Recently, I had the opportunity to spend the evening at MorYork. It’s tempting to call it an art gallery (which it is) or a studio (true also) but a better description might be what Los Angeles magazine describes as a “modern day cabinet of curiosities” in this article from March, 2015.
Located at 4959 York Blvd in Highland Park, in a building that formerly housed a Safeway and a roller rink before falling into dereliction in the mid-80’s when it was purchased by artist Clare Graham, it serves as gallery, studio, incubation, and event space.
The building, with high ceilings and wonderfully creaky original wood floors, is packed to the rafters with Clare’s work and collections of ephemera.
Furniture made from soda can pop-tops sits next to a display case filled with primitive carved sex toys. A whole series of art features stuffed animals sealed in plastic and bound together with twine.
Still other corners reveal furniture inlaid with human teeth, woodblock art, armoires covered in scrabble tiles, and display cases filled with animal skeletons and doll heads.
One enormous section of shelves near the entrance is filled with vintage carnival knock-down dolls while the opposite end of the space is dominated by a stunningly gorgeous lighthouse mirror.
It’s a mind-boggling, fascinating, and intoxicating environment. Added to the mix is Clare’s recent decision to invite music artists in to perform at MorYork. Alma Sangre (a trio with flamenco) and Edith Crash (LA-based French singer-songwriter) provided a lively evening during our visit, interspersed with drinks and munchies, all surrounded by this incredible collection.
The mix of art and music works, especially because neither is held up as being particularly “precious”. Clare’s work (which has often used recycled materials) is as much about craftsmanship as it is about anything. He’s an approachable artist who has a tremendous respect for, and love of, craft. That’s evident by his work on display at MorYork, and in the musicians that are selected to perform there.
If you’re looking for a deliciously surreal place to spend some time, I’d suggest taking a trip down the rabbit hole that is MorYork.
With the roar of last nights crowd still ringing in my ears, I thought I’d share some observations about U2’s current tour. This was my first time seeing the band, though I do own most of their tours on DVD, as well as several of the books that have been published about their shows and production. I hold their show designer, Willie Williams, in very high esteem; as a pioneering creative artist in the concert touring industry.
This tour returns U2 to arenas after the overwhelming scale of the U2360º Tour, which toured the world’s stadiums for about 2 years. The smaller environs of an arena suit the band, allowing them to connect with fans in a more accessible way. But just because the scale is smaller, it doesn’t mean the show is less high-tech. U2 have always been at the forefront of concert and entertainment technology; and i+e is no exception.
The first thing I noticed upon walking into the Los Angeles Forum was just how clean everything appeared. Most rock tours are a cluster of cables and gack. I could see clearly into the backstage area where it appeared someone had taken great care to make sure everything the audience could see was meticulous.
The tour is wrapped around songs of innocence and songs of experience. The set up reflects that idea, and consists of the “i” stage and the “e”stage. The two stages are connected by a catwalk. Suspended above the catwalk, bisecting the arena, is an enormous double-sided low-resolution LED display surface which raises and lowers throughout the show. Set into the floor of the stage is a ribbon of light that glows, reinforcing the “i-e” shape.
Sandwiched between the LED wall is a catwalk bridge. Contained within the LED wall is additional lighting, strobes, and cameras. When lit from within, the LED wall becomes semi-transparent (similar to a theatrical scrim) allowing the band to be seen playing inside the bridge as images cascade over them. This was especially effective in “Cedarwood Road” (with Bono walking through the streets of Dublin) and “Until The End of the World” (with Bono superimposed over The Edge – perfectly fitting, given the Judas/Jesus nature of the song).
During one sequence, the LED wall rises and four mirror balls lower from beneath it to form a different look for “Mysterious Ways”. Show designer Willie Williams always finds a way to use mirror balls and seeing them show up in such an unexpected way was delightful.
There were also a number of lights used as architectural interest, lying horizontal on the stage and catwalk floor. These units rose during “City of Blinding Lights” to form brilliant pillars of light. They were joined by similar fixtures which flew in from above. These units combined creatively with the video content on the LED wall, rendering an incredibly beautiful scene.
Surrounding the upstage side of the “i” stage were lighting fixtures and strobes, all placed very low to backlight the band. These were especially effective in “Vertigo”. Perhaps what struck me most about the show was how “minimal” it was. I know – how can a show with this much tech be considered minimal?
