Ben Neill’s revelatory environmental composition Manitoga somehow manages to transport you to the place where you already are. It is named for the location at which the work is intended to be performed, exclusively: Manitoga, the idyllic-but-subtly-surreal Russell Wright Design Center in Garrison. On this secluded and picturesque site, where an unconventional and ideologically intentional home overlooks tiered woodlands and cliffs and a deep, purling quarry pool, the significant 20th-century functional art designer Wright crafted his own stunning vision of the integration of nature and the technologies of living. Manitoga has since become a hopping gallery, museum and venue, but – while excellent exhibits and performances come and go – the work on display here is always principally the place itself.
The internationally decorated avant-garde (and club-scene) composer/trumpeter/technologist Neill defers to the place on several levels in Manitoga. This piece for brass quintet augmented with electronics decentralizes the ensemble. The players are scattered in thoughtful ways throughout the immediate grounds at Manitoga and in motion (a novel approach to mixing, or perhaps the original approach). They begin invisible to the audience (itself scattered throughout Manitoga’s many different alcoves, natural terraces and vantagepoints) and gradually converge upon a centralized performance space. Neil thus plays the environment at Manitoga – its acoustic and resonant properties and its multiple sonic and visual perspectives – as an instrument itself.
While Neill plays his famous home-built mutantrumpet – an acoustic/digital hybrid horn and controller that does many mysterious things –the other ensemble members play horns tailored for this and only this piece and venue: alternate-universe brass instruments called phonemophones fashioned in the shape of the letters required to spell “Manitoga” by sculptor Carol Szymanski. But the area-resident Neill speaks to the immediate environment in musical as well as typographical ways. The pattern-oriented, Minimalist composition imitates the colloquy of birds and insects that he hears on the river in the evening, even echoing the martial brass sounds wafting over the river from West Point and sending them back, demilitarized and integrated into the sonic ephemera of the environment.
If this kind of composition sounds more like philosophy than music to you – a charge (or compliment) often leveled at Neill’s mentors and collaborators John Cage and LaMonte Young – it will only take a few moments of listening to realize that, no, this is beautiful and intelligent music in the hybrid electro, Postminimalist mode, composed by a recognized master thereof. It is also deeply personal, subjective music that explores the physical and metaphysical shared space between the performers and the audience.
For the second time, Neill leads a performance of Manitoga at Manitoga on Saturday, October 1 at 4 p.m. This performance is the yearly Manitoga benefit event. Admission costs $45 general admission, $35 for Manitoga members and $20 for children age 18 and under – and, if I might uncharacteristically say so, worth every penny for this kind of heightened experience. A $125 Benefit Ticket includes admission to a private reception with Ben Neill. A $500 Benefit Performance Committee donation wins you two benefit tickets, plus listing as member of the Committee. Tickets are available in advance only, and they can be purchased online at www.visitmanitoga.org. Manitoga is located at 584 Route 9D in Garrison.