Dimensions in Music: Ears to the Ground...and in the Case ofby Alan Lockwood
New York’s new and contemporary-classical music scenes are abuzz in anticipation of a bevy of May events, culminating at month’s end with the annual Bang on a Can marathon at the World Financial Center. One way of looking ahead is to glance back at early spring festivals and concerts, to appreciate the local variety and vivacity and to stoke anticipation of more to come.
The calendar in April ran from chamber-meets-pop, as Alarm Will Sound played their “1969” program at the Kitchen, to a five-concert Stravinsky festival at the Park Avenue Armory and the Morgan Library’s compact hall. A pair of fruitful festivals in mid-March brought composers Helmut Lachenmann and Toshi Ichiyanagi to town. Lachenmann attended performances of his music by Either/Or at the Goethe-Institut and the Argento Ensemble at Columbia University’s Casa Italiana—where Argento’s chamber orchestra took on the startling sonic excursion of Mouvement, and the daunting clarinet solo Dal niente. Ichiyanagi, who began working with John Cage fifty years ago, had Zankel Hall programs that included his playing a piano piece and recent work for Ensemble Origin, which he founded to play contemporary compositions on re-creations of ancient Asian instruments. These were excellent opportunities to become familiar with these two iconoclasts; at one demonstration of his techniques, Lachenmann described his decision to eschew electronics, saying that powerful wattage “is not dangerous, but this charged music in instruments is dangerous,” while Ichiyanagi politely skirted an interlocutor’s question as to whether he hurled himself, during an early 1960s happening, beneath the lid of a concert piano.
At Merkin Concert Hall, Anthony Coleman (who teams there with Stephen Gosling on May 18 for solo- and two-piano pieces by Gyorgy Ligeti and Steve Reich) played Mauricio Kagel’s Der Schall with five musicians and dozens of instruments, as well as Gyorgy Kurtag’s trio homage to Schumann. Pianists Margaret Leng Tan and Sylvie Courvoisier literally delved inside the piano for another Merkin event, and the hip piano duo Yukawa–Chan programmed David Lang and Victoria Bond for their Weill Recital Hall debut. (Bond’s Shaping Sound festival in April involved composers and architects, and included scenes from her opera Mrs. President.) Noteworthy releases of chamber music included Engine Company Records’ first classical disc, 20th Century Duos for Violin and Cello, and Philip Glass’s cello music played by Wendy Sutter on a cello built by Amadi, the teacher of Stradivari (and watch for Yukawa–Chan’s disc of Michael Nyman pieces, out on Naxos this autumn).
The tenth annual MATA festival of young composers played in early April at the Brooklyn Lyceum, and for 2008, the schedule included a twelve-channel sound installation in the Lyceum café, a co-production with Diapason Gallery. Diapason founder Michael J. Schumacher programmed pieces from the gallery’s archives, along with new works by Christopher McIntyre and Micah Silver. With a recent grant, Schumacher has been archiving the trove of work presented at Diapason over the past decade by composers including Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, Charlie Morrow, and Tony Conrad; Diapason’s history of live performances includes a seventieth birthday celebration for La Monte Young in 2005. This January, Schumacher opened perhaps the most impressive of his series of locations, near the waterfront in Sunset Park (the gallery’s previous sites have been on Sixth Avenue near Bryant Park, and on Beekman Street in downtown Manhattan). The inaugural installations were by Walter Branchi, then Schumacher’s own music ran through February, with March performances by Paula Matthusen, Ken Jacobs, and the tenth installment of a new works series for analog synthesizers.
In an interview in Diapason’s main space, Schumacher commented on evolving his sound gallery. By the mid-1990s he’d arrayed more than a dozen loudspeakers in his Sullivan Street apartment and was composing for the computer with that setup, but when his girlfriend moved in, he needed a studio. “I found the space on Beekman Street and set it up, soundproofed it,” he said, “and made it sort of a mini–Dream House [the continuous sound and light environments that La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela have operated for decades, with the current manifestation on Church Street since 1993], but multi-channel. This multi-channel sound, there wasn’t anybody presenting it regularly. Galleries can do it—Paula Cooper was always involved with sound—and of course there’s the Dream House; at that time they were presenting me and Charles [Curtis] and a few other people. I opened [Studio Five Beekman] in July ’96, and at first was just showing my stuff, then I thought, Why not ask other people?”
