Viva Vienna kicks off Vienna theme at Mass MoCA
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., May 26, 2002) – The Hunter Center at Mass MoCA was turned into Club Vienna on Saturday night, when the cultural laboratory kicked off its main summer exhibition, “Uncommon Denominator: New Art from Vienna,” with a multi-faceted, multi-media dance party.

Perhaps the signature moment of the evening was the very first, when downtown’s avant-garde jazz band Sex Mob opened the evening with its wry tribute to that Viennese staple, the waltz, in a deconstructed, demented version of Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube.”

In typical Sex Mob style, the piece began with fidelity, with the New York-based quartet, augmented by Viennese saxophonist Max Nagl, playing one of classical music’s greatest hits the way most people know it.

That is, until they stopped playing it that way. Soon enough, the piece morphed into Sex Mob territory. The band -- comprised of leader Steven Bernstein on slide trumpet, Briggan Krauss on saxophone, Tony Scherr on acoustic bass and Kenny Wolleson n drums – did its best to keep the waltz beat going, if only for the sake of the many stalwarts on the dance floor who took the imperative to waltz seriously. And the harmonic underpinning of the piece also remained loyal to Strauss’s composition.

But this was “The Blue Danube,” Sex Mob-style, so the musicians took turns improvising solos over the basic rhythmic and harmonic foundation of the tune. Saxophonist Krauss used his turn to shred the melody into a thousand pieces, with Bernstein playing syncopated pickups behind him. Bernstein used his turn to take the Viennese waltz to New Orleans for a second-line funeral march. Nagl blew a brighter, sunnier solo over a rhythm by Wolleson that combined the waltz and funk.

Sex Mob revisited the waltz several times during its set – including a waltz version of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” -- which included more typical Sex Mob fare such as James Bond movie music and jazzy versions of pop and rock tunes including Stephen Stills’s “For What It’s Worth.” The musicians were great, if a little lost on the enormous stage of the Hunter Center, where they seemed disconnected from the audience, if not each other.

The DJ/VJ collaborative Blow Up! brought the evening to a close with its site-specific “Blow Up! Vienna” program. Seated onstage behind an array of computer terminals and turntables, the video artists from MVD and sonic collagists from Swipe mixed stock imagery, including newsreel footage and commercial television, with tailor-made shots from “Uncommon Denominator” and local scenery atop the relentless rhythms of contemporary dance-club music.

The video footage was sent to huge screens and TV monitors all around the room, and dancers gamely kept boogieing for several hours to the somewhat monotonous, indistinguished beats. Other than the images from MoCA’s art show, it wasn’t manifestly clear what any of this had to do with contemporary Vienna, other than apparently the fact that this is the sort of nightclub scene one is likely to find there: cold, mechanistic, robotic and devoid of emotion.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 28, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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