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In the ten years since Hurricane Katrina, we have become all too familiar with the devastation wreaked by massive storms. Flooded subways, stranded cars, toppled tree trunks, grieving families: images we once saw rarely, now turned grimly commonplace. We know the narrative, whether we were there or not. We’ve had to accept storms as a new, terrible part of life.
The members of experimental music collective ThingNY would like us to reconsider our thinking. In their opera This Takes Place Close By, at Ridgewood’s spacious Knockdown Center from September 24 to 27, they offer a conceptual examination of disaster inspired by their experiences during Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. But This Takes Place Close By doesn’t offer answers. It’s meant to provoke reflection, says songwriter and soprano Gelsey Bell: “The plot isn’t really the point. It’s more about creating an atmosphere.”
The Knockdown Center is perhaps the ideal space to evoke one. The refurbished former factory is steadily developing a reputation as a welcoming home for unusual, memorable art, and its rawness already calls to mind the haunting abandoned spaces that proliferate after destructive storms. ThingNY specifically courted Knockdown after the artists realized it would offer the perfect stage for their creation, earlier versions of which they’d performed in smaller spaces. “It’s not just a listening piece; it needs to be treated spatially,” says multi-instrumentalist and composer Andrew Livingston. “[Knockdown] is by far the grandest scale we’ve had.”
This Takes Place Close By is also the grandest show the collective has ever attempted. While its members have collaborated on operas before, they’ve now worked on this one the longest. Saxophonist Erin Rogers suggested examining the concept of weather — ThingNY usually works around a theme — after noticing how commentators and journalists declaimed on Sandy. Although the media figures very little in the current version, the notion of storms being “real things in our lives now,” as Rogers puts it, resonated with the rest of the group.
Writing began at the now shuttered workshop Incubator Arts, with successive iterations performed in Staten Island and Philadelphia and at the New Music Edmonton festival. But the version the group will present at Knockdown, which highlights each member’s extensive classical training and individual compositional techniques, surpasses previous stagings. It’s also the first time they’ve worked with a full team of outside collaborators, a process that, explains violinist Jeffrey Young, “helped us get our ideas out more succinctly” after so many iterations of the piece.
Director Ashley Kelly Tata had followed ThingNY for several years before she became involved with This Takes Place Close By, an opportunity she was excited to explore. “People say, ‘Why opera?’ ” she says, “and I say that everyone is working at the highest level of their craft.” To elevate that artistry, she’s directing with an ear for the building’s natural acoustics, directing audiences using the interplay between the space and the performers who activate it. Tata describes the atmosphere as “a shifting visual art museum that encourages free roaming,” punctuated by certain moments in which sound and music cues guide attendees. “The piece explores how we voyeuristically watch people dealing with disasters,” she explains. “But if you don’t want to follow those moments, it’s OK, too.”
The idea is that the only way to create a space for such a difficult topic is by taking audiences out of their comfort zone (although as Bell points out, New Yorkers’ comfort zone is much larger than most). The set will transform the venue into a near wasteland, and the music ranges between melodic and jarring; there are moments of rest, but they don’t last long. Some of the characters are relatable; others are difficult. Livingston says this is the collective’s darkest piece yet, though moments of levity are included.
Communicating the scale of such a tragedy is difficult. Death tolls paint a quantifiable but incomplete picture: Fewer than 300 people died in Sandy — 1,800 perished as a result of Katrina — yet the structural, communal, and financial devastation persists even today. This Takes Place Close By juxtaposes statistics like these with lived experiences, questioning which is the best way — or whether it is even possible — to comprehend the enormity of a storm. Each ThingNY performer portrays an archetypal character who deals with the storm in different ways — fear, consumption, anxiety, terror, compassion — all inspired by the performers’ own experiences with Sandy and their conversations with New Yorkers who had very different stories. Still, the group is quick to clarify that the show isn’t about Sandy or any specific storm (although it is about storms — disasters like earthquakes and fires are not included). That was just the inspiration; the final, or at least current, version addresses storms in the abstract.
In addition to challenging the audience to contemplate its own perceptions of these disasters, This Takes Place Close By pushes its performers to work in new ways. Rogers is a musician almost exclusively, but like every other member of the collective, she sings in the piece. Young took an improvisational approach, writing things down only after extensive instrumental experimentation. And for everyone, this was by far the outfit’s tightest-knit collaboration. Dave Ruder, who plays clarinet in the production, says the members “became each other’s editors,” developing the ability to evaluate the various contributions objectively. Director Tata particularly enjoyed this aspect of working with the group. “Some people think being collaborative means being polite, but that’s not the case [here].” Laughing, she adds, “In a really, really good way.”
Working for so long and through so many versions has forced the collective to grapple with the full complexity of Sandy and storms like it. “Some people’s houses got swept away,” Ruder says, “and it took a year for us to figure out how our own, smaller experiences could fit in as well.” Young describes eventually being forced to acknowledge that he was in “a place of privilege” during the storm, but that his collaborators helped him understand that his experiences of loss and fear still held value (which, he admits, was occasionally comedic). The discussions they had were stark, and would find their way into the piece; at one point, the troupe raise the question of the value of one versus one thousand lives. Honesty, they’ve discovered, is the best way to confront the hardest things.
One thing listeners won’t find anywhere in This Takes Place Close By, though, is politics. Bell argues that injecting a specific message into the opera would undercut its intent. “We want people to just sit with the idea that this is an issue we feel we don’t have to think about,” she says. “[If] there’s not a storm happening right now, it’s easy to ignore.” Climate scientists tell us events like Sandy will become more common and more severe. This Takes Place Close By wants us to think now, and not during a crisis, about how we might react.
And while the work offers no easy answers, Young says its message, if it has one, isn’t particularly hopeful. “At our best,” he sighs, “we’re all still beasts.”
ThingNY presents This Takes Place Close By at the Knockdown Center September 24–27.