View From New York: Wouldn’t It Be Nice?

View From New York: Wouldn’t It Be Nice?

Greg Sandow

In the past few weeks, I’ve gone to a scattering of new music concerts in New York where I live, and I’ve noticed that there doesn’t seem to be any consistent audience. People who give concerts seem to have their own little crowd, their own network, their own circle of friends, and to some extent, maybe a large extent, that’s who shows up.

And maybe this is natural. You’ll find much the same thing in clubs, where each band that plays has its own following. In new music, I can identify my own little circle, and at a couple of events, I saw these people out in force. Which made me happy (it’s always nice to see friends), but also left me wondering why many fewer people I know showed up for other performances. Not, of course, that this is about me, or my network, or my friends. It’s about the new music world as a whole—or, rather, how it doesn’t seem to be any kind of whole. New music in New York seems fragmented, right now, at least to me, and I’d like to see more going on that would bind us together. We talk as if we have common interests, and we have organizations that support us all (NewMusicBox being one). But how much do we even know about what we all are doing?

Let me single out three random events, things that happened to cross my radar, things that floated my purely personal and private boats, or (speaking with grim realism now) simply meshed with my slightly crazy schedule. But on the other hand all these concerts had some significance for everyone in the new music world, even though two of them involved musicians from, gasp, Europe. Both from Amsterdam, in fact. Makes me wonder, parenthetically—are we paying all our attention to our own local stuff? That would be completely understandable, but doesn’t do us much good.

So here are my three events. One was a concert on March 30, at Roulette, by Kathleen Supové. Kathy is well known in New York, of course, and so I guess a concert by her isn’t a deck-clearing event—except that her concerts are always events, since she dresses to kill, talks, carries on, performs in every sense, in this case threatening Nick Didkovsky that she’d play his Rama Broom in darkness, making up the notes as she went along. That piece really tickled me. Kathy speaks a text that gradually congeals from isolated words into a sentence, just as the music congeals into what it’s going to be. The sentence is an explosion of rage, but the piece is playful—but rage is something we all live with, so why not play with it? The whole thing was intriguingly funny, and just plain intriguing, a delight for the mind, like a crossword puzzle that solves itself while you watch. Not a deck-clearing event, as I’ve said, but the kind of thing I’d love to know about, if I didn’t happen to go.

And the next event was Louis Andriessen‘s De Materie at Tully Hall on May 1, part of Lincoln Center’s evidently spectacular Andriessen festival. I say “evidently spectacular” because I only went to this one concert, but Andriessen is powerful, and little heard in America, so if the other performances were anywhere near as compelling as this one, then the festival was spectacular. (We should be happy, by the way, that Lincoln Center gave us days of Andriessen, and that the New York Philharmonic gave us days of Ives. Even the mainstream has something to contribute.)

This concert was special, first of all, simply because of what we might call logistics. De Materie is a major piece, lasting a full evening all by itself. It hasn’t been performed complete before in the United States, and isn’t likely to be done again soon, or maybe ever, except maybe in the Netherlands, where Andriessen’s from. That’s because, like a lot of his work, it’s written for a large and unconventional ensemble—50 instrumentalists, including sax/clarinet doublers and electric guitars, synthesizers, and electric bass, plus an ensemble of eight singers, two soprano soloists, an actress who speaks, and a dancer who speaks. There are very few strings; this isn’t a project any orchestra would be likely to take on, even assuming one was ready for the music, which is the damnedest combination of minimal music and thorough, searing dissonance. By the end of the evening I felt that my body had been shaken, my cells cleaned out, my whole being sandpapered and cleansed.

To this I could add, in any list of difficulties, the abstract content of the piece, the way it’s in four parts, with four different texts, the first part offering 17th century Dutch writing on shipbuilding and (very abstract here) the atomic theory of matter, the second part offering mystical visions (again in Dutch), from the 13th century, the third part moving to wistful recollections of Mondrian (a Dutch painter, of course), and the last part moving through thoughts about death and reminiscences of Marie Curie.

