Archives Original Performance Works
|Ecstatic Dissent||Hot House||2003|
|108 Ways to Nirvana||Chicago Area||2001|
|In the House of Sargon||Link's Hall Studio||1993|
|The Death of Mar Shimun||Club Lower Links||1991|
|Hot Sands||Randolph Street Gallery||1990|
“Ecstatic Dissent” is a project by composer/percussionist Michael Zerang that brings together six innovative musicians to realize compositions that are based on Aramaic song and chant forms. Through improvisations and exploration, the musicians bring an extended vocabulary into play that illuminates these ancient forms and place them in a contemporary setting. The concert took place on Saturday, December 13, 2003 at the Hot House in Chicago as a part of the Innovative Composers Commission Series that is funded by the National Endowment of Arts.
December 14, 2003
INNOVATIVE COMPOSERS PROJECT A SOUND INVESTMENT
By Howard Reich, Tribune arts critic
Amazing what a little financial support can do for jazz.
Earlier this year, HotHouse — a cauldron for art music in Chicago — began dispensing checks to some of the city’s top jazz composers. The money, provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, enabled the club to launch the Innovative Composers Project, which encourages Chicago jazz musicians to create their most daring work.
Over the weekend, the first of the new compositions were presented at HotHouse. If Friday and Saturday night’s performances were a fair indication of the quality of music this experiment is producing, the Innovative Composers Project may represent one of the best investments the NEA has made in jazz.
On Friday evening, reedist-bandleader Edward Wilkerson Jr., offered a concert reading of scenes from an opera he has been conceiving for years, “Harold in Chicago.” Based on the extraordinary career of Mayor Harold Washington, the piece clearly has a long way to go until it’s a fully realized stage work. But the vignettes that Wilkerson, three singers and several instrumentalists unveile d suggested that “Harold in Chicago” could emerge as the signal achievement of Wilkerson’s already distinguished career.
By far the work’s most striking passages came from “A Scene From the Cell,” in which the future mayor of Chicago seethes in prison, where he’s serving time for failure to pay back taxes.
Before Washington utters a word, his cellmate sings long, fluid lines accompanied by a small chamber ensemble. The arias for the cellmate and two sopranos represent some of the most expressive, carefully crafted phrasemaking to have come from Wilkerson’s pen. For here the composer invokes a quasi-classical musical language that’s harmonically bold but melodically direct and unaffected.
When Washington begins to sing, the musical language abruptly shifts, the future mayor expressing his thoughts in a straight-ahead, jazz-swing vernacular evoking the popular music of Washington’s youth. Though these passages contrast dramatically from the classically tinged arias that precede them, the switch from four-square rhythm to colloquial swing brilliantly underscores Washington’s identity as a man of the people. At the same time, however, the words he sings — penned by the composer’s sister, Elizabeth Wilkerson — attest to Washington’s verbal eloquence and virtuosity.
Two other scenes from “Harold in Chicago” emphasize the unmistakable promise of this work. In “Favor for a Neighbor,” which addresses Washington’s charismatic way of interacting with his constituents, Wilkerson unfurls inspired musical dialogues between vocalists and instrumentalists. And “Conditions,” which dramatizes the earliest days of Washington’s political career, reaffirms the nearly seamless merger of Elizabeth Wilkerson’s text with Edward Wilkerson’s jazz-based vocal writing.
Judging by these excerpts alone, “Harold in Chicago” deserves every penny of funding its supporters can raise.
On Saturday evening, the versatile Chicago percussionist Michael Zerang gave the world premiere of a project that’s significantly closer to completion. Despite its somewhat cryptic title, “Ecstatic Dissent,” this suite of nine instrumental pieces addresses — and transforms — the chant-like Aramaic religious music that Zerang first heard as a child.
The melodies, Zerang told the audience, have held his attention ever since, their exotic scales indeed proving utterly beguiling when performed by the sextet Zerang convened for the occasion. Considering the work’s mixture of sacred and secular impulses, Zerang hardly could have scored the piece more effectively, the tintinnabulation of Alan Kushan’s santur (a kind of hammered dulcimer or cimbalom) supported by Zerang’s hand-held percussion, two woodwinds, cello and bass. Each of Zerang’s players — including flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Fred-Lonberg Holm, bassist Kent Kessler and clarinetist Guillermo Gregorio — enhanced an already shimmering score with intricate, jazz-driven improvisations.
The sooner this piece is recorded, the better.
