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Dada at the Movies: Guy Livingston, piano

A film-and-music immersion in absurdity, comedy and artistic intelligence from a century ago … still relevant today.

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Guy Livingston photo by Marilyn Smith

On a recent evening at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, the Center’s director, Ted Altschuler greeted the audience, “Good morning.” He smiled; the audience laughed; the tone for the concert was set. In a presentation of – among other things — live music, 1920s films, spoken word and brief theater improvisations, pianist Guy Livingston offered a splendid immersion in the aesthetic world of Parisian Dadaism. Artistic and intellectual integrity prevailed; Livingston’s easy, effective connection with the audience ensured both a deep, clear account of a particularly influential historical moment and a generous invitation into a contemporary, twenty-first century consideration of its pleasures and significance.

The ‘artist bio’ in the program booklet identifies Guy Livingston as a pianist and producer, currently based in Paris and The Hague, and as an expert in Dadaism who has “done extensive work with silent film, both contemporary and from the 1920s.” Interdisciplinary insights and virtuosic mixings of scholarly precision with technically elegant artistic flair make Livingston a genuinely innovative performer. Livingston’s clear, open-hearted affection for the material concerning which he is so formidably knowledgeable makes him eager to share what he knows with the audience, and he treats his audience as friends; Dada at the Movies was equal parts performance, demonstration and witty conversation.

The Rosalyn and Irwin Engelman Recital Hall is a steeply tiered, traditionally shaped concert hall. For this concert, a large film screen, located on the high wall at the back of the stage displayed the evening’s films, first a 2007 Dada Pseudomentary by Gabriel Barcia-Colombo and then, spaced out over the course of the concert, short films from the 1920s. On the stage, in addition to the piano, were several chairs and cardboard-and-fabric art-works; these, it turned out, were modern replications of costumes worn at the famous Dada real-life events which were the anchoring center-piece of the evening. When Livingston himself appeared on stage, he was informally dressed, sporting a top hat and feather boa.

Altogether, there were five 1920s silent films of various lengths. Return to Reason by Man Ray (1923) and Rhythmus 21 by Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter (1921) were both short; Livingston ‘accompanied’ the films on the piano with music by American avant-garde composer George Antheil (1900-1959). For Ghosts before Breakfast, a 1923 film by Hans Richter, Livingston also played Antheil. The edgy, jumpy music matched the films virtually perfectly in pace and texture; in these, as in all the music of the evening, visual jokes and surprises, reversals and stunts were matched by rhythms and melodies.

Livingston played several other pieces by Antheil as well as by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) without films. These displayed Livingston’s easy fluency and control as a pianist. Periodically, Livingston spoke directly to the audience. These moments were the only weak offerings of the evening: Livingston didn’t project his voice as skillfully as necessary to reach the whole house. However, when ‘volunteers’ from the audience – more probably, colleague-plants – joined Livingston on stage for the exceptionally witty Dada Dictionary, a partially improvised list of Dadaist characteristics written by Livingston himself, the audibility and pace of the material improved.

The film highlights of the evening were George Antheil’s 1926 Woman, an unfinished experimental work which Livingston was premiering, and the famous 1924 Entr’acte by Francis Picabia (1879-1953) and Rene Clair (1898-1981) which Livingston accompanied with music he arranged by Erik Satie (1866-1925). These works – films, contemporary music and Livingston’s playing – were marvelous: they were intellectually rich and aesthetically inventive.

The whole evening was an experience of two interconnected worlds. The first was the historical world of Dadaism, exhibited in music, words and visual images. The second was Livingston’s dexterous and inspiring explication of that first world’s coherence. For both experts in Dadaism and newcomers to that important moment between the two world wars, Livingston’s presentation captured the essence of Dadaist artists’ experiments and assertions. Light-hearted jokes masking fractious, subversive anxieties; traditional norms of inherited beauty in sound and image shifted, reversed, turned upside down and inside out; constant challenges to comfortable paradigms and expectations … all these were an artistic, even spiritual, response to the economic, social and political dislocations of the ‘war to end all wars.’

Some of the material – the visual and musical gestures of comedy, irony, satire and even slap-stick – is now old hat, food for clichés. But much of it remains entirely original. Livingston gave his audience direct, fresh contact with the originality of the Dadaists.

Equally important, a century after the Dadaists asked their questions and asserted their rebellions, we still need answers and resolutions. In the 1920s as now, artists have led the resistance. In this marvelous concert, Livingston paid homage to this fact and inspired us all to continued energy.


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