Silly me, reading up on Mayan creation story the Popol Vuh before heading out for Matthew Ritchie’s residency-capping opus at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Thursday night. Ritchie already had said he didn’t expect the audience to grasp the narrative goings-on in the multimedia spectacle, which included two simultaneous preludes on the first floor before an hourlong suite of music, accompanied by projections of Ritchie’s visual art, in the theater upstairs.
The artist was, of course, right. The piece, called “The Long Count/The Long Game,” is better received as a tone poem of color and texture than as representational storytelling. It seems no accident that there were no program notes given to the audience; perhaps a lyric sheet would elucidate the promised intermingling of creation myths and, ahem, the 1976 World Series. (The latter referent was present in some piped-in bits of game broadcast.)
The main body of the program was played by a 12-member orchestra, plus guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National and vocalists Kelley Deal and Shara Worden. Deal, veteran of the Breeders, also played rhythm guitar on one song, and took some turns scraping a bow across the strings of a violin suspended in place. (Compositional credit went to Ritchie and the Dessners.)
An opening piece played by string quartet cued the audience to expect a program of jagged, amelodic new music. But with the arrival of the Dessners onstage — each grasping one end of a cord suspending a guitar between them, clanging the instrument against the stage several times before taking seats — the linear music took on hues of orchestral math-rock. At times it suggested the work of Dirty Three while maintaining its own, individual sense of mystery, something like a glacier catching fire. The occasional horn-fueled crescendo, girded by the Dessners’ interlocking guitar figures, added drama.
Worden, who fronts the group My Brightest Diamond, was a joy to listen to and watch. Her bell-clear, almost operatic delivery combined with stylized body movement — and costume pieces including a feathered headdress/mask — to create a mesmerizing sense of the uncanny. (She brought similar assets to a collaboration between Dance Heginbotham and Brooklyn Rider at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival last season.)
Ritchie’s digital animation, projected on two walls behind the performers, was mainly abstract but at times suggested forests, the sun, and a sense of everything being swallowed by a vast ocean. Creation and destruction, perhaps?
Before the main program, Deal performed in the museum lobby, sitting at a table placed on a square mat of some reflective surface, with black netting suspended closely above. Evan Ziporyn, who played with and conducted the ensemble later, improvised on bass clarinet as Deal read unspecified text into a microphone and sound engineer David Sheppard manipulated an unsettling electronic soundscape via laptop.
In a small, red-lit room nearby, the Dessners (we were told) wore head-covering masks splattered with red and took turns striking a dangling guitar with baseball bats. The scene evoked torture — an incongruent metaphor for the sense of awesome but harrowing transformation that otherwise pervaded this evening.