View From the East: How To Be Real

View From the East: How To Be Real

Greg Sandow

New music concerts are often informal, especially if we compare them to more normal—or, if you like, stuffier, more ritualized, even constipated—mainstream classical events. This especially interests me because I teach a graduate course at Juilliard, called “Classical Music in an Age of Pop,” a course about the future of the field, which attracts students who wish that concerts were livelier, that they could express themselves more, and that they’d get more reaction from their audience.

So often I’ll tell them about new music events I’ve been at. After I heard Sarah Cahill play new piano music at Galapagos, in Williamsburg, I told my class about the space, which was a large room attached to a bar. Those of us in her audience sat at tables, which felt much more friendly and comfortable than sitting in rows in a concert hall. I knew a lot of people there, and I loved sitting with some of them in a little group, or, come to think of it, two little groups, since I talked to one friend at my own table, and to another sitting right on my left at another one. I’d even placed my chair so I could do just that, something that could never happen in a concert hall. Plus, we could go out to the bar, and bring back drinks. That’s very far from classical music; it’s positively civilized.

At this point, I—or you—could say, well, so what, since drinking at tables wouldn’t exactly be surprising if we were hearing jazz, or folksingers, or singer-songwriters, or African bands. Or, for that matter, if we were hearing new music at Joe’s Pub, the cabaret room at the Public Theater, or at the BAMcafé at BAM.

They even have tables at the Boston Pops. So why make a fuss about Galapagos? First because this wasn’t the Boston Pops, or even folk music, but instead, musically speaking, a serious classical event. By that I mean that Cahill played sober music; you’d never, just for instance, call the reticence—with chords and melodic lines that moved only within narrow boundaries—of Kyle Gann‘s Time Does Not Exist a concession of any kind to informality or entertainment. Nor could you call Among Red Mountains, by John Luther Adams, in any way relaxed, since all of it was monumentally loud. It sounded, as its name might imply, like an enormous rock formation turned into sound.

So the moral here—especially for classical music purists—is that sober music, and even severe music, can work in an informal setting. (Historically, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Schubert‘s songs, to give just one example, were first performed informally.) Nothing about the room stopped us from listening, not even spills of music from the bar. Those, I found, intruded only between pieces, and stopped mattering once the music started up again.

And that, if I might digress, reminded me of a very fine concert by the New Millennium Ensemble that I heard one Saturday night not long ago at Greenwich House. The comfortably tiny Greenwich House concert hall is in the Village, not far from busy Seventh Avenue, which on a Saturday night of course was roaring. The street noise got inside the concert, but I’d swear I didn’t notice. That wasn’t a surprise during C. Bryan Rulon‘s MessMix Express, which is designed to be, among other things, a noisy romp (and had the players grinning when a gonzo dance beat jumped into the mix; I’d heard them play the piece before, at one of last year’s MATA concerts, and, quite apart from loving the piece itself, I love their delight in it).

But the way street sounds vanished (at least from my attention) during Lou Harrison‘s Concerto #1 for Flute and Percussion was pretty striking. My ears and mind were straining toward the music, like plants to sunlight, loving the dance between the percussion and the flute (the piece is just for solo players, in this case John Ferrari and Tara Helen O’Connor, both rhythmic, poised, and relaxed), the two parts locked together by sheer magic, while seeming independent. The piece wasn’t loud enough to drown out the buzzing of a fly, but I’d swear I didn’t hear a single car horn. Only when O’Connor, joined by two recorded versions of herself, played Morton Feldman‘s Trio for Flutes did I notice the street, and that was because Feldman, as he always does, brought the silence behind the sounds alive, making me alert to anything I heard, even things outside his piece.

But back to Galapagos. Sarah Cahill also talked to us. She’s not, it seemed to me, a naturally talkative performer; she wasn’t chatty or relaxed. But still she talked about the music—because, I’ll guess, she was committed to it—even if she mostly only spoke some program notes. That made her reticence real for us, and therefore made her real, too, as something more than a pianist, even if that hadn’t been her intention.

And there was one marvelous moment. Cahill played a typically engrossing Ingram Marshall piece, Authentic Presence. She also read his comments on it, which included one phrase from an eastern religious text, something mildly enigmatic, but not, I would have thought, impenetrable in a culture where eastern religion has even been trendy. It stopped Cahill dead. “What does that mean?” she asked, with utter baffled honesty, turning toward Ingram in the audience. With perfect timing he said, “It means what it says” (the simplest and most truthful of all possible answers). For that one brief moment, the concert became a conversation, a friendly gathering that drew us all together. (Though I’ll note two problems. Cahill played with the lid of her piano all the way up, which in the small space made everything loud; John’s piece, for that reason, didn’t seem as powerfully extreme as it should have. Nor did Cahill’s touch ever seem gentle, in any of the music she played; that, too, made everything seem loud.)

Two more concerts to tell my students about: the Bang On A Can All-Stars and eighth blackbird (their name gets written all in small letters; too mannered, if you ask me), both at Tully Hall.

The All-Stars, of course, are wonderfully engaging, and seem completely, overwhelmingly themselves. They dissent—implicitly at least; I’d like to think they’ve never needed to discuss this—from two orthodoxies regarding dress. The first, the older one, says that classical musicians should dress formally. Well, clearly the All-Stars don’t do that. But the newer orthodoxy says that while it’s fine to be relaxed, you ought to make a good, professional impression by looking spiffy and (if you’re an ensemble) looking consistent.

Thankfully, the All-Stars don’t do that either. They come on stage, as far as I can see, looking however each member would like to look. Evan Ziporyn, the clarinetist, seemed comfortable; cellist Wendy Sutter glittered; guitarist Mark Stewart wore loud (but oddly muted) sloppy colors anybody else would have said didn’t match. None of which mattered, except, again, that all of it showed that everyone was comfortable. The group then slammed into their program with their usual drop-dead virtuoso chops, especially rhythmic chops, something not too common in the classical world.

Though I guess I should insert a disclaimer here. Do the All-Stars—or any other people in Bang On A Can—think of themselves as part of classical music? Clearly the three Bang On A Can composers began there; they were composition students at a well-known music school, and started the group because they didn’t like the way new music organized itself. But then they promoted their first concerts to a downtown arts audience that doesn’t identify itself with classical music. “That’s who we are,” a Bang On A Can administrator once said to me. And Mark Stewart, in his bio on the Bang On A Can website, says he makes his living “playing and writing popular music, semi-popular music and unpopular music.” Who cares whether any of it might be labeled, ugh, classical? Maybe the best way to resolve this taxonomical conundrum—and make it more useful than merely a word game—would be to say that Bang On A Can is everything I wish all classical music was, but doesn’t bow towards anything classical music currently is.

Ziporyn introduced the members of the group, pop-band style (something I’ve also seen the sharp new music string quartet Ethel do) and also spoke about every piece on the concert, coming off as a friendly and relaxed MC. I’ve seen a Tully All-Stars concert so excite an uptown arts type that she ran to the CD table afterwards, to snap up everything on sale. I’m not sure this concert would have done that, but then Bang On A Can’s success very happily doesn’t depend on my taste. The piece I really liked was Scott Johnson‘s The Illusion of Guidance, which, like so much of Scott’s music, dances in a fascinating world where thoughts get complex, and rock and R&B rhythms subtly jump around. There’s sometimes a contradiction there, when straight classical ensembles play these pieces, because they can’t get the rhythms right. But that’s one reason why the Bang On A Can performance was so invigorating; they’re at home on both sides of what shouldn’t be a fence.

What didn’t work so well, at least for me, was the final entry on the program, a set of Burmese-Western hybrid pieces by Kyaw Kyaw Naing, a master of the Burmese pat waing, a set of tuned drums arrayed in a half-circle behind a sculptural—almost architectural, as if the wall of the drums were on a grand but miniature building—facade. This took the All-Stars very far from classical music (assuming that matters), but also uncomfortably close to cliché.

And that, I think, was due to differences between Burmese and Western music, which I’m not qualified to analyze, or at least not in depth. But when Naing played by himself, everything seemed right, with the pitches (not quite, or so I thought, tuned for western ears) supporting the drive and sparkle of the rhythm. Add western instruments, as the All-Stars and some guests did, and the rhythms, still exhilarating, took on an added edge of challenge (because, as Ziporyn explained, they’re far from easy). But the pitches—now tuned, at least in the western instruments, to familiar western scales—now emerged as storytellers in their own right, unfortunately telling stories far too familiar from music in the west. If Naing played music that leaped upward, outlining the pitches of a triad, it sounded fun and fresh. When the All-Stars did it, they sounded gaudy, because the triad seemed to sing out more. That was especially true when guest violinist Todd Reynolds (from Ethel) played triads; not that he tried in any way to milk them, but the sound of the violin is naturally juicy, especially next to Burmese drums, and, unless the pitches bend away from western intonation, also naturally western. The effect, unintentionally, was like putting Mary Martin, doing “I’m as Corny as Kansas in August,” next to right next to folk singers from Bulgaria.

Not that the musicians weren’t completely sincere, and also excited about what they were going. eighth blackbird, by comparison, didn’t seem so agreeable. I wanted to like their concert, but I didn’t, except for the beginning, where they played pieces by the Minimum Security Composers Collective, melding four short works into a single pointed, individual (and informal) statement that reminded me of Bang On A Can, but with its own quite separate voice.

After that came the damnedest tribute to classical tradition—the world premiere of George Perle‘s Nine Movements, written for the group. I’m not going to say I don’t like Perle’s work, because it’s beautifully written, concise and elegant, without a note or gesture wasted, but it’s also constrained, without a note or gesture that speaks with any force. For me, that makes it academic music. You can understand that in the best possible sense, since Perle’s academy sounds like a refuge for solid workmanship, a place where every detail gets respect. But the protecting walls also serve to keep the music isolated, so it never steps outside itself.

What amazed me, though, was that group, intentionally or not, put Perle above the other music that they played, or at least they talked about him that way. They introduced every piece, speaking from the stage, and when they came to Perle, they told us, in tones of deep respect, how honored they were to have him write for them. Not that Perle doesn’t deserve respect, as a solid professional, and also (I mean this in the most sincere, old-fashioned way) as an older man. But do they think he stands on some great, high pinnacle of art? I couldn’t tell. They could just as well, to judge from how they sounded, be echoing ideas that other people have.

But at least they sounded human. Elsewhere in their program, they spoke affectedly, announcing, for instance, the Collective’s four-headed works in a kind of contrapuntal singsong. For some people, that may have seemed artistic, but to me it just seemed mannered, and also a little flat, as if the members of the group, having in effect decided not to be themselves, hadn’t gone far enough toward the opposite extreme, where they’d manufacture gloriously artificial (and, of course, theatrical) personae. That would have helped them in the piece that followed Perle, a fluffy pastry by Aaron Jay Kernis, all about music, food, and attitude, which in the end added up to nothing much, even with narration by the hyperactive Food Network chef Mario Batali. The whole thing seemed pretty pointless, unless you find yourself grinning with delight when you recognize, among many other fairly obvious musical quotations, two notes from Debussy‘s Clair de lune sneaking in, very pleased with themselves at the end of one movement (which, to be fair, did seem to make many members of the audience laugh with appreciation). The eighth blackbird people really got into this piece, I have to say, singing, speaking, and even barking, as the score tells them to, with all the animation so strangely missing when they spoke at any other time.

They finished the concert with a 40-minute wasteland, a huge floppy spiritual piece by a student composer who can’t yet yoke his thoughts together. Still, it was nice to see them go to bat, in their Lincoln Center debut, for a composer with no developed reputation, simply because they evidently believed in him. That (apart from the piece itself) is something to admire, and so is the way they try, at least, to do something livelier than what normally happens in the concert hall.

Which leaves me with one last thought. What happens when this new-music informality spreads to older music? I’ve said that I have students who want classical concerts to be looser—more communicative, more like conversations, more personally expressive. But it’s important to understand that they don’t want this just for new music, or, in fact, even mainly for new music. They want it for Beethoven.

The odds would seem to be against them. You approach a new piece—written, maybe, by a composer wearing sneakers and a T-shirt, with her nails polished green—with relaxed expectations. You don’t know what it’s going to be; it reveals itself as you play it. Beethoven can never seem so innocent; he’s not just himself, but also, unavoidably, a statue of himself, because we carry statue images of him around with us. How can we learn to play him without the ritual of the concert hall?

That’s a question I’ve bumped around for years. There’s the postmodern approach, where you figure out what the music means now, and emphasize the parts of it that might convey that meaning. The late Giuseppe Sinopoli did that, when he first got famous as a conductor, with sometimes touching and sometimes odd results; he’d blast, for instance, the piccolos and basses in a Verdi opera, to recreate the edgy sound of Verdi’s orchestra. That was interesting, but didn’t register as quite spontaneous.

And then there’s the early music approach, where you try to figure out what performers in the composer’s time would do, and of course what instruments they used, which leads you into one usually unexamined contradiction—those performers, unlike you, didn’t have to learn all that stuff, and so could approach the music far more directly than you ever could. Again, this isn’t quite a recipe for the kind of spontaneous performance I find in new music (unless, perhaps, you’re René Jacobs, and, as he does on a delectable Harmonia Mundi recording, you play Mozart‘s Cosi fan tutte on period instruments but with your own kind of romantic phrasing, freely admitting that Mozart would probably object).

The only satisfying answer I’ve found goes like this: Play new music most of the time, then see what happens when you try something old. Or, to put it differently, unlearn the classical approach by putting it aside, because new music doesn’t want or need it. Then return to classical works when new music seems the norm to you—with no idea what the result will be. That, if you ask me, would give a fabulous jolt to the standard classical repertoire—a jolt, perhaps, of reality.

Which is yet another good reason why most of the classical music we play should be new.

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