(Before and) After The Fall: 9th Hour Does Arthur Miller’s The Creation of the World and Other Business

“Most plays don’t get a second chance; I’ve said that frequently. If they fail the first time, they dispirit and discourage all imitators…And it takes generations before somebody fresh with no preconceptions looks at the script and thinks that he understands what the author was about. And sometimes that’s true.” — Arthur Miller in conversation with James J. Martine, 1979.

At the end of opening night where Arthur Miller’s side-B The Creation of the World and Other Business made its début at the studio of the Irving Theatre of the GCTC, I was convinced that director Jonathan Harris imbued new life into a play long considered moribund. The choice to have an ensemble cast, with interchangeable roles, in the guise of travelling circus performers adds a forceful intimacy within the compact circular studio stage.

As the dialogue progresses, it is easy to see why the early reviews of the play in the 1970s panned it. With a comic gateway of the first act, leading to the heavy solemnity of the latter two segments, Creation makes for an unusual mix of pathos, sternness, and inanity. Harris acknowledges the prejudices that everyone brings to the first two chapters of Genesis, the Ur-text of our creation myth in his preliminary message. Clive Barnes, opining in The New York Times in 1972, complained: “But the whole thing has the air of a comic-strip version of Genesis.” A pejorative in The Grey Lady in that pre-Miller&Moore era.

Many are often familiar with Miller—who celebrates the centenary of his birth this year—through high-school readings of his play The Crucible. Miller’s foray into the Potemkin village of Communism, like many members of the intelligentsia of that time, was underwritten by the deficit presented by a cheap, shallow capitalistic materialism that did not salve the ache for justice and meaning.

The central question of justice, giving each thing its due, is what gives the play its animus. While Lucifer is no Miltonic charmer, Johhny Eaton and Robin Guy both alternate the fiendish logic of his entreaties with aplomb. God’s omniscience is dropped for a more thinking-as-I-go-along Deity who often seems to bait his creatures, both heavenly and terrestrial, on the borderlands where they inadvertently (Adam, Eve, and Cain) or inexorably (Lucifer) transgress. But, he is also a God who proclaims that humans are composed of both “dust and love” and thus irrevocably fated to discern that which is lovely, against that which is not.

I doubt that the urge to be entertained rather than being instructed is a novel one. We naturally resist pedants, especially ones trying to make uncomfortable distinctions. I recall the easy pooh-poohing recently of Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel Soumission in a Québec literary publication. Excusing the didactic overtones, when we get to what Miller was trying to communicate, even in its ambivalent form, we grasp a world where a thing is not judged because a thing is not loved. A world that becomes “a cosmic comedy where good and evil are the same,” as David Plouffe, aptly playing God, intones. The tangle comes in Lucifer’s wish to hearken a guiltless innocence over and above moral choice; a seeming reversal of his initial seduction of Eve to the knowledge of good and evil, ergo moral choice.

All fascinating issues that will surely make good fodder in the post-show discussion sessions that 9th Hour has organized, with upcoming ones this Thursday, and Saturday as Creation plays through its final week. Catch it while you still can.

9th Hour’s production of The Creation of the World and Other Business runs until August 8, 2015 at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Hintonburg (1227 Wellington West). For showtimes and other info, click here. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased online.

A Night at the High School: Kid Koala’s Nufonia Must Fall Live!

Kid Koala’s live rendition of his graphic novel, and its accompanying soundtrack, is a terse marvel. And the night commenced with one of the quickest bingo winners (I’m no expert, I swear) as the audience played on a bespoke list composed of items from the book as a warm-up to the show. I’d only previously sampled Kid Koala’s 12 Bit Blues, a warm, earthy mutant that reassembles delta blues tracks using the vintage SP-1200 drum machine and sampler; resulting in a lissom sound that lulls the listener. I chose to enter the show, hosted by—mirabile dictu—the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, blind (and by extension, deaf) to Nufonia Must Fall.

If the venue of École publique De la Salle, seemed an unlikely candidate to be nocturnally abuzz as a public venue, it’s only because its modest façade belies its excellent auditorium, the patrimony of its Centre d’excellence artistique.

The conceit of the spectacle was to animate the content of the graphic novel on the big screen, and have its soundtrack play alongside; humdrum until you dance with the devil in the details. Let’s start with the music. Kid Koala had a restraint throughout that is the mark of a mature performer whose strategy is less to overwhelm than to orchestrate with precision. His musical tandem, the Afiara Quartet, were splendid and playful in displaying their extended range. The story isn’t about the story. The narrative has an easy charm, as we watch the mostly dialogueless plot (excepting a buffoonish boss, with shades of Donald Trump) of a love story by a thoughtful, tender, ever-floundering robot and a diligent, mechanically gifted, but bored young working woman. It’s not the magnificence of the content that prevails (it’s not going to threaten to displace Tristan & Isolde), but that of its telling.