I suppose it’s in the approach. The lines of the stages are super clean. There is no color on the set, only black.The use of color in the lighting is minimal, with very little saturation (a touch of blue here, a light addition of amber there). The only songs with any real “color” were “Mysterious Ways” and “Where The Streets Have No Name”. Even the cues were minimal. I remember seeing Willie Williams at a conference a few years ago and he mentioned then that he didn’t really do lots of cues. He said something along the lines of, ” I just set a look I like and then live in that for a while”.
One would think that approach would result in cueing and stage “looks” that are boring. But it doesn’t. It works in a magnificent way; allowing the band to inhabit the space and the audience to not be distracted by the constant changing of lights. The creative blend of music, lighting, and video is elevated by using a light hand. Practicing such restraint and putting in only what needs to be there is one of the hallmarks of a true artist.
A while back, I had a Facebook conversation with a couple of friends about the Oscars; specifically which musical performance we thought was best. One of my friends said, “Please don’t tell me you thought it was U2”.
That sent the conversation off in a different direction, with him maintaining that they hadn’t done anything good since “The Joshua Tree” and me begging to differ. He then posted a youtube video of “Lemon” from their “Pop” album – not their greatest song, and certainly not their best album. I responded that I’d support risk-taking artists over the ones that churn out the same music album after album. His response was, “Well, having the bravery to fail magnificently over and over is commendable”.
I started thinking then about the nature of failure and how we define it. In U2’s case, what is failure? With 145 million albums sold and 3 of the top-grossing tours of all time, one would tend to believe that they have garnered more success than failure. Even when a new CD doesn’t sell as well as it’s predecessors (“No Line on the Horizon“, for example), the tours still sell out and break records. Most people would be perfectly happy with that sort of “failure”. So, are these critical failures? Artistic failures? Failures of expectation?
Deciding upon your definition of failure is important. If you have a clear definition of failure (and of its lovely opposite, success), you’ll be better able to recognize them when they present themselves. For me, the greatest failure (as trite as it sounds) is in not trying. Sometimes, that’s extremely difficult. It’s tempting to stick with the tried and true, especially when there are deadlines looming. Because of that, I actively challenge myself to try new (or at least new to me) ideas as much as possible.
In the case of “Pop” which sold 1.5 million copies (dismal sales for a major band), one could argue that fans expected a different album than what they got. That’s because U2 decided to not sound like U2. They wanted to experiment and it failed in a big way. What followed “Pop” was “All That You Can’t Leave Behind“, one of their finest efforts critically and commercially. The failure of “Pop” forced the band to examine what they were about and what they wanted to do, and what their fans expectations were. This illustrates to me how important failure can be IF YOU LEARN from it.
The difficulty comes in discerning what lessons failure is trying to teach us. Failure is often accompanied by embarrassment, frustration, and disappointment; none of which are helpful when you’re trying to decrypt the situation for lessons. At that point, I shut off the negative voices in my head (I swear, it’s a veritable opera in there sometimes) and focus on evaluating my failed idea or plan (and my execution of it) to look for clues. To embark on that questioning path with all of the other baggage accompanying you is a sure way to lead to an unclear answer.
The other thing I take way from this is that the only way to succeed big is to aim big; the risk is, of course, that you’ll fail big. Many people are just not willing to fail big. In some ways, who can blame them? Our political system, business climate (and often, sadly, our art environment) demands and rewards only success. No one is “allowed” to fail gracefully. This mindset forces many people to scale back their risk; it rewards timidity and sticking with what is known; instead of fostering creativity and innovation. In a 2008 commencement speech at Harvard, J.K. Rowling said, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” I couldn’t agree more.
Today’s post links to an article from one of my favorite blogs, “Jim On Light”. One of his pals, Mario Fabrio has created a concert lighting rig entirely of Legos. From the stage, to the PA, to lights and the audience, Mario has captured everything. I thought my Lego addiction was bad but it pales in comparison to what this man can do. I think this is a great example of someone asking themselves, “Hey, what if I…?” and using their creativity to engage in PLAY, which is extremely important.
