New England’s Prospect: The Real World

Ken Ueno works the Napoleon Room, March 5, 2012

Ken Ueno works the Napoleon Room, March 5, 2012

Up until last week, I hadn’t yet made it to a Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert this season, a lapse that wanted correction. BMOP might be the most agnostic new music group in town, game for whatever style or school or angle they can get an audience for, or get a grant for, or even just get a hankering for. They were also early practitioners of that staple of new music coolness, staging concerts in clubs.

For a long time, BMOP’s chamber-sized Club Concerts were at Club Café, a large Back Bay gay club and restaurant. Lately, BMOP had moved into Oberon, the happy product of an odd circumstance—a brand-new nightclub in the middle of Harvard Square, created as a venue for the American Repertory Theatre’s Midsummer-Night’s-Dream-meets-Studio-54 extravaganza The Donkey Show, and subsequently filled on off nights by a whole range of fringe, cabaret, and jazz acts. But Oberon was otherwise occupied, so BMOP was back at Club Café on March 5 for a Japanese-themed concert curated by composer Ken Ueno.

It was terrible. Not the music—the music was brilliant. But the venue, frankly, stunk. BMOP was in the Napoleon Room, a tiny cabaret space to the side of the club. It was, not surprisingly, jammed. (Ueno, a Bostonian for a while before moving west, joked how proud he was that his one-time home could sell out a house with new music.) Kitchen sounds and waiters were constantly interrupting the presentation. And the glass wall that separates the room from the rest of the club proved a uselessly permeable barrier to ambient noise. From my seat, the deep, delicate, shifting white-noise landscape of Joji Yuasa’s 1967 tape piece Icon was pretty much drowned out by the exuberant insistence of a bar patron that the first season of the Lynda Carter “Wonder Woman” T.V. series was by far the best. I mean, sure, the writing became far less clever once they moved the setting from ’40s to the ’70s, and what was up with that whole “Steve Trevor, Jr.” business, and oh yes PLEASE SHUT UP BECAUSE I AM TRYING TO LISTEN TO THIS CONCERT.

It was too bad, because Ueno had come up with an excellent program, a remarkably efficient exploration of the Japanese dance between pitch, noise, and silence. There were two richly virtuosic solo pieces by Toshio Hosokawa: Winter Bird (played with acrobatic precision by violinist Gabriela Diaz), in which jeté and pizzicato avian sounds give way to a nifty continuous-glissando double-stop section, like a calligraphy brush splitting into different hairs and then coming back together as you drag it across the paper; and Vertical Song I (pulled off with equal energy by flutist Jessie Rosinski), which worked a similar trick via playing and singing at the same time. There were some hardcore avant-garde tape pieces, not only Yuasa’s Icon, but also Toru Takemitsu’s 1960 Water Music, a stunningly assured manipulation of water sounds, drips and splashes (which, in the context, made the place sound like a dank storeroom in hell’s speakeasy).

Ueno’s own divertingly Beckett-esque piano solo Disabitato, inspired by Roman ruins, still fit the program’s emphasis on the placement of—and space between—sonic events, its small catalog of stony sounds circling each other in an arena of sustain-pedal resonance. (Sarah Bob was the superb pianist.) For a finale, Diaz, Bob, and cellist Jing Li played Bruce Reiprich’s Chozubachi, a Takemitsu homage that evoked that composer’s most cinematic, Messiaen-jazz moods with unapologetic lushness. The performance was terrific. What I could hear of it, anyway.

***

Audibility isn’t much of a problem for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, who performed at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium on March 10, part of an ongoing three-year residency organized by MIT professor (and All-Star) Evan Ziporyn. Both the All-Stars and the Bang on a Can composers—Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang—work with nearly omnipresent amplification. But what struck me at this concert was how much the group works with authenticity—the authenticity of expression that was such a concern to the existentialists, the authenticity of tradition that’s such a concern in cultural contexts, and the way that, for the better part of a century, musicians have been blurring the line between the two.

The great innovation of Bang on a Can, I think, is the realization that the ways composers and performers signal various forms of musical authenticity could be rich musical source material in and of itself—that the “authentic” is to the late 20th and early 21st century what the “sublime” was to the 19th. BoaC plays this game along with everyone else—part of the authenticity being claimed by this concert was that of celebrity, not only their own, but also the advertised appearances of cult-hero pop-collagist Nick Zammuto (formerly of The Books, as PR materials consistently reminded) and the Elijah of minimalism, Steve Reich. (It worked: Kresge Auditorium, not small, was packed.) But the group also plays with the game, a self-aware acknowledgement and exploration of how and why we like to declare musical heritages.

One of the main draws, besides Reich himself, was the Boston premiere of Reich’s 2×5, written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars in 2008. The instrumentation is a high-class garage-band: Mark Stewart and guest Derek Johnson on electric guitars, Robert Black on electric bass, David Cossin on drums, Vicky Chow and (usually-clarinetist) Ziporyn on two pianos. “2×5 is chamber music for rock instruments,” Reich explained in his program note. “We’re living at a time when the worlds of concert music and popular music have resumed their normal dialogue after a brief pause during the 12 tone/serial period.”

Sure, because no one’s ever tried that with serialism. (Don’t even get me started on the subtext of the word “normal.”) But that’s been Reich’s claim to authenticity almost from the start: the voice crying in the wilderness, calling music back from a hermetic detour onto the straight and narrow. And if that’s what has driven and continues to drive him, the music is beautiful, more often than not.