The entire stage has its miniature set-pieces from the graphic novel spread out all along the foreground of the stage, and master puppeteers’ manoeuvering and deft camerawork bring to life the characters with a satisfying vividness. It was arranged and directed by renowned production designer K.K. Barrett (who has lent his talents to a wide array of stellar films, the most recent being Spike Jonze’s Her), and produced by Rhyna Thompson.

As the silhouettes of the technicians frolicked in the dark with each transition, the overall satisfaction of the evening rested on the commitment on the part of the artists to take the road of rigour and attention to the small things that add up, with pleasures and values that resonate more humanly because they are of an ancient, analogue kind. The standing ovation that was the deserved denouement, and Chamberfest’s (which has conclusively shed its undeserved reputation as your grandparents’ jam) after-party Growler Salon with Kid Koala signing books and vinyl to the artful strains of De La Soul and Beastie Boys affirmed that Nufonia, a play on ‘No Fun’, fell indeed.

A Rumour of Androids—When Quantum Meets Music

“This music will only approach quantum if it has every musician playing every other instrument at the same time,” joked Raymond Laflamme, the gifted former student of Stephen Hawking, present director of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing, and host of Quantum: Music at the Frontier of Science at the NAC.

The concept for the afternoon’s concert as part of Ontario Scene was straightforward: the emergence of science, particularly quantum physics, meant that the muse for music receded from religious sources to ostensibly mundane ones. Edwin Outwater, the vernal conductor of the Symphony had collaborated with scientists at the Institute of Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, to find parallels between the development of physics and classical music and feature both in an interactive, multi-media spectacle.

I experienced a nostalgic frisson on seeing the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony prepare to perform. They were my first taste of live classical music at the acoustically supreme Centre In The Square. My Canadian life began in the KW area, where I pursued Science at the University of Waterloo as an undergraduate International Student.

“Why am I still writing symphonies, if that is supposed to be the music of the future!” came the exasperated cry from Gustav Mahler upon hearing the compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, who in many ways, directly and subtly, fathered the many composers whose works were features: Ives, Cage, Webern. Schoenberg, a fiercely driven auto-didact and a German-Jew who was fortunate enough to flee to California right after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, credited Mozart for being a prime influence, particularly with compositions for the string quartet. The afternoon started with Mozart’s 29th Symphony, with its surprising and graceful twists and turns. Representing the perspective of traditional Newtonian physics, it would dimly adumbrate the massive upheaval to come in our understanding of reality in the early twentieth century. Ann Baggley, the narrator for the evening, punctuated each pause in the repertoire by relaying a morsel of scientific and musical that provided historical context for the crowd. Her inaugural quote, which elicited nervous laughter, was of Lord Kelvin’s at the advent of the previous century: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.”

Photo by Sean Puckett

The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross, in his learned The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, recounts how Schoenberg “confessed in his diary in 1912 that he was sometimes frightened by his disciples’ intensity, by their urge to rival and surpass his own most daring feats, by their tendency to write music “raised to the tenth power.” This exponential drive would colour much of modern music’s energies.

Webern’s two pieces were contrasted with the development of set theory and palindromes. And, Charles Ives, whose The Unanswered Question, would exemplify the haunting dissonance of the machine age featured the help of assistant conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser to assist Outwater, as a lone trumpet has the last word as it clouds the serenity of the strings, and the accompanying horn section fumble in their attempt to answer its unyielding groan. Outwater would later state how Ives would write his music in either several keys at once, or none, greatly challenging the chops of the performer to say the least.

Henry Brant reached way back to Lucretius, whose significance was elucidated in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, intoned the atomistic nature of the world where change was not only possible by expected. John Cage’s word-defying Atlas eclipticalis features a score that is patterned on the constellations. It was perhaps Iannis Xenakis, who sought refuge from post-war Greece in Paris, who took modern music towards its electronic inevitability. As an architect, an engineer, and a designer in Le Corbusier‘s studio, Xenakis, in Outwater’s words, perhaps was the first to possess the musical and scientific “chops” to truly model his compositions on the stochastic process, which concerns itself with the random movement of particles.

The fascinating theory of entanglement, how two things could be at different positions at the same time, is one that was presaged in The Double-Slit experiment. Xenakis insisted that his music needed to have a sensual load that could still arrest the attention of a novice hearer. Yet the mystery of our reality means that the best music can do to mimic that reality, other than play a bar of the Star Trek theme in jest, still falls short. Baggley described this strange world, and its accompanying tones as “inspiring.” I disagree. I’d settle for ‘fascinating.’ Human beings feast on beauty, and are held in awe by mystery. Our sustenance, our inspiration, derives from the latter. A beauty that mathematics systematizes, and religion incarnates. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why, even in a secular age, we will never tire of the theistically-sourced compositions of the major musical eras.

As the afternoon drew to a close, Laflamme regaled the crown with a story of how Xenakis visited Québec City, where as a young boy, he and his brother were given a day with the savant by pure coincidence. It was the humanity of Xenakis and the other composers that left an indelible mark. As Ives’ lone trumpet asks the unanswered and likely unanswerable questions, it mirrors this very humanity. It does not transcend it.