Last night I trudged up to Old First Church on Van Ness Avenue because Old First Concerts was presenting CMASH, a new-music ensemble made up of soprano Ann Moss and pianist Steven Bailey. CMASH stands for Chamber Music Art Song Hybrid; they were founded in 2008 and their mission statement proclaims them “a new-music repertory group dedicated to fostering and sustaining long-term collaborative relationships between composers and performers.” There’s more, of course, including something about a “commitment to audience engagement and satisfaction” to which perhaps I should have paid a bit more attention, particularly the “audience engagement” part.
Ten minutes after the performance was supposed to start, someone came out, who was maybe someone from Old First Concerts – I only half-listen to pre-concert speeches, because I carry no cell phone or other electronic equipment to turn off, and that’s generally the only important thing these speakers have to say, and I’m cranky at having had to kill the hours until 8:00, so that any further delay just makes me impatient. He thanked the small crowd for being there, said that without us this was just another rehearsal, stuff like that. So after that pat on the head, Moss came out solo and – well, maybe her little speech, in which she repeated most of what the first speaker had said about this just being a rehearsal without us etc, came later.
She came out solo and gestured for us to rise. After a momentary hesitation, I complied, perhaps from force of habit (we were after all in a church, where you rise when the celebrant says to). She then started directing the audience in a clapping/singing/call-and-response thing, and I’m sorry, but that’s when I sat right back down, because that is why we have safe words.
Yes, it was sort of fun to listen to, in the occasional moments when I could disassociate myself from my embarrassed non-participation long enough to listen. It probably would have been fun to participate in, if I had been that person completely different from myself that I’ve always wanted to be. I was immediately plunged back into a hyper-sensitive, awkward self-consciousness of a sort I had thought I had moved past. I haven’t been so acutely conscious of the message my body language sent since the last corporate diversity seminar I was forced to sit through.
I would fold my arms across my chest and then unfold them as soon as I realized I was sending that “I’m closed off” signal. I tried to smile without breaking into hysterical laughter. I tried to avoid shifting (sign of impatience!) too often. I tried not to think of how conspicuous my non-participation was. (I was sitting in my preferred spot, in the front row, and therefore I was visible to the entire audience as well as the performers, so my non-participation was unintentionally aggressive.) I was not only awkwardly aware that I was the only one not participating, I’m hating myself for being the sort of person who just can’t do things like that.
They hate me, I hate me. . . you'd think that would bring us together. Well, maybe no one noticed or cared I was just sitting, which is worse in a way, as it reminds me that, despite my racing and painful self-consciousness, I’m actually completely unimportant to the group. It wouldn’t be the first time I was forced into a team-building activity and let down the team. And it wouldn’t be the first time my non-participation drew the rest of the group closer together.
Apparently the point was to make us aware of the importance of our role as the audience. But I am already way too aware of the role of the audience, and feel strongly that the way the audience participates is to sit there and listen. You really can’t get around that: it’s about sitting there and listening. I already ponder audiences endlessly, because while I love performances, I basically don’t like being crammed in with a lot of other people, and I don’t really like “going out” – whatever need I had to get out and mingle for the sake of getting out and mingling has pretty much left my life. So I don't need to be jogged into contemplating what audiences are for, and what they add, and, more to the point, what they take away, and whether the end result makes them worth putting up with.
You’ll note I'm assuming that audiences are mostly a more or less necessary evil – the best audience is one you don’t notice, in my opinion. And I should point out that this isn’t just some misanthropic though I hope possibly endearing quirk of mine; every single person I know who is a regular theater- or concert-goer struggles with the nature of audiences. It's a truism that, as the playwright tells us, hell is other people.
Being forced to play games to make me think about things I was thinking about anyway reminded me of having to write another silly annual review/self-evaluation for some job (didn’t the Maoists called this engaging in self-criticism or speaking bitterness or something similar?) and I said to my supervisor that one reason I hated doing these was that their only purpose was to give management an excuse not to give us raises by bringing up mistakes and faults that we’d already most likely improved, since I already was constantly evaluating what I was doing; i.e., should I have phrased that e-mail better? was there a more effective way to handle that other situation? He finally explained in patient tones that yes, I self-evaluated all the time (maybe excessively), but many people didn’t. So the evaluations were another thing that I was forced to participate in for the sake of everyone else, even though they would not benefit and could only damage me.
