Bits of Pieces

Crossbreeding cultures is fine, but what if nothing grows out of it?

Still, Ong's toying with his subject had more resonance than Goebbels's toying with—well, it was hard to know what was at the center of his piece, probably one of those vast generalizations about human life that make German culture so embarrassing to civilized people. The disconnection started with his title, an Australian aboriginal word (meaning, we were told, "the desire for something that is lost") that constituted a classic piece of cultural imperialism, having no effective connection to the audience, the artists, or the substance of the work—merely a trendy bit of anthro-chic. The string quartet played, in snippets, a mix of Shostakovich and Ravel with more nerve-jangling works by contemporary composers like George Crumb and Gavin Bryars, with a scoop of Bach for dessert. In and around the snippets, Wilms spoke further snippets of Canetti's odd, cranky, disconsolate prose, till he wandered offstage, followed by a guy with a videocam, and engaged in various disconnected activities projected on an upstage backdrop. There was a small model house, whose windows lit up, and the backdrop was cut out in its shape. At some point the windows of the backdrop lit up too, and Wilms was seen inside. But this all added up to exactly nothing. I kept wishing the video nonsense would go away and the quartet would simply play a concert of complete works instead of excerpts—even though, like many string players who specialize in contemporary music, they cultivate a thin, edgy tone, apparently on the principle that more grating equals better. Wilms performed capably; I've lost all memory of what Canettian things he said or how he articulated them, but I have no eraritjaritjaka for such matters.

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