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Performance Review: HABITAT at the Katzen Museum

March 2, 2014 | 4:33pm EST

I’ll be honest—I had no idea what to expect from last Friday’s performance of HABITAT at the AU Katzen Museum. Composed by Steve Antosca, performed by Ross Karre, and digitally altered by William Bent, HABITAT promised to combine sound, physical space, and live computer transformation. I had seen the event unceremoniously advertised on the Katzen website, and the short explanation described it as a “concert-length percussion solo,” which instantly conjured images of a leather-clad Christopher Walken demanding his prescription for more cowbell. While the cowbell did make an appearance, HABITAT proved itself to be a complex, multi-media performance, intertwining a collection of mediums in conversation for an immersive concert that moved from station to station through the museum.

When I first walked into the museum, I was a bit confused; chairs were set up at various points near Karre’s instruments, with a cluster underneath the stairs, some angled along the wall in a separate gallery, and several rows in the central rotunda. Audience members were not given much direction by the staff, and I didn’t want to choose a seat only to later find myself listening to the majority of the concert through a wall. As the concert progressed, I was confused as whether to follow Karre through the space as he moved from station to station in an awkward game of musical chairs or to stay in my seat. The chairs ultimately interrupted the audience’s freedom to explore the space and musical composition equally.

Each movement of the concert was distinct, both stylistically and spatially. Moving from the rotunda to the neighboring gallery, then to the stairway and up into the second and third floors, each section mimicked its environment in tone and register. The audience was able to experience how each movement interacted with the gallery space, resonating in different ways depending on where and what Karre was performing at that moment. The effect was transformative, molding the museum’s galleries into a meditative and other-worldly space. Higher tones and sounds reminiscent of wind characterized the portions performed on the second and third floors, while the rotunda’s movement was written with wider, rounder notes. The result was beautiful musical architecture; Antosca drew up the blueprints for the gallery in his score and decorated the walls with Bent’s digital alteration. But what HABITAT did most successfully was feign naturalism. Each movement felt organic, filling up the space by its own volition. Watching Karre play on “found” instruments like clay pots and coffee tins reinforced this idea. In reality, every movement performed by Karre and Bent was calculated and predetermined, written on a score sheet in what I interpreted as brilliant detail.

The entire concert was paired with video projections of twisting strings and other linear forms. Being that the other elements of the performance were so accomplished, the visuals felt like more of an after-thought than a fully integrated part of the performance (as if to say, “Here’s a really challenging and innovative piece of avant-garde percussion which explores resonance in both a traditional and spatial fashion— also here’s some twine”). More so, while there was obvious consideration for the architectural space of the AU Museum, there was not for the artwork hanging on the walls.

While clumsy in some areas, HABITAT successfully immersed its audience in a three-way dialogue between percussion, computer, and space. The composition catered to the museum’s galleries and complexly dealt with the traditional conventions of music by integrating contemporary sensibilities, even though the visuals could have been fine-tuned. Antosca’s composition walked the line of conceptual and concrete—although maybe I’d recommend a little more cowbell.

Special thanks to Caroline Salant.

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