprisingly effective film projections on the side of the piano: waves crashing on the shore, clouds wafting by, and other images of water.

Annie Gosfield’s sleekly constructed Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind uses Prélude VII, “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest” (“What the West Wind Saw”), which she combines with electronics made from bits of the prelude itself and sounds taped during Hurricane Sandy, “a ghostly apparition of Debussy swept away in the storm.” As Supové hurled herself into sweeping phrases from the prelude—sometimes of daunting difficulty—the taped sounds howled in hallucinatory waves. High winds slicing past buildings and trees melded with ominous hums of electrical power sources malfunctioning, creating eerie whorls of overtones.

For The Triumph of Innocence, Nick Didkovsky combined Debussy’s music with sex and death, mingling “in a trancelike world of burlesque and blood.” Actress Georgia Ximenes Lifsher (a.k.a. Corvette Le Face) dressed as a Bettie Page-style dominatrix, languorously pulling up her stockings as Supové played Debussy fragments while intoning words from Page’s reminiscences and transcripts of the trial of Lizzie Borden. As Ms. Lifsher slowly posed—sometimes wryly, sometimes with menace—the title became more and more ironic, until at the end, the pianist slowly sits down on a nearby bench, as the actress carefully approaches her from behind, holding an ax. Another hearing might be needed to grasp the details of Didkovsky’s subtle nightmare, but there was no denying its impact.

Bruce Hodges