SoUndS of AmeriCA
A n T H o n y C R o o k
:p h o T o g R a p h y
‘The work should fit hand in glove with the space,
and should resonate rather than fight with it’
– Alex Poots will surely continue to flourish at the Armory when Alex Poots, director of the Manchester International Festival in the UK, takes over as artistic director in 2013 and commissions new works that utilise the non-traditional setting.
Some works will be collaborative projects with the Manchester festival, which in recent years has featured a residency by Björk, original productions by performance artist Marina Abramovi´c and theatre company Punchdrunk, a new opera by Blur’s Damon Albarn, and Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna.
Planning for the 2013 Armory season is in its infancy, but Poots, who has also served as director of contemporary arts at English National Opera, said his experience at Manchester would inform his programming philosophy stateside. ‘The Armory has a very specific DNA,’ he tells Gramophone. ‘Everything we do should be a commission, so the work fits hand in glove with the space and resonates rather than fights with the space. It’s a place for artists to make work they couldn’t make anywhere else.
‘I want a wide range of art forms in the building,’ he adds. ‘There are some artists who are increasingly interested in what I call the space between art forms. For example, with someone like Matthew Barney – is it visual arts or performance? The piece he did for us in Manchester had visual and performance and film. I could imagine such an artist finding the Armory environment really rewarding.
‘The job of an artistic director is to choose the right artist and to help and support them,’ continues Poot. ‘The day that I go beyond that is when things become problematic. I like my artists to lead me into their world, not the other way round. So I start with them. The mantra is that less is more; I want to do a few things really, really well.’
Rebecca Robertson became president and executive producer of the Armory in 2006 after leading the construction launch of the $700m Lincoln Center redevelopment, and, between 1987 and 1997, the $1.8bn transformation of a then-rundown stretch of 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. Echoing Poots’s comments, she tells Gramophone that in New York there has always been ‘a fascination with site-specific work. I used to be involved in an arts organisation that did things in old broken-down theatres in Harlem and under train tracks and in the meat market when it was still a meat market. Site-specific work presses the art form in a different direction and there is something freeing about that. The Armory provides a space where artists can work in that way.’
One of the most pleasant surprises, says Robertson, was discovering how well music worked in the Armory, an Upper East Side building that was built in 1881 for the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard, to be used for military practices. It was also a place for public events and a social club, as the beautifully decorated period rooms attest. The Armory opened with a large-scale concert in 1881; a performance of Stravinsky’s ‘Sacred Masterpieces’ in 2008 inaugurated the Drill Hall as a 21st-century concert space. Other noteworthy musical offerings
(some of them co-productions with other major institutions) since the Armory’s 2007 launch as an arts venue include a celebration of Philip Glass this past spring; the New York premiere of John Luther Adams’s percussion epic Inuksuit; and a conducting seminar with Kurt Masur that culminated in an all-Mendelssohn concert conducted by Masur and his protégés. Artists-in-residence have included the soprano Lauren Flanigan and the string quartet Ethel.
The Armory’s first event as an arts venue, in 2007, was Aaron Young’s 9216-square-foot ‘action painting’ called Greeting Card, which featured 12 choreographed motorcyclists riding their bikes over a 72ft-by-128ft surface of painted plywood to create a new piece of art. Other offerings have included five plays presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company in a full-scale Shakespearean theatre constructed inside the Drill Hall; a video-and-sound commission by Japanese sound artist Ryoji Ikeda; and a site-specific work by Shen Wei Dance Arts.
‘I do think there is an essential democracy to the Amory,’ explains Robertson. ‘The things that are successful here have a sense of being communal – there’s a slight hippy sensibility.’ Both Robertson and Poots hope to attract a crossover audience to Armory events, something that Robertson believes is already happening.
The fact that membership to the Armory has grown hugely seems to indicate that there’s ‘a core of people who saw something terrific here, maybe an art piece. Then they came to a music event because they loved the space,’ she explains. Future commissions will be undertaken in collaboration with international organisations that also have unusual spaces, including Manchester and the Ruhrtriennale.
The Armory, for decades used for hosting travelling antique shows, is currently undergoing a $200m renovation by Herzog & de Meuron. The venue was named one of the hundred most endangered historic sites by the World Monuments Fund in 2000, along with the likes of Machu Picchu. To date, about $84m has been spent on refurbishments, which include infrastructure improvements in the 55,000-square-foot hall, which will retain its industrial ambiance. More delicate restorations are being undertaken in the exquisitely decorated period rooms, some designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stanford White and the Herter brothers. The smaller rooms will continue to be used for site-specific art projects, along with the main hall. The five-storey building will also feature new studios and rehearsal rooms. While artistic funds are currently far lower than the renovation budget, by 2013 the Armory intends to increase its budget for artistic productions to $5m. That’s certainly peanuts when compared to the programming budgets of many major institutions.
But, as Robertson points out, the Armory ‘is a small organisation with very big ambitions and a very big hall’. The space is certainly large enough to accommodate those ambitions, and the Armory will undoubtedly continue to cement its position as a valuable part of New York’s cultural life.
Not-to-be-miSSed Armory coNcertS Stockhausen’s Gruppen June 29 and 30, 8pm Two performances of Stockhausen’s work for three orchestras. Alan Gilbert, Magnus Lindberg and Matthias Pintscher conduct the New York Philharmonic in a programme that also includes works by Mozart, Boulez and Ives.
The Murder of Crows August 3 – September 9: Tue-Sun 12-7pm; Thu 12-9pm; Mondays closed except September 3, 12-7pm Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s installation is a dreamlike soundscape using 98 speakers mounted around the Drill Hall. armoryonpark.org gramophone.co.uk
GRAMOPHONE MAy 2012 III