A clanking beat slowly grows louder, a mechanical leviathan summoned by the two figures onstage, dressed in black. Electric guitar and keyboards surge; one musician plucks a heavily distorted ukulele. And a WWI soldier thrusts his bayonet into the side of Jesus.
Disturbing, perhaps, but not impious, and the most controversial element isn't the rock band, but Maxo Vanka, creator of the social-realist religious murals of Millvale's St. Nicholas Church.
Last Sunday, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts hosted the premiere of two works created in response to the murals, by contemporary Pittsburgh musicians Action Camp and writer Justin Hopper (an occasional CP contributor). The final performance takes place Sun., Nov. 14, at the church itself.
The collaboration is the launch of Hi-REZ, a cross-platform arts initiative cofounded by Hopper and Alexi Morrissey. "Our job is to make connections and get out of the way," Morrissey says.
Hopper introduces Vanka's work to the crowd, sitting at small tables and lounges, as the mural images are projected nearby.
When Vanka painted the murals, in 1937 and 1941, "war was the only topic possible for a European artist," notes Hopper, while economic struggle was the only option for an American artist. The Croatian-born Vanka, who served as a Red Cross ambulance driver before emigrating to New York City in 1934, was both.
Hopper then reads his seven-part poem, "based on a response to the murals, then run through whatever is the opposite of a filter," he says. He draws on conversations with local people, period newspapers and arcane texts, looking for lines that resonate, and uses imagery both historically rich and concrete, describing tree roots cracked "like the Lawrenceville sidewalks after a harsh winter," and a rat, "clawing at the egg tempera paint."
Action Camp, the duo of Bengt Alexsander and Maura Jacob, performs a seven-part suite, much of it written in the church over seven weeks. The atmospheric pieces begin gently -- spectral piano and synths, waltz time -- but climax in howling electric guitar and Jacob's dramatic voice.
But is it enough for Hi-REZ to just bring artists together and get out of the way? Do these disparate elements by Hopper, Action Camp and Vanka ultimately connect?
The bigger stretch is Vanka's murals, which link the Croatian countryside, Pennsylvania mill-town residents and WWI to a religion begun thousands of years ago in the Middle East. But perhaps we need art and religion precisely to blur locations and eras, and replace them with metaphors that deepen our experience.
As one audience member said, "I could just feel, feel everything. And that was the most overpowering ukulele piece I have ever heard."
Hi-REZ Maxo Vanka Impressions. 3-5 p.m., Sun., Nov. 14. St. Nicholas Church, Millvale. www.vankamurals.com