‘Rooms of Light’ brings many aspects of photography into sharp focus

Jonathan Estabrooks sings one of the songs of "Rooms of Light," with composer Fred Hersch on piano.

Jonathan Estabrooks sings one of the songs of “Rooms of Light,” with composer Fred Hersch on piano.

My parents used to tell me about the days before television, and I tell my daughter about the days before cellphones and computers. But imagine living in the days before photography. There are so many ways photography enters into our lives that we don’t really think about: Family photos, news photos, glamour shots in magazines. The photos that show us what foreign countries — or battlefields, or outer space — look like.

“Rooms of Light: The Life of Photographs: A Song Cycle” — which debuted Thursday at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University as part of the Peak Performances series, and will also be presented through Oct. 18 —  is an attempt to tie together various aspects of photography via songs that range in tone from light and clever to serious and profound.

The music was written by Fred Hersch and the lyrics by Mary Jo Salter; the songs are delivered by five singer-actors — Jonathan Estabrooks, Rebecca Faulkenberry, Kathryn Guthrie, Gabrielle Stravelli and Michael Winther — with backing by the eight-piece Fred Hersch Ensemble, featuring the composer on piano. No actual photos are shown, though the singer-actors do have some cameras and other props.

The songs basically constituted a series of vignettes revolving around topics such as paparazzi, and pornography, and family portraits, and the flood of emotions that an old photo can bring back whether you’re looking at an ex-lover or yourself, decades before. Salter, whose main artistic pursuit is poetry, is able to establish a complex character or scenario with a few deft lines; the versatile Hersch, meanwhile, is able to follow wherever she leads. The singer-actors echo their precision with performances devoid of extraneous theatrics of any kind. There is a crisp, assured feeling to the entire evening; these are all masters of their craft, creating something new and adventurous together.

“Rooms of Light” also includes three instrumentals, starting with the introductory “Aperture.” “Interlude: Landscape,” by Hersch’s Ensemble, was expansive and atmospheric, allowing listening to conjure up images in their own minds, and on Hersch’s solo “Improvisation: Self-Portrait,” his calm, pensive approach really made it feel like he was watching himself as he played.

The “Rooms of Light” was mainly about the songs. And unavoidably, it felt at times like the songs were just a series a random snapshots. But the last number, “Roll Call,” helped the evening cohere into something more by reflecting on the iconic images — the flag raisers at Iwo Jima, Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate — that have become part of our culture and, in a sense, tie us all together.

In other words … yes, as other songs in the cycle explored, photographs can be used to sell a political candidate to the public, or to battle loneliness through the virtual connections of posted selfies. But in its highest form, photography is about beauty and transcendence, just like music and poetry and theater. It was good to be reminded of that at the end of this entertaining and provocative song cycle.

“Rooms of Light” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. 16, 8 p.m. Oct. 17 and 3 p.m. Oct. 18; visit peakperfs.org.

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