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When you become part of a Guillermo Silveira performance, you get your money’s worth.
Silveira, barefoot in tangerine tights and a leotard, steps before the audience in the District of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC)’s tiny theater and asks for an audience participant. A pretty woman in her 30s jumps up. Silveira takes her hand and whisks her onto the stage and behind an upheld sheet.
Immediately, clothes start to cascade over the sheet and into an empty front-row seat. Seconds later, the volunteer lies modestly covered to her shoulders under the sheet on a massage table, stage left. A “certified, insured” masseur stands behind her; he places firm hands on her shoulders, and begins to rub.
The three musicians sharing the stage never miss a beat. Alexandra Smith Alpha, in black bustier and 3-inch heels, bows her cello from beneath the strings, a maneuver mandated by Silveira’s score, which allows her to saw vivid chords on the high and low strings, while playing pizzicato on the middle two. The piece is called “Cadenza Casinista”—”Messy Cadenza.”
To her right, percussionist Charles Guy, over 6 feet tall and hefty and sweating in a black T-shirt and black jeans, is beating a standing piece of sheet metal the size of a Buick quarter panel with a golf club—an iron by the looks of it. The ripping 4/4 thwacks resonate at the base of our skulls. Parker’s friend and novice partner, Bulgarian visual artist Mark Millene, is down on his hands and knees among an array of thick pieces of scrap iron. He’s producing—with a ball-peen hammer—a frenetic, pattering overbeat of bings and bangs that cuts through Guy’s regular, thundering attack.
The performance proceeds for maybe half an hour. In the course of it dancer Maria Badia joins in, insinuating a course among the performers and paraphernalia. The volunteer on the massage table looks blissed out—could she actually be asleep?
The “Cadenza” builds to an explosive climax. Guy takes his club to an old black-and-white TV set, sending audience members diving under their coats to avoid flying shards of picture tube. That wasn’t impressive enough? He drops the club, hefts a large piece of audio equipment over his head, and hurls it into the sheet metal. The loud crash jolts us in our seats, and as its echoes fade in our throbbing ears, the performance ends.
Clothed once again and leaving the stage, our audience volunteer is beaming. “That was great,” she gushes. “Joyfully funny. You can’t imagine what it felt like, to be feeling so relaxed amongst that wildness.” Michael Kelley, her masseur (and also half of the punk-folk duo the Kelley Girls), for whom this is a first Silveira collaboration as well, adds, “I used to be in a rock band in the ’80s, playing places like CBGB’s in New York. So I saw a lot of things. But I never saw anything quite like that.”
Guillermo Silveira is, to use the title of a series of performance-art evenings he produced last year, Something Different in the District of Columbia. The well-regarded, prolific 37-year-old has already written, by his estimate, more than 350 pieces of music. They include songs, chamber music, and orchestral works, difficult-to-classify pieces using electronic and computer-generated sounds, and a musical, Call Me Jackie, based on a trashy biography of Jacqueline Onassis. He says he expects his most productive years to be the early decades of the next century.
He is also, in the words of a friend, somebody who “likes to shock, but with a reason,” somebody who once walked into a black-tie reception at the Brazilian-American Cultural Institute (BACI) costumed as Jesus Christ—wearing, that is, little more than a loincloth. Silveira’s brazen, benevolent charm lets him pull off such stunts; a Catholic monsignor at the reception was heard to shrug off Silveira’s attire, “After all, every day I dress up as a priest.”
But Silveira is best known as the organizer of some of the most interesting multimedia interarts events in Washington. He has worked with scores, probably hundreds, of artists: Last week’s chamber music concert at BACI (yes, he was invited back), a relatively small affair, involved Brazilian-American percussionist Tedd Cain, violinist Myron Makris, the displayed paintings of Shirley Paes Leme (the inspiration for the composition “Flame”), and slide projections by Silveira’s friend Mark Richards.
