Sunday, April 29, 2018

TAO Drum Heart

It says on their website that “TAO was established in 1993 in, Japan, with the goal of entertaining the world” and they seem to have been successful.  In their first seven years they sold one million tickets.  Two years in a row their act sold the most tickets out of 1800 groups at the Edinburgh Music festival.  To date they  have played over 400 cities in 23 countries for more than 6.5 million people worldwide.

We saw the performance of “TAO Drum Heart” a short while ago at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe during the last part of their North American tour which started on January 31 and unfortunately won’t be repeated until their next biannual tour of North America in 2020.  I wrote about a different company, Taiko-Kodo, last year ... which I described as a visceral experience, and again so was this performance.  In fact, I almost dropped the idea of writing this because what I wrote in that previous Missive could be repeated here ...

It seemed to me that as wonderful as our previous experience was, this performance was even better, with many added features.  For those who have seen Cirque de Soleil, picture it, not in miniature, even though it was much smaller particularly in an 820 seat theater, but as more compact with, for me, far more impact.  In fact something that I don’t believe happens in Cirque du Soleil, the performers play to the audience.  There was one little boy about 4 or 5 sitting on his mother’s lap and whenever the troupe went to his side of the stage they looked right at him and smiled.  In the audience and there were many youngsters, which is unusual in a theatre where we are used to seeing an older crowd.

I wrote recently about the Lensic’s  advanced sound system but Tao brought their own two sound boards and two  sound engineers.  Even though the Lensic supplied most of the lamps Tao supplemented them with some colored lights of their own.

I thought Taiko was just a performance with drums but this production included  the shinobue, traditional side-blown Japanese  flute, which did not produce the dulcet sounds we are used to hearing from that instrument but far harsher and less melodious sound, more like a bagpipe.  There was also the  koto, a horizontal harp that looks like a zither. Acrobatics and juggling, Japanese style, were presented with a flair suggesting a night club performance. This was enhanced by extraordinary costumes by a high-fashion Japanese designer that made the most of the athletic bodies of the 25 men and 2 women in the troupe.

Just as the musical scores accentuate the experience being portrayed in  movies, when the juggling  of a large silver cubic frame is accompanied by the sound of huge drums with different size drum sticks, one the size of a baseball bat, it becomes exciting..  Also, the effect of a stage full of men twirling silver rods several times the size of a standard baton with different colored lights playing  over them is incredibly theatrical ! 

 Here is a brief sample of Tao Drum Heart ...

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Today I Am ...

Last week I wrote about people leaving Facebook so today I thought I would write about someone who is staying on and he says, “I know the risks but don’t think the Russian bots or clumsy sales pitches are likely to influence me.”  This from a journalist who spent over 30 years writing art and food criticism for The Oregonian, Portland Oregon’s newspaper for well over 150 years.

My wife, Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, met Bob Hicks in St. Petersburg, Russia when she was working on an exhibition for the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.  The Director, John Buchanan, was putting together an exhibition of works of art that had belonged to the Stroganoff family and his curator had quit on him leaving quite a mess.  From a political point of you he had an ace in the hole with Hélène de Ludinghausen the last of the Stroganoffs on his side.  He asked Penelope to take over curating the show.  Though she had refused John the first time she felt she had time then to do so as she had just accomplished the task of helping our son to get into the university of his  choice.  In spite of a great deal of struggle with some of the Russian old guard she whipped the show into shape and helped seal the deal politically as well.  Bob Hicks came along on the final trip to Russia with Penelope, the director and Development Director (Lucy Buchanan)  to finalize the contract.  Subsequently Bob did a series of in-depth stories for the Oregonian which he called, what else … “The Art of the Deal”!

Bob bills himself today as a freelance writer and editor. Shortly after joining Facebook in early 2012 and not being sure how to proceed, he had a visit from his 6 year old grandson who came up with a different cartoon for Bob to post every day. It sparked an idea and every day since April 15, tax day, of that year he has posted a work of art literally putting himself into the picture by writing as if he was a participant in the image.  He tries to pick only works of art where there will be no copyright or other legal entanglements, giving himself an extra challenge.

