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‘A Gun Show’ Raises Questions Beyond the Music

The 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut struck the musicians of So Percussion deeply. In response, the quartet’s members — Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski and Jason Treuting — together with the director Ain Gordon and the choreographer Emily Johnson, a longtime collaborator, vowed to create a program that would investigate America’s relationship to guns. As they developed the idea, they mined their own childhood memories, took lessons at a shooting range, ordered rifle parts on the web and joined in a hunt.

The result, “A Gun Show,” had its New York premiere on Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater. The hourlong blend of percussion music, video projections and recited texts is an honorable but frustrating attempt to grapple with complex themes, including politics, communal identity and rites of passage. But it ultimately crumbles under the weight of its own scruples, illuminating the difficulties contemporary music faces in claiming political relevance.

The music itself is good — even thrilling in parts. The four ensemble members and nearly a dozen additional percussionists, some of whom also hum and sing, drew a rich palette of sounds from traditional and unorthodox instruments. An extended sequence dominated by snare drums and bass drums, their sound gradually swelling to oppressive proportions, seemed to reflect the dual military qualities of discipline and violence.

Another scene saw the So players tap out rhythmic mosaics on Russian sniper rifle components. A gong became a target, pummeled and scratched with furious yet futile energy.

But “A Gun Show” offers no cathartic release. The often whimsical direction and ironic text projections made sure of that. Early on, one slide explained the contradicting viewpoints the creators discovered among themselves. But when they tried to draft a text about these dissonances, the next projection announced, “When we tried to formulate that into text for this slide, we couldn’t figure out what to say.”

If that display of honesty still came across as charming, other gestures felt coy. In extensive program notes, Mr. Sliwinski wrote of the official acts of redaction the group encountered in the course of its research. For instance, pictures of shooting victims obtained under the Freedom of Information Act might have relevant parts blacked out for legal reasons. That idea was translated into “redacted” moments onstage, such as the work’s silent opening, in which the So musicians executed hand gestures as if they were playing snare drums — only without instruments.

But surely the advantage that artists have over bureaucrats is precisely the freedom to make the unheard audible and to conjure the unimaginable. “A Gun Show” almost coquettishly advertises its underlying uncertainties and flirts with its own impotence. It’s unlikely that victims of gun violence will draw solace from it, or that grass-roots members of the National Rifle Association will come out of it reconciled with the idea of tighter controls.

In an article posted on the online music magazine The Log Journal, Mr. Sliwinski made an important point about the challenge of turning political debate into art. The question “What do we want to say?,” he points out, must be supplemented by “What do we want to make?” Yet what often seems to go unasked is: “Who is it for?”

Those questions hovered over two other politically minded performances I saw earlier this month. The first was an evening of contemporary chamber music and opera extracts at Roulette in Downtown Brooklyn that was dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement. The concert was presented by Ensemble Pi, a mixed chamber group that, in its marketing materials, defines itself as “socially conscious.”

The program included captivating performances of works by black composers, including Sidney Boquiren, Alvin Singleton and Trevor Weston. But the audience was predominantly white and, I imagined, made up of listeners already sympathetic to the cause. The scene from Mr. Boquiren’s “Stop and Frisk,” dramatizing a white man’s struggle to empathize with the humiliation his black friend suffered, was sharply drawn. But how many police commissioners send their law enforcement officials to the opera house for sensitivity training?

Likewise, the opera “Five,” about the notorious miscarriage of justice in the rape case involving the so-called Central Park Five, is hampered by muddled intentions and awkward execution. This work, by the composer Anthony Davis and the librettist Richard Wesley, had its premiere at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark by the opera company Trilogy, which is based in that city and promotes and performs the works of black composers.

The performance I saw gave only a rough idea of what the finished work might be — the score had come in late, according to the organizers, leaving some cast members to read their parts off tablets. At least here, the “what do we want to say?” question seemed to have been answered relatively clearly — conveying outrage at the systemic causes of the incarceration of innocents — and the mostly black audience appeared to follow intently a story that evidently still felt relevant and raw.

by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim
Thursday, December 1, 2016