Sounds Heard: Bobby Previte—Diorama

Tracing the evolutionary origins of music is a pretty speculative process; generative relationships to language, dance, and ritual can be theorized, practically felt, but hard proof is lacking for anything specific. I must nonetheless admit that it seems obvious to me that music evolved as a communal phenomenon. No one wants to be an alien in a crowd, and the best music, like the best literature and the best cinema, can create an environment of empathy and belonging. And even more so than those other art forms, music has the possibility of a transcendent sense of communion that comes from sharing a space with a group of like-minded individuals, experiencing artistic affection with concurrence.

My belief in the power of these experiences, a near worshipfulness, certainly creates a number of biases. So Bobby Previte’s three-day project Diorama caused some trepidation on my part. The gimmick behind Diorama was presented in the PR thusly:

In Previte’s Diorama, each listener enters a small room and sits directly behind the drum set. Unaware of their identity, Previte plays an improvised piece for his solo audience member. The strange, heightened intimacy of the interaction and the expansive, panoramic view of Lower Manhattan from the space create a concert of extremes and oppositions.

I certainly understand the inclination towards intimacy in a musical setting. It’s easy to romanticize, and the idea behind Diorama is actually kind of an inventive elision between two common fetishes in contemporary music, communication with the audience and purity of sonic experience. But while a solo improvised anonymous concert is fairly novel, it also seems like kind of a new music glory hole, a quick burst of gratification and perceived specialness absent of the greater communal contexts that can make the concert experience meaningful in a deeper way.

The venue for the project was located at 14 Wall Street, an imperial, century-old skyscraper designed to look like the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus perched atop the Campanile di San Marco—I’m sure the representational amalgam of death, power, and virility must have sent bankers of the era into a tumid tizzy. And though I haven’t been able to prove this, I’d posit that it was the first time the building had hosted a new music event.

On the day of the concert, it was raining hard out of a low sky, and all surfaces were squeaking wet. I took two elevators up from the marbled lobby to the 31st floor, located just beneath the building’s crowning pyramid. The room I walked into was pretty crappy—sparsely used storage space with concrete flooring and crumbling plaster ceilings. The area was however incredibly well fenestrated, allowing for the promised panorama, or at least what was visible through the clouds and water-soaked glass. A slightly bored-looking woman behind a folding table took my name and told me to have a seat.

I can’t say I’m the world’s most knowledgeable Bobby Previte fan. His Tzadik disc 23 Constellations of Joan Miró is a great album that generated no small amount of enthusiasm from yours truly, but there’s really no way of divining what a drum solo by the man would sound like from that grandly orchestrated piece. Now with the rain pattering against the windows I heard a sampling of what I was going to hear, a floor tom booming out into the room from some unknown location. I shifted around uncomfortably and wondered if I should try to make small talk with the woman at the table. After a few minutes the sound of the previous participant’s leaving was the cue to bring me in.

I was brought into an unnoticed adjacent room, and it was like a benevolent Dickensian ghost had transported me to the soft glow of a Christmas past. No, really, it was absurd: stepping in from crumbling plaster and denuded concrete I was now surrounded by rich, dark, sculpted woodwork, a fireplace, and other trappings of unexpected luxury. The apocryphal tale behind the 31st floor is that it’s the former residence of JP Morgan, and despite its falsity it’s an alluring assumption. The 31st floor is incredibly prime real estate. That its current existence centers around art presentations is really, really weird. The woman gave me my instructions: “Don’t say anything. No applause. When the performance is done, you’ll know. Leave the way you came in.”

At the top of a stairwell I entered an oblong room. Previte was set up opposite a trio of windows with mahogany interstices, looking west past the World Financial Center and Hudson River. His kit would make Neil Peart proud: 14 drums, 3 cymbals, gongs, bells cow and non-, and like a dozen or so other things to smack and/or shake.

Here’s the thing: the Diorama participants sat really close to Previte. I became concerned with my own personal hygiene and the loudness and direction of my breathing. If he had turned around he would have been staring at my inguinal region from a distance of about 30 inches.

But he didn’t turn around, say anything, or in any way acknowledge my presence. In fact it wasn’t until I looked up Previte online during the writing of this article that I had any idea what his face looked like. But his square jaw protruding behind his narrow neck, his blond mohawk springing from grey stubble, his bare feet—I’ll just say these elements become pretty consuming, visually speaking, especially when you’re practically straddling the dude.

Slowly, deliberately, he began to play me my very own piece, the one that only I would hear. (Or so advertised: the video of that performance was actually posted for you and the rest of the world to view on Previte’s Facebook page.) In that space, at that proximity, the instruments sounded absolutely great. Previte, as I basically expected, is a marvelous musician as well as composer, and the three-part improvisation he sculpted before me was totally engaging and well formed over the course its 8 minutes, especially in that environment. I’m definitely hijacking the subito sputtering ratchet that came in 2/3 of the way through for a future piece. When Previte finished, he nonchalantly picked up a copy of day’s New York Times from beside his left foot and pretended to read. He was done with me.

The strangest thing to me about something so putatively intimate is that it was also completely detached, not unlike a sex scene in a Milan Kundera novel. Other than perhaps some olfactory stimulation from unwashed participants, Previte was receiving no sensory inputs from any audience, nothing to color his performance beyond general presence.

But the idea of communion between individual audience members and performers is pretty illusory anyway. Performers save for the Julio Iglesias’s of the world are not focusing their attention on particular people. The simple feeling of presence, a particular vibe emanating from the audience whether few or many, is the primary input to the performer, and there’s nothing to suggest that Previte wasn’t getting that. But the illusion of person-to-person communion is important for audience participation. Without a set of eyes, the cognitive registration of intent, the firing of empathetic mirror neurons, I might as well have been alone in the room, listening to a recording (well, a recording that sounded really good).

What rescued Diorama from being just a gimmick is that it was an interesting, positive, memorable, and totally weird experience. The total subversion of the usual concert experience created in me zero expectations for the first time in years. There were contradictions and absurdities at every turn—the concept, the building, the juxtapositions of the two rooms, the view of the World Financial Center, the newspaper—it was, basically, like a private spectacle. And unlike the usual concert experience, which is about building community if even in the most ephemeral way, spectacle requires few social elements. Diorama‘s stock in trade was overwhelmed wonderment, existing in a solipsism that included not even the performer.