This April, Risa Jaroslow & Dancers are back at ODC Theater to share a new work with Bay Area audiences, the world premiere of Touch Bass. A collaboration between choreographer Risa Jaroslow and composer/bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, Touch Bass features a cast of nine – three dancers, three musicians and three upright basses – all engaging in conversation within a single theatrical container. Recently, Mezzacappa and I sat down to talk about her journey with this project, providing a unique glimpse inside its collaborative spirit and creative process. And describing how over the past year and a half, her upright bass has simultaneously acted as a musical partner and a dance partner.
Heather Desaulniers: Tell me about Touch Bass…how would you describe it?
Lisa Mezzacappa: That’s a great question because it forces me to take an aerial view of the work. So…this piece is about bodies and basses and all the different ways that we interact in space. It is about relationships emerging between the nine players in the cast, which includes the basses. It is about the dynamics and sub-plots that these relationships generate. It is about the way we handle the bass instrument as somewhat of a metaphor for how we handle ourselves and each other. It is about the similarities between making dance and making music. All of these things are being explored in the work. I think the exceptional thing about Touch Bass is how deeply collaborative it is – on the choreographer/composer level as well as on the dancer/musician level. That feels really special. And that it centers around this outrageous instrument that I play and carry around. The bass is so big, which I think is the first thing that everyone notices. But it’s also very fragile. I think Risa [Jaroslow] saw a parallel between bodies and instruments in that way.
HD: When did the project get underway? Were you involved from the very beginning? What did those early stages of development look like?
LM: This is an interesting part of the story. I first met Risa when I was part of the music ensemble for her company’s Resist/Surrender performances at ODC in Fall of 2015. We [the musicians] had been rehearsing separately from the dancers for quite a while; the music was extremely challenging so we were very single-mindedly focused on it. At the first rehearsal where everyone was finally together in the space, Risa came up to me and said, “you are in this!” We hadn’t met each other before and I think seeing a woman holding this instrument was a moment for her. Her mother was a professional upright bassist. After that production, she suggested that it would be fun to get together sometime and within a few weeks, we were in the studio with dancers. Just trying things out, with no specific plan or no idea that it would come to anything else. So that’s how it started, organically, with this series of experiments.
HD: You mentioned the collaborative nature of the piece; I’d love to hear more about that…
LM: I believe the reason why these initial experiments developed into something was because there was a great spark of energy between me and Risa. From the very beginning, there was a lot of curiosity, an openness to trying things and also a deep honesty. We were very much listening to each other. So that cultivated a great environment for ideas to develop. We would also have conversations outside of the studio, and those conversations would often be a series of ‘what ifs’. That spirit has been such a part of this from the very start and the reason why I think it’s grown into something more.
HD: And what about the different roles that you are taking on in Touch Bass?
LM: Well, my m.o. as an artist is that there is always a level of discomfort! Though, once I’m done solving the puzzles in the music composition, it will be fantastic to just play and perform in the space with these wonderful musicians [Eric Perney and Matt Small] and dancers [Scott Marlowe, Tara McArthur and Lauren Simpson].
LM: The most challenging thing, by far right now, is the composer part. At first, it was just me playing solo with the dancers and so I could react, respond and improvise in the moment as the movement shifted. But now we have added two other bass players, so I need to set things more formally. And that brings up questions. How much do I want to leave unsolved so that there can be an organic conversation between us? How much do I want to x, so that it’s more predictable each time? Improvisation is at the center of all of my work, and the question for each project, each situation is, how much do I need to control or shape that improvisation for this piece to be successful?It would have been very easy for me to be intimidated by the dancing, but Risa has been very wise in how she’s created the movement component for the bassists. She doesn’t ever make us feel awkward, or like we are trying to be dancers. And so much of our physicality in the work is coming from what we do as bassists – an amplification, abstraction or derivation of actual playing. So it doesn’t feel separate to me. Which has been surprising!
HD: I was fortunate to be able to see the work-in-progress showing of Touch Bass last fall and was struck by a number of elements – the crafting of an egalitarian container where dance and music co-exist without hierarchy; the interactive conversation being fostered between the movement and the sound; how the bass instrument seemed to be inspiring phrase material and vice versa and lastly, how the bass really became a cast member. Does any of that resonate with you?
LM: I think the egalitarian aspect is really perceptive because that’s the way Touch Bass developed – a constant and mutual interaction between the two disciplines. In terms of movement coming from sound and music, that has been an amazing surprise. Risa has had all these choreographic ideas just from watching how I play the bass! And yes, Risa’s vision that the basses are part of the cast is essential and vital – in this container that has been crafted, when they speak, you have to listen to them, because they are one of us.
HD: Of course, I’m guessing that the work has changed significantly from that showing. One thing I noticed is that Touch Bass has grown from the cast of four at the work-in-progress to nine, with three basses.
LM: I remember Risa saying very early on that she would love to have multiple basses in the piece. And truthfully, I kind of tried to temper that desire because bassists are so busy and it’s tricky for them to commit to this kind of rehearsal schedule. Dancers rehearse a thousand times more than musicians. This schedule [for Touch Bass] is so out-of-the norm for musicians. So I really didn’t think we would be able to get bassists with the right combination of skill, personality and openness, who were also available and up for the project. Then we invited a bunch of bass players to the showing in the fall and it was incredible how those that were interested ended up being perfect matches, so well suited to how we are working in this piece. They came into the process in mid-January and everyone’s having a lot of fun.
HD: What has this experience taught you as an artist?
LM: It would have been easy very early on to be too busy to get together in the studio. Sometimes when you get to this mid-career stage, you become so focused on juggling your own existing projects that you can forget to be receptive to something that is open ended, experimental or a new relationship. It’s a great reminder – to stay open, allow for new surprises to emerge and make room for them. Being okay with something that isn’t so defined, and letting things organically grow and develop, just as they have with Touch Bass.
Lisa Mezzacappa is a San Francisco Bay Area composer, bassist and music producer. In addition to leading her own ensembles, which span ethereal chamber music, electro-acoustic works, avant-garde jazz, and groups from duo to large ensemble, she collaborates frequently with visual artists for sound installations, multi-media projects and live cinema events.