Riffing On Schoenberg: Fieldwork's Hypnotic Virtuosity
THE EMANCIPATION OF RE:SONANCE AT THE AUSTRIAN CULTURAL FORUM, JANUARY 10, 2012
The celebration of the John Cage centennial in 2012 will certainly owe a debt to Cage’s mentor, Arnold Schoenberg, one of the most influential innovators of modern music. Schoenberg said (and Cage repeatedly recounted) that Cage was “not a composer, but … an inventor—of genius.”
While Cage was in a class by himself, he wasn’t a virtuoso musician, and his conceptually clever work didn’t attempt symphonic or even individual instrumental complexity. There is a class of composers and musicians today, however, who specialize in virtuosity—the virtuosity of improvisational collaboration, insightful innovation, and instrumental mastery without synthetic alteration. Among this rarefied group, Fieldwork—the trio of Vijay Iyer on piano, Steve Lehman on saxophone, and Tyshawn Sorey on percussion—stands out.
In The Emancipation of Re:Sonance, Fieldwork performed compositions by its members in the A.C.F.’s intimate auditorium as part of the Forum’s centenary celebration of Schoenberg’s 1912 Pierrot Lunaire, a composition whose harmonic inconsistency derived from the composer’s self-described “emancipation of dissonance.” Lehman modestly states that Fieldwork’s music, while original, is in the spirit of Schoenberg—a composer’s composer, as best exemplified by Erwartung, the third string quartet (Opus 30), and the second movement of Opus 11 for piano, in addition to Pierrot Lunaire.
From the mysterious opening notes of Iyer’s dreamy, cerebral, piano-focused “Ghost Time,” it was clear that Re:Sonance would be a supernatural audient delight. The stakes and aural suasion were quickly ratcheted up, as Lehman (whose Travail, Transformation, and Flow was designated jazz album of the year in 2009 by the Times) and Sorey entered, and the trio seamlessly symphonized without clichéd, jazzy solos or classically reverent conventionality. “Ghost Time,” which closed with a 12-tone, Schoenbergian progression, was followed by Lehman’s “After Meaning,” in which Lehman’s sax made buttery sounds evoking David Oistrakh on violin con sordino. This was followed by Sorey’s “172,” Lehman’s “Rai,” Iyer’s “Requiem/Ritual,” Sorey’s “Bend,” and Iyer’s “Infogee Dub.” Throughout, the musicians sonically shimmered, individually and together: Iyer’s adjacent key pairs consonantly dissonant, Lehman inducing human voices, and Sorey massaging time in tick-tock stick strikes. Throughout, bars of Schoenberg wafted by, expertly interlaid by Fieldwork both compositionally and improvisationally.
Fieldwork essentially played through the program with only a single mid-concert pause, thus blurring all transitions between pieces. While enhancing the flow of the performance, this decoupled the compositions’—and composers’—individual signatures. One would think that greater familiarity with the composers’ individual oeuvres would result in greater appreciation of these works. In this regard, Iyer stated that his performance was highly improvisational and that the trio’s goal was “sonic unity.” While the ensemble was emphatically successful at achieving the latter, Fieldwork’s improvisation apparently incorporates a great deal of shared musical language and assumptions (what Lehman calls Schoenberg’s “highly formalized compositional techniques”), and, in the case of Lehman, brain-lung-hand coordination of a superlative order. Lehman’s one-then-two-then-more arpeggios and quarter-tone tremolos were the least of the mesmerizing effects flowing from his sax’s bell.
Much as one appreciated Sorey’s unconventional percussion (indeed, Iyer stated that it provided the structural foundation of Fieldwork’s sound) and its flawless integration, the drum kit itself seemed to limit Sorey’s reach and range, despite his use, for example, of the floor tom as a conga and an inverted cymbal as a Tibetan singing bowl. Sorey’s task is almost impossible anyway: to create antirhythmic and melodic percussion is antithetical to the instruments’ native capabilities and structural mission. Sorey maybe ought to invent his own membranophonic instruments for our tympanic delectation and his own aural exploration.
Overall, despite looming loudspeