Tonic is a club on the lower East Side, not too far from Chinatown. It’s kind of a grubby place, in a building unmarked by a sign with the club’s name or even with a street address. In my middle-aged, midwestern way, I’m going to guess that it is an “underground” club or something close to it.
This was the first of Charles Curtis’s “Waking States” concerts at which one could not only purchase a drink but seemed to be expected to. Charles had very nicely put me on the guest list, so I didn’t have to pay admission, so I did spring for a beer (something small-label, I forget what). After the spirtual atmosphere of the first concert at the Mela Foundation Dream House (complete with altar), and the high-toned, serious and medidative atmoshperes of the other concerts, having a somewhat noisy cash bar at the back of the space was a bit of a culture shock.
The venue has exposed pured-conccrete walls, with a fairly raised stage. As we entered about ten minutes before the concert started, Charles was carefully tuning his cello, which he did at great length, often checking it with the prerecorded drones he would be playing against in the concert. Around 8:00, someone arrived with program notes, which gave us something to read as we waited another half-hour or so for the performance to begin. I didn’t mind waiting; it gave me time to read the notes, drink my beer, and rest.
I had been wondering until then who would be playing the saxophone in the night’s work, terry Jenning’s Piece for Cello and Saxophone (1960). Would it be LaMonte Young, who I knew used to play saxaphone a lot? Would it be LaMonte Young singing the sax part, as I’ve read he has done in the past? Would it be someone else?
But no saxophonist was listed in the program. Aha! Charles was playing the sax part on the cello, I learned from the notes, having prerecorded the drones that were the original cello part. Well, actually it was originally a bass part.
Much like LaMonte Young’s work Just Charles and Cello in the Romantic Chord, the Jennings piece is a series of drones over which a solo part is performed. Particular modal pitch sets are designated by the composer, who originally improvised the sax part. What Charles played was LaMonte Young’s realization, and I’m not sure how much of an improvised element there was in terms of order of pitches, rhythms, repetitions. In the notes, Young discussed his role in the piece at great length, and presented a rationale for not claiming co-composer credit which seemed to me to more out of respect for his late colleague and friend then a lack of significant creative input into this performance (he carefuly taught Charles the solo part.)
By this point in the process of listening to Charles’s concerts, I had become fully open to music based on long drones, music with little overt pulse, and certainly little continuous pulse, and to drones changing pitch levels and including dissonance. Yes, of course, it’s about “waking states” of altered consciousness. The idea is to tap into a sense of timelessness. I’m getting into it.
It was a beautiful piece. There’s a poignant quality. I just looked at the notes, and see I picked that word up from Charles’s comments:
Jennings’ music manages to combine a bleakness, an austerity, with a kind of
tendernes, that is indescribably poignant. The word bittersewwt is rarely as
accurately applied as it is to his music. It is a state that very few composers
have ever captured; first and foremost, there is Schubert of the Winterreise;
and then there are moments in bach, in Purcell, in late Chopin, and occasionally
in Debussy; and almost nothing else comes to mind. Perhaps the particular
element that Jennings captures is one that is not familar to the more
forthright, dramatic, spectacular composers. Perhaps his retisence, his
impossible personality, his personal problems, made him privy to a fleeting
moment of beauty that is revealed in such detail to only a very few.
He suffered for his art, no question.
I’m having lunch with Charles tomorrow and I’m interested to ask about his understanding of the Indian influences in the composers I’ve heard, including the understanding of why they have picked up on and explored drones so much, but at the same time not been interested in including the percussion element and its strong rhythmic cycles of Indian music, nor in the highly ornamented types of melodic improvisation so central to classical Indian music.
Charles continues to deeply impress and amaze me. His concentration, skill, deep involvement in the music, his clear respect and reverence and love for the music are all what one finds in a “great artist.” He seems unique to me in his dual involvement in mainstream and experimental music on such a high level, and one of few people who would become familiar with a work such as the Jennings and find resonances with Schubert, Bach, Purcell, Chopin, and Debussy.