She's back. And so is SoundBox.
During the smashing success of its inaugural season, SoundBox, the San Francisco Symphony’s experiment in creating an alternative performance space and format for classical music, opened each show with a recording of Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” skipping across the massive rehearsal space in a corner of Davies Symphony Hall channeled through an impressive Meyer Sound Constellation System. When SoundBox resumes this weekend for its second season, if the first thing the audience hears sounds like that little song your washing machine plays when its finished with your load, know that Meow Meow has gotten her way. And that’s as it should be, as the post-post-modern diva joins the Symphony’s own Edwin Outwater in curating two hours of Weimar-era decadence and musical provocations in a program called In Descent. [ click here for the review of In Descent]
I spoke with Meow Meow on the phone the other day, shortly after she arrived in San Francisco. A little over a year ago the internationally known “kamikaze cabaret” singer was debuting An Audience with Meow Meow at Berkeley Rep and we had a long, wide-ranging conversation about many of her favorite things, as well as her plans to perform Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins with orchestras in London and Australia. I said she should do the same here, to which she replied, “I’d love to. Let’s get the San Francisco Symphony to hurry up and invite me.”
It didn’t quite work out that way (at least not yet — how about it MTT?), but someone close to the Symphony caught her show in Berkeley, which led to the SoundBox invitation. The shows sold out almost immediately, and while I don’t want to rub this in for those who didn’t get tickets, after reviewing the program for In Descent and comparing it to what’s ahead on the SoundBox schedule, I’m wonder how they’re going to top this. Curators for this season’s upcoming SoundBox shows are the San Francisco Symphony musicians (January 15, 16), SFS Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin (February 19,20) Michael Tilson Thomas (March 25,26) and the trio of theater director/designer/artist James Darrah, wild Up conductor Christopher Rountree, and filmmaker Adam Larsen. But where do you go next after Meow Meow deconstructs Schulhoff’s Sonata Erotica — a notated orgasm which she promises will be “humorous, not just a voyeuristic, slightly twee experience — you don’t want it to be a self-righteous orgasm, like a new book by Erica Jong. Or is it Germaine Greer?” followed by soprano (and former Adler Fellow) Nikki Einfeld taking on the extreme coloratura of (un)earthly delights in Ligeti’s “Mysteries of the Macabre”?
It’s not just this program’s range, which begins with Schubert and ends with Laurie Anderson, but the combination of theme, music, and performers is exactly the sort of thing I was hoping SoundBoxwould be — and now, here we are. On top of that, SoundBox might also look quite different from last season, at least this time, since Meow Meow invited Broadway costume/set designer Andrea Lauer (American Idiot, Bring It On, The Musical) to lend her a hand. Meow describes the arc she’s created with Outwater for In Descent beginning with “pastoral things that have gone awry, starting in the water (Schubert’s “Die Forelle”), then moving on to the earthiness of Berlin cabaret and ending in the air with an angel (Anderson’s “Progress”). Add to that a dose of darkness and decadence courtesy of Weill and Brecht (“Ballad of the Drowned Girl,” “Pirate Jenny,” and Meow Meow’s personal favorite, “Surabaya Johnny”) add some Hindemith and some more Schubert, and all that’s missing is the absinthe.
Almost a century later, German Expressionism and music from the Weimar era retain their biting ability to reflect society’s harsh realities. Meow told me it also remind us “… how prudish we’ve become… often in the translations, which upsets me, with Brecht particularly. I find that they’re often softened when they’re translated into English and I think that’s doing the work a great disservice when it’s not translated into proper, brutal language. It’s made softer and I think that disengages people. So some of these songs I’m singing in the original German because I want the language to have the brutality with which it was intended.”
“Ballad of the Drowned Girl” is early Brecht, originally written in 1920 for Baal, his first full-length theater work and later appearing in the Berliner Requiem. David Bowie’s covered it, and Meow Meowdescribes it as “… an exquisite and terrible piece, terribly sad… she’s just a body disintegrating, and at the end God forgets her — her face, and then her hands, and her hair. That sort of encapsulates Baal, a brutal character, and that view of the hair being the last to go and then God forgetting your face, it’s both poetic and brutal… The vitality of Baal– it’s wonderful, and it’s grotesque, a thinly veiled version of Brecht himself at that time. Maybe it would be a television show now – an unlikeable character filled with a life force.”
The penultimate work on the program is the Ligeti, a showstopper that’s a tough act for anyone to follow, but Meow Meow and Outwater will wrap it up on a poignant and thoughtful note with Anderson’s “Progress,” which seems prescient given recent events. She said, “That piece, like ‘All the Girls’ [the Patty Griffin song which concludes An Audience], is like a prayer for humanity. I think Laurie’s piece is so potent for me on so many small and large levels. Yet at the same time I don’t necessarily want to be the angel of history who can only be look back at the past wanting to change it. I think it’s extraordinary as well because the second half of the song is a text by Walter Benjamin, which is all about the angel of history being blown into the future and looking at the debris but being unable to fix it. I think it’s magnificent she [Anderson] incorporated that into the song because I’m all about where we come from. But that’s his text, which is a response to a painting by Paul Klee, so just on a creative level I find that Laurie Anderson song extraordinary because it goes from a painting to a philosopher into her world — it references Fassbinder, it references fairy tales — it links art through so many eras, with politics. I love that whole acknowledgement of the chain of art and its engagement with politics and society in that song.’
“I guess feel like in all of my life I’m one of the angels of history — that we’re all looking back, wanting to learn from the past and dragging parts of it with us. I feel like I’m dragging old songs into the present and into the future because I think they’re important, and it’s why I’m so fixated on the Weimar repertoire, I suppose. The simultaneous empowerment that is implied by an angel and at the same time the hopelessness about what’s happening is super potent — that should be the power of music. We should be engaging people. We shouldn’t just be horrified and helpless, and I think it’s a wonderful song because it brings up all of those things. Is this progress? Are we really making progress? I don’t know.”
In response to my telling her how much I’m looking forward to seeing the show, Meow replied, “I’d love to have five hours. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, but I think it will be magnificent music and that’s really what it’s all about. Magnificent music, and you can put some sex and politics in there — that’s the perfect combo, isn’t it?”
Yes indeed. Purrfect.