View From the East: Maverick Subway


Greg Sandow

As I’m writing this, Zankel Hall has just opened. Of course it’s Carnegie Hall‘s new contribution to New York’s musical life, their third performing space, a multi-use hall that can be reconfigured to have seats, or no seats, a stage, or no stage—kind of fun, really, especially (I’d guess) if we could see it in action, rearranging itself like some shape-shifting creature in a science fiction film.

And I guess it’s the big topic of conversation in the New York music world this fall, since for the moment there’s no visible movement on the most dramatic recent news, which was the planned merger of Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic. Zankel, in any case, has the refreshing advantage of being news not just about the business of music, but about music itself. Carnegie launched the space with a festival of compact programs, touching on classical music, new music, world music, and jazz, some of them planned in collaboration with Nonesuch Records, a partner with the best possible blend of artistic honesty and commercial smarts. John Adams, Carnegie’s new composer in residence—whose existence, in that post, is impossible to learn from Carnegie’s website—had a hand in planning other events, and conducted the opening concert. (Among other things, the hapless website coughed up pages with no mention of any Adams when—appalled that I couldn’t find any mention of him—I used its search function to search for John.)

That opening concert was quite a pleasure, even if I didn’t quite cotton to half the music. During the two Charles Ives pieces that started things off—From the Steeples and the Mountains and Scherzo Over the Pavements—I found myself thinking, not for the first time, that Ives’s music sounds a little crazy, and also doesn’t seem to hang together in any way that makes tangible sense. Then I caught myself, as I always do, and remembered that in the long-ago days when I was a singer, I’d sing Ives songs, and discover that every note seemed exactly what it should be.

But I did wonder what critics would write, including me, if they heard this music without knowing who wrote it. I wondered the same thing after the next program entry, Lou Harrison‘s Concerto in slendro, though speaking for myself, I’ve just about never heard a Harrison piece that didn’t engage me. I say “speaking for myself,” though, because this one, with its odd boinkings and bangings (and less refreshing melody than Harrison often has), might have struck other people as more than a little strange, if they hadn’t had the reassuring Harrison name attached to it.

And in fact, that’s what’s interesting about imagining what people would think of this music, if they didn’t know who wrote it. Both Ives and Harrison are names that function, among other things, as reassurance. “Yes, these pieces really are strange. They don’t go down normal musical roads. But that’s O.K.—they’re not supposed to! These composers were—and may I say how much I hate this word?—”mavericks.” I hate the word because it tames the concept. A maverick, more or less by definition, ought to be unclassifiable. But these two mavericks have been classified—as mavericks! Thus we can stand apart from their genuinely unusual music, and not be thrown by it, or, at the other extreme, be so inspired by it we might never settle for anything conventional again. The reassuring word soothes and protects us, whereas the music—as Ives certainly would have been the first to insist—should do anything but that.

Luckily (I write with a wistful smile) the second half of the program really was reassuring. It gave us “contemporary music,” in all its faded glory, as represented by Thomas Adès being far too clever for his own good (in a piece called Living Toys), and Esa-Pekka Salonen being, despite his own mild suggestions to the contrary, not clever enough (in a piece called Mania). Or maybe he was only clever, which amounts to the same thing.

Adès at least made genuinely weird sounds, some of them quite arresting, especially in some arousing chords from a whole group of low-pitched instruments, especially strings and brass. And the jerky flow, or non-flow, of the piece was impossible to predict. But while Ives seems to be entirely unselfconscious, not caring for a moment what effect he makes on anyone, Adès seems, to judge from how Living Toys felt to me, to be far too aware of how he sounds. Or maybe it’s me; maybe I just don’t love music that’s always biting my ankles, trying to seize my attention. (And then wryly turning in a different direction, as if to say the nip on my anklebone didn’t really matter.)

Salonen took a different route, telling us (in quotes from him in the program notes) that he loves extremes, and that he went right out to them in this piece. And, sure enough, at one moment I heard what seemed to be an oddly hapless saxophone, and when I looked at the stage in amazement—because there wasn’t any sax in the instrumental lineup—realized I was hearing not a sax, but a bassoon, playing so much higher than its normal register that the opening solo of The Rite of Spring would by comparison sound like something out of Beethoven.

The cello soloist, meanwhile (and before that, and afterwards), scrambled all over his instrument, playing fiendish hard stuff—and I just couldn’t care, because there was nothing innerly extreme about anything in the piece. Every gesture was conventional, and neat as a well-tended pincushion. The melodic lines, especially, were neo-romantic in the most unsurprising way, full of little surges up to high notes, every one them familiar and predictable. Not that Mania was a bad piece; far from it. It was superbly well written, as was Living Toys. It was just too easy to classify, in ways that Ives and Harrison would never be, if their names (and that pesky “maverick” label) hadn’t arranged the classification before the concert even started.

Then, two days later, I heard a concert by Paul Hillier‘s Theatre of Voices, offering an evocative collage of pieces from now, and from the 13th and 14th centuries. The now piece that really knocked me out was Ingram Marshall‘s Hymnodic Delays, in which digital processing extends and reshapes passages from old American hymns, sung a capella. The processed sound of the voices would hang there, floating and often (or so it seemed to me) very sad, sharing the Zankel space with all of us who listened to it, never demanding anything, but impossible to ignore. I was thrilled to see my wife Anne Midgette devote a great chunk of her New York Times review to praise of Ingram’s piece. (Anne and I often go to concerts together, and sat together at this one, but as a matter of personal and professional protocol, we don’t talk about what we’re likely to write in our reviews. So when I read her I have very little more idea of what she’s going to say than any other reader would.)

