The Gauntlet, conceived, designed, and brought to life by two of New York’s most distinctive artists, composer Sxip Shirey and choreographer Coco Karol, is an immersive, site-specific choral and movement piece, an intimate experience. Audiences are led through musical corridors of sonic architecture created by the human voice, and bathed in waves of harmony, poetry, and gesture.
Each performance of The Gauntlet is unique, reflecting the site, community and performers it is created with. Through a series of workshops, Shirey and Karol work with choirs and community members to develop gestures and generate text for The Gauntlet. Workshops include “movement interviews” – inquiries into each participant’s phenomenological experience of “home” and belonging – and can be tailored to wider social and curatorial themes.
Following performances during the 2018 FERUS Festival at National Sawdust, and at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Sydney Opera House’s Antidote Festival, Shirey and Karol joined forces with National Sawdust Projects producer, Holly Hunter, to mount The Gauntlet in a pair of free outdoor performances commissioned by New York City’s iconic Rockefeller Center, on August 3.
Following those performances, we invited some of the participants to describe their experiences for National Sawdust Log. Their answers reflect the generous, inquisitive spirit that clearly informed and enveloped the entire project.
Nilusha Dassenaike Assistant Music Director
Being a part of this Gauntlet from concept to completion was nothing short of wondrous. Collaborating and workshopping the compositions with Sxip was a magical, energetic experience. Having a composer invite you into their process of shaping each composition almost made the music tangible, like a physical object that we were holding, sculpting, redefining in the moment.
Teaching these songs to over 200 exceptional singers was such a thrill. Hearing their powerful voices sing back to me felt like I was having my own private concert.
Deconstructing the compositions within my Gauntlet was again another beautiful experience. I’d send out tones, phrases, portions of text, pitched and non-pitched sounds, and then would periodically step back and listen to how the voices in The Gauntlet were processing each of these offerings. It was like watching a gust of wind dance down a corridor.
At times, the phrases and gestures transformed as they travelled down The Gauntlet, which was part of the beauty of this artwork. Each voice played an integral part in conveying the text, tones, phrases, etcetera, and that would vary depending on the interpretation of the vocalist. It was quite phenomenal to witness.
Directing an immersive artwork like this has been a unique experience. It was truly transformative for me as a human being, musician, and composer.
Abby Dobson Workshop Participant and Performer
Sometimes after a sonic encounter, melodies linger and the feeling(s) they call up in us resonate and remain. “In Search of a New Anthem” was such an encounter and the melodies still ring and bump cheerfully into each other in my head and heart. As a singer in the workshop group, I found the process to be organic, collaborative, methodical, and yet still open and interpretive as we workshopped songs for The Gauntlet, a sonic installation arranged and directed by exceptional musical directors who passed tones, melodies, and pulses, as well as phrases that were stitched together from interviews conducted earlier in the process.
Over a series of two workshops and two rehearsals, the tunes evolved, stretched, and came together beautifully. In the end, five groups of singers from many walks of life gathered and faced each other in the center of Rockefeller Plaza. We looked each other in the eye as we talked and talked and talked with each other, through music.
The process and experience of singing intimately with strangers by way of The Gauntlet is a model of some of the best of what art promises us as a community of global citizens. Each singer was given essential tasks. Each was continually responsible for passing on or sharing important information – tones, words, linguistic phrases, movement, gestures, direction – to one another, in order to contribute not just to the moment, but to a larger project over time that relies on communication, engagement, openness, and a commitment to service, in order to cultivate supportive and generative spaces.
Each singer at some point wrestled with how to keep the process moving during times of uncertainty, fatigue, or idiosyncrasies of a singer’s particular tone, register, listening skills, sense of time and rhythm, and ability to interpret words and gestures heard and seen. Each singer represented colossal yearnings in each precious and unrepeatable moment. It was magical. We really listened to one another and looked one another in the eye. We were also open to and appreciated the touch and knowledge of dancers who moved among us. We kept an eye on our musical director, leading us for starts and stops and all in between. It was transformative in form and substance. It felt like radical democracy. It felt like a piece of freedom.
“In Search of a New Anthem” came to me just in time in this season of my life, as I return to thoughts of what it means to call a place home when it is not the land of my, my mother’s, or my grandmother’s birth. A Jamaican-born immigrant of African ancestry, I have begun again to think more about how best to sound the voice of my entire being in this place, which is now home, where I was born again, but where I am still foreign… a stranger. It was by way of grace that I chose Monday rehearsals and lucked into the composition directed by Nilusha, an extraordinary composer, musical director, and musician. I connected immediately to the lyrics and melody of “The Necklace”: “The first thing I saw when I came to New York was a necklace with a heart and my name… as if to say, on this day, you your name and you … are born again. A new.”
The Gauntlet was a process, a methodology, a conversation, and a sonic structure to witness and be in relationship with. It was remarkable. It was one of the most pleasurable musical experiences I’ve had in a long time. It was intimate, comfortable, uneasy, revealing. The encounter was more than surround sound. Like all art of service, it has a message. For me, It was more than sound for sound’s sake. Sound allows us to embrace our neighbors without tactile touch. It holds space for faith in each other through mass shootings, police shootings, governmental malfeasance, and other evils that don’t reason, rhyme, or add up. Sound, inclusive of principled silence, holds space. Sound sustains living. Sound offers us infinite possibilities.
