Saturday, June 11, 2016

Thinking inside the black box

It’s very exciting for artists to see an empty space,” said Ed Lacson Jr. after recounting the diverse, if not divergent productions that came to life at the barely one-year-old Power Mac Center Spotlight, where he serves as theater manager.

The 400-sqm. black box theater was built to complete Ayala Land’s hip lifestyle and entertainment district Circuit Makati and complement the 1,500-seater performing arts theater soon to rise within the development. “A black box is basically an empty space that any artist can use, whether for performing or visual arts. It’s a canvas that they can transform however they want to,” explained Lacson. “Its difference from a proscenium type of theater is the seating, which can be adjusted in whatever configuration you want.”

And like the blank page, the limits of which are defined by the writer, Power Mac Center Spotlight has been utilized by creative minds in various disciplines. Other than the expected plays and musicals, the venue has hosted talks, product launches, even Christmas parties in the past. Power Mac Center Spotlight has seen artist Christina Dy celebrate her birthday with a live performance; poet Juan Miguel Severo recite verses to an army of spoken word and OTWOL fanatics; and the Manila Symphony Orchestra play unplugged.

“There’s no limit to the type of event; we even had a graduation,” added Lacson. Small and flexible, a black box theater inspires freedom while allowing intimacy — something that both performer and audience relish. Its very structure invites experimentation and forces attention that even Filipino rock band The Black Vomits chose to stage their modern rock opera The Gray Ground here.

At The Gray Ground rehearsals
Created by writer, artist and The Black Vomits bassist Igan D’Bayan, The Gray Ground follows Jan, who’s in the throes of writer’s block while desperately writing a literary masterpiece; and features a song cycle described by D’Bayan as “the band members’ love letter to the rock opera and the concept album.”

“To be honest, I wanted to stage The Gray Ground in a bar or in a small dingy space — with beer, eerie green lights, and patient ears. The play, for lack of a better word, is more dialogue-­driven and our music moves the story forward. But once I started developing the protagonist Jan and rethinking the Kafkaesque, Lynchian, Black Mirror-­like world that he lives in, we decided to stage the play in a proper black box theater, a decision that led us to Circuit Makati,” shared D’Bayan.

“The venue is a tabula rasa,” he continued. “It’s up to director Bianka Bernabe, stage designer Marco Ortiga of The Crucible, Ruel Caasi of TWA (The Working Animals), and the students of the College of Saint Benilde (CSB) School of Design and Arts to transform Power Mac Center Spotlight into Jan’s weird and wonky world. Ayala Land and Circuit Makati were very open to our ideas and have been really supportive.”

“We’re supporting The Gray Ground because it’s a unique project,” said Mel Ignacio of Ayala Land. “And we also like it when the students are involved. CSB is very near; it’s the community that we want to cater to. We want the people to stay, live, work, and play in Makati. We want the people in the area to know about the venue and that’s what Igan’s show can do.”

How the team behind The Gray Ground will make the workings of a writer’s (blank) mind a compelling drama and at the same time bring rock opera into the local audience’ consciousness, we have yet to find out. But Lacson couldn’t wait for the ride: “I was looking at their designs. It was very forward, very avant-garde. They have a mosh pit together with the regular seats. I think it’s an exciting way to use the space.” he said.

“If we had a proper budget, we’d aim for something like Faust (2006) — something ordinary infringed by something gothic with lots of shadows, masked figures and supernatural reds,” shared D’Bayan. “Now, it’s more of an ‘imagined space.’ If we do our jobs, the audience­ members would really be transformed into the Gray Ground, with an area code between everywhere and nowhere.”

It’s easy to say the opposite of Lacson’s previous statement and still be right: It’s very scary — frustrating? unappetizing? — for artists to see an empty space. And this dichotomy between emptiness and creation, sharing (if not coming from) the same space is what makes Power Mac Center Spotlight and The Gray Ground quite a match. As D’Bayan explained, “What The Black Vomits will present in The Gray Ground is just one story swimming in a sea of stories. But in our tale, the devil is a blank computer screen for a man suffering from writer’s block — and space is where the next story is coming from.”

—Originally published in The Philippine STAR

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Designated jazzmaster

Rave was — and to some extent remains — an unfamiliar ground to me, and that’s because my participation in activities involving one has always been at a minimal. I first encountered the term in college, circa 1999, when Malate could practically be named Street Party District. My curiosity (and outgoing friends) led me to the “in” clubs and “it” crowds, but my inner homebody found no reason to stay.

