Erik Satie and Claude Debussy were friends (usually) and contemporaries; both were turn-of-the-(20th)-century French composers who stretched the possibilities of sound and listening. Debussy’s piano music is highly imagistic, a musical version of the Symbolist poetry movement he found so inspiring; Satie’s is more oblique, suggesting moods rather than images, though occasionally he evoked visuals with such headscratcher titles as “Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear” (of which there are seven) and Embryons desséchés (Dessicated embryos). Alexei Lubimov’s recent late-night recital at the Mostly Mozart Festival alternated rippling, dappled notes of Debussy with the playful simplicity of Satie’s music, contrasting vivid Debussyan images with the static yet aimless wandering of Satie’s rarely-performed piano works.
Tristan Perich’s Surface Image, an hour-long single-track album for piano and electronics, employs decades-old compositional ideas, including strains of minimalism and drone music in addition to mathematical processes akin to those of Xenakis. Even so, the work comes across as somewhat of a revelation. To my ears, it’s one of the first sound recordings successfully to present an artistic idea in which the sonic coalesces with spatial and especially visual aspects. The New Amsterdam Records site includes a video clip of the piece being performed live in the hopes of offering ‘visual insight’ into aural realisations, but it’s hardly necessary when one is in any case lost in the swirl of beauty both acoustic and computerised. This album is not new territory for Perich; his multimedia work Microtonal Wall was installed along a hallway in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and his visual art has been displayed in museums across the world. His previous album, 1-Bit Symphony, legitimately plays its five movements live when its hand-made microchip is activated by the listener.
Sounds that gallivanted, catapulted, zigzagged, and, eventually, tangoed: granted “free license” to program a concert of Finnish music, the Chelsea Music Festival’s 2015 ensemble-in-residence Avanti! decided to showcase a range of musical moods and ideas. At their June 15, 2015 concert at Scandinavia House, the versatile ensemble contrasted recent music by Finnish composers with the traditional sounds of Finnish dances. Unlike the more predictable pairing with Sibelius, the resulting performances allowed for insight into the non-classical heritage of these composers, as well as lending the listeners an element of capriciousness–or at the very least, unconventionality–that is usually so sorely lacking from self-described “portrait” concerts.
“Here is your audience instrument; you take it apart like chopsticks,” said the usher, handing me a couple of glued-together jagged pieces of wood along with my concert program. Audience participation, oh my. This concert was either going to be very good or, more likely, very silly.
In Argentinian composer Esteban Insinger’s chamber opera Hercules in Mato Grosso (2014), two men caper through the Brazilian rainforest while singing and speaking mostly in Portuguese but occasionally in German, Latin, and Quechua. His lively work was reincarnated in New York City by director Clara Cullen and producer Helena Martel Seward last month. Hercules in Mato Grosso was presented on May 20, 2015 at Dixon Place by the Americas Society, whose musical director Sebastián Zubieta conducted it both at Dixon Place and in its première last year at the Centro de Experimentación del Teatro Colón. The libretto by Pola Oloixarac is based on Hercules Florence’s journals, which document his scientific expedition to the Amazon alongside Baron Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, a physician and naturalist. Florence is known for coining the term “photographie” (“painting with light”) upon his discovery of the pinhole camera. Throughout the years 1826 to 1829 he, Langsdorff, and a group of others traveled across South America, battling disease and various forms of unexpected unpleasantness. Insinger’s and Oloixarac’s fictionalized version deals in matters more obscure, using snakes and veils to symbolize the play of light and darkness, of mystery and clarity, in the photographer’s escapades.
On a program of musical works with imagery ranging from Mount Fuji to zygotes, the common thread was Japan and the sounds it has inspired over the past few decades. With members of the New York Philharmonic arrayed in five sub-groups across the stage in the Met Museum’s auditorium, they began with Toru Takemitsu’s Archipelago S, composed in 1993. Unlike the symbolist and imagistic pieces comprising the rest of the program, Takemitsu’s composition, while inspired by seascapes in Japan, Stockholm and Seattle, was more focused on the realization of sounds in space: “Although form is very important to me, how it is realized in sound is more important.” Conductor Jeffrey Milarsky led the five groups through their dialogue of sounds, which always avoided coalescing into a single orchestral voice, just as Takemitsu intended. The initial dribbles and drops of sound deftly transformed into strokes and waves and swoops and swirls, with each group pausing to let another interject at any given moment, and only occasionally overlapping in a less polite palaver, enveloping the listeners like fog along the seascape.
