David Samas’ new multimedia opera The Green Wood premiered this Wednesday at Shotwell Studios. The piece, which featured Samas with Laurie Amat, Doug Carroll, Bob Marsh, Grace Renaud, Becky Robinson-Leviton and Jennifer Gwirtz combined visuals, music, inventions, words and dance into an immersive experience centered around the idea and experience of the forest.
[The Green Wood. Photo by Sam Ardrey.]
The Green Wood literally refers to the mixed-media installation that serves as the main set for the piece. It is a visual representation of the elements of the forest, but also serves as a primary musical instrument both through its main dendraphone structure as well as other attached sound-makers such as pine cones, courrugahorns and blocks. Indeed, the great majority of the sound-making in the piece comes from elements found in forests: seeds, stones, water, and primarily wood. These materials were not only in Samas’ many invented instruments but also in the traditional instruments used: cello, string bass and piano. There was also electronics integrated into the sonic fabric via microphones and loopers.
[David Samas and invented instruments. Photo by Sam Ardrey.]
The piece follows 24 hours in the life of a forest, moving from early morning hours through daytime to dusk and finally into late night. The lighting design and ambient sounds guide the audience through this framework. The music often followed the ambient sounds, such as the percussive playing during the early morning hours matching the insects and leaves, but also incorporated a variety of styles from traditional european folk music to throat singing to more esoteric. There was even a butoh piece featuring Bob Marsh in an elaborate tree costume.
[Bob Marsh as a tree. Photo by Sam Ardrey.]
The voices, traditional instruments and invented instruments blended well both acoustically and musically, a result of the strong musicianship in the ensemble and presumably a lot of rehearsal. I am familiar with Carroll, Marsh and Amat from numerous other performances, but this was my introduction to Samas’ range of vocal techniques which included throat singing as well as traditional Western practice. I also liked how well the looping was integrated acoustically, something I noticed particularly during the sections featuring throat singing and the pouring of water.
[Grace Renaud. Photo by Sam Ardrey.]
In many ways, however, the stars were the invented instruments in their visual and sonic variety. Different instruments were introduced as the piece unfolded, some were very polished and complex while others were incredibly simple, such as seeds poured onto ceramic plates.
[Becky Robinson-Leviton as the Nymph of the Flowers. Photo by Sam Ardrey.]
The performance sought to engage the audience beyond sight and sound with the use of incense made and the serving of a tea made from nettles and flowers. These were enhancements to the experience and not overbearing.
[Photo by Sam Ardrey.]
The was a dissonance between the text of the piece and the immersive and celebratory qualities of the music and visuals. It was dark at times, lamenting both environmental destruction and the dislocation of humans from natural habitats that nourish them. It is a challenge to make such topics not come across as didactic, but that could also be seen as part of the piece itself.
Overall, it was a great and unique performance, and it was well received by the audience on opening night. The show has performances tonight (Friday 3/22), tomorrow night (Saturday 3/23) and a Sunday matinee at Shotwell Studios. I recommend seeing it if you can.