2×5, though, kept its distance from me, one of that group of Reich pieces that, for me at least, tips over from “bright and insistent” to “irritatingly aggressive.” (I had the same reaction the last time I heard Music for a Large Ensemble. I look forward to your letters.) It wasn’t so much the volume, although it was pretty gloriously loud. It was more, I think, because I tend to hone in on anything resembling a harmonic progression, and 2×5 felt harmonically abrupt, arbitrary, even clunky in places, common-tone and mediant juxtapositions piled on with diminishing returns. Three sections from the end, the piece briefly settled into a bewitching set of changes, Stewart and Johnson chiming accents over a repeated string of chords, to lovely effect. For the rest, it had all the volume of rock but not much of its formal satisfaction.

The other Reich selections were impeccable. Stewart gave a crisp and gorgeous account of Electric Counterpoint, Reich’s layered escapements polished to an irresistible ’80s pastel-and-chrome gloss. And Reich himself was joined by Cossin for Clapping Music, still a small miracle: idea, technique, process, and means in perfect, transparent balance. The contrast between performers was interesting: Cossin swaying and grooving, advertising the music’s affinity with pop, but Reich calm, centered, locked in. The best music doesn’t need special pleading.

***

The first half of the concert featured a preview performance (the official premiere is on March 20, in London) of Field Recordings, a nine-composer anthology commissioned for the BoaC All-Stars, marking BoaC’s 25th anniversary. (Cellist Ashley Bathgate, left out of 2×5, returned to her usual place in the sextet.) It really was an old-fashioned preview, still working out kinks—video cues weren’t always punctual, the sound mix wasn’t always optimal—but the overall spirit of the piece was apparent, and the spirit of the piece puts authenticity front-and-center. The concept is found footage, each composer building a movement around the pre-existing audio or video of his or her choice. And, of course, that choice revealed each composer’s attitude and approach to musical authenticity.

Julia Wolfe’s “Reeling,” for instance, opted for the imprimatur of folk music, starting with a Lomax-esque record of an energetic, wordless vocal—Appalachian scat-singing, maybe—and then amplifying it through live ensemble imitation into a wall of sound. (One particularly nice effect: sharp inhalations on the recording producing gusts of thick noise from the instruments.) That authenticity of celebrity—new-music celebrity, anyway—was the backbone of Florent Ghys’s “An Open Cage,” a recording of John Cage reading from his diary transformed, Different Trains-style, into modal, easygoing word jazz. Mira Calix’s “meeting you seemed so easy” went the ambient route, with a nod to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports: the burble of an airplane cabin, a fog of transience for some melancholy, circling fragments of melody to cut through.

There was a programmatic bent to David Lang’s “unused swan,” the sound of sharpening knives combined with a gloomy melody and Cossin dropping and swirling metal chains into the bowl of an amplified gong. I thought it didn’t go much beyond the set-up, though, to be fair, other people around me thought it the best of the movements. For me, the more transformative the approach, the more the music reworked, recontextualized, or otherwise messed with the original signal, the more I liked it. Ziporyn’s “Wargasari,” for instance: to start with a scratchy old recording of Balinese singing was probably inevitable for Ziporyn—never far from his gamelan expertise—but the result was awesome, a neither-here-nor-there fusion, the source pushing the ensemble into odd, asymmetrical rhythms, the ensemble turning the recording into a shiny, dissonant, globalized artifact.

Michael Gordon’s “gene takes a drink” showcased a video by Bill Morrison (of Decasia fame), a P.O.V. etude created by putting the camera on the collar of a cat and then turning it loose in a garden. The result was both witty and compelling, given unusual gravity by Gordon’s rippling, limpid minimalism: a cat-video Koyaanisqatsi. Christian Marclay took the notion of “found” footage to its limit in “Fade to Slide,” the ensemble romping through an onomatopoeic soundtrack to a montage of film clips, as cleverly and intricately curated as Marclay’s other cinematic installations. The authenticity here was the grammar of Hollywood—all the rhythm but none of the content of film narrative, the conditioning of pop culture revealed in its Pavlovian glory.

Tyondai Braxton worked a not unrelated vein with his “Casino Trem,” the source here the electronic jangle of slot machines and other casino enticements; through sampling, imitation, and drive, the ensemble turned the sounds into a primary-color, in-your-face symphony, a Beethovenian hard sell as reworked by Scott Bradley. “Casino Trem” was listed last, but the order was flipped so Zammuto’s “Real Beauty Turns” could be the finale, with Zammuto joining the group on guitar and vocals. The music was busy, head-bopping prog-rock; the found footage was collected television advertising footage featuring beauty products, their hopeful/skeptical customers, their before-and-after effects.

The original order might have been better. After Braxton, Zammuto’s conceit, as fun as it was, seemed almost too easy, both in the softness of its comic target (what’s the deal with infomercials?) and in the way its claim to authenticity was the result of a stacked deck—I mean, just about anybody looks cool next to someone enthusiastically demonstrating a motorized hairbrush. Braxton hadn’t let us off the hook that easily, instead taking the sound of one of the most manufactured, “fake” places imaginable and rendering it so ominously ebullient and saturated that one was roped into its siren song without being able to help it. Not the least delicious part of Braxton’s casino extravaganza was the cheer with which he dared to call authenticity’s bluff. In American life, Braxton seemed to be pointing out, the one truly authentic constant is money, the wheel of fortune, winning and losing.

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