You’ll notice the evening kept reminding me of some of the worst, most painful aspects of corporate life. With all due respect for CMASH’s attempt at an innovative approach to the standard recital format, I’d like to suggest that any format that makes me feel I’m in forced attendance at a corporate team-building event is a format that has failed.
It was the end of an exhausting and mostly unhappy week, and I just wanted to treat myself to some live music, not be force-fed a madeleine of social humiliations past. I just wanted to listen. But that makes what I do sound too passive: because I sit there, and, to the best of my ability, I pay close attention. In other words, I was asking the performers to provide something that was going to engage me on a deeper level than most of my life, particularly the many hours of my office life, engages me.
Maybe other people did get something from the kumbaya time, but it frankly didn't make the audience any more attentive or considerate than usual: there was plenty of program-rustling and whispering, though most of it was coming from a small group in the second row on the right (it’s an audience of maybe fifty people, and you’re in clear view of the performers, and you feel you’re entitled to whisper during the songs? really?). But that's what you get when you encourage people to think that their individual experience should be imposed on everyone else, or when they're there for "community." Some of us are only there to listen to music.
The thing about silence during the performance is that it’s a profound act of respect not only to the performers, but also to fellow audience members: you are showing an awareness of their presence, and your silence demonstrates that you feel they are equal to you in importance – it’s a refusal to impose oneself on others. It’s been common for years to use “community” to refer to random genetic coincidences, but that’s a meaningless imposition of a fake bond: during a performance, silence – that is, respect, awareness – is the only form of community possible. And as a different playwright tells us, Silence is the perfectest herald of joy.
And I couldn't just move on, so to speak, when the concert finally started, because there was more: little speeches from the stage that I kept fearing were going to turn into full-blown monologues, having to wait while the lights were turned up so we were all visible, references to people and events that I didn’t know – I mean, congratulations to whoever it was that had that baby that we heard about after the intermission, but I kept feeling I had stumbled into a private party and they were just waiting for me to realize my mistake and leave. I definitely had the feeling that I was the only one in the audience who didn’t already know everyone there.
I think it’s really great if people want to hold a contemporary Schubertiad with their friends and family, but if you are selling tickets to the general public you have to expect there will be strangers who are there for diverse purposes, which could very well include being left alone to listen to music. (That phrase keeps recurring here, about being there to listen to music, because I feel the need to insist that that is, really, the only reason we're sitting in a concert hall instead of sipping a Guiness in a bar.) I half expected someone to come up to me at intermission and either confront me or suggest I just get out.
There are ways of including people – insisting they play games together, assuming that we all belong to the same set so we can refer without explanation to people who aren’t there – that really end up increasing the outsider’s sense of exclusion. And that’s always a danger anyway with small, somewhat in-bred groups, as by its nature a local new-music group would be. I’m sure exclusion wasn’t the intention; Moss seems very likeable and sincere about what she’s doing, but that just left me with an undercurrent of resentment on top of everything else, that I just couldn’t bring myself to play along with such a nice woman who was only trying to help me.
I feel guilty about even going on about this. But there it is! I also resent being jollied into submission. I’ve seldom sat at a concert feeling so deeply uncomfortable and alienated. I don’t mean alienated in an angsty teen, “I’m so much better than these phonies” way; I mean alienated as in vaguely humiliated, as if a sales attendant who is far better dressed than I have ever been had just sidled up to me to suggest in gentle but insinuating tones that perhaps I would be more comfortable at a different type of establishment.
Anguished awareness of revived and relived failures and humiliations as in a drowning man’s last moments of consciousness aside, I enjoyed the music.
Moss has a clear, beautiful soprano, which can get loud without losing its purity. Bailey is a poetic pianist who, as far as I could tell since the music was brand-new, brought out what there was to bring out. The piano accompaniments on a whole seemed to stick to a fairly mezzoforte range, but that’s something I only thought about later; the experience of the songs was quite varied.
The first piece was Matthew O’Malley’s setting of Caliban’s famous speech (“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises”). O’Malley was the only composer not there in person. I really enjoyed this piece, and though I can’t say it took any unexpected turns that gave me new insight into the passage, that might be because I was already so familiar with the passage. Setting familiar poetry has its own challenges, and obviously the familiarity – the stand-aloneness – of the words is one of them. Very lovely solemn peals at the end, leading up to the delicacy of Caliban crying to dream again.
