Mayan creation myth updated in Brooklyn by members of the National, Breeders

It’s not every day that you walk into Brooklyn Academy of Music’s gorgeous Howard Gilman Opera House expecting to hear the chants and cheers of a ball game.  But that’s precisely what happened. Twenty minutes before the start of “The Long Count,” a multimedia collaboration by musicians Bryce Dessner and Aaron Dessner (of The National) and visual artist Matthew Ritchie, the theater was filled with the sound of cheering fans from 33 years ago — back when Pete Rose would “walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.”

The project was commissioned by BAM as part of its 2009 Next Wave Festival, and it featured Kim and Kelley Deal (those iconic twins of alt rock fame, who share between them stints in the Pixies, the Amps, the Last Hard Men, and the Breeders), Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) and Matt Berninger (of The National).  It’s not easy to think of a phrase that succinctly describes what they created: a multi-disciplinary experience?, a gesamtkunstwerk?, a collaborative sound cycle and installation?, a comparative history of twins and ball games presented as a performance?

Ritchie’s large-scale sculptural environment framed a one-hour animated film made from the artist’s intricate drawings. An evocative, complex score and song cycle composed and performed by the Dessners and a 12-member chamber orchestra was accompanied by vocal support from Worden, the Deals and Berninger. It retells the Mayan myth of the hero-twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque through the lens of the 1976 World Series.

While many audience members may not have been familiar with the Popol Vuh (the source text of the Mayan myth), the concept of the hero-twins is common enough across mythologies to be familiar. Tenacious and artful, mythic twins tend to be involved in the creation of civilizations (Romulus and Remus, Liza and Mawu) and have relationships deeply rooted in dualistic power and adventure (Apollo and Artemis, Castor and Pollux, Kusha and Lava, the Navajo twins). In the Popol Vuh the twins wake the gods of the underworld with a loud ball game and are challenged to a game with the gods. What follows is a tale that involves cunning maneuvers, decapitation, demonic macaws and the like. The performance opened with twins Racquel Garcia and Joshua Garcia playing ball on the set to the soundtrack of the 1976 game.  As the performance unfolded the various twins mirrored one another other, as well as the tale of mythic twins.

The project focuses on and is comprised largely of layered multiples — patterns that repeat, reference back and fold in on each other. The Dessners played intertwined motifs opposite one another on the stage. The vocalist in the chamber ensemble mirrored Berninger’s vocals. The Deals echoed and amplified each other. The animation mirrored the music and was projected in such a way (using multiple screens and mirrors) as to create the effect of the images bursting apart and folding back in on themselves. The singers were each doubled visually by the mirrored floor of the stage. The narrative themes of the project were doubly twinned: baseball in 1976 resonates with baseball now (the first performance was held concurrently with the first game of the World Series); the ballgame that started the performance twins the ballgame of the Popol Vuh; and those each twin the other.

The project draws on a remarkable range of sources and operates across several media.  This kind of wide-reaching effort makes me think of the potential for concerts to be re-conceived as immersion experiences.  It combines the world of sports and innovative contemporary music – somewhat surprising bedfellows — as well as drawing on animation, sculpture, alternative/indie rock history, chamber music and dance.

This is a concert that’s more than a concert.  It’s an adaptation of text, it’s a screening and an installation, it’s rock and it’s chamber music, it’s a representation and recontextualization of a sports broadcast — and as such, it commands our attention in ways that a conventional concert would not. Before the performance began, as they were announcing the players from the 1976 game, there were people in the stands — ahem, theater — who were cheering for various players and booing at the Reds. And that’s the kind of ball game in which I’d like to be immersed, demonic macaws, impregnating calabash fruit-heads, decapitation, creation and all.

— Meghan Maguire Dahn

  2 comments for “Mayan creation myth updated in Brooklyn by members of the National, Breeders

  1. November 5, 2009 at 10:32 am

    meghan, i’ve been working on my write up of this for a few days now. but you captured it so much better than i ever could that i will jus tlink to this while discussing it.
    another marvelous essay.

  2. January 20, 2010 at 11:08 am

    Thank you!

    There was so much to process and consider, so many overlapping layers in that piece.

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