Sunday, September 28, 2008

Performance as Gift

Several years ago, my daughters and I attended a dance performance at the Children's Museum of Richmond. Half a dozen or so young Chinese dancers, on tour to the States, performed folk-style dances with great athleticism.

Of the hundreds of thousands of dancers there must be in China, they weren't the best, I'm sure, but as I watched, I was struck by how sincerely they seemed to view the act of dancing as a gift to the audience. It was a gift they felt honored to give, and in turn, I felt honored to receive.

I had never thought so directly about how important this attitude is to performance. When a musician or dancer or actor is so wrapped up in his or her own experience of the work (because she's struggling to do it well; or because she looks down on the audience as being merely bourgeois; or because she loves her own pleasure more than the audience's), the performance may be decent, but it won't be lasting, because it wasn't given. It just disappears in the space between.

This sounds awfully dreamy, I guess. And it's not the final, or the only, word: performances can make permanent impressions on individual, receptive audience members, whether or not the performers have this "spirit of giving." But I think as a generality, it's true.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Richmond Symphony: Tchaikovskyyyyyyy!

Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony is one crazy work--loud, fast and forceful. A pizzicato third movement is less playful than perverse. By the fourth movement, the music is wound up so tightly, one might worry that a single wrong touch could send the whole contraption spinning out of control, springs and cogs aloft. (If you've never heard it... it's impressively nuts, all the strings playing together at breakneck speed.)

One might worry--and one did, last night at the Richmond Symphony's performance of the symphony under directorial candidate #1, Mikhail Agrest. I didn't worry much, though, because I didn't really believe RSO would lose it in a piece everyone's played before. Possibly the very intent of the piece is to incite anxiety.

I was sitting in the balcony and had a clear view of two violists heaving sighs and brushing hair off their brows during a rest in the last movement. A violinist later told me s/he felt the piece was awfully close to falling apart because Agrest wasn't on top of things. My impression of Agrest in general was that he trusted the orchestra to perform well and sensibly; he wasn't autocratic. Maybe he should have been, at least from one violinist's perspective.

The RSO also performed a trombone concerto by Christopher Rouse, a piece that deserves more play than it probably gets. It begins and ends with thoughtful, at times somber movements; the second movement is dramatic, loud and violent. Agrest introduced the piece with an extended chat, guiding listeners' thoughts toward war, but I was more reminded of nature's power, rather than humans' might. The concerto is made up of many little waves of sound--crescendos and decrescendos--and, taken as a whole, is itself wave-like.

Although the trombone solo was capably played by Michael Mulcahy of the Chicago Symphony, I didn't come away feeling a new appreciation for the trombone--that is, it's not a showboat piece. In fact, sometimes I thought the trombone could have played above the orchestra a little more. Mostly, though, the solo and the orchestra were intentionally collaborative.

I don't think Rouse broke any astonishing new ground, but this concerto moved me. Like an ocean that flattens villages or lulls a raft, music's power comes in many forms.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

eighth blackbird + one = strange imaginary remix

As a volunteer usher at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Fast Forward series in 1994, I attended a performance by Philip Glass playing his own solo piano works. After the concert, the two women seated in front of me stood up and one said, “I have been a music teacher for 30 years, and THAT was NOT music!” The conversation continued in that vein, and I chuckled—but not too much. After all, I hadn’t really liked the music myself, especially since I’m not a huge piano fan to begin with. But I wasn’t… backwoods. Was I?

So I was a little nervous tonight as I attended my first-ever concert by eighth blackbird. What if I hated it? What if I couldn’t hear the music?

Eighth blackbird was joined for this concert, titled “strange imaginary remix,” by Dennis DeSantis on laptop. The premise that a musician on a computer belongs in an ensemble is a barrier I’m still tunneling through with a tuning fork. For one thing, the laptop musicians I’ve seen are so absorbed in their computers they can’t interact with the ensemble or the audience.

DeSantis was a little better in this regard, yet his position on the side of the stage, often behind the backs of all the other musicians, symbolically excluded him from the ensemble. (Plus, somebody needs to get that boy a higher table so he doesn’t hurt his back hunching over his keyboard, mad-scientist-style.)

DeSantis added sounds, clips, echoes, beats, notes and memories of notes to the music of the other instruments. I often found myself wondering if the sound I was hearing came from a “real” instrument or from the computer, but by the end of the concert, I was trying to figure out why I thought that mattered. If one sound is real, is another imaginary? Music, I guess, is sound that we imagine into sense.

Likewise, at first I thought it was entertaining to watch the musicians—oh, those antics over in the percussion! the gymnastics at the piano!—but eventually I just looked up at the ceiling. I wanted the music to find me, rather than the other way around.

Did it? Yes. It’s music I’m glad I heard. It’s music I will never listen to on a CD. It’s music I may want to hear again, but I’m not sure yet.

Sometimes I felt as if the music were looking back at its own tracks, only to find that it had been walking on ice, on which the faint impressions of warmth and force quickly disappear. Phrases were rarely sustained or shaped in traditional ways (i.e., good luck finding a melody), and forward momentum often didn’t seem to have a destination.

My favorite pieces were “Indigenous Instruments” (Steven Mackey) and “Friction Systems” (David Gordon), partly because I could recognize the passing of musical elements among the members of the ensemble and partly because both pieces are very tonally and rhythmically interesting.

Thanks to the program notes, I know that both used quarter-tone tuning. I thought this was especially effective in “Friction Systems”: the bass clarinet and cello sounded like one organism, acting on and being acted upon by an outside force.

The program notes also told me that Mackey called his piece “a kind of vernacular music from a culture that doesn’t actually exist.” Are the instruments are indigenous to the imagination? Or maybe the imagination is the instrument itself.

In any case, I’m pretty sure those ladies at the Glass concert couldn’t have imagined this music.

The full program: “Powerless” (DeSantis), “evanescence” (Gordon Fitzell), “Dollars and Cents” (Radiohead/Colnot), “Indigenous Instruments (Mackey), “strange imaginary remix” (DeSantis) and “Friction Systems” (Gordon).

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

What Would Pandora Play?

I have been educating myself over at the school of Pandora. I am an appreciative student, having had virtually no education in popular culture and its varieties of music for the years spanning 0 to 1989 and 1992 to 2008.

Yet I'm not sure I approve. Really, the Music Genome Project is to music as lepidoptery is to butterflies.

I type in "Cesaria Evora" and get an entire channel of music sung in nothing but Portuguese; I was looking for music that makes me feel wild with longing for something that's slipping from my fingers, a feeling which is not stirred in me by the Portuguese language in particular.

Or say I want a channel called "Music That Makes Me Weep." Pandora doesn't give me that option. I have to settle for songs with "mellow rock instrumentation," "subtle use of vocal harmony," "use of a string ensemble," "prominent organ" ... wait, that's not what I had in mind. (Pandora has not heard of double entendres, apparently.)

In theory, I despise the MGP for sucking the soul out of music, but I still listen to my Pandora channels. "What will they think of next?"

Monday, September 1, 2008

Liner Notes As Ink Blots

This is the last paragraph of the anonymously written notes that accompany a recording of Schubert's Trout Quintet by the Endres Quartet with Rolf Reinhardt:

"It is amusing to note how almost every commentator, severely picking holes in the formal structure of the Trout, abjectly surrenders to its musical charm. In short, Schubert may not have made the greatest intellectual or emotional contribution to music with the Trout Quintet--but he went ahead and composed a work of genius, one that is so spontaneous, so lyric and free-flowing, that criticism remains pedantic and impertinent."

You may guess for yourselves why these are my all-time favorite liner notes, with the italics-added portions standing as your clues.