Refuse the Hour
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In Review > North America

Refuse the Hour

Brooklyn Academy of Music

SOUTH AFRICAN ARTIST William Kentridge’s latest collaboration with the South African composer Philip Miller, Refuse the Hour (seen Oct. 22), was intensely dramatic and compelling, even when it didn’t make much sense. The show was a mad melting pot of media, a crazy carnival of visual art, music, dance, film and noise, tossed together to create something beautiful and thrillingly chaotic—a gloriously entropic study of entropy. 

Miller wrote the music in a variety of styles—there was a duet for violin and ethereal droning voice, a lot of Frenchy accordion music, dancier pop idioms and outright cacophony, sometimes squeaked out, sometimes pounded out. The remarkable Joanna Dudley provided wacky sounds with her mouth, more “vocalizing” than proper “singing.” (I’m sure she’d kill it if she sang backup on “Rock Lobster.”) Dudley was joined by Ann Masina, who provided a more classical sound, though her timbre is gritty and shadowy; they performed with a six-piece instrumental ensemble (led masterfully by Adam Howard), as well as a drum set hanging from the ceiling, which seemed to play itself, like a Wild West piano. Behind this, Kentridge projected Kentridgian films—say, of himself, walking, atop the giant pages of giant opened books, or of giant metronomes, at which the performers would shout.

The outlines resembled another Kentridge–Miller–Dudley–Masina collaboration, Paper Music, which I saw at Carnegie Hall last fall. That concert felt tentative, like a thin experiment in fusing music with images, but this “multimedia chamber opera” was a provocative and considered success, busier and more coherent, with more thematic weight for its many pieces to bear. As such, it seemed more in line with Kentridge’s madcap 2010 production at the Met of Shostakovich’s Nose. (Two weeks after this three-night run in Brooklyn, Kentridge’s new production of Lulu had its premiere at the Met. The show at BAM sort of felt like an arena rockstar presenting his more ambitious solo project at a small club.) 

Between musical numbers, Kentridge told stories and offered philosophical insights, usually involving nineteenth-century advances—in physics, photography, filmmaking, clockmaking, etc. The common underlier was time—its study, denial, manipulation, ossification. All art, really, can be interpreted as humans messing with the inexorable march of minutes, whether it’s music’s regimentation of rhythms or film’s spatialization of time. 

In one of the best pieces, Masina sung what sounded like a Baroque air, while Dudley imitated its lilting melody, sounding electronically filtered, as though her voice were being played backward—as though the music were echoing itself, a duet across time. There was a lot of this kind of thing: Kentridge saying something and then taking it back, moving forward but then moving backward, things being made and then unmade, suggesting something about the transmutability of existence. The show often seemed to take language and deconstruct it, turning words into sound effects, sound effects into dance, dance into music, music into film, film into words. 

The most poignant of Kentridge’s stories was about how, if we could stand on Jupiter and point a telescope at Earth, we could watch long-ago historical events unfold—like, Caesar Augustus washing his hands. There’s what he called a Universal Archive (also the name of a book of his prints), meaning every creation is eternal; once something happens, it can’t ever be unhappened, or unremembered. So it was like Kentridge and Miller tore open their creations and spilled out what was inside, in all their messy magnificence.  —Henry Stewart 

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