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'Available Light' Interviews: Frank Gehry, Lucinda Childs, and John Adams

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Photo: Garry Winogrand. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
Photo: Garry Winogrand. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Standing at the open garage doors of the Temporary Contemporary in September 1983 watching The Museum of Contemporary Art's first audiences line up to attend "Available Light" was both a humbling and electrifying experience. The site-specific performance installation created by composer John Adams, choreographer Lucinda Childs and architect Frank Gehry (who designed the TC's renovation) turned out to be a memorable launch for MOCA's programs. Many dedicated people invested their hopes, contributions, labor and love into the museum's inception; the stakes were high for all involved -- especially for the artists.

Years later, when Frank Gehry's brilliant Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in 2003, the first commission to mark the occasion was John Adams' "The Dharma at Big Sur." Music composed by John Adams has celebrated (and connected) the commencement of two very different Frank Gehry designed arts institutions in Los Angeles.

Now, on June 5th and 6th, in honor of the Music Center's 50th anniversary, "Available Light" is being transformed from its Central Avenue origins 32 years ago into a newly envisioned artwork produced and presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at Disney Hall on Grand Avenue.

My gratitude goes to John, Lucinda and Frank for trusting a feisty, un-tested museum and agreeing to collaborate on the original production; to the ecology of dedicated people who brought The Museum of Contemporary Art to life (sadly, so many are no longer with us); to those participating in the re-envisioned production of "Available Light" -- and especially to Richard Koshalek for his open-minded, visionary leadership of MOCA during his tenure there. I look forward to seeing how "Available Light" is transformed at Disney Concert Hall.

To provide a glimpse of the onset of MOCA's programs, and the origins of "Available Light," Artbound republished my 1983 catalog essay. And below is an edited compilation of interviews with John Adams, Lucinda Childs and Frank Gehry that are illustrated by photographs taken by Grant Mudford and Garry Winogrand for the catalog. The rights holders have generously granted permission to KCET for their use.

KCET is Southern California Television

Interview with Lucinda Childs

You have talked recently about viewing your work more in cinematic terms than in sculptural terms. The last time you were in Los Angeles, you talked about drawing light into your choreography. Could you discuss that?

Lucinda Childs: The work I now do is very much concerned with the passage of time, with what happens in that passage of time, and with how the information and material is shifted around. This happens in film, particularly in the films of Bresson, where there is repeated action, then a doubled action and a backtracking. I have arrived at variation not so much through making up new movements, but by constantly editing and rearranging the existing movements so that they can be counterpointed against other phrases. There is always an on-going reference to the original material.

You seem to be exploring basic fundamentals of choreographic structure in your work, which has become more layered and more complex. Is this why you have added more dancers?

Lucinda Childs: I no longer need to have what I see as the surface of the dance so connected to the underlying structure. The underlying discipline and the relationships among the dancers are still there, but are not exposed in such an obvious way. In other words, the discipline that applies to the symmetrical placement of a dancer also applies to asymmetrical placement. I am beginning to like the look of asymmetrical configurations, though not necessarily in terms of a parallel or perpendicular orientation. I have allowed those angles to shift, and it makes for a different feeling.

Your company members vary a great deal in terms of height. Do you choreograph for a particular kind of dancer? Does individual dance style exert much of an influence?

Lucinda Childs: There has always been a lot of physical difference among the dancers in the company. I like the range; I do not have any desire for them to be of uniform height and so on.

You have talked about how the dancer's personality comes out in the upper portion of the body: the way the dancer moves the head or the arms. You have also said that because there is so much movement and turning and physical activity, you do not try to define it.

Lucinda Childs: I disagree with the idea that modern dancers are cold or unemotional -- all that nonsense was said about the Cunningham people. I think dancing is an emotional experience.

Lucinda Childs on upper stage. | Photo: Garry Winogrand © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
Lucinda Childs on upper stage. | Photo: Garry Winogrand © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Some people describe your work as geometric, while others see it as very expressive. How do you describe your current work?

Lucinda Childs: I use geometric and mathematical ideas to organize material, but those are tools. The purpose of the work is not to expose that at all, but to arrive at some kind of expressiveness.

With a dance floor on a proscenium stage, you are basically working within a box, and I can see why a diagonal would be a key pathway in your choreography. Is there any other reason why you use the diagonal?

