"Inside Rhythms," the performance event presented by the American National Theater at the Kennedy Center's Free Theater this past weekend, seemed like a belated fugitive from the "Experiments in Art and Technology" ("EAT") movement of a couple of decades ago. The idea, one presumes, was to humanize technology and technologize art. The result, however, seemed more like a marriage between kindergarten mentality -- let's press this button and see what funny thing happens -- and esthetic tedium that advanced neither cause.
Perhaps expectations were unrealistically inflated by the program bio of Washington-born Christopher Janney, who "conceived, produced and directed" the affair. A drummer and a Princeton graduate, Janney studied architecture with Michael Graves and art with Otto Piene, has been a research fellow at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies since 1979, and in 1984 appeared in Esquire magazine's "Best of the New Generation" listing. On this occasion, Janney worked with four Boston-based collaborators -- percussionist Syd Smart, dancer-choreographer Tom Krusinski, musician Stan Strikland and production manager and audio-visual specialist Berred Oulette.
On a stage ringed by a sci-fi array of electronic apparatus, Janney led things off with an audience participation exercise involving phonemes -- the sonic units of speech. Members of the audience were asked to break up their first names into phonemes, close their eyes, count five seconds and pronounce the sounds at five-second intervals. The outcome was a polyphonic babble whose point remained moot.
There followed the three, essentially solo, performances that constituted the event proper. In the first, "Percussion-Discussion," Smart aimed his sticks at both a set of drums and a series of pads wired to a computer and a voice synthesizer. His drumming, in other words, gave rise not only to drumbeats, but also to a flux of words and phonemes, sometimes separately, sometimes together.
In the second, "Tone Zone," the movements of dancer-choreographer Krusinski were translated into electronic sounds via videocamera and synthesizer. And in "Heartbeats," the last, Strikland's bare chest was wired for sound, so that his own heartbeats became a percussive backdrop to his soprano sax solo.
In an encore, all three performers worked their tricks at once. Through all of this, Janney and Oulette sat manipulating computerized consoles at the side. There were puzzling aspects. Smart's drumming and the phonemes weren't always synchronized; neither were Krusinski's movements and the electronic bleeps. Strikland's chest electrodes, moreover, didn't seem to be connected to anything. Were the sounds from the loudspeakers really controlled by the performers' activities, or was the whole thing prerecorded, perhaps, or computer-driven by the console players? There seemed no way of telling. But it also didn't seem to matter much one way or the other.
The point is that technology -- be it a fountain pen, a vocoder or a computer -- is artistically neutral as to content. And despite appearances, there was nothing "avant-garde" or "innovative" about these performances. Electronics were powerless to alter the mediocre, banal quality of the music and dance. Saturday night's audience applauded fairly lustily, proving I don't know what -- perhaps that in this age of the chip, people still find machinery fascinating, whether it's doing anything worthwhile or not.