“COLLAPSE,” described in turn as a “glam-rock requiem for the natural world” and a “perverse postmodern mass for a planet in crisis,” is nothing if not intriguing. First conceived for Los Angeles’s REDCAT Theater as the brainchild of local band Timur and the Dime Museum, fronted by eponymous Kazakhstan-born opera singer Timur Bekbosunov, the show combines an environmentally conscious message with the format of a Catholic funeral mass and the performance style of a glam rock concert — plus, video projections by Jesse Gilbert, which incorporate live footage, culled clips, and manipulable interactive components.
At first, the project sounds a little ridiculous: “Goddamn the Atlantic Salmon!” Bekbosunov bellows, the implicit gravitas of his operatic timbre shooting the whole enterprise straight to “Monty Python” levels of absurd. “Don’t eat the Atlantic Salmon! Don’t feed the poison farms!” But the more the song builds — through frantically upbeat hooks, slamming power chords, a Mercurian falsetto flight or three — the harder it becomes to deny that something cool is going on here. Sure, the technical talent of the musicians is evident, as they flip effortlessly between styles — punky shouts, gooey synths, oldies swagger, sometimes all in one song. But there’s also something inherently eerie about squeezing an actionable political message into the pomp and clatter of a rock opera. “Go back to sleep / we’re not to blame / this is not happening,” Bekbosunov croons on “Heat, Beat and Treat” — as much a lullaby as it is an indictment. Ultimately, “COLLAPSE” proves an exceedingly catchy, if exceedingly odd concept album, à la the glam tradition of yore — all the more reason to throw it up on stage, to let its theatricality strut and fret in costume. (And thank God for that, as designer Victor Wilde has outfitted the group to the nines: lightly charred ensembles for all, including a half-suit-half-dress number for the androgyne frontman.)
In anticipation of the show’s latest outing at BAM, from September 17 to 19 as part of the 2015 Next Wave Festival — and the soundtrack album, which is set to drop on October 20 — we asked Bekbosunov and Gilbert to explain the workings behind their dynamic, eco-glam live show, from love songs between algae blooms to the efficacy of environmentally-minded art.
How did this project come together and how did you get the idea to merge the music with the visual component?
Timur Bekbosunov: We [Gilbert and I] came together in 2013. The project originated when we performed at the Prototype Festival in New York; the director of REDCAT Theater, Mark Murphy, happened to be there and saw us for the first time. He loved it and said he would love to commission a project, a chamber opera of sorts — that’s how he described it — and we thought, “Okay, it would be kind of cool to do something like that.” Daniel Corral, the songwriter of our band Timur and the Dime Museum, he had this idea about creating — not really an “opera”-opera, but a set of songs that could revolve around the environment. He was working at that time on a choral piece, so he came up with the idea of using a requiem form, and I thought that was genius to write songs about the environment and actually set them in this worship service, a funeral mass for the dead. Then, with [producer] Beth Morrison, we pitched it to REDCAT, and then we started putting together a team of collaborators. I was familiar with Jesse’s work before and his interactive software that he developed; we reached out, and thankfully he said yes.
Jesse Gilbert: I actually performed with Timur and the Dime Museum at the Prototype Festival, so we had already worked together a bit — but it wasn’t a thematic show. It was basically like an operatic rock band with visuals. It was more experimental. When the project was proposed, to do “COLLAPSE” with images, then we went through a fairly extensive process of just working with the text and then with the music.
My process is pretty organic, in the sense that I don’t have a formal structure in mind when I start. A lot of what I do to create visuals is done in the moment. There are marks that I hit in terms of themes and core images, but I also have a lot of improvisation that happens. So the show is actually going to be unique each night at BAM.
The project has evolved into kind of a multi-layered project. There’s the issue of amplifying the live event, and that’s done through live camera images. We have content that relates to the themes of the song that kind of does a counterpoint to the libretto. And then there’s a kind of live animation that’s happening, which is being created by the sound itself — in collaboration between the sounds and my software, basically.
So a little like, say, the iTunes Visualizer?