Fast forward to 2012: EDM artist Zedd came out with Spectrum and Find You, two mainstream ear worms that had a “feat. Matthew Koma” appended to their titles. Later on I’d see the same name featured in dance tracks I would play on repeat. It turns out the man is a singer, songwriter, producer — and a DJ to boot — who gives soulful acoustic performances.

Matthew Koma served as a Northern Star when it came to negotiating my way through the loud and variegated world of electronic dance music, leading me to more interesting artists and soundscapes that made me want to linger. His songs, whether he sang, wrote or produced them, made clubbing at first a tolerable and eventually an exciting experience. It became similar to watching a concert — there’s the music to look forward to.

Thanks to Gerard Lopez for capturing this moment with Matthew Koma.
(This can be an inadvertent advert for the Vivo V3 Max. Ha.)

“I think it’s always been a huge genre. Commercially it’s become viable, especially in America in the context of radio, because it’s evolved into something that is song-driven, and the production has become super interesting as well,” offered Matthew when asked why EDM has flourished over the past half-decade.

As to whether or not the genre gets the respect along with the attention it deserves (EDM is often associated with mindless beats), Matthew said, “It’s always hard to talk about music or art in relation to respect. They all deserve respect. It’s people pouring their hearts into whatever it is they do, whether it’s painting or making music.”

Speaking of heart, his own creative process is a sort of romance — at least that’s how I’d like to interpret it. I’ve always wanted to know if singer-songwriters are ever jealous of their songs and for Matthew, the answer is no. “You fall in love with every song during the process of creating it. It’s not until a week or three years later that you realize your relationship with it, whether you love it eternally or you hate it eternally, or you’re indifferent,” he explained. “So I never feel very precious about it. They all kind of have lives of their own. It’s a ‘what will be will be’ sort of mentality. Let some songs go and fly with other people, and let some be yours.”

Matthew has worked with a diverse group of artists (a collaboration with Shania Twain is next on his list) and if there’s one thing he learned from them, it’s openness. “The coolest thing I’ve seen in artists who have the most integrity, the most sense of self, is that they’re always students. They’re always open to challenging what they do or know, and it’s not in a way that makes them inauthentic but in a way that allows them to grow,” he shared. “That’s a cool thing to remember, that it’s okay to try different things, and that it’s okay to succeed in some of them and not succeed in some of them.”

Needless to say, 29-year-old musician has been in the industry for quite a while, but he only decided to release his own record early next year. “It kind of decides itself when it’s ready and when it’s done. A record is a snapshot of time. When there’s a body of message to deliver, you’ll know when you have to put that out and move on to the next chapter,” he said, adding that his presence in the scene is a blessing and a curse. “I have a lot of songs out that people have this perception of who I am and what I do,” he continued. “‘Does it live up to that? Does it feel like a continuation of that? Is it separated enough?’ There are so many things that go through people’s minds before even hearing the album. You have to take the extra step of having to overcome that.”

He gave a taste of the new album and reminded us how it felt to get high on music and dance when he returned to Manila on May 27 to spin at the Chaos Nightclub, City of Dreams. It was almost 2 a.m. and while I still had the stamina of a 20-year-old, I was anxious to see him perform. When I was no longer conscious of waiting, he came. There were no introductions, no dramatic darkness, no long, tormenting silence. Next thing I knew, Find You was playing and I — we — lost it.

That collective dizziness once the DJ drops that song — here you are among strangers, for a brief moment speaking the same language, surrendering to the same force — nothing beats that. From thereon he labored as if desperate to please (or was it to possess?) his audience. If we didn’t know the song, he made us like it. He also played So F**kin’ Romantic, one of the tracks in his upcoming album, “Arcadia.” The crowd was hooked, we bought it — and his entire set, for that matter.

He brought the house down, and did so with neither the fancy light works nor the mind-blowing graphics — the impressive productions Matthew spoke of — which define current EDM parties. Hours before his show, I asked him out of fun what “DJ” stands for and he retorted rather quickly, “Designated Jazzmaster.” That night, he might have shown me what he meant.

—Originally published in a different version on GIST.PH

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Little paintings

LA-based painter Nate Frizzell and I share something in common: last year saw our introduction to murals — him making it and me seeing (not looking at) it. The experience was courtesy of LeBasse Projects, Honeycomb Communities and Bonifacio Arts Foundation, Inc., who initiated the ArtBGC Mural Festival.

To me, creating murals is putting life to an otherwise dull wall, adding any form of emotion to the cold concrete that makes a city. If they should say anything more that, I have no idea. And neither do Nate. “I worry about that,” he replied when I asked what makes a mural work — if it should suit its environment and if it should leave comment. “If there were more time, I’d love to shoot local kids running and playing in the city, so that I’d have that kind of reference. But other than that, I think it’s good to have something completely outside of the area. If this keeps going, if the city gets covered with more art from around the world, it’s going to be amazing in the next few years and it’ll be totally different from anywhere else around the world.”

