Mysticism with Laughter and Song
La MaMa Theater, 66 West 4th Street, East Village
01/14/2015 - & January 15, 16, 2015
Bora Yoon: Sunken Cathedral
Commissioned by HERE Artist Residency, Co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, Co-presented by La MaMa E.T.C.
Bora Yoon (Composer, sound designer, performer), Vong Pak (Korean Dance and Drumming Artist)
Glynis Rigsby (Director), Adam Larsen (Projection Design), Tom Lee (Set Design), Haejin Han (Lighting Design), R. Luke Dubois (Interaction Design), Melissa Futch (Stage Manager), Singer Morra (Assistant Stage Manager), Jonghyun Georgia Lee (Costume Design), Adrian Boyce (Costume Draper), Audio Design and Interaction Associate (Boris Klompus), U-Ram Choe (Kinetic Sculpture)
B. Yoon (© Courtesy of the Artist)
The first time I experienced Bora Yoon with New York Polyphony, I believed neither my ears (the sounds came out of nowhere and everywhere) nor my eyes (her movements seemed to sculpt visions from the air). When she performed in the Church of the Ascension, her concept, of ritual, poetry, movement and Medieval music, within the nave of that gorgeous church, again I was taken aback.
And intimidated in attempting to describe this extraordinary lady.
With the opening of Sunken Cathedral, that intimidation was put to the side, for it would be only a wall blocking the unimpeded joy of the Yora Boon experience. And coincidentally as remembering the most memorable experience I ever had in Korea, a shaman singing to the ocean on a remote island. But that is later.
Many years ago, La MaMa was home to the Cage/Tudor “Happenings.” But that word intimates a static event, an event with a Western-style point of creation and point of ending. Chicago-born Bora Yoon is a creature of her Korean ancestry and quantum perception, where nothing begins or ends. When she appears, she seems to have already been there. And when she bows after an hour, it isn’t really an ending at all, but rather a pause in her movement, to be continued at another time.
To be specific (if possible), Sunken Cathedral, one of a series of new operas held this week, starts with the ramshackle stage set at La MaMa: plain wallpaper walls, an old grandfather clock, a Korean chest, and a few tables upon which rest cans, jars, glasses, bells, bowls, endless paraphernalia. Nothing, though, is what it seems.
Through the wonders of projection design, the wallpaper turns into a variety of panoramas. A cathedral door, large hands, a starscape, through the Milky Way...sometimes transparent, allowing the silhouette of dancing of Korean dance-drummer Von Pak. At times, it turns hellish red, as in the photo below. But it is ever-altering in shape and image.
Sunken Cathedral Set (© Benjamin Heller)
So too is the music, for Bora Yoon has a variety of voices and surprising instrumentation. She opens a box, takes out a piece of paper, sings a melismatic half-chant, with electronic reverbs of her own voice in this mystical song. And then she strolls to a keyboard (where did that keyboard come from?), plays and sings a salon-style blues tune (almost, not quite, with the voice of the nearly forgotten Dakota Staton).
And in the revolving cycle, she has an ancient turntable which revolves with a crystal stone, with other objects that turn around and around, and sometimes give out tiny sounds.
All of this sounds solemn. But within this hour’s event, like the old John Cage Happenings, Ms. Yoon never eschews humor. Great humor. Unlike our ascetic Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions of commands and punishments, religions of the East are not only all-embracing, but they are filled with laughter, from the fat laughing Buddhas to Zen koans to physical buffoonery.
During her time on stage, Ms. Yoon gets typical messages on her voicemail from her mother–the sort of thing you might expect from comedian Margaret Cho, not Bora Yoon! Then too, we have the entrance of our drummer, gigantic in silhouette, but entering like a mischievous dwarf, or like Wagner’s Loki, stealing the crystal, making harmless mischief.
And then comes the cooking. I once wrote a book on Zen with a suggestion that peeling a carrot, one must concentrate totally, intensely–and simultaneously not at all– on the act of peeling the carrot. But that was an ersatz philosophical concept. Bora Yoon gives it a reality. Ms. Yoon peels a carrot and moves bowls, cups, vegetables on the table, to the counterpoint of her own tune, to bells, to the sounds of the cutlery. Cups are placed and replaced, touched and rubbed to give eerie bell sounds, while Ms Yoon herself sings a wordless song that somehow harmonizes with the movements and “object” sounds.
(It ends up with her faux-soup going into an ersatz oven.)
All of it is “ritualistic” to different degrees. She experiments with the I Ching throwing of metal sticks for tetragrams we don’t see. She sings a lullaby to the tiniest marimba-type instrument, which she probably invented.
Metaphors and parallel images are manifold, some not quite complimentary. Whether using her cups or entering the grandfather clock for a parallel universe, one things of PeeWee Herman’s dollhouse, where everything is alive and moving.
Then we have Ms. Yoon’s voice, not the blues-singing voice (which, while earnest, never quite gets that bluesy sound). Her voice, though, is like a coalescence of early Joan Baez with the resonance of the Tibetan tuning bowls.
The miracle was that nothing is consciously “music”. To return to that “beginning/end” negation, the music and objects and movements flow out by themselves, both tinkling bells and actions are simultaneously inspired and suddenly inspired and unavoidable.
Somehow, while only the dress of Vong Pak was shamanistic, the entire performance breathes the Japanese/Korean shamanistic reverence for everything organic and non-organic. And it brought me many years ago to a midnight walk along the beach on that island lured by the high soprano voice of a woman standing by the waves, crooning in, what I suppose was an ancient Korean or an esoteric religious language. Like Ms. Yoon, this was less a music than the vocalization of a prayer. (The word incantation has negative aspects, but yes, it was an intoning.)
As to what Bora Yoon’s Sunken Cathedral was “about”, one could read her notes in the program which run over “blood memories”, the “cosmology to the cosmos” energy which is wnever lost in the economy of God” etc etc.
Not ad nauseum, but abstract. When Bora Yoon appears, though, her abstract concepts translate to reality.. For far more essential than the objects and music and colors and changes is the rhythm of her performance. Amidst the universe of “things”, she glides and strolls without even a scintilla that her movements have been prompted.
Like her performance itself, no movement has start or finish, she drifts through the stage apparatus as though it has appeared for her alone, and will move and change according to her will.
This is simply a performance without equal. Ms Yoon is a natural force, exuding seamless jewels. She, and the musical/physical objects she embraces, seem to exemplify the words of an old John Downland song about a poem written by a scorned lover written to his ladylove: “It shall suffice that they have lived and died for our delight.”