A loose-jointed affair that never really found an aesthetic center.”W hen I read Robert Trussell’s review, I thought about how different mindsets and expectations can produce profoundly different experiences for different attendees at a performance. Trussell came to the Friends of Chamber Music premiere of The Darwin Project event with one set of expectations, geared to his commitment to write a review to be published in a daily newspaper on deadline. I came to the event with a different set of expectations--with only a genuine interest, really; that is, with no specific objective or purpose. (I attend lots of events; I only write about some of them, mostly ones that are strictly chamber music per se. This event was theatrical and multimedia, and I only decided to write this blogpost after seeing what Trussell wrote. I feel that Trussell’s words do not reflect what I and others who attended experienced, and that is what prompted me to post about it.)
Robert Trussell, Kansas City Star, 15-OCT-2011.
T hree actors (Gary Neal Johnson, Darwin and others; Kathleen Warfel, Emma Wedgwood (Darwin’s wife) and others; Cinnamon Schultz, narrator) portrayed Charles Darwin’s life story (script by Jeremy M. Lillig and Nancy Cervetti), accompanied by classical music performed by the Daedalus String Quartet, solo pianist Alon Goldstein, and Kansas City Collegium Vocale chamber choir, under the direction of Ryan Board. Above the performers on-stage, historical images and dramatic original nature photography were projected on a large, suspended screen—animations, montages, and stills.
T he musical performances were impeccable throughout. Direction by Kyle Hatley was insightful and dynamic. The actors—especially Gary Neal Johnson—fully inhabited their characters. The imagery was well-chosen to complement and synchronize with the dramatic arc and cadences of the music. The sound reinforcement (which Trussell complained about) was just fine for those of us who were down in the Orchestra section. (Not sure where Trussell was seated Friday night, but it should be recognized that it has only been a few weeks since the Kauffman Center opened, and the people manning the mixing console up in the studio loft are surely still just discovering as they go what the optimal level settings are for various ensemble types, genres, miking configs, and audience sizes.) The staging and deployment of the musicians and actors were thoughtful. The lighting direction was done in a manner that appropriately emphasized the shifts in action and mood. The antiques/props, complete with rare blooming orchids and fossils, lent just the right amount of atmosphere.
T he one issue about which Trussell and I agree is the bit about the small percentage of the audience clapping after each ‘number’. It is vital that—for productions that are comprised of multiple short segments or ‘scenes’, and where piddling, confused applause will disrupt the atmosphere and continuity of the performance—the presenter should instruct the audience before the program begins: ‘Please do not applaud until the end.’ Simple.
B ut, gee, look at what this thing is! And look, too, at the fact that this was its premiere performance! The writing of lives is inherently difficult and complex, and The Darwin Project should, I think, be considered on its merits as biography. The aims of accuracy and commemoration can undoubtedly be helped by multimedia content, to convey what is hard to capture in words. Well-chosen music and images can clarify and intensify the characterization of the multiple milieux that affected the person the biography is about, over a long (73-year) and illustrious lifetime. The agnostic and Unitarian and Anglican excursions in Darwin’s changing (‘evolving’?) religious/spiritual thought, were elegantly and empathetically suggested by the diversity of the music selected for The Darwin Project:
- Anonymous - Antiphon for the Feast Day of St. Albert, Patron Saint of Science
- Mendelssohn - String Quartet No. 2, Op. 13, adagio, allegro vivace
- Debussy - Preludes, Book 2, ‘Canope’
- Schumann - Fantasiestücke, Op.12, ‘Des Abends’
- Schumann - Fantasiestücke, Op.12, ‘Aufschwung’
- Byrd - Mass for 5 voices, ‘Gloria’
- Ravel - Miroirs ‘Une Barque sur l’oceane’
- Haydn - String Quartet in C major, Op. 33, No. 3, allegro moderato
- Chopin - Prelude in B-flat major, Op. 28, No. 21
- Debussy - Preludes, Book 2, ‘Les tierces alternées’
- Des Prez - Inviolata
- Chopin - Prelude in A major, Op. 28, No. 7
- Janácek - 1.X.1905 Sonata ‘Smrt’
- Mendelssohn - String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80, allegro vivace assai
- Vaughan Williams – ‘See the Chariot at Hand’ (cantata from ‘In Windsor Forest’)
I n fact, the matter of opposing claims and methods of science versus the imagination are a recurring issue in modern discussions of biographical methods. Serious biographers usually agree that their conclusions, while grounded in facts and a scholarly, scientific process of sifting and evaluating evidence, are at bottom ‘intuitive’ in much the way that medical diagnosis is ‘intuitive’: the biographer perceives meaning and reaches conclusions in a high-dimensionality, time-varying set of data; the biographer reliably finds patterns and takes decisions in the face of extreme complexity and contradictions and counter-factuals.
T he facts of his life become the most interesting—and perhaps the most ‘true’—just at the edge of mystery.”R eading all the the extant materials, being open to all points of view on the subject of the biography—these are just prologue to the biographer’s purpose, which is to intuit accurately what it all means and express that in a convincing and authentic way to others, even if the story is irreducibly complex and the intuitions do not reveal just one ‘center’. The Darwin Project succeeds beautifully as multimedia biography of a very remarkable, complex person.
Jay Martin, commenting about the process of writing the biography of Henry Miller.
P .S.—You may especially like the Hamilton and Rollyson books (links below).
P .P.S.—Lee Hartman's arrangement (for SATB and string quartet) of Vaughan Williams’s ‘See the Chariot at Hand’ was superb... warm, very moving with end-of-life atmospherics, beautiful orchestration, and a balanced and emotionally-fitting concluding work for this production. Bravo!
- Biographers International Organization
- Lee Hartman website
- Browne J. Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 1 - Voyaging. Knopf, 1995.
- Browne J. Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 2 - The Power of Place. Knopf, 2002.
- Hamilton N. Biography: A Brief History. Harvard Univ, 2010.
- Holroyd M. Works on Paper: The Craft of Biography and Autobiography. Counterpoint, 2002.
- Martin J. Always Merry and Bright: The Life of Henry Miller. Capra, 1980.
- Rollyson C. A Higher Form of Cannibalism?: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography. Dee, 2005.
- Vaughan Williams R. See the Chariot at Hand. Score, SATB + piano. Oxford Univ, 1980.