Friday, April 30, 2004

Do I smell? Do I smell home cooking?

So, as I said several days ago, eventually I wanted to write a post recapping/reviewing the Kitchen’s New Music, New York 25th Anniversary Gala.

First of all, the evening was well planned and executed throughout. John Schaefer, host of WNYC’s Soundcheck was the perfect man for MC. He’s charismatic, got an amazing voice, and actually knows and loves all of these avant-garde crazies he’s throwing out on stage. The evening itself (a concert at Town Hall) was itself a recreation of an event from twenty five years ago when the then-semi-known composers Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, Pauline Oliveros, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson and Robert Ashley all performed together. The evening was a once in a lifetime chance to see these now quite accomplished artists on stage together, each performing a ten to fifteen minute set.

The evening opens. John Schaefer says some witty things. John Schaefer says some things about the Kitchen. John Schaefer pauses and says “And now… some music” his catch phrase from WNYC. It breaks my heart, but only like seventeen people in the audience seem to get it. Anyway, I see over to the side of Schaefer are three sets of bongo drums and my heart stars racing. Steve Reich is going to perform the first movement of his “Drumming”, one of my all time favorite pieces of music. Reich and his three intrepid drummers take the stage to start the evening off with a literal bang. And sure enough, when they come out in matching white button down shirts and black pants (Reich also has on a black version of his trademark baseball cap) that’s exactly what they do.

I’ve seen “Drumming: Part One” performed three times in my life, and I’ve seen the whole piece performed as part of an evening length dance piece choreographed by Anna Teresa de Keersmacher. For those of you who’ve never heard it, well, it’s everything that is great about minimalism. The first movement is for four plays playing six bongo drums. The drums are tuned to three different notes (if memory serves correctly, B, C# and F, but I’m not sure) and the drummers one by one play a pattern. The pattern is roughly two measures long, and every time you repeat it a certain number of times, you add a note until there are no rests, and then you start taking away notes. So it starts out with only one drum hit and eventually builds to something more complex.

The other thing complicating all of this is that the drummers are “phasing” live. Phasing is a technique Reich developed originally using two reel-to-reel machines. The idea is you and I play the same thing but gradually one of us changes the tempo we play at so that the patterns eventually interlock and become totally different. Drumming is an experiment in doing phasing with this cyclical pattern. The first part is nine minutes long and is played on bongos, the second part is for marimba and voice, the third for glockenspiel and whistle, the fourth movement for all of the above. I know this all sounds like the kind of music a car mechanic would write; trust me, it’s brilliant.

Tonight is probably the weakest performance of Drumming that I’ve seen. Not that it’s bad, just not the best. Because they just perform part one, they actually add in a little more variation than it’s supposed to have. Indeed, it seems like two of the drummers (one of which is Reich) are taking turns taking solos at the drums. Weirdly enough, this makes the piece less interesting by obfuscating the central rigidity of the interlocking patterns. It’s like a play whose idea isn’t quite clear so you can’t really get into it. Either way, it’s still technically impressive, and the audience (myself included) goes crazy-go-nuts at the end, hooting and hollering. Steve Reich takes two curtain calls.

A little more from the ever-affable Mr. Schaefer includes showing us some clips from the thousands of hours of archives of Kitchen performances that are being remastered. It opens with Talking Heads playing “psycho killer”. I remember reading somewhere that their first gig (pre Jerry) was at The Kitchen because no one else would let them play. They billed themselves as performance art and played at the Kitchen. Judging from this video, David Byrne has had a great amount of dental work done since striking it rich. The video proceeds, out of chronological order, and is like a who’s who of interesting music of the last thirty years and includes multiple clips from all the artists here tonight. After it finishes, Schaefer introduces Pauline Oliveros and says that Oliveros often deconstructs the boundary between artist and audience. Uh oh. It’s an often-right stereotype that theater people hate audience participation. I know I do. But whatever, it’s a gala, I’ll play along. Oliveros comes out, a sweet little bear of a woman in a reflective silver button down shirt and nice slacks. She tells us that we will be doing the Tuning Meditation. The whole point is really simple: sing a tone (any tone), when you feel like it, change to singing someone else’s tone and then, when you feel like, change to singing a unique tone, a tone you can’t hear anyone else doing. She tells us that she can’t dictate when it starts, when it ends (but it has to be ten minutes) or when we should change from unique to nonunique tones. Oh, and she’s performed this with anywhere from six to six thousand people. And here are, I would guess, seven to eight hundred people at Town Hall. So would we please start whenever we’re ready. Oh, and make a vowel sound, wouldya?

I’m game, and I turn to my friend Jon who is taking Mary’s place for the evening and who’s also a theater director and I see he’s game to. We start singing. I’m sticking pretty much with the good old “ah" sound at least until my jaw starts cramping up. So I’m sitting there singing my note and then I hear a note a fifth above it and figure “oh, what the hell” and I jump to that note. A little while later, I feel like doing my own thing, so I drop down a semi-tone. The human ear can only process something like 24 sounds at once, and there are hundreds of people singing, I would guess, many more unique sounds than that when we’re split apart. So the whole experience is living, breathing, sensory overload. Remember the Dark Crystal? It’s kind of like when the Mystics sing to open doors, but with hundreds of people.

After about five minutes bizarre things start happening. First off, some people start doing their own yipping and hooting kind of thing. This pisses me off a little bit. We’re supposed to make a tone on a vowel sound not fucking vocal percussion. And at this point I realize how committed I am to making this Tuning Meditation work, even though I don’t really know what I’m doing and even though I don’t really know what “work” would even mean. And then I notice that most of the audience and I are singing the same note. Some people are doing it two octaves beyond my range in any direction, but most of us are singing the exact same note. And it’s really really really loud, because it’s the dominant sound in the room. Then the note breaks apart and shatters into what sound like a million other notes. It’s breathtaking. I feel like weeping. Jon has this amazing shit eating grin on his face. Oliveros is on stage, eyes closed, head down like in prayer, with the microphone far away from her mouth. She’s tuning along with us. I am tuning with some of the greatest composers of the second half of the twentieth century. I am one with these seven hundred rich avante garde music lovers.

And then all of us are singing. And then 80% of us are singing. And then, within thirty seconds, 20% of us are singing, and then no one is. It ends in a flash, semi-simultaneously. The crowd goes wild. Jon turns to me and we both say to each other “I’m stealing that for rehearsal!” people are going nuts. It’s like they’ve never experienced a communion like this that they were actually part of. Pauline thanks us and leaves.

John Schaefer comes out and tells us that we were great. Everyone giddily laughs. He says that we clocked in at almost ten minutes exactly. Which is amazing. I think for awhile, I lost all sense of time, but apparently as a crowd we remembered it. We all know something amazing has happened. Schaefer introduces Thomas Buckner who is being presented with an award. Buckner is a performer, producer and promoter, who works a lot with experimental vocal techniques. He’s worked with many composers I’ve never heard of (but you might’ve) and has founded two different record labels. His current label is called Mutable Music. Everyone seems to love him. He tells us he walked in to the middle of the first Tuning Meditation performance back in 1979 and was backstage for this one, and one day, goddamnit, he’d like to perform the thing. We chuckle. He talks a bit. He leaves.

Onto Meredith Monk’s “Dolman Music” which is clearly one of John Schaefer’s favorite pieces of music like ever. Meredith Monk is kind of hard to describe. Have you seen the Big Lebowski? In the scene where Jeff Bridges meets Julianne Moore and here’s this weird breathing sound in the background as she swoops down nekkers and paints on a canvas? That music is Meredith Monk. She does absolutely crazy things with the human voice. It sounds like something very medieval and at the same time very very modern. Lots of whooping and hollering and sustained tones and gibberish. The piece is very funny and, in it’s own way, very moving. It is accompanied by cello. In the midst of this piece, I will decide that cello is absolutely my favorite orchestral instrument to listen to.

Dolman Music is just a wee bit too long. The ideas play themselves out and as someone who has relentlessly experimented with trying to get my own voice to make weird sounds, the novelty wears off quickly. Once it does, you’re left with a piece of pretty, funny but ultimately repetitive music where the whole never really adds up to the some of its parts. Still, I’m glad I saw it, and glad I finally saw Meredith Monk. The performers are amazing, their singing impeccable, their ranges broad, and if it had just been five minutes instead of ten (or even seven minutes!) I would’ve loved it.

I seem to be in the minority, however. Schaefer is in love with it, the crowd cheers and off we go to chain smoke for intermission.

I’ll stop here and post the second half later today.

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