ICE at MCA: Carla’s Kaleidoscope of Dreams

Impressions from Row G
by Arlene and Larry Dunn (@ICEfansArleneLD)

ICE performed Carla Kihlstedt’s spellbinding kaleidoscope At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed By Fire on Saturday, February 16, 2013, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. This 2012 ICElab commission was part of a double-bill that began with ICE-member Phyllis Chen’s 2011 ICElab works. Carla, on vocals and violin, joined ICE members Claire Chase, Joshua Rubin, Rebekah Heller, Dan Lippel, Erik Carlson, Jennifer Curtis, Nathan Davis, Jacob Greenberg, and Bridget Kibbey in playing her nine-part song cycle on the subject of dreams.

Carla introduced her piece during an intermission conversation with Peter Taub, Director of Performance Programs at MCA. She explained that, despite her classical training as a violinist, she has long bristled at the hidebound paradigms of classical music. She felt stifled by the isolation of composers composing in their ivory towers and musicians fanatically practicing until the piece is perfected for performance. Instead she has forged her own path with avant garde projects like her rock band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and her improvisation trio Causing a Tiger. Carla was thrilled to undertake the ICElab commission with its collaborative model. But it challenged her to compose for instruments she had never written for and to develop a piece that is fully notated. At Night... evolved from a long fascination with dreams, using raw material from her own dreams plus those collected from ICE musicians and from the public through a Facebook page.

From the eerie “Heller-Copter” opening by Rebekah on her bassoon, we were enveloped  in an intimate dreamscape with all its twisted logic, implausibilities, and self-contradictions. The music ranged from charming to frightening, from soaring fantasies of flight to intricate personal dioramas. There were quirky episodes of musicians detuning others’ instruments, fanciful moments when we could imagine Claire flying, and onerous passages when ghosts, or were they guests, appeared.

Emblematic of the whole experience was The Surrender, based on a dream of Rebekah’s, best described by a line she spoke, “...everything around you is a figure or landmark from the past.” Rebekah stood at a microphone as if talking in her sleep, luring us into her dream. Erik led a plaintive melody on violin, echoed by Jennifer on mandolin, supported by a recurring, flowing figure from Dan’s guitar. As Rebekah cried out “If I don’t stay lucid who will save you?” Claire began to detune the guitar and Josh detuned the mandolin. Slowly, the foundation under the melody was disintegrating, taking lucidity with it. As destruction loomed, Carla sang out wordless, nearly silent screams, enacting the dreamer who tries to act to save the day, but finds she has no capability.

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All in all, this evening was an exhilarating trip into the parallel universe of dreams, with Carla as the perfect tour guide.

Listening/Watching Tips:
Watch DigitICE videos of Carla Kihlstedt’s At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed By Fire from the world premiere performance at The Ecstatic Music Festival in New York