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Permission to Wander 

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Luna's Gaze

MASS Ensemble

at the Chopin Theatre, through April 12

By Justin Hayford

Courage is often misidentified in the performing arts. Critics make a habit of praising big, loud pieces for their daring, which is a bit like gauging the boldness of a Hollywood film by the number of exploding objects. Sure, the faster-louder school of art provides its share of thrills, but they're usually cheap and easy; how much brainpower does it take for the otherwise ingenious Blue Man Group to conclude their show by blaring techno music and dumping a few thousand feet of toilet paper on the audience? In a culture as coercively histrionic as ours, perhaps the most courageous artistic act is the act of stillness.

If so, the Movement and Sonic Sculpture (MASS) Ensemble display an inordinate amount of courage in their new piece, Luna's Gaze. With a stage full of oversize, well-amplified instruments (designed by company cofounder Bill Close), a dozen or so drums and cymbals, and two huge video screens, the group seems equipped to blow the roof off the Chopin Theatre. Instead they create a work as subtle and nuanced as the shifting colors at sunset. It sneaks up on you like a welcome midafternoon nap--and it's every bit as refreshing.

The evening begins so quietly it takes a while to realize anything is happening. After the houselights go out, the audience sits in apparent silence for what seems eternity. But that silence is in fact molded by the distant ringing of chimes, a sound so soft it hovers on the threshold of audibility. The sound gradually moves closer, although no performers have yet appeared onstage. Perhaps they're out in the alley or down the block. Finally, as hypnotic, flowing computerized patterns melt on the video screens above the stage, the ensemble members appear one at a time. Two women, Tatiana Sanchez and Holly Quinn, move soberly around the space, ringing their chimes in a kind of mock religious ritual as if they were awakening and purifying the space. Musical director Joseph Harvey takes his position stage right behind his cello--the only conventional stringed instrument in the piece--and plays the classic warm-up chords you hear before every symphonic concert. Then Close walks up to one of the two enormous stringed instruments onstage--they look like the silvery, unfinished hulls of Viking ships--and plays a long, sonorous drone. The women begin to tap two freestanding drums, swaying back and forth in a kind of languid doo-wop choreography. Psychedelic flowers on the video screens dissolve into Aztec ruins. Finally percussionist Brien Rullman kicks in with a vaguely Celtic beat, and the MASS Ensemble comes fully to life.

In this opening piece, the group makes it clear what they are not about: they do not intend to dazzle or overwhelm. Most of the movement is subdued (a welcome change from previous performances), and the music rarely rises above mezzo forte. The simple, repetitive chord progressions never defy conventional expectations, even as Close's unorthodox instruments produce unfamiliar sounds. The video imagery, made up primarily of flying vistas both earthly and extraterrestrial, is as soothing as warm milk and as unobtrusive as industrial carpeting.

In other words, Luna's Gaze has been assembled in such a manner that nothing is foregrounded. In fact, no single element--the music, the movement, the stage pictures, the video images--is particularly interesting or theatrical. Nothing leaps out at us; in fact the performers spend most of their time in semidarkness. As a result, Luna's Gaze becomes a kind of sonic landscape painting, articulated in long, moody strokes. This is not a piece you lean into to scrutinize; it's one you lean back from to overhear.

Which isn't to say the music is a featureless wash, despite the fact that nearly all 11 selections are played in the same minor key. Compared to the last MASS Ensemble concert I saw a few years ago, Harvey's musical direction shows much greater attention to phrasing and build. He also reveals an admirable willingness to pare down arrangements, sometimes suspending walls of simple harmonics for minutes at a time. And rather than trying to convince an audience that their simple music is difficult, as the MASS players have done in the past, this time they find the emotive power of simplicity. Nothing shocking or drastic happens; there are no virtuoso moments. Instead, delicate shifts in tone and texture keep the evening moving forward.

The performers make themselves incidental throughout, dwarfed by their own instruments as well as the towering video images. With no element dominating, it's never clear where we should look or what phrase we should listen to. Luna's Gaze is a piece uniquely without focus; the audience is left constantly suspended between watching and listening. It's easy for the mind to wander, and in fact the mind is given permission to do so. It seems MASS wants us to uncover whatever intricacies may delight us in the work, whether it's the click of castanets or the flicker of candles. They do little to point us in any direction.

Only in the final three selections does MASS break its own rules, foregrounding the dancers--without much success. Sanchez's and Quinn's choreography, a collection of generic modern dance moves, is altogether too haphazard and uncommitted to stand front and center.

It's a curious paradox that the MASS Ensemble's work is most successful when it does the least to hold our attention. Certainly these artists have packed the evening with engaging visual and acoustic imagery--just pondering Close's beautiful, mysterious instruments has its rewards. But they don't give us a guided tour of the landscape they've created. Rather, they give us the freedom to wander. This approach takes real courage, for there's nothing to guarantee that wandering won't lead to a dead end. But by encouraging each audience member to find his or her own way through the evening, MASS offers the mind a uniquely personal opportunity to ramble.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.

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