Diving Back Into the Bitter Wates of Miriam by Abbie Conant



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Diving Back Into the Bitter Waters of Miriam
By Abbie Conant, June 13, 2011


In his New York Times Bestseller, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, author Michael Gelb defined seven principle’s that characterized da Vinci’s life and work.  For my sabbatical project, I applied these principles to aspects of musical performance and teaching, with a specific focus on re-learning a difficult music theater work entitled Miriam, which was written for me by composer/director William Osborne.  I hadn’t performed Miriam since 1996.  During my semester-long sabbatical, I studied Leonardo’s life, his character, his art, his scientific writings, and his journals.  It wasn’t my intention to become an expert on Leonardo, but to find clues pointing to a holistic approach to performing and teaching my instrument.  Why not consult the greatest all-round genius the world has ever known?

I chose to do my work in Taos  , New Mexico  , an artist colony at the foot of the Southern Rocky Mountains  in a range called the Sangre de Christos Mountains. Taos has a special atmosphere conducive to creative work, a special light and magic.  It is home of the famous Taos Pueblo, where the Tewa Indians have lived for over a thousand years. Taos Mountain dominates the high desert landscape at an elevation over 13,000 feet, and is sacred to the Tewa.

During this period, I was invited to perform my sabbatical program entitled Apocalyptic Visions and New Worlds at Northern Arizona University  in Flagstaff  , and at the University  of Missouri  in Kansas City .  The program was very well received, as evidenced in an email I received from Alexander Lapins, Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at NAU:

"The performance you gave was absolutely profound. Your exquisite musicianship, dramatic commitment and your simultaneously elegant and powerful trombone playing illuminated the works performed to perfection. The works themselves were sublime; frightening, funny, terrifyingly beautiful, powerful and brimming over with humanity. This was a stunning, engaging and enlightening experience. Thank you!"

I also gave master classes and talked about my work with students. I discovered that applying the Seven Principles when learning a piece was extremely valuable and worthwhile.  The reader will be able to see for him- or herself the merit of using the Seven Principles for the entire spectrum of artistic endeavors by reading the article below.  I was also able to document my work by creating the video of Miriam linked above and putting it on our website.

The Miriam Trilogy is a harrowing chamber music theater work that lasts 90 minutes. It requires a performance artist who must be an actress, trombonist, soprano, and pantomime.  Miriam is a portrait of an artist and her struggle to find words --to tell her story which is so much more than anything words can contain, that the attempt almost destroys her.  Miriam was premiered for the Munich Biennale in 1990, and was written, directed, and produced by William Osborne.

Miriam is in three parts:

Part I, The Mirror, is a musical pantomime showing her identity crisis and attempted suicide.

Part II, The Chair, finds Miriam confined to a chair in a mental institution --a chair only experienced in a nightmare, part child’s high chair, part torture chair, part electric chair, part symbol of a woman in the straitjacket of an abusive marriage contextualized by modern day patriarchy.  In this part of the trilogy, we see Miriam trying to write a music theater piece to perform for her children who are about to visit her in the institution. There are no words that are hers, that could ever be hers, but she still vows to somehow find them to express her predicament.

Part III, The River, finds Miriam beside a symbolic river making slowly morphing gestures of taking her infant daughter from the water and/or letting her go to float down the river.

The Trilogy shows us what is behind each of the three doors of the subjective perception of a woman.  In general, we experience a universal anima and feminine spirit.  We experience a woman’s spirit of creativity caught in the poisoned landscape of patriarchy.  We experience a world where the feminine is not truly seen, where it is not taken seriously, and where it is instrumental zed and deeply violated.

