Showed Up: Matt Marks' "Post-Christian Nihilist Pop Opera" at St. Mark's Church

by Seth Colter Walls

How much time will you give an unfamiliar work of art? When I was six or seven, I complained straight away about the slow narrative trot of The Silence, prompting my father to retort: “It’s Bergman. You give a master at least 15 minutes before you start fidgeting.” But obviously we don’t give young bucks (who aren’t in the canon) quite the same attention-span leash. And then what if you’re giving some new art “a try” on the internet? My sense is “15 seconds” may be the stick-it-out-or-fidget Rubicon. Which is to say, if you only give the above music video from a new “post-Christian nihilist pop opera” 15 seconds of your time, you might think it “meh.” Give it three and a half minutes, though, and I suspect there’s a much better chance you’ll be wowed. For me, the coolest turn begins at the 2:18 mark, and climaxes with the chord that hits at 2:35.

“I Don’t Have Any Fun On My Own” comes from Matt Marks’ album The Little Death, Vol. 1, which is now in the midst of a two-week workshop as a stage work at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village, courtesy of the Incubator Arts Project. (The video above was directed by the Satan’s Pearl Horses collective.)

Is this thingy an opera? Well, first off, it’s only an hour long — but, that fact aside, the correct answer would be “no.” Is it musical theater? Certainly not by any traditional yardstick. But The Little Death, Vol. 1 is catchy, conceptual and rambunctious — so call it whatever you like. Either way, the baseline “story” here (such as it is), involves two characters named Boy and Girl, who are having trouble balancing the carnal with the godly. Over the course of 11 songs, they push and pull against each other, their respective desires and philosophies, and — as singers — the genre divides between Christian Pop, old-school hymns and frantic electro.

It’s not a completely finished work by any means. As the title suggests, we’re only seeing one part of the narrative. Also: the most suspenseful action happens near the front of the piece, when Boy shoots Girl, before the story leapfrogs back in time to their first meeting. (Presumably Vol. II will show us what happens after the gunshots.) As a stage work, The Little Death is clearly still gestating. Nothing wrong with that; the Incubator Arts Project in fact exists to usher works-in-progress along. (And even so, the direction, by Rafael Gallegos, contains a few well-wrought surprises.)

So, fine, these kids are all still figuring everything out. But that actually turns out to be the best argument for spending your time with them. Marks himself is a founding member of the new-music Alarm Will Sound crew, and has recently been working with the Dirty Projectors to arrange their piece The Getty Address for the stage. That is to say: he’s got skills across a pleasing range of disciplines. Here, even when I was confronted with moments or gestures that I found awkward or too call-attention-y, I respected his overall compositional attack.

Equally impressive is his co-vocalist Mellissa Hughes. I saw her sing in Louis Andriessen’s De Staat at Carnegie’s new music space a couple months back, and with the Signal ensemble at this year’s Bang On A Can festival, but those were both stand-and-deliver performances behind sheet music. So I actually wasn’t prepared for the strength of her physical performance in The Little Death. When she gutted out the the familiar tune “He Touched Me” while wearing a virginal wedding dress and sashaying toward Boy, Hughes came across as confused in the most delectable of ways. But when she turned it into a degraded, Madonna-at-the-1984-VMAs pole dance, everyone in the tiny St. Mark’s Church gym seemed under her crypto-erotic-religious spell. Developmental hiccups aside, I can always make time for that.

The Little Death, Vol. 1 plays four more times this week, from Wednesday through Saturday.

Seth Colter Walls has a day job.