Familiar elements in a novel experience
The beautiful score of 'A Man in a Room, Gambling' gently derails linear thinking.
The most intriguing element of a dream can be how familiar it seems no matter how strange it gets. Such was the case Wednesday with
A Man in a Room, Gambling
This new-ish work, developed by Peregrine Arts and introduced in an interim version at the German Society of Pennsylvania, contains black-and-white film footage of card players and the almost Richard Strauss-ian lushness in the Gavin Bryars score - in other words, nothing remotely baffling. Those elements, however, are shuffled together in a way that makes the experience likely to be unprecedented, and - with Peregrine's plans for further development - also likely to become something larger and more significant.
A Man in a Room, Gambling,
is what its title suggests: a meditation on the techniques of card sharks who, by cheating, take the gamble out of gambling. The prerecorded spoken text, from the 1902 S.W. Erdnase book
The Expert at the Card Table
, is in the format of five-minute radio shows. The texts address the audience directly, demonstrating tricks and asking if you've understood - which you haven't because the beautiful score, played here by string quintet with the composer on bass, takes the words out of the realm of instruction with a gentle power that doesn't permit linear, logical thinking.
Text and score were created 15 or so years ago. Now, New York's Ridge Theater has integrated black-and-white film footage, plus a man who looks like something out of your grandparents' scrapbook (well-clipped mustache, slicked-down black hair) addressing the camera silently, but with flat, straightforward lighting. Images were often superimposed on each other, frequently with more and more cards coming in from diagonal angles. Two live actors faced away from the audience and spoke into microphones, old-time-radio-show style.
They were a bit superfluous, though everything else coexisted in a successfully dreamlike collage that, unlike most dreams, sticks around afterward. The chandeliers and neoclassical details in the ballroom of the German Society at 611 Spring Garden St. made it a near-ideal venue for the piece, though the visuals would have had more impact if projected on a proper screen, rather than the walls.
Sustaining it over an hour's running time, though, is a fragile matter. As things now stand, the piece has plenty of elements to keep you interested, but no particular narrative thrust to move it forward - and no great reason to do the opposite. Typically, Bryars avoids any need for typical theatrical tension by choosing subjects that are innately dramatic (the sinking of the Titanic, for example) and building musical meditations around them.
Whether or not
A Man in a Room, Gambling
is successfully expanded, Bryars at least has created a score I'd happily listen to it on its own, more so even than Haydn's similar collection of slow movements,
The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross
Bryars tends to give your ears a break from the usual musical forms: Here, his ideas go wherever they will, never meandering, in a melancholy landscape that has occasional patches of sun, a few moments of bleakness, and the occasional emotional outburst, but that mostly treads an inviting, even comforting middle ground. What greater riches might the musicians uncover if not tethered to the prerecorded text?