MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Before … and After … and Now: Rabih Mroué’s Riding on a Cloud

On the Boards_Rabih Mroue

Fans of experimental theater and performance art are likely to already have Rabih Mroué’s latest show on their radar: titled Riding on a Cloud, it opened last night at On the Boards and plays through Sunday. But anyone interested in the issues that theater is so ideally suited to explore should see this unclassifiable performance. Anyone interested in the paradoxical truce between fiction and reality that underlies the very impulse to make art.

The Beirut-based Mroué wields a beguiling mixture of provocation and poetry, using his medium to pose fundamentally human questions about the identities we invent and the stories we fabricate to make sense of our past and present reality.

In Riding on a Cloud Mroué turns to the story of his own family– specifically of the youngest sibling, Yasser. Near the end of the Lebanese Civil War, in 1987 (when he was 17), Yasser was shot in the head by an urban sniper. He survived improbable odds, forced to slowly relearn as a young adult the lessons he had tackled in kindergarten.

Along with aphasia, one side effect of Yasser’s injury is the loss of his ability to process representations: he could no longer recognize the image of a person or thing (say, in a photograph) when abstracted from the reality — even including photographs of himself.

But the story that Riding on a Cloud seeks to tell isn’t the story of the war’s endless cycles of violence and suffering. Aside from a few specifically political references, Mroué shows no interest in dissecting blame for the war in this piece. (Some of his other theater works address different aspects of the conflict.) Most importantly, Riding on a Cloud does not offer a feel-good dramatization of “the human condition” and our capacity to heal; it’s not an entertainment to stir up emotions and then offer redemptive resolution.

Mroué works with fragmentary scenes, stringing them together by way of loose associations rather than linear narrative logic. There are many narrative tangents — the coincidence of his grandfather, Hussein Mroué (a significant Arab-Marxist philosopher), being assassinated by fundamentalists on the same day Yasser is shot by the sniper, or the sexual kindness a Soviet nurse shows Yasser when he is recovering — but before we can become too invested in any one of them, Mroué shifts his focus to provoke a fresh set of questions.

Moreover, he frames the entire piece so that we’re continually reminded of the divergence between what we’re seeing and what it seems to represent: Mroué’s dramaturgy, in other words, seeks to mirror Yasser’s Oliver Sacks-like condition — to see in it a kind of metaphor for the condition of art.

Rabih Mroué has written the script that Yasser actually performs — in Arabic, with subtitles and accompanying visuals on a large screen centerstage. Both language and visuals serve as the playwright’s tools to undermine the naive unification of what is represented with reality.  To what extent are these Yasser’s autobiographical memories, in sync with the “I” onstage who re-enacts them through narrative?  Should we understand Yasser to be representing or playing “himself”? How much is fantasy?

Through most of the show, Yasser is stationed at a desk downstage right (reminiscent of Spalding Gray). From there, casually dressed, he operates a complicated regimen of discs and tapes: a turntablist spinning memories. His voice is beautifully hypnotic, his Arabic flowing with elegant rhythms and poetic clarity. (The title Riding on a Cloud apparently comes from one of Yasser’s poems.)

But on occasion Yasser unpredictably abandons the role of performer and walks behind the screen, reappearing as a spectator of its images, of the stage. This juggling act between inside-out, role playing and reality, gives Riding on a Cloud a subtle, quizzical tone that’s best reflected by the often silent, attentive audience. We are given no cues to guide us to the “appropriate” response (which, in theater-as-entertainment typically manifests in the catharsis of corporate laughter as a relieving signal that “we get it”).

Throughout the piece are woven more abstract, non-narrative segments that give a taste of Mroué’s other projects as a video and installation artist. (Riding on a Cloud just appeared at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and was performed last year at MOMA in New York City, which earlier exhibited his pigmented inkjet prints The Fall of a Hair: Blow Ups drawing on cell phone images of violence.)

We see a sequence of TV screen snow shots, all the more mesmerizing in their variety: random “noise” usually left to be ignored, that here suddenly seems to offer an important clue, if only we could unlock its meaning…. Is this the image of the representations Yasser confronted after his injury?

In another memorable image, a video close-ups on a piano keyboard as five fingers painstakingly pluck out a slow melody. Its simplicity evokes the radical concentration of Arvo Pärt.

By its nature Riding on a Cloud provokes an uneasiness — the show is driven by a series of questions that beget more questions in their wake — but Mroué leavens this remarkable material with a welcome blend of warmth, humor, and humility.

The effect overall is marvelously liberating: as the artist points out in a recent interview, when we are forced to question everything, to meet reality (including ourselves) as a stranger, that means we have to abandon cliches and stereotypes as well. “You have to introduce yourself to yourself again.”

(C)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.