For instance, there is this wonderful image from last month’s selections, a gouache and watercolor representing “Harlequin and Death” of 1907 by Konstantin Somov from the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.  I had never seen the image before nor did I know of the museum.   This is what he wrote but you might see yourself differently in this image ...

FROM BOB: Today I am giving Old Bones the razz. We’ve been through this a million times. “See that young couple?” he taunts. “I’ll get them in the end. They’re mine.” “Ah,” I reply. “But I will show them love, laughter, passion, joy. You will win only the husk, once they are done.” As always, he is silent. Poor fellow. He knows nothing of life.

A while back I had put Bob in touch with Puppa Witgentstein who, having posted her images on Facebook for some time, wrote the book, “Old Masters Rock: How to Look at Art with Children” which I wrote about last fall.   A great supplement to that would be Bob’s blog within Facebook, which, by the way, is on his personal page where he feels he is actually interacting with friends who comment.

When our children were small and we took them to museums we would stand in front of a painting and ask them to tell us what they thought was going on.  It was often far more interesting than what the actual title was and far more up to date. Here is one definitely for kids, which I have picked from this last month where he gives his take on Hieronymus Bosch’s, “The Ship of Fools,” ca. 1491-1500, from the Louvre.  Your child might see it quite differently… ask her/him.

FROM BOB: Today I am carousing on the good Ship of State. It’s a luxury liner, and a place of high hilarity. We have such fun putting on shows! Wink and act angry: the crowd goes wild. To get on board, one must line the pockets of the wealthy and promise the poor to poke holes in the hull. The only way to keep the thing floating is to sink it!

If you are a Facebook member you can log on and put Bob Hicks into search and the profile photo of the blond guy is the right Bob Hicks.  You will probably have to befriend him … he doesn’t bite … and if you say you are just reacting to this Missive I am sure he will allow you to join.  Have fun going through over 2000 images or just see what painting or other work of art has been today’s choice. There will be a new one tomorrow.

Sunday, April 15, 2018


You might say I am not a pioneer in other words I am usually not the one who buys or indulges in something first, since I want others to find the issues or bugs and let me know the problems before I jump in.  I was not that interested in this new thing called Facebook (FB) when it began in 2004.   For a decade I had belonged to an art forum on Compuserve where we used our own names and met live (from China to Alaska) one hour a week.  Back in 1993 I used to say it was the only singles bar you could go to in your pajamas.  But then my associate started telling me what my son was doing and about an operation his wife was going to have.  My first reaction was why didn’t our son tell us first and then, how did my associate know this?  My associate looked at me as if I was not of this world and said, “Facebook”.  Clearly this was something I had to learn about, so I joined.

Facebook started out naturally enough with mainly young folk and slowly but surely its demographic became older.  The largest percentage today, at just under 30%, is between 25 and 34 with a total of over 2 billion who are active every month and 1.4 billion on average who log on daily.  It was not that long ago that I remember the heralding of 1 billion users!  To put this in perspective the population of the United States is 326 million with 7 billion in the world.  In the interest of full disclosure when FB users reached 1 billion I felt they can’t all be wrong, so I bought some stock.   I have not regretted it and wish I had bought more but I was not that brave!

Now, suddenly, so many have turned on Facebook.  They are upset that their information was stolen and being used for issues that they are not in favor of.  Of course, people don’t like that. You mean you put things you don’t want people to know out in a public forum and thought that only people who agreed with you would see it?  Why do you think that you rarely see doctors or lawyers participating?

I must admit I don’t like the way a foreign country might use Facebook to subvert our political system.  If it is criminal it must be prosecuted and it is up to FB to reveal criminal activity as it is for any other company.  If you don’t like the company you are in leave but don’t prevent others from finding enjoyment of even solace from it.  I have friends who have used FB to share their pain, be it from a loss of a child or loved one or getting through a dreadful illness.  If I can comfort someone through FB that is, as they say in Jewish religion, a Mitzvah, a good deed or even a commandment.

