Last Friday night (8/28/15), Keith Eisenbrey (composer, pianist, percussionist) and I (ditto) played a concert consisting of two relatively long pieces: Keith’s “Etudes d'execution imminent” (piano solo) and my “garbage symphony” called “Sounds, Found” (prerecorded sounds with found objects used as percussion).
What was startling about the concert wasn’t the music, though of course it was avant-garde. Keith’s piece in particular was very beautiful, with its spare, minimalist (not repetitive-minimalist) aesthetic and tendrils of melodies derived from mathematics.
What was startling about the concert wasn’t that few people showed up to listen: this is standard for the Wayward Music Series Concerts, which tend to be woefully under-attended.
What was startling was that, of the few people who came, there were far fewer by the end. So, as I commented to Keith, “Well, we are now officially avant-garde musicians. We have played a concert that cleared the hall.” (I did manage to clear a hall once before, at an open mike in California. I played as part of an unrehearsed folk music band that sang – or screeched – too loud and jarringly off-key. I guess we should have practiced a little first. Other than that, I have to go clear back to my days in Junior High School to remember a performance that tanked this badly.*)
When this occurs, it always leaves a question. Did they leave because the music was awful, like that folk band I just mentioned? (Hey, gimme a break! It was subtitled “a garbage symphony”!) Or, did they leave because the music was too innovative and too interesting, as happened famously to Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Phillip Glass? Or, did they leave because the music was somehow both awful and too interesting, a sort of negative fusion of punk rock and classical/jazz? Since I composed the longer of the two pieces (and the one that seemed to cause most of the problem), I can’t really comment. I would hope that it was “too interesting” (I once had a radio DJ tell me that) and that a repeat performance would bring in more people who’d been frightened off the first time.
There is of course a third option: simply that the audience left because the music wasn’t quite what they wanted to hear, rather like expecting to hear Beethoven and getting The Pogues or vice-versa. Or that time I took a couple of the white cubes at the salad bar in a vegetarian restaurant, expecting tofu, and got feta cheese.
The music itself: Keith’s piece consisted of eight movements of various lengths, all fairly quiet and sparse. Background sound filtered in from outside, which he’d stated before that he didn’t mind – it adds to the ambience. In my opinion, the music wasn’t quite “ambient” enough for this; I tried to concentrate on the intellectual basis of the music but found myself distracted. However, I thought the composition itself was quite beautiful (and not really derivative of anything else I’d heard) and I’d like to hear it again. That description is a little vague, but I can’t really make more comments, having not really grasped the intent of the piece. At any rate, his part was definitely not the part of the concert that tanked...!
Well, partially. Maybe mostly it was just to have a lot of fun bashing and whacking things.
And that was that. From a performer’s viewpoint there were moments of beauty in it, though its overall concept was perhaps a little dada/nihilist. There were quiet moments, of course, and, after I moved to the piano for the last two sections, it was supposed to end serenely. Not many stayed around to hear that part.
Maybe we’ll have to repeat the performance again and see what happens. If anything.
*About that junior high school performance (1970's):
It’s rather amusing when I tell it now… I had written a modernist-classical piano sonata that I entered in a state-wide composition contest, and I won. I thought that since my piece had won the contest, the kids at the school would like to hear it, so I played it in the talent show. After I finished, another boy asked me if I’d written that “song”. I answered that I had, and his response was to intone sarcastically, "…it figures." I was about to ask him what that was supposed to mean when I suddenly found myself surrounded by the two school bullies and their thugs, proclaiming that I should be punched in the face once for every note in the song. A teacher came over and broke this up before anything happened, but the teacher warned me that “I shouldn’t play such experimental music in the talent show”. Then, after school, one of my friends came over to my house and told me that I’d really messed up by playing something so “abstract” in the talent show, and all the other kids would hate me for it. Most of the other kids scoffed at the idea that it had won a contest when I told them... For the record, the piece was neither "experimental" nor “abstract” – it was simple folk-like melody, played exactly the same way five times, with a different accompaniment each time. Oh well – there’s no accounting for peoples’ perceptions.
Addendum 9/8/2015: A Listener's Reaction to the "Garbage Symphony":
Keith's blog. I concur and feel most of what he says there, and was planning to write you after I read your Soundscroll, which seemed to express doubt and frustration over the event. I don't think either are warranted. It's hard to get people out for challenging stuff, and it's hard to get most people to stick around for work that requires stamina or re-adjustment. “Sounds, Found” is a tough and honest piece. Hearing it involves hearing that doesn't seek climaxes, high points or low points, and it involves having a high tolerance for disorderly mess. … [It] was a complete and full evening of music on its own. Though only about an hour, it was definitely a concentrated hour... I'm glad I was there. Your music is not like ANYBODY else's and it takes us places nobody else does. I absolutely look forward to hearing what you do next, and if you ever decide to program this piece again, I'll definitely be back for seconds." N
(He stayed for the whole performance.)