Miriam is an example of a human trying to create art out of pain. The work was written in reaction to the egregious gender discrimination I experienced in the Munich Philharmonic during my 13 year tenure there.  My husband also felt deep pain at seeing his wife abused, which led him to compose Miriam.  You can read about my experiences in a highly documented article entitled “You Sound Like a Ladies’ Orchestra.”
I was not exactly thrilled about returning to a work that represented that dark period our lives but we both knew it was time to revisit the character and spirit of Miriam in order to be reborn, in a sense, into the next phase of our artistic lives.  What I discovered through reflecting on the seven da Vinci Principles resulted in a deeper understanding of all aspects of interpreting and performing.  These explorations included how I integrate trombone playing, acting, and the use of my sung and spoken voice.  I also explored how Miriam’s spirit reverberates in the hearts and minds of the audience.  I experienced myself and my character, Miriam, as a voice in the midst of an awakening group of humans in a patriarchal wilderness, who are to varying degrees able to hear her cries, hear the music, and the song of her emergence into her own light.

Even though the experience of re-learning and absorbing Miriam happened in an integrated manner, I will attempt to break down and separate each element and principle so that they illuminate some of the layers and work methods I used preparing The Chair for performance. Here are the Seven Principles:

1. Curiositá– an insatiable, passionate curiosity.
2. Dimostrazione – testing knowledge through experience, not being afraid to fail.
3. Sensazione – continuous refinement of the senses.
4. Sfumato – a willingness to embrace ambiguity, mystery. 5. Arte/Scienza – developing a balance between art and science, objectivity/subjectivity, balancing use of both brain halves. 6. Corporalitá– cultivating fitness and poise, respecting the body. 7. Connessione – recognizing and appreciating that all phenomena are connected, oneness.

1.  Curiositá
Questions. So many questions.  How would it be to go back to a very challenging work, both technically and emotionally?  Would it be substantially different?  In what way?  What had changed in me, and in my psychology, since the last performance in 1996 – 15 years earlier?

Curiositá in the context of the da Vinci Principles is not simply curiosity.  It is the passionate, inquiring, scientific mind as tempered by the subjectivity of the artist.  It is the impulse to expand knowledge and connotation itself, to deepen the resonance of the meaning of ideas, symbols and gesture, whether in music, art, science or culture itself.  It is knowing that as one observes, one creates.  In a sense, Curiositá is Leonardo’s prescience of the phenomenology developed in the 20th Century – and by extrapolation, perhaps even the beginnings of quantum physics.   By questioning everything about Miriam --her character, her expression, her words, her vision, her and emotional spectrum-- I created a new Miriam.
2. Dimostrazione

Dimostrazione is learning through actual experience --a constant and deep questioning of one’s beliefs, assumptions, habits and methods.  Miriam questions the status quo that initially put her where she is.  By the end of the piece, we feel sure that through this constant questioning she will find the truth that will set her free. Dimostrazione is the scientific method that will only take truth for an answer.
In relearning The Chair, I asked myself, who is Miriam?  As Miriam, how would I feel, write, sing, play trombone, be funny, weep, and so forth. Why is she imprisoned in the chair?  Why does she want to write a music theater piece for when her children come to visit?  Is it because she can’t communicate through verbal exchange?  Or is it because she won’t be believed or taken seriously due to her invalidated position in life?
“They’ll stand there silently, looking at me!,” she proclaims.  Apparently she thinks having a music theater piece ready for their visit will allow her to circumvent being looked at as a freak by her own beloved children.  She will be able to share something substantial with them without embarrassment, without much interaction.
At the end of the piece, Miriam sees through some of her illusions as her memories are found to be partial or deluded.  “The lighthouse…the swelling sea…no, only night.  The moon upon the sand…only sand. “  So what is real?  She resolves to find out.  She will find words that include and celebrate the feminine.  She will stare the sense of inferiority in the face and see what it is about.  Dimostrazione will show her the way.
3.  Sensazione