The rest of the program—Steve Reich, Guillaume de Machaut, and some anonymous 13th century hockets—would have been wonderful to hear, if only the Theatre of Voices could sing. They sounded tentative, even soggy (except in Ingram’s piece, where I’m sure the amplification and digital processing helped them), singing with no presence or projection, and above all no rhythm. Weird, since Hillier took the trouble to draw his singers from many countries, and had sharp keyboard and percussion players for the Reich piece (Proverb). Something’s not working.

But look—here I am, writing a far from maverick review of two conceptually interesting but not exactly revolutionary concerts. I guess I care enough to say that this is good programming to have around, even if I don’t personally care for all the music or all the performances.

But what I really want to say is something else. We’re all (meaning the music biz crew who go around, like a permanent floating audience, to the season-opening events each September) talking about Zankel. In a couple of weeks, we’ll stop, and move on to something else. Which is as it should be. This is a perfectly nice hall, with decent sound, and a design absolutely guaranteed not to surprise anyone who’s been in other newish small halls built in the last decade or so. It even has one spiffy architectural touch—blue-gray lights arrayed against a background of light wood. I loved the lights; I wish they made gumdrops that color.

But the one indelible fact about Zankel is the subway. And that, I have to say, was what I heard people talking about more than anything else. A subway line—in fact, a major subway station, the 57th Street stop on the N, Q, R and W lines—runs right under Carnegie Hall. We’re used to the distant rumble of trains in the main auditorium, which in any case was built before the subway was, and suffered the rumble as an unavoidable later addition. But Zankel, of course, was built long after the subway became a fact of life at 7th Avenue and 57th Street, and inside it the rumble is louder than in the main hall, even disruptive at times, or so some people thought.

Which leads to two lines of maverick thought. First, given that the subway wasn’t going to go away, why did they build the hall at all? Yes, the Zankel programming is very welcome, a tribute to Ara Guzelimian, Carnegie’s Artistic Advisor, and one of the very best people in New York’s classical music scene. Nobody else was about to give us concerts like this, and Carnegie had the space available, and the funds, so sure, it’s good they did it, and any objection might be churlish.

But at the same time, is this where we’d want to put a new hall, if we approached the project as some kind of citywide endeavor, without any practical constraints? Of course not. So in a way there’s something breathtakingly stubborn about Carnegie’s decision to proceed. The hall comes into the world with a birth defect, one that of course Carnegie’s people knew would be there right from the start. So in effect they’re saying, “You don’t have any choice. If you want the good stuff we’re offering, you’ll just have to take the subway along with it.”

Though in the face of that—and this is my second maverick point—I’m going to insist that the subway is the very best thing about Zankel. (Pronounced, by the way, with the accent on the second syllable, a point I’ll insist on here out of sheer vanity, because the proper stress gives my sentence a better rhythm.) Of course, I love the subway anyway, and have loved it ever since I was a kid growing up in New York. I find those rumbles comforting, and if sometimes they disturb the music—well, I hear too much music, both live and on records (and in my head, and on my computer while I’m composing), so why should I care if some of it’s disturbed?

Besides, the rumbles—distant, but somehow at the same time right upon us, dark and unclear, but still insistent—have their own compelling beauty. They even enhanced some of the music I heard. The best comment I heard, after either of the Zankel concerts I went to, came from somebody who wryly assessed which piece went best with the subway: The slow movement of the Harrison, he thought. And he’s right to make that call. The subway, as a tangible presence in the hall, makes its own perspective felt. It anoints some pieces as compatible with it, and tosses others aside, rejecting them as irrelevant. I don’t see why its judgment isn’t as valid as any other, though another way to put the same point would be that some music welcomes outside sound, and other music runs from it. Harrison, I’ve noticed before (at Greenwich House, for instance, where I heard the New Millennium Ensemble, if I remember correctly, play a Harrison piece in a small room with windows that let in summer New York street noise) makes outside sounds feel right at home.

So let me propose that the good people at Carnegie acknowledge the subway, and even honor it. Why don’t they commission pieces designed to work with the subway rumbles—to enhance them and cradle them, or, taking the same thing in reverse, to be enhanced or cradled by them? I suppose this will never happen, because it would look like bad PR for Carnegie Hall. They’d be admitting that they’ve got a subway situation; they’d draw attention to a sound they probably wish we’d all just ignore.

But I think the possibilities are fascinating, even wonderful. I could imagine some hymn-like music, for instance, that just goes its way with no hurry, and no special destination in mind, and that happily stopped whenever the subway came by, to be replaced by something designed to accompany the trains. Or the piece could just stop, and let the subway speak for itself in silence. Or the players could sit in silence from the start, and only play when the subway came. Or they could improvise something that went with the subway, the way Wynton Marsalis (as memorably described by David Hajdu in a piece in the Atlantic Monthly) rescued the quiet end of a solo from an unexpected cell phone ring, by improvising on the notes the ring played.

And these are only the possibilities that I can think of. Other composers will think of many more, and very likely much better ones. Ingram Marshall, could do that, I think. His music worked magically with the subway. If I were planning this concert, he’d be the first composer I’d pick.