Quodia in Mexico, Casa de Lago
Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 10:21PM
Trey Gunn in poetry, quodia

This was the first Quodia performance in three years. If I were honest with myself, I didn’t think we would ever perform this piece, “The Arrow”, again. I had, somehow, envisioned reconfiguring and rethinking the whole project before another burst forward. Funnily, this is the project with which I have had the largest internal ‘Yes’ combined with the largest external ‘No’. Which is, clearly, a blessing and a curse.

So when Quodia was invited to come to this “Poesía en Voz Alta” (Poetry Out Loud) festival in Mexico, I took the position of: if it is meant to happen then the right pieces will fall in place, in the right way. I will not put out extraordinary effort to make it so. And the pieces did fall in place.

This festival is quite amazing. It has been going for six years and brings together all kinds of language-based performances: straightforward poetry readings, sung text, poetry with musical accompaniment, and multi-media productions. This year’s performers came mainly from Mexico; but others were from Spain and one group was made up of Inuit throat singing women from Northern Canada. We were the only representatives of the United States.

The festival is put on by the Casa de Lago organization. This “House of the Lake” is some kind of community think-tank/workshop center on a lake in the middle of Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. The organization was founded by the grandfather of our friend (and fantastic bass player/composer Alonso Arreola – look for his track on my upcoming cd “I’ll Tell What I Saw”, nudge, nudge, nudge). Juan Jose Arreola was a very much loved, experimental, Mexican author. His name sits alongside Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges as one of the great Spanish language writers of the 20th Century. Inside the Casa there are many old pictures and one is of Arreola and Borges together. He also was in one of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films, which was banned in Mexico. Obviously, a cool character.

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Top class folks ran this festival. The entire organizational aspects of the performance were probably some of the best I have ever encountered. Sound check was crazy smooth and we clocked in our setup at just under four hours. This was close to miraculous, considering we had to arrange the video projection, lights, audio, staging, and do some rehearsing.

We went back to the hotel for a few hours and when we returned about 6:30 there was a crazy huge line formed, waiting to get into the performance. Fantastic! We were sharing the stage with Julián Herbert and Jorge Rangel of Saltillo, Mexico. They went on about 7:15 and it was just dark enough for their film projections to be seen. I didn’t have the benefit of understanding enough Spanish to know what their texts were saying, but their video projections were very interesting. They mixed real film footage with animations in clever and engaging ways. Just enough coherence to feel a story taking place, but never any direct repetition of the visual elements.

One great flaw that I notice some multi-media performers make, by downgrading the visual element, is when they loop their visuals. Somehow we accept direct repetition of musical elements far more than visual ones. (Perhaps that is a mistake, as well?) When you see a performance with film/video and you see the visuals looping you immediately begin tuning out/spacing out. I feel like the mind says, “Oh, I see I was over exerting my attention here. This image will come around again. I can unfocus from it and come back to it later if it has any importance.” You would never, ever see that happen in a film. Even a crappy film. The only time you would see a particular shot again is in a memory, or a re-contextualizing recap like the ending of “The Usual Suspects.”

So when I see that kind of repetition in a multi-media performance (and I realize this is a bias), I begin to lose curiosity in the whole thing instantly. It is an interesting aside, now that music and the composition and production of it has become so mechanized, to wonder if something vital has also been lost in the kind of repetition we accept in music. (“I’ve heard this before and I will hear it again. So I don’t need to listen carefully to make sure I catch everything and hear where it is going and how it is going to get there. Because it isn’t really going anywhere.”)

Anyway, Julian and Jorge’s visuals were just the kind that some people might have chosen to use repetition to help cut their production workload. But they didn’t. Julian’s performance with his voice was very high energy. And Jorge’s music was absolutely right for what I was hearing.

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Quodia hit the stage at about 8:15pm. The night was completely dark and we were met with a wonderfully warm audience. This place was completely packed, beyond standing room only. I hit go on the video and we were off and running. The sound was full and powerful, with a big low-end. The video was bright and large. And the text was working inside, both, my mouth and my eye. I have found that if I am not forming the imagery of the text in my mind, then there is little hope of the audience doing the same. So, I was happy knowing everything was falling into place.

Joe and I were very much in-synch, even though we hadn’t played any of this material for three years. We had, also, updated some of the more challenging parts of this music. And it wasn’t that we were simplifying the arrangements -- many of the changes added more demands. But…this is what the piece was asking for, so we did our best to answer the call.

I was very surprised how much applause there was. At many Quodia performances the audiences are completely silent until the very end. But tonight they were at least five or six big bursts of applause. This was often at the end of very strong musical moments, but even at the end of some of the stories. I was very taken aback at the end of “Water Woman”, told by Regina Spektor, when there was a huge explosion of applause. And it wasn’t because Joe and I were doing anything. It was purely in response to the story.

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One of the elements that made this performance a great success was the frame for it. The frame was that this was a poetry festival: people came to hear language. And to the language, we brought many extra elements. In the past, when Quodia had performed in a purely music context, especially in a rock club, the context was musical and the text sometimes became an imposition. A lot of this is based in audience expectation – people expect, and wish for, me to ‘rock out.’ But it is also based in how the event is framed. This festival was a perfect framing and the audience melded with that. I suspect many of the people who truly sunk into the piece tonight were also the same folks who came to hear TU tear the house down at the Anthropology Club in Mexico City, last year. If we had put Quodia into that club, the same people might have been disappointed. So, as Eno has often said: “Framing is critical.”

I have no current sense of what happens next with Quodia. But I do have a sense that something is churning in the undercurrents.


video excerpts from the performance


Juan Jose Arreola reading one of his poems.






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