Phoebe Legere's total art synthesis

Phoebe Legere

by Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass., February 17, 2002) -- The term “multi-media” gets bandied about a lot these days as a synonym for computer-generated presentations using sound and images.

But as Phoebe Legere points out, multi-media artists can be found in the most out of the way places around the globe, places where people have never had access to electricity, much less to TV or computers.

“As I’ve travelled in Africa, Brazil, to remote parts of India and China, when I go beyond the reach of TV and electricity, once I’ve traveled beyond the zone of the Industrial Revolution, I will go into a village and very quickly I will realize that there are one or two people who are just like me,” said Legere, a multi-media artist and ethnomusicologist whose work incorporates music, film, theater, painting, performance and design.

“People think that I’m so unique, but I’m not. All over the world there are people just like me,” said Legere in a recent phone interview from her apartment in lower Manhattan.

Anyone who has seen a Phoebe Legere performance or spent any time talking to her could be forgiven for thinking that the dazzlingly talented and witty polymath is one of a kind. A select few, however, will get the chance to test the notion first-hand later this month, when Legere hosts “Total Art Synthesis in Action,” a week-long workshop in multi-media performance design, from February 25 to March 1, at IS 183, the former Interlaken School of Art in Stockbridge.

“Phoebe is such an extraordinarily accomplished artist whose work bridges and moves freely among many disciplines,” said IS183 board member Lillian Lennox Whitehead, who has been working closely with Phoebe on the development of this project. “She is uniquely fluid in her approach to performance and art.”

Participants in the workshop will spend an intensive week studying with Legere, exploring the iconography of her performance and developing an appropriate setting for “The Common Root of All,” which she will stage on Saturday, March 2, at the Lenox Club at 7 p.m.

Legere’s show will include selections from “The Queen of New England,” her new chamber opera commissioned by Roulette Intermedium, as well as compositions from her upcoming ESP Worldwide release, Beyond Music. Joining Legere will be her band, the Hot Hunks, featuring Eric Klaasted (James Chance, Dicky Betts and Johnny Winters) on bass and Hector Lopez (Tito Puente) on drums.

Legere’s concert will feature what she calls “North American Music,” a style that explores the common denominator -- the “root sonic gestalt” in her words -- of all American musics, including Cajun, soul, Cuban, Brazilian, Native American, African American and European-American.

“Improvisation is a large part of our auditory dynamism and we encourage
amateur recordings and videos,” said Legere. “Feel free to capture what is always a one of a kind performance.”

Legere will also incorporate texts drawn from her recent study of Lynn Margulis’s “New Biology,” including the “composite symbiogenesis theory” that claims all life stems from a 3.5 billion-year-old mother cell called a thermoplast.

“That is my theme,” said Legere. “We are all related.”

Legere will also perform several songs she wrote about friends who were killed in the September 11 terrorist attack in New York, including one called “Nobody F---s with Erika and Gets Away with it for Very Long.”

For information and reservations for the workshop and the March 2 performance, call 413-298-5252.

Legere says the workshop at IS 183 is intended to break down the “apartheid of the disciplines” that pigeonholes artists as specialists in one field.

“This was something that happened in the eighteenth century,” said Legere, an eastern Massachusetts native who studied at Vassar College and the New England Conservatory. “The Age of Enlightenment and Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution --- this was the age of specialization and alienation.

“For people in India and Africa and China, however, art is not separate from experience. It is one of the many things you do that gives pleasure and provides intoxication and gives harmony to the tribal group.

“And there’s not this self-consciousness of ‘I am an artist, I am different.’ It’s just part of the fabric of the social community. This splitting of art into categories, what I call the ‘apartheid of the disciplines,’ it’s got to stop. We’ve got to get it together.”

“It is in this ability, agility and attitude that Phoebe at once reflects and embodies the mission and programming drive at IS183,” said Lucy Holland Nader, executive director of IS183, “the belief that through the artmaking process we all have the opportunity to remember, practice and refine our powers of creation, to increase our capacity to respond to the unpredictable, to enliven and recreate our relationship with the predictable.”

Phoebe Legere is a walking representation of an interdisciplinary being, or what used to be called “a Renaissance man.” An accomplished musician and composer, she did her graduate work in jazz improvisation and harmony with John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. She has several avant-garde operas to her credit, including “The Magic Accordion,” “In the Twilight of a Dying Civilization,” and “Good Clean Fun.” Her play, “Hello Mrs. President,” garnered her a Jerome Foundation Grant, and the Cleveland Chamber Symphony performed “The Water Clown,” a piece of music she co-wrote with Morgan Powell.

Legere is equally at home as a vocalist and pianist singing the blues, interpreting jazz standards cabaret-style, rocking out on guitar, and accompanying herself playing Cajun-style or French chansons on accordion. She has acted in several films, including “Mondo New York,” “The Marquis de Slime” and “King of New York,” and her recordings include Last Tango in Bubbleland, Swingalicious, 4 Nurses of the Apocalypse, and Blue Curtain, which ranked number one on this critic’s list of the best recordings of the year 2000.

It doesn’t end there, however. Her website,, includes a gallery of her oil paintings, including lush landscapes and provocative self-portraits. Her paintings have been displayed in several New York City galleries and are in the private collections of Larry Rivers and David Bowie. She recently returned from Tibet, where a film crew followed her on an ethnomusicological expedition exploring correspondences between Tibetan music and Native American chant.

While she claims descent from a Mayflower family and inherited her last name from French-Canadian ancestors, Legere has recently been exploring her Native American lineage.

“My Native American name is Songbundle, and I incorporate ancient chants and songs from my Algonquin heritage into everything I do,” she said. She has added native instruments to her repertoire, including buffalo drum, buffalo horn, conch shell, native
flute, and deer toes, as well as a Tibetan single-string instrument made from a Phoebe tree. Legere pokes good-natured fun at her mixed ancestry in her song, “Crazy White Trash,” which was a big hit on a few years back.

Legere sees some irony in the fact that the computer, of all inventions, is helping to break down the walls that separate the artistic disciplines.

“By strange coincidence, it’s the computer that’s starting to bring things back into balance with the growth and development of multimedia,” she said.

The acceptance of multimedia art and performance as anything more than the dabbling of dilettantes has been a long time coming for Legere, who wrote her thesis at Vassar on “Total Art Synthesis” several decades ago.

She credits her parents, who were both artists, with giving her the tools and instilling her with the enthusiasm for wide-ranging creative expression.

“My father was multi-talented, and so when you talk about being taken seriously, I never was very concerned about people’s perceptions of me,” she said. “I’ve always realized that artists are traveling at the speed of light and if you do anything important it will take the public a long time to catch up.

“My parents taught me this,” she said. “They were both artists. They started me with an academic program in oil painting at five. I was composing at six and playing piano professionally at nine. It was very obvious that music and art resided in me. And I quickly showed my ability to act and sing and play an instrument.

“It’s also what interests me. I’ve always know who I am in that way, so I never waited for other people to say ‘we’re going to take you seriously.’ I take myself seriously.

“Now, having said that, it is as a woman that you are dismissed. If people wish not to hear my message -- and my message is one of love and beauty -- if they don’t want to hear that, there are many ways they can dismiss me, and they’ve used them all. You can dismiss me because I have blonde hair, legs and breasts, or because one of the seven instruments I play is accordion, or because I’m not on TV enough.

“Dismiss me if you wish, but if you want to hear my message then come to me. I’m not waiting for anyone else to take me seriously. I’m dead serious.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 14, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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