Based on the graphic novel by Montréal-based turntablist, composer and visual artist Eric San (better known by his DJ moniker, Kid Koala), Nufonia Must Fall might be the most unusual and charming production to ever come to Jones Hall.
Described by its Oscar-nominated director K.K. Barrett as “a live silent film,” the production is basically a meticulously choreographed, beautifully lit puppet show, accompanied by live music and sound effects. Over 70 pint-size puppets across 20 miniature stages are filmed in action and projected onto a large screen to tell the story of an antiquated, soon-to-be-discontinued robot who falls in love with a female (human) roboticist. The music is performed by San, who mans his trusty turntables as well as an array of vintage keyboards, and cutting-edge string group the Afiara Quartet.
“It’s a bit of an eight-ring circus,” laughs San, who by the way laughs a lot in conversation. “But it’s all for the effect of telling the story on the big screen above the stage.”
So what exactly is "Nufonia" and why must it fall? Turns out the show's ominous and mysterious title, a clever bit of wordplay San initially thought would end up on the cutting room floor, encapsulates the struggle of the hapless robot protagonist, as well as the collaborative spirit and bravery shared between San and his onstage collaborators.
“’Nufon’ is ‘no fun’ backwards,” explains San. “'Nufonia,' to me, is the a concept of a city where everyone is overworked and stressed, but also your own fears and worries which inhibit you from enjoying life. Sometimes, your own worst enemy is the fear in your own mind. Nufonia Must Fall is about that.”
The project began as a wordless graphic novel which San describes as “a storyboard for a silent film.” (San packaged the novel with its own CD soundtrack.) The influence of film on San as a turntablist, or a musician who “scratches” vinyl records on two to three turntables to create collages of beats, spoken dialogue and sound effects, has been profound.
“My mom showed me Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times when I was a child,” says San, who grew up in Montréal. “She brought my grandparents in, and we all watched the film, and I don’t think I’ve been the same person since. The feeling that was in the room, all of us laughing or crying together at the same moments ... I realized, here’s something that’s resonating with three generations. That for me is a direct inspiration for Nufonia Must Fall.”
Since signing with the London-based electronic and experimental hip-hop label Ninja Tune in 2000, San’s natural gift for storytelling has only become more sophisticated. From his 1996 cassette-only mixtape Scratchcratchratchatch, to the New Orleans-inspired "Basin Street Blues" from 2013's Some of My Best Friends Are DJs, to his most recent ambient collaboration with Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini, music to draw to: satellite, San's music has always been cinematic and narrative-driven.
“My approach to recording, at least on my first few albums, was to create an audio adventure,” San says. “Whenever I was in the studio, I was always imagining this narrative in my head, for instance a guy trying to pick up a girl in a bar and dropping the worst pick-up lines. I wasn’t trying to make songs for the radio. It was about Frankenstein-ing all of these floating bits of audio in my head into some kind of cohesive story.”
Adding another layer of depth to Nufonia’s robot-meets-girl love story is the theme of aging and impending obsolescence, something the 43-year-old San, now a father of two daughters, can speak to.
“It’s a pretty universal theme—the theme of aging, and feeling like the world is moving too fast and you can’t keep up,” San says. “Even my 9-year-old daughter, Mabel, told me while looking at my younger daughter, Ruby, ‘You know Dad, when I was Ruby’s age, life was so much easier.’ (laughs) I think everybody, no matter their age, can look back on a time when they felt more comfortable in their own skin. Even 9-year-olds.”
San, who has opened for Radiohead and Björk, says he experiences the same adrenaline rush performing the delicate, sometimes whisper-quiet music of Nufonia as he does scratching and cutting vinyl in a club setting. With no single conductor to provide cues, each show demands “a constant conversation” between the puppeteers, camera team and musicians, who lurk in the shadows, but remain visible to the audience.
“A lot of it is unspoken,” says San of this onstage communication. “Only a couple of us have intercom headsets. The rest of it is all panicky looks.”
Nufonia Must Fall, Feb. 9. Tickets from $34. Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St. 713-227-4772. More info and tickets at spahouston.org.