A ‘Graphic’ Concert: ‘Black Violet’

Combining music with pictures and stories is nothing new, but the multimedia project Black Violet does it in a way that’s pretty unusual. It’s both a series of classical music concerts (performed by Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble) and a serialized graphic novel (by Ezra Clayton Daniels). The project got under way last night (Oct. 6) at the Chicago Cultural Center with the first of three “acts.” 5HE (as the chamber group calls itself for short) played music by Johannes Brahms, Walter Piston, Jonathan Keren, Heitor Villa Lobos and Greg Simon, while a series of comic-book-style drawings about the Black Plague striking London in the 17th century were projected on a screen behind the musicians.

In a way, the experience was similar to watching an animated film with a live soundtrack, except that the pictures were not actually animated. The protagonist of this story is Violet, a black cat who’s trying to survive on the streets of London at a time when people superstitiously believed that black cats were spreading the plague. Violet and the other characters speak in cartoon bubbles, so watching the story unfold on the screen felt like reading a book.

What about the music? As with just about any combination of instrumental music with pictures or stories, it’s hard to say what precisely the music has to do with the images or narrative, other than setting a tempo or creating a mood. The music seemed appropriate for the story, even if it didn’t offer any direct commentary on Violet and her travails. Some of the pieces that 5HE performed were split apart. The various movements of Brahms’ Horn Trio Opus 40 were interspersed among the works by other composers, for example. I especially enjoyed the delicate, playful flute-and-bassoon duets in Villa Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasilerias” No. 6. Piston’s Divertimento for 9 Instruments gave the large ensemble a chance to show what it can do with a full array of players. And Keren’s “Hungary Is Far Away” and Simon’s “Kites at Seal Rock” added a more contemporary inventiveness to the concert.

Black Violet will be performed again at 8 p.m. Thursday (Oct. 8) at SPACE in Evanston. Then comes Act 2 (7 p.m. Feb. 1 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 8 p.m. Feb. 4 at SPACE) and Act 3 (7 p.m. April 5 and 8 p.m. April 8 at SPACE). The shows at the Chicago Cultural Center are free, but tickets at SPACE are $20. I hope to catch the rest of this series — to find out what happens to Violet, and also to hear some wonderful music.

Watch a “trailer” for Black Violet.

And speaking of shows that combination music with pictures and stories, this Saturday and Sunday, Califone is playing a live soundtrack at the Museum of Contemporary Art for a film by band leader Tim Rutili, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers.