Category Archives: Wordless Music Orchestra

A Love Child of Stravinsky and Rock at Tully Scope

It turns out the sectional side walls/doors (one side burnished wood, the other black) of the new Alice Tully Hall stage rotate at least ninety degrees. For the March 7 Tully Scope concert featuring Tyondai Braxton and the Wordless Music Orchestra, they were open, parallel to the front of the stage, like theater stage side curtains.  Each piece was lit differently, often with dramatic effect, a different color scheme for each movement–if that’s the right word to use for this post-classical, melded-genres music–of Braxton’s Selections from Central Market (2008), the program’s second half.

The concert hall had become a theater.

A number of us in the audience were quite taken with this aspect of the program in and of itself.  The festival, which celebrates the diversity and range of music in New York (and specifically at Tully), also showcases the striking visual possibilities and flexiblity of the space’s architecture.  A twenty-something New York new-music musician caught my eye during the post-concert free-drink party in the striking glass-enclosed lobby.  “Wow.  It makes you see Tully in a whole new way,” he observed with a happy smile. That’s the kind of buzz you want about a venue if you’re in the business of attracting younger audiences to places like Lincoln Center.

It has finally hit me, what I’m here in New York observing.  It’s musical genres and artistic disciplines intersecting, rolling around with each other.  They’re mating, if you will, the unions producing fascinating offspring. (Genres mating.  Mated genres.  Genre matings.  Can’t decide which phrase works best.)

Monday night’s concert was a case in point. The musical selections were diverse–exemplifying the “shuffle” spirit (for the feature on iPods and other music players that produce random selections, sometimes in a surprisingly delightful order) I’ve commented on before, which underlies the Tully Scope series.  Traditional orchestral instruments were amplified, something usually anathema in the classical world, and combined with electronic guitars and kazoos, etc.  With the altering of the stage and the use of lighting effects, there was an embrace of the overtly theatrical, the visual, so common in pop/rock performance venues, so often proudly ignored in traditional concert halls.

And it was happening in one of the most mainstream classical venues in the world.

The concert (or should I say show?) began with an energetic (and unamplified) performance of John Adams’s three-movement Road Movies (1995) by violinist Yuli Numta and pianist James Johnston.  The seating for the Wordless Music Orchestra was already in place behind them, darkened, with the rear wall lit from the bottom, it seemed, so its “acoustic objects” (which look liked pegs last night) created interesting shadows.

After the first movement, what I’ve been waiting for for so long finally happened.  The audience–many of whom may have been part of Braxton’s non-classical following and thus didn’t know what classical-music culture tells us not to do in a place like Tully, clapped.

Not just a few who don’t know any better and then are intimidated into silence, as so often happens. It was the vast majority (there were some refuseniks) of us.  It was spontaneous and felt natural. Then it happened again after the second movement.  For me, who thinks the classical silence-between-movements ethic is, generally speaking, artificial and stultifying (and knows it is a historical anomaly), it was a delicious moment. The unspoken social contract had changed, at least for an evening.

After the Adams, the orchestra, most of it anyway, took the stage and played Caleb Burhans‘ short and hauntingly beautiful In a Distant Place (2008), without conductor.  And, very impressively, there was still no conductor on the podium as more instruments were added for Louis Andriessen‘s homorhythmic 1975 Workers Union, in which the rhythms are composed but the instruments and pitches unspecified.  It was fifteen or so minutes of extremely well-coordinated, energetic, highly rhythmic, driving and unrelentingly ugly dissonance.  (I probably would have loved playing it; as a listener I found it grating.)

These three pieces, one each by a mentor (Adams), collaborator (Burhans), and inspiration/forerunner (Andriessen, who combined electric guitars and classical instruments decades ago) of Braxton, made up the first half. The second consisted six pieces from Braxton’s Central Market (“Opening Bell,” “Uffe’s Woodshop,” “The Duck and the Butcher,” “Dead Strings,” “Unfurling,” and “Platinum Rows”).  Conventional orchestral instruments, amplified, were combined with electric guitars in   and kazoos in music that combined elements of rock, minimalism, pop, traditional classical, contemporary classical.  You name it, and there was probably at least a touch of it in there.  Burhans conducted, Braxton played in the electric guitar section. The Central Market music was entrancing, entertaining, stimulating.  The first half, while fascinating, except for the Burhans piece, hadn’t really grabbed me musically.  This piece?  Loved it.  Enjoyed it.  Was taken in by it.

Never thought I’d be writing “electric guitar section” while describing a concert presented by a Lincoln Center venue. Times have changed.  For much of the 20th century, the developing and evolving American classical establishment distanced itself from popular idioms, shunning ragtime, jazz, blues, and rock.  The concert music of geniuses like Gershwin was relegated to pops concerts  until recently.  And now the walls are crumbling.  “Serious” and “popular” idioms are finding mates in each other.  Take Braxton.  An electric guitar player, singer, he was founder of the important and successful rock (post-rock, according to Wikipedia, or avant-rock, according to Braxton’s bio in the program notes) band the Battles.  And studied composition at a major conservatory, the Hartt School.  So he’s conversant with an enormous range of idioms, as are his frequent collaborators such as Burhans and Robin Givony, the founder of the Wordless Music concert series.  In her program note, Givony says

This music represents the fruits of a collaboration that began two and a half years ago between Braxton, Burhans, and myself in a Brooklyn rehearsal room, where we listened to a rough cut of  [Central Market’s] “Platinum Rows” over lukewarm bodega beer and geeked out over our shared admiration for Stravinsky and [the rock band] Fugazi . . .

Central Market. Mated genres. The love child of Stravinsky and and rock.

And as Tully Scope continues, the walls of the stage rotate, the lighting changes, the music is on shuffle.  I wish I could attend each event.


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Filed under Caleb Burhans, Tully Scope, Tyondai Braxton, Wordless Music Orchestra