Noises Awful

Strung out: A scene from The Noise of Time.Photo: Joan Marcus

In the past two centuries, an ultraconservative spirit decried all innovation in the arts with suspicion and derision. Under the subsequent dispensation, anything new and different was hailed with blind enthusiasm, irrespective of its utter meaninglessness: One must not be the last to salute a potential classic. Of the two forms of delinquency, the second is by far the worse. Opposition forces the innovator to strive harder, resort to subtlety to circumvent intolerance. Mindless salivating at novelty merely encourages phonies to peddle their inanities to unwarranted Pavlovian acclaim.

Such is the case of the Theatre de Complicite’s The Noise of Time, a piece of sheer pretension, ineptitude, and emptiness that elicited deafening audience ovations and two glowing features plus two rave reviews from our newspaper of record. It confirms my belief that were you to put a pair of copulating dogs on the stage, you, too, could, with the inevitable hype, pass for as great an artist as the charlatan, lunatic, or imbecile Simon McBurney, guiding light (or chief obfuscator) of Complicite, who conceived and staged this piece. It purports to shed light on the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, on how we hear music, on the place of the artist in history, on the somber meanings of the composer’s fifteenth and last quartet, and, for all I know, on the price of eggs.

To be sure, McBurney pulled one clever stunt: The last 35 minutes or so of this 80-minute farrago are taken up by the excellent Emerson String Quartet’s rendition of the Quartet No. 15, well worthy of applause. Especially so if you consider that the Emersons had to play in near darkness, standing, perambulating, or sitting too far apart for eye contact, and finally seated on a platform in two rows facing the audience, thus going from strolling gypsy musicians to artful posers for a publicity photograph. For much less money, you could have caught an evening of the Emerson’s recent five-part traversal of the complete quartets, played, in chronological order, in full view and with unimpeded hearing.

For in the sparsely lit The Noise of Time, there is neither full view nor unimpeded hearing, to say nothing of sense. Those who know that the loudspeakers’ oft-referred-to Slava is Mstislav Rostropovich, that the composer’s bombastic wartime Seventh Symphony was broadcast on an NBC national hookup (we hear scratchy shreds of it), that the young Dmitri was a movie-theater pianist once caught in a cinema fire, that Stalin & Co. made the artist’s life miserable, etc., will learn nothing new from garbled references here. The others will be left in an even greater dark than prevails onstage. The four nonspeaking performers enact mostly inscrutable maneuvers, carrying about women’s garments or obsolete radios, transporting numerous Ionescoan chairs on and off, dismantling a cello, gesticulating wildly or careering about, and making nuisances of themselves in front of a backdrop alternating photographs of the composer with sheet music, ocean waves, and meaningless abstractions. They even undermine the Emerson’s playing by hovering about, pretending to read the sheet music, or carrying around that deconstructed cello.

The loudspeakers blare out disconnected fragments (some of them in Russian) from an old, screechy, spotlighted radio, including bits of announcers’ pontifications, snatches from Shostakovich’s letters, random bursts of his Seventh Symphony, references to the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s singing a Shostakovich patriotic ditty in outer space, frequent salvos of applause, and lots of static. This may or may not be the noise of time (Aleksandr Blok’s definition of history), but it certainly is the cacophony of fraud. The locus, for six performances, was the auditorium of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, perpetrating on this occasion a hoax verging on the indictable.

Noises Awful