The Rapidian

Give Away The Stone (pt.1)

Underwriting support from:

Link to Pt. 2

Link to Pt. 3

This is Pt. 1 of a three-part conversation about "walking away" after creating something, and the implications for audience and artist.

/Will Godoy

…this heart is a stone, and this is a stone that we throw.
  - Beach House, "10 Mile Stereo"
Shortly after midnight on Halloween, I asked Ritsu Katsumata a simple question.  Her answer changed the way I think about pretty much everything.
It happened at Wealthy Theatre, where Ritsu just concluded a live score of the silent film "Nosferatu" in front of hundreds of people.  We had created an elevated stage for her, on scaffolding, nearly four meters off the ground - placing the avant garde electric violinist alongside the projected characters.  As the film's moody hues changed (blues, greens and yellows in rotation) we had Ritsu lighted in kind, set side by side with these mythic archetypes, as she performed her original composition live without a net. 
Some brilliant things have happened on that stage: this event (titled "Ritsu vs. Nosferatu") remains beyond compare.  When an original production exceeds your wildest expectations, the high defies description.   I almost always experience this from the soundboard, so I always want to know how it felt for the performer(s). 

I began walking down the aisle, to ask Ritsu about the perspective from the front.  Sometimes - as odd as it may sound - what's happening with the audience is dissociated from the stage.  (And vice versa, to be sure.)  But tonight it was palpable, undeniable, from the moment the credits rolled.
I passed by people filing out, audience members still processing what they had experienced.  I overheard bits of walking conversations.  The post-show conversations were a relief to the pre-show speculation about the positioning of the scaffolding, and the general skepticism about why we had scaffolding out, at all.  Why would we place the composer alongside the performance?  And lighted? 
The pre-show confusion was understandable, of course: normally, musicians scoring a performance (or film) are tucked in the orchestra pit, in the shadows. 
But if you're seen Ritsu perform, you already know: she is not to be hidden.  What comes out of her consumes her.  She's a brilliant, classically trained violinist who one day chose to run her instrument through a Marshall stack of distorted, amplified noise.  A former child prodigy who is now more Hendrix than Handel.  We positioned her alongside the most famous vampire in cinematic history, and observed... as she infused layers of unprecedented darkness and beauty into his tragic love story.

I reached the front of the room and looked up at her, as she broke down her gear on the scaffolding.  And I asked my question.

"How did that feel?"

Ritsu smiled down to me, and pointed to her ear - apparently unable to hear against the din of people lingering in the theatre.  Or the ringing in her ears?  Girl rocked out for nearly two hours.
I climbed the first two steps of scaffolding (confession: I'm afraid of heights) and asked her again, louder. 
She closed her violin case and smiled, shaking her head.  Not because she didn't hear me.
"When I'm done I let it go," she said.
My mind rejected it the second I heard it.  She started to climb down the ladder.  I jumped down.  I didn't understand, but I nodded.  I manufactured a look of understanding, as if to say, "Oh, yeah, well, yeah."
Ritsu knew I didn't understand.  I'm a crap liar.
"Okay, no: Ritsu, that makes no sense to me," I said.  "Why would you do that?  How could you let this go?  This was awesome."
She set her instrument case down and then climbed up the scaffolding again, to grab her effects gear.

"It's a defense mechanism," she said, again looking down on me.  "To avoid postpartum depression."
And then, with that, I realized... like I was shot... like I was shot with a diamond... a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God... the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.
*Yes, the voice in my head is Col. Kurtz (from the film "Apocalypse Now").  And yes, it's a problem.
"Well," I said to her, "I'm not going to say anything, then, out of respect for that.  But it was stunning.  And awesome.  And it was a privilege, a rare moment.  And on behalf of all of us who worked it, tonight, and everyone who attended, I want to thank you.  And on behalf of anyone who missed it, I feel sorry for them - even if they were at the hospital having a baby, and even if that child emerged from the womb reciting Chaucer, it's still their loss."
Ritsu laughed, nodding, and silently continued breaking down her gear.
"Okay," I said, "I'm going to go somewhere else, now."

I walked backward for a few steps, leaving her. 
In the lobby were at least a hundred souls who remained - seemingly waiting to thank her, to - who knows - to ask her how it felt.
But Ritsu would leave through the back.  The experience belonged to them, now.  To use her metaphor: the birth mother had no interest in open adoption.  No interest in meddling.  No temptation to manipulate their interpretation after the fact.  No compulsion to bask in the afterglow.  Or at least the will to resist it all.

Looking back, Ritsu's action was a perfect sort of sharing: audience and artist benefited in their own ways.  I admired it partly because - if it were me - I'd be compelled to bask in the afterglow.  Or argue with those who misunderstood.
I was trying to understand this nobility of trusting your audience.  I felt like I was having what recovering alcoholics refer to as a "moment of clarity."
But today I think I understand better: Ritsu's approach has more to do with trusting yourself.

The next segment (Pt. 2) of "Give Away The Stone" will reference Grand Rapids native Maynard James Keenan as an example of doing more than stepping away - actually provoking the observer to find her own interpretation. 

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That was a good succeeded in making me feel stupid for missing the performance. 

Interesting look at the role of humility in an artist and how a little mystery can be beneficial to a performance.  If she had came out and hobnobbed with the stragglers 'basking in the glow' would it have maybe taken away from the experience? 

I can 'follow' some of my favorite artists and musicians on Twitter and now...and I am learning through that experience that I prefer the mystique...I want there to be some distance, some larger than life aspect. 

Great review and thought provoking oped. 

I like the way that Ritsu puts it from her perspective.  Just like Steven said above, many times "fans" can be dissapointed when they meet/follow/see opinions from an artist.  It seems like Ritsu knows this and is willing to let some people misjudge her intentions for the sake of the many.  It is definitely a very courageous way to be as an artist.  It is truly "let the art speak for itself" (with no asterisks).

Bravo to Ritsu and thanks to E. Wilson for the commentary.

You have such a way with words and I loved reading this article. As one who makes a living as a commercial photographer you learn very early that the photos are not yours, you are there to get the images and what the client does with them is their own.


Can't wait to ready the next installment! 

It seems to me that any artist (and human) might want know they touched somebody, for affirmation, for closure on a performance. Perhaps the difference is that she has had this already and knows her talent. Or, maybe she really is that humble. Or, maybe shy. Maybe I think this way because of the number of local, independent musicians I know who take great pleasure and comfort in knowing that their show kicked ass. I mean...doesn't everybody want to feel loved and appreciated? But then again, they/I haven't rocked out CBGB's like Ritsu did.

Erin, I would read a grocery list you wrote.

Ritsu's decision to let it go the moment it happens and not hang in the lobby for butt-kissing is simply the act of a mature artist. She knows, like Terry said, that the artist is poured into the piece on the front end. After that, it doesn't belong to them. When thought about from this perspective, to stand around afterward to accept credit (or blame) for people's response seems either dishonest, or like the artist is doing damage control, since most people wouldn't insult them to their face.

I wonder, though, how (or if) Ritsu critiques her performances. I would think that would be important to identify what did/didn't work, if only for the sake of artistic growth. that I can't wait until tomorrow! 

Does this mean you are leaving Grand Rapids?