Sunday, July 05, 2009

12th Night: Layerian Pipes in Illyria

It's an hour before we'll be called to places and Christopher Layer sits next to me in the dressing room, tuning, warming up his Uilleann pipes. I have discovered that there is no greater instrument to make my tennitus pop off with a chorus of Ode to Joy than Chris' pipes. The ringing in my ear mixes with the otherworldy sound of Chris' instrument in ways intoxicating and excruciating. Some nights I cannot take it and have to leave the room and get some aspirin. Other nights I succumb to the sounds, jump to the center of the dressing room and do my Fred Sanford jig-dance.

The other night before our pre-show warm up, Steve Curtis commented that he and Chris were not in tune.

"These pipes," Chris said smiling." You play them in tune."

I like Chris' use of the word play.

Steve said that when Hem got a list of recommended musicians be a part of 12th Night, he was handed 2 pages of pipe players. Chris was nowhere on the list. This doesn't surprise me in the least. In the words of the madly used Malvolio, I don't think Chris is of the element of the musicians who get on lists. He is his own walking list, a superstar in some circles, the only instrumentalist in the western hemisphere licensed to play a number of compositions written for the uilleann pipes. Christopher Layer hails from Lafayette, Indiana, an internationally regarded flute and pipes player. Chris exudes a personal journey every bit as musical, specific, and idiosyncratic as the pipes he plays. He is a list of one. When The Public tracked Chris down, he was in New Orleans. The producers had to wait until he came back from Jazz Fest to audition him.

Our first 12th Night music rehearsal wasn't 10 minutes old before Christopher demonstrated without trying that he knew more than anybody in the room about Irish music. I later learned that Leslie our flautist showed up to the same rehearsal surprised to see that her teacher was playing the bagpipes in the band - again, "Ladies and Gentlemen, Christopher Layer... " When we looked at the pictures of Old World locales that had been posted for inspiration in LuEsther Hall, Chris said, "I've played a concert in that castle." No one was surprised.

One night early in rehearsal we were on dinner break. Chris asked a guy in line at Famiglia if his "Blackwater" golf shirt was a joke. The guy did not have a sense of humor. "You can't come to this city and not be social," Chris said. "Plus Blackwater is so fucking horrible." Chris didn't learn much about me over that dinner. I was too interested in what he had to say.

"New York City is going to have to figure out what they're doing about the water," said Christopher Layer. "It's the real problem facing us now."

Chris has on more than one occasion thanked his fellow Illyriacs for putting up with him and his ways. The apology is totally unnecessary and to me, reeks of the sad fact that if the artists roaming the world haven't had to homoginize their manners in order to play together and get on lists, they have probably suffer too many expectations of civility. I don't think anyone in this cast hasn't walked around for at least a day convinced that no one likes them. (I've clocked in at least a week with such a condition.) But I think this feeling results from the priviledge of actually having been given freedom to work in a collaboration where no one has dramatically drawn lines with their fellow artists. There is no music director for the Illyriacs. Everything that has happened has been the result of combined input from everyone involved, and everyone agreeing to listen to one another and solve the problems as a group...and we're still getting along! I guess sometimes apologizing is a good way to check in and be reassured.

Besides, Chris has a knack of keeping his gift of gab interesting, not to mention useful. Everyone from the Hem composers to me (playing the bodhran for the first time) would perk up our ears when Chris made a suggestion or, when directed at me, a wisecrack.

One day, looking at the box of bright colored percussion instruments I'd brought, Chris said, "Did you rob a clown?" He was particularly intolerant of one saucy little instrument I used for a while - a jingly Pier One holiday napkin holder. "It sounds like a candy wrapper!" he said. His initial subtle attempts to get me to put it down didn't work, but eventually I agreed it wasn't the sound.

Then during tech rehearsals, I pulled the offending instrument out once more to hear it for a run through of the finale song. Immediately and before I had a chance to play it, Chris recognized the sound, turned to me and snarled, "I thought we were through with that thing!" It was an unfortunate moment: however much I might have wanted to impress upon Chris the outdoor acoustics and the way I was using the micing to get my colors, I told him that if I could appreciate the sound of him warming the fucking bagpipes, he could be patient while I mixed my sounds.

But Chris and I get along fine in this moment, of course. (In the end I still did not incorporate the jingly napkin holder.)

Chris wrote the funeral melody for 12th Night that reprises as the introduction to "Come Away Death". Some nights, the intro is played so strong that I worry for Raul and Annie who must then work their magic as Orsinio and Viola discussing the trappings of women and love. But everyone rises to the occasion, and Annie punctuates the famous line about "dying even as they to perfection grow" with giddy poignancy, so rock on Layer!

Other nice things about Chris Layer

1- he's an inventive cook.

2 - He's the first person to have recognized the impending lunar cycle upon our production (which just completed with a mind blowing full moon last night.)

3 - a mockingbird lives on Chris' street. It has made national news for mimicing the car alarms.

4 - Chris is a nudist ("especially when I'm on a raft going through the Grand Canyon"). On his personal blog, there used to be a picture of him playing a flute on a rocky waterfall, looking like a mancicle. The lantern in the background of the picture would make you think the photo was taken at Turtle Pond behind the Delacorte Theatre, but it wasn't.

One more Chris moment: before a recent show he was venting about an unsavory turn with one of the ensemble members, and I said, "That's mean spirited."

Without missing a beat, Chris swaggered and said, "I am mean spirited in case you haven't noticed, Ray. Which reminds me. I brought some licorice for J.P.."

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