Helen Gillet and James Singleton create music amid the ruins

The last service at Holy Trinity Catholic Church was held on March 22, 1997, eight years before Hurricane Katrina. Its neighborhood did not flood in 2005, but the interior nonetheless evokes memories of the storm.

Marigny Opera House interior. Photo courtesy of Dave Hurlbert, executive director of the Marigny Opera House.

Marigny Opera House interior. Photo courtesy of Dave Hurlbert, executive director of the Marigny Opera House.

Gutted of its altars, statues and pews, its colorful floor tiles are scuffed and dimmed by a film of dust. Ghostly water marks and smaller stormclouds of black mold mar the walls, and laths are exposed by fallen plaster. A vine creeps into the 1853 building through a 10-foot arched window.

Helen Gillet and James Singleton chose this space, now operating as the Marigny Opera House, for live recording of a cello-bass duo project that seized their imaginations before Hurricane Katrina, but had been put on hold.

The recording process is taking place in two sessions, one of which was March 5. The second will be Tuesday, March 12, at 4 p.m. Admission to the private event is by invitation only, but invitations are easy to come by. A $20 donation is suggested to support the project.

About 40 people were present for the March 5 performance, silencing their cell phones and squelching coughs as the music played. Bows brought forth moans of sorrow, and fingertips added infusions of pluck. The room’s echo was consciously incorporated into the sound. The musical passages seemed fairly brief; I wonder whether some of them will be expanded in the studio.

Gillet said that the March 12 performance would take shape based on listening to the recording obtained March 5. She said the second go-round might add electronic loops, but she was leaning against it.

Gillet and Singleton both place a premium on improvisation in their performances, and the setting will be an important element of the sound in the eventual recording, so the audience for the March 12 session can expect a rewarding experience.

The Marigny Opera House is at 725 St. Ferdinand St. in New Orleans, between Royal and Dauphine. An invitation to the March 12 performance can be obtained by contacting Helen Gillet or James Singleton on Facebook. There is also a Facebook event page for the performance.

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Fertile ground in “Liquid Land”

Rene Broussard of the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center has had it  up to here with Hurricane Katrina films.

For “Liquid Land,” he’ll make an exception.

"Liquid Land" has its roots in an improvisational music project using instruments built from trash.

“Liquid Land” has its roots in an improvisational music project using instruments built from trash. Photo from lqdlnd.com

“Liquid Land” is a whine-free zone, where the vicissitudes resulting from the 2005 storm are acknowledged, but the focus is on the creative possibilities that also resulted.

“Liquid Land” got its start in the fall of 2010, when filmmaker Michelle Ettlin joined Swiss musician Simon Berz and Dutch artist Kaspar Koenig in New Orleans for an art project: building instruments from trash and inviting local musicians to improvise with them.

I went to one of those concerts. The sounds were consistently interesting, but I appreciated the music only in fits and starts, which probably says more about me than about the improvisations.

Along with performance clips, “Liquid Land” incorporates interviews with the New Orleans musicians who participated: Helen Gillet, James Singleton, Bhob Rainey, Jeff Albert, Rob Cambre, Justin Peake, Dave Easley, Aurora Nealand and Moose Jackson. Their insights are relevant to anyone still settling into acceptance, even appreciation, of how life in New Orleans has changed since Hurricane Katrina.

For one thing, Hurricane Katrina changed the cast of characters. With the oddball circumstances of evacuation, a punk musician might find a classical musician to be the best available collaborator for a project.

Also, the threat to New Orleans’ culture provided a galvanizing sense of purpose for some musicians, and a clearer focus for their energies.

For centuries, disaster has made the transitory nature of life a central theme of life in New Orleans. Katrina struck that chord yet again, with special resonance for the improvisational artists of “Liquid Land” who highlight the value of music in the moment, more than as an extension of what happened in the past or an artifact to be appreciated in the future.

“If you have something to say, say it now,” Gillet says in the film.

Another “Liquid Land” screening and concert is scheduled for Nov. 6 at 10 p.m. as part of the Open Ears series upstairs at the Blue Nile. Later in November, screenings are planned in Austin, Houston, Los Angeles and Kansas City, with accompanying concerts in Austin and Houston. DVD release is scheduled for February.

Liquid Land Trailer from Michelle Ettlin on Vimeo.

The exceptional Helen Gillet at Bacchanal

Like love, or Republican foreign policy, great music can create a sense of exceptionalism: a feeling that nowhere else in the world is anyone else so attuned to the glories of the present moment.

Helen Gillet puts her cello to use as a percussion instrument during a solo performance at Bacchanal in New Orleans, Oct. 8, 2012

Helen Gillet puts her cello to use as a percussion instrument during a solo performance at Bacchanal in New Orleans, Oct. 8, 2012. Photo by Eliot Kamenitz

Globe-trotting cellist Helen Gillet makes this feeling of blissful grandiosity accessible by pulling together bits of traditional French songs, New Orleans rhythms and electronic loops to create a musical environment that heightens the best aspects of the here and now.

Gillet performed solo in the Bacchanal courtyard on Monday and will hold down the Monday slot into early November, sometimes solo, sometimes with a band.

The two-set show on Oct. 8 started off with the quiet, delicate instrumental “Waking Milo,” from her second CD, “Running of the Bells,” which segued into “Le Petit Royaume” from her first, “Newton Circus.”

“Running of the Bells” is a trio recording, with Doug Garrison and Tim Green, and “Newton Circus” was created with the Wazozo band, including violin, guitar, harp, French horn and accordion.

Other songs from “Newton Circus” included “Mon Amant De Saint Jean“; “Sympatique”, which featured harmonies created by singing along with looped vocals; and “J’ai Rendez-Vous avec Vous” by George Brassens, also the author of “La Non-Demande en Mariage.”

Gillet also performed some of her own compositions, including “Atchafalaya” and “Julien” from her most recent CD, “Helen Gillet.”Also in English was her version of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You.”

Gillet performances in the next few weeks include: