Saturday, January 13, 2007

Eighth Blackbird in The Kitchen

Birds of a feather flock together, they say. Unfortunately, few birds match up to the Parrot for feathers, and p.s. the Parrot doesn't use Flock to edit his blog (couldn't get it to work with Blogger). Be that as it may, we are happy to associate with non-predatory birds of all stripes, or even those lacking stripes. We therefore headed down to The Kitchen last Friday (yes, that's how long it takes me to post these days) to rescue a few imperiled turkeys, and instead found some perfectly contented Blackbirds making a joyous racket like we haven't heard since the last cicada festival.

"What's all this about?", you unfeathered species may ask. For starters, Eighth Blackbird is an ensemble of musicians who specialize in performing music by contemporary classical composers (I am aware of the near-oxymoron there, but let it slide for now). The small ensemble sports a couple of woodwinds (flute and clarinet), violin and cello, piano, and about a many percussion instruments as you can fit on a medium-sized stage.

The Parrot likes anyone who likes Wallace Stevens, and the name of the group obviously comes from Stevens' Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (even if it didn't say so on their web site), the eighth verse of which has to do with musical accents and rhythms. Does Eighth Blackbird realize that when Stevens says, "I know too that the blackbird is involved in what I know", the blackbird represents death, the end of the musical tone, at which point the music can first sound in our imagination and become a thing of beauty? The Parrot is pleased to announce that Green represents life in the imagination for Stevens, which can happen only after the death of the real; that's why you have: "The blackbird sat in the cedar-limbs. The day was green." At least on my interpretation. Anyway...

The Kitchen, it so happens, is not the place where the parrots' and blackbirds's friends turn to roasts, but rather a central institution of the so-called Downtown arts scene since the 1970's. "Downtown" here is an aesthetic term and not a location. The Kitchen is now on West 19th Street in Chelsea, center of the contemporary plastic arts scene and a whole lot less geographically Downtown than it used to be. (The Knitting Factory, on the other hand, is geographically more downtown than it used to be when it was a Downtown performance space, but it is no longer aesthetically Downtown, just a concert space for a hodge-podge of rock groups.) The Kitchen maintains its Downtown aesthetic in its home between the Chelsea Piers sports center, the art galleries where anyone who fancies themselves an art collector goes to find the Next Big Thing, and the offices of the Dia Foundation arts center, where the Next Big Thing has already been found and labelled.

Going to a concert at The Kitchen was a an experience that reminded me of a song by one of the Parrot's favorite songwriters, Eric Alter of the Sloe Guns, who writes, "Even though he's never been, he dreams of going back to Dillon". At least I don't recall ever going to a performance at The Kitchen, though browsing through my 35 years worth of collected concert programs might convince me otherwise. So why the sense of eternal return? Well, I suppose this is excuse enough for a little name-dropping. H.A. Monk, under the name he was more commonly known by before becoming the world's least-linked-to Blog Star, has made the acquaintance of some interesting personages over the years. Perhaps the first was Rhys Chatham,
with whom I sat in theory classes at the Third Street Music School many moons ago. I recall Rhys as a red-haired flutist with a large smile, but shortly thereafter he became the first music director of The Kitchen (and according to Wikipedia played the trumpet - but I swear that at that time he was running around with a flute). Our theory teacher, Tom Manoff, was a hip sort of guy who encouraged young musicians to experiment with new music. I was about 13 at the time. I used to travel with another musician friend of mine down to Sam Goody's record store and come home with a bag full of LP's. Sometimes we would bring home some contemporary (we're talking late 1960's) atonal work, which appeared to match the self-styled weirdness of our adolescent minds, and we soon started writing pieces which we thought of as tongue-in-cheek caricatures of what were had heard. But when I brought some of them to Manoff he took them very seriously, gave me some advice and encouraged me to keep writing. At one point he took the class to visit the electronic music studio of Morton Subotnik, who used an early device known as the Buchla synthesizer. This would have been roughly around 1967-8, when he was creating his famous pieces Silver Apples of the Moon and The Wild Bull. Chatham was also associated with a composer named Glen Branca. When my brother and I started a rock band in the early 1980's we rented a studio from a fellow named Jules Baptiste (no more his real name than a parrot called H.A. Monk), who was at that time performing with Branca. These are the people who created the Downtown music scene, and people you have probably heard of, like Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, were some of the artists who emerged from it.

The Kitchen today carries on the tradition of music that was once called "experimental". Fair to say, it no longer sounds very experimental; be it the atonality of the Vienna School (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern), the adventures of the New York School (Morton Feldman, John Cage, etc.), the aleatoric compositions of Cage or Stockhausen, the droning of a Terry Riley or John Adams composition, or the various modes of electronica, it all sounds pretty standard, even historic. Once you get into exploring sound as sound, it opens up everything, but also closes off the idea of a new way or trend. Everything is experimental; so nothing is experimental. Everything is already modern; there ain't no "post-modern", because modernism already bit that one off. That's where I think we have gotten to; and why "contemporary classical" may not be such an oxymoron after all.

Nevertheless, this is far from an indictment of new music. In fact, once composers have settled into this system of sound exploration, what remains is an almost unlimited sphere for development and improvement of the ideas and techniques that once seemed to be so out on a limb that only a few gangly modernists would dare travel it. Since the more or less final, more or less complete overthrow of traditional Western classical tonality in the 1950's (to fix an arbitrary but not inaccurate date), composers have been free to build on one another, taking off many times from the same place but exploring the territory in a less naive way. It may still be hard to love some of this music, but it should not longer be hard to hear beauty, at least in bits and pieces, or to recognize mastery of the form.