Aside from keeping up with what my children are doing.  I use Facebook to find and keep in touch with colleagues.  Also, my weekly blog is posted there which helps me to connect with a broader audience.

I no longer live in the city so I have a post box at the top of my driveway that has no lock on it. Mail gets stolen sometimes but I don’t think I plan to resign from the postal service because of third party malfeasance.  The congress could insist that the Post Office deliver all mail against a signature, or any other regulation they think appropriate, but that is not going to happen. Maybe after the hearings where CEO Mark Zuckerberg is testifying there will be some regulation of FB but it doesn’t make much sense to me to punish ourselves ...

I am genuinely confused.  We have an open source of information where we all pour out personal thoughts and photographs for the benefit of all our friends and sometimes to everyone out there, but we want that information to be protected from those we don’t like?

Would you send out your bank information on FB?   What I don’t understand is why is anybody who is concerned about their information being private using FB at all, or not being more discreet about what they share.

If Congress gets its way and puts a bunch of laws and regulations in regarding disclosure, a huge number of lawyers will spend months if not years writing incomprehensible paragraphs in such fine print that even those who might understand cannot read it. Then we will be asked  to click on the word “agree”.  Will it make a difference?  Will you click on it?

Sunday, April 8, 2018

I Can Hear Clearly Now

Sound -- This is another in my series going back stage at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe.  If you put the word ‘Lensic’ in the small box at the top left of this page you will find the others.

I am always amazed at how fascinating other people’s lives are and how their careers are so much more complicated than they seem.  I had the opportunity recently to spend some time with Alex Reiser, Audio Supervisor and Sound Engineer at the Lensic and ask about what goes into the job of helping everyone hear and, at my age level, understand what is going on, on stage.

Alex grew up in Boston and went to Middlebury College in Vermont. I always thought of Middlebury as a school for languages but Alex graduated with a degree in Film and Media/Music and started as a musician playing bass.  I have always felt sorry for those who had to carry that instrument around particularly if they were in the New York subway! As in most professions you learn a lot at school but you learn how to succeed by on the job training.

The Lensic is a relatively small theater with 821 seats but it has 64 speakers in the hall, both in plain sight and hidden in the walls.  There are also a varying number of microphones, depending upon the performance, to pick up the sound.  Alex deals with three  types of shows.  The Lensic has actors, singers and musicians on the stage.  A film has it own sound system. Then there is an acoustic shell that can be set up to surround an orchestra to create a richer sound using its 18 microphones with 64 speakers placed around the theater.

You have probably seen a large soundboard at the back of a theatre with buttons and sliding levers, which control the level and way each sound comes from the stage.  In the audience we take hearing pretty much for granted and figure that it all comes from the two large speakers  on each side of the stage. In reality they are in the front, back and in the walls of the theatre. broadcasting from all the microphones scattered around, which for a band, would number 40. Alex explained that the soundboard he controls from his removable station in the last row of seating has 56 channels so he can mix the input from 56 different microphones.

Before a show they do a technical rehearsal or sound check so that Alex can be sure all is working as it should and the performer(s) can also hear how they will sound in this  particular house and adjust accordingly.

Some performers bring their own soundboard and sound engineer.  In extreme cases a performer may even bring their own sound system so they get just the result they want.

A point of reference for me was a concert we had heard at the Lensic that week with Arlo Guthrie, his daughter Sara Lee, his son, Abe and their friend Terry Hall. The Guthries have travelled with the same sound person for years. I asked why they needed two  soundboards and learned that  the second one goes on the stage where a Monitor Engineer is listening to what each of the band participants is hearing.  I did not realize that each performer could hear his or her own voice and one or more instruments in the band through earphones or a wedge shaped speaker at their feet.   So even though the percussion was muffled to the audience and performers by a plexi glass shield around the percussionist, he could still hear what the rest of the band was playing through headphones.

Of course, a great deal depends on where you are sitting in the audience.  Alex explained that the best seats in the Lensic for getting the full effect of his efforts is about two thirds of the way back in the center of the orchestra.  If you are under the balcony you will lose some of the higher end.  Seeing, of course, is another matter that goes into the equation of selecting your preferred seat.

