Rinde Eckert calls his career a "wonderful mistake." He
started as a trained opera singer but found that discipline
too confining for his free-roaming creativity. So he drifted
into experimental theater in the San Francisco area. Over
the years he has been an actor, librettist, director, avant-garde
playwright and composer.
Among Mr. Eckert's admirers is the
composer John Adams, who chose him to open the weekend
festival called "In
Your Ear Too" that he organized at Zankel Hall. On Friday
night Mr. Eckert presented his two-part work "An Idiot
Divine," an iconoclastic, category-smashing and often
riveting piece of ‹ well, I guess you'd have to call
it performance art.
Part 1, "Dry Land Divine," loosely
tells the tale of an evangelical minister in Wyoming in
the 1950's who spends 14 years in prison for manslaughter.
With his lanky frame clad in gray prison garb, Mr. Eckert
became that prisoner, who passes time with an accordion and
seems obsessed with water dousing. At first Mr. Eckert played
soft, rippling repeated figures on the accordion over which
he sang a textless, eerie chant. The music segued into a
folkish waltz, which slowly disintegrated, sending Mr. Eckert's
prisoner into an outburst of animalistic panting at once
ferocious and hilarious.
At one point his plaintive chanting, through electronic
processing, was turned into something quasi-medieval, with
multiple voices singing in astringent parallel lines. Mr.
Eckert's music here was mostly intended, it seemed, to create
effects and tap primal feelings. Yet there were wonderfully
strange sounds to enjoy, as when Mr. Eckert banged clanky
rhythmic patterns with metal sticks on a bucket, alternated
with gentle whooshes of stirred-up water.
In Part 2, the more abstract "Idiot Variations," Mr.
Eckert plays the village idiot who imagines himself a mystic,
dressed in the ragged white robes of an Indian sage with
a string of Tibetan bells hanging from his neck. It would
have been easy here to slip into the cliché of the
mentally unhinged outcast who spouts spiritual wisdom. But
despite the length of the piece (45 minutes), Mr. Eckert's
wild imagination mostly kept you entertained, amazed and,
quite often, moved.
One moment he would sing a weird amalgam
of opera, be-bop, click-clacks and nonsense. In the next
he would hold a wordless argument with himself by speaking
through the mouthpiece of a baritone horn to produce two
distinctive and all too recognizably human voices: one
high-pitched and whiny, the other huffy and officious.
Though there were clever verbal riffs in "The Idiot Variations," as
when the character gave explanations of the specific function
of each finger on the human hand, most of the work conveys
the idiot's poignant attempts to communicate through only
sounds and singing.
To appreciate Mr. Eckert's piece, you have to adjust to
his surreal sensibility. An enthusiastic audience did just
that. Thank goodness Rinde Eckert abandoned an opera career.