Bang on the Chasm
by Robert Mueller
I am wondering about new jazz and new art music, and separating them entirely for the convenience of entertaining these thoughts. I am thinking about consorting with a difference even though what I have to say about one has to be true of the other (again assuming for the purpose that they are separate). Specifically as a matter of degree I want to distinguish new jazz as a living production that arrives currently, spontaneously in the club or spontaneously also at a jam session or recording session, from the same scenario for new art music, which comes to us as a product, or object, that, when it arrives, may arrive in a public performance, but not currently. Rather, there is a delay, for reflection to take place, and even if it were to take place in the few moments after the performance has ended (that is, right then and there), it nevertheless arrives in the mode of delay.
I wonder, then, about how different histories of musical performance and different avenues of musical expression feature the same experience and the same happiness; on the other hand, we do and may feel their trending in distinctly different directions. And for music extending backward through our modern era, we most definitely approach the experience in reflection. There of course would be no limit to the timing of the reflection, and the more and more and the longer and longer the new art music audience reflects, the more the composition (granted that it has to be performed to be a composition of any standing (true?)) goes into maturity, and, in short (or long), it becomes better received, better served.
With jazz, on the other hand, you may believe that it is incumbent upon the musicians themselves, as true artists, to mature over a long stretch of time before the magical moment arrives in its wondrous form. Thereafter, it is not so much a matter of reflection as of new artists continually, after their own advance to maturity, trying it out.
Now one feature that makes the series of new art music, presented four times a year by the Locrian Chamber Players at Riverside Church in Manhattan, wonderful is the fact of the audience not having time to reflect. Though every bit concerned about the proceedings, the audience may enjoy the moment, and is encouraged to do so. In other words, good will and a communal spirit are maintained because of the rule that all pieces (“piece” not a jazz term particularly) to be performed must have been composed within the past ten years. Thus no opinions of approval or disapproval ought, in good faith, to form, and only friendly interest, along with educated attention, is appropriate. The listener will react in any event, but a spirit of curiosity guides this event, and of fun, and the audience perhaps cannot, or should not, adopt a critical approach valuing this or that piece as good or bad, since you cannot know in the first place. You cannot know that the music might not grow on you later.
Having said all that, and to break the rule shamelessly, I will express my view. But first a word on the atmosphere in the room at this recent presentation. The feeling of stuffiness was not overwhelming. The feeling was in fact airy: the outside balconies high high up, the breathrestoring views over the Hudson, the high pitching of Gothic point in the room’s pleasant surrounding beneath a modest crossing vault. We took the new sounds in and prepared ourselves to reflect as well as we could, but a cordiality of surface mirrored a delighting that is not far from, in its own way, a gathering. In its own way, it was current.
Now as to the listening experience, it is true the audience is clamped down on floor chairs; but there is a proscenium stage and velvety curtains, possibly not functional, and a door in the back wall which, if memory serves, sports some wriggling conical designs that make up the transom.
Now as to my view, or opinion, entered prior to reflection on this occasion, even prior to presence, I am especially drawn to the music of Julia Wolfe, whose composition for piano titled Earring was performed by Jonathan Faiman. The date was Thursday, August 25, 2011. David Macdonald, the director of the series, apologized for the fact that not every piece on the program was composed within the past ten years. He said he would never do it again; but too late, and so we must break the rule again, gently, and talk about Julia Wolfe’s Earring from 2000.
It is in fact the case that Mr. Faiman did not encounter too much difficulty performing the piece. It was that sort of event, that sort of composition, in a simple style, however much there for the taking and reflecting. In Earring, we mean to note, there is a slapping and clacking rhythm out of the highest keys and a growing rhythm not far down the keyboard in the left hand. The cross-altering rhythms do not match, and because of the lighter density they match even less, marking a purported minimalistic improvement over tendencies, gorgeous as they may be, featured in the compositions of the great 20th-century American composer Elliott Carter. But although he is still going strong, I am going back a little (again), and so let me say merely that there is a difference in Earring’s rhythmic ultra-freedom in terms of the openness encountered over the slight derailing, slight in view perhaps of this constant tapping. That is to say the two hands clash all right, but do so in spirit, and in good faith and form, in the way of the further possibilities already covered in the “Bang on a Can” approach that, to go back again, Julia Wolfe helped to formulate during the 80s.
I suppose her innovations for the music scene, a New York scene, can apply to almost anything, but they generally for “Bang on a Can” mean that if anything goes you can endorse the best in music because you are looking for music that does not settle for a pre-defined mold. Surely that is the case; surely it is true you can find the best in music that way.
So in this piece Earring by Julia Wolfe, whose title points to freely evaluating Nietzschean “erring” as well as emancipated listeners’ “hearing,” the pianist’s right hand at the very top of the keyboard slaps and taps and tangos and tongues, and all the while, not in tandem, not quite joining, the languider notes of the better harmonized left hand become fuller and richer and fuller and richer and, then, it was over. Over already? Over. In God’s eyes, it was the funniest darn miniature, a veritable minute waltz (well, maybe two minutes), against a backdrop of headlands, enormous but brittle, standing out but porous, seen through the floating , above the silent acres of water Julia Wolfe has defined in her silence, a backdrop for the anti-sublime, a perimeter for palliating to seek the prayer of the poem of the divine music. Divine new art music, but not only, but not only after.
The other compositions on the program for August 25, 2011, and dates, were Night Psalm (2009) and I’m Worried Now, But I Won’t Be Worried Long (2010) by Eve Beglarian, Embracing the Wind by Robert Paterson (2000 (also more than ten years ago)), Ostinati by David Macdonald (2009, 2011, one recent date for each ostinato), THERE’S NO PLACE (2008-’11) by Colin Holter and Black Bend by Dan Visconti (2003). Eve Beglarian, Robert Paterson and Colin Holter were in the audience, and David Macdonald was not only present but he ran the show. Thank you, David.
Copyright © 2011, by Robert Mueller. All Rights Reserved.