11:26 am Dec. 9, 2010
The genre that is paradoxically known as modern classical music has always had its part in the New York music scene's well-noted capacity for whipping up a maelstrom of heterodox sounds.
But compared to the Broadway-wattage lights powered by celebrity blogs, rap beef and Pitchfork over in pop's new Midtown of the mind—where Katy Perry is your shallowly vivacious morning host, and Kanye your talented primetime egomaniac—modern classical junkies conduct their trade in the near-darkness of a prior era's Alphabet City. The long-term denizens of these parks and alleys are a bit proud of their obscurity, even though they are also starting to find satisfaction in the trend of new faces turning up and asking for product.
Replacing the old procedure of mostly performing this work for other performers and composers is a new marketplace of non-musicians showing up to try it. By now, a whispered air of curious awe surrounds certain names, even in unlikely circles. The black-metal and noise-freak fans, for instance, have heard about Karlheinz Stockhausen. So if it wasn’t exactly surprising, it was still impressive to see more than two hundred people crowd into a small room in Brooklyn to listen with religious focus to a rare L.P. of the composer lecturing on his early electronic music for half an hour—as mere prelude to the four-channel work itself being produced in perspective-blurring surround-sound.
Over the course of four consecutive nights ending Dec. 4, curators at Brooklyn's Issue Project Room, an artist-driven performance space, put on what they called a program of "essential repertoire" named after the famously forbidding academy of atonal music in Darmstadt, Germany. All four nights had packed houses. And that word—"essential"—was not just a provocation, but a credo in the fashion of a rap ensemble's hype man, roughly comparable to "Wu-Tang is here forever, motherfuckers." What was different in this context, though, was that even self-described "fans" of much of the music on offer were unlikely to have ever heard live performances of many of these pieces.
The implicit argument—made explicit in talks by some of the performers—was that our world does not perform the music it ought to be performing, but that this same music has, despite being under-heard, reached classic status: an aesthetic of covert excellence. It’s a tough argument to provide empirical evidence for, though the Darmstadt festival provided some compelling data points.
The first evening, featuring the lion's share of Luciano Berio's Sequenzas—solo studies that seek to work out the full range of one instrument at a time—made for meaty listening. Claire Chase dominated the first sequenza, for flute (1958). At one point, she wrung a passionate, guttural purr from her instrument, effectively disguising the piercing multiphonics that Berio requires at the same time. Multiphonics means producing more than one note at a time on an instrument that wasn’t designed for that purpose. Usually, it’s sonically obvious when a musician is bending an instrument’s capability to pull off this parlor trick. But on this occasion, Chase was able to make the buildup and removal of the note clusters into a sensual revelation. When Berio’s flutter-tongued, more "traditional-sounding" notes were removed from the sonic field, all that was left was the beaming, uninflected sine-wave sound of the multiphonics—with the audience realizing it had been led far off the mountainside, skittering across the room on nothing but strange air.
The following night, the Stockhausen evening was even more valuable, if only because finding good stereo recordings of the composer's multi-channel electronic music can be so difficult. The early work Kontakte (1958-60), performed in its version for electronics and acoustic instruments (including piano), was the clear standout. While writing this piece, Stockhausen lit upon his "moment form" theory, in which concerns for overall compositional structure are cast angrily aside in favor of making tons of interesting things happen. Cliched as the theory may sound after several decades of "being in the moment" mantras, this approach—when it works—scours all new-age associations from the principle of “present-mindedness” and commands your full attention via flagrant helmet-on-helmet sound collisions.
Pianist Denise Fillion joined the Ictus Percussion ensemble and found strengths in almost every crevice of the piece. While sheets of electronic sound passed back and forth between the room's four-corner speaker system, she hovered with a quavering pianissimo touch in the background. When pitched percussion gained prominence in the mix, she competed with precise but massive poundings. The next piece, Mikrophonie I (1964)—in which actual microphones are thrashed against gongs and glass jars—was a sight to see, but not quite as attention-holding during its 40-minute run.
Nights three and four of New York's little Darmstadt were even more mixed, both in terms of aesthetic range and performance quality. John Cage’s connection to the conservatory was minimal—he was once invited, on short notice, to attend an early Darmstadt festival—and he is not typically grouped with Germany's postwar moderns. Still, his slithering Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958) shares a rude, youthful health with some early works by Stockhausen (who was responsible for Cage's Darmstadt invite).
Christian Wolff, the last surviving member of Cage's New York school of composers, mostly cannot get the time of day from anyone (his in-person concert at The Stone earlier this year was one of 2010's more tragically under-attended concerts). But the appearance of his brief piece For 1, 2 or 3 People (1964)—a chance work without defined instrumentation, or, often, pitch—provided a welcome space for reflection in its spare arrangement. A third work, by Petr Kotik, who conducted the S.E.M. Ensemble in the Cage and Wolff, felt like a programming favor by comparison, though it wasn't without its massed-electronic charms.
By the time the Darmstadt festival ended on Saturday, it was utterly adrift from its namesake. Tom Johnson's minimalist work An Hour for Piano (1985) is unlikely to ever find an audience among European atonalists, despite its occasional flirtations with dissonance. Johnson, a former Village Voice reviewer who now lives in Paris, instructed one of the organizers to reprint his five-page program notes, which audience members are meant to read while trying to listen to the music. Like the piece itself, the notes seem to repeat themselves while subtly changing, with several appearances of a paragraph that begins: "This paragraph occurs several times in the program notes. However, it will probably seem different each time, because you will be listening to different music." Toward the end, the notes say, "The following paragraph has already occurred in the program notes three times," even though the line is only appearing for the first time. A witty multimedia piece about art and the way it is (or resists) being absorbed, it was also airmailed from deep left field into this grouping of "essential" repertoire.
Well-respected legacy music came back for the festival's climax, though, with an arrangement of pieces from Philip Glass's five-hour minimalist opera Einstein on the Beach (1976). Despite a bleeding-chunks approach that presented only the "Knee Plays" from the opera (plus a couple of connecting themes), the crowd at Issue seemed more excited for this piece than any other. When the opening keyboard tone from "Knee 1," as famous as any moment in contemporary music, began its drone, someone behind me uttered a calm but heavy “Yes” to himself, the way some guys do when they see the LucasFilms logo in a movie theater. (It was a boon for many of the hardcore Glass lovers in the audience that the keyboard sound in this performance was closer to the buzzy, punky one used in the original CBS recording of Einstein, as opposed the more sedate sound of a later recording on Nonesuch.) It seemed like the vocalists and the violinist could have used another rehearsal or two for a work this rigorous in its repetitive requirements, but the music's ghostly scrim and climactic momentum (in "Spaceship") were well served.
Two nights later, the mid-century celebration continued with an 85th birthday concert for modernist grand-pere Pierre Boulez at the now officially venerable Miller Theater at Columbia. The main event was the U.S. premiere of a new version of a familiar Boulez work originally dating from 1988, Derive II. Boulez has an ahistorical streak wherein he mostly refuses to begin new compositions, instead ceaselessly tinkering with pieces he's already written. In the case of Derive II, Boulez has almost doubled the length of a piece that received an excellent 24-minute recording from the Ensemble InterContemporain in 2005. The extended remix was not an unqualified success. The piece's prior tightness seemed unspooled by material that could have been deserving of a new opus. (In particular, new passages for oboe and bassoon sounded promising but weirdly out of context here.)
In a brief post-intermission Q&A, Boulez said he "cannot stand anymore" the practice of composing by filling in one box at a time and then checking it off—a dramatic statement from someone who used to let intellectual systems run roughshod over his compositional technique. In fact, it sounded quite a lot like Stockhausen's "moment form" epiphany when Boulez said he wanted his ideas "to generate the form" of his new music. If his many ideas failed to cohere in this new piece, the crowd at Miller heard a rare glimpse of the early, idea-stuffed Boulez as his first piece, Notations for Piano (1945), found an inspired interpreter in the young pianist Anthony Cheung. Boulez has characteristically been engaged (for decades) with the task of going back and rewriting all these pieces for orchestra, but Cheung's expressive playing—hinting at the fluidity of Debussy at one moment, and in the next dishing out a heart-stopping ritardando with the repeating, ominous bass notes in "Lointain—Calme"—amounted to a plea for just leaving these under-heard classics alone.
Many things have changed in New York's classical culture since Boulez's tenure as music director of the Philharmonic more than three decades ago. Back then, it was hard to get audiences to sit still for Berg or Webern. Today, Alan Gilbert can sell out Avery Fisher Hall for three evenings of Gyorgy Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre. In Brooklyn, they are singing Glass and blasting Stockhausen tapes through the speaker systems. I saw Fabienne Seveillac, one of the vocalists from the Issue Project Room Einstein performance, at Miller for the Boulez concert.
"I didn't expect to see anyone from the Glass performance here," she said to me, signaling that supposed rift in taste that would separate fans of American minimalism from Continental complexity. “But wasn't Glass the odd fit at the Darmstadt festival?” I asked. She conceded that the boundaries were becoming less and less distinct—or at least less cared about—for lovers of modern composition. There seem to be no more outcasts, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, it suggests a reduction in the silly semantic fights and tribal boosterism. Classical music, like official Washington, has long had its own cadre of Very Serious People who like to determine the boundaries of the debate. And just as that "official" Beltway wisdom has been increasingly challenged and fractured by more voices and new organizations online, so too is classical music's official doctrine up for review. For listeners in New York, that has been a largely positive development. This five-day, inter-borough run in New York, from Gowanus to Columbia, was an explosion of treasures. But the wide-eared uber-enthusiasm also suggests something slightly less comforting, like a necessary circling of the wagons.
It's as if everyone’s made the decision that nothing can be excluded from the tradition of so-called "serious music" (or "concert music" or, per Alex Ross, "awesome music") if it is to survive at all. The more that pop steals everything from experimenters at the margins—as the Beatles did with Stockhausen, and as Kanye does in the three-minute electro-acoustic outro of "Runaway"—the more enthusiastically the margin has to appreciate itself and heal up its divisions, or else perish. More and more, it seems quite possible that this state of affairs can be, at once, the reflection of a sad reality as well as a really ripping opportunity to be a music fiend in the city. One only hopes the decadent pleasure isn't a precursor to some dramatic future fall. That never happens, right?
More by this author:
- The surprising and genre-confounding collaboration of Hillary Hahn and Hauschka
- A free Philip Glass show, and more treats from him on deck