Lucinda Childs: The diagonal gives a three-dimensional feeling to dancers that cannot be achieved when they are only front and back. On the diagonal, more movement is automatically visible. If the simple positions of ballet are demonstrated straight on, they seem quite dull and lifeless, but when put on a diagonal, they begin to take on all kinds of possibilities.

Could you describe how the title "Available Light" was selected?

Lucinda Childs: From my point of view, it very much has to do with The Temporary Contemporary space and all those skylights that are available -- the look of it and the fact that it is becoming a part of the piece as it is in its unique presentation there. One of the skylights will be covered with gel, and light from the outside will be pouring in, so we will have a synthetic external light that will recreate natural light.

Could you briefly describe each of the sections of the dance?

Lucinda Childs: There are five sections in part one and four sections in part two. I am now making a new score with the split-level incorporated, showing what is happening both on the top and the bottom. When I talked to John about the structure of fifty-five minute work, I told him that my method had always been to start with something simple that gradually became more complex. In this particular case, I wanted to explore another structure, so we started at a medium high. The mysterious sound of the Pacific follows while the music cascades down and the dancers move into a different kind of ambience. Then the music gradually builds back up again.

You mentioned that the lack of a very clear, consistently precise pulse has had an interesting impact on your choreography. Could you talk about that?

Lucinda Childs: I have had to impose a counterpoint, to put something in where it does not exist, because dancing is rhythmic, it cannot be otherwise. I do not like a haphazard connection between the dances and the music, so we have learned to work with the kinds of pulses the dancers can sustain. I was very nervous about it for a while, but the dancers have done better with it than I dared hope. They have developed precision, spanning from a very specific point here to a point there, where a pulse in the music comes back for them to follow. They have learned to keep a certain stable thing going, spanning sometimes up to four or five minutes without accelerating or decelerating. If John had not made me do this, I never would have, because it is a hard thing for dancers to do; they are not conductors. But it has been a challenge I do not regret.

Worker dancing on stage. | Photo: Grant Mudford.
Worker dancing on stage. | Photo: Grant Mudford.

Is there a particular relationship between the architecture and the dance that may be lost as the piece travels to other sites?

Lucinda Childs: The performance in The Temporary Contemporary is unique, and Frank and I are pleased with the theatrical -- proscenium -- adaptation that we have developed. But of course when we perform it elsewhere, we will lose the thrilling span, that depth dimension that cannot be achieved in a theater, even if you build out over the orchestra pit.

Frank Gehry's architecture often jars the way people look at things, and provokes a conscious act of seeing, much as your choreography does. In working with Frank, who has not worked with dancers before, is there anything that you have learned about your own choreography?

Lucinda Childs: In every stage of the development, there have been influences that I cannot yet analyze. When we arrive at something, it is almost simultaneous. It is very exciting to have that kind of simultaneous reaction to the various possibilities we have explored.

Are you interested in having the audience experience a more personal relationship with the dancers?

Lucinda Childs: The relationship between the audience and the dancers goes through many different stages. Someone seeing my work for the first time may or may not pick up on that. When I see a company for the first time, I become involved with the dancers and what they look like, and I might follow different ones around, or I might ignore that aspect and just involve myself with the choreography.

Performing in Los Angeles is essentially new for you, even though you danced at the California Institute of the Arts six or seven years ago. Audiences here are generally not familiar with your choreography, so it is almost new territory. What do you think will be the response to the dance?

Lucinda Childs: I do not like to be thought of as avant-garde or some kind of didactic artist. I am just a choreographer, and I am trying to make productions, not dance concerts. These are big productions for me, and my ambition is to keep them on that scale, to combine a choreographer with a composer with a visual artist with a costume designer with a lighting designer: a most traditional procedure. It has been going on for more than seventy years.

Lucinda Childs talks to composer John Adams during rehearsal. | Photo: Grant Mudford.
Lucinda Childs talks to composer John Adams during rehearsal. | Photo: Grant Mudford.

Interview with John Adams

Could you talk about "Light Over Water," which you described at one point as a very large arch?

John Adams: "Light Over Water" is the longest piece I have ever composed. It is a landmark in my personal struggle to create large forms. I feel that it is by and large a formally successful work, though I was constrained to write a piece at least fifty minutes long, and there are some dead spots in the music where I think I was simply marking time. However, I think when the dance is in motion, the formal problem is nonexistent.

