Elevated Moon is a performance piece conceived by mixed media sculptor and writer, Amir Bey, and multi-woodwind player and composer, JD Parran. Since its premiere on January 9, 2014, at The Old Stone House in Brooklyn as part of the Musical Ecologies series, Elevated Moon has expanded from a pairing of these two artists into a multimedia performance piece incorporating dancer and choreographer, Chihiro “Cute-Beat” Kobayashi, and artistic and technical director, Bill Toles. The latest iteration of Elevated Moon was performed on September 28, 2017, at the Goddard Riverside Community Center in conjunction with the opening of the Astrologos art exhibit featuring mobile sculptures by Amir Bey. In attending both the premiere several years ago and the performance last week, I was personally able to observe how the dynamics of Elevated Moon has evolved over time.
I spoke individually with the collaborative artists of Elevated Moon, discussing their creative process, the performance itself, and the future of the piece. The following are excerpts from those conversations. They have been edited for content, clarity and length, and omit several asides.
MARCUS DARGAN: How would you define Elevated Moon as an art form?
AMIR BEY: “Theatre ritual” is one part of it, but also “happening” is another. I’m an astrologer. I’ve been an astrologer since 1971 and I’ve always had this thing for ritual too. As a child, one of the things that really caught my attention was ancient mythologies and ancient history. In those things you do have ritual; that’s part of it.
But then “happening,” because most ritual is not free. You have to follow certain form that the ritual has to undertake. In what we do, what we’re searching for, it’s closer to a be-in. Let’s call it a “ritualistic happening.”
JD PARRAN: I’d liked to say it’s multimedia, in the fact that we were able to mount music, dance, the word, artwork and sculpture by Amir Bey, and projected images articulated and chosen by Bill Toles. There are all of these parts coming together. How do you do that? It’s not easy. We had all of those present. And when I say “multimedia,” that includes audience participation.
BILL TOLES: I would call it, “JD, Amir, Chirhiro and Bill.” I’ve worked in corporate entertainment for a long time and people defined a lot of stuff, but the audience doesn’t. In our original culture there is no distinction between the theatre, the music, the dance, the text; those distinctions are very European. I just try not to go there.
MARCUS: Amir, you’ve mentioned to me earlier that this project was specifically personal for you? Can you tell me more about that?
AMIR: All art should be personal for an artist. If it’s not, it may not be coming from someplace genuine. I feel that Elevated Moon, resonates deeply with what I have been doing as an astrologer, as an artist, and also as somebody who is a communicator; I write. I work in different disciplines and Elevated Moon is a vehicle that allows me to incorporate all of those things. Because I am a multidisciplinary artist, something like theatre helps utilize those orientations.
MARCUS: Can you tell me more about how Elevated Moon has evolved over time, including the addition of a dancer and the use of technology?
AMIR: It was something that JD and I had talked about, “Yeah, we gotta do a collaboration.” And then one day JD got us a gig at The Old Stone House, and now we had a place and time we could do this. We had a challenge that day because it happened to be the day that Amiri Baraka died. JD was troubled by that and he didn’t know whether we could perform and I said, “Naw, man, that’s why we should perform on this day.” So, we did that.
Now, going into the present and future, we’ve got the four of us all doing something very different and yet very complimentary. Here we’ve got four people. We could actually be a quartet; a very unusual kind of quartet. Talking about Chihiro, her dance is phenomenal. I’ve thought about different dancers and she was the one who fell into place just the way our gigs fall into place. There was a spontaneous part to it. And Bill is so good man; he’s smart and capable. In setting this gig up, he knows what he is doing
MARCUS: Usually, when I think of light and sound designers and technicians, I would view them as collaborative artists but not necessarily as a performer during the performance itself. Bill, can you tell me more about the performative aspects you bring to Elevated Moon as the light and sound designer, especially in regards to the projected images you used?
BILL: As a media designer, I always want to have the opportunity to interact in the moment, be able to draw inspiration and respond in the moment, just like any other musician. In improvisational music, there’s a lot of talking back and forth with each other and feeding off of each other. I like to maintain the flexibility to add things as they go along.
Amir has several drawn out lines for what he’s going to do, but he doesn’t know what he’s going to do in the moment and he doesn’t know when these things are going to happen. He gave me 5 to 6 segments of text, but I don’t expect him to adhere to them. I expect him to respond to whatever JD is doing, because JD is one of the most present in the moment people I’ve ever met. Every note that comes out of him is intentful, spiritually driven, and responding openly to whatever is happening around him.
Elevated Moon is essentially a play and follows the Aristotelian structure of a play, and the most important thing in the play is the word. And in this case the words are JD, Chirhiro, and Amir, who are down on the floor delivering the word. In my computer, I have everything. I do a lot of research before I hit the stage. I never know how much of it I’m going to use. It’s important for me to not distract from that [the word]; to inform it and respond to it and be in dialogue with it but not to distract. A lot of those images are moving fairly slow, but I have the capability with the technology I’m using to load, to add text, to type in stuff, and to respond in the moment.
It’s just like scales: you know your scales, you know how to deliver your scales, you know how to vary your cadences, and you’re prepared to do that. All this stuff is happening in the moment, on the fly, and so things are coming at me and I’m flying it back out to the audience. You have to know your instrument just like you do in any other discipline. You’ve got to know your scales, you got to know how to move quickly or move slowly, and really just how to listen and pay attention. I do have a bank of things that I’ve prepared that I would love to get to. I didn’t get to half of them because I don’t want to impose upon them to or to reign their improvisational impulses in.
MARCUS: Chihiro, what was your role in the creative process?
CHIHIRO KOBAYASHI: I like to interact, improvise, and communicate with other artists when I create and perform, so, that’s what I did.
Communication can be verbal but also dance, music, and art are the same thing as language. I like to communicate with other people through this language instead of just speech. When I perform I watch the audience and in this case, I was also watching Amir and listening to JD the whole time to find what they wanted me to do and at the same time physicalize the imagery that I’m feeling from the music and the art pieces that Amir created.
Because I was wearing masks, I really couldn’t pay attention to what Bill was doing on the screen or with the lights, but when I later saw some video [of the performance], I realized that Bill was doing the same thing. He was watching the whole scene and improvising with it. It’s kind of like when friends get together and they have a conversation. It’s communication, listening to each other, and giving opinions. The conversation and the vibe keeps flowing. That’s what I like to do.
DARGAN: Were there any new discoveries for any of you during rehearsals and performance last week?
JD: There was so much that was new. Ethan Edwards programed my iPad so that I could bring in these recordings of percussion instruments. We did them all at my house and he wrote a program for my iPad that I could control right there at my table. That was brand new. In fact it was the first time I’ve ever performed with a something like that where I [personally] was controlling a computer in any form and as a result of that I could put on something and play along with it. Some people have been doing it for years, it was a new thing for me.
The next thing was how the room was set up. This time all of the metal sculptures were hanging up and down the room. It was almost like playing in outer space, and that’s what was projected a lot on the screen in the back. We never had projections before.
AMIR: One thing with Bill, I gave him images, he searched for images, he looked at how the setup was, and he developed a plan for it, but he had to do that alone. I gave him some materials, but he had to research the materials. He did that wherever his lab is; his madman-genius lab. And Chihiro, we had rehearsals and we went through concepts and everything, but she knew what she was going to do. I have a lot of masks and she selected the masks that she wanted to use. Maybe she wouldn’t use all of them, but she had them laid out on the table. We each had a little table of our materials, so she selected these masks and had ideas about what she was going to do, but it wasn’t discussed too closely. And then JD, he developed a tape to play, to mimic the sounds of some of the astrologo pieces, the mobiles that I had. He worked on that.
