Blondes are ditzy, overweight people must be unhappy and fast-food workers are not intelligent. These snap judgments are all things that we may accept without question because of repetition or stubbornness or because it’s just easier.

However, what if the world presents evidence to the contrary, are we willing or even able to re-evaluate these shaky certainties? Using music and theater, Slide, a performance making its Bay Area premiere as part of the Stanford Lively Arts program, examines this question and the potential loneliness caused by isolating ourselves from information that contradicts our beloved perceptions. Landing somewhere between a symphony and a play, Slide incorporates acting and singing into an 80-minute song cycle split into 11 sections.

“This piece is musically driven,” composer Steven Mackey explains in a phone interview. “In fact, there really isn’t much of a narrative in terms of a theatrical narrative. The whole piece gets its logic from the music.”

Mackey, who settled in California during the 1960s and, influenced by the musical culture, learned to play the guitar, attended UC-Davis “in case the whole rock-star thing didn’t work out.” There, in an elective music-appreciation class, he fell in love with classical music.

Through the Paul Dresher Ensemble, Mackey became a frequent collaborator with Rinde Eckert, a professionally trained opera singer who found his way into avant-garde musical theater. Eckert wrote the libretto for Slide and plays a psychologist named Renard, who addresses the audience and Mackey (onstage playing the guitar) while performing an enigmatic experiment.

“I love his acting and his fluidity in switching between spoken word and singing,” Mackey says of Eckert. “Some people might listen to this and say, ‘OK, there’s a song, and then there’s music accompanying a monologue,’ but to me it’s all part of the song.” The song cycle’s music comes from eighth blackbird, the Grammy Awardwinning new-music chamber orchestra for which the piece was composed. The group also appears onstage as part of Renard’s memory.

“The thorough integration of [eighth blackbird] is what’s intriguing,” says Eckert, who makes his home on the East Coast. “The attempt to incorporate this kind of ensemble into a poetic gestalt is unusual, and the fact that eighth blackbird takes on something like this is wild.”

For both creators, the ensemble’s presence, the acting and the themes are all part of the experience, but it always comes back to the music. “It’s a concert contextualized by these other elements,” Mackay summed it up.

“All of the elements serve as a frame; in a way they act as captions to the music,” Eckert said, “We want you to look at the painting and not the frame. We make layered work but the emphasis is always on diving in and being absorbed by the music.”

In the course of the song cycle, the audience learns that Renard’s self-created fantasy life has isolated him from the world and created an intense loneliness. “Slide illustrates a profound human tendency to hold on to the familiar instead of the truth,” Eckert says of Renard’s condition. “Whatever we’re used to believing, it’s what we want to believe despite what the world is telling us. You’ll cherry pick the evidence to confirm your worldview. We get comfortable with ourselves and when our labels prove to be destructive we hold onto them regardless.”

“For the audience, Slide is not about unpacking the loneliness of Rinde’s character, but rather contextualizing the loneliness for their own life,” Mackey adds. “I would hate people to go in there looking to learn something. It’s an experience, like a symphony is.” In maintaining emphasis on the music and away from the narrative facts of Renard’s life, Slide focuses on emotions, not evidence, to break into the audience’s comfort zone and wreak a little havoc on crafted realities.

Saturday, March 5, 8pm
Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford
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