Gilbert: The software that I’ve written is in the family of a visualizer, but it’s actually a very different process, because it’s all very hand-driven. So it’s actually an instrument that I’m performing. I have lots of different types of control over that, and I’m also doing a mix between all of the layers that I was just describing. I’m taking those elements and creating a composited view.
The visualization part of it is actually a very much longer-term project for me, which I started working on in 2009 and have been performing with a wide range of musicians. I actually came to visual art through the lens of music, because I’m a composer and I performed music for many years; I started visual work when I was quite young, as a painter, and then I came back into it. I hardly do any music anymore, but I can read music, and I can speak the language that musicians speak — I’m familiar with their vocabulary. So it’s often very interesting to think about how to translate the levels of nuance in the musical performance into a form that an audience can connect to, particularly with very abstract music. We live in such a visual culture, I think that people want a window into what’s happening.
Bekbosunov: One of the goals for “COLLAPSE,” also, is not to make it too academic, where we just kind of hit the audience over the head with guilt and knowledge and say, “This is what you should be doing!” It’s indirectly and through humor — sardonic, black humor — that we can express ourselves.
Gilbert: One of the songs is going to be performed as a love song between two algae blooms. You could show head-on footage of algae in the ocean — but the key is actually the love song. So we have some K-pop graphics with sparkles and hearts flying around. It adds to the whimsical aspect of this, which is, “we’re dealing with the issue, but we’re not holding a seminar on algae.” I think a lot of the art that I’ve seen trying to raise awareness around climate change is really didactic and is almost trying to shame the audience into action. This piece is trying to seduce the audience into thinking about some of these things, but through the lens of an enjoyable experience. It’s an interesting intersection between this political, actionable cause and glam rock — which, though it has been known to confront dark topics, is often camp or arch or sort of Wildean in doing so.
Bekbosunov: Obviously it’s silly, and a glam rock formula that exists there in terms of delivery — and then, on a deeply emotional level, the audience gets hit with this dire matter. It’s a tightrope that we’re trying to walk.
Gilbert: The band has a really dynamic presence on stage. Timur is also an unusual frontman for a glam rock band, because he’s an operatically trained tenor, so his vocal range is far beyond what a typical glam rock singer can do. So there’s a kind of power that the band really embodies in that, and I think that presence is very human. There’s that transgressive aspect of glam rock — the gender-bending, the costume changes, all of the things that attract the eye and bring this into focus — that I think really helps to humanize the issues.
Speaking of performance style — and of Timur’s tenor range, which brings to mind someone like Klaus Nomi — are there particular glam acts after which you’re modeling the show?
Bekbosunov: As a trained opera singer, it’s part of my job to interpret music by so many composers — everybody from Handel, Mozart, to contemporary music like David Little. When I was growing up, I was a huge fan of Freddie Mercury and Queen, and David Bowie. I realized that all of my influences — 50s Soviet Russian songs, 60s pop, the New Wave that I discovered later on, and glam rock — all of those characters come into play when I sing. On one song, I’m doing counter-tenor operatic vocals, and I’m thinking of Maria Callas, but on the song before, I’m thinking of Ethel Merman and Judy Garland. Sometimes, it’s Mick Jagger or Boy George.
Especially given that personal connection, are you interested in doing future projects that deal with these issues? Or would you do more one-off love songs, like Nomi?
Bekbosunov: “COLLAPSE” is a love letter from us to the planet — it’s a love story, albeit without us necessarily singing to each other, but rather about what’s already lost. The difficulty with that, of course, is how do we find our critical mass, critical audience. Because the people that are interested in what we’re doing, they come from the theater, from the visual world, from the music world, from opera, from pop, NPR, scientists — it’s a very strange crowd. We just spent several months recording our album of songs from “COLLAPSE” — I’ve been trying to pitch it to labels, and one question that always comes up is “how are you going to market it?” Making a name for creating projects like that — not necessarily based on straightforward stories, rather the large scale visions — is probably where we’re going. The challenge for us, of course, is to create music that serves as an entrance — as the door that allows the audience to access something obscure.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.