As we grow up, “play” often transitions into physical play, or exercise. That’s fine because it keeps our bodies healthy; but it’s just as important to let your mind play as well. Again, as we get older, mental play might transition to Soduko, Words With Friends or similar games. Again, this is fine because it keeps you mentally engaged. What we stop doing after a certain point is playing like kids. Earlier this year, I realized my “play” had become very structured. I went and bought a bunch of Lego’s because I wanted to play like a kid again. I recommend doing something similar if you feel stuck – do something used to do when you were a kid: play on the swings, build a go-kart, have a pirate battle in the backyard. By freeing our mind from work and obligations, these seemingly childish activities stimulate our imaginations.
I hope you can carve out just a little time during the holidays to be 8 years old again.
This year, we had the opportunity for an incredible evening. On Halloween night, we attended the Nokia Theater to see Danny Elfman’s “Music from the Films of Tim Burton”.I have long been a fan of both artists. I never got to see Danny Elfman perform with Oingo Boingo during their legendary annual L.A. Halloween shows. It was only fitting that this show was on Halloween night in a city that dearly loves him.
Danny has said in interviews that looking back does not excite him; that he prefers to stay focused on the future. But on this, the 20th anniversary of “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, it felt like an assessment of accomplishments was in order. Danny worked with his arrangers to craft an evening’s worth of music, pulled from his 28 years of film scores; and asked Tim Burton to provide his character sketches as well as film footage of their work together. They performed several dates in London earlier this month and came to L.A. to play the Halloween show. The Oct. 31st date sold out quickly so Oct. 29 and 30 were added. The show was played by the 94-piece Hollywood Symphony Orchestra (many members of which have performed on Elfman’s score recordings) and the 49-voice Page L.A. Choir
Act 1 included Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow, Mars Attacks, Big Fish, and Batman/Batman Returns. Of these, Sleepy Hollow and the Batman suite were incredible standouts. The arrangement for Sleepy Hollow wove the different themes together in a brilliant tapestry of dark, majestic music; and soaring above it all, a young boy (couldn’t have been more than 12 years old) with an angelic, crystalline voice. Batman took me back to my first time seeing the film in 1989. Full of gothic mystery and thrilling bombast, the score felt new to me. While I am a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, I had forgotten just how much I loved Burton’s take on the dark knight.
Act 2 included Planet of the Apes, Corpse Bride, Dark Shadows, Frankenweenie, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Alice in Wonderland.
The arrangements for Corpse Bride and Edward Scissorhands were exquisite, showcasing the surprising variety of music found in each. The music from Edward Scissorhands is achingly beautiful, full of melancholy and a bittersweet longing for something simpler, something real.
And then, the opening notes of The Nightmare Before Christmas began. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get emotional. I have loved this film for twenty years; and out of the Tim Burton canon, the character I identify the most with is Jack Skellington. Jack is a creator; he is enthralled with doing something “new”. He longs to do something different. He is a child of wonder – and I’ve always been inspired by the sheer innocence and purity of his intentions. As the overture came to it’s conclusion, the man who gave voice to Jack Skellington strode across the stage, stepped up to the mic, and began singing “Jack’s Lament”.
“Oh, somewhere deep inside of these bones
An emptiness began to grow
There’s something out there, far from my home
A longing that I’ve never known…”
Acting the part, grabbing the mic, shaking his fists, stalking the stage, Danny Elfman became Jack – pouring his soul into the songs. It’s SO rare to see someone nakedly giving a performance of PASSION these days. No auto-tune, no back-up dancers, no exploding set pieces, no fancy lights; just pure, raw emotion. The next song, “Jack’s Obsession” was wonderful, sung with the confusion and curiosity it deserves. Danny followed that by introducing Catherine O’Hara (the original voice of Sally). Her thin, ghost-like voice beautifully captured all of the wistful vulnerability in “Sally’s Song”. The orchestra then launched into “What’s This?” as footage from that scene in the film unspooled on a giant screen with Danny playfully singing along, evoking the wonder and joy of seeing Christmas for the first time. He closed the set with “Poor Jack” (probably my favorite song from the film). As he traced Jack’s confusion, regret, and despair, his voice caught with emotion. As Jack’s regret turns to resolve and acceptance of who he truly is, Danny reached down deep and bellowed, “That’s right, I AM THE PUMPKIN KING!”.
It was like he had waited his entire life to sing that live; and the roof nearly lifted off the theater from the audience reaction. This is a man who clearly misses being on stage; and whose audience clearly adores him.
