Wednesday night it was back to experimental music. I suppose my day might best be described as going from the sublime (NY Philharmonic) to the ridiculous (the Broadway comedy Souvenir) to the weird.
The third concert in Charles Curtis’s “Waking States” series presented three works by the American composer Alvin Lucier (b. 1931). Lucier has done much sound installation work, and this program helped me move closer to understanding the intentions and priorities of this “downtown,” experimental school. The concert was held at Diapason Gallery for Sound on 6th Avenue between 38th and 39th streets, a second-floor walkup space which has clearly been designed for sound installations and concerts. As was the case last Saturday, there were no chairs. I got there early enough to find out from Charles that the concert would be only an hour or so, so I sat in the middle of the floor rather than claiming a place against the wall.
In the first piece, Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas (1973-74), two slowly-beating computer-generated sine waves cause three snare drums, placed about the room, to vibrate sympathetically from time to time. Curtis didn’t play cello in this piece; he was at the laptop controlling the sine waves, I assume.
The second work was Charles Curtis (2002) for solo cello with slow sweep, pure wave oscillators. Here Charles did use his cello, playing various sustained double stop intervals, separated by silences, against two pure wave oscillators. “As the waves rise and fall, a cellist sustains long tones against the sleeping waves, creating audible beats at speeds determined by the closeness of the tunings.”
The final piece, the most visually intriguing as well was the most unlike anything I had imagined before, was Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases. A number of beautiful vases, handcrafted by Curtis’s friend Fred Stoddard, were arranged on the floor with microphones suspended within each one. The microphone cables were arranged so that they rose to the ceiling at an angle, with a slight drape, and then came straight down into each vase. It was quite a beautiful installation I and of itself. In this work, Curtis sat behind the vases and over the course of twenty minutes or so, he slowly worked up from the open C string to (I believe) the A over middle C. As the cello passed through different frequencies, one or more of the vases would begin to vibrate and be amplified to the vibration was quite audible. At times beating caused by the dissonance between the cello and the vases was quite pronounced. Beating was also exploited when the cello notes neared the pitch of an open string; double stops were used to accentuate the close differences of pitch.
It was all interesting to me, and Charles’s concentration and commitment were again impressive. I can’t say it was other than interesting; I no longer expect to be moved, for clearly that’s not what this sort of music is about. I also wasn’t shifted to an altered state by the progression of sounds. I think some of the rest of the audience were, though.
As I said above, I’m gaining a better perspective. These works are purposely outside the mainstream tradition of Western music, so much so that the Lucier and Radigue works in particular seem better described (to me) as “sound experiments” or perhaps “sound experiences” than as “music” (in the way I and most people usually think of music.) It’s quite interesting to watch my own resistance to this work, especially since I usually preach a gospel of inclusion and define music very broadly to my students.
On the way home I stopped by the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble to look for something else, yet ended up purchasing William Duckworth’s book of interviews with important twentieth-century composers (I would give the title but I have misplaced it for the moment), which is giving a much better intellectual context for these performances. As I suspected, many of these experimental composers have been greatly influenced by Eastern thought and the idea of music as something to quiet the mind rather than evoke cathartic or entertaining emotional experience. It is, in a sense, anti-emotional music. And in the interviews I’ve read, each composer speaks about exploring aspects of sound and in some cases rhythm. No one has spoken of expressing, communicating, or evoking emotion.
A final thought on the “is this something?” internal conversations I’ve been writing about. I introduced myself last night to a man I’ve seen at all three concerts. He told me that while he didn’t really get into the Lucier works, he found Monday’s Radigue piece performance to be an extraordinary experience. “After it was over, I realized I had not thought during the entire performance.” He was so grateful, so excited to have had that release from his conscious mind. It was clearly what many people would call a “peak experience” for him, although he didn’t use that phrase. That confirmed for me that this genre is not just intellectual exploration and probing, it also provides experiences which for at least some of its followers are as transformative and magical as great classical music is for those of us who love it so deeply. It may be that it never becomes my thing, or one of my things. Nevertheless, it is obvious that for many it is their thing, it really is something.