Could you describe "Light Over Water" in visual terms?

John Adams: Well, no, because it would only be a subjective impression. I may experience visual imagery when I hear the music, but someone else may not. It is no different than listening to a symphony by Mahler, or any piece of music, for that matter. There are composers for whom the creative act really has to do with the acoustical nature of sound and its relationship to space. Alvin Lucier's pieces are predicated upon these concepts. What makes Lucier's work fascinating is the way his personality comes into play, but that is not the kind of use I make of sound.

Why did you choose here to begin with the synthesizer?

John Adams: I think it was a practical consideration. "Light Over Water"was to be a dance piece, and it would be a work that would hopefully travel and be performed many times. I have a very rich musical diet: I like large sounds and very complex sonorities, and I also tend to opt for creating a feeling of vast space. I could achieve this effect either by using a symphony orchestra, which for a dance piece is pretty much impossible these days, or by using a synthesizer on multi-channel tape and a superb sound system, to get that same sensation of expansiveness and depth.

What led you to use brass?

John Adams: The synthesizer is a very pure instrument; everything it does is technically pure. In fact, when I was creating these sounds, I had to remind myself to make them dirty; meaning, after I created the sound, I had to go back and modulate it or distort it to give it texture. Synthesized sound can be so pure that it very quickly becomes tiresome. Natural, traditional instruments are unpredictable, full of idiosyncrasies, full of life, full of color and texture. The brass instruments came to mind because they have the sustained, pure quality that a synthesizer has, and yet they are textured -- they're dirty. I thought it would be a wonderful idea to mix the two.

What techniques did you use to achieve such a smooth blend?>

John Adams: It was a laborious matter of going over and over the tracks, getting them exactly synchronized and perfectly modulated, then doing the brass music and mixing it in. The mixing aspect was staggeringly complicated; my engineer Lolly Lewis and I had to go back to the studio three times and do it over again until it was exactly right.

Did you write down both scores?

John Adams: I wrote out the synthesizer score afterwards. It was unnecessary in a certain sense, yet I had to write it down in order to know what was on the tapes, so that I could do the final mix, in which we mixed twenty-four channels down to two channels.

"Available Light" rehearsal. | Photo: Garry Winogrand. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
"Available Light" rehearsal. | Photo: Garry Winogrand. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Did the scores influence one another?

John Adams: The brass score is really an obligato to the synthesizer music -- it comes in and out. in one of my favorite passages, where Lucinda makes her angelic entrance -- the brass is way off in the distance. It is muted and has a spectral quality, which is an effect you can achieve with mixing. You can place it close up, or you can push it way off in the distance. It is a wonderfully playful element.

You told me once that you did not think "Light Over Water" could be performed live.

John Adams: The closest analogy I can make is to compare it to a film: it is completed, and the final mix is my idealized sense of the balance among all the tracks. Someone could go in and remix it, and come up with something very strange and different.

Do you think musicians have cause for alarm since so many composers are utilizing electronic instruments in their work?

John Adams: The synthesizer will not supplant live performance. Everyone worries when a new form comes along, thinking that it will be the future and that something has to die and be replaced. Theater, for example, has continued on in the twentieth century despite the popularity of film. Live performance will always be with us because it has a vitality and an immediacy that tape music will simply never have. I have never warmed to the term "tape music." Something that is on tape certainly seems fixed and lacking in vitality and spontaneity. On the other hand, this particular project was ideally suited to tape music because of the dance and the visual aspect. The music and the dance can exist in a symbiotic relationship. If it were possible to perform the music, it might seem more exciting, but the sounds would remain the same.

Lucinda said that you started the piece in the middle rather than with a gradual beginning that built up to something. Do you know what she meant by that?

John Adams: I started at the beginning, though later added that opening "boom" because I wanted to have a short prelude to get the dancers on stage. I started at the edge and then did a pre-beginning.

You said that "Light Over Water" represents a turning point in your music. What do you see changing?

John Adams: The principal thing that interests me in this piece is its darkness. There are moments in the piece where I feel it makes a descent into the subconscious -- that is my imagery of the piece. I think the light appears at the end. I feel that my works in the last six or seven years have all shared a certain simplicity of idea, and a smooth, highly polished surface. They are very attractive, but I truly desire to be able to make ugly sounds as well, and I have not yet found in my language a way to do it. I think this piece comes close; it is not ugly, but it is at times threatening and disturbing.

