Category Archives: Non-traditional Venues

Winning at Roulette: An Evening Not for the Faint of Heart

After the Clogs/Brooklyn Youth Chorus Ecstatic Music Festival concert, I went into serious-cellist mode. Wednesday March 16, my performance with the International Street Cannibals, was looming. (It went well, and I was not eaten alive, thanks for asking, nor was anyone else.) Until then, I rehearsed, practiced my ass off, and besides taking my daughter out to see The King’s Speech (I really didn’t think two hours about speech therapy could be riveting, but it is), stayed pretty much at home.

Monday I had a session with my terrific personal trainer, Chris.  Sunday I’d thought to send him a text message.  “Big concert Wednesday night.  Anything but arms tomorrow–have to have full use of them until Thursday.”  When Chris works you out, well, there might not be all that much left the next day or two.  So we did legs, and while walking was still less than fully comfortable Wednesday, the upper body was functioning at full capacity.

So it was Thursday the 17th when I finally got back on the subway to go to another concert.  I went down to the all-too-close subway station (just half a block from my building) a bit later than was comfortable and immediately went into impatient, why-won’t-the-train-come-right-now-like-magic mode.  I even found myself doing the thing I think is so stupid when performed by others: leaning over and peering into the darkness of the tunnel to see if a train is coming.  Like that’s going to help.  Watched pots don’t boil, looked for trains don’t emerge.  So I relaxed, and the express train did come.  Soon I was at 14th St., transferred to the local, and almost before I knew it emerged on Canal St. with plenty of time to make it to Greene St.

That’s where Roulette, my destination for the evening, is. I’d been thinking of it as an “alternate venue” for classical music.  But really it’s a long-standing “downtown” new-music venue.  At some location or another, it’s been presenting new (avant garde, experimental, contemporary, etc.) music for three decades.  I put “downtown” in quotes only because many of us not from New York, especially those more anchored in traditional classical music, aren’t aware that one of the many music cultures in Gotham is the downtown music scene.  Downtown music developed in  the 1960s (when else?) in lofts and small spaces in places like Roulette’s Canal and Greene Streets location.  Factories were closing, buildings vacant, and rents cheap.  Now, on the border of SoHo and Tribeca, it’s one of the most expensive, highest-income neighborhoods of Manhattan.  Artists led the revitalization; today, they are priced out of the neighborhood.  Roulette, not surprisingly, is moving to Brooklyn.

The program was (mostly) new piano music by Christian Wolff, Michael Byron, and Larry Polansky, performed by Joseph Kubera and Marilyn Nonken (tremendous pianists).  No one was waiting for Sufjan Stevens here. This was terrific, no-holds-barred, complex, intellectually-challenging, frequently atonal, irregularly metered, hard-to-follow-unless-you-throw-yourself-into-it new music.  The kind of stuff that music students groan about having to study.

I loved it.

It was, in its own way, like a really good workout with Chris, my trainer.  Takes you places you didn’t know about.  Pushes you past limits you didn’t know you had. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. “Book of Horizons is not for the faint of heart,” explained the program note, which continued, “‘Retreat is not an option,’ challenges the composer.” No kidding.

There’s a delicious integrity to a place like Roulette.  So much of the classical world is trying to figure out how to appeal to a broader audience.  Become more accessible.  Sell more tickets.  Make more money.  All that is important in the larger world.  But not at Roulette.  Want to play there?  Apply.  Read the guidelines.

Our programming focus includes avant jazz, experimental music, experimental electronic music, multimedia music projects, and new music among other forms of new and experimental music.  We do not program rock, pop, musical theater, singer-song writers, or any other form of commercial music.

So it’s not the kind of place you’re likely to hear Gabriel Kahane performing his CraigsList Leider.  That’s fine;  the world needs all sorts of venues. The place really filled up, too, with older folks like me and a good sprinkling of young composer/serious new music types.