Copyright © 2003, The Chicago Tribune
The Musicians for this project are:
- Alan Kushan – santour
- Nicole Mitchell – flutes
- Guillermo Gregorio – clarinet
- Fred Lonberg-Holm – cello
- Kent Kessler – contrabass
- Michael Zerang – darabuka
by Blair Thomas and Michael Zerang
Sunday, January 20, 2002
108 WAYS TO NIRVANA
by By Chris Jones
Puppeteer Blair Thomas, the founding brains behind the Redmoon Theatre, is best known for his huge outdoor spectacles, such as the Halloween parade that satisfies thousands annually in Logan Square. But Thomas has always seemed at his happiest and most creatively fulfilled when playing to a small group in a little studio theater, such as the black-box on the ground floor of the Athenaeum Theatre. And watching the chest of one of Thomas’ heart-tugging big wooden puppets rise and fall on Friday night as if it were part of a terminally depressed man, it was easy to understand why shows like the current “108 Ways to Nirvana” are where you get the best look at this remarkable artist’s creative soul. Thomas, who describes himself as a “theater maker,” has always paid a great deal of attention to mood. He likes to control and shape every aspect of a performance”which is perhaps why he could be found handing out peppermint tea to everyone who showed up to see this collaboration with percussionist Michael Zerang. Thomas is obsessed with details, the kinds of nuances that can be best appreciated when the images are only a few feet away. And he has never shown much interest in money or the other trappings of commercial theater. Thomas has all the requisite talent to be working for Disney. But when he writes in his program that he would rather “shed a little light into the dark spaces of our internal and external universe,” he is without guile. “108 Ways to Nirvana,” which is composed of three pieces lasting about 90 minutes and has its last performance Sunday afternoon, is so called because of the Buddhist counting reference point of “108” (there are 108 meditation beads on a necklace and so on), and since Thomas is a Buddhist, he’s also interested in exploring the notion of nirvana as a spiritual goal. Even though this is a puppet-and-percussion show, there’s a strong meditative element to this quiet $12 show, which will disappoint anyone looking for flashy theatrics or overt excitement. But the technique and commitment on display is nothing short of staggering. In the opening percussive solo, Zerang pulls innumerable sounds from a cymbal. In the gorgeous second work, Thomas scurries about the stage unscrolling a storyboard telling the tale of two lovers, even as he manipulates a shadow-puppet bird in the rear (the work includes text from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”). And for the last piece, Zerang and Thomas collaborate on a dark but masterful tale about a Bunraku figure looking for happiness, even as an old Buster Keaton comedy surrounds him. The puppet, a haunted soul who at one point saws off his own arm, even plays percussion. Over the coming years, they say, Zerang and Thomas happily will be doing more of these pieces maybe as many as 105 more. The next is slated for September at the Storefront Theatre.
by Michael Zerang
In the House of Sargon is a performance works by Michael Zerang and is the third piece in the trilogy entitled Mesopotamia that deals with various aspects of middle eastern culture. In the House of Sargon is a multi-disciplinary work that utilizes voice, text, music and movement elements along with stylized sets and costumes. The work involves the relationships between the Assyrians, Armenians and Kurds in the 20th century beginning with the massacre of the Armenians and Assyrians by the Turks and Kurds in 1914-1916 and ending with the devastation of the Persian Gulf war. The piece concentrates on the region that is present day Northern Iraq, Southeastern Turkey, Northwestern Iran, and Armenia.
Arrangements of chants and songs in the ancient Aramaic language are juxtaposed with contemporary, non-traditional vocal stylings. A variety of instrumental music from the region are performed live and used as an accompaniment to movement and gestural tableaus. The musical instruments include; Saz (a three stringed predecessor of the European lute), Tar (frame drum), Zurna (Double reeded horn) and Dumbek (ceramic single headed drum). Multiple shortwave radios will be used live to tune in various music and voices from the Middle East region. The cast consists of four vocalists, four musicians and three dancer/actors.
The relationship between these three distinct groups has rarely been addressed in the West. The Assyrians, Armenians and Kurds are all non-arab minorities that exist together in the same small region for the better part of the millennium and their conflicts and alliances have been many. This work will attempt to highlight the resultant cultural similarities and differences through a series of visual and aural tableaus using ancient texts, cultural hybrids and contemporary, non-traditional performance devices, i.e., electronic sound, gesture, extended vocal techniques, and to show the extent to which these similarities and differences have been shaped by war and conflict.
Links Hall Studio
Woman in Cab
Woman in Black
Carol T. Genetti
Short Wave Radio
Man in Cab
Aramaic chant and Assyrian story performed by
Edward J. Zerang
Gene Coleman, Nancy Bardiwil, Kent Kessler, Greg Snyder, Paul Zerang, Katy Maguire, Bob Eisen, Kay Wendt LaSota, Ron Bieganski, and Lukie Marriott.
This project was supported in part by the Regional Artists’ Project Grant, a partner program of the Artists’ Projects Regional Initiative, which supports artists in the fourteen different regions across the fifty states and Puerto Rico. The Regional Artists’ Project Grant is administered by Randolph Street Gallery and the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center and is supported by funds from the Presenting and Commissioning Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the Illinois Arts Council, the Ohio Arts Council and Randolph Street Gallery.
Friday, October 8, 1993
Column: After hours
CATCHING UP WITH EVENTS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
By Achy Obejas
Michael Zerang has uncanny timing.
