03 August 2009

evidence of things not seen

Last Friday I was at the second local presentation of pieces from Sarah Cahill's fascinating project, A Sweeter Music (which is music commissioned from a wide range of composers about war or peace, preferably peace; the title comes from Dr Martin Luther King Jr: “We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody, that is far superior to the discords of war.”). I had also been at the first local presentation in Berkeley several months ago. Thanks to Lisa for letting me know about Friday's concert, which I otherwise would have missed; it turns out that Old First Church in San Francisco has an extensive concert program that I wasn't aware of. Some of Friday's pieces were repeated from the Berkeley concert and some were west coast premieres. Both concerts also featured accompanying videos by John Sanborn (a video artist who is married to Cahill).

In theory I'm all in favor of varying the recital format by adding visual elements, acting, dancing, and all kinds of wacky whatthefuckery. There is a spoken word component of several of the pieces, and though chanting or yipping along doesn't seem really natural to Cahill she pulled these moments off with aplomb. So can I say without discouraging innovative presentations that in this case the video just isn't working for me?

As we all know, we live in an extremely visual culture, which is both the reason to add a visual element to recitals and the reason not to. The visual can provide a level of comfort with the experience of listening that can draw people into what's going on. On the other hand, why make things too comfortable? Presumably people think they’re there to listen, even if they're really there to look around, so why not provide an experience that requires them just to listen, instead of relying on a visual crutch?

A visual element might work better with more familiar music, providing a variant way of seeing something we've already taken in on some level, but these pieces are all new (or at most pieces I've only heard once before, months ago), so the pictures aren't playing off familiar sounds; the piano often seems like accompaniment to the pictures rather than an equal or even superior partner. Our first experience of the music is being guided by the pictures. The videos play across a triptych of large screens, and the images are constantly changing in a distracting way; I found myself concentrating on the screens – for instance, when phrases would slowly appear and float across the pictures, I found myself waiting in suspense for the next word to appear, even when I could guess what it was. And what I did see of the videos struck me as of varying interest – I have to admit that when I realized how distracting they were I just shut my eyes and listened.

Frederic Rzewski’s Peace Dances was one of the repeated pieces, and I was happy to hear it again. As with his variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated, he weaves in tunes from protest songs. He also includes a centennial birthday tribute to Elliott Carter – “his name appears musically in the middle [of the seventh dance], overlaid with We Shall Overcome.” I don’t know if this means he used E and C, or some other variant on Carter’s name; Cahill didn’t seem too sure either in her spoken introduction to the piece. I was glad she spoke before the pieces, though, since at the Berkeley performance it was sometimes unclear which piece was which (I thought they should have just projected composer and title on the screens, since they had them there).

I liked the two new pieces as well, Phil Kline’s The Long Winter which has a lovely carillon-in-the-mist sound at the end, and Kyle Gann’s War Is Just a Racket, which I thought was just a witty title for a musical piece until I read the program and saw he was quoting Smedley Butler, whose words are declaimed to a musical accompaniment that is often jaunty in a way that reminded me of the earlier poems in Whitman’s Drum Taps, the poems that have to convey why war is exciting and appealing, before the truth of war is revealed as the poems progress. What struck me as jazzy martial sounds deepened and made more complex the experience of the words.

One piece from the Berkeley concert that was not repeated, and that I didn’t miss, was Yoko Ono’s monotonously simple Toning. Ono’s note said that the piece was to be performed “by the performer solely for the purpose of toning and healing the body and the mind of the performer” – as opposed to entertaining the audience, and I’m not being sarcastic, that really is Ono’s point, which makes it rather blithely self-indulgent to perform it in front of an audience. There’s a concept there, but like a lot of conceptual art, it's meant to be explained rather than experienced.

And as my mind wandered during Ono’s piece, I was reminded of the physical effect music has. Years ago I was wandering through the lion cages at some zoo, thinking how sad caged lions always look, with their tatty manes and listless manner, and wondering why lions rather than the more visually interesting tigers or leopards were considered the King of Beasts. Then one lion roared, and I could feel the vibrations of the sound physically pass through me – entering through my chest and exiting through my spine – and I understood.

Both the Berkeley and Old First concerts ended with Terry Riley's Be Kind to One Another (Rag), a really lovely lullaby-like piece that has the liveliness of ragtime yet radiates serenity and inner harmony. I don't know if Cahill always ends these concerts with this piece, but she should.

There was another recital-with-pictures even earlier this season, when Dawn Upshaw performed Kurtag's Kafka Fragments in the Peter Sellars staging, and as that last word tells you this was done as a theater piece. I went to both performances. Upshaw was in beautiful voice both nights and gave a committed performance, even though I wasn't quite convinced by Sellars's conception of the piece. He had Upshaw dressed down in a dark blue flannel shirt, cleaning house, surrounded by ironing boards, buckets, and suchlike paraphernalia. To me all this gave the evening a very dated 1970s "housework is oppression!" look that limited rather than expanded the piece. The idea of Kafka Fragments is pretty intriguing and provocative to start with, since if ever there was a writer who created entire seamless and inescapable worlds, as opposed to fragments, that writer is Kafka. The screen in the background had English translations of the German text, and then there were black-and-white shots that often seemed, though beautiful, a bit random. Occasional moments gestured to a larger world, though in open-ended ways (for instance, the section “Offensively Jewish: In the struggle between yourself and the world, side with the world” had Upshaw fearfully scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush, which I took to be a reference to the Nazis forcing Jews to scrub the streets with toothbrushes, but I wonder how many people read it that way). I thought the concept would have benefited from being both more abstract and more open-ended. I'm glad I saw this staging, but I think there are other ways of doing it. I think Sellars has a visual sense, but based on his recent stagings I’m just not sure it’s one I respond to.

A few days before Kafka Fragments I was at the San Francisco Symphony's Mahler 8 performance, and that's one organization that might want to consider visuals in the form of surtitles, which they persistently and peculiarly eschew. Perhaps they just assume that we have of course all memorized the end of Faust in the original German. Maybe they like the waves of simultaneous program-page-turning that sweep the hall, which you’d think they’d like to avoid when they’re recording a piece. Other than that oddity, this was one of the highlights of the Symphony's season, with another outstanding performance from the chorus. James Morris was not in his best voice, and neither was Anthony Dean Griffey; the best of the men was Quinn Kelsey. The women soloists (Erin Wall, Elza van den Heever, Laura Claycomb – who sang about two lines, which is really luxury casting – Katarina Karneus, and Yvonne Naef) were all strong. Tilson Thomas handled the mighty forces with grace and ease. The recording is coming out in a few weeks, but you really had to be in the hall to vibrate to it live.

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