Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Looking Through the Glass

So much of making music is a private endeavor. The San Francisco Contemporary Players inaugurated their season Monday night with a program that reminded their audience of this fact. The concert consisted of works for solo percussion and solo piano (performed by Dan Kennedy and Chryssie Nanou, respectively) as well as Salvatore Sciarrino's Infinito Nero (scored for an expanded Pierrot ensemble) and demonstrated the group's high level of musicianship. The listener, however, was held an arm's length away from full musical engagement. Each performance reminded me of watching a mechanical holiday window dressing, where fantastic scenes play out with magical perfection and precision but never manage to breach the pane of glass that separates the viewer from the viewed: participation in the ensemble of private activities is longed for but must be imagined from a distance.

Mei-Fang Lin's Multiplication Virtuelle for percussion and electronics established the peculiar tone for the evening. Kennedy moved from one percussion set-up to another "like a practitioner of tai chi," and he played with an admirable assuredness. But just as an onlooker can not reap the physical and mental benefits of tai chi by watching a few gracefully executed movements, neither can a listener fully comprehend and appreciate the musical intention without some sort of real, visceral immersion in the aural world. Structurally, the piece lacks development; it is a straightforward progression from one instrumental group to another that, after a while, begins to sound like a series of exercises. Multiplication Virtuelle contains some lovely moments, particularly in the spontaneously processed electronic sounds and the jazzy plucking of the Lion's Roar, but falls short of adding up to a satisfying, integrated whole. The performance seemed to be a fulfilling experience for the percussionist but was less so for the audience.

Chryssie Nanou's performance of Sciarrino's "Piano Sonata IV" maintained the feeling of a private practice made inadvertently public. The piece is an ambitious physical exercise for the player, who leaps relentlessly from one end of the keyboard to the other as if channeling the strengths of a virtuoso stride pianist gone mad. Nanou could have delivered the piece with more comedy, with more wry flair for the drama that seems inherent in the score. Instead, I felt as though I were observing her through a practice room window, watching her begin her day with a vigorous warm-up routine. Rather than "tending" to technical matters, a pianist needs to approach the piece with as much recklessness as precision, not to mention some flamboyant dynamic shaping. In this way, for the pianist as well as for listener, Sciarrino's musical lunacy becomes inescapable.

The Contemporary Players want their audiences to "listen to modern art," and they incorporate the visual art concept into other aspects of their programming, but framing music in this metaphor takes a rather cool, abstract approach to what should be a more fun and engaging experience--on both sides of the podium! Sciarrino's Infinito Nero, for example, walked the fine line between "private" music and publicized performance. With its fragmented juxtaposition of silence and quiet unmusical sounds, the piece has the potential to turn the listener into a Peeping Tom. Yet in one of the most expressive moments of the evening, percussionist William Winant broke through the glass with a series of superbly measured decrescendos on the bass drum. Winant teased a simple chain of quarter notes into a visceral musical idea, and suddenly, I was no longer a mere observer but a vicarious participant. The fading footfalls--POM, POm, Pom, pom--became my own, and I was more or less immersed in the piece, in the mezzo-soprano's startling vocal outbursts and the wind instruments' punctuating breaths and gasps.

If anything, the performance of modern music needs to offer more than a museum quality presentation. The Players are clearly and willfully engaged; as a listener, I want to feel that I, too, am in the musical trenches with them. Enough of the private performance, give the listener the "hook" of intimate participation--after all, who really wants to look in from the outside?


Heather, once again you're right on target. The problem I've always had with the SFCP is that their performances, on the whole, are lifeless. At times you get the feeling that the performers are doing this against their will, and uncomfortably in pain. But I feel I have to support them because, afterall, they are playing contemporary music. I just wish they'd choose better pieces and show some passion.

Also, so many performers, especially of new music, forget that only half the experience is auditory. The other half is visual, unless they choose to play in darkness, which is an option. Visually, so many new music concerts give the impression that the performer really doesn't want to be there... it reminds me so much of a high school assembly where some poor kid now has to play awful solo on his sax.

I only wish we could see the kind of passion and rapport with the audience that you see at a Cecilia Bartoli recital, or Hariprasad Chaurasia. Now wouldn't that be something!

--Richard Friedman

By Blogger Heather, at 8:08 AM  

What a wonderful was as if I were actually at the performance and even better, it gave something to think about in terms of modern music today. Thank you!


By Blogger Heather, at 8:08 AM  

Another wonderful piece, Heather. I found an article that you might be interested in reading, one of those long, considered New York Review of Books reviews that's more than a book review. It's a discussion of performing music in an age of recording.

Not sure how long it will be free online, but it's certainly worth checking out.


By Blogger Heather, at 2:59 PM  

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