By Michael Lewanski, conductor, artistic coordinator, musical cheerleader, melodica virtuoso
Friends, I sort of think classical music concerts are a problem. I know, I know; this is an awfully strange thing for me, of all people, to be saying. After all, I participate in a lot of them, and I have attended literally thousands and thousands. And I’ll go a step further: if I’m being totally honest, I’d rather go to a concert than do very nearly anything else. Some of my best, most deeply felt moments as a human being have occurred at concerts. Essential parts of my identity are constructed around certain concert experiences. In a sense, concerts are an expression of who I am.
Still, though, I can’t help but feel ambivalent. For every one life-affirming performance I enjoy, I may have two concert experiences that feel inauthentic or artificial or phoned-in or uncommitted or, at worst, completely pointless and time-wasting for everyone involved. There’s no shortage of blame to go around: performers, their training, audiences, US culture, funding structures, Wagner/Mahler (because they are partially the origin of what are now our dumb concert traditions), Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (because it’s a terrible song), Donald Trump (because Donald Trump, though one might more reasonably claim that he’s a symptom as much as he is a cause). But regardless, there’s just something about the format that works only some of the time. Many of us feel that classical music concerts in the US are inherently moralizing or judge-y. “This is Great Music(TM),” some concerts say, “and so you dress up fancy and you’d better like this otherwise you’re uneducated and DO NOT CLAP BETWEEN MOVEMENTS I SWEAR TO GOD.” But also: many of us have been noting this moralizing/judge-y tendency for a while. So there has been a trend in the opposite direction; and as a result sometimes in response we Try Too Hard: hey, let’s have a concert that only our friends will attend in a bar and let’s pat ourselves on the back while people talk through the performance because we’re making the music Accessible. (Uh-oh, does that mean secretly deep down we think it has to be made that was because it’s not? we hesitate to even ask ourselves.)
I’m wary of the sometimes-often alienating experiences of classical music concerts. I’m equally wary of Trying Too Hard. I am interested in searching for an authentic way of listening to performed music in a confusing world. Even if I can’t find it, there’s a lot to be learned from trying. Party 2016 is part of this search.
For some reason, now I want to tell you about Count Karl von Zinzendorf (1739-1813), an Austrian civil servant, an accountant, an otherwise pretty regular dude who had an active social life going to dinner parties, concerts, operas, etc. in Vienna. His most remarkable characteristic is none of this, but rather that he wrote it all down—that he was an incessant diarist. Karl (I’m sure he doesn’t mind if I call him that) made observations that are remarkable as much for all of the music he saw (the premieres of the now-standard-repertoire Mozart operas, say) as they are for their nonchalance and ho-hum-ness. Mozart wasn’t a Great Composer(TM) to him, he was a guy writing music for his time and place that had such obvious relevance that that question was never even engaged. It’s astonishing to us how much live music Karl encountered on a regular basis, how much he understood, and also how casual he was about it. And that only makes sense: Vienna was a very different place in 1800; it had a population of 270,000, and music all sounded much more same-y than it does today. (Which is NOT to say it’s not amazing music; it is; it exhibits a mastery of craft that we probably don’t really appreciate as people listening to it 200 years later. It’s just to say that with way fewer people, less advanced technology, a different sort of social hierarchy, etc., of course there’s less stylistic diversity.) So a trade-off exists here. Their music (what we consider today to be, I suppose, “classical music” or “art music”) was much less diverse than ours is today. But their music was also the stuff of everyday life that in a way that ours simply is not, unless you’re talking about Taylor Swift, which (mostly) I’m not. (Not that I mind Taylor Swift; no, really, I think “I Knew You Were Trouble” is a good song, like when the bassline comes in at that one spot and all.) The reasons for this are complex, and off the top of my head, are related to: commercialism, the culture industry, late capitalism, commodification, reification, the division of labor, American political and education systems, and cultural imperialism. (OK, yeah, that’s a different convo; or is it?)
My goal, nevertheless, is for you to go to Dal Niente/Parlour Tapes+’s Party 2016 and encounter and really engage with and love and hate and feel “meh” about and be troubled by art of your time and your culture—not someone else’s. And I think this might make most sense in a context that is familiar to you: a social event. Our friend Karl the Viennese Accountant went to music parties (of a different sort), and so should you. In a sense, I want you to have a cultural experience that is deeply regular and profoundly non-transcendental. OK, maybe some of it will be transcendental; James Tenney’s Critical Band, with its tuning A ever-expanding into the complete natural harmonic series, is—just being real—a pretty out-of-body experience. Most of it, though, I want to feel like your life. And your life is complicated and perhaps difficult; as much as you might want it to be otherwise, it is probably a bit chaotic and ununified and not always altogether pleasant; so is our program. It’s a party, yes, but it’s not just easy; to pretend otherwise would be lying.
So, a few words about a few of the pieces:
Greg Saunier’s Deerhoof Chamber Variations is an arrangement of Deerhoof songs for Dal Niente by that band’s drummer who also happens to be a brilliant and idiosyncratic musician with a particularly quirky sense of style. What he’s done here is taken songs from their various albums and put them together as fragmentary arrangements, each of which engages a different style that you sort-of recognize. “Like the score of a neoclassical ballet,” said Daniel Johnson of WQXR, in what maybe the greatest and/or least likely description for a bunch of rock songs ever.
Natacha Diels’ Elpis is a particular blend of styles you may also sort-of know, combined with certain kinds of movements that walk the human/mechanical line finely. In the meantime, someone is cutting out photographs of models from magazines, while some of the performers imitate their poses. What is the relationship between the movement of these performers and the sounds produced by the instruments?
Stefan Prins’ Generation Kill: gosh, this is a dark work that is hard to read, whose meaning is actually difficult to pin down: but this hard-to-pin-down-ness forces you to ask a lot of questions. Some performers are playing video game controllers, some are playing musical instruments. What’s similar about those actions and what’s different? What is the agency of these people? Who’s controlling what? Actually, is anyone in control here? And how does supposed control over video and musical sound reflect on musical style? How does musical style relate to the world we live in? Writes the composer: “I realized that my next piece had to musically reflect [...] on a society which is more and more monitored, on the increasing importance of internet, networks and social media, which are fueled by videos taken with webcams and smartphones, on video-games and on wars fought like video-games, on the line between reality and virtuality which gets thinner by the day.”
Parlour Tapes+’s Inside-Outside Rave Pyramid: Um, this. Trust me, just watch it.
Louis Andriessens’ Hout (Wood): This feels like virtuoso performers playing four different fast lines at the same time. But, OMG, they’re actually the same line, displaced by one sixteenth note. Says the composer: “the successive voices are so close together that it is more like a unison melody with ramifications. Ramifications and branches are the same word in Dutch.”
Good thing we have different ones in English, because “ramifications” is a word that I really like; it describes something about the way I think about art. It’s the sense that the work is not simply the printed score or the performance. Rather, it’s how we all (musicians, composers, audiences) collectively and individually experience what we hear and the aftermath of that hearing—how we talk about it, how we think about it, how it alters our lives in small but accumulatingly meaningful ways, and how we become different based on the art we experience.