To the degree that a creative artist can draw you into his world and make you follow him regardless, to merge with his very humanity, that is the measure of his worth. By this measurement, Rinde Eckert is pure gold.
Composer, librettist, director, singer, actor and “expressive” mover, Eckert has always found his own way and seems endlessly inventive.
I had first seen his work many years ago in Baltimore where he performed one of his 277 performances of And God Created Great Whales, about the psychological dissolving of boundaries between Captain Ahab and the whale Moby Dick. It had burned into my brain as a powerful and deeply moving theatrical experience.
Last Friday night started out less spectacularly. People were expecting perhaps a classical singer performing an impressive playlist. After all, Renée Fleming was presenting Eckert as part of “Voices”, her series of concerts with hand-picked cross-over artists.
There was a grand piano on the stage, but curiously there were a lot of other instruments littering the space, including guitars of various descriptions, banjo, two accordions, a tuba, and some percussion.
Eckert entered in a dark suit but soon ditched the jacket. He shuffled around as if he might have forgotten something. He then sat on a small child’s chair and shed his shoes and socks.
He seemed almost oblivious to the audience. He picked up a small accordion and began to accompany himself on the instrument. His voice comes out high and straight-toned, so he sounded impossibly far away, giving the wordless vowels a religious feeling, as if the voice was coming from deep within an underground catacomb.
Without a hitch, he launched into a rhythmic pop number, “I’ve never been to heaven but I’ve been to streets … that’re paved in gold.” Moments later, on a little electric keyboard that hung around his neck like a necktie, he accompanied himself in a familiar folk song, “Black is the color of my true love’s hair.” But the arrangement made the song seem mystical. His eyes closed, he seemed to wait then pull the song out of the air. You can hear the wind in the music and magic too. For me it was as if I were experiencing the song for the first time.
Just when you thought the evening was going to be a somewhat odd playlist, Eckert sat at the piano and began to talk about his childhood. Both parents were opera singers, music everywhere in his house, and his mentors included the great voice teacher Phyllis Curtin. He demonstrated that he both knows the literature of classical singing and trained in that kind of voice placement and sound. But don’t let anyone tell him not to break the no-no of accompanying himself.
When he spoke he was very present, even playful. He laughed a lot. He seemed somewhat apologetic about how the world can’t categorize him.
Rinde: I can’t figure it out either. I watched the Three Tenors and said to myself where’s the American? I realized there was little chance of that. So I made my own world.
He performed a selection from one of his plays called Idiot Variations, for which his muse appears to have been Samuel Beckett, in which he describes a man stopping to admire himself in a mirror who stares until it appears he has lost his way. “But it’s much less true than it appears.” And with that, slyly he’s provided a handhold to understand what he’s trying to create theatrically.
One of my favorite parts was when he took us inside his process of exploration. He told us he was working on five beasts and that he found an artifact to explore each one through sound and motion. With that, he picked up a jumbo towel-size piece of brown wrapping-paper that seemed to have been left lying on the ground and began to improvise with it. He was wildly goofy, becoming a clumsy water bird with his feet turning into flapping waders. He squawked, hooted, and clucked. He danced clumsily, finding this creature. But just as soon as the character gels, the brown paper gets held vertically, and Eckert stroked and crinkled the paper into a long, formal evening gown, changing his sound and persona to that of a grand diva. He crumpled the paper further into folds and then into a ball, cradling it like a baby. Finally, he opened the paper only to discover that the baby is gone. Lost, he cries.
Years ago I went to hear Cathy Berberian, a mezzo-soprano (and wife of the experimental 20th century composer Luciano Berio,) who seemed uncannily to mimic the sounds in different languages. It was as if such authentic sounds were transforming who she was, coming from different placements and parts of her body. Listening to Eckert, I had the same sensation of being transported to different countries and in the presence of more than one singer. How does he do it?
Rinde: I’ve asked questions about my voice that amuse me.
But be forewarned, he can be stern and take the music world to task. His seething emerges of his dislike of teachers and performers who hold onto their techniques without exploring outside of their own boxes. “Can you believe young singers go through four years of formal music training and never once are asked to improvise on a twelve bar blues?!” With an old electric guitar slung over his shoulder, he proceeds to show us how this is done.
Just as he defies categorization of music styles or voice techniques, Eckert blurs all lines between creator and interpreter. Many performance artists are known for attempting this, but what makes him exceptional is that he is so darn good in all aspects of music-theatre.
Eckert is an electrifying performer, but that evening I was equally impressed with his work as librettist. He shared a song from his adaptation of The Odyssey that has a military veteran stopping at a tattoo parlor on a cross-country voyage.
“Let’s hear it for the walking dead. Let’s hear it for the hearts of stone…” The man has flashbacks so “just don’t surprise him.” And he “should have several wives to sharpen all the knives.”
each man rolled up his sleeve
all drunk, all drowning
each man chose his animal
I chose the wolf
the wolf was good at waiting
the wolf was good at runningWe ran the wolf and I
as hard as we could run
we ran through blood and stayed alive
the wolf and I
only mine is still alive
and that wolf is fading
that wolf is fading
The last song on the program was his own spiritual prayer of a people, ”God have mercy upon us.” I hearkened back to what he had told me was the theme behind his whale piece.
Rinde: He didn’t want to kill the whale. He wanted to merge with it. That’s what I am trying to do.
He shows no signs of backing off his explorations.
Rinde: Eclectic. It’s just the way I’m built.
I only wish more singer-actors could have this man’s courage and curiosity. And I’d settle for half his bag of many talents.
Rinde Eckert performed Tales from the Life of a Troubadour on February 3, 2017. Music, Libretto, and Direction by Rinde Eckert. With Rinde Eckert. Produced by Kennedy Center as part of Renee Fleming’s Voices series. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.