20 March 2011

portrait of a composer and his audience

It’s a shame that Pierre Boulez’s delightful music is not as widely known as his long series of deeply silly pronouncements (all the art of the past must be destroyed . . . blow up all the opera houses . . . Schoenberg is not pure enough . . . any musician who has not felt the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is useless). It’s difficult to believe that even the angriest revolutionary doesn’t realize that if you blow up the past it merely reforms in a more or less different guise, and that revolutions have their own logic and their own ironies that tend to develop apart from any conscious intentions of the revolutionaries involved, and it’s impossible to believe that a Frenchman born after 1789 wouldn’t realize these things. I understand that artists, in order to forge their own way, sometimes need to insist on the historical inevitability and importance of what they’re doing. And they need to shock complacent listeners into paying attention. But it’s difficult to avoid seeing Boulez’s remarks, given the frequency and the extremity of their (very dated) revolutionary rhetoric, as an attempt to position himself as the arbiter of the acceptable, the infallible Pope of a nonexistent church.

Time has brought Boulez from enfant terrible to eminence grise, and the historical inevitability of dodecaphonic language now looks as tenuous as many other historical inevitabilities of the twentieth century. That doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy it. (If I followed the logical imperatives of historical inevitability, I guess I would now be listening exclusively to neo-Romantic music, or maybe just rock and hiphop, but fortunately being historically inevitable is not really important to me.) In fact, when Cal Performances added the Composer Portrait: Pierre Boulez concert to their schedule, I was, according to the box office person I spoke to, the first person to buy a ticket. I called twenty minutes after the tickets went on sale, and was actually worried for a moment that the concert had already sold out. I was worried about that because I am insane.

When the day of the performance arrived, I was glad I had bought a ticket in advance, because otherwise I probably would have skipped it. I couldn’t have known when I bought the ticket that I would be feeling kind of ill, or that we’d have a surprising amount of steady rain. I had also forgotten how much adjustment the previous day's “spring forward” time change takes. And I had been to two concerts the day before. Also: the Boulez concert was at 8:00 on a Monday night, which is ridiculous. I am pretty sure I was the only person in the audience who had to be in a cubicle by 8:00 the next morning.

Which brings me to the weirdness of the audience. Maybe I was simply assuming that, if there was one concert whose audience would be full of raptly attentive true believers, it would be one featuring two works by Pierre Boulez (Anthemes 2 and Derive 2). Instead . . . well, during the intermission it became clear that there were lots of rude and inattentive students there, who had been playing with their electronic toys during the performance, despite the usual announcement about turning off the toys. First I heard a very frustrated man tell a stupid-looking girl that her constant texting was incredibly distracting. She seemed dumbfounded and later I saw her actually crying, though my heart hardened when I saw that she continued texting in the second half, though possibly not during the music. Then someone told a girl behind me that the light from her device was very distracting. She said that she would “try to hide it” but she “really needed to talk to this person now and she didn’t want to fail this course.” Huh? What the hell are they teaching them over at my alma mater? So she’s going to pass just by sitting in a room, not only not paying attention, but actively disrupting the performance for others? Why can’t they restrict the rude and inattentive students to lectures, rather than forcing the paying public to sit next to them at concerts? I can only hope and assume the rude little bitch failed anyway.

And during the second piece, a short and hairy old man in the first row (he would have been next to me if I hadn’t moved over) actually spoke several times, loudly enough so that the conductor turned and glared at him. Why would you bother spending an evening at a Pierre Boulez concert if you didn’t want to pay attention to the music? And the troll’s horrible troll wife came back from intermission reeking of cigarette smoke – I could smell her disgusting stench from three seats away.

So there was lots of weird, angry energy in the room. I would gladly have skipped the whole thing if I hadn’t enjoyed the music so much. The first piece, Anthemes 2, featured Graeme Jennings on violin and John MacCallum on electronics. Jennings plays the violin, using, it seems, just about every possible technique, and the sound gets repeated and distorted and sent to different speakers around the room, where it reverberates and dies, adding a varying spatial and temporal dimension to the sound. The effect is both austere and virtuosic, sumptuous within a controlled range. The second piece, Derive 2, went in an entirely different direction, replacing the exploration of a solo instrument with eleven players (the Eco Ensemble) and a conductor (David Milnes) in a busier music. It started out with lots of squidgy little figures, which fit in almost too well with the agitated mood I was feeling. The figures keep returning in different figurations and overlapping patterns until it all starts to make intuitive sense. It was a very rich piece, superbly performed by the ensemble; it would repay repeated listening, but when are we going to get the chance to hear it again?


Brian said...

This student behavior problem is a perrenial one for the LA Philharmonic regardless of the program. What I've been able to figure out besides the obvious (that the offending student's presence is often the requirement of some music appreciation class that they've enrolled in because of it's perceived facility as opposed to any interest) is that the less familiar and/or popular the music, the more likely they are to be there. Rarely are they required to go to a specific concert, but they are required to buy their own ticket. This means they are looking for shows that are relatively less expensive they can get into at the last minute the night before an assignment is due. School night shows of chamber or newer music with no big classical music celebrities are prime targets.

Sorry to hear about your experience. I'm so with you on this one.

pjwv said...

Brian, Thanks for the information. I had no idea! But it's true that not only were there rush tickets for this concert (so just $20 for a ticket, and possibly less for students), they were selling them days in advance, making it easy as well as cheap. You'd think that "music appreciation" might start with actually listening, and a few reminders that there are other people in the room.

sfmike said...

You are insane, and possibly the only person there who paid for a full-price ticket to an all-Boulez chamber concert. This is why we are in awe of you.

The rest of the attendees sound like they were comped from the UC student body and nearby senior centers. The latter, in particular, seem to have their own set of challenges in keeping quiet, at least when they are out in force at the SF Symphony in Davies Hall. (And I don't mean the Old Ladies Matinees on Thursday afternoons, who pay their way, and who are generally a great audience.)

pjwv said...

I think if I'm going to be the only one paying full price (and it's very possible I was), then I should get to eject people.

Boulez is awesome! Jump on in, the water's fine!

sfmike said...

Glad I have something to look forward to (Boulez). And you should definitely be given the power to eject audience members. In fact, the Opera Tattler and Reverberate Hills should create their own SuperHero(ine) costumes and be given superpowers to zap away annoying patrons with the wave of a hand.