Saturday, February 26, 2005

Jim Tenney at Mills College

Last Saturday night, at the second of two Jim Tenney concerts, the piece for string quartet finally provided enough of a palate cleanser for me to realize that more musicians ought to 1.) perform a concert, and then, 2.) present a concert of their composed works. Only in summing up the two evenings could I begin to appreciate Tenney performing not as a performer but as a composer: the performance framed the composed works as much as the composed works framed the performance. The commentary that developed between the two concerts helped soften my critial agitation. I began to perceive the two movements from Ives' Concord Sonata (oh woeful mess!) and John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes (prepared piano, why do you sound so gimmicky to me now?) as sources of ideas and inspiration for the composed pieces. Yet Tenney does not come across as derivative; in fact, his composed works stood in strong contrast to the previous night's Ives and Cage. The two-piano Chromatic Canon and the solo violin Koan, for example, surprised me with their quiet, non-stop minimalism. Both pieces unfold simply, naively, with a certain...pastoral...quality. True, portions of the Concord allude to a New England "pastoral," and the prepared tones of Sonatas and Interludes can become mesmerizingly meditative, but these are not the singular or lasting impressions we take from these pieces. The Ives, in particular, is a complicated mess (mass?) of notes and harmonies, something which, after hearing his composed pieces, I am sure Tenney could distill to the minimal essence. I was reminded of a very messy desk (Ives) which reveals a precise scrap of genius (Koan) to the one who knows how to see it.

I guess what I'm getting at is: people can surprise you. We may not play at all like the music we most admire. We can depart from our influences as easily as we can imitate them. Don't judge the desk by its mess. And let's hear more of these multi-facet revealing, performer-in tandem-composer programs.

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Friday, February 25, 2005

A Christo in Your Home

“Yes but, how do you have a Christo in your house?” As enchanted as I am with the works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, I have to admit the question made me pause. It's true that the ephemeral quality of much conceptual art means that we experience the art via its documentation. It becomes, in the words of my friend Marie, only “memories of memories of memories.” I was not even born at the time of the Valley Curtain installation, yet the artwork lives on in blueprints and documentary to the extent that I feel as if I, too, witnessed the piece (though my “recollection” is dim and, well, false).

Christo's work operates with a vast public scope, imprinting on the memories of so many people in so many different and lasting ways. Scale, not originality, is admittedly one of the most compelling components of his work. Take New York City's The Gates, for example: neither the form (simple post and lintel), color (that bright "saffron"), nor number (hundreds scattered over miles) are in and of themselves original, but The Gates is undeniably a contemporary artwork, commenting on--and causing comment within--the contemporary world. Art--and music--in the home (a much reduced scale) should similarly excite one to question and enthuse; just because it is in the home, it should not be complacent. Does your personal space reflect a current modern aesthetic, or is it a lazy reflection of the status quo, a pretty comfort? Isn't it a little funny that we "go out" (to concert halls or museums) for what I might call "challenging art," while privately we surround ourselves with pleasant pictures or banal chamber music?

Music, like art, follows trends from the concrete to the conceptual and back again, and also like art, contemporary music suffers from the polarization between public and private venue. How do you have a John Cage Musicircus in your living room? While the social salon may see its share of wet ink and new music premieres, that situation rarely offers more than mediocre background music with the performers as furniture, unobtrusive in their utilitarianism. I wonder if, historically, the home ever seemed the appropriate place for cutting edge ideas. Or has the old-fashioned patronage system, with musicians and composers making a livelihood performing in elite homes to select audiences, simply morphed into the current "scene" of galleries and clubs, where bookers, curators, and producers represent (hold up for show) the artist?

The idea of venue, how it affects what we choose to see or hear, is a vast and flexible topic. Art and music on the personal, small-scale level can strive towards the grandeur--aesthetically, conceptually--of museums and concert halls and demand, even when we're curled into our favorite cozy chairs, the heightened perceptivity and attentiveness we bring to the museum's hardwood bench. I may not have a Christo in my home, but I like to think that the home could stage a piece with as much simplicity, collectivity, and thought-provoking oomph. I do not always want to seek outwards for aesthetic inspiration or frame it in the formalities of a particular venue, but I still want live art, live performance, and live music.

Perhaps that is why I find Christo's work so compelling; it posits itself between the home and the venue...literally and figuratively.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Conceptual Art, 1834?

Robert Schumann Sphinxes

Though I didn't think of it at the time, encountering these odd neumes (silences? or long tones of unmeasured duration?) in Robert Schumann's Carnaval marked my introduction to conceptual music. All of Carnaval is a puzzle: a pianist could spend hours reading the score for its story, trying to figure out the secret code of musical motifs, the who's who in each piece, the extra-musical program buried in the thicket of notes and counterpoint. Schumann offers more than technical finger-busting in this concert piece; here, the music begins to involve other theatrical elements and refer beyond itself. With Carnaval, as with many of Schumann's other miniatures-linked-in-a-large-form compositions, the extra-musical elements do not alter one's ability to enjoy the music as pure music. I like that Schumann walks that fine line, joining an aspect of concrete purity with imaginative, conceptual fancy without eschewing one for the other. Is it not remarkable that this predates the Dadists, John Cage, et al?

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Monday, February 14, 2005

The Soundtrack 6

Songs and incidental music from Walt Disney's "Dumbo"
especially "When I Seen an Elephant Fly"

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Friday, February 11, 2005

...that dirty word, "Cabaret"

A few weeks ago the opportunity to accompany two days of Cabaret auditions fell into my lap. I took the gig, triumphed (on the spot transposing, anyone?), and am now playing for rehearsals once a week. One aspect of working with high school students (vs. a professional company) is that in between pounding out voice parts and designating who-sings-what-when, I have enough mental downtime to quietly ponder some of the material at hand. This past Wednesday, for example, it struck me that the general idea of cabaret (with a small "c") is completely married to a particular time, place, and social-political climate, and even to a particular type of performer and patron. The culture of the early twentieth century, of the bohemian bourgeoisie in pre-war Europe (specifically, in cities like Berlin, Paris, and Vienna) exists in our romanticized vision of the past and continues to define cabaret. The old model lives like an historical snapshot and haunts the new. I have often referred to my own creative musical duo, Sidecar Syndicate, as a "neo-cabaret" of sorts, and I have often been reprimanded by friends who've seen me perform, "you're not cabaret at all! Cabaret is..." (at which point they offer a whole litany of definitions.)

So in the coming weeks, as I fall under the spell of perhaps the most familiar version of Cabaret (Kander & Ebb's), I shall try to investigate some of the following questions. With what exactly do we associate cabaret? Why a particular time, place, personnel? More pressingly, who or what is cabaret today? Can we crack the definition open to include more than the boa-wrapped chanteuse singing from the Great American Songbook down at the Plush Room? Where does cabaret fit alongside the current classical, popular, and avant-garde music scenes? Is cabaret, by virtue of being defined by its historical associations, dead? Just a dirty word we sling around with misconceptions?

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Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Cooking Music

I have a friend who critiques all of us aspiring gourmet chefs by the variety and breadth of our repertoire. Though I sometimes think his system unfairly lauds the one-time hit (a unique, world-cuisine inspired dish, for example) over consistency (my favorite Cal-mediterranean standards), he does raise a point. In one's creative practice, while having a focus and sticking to it might result in convincing performances, having a limited palette can become boring. We must, then, play both games, exploring extremes with a certain regularity.

Perhaps the consistency aspect comes down to technique, but a technique that includes more than just "right" notes and perfect fingerwork. Technique encompasses musicianship, as well: a well thought out phrase, audible dynamic shaping, an unfaltering, but ebbing and flowing, sense for rhythm. Great technique, because it is the most efficient way of realizing the musical score, lends a certain effortlessness to one's performance. So too, with cooking: the precise dice of onions, a natural understanding for a pinch of salt here or there, an awareness for the big picture (that all day project of playing nurse to a perfect stock), these things ensure quality regardless of the menu itself.

On a superficial level, variety, in music, comes with repertoire selection. On a deeper level, variety reveals itself in technique: articulation and pedaling transcend a purely technical function when heard in the context of, say, several Chopin preludes. A variety--the breadth of a performer's creative imaginings--begins here, with technique. In performance, a Chopin "specialist" must engage an audience by offering a multiplicity of flavors and tastes. I can hear the high praise: "she played a whole program of Chopin, beautifully, perfectly, but more than that, her playing never sounded the same from piece to piece."

Any artist capable of revealing a varied palette within a very focused repertoire should have no difficulties crossing over to other "cuisines." Don't be fooled by the menu; study the skill on the plate, if you can.

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Saturday, February 05, 2005

The Soundtrack 5

Jerry Goldsmith, music for the film "Chinatown"
The Beatles, "In My Life"
Joni Mitchell, "California"
Charles Ives, "The Alcotts" from the Concord Sonata
Peter Garland, Love Songs (Tzadik #8012)

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I've worked out a series of no's. No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narrative. And all these no's force me to the "yes." I have a white background. I have the person I'm interested in and the thing that happens between us.

--Richard Avedon (1923-2004)

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Thursday, February 03, 2005

Performance, Untranslated ... continued

paris opera
At intermission, most people spill from the Paris Opera clutching their already-lit cigarettes, but a few drift to the front row to peer into the orchestra pit while the musicians arrange their set-ups. Two-thirds of the way through the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's program, Christian Wolff reshuffles his pages of John Cage's ASLSP, William Winant puts away instruments from his array of percussion, and Takehisa Kosugi prepares the electronics for the final piece of the evening. An English-speaking couple bravely toss a question into the pit, "so...what was that last piece about?" which the musicians acknowledge with knowing smiles. "Hmm...Merce's work isn't necessarily about something; it's not really telling a story," Winant begins, "but...well, the next piece is much different. You might prefer it to...but why don't you ask her? I think she has some ideas." (I must admit I love it when performers retain a certain guarded secrecy about the "meaning" of their work and leave these riddles in the hands and ears of others.)

Having seen the program a number of times during the company's week-long run at the Opera, I feel quite authoritative explaining that Cunningham's work avoids a narrative quality; rather the dance is "about" pure movement. In watching the movement closely--an arm position, a pattern of tendus and passés, a leap or collapse of body weight--one finds the "about," the translation. There is a clear angularity to Cunningham's work, as when the dancers perform the same precise movements but at different facings to the audience. The effect is particularly powerful when the mirrored steps occur between a pair of dancers; you clearly recognize the unison of movement though the dancers occupy various planes of space. When I watch this dance, I feel as if I am turning an intricate gemstone in my hand; I see all the sides at once...the facets unfold in my palm. It is a simple (and admittedly abstract) statement yet enough to satisfy my need for meaning.

Every element of Cunningham's work is consciously chosen, from the costumes and sets to the movement and music. Unlike more classical dance, where the components all work together to create and heighten our awareness of a story, here each element offers itself simply, purely, in and of itself. Of course, with design by the likes of Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns (not to mention Ernesto Neto's dripping, bulbous, purply-violet lit sculpture for "Views on Stage" as presented here at the Paris Opera), and music composed and/or performed by the inimitable John Cage, David Tudor, Winant or Wolff, there is almost an overwhelming amount of sensory information for the viewer to consider. Unlike the great romantic ballets, where the orchestra, costumes, and corps de ballet accompany and support the prima ballerina and the grand pas de deux, the Cunningham stage is a good-natured competition of equally important media. When intersections or simultaneities between media occur, the viewer may begin to read and comprehend the piece as a whole, even though this comprehension is unique to each individual. The dynamic relationships of one dancer's movements to another, or of movements against or with the music, all become expressive, emotive, and suggestive. No translation necessary.

We demand translation but too often of the wrong thing. In traditional opera, musical theatre, or popular song, communication is direct and immediate, with text that allows us to map our lives onto fictional ones. We easily comprehend meaning in instrumental music, too: the constructs of traditional western harmony, melody, and even rhythm create (like it or not) expectancy, hesitation, hope and surprise...urgency, resolution, satisfaction and satedness. With the mid-twentieth century abandonment of these systems, the role of "translator" passed from the musical or extra-musical source--melody or harmony, libretto or lighting--into the hands of the performer. In Cunningham's work, for example, while the movement is not meant to translate into a story, it does reveal the dancers' technical prowess and committment to creating lines in space--for whatever those lines may mean. The company are fearless, almost perfect, every muscle committed to the choreography (not to acting or creating character with facial expressions, etc.). It is their precision and virtuosity that allows me to "read" the dance even though modern dance is not my language. The delivery--the performance--is all the "about" that I need. Like Denise Acabo, whose whole-hearted enthusiasm for her chocolates successfully erradicated a language barrier, a performer can turn a suggestion into precise meaning.

As an audience, we must be responsive to the contemporary emphasis on the performer. Though I usually find much meaning in the Cunningham company's performance, I also realize that I watch the performance for its performative qualities: the conviction of gesture and a committment to physical phrasing. If those elements seem sub-par on a given night, then I might criticize the dance for its lack of being "about" something. The dance, as language, is confusing to me only when the performance lacks a certain devoted intensity.

From the furrowed foreheads of the English-speaking couple, I fear my explanation has only muddled matters. So, sighing, I say, "but you might really enjoy the last piece. It is almost more of a story, beginning and ending with one whirling man...very un-Cunningham to me, but you might prefer it to this last piece. It is, in a way, more immediately accessible." More immediately...translated.

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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Scene: Casa de Dalí

[Enter: two poets. Jerzy Harasymowicz leans with full weight on the arm of Czeslaw Milosz. Salvador Dalí looks amused.]

"Women with Flower Heads Finding the Skin of a Grand Piano on the Beach"

"A Green Lowland of Pianos"

in the evening
as far as the eye can see
herds of black pianos

up to their knees
in the mire
they listen to the frogs

they gurgle in water
with chords of rapture

they are entranced by froggish, moonish spontaneity

after the vacation
they cause scandals
in a concert hall
during the artistic milking
suddenly they lie down
like cows

looking with indifference
at the white flowers
of the audience

at the gesticulating
of the ushers

--translated by Milosz

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