Of the four pieces performed by Eighth Blackbird, the one I was most looking forward to was Jennifer Higdon's Zaka (2003). Why? Well, she was born in Brooklyn, for one, though she didn't grow up here but in Atlanta. But more importantly, I was floored by a 2004 recording of her Cityscape and Concerto for Orchestra (by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra) and wanted to hear more. As it turned out, it was not my favorite piece on the program; rather more strident than I expected, whereas the orchestral pieces are well endowed with appealing sonorities. Nevertheless, it had some luxurious moments and exhibited what each of these pieces did: a maturity of sonority and texture that goes deeper than experimentation. I think back to pieces for similar ensembles from an earlier period - pieces by Luciano Berio, Edgar Varèse, Lukas Foss, and others, and what I hear now that I did not hear then is a kind of compositional comfort zone, where unusual sonorities are offered not in the mode of, "What about this?", but rather "Let's develop things this way". To put it another way: once composers relied on classical techniques (canon, fugure, inversion, prolongation, etc.) to give formal unity to these new and odd sounds. Now, if I am hearing things correctly, we are comfortable enough with the idea of these textures that the sonorities themselves can figure among the formal elements of the piece.

Sound itself was surely one of the central elements of Gordon Fitzell's haunting electro-acoustic piece evanescence (no relation to the goth-rock group by that name - or at least, none that I'm aware of). The range of sonority here can be gleaned from two of the most significant elements in the piece: one, electronically generated, resembles the sound of a stereo cartridge that is either past its prime or hosting too much static, producing a zitzitzitzitzit until you run over to remove the needle from the record; the other, the ghostly whir of continuously rubbed wineglasses. Between these two lay an extraordinary range of moods and textures. Often the electronics consisted of modifications of the recently produced sounds of the instruments; using echo effects and other techniques there seemed to be, again, something much more serious than experimentation going on, something again reaching for serious formal development by means of these techniques. To say this is not to diminish the early electro-acoustic work of people like Mario Davidovsky; only to indicate that there seems to have been a kind of social maturation process within the field, with Berio and Stockhausen and Davidovsky and many others brilliantly setting the stage, and others taking up the call to deepen the drama.

Despite the sonic variety of the first two pieces, Steven Mackey managed to cull yet more new sounds from the players in his 1989 piece indigenous instruments (also presented in a recording as strange imaginary remix (2006)), through techniques such as downtuning the violin G string; as did David M. Gordon, who used quarter tone harmonies in
Friction Systems (2002, rev.2005). Gordon's piece began, ended and frequently returned to a regular rhythmic tutti - or to put it in English, he had everyone banging on their instruments at the same time in eighth notes. This seemed most effective where it was most aggressive, perhaps because it reminded me of certain moments at a Cecil Taylor concert; but I can't say I found it very compelling otherwise. In general the piece seemed to harp on dissonance for its own sake - a characteristic I find less than satisfying. Even if it is a little bit pedantic to say so, it bears keeping in mind that music can have a direct effect on the body, and that this effect can be quite unpleasant.

The musicians who comprise Eighth Blackbird are clearly not only competent but very dedicated to the music they present, sometimes going to the length of performing this difficult material from memory. This leads into the last observation I want to make: it is a unique characteristic of contemporary classical music that it is largely nourished by small ensembles dedicated to performing it. The early Downtown composers actually formed their own ensembles to perform their music, touring like rock groups; today we also have groups like the Kronos Quartet and Eighth Blackbird to carry the torch. Not that the New York Philharmonic and other mainstream ensembles don't play contemporary music. But to gather an audience predisposed to appreciate new music you must specialize in that sort of thing; and be prepared to face some empty seats if you play a large venue.

Does this mean that after all this time and effort, modern music has failed, and classical music is really just a short list of increasingly distant tonal museum pieces? This, I submit, is not a well-formed question. "Classical music" is not a unity that has a unified history. There is no period of more than 100 years in the entire history of Western civilization in which the music was of consistent nature and purpose or the audience was consistent in size or class composition. There was a period from mid-19th century to some time in the 20th when classical music was written for large middle-class and bourgeois audiences and succeeded in attracting them. During this time a cannon of works from the early 18th century to the early 20th was developed, and this cannon continued to generate ticket sales until quite recently. Put on a concert of pieces from the last 200 years, all of which are well ouside this cannon, and the audience will be about the same size as it would be for a program of new, atonal music, though the bodies attending may be different. New, non-tonal music has consistently attracted audiences for nearly 100 years now. When Pierre Boulez was music director of the Philharmonic he presented a series of very well attended "rug concerts" (you sat on the floor) in Avery Fisher Hall. The Museum of Modern Art presents outdoor concerts of new music every summer - last time I was there it was hard to find an empty space to sit. Back in October I attended a concert of atonal 20th-21st century music at a concert space in the Juilliard School; the program included works by Davidovsky, Donald Martino and Fred Lerdahl, as well as an impressive piano piece by my co-worker Sheree Clement. Empty seats were sparse in this small venue. Two weeks later I heard a program of less challenging 20th century vocal music by composers like Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein, sung by the group Cantori. This was a larger hall (the magnificent auditorium of the New York Society for Ethical Culture), and it was not exactly full, but again, there was a substantial audience. I think we should just give up on the idea that if people don't come in the same numbers to hear a concert of music by Schoenberg or John Cage or the young composers presented by Eighth Blackbird, that this music has "failed" or been shunted aside by rock, jazz and other popular idioms. The shape of classical audiences will continue to grow, contract, and redefine itself over the course of history. That's all you can really say about it. And for a parrot that's already saying a lot.

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