New York: A Tale of One New Music Concert

There was an intimate little performance at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn on Saturday of new work by Cornelius Dufallo (the violinist replacing Todd Reynolds in the Ethel quartet) and Michael Spassov, plus George Crumb’s Black Angels. As it turned out, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…er, concerts.

The best: About 50 people settled into folding chairs as Dufallo kicked off the evening with a piece he had written just that morning for solo violin with effects. As Spassov’s work unfolded, I looked around and thought, wow, this feels so…relaxed. The band (Dufallo and Ariana Kim violins; Kenji Bunch viola; Leigh Stuart cello) was clearly enjoying putting on a show. Their performance was not technically brilliant (but hey, you try bowing a violin, wine glasses, and a gong all in the same piece), but it felt warm and genuine—as if really talented friends were sitting in our living room. I was hit with the thought that here was that rare thing—a truly intimate chamber music experience just as it must have felt at court back in the day, but updated for this 21st-century crowd (and available for the $15 price of admission, rather than at the invitation of a Viceroy). As the concluding notes of Black Angels faded away, I also suddenly grasped the appeal of having the same Beethoven symphony on the program year after year—here was a piece I knew in and out, could contemplate as it compared to recordings and reminisce about the half dozen other live performances I’d heard. The audience offered a warm round of applause then ran downstairs to pick up a drink before the next part, which leads me to…

The worst: Christopher Zimmermann, the artistic director of Project One (the name under which this event was put on, though no direct relation to the Project Room that I know of), had planned what sounded like a great concept on paper: a post-performance discussion on the role of technology in music. Somehow, once the assembled performer/composer panel got situated, all that positive energy fostered by the performance took a nosedive. Whether it was due to naiveté or unintentional arrogance, Zimmermann set up a perspective that was interpreted by more than one audience member as an ill-informed hostility to the uses of cutting edge technology in music today. He stressed that it was a “tool” but seemed reluctant to put it on par with other methods or instruments used to express what he termed “serious” musical thought. Several ill-advised generalizations about “pop” music later, it became apparent that the audience likely had way more experience in this area than Zimmermann. This left the evening’s sound engineer, Stephan Moore (who also happens to be the sound supervisor for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company) to make some particularly compelling points about computer music. He pointed to a regular opportunity to experience the very latest in computer-driven music at the weekly Share meet-up in the East Village and tried to lead the discussion to a more positive and productive place. The whole experience drove home the point that there can be a major knowledge divide when it comes to developing technologies, even in a room full of people under forty. And considering the demographics of the audience, this was probably not the most provocative topic to jumpstart a dialogue, anyway.

Mat Maneri and Randy Peterson had originally been on the bill to perform after the talk, but an illness forced them to cancel. Tony Malaby (tenor sax), Russ Lossing (electric piano), and Randy Peterson (drums) stepped up last minute to fill the slot, so the crowd was not left jonesing for an improv set.

This show at Issue was Zimmermann’s third such production in New York and based on what I saw here the format appears to have promise—casual vibe, great venue, nice draw, and dedicated musicians—but his presentation still needs a bit of polishing.