Aficionados and partiers paddle Central Park Lake to an odd rhythm
The lake in Central Park is typically a spot for lovers. Not new music lovers, but actual couples. They stream into the boathouse, rent small vessels for $12 an hour, and row around the 22-acre body of water, which twists and winds through a parcel of land approximately halfway up the park’s western half.
I know all this because a girlfriend of mine once made noises about going and renting a boat. We never got around to it. Now we're broken up. It's hard to say whether we’d still be together if world-class musicians played the music of 20th century Greek composer Iannis Xenakis while we floated around that lake on a regular basis—but I can say that, had it been so, I might have made more of an effort to get out there and paddle about.
At any rate, that's what happened yesterday as part of the Make Music New York festival, in which 850 ensembles took to streets and other public places in the city and, well, made music. Central Park belonged to Xenakis, who died in 2001 at the age of 78. This was a somewhat odd choice: Not the most pastoral of composers, his works tend to rumble with mercurial passions before erupting into violent ones. Throbbing discordance and complex rhythms are the norm.
Yet, at the close of the work day, 45 minutes before New York's first open-air performance of the six-percussionist work Persephassa, a patient line of about 50 people was waiting to be sent off in boats. About 300 other folks were already in the drink, waiting for the clangorous goings-on to begin.
I was curious how many people on line were already Xenakis fans, and how many were coming just for the spectacle—or just for the boats (which, for the occasion, were free). Based on a non-scientific sampling of the women standing in line behind me, few people, aside from some journalists and publicists, knew Xenakis very well. Dawn, a dirty blonde wearing a brown, spaghetti-strap tank top, had attended another Central Park Xenakis performance earlier in the day, but didn't have much to say about it. “Listen,” she said, “I just want you to write about the enormity of my rack, okay?” (Done.)
Leighanne, a hairdresser, was waiting for a friend who was joining her for a quick spin in the water before heading to a “body shape” class at her gym. She looked at the line uneasily: “I guess maybe I'll wait in this line, for the music,” she said. “It's so hard to get motivated to go to the gym.”
Ultimately, I was assigned to a boat with three other people, none of whom knew Xenakis’ music, but all of whom had actually ventured out on purpose to hear the performance. Trevor, a 53-year-old, Melbourne-born, San Francisco-dwelling ex-schoolteacher and real estate agent was in the midst of a month-long holiday that he said was showing signs of becoming indefinite. (He doesn't plan to pick real estate back up, wherever he goes.) Ben, a student at Northwestern, heard about “Xenakis on the Lake” while attending a Central Park Summerstage show over the weekend. Rebecca, a 31-year-old photographer, took pictures for the group, and also gamely answered Trevor’s many questions about the dating-related expectations of New York women.
As Trevor paddled us underneath the Bow Bridge and around one of the lake's acute angles, we saw the first of the drum boats. Tied down across two long vessels was a wooden platform that supported lead percussionist Douglas Perkins. Three partners steered him into the middle of the body of water. (Some of them would occasionally rattle large sections of sheet metal, per Xenakis’ score.) Two other percussionists were floating in the lake on similar structures, while three other drummers were at fixed points along the shore. (Xenakis was also an architect, and designed Persephassa as a surround-sound experience—the use of the lake was no mere stunt.)
Nearly half an hour after the first performance was scheduled to start, it opened with a brief crescendo from all the drummers before settling down into a long, contemplative section. Magically (for New York), not many extra-musical noises interfered with the patient build of the half-hour piece’s middle section, in which ringing bells trade off with clattering drumsticks, both of which then drop out to make space for a small chorus of whistles and kazoos. These sounds—which could have come across as sort of silly—resonated atop the water with a presence approaching grace.
No matter how many of the 300-odd people actually came with an appreciation for Xenakis, almost everyone seemed into the performance. (That is to say, nobody groaned that their five year old could have written it, etc.) For a few moments, the blades of a passing helicopter ruined Xenakis’ effect, but otherwise, all that could be heard was the occasional metal scraping caused by inattentive paddlers locked in impromptu games of bumper-boats. Given this strong chance of collision, I thought it somewhat brave of Trevor to lie down and rest his head over the port side of the boat, though he came through it okay.
In the last five minutes or so, the six drummers—who have through the piece been mostly playing solo—pass their rhythmic figures back and forth with increasing contrapuntal density. There was a semblance of groove, and more than a few heads on the lake were actually bobbing. A rise of kazoo-blowing signaled a false ending, before a final, minute-long freak out.
After everyone was certain it was actually over, they clapped and started rowing back to the boathouse. Everyone on our boat reported some degree of enjoyment with respect to the music. It was also an exceedingly beautiful afternoon, which didn’t hurt the general mood. It took about as long for three hundred people to return their boats as did the concert itself, which meant the second performance was being pushed back even later. Again, a long queue had already established itself outside the boathouse.
I waited for the enormously-racked woman and her friend (because why not?), and asked whether they enjoyed the concert. “I have to go to the bathroom,” said the former. “But write that we said something really intelligent,” the friend called out, trailing behind. On a fine summer afternoon, Xenakis, avant-garde classical music and New York will take that answer, and be glad for it.