Answer Machine Tape, 1987
Zubin Kanga Piano, live video, live electronics
Bates Mill Blending Shed
Saturday November 19th
Pianist Zubin Kanga drew a capacity crowd to the Bates Mill Blending Shed for the UK premiere of Answer Machine Tape, 1987, which juxtaposes answer machine messages over a piano composition with multimedia, by Philip Venables, created in collaboration with dramatist Ted Huffman and programmer Simon Hendry.
Zubin Kanga's performance was the UK premiere of Answer Machine Tape, 1987. It focuses on New York visual artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz and the turbulent period leading up to the death of Peter Hujar – his former lover, close friend and fellow artist – from an AIDS-related illness in 1987. The work’s focal point is Wojnarowicz’s answering machine tape from the days leading up to Hujar’s death, featuring calls from Hujar, other artists, friends and lovers, exploring his life, that period of the New York art scene, queer history and the AIDS crisis.
The Answerphone messages form the backbone of this musical piece. The messages were left on David Wojnarowicz’s answerphone. David, a New York based artist, and AIDS activist, died in 1992. These messages cover the period David spent nursing his former lover, Peter Hujar, until Peter’s death from AIDS-related illness in November 1987. The answer tape was saved for several years, before Simon Hendry scored work for a solo piano, equipped with a ‘key scanner’. This acts as an imperfect typewriter, displaying accurately edited transcriptions for some conversations, and alpha letters that represent notes in heavier passages, usually from the more desperate sounding messages, on a huge screen above the performer.
So that’s the gig, the players, the setting and the format, scored work, electronics, and taped extracts. I’d not read a preview, and as the music progressed at times I wished I had. In the quieter passages, the more intimate voices, the exercise seemed flat and passionless, the mundane and the minutiae, calls asking about work, meetings for coffee, calls for a call back. As the tempo of concern for the sadly dying Peter Hujar changed, and it became apparent, the recipient, David, was Peter’s principle carer. Calls recorded in Hujar’s final days, from Hujar, from other artists, friends and lovers, exploring his life, that period of the New York art scene, queer history and the AIDS crisis.
Scattered throughout are regular calls from business associates, people unaware or perhaps unsympathetic of Peter’s condition. The juxtaposition of love, care and concern were reflected in the intensity of the piano accompaniments. The mood changed as Peter’s death approached. With the final calls of condolence, and conciliation especially poignant, the piano accompanied melted to sparse isolated notes. The music captured the mood of anxious confusion, fear, and despair that David may have felt listening to the messages on contemporary play back in 1987.
At the outset, I’d found the text display to be an annoying distraction, but as the piece developed and messages moved from the prosaic in emotional intensity the display became an enthralling accompaniment.
Answering machine messages have become outmoded of course. No one leaves them. If someone calls, there’s a missed call flagged up on your phone, they’ll follow up with a message. This piece of art may have more trouble existing today. An additional historical context to this piece too.
Enjoyment is not precisely what I took away from the show. Ambivalence maybe. Sadness? Perhaps. Or a recognition that I need to reach out to friends, where I think there are hard times, because others may not.
main image: Philip Venables © Monica De Alwis