If I haven’t mentioned Zeitgeist, the Twin Cities’ premiere new music chamber ensemble, in this space before, shame on me. I’ve seen Zeitgeist perform more than a few times since moving out here, often at concerts I thought they had nothing to do with—they’re the go-to group. They recently celebrated their 30th anniversary with a program of thirty 150-second pieces (it’s the state’s sesquicentennial) by local composers. Was it a galvanizing, community-strengthening showcase, ably performed and, if reports from Friday and Saturday are to be believed, amply attended, of Twin Cities new music? Sure. Was it a great concert? Not quite.
Two and a half minutes is just long enough to interest me in a piece, but way too long to prove to me that I don’t like it. In other words, with only a handful of exceptions (out of thirty pieces total) it was either too much time or not enough. It’s also not quite enough time for a composer’s identity to be fully manifest, I think—especially when the aesthetic distribution of musical material is, as it was in this case, somewhat pear-shaped, with a preponderance of “Minnesota nice.” I am not crazy about “Minnesota nice” pieces, but if I avoided them as assiduously as I’d like, I’d have to abstain from just about every concert in Minneapolis and St. Paul, let alone the suburbs. This is not to suggest that Zeitgeist didn’t bring plenty of fascinating sounds—they absolutely did, notably but by no means exclusively in some of the pieces that made use of electronics or improvisation—but rather that the strict time limit prevented the program’s contributors from showing us enough of themselves to make strong impressions. Even though everyone involved was clearly 100 percent earnest about making the program a success, the magic just didn’t happen for me. Maybe I should have been there Friday night, when the place was so full that someone had to sit on the fridge.
But I digress. This is a concept review, not a concert review. The concept—program a bunch of short pieces, all regional, that illustrate the scene’s diversity (in every sense of the word)—is seductive. At an NPAC caucus I argued vociferously for the vertical integration of arts presenters, for local performers to play the music of local composers in local spaces. Not only is it an appealing way to engage the community, it also makes you proud to be where you’re from, which I like—a vestige, I guess, of my rock background. If Twin Cities new music and Chicago new music, for instance, were as stylistically distinct and identity-conscious as SoCal punk and D.C. hardcore used to be, their respective constituents might be mobilized in the spirit of friendly competition and energized to pursue that vertical integration I mentioned. But the underlying assumption is that we do these things in support of the content, and thirty polite but audible voices at 150 seconds per voice, paradoxically, is a content-light experience. A lot of other people besides me saw Zeitgeist last weekend, though, so you won’t have to look far if you want a second opinion.