Friday March 5, 1993
he was a boy, the Conceptual artist David Greenberger started filling
a notebook with rescued comments, small things people said that nobody
would have remembered. "I was interested in the way overheard
on a particular poignancy and power, " he said.
then, word-scavenging was just one aspect of Mr. Greenberger's
creative vision. Little did he know that after art school the preservation
of the quotidian would become a central activity in his life. But
hadn't expected to meet the folks at the Duplex.
Duplex was a nursing home in suburban Boston where Mr. Greenberger
worked as activities director from the late 1970s until the mid-80s.
convinced that their typical recreational routine offered by many
homes provided any real stimulation, he began a newsletter;, called
Duplex Planet, filled with residents' responses to his own sometimes
outrageous, sometimes mundane, questions.
answers eventually became the basis for a series of artistic
endeavors beyond the Duplex Planet: several records, monologues and
comic book, all of which Mr. Greenberger oversees. He and the pianist
composer Terry Adams will bring one such offshoot, "The Duplex
Hour," to the Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn
a performance on Sunday afternoon.
residents occasionally responded to Mr. Greenberger's questions
with reminiscences, he was determined not to gather oral history.
preferred to stimulate his subjects' imaginations, not leave them
age is too often viewed as the time when you sit back and relive your
glory years,: said Mr. Greenberger, who is 39. "Old people get
repositories of oral history. But if that's the only way in which
them, you're cutting short your own ability to age in a healthy way."
for the Whimsical
of talking to his subjects about what they once were and did, Mr.
Greenberger concentrated on uncovering who they were in the moment,
these older people still possessed inquisitive and sometimes whimsical
sketching in these characters for an audience who normally is no tin
touch with them," he said. "You get to know a person through
his or her
sense of humor, pathos, outrage and surprise: those qualities, not
historical facts, establish an emotional range."
Greenberger soon discovered that his artist friends were much more
interested in the Duplex Planet than were the Duplex residents themselves,
who usually threw it away after a brief glance. He began to take
subscriptions, and after 13 years and 125 issues, Duplex Planet still
arrives at the homes of about 500 readers. The skewed poetry of one
resident, Ernest Noyes Brookings, who began writing at Mr. Greenberger's
instigation, has received musical settings by XTC, Fred Frith, Yo
Hal Willner, and the Young Fresh Fellows, on what will eventually
Planet Illustrated, a comic book series recently begun by
Fantagraphics Press, in Seattle, features illustrations by noted artists
like Dan Clowes, Terry LaBan and Roberta Gregory. And Mr. Greenberger
himself has collaborated on an album, soon n to be released on the
label, featuring music by Mr. Adams, who plays keyboard, the former
Spoonful leader, John Sebastian (who plays banjo) and the Sun Ra Arkestra
horn players David Gordon and Tyrone Hill. Mr. Greenberger and Mr.
(whose main affiliation is with the much-loved rock band N.R.B.Q.)
bring music from this album to St. Ann's on Sunday.
music sustains the mood; it lets the stories sink in," Mr. Greenberger
said. "The structure doesn't resemble anything else I know. Sometimes
there'll just be a chord or a glissando, and then a story; sometimes
there'll be a whole little piece of music in between monologues."
Adams said the unusual construction of "The Duplex Planet Hour"
its creators to transcend the narrow thematic range that often plagues
pairings of pop music and spoken word. "We wanted to avoid the
jazz things we've heard in the past, in which the musicians are often
insensitive to what the speakers are saying," he said. "There's
moods within David's material, and those jazz projects just seem to
one mood. This is more severe . It doesn't just chug along."
Greenberger and Mr. Adams are longtime friends, and the Duplex scribe
has illustrated several of NRBQ's album covers. After seeing the theatrical
version of Mr. Greenberger's material in Chicago, Mr. Adams was eager
write music to match the verbal and imaginative acrobatics of the
home residents. "It was quadraphonic technicolor, just wonderful,"
Adams said. "It's like writing music for life. It just covers
tales of the Duplex, and those Mr. Greenberger has continued to gather
at what he calls "elderly meal sites" since the home's closure
in 1987, are
modern-day versions of Chaucer's reports from the road to Canterbury;
can seem nonsensical, but sometimes resonate with wry humor and startling
insight. "If you are an old man and you go into a bar in pajamas,
will buy you drinks," a Duplex resident, Francis McElroy, once
Greenberger, and his simple sentiment, pulled out of context, offers
glimpse inside the world of a clever man whose age makes everyone
him of infirmity.
Duplex stories often possess this unsettling combination of wisdom
disconnectedness, representing the mix of vitality and decline that
daily experience of their tellers. Mr. Greenberger hopes that the
he has gathered will remind people that growing older isn't the same
dying. "There's such a premium on youth; it's come to mean that
aging is a
negative thing," he said. "It seems like an incredible waste
of energy for
people to go, 'Oh God, I'm turning 30.' There's so much else to consider,
stuff you might be able to do something about."
he points out, age may change the body, but the essential person
remains. "I'm fascinated by the fact that you can grow older
and feel like
the same person you were when you were younger," he said. "There's
something that carries forward, no matter what. That's an amazing
Duplex Planet Hour" featuring David Greenberger and Terry Adams,
place at the Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity, 157 Montague
Brooklyn Heights. Tickets are $15 for reserved seating; $13 for unreserved.
Also on the bill, Bob Neuwirth will improvise a "diary of the
Jeff Buckley will present a "passion story in song." The
program begins at
4 P.M. Information: (718)858-2424