Filed under: On the Boards, review, theater

Collapsing Borders and Boundaries


Kid Koala - Nufonia Must Fall - Noorderzon_Festival_2014_@_Groningen_NL_ Jørn-Mulder-93

My preview of two upcoming events at Stanford Live has now been psoted:

The coming weeks feature two unusual programs in Stanford Live’s ongoing performance season—each featuring a uniquely unclassifiable collaboration with chamber musicians. Singer-songwriter and composer Gabriel Kahane joins with the innovative string quartet Brooklyn Rider to bridge the gap between folk-pop songs and instrumental music. And in Nufonia Must Fall, DJ extraordinaire Kid Koala transforms his graphic novel into a one-of-a-kind music theater/film hybrid with the help of the Afiara Quartet, director-designer K. K. Barrett, a team of puppeteers—and a timeless tale of robots in love.

continue reading

Filed under: new music, preview, Schubert

Happy Birthday, Wolfgang!

Filed under: Mozart

The Miró Quartet’s “Transcendent” Project

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

miro1.jpgTo celebrate its 20th anniversary year, the Miró Quartet has been pursuing some characteristically innovative and ambitious projects. This week the group announced the winner of its Transcendence Education Project: the Fox Chapel Area High School Orchestra in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Entrants had been invited to submit a 30-second video on the topic of ‘musical transcendence’ with prizes including a free masterclass and other chances to interact with the Miró Quartet.

continue reading

View original post

Filed under: Uncategorized

Milton Babbitt’s World: A Centennial Celebration


Tomorrow Juilliard launches it’s six-concert-long Focus! festival devoted to the work of Milton Babbitt and friends. Organized by Joel Sachs, it will present a fascinating cross-section of the much-misunderstood Babbitt’s creative interests and his wide-ranging circle of associates. I had the pleasure of editing the entire set of programs for this festival. Here’s the opening program, including Sachs’s introductory essay on Milton Babbitt:

This Focus! festival, the 32nd, revisits the world of the distinguished American composer Milton Babbitt in commemoration of his centennial. For me, the event is particularly special: I had known him since the 1970s and retain extremely fond memories of our endless chats. His great sense of humor, his remarkable ability to attend seemingly every new-music concert, his love of schmoozing, and his triple role as artist, intellectual, and Southern Gentleman were always a source of joy. His passion for old popular music often surprised the uninitiated. I shall never forget a Columbia Music Department Christmas party in the 1970s when he sat down at the piano and spun off cocktail music with incredible elegance.

continue reading [pdf]



Filed under: Juilliard, Milton Babbitt

Liszt on the Brain

Filed under: Franz Liszt, pianists

Arresting Aristos Make for a Fine Figaro

Shenyang (Figaro) and Nuccia Focile (Susanna) (c) Jacob Lucas

Shenyang (Figaro) and Nuccia Focile (Susanna)
(c) Jacob Lucas

Aidan Lang, head of Seattle Opera, reveals his talents as a stage director in a fresh and engaging interpretation of Mozart’s comic masterpiece. 

The buzz around Seattle Opera’s new Figaro is that it offers audiences here their first chance to see company chief Aidan Lang in his guise as stage director. This production originated to much acclaim in 2010 at New Zealand Opera, which Lang helmed until 2013. The current season is his second since succeeding Speight Jenkins as general director at Seattle Opera.

continue reading

Filed under: Mozart, review, Seattle Opera

Rekindle your spirits with Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Winter Festival


My preview of this month’s Winter Festival by the Seattle Chamber Music Society for the Seattle Times is now online.

Filed under: James Ehnes, preview, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Ivesian Revelations from Morlot and the Seattle Symphony

Looking back over last year’s review, now that the SSO and Morlot’s recording of Ives 4 has been released.

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

page from score of Ives/4th Symphony page from score of Ives/4th Symphony

The last time Ludovic Morlot led the Seattle Symphony in a Charles Ives symphony (the Second), he paired it with Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto (and got pulses running with the Overture to Leonard Bernstein’s musical Candide as a curtain raiser).

I can’t say I get the connections he apparently sees between the conservative Russian and his maverick American contemporary. Maybe the idea is to add still another layer of meta-contrast on top of the already explosively varied mixtures that comprise Ives’ sound world. In any case, this week’s program brings another Rach-Ives pairing.

It was heartening to encounter such an unpredictable interpretation of Rach 3 in last night’s performance (I believe the third time in as many years that Morlot has conducted the work here). Though the previous Rachmaninoff-meets-Ives effort (back in June 2012) had featured the ever-fascinating Stephen Hough as the soloist, the…

View original post 1,231 more words

Filed under: Uncategorized

Mohammed Fairouz: Cello Concerto

DSO-liveA heads-up for the weekend: the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin will broadcast a major new work by the remarkable Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz. Titled Desert Sorrows, it’s a cello concerto for soloist Maya Beiser. Also on the program: Dvořák’s Serenade for Winds, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, and Mozart’s Prague Symphony. The webcast is scheduled for 8 pm EST on 16 January.

Filed under: Mohammed Fairouz, new music

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.