Two years ago, as he premiered “Hot Sands,” the first part of his Middle Eastern trilogy, audiences at Randolph Street Gallery heard the first news about the outbreak of the Gulf War.
“The piece dealt with everything that led up to the Gulf War-especially the idea that most Arab nations are 20th Century inventions carved out by the French and the British-you know, Iraq became a nation in 1920, Syria in 1921, Lebanon around then, too, and Israel, of course, in 1948,” he says. “But even though people read all kinds of things into it, `Hot Sands’ wasn’t about the Gulf War.”
He wryly notes that something similar is happening with “The House of Sargon,” the final installment in the trilogy, as the world is riveted by the sight of former enemies Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn. ” `The House of Sargon’ is a journey through the Middle East,” he says. “It’s not about the current peace process, but it all ties in together, I suppose.”
“The House of Sargon” closes out a two-week run at Link’s Hall this weekend and features text, music, movement and film.
Of Assyrian descent, Zerang explored the destinies of non-Arab peoples, such as Assyrians, Armenians, Turks and Kurds, in the middle passage of the trilogy, “The Death of Mar Shimun,” which was performed last year.
The new piece picks up with the historical themes involved in the story of Sargon, one of the kings of ancient Assyria. “At the height of the empire, when the Assyrians conquered new lands, they would take the people and spread them throughout the empire,” explains Zerang. “This would encourage intermingling. There was constant displacement.”
For all the historical specificity, however, “The House of Sargon” is more impressionistic than linear; it focuses on texture instead of a narrative line.
“The whole thing is a road story,” Zerang says. “In my piece, Sargon is an Assyrian cabdriver who takes a Western couple on a trip through the modern Middle East. He displaces them, in the way that he’s displaced here.”
Known more as a musician than as a performance artist, Zerang is constantly busy these days: His 11-year-old free improv group, Liof Munimula, is working regularly; the Vandermark Quartet, a kind of heavy metal jazz group to which he belongs, gigs weekly at the Hothouse and has released a new CD, “Big Head Eddie”; and his partnership with percussionist Hamid Drake continues to be challenging.
“In fact, we’re doing a piece together on the bill with `The House of Sargon’, ” he says. “It’s called `Barking Dogs and Deaf Lizards.’ It’s a percussion performance duet, brand new. All my work is going really well lately. I feel very, very lucky.”
PHOTO: “In the House of Sargon” features text, movement, music and film and involves Middle Eastern historical themes.
© Chicago Tribune
by Michael Zerang
The Death of Mar Shimun is a performance work by Michael Zerang and is the second piece in the trilogy entitled “Mesopotamia” that deals with various aspects of middle eastern culture. Genocide by the Turkish soldiers and the Kurdish mountaineers displaced and killed hundreds of thousands of Assyrians and Armenians from the area now encompassed by Iran, Iraq, Soviet Union and Turkey.
The primary motivation for the genocide was the decline of the Ottoman empire and the consequent attempt to hold as much land as possible for a future Turkey (and potential Kurdistan) by removing the non-moslum inhabitants from the land. Also, age old hatred between Christians and Muslims fueled these attacks.
The Death of Mar Shimun reflects the torture/murder of the high priest of the Nestorians or Chaeldean Assyrians. As was the practice during these years, the Turks would empty villages and set their inhabitants in exile, keeping as hostage the most important members of the community, who in most instances were the village priests, and asking a large sum of money for their release. Mar Shimun’s ransom was paid in full but he was executed anyway.
The singing in this piece is from the ancient Aramaic, the language Jesus Christ spoke, and is found in the mass of the Nestorians and Chaeldeans.
Club Lower Links
Conceived, written, directed and performed by Michael Zerang
Aramaic texts sung by Edward Zerang
Sound Design by Michael Zerang
Sets, Costumes, Lights by Nancy Bardawil
Technical Director Mathew Owens
Conceived and Directed by Michael Zerang
Hot Sands is the first piece in the trilogy entitled “Mesopotamia” that deals with various aspects of middle eastern culture. Hot Sands is a tale of two U.S. soldiers recently placed in a Middle Eastern desert. The two grunts are charged with doing the dirty work for their leader — a spoiled, sadistic, billionaire car-freak. Using a combination of sound, movement, and dialogue, Hot Sands explores the forces that have divided the Middle East throughout this century, and the impact they have had in encouraging fundamentalism, terrorism, and militarism.
Randolph Street Gallery
- Lydia Charaf
- Kathleen Maltese
- Donna Mandel
- Jean Parisi
- Arab Soldier
- Eric Leonardson
- U.S. Soldiers
- Douglas Grew
- Gino De Grazia
- Martin Stewart
Structured by Michael Zerang from material developed by the performers.
Props & Sets
Lukie Marriott, Mathew Owens, Mary Jo Schnell, Link’s Hall Studio, and Kaja Overstreet