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Destruction Sand Avidar , September 28th, 2015 15:06

Sand Avidar reports on the American premiere of Destruction, an ambitious and multi-layered new work by M. Lamar

Photo courtesy of the artist

"Don't abandon me, I'm worth saving"

M. Lamar's Destruction is a work of mourning and memory. The piece had its American premiere last week at Brooklyn's First Unitarian Congregational Society as part of Issue Project Room's characteristically exciting programming. It's an ambitious and multi-layered work; it's also a necessary one. It's a work that mourns a distinctive historical condition: a trauma that is ongoing rather than in the past, a crisis that is never over, a murderous, massive violence that, instead of resting at a fixed point in an abstract timeline, continues to be inflicted on a daily basis and continues to serve as the condition of lived existence of millions and millions of people. The suffering of America's black population forms the substrate of American history in a way that historians are only now fully exploring, but that suffering is still unfolding, and the urgency of drawing attention to it increases with each act of violence. This is the unique situation of Destruction, and the unique challenge its creator faces: how to address both the past and the present, how to look both to history and to the future, and, less abstractly, how to create a performance that does justice in a meaningful way to this enormity.

The notion of doing justice to this unthinkable, ongoing agony with a work of art is daunting, to say the least. Lamar approaches the task by marshalling an expansive aesthetic arsenal. Destruction is less a "mere" piece of music than a multi-media experience. As he takes the stage, the low lighting and sombre mood are no less a part of the show than the piano and microphone; behind him a large video screen projects a long series of grim, funereal images, most of them featuring Lamar himself. He rests in a coffin; he rises from a coffin; he carries a coffin around with him. He appears behind wooden bars evidently symbolic of the carceral state; he breaks through those bars and steps forward. Two other actors perform similar routines. Smoke rises to the ceiling; the church, of course, adds greatly to the funereal Gothic experience.

The piece is about an hour long. It has distinct sections but not really individual "songs" per se: there are pauses but no full stops and no breaks for applause. A drone is playing as Lamar enters and begins to play. By his side is a small mixer and effects pad, through which he generates a few other electronic sounds during the performance, but only at times: for most of the show the brunt of the sound is voice and piano, both drenched in thick, billowing reverb. Lamar is a solid but not a fancy pianist: aside from dramatic forays into the keyboard's upper and lower registers he mostly sticks to block chords with minimal ornamentation. The heart of the performance and its emotional anchor is his voice, a plaintive, emotive instrument deployed exclusively in a reedy, keening falsetto, with lyrics organised into clipped phrases repeated in circular motion, an incantatory counterpoint to the gloomy march of the piano, mournful and captivating.

Musically, there's a lot going on. The publicity material mentions the blues and metal, both of which are clearly present in spirit if less so compositionally; African-American spirituals and operetta are heavier in the mix. There are moments, in the single-song encore especially, that conjure the ghosts of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Alice Coltrane is in the air. Lamar is clearly a deeply-versed performer, and the range of influences is exciting. But despite this evident breadth, both concept and execution owe a significant debt to one forerunner in particular: the ferociously intense lamentations of Diamanda Galas. Galas' relentlessly uncompromising discography sets the benchmark for this kind of conceptual musical reworking of epic pain and anger in the fundamental ethical questions it provokes and addresses. How do we speak the unspeakable? How do we give voice to those who can't speak for themselves? Like Galas, Lamar often chooses to sing in the first person singular, less to relive a trauma than to serve as a conduit for it. At other times his lament shifts the first person plural: "None of us will make it out alive," he announces, not melodramatically but regretfully and insistently.

Though much of the show draws on Galas's playbook, Lamar doesn't quite have her sheer vocal force and virtuoso piano technique, the two weapons that make her a living force of nature. The visuals fill a lot the resulting space, but though the video is a crucial component of the performance, it wasn't quite as refined and developed as Lamar's intently conditioned keen. Some of the images are heavy-handed, and the video is narrative enough to draw visual attention from Lamar but not quite narrative enough to make it the eye's primary focus. Destruction is trapped in an odd paradox: there's a lot going on here, but also not quit enough. I can't help but think of other recent Issue Project Room productions like Colin Self and Raul de Nieves' 'The Fool'; one can't help but wonder how powerful this music would be with a more genuinely cinematic video background, or, say, a chorus. As it is, I would gladly watch the performance again, and bring others with me. But if a bigger, more elaborate version of this was staged somewhere, I'd be first in line to buy tickets. This work is necessary, and its potential power significant.