How refreshing to experience an entire evening of works by a woman, even if the subject matter—the centenary of the Armenian genocide—was somewhat less uplifting. Armenian-American composer Mary Kouyoumdjian’s May 12, 2015 concert at Roulette, performed by her ensemble Hotel Elefant and the Kronos Quartet, was a gem of new music programming, placing Kouyoumdjian’s compositional soundscape and political agenda front and center while allowing the audience to absorb a slew of talented performers’ interpretations thereof. Although artworks with an unsubtle political agenda often let the perceptual experience slip loose in their efforts to tell rather than show (or sound), Kouyoumdjian’s works for the most part managed to be not only eye-opening but ear-opening.
“I’ll sing one more before I collapse,” Meredith Monk laughed after her 50th anniversary concert at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, an evening of solo and ensemble vocal music that drew her year as the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair to a close. She then launched into “Breath Song” of Songs from the Hill (1976), which entailed more panting than singing as Monk traversed the tricky rhythms and sometimes startling terrain of her early composition. The repetitious yet constantly-permutating patterns of “he-he-ho” were simple yet, dare I say, breathtaking.
“We’re always thinking in terms of scale.” The words boomed out from the loudspeakers across the street from the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, on the façade of which was projected the four-story face of an astronomer being interviewed in Rosa Barba’s film installation The Color Out of Space. The outdoor cinema experience had attracted a number of onlookers who stood on the sidewalk and in the grass, hands in pockets, staring up at the $350 million multi-venue arts center, a recent addition to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor. The people in the cars passing by, between the “audience” and the film, would peer at us with perplexed expressions, oblivious to the installation: what are they all staring at so intently?
Wow. John King’s Piano Vectors was a spur-of-the-moment addition to my agenda last weekend, and boy howdy am I glad that a) I was there and b) I wasn’t there as a reviewer, because it’s embarrassing enough posting a bunch of ecstatic word vomit on my own blog, let alone elsewhere. So, I’ll try to keep my gushing brief. Last weekend I took a break from all the Memorial Day museum-ing and cocktail drinking to trek out to Knockdown Center, a wonderful barn-like space that feels refreshingly airy and bright compared to most music venues in the city. As the music (and the evening) wore on, the light slanted in at lower and lower angles until it was dim and atmospheric. The space was playing host to six Steinway grand pianos arranged in a zigzag throughout the space, one each for pianists Laura Barger, Taka Kigawa, Joseph Kubera, Jenny Lin, Tania Tachkova, and Ning Yu (side note: how did they decide who would get to play each piano?). The audience members were encouraged to ‘become active participants in assembling their experience by moving throughout the space’ (my favorite instructions to see printed in a program note!!!) and many, including myself, followed King’s advice and made their way through the labyrinth of pianos and sounds, while others stayed in one place–whether seated in one of the chairs scattered about, or lying on the floor in the middle of the space, or even crawling under one of the pianos. Each pianist was working from the same musical material (pitches, durations, rhythms, dynamics, and timbres), yet each of the six pianists were working within their own chance-determined ‘time-vector’, so that the sounds of minor chords being depressed or trills rumbling out or strings being plucked or notes being attacked with the damper pedal down echoed and overlapped in time and space. I think this (the temporal and spatial echoing and overlapping) was why the work felt so successful, and why King’s objective of ‘no one element having dominion over any other’ was achieved so skillfully. Well, that, and the obvious virtuosity of all the pianists. Some had stopwatches or iphones perched next to their marked-up scores, visibly ticking away their version of time, while others were adhering to some other unseen ‘time-vector’. They all clearly took the performance very seriously and were so absorbed in their playing that they didn’t notice audience members peering over their shoulders or crawling underneath their Steinways. The resulting musical experience was unreal; the overall experience of Piano Vectors was nothing short of sublime. One of the best new music performances of the year–and probably my life.
What’s on my nightstand: a few lingering French reads plus Coughing & Clapping.