As for myself, I made new astrologos for this performance, because I wanted to have a different visual idea for them. Chirhiro contributed her face. There’s a technique were I’m etching face into the metal by using acids and other things. So, we did our face on some of the astrologos. We communicated to eacth other, we had our meetings, we had our reherasls, but then somewhere we had our labs that we went back to where we would develop these things.
Then when the performance came, I could hear JD, but I can’t always see what Chihiro is doing. Chirhiro can’t always see what I’m doing, but somehow there we were. And I could barely see Bill’s projections, but I could feel his light. This stuff was happening together.
AMIR: I loved the spontaneity of how things happened. We had these hexagons for the bee segment. They’re like Frisbees. I threw one, man, and it slid across the room and disappeared under the table like—
DARGAN: I remember that moment and it was fantastic.
AMIR: It struck me. I didn’t plan it. I just took that thing, because that’s the way I felt, and it disappeared and I said, “Wow!” That’s the stuff that you want to have happening in a performance like that. And there were moments like that, that were just like, “Wow!”
CHIHIRO: During rehearsals, Amir is moving around or playing with his gadgets and when JD is playing with his instruments, they go back to childhood. They are really like 9-year -old kids and I love it. Sometimes, I think too much technically, but they really broke that box for me. Their energy really helped me to come out of that box and just to be free, and I could feel it at the end of the performance when they pulled the audience to the floor. During the show it was kind of an artsy, intensely quiet atmosphere. I was worried that they just wanted to sit and watch, and not want to come out and get involved, but when people started getting up, I realized that they wanted to join us.
MARCUS: I did notice that element of childlike playfulness throughout the piece, especially when the audience started to join in. As I was watching it I envisioned children in a playground just playing and touching everything. “What’s this?” “What’s that?” “What happens if I do this?” “What happens if I touch that?” “I wonder what this feels like?” “I wonder what this sounds like?”
CHIHIRO: I’ve watched a lot of nature documentaries to get inspiration for my dance and I noticed that I enjoy watching little baby birds when they first try to fly out of their nests, or lion cubs when they learn how to hunt, or baby monkeys trying to climb up into the trees for the first time. It’s really interesting to watch those moments because they’re doing something for the first time in their life. I guess that it is kind of close to the experience that we gave to the audience that night.
MARCUS: Can you tell me more about the audience and their role in the performance?
BILL: I never know what the audience is going to take from it or how they are going to respond, because the rehearsals are really just the pieces of everything. The full performance is the quintet (the fifth performer is the audience). When the audience comes in, things that I might have thought in rehearsal as I’m listening to this piece or that piece, they take on a whole ‘nother thing when you have 30-40-50 people in the room moving to it and being moved by it. If somebody catches the spirit anyplace in the audience or on stage, then you’re on another level.
The audience gets up and participates. Sometimes they get up and sing. Sometimes they get up and scream. That’s the point of performance; the point of telling a story: to come out of a performance transformed. That’s the whole reason for it. You go through the ritual to be transformed.
JD: When you get audience participation, that raises it to the spiritual level, to the ritual level, right there when the people participate. When I brought up audience participation at one of the meetings we had, Chihiro said, “I want to get the people up and moving.” She immediately dove into that and I said, “Okay,” and you saw what I happened. I mean you were there.
MARCUS: I did.
JD: It was nothing but a party at the end. And at the end when I was ready to end that piece, I went up to the front, held my hands up—that’s all I did and they all stopped. I mean, immediately. This actually opens up for the audience to be part of the piece.
CHIHIRO: It’s very organic. All four of us bring our ideas to the table and put this together to see what is going to come out. We enjoy the process and were not afraid to share the process with everybody.
MARCUS: What did you want your audience to get out of Elevated Moon? How did you want them to leave the space?
AMIR: Freedom. I want people to feel freedom, accessibility, and joy. Sometimes you go to some events and it’s so cerebral and uninteresting from the standpoint of personal experience. I think that what we do is something that people enjoy. And then at the end when people are able to join in and play these things and get up on the stage and just move, I think it’s a liberating act for them.