I’ve stressed, almost whimsically, the Dutch connection in most of this, but the main thread is something more, so to speak, concrete. De Materie means “matter,” as opposed to thought or spirit or concepts—physical substance. The first part connects very clearly, observing matter in both theory (however charmingly outdated) and practice. The second part is the opposite of matter: visions, dreams, religion, non-matter. Mondrian’s paintings are physical, and so, I guess, was his dancing (one stop on the train of memories of him). And Marie Curie studied matter, the radioactive kind, and died from radiation poisoning; this is matter in distress, matter falling apart, matter (the human body) turned weak and fallible.

And even the sound of the piece is imposingly physical; the almost unending dissonance seemed to make the air in Tully Hall congeal. But in some ways the interpretations don’t matter, any more than the details of the plot matter in a Verdi or Bellini opera, or the fine points of the words of a pop song that worms its way inside you. It’s the music that carries all the force. The words explain it, in a way, or locate it somewhere in a vast arena of thoughts, but without the music, we might not care.

There were echoes in the score of Stravinsky, always a supreme Andriessen favorite, though this was Stravinsky eaten, digested, and his particles (his “materie”) distributed to every moment in Andriessen’s piece, where they turned into something new, something obviously nourished by Stravinsky, without being in any way Stravinsky-like. (You could say, “Hey, those are chords Stravinsky would have liked,” but you’d never think, “And that’s exactly how Stravinsky used to use them.”) I could, if I wanted to, draw a distant line between the ending of the Symphony of Psalms and the consolingly tonal transfiguration at the end of the second, religious part of De Materie, but so what? The connection isn’t very close, and might not even strike anybody who hasn’t—as I know I have, and Andriessen has—eaten Symphony of Psalms and digested every note of its conclusion. (Andriessen, by the way, wrote a book on Stravinsky, The Apollonian Clockwork, with Elmer Schonberger, that’s one of the best, and craziest, books on music I’ve read. Much writing on music doesn’t quite make sense to me as a composer, because the analytical things the writers seize upon aren’t things composers think about, which of course doesn’t mean they’re pointless; they just aren’t quite as central as the writers might think. Andriessen’s book shows exactly how composers think—with, for instance, ecstatic stuff about chord voicings—and I could just about eat it, along with my Stravinsky scores. Unfortunately, it’s out of print.)

But here’s what struck me most: the hall wasn’t close to full. This major work, this cataclysm of new music, didn’t draw a giant crowd. And in the crowd, there weren’t many composers that I recognized. The oddity, a very sad one, was that this event, hugely important as it was by any purely musical measure, didn’t feel important. It came off as just another concert, with—to judge from my reading of the audience—no special meaning for the new music world, or at least not the new music world I’ve come to know. I could blame that on Lincoln Center’s marketing, or, more reasonably, on the overall failure of the mainstream classical music world to create events of any kind (one of its biggest failures, as it tries to find a new audience), but that still doesn’t explain why the new music world mostly didn’t seem to show up. People are busy, the ticket was expensive…but still. Among much else, there seem to be some dots here that nobody’s connecting. If Lincoln Center has a big new music thing, and tickets aren’t selling, why not paper the house with new music people? Draw a crowd, create excitement, and, most of all, get the music to the people who’d most care about it.

My third event was another cataclysm, but this time a small one, a performance by Frances-Marie Uitti at the Chelsea Art Museum on May 6, part of a series presented by the Electronic Music Foundation. The series seemed notably strong, with (among other things) a concert by Neil Rolnick and Todd Reynolds (improvising on laptop and violin), and a realization of John Cage‘s HPSCHD, certainly something you’d think the world would notice.

And Uitti’s concert really was cataclysmic. She improvised on an electronic cello, with electronics both following and provoking her, or sometimes unconcernedly going their own way; then she improvised with violinist Mari Kimura. One thing that makes her cataclysmic is the utter, irrefutable rightness of everything she plays. I first heard that in the ‘80s, when she played John Cage in New York—one of his I Ching pieces, with notated pitches, randomly generated—and I reviewed her in my column in The Village Voice. She had a rare, almost unique way of making each new pitch a new universe, as if nothing had come before, and nothing would come after. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard, before or since, anyone render sounds with such purity, not even Cage himself.

And she was just as pure on May 6, except this time she was thinking up the sounds herself, and they all were connected, with unstoppable authority (and also a great sense of fun, and sometimes some fury). Mari Kimura sounded just fine, but it’s pointless to compare; Uitti, in this kind of playing, is supreme.

Again, though, only a small audience came to the concert. There wasn’t room for a large one, so maybe the small audience was all anyone expected. But here I think there’s a larger problem, which might be that people in New York don’t know who Uitti is (she’s American, but lives in Amsterdam and mostly plays in Europe). So this is an event that might have been trumpeted to the new music world, which is not to blame the Electronic Music Foundation for not having a trumpet; they do what they do, and without many examples of new music groups that really make a splash, it’s unfair to blame them for not doing more.

But still I wish things were different. I wish more people had come to hear Uitti; I wish more people had come to Andriessen. And I wish more people could have shared the events in some way, or, in Uitti’s case, even known that they were going on.

Which makes me dream. My dreams are very simple—I’m dreaming of some central site (doubtless on the web) where we could read about new music concerts. Start with simple listings of events. Where can we find them? If you’re in New York City, the Calendar for New Music seems like a cornucopia, especially if you look at their calendar grid, which shows something happening nearly every day in May and June. Click on a day, and you find out what’s going to happen then.

But, useful as this is, there’s a limitation. The site just gives listings, nicely formatted, sometimes reproductions of what look like flyers, or else advertisements. Which is better than a blank sea of shapeless type, but if you don’t know the performers, the composers, or the performing groups the listings deal with, then you won’t know what’s going on. The calendar won’t tell you. I’d love to go beyond that. Wouldn’t it be nice to have brief descriptions of what’s going on? These might not be evaluations (that might not be fair), but they’d give us something more than just a list of names and pieces, so we’d know what kind of music we’d find at each event.

“Wouldn’t it be nice”—of course I’m quoting the Beach Boys song, from Pet Sounds. Because, nice as it would be, what I’m proposing here doesn’t seem very likely. Who’s going to go out and make this happen?

But since I’m fantasizing—singing the Beach Boys to myself—let me do it more. I’ll imagine reviews of all these concerts, sympathetic ones, but insightful and accurate. Where could these appear? On a website, of course, and here we do have models, for instance Classical Voice of North Carolina, with comprehensive long reviews of classical music in North Carolina, a site created after classical reviews in North Carolina newspapers started to get scarce. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a site for new music reviews in New York? And, of course, throughout the country, but sites like this are easier to start locally, as the North Carolina model shows. It’s easier to know your own territory—to know the concerts that need to be covered, and which writers should cover them.

Think what we’d get from that. The reviews wouldn’t have to be long, and in fact shouldn’t be, so that readers could easily read a lot of them. No event should be singled out; there shouldn’t be major and minor reviews of different lengths, but equal treatment for everything, not least because—obviously—the most striking concerts don’t have to be the biggest ones.

If these reviews existed, we’d have a chance to know what was going on out there, because of course most of these concerts, the vast majority, are never reviewed anywhere, or written about in any way. I suppose that was always true—except that in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Voice had a new music column that ran every week, in which, over the years, four critics— first Tom Johnson, then me, then briefly Linda Sanders (a terrific critic, now unfortunately forgotten, though it’s been a long time since she wrote about music), and then Kyle Gann—reviewed as much new music as we could. So while everything couldn’t get covered, a lot of it was, and anyone who read the column regularly got some idea of the new music scene.

Kyle continued through the ‘90s and the ‘00s, but the Voice cut back on the space it gives him, so his coverage can’t be as complete as the column (under all of us) once was. Arguably, we need this coverage now more than we ever did, except maybe in the ‘70s, when downtown styles were new, and Tom Johnson (as I’ve noted here before) exposed them to eager readers all over the country. (I was one of them.) Our problem now, I think, is that we take it all a little bit for granted, since most of us, if we’ve been around the scene a while, know most of the styles we’re likely to hear, and might not expect to be surprised. But that would be silly of us. Art can always bring surprises, and complacency functions reasonably well as a signal that something completely new might be emerging.

(Striking example, from Virgil Thomson, writing in the mid ‘60s in his book Virgil Thomson by Virgil Thomson, dismissing, in a curt parenthesis, the idea that there could be any underground new music that he didn’t know about: “I imagine,” Thomson wrote, “that if there were a musical underground, I should know it.” He then came out from his parentheses, and—further explaining why there couldn’t be anything underground, unknown to him or unpublicized—went on as follows:

The twelve-tone serial composers, after spending nearly half a century outside the Establishment, are now a pressure group achieving power; they will certainly not resign from it now. Nor will the far-outs (percussive or electronic), whose training has ever been twelve-tonal and pressure-groupish. And just as certainly the pranksters, those charming rediscoverers of Dada who make us laugh, will not deny themselves the publicity for which their jolly jokes have been conceived.
So reasonable, so confident, so well and comfortably expressed. And meanwhile Steve Reich was writing Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain, and Terry Riley had already written In C…)

So we ought to have reviews of what’s going on. Those reviews, in fact, would be the first thing this site I’m dreaming of would undertake, because they naturally precede the explanatory listings that I’d like to see. Once we had reviews, we’d have reviewers who naturally would track the scene, and could write the listings in advance.

Who would these reviewers be? They’d be young, I think, if only because the work wouldn’t pay much (if it paid anything at all), and younger people normally have more energy for work that doesn’t pay the rent. (I hope that doesn’t sound patronizing. I was young, in this sense, to an absurdly old age myself, which only made the lesson, when finally I learned it, all the more inevitable.) In effect, these reviewers would be volunteers, but I’d bet there wouldn’t be a shortage of them. What might be harder to find, and more important, would be their editor, who’d find the reviewers, assign them, and help them polish their work. And there’d have to be a production staff, at least a small one, though maybe the editor could do the production work as well. But he or she surely wouldn’t want to, once the site grows as large as it ought to be.

I don’t know who this editor could be (any volunteers?), but I’m sure he or she is out there. Which leaves just one problem unsolved. Who’s going to fund the site, and host it? As long as I’m dreaming to a Beach Boys tune, I’ll suggest that the American Music Center could do all this, maybe through NewMusicBox, or else Meet the Composer, though of course I can see objections. Not their mission, no staff time (I absolutely forbid the AMC to order NewMusicBox’s editors to add this to their workload!), no money, and in the AMC’s case, conflicts, or supposed conflicts, with ideas of what a membership organization can and can’t do. Why would it review composers who aren’t members? Why would it endanger members by running reviews that might be negative?

But to all of that I say pooh and piffle. I review concerts and CDs right here. Why can’t other people do it? And the benefits from having the reviews would far outweigh any imagined or even real slight to anyone. Besides, didn’t I say the reviews should be sympathetic? They should always take the composer’s point of view, even if the reviewer couldn’t always share it. And yes, the reviews would have to be evaluative, in spite of what I’ve just said. We can’t expect reviewers to approach each concert as if they were a tabula rasa, free of any thoughts or feelings. That wouldn’t be human. I doubt it’s even possible. And it wouldn’t be effective. Nobody would believe the reviews if they didn’t—however much sympathy they extended to composers and performers—have their own point of view. But readers who disagreed with reviews could post rebuttals. Including, of course, the people who’d been reviewed. The site could be very lively!

So why can’t we have a site like this? I’d read it. Many other people would. Or if we can’t have a comprehensive new music review ‘zine, why not at least two or three roving columnists, to do for new music now what Tom, Linda, Kyle, and I did in print, in past decades? (No, I’m not going to do it now. Too old, too settled, too busy, not about to dash around to four or five events a week, much as I might enjoy them, at least for the first few months.)

I fear that my suggestions won’t take off, and that my Beach Boys website isn’t going to happen. Maybe there’s too much inertia, or not enough excitement. Maybe whatever makes the scene so fragmented also stops people from fighting the fragmentation.

But wouldn’t it be nice?

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