Art Sounds: Bugs, Frogs, Storks and Dogs

Joey Hill

The Epperson Auditorium of the Kansas City Art Institute hosted the second of this season’s collaborative Art Sounds performances on Oct. 8.

The audience was treated to both music and art history, thanks to Brad Cox and local ensemble The People’s Liberation Big Band. The Big Band is a local collaborative effort by a group of musicians, led by Brad Cox, who are dedicated to social justice. The band acts as an open space for experimentation to give composers and arrangers a forum to try out and explore new compositions.

The band is large, consisting of brass, string, woodwind and percussion instruments which provide a varied and vivid sound, and uphold the nature of the performance itself. The work of famed Russian animator, Ladislas Starevich, with his groundbreaking short films, helped pave the way for the more modern types of animation and narrative.

Three of Starevich’s films’ were shown. The first film was one his most well-known works, and propelled him into the world of animation, highlighting his study of the natural world as he worked as the director of Lithuania’s Museum of Natural History.  A large part of his job was to film the actions of animals, where he observed the Stag Beetle’s stunning fight tactics. The issue Starevich encountered while filming the fighting beetles was the fact that they were nocturnal creatures and would fall asleep when the lights came on.

To circumvent this problem, Starevich took the legs off of dead Stag Beetles and replaced them with metal wire, which he attached to the thorax of the insects with wax. Afterward, he designed and built scaled-down sets for the beetles to “fight” in, moving them pose by pose and taking photo after photo. These early experiments later grew into one of his best known silent films, and was the first one of the three presented at the latest Art Sounds, 1911’s “The Cameraman’s Revenge.”

Taken at face value, the “The Cameraman’s Revenge” can easily be mistaken for just another educational work of the early 1900’s, but it becomes evident that Starevich is reaching toward a kind of social commentary.
Opening in the house of Mr. and Ms. Beetle, the accompanying band plays a hard hitting jazz melody as the audience sees Mr. Beetle packing a suitcase while his butler comes through to the front of his house with his car.

While it can be assumed he’s driving to work, a transition reveals he is in fact traveling to a nearby night club known as the “Gay Dragonfly” to see the movements of a dancing dragonfly, also animated by Starevich. Circumstances appear to get out of hand when the performance is interrupted by a member of the audience, a grasshopper who unsuccessfully coaxes the dragonfly to his table, only to see Mr. Beetle leave with the dragonfly.

Distraught, the grasshopper follows them to a hotel and, using its movie camera, films their deceits through a keyhole. However, the door swings open and sends the grasshopper and its camera tumbling down the stairs and out the window with Mr. Beetle hot on his trail. The grasshopper escapes as the scene moves back to the Beetle household as Mrs. Beetle sends a telegram to her artist friend, another beetle.

The artist’s appearance at the household evolves as subsequent demise as he throws himself into the fireplace in an attempt to avoid Mr. Beetle who, once seeing the painting left by the artist, explodes into rage as he begins to attack Mrs. Beetle in a chase which leads from the roof of the house to directly in front of the house where the two finally seem to cease the brawl. The band was employed expertly in his section with their direct switching from melodic romance to loud and spastic jazz with an improvised cut of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.”

In the next scene it seems thing have calmed down for the married couple as they enter a park to see the screening for a movie with the projectionist being none other than the vengeful grasshopper. The film reaches its climax as the grasshopper shows the film of Mr. Beetle and the dragonfly and sends Mrs. Beetle into a jealous rage. This leads to the destruction of the projection booth and ending scene of the couple’s new life, in jail.

The second film followed a more philosophical ideal, “The Frogs Who Desired a King” begins with a group of frogs debating. The music used is off-putting and strange, using odd pitch changes to create and almost mechanical factory soundtrack. The issue that the frogs are having is the chaos brought about by their lack of a leader, while they live under a democracy; the freedom has grown into civil unrest as each clamor to be a position to run only to be pulled down by another.

Realizing that this fighting is getting them nowhere, they enlist the help of a Zeus-like being in the sky by way of bubbles blown into the clouds which, when popped instantly sound their pleas for assistance. After much deliberation upon the annoyance of the bubbles, he sends a stork down as a resident king, only to have the stork begin to eat the frogs. The Frogs inevitably overthrow the stork and return to their old regime, changed forever.

The final film in the series features the most surreal and even terrifying imagery. “The Mascot” tells the tale of a small toy dog that, after being taken away from its creator’s daughter travels its way through the streets of France to get back home. It’s clear Starevich pulled out all the stops not only in with the various other toys and how they adapt to being on the streets after escaping from the delivery truck taking them to the store.

The events take a surrealist turn once night falls, and all along the empty dark streets of France intimate objects begin to morph into figurines, most notably the contents of a bottle of alcohol after it gets shattered, Satan emerges from the dark liquid and opens up a night club which seems to become a hangout for both demons and reanimated brooms alike.  The dog does eventually escape the clutches of the objects as well as Satan who is killed by the objects before the end of the film.

The film ends with the toy dog reunited with the little girl, proving the groundbreaking talent of Starevich for not only the technical side of things but also the narrative. The entire performance spoke to a moment in time where this form of entertainment was enjoyed solely with a live band, Art Sounds once again delivering great performances to the public.