By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Way back in the early '90s, during America's last War on Evil (also spearheaded by a Bush, for you trivia buffs), graphic artist Art Chantry opined that "the left wing needs to find a way to reclaim the American flag." This is not the sort of statement one throws around lightly during times of national distress, as anyone who's recently questioned the methods and motives of the American Military Corp. can tell you, if they have not already been detained, strip-searched, forced to provide a list of known accomplices and warned about that sort of un-American behavior. Secret military tribunals notwithstanding, Chantry's point is both astute and sad: astute because if you wave the flag, you're immediately lumped in with the right-wing conservatives and their brand of gung-ho Americana (outdated 50 years ago), sad because the result of the former is that if you don't fall in line with the right wing's idea of America, you are un-American. This tautology was fine-tuned by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and it's depressing that although the man was discredited, his theories are still given credence. Even more depressing is the truth: For a large portion of this country, if you want your freedom, you'll pay for it with fear.
These negating concepts, freedom and fear, form the basis (and also provide the title) for local artist Eric Hall's new multimedia performance. Freedom and Fear is an ambitious undertaking not just for its size -- the event features the improvisational musical skills of Floyd LeFlore, Derrick Mosley, Ajay Khanna, Dave Stone, Chris Deckard and Hall himself; spoken-word performances from Ira Cohen and Michael Marwit; and a stage full of computers, video equipment, four two-channel reel-to-reel tape recorders and, last but not least, a Frampton Comes Alive!-era vocoder -- but for its scope. In reminding us that America and its symbols belong to every citizen, Freedom and Fear is an attempt to snatch the flag back from those who claim it as theirs through political default. Party affiliations do not determine patriotism.
The mechanics for Hall's grand theft are complex. Over a recording of trumpeter Roy Campbell's interpretation of "The Star Spangled Banner" (taken from Campbell's It's Krunch Time, on Thirsty Ear records), preselected duos and trios will improvise music through a series of 12 movements. Each of the movements, beginning with Campbell's taped performance, will be recorded by the ring of reel-to-reels. The recording made of the first movement will be played during the second movement, and then that new recording will form the groundwork of the next movement, and so on through the 12 movements. The length of the tape loop is roughly five minutes, so playback of each previous movement will be delayed by a commensurate period of time. Further complicating matters is Hall's use of a pair of ducking gates to manipulate the tape loop. Ducking gates are those devices that lower the volume of the music on a commercial-radio station while the DJ talks over the beginning and end of a song. As long as the DJ's microphone is receiving a signal, the gate suppresses the volume of the music. Once the DJ stops talking, the volume of the music increases to the appropriate level. In Freedom and Fear, Hall explains, "the output of the tape loop will be fed into a pair of ducking gates with the envelope being controlled by the volume of the performers. By doing this, the playback of the [preceding movement's] tape loop will be heard only when no performer is playing above the gate's threshold volume."
Hall's collaborator Deckard offers this simple equation: "The volume of the tape loop is inversely proportional to the volume of the live musicians." In other words, if no musician plays, the gates will allow the audience to hear the previous movements' tape loop. Once any person plays, he will drown out the loop. In his written notes for the performance, Hall also observes that "as the piece evolves, the tape loop will not only record the performers, but, by having its own post gate output sent back into itself, will also record its own playback and ducking, creating an improvised ensemble-constructed montage of the performance. It will gradually build layers into a frequently transitioning, live-composed (and decomposed) musique concrète sound sculpture. In addition, all of the performers will be encouraged to freely manipulate the tape loop manually, by tugging it ahead or holding it back slightly, in order to warp the recording and playback speed in a collective distortion of the remembering of the past."
It is the idea of a mutable past that most intrigues Hall: "I think that what we really fear is the past, that what has happened before will happen once again." But rather than let this fear drive the actions of the group, the minimal structural elements he's imposed on his fellow performers and the byzantine electrical construction that will encircle them offer each performer the opportunity to affect both the past of the piece and its future. Each player has predetermined moments when he will be prompted to perform, thereby shaping the next round of tape looping. But even those performers who are not signaled to play will be allowed to affect the outcome through their actions, a device that makes Freedom and Fear a truly democratic performance. Every performer will have a voice, even those who are silent. Every person will be able to participate in the remembering; every person present will play a role in shaping the outcome. One musician may dominate a particular section of the piece, drowning out the voices of the past, but his performance will be tempered by whoever manipulates the tape, and in the next generation of movements, he may be overpowered by another voice. As the piece unfolds, new performers will add their voices to the refracted memories of past performances. And through all these possible permutations and complications, Roy Campbell's rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" will be a constant companion. At the end of the piece, the last tape loop will be a densely woven tapestry comprising every prior loop and improvisation; it will be a complete reconstruction of the entire set, folded in on itself in myriad unforeseen ways.