One of the many legends surrounding Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706), the sixth Dalai Lama of Tibet, was that he upset the order of the universe by physically being in more than one place at a time—a feat beyond mere mortal humans, at least back in the 18th century. Now, thanks to audio and video recording technologies, we can almost “be” in more than one place at a time. Of course, if you are your music, as so many composers claim, we’ve had them all beat by millennia since our music can theoretically be played without us all over the place at the same time. The same is true for visual artists, playwrights, poets, and novelists, too, I suppose, but music seems to draw us closer into someone’s inner soul. (I’m biased, I know.)
However, in our premiere-driven new music society, it is rare to have such a simultaneity. Even the remarkable road tour of Joan Tower’s Made in America is predominantly a staggered sequence of 65 performances. Imagine how cool it would have been if all 65 orchestras around the country were playing the piece at the same time!
While it’s not quite as monumental as that, something similar is happening this week for Elliott Carter. On Thursday night, the Boston Symphony Orchestra will give the world premiere performance of Carter’s Three Occasions. That same night, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will give the world premiere of Carter’s Soundings. It’s very possible that both pieces will be played at exactly the same time. Chicago and Boston are in two different time zones an hour apart, but Chicago’s program opens with the Carter and Boston plays their Carter at the beginning of the second half of the program.
Now, if you were Carter, what would you do? Which performance would you go to? Luckily, both orchestras are playing these works more than once. As I write this, Carter is at Penn Station headed for Boston to attend the premiere there. (Don’t ask me how I know these things!) The next morning, he boards a plane to attend the second and third performances in Chicago.
Our music has the power to be several places at once, but it’s only events like this that drive the point home. In an era when everyone is prognosticating the end of notated music and argues persuasively for the hegemony of notated and non-notated approaches, events like this celebrate what makes notated music so unique. Carter can’t be in Boston and Chicago at once, but his music can. And while perhaps this may not win over any more journalists who deal in headline news or pro-sports, they’ve got to admit that not even Bernie Williams can simultaneously hit a home run in Fenway and Wrigley Field.