For the hard of hearing an assisted listening system of receivers and headphones can be picked up in the lobby Conceptually it is extremely simple .  If you use the device Alex can send the same sound feed that the rest of the audience is getting to your headphones through radio waves.

Being responsible for the way an audience hears is an awesome task because that will be the first thing that people will complain about. We all hear differently, and, as we get older, the inevitable hearing loss starts with higher frequencies. Thanks to Alex my understanding of the experience of sound in a theater has grown immensely.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

A View from the Other Side

When we went to Los Angeles a short while ago my son, the actor, wanted to take us to a live performance of “Real Time with Bill Maher”.  I used to love Maher’s work but when he came to Santa Fe for a live show we were rather disappointed.  Hunter, however, had gone to great lengths for us: when there was no response to his application for tickets he found the person in charge of seating and got us, not only seats, but a parking space in the CBS Studio lot where Real Time originates-- so that was where we were going.  Unfortunately, no photographic evidence that we were there because they took our phones away as we walked into the building!

I found that a show that did not seem exciting on the tube was quite different in real life.  We got in a bit early and I asked to use the facilities and found I had to be escorted.  It made sense when I realized we were back stage where who knows what havoc could be caused, not to mention that I would have needed a road map and thrown breadcrumbs to find my way back to my seat!

The chief writer came on stage to warm up the audience.  Basically he told us the format of the show, trying to make some lame jokes in between.  Then he showed us a video of clips from some of Maher’s previous shows.  Everyone enjoyed it and laughed a lot, getting in the mood.  Finally, Maher himself came out to do a monologue, up close and personal.

All the while there were three cameras in place on the right, left and center of the stage and one camera on a boom that went back and forth from one side to the other, sometimes pointing towards the audience.  The director must have nerves of steel to get it right selecting the best image to broadcast.  One does realize rather quickly, however, that although the show is televised live, there is a tight format and everything has been rehearsed to some degree.  All the guests know the topics that will be discussed, even if not exactly what will be said.

After Maher’s stand up routine, he will sit down with his guest star. Then a desk will slide up to the front of the stage with his panel and he adds another guest before the panel disburses. After that comes his “New Rules” and a final commentary.On the show we attended comedian Kathy Griffin was Maher’s special guest.

Comedians always have to push the borders of good taste, sometimes too far and must pull back.  If you remember that is how we lost Senator Al Franken, mostly because of an obviously staged photo of Franken putting his hands on a woman’s breasts. Kathy Griffin pushed even further when she posted a photo of herself holding a fake severed head resembling Donald Trump.  As much as I understand the sentiment I have to agree, that goes too far.  It seems, however, that the current administration reacted in a similar extreme and Bill Maher was the only one who was willing to defend her publicly.  Rather than reading about that interview where she talks about how she was virtually black balled, McCarthy style, by Jeff Sessions and put on a no fly list even with Interpol, so she would be detained and questioned in airports internationally, listen for yourselves. The entire interview is about 10 minutes long.

The panel included Erick Erickson, an Evangelical conservative blogger and radio host in Atlanta; Ana Navarro, Nicaraguan-born Republican Strategist with various news outlets including CNN, ABC and Telemundo; Trae Crowder, a comedian; and, near the end of the panel discussion; Bari Weiss from the NY Times adding some additional gravitas.  It is a little like a great dinner party where the host, Bill Maher, leads the conversation and is a major contributor so that the result is a serious but amusing conversation among friends.

I was about to say it was the usual liberal view one hears except Erick Erickson was far from right wing extremist nor was Bill Maher overly liberal.  There was a real balance of opinion, making for an enjoyable show and leaving one with something to think about.

Maher closes with his sometimes insightful, sometimes silly, “New Rules” and a commentary.  The one we heard was about the Second  Amendment being an amendment not a commandment!

I found the evening a fascinating choreographed experience, which I was happy to be part of, as, clearly, was the rest of his audience.