Guest Post by Hannah Verrill
Tatyana Tenenbaum is an interdisciplinary artist whose work examines sound and movement within a shared perceptual, historical, and dramaturgical framework. Her most recent piece, Private Country, premiered this past October at The Chocolate Factory in New York City after a working process that spanned several years.
I met Tatyana back in early 2006 when we were both studying at Oberlin College in Ohio. We became fast art friends and began collaborating soon after meeting. As I try to make sense of the past, it occurs to me that we connected so immediately because both of us were experiencing a shift in our creative frameworks. I had grown up inside of dance and was beginning to reach outside of it to sound, video, and installation. Tatyana had grown up inside of music composition and was beginning to explore the body and choreography. We met somewhere in the middle and continue still to learn from each other’s artistic endeavors.
In an effort to get inside of Tatyana’s process of working towards Private Country, while being unable to physically witness it, I staged a kind of experiment that Tatyana graciously pursued with me through written correspondence. If the result is messy, with bursts of clarity—so it goes, as with any process. Thank you for bearing with us.
Hannah—Tatyana, I’m asking you to pull up discrete moments, notes, from the making of Private Country. These can be messy and detailed as if they were occurring in the present moment. Is this even possible? I’m certainly unsure. Time does its thing, right? Certain moments will come up for air while others are swept out to sea. Or this is how I imagine it at least. The director Anne Bogart writes that if the theatre were a verb, it would be ‘to remember’. I’ll exit here and cue your entrance.
Tatyana—I’ll begin here:
Techno-Minimalism… TuneYards and Gang Gang Dance. Moving out of the “new complexity” (or, as my 78-year old composition professor would say, “the new stupidity.”) Moving towards audience immersion, sensory experience, spectacle as visceral sensation—where spectacle departs from tried-and-true convention—where it began as something primal, something essential to the human experience, ritual as catharsis, religious ritual, art as ritual/ and /or / religion. Contemporary pop counter culture as ritual. || None of this writing is suitable for an audience but perhaps I will try to articulate it further. || WHERE FORM MEETS - – - } FUNCTION, and this becomes aesthetic. Everything dependent. Everything related. Everything a choice. Proliferation of media means theater becomes one-dimensional in the conventional sense. Prosceniums are officially flat, not adapted to a world that frequents the 3-D movie theater. Antiquated. Dull, irrelevant? Or just self-conscious in their flatness?
H—If I simplify a working process as having two tracks, the track that is concerned specifically and directly with the project, and the track that filters everything else happening in one’s life and still lends itself to the current work at hand, it seems like this process note would fall into that latter category. And it’s a messy situation! But this stuff is so important, right? I mean when looking back at how a work was made, or rather, why it was made.
This idea of flatness in theater as an outgrowth of the proliferation of media. How does this kind of thinking—it almost reads as despair—propel you forward in the midst of project that is mining your personal history with musical theater? How do you choose to contend with the flatness?
T—The question of flatness in a theater excites me. The idea of frontality excites me too. In the canon of musical theater, it’s almost a motif unto itself. I think, consciously and unconsciously I wanted to amplify this motif.
For Private Country I chose to seat most of the audience on risers as in a “proscenium front” and a small handful in a single row on the edge of stage left. Ezra and I continued this seating line on the upstage left. It was as if the audience on that edge was disappearing into the horizon line, until they became the performers. A lot of action happened on the diagonal that joined those two audience lines. However, the obvious weight of the frontally oriented audience was of interest to me. It was like giving one thing an 80% value and something else a 15% value… 5% went to the mystery. Towards the end, I second-guessed this configuration—for the obvious reason that it would make those viewers on the side become apart of the visual space. But removing them somehow made the frontality less powerful. There needed to be something to rub up against.
H— I know you grew up inside of the musical theater canon, and I often wonder about kids who grow up with a certain knowledge or familiarity with an art form. When you approach the form later on, is the desire (or need) for invention within the form always a critical point of interest?
