Okay, as promised, here's my thing on the Free Speech Zone tour. First, let me admit my biases: I really like the dudes from the NOW Ensemble. Composer Judd Greenstein went to college with one of my Gregs (also with, by a happy coincidence, one of the Books!), then went to grad school here in town, and I still see him around and everybody loves him. Same story with NOW bassist/sex symbol Peter Rosenfeld! But while I've always been embarrassed that this review never (apparently) made it into print, I hesitated to send it directly to Greenstein and fellow FSZ composer Missy Mazzoli just on account of it's sorta ambivalent. This has caused me to act really awkward whenever I see them, as in the following exchange from a merch table at this year's 26-hour Bang on a Can Marathon:
MM: "Hey!" DSJ: "Uh, hey!" [Thinking, Is that Missy Mazzoli?] MM: "Remember me?" DSJ [unconvincingly]: "Of course!" [That is Missy, right? But the lighting's kind of off in here, and I haven't seen her in a while, and isn't her hair different, and what if it's not Missy and I say "Missy!"?] MM: "It's me, Missy!" DSJ: "Of course!" [Oh dammit, I have that breakfast date scheduled for the exact same time as her piece is getting played.] MM: "How are you?" DSJ: "I'm going to miss your piece!" MM [slightly baffled]: "Oh!" DSJ: "People do have to sleep and eat, you know! Ha ha!"
So yeah, I thought I came off well. Anyway, here is that Free Speech Zone review, which I still pretty much stand behind, newspaper-y prose notwithstanding, although... one more disclosure: Firehouse 12 is an intimate, acoustically flawless venue (the Mates of State record there!) with a bar that, if you ask for a martini, hands you something that looks like a fishbowl with a stem on it. Long story short, by the time this concert was over I was feelin' some martini, so hopefully my aesthetic judgment was not as clouded as the judgment that would have stopped me from saying omg I'm so TIPSY with NOW Ensemble's Mark Dancigers sitting right next to me. Anyhow--
COMMON GROUND You say "preaching to the choir" like it's a bad thing. I'm suspicious of political art, as a rule. What's the point of a piece of classical music on political themes? Did a string quartet ever inspire someone to vote Democratic? Or is the act of composing political music merely therapeutic? I asked these questions Saturday night--before the Free Speech Zone Tour played to a packed house at Firehouse 12--and I left with a few more answers than I'd expected to. Named after tour co-organizer Judd Greenstein's piece on the program (named, in turn, after the corrals to which our President exiles all dissent at public appearances), Free Speech Zone paired young, left-wing new music groups NOW Ensemble (formerly of New Haven) and Newspeak in an evening of amplified protest. The concert opened with the setting of an unfortunate text: excerpts from Sam Smith's "Apology to Younger Americans," an essay listing Smith's regrets "on behalf of all my fellow members of America's crummiest generation." I wasn't impressed when I encountered the "Apology" as an email forward, and I was all the more dismayed to hear it sung aloud. Former Green alderman and Yale assistant professor of music John Halle's introductory remarks, dedicating his piece to the young NOW Ensemble, were genuinely touching, and his seamless writing made the most of the material. But when the words "Bill O'Reilly" are sung by an operatic soprano (the excellent Bo Chang--expressive and articulate, though seemingly unused to a microphone), something has gone wrong. Patrick Burke's contribution, External Forces, started promisingly--with the weird, unpolished sound of vocal humming from the instrumentalists. The piece attempted to describe the corruption of stable conditions by outside agents, but the chipper melody that emerged, as well as its interruption by crashing dissonances, were disappointingly obvious. The "breakdown" rang false, and when we finally retreated back to that eerie humming, it too had become a gimmick. Part of the difficulty of writing for the NOW Ensemble must have to do with its eccentric, Bang on a Can-inspired lineup: guitar, standup bass, piano, flute, clarinet. When the sonorities of the piece were pure and light, these instruments sang together like a choir, but when the rhythm section decided to rock out, the flute and clarinet were unable to join them. Greenstein's Free Speech Zone was the most affecting piece on the program, though accompanied by an undistinguished video presentation. The composer introduced his work wearing a t-shirt reading COMMON (as in the rapper); according to his bio, "Judd's music blends Romanticism and post-minimalist harmonic and textural elements with a strong grounding in hip hop, rock, and electronic dance music"--but that's got it backwards. While the textures of the piece occasionally turned jazzy, a pulsing/strumming figure embedded between polyrhythmic strata, the foundation was unmistakably classical. The instrumentation of the piece was convincing not because Greenstein had found some place for the woodwinds within a popular idiom, but because the winds' Stravinskian outbursts and sinuous lyricism were already at home in a music saturated with early 20th-cenury influences. *** After an intermission, Newspeak launched directly into director David T. Little's ferocious Electric Proletariat, a showcase for their unique virtuosity. This band's lineup was more inherently versatile than NOW Ensemble's, replacing the flute and bass with brutal violin and cello fiddling (amplified for most of their set) and adding a drummer and a percussionist for even more edge. Daisy Press, the group's vocalist, came on for Keeril Makan's song cycle Target, based on overwrought verses by Jena Osman ("It seems to be moving," went one line, "like a body made of parts." What?). The setting did not impress, but the performers made the most of the score's best trick: pairing sounds from the vocal line with close imitations from the ensemble. Press's near-oracular performance was half rock star (she definitely knew how to use a microphone), half new-music diva, and the instrumentalists' ability to take their cues from the back of her wild hairdo was miraculous. The last two pieces on the program cemented the overall tone. The closer, a cover of "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath, was tight, loud, and exhilarating (though Press's intonation wavered); the penultimate piece, Missy Mazzoli's lovely and hopeful In Spite of All This--the strings "unplugged" for a little while--underlined the evening's essential purpose. Yes, it was a "merely" therapeutic performance. But it was consoling for the audience as well--a sorely needed moment of community in dark political times.