After the Antonioni film, my evening project was to begin to answer a question which had started to form in my mind when I first read Charles Curtis’s biography, which refers to his intense involvement in the “New York downtown new music scene.” What makes some music downtown music? Isn’t music just music?
It just happened that at 7:30 PM in Zankel Hall (the fairly new space which is part of the Carnegie Hall complex) there was a George Perle tribute concert, which made it possible to hear the first half of it and then go downtown for the second Waking States concert: a chance to compare “establishment” contemporary music with the downtown vibe back to back.
Perle, 90, has been a highly regarded and influential composer and composition teacher for over 60 years. This concert had a heck of a cast of players, including the hugely famous pianists Leon Fleisher and Jonathan Biss (at 25, having the sort of career that Leon did at that age).
I had been worried that the concert might be sold out, but the house was only a third full, if that, and I’m sure a good number of those were comp tickets—half the audience seemed to know each other and many clearly were friends with Perle and/or one or more of the performers. This lack of audience was incredibly surprising to me. Here we are, in NY, with a concert of works not just by such a significant living composer, but performed by artists including two of the worlds most respected concert pianists!
I heard only the first half of the concert, which included works for flute and piano, cello and piano, solo piano, and a quartet of flute, clarinet, violin, and cello (as the notes pointed out, a Pierrot ensemble without the singer or pianist). I thoroughly enjoyed the pieces. Perle has been a great champion of the twelve-tone composers, especially Schoenberg, Webern, and, most of all, Berg. Though not a twelve-tone or, according to the notes, even atonal composer himself, his music contains the interesting dissonances, conciseness, and expressionism much like those early members of the Second Viennese School. It was also a great pleasure to hear the rising young cellist Priscilla Lee play, and to hear Jonathan Biss live for my first time.
The music and performances were so wonderful (a combination of technical mastery, musicianship, and emotional commitment on the same high level as Sundays NY Philharmonic chamber music concert) that I seriously considered staying for the whole concert and skipping the second program of Charles Curtis’s Waking States series, which was to begin at 9:00 PM down on 13th St. And Leon Fleisher, whom I’ve admired since I was in middle school, and who was an important teacher to me when I was at Peabody, was playing on the second half.
In any other circumstance, I would have stayed, if only to hear Leon. But I came to NY at this time especially to hear this entire Waking States series, and Charles was doing a world premiere, and so when intermission came a little after 8:30 PM I went out to 7th Ave and got a cab to the next event. (It was one of the few times I was glad I didn’t know anyone at the concert, because it would have been embarrassing to have someone I knew see me leave before Fleisher played!)
Well, I thought to myself in the cab, I’ve just heard mainstream, uptown contemporary music. Now I can see if there what distinguishes downtown contemporary music.
Here’s one answer. If you are a mainstream classical musician, even if you don’t like George Perle’s music, there’s no question that, as David Letterman might put it, this is something. Conventional classical instruments, played conventionally, with all the standard musical elements of specific rhythms, meter, harmony, melody, counterpoint, motivic development, dynamic contrasts, discreet movements, and a definite sense of personal emotions being expressed. There’s a definite sense of anger, sadness, humor, etc. The harmonic language may be more dissonant than is appealing to most classical musicians and audiences, but it is clearly written within the context of the Western classical-music paradigm. I happened to love it. (I also like Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.) My classical-musician self was very comfortable with the music. I wanted to go buy Perle CDs (and started an internal argument as to whether or not I could fit them in the budget). I wanted to get the music and perform the Lyric Piece for Cello and Piano Lee played. I started thinking about putting together a group to perform the Sonata a Quattro for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello.
Concert two of “Waking States” was the premiere of Ėlaine Radigue’s Naldjorlak for solo cello. This piece is an exploration of unusual resonances created with a slightly altered conventional acoustic cello. The cello has been retuned, the tailpiece set, and the end pin pulled to the appropriate length so that everything, the cello, the tailpiece wire, and the endpin itself, are tuned to the resonance of the air cavity of the cello. Curtis, again playing from memory, played long drones which created multiphonics. At one point, the piece focused on the “wolf” tone, with the cellist slightly altering finger position to speed up or slow down the beats of the tone. One long section explored nothing but the sounds created by bowing the endpin itself, and the final one bowing the tailpiece wire that loops around the endpin.
All this has been carefully, painstakingly worked out by Radigue and Curtis. And there was no question that Curtis was totally in command and totally committed to and immersed in the work.
I came to the concert with as open a mind as I could. Not begrudgingly, half-heartedly open, but intentionally open, not just my mind but my heart. And yet, after a couple minutes of the opening section, in which the cellist plays on the C string intentionally making sounds that most cellists would call noise, and doing so with great reverence, this thought came to mind: Is this something, or is this, well, just bullshit?
First reaction: most of my professional colleagues, the people I play with most often, would dismiss this and say this is bullshit. Because it is missing all those things that so easily defined the Perle works for me as “something.” (I remember one of my DePauw colleagues defiantly walking out of a Kronos Quartet concert when they did a section in which they rhythmically whipped their bows in the air.)
Second reaction: everyone here seems to be experiencing this as something. I looked around at the rest of the audience (this night sitting on chairs). These people were into it.
Third reaction: OK, they are into it, but is this an emperor’s new clothes sort of thing? Maybe they’ve all talked themselves into the idea that this is really something, but in reality they’ve fooled themselves into going along with a sort of counter-cultural snobbery in which a bunch of unusual sounds are embraced as art, even though it doesn’t make any real sense. Maybe everyone’s here for a hit of that I-understand-what-others-can’t superiority, the kind I jokingly described myself feeling after the Antonioni film.
Fourth reaction: As with the Antonioni film, my intuitive sense is that while as is the case with virtually every public art event there is some pretense going on among some I the audience, there really is something here and I’m just not getting it. So, Eric, shut the heck up and just listen.
Just listening is easier said than done. (Sure, just don’t think. What could be easier?) So I started meditating and doing meditative listening. And for brief periods of time, I got it. I got into it.
And then my classical self would say, figuratively speaking, “Hey, not you, too! This isn’t something, this is bullshit.” Be quiet, I’d answer, just let me listen to this. But there was an internal battle going on, and on the subway home, I wasn’t sure whether it was something or finely-crafted noise, more pretense than anything else.
And now it is the next day. It seems clearer now. It’s both. We are talking two different paradigms of what music is. Listened to in the “downtown” paradigm, that Radigue piece, it really is something. Listened to from the “uptown,” mainstream, I want a melody-even-if-it-is-atonal paradigm, it’s bullshit.
This trip, for me, then, is about learning to experience the downtown events with downtown ears. I’m new at it, but I’m starting to get it. And that, for me, anyway, is definitely something.