The pieces that followed were all song cycles. First was Liam Wade’s Silver Apples, based on four poems about the moon (the moon is the poet’s friend!) by Robert Louis Stevenson, Poe, Yeats, and Lisa DeSiro. Moss managed throughout all the songs to articulate the words so that they were largely intelligible without reference to the texts in the program. Wade’s settings had a playful quality (particularly, if I’m remembering correctly, in the ragtime-ish setting of Poe’s Eldorado) that brought out the child-like qualities that can be revived by playing in, or just standing in the light of, the moon.
That was followed by Kurt Erickson’s Chicago Songs, a setting of four different poems by Carl Sandburg (the first one, I Sang to You and the Moon, is repeated at the end, as a fifth song). So here’s another difficulty for composers in selecting poetry: not everyone is going to respond to what you respond to, which means that the words you chose but didn't write will interfere with appreciation of the music you did write. In other words, I’m not a big Sandburg aficionado; I find he is to Whitman as Sexton is to Plath, clumping somewhat inelegantly and obviously down the trailblazed path. I’m also not sure that Sandburg’s swaggering men and rough tough women are best presented in a pure, clear soprano – on the other hand, maybe the manlier tones of a baritone would only make them seem even more artificial than they already are. All that aside, there were certainly effective touches in both the words and the music, and I was quite moved by the fifth number (the repetition of I Sang to You and the Moon, though I think – I might be wrong about this – it had a different setting from its first appearance).
After the intermission, which I spent tensely reading an article about Afghanistan in the New York Review of Books, waiting to snap at anyone who came up to me, though in fact everyone around me was catching up with each other, came my favorite set of the evening, Beautiful Things by Miriam Miller. I liked the way her title made us aware of the category of “the beautiful” and how that consciousness carries with it a sense of fragility as well as irony. I guessed from reading these four poems (Anna Wickham’s The Cherry Blossom Wand, Harold Monro’s Overheard on a Saltmarsh, Edward Thomas’s Snow, and Charlotte Mew’s The Pedlar) even before I found the information in the program that they all dated from the early part of the twentieth century, after the Victorians but before the Modernists: they share the aesthetic self-awareness of the period, the delicate Puvis de Chavannes tints, the touch of Japonism, the more refined approach to Victorian staples such as sentimental children or goblins or final partings. Miller brought out interesting things in these fairly obscure poems, writing music that was in keeping with their moods without resorting to period-piece gestures. This is the set I would most like to hear again.
Finally we had Rise and Fall, the oldest (2007) of these pieces, by the best-known composer of the evening, Jake Heggie. It’s a setting of four poems by Gene Scheer, each inspired by a different object from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that cumulatively suggest a woman’s life. The music was fluidly lyrical and inflected with an aura of sensuality or spirituality (or both), and Scheer’s poems are fine, but I bring to any Scheer/Heggie collaboration my experience of some of their other collaborations (including To Hell and Back, which I found an interesting idea, uneven in execution, with a shallow and simplistic libretto, and Three Decembers, which I found unconvincing and fairly forgettable); I found the music of those earlier works pleasant but I do tend to enter these things through the words, and though I’ve admired lots of Scheer’s work (the libretto to An American Tragedy and the parts I've heard of his World War II song cycle) these earlier pieces are not among them. Setting all that aside, I thought this particular piece was fine, but also I think I simply do not connect with their view of women’s lives, which I find a little too Eat-Pray-Love and Oprah-ready – a little too self-conscious of and smug about what they feel is their spiritual evolution.
So that was the concert. After the applause died away and as the lights came all the way up I slipped out the side and went downstairs through Fellowship Hall to the men’s room. When I crossed back through the lobby on my way out I glanced back inside the sanctuary, where everybody seemed to be having a lively chat. I left along with an old woman with a lot of bags in her hands, though maybe she wasn't a concert-goer but just a homeless person who had come in to use a clean restroom. And then I started the trek back to the Civic Center BART station.
Did I enjoy the music and the performances? Yes. Will I be on the lookout for further pieces by Miriam Miller? Yes. Do I like the concept of CMASH? On the whole. Would I attend another CMASH concert? Let me get back to you on that one.