After six months of workshopping five new experimental orchestral works through public readings, collaborative feedback, and laboratory performances, the American Composers Orchestra presented them in a formal concert entitled “coLABoratory: Playing It Unsafe” at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall this past Friday evening. It was one of the most exciting ACO concerts I have attended in quite some time, in large part because of the added layers of vulnerability in most of the pieces.
Raymond J. Lustig’s Latency Canons involved off-stage musicians performing alongside the ones on-stage via a Google Hangout, exploiting the aesthetic possibilities of the medium’s requisite lag-time to create an interactive and very 21st-century simulacrum of Frippertronics or Terry Riley’s Time Lag Accumulator. Two works required the orchestra to be completely synchronized with accompanying video that was projected above them. Composer/filmmaker Troy Herion’s New York: A City Symphony, which pitted his fast-paced and often hysterically funny film about contemporary NYC life against similarly quirky music. Du Yun’s Slow Portraits, created in collaboration with videographer David Michalek, was something of its polar opposite—both film and music were hyper-slow. Our own Dan Visconti’s Glitchscape featured vintage Speak & Spell and Speak & Read toys in the orchestration. Judith Sainte Croix’s Vision V included passages of audience participation, albeit relatively circumscribed.
Based on conversations during the post-concert party, all of the composers were extremely pleased with the results, and to judge from the ecstatic applause—particularly following Troy Herion’s New York Symphony, which concluded the concert—so was the audience. Would that there could be this much innovation and excitement in many more orchestral performances! So, should more orchestral performances feature video, some kind of technological enhancement, or opportunities for the audience to share in performing the music? I’m not sure on any of those fronts. Many of the video components I have seen in other performances over the years don’t really enhance the musical experience and sometimes they are an annoying distraction. Technology tends to age poorly, and if it’s really cutting edge, more often than not the performance venues as well as the musicians seem uncomfortable or are ill-equipped to deal with the logistics that such elements require.
As for audience participation… I must confess that I find few things more irritating than being asked to sing along during a performance that I did not anticipate being a part of. It is truly embarrassing, not quite as bad as that scene in the film About a Boy, but still! And I have no problem with pitch, can sight read well, and have sung most of my life in a variety of contexts. Still, there’s something about the joining in with a group that reeks of “Kumbaya.” Maybe that’s why I have such an aversion to “Happy Birthday”.
Luckily Sainte Croix’s Vision V did not quite use the audience that way. Rather than sing a specific melody line in unison, the audience was asked to quietly annunciate three specific sounds either once or over and over again in any rhythmic pattern they desired; the fourth and final time around, audience members were allowed to freely combine the previous three sounds. Rather than creating a garish non-unison (which is what usually happens when large groups of people are asked to sing something together when not completely prepared to do so), the result was akin to the micropolyphony that is a hallmark of Ligeti’s middle period. Of course it worked because it was somewhat unexpected. If every concert included something along these lines, it would get tired pretty quickly. But that’s why each concert should offer a different new idea. Undoubtedly some of those new ideas will be on display whenever ACO mounts its next coLABoratory project.