Friday, September 18, 2009

Listening to Governors Island

NEW YORK, NY: Early into LÂN (Land), Sytze Pruiksma's sonic-driven video composition at the Dutch-themed New Island Festival on Governor's Island, your mind and eye wander. The mind-drift and roving-eye are natural and inevitable, because the 70-minute piece is performed outdoors and because the horizontal bars and solid lines of images march across the two giant projection screens that loom in front of us and block our full view of the Manhattan skyline.
Thoughts stream forth: Do you keep your eyes focused at the screens, or do you watch the ferries rolling to and fro over the dark waves of ocean? Are those the synthesized sounds of birds singing in the night air, or are they coming from Pruiksma's musical instruments? Will I have time to drink a glass of white wine at the Boulevard of Broken Dreams before catching the last ferry back to my overpriced Manhattan apartment?

I saw LÂN last night (Thursday) around 10 p.m. after two helpings of a big pasta dinner that came with an intense performance of Orfeo in one of the tents at the New Island Festival, a smorgasbord of location-based Dutch performances running through Sunday September 20 at Governors Island. I was fed well and felt kind of sleepy. It did not help that we, the spectators, were looking up at the visually arresting landscape while lying on our backs on low fold-out chairs on the grass. The crisp velvet of evening stretched across the vast expanse of the sky. There were no stars up above, but there were also no skyscrapers or neon lights marring our view of the cosmos. Those archetypal urban blights were laid out on the flatline of the horizon, flickering at the extreme right of a video-projection screen. So close yet so far. Standing at the extreme left was the Statue of Liberty, our appreciation of its all-night green-glowing vigil obscured by the thick branches of a tree.

Presented in an open-air environment, with a white cubic structure designed by the scenographer Sjoerd Wagenaar serving as Pruiksma's stage, LÂN wants us to meditate on the splendor of the islands of New York City. A concert of recorded natural sounds, loops of electronic compositions and long rows of stacked film projections of watery landscapes, LÂN (Land) mashes up music, nature and video, asking us to tune in to the sensory experience of the New York geography. Hailing from the bucolic northern province of the Netherlands called Friesland, Sytze Pruiksma is a composer, musician, birdwatcher, and one-man band. He performs his own rhythmically propulsive minimalist score (with sample of real sounds) while audiences are seated and watching an abstract film montage on two huge screens--a concert of images that refract the same natural location in which the piece is performed.

This time, however, Pruiksma and the filmmaker Herman Zielstra have included samplings of the grass parks of Governors Island itself. Several weeks before the official opening of the New Island Festival (which runs through Sunday September 20), the two Dutch artists shot a time-lapse video of the New York island and spliced it into the already existing montage of the beaches of Friesland.

At the Oerol Festival, where I first saw LAN this past June, Pruiksma performed his own experimental compositions on the vast expanse of the dunes. That version on the Dutch island of Terschelling was nothing less than a singular meditation of the Friesland landscape itself. This being a location-based live performance, LAN felt quite odd and put me in a quizzical mood, because the film refracted, re-framed and deconstructed the very same pastoral geography that surrounded us. Urban visitors, especially foreigners like myself, can't help but be awed by the look and feel, as well as the shapes and sounds of Friesland. Although Pruiksma's classical compositions were entrancing to listen to (and more colorful and melodious than those by Philip Glass), what exactly was the point of laying out in the dunes, with blankets on our lap, and contemplating the graphic qualities and electronic adumbrations of a geography that was, with no human intervention necessary, so seductively ethereal by itself and so amply available?

Terschelling was spectacular on its own. And if you've spent the better part of the day cycling from performance to site-specific performance from one end of the long island to another, you could be forgiven if LAN, with its backdrop of the orange-blue sun setting in the dunes, lulls you into a deep sleep. Instead of making us acutely conscious of the landscape, the Oerol version of LAN leaves you to move entirely inward. Left in a state of aloneness with neither a narrative to follow or enough of a build-up to the score that might lift your experience to the level of a spiritual trancendence, you simply surrender to the day's exhaustion.

Something about Governors Island has forced Pruiksma to open up of LAN as a film concert experience and to pick up the propulsive percussive beats in terms of performance. In New York, where it is being co-presented by the HERE Arts Center and the Province of Fryslan, LAN looks, sounds and feels re-invigorated. It's edgier and more bracing and completely satisfying.

You first hear the gurgling of water, presumably from the laps of water hitting the row of wood pegs on the Frisian sea (on film) or hurtling toward the shores of Ellis Island (looming like a dark shadow behind Pruiksma). What follows are furious rushing patterns, which match the hurtling linear speed of filmed elements (depicting water, oceans, birds, grass, sand, clouds) across the huge screens. Every so often, you hear bird whistles. Loops of recorded sounds and melodies mingle with Pruiksma's drumming and screeching, and then underscored once more by the insistent hum of Governors Island itself.

Because Pruiksma can hear (but not see) the movement of ferries behind him, he has no fear of exploiting the coastal sounds of New York. As the piece progresses, his very physical performance seems to want to be in competition with the ferries rolling by, but he never steals attention to himself in a vulgar way. Compositionally, Pruiksma invests himself ardently in the most familiar flourishes of natural sounds. He understands that even cliches can resonate if modulated in the right tone. In Oerol, his tonal minimalism sounded like a call to a silent prayer. But at the New Island Festival, the percussive electronic score of LAN rises to become a salute to Governors Island.

And yet Pruiksma does not aim to messily implicate LAN into the history of this once-inaccessible New York island. Every so often, the film stops to show us gorgeous landscapes of a grassy park on the island, but that's as much of a reveal as it allows. The rest of LAN plays like a call to new awareness.

In the dunes of the Terschelling island at the Oerol festival, LAN only wants us to surrender to the Mark Rothko-like abstraction of moving colors, stacked sounds and filmed textures. But this time around, the odds are against Pruiksma. As a sparring partner, Governors Island is rope-a-dope; it is a formidable opponent with its own agenda. Sometimes things happen that raise the dramatic stakes, as when an oil tanker appears out of nowhere and parades its mammoth shadow in the background, quietly wresting our attention. At other times, allegory, meaning and our own personal associations attached themselves to the experience.

LAN is performed at the intersection of three New York islands. Ellis Island juxtaposes itself in the background. When the images of several rows of birds stream across the video screens, the film evokes memories of the millions of immigrants who passed through that island's facilities, now a musem. Obviously, the island of Manhattan impresses itself and runs counterpoint to natural world which LAN celebrates.

And if you took notice of the empty seesaws and red-metal slides of the children's playground nearby, along with the rubble of demolished barracks and unoccupied apartment buildings that were once a home to the families of the U.S. Coast Guard, you cannot help but feel suddenly attuned to the reality of this former military installation, a lost legacy that has recently been turned into a virtue.

That's because LAN in New York feels a hymn to a ghost town. At the New Island Festival, it beguiles us to want to discover this island's undulating parks and rough harbors. It awakens our senses to the thrill of re-discovering a landscape that is isolated no more. [in the theatre of One World]

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