Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Seattle Symphony’s “Untitled: 1962” – How the future used to sound

There was something in the air during the 1950’s and 1960’s. “Classical" music had shifted its focus to “music of the future”, and most of it was based on the science and experience of sound. This sold-out concert on Friday, October 19, 2012 (commemorating the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair) showed the results of that type of experimentation. Seen through the lens of 50 years hindsight, it is, after all, just classical music. The atonal aesthetic, so edgy and “space age” at the time, seems merely another style, not so distant from the world of Debussy (to my ears, at least, the minimalism of the 1970’s was a much more radical break). There was even a remarkable homogeneity in these several works, as much as there would be in a program of, for example, late 18th-century pieces.

That said, there was nothing boring or mundane in the performance. The concert was presented informally in the grand lobby of Benaroya Hall, with introductions by Ludovic Morlot (conductor), some videos, and room for the audience to walk around during the performance. Each piece was presented in its own space, so to speak – both physically (there was more than one stage set up for performance) and aurally, with a spoken introduction about the procedure used to compose and/or perform it. Those “procedures”, however, were usually not audible in the music. Without the visual cues (offered by the videos) and introductions, a listener wouldn’t know that the Xenakis piece was based on geometrical shapes and architecture, that each player followed his/her own tempo in the Feldman piece, or that the Cage and Brown pieces were based on the conductor choosing ensembles or sections of the score during the performance. This lack of “obviousness” led to the aforementioned homogeneity.

Some of the pieces were strikingly beautiful. Morton Feldman’s “For Franz Kline“, obviously intended to invoke the paintings of Franz Kline, was an exercise in delicate bell-like sounds, like single breaths, creating both space and silence. Giancinto Scelsi’s “Khoom”, probably my favorite piece of the evening, was a kaleidoscopic meditation on the complexities of a single note, set in almost violent contrast to the sung nonsense language (made for the sounds themselves). The intense drumming in one movement, and the calamitous culmination in a later section, only added to the mystery. In contrast, the John Cage’s “Variations III” and Earl Brown’s “Novara” both involved a lot of humor and whimsy (see picture above; there is something ironic about seeing a conductor drawing colored lines, intentionally clumsily, through little plastic rings on a piece of paper while conducting an instrumental ensemble). The audience was invited to join in during the Cage piece, though I think I was the only one who did so, by drumming on the glass wall of the balcony whenever a blue line was made. In contrast again, Iannis Xenakis’ “Atrées” seemed way too serious, and it was not as “in your face” or obnoxious as a lot of the composer’s work (there was only one half-minute section where the trombone and percussion approached the usual Xenakis “sound”), and I found it rather disappointing as a result. The concert concluded with Ligeti’s music for 100 metronomes, which go off ticking at their own tempos until they’ve all wound down. Unfortunately, their sound seemed muffled, and I couldn’t really hear how they were interacting. (In a humorous aleatory finale, one simply refused to stop, and went on ticking for about five minutes after all the others had given up. Rumblings went through the audience, “I’ll buy that metronome…”)

Prior to the “1962” music, there was a piece with an obviously “2012” aesthetic. Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei) presented his “Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra” with D.J. Madhatter playing the turntables. Such a piece could have been a disaster, as classical/pop fusions often are (“Hooked on Classics”, anyone…?) – but such was definitely NOT the case. The orchestra parts were atonal, dark, and percussive, with an emphasis on brash colors and thudding rhythms. The turntable parts – from custom vinyl records of the same music – added virtuoso hip-hop “scratches”, producing a complex interplay of styles and parts. To a listener now, this is music of the future – yet one is of course aware that it would not be possible without the previous styles of futuristic music (the concept of a turntable as an instrument predates hip-hop by several decades) and I have to wonder if, fifty years from now, this will not simply be like its Cage and Xenakis predecessors, more “classical” music. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course.

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