And yet you resolve it.

John Adams: Yes, there is a heroic ending, though I would like to write a piece that is neither happy nor heroic, but disturbing at the end as well. It may seem perplexing to someone who is sophisticated and knowledgeable about music to hear a contemporary composer talking about these things. One might think I am completely naive and know nothing about expressionism and the tremendous works that have been created in this century by composers like Schoenberg, Berg, Stockhausen, and lves, but I think that each composer has to travel through certain stages of growth. My particular stages have involved purifying my musical language and embracing tonality, periodicity, and many aspects that have been identified with minimalism. I am now seeking a way to enrich my musical language so that it will become more powerful and able to express a wider range of human experience. I find minimalism to be a naive and youthful musical expression. There are other moments similar to this in the history of art, and they all have something refreshing about them. Pieces such as Steve Reich's "Music for Eighteen Musicians" speak with a moving simplicity of expression, but for my taste, minimalism as a style has failed to grow.

"Available Light" collaborators and dance company members. | Photo: Garry Winogrand. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
"Available Light" collaborators and dance company members. | Photo: Garry Winogrand. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

What do you think about the fact that audiences are just beginning to become familiar with the earlier minimal compositions that you are trying to grow beyond?

John Adams: Perhaps the single unique aspect of minimalist music has been its wide audience. As the century has worn on, the serious composer has seen his audience diminish; because serious music has become a more demanding experience. A work such as Alban Berg's "Lulu" takes great preparation to appreciate: one simply does not walk into it and respond as one would to a Mozart opera. One must study the libretto carefully, understand the use of the leitmotif, and listen to the piece many times over before one is really capable of appreciating it. Serious music demands a great deal of the listener; it is distressing how few people are willing to make the effort. If we really have any hopes for the maintenance of this culture, we must expect the intelligent, sensitive individual to be not only aware, but deeply involved in the most demanding aspects of art. Demanding art ultimately delivers because it renews; it is a continuously renewing experience.

What I am talking about here is not necessarily a description of my own work, but of a situation to which I aspire. I do not think that my music has made enough demands on its audience. I seem to have found a way to express myself and also remain accessible. I am now more interested in following the dictates of my own sensibility. "Light Over Water" makes demands in terms of time -- it is not always an attractive work.

How would you refer to the process of developing "Available Light"?

John Adams: It was marginally a collaboration. You cannot hope to unite three creative artists, who live hundreds of miles apart, and even in this day of instant communication, have a real collaboration. I do not really know how to typify the process; I was the first to start on the piece because the music provided the form, the mood, and the structure for the project. Lucinda's choreography uses the structure of the music, but she frequently overlaps her structures from my musical structures arid creates a very appealing superstructure. In another sense, the three of us worked in certain isolation, not without consultation, of course, and then came together. We are here for the first time experiencing this process; it is not like a Broadway production, or Strauss and von Hofmannsthal hammering out a libretto for an opera in collaboration. This event could only happen in an era of jet travel, satellite telephone communications, and tape cassettes that can be mailed by an overnight express service.

At one point, you talked about the dance as being totally different than what you envisioned. What did you envision?

John Adams: It was really very vague. I did not really envision a choreography. Much of the music is very slow, and I imagined an almost motionless use of the body and very serene gestures. While there are moments when this does occur, there are many moments where the music is almost completely quiescent, but the dancers are moving quite energetically. That was something of a shock for me to see.

Is there a highlight, a moment, in the music's development that has particularly changed you or meant a lot to you?

John Adams: I am very pleased, particularly with the second half, where the music grows and expands until at the end it seems to overwhelm you in sound and space -- it is successful in terms of what I had imagined. I also like very much the effect of overdubbing the mammoth low notes of the tuba so it has become the sound of eight tubas playing in a great yawning chasm. When I saw Frank Gehry's set, I was very was wonderful to see the simplicity and the wit and the imagination he brought to the space. It was funny because I had the feeling that in a certain sense Lucinda's and Frank's aesthetics were closer to each other than to mine. I felt like an outsider in that my work is rather hot-blooded and emotional, very expressive; Lucinda's is cool and modernist and reserved and classical, and Frank is closer to that, although I would not say his work is cool or reserved. I always worried that the completed work would seem like an inharmonious combination of aesthetics, though we will not know for certain until tomorrow night.