Some of these events, like the “Cadenza Casinista,” are staged where you’d expect them, at underfunded experimental arts centers like DCAC. But other events, thanks to Silveira’s chutzpah, are showing up at more prominent, mainstream locales. Last year he brought his avant-garde arts-fest Labyrinth of Music to the U.S. Botanical Gardens, next to the Capitol—a venture that required permission from Congress. The Labyrinth placed the paintings, sculpture, and video work of more than 30 North and South American artists among the exotic flora and winding pathways of the gardens; it also featured Silveira’s music in a typically inventive and audience-involving way. Arriving viewers were handed helium-filled balloons, each with a sheet of Silveira’s music attached, or were encouraged to fix pages of music to their shirt fronts. Then, as they strolled through the gardens admiring the art works, musicians performed the passages of music suspended from the balloons or plastered to the patrons themselves. There is talk of holding next year’s Labyrinth at the Smithsonian.
And this weekend, Silveira and Franklin Wassmer, a dancer, visual artist, and performance artist, will host their fourth annual “Infinite Cantata” at Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Georgetown. A holiday benefit for So Others Might Eat, the “Cantata” features music from Silveira, performances by a variety of singers and musicians (and audience members), and a device called the Stagemer Machine. According to Silveira, the evening’s immodest goal is “to give audience members a chance to completely lose their sense of space and time.”
“Sometimes I like to have control of everything,” Silveira has said. “And sometimes I like to see what happens if I just don’t.”
His approach to a composing career embodies the first impulse. Since getting a master’s degree in composition from Catholic University in 1984 (a Ph.D. followed in 1988), Silveira has refused to take any work that doesn’t directly involve the creation of music. It’s a brave decision—some would say a foolhardy one—for an avant-garde composer.
“Guillermo has always been absolutely adamant about saying, ‘I’m a composer,’” says Richards, who once shared a Georgetown apartment with Silveira. “He’s always refused suggestions that he find a job in academia, say, because he feels that you lose something if you aren’t willing to weather the tough times. If Guillermo can’t survive on his music, he won’t survive.”
Instead, Silveira aggressively pursues grants, commissions, and even patrons for his work. He’s inventive: Not only does his resume list grants from usual suspects the National Endowment for the Arts and the D.C. Arts Council, but also a NASA commission for voices, percussion, and electronic sounds called “15 Telescopic Variations on a Multi-Purpose Robot Theme.” At the BACI concert last week he premiered a piece in which baseballs and other objects were tossed onto the strings of a grand piano: “Vinicius” was sponsored by Edward Wilson, of the Wilson sporting goods company.
Cristina King-Miranda, a producer for the Washington Performing Arts Society, witnessed another side of Silveira’s steely determination when she produced a performance of his piano concerto “Argentina Fantastica” as part of a concert of works by Latino composers held at Lisner Auditorium last May. “The concert was intended as a partnership,” she says, “but Mr. Silveira clearly wanted it to showcase his piece. Basically, the problem was that [the concert] wasn’t all about him, and I don’t think he ever got that.”
The source of that toughness and drive may well be Silveira’s Buenos Aires family, to whom he is devoted. His mother Coco is a successful fashion designer, and his father runs the business side of the enterprise. Both come from old Argentine families with roots in European nobility. Silveira likes to make fun of these connections, but one senses they please him, too. Friend and collaborator Marcella Wolfe remembers noticing that “even if Guillermo could barely pay the rent, he always had a maid to clean the place. Guillermo always had a maid—and a car.”
Yet if Silveira is ambitious and his work compositionally advanced (as those who have performed it say it is), there is obviously another, more playful side to the composer of the “Messy Cadenza.” An early influence on Silveira was Marta Minujin, little known in the U.S. but famous in Argentina for her free-form ’60s and ’70s art happenings. Another was John Cage. A favorite piece of Silveira’s is “Minuvoces,” a collaboration with Minujin. The complex piece is created entirely from various computer-manipulated recordings of Minujin’s voice, with the percussion track created from another tape—of Minujin eating potato chips.
Silveira has also created music from recordings of wind in the trees at Dumbarton Oaks, a favorite Washington spot, and he has performed a piece of truly found music: While walking in the woods, he noticed a large sheet of birch bark whose markings reminded him of musical notation. He took it home, brought it to his next concert, and played it.
