The individual and combined performances of vocalist Lisa Bielawa (best known as a composer) and cellist Frances-Marie Uitti at [le] poisson rouge on Sunday February 13 were extraordinary. Billed as “In Translation: A Bold New Collaboration,” the program included Bielawa’s performance of the Berio Squenza III for solo voice, Uitti playing the Xenakis Kottos 1977 for solo cello, and then an approximately 30-minute improvisation in which Christian Hawkey read original poems to which Bielawa and Uitti improvised.
The Berio began with Bielawa off-stage, using a hand-held microphone. Where was she? Eventually she materialized on stage, and made an impressively seamless transition to a mic on a stand. This was the second amazing performance of a Berio Sequenza I’ve experienced since I arrived in New York 5 weeks ago. The pieces are so rich, complex, full of mood changes and nonsense syllables that they have to be “owned,” quite obviously, to be performed at all. As I’ve heard them, anyway, they are profoundly theatrical. It takes an enormous commitment to learn one, so they are the sort of thing that gets done brilliantly or not at all. (I certainly wouldn’t want to hear a careful, tentative performance!)
The Xenakis cello piece is full of special effects, including lots of two-handed (at least in this performance) bow-crunching. To say that Uitti owns this piece would be an understatement. (I feel like I’ve been living under a rock in Greencastle for the last 20+ years. Not only am I not familiar with the Xenakis, which is a major 20th-century cello piece, but I’d never heard of Uitti, who is one of the most important new-music cellists of recent decades.) Uitti used a very tall seat (something on a piano bench, perhaps, all covered with a black drape), and keeps an assortment of four or five bows at the ready. For the Xenakis (or most of it, my memory has faded a bit), she used what at first I thought (with disbelief) was a Baroque bow. I couldn’t imagine using one for something this demanding on the bow. As I watched more closely (I was at a back table) I realized this was some sort of contemporary bow, lacking the Tourte-model arching. Turns out it is a bow of her own invention.
After an intermission, Brooklyn-based poet Christian Hawkey joined them on stage for a collaborative performance of sonnets he had written. Uitti is fond of what we musicians call scordatura, or alternative tunings. Bielawa told the audience, “It’s never the same,” (or words to that effect) as the cellist experimented, finally finding what I would call “the pitches the strings wanted to be tuned to.”
That’s the thing about improvisation, to which this portion of the evening was dedicated. It’s not your left brain figuring things out, it’s focusing on the music and discerning what wants to be played. It’s paradoxical; we create original music, which is probably the most profound manifestation of who we are as human beings, by getting (what we experience as) ourselves out of the way. (I heard Meridith Monk talk about this point on Tuesday, which I’ll get around to writing about soon.)
Everybody can improvise. We do it talking all the time, of course. We can do it musically (or with dancing, moving, painting) as well; most of us just haven’t given ourselves permission.
To speak well, you have to have something so say. And you need a vocabulary with which to say it. The larger the better, especially if your vocabulary is put in service of what you have to say, and you’re not saying something in order to show off your vocabulary. Even with a small vocabulary, you can be profoundly eloquent if you deeply feel what you are communicating.
Great musical improvisers have something to say, a wide and deep musical vocabulary, discipline and skill in their craft, and openess to and trust in their own ideas, the ideas of their musical partner(s), and the process itself. That was the case with this performance.
It looked like this: Hawkey on the audience-left side of the stage with a sheaf of poems, Bielawa in the center, Uitti and her assortment of bows on the right. Hawkey started reading; Uitti soon added some harmonics, and Bielawa some long vocal tones. Then Hawkey finished the sonnet and handed it to Biewala, who sang fragments from it. The music was continually varied, with Uitti often using two bows (one on each side of the strings). The process of a poem read, then handed to Biewala who sang from it and dropped the paper to the floor as she and Uitti improvised, continued throughout the set.
I wish I could describe for you the entire performance, because it was not just stunning but entrancing and enlivening and emotionally deep and varied. It was the most amazing improvisation I’ve ever witnessed (and I’ve witnessed a lot), both in the range of the individual performances and the connection between the two musicians.
I was awestruck. When I spoke to the performers after the show, I was tongue-tied. My own English vocabulary seemed to have deserted me; I had become a fan at a loss for words.
Turned out this was Biewala’s first improvised performance, and she and Uitti had experimented just once before. It would be hard to believe, except I’ve been around so many first-time improvisers that I know miracles can and do happen.
How was it able to happen? Biewala’s a gifted performer and as an important young composer knows a huge amount of music, is comfortable (or comes alive) on stage, and is in touch with her creative voice. Uitti, similarly, is not just experienced as an improviser but knows the contemporary/avant-garde cello literature as well or better than anyone else on the planet. And these two really connect. That’s something that happens or it doesn’t. When it does, it usually is immediate and powerful; you feel it from the first time you make music with the other person.
Hawkey’s poems gave them starting points, a focus for their creativity. They each have rich imaginations. And they each have huge musical vocabularies. That’s what reduced me to fan-status for the evening; I realized how much larger their musical vocabularies are than my own.
And my mind is still, well, boggled.