Finally, after the orchestra played the music from Alice in Wonderland, Danny came back out onstage for a rousing finale with “Oogie Boogie”. Catherine O’Hara joined him for bows. Just when it seemed like bows were over, out walked Tim Burton. I nearly died. The three stood and bowed, along with conductor John Mauceri, soaking up the adulation.
Since the show, I’ve thought a lot about long working relationships; how one person can enhance another person’s art; how artists can inspire each other; how one person looks at a blank page and sees images, whereas another person looks at a blank page and sees music. Danny has said in interviews that his working relationship with Tim is not easy; that each film is a little bit of a struggle. I understand that – sometimes you have to work through challenges to get to the core, to what’s good. Regardless of the difficulty it’s very obvious they inspire each other in a myriad of ways.
I came away from the show uplifted, enthralled, inspired, and determined to embrace a higher level of passion.
The intersection of art and architecture is a bit dimmer today as the concert design world mourns the loss of Mark Fisher. Among Mark’s prolific work are twelve of the most complex stadium shows ever toured. His work was highly aspirational, demonstrating what could be done at the bleeding edge of art and technology.
Mark was born in 1947 in Warwickshire, England. After graduating from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London (1971), he began his work in earnest as an architect. In 1984, he formed Fisher Park Partnership with Jonathan Park.
He found his way into the world of concert design and quickly became known for his ability to work on a huge scale. His early designs include Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” (1980) and The Rolling Stones “Steel Wheels” Tour (1989). These sets incorporated large scenic pieces and props that mimiced the scale of their venues in stadiums all over the world. In 1994, he left Fisher Park Partnership to form his own design firm, Stufish.
He began working with U2 in 1992 on their “Zoo TV” tour, which traveled an enormous set, trabant cars, and a tv station around the world. In 1997, he gained a tremendous amount of notoriety in his field when, with lighting designer Willie Williams, he introduced the first massive LED video wall to the touring industry on U2’s “Popmart”. One wonders what the reactions were in the production meeting where Mark proposed that the band enter for their encore in a giant, spinning, lemon mirror ball. “Popmart” perfectly illustrated the ridiculous excesses the band wanted to make fun of at the time.
“Popmart” set the bar very high in the concert industry. Many wondered how he would top it. After two relatively stripped down arena tours (“Elevation” and “Vertigo”) Mark’s work with U2 culminated in the “360 Tour” which is the largest touring production on record. The scale of 360 was unprecented and required a massive structure to support it, which he designed. I had the opportunity to hear Willie Williams (Mark’s design partner for that tour) discuss the genesis of the structure. He said that the band wanted the space to feel intimate, which is obviously a huge challenge in a stadium. What eventually became obvious after much discussion and drawing was that the only way to make the stadium intimate was to create a structure that appeared at home within it. This led to the development of the mammoth superstructure known as “The Claw”. And it turns out they were right. In the middle of these massive stadiums sat this enormous structure, which then appeared to cradle the band, offering them up to their fans. It was an astounding feat of art, architecture, and engineering.
He has also worked recently with Madonna and Lady Gaga, designing their touring spectacles.
He is represented in Las Vegas currently by “Million Dollar Piano” and the stunning “KA”. Again, with “KA,” which I’ve been able to see twice and to tour backstage, it wasn’t just about the scale, which is overwhelming, but what the set could do; how it morphed through the show and how it provided this entirely immersive environment for the story to unfold.
Within just the past few years, he has been responsible for the design of the Queens Diamond Jubilee in 2012, the 2010 Asian Games, the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as well as the Big O Multimedia Lagoon in South Korea, Aquamatrix in Lisbon, and the Millennium Show in London, among many, many others.
Mark and his associates at Stufish, his company, took on these gigantic projects and managed to make it look easy. While the scale was huge, it was always approachable, refined, and elegantly executed, which is quite an accomplishment. Mark has inspired countless production designers; his influence on the concert industry is profound and will echo through the business for years.
At the time of his death, Mark was working on numerous projects around the world. There was still so much more he wanted us to see. I’m deeply saddened that I never got to meet him. To shake his hand. To say thank you for creating work that astounded. Delighted. Surprised. Amazed. Overwhelmed. Inspired awe. Made me think differently. Made we want to be a better designer.
Perhaps more than anything else, I will always think of him as someone who was open to the power of wonder.