The avant-garde classical music of The Experimental Playground Ensemble saunters somewhere between the grit of punk rock and the order of a traditional orchestra. The Colorado composers clash cellos, electric guitars, accordions and video manipulation on music sheets that look so artistic and abstract they could be hung on gallery walls -- and, in fact, have been. TEPE describes itself as "the left wing of music."
TEPE was formed in 2001 with alumni from the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music. Faculty member Conrad Kehn decided that Denver needed a professional chamber ensemble dedicated to performing works from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The tunes of modern-day tone tweakers like John Cage, Steve Reich and John Zorn can sound as ambient as a rainstorm or as subtle as a train wreck. Unlike many classical composers, most of these contemporary creators are still alive.
TEPE prefers the experimental to the cliche, staging the strange soundscapes that have influenced artists such as Frank Zappa, Philip Glass and concept rockers King Crimson. But TEPE is also a showcase for its members' own creative compositions. "TEPE was formed to make sure that modern composers are being played," says Kehn. "We bring excitement, beauty and danger to the concert hall."
Go With the Flow Big River is out of the mainstream. TUES, 5/10
Mark Twain's enduring tales about life on the Mississippi River have long been staples of American culture. The stories remain relevant today, in part because beneath the surface accounts of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn's travels flow deeper observations, including an examination of U.S. race relations during that era.
Using this as a starting point, California's Deaf West Theatre created a sign-language version of one of these classics, titled Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which led to the Broadway touring show that opens tonight at the Buell Theatre. The production blends both signing and the spoken word, as well as music and lyrics by Grammy winner Roger Miller and a script by William Hauptman (working from Twain's novels).
"Every signed part has a voice," explains Jenny Schiavone, spokeswoman for Denver Center Attractions, which brought Big Riverto Denver. "So while Huck is signing, the narrator, representing Mark Twain, is off to the side, speaking." This gives the performance another dimension, she says, with the hand signs as choreographed as a ballet. But the innovations don't end there. Having players from Deaf West in the production allows Big River to expand on the theme of racial division by exploring the clash between the deaf and the hearing cultures.
Big River runs through May 22 at the Buell in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Call 303-893-9582 or log on to www.denvercenter.org for tickets, $20 to $60. -- Ernie Tucker