June News 2000

Agora Festival:
In Concert: George Aperghis: Machinations
Circus/Concert: Roland Auzet: Cirque de Tambour
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Georges Aperghis: Machinations

World Premiere Concert at the IRCAM, Paris
June 6,7,8,9 and 10, 2000
Co-production of the IRCAM-Centre Pompidou and the Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln
Presented as part of the Agora Festival 2000


Music and Direction: Georges Aperghis
Vocalists-Performers: Sylvie Levesque, Donatienne Michel-Dansac, Sylvie Sacoun, et Geneviève Strosser
Video: Daniel Levy

concert review by Guy Livingston


We’re all surprised to see Aperghis at the IRCAM: one would easily have thought him too avant-garde for this most conservative of “contemporary” institutions. But IRCAM is struggling to be more open (too little, too late) and Aperghis is becoming more accepted by official Paris (a dubious honor). Perhaps Aperghis is not as wild as he was in his days at the ATEM in Nanterre. Regardless, he is still dazzling us with his innovation and dry humor, not to mention his brilliant use of the human voice.

On-stage are four young women, sitting at desks, like schoolchildren. Each desk is illuminated from within. The desktops are made of a glowing milky-white plexiglass. The women wear customer-service-type headset mics, leaving their hands free to play with objects on the desks in front of them. Behind each performer is a large video screen, feeding off four tiny cameras, one mounted over each desk. The images thus magnified are of the performer’s hands in black and white. They arrange sticks, twist locks of hair, crumple pieces of paper, display poems written on sheets, rotate transparencies, and mark on smoked glass. All the gestures are careful, reserved, rarely sudden. The cameras are stationary, focused in on the luminescent desktops. Of all the marvelous effects, one of the most poignant is achieved by the use of pocket mirrors, tilted to reflect the faces of the neighboring musicians. Otherwise their faces are visible to us, the audience, but never to the cameras, which seem to view their hands with a dispassionate tenderness.

The whole is carefully synchronized and coordinated. Nothing is left to chance, despite the incredible abstraction of the show, and the performers have a monumental task: They have memorized an hour’s worth of abstract sounds, floating phonemes, and dancing hands.
which sometimes hold undulating cotton wads up to the camera, sometimes manipulate cones of synthetic material to suggest the workings of a digestive tract or a breathing lung... As Aperghis says, “Ces gestes sont conçus exactement comme une phrase musicale.” [These gestures are conceived exactly like musical phrases.] The effect is macroscopic and/or microscopic performance art.

All of the images, side-by-side, have a pearly aura, almost a religious quality in their black and white organic purity and in the abstractness of the images of every-day items, enlarged, examined in minute, fidgety detail. One thinks of John Cage’s Cartridge Music, in which tiny, tiny items (seeds, bits of leaf, matches, rice grains) are rubbed against phonograph cartridges amplified at high volume.

By restricting his palette, Aperghis gives us a new appreciation for video. No wild effects for him, no wipes and fades and MTV giddiness. Instead, these limited means (wisely ignoring most of IRCAM’s vast technical potential) produce an aesthetic of asceticism. Beauty and sobriety meet in an erie glow.

Meanwhile, the text: despite the powerful impression that the video makes, the substance of the show is the text, even though it is incomprehensible. Deriving their sounds from real languages, but only pronouncing the phonemes, the vowels, or the consonants, the performers speak at great velocity, and with intense passion. The effect is of native speakers of a particularly obscure language conversing with such utter conviction, that in the audience we felt we must have understood something, though afterwards we could not agree on what... Early on, despite their lack of a common language with each other or the audience, the performers establish their personal identities very strongly. childlike, aggressive, tragic, silly, outgoing or shy. Aperghis’s unusual rehearsal methods involve endless improvisatory re-working of the material. The result is music uniquely tailored to the performers’ personalities.


The texts are derived from (among others), Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, The famous mechanical duck of Vaucanson, and (a bit too predictably) Turing’s paradoxes. Indeed the only weakness of the show was its occasional use of self-referentiality, particularly the jarring intervention of the technical engineer as a “commentator” on the action. What could have been acted with the remove and perspective of a Greek chorus turned into a bit of needless over-intellectualism. The same problem came up when the text became too clearly an overt reference to machines. Shots of a computer chip offered some humor, but did we need yet another parody of the Turing Test?

Thierry de Mey’s TafelMusik, or John Cage’s Cartridge Music, or Benedict Mason’s Espro--I Love My Life...–Along with Machinations, these masterworks unite a certain austerity in their search for new sounds within rigorous limits; squared, chessboard-type physical layouts; a perverse use of technology; subtle metaphors that mirror our lives but parody the system; virtuoso musicians with intense self-control... They are all brilliant attempts to reach beyond tradition by imposing new and astonishing boundaries.



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Le Cirque de Tambour

Le Cirque de Tambour
“Le Site Cra”
Circus/Concert by Roland Auzet, percussionist
Set Design by Philippe Daney
Images and Video by Chu-Yin Chen
Real-time video and music produced at IRCAM
Musical Assistant: Marie-Hélène Serra

Performers: Roland Auzet, percussionist; Guillaume Bertrand, acrobat; Philipp Boë, juggler; Vanessa Ricolleau, acrobat and contortionist; Cathie Verdin, dancer.

Co-production of the Cirque de Tambour, IRCAM, Centre Pompidou, la Muse en circuit, etc.

reviewed by James Baiye, special correspondent


This so-called circus goes nowhere. No soul. No emotion. No humor. No life. Other than that, what a circus. Jugglers! Dancers! Backflips! Fancy scaffolding! Murky lighting! Give us a break. Virtuoso performances wasted on a humorless wasteland.

My distinguished colleague, Guy Livingston, hints at the irrelevance of IRCAM in a recent review. But he is too nice. IRCAM is worse than irrelevant. It is the kiss of death for art. Le Cirque de Tambour should cut a wide berth. Too late!

These guys are good. Really good. They know their juggling, and they can sure shimmy up the scaffolding. But their talents are wasted. The show lacks narrative! Structure! Life!

Percussion is the theme of the hour. Instruments on the scaffolding. Gongs hung from the rafters. So where’s the music? Mostly in the computer. Too damn bad. Too damn pretentious.

Dullness itself, punctuated by sudden glimpses of genius. Auzet (on mallets) and Boë (juggling numerous white balls) play a duet at the marimba. Nifty! Real-life counterpoint of two bodies and balls and mallets flying through the air. The music doesn’t stop. Neither do the rubber balls arcing up and down. In a funky twist, Boë launches the balls from the bass of the marimba, and Auzet glissandos down from the treble. Effortlessly they pass in middle. Collision avoided by a split hair. Show me more! Wow!

Teletubbies with tapeworms? Their cute costumes are no match for the dire feeling of destruction and dullness that pervades the evening. Would you start a non-narrational, non-political circus show with video shots of Stalin? Of Hitler? No way. Me neither. Site Cra sticks in my craw.




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