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An interruption in programming

The world premiere of Still Life with Commentator


It's one of the routines of daily life: You sit for a moment--over breakfast, over coffee, at the end of the day. You read the paper; you either listen to or watch the news. It's a special moment--the moment in which composer Vijay Iyer and performance poet Mike Ladd would like to say one word:


We actually become the still life in question when the commentators are on. And what that says about our media-reliant culture isn't entirely positive--particularly in a time of war.

Mike Ladd and Vijay Iyer contemplate cultural program jamming in Still Life With Commentator. - PHOTO BY ANETTE AURELL
  • Photo by Anette Aurell
  • Mike Ladd and Vijay Iyer contemplate cultural program jamming in Still Life With Commentator.

Let's reason backward for a moment: The current glut of commentators--professional sense-makers, after all--connotes necessity, and implies a general deficit of sense without them.

When the events of the world do not make sense (or sufficient sense, at any rate), what is our dominant cultural response? Bring in the pros. Subcontract out. Let someone else make sense of things, since we haven't got the time. It's a very interesting moment in the history
of journalism, independent thought--and democracy.

It's the heart of what's explored in Still Life with Commentator,a multimedia merge of music, spoken word, theater and video whose world premiere this Friday night at UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall predates its scheduled December production during Brooklyn Academy of Music's 2006 Next Wave Festival.

Ladd and Iyer, a music producer and an award-winning jazz pianist, respectively, first collaborated on a 2004 spoken-word oratorio, In What Language. Then the Abu Ghraib prison scandal got them to start thinking about the possible relationships between atrocity, media and viewers. As network coverage developed critical mass in April 2004, Iyer recalls, "We really began to watch ourselves watching ... and that ultimately became what we were more qualified to speak on." For Ladd, understanding his own role (and possible complicity) in the media became a key concern: "Unfortunately, we're always 'functional,'" Ladd notes. "We are always serving the spectacle at some point."

We discussed these topics in a conference call last week:


Independent: You say 'We're serving the spectacle.' Tell me a bit more. How?

Mike Ladd: Either by adding to it, participating through blogs or just spreading rumors by what we've received off the television or read in the paper, allowing that to continue--


Transmitting the virus.

Ladd: --yeah, which is gossip. Great books have been written about gossip, and the power of it. So just by being participants, we're serving the spectacle. The still life-commentator idea came from looking at every major news media event I can remember. Someone's always after the fact or anticipating the fact. They're in front of the event that has occurred or will occur. And they are frantically trying to animate what's behind them--which is usually nothing.

If it's an execution, there's a prison wall, about as drab an object as you can get. With Waco, there was a very unimpressive-looking farm, off in the distance.


Hm. That's just not "good television," is it?

Ladd: Correct.

Vijay Iyer: You start to see these newsmen as sort of foot soldiers in that whole theater of war, which is really a theater of propaganda. It begins to situate the people who deliver the news as agents in a certain sense.

Ladd: A foot soldier is a really good analogy. There's also this sort of innocence when you hear reporters talk about their work--there's a "I'm just following orders" type of innocence they always convey. You know one part of them had to be incredibly calculated just to get into their position. But you also know another part is frantically scrambling, just like a soldier in combat who has no idea, when the event happens, of what they're supposed to do, really.

Iyer: They're just doing what everyone else is doing. When you can step back from the cameras in an event like Waco, you see there are rows and rows of these anchorpeople standing in front of the site. Each has his cameraperson with him. It's sort of like this infinitely repeated little still life.


The other place in my imagination with these commentators are the courtiers, from the time of Louis XIV: people selling sense, their interpretation, their spin, to the right constituency, quite calculatedly.

Iyer: It's so devious, in a way. But it's also just for "sense," just as you say--not about constructing meaning so much as constructing a sensation that people want to keep coming back to, where meaning gets kind of insidiously placed inside. It's performance, so your attention is drawn to the surface, essentially. When you're looking at the news, you're looking at a flat screen. And you become an aspect of that flat screen, you see you're reflected in it.

Actually, Mike's first poem in the libretto encapsulates that: It posits this absurd identity between the young girl in Vietnam who's just been napalmed and she's running down the street, naked--and then on the other end of the cable, there's a fat guy sitting on a La-Z-Boy.


I've read it. It's quite Sartrean--a flattening out of all these stimuli where each has the same weight, and therefore they're all equally meaningless or meaningful.

Iyer: And of course, in our hearts, we know that that's unacceptable. And yet, it's a reality we live with constantly.


The title of that first work is "Infogee Rhapsody." What's an infogee?

Ladd: It's very different than an actual refugee. Now more than ever, we do have two very real theaters of war, even though one of those theaters is virtual. There's the physical theater of war, where real shrapnel kills real people and destroys real lives and real families, making real refugees. At the same time, there are very specific "bombings" really aimed at our mental condition.


So that it's possible to feel fundamentally displaced or dislocated--without having moved an inch in the room you're seated in.

Ladd: Exactly. If there is this sort of cerebral or virtual refugee, what is it like? That was the one place I felt most comfortable in connecting to this atrocity we're living through now. If we're all virtual refugees on some level, how do we pack our bags? Where do we go? Where's the refugee camp for a virtual refugee? What is our ox cart--a La-Z-Boy? How do we grieve? What do we grieve?

It's a very Dadaist perspective. It's immediately absurd, once you get into it.


If information alone can make us instant, virtual refugees, there's a useful parallel between this and In What Language, your last collaboration.That work occurs entirely inside an airport--a place where many of us in recent years have seen just how "contingent" our identities really are. Our citizenship, our patriotism, our innocence, our membership in society--all can be fundamentally called into question so quickly, without good reason or immediate remedy.
In What Language questioned that instability, asked who's creating it, and what their
interests are.

Iyer: I also think we were considering whether it's possible to create a counter-stability, through imagining the possibility of community--through linking these disparate individuals whom the only thing they have in common is brown skin. It becomes an occasion to imagine: "OK, this is a new kind of identity, imposed from without, that puts us in parallel predicaments. Through that, can we consider a new kind of unity?"

Ladd: In What Language was a much easier project to work on. The research was very concrete. The research for this constantly changed because the nature of news changes. It was all just so passive. It's that guy with the soda, on the couch, in his underwear: I'm sitting in front of the TV for hours and hours with the blog on my side.

You're describing someplace where you are inert, still--basically immobilized--and you have to be to follow the story. It's another kind of still life. The physical condition itself is nearly the diametrical opposite of activism.

Ladd: [Laughs.] Exactly.

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