The seemingly unrelated subjects of a 13th-Century European monastery and an abandoned American maximum security prison will be explored in a collaborative multimedia performance tonight at Newport Harbor Art Museum, part of the museum's ongoing Contemporary Culture Series.
Yet the two works entitled "Eberbach" and "Alcatraz," created by composer Ingram Marshall and photographer Jim Bengston, share more than just space on the same program. They are thematically linked examinations into the concepts of institutionalism and isolation, focusing on Eberbach, the West German town where an aged monastery still stands, and Alcatraz, the San Francisco Bay island prison that was home to hundreds of notorious criminals during its 29-year history.
"In both, people were closed off from society, except that in one it was voluntary and in the other they were put in," said Bengston during an interview at the museum Wednesday. He and Marshall talked in the museum's garden cafe only a few minutes after arriving in Newport Beach from Olympia, Wash., where they had given a presentation of "Alcatraz" the previous night.
"We're not trying to force the point," Bengston, 43, said. "I wouldn't want pictures of the monastery to dissolve into shots of the prison. But as completely separate pieces shown on the same evening, I think people can find obvious similarities."
Their 8 p.m. performance, like others they do periodically, incorporates live and recorded music, projected color slides and hung black-and-white photographs. But Marshall and Bengston avoid such traditional labels as "performance art," preferring to think of their work as "artistic archeology."
"The camera, instead of the shovel, can take away layer after layer, going deeper and deeper until you get a sense of the place," Bengston said.
"Alcatraz," first performed in 1984, was the first joint effort from the two artists who met in 1960 at Lake Forest College in Illinois. They have performed "Alcatraz" together perhaps a dozen times in two years, although each has done abbreviated presentations without the other.
"Eberbach" was commissioned specifically for the museum's Contemporary Culture series and will be premiered tonight. It is the program's first commissioned work and was financed through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. (The $10,000 NEA grant will also finance a second commissioned work by Carol Law and Charles Amirkhanian.)
Bengston and Marshall consider "Eberbach" an extension or follow-up to "Alcatraz." But even though they eventually hope to do another piece and package all three as a trilogy, they insisted that neither of the first two were consciously conceived to be sociological statements.
"We always wanted to do something together," Marshall, 43, said. "We thought we'd like to do something on a place. I was out on Alcatraz one day, and I wrote Jim a letter about how amazing it was . . . the sonority of it. I said: 'I think I've got the place.' "
The challenge for Marshall was to compose a musical complement to Bengston's photographs. Both works are joint efforts, and rather than use previously written music that might "fit" the images, Marshall accompanied Bengston on his photo sessions before composing his portion.
"When I was going over (to Alcatraz), I began to see myself going . . . not as a tourist, but as a prisoner," Marshall said. "So I was working from the point of view of one who was in the place. I wanted a feeling of what might be going through the mind of a person being there. So the music is very intense. Of all my music, I'd say it is the most intense."
Marshall recorded ambient sounds of the island and the prison, such as buoys, sea gulls and interior effects such as the slamming of a cell door. The environmental sounds were then integrated into a musical framework that moves from repeated arpeggios to swirling, moody passages.
Having studied and taught electronic music in the early '70s at the California Institute for the Arts, Marshall frequently employs synthesizers and various signal processors along with vocals and acoustic instruments.
Even Marshall, who recently moved from San Francisco to Washington to teach composition at the experimentally oriented Evergreen State College in Olympia, admits that his style is hard to describe.
"I've been called everything from a minimalist to a neo-Romantic to a schmuck," he said with a chuckle. "I'm happy to say I have never been called an academic--except by some of my students. But it ain't rock 'n' roll."
In "Eberbach," he said, "the music is layered--things fade in and out; bells give way to saxophones, which give way to something else. I steered away from trying to make ecclesiastical-medieval-monastic-sounding music. That would have been the obvious thing to do."