Shattered Identity in Tiger West’s “Mirror”

Tiger West, live in preformance. / Aricka M. Davis

I entered the Leonard and Claire Tow Theater at around 1:30 on Thursday, October 10. As I made my way to the box office, I received a text from Aricka (one of the Vanguard’s wonderful photographers) informing me that the performance was, in fact, in the lobby. My expectations of what I was about to see were already, partly, shattered.
Tiger West’s Mirror, took as its stage the first few marble steps of the lobby’s staircase, in front of the large glass north facing wall. Organized by the Brooklyn College Composers’ Collective, Mirror was the first iteration of a two part series of concerts. The performance offered to its viewers, not all of which sat in the audience, a chillingly intimate confluence of sounds and visuals. West constructed a mise-en-scène of sorts, effectively bending and opening up the meaning of liminal spaces—lobbies don’t typically host this kind of thing. 

Mirror looks deeply into the many filters that people often peer into or see themselves through. These spaces (think, for example, the many Instagram filters and also the platform itself) are what West strives to get our minds to question. The scéne encompassed a few terracotta flower pots, a plastic grocery bag of soil, tall bundles of grass, twigs and other organic matter; a dark purple plush armchair turned away from the audience; and in the center of it all, a bluetooth speaker resting on a table waiting to be activated. In full view of passers-bys on their way to and from class, the seated audience waited for the action to start. 

West, an artist and composition major here at Brooklyn, calls the subject of Mirror a “creature,” which, albeit played by her, is not far off from the impression that her body language exudes throughout the twenty-six minute run time. West walks out onto the raised steps of the lobby, clad in denim overalls and a loose short sleeve denim shirt. Covering her face is a white paper-mâché mask with feathers attached and roughly cut holes, as if by a child, for her eyes and mouth. Here and there, x’s of red tape adhered more feathers on her arms. As she took a seat in the plush chair and a series of eerie sounds begin to emulate from the speaker, I could confirm that this was, for sure, not what I was expecting. 

The goal was to “Disrupt the status quo, the quotidian assumption of what we assume when we walk into a space, that we know what’s happening, and then to be met with this kind of stream of consciousness thing going on,” says the artist.

Originally, the piece was to include speakers in the bathroom of the building in order to further disrupt the normative presumptions of location, of where we find ourselves. Being limited by time and other factors, the performance was, in some ways, confined to the lobby with only two speakers, (the other one situated behind the audience). This all this wasn’t known to those watching, whether seated or peering in from outside the glass wall–the piece breathed enough new life into the site, no need for more speakers. But as many people stopped on the walkway and stared in awe (some smiling, some looking genuinely confused), West’s piece still clearly met some of its initial goals. 

From the ambient field recordings emerges a clear voice, “I come from silence/my lover comes from a long line of birds.” The lyrics, like this one, were recorded on the artist’s phone last summer as she walked through the woods which surround her home upstate. She calls these spoken bits “sound journals,” and they range from conjuring a sense of the startlingly intimate, the political, and at times the absurd. Some of the words spoken are repeated and manipulated until they take the form of a synthesizer more than a human voice. Much of the voice manipulation included in Mirror’s score is reminiscent of Laurie Anderson’s work, where the human voice is altered by reverberation or replayed over until it begins to take new shape as well.

“The priority focus is that those windows, looking out onto the stream of students coming in and out right there, just got my gears turning. How those windows are a sort of screen and mirror, and I just really took off with the idea of that. Screens, screens, screens, there are screens everywhere!” says West. 

Partly, what makes Mirror so enticing, is that there are parts of simple piano and guitar chords which are played over and around the more experimental elements. This makes for a contrast which is what West strives for both sonically, visually, and in the content of the piece. As we see the “creature” move about on stage, it invokes that our subject is lost and trying to find itself among these differing sounds, objects, and the faces of the crowd and beyond. 

The screens are not just what we have on our phones, but all around us as well, Mirror heightens a sense of spatial and sonic awareness. Seen most notably when the “creature” halts the ballerina-esque movements and eventually takes a seat and looks head on into the crowd, confronting us and making us confront it as well. Then, the “creature” begins to remove articles of clothing and buries them with soil in the flower pots, finally, we recognize the space as perhaps not ours; that we are looking intimately into someone, or something, else’s interior which beforehand was simply a lobby. A space we think we know well is thus changed. 

So how did this all even come about? Why were my expectations of a performance from the Brooklyn College Composers’ Collective smashed so poetically? The answer lies, of course, with Tiger West, but also with the president of the Collective, Marcello Di Russo. 

Di Russo, who moved to New York from Italy in 2015, has held office within the Composers’ Collective since last year. He has driven the club to its most ambitious projects. Some of which include organizing the recording of an album with the Xanthoria String Quartet, a performance at Bushwick’s H0l0, City Winery in Manhattan, and now this two part concert series. 

“I believe in a mixed genre-future. We’re moving towards a world where boundaries are falling, changing” says Di Russo when asked about the Collective’s interest in including an interdisciplinary approach to performance. The Collective has already worked with the Sonic Arts Students, the Pasta (music performing club) and the NYFTSA (film club) to name a few. 

He also believes strongly in the power of an artistic community to outlast the time spent at school. Di Russo wants the Collective to act as more than just an organization which puts on concerts, but also as a network within and beyond school.  Like Mirror, this talk of a community is really all about reimagining the spaces that we find ourselves in. What could be just a club for those who compose music already encompasses so many other disciplines.

 Di Russo is adamant about his belief that the connections we make in school can and should last outside of it–we shouldn’t think of our time in school (or a lobby) as existing in a vacuum. So, the next time you see a masked figure prancing in a lobby, in the courtyard, or in a classroom, check it out; see what’s going on, ask a few questions. 

The Composers’ Collective will have another performance, the second and last of the series, on Thursday, October 17 in the Leonard and Claire Tow Theater. This act is set to showcase works by Andrew Porter, Connor Whelan, and others.