I’ve had a pretty solid experience with the Spoleto concerts this season — there was the infamous Musica Nuda, then the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, and pianist Carlos Aguirre, all of whom I loved. And I can’t forget Emmylou and Rodney, who gave the kind of great country performance they’re known for.
I’ve recently added two more musical shows to my list: Rita Marcotulli and Luciano Biondini, and What Moves You, the pairing of jookin’ superstar Lil’ Buck and cellist Ashley Bathgate.
First for Marcotulli and Biondini: their concert was, like Aguirre’s, an intimate affair in the College of Charleston Simons Center for the Arts Recital Hall, which is my new favorite venue for small performances. Its design is clean and simple, and it has wonderful acoustics — in other words, the space offers everything you need for a show with one or two musicians.
It was well-suited to the piano (Marcotulli) and accordion (Biondini) duo, as much of the joy of their performance has to do with seeing them interact while they play. Their pieces had an improvisational feel, even though most of it was not improvised; you could see them reacting to and working with each other throughout. The two played both covers and originals, and Biondini made his accordion sigh and sough in ways I’ve never heard before.
I have to admit, though, that i didn’t get a whole lot out of this show. The music was beautifully played, and interesting enough, but maybe piano and accordion just isn’t my thing. Or maybe I was having an off night.
This afternoon, though, I saw What Moves You, and I’m still trying to figure out what I thought of it. The show was billed as a collaboration between jookin’ (a Memphis style of dance) master Lil’ Buck and cellist Ashley Bathgate, who, though she’s not specifically labeled avant-garde, fits that description fairly well. For whatever reason, I and several other audience members I spoke to had figured that the show was really a performance by Lil’ Buck, with Bathgate providing the music. Put it down to typical theater-goer prejudice — between a musician and a dancer, the dancer’s almost always the main attraction.
This was not the case with What Moves You. The show opened with Bathgate and Bathgate only — she came onto the stage, which was fitted out not with a music stand but an iPad stand and a table with a laptop, sat down, and played the contemporary piece “Arches” by Jacob Cooper. It was a rich, rolling composition, and showcased Bathgate’s beautiful and sensitive bowing.
But that’s not all it did. “Arches” also introduced us to the cellist’s interest in using technology in music. This piece, and several others she played throughout the concert, used looping, delays, and other technological tools to turn Bathgate’s single cello into several cellos — she’d play and record a phrase, then keep playing live while that phrase played behind her, and continue in that same pattern.
This created a layering effect that was really arresting, and of course gave the piece a much richer sound than she could have created on her own. It also brought up some questions I’ve been mulling over since the show ended, such as: While it’s cool to see what technology can do for a single performer, how is that better than simply bringing in more musicians to play the multiple parts? Is it something of a parlor trick — a musician sonically cloning herself, as it were — or is there some unique musical value to this sort of composition? Or is this kind of work merely something different, and not something to be directly compared to traditional playing?
I haven’t decided exactly how I answer these questions, but I do know one thing. “Arches” and the other pieces Bathgate played, which included a fascinating and beautiful piece called “Velvet” by Kate Moore, are musical experimentations, and I believe that artistic experimentation is always good (you know, provided it’s not harming anyone or the planet).
After “Arches,” Bathgate took the mic and welcomed everyone to the show. She then launched into Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D Minor, and it was only after she’d been playing for several minutes that the elusive Lil’ Buck appeared. He came on to the stage slowly, with the floating step that is so integral to his style of dance. It was interesting to see how much his hands are a part of his dancing — during the Bach, he had them moving like jellyfish, swimming through space. His cousin Ron “Prime Tyme” Myles, who danced in Lil’ Buck’s place last night when he was delayed getting into town, joined Lil’ Buck on stage for two pieces, and he brought extra energy to the very small stage.
This was, I believe, Lil’ Buck’s first time performing with Bathgate, and you could tell. The chemistry wasn’t quite there; musically, the two worked together well, but they haven’t yet reached that level of comfort together that is necessary to put on a truly outstanding show. This was just — good.
There was one major exception: “Dance for Me Wallis,” a piece from the 2011 Madonna film about Wallis Simpson W./E. The music is romantic and bittersweet, and as Bathgate played, Lil’ Buck seemed to pluck the music out of her head and play with it, moving it through the air with his hands. As Lil’ Buck explained after it was over, he was trying to emote what what going in on Bathgate’s head as she played. It was extremely intimate, and an example of true partnership. This was the one piece during which the two seemed in perfect sync, responding to and building upon each other’s performance.
Lil’ Buck only danced to one other tune, Camille Saint-Saens’ the Swan from Carnival of the Animals. (It’s the dance that made him famous after a video of him performing it with Yo-Yo Ma went viral.) The rest of the show belonged to Bathgate and a series of tunes that used pre-recorded tracks and looping, among other techno tricks.
While performance-wise, it wasn’t my favorite, What Moves You was absolutely one of the most intellectually interesting shows I’ve seen this festival. That’s partly due to the aforementioned musical questions it raised, as well as the fact that Bathgate and Lil’ Buck took some time out from the music to talk about their creative process and what they try to do as artists and collaborators. “As artists, we can bring out the best in each other,” Lil’ Buck said, earning a round of applause.
I agree completely, but I think it might be a little while before these two are able to find their groove, if they continue to work together past Spoleto. That’s OK, though. They’ve given me plenty to think about in the meantime.
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