Leonardo consciously developed his senses because he believed that intelligence depended on perception.  Miriam is completely alone in her world.  She senses the fall of night which ushers in the danger of “too much fantasy.”  Just sitting in Miriam’s chair evokes through the tactile sense, what her experience might be about.  She is trapped in a kind of tortuous limbo of inarticulateness. Her relationship to the world is deeply injured if not completely severed.  She is unkempt, but nevertheless has a mirror and make-up on her little table which resembles the table on a child’s high chair. She can’t “see” herself as others see her.  Her perceptions are skewed with the madness of extreme emotion without the frail anchor of words. She runs out of writing paper and so uses the palms of her hands instead.  They bleed under her pen point. “More words and more words, but not a song to sing!!!,” she screams. Through self-inflicted pain, she expresses her frustration, anger and sadness about her predicament.  Her stigmata testify to her victimhood, but subtly allude to a possible transcendence, a rising up.
 “And what if she were real?” she asks as it turns into night.  She feels the cold, she shivers constantly.  Her voice is ravaged, she feels she must sing, but the singing turns to screams that can’t be heard.
Putting on Miriam’s thin slip that exposes her neck, décolleté, and arms, communicates without words how vulnerable she is --that she is a patient, a subject in an institution where one need not wear street clothes, but indeed must wear clothes indicating sickness and invalidity.
One could argue that Miriam’s senses are over-refined, that this is exactly what landed her in the institution. In fact, it is these refined senses that brand her as an artist --an artist not allowed to be an artist.
She is the shadow side of the great artist who is traditionally depicted as male, powerful, and the voice of his nation or culture.  Miriam is female, powerless, and has no voice.  She is “put away.” Her senses deliver only pain, darkness, and the loneliness of alienation.
4. Sfumato
Sfumato means literally “up in smoke”.  It was a painting technique that Leonardo developed to soften and blur the interfaces in his paintings to create ambiguity.  Sfumato includes the ability to embrace the unknown, uncertainty, to allow two or more answers to a single question.  Sfumato means accepting that an important part of life is mystery, unknowing, the void.  Miriam is not sure of anything in her world, except for the things on her desk: her makeup, her mask, her pen, her notebook, her mirror.  All around her is the extension of sfumato that bridges the presence of darkness.  Her mask has an almost bridal quality, as do the diaphanous swaths of translucent white material on the back of her chair, while the piece of rope suggests bondage.  There is nothing unambiguous about Miriam except her pain and her body. As the actor, I have to be comfortable with not knowing exactly what the piece means, but knowing and intuiting who this figure represents all the same.  I must dredge into my own darkness in order to ignite the archetypal force of Miriam.  What is behind the smoke or sfumato?  The thousand-voiced self, the mystery that reveals more mystery ad infinitum.
5. Arte/Scienza
Arte/Scienza is balancing the scientific mind with the artist mind, objectivity and subjectivity, the left and right brain.  Arte/Scienza encompasses fact and fiction. History and Story. Water and Wine.  Chemist and Alchemist. Logic and Imagination. Words and Music.
Acting depends on a good dose of this dual principle because the actor’s sense of what they are subjectively expressing through the character they are objectively portraying is often somewhat skewed.  The actor’s perception of what they are communicating and revealing about the character doesn’t always come across to the audience. The director serves as the Scienza part of the process, and guides the actor to the correct balance of inner experience and outer expression.  The visual aspect of Miriam’s predicament is the Scienza component, whereas the musical/textual aspect reflects her inner world, her subjective experience of life.
The structure (or Scienza) of the piece informs the subjective emotional/energetic arc for the actor which helps them pace and develop the flow of emotions and energy to create an integrated, impactful whole.  One would deliver the text, “Nothing but empty words!” quite differently at the beginning of the piece as opposed to the end.  Having the structure in mind shapes the resonance of the words.  The objectivity of the score is there to temper as well as ignite the imagination of the artist.
Miriam talks to herself alone in her room in the clinic (Scienza,) then sings behind her mask (Arte) in alternation throughout the first part of The Chair.  When she sings behind the mask, the irrational, the mysterious, the Arte is expressed.  A stage and a performance are a sort of test tube where artists mix up a formula for the soul to ingest.  The objective elements are the science, while the subjective sense of proportion and combination are the domain of the artistic mind.
6. Corporalitá

