Monday, November 24, 2008

Tardiest Concert Review Ever

So I never did tell you about that Eighth Blackbird concert Nov. 14. If you didn't get in, I'm sorry—the joint was packed, sold out, standing room only. If you did, go you! The crowd was young, hip, and attractive. The theme of the concert was "Two Mavericks," which (much to JoJo's understandable irritation) led to my paraphrasing the best thing Kyle Gann's said all year:

We in American music owe a great debt to John McCain and Sarah Palin. Those two have so cheapened and tainted the word "maverick" that it will be at least a generation, maybe two, before anyone will be able to use the word non-ironically again. And that means, surely, that there will be no more talk about the "American maverick composers."
Ha. His point being that, just as some of us (not Gann) might complain that labels like "post-minimalism" are reductive, or of limited use, so is he annoyed with the throwing-up-of-hands that accompanies anti-label labels like "mavericks," which deny that these composers might have been part of larger artistic communities, traditions, movements. Steve Reich may, like so many composers, resist that big-M brand of the Minimalist Ranch, but he is not satsfied to occupy the margins of musical culture; in a piece as his ostentatiously rigorous as his Cello Counterpoint, which opened the program, one almost hears him stomping his feet outside the gates of the canon, demanding to be admitted. I've probably grown too accustomed to the Maya Beiser recording—that lady can do ANYTHING—and hold Oberlin cellist Ted Rankin-Parker to too a standard, missing Beiser's ringing tone and flawless intonation. But if his cellism was less sure in the high-wire treble registers Reich wrote the solo part for, TRP nevertheless made a solid case for the piece. I have never been so confident that a piece of "new music" is guaranteed a place in the repertoire of an instrument. Actually, here's a YouTubes of Rankin-Parker sawing it off at Oberlin: Now! Think of the piece that accompanied Cello Counterpoint on that Beiser disc, You Are (Variations), where for one of the variations, Reich busts out the L'homme armé cantus firmus. (L'homme armé being, for those who don't know, an all-time Top 40 hit of the Renaissance; you can hear a pretentious arrangement of it from about 1:35-2:15 of this video.) Is Reich using the tune to make some kind of statement about war or arms proliferation or something, like Karl Jenkins in the retarded video I linked to in that parenthesis? Um, I'm guessing not. More likely he's making a statement about the seriousness of his own musical intentions, by using the tune as Dufay, Josquin, Ockeghem, Palestrina et al did in the masses they wrote, back in olden times. Reich has been catching a lot of well-earned laurels lately, like the retrospective boxset and concert series that accompanied his 70th B-day, and I think he's more conscious than anybody of his career's slow but inexorable progression from boy terror to gray eminence. The richness and complexity of his recent oeuvre demands to be recognized as the work of a master. Frederic Rzewski, on the other hand. His new piece, next on the program, was a thrilling mess. Inspired by Dürer's engraving, The Knight, Death and the Devil—projected above the stage during performance—it was a set of disconnected, inconclusive miniatures made up of disconnected, inconclusive instrumental lines. The piece asserted itself not, like Cello Counterpoint, as a composer's monolithic tour de force, but as a challenge to the audience. The foot-stomping here was literal, as the musicians were called upon to incorporate seemingly unmusical sounds, bleatings and beatings, into the instrumental texture, and implausibly, it actually worked. Eighth Blackbird's heterogeneous line-up, even supplemented (as here) by an accompanimental string quartet, could not be an easy one to write for, but the notes and noises alike were well orchestrated—a broad and nuanced palette. The piece's most arresting use of noise: at the foot of Matthew Duvall's battery of percussion, I saw a little metal pail full of bottles and dinner plates. Oh how neat! I thought. He's going to blow across the tops of those bottles or something. Maybe tap on them with little beaters, like how he's been banging on those big metal trashcans he's got hanging down. WRONG. Warning sign #1: The string quartet stepped back from Mr. Duvall. Warning sign #2: Mr. Duvall donned a pair of protective goggles. The Duv then took down one of the suspended trash barrels and proceeded to hurl all of the bottles and plates against the inside bottom, where they shattered into tiny pieces, and then he put a lid on the can, picked it up and shook the tiny pieces into dust, and then he poured the dust back into the metal bucket. Then the next movement started. The goggles came off, the string quartet came out of hiding, and with Duvall on the glockenspiel, the band struck up a dainty rendition of... you guessed it... L'Homme armé. Obviously, in the context of this Dürer pic—which was projected above the stage during the piece—and in the context of two idiotic American wars, Rzewski's decision to quote "The Armed Man" is not gonna be entirely academic. The Knight quotes a number of old tunes about arms and war, most of which I didn't recognize; significantly, both times I caught L'homme armé, it was immediately preceded by the sight of the Duv completely wrecking something: first the plates and bottles, then the trashcan itself, which he pretty well stomped into oblivion. Not a coincidence that the sound of crushing metal should be followed by a delicate waltz on a tune with the lines, "Everybody better put on some chainmail." (My rough translation.) It was actually pretty frightening to see. I don't know if you knew this, but the Duv is HUGE. Composers, if you've just been commissioned to write something for 8th Blackbird, be sure to include a part that calls for the percussionist to COMPLETELY DESTROY SOMETHING WITH HIS BARE HANDS, because he can totally do it. Afterwards, Michael Maccaferri (a.k.a. the Mac) confided that those residual bits of broken glass were NOT supposed to go flying towards the eyes of the latecomers sitting Indian-style next to the stage—it hadn't sprayed like that in rehearsal or at the Oberlin performances. There was some improvisation written into the score, but no danger, though since everybody left with their corneas unabraded, I'm thinking there will not be any lawsuits. Was the piece a success? The last movement, a melancholy piano solo achingly realized by Lisa Kaplan, brought the work as a whole to a satisfying conclusion—a little comforting at least with its strange, sweet-bitter beauty—but I stumbled out to intermission with more questions than answers. Obviously, these dark fragments were designed to leave the audience ill at ease, but how much, and in what way? The second half of the program reduced the band back to a sextet for a performance of Rzewski's Les Moutons de Panurge, a woolly old process-piece from '69. The concept of the piece is—wait, actually, instead of describing it, why don't I just link you to the score, which Rzweski has awesomely uploaded to the internet for you perusal (.pdf, .gif) and you can try to play it with your friends! Except that it's ridiculously difficult. The piece is conceptually fascinating, because it requires virtuoso performers to be at all interesting, but is nevertheless predicated on their failure, in a sense. Not only are you allowed to "slip up," you are almost required to totally trainwreck. For this performance, the Blackbirds played a version that dropped the nonmusicians from the score, and for a bit of variety, once the requisite trainwreck had taken place, the Blackbirds carried on in different, slower tempi. Which worked, musically, since the score is written to accommodate interchangeable parts, and since the 8bb kids seriously know how to listen to each other, but it wasn't quite to my taste—when it comes to old-school minimalism, I'll usually take it without cream and sugar. Then again, I am a bit of an aural masochist (as we have established). The last piece was another example of Reich's masterful late style, the Double Sextet for two Eighth Blackbirds. Now do not be fooled: although wanton googling will tell you that the version for twelve players is the one Reich "originally envisioned," and although Reich approves of the all-live versions of his pieces with prerecorded accompaniment, I'm told his preference is generally for the versions with tape, and with good reason. When Reich talks about his favorite interpreters, he talks about Boulez's Rite of Spring, Gould's Goldberg Variations, performers who hear "inside the music, like an x-ray machine," and show us all the layers at once. In the composer-supervised recordings of Reich's music, we hear this same interpretive approach; the players lock into a rhythmic grid, and parts in counterpoint are meticulously blended and balanced—all things that come naturally when the musicians are playing against recordings of themselves—even (sometimes) at the expense of vitality, expression, drama. This might not be such a big deal in, say, Violin Phase, but as Reich's musical language continues to mature, it begins to accommodate more and more dramatic gestures right there in the harmonies. We can already hear in recordings like Alarm Will Sound's Desert Music, So Percussion's Drumming, and Ensemble Modern's City Life a new edge, a new vigor, that Reich's own interpretations lack. The Kronos recording of Triple Quartet, with Reich at the wheel, is sensitive and warm, but what their CD puts across more than anything are the composer's contrapuntal wizardry—I want to hear a second recording that loses just a little control, that really exploits those Psycho dissonances. (I <3 David Robertson, but his disc disappoints.) So you can imagine my immense satisfaction when Eighth Blackbird's live Double Sextet, with six Oberlin kids interspersed among two antiphonal bands, rocked the heck out. The score was, well, your typical Reich score (JoJo: "I kept thinking of Sextet." Me: "Well then you should've like this twice as much!"), but studded with yet more of those bittersweet harmonic nuggets that Reich seems to be kneading into his scores more and more, like chocolate chips into already-delicious cookie dough. Er, or something. The rhythm section, led impressively by the Duv and the Kap, was totally unstoppable, and the two choirs of winds & strings were seamless. Every musician knows that dissonances are the hardest thing to tune, and Reich's score was filthy with them. The presence and expressivity of twelve solid performers trading these lines live and in person was, like, sublime. But I realize that I have failed to answer the question that all of you are asking: am I as disastrously infatuated with the Mac, after having finally shaken his hand, as I was when first I blogg'd him from afar? Oh hell yes. More than ever. He bought me a Guinness! It was awesome.


