Singers and Fulcrum Point band shine in JacobTV’s mixed-media mashup, “The News”

Sat May 05, 2012 at 2:58 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

JacobTV’s “The News” was performed by Fulcrum Point Friday night at the Park West. Photo: Sam Wurth

With Fulcrum Point moving from the Harris Theater to the Park West for the local premiere of JacobTV’s The News, you knew you were in for a different kind of new-music experience.

Fulcrum Point presented the Dutch composer’s musical-video hybrid Friday night in its Midwest premiere (The News debuted last week in Pittsburgh). The Lincoln Park club space seemed the ideal venue for a genre-traversing work that is centered even more on populist musical sensibilities than Fulcrum Point’s usual contemporary classical with a rock or jazz component.

In his program note, JacobTV (Jacob Ter Veldhuis) inveighs about the power and obsessive search for profits of the media, where, he says, “‘reporting the truth’ has been slowly subverted by the mass production of ignorance.”

Decrying the power and sins of “the media” today seems a bit dated, like saying skyscrapers are a blight on city architecture. When the media was more monolithic, such complaints seemed more on target. But with today’s 24/7 news cycle, and cable TV and the internet offering more choices and variety of news and commentary sources than ever before, it sounds almost quaint. Granted, there’s plenty of bias, bad reporting and dubious ethics around, but there is also much terrific journalism, investigative reporting, and intelligent commentary.  Ultimately, pointing to the media as the source of contemporary evil in the world today seems disingenuous and bizarre. What is worse—-religious zealots who fly planes into buildings and kill innocent people or the journalists who cover the story?

Part One of The News is more effective with its ironic take on news, politicians and media figures. The live music is scored for nine-piece band (three saxophones, trumpet, trombone, percussion, guitar, bass and keyboards) and two female soloists, a lyric soprano and a jazz singer. The wide screen over the stage showed the video images with the singers also displayed on live video, with two angled smaller screens on either side.

The News is constructed in 36 “scenes” or separate brief musical/video sections. Much of the music is centered on epigrammatic riffs from manipulated and repeated words from the video sources, which are taken up, inverted, varied, and batted back and forth by the singers and instrumentalists. The mix of live jazz ensemble with singers and video is handled smoothly with single words and phrases sampled and repeated to rhythmic motifs.

The first half is more satiric in tone. The two women soloists (Lori Cotler and Josefien Stoppelenburg) are seated at a desk as red-jacketed anchorwomen, singing and swaying to the music in a pouty, unsmiling style, seemingly channeling the guitarist-models of Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love video.

Some of the targets are obvious, like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck (in a slow-jazz “Trust” segment), an American preacher, and Lady Gaga in a stupefying “interview” with Paris Hilton. Others are less so—former Chicago sportswriter Jay Mariotti shows up in a combative ESPN excerpt with staccato music, and a deadly speech by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands is accompanied by a dirge-like melody. Unsurprisingly, the single clip of Barack Obama is one of the few presented entirely without irony, as parts of his Millennium Park speech are heard straight with little sampling against an anthemic musical backdrop.

It’s when The News tried to take on weightier matters in Part Two that it falters, with JacobTV’s music lacking the expressive heft to reflect the gravity of the situations—-a Somali woman lamenting war, an American Iraq war veteran (anti-war activist Rob Sarra) telling of mistakenly shooting a woman he thought was a suicide bomber, and an Iraqi woman decrying the American military.

Besides the predictability of its political targets, The News falls down because it tries to cover too much. JacobTV’s music is attractive enough, cast in a pop-jazz idiom, and played with tremendous panache and rhythmic punch by the crack ensemble (Jim Gailloreto the lead saxophonist) at the first of two shows Friday night. In addition to his fine trumpet solos, conductor Stephen Burns did a superb job keeping the live musicians together with the video.

Still, I couldn’t help wondering if there was sufficient variety and interest in  JacobTV’s music to sustain the entire show by itself without the video counterpoint. As well played as the music was, a certain opaque sameness emerged over the two-hour evening (with intermission).

Even with its intermittent cleverness and engaging music The News is ultimately something less than the sum of its parts. Neither a “reality opera” as billed nor contemporary classical, it’s more a kind of one-off jazz concert with enough high-tech wizardry and correct political buttons pushed to appeal to a hipsterish crowd as long as it doesn’t look too far beneath the busy surface.

The non-musical elements were handled with imagination and technical aplomb by videographer Kristien Kerstens and “scenography” (video and lighting) by Jan Boiten.

But the real stars of the show were the two vocal soloists. Lori Cotler displayed jaw-dropping dexterity with her acrobatic vocalizing and rapid-fire articulation, often employing the South Indian “Konnakol” style. Soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg coped courageously with the stratospheric, often-perilous vocal lines.

Just by definition this kind of multi-media presentation is often a mixed affair but give Fulcrum Point credit for taking a chance on an envelope-pushing event and, pulling off the music and logistics successfully.

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