Beneath the turbulence of our politics, lies our American mythology…
Kazoos, a pianist imitating galloping horses, an 18 folk-song mashup, a violinist and cellist in a Western shoot-out, a ghost gospel prayer—all musical counterpoint to the dramatic paintings of New York “psychological pop” artist Jerry Kearns.
I had goosebumps when I first saw Kearns’ Paleface exhibit. Those characters! They are all of us—the cowboy, the detective, the action hero—heroes all lost now in an American narrative they/we can no longer control.
Now I’m excited to share this collaboration with you, with video by Carlton Bright that creates a counterpoint between the music and the paintings. Below are links to a short trailer and the world premiere, performed by the virtuoso Neave Trio.
The Neave Trio brought Steinberg’s wild and inventive score to life…a clever collage of galloping Wild West tropes and quotes from musical Americana…playful moments and jazzy noir-esque motifs… the inky loveliness of the closing movement encompassed warm melodies and rich harmonies that showed off the composer’s lyrical gifts.
Jon Sobel, Blogcritics.org
Share your response to Paleface on this blog!
Inspired by the acclaimed paintings of New York “psychological pop” artist Jerry Kearns, Paleface explores the persistence of the American hero myth, even as it breaks down on every level in our contemporary society. It begins with the Western cowboy mythos— horses, cowboys, folk songs and church hymns (Jesus plays a lurking role in the piece), even a gun fight. Then it jumps to the varied 20th century heroes who struggle and triumph over dark forces—detectives from pulp comics and film noir, the secret agent, and the muscled action hero. Paleface concludes with all these icons now as phantoms, struggling in the night to cohere and make sense of a world they no longer can possibly describe. They ultimately all go to church and fade away to a ghost gospel choir.
The musical style of Paleface is contemporary classical with an Americana quality influenced by Ives, Copland, and George Crumb. The pianist taps inside the piano to evoke distant galloping horses, all three instruments create a collage of a dozen folksongs and church hymns. There is dissonant chase music, a jazzy “secret agent” tune, frantic blues, and even a comic fanfare with kazoos. A brief summary of the three movements:
I. Wild West—galloping horses, an Ives-ian montage of over a dozen Western/American folk tunes, and a shootout; the piano in this movement uses several extended techniques inside the instrument—tapping the steel bars to imitate horse gallops, melodies and chords with muted strings, and atmospheric strums
II. Action Hero—a fast scherzo with dissonant “chase” music, jazzy “secret agent” music, “action super hero” music, all getting jumbled together as they lurch towards a comic climax with kazoos tooting out a ridiculous fanfare.
III. Into Night—an Adagio that takes all these American icons and thrusts them into the night of today’s post 9-11 world. The first part is spooky with high notes depicting the starry night, punctuated with startling tremolos, chords that descend into the depths, and ghostly returns of previous themes. The musical landscape enters “church,” with a hymn that morphs into a quasi-gospel pop anthem. The anthem swells and subsides, eventually itself becoming a ghost and fading away.