Anthony Roth Costanzo Opera Singer, Movement Interview Participant
I walked through Rockefeller Center, dodging a shock of tourists and weaving through the well-articulated statues, and ducked into one of the large buildings I’d never been in before. When I wandered to the hidden room where my movement interview would take place, I found the opposite of what I expected—a tranquil white space looking onto green trees and two women I’d never met. Coco was very pregnant in a long white shirt, and Sarah was exceedingly hip in a simple dress.
We were given our task: one would be led through an improvised pas-de-deux with Coco while talking, being asked about a variety of subjects, and the other person would write down everything they could manage to record on a yellow legal pad. I had the luxury of listening first, and as I tried to write down everything Sarah said, I could only catch glimpses of what she was doing physically. Being the low-tech stenographer turned out to be a fascinating exercise in multitasking, documentation, and a kind of reductive problem-solving. I wanted to write down every word of what Sarah said, as it seemed to flow freely forth in cascades of inspiration.
When it was my turn to dance, I discovered that moving along with Coco, her soft touch, her firm guidance, and her warm spirit allowed for a certain truth in my thoughts. I had to focus part of my mind on what my body was doing, and so I couldn’t employ that section of the brain which criticizes, censors, and holds back. I saw Sarah furiously writing on the legal pad. I saw Coco gracefully registering all I was saying with what seemed like more understanding than I’d had when I said it.
Jasmine Mendoza Performer, New York City Master Chorale
I’m a 28-year-old singer based in New York City. I’ve sung continually as part of at least one choral group for 14 years, and it was through my membership with the New York City Master Chorale that I discovered The Gauntlet and was able to participate in it.
During the two weeknight rehearsals, most of the time was spent learning the melodies that we would be passing to each other in addition to learning the mechanics of passing snippets through The Gauntlet. With every run-through, it became clear that maintaining connection was integral in getting the feel of the piece exactly right. I needed to be connected to my body for the physical aspects of singing—making sure my breathing, intonation, volume were all at the levels necessary to be able to replicate the melodies and snippets of the “movement interviews.”
I needed to be connected with my immediate neighbors, because by the time The Gauntlet was complete, the person before me had sung the entire piece to me, and in turn I had sung the entire piece to the person that followed. I needed to be connected to the piece itself—the “movement interviews” provided audience members with significance, and so needed to be delivered with authenticity, whatever that meant personally to each of us. Doing this also provided a connection with the audience. At the performance, the line between performer and spectator gradually blurred into nothing, as we were mutually surrounding one another in sound and gesture.
Singing in The Gauntlet was an experience that required the use of all the skills I’ve acquired and used for every choral concert I’ve ever performed, while simultaneously being unlike any performance I’ve ever been a part of. Even something as simple as transposing a melody from the octave a neighbor was passing to an octave that was more comfortable for one’s own range was challenging when all the various elements of being in a live performance were added: the thrill of singing solo, even if just for a moment; the fact that someone was waiting to receive the melody made from your body, your voice; the audience members who were often in closer proximity than your fellow performers; even the sights and the sounds of the city, which we all know can be unpredictable.
I’m thankful that I was part of The Gauntlet—I have sung concerts in which I don’t feel that the audience is fully engaged, not because they aren’t interested in the music, but because they might not know how to make that connection. The Gauntlet could not have been performed without every participant – singer, dancer, spectator – being fully engaged in the piece by either producing the wall of sound or flurry of movement, or by providing a consciousness for the sound or movement to be given to and consumed by. It was truly unique.
Holly Hunter Director of National Sawdust Projects & Community Engagement
When I first met Coco and Sxip in Summer 2018, we immediately connected over our shared passion for the voice, movement and storytelling—so much so, we sang together in our meeting!
A year later, when Rockefeller Center approached me to produce and commission a massed choral event which would bring together hundreds of New Yorkers and represent the theme of Transformation, my mind went straight back to that encounter and thoughts of The Gauntlet.
I am a huge advocate for, and believer in, how the power of singing can connect people and transcend cultural and social barriers. So, naturally, I was excited by the idea of bringing together over 200 individuals from across this incredibly diverse city to create a new work in collaboration with one another, and with artists whose process is inclusive and accessible.
I called Sxip and Coco, talked them through the idea of scaling the piece to involve more performers, and to my joy, they said yes! Together we assembled the wider creative team, and selected the movement interview participants who we felt would bring some deep storytelling to the piece. There was so much rich, beautiful language extracted in the interviews, reflecting experiences of personal transformation and connection to New York City. Sadly, there was no way it could all be used in the performance, but that process of uncovering intimate personal narratives from a wide range of people to inform an artwork is really so special.
We gathered singers by reaching out to hundreds of community choirs from across the city. The Gauntlet is an interesting concept to pitch to a performer, and I don’t think anyone can really understand the piece until they have experienced it in person. Transformative, unique and truly special for both performers and audience members,The Gauntlet creates connections between strangers, while bringing life and energy to spaces that lingers long after the performance ends. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.
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