Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble’s Gray Cat and the Flounder Friday and Saturday
By Peter Alexander Oct. 1 at 5:10 p.m.
The Gray Cat and the Flounder may be the only musical show you will ever see that includes a song about the Dewey Decimal System.
The show, which will be presented Friday and Saturday (Oct. 4 and 5) by the Dairy Arts Center and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, celebrates the lives of Joe Newcomer (the flounder) and his wife Bernadette Callory (the gray cat), who was a librarian. Newcomer, an amateur cartoonist and longtime supporter of PNME, commissioned The Gray Cat in Callory’s memory. His cartoons, collected over their 46-year marriage, are used within the performance.
The show was created by composer Kieren MacMillan together with PNME director Kevin Noe. PNME presented The Gray Cat and the Flounder this past summer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in multi-media performances featuring diverse musical styles, animation, shadow puppetry, spoken narration, and state-of-the art binaural sound design. Reviews from the festival hailed the show as “strikingly original” and “exceptionally uplifting.”
In a home performances, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette critic Elizabeth Bloom called the show “difficult to classify. Is it an opera?” she wrote. “A musical? A chamber music concert? A children’s show, filled with puppetry and cartoons?”
It is certainly more than a children’s show The first half is funny, quirky, sometimes downright silly, but the second half faces the loss of Newcomer’s life partner, ending with a performance of Callory’s favorite song, Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” which Newcomer sang to her on her deathbed.
The Boulder performance is presented by PNME and the Dairy Arts Center in partnership with the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Entrepreneurship Center for Music. Professor Jeffrey Nytch, the director of the center, has long been associated with PNME.
He got his start in music administration as executive director of the group, a position that ultimately led him to the Entrepreneurship Center at CU. He has maintained his relationship with PNME, serving as board president, and also performs as the narrator of The Gray Cat, a role he filled in Edinburgh.
“It’s a complete blast,” Nytch says of his role as narrator. “The show is filled with puns, as a tribute to both of them—they were both really into puns. And so there’s a whole bunch of really groan-worthy puns.”
But at the midway point, after an absurdly funny, over-the-top shadow-puppet ballet, the mood suddenly changes. “We do a very quick shift,” Nytch says. “The show from then on out takes a much more serious turn. You get the audience laughing to set them up for something more serious. And so the end of the show is very cathartic.”
The musical styles range from pure Broadway to the Stephen Foster arrangements, to pieces that are more modern—“unmistakably of our time, although not especially crazy, or crunchy,” Nytch says. And yes, it includes a piece about the Dewey Decimal System.
“Bernadette was a librarian, we wanted to in some way to celebrate that part of who she was,” Nytch says. “There’s a piece for marimba and solo clarinet and spoken word, where the text is taken from Dewey’s own introduction to his system. The music uses the numerological and organizational structures of the Dewey Decimal System to create the musical material. It’s an absolutely brilliant piece!”
The most innovative aspect of the show may be the binaural sound design. The sound is transmitted from the stage through a binaural microphone to the headphones worn by each member of the audience. “We travel with the cabling and the infrastructure, which has to be laid down in advance,” Nytch explains. “We have 180 (headphones), so we only sell 180 tickets.
“What a binaural microphone does is recreate sounds the way our ears hear sound. The microphone is actually shaped like a human head and has microphones in each of the ears. You hear not just direction, where it is coming from, but also proximity. I do a little demo at the beginning where I go right up in the right ear of the microphone and whisper gently, and you would swear that I was whispering in your right ear.
“It creates this incredibly saturated sound world that’s unlike anything, I guarantee you, that you’ve ever experienced.”
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The Gray Cat and the Flounder
Music by Kieren MacMillan; story by Kevin Noe and Kieren MacMillan
Performed by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 4 and 5
Gordon Gamm Theater, Dairy Arts Center
Tickets: Here or call 303-444-7328
NB: Edited to correct typos and punctuation errors 11:20 p.m. Oct. 1.