“More or Less I Am,” a moving synthesis of music and Whitman’s poetry to mark 9/11

September 10, 2011
By Caitlin McKechney

Colin Jacobsen, Ayeje Feanster, and Michael Rogers (l to r) in "More Or Less I Am." Photo: Compagnia de Colombari

Karin Coonrod’s More or Less I Am, a free-form adaptation of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, honors the anniversary of 9/11 in a unique way — by answering the anger and sadness with laughter, song, honesty, dance and even sex.  Innovative and moving, this multimedia music-theater piece by Coonrod (Public Theater, American Repertory Theater) performed by Compagnia de Columbari is not a memorial, but rather a celebration of humanity, life, death and love, a catharsis rather than a wallowing in sadness.  

Friday night’s performance at the Calhoun School on 81st Street led off with the fiery Ayeje Feamster exuding passion and honesty as she easily transitioned from spoken word to a pitch-perfect and soulful melody. Each subsequent performer – David Patrick Kelly, Nicole Mitchell, Giovanni Pucci, Michael Rogers, Jorge Alberto Rubio, Leigh Wade and 11-year-old Cheyanno Cardell Collymore — embodied a different character, representing a wide array of races, ages, demographics and cultures.  Whitman’s texts may be dense at times but they were woven together with camaraderie and an honest immediacy that made for joyful and infectious results.  

The music, composed and performed by brothers Colin and Eric Jacobsen (violin and cello, respectively) of Brooklyn Rider, Kyle Sanna (guitar), and Alex Sopp (flute), is a unique blend of classical minimalism, opera, bluegrass, African steel drum, Irish folk, and soul—illuminating Whitman’s poetry without overpowering it.  Particularly notable was the cello-accompanied monologue delivered by the “old southern man,” with the story flowing from Eric Jacobsen’s melody to the actor’s lips.   At times the poetry seemed to melt away into the music, becoming an instrument itself. 

Coonrod’s creation is consistently innovative and inspired. Throughout the piece, words acted as music and music illuminated the words in a genuinely exciting way that showed what such hybrid performance art can achieve at its best.

There were some fitful balance issues, perhaps a symptom of the different venues for these performances and the varied capabilities of the vocalists.  The instrumental play-out at the end seemed anticlimactic and some of the actors lacked vocal polish and technical refinement, but the plain sincerity of the voices lent itself well to the piece. 

Just as America is a melting pot of cultures, More or Less I Am is a melting pot of performance mediums, musical styles and artistic ideas.  The attacks of a decade ago are more of a subtext, but the tragedy emerges even more powerfully as a result at the hauntingly beautiful moment when the concept of death is discussed. But the theme of this performance is not death, nor anger, bitterness or even sadness. It is love.

More or Less I Am will be repeated 2 p.m. Saturday at the Brooklyn Historical Society; 8 p.m. Saturday at the Park Avenue Christian Church at 85th St; and 3 p.m. Sunday  at The Old Stone House (Park Slope). Admission is free.  www.colombari.org

Caitlin McKechney is a mezzo-soprano, visual artist, writer and voice teacher.  caitlinmckechney.com


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