Improvisers Make The Big Room Breathe

Brian Slattery Photo Franz Hautzinger and Isabelle Duthoit started the evening at the Big Room standing alone, Duthoit’s hands at her side, Hautzinger’s trumpet in his hands. He peered out into the audience of 30 or so expectant New Haveners.

“Can we turn off that machine there?” he said.

He meant the space heater, which was emitting a constant hum most of the audience had forgotten was there. But he was hearing it fresh, as though someone else were playing an instrument in the corner.

The heater turned off, he peered again toward the window, and now the audience heard what he was hearing, too: The sound of I-91, of motors, the occasional horn. The sound of New Haven that maybe we usually forgot about, we all heard again.

He started to ask if the windows could somehow be closed more, to see if he and Duthoit could start their performance from as total a silence as possible.

Then he seemed to realize that New Haven wasn’t going to cooperate, and he and Duthoit began.

The event this past Saturday was an evening of fully improvised music and dance put on by the Big Room and the Uncertainty Music Series, featuring Hautzinger and Duthoit — from Austria and France, respectively — joined by musicians Taylor Ho Bynum and Carl Testa and dancers Melanie Maar and Rachel Bersen (who runs the Big Room in Erector Square). 

The pleasures of watching a fully improvised show are akin to watching great athletes, or acrobats. It’s watching people with great skill, talent, and craft push those talents to their limits. It’s an artistic high-wire act. Will it succeed? Will it all come crashing down? What thrills lay in store along the way?

As the artists on the floor are proceeding without a road map, a fully improvised show is also a reminder of how often our artistic experiences are guided. In comedies, we’re usually told when to laugh; in dramas, we often know when to cry. So much music gives us cues for how to feel, at any given moment. There’s pleasure in all of that, too. But it’s nice sometimes to not be told, to have no expectations, and to know that whatever reactions we’re having are quite genuine — the product of really meeting the artists halfway, so that we, the audience, are in some ways another collective artist, and our reactions part of the art.

Hautzinger and Duthoit started with breathing, pushing air. At first it was hard to tell whether the sounds were coming from them or Erector Square’s heating system. Then they sounded like crows, or dinosaurs. Duthoit let out a burst of throat singing while Hautzinger plummeted to the lowest notes of the trumpet’s range. As their sonic palette expanded, they sounded like flutes, like gurgles and bubbles, like teapots.

That was when Maar entered the scene, moving across the floor on all fours with excruciating slowness. Bynum announced his entrance with a squawk from a heavily muted cornet. Duthoit answered in kind. Bernsen joined them, and soon she and Maar were moving together, supporting each other, like gymnasts in slow motion.

The overall effect was unsettling, verging on scary.

Then Bynum picked up a trombone. The dancers, in slow motion, pulled the slide off and carried it across the room on their feet.

Several people laughed.

As the music began to build on the foundation of Testa’s electronics, from whale noises to bursts of frenzied notes from the two horn players and wails from Duthoit’s clarinet, the dancers likewise sped up, spending several minutes in ecstatic activity, before returning to statuesque precision.

Bynum switched to a conch and began making long tones with it that Duthoit harmonized with. But soon she was pulling more guttural sounds from the clarinet. As Maar crawled toward the audience, reaching for us, Duthoit, now standing, swung her clarinet like a pendulum frantically, throwing the sound around the room, changing it as she moved.

It was tense again, anxious, laced with humor and absurdity, too.

At the end of a vigorous round of applause, Bynum was beaming. “You guys are so much fun!” he said to a smiling Hautzinger and Duthoit.

The evening was many things. Fun was definitely one of them.

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