T—I want to say that I was always drawn to the absurd. I was also some form of outsider. I couldn’t even get a role in my town’s community theater production because I was too shy… so I started writing my own musicals, and I found power in that. It was the most un-self conscious re-production of convention… to the downbeat. I mean, without knowing what I was doing, I was channeling so much history (I had grown up with it). So it made it easier, later on, to comment on that canon. I had already begun archiving and indexing those conventions as a child. It was my way of making sense of that world. Part of unearthing that is realizing what that absurdity means to me now—what it is bumping up against.
Reading The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.
The first mention of art and “artistic genius” [within the society of the Ju/Wasai Bushmen of the Kalahari] was in regards to hunting. She feels that the creative energies are played out in this arena, and points out that the first art in caves was to commemorate big hunts. She describes, also, the storytelling and oral myth making around hunting. When she gives an example of the style of storytelling, it is all in the present tense: “I creep forward, I creep. He jumps! He is just that far.”
H—How did these ideas “play out” in the arena of Private Country? Why do you feel that the sport of hunting sparked artistic expression? And what about the present tense, why make note of that? What feels important about an expression of the past happening as if it is in the present?
T— I think I was drawn to these old ethnographies (I also read John McPhee’s “Coming Into the Country,” a collection of contemporary ethnographies of Americans living back-to-the-land style in rural Alaska) because I was trying to understand where this compulsion to depict ourselves came from.
”I creep forward, I creep.”
When I am temporally engaged in an art practice, I feel it in the present tense. But when I analyze it, contextualize it, or write about it, I do so by separating it from my daily life practice. There is an “otherness” that develops; this classic division between art and life. So maybe I was searching for the root of that otherness.
The hunting bit—it surprised me. And then, it made sense. The oldest stories are hero myths. And these stories exist without a written language. I find it interesting now because I have been engaged in this memorization practice within my own work. Even though I take notes on my texts as they develop, I never treat the written word as having authority over the lived moment. I re-write the material over and over again in rehearsal, changing things as I forget or alter subconsciously. I’ve always been drawn to memorization. I used to listen to stories on audiocassette and memorize them. I had this one children’s series called “The Great Composers.” I used to listen to it over and over again. It became, in effect, a completely oral tradition, a series of hero myths, westernized, classicized, internalized, plagiarized,and canonized…
H—When and how does the impulse to archive arise for you? Is it in the very instant? In which case I imagine you living a kind of double life; being while simultaneously acting like archeologist. Asking yourself which moments need to be recorded, preserved. Or is it an afterthought?
T— I think archiving is a constant. Some of the text I used in Private Country was originally sourced in 2005 from an interview with an archeologist. I first set that as a vocal composition in 2006… later I started experimenting with recitation of the memorized composition in a very resonant space, which is where I was first able to hear my own pitch fluctuation in my speaking voice… I developed a practice around that recitation and that began to open up the process I used with my ensemble to create these spoken-sung passages for Private Country. So I was still using part of the original text 8 years after I first acquired it. Now that I’ve let go of that text, I’m still using the musical phrasing that I found with it to structure new ideas…that’s an example of how archiving or my relationship to my archive is happening constantly inside of my process.
H—Working with your brother, archiving moments in your relationship—do you work with that as raw or already composed material, or both?
T—So, Ezra and I really played out our relationship on and off stage. It started with our original conversations… I asked him to help me as “dramaturge”, because I thought he was in a unique situation to act as one. We fought, we played, we analyzed. No matter what, we couldn’t escape our Brother/Sister roles within the piece. And as far as I was concerned, we didn’t have to. Because we basically made the duet and then worked on it for a year and a half—the progress was internal. We built up a mythology within what we were doing. It was supposed to be spare, raw, but also dense with history and context.
Note 5 (revised sibling dialogue)
On that note, we find an ending.
Hannah Verrill is an artist living and making work in Chicago, Illinois.