Grrg said...

The "smash a box of dishware" gesture is employed by Ligeti at the climax of Atmosphères, which, I've always suspect was, in turn, a cheeky reference to the clinking dishes in the percussion section of Strauss's Symphonia Domestica.

Grrg said...

Oh and also: I'm surprised you didn't also include "downtown" as an example of a completely debased, worthless word in the critical and musicological lexicon.

Dan Johnson said...


Well that's the thing! He didn't just smash a box of dishware, he took the bucket of fragile things and smashed every piece, one by one, accompanied by total silence. It was like watching somebody have a nervous breakdown. Really terrifying.

R. said...

Obviously, these dark fragments were designed to leave the audience ill at ease, but how much, and in what way?

And I'm going to guess they weren't designed to have the audience laugh at (or with, I really couldn't tell) their more histrionic moments. As someone who's paid good money to see shit being wrecked on stage (and enjoyed it), I felt this piece could've only rammed the point more forcefully down my throat if it, well, had literally done so.

Having said that, I still enjoyed seeing the percussionist do his thing (in this piece as well as the final sextet). I'd never dare to disagree with him, but I absolutely endorse writing more wrecking pieces for him.

Grrg said...

Dan, why aren't you logged into IM right at this very minute? I just saw the Seattle version of this concert and WE NEED TO TALK.

Dan Johnson said...

Maybe I was not logged in because it was TWO THIRTY IN THE MORNING my time.

I did get your text messages, however, and:

1) Re: Stephen Hartke, there was no Hartke on the New York program. I am 100% IN THE TANK for Stephen Hartke and would have told you, I promise.

2) Re: bearinetist, I TOLD YOU SO. Soooooo hot. I still regret getting on the last stupid train to New stupid Haven instead of hopping to the next bar with him and the 8bb/Oberlin posse. Sigh.

Grrg said...

Girl, you're ALWAYS awake at 2:30 in the morning! Because of your CRYSTAL METH PROBLEM!

(just kidding lol!)