Miriam is a very physical piece.  She sits before us locked in her bigger-than-life chair in all her corporeal, middle-aged, well-used, solid, but expressive body.  We see her --warts and all-- dressed in a thin nightgown with a blanket covering her lap.  She is almost too real, too painful to look at, all too familiar on some archetypal level. Her body suggests neglect if not abuse.  Her hair is stringy, greasy and unkempt. There are dark shadows under her eyes. She is a shut-in, physically as well as spiritually.  The body clearly reflects the spirit here.
And yet she has a certain poise and force. She writes with vigor, sharpens her pencil with single-minded fanaticism, flings her wads of paper in every direction, sings with a manic gusto, or shouts as if wringing out her every bodily tissue.  She has command, or more accurately partnership, with her body.  It is an observed body, a body bound and carefully monitored by others one moment and ignored the next.  It is the wounded woman’s body crushed under the dull weight of patriarchy.  Her creative impulses are dismissed into darkness and alienation.  Her body is in a state of humiliation.  And yet it is her body that keeps on singing.  It is her body that manifests the resolve to “find the words”.
Certainly I had to train my body in many different disciplines in order to perform Miriam.  I had to learn to sing at a professional, classical level. I had to learn pantomime, acting, and figure out how to go quickly between singing and playing the trombone even though the sense of support and the amount of air necessary for each is vastly as well as subtly different.  I learned that every micro change in the body, every tiny movement, every breath, every thought that skitters across my face will show when I am on stage.  I had to learn that all physical change must be intentional and motivated so that the body becomes the perfect medium of expression, a living crucible of the flesh.
Layers of skills merge in order to create an integrated body of free expression.  The trombone is played as simply an extension of a tortured body. My instrument must take up the speechlessness, the void of words, and sing for the soul who cannot utter another word or sound because they have become empty in the face of unfathomable pain.  When one’s very context is toxic and wounded there is little point in having a text.
The singing and delivery of text is completely integrated with the hundreds of gestures written into the score.  My job is to not make the audience become aware of the score but only of the character.  This requires corporal intelligence and sense training of the highest order.  The body is honored thus in its sadness and bondage.  The human feminine becomes the embodiment, if only fleetingly, of the Divine Feminine.
7. Connessione
Connessione is seeing the oneness in all things, that all things are related.  It is also the quality of wholeness and integrity --the microcosmos that contains the macrocosmos. It is vital to see the composition as a unity, and see how all the elements and parts create a larger gesture.  Music creates connection and unifies the audience. The music and text create a character, a living being who is ignited by the performer and burns as a light to the audience.
This unity creates a bond between the performer and audience.  It not only reminds us that we are one, but creates a literal experience of oneness.  I must become one with the music, find the character in me, and become one with her, become one with my voice, my gesture, my trombone.  The audience must feel me as an extension, a part of them made visible, made real.
Even though I must break down the music and text into smaller parts in order to master the technical aspects of the score, ultimately I must integrate all that I have learned into a seamless world. The character Miriam I portray enters the world in odd and fascinating synchronicities.  I meet an inordinate number of girls, women and even pets named Miriam.  Women I know struggle to become artists no matter what the cost.  They rage at the injustice of patriarchy and how it is poisoning all of us and killing the earth. As the character reaches out into the world and is reflected back to me, I find her within me looking at the world as I experience her take on life.  There is a oneness in this process where all is permeable, interrelated and included.  The universal is the personal and the personal universal.  The last utterance of Miriam in The Chair is “Words.”  The naked voice of the human alone in her creation reverberates into nothingness.  We feel our existential truth, our aloneness in an incomprehensible universe, together.