I spent five nights of last week at Le Poisson Rouge (a.k.a. LPR), the former Village Gate which has morphed itself into a hipster club that programs postclassical “bandsembles” and the like. Four of the five nights were devoted to the 2009 MATA Festival. On the remaining night, after much soul searching I missed this year’s Bang on a Can People’s Commissioning Concert at Merkin to remain at LPR to hear ICE perform Peter Maxwell Davies’s confrontational Eight Songs for a Mad King. I’d heard them tackle it once before and it blew my mind then, so I knew I had to hear them do it again, especially since they claim that they’ve decided to retire the piece from their active repertoire, at least in New York City. (Say it ain’t so.)
My original reason for allotting so much precious time to these concerts was the opportunity to hear so much new, unfamiliar music. That’s what usually gets me to attend a live performance. And there were many incredible discoveries—from a piano and string quartet composition by MATA artistic director Chris McIntyre (whom I normally associate with trombone improv-type things) to a surreally meditative percussion work (those words already something of an oxymoron) by Cenk Ergün done by So Percussion (a group I normally associate with kinetic post-minimalism). Then there were amazing pieces by international composers I had never heard of before—a dreamy and occasionally nightmarish solo piano piece by Kate Moore, an Australian now based in the Netherlands, and a joyous orchestra sing-a-long by Irish maverick Andrew Hamilton which came across as something of a Gavin Bryars’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet arranged by Conlon Nancarrow.
Yet, the two things that have left the profoundest impression on me were ultimately the aforementioned Mad King and The Hidden, a bizarre experimental roughly 10-minute video by Daniel Maldonado accompanied with an electronic score by Austin-based composer Mike Vernusky. Prior to every night’s concert, The Hidden was screened twice as people were mulling around for seats and being asked which overpriced alcoholic beverage they wanted to consume (including—gasp—a six-pack of Night Train Express for ninety dollars). As a result, I wound up seeing and hearing the work over and over again.
The first time around it was mostly an incoherent jumble that occasionally terrified and amused. By the third time the juxtaposed images of an axe slaying and a GI-Joe sized astronaut traipsing across a cemetery actually started to make sense as timbres like sampled choirs and toy pianos seeped out through a sea of white noise. By the fifth time, I somehow knew when things were coming both visually and aurally and it somehow seemed to make narrative sense, although I’m still not sure I can tell you exactly what it was about. Its data became somehow processable, like being able to remember a phone number (which after all is a string of randomly-generated numbers) after dialing it many times.
All of which is to say that repetition is fundamental to comprehension, and I’ll posit that music which engages repetition as a structural device is more successful with audiences than music which eschews it for that very reason. And even the most forbiddingly gnarly combinations of sounds and images (which The Hidden certainly wasn’t) can eventually become familiar and somehow pleasant if you are exposed to them enough times. At some point in Eight Songs of a Mad King, the singer walks over to the violinist, pulls the instrument out of his hands, and tears it apart. It is a shocking moment and the first time I witnessed it was extremely disturbing to me. Last Thursday, it felt like the resolution of a cadence.