LABA FELLOW ANDY TEIRSTEIN TALKS ABOUT HIS NEW MUSIC-THEATER WORK, THE PARADOX OF NOMADIC LIFE, AND THE JEWISH TEXTS ON TIME THAT RESONATED WITH HIM THE MOST. SEE “THE VAGABONDS” ON 6/4. TICKETS HERE.
Tell us about your project.
“The Vagabonds” begins with the characters of Kick, a street poet, and Pano, a mute boy. They present a side-show on a little cart, using two dancers (a man and woman), who are like puppets. The action unfolds in chamber music, dance, spoken word, projection and opera.
My favorite stories are journey stories, often with two protagonists on the road, as in Don Quixote or Waiting for Godot. These nomadic duos are a paradox. They need everything, and yet they need nothing. They’re lost, although they’re at the vortex of the action. They are outcast from the world, but they are the world. Kick and Pano are itinerant performers in a timeless landscape built from the writings and illuminations of poet William Blake (1757-1827). Blake’s imagery is fantastical, with mythological figures, ladders to the moon, and grotesque beasts. The world of the dancing puppets, by contrast, is more real, as they struggle to survive through storms and other challenges. The LABA focus on the concept of TIME has enhanced my creative exploration of the way these two realms co-exist: one in the imagination, where time is unhinged, and the other in reality, where clocks and history rule.
I’ve been making notes and sketches on “The Vagabonds” since 2005, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to sit down and compose it. One of the most exciting aspects has been the challenge of allowing music, movement, and words to spring from the same source. Years ago I was a musical clown in a traveling circus. I remember learning that the great clowns needed to learn all the circus arts so they could use them in their clown routines. This project feels like coming home to my roots.
How do you see it developing in the future?
On June 4th we will present the first four scenes. From this kernel the piece will grow to evening length, with more voices and illuminations. The street prophet-poet is led by the silent boy deeper into the Blakean landscape, and finally they part. I hope to find a producer/presenter who can come on board as we complete the piece and help “The Vagabonds” have a life in full production. Because the story is told in music, dance, and video imagery, it’s a good candidate for international theaters. At the same time, I can envision this being performed in the street, with torches…or a cabaret in an abandoned subway stop, or maybe the back room of the Ukrainian National Home. Wherever it finds a run (Lincoln Center Theater? A “New Opera” venue?), it will need to retain its homeless, rag-tag essence, the sense of street theater…existential slapstick, as in commedia dell ‘arte.
Any new thoughts about time?
One of Judaism’s most revolutionary characteristics is its embodiment of a people’s journey through time, from slavery to redemption. There is a tension built into that. How can one be content with something that’s based on a premise of an endless journey, an eternal longing? As a composer, I recognize this same tension in music…a yearning, which composers (and listeners) can only tap into and join fleetingly, but never satiate. William Butler Yeats wrote in his autobiography, “It seems to me now that life is a long preparation for something that never happens.”
Which texts that you studied this year so far have most stuck in your mind? Why?
Our early sessions with Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) have stayed in my thoughts. I was fortunate to have performed Pete Seeger’s song with him at the Clearwater Festival, “To every thing, turn, turn, turn, there is a season…,” and it was good to consider again the source. The text spins me into a sense of vertigo, a big perspective, in which an identity, an “I” is both lost and found. “All is vanity,” etc. It’s good to be reminded of where you stand. I remember, as a kid, standing between two bathroom door mirrors to get that infinite domino effect. I think I was eating a carrot. How could I taste the carrot and still be in all those cascading images in both directions?
The Talmudic texts we studied regarding Rosh Chodesh (the new moon) also speak to me—the Rabbis with their romantic and absurd mission to enhance the community’s connection to the moon, to “witness” her (their pronoun) rebirth each month. How many of us today are aware of the moon’s cycle? I like the idea that marking the moon’s reappearance can be a way of connecting people to each other and to nature’s larger time-wheels.
How have they, or other texts, inspired this work?
Like the author of Koheleth, the character of Kick in “The Vagabonds” is both world-weary and world-inspired. And like the Talmudic Rabbis with the moon, the characters in “The Vagabonds” are trying to see something that is not readily perceivable, something beyond the everyday, as they wander through the streets. Pano, the mute boy, pulls a spy-glass from his pocket and looks out past the audience to catch a glimpse of a world made up of fantastical imagery from William Blake, who believed that the human imagination is the embodiment of God. Blake venerated Judaism, projecting onto it his own ideals, as in his vision of Ezekiel, who says, “We of Israel taught that the Poetic Genius…was the first principle and all others merely derivative.”
The parallels between sacred Jewish texts and Blake’s own conceived “prophecies” resonate in “The Vagabonds.” Blake was both fascinated and challenged by time. Here’s a passage from his poem, “Milton”:
“The nature of infinity is this: That every thing has its
Own Vortex; and when once a traveller thro’ Eternity.
Has pass’d that Vortex, he perceives it roll backward behind
His path, into a globe itself enfolding; like a sun:
Or like a moon…”