The key to such pieces, and perhaps also to Silveira’s love of collaboration, is synesthesia. “Minuvoces” and other pieces that try to employ the full range of available sound reflect Silveira’s conviction that all sounds are music indeed, that all the senses are interrelated. Silveira is more apt to write a piece of music about art he admires (as with “Flame”) than to talk about it. (Several in-progress orchestral works are inspired by the writing of Borges, Garcia Lorca, and Calvino.) And as for Paes Leme, next time she might turn up in a Silveira piece as either a singer or an actor.
That’s what happened to sculptor David Mordini. At a show a couple of years ago, Silveira spotted Mordini’s striking, comical sculpture “Chicken Woman,” a 7-foot-tall piece in which one of Mordini’s familiar staring, bald heads (a show of which just closed at the Corcoran) is attached to the body of a chicken wearing a tutu. Silveira wrote a piece of music inspired by the piece, which led to discussions of further collaborations. Then Silveira got the idea that Mordini himself ought to appear as a performer in a music/theater piece Silveira was planning based on Marcel Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.”
At first, Mordini wasn’t sure he wanted to get involved. “I’m a shy person, and I have a bad time with stuttering in public,” he explains. “But Guillermo was very persistent.” And Mordini says he’s glad he answered Silveira’s siren call. “It was nice to be involved in another art form, and besides that, being an artist is a very lonely thing….I’m a sculptor—I spend most of my day alone in a studio. This was a way to do something exciting with exciting people.”
Stacy Surla, former development director at DCAC and a performance artist herself, as well as the Bride in “The Bride,” says the familiar Silveira paradox—rigorous control coexisting with playful freedom—turns up in his collaborations, too. “Guillermo is the overarching visionary,” she says, but at the same time, “everyone is free to develop what they want. With Guillermo, serendipity plays a really important part—it’s not chaos, but everything that happens, he makes use of.”
She cites as an example a rehearsal for “The Bride” at which a performer’s children were chasing each other around the hall “and really getting on my nerves.” But Silveira not only let the kids run around, he decided to integrate their play into the performance. “And after we performed it,” says Surla, “people saw that as really essential to the themes of sexuality and procreation and frustrated sexuality.”
“I think the way it works is that [Silveira] has a very strong focus, but around that focus there’s a lot of room. That may be because he has a lot of self-confidence, to allow others their space.” But, she laughs, “If it comes down to it, Guillermo will get his way.”
This weekend’s “Infinite Cantata” is sort of the ultimate Silveira collaborative event: Its central motif is that music and art never end, and that everyone should take part. When members of the audience enter, the performance has already begun, and it continues after they have left the church. Silveira encourages all of them to get involved: Each year musical and theatrical games are devised to erase the line between performer and spectator.
The “Cantata” also features the rather wonderfully funky Stagemer Machine. Avant-garde or psychedelic, take your pick: Conceived by Silveira and Wassmer and built by the latter, it looks something like a windmill outfitted with slide projectors. The idea is to create an environment of endlessly changing, colliding visual images throughout the performance space. It’s operated by Wassmer from a compartment at its base, his legs protruding at the bottom for a comical Wizard of Oz effect.
“It’s about trying to transform—to transcend barriers. It’s fun and joyous,” says Wolfe. “It’s about—that music never ends, that everything is a thought leading to another thought,” explains sometime Silveira patron Scott Thompson, a Tufts University professor. “You end up in an unsatisfied state—creatively unsatisfied. You want more. You leave feeling that something new is expected of you.”
In its combination of ambitiousness and whimsy, of genuine existential questing and human clunkiness, the “Cantata” seems pure Silveira. “It might sound silly,” Wolfe agrees, “but Guillermo’s imagination is so big that seriousness and fun are intertwined. His playfulness is serious.”
The “Infinite Cantata” will be performed on Saturday, Dec. 21, at 7:30 p.m. at Dumbarton United Methodist Church, 3133 Dumbarton St. NW.