Frank Gehry and Susan Sontag. | Photo: Garry Winogrand © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
Frank Gehry and Susan Sontag. | Photo: Garry Winogrand © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Interview with Frank Gehry

Why did you decide to use the chain-link backdrop?

Frank Gehry: My idea was to give the company a backdrop to dance against, and I wanted everything beyond the backdrop to appear blurry. One senses the objects in the space beyond -- the images are there -- but they seem to dematerialize, which is the effect I was trying to achieve. I tested it in my office; nothing has been left to chance. Beverly and I have a lot of work yet to be done.

What was your first impression when you saw Lucinda dance in her studio two years ago?

Frank Gehry: I thought she was fantastic, magnificent; I had never seen anything like it before. I have seen Merce Cunningham and other people dance, but something about her dancing clicked and made me realize that there was something right about us working together. I had heard that she was rigid, mechanical, mathematical, and intellectual. I know that I am considered to be totally the opposite, though that may be a false perception. People who have that perception tend to think that what I do is disorderly and messed up.

I think of your architecture as working away from the grid, whereas Lucinda has focused strictly within the grid. After looking at your buildings, and at her choreography as it has developed over the years, I see a much closer artistic relationship than I had originally assumed.

Frank Gehry: We do not talk often, but I feel a strong relationship to Lucinda and her dance. I find working with her to be invigorating; I do not feel as though I am fighting against anything.

Lucinda uses found movements: skips, hops, and turns. She is creating another dance language with those movements.

Frank Gehry: I am interested in that too. It is really hard to do and often misunderstood. Misunderstood is the wrong word; there is a confusion. I am often asked if I threw everything up in the air and watched it land. I am just relating to the world we live in. I see some order in it, even though it looks like mush. There is an order to our environment, a broader order.

Cleaning up the Temporary Contemporary. | Photo: Grant Mudford.
Cleaning up the Temporary Contemporary. | Photo: Grant Mudford.

You have said that Picasso is one of your favorite role models because he borrowed ideas and tools from everywhere and used them in his art.

Frank Gehry: When I made that statement, I had just seen the Picasso show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and had been amazed that he could use everyone's paintings and transform them into his own. He was using ideas from all of his contemporaries. Ideas exist in the marketplace; they are thrown out for everyone to use.

How did John Adams's title for his composition, "Light Over Water," contribute to the central theme of the project?

Frank Gehry: I did not know the name of the music until now. I related to John very well; I found him easy to work with. We talked about the space, about how the sound would fill the space, and about how the audience would perceive the sound.

Has there been a particular highlight in the collaboration that you would like to talk about?

Frank Gehry: Highlights? Well, for me, Lucinda's unobtrusive guidance was a highlight. Let me try to illustrate what I mean. If you saw my wife Berta and me dancing to Latin music, you would think I was a pro. It might appear that I was leading, but it would really be Berta. She is a great Latin dancer, and I become a great Latin dancer because of her. I felt a similar relationship with Lucinda; I kept telling her that I was very worried about falling into cliches. I knew what Robert Rauschenberg had done, I had seen some of the things Jasper Johns and other people had done for Merce Cunningham, but I really am not historically aware of all that has gone on in dance. Just because you are an architect and make decent buildings does not mean that you can suddenly become a set designer for one of the best avant-garde dancers in the world. It seemed presumptuous of me to walk into something like that, and I was worried about it. Yet I felt a gentle guidance, much as when I dance with Berta. When I would go into things that had been done, or were overworked and cliched, Lucinda would unobtrusively lead me away from them. It was done with great sensitivity, and I really appreciated that. We are all working well together; there have not been any confrontations. It has been easy in that there has been no conflict; we are all on the same team. It has not been easy in that we are searching for something. We want to make something that none of us would have done alone. That is the essence of collaboration. When you agree to collaborate, you agree to jump off a cliff holding hands with everyone, hoping the resourcefulness of each will insure that you all land on your feet.

"Available Light"'s production team. | Photo: Garry Winogrand. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
Cleaning up the Temporary Contemporary. | Photo: Grant Mudford.

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