If you go
Earth, Wind and Solar Festival
3:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesday
Engel Stadium, 1130 Third St.
To watch videos of “Pneumatica” performances, go to
Don’t go to Squonk Opera’s “Pneumatica” and expect to understand it.
There’s not too much to actually understand.
“There is no plotline,” says Steve O’Hearn, artistic director and co-founder of Squonk Opera. “We believe pretty strongly that it’s good for audience to make up some part of the story. We don’t want to spoonfeed them or preach to them.”
Still, while the plot is missing, there is a point to “Pneumatica.” Almost all the instruments and props are powered by air, a good detail since the performance is part of the Earth, Wind and Solar Festival, a collaboration between the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the City of Chattanooga that celebrates all forms of sustainable energy.
Sponsored by EPB and Tennessee Solar Solutions, the event will feature three concerts as well as several workshops on energy, wind power and other sustainable sources.
The festival’s overarching theme lands right in Squonk’s wheelhouse, O’Hearn says. The group has been green — both in its performances and in many of the individual performers’ lives — since it was created almost 20 years ago.
“We’re thrilled to be performing at a festival like this,” he says.
Born and built and bred in Pittsburgh, Pa., Squonk (not named after the Genesis song, by the way) has carried its surreal zeitgeist to more than 30 states and three continents. Over the years, it has created 11 different productions, including Astro-Rama (close encounters with aliens), Squonk’s Opera Inferno (a take on Dante’s “A Divine Comedy”) and “The Night of the Living Dead: The Opera,” a less-than-highbrow version at the 1968 movie.
These days, Squonk’s only touring shows are “Pneumatica” and “Cycle Sonic” — bikes pedaling along while carrying musicians on stages above them and another green-energy gig.
For its performances, “Pneumatica” uses blowers and fans to pump up 25 different effects, including various tubes that flip and flop onstage and “attack the audience like a fast squid,” O’Hearn says. Picture horizontal versions of those skinny, air-filled man-creatures that shake and shimmy at used-car lots.
Then there’s Lady Pneumatica herself, a 40-foot-tall Amazon whose lungs are a huge accordion and whose arms and six-foot head move. Think of her as a cousin to the wooden figures that were the centerpieces of “the great, old, harvest festivals that were celebrations of the seasons,” O’Hearn says.
Except she isn’t set on fire at the end, which usually concluded harvest festivals.
There are five musicians onstage and four technicians running effects for “Pneumatica,” but all nine are in full view of the audience, O’Hearn says.
“Everybody’s a performer,” he says. “Part of the fun, I think, is that you see people doing their job. It’s just wacky, silly stuff.”
Since the beginning, O’Hearn has created the designs and theatricality of the Squonk Opera shows while his partner, Jackie Dempsey, who has a degree in composition, pens the music.
“She comes from a classical background and I have a love of world music and ethnic music, and the players come from rock and jazz backgrounds. So the music is simply what these five people play when they get together.”
As for the physical part of the performances, “none of us are actors or acrobats or dancers,” he admits, but that’s part of the show.
“There’s an inherent humor and rawness and probably a lack of grace. It’s who we are. What we do well is emphasized and, hopefully, what we don’t do well isn’t noticed as much.”