Nate is among the group of international artists invited to lend their talents and paint the walls of BGC’s skyscrapers and quiet nooks. Because he had always been confined to the galleries, he hesitated to paint a mural at first. What convinced him to become part of ArtBGC? “Just a trip to the Philippines made me say yes,” he shared.

Where his companions filled up meters upon daunting meters of walls with colors, Nate let space be space. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said, recalling his debut in the festival and the art form. “Everyone had this giant wall and it was going to be impressive, and I was just going to do these little paintings.” These little paintings called to the crowd, though, as if telling them, Share this space with me. “When I kept going, I saw the people’s reactions and how intimate they could be. You actually have to go to the wall and interact with. Unlike the giant walls where you have to go across the street just to see what’s going on. And I liked how personal it became.”

Since then he was hooked, did a couple of murals in LA and now he’s back to do more at BGC for the festival’s sophomore run. “In the art gallery, it’s sterilized. There’s no touching. Here I like that you can go touch it, interact and play with it. It’s a lot more fun,” he said.

One of his most photographed works is that of the young boy standing in front of a bear. “When you go look at the bear with the kid, the kid has his leg up on the wall. And if you look at the wall, it’s completely dirty because everyone goes up and puts their foot up on the wall,” Nate said, amused by how the artwork pulls people in.

And why wouldn’t they be drawn? Whether it’s our innate fascination with animals, or our beastly core responding to the sight of the undomesticated hanging about in the civilized world, Nate’s pawed, clawed, and fanged friends easily become ours as well.

Nate has used animal heads as masks in many of his works. “When I first started, I liked painting figures but I thought it was odd for people to have these strangers in their house,” he explained. “At first I used masks so that people can connect with it more instead of just painting a stranger — so they can put themselves in the painting.”

This high regard for inspiring intimacy must’ve made him and his murals a favorite among onlookers. It’s not only passers-by who get curious about his works, but people from faraway cities looking at photos of his paintings. Many of them ask the exact location of a certain mural — and we’re not telling. Because it’s a nice surprise if you find it on your own.

Nate has hidden gems all over BGC. If you happen to bump into a young girl in a floral dress or a bird perching atop a spray paint can, and you feel something inside you stir, thank Nate.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

Sunday, May 22, 2016

I made a mixtape

To remember the weekend we met.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Election season realizations

  1. I'm not the only one who has indescribable feelings that should but could not be suppressed and, in other circumstances, should be expressed but are suppressed.
  2. I'm not alone in my weirdness and internal wildness.
  3. Test a relationship by talking about politics.
  4. It's not people's choices but the logic behind their choices that's unpalatable and, to a certain degree, appalling.
  5. There are no heroes and villains, only people with good intentions, strong beliefs, and money.
  6. You have a voice.
  7. You listen selectively.
  8. 'Who's your president?' is a personal question. Don't ask this to a stranger, at a party.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Deeper the second time around

My new — newfound to be exact and I shall explain later — musical obsession is Hurts.

I miss the way I discovered their music: radio's on, songs play in the background, my mind, elsewhere when a sweet passage jumped out and called my attention.

I can't remember though if it was the chorus or the verses that made me stop what I was doing to figure out the words being sung, that I may commit it to memory and later on research the lyrics, title and artist, in case the DJ wouldn't say it.

No, it was the verses. The almost glacially slow-rap by which the singer tells an intriguing story about some girl named Susie. —And it was the percussions. The song was Wonderful Life, the artist was Hurts.

Bought the album, listened to it, didn't buy the rest of the tracks.

What year this was, I forgot.

But there definitely was no Instagram yet at the time (or I haven't been on it yet), because it was through this medium that I rediscovered Hurts. I stumbled upon Theo Hutchcraft's account and followed. If I may — this is my blog — I'd usually have a sexual attraction to someone I find beautiful. But there's something about Theo that I haven't fantasized ripping his clothes off. He's so — ethereal, unreal.

Aside from artistic shots of himself, there was a steady stream of concert photos. Hurts was performing in packed arenas. A surprise to me who thought of them as one-hit-wonders.

If they're touring, that means they have fresh music. The next step I took led me to fall in love with the band the way I didn't but should have when I first heard them.

Surrender makes me dance (Lights), weep (Wish, Wings), hope (Perfect Timing). I don't want to be in bed in Theo, I yearn to be in a stadium where Hurts is playing and I am bumping bodies with strangers (Some Kind of Heaven).

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

You're so sexy, and I'm not just talking about your brain.