Schumacher was exploring spatial and durational dimensions of music, and found that other composers were equally interested. “I think a lot of people who work in home studios with a laptop and ProTools and whatnot, using stereo or headphones, that somewhere in what they’re doing is a desire for this kind of [multi-channel] setup,” he said. “It’s been ingrained that you make a CD and it’s in stereo and you sit there listening in that way, but I feel that it’s in the nature of sound that it pushes away from this kind of stereophonic field. You hear from behind, you hear from above, you hear from everywhere. Any jazz musician or concert musician is thinking in terms of space, in terms of a hall or a club. I feel that with electronics, stereo has been imposed on people, and if more spaces [like Diapason] existed, more works would be composed for it.”
Studio Five Beekman became a hub and a hive of creativity, then a building conversion precipitated the gallery’s move up to Sixth Avenue in the mid-thirties, where Schumacher shared the main space with choreographer Liz Gerring (whose performances have featured his live and computer music). The larger space allowed for more live performance, with another, isolated gallery for concentrated listening. Real estate inflation brought that space to a close last summer, then Schumacher located a warehouse being converted on Third Avenue in Brooklyn, a short walk from the D train’s Thirty-Sixth Street station. “They built this space out, it was nothing, just a wide open floor. I gave them specs: I wanted double sheet rock on each side, HVAC ventilation.” The new space provides a furnished main room—it is also used for installations—and the fullest realization to date, in the still and spacious inner gallery, of Schumacher’s ambitious plan to provide a proper environment for enjoying open-ended compositions.
Schumacher has a new release on XI Records, Five Sound Installations, that extends a discography ranging from sustained guitar work with Donald Miller of Borbetomagus and Four Stills (reviewed in the Autumn 2002 Rail) to the impressive double CD Room Pieces. Installations also extends Schumacher’s algorithmic approach to composition straight into a PC’s hard drive. The Windows- and Mac OS–compatible DVD requires about a half-hour to download in a process that is pointedly simple, even allowing for this writer’s tech-shy abilities. What transpires then is a remarkable experience of generation. An energized sense settles in as the music is played in real time, with the application choosing among a given track’s musical components and compositional devices. The pieces can be faint or penetrating, and open out duration while refreshing the sonic expectations in the room—and, by extension, the environment itself. Actually living in this musical realm becomes an option (Schumacher has also created large-duration home systems, including one in action in the Chelsea Hotel), but even for briefer playback, the lively impact of a computer “thinking” the music is beguiling, especially with the innate rhythm and alluring, teasing pipings of “Steiner Suite,” Installations’ most rousing piece.
Seth Cluett’s Doleros (audio tourism at ringing rocks) plays Saturdays at Diapason through May, while more conventional concert-hall appearances include the Argento Ensemble back at the Casa Italiana with pieces by Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter, and Arthur Kampela (May 7), then at the Austrian Cultural Forum’s excellent pocket hall playing Schoenberg, Feldman, and newer works (May 29). Lukas Ligeti drums at Merkin on the 17th, with a June release on Tzadik, Afrikan Machinery, that joins that label’s diverse Ligeti release from 2004, Mystery System. Ligeti’s also at the Guggenheim on May 30 and 31 with choreographer Karole Armitage, while the Brooklyn Youth Chorus performs on those same dates at the Long Island University’s Kumble Theater with a bill that includes commissions by Phil Kline and Nico Muhly. And to keep tuned to the classics, listen up for Town Hall’s next Free For All season—on April 27, pianist Richard Goode played solo, and on May 4 it was Peter Serkin, Ida Kavafian, Richard Stoltzman, and Fred Sherry performing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, at no charge.