Kings (2017)


Kings (World Premier)

The Kings puppets are made from carved ebony, with sterling silver controllers. They stand about 5 inches tall. I didn't know any of the kings--except Tut--before I began work on this project. And I started work around the new year, with the change in president giving me a cynical view of male leaders. I dug in to see who these people were beyond Atahualpa, the last Sapa Inca before the Spanish arrival, Tutankhamen, the boy pharaoh, Brian Boru, high king of Ireland, and Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor of China. Learning about these men required learning about the context in which they existed. The kings finally took on a meaning for me because they were emblematic of a moment in history, more than a man in a crown.

Ultimately, I ended up basing each king on a specific source. For Atahualpa I used a portrait from 1533 done by an employee of Pizzaro. I looked at the black and gold striding Ka statuses of Tut from his tomb. I based Boru on 2002 Irish postage of "Brian Boru: Imperator Scotorum" (figuring they had done the research I was finding too difficult with my google searches). And Huangdi was based on a mural from a Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) tomb.

I had two very clear challenges in creating the performance. The first was to take something very small and make it visible to many people. I took inspiration from aquarium viewing tanks, using a Fresnel lens to magnify. I also couldn't get the Wizard of Oz out of my mind. And something Brian Baumbusch reminded me of, in connection with Lou Harrison and Gamelan music, was Indonesian shadow puppets. The second challenge was to allow the music to remain the focus. So, I scrapped my plans for fight scenes with the kings' nemeses, the swinging swords and scepters, the mass movements of crowds and armies, and the kings' transformation into condors, vultures, lions and dragons. I did try to bring some element of each man--either a moment in their life or something of their essence--to their time on stage.

I want to give thanks to Brian Baumbush for writing this music, and for his willingness to let me give it a go with some puppets, and to Nat Berman for the invitation to collaborate on this project, and to Wild Rumpus for bringing me on the ride, and to Renu Cappelli for lending me her sight and advice.

Niki Ulehla

Music by Brian Baumbusch
Musicians: Wild Rumpus
Wild Rumpus presents Four Kings for Lou Harrison

Friday, May 5, 2017 -- 8PM
The Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist
1661 15th St, San Francisco, CA