Christian Wolff’s Exercise 20 (Acres of Clams) started the concert, performed by both Kubera and Nonken (two pianos).  The oldest piece on the program, it was composed in 1980.  It’s a set of variations on “a song sung by a New-England-based, non-violent activist group called The Clam Shell Alliance, which occupied the site of the Seabrook (New Hampshire) Nuclear Power Plant in 1977.” It included a bit of whistling and some moments with percussion toys.  I’d love to have been following the score to see how much was strictly notated and what was aleatoric.  The program note (by Amy C. Beal) explained that it’s a piece which focuses “on sensitivity, coordination, and communication between the players, often in what Wolff has referred to as ‘democratically indeterminate’ ways.” I’m all for indeterminacy, especially the democratic kind.

Michael Byron’s Book of Horizons was written in 2009, but this was its premiere.  Just one piano, played by Kubera. Five movements, with programmatic titles.  “Unknown Americans” was very contrapuntal.  “Porcelain Nights” had many arpeggiated figures, and often sounded pentatonic, although not strictly so.  “Like the Eyes of the Bride” had me writing “pointillistic . . . short gestures . . . short scale riffs . . . punctuating chords.”  “A World Full of Hope” was rhapsodic, with bell-like passages  The final movement, “Appearances and Architraves,” returned to short gestures and complex textures.  (Whew!  Writing notes in the program helps. What, you don’t know what an architrave is? I didn’t either.) Great variety, and indeed “not for the faint of heart”!

Lots of chatting at intermission. Many people knew each other;  it’s a hub of the downtown new music scene, after all, and there was a bit of a clubhouse feel. Another blogger introduced me to someone.  “Oh, Eric Edberg.  You’re a writer, right?”  And it’s funny, while I was glad he’d heard of me, what came out of my mouth was, “I’m a cellist.  And I write a blog.”  (Some identity issues going on, I see.)

The second half of the concert was Larry Polansky’s 2007 Three Pieces for Two Pianos, also having its premiere.  (Serious composers don’t hold their breath waiting for a new piece to get performed.)  No programmatic titles in this work:

I
II
III (Canon in four voices)

But just when I thought I’d found an oasis free of genre-melding music, here came Stephen Foster’s “Comrades Raise No Glass for Me” in the second movement!  Well, it wasn’t really genre-melding.  Quoting a song is different than synthesizing idioms.  As Amy C. Beal’s very informative program notes explained, Polansky explores “purely musical puzzles (‘interrupted tuplets,’ ‘stretching’ a song by independently varying exponential curves, probabilisitically morphing modes, and more).”  OK, if you understand that, you’re probably named Polansky!

The complex first movement, Foster-free, is “an homage to [Henry] Cowell’s Rhythmicana as well as an expression of Polansky’s faith in the pianists’ Kubera’s ability to play very difficult rhythms.”  Very difficult, indeed.  But faith (in the sense of belief without evidence) was not needed–the evidence of skill was overwhelming.  The last movement draws on computer-music techniques, according to the notes, but just how I’m not sure.  Regardless, we all loved it, the performers, and their performance.  As an encore they played one of piece’s the optional “Interloods.” Which one, I’m not sure.  If you’re playing “Meditation from Thais,” that’s pretty easy to announce.  If it’s viiitviiniiivii(iii) (“moving out”) (tooaytood #15c) (one of the “unusual titles” of the Interloods) you just play the thing.

You know, lots of classical musicians hate this sort of stuff.  Some people think that the dominance of this sort of challenging, not-easy listening music in the post-WWII years helped kill off a wide audience for new music.  Maybe it did.  But did I ever enjoy this concert, in all its who-cares-if-you-listen glory.

When I left Roulette, I noticed a plaque on a nearby building.

Fluxhouse plaque on Greene St.

It was the second Fluxhouse.  And I took the best photo my iPhone could in the streetlight, just for Jon Silpayamanant, my former student and much admired colleague (and by far the most frequent commenter on this blog), with whom I would have loved to have shared the entire evening.  He would have appreciated even more than I.

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Filed under Christian Wolff, Downtown Music, Fluxhouse, Jon Silpayamanant, Joseph Kubera, Larry Polansky, Marilyn Nonken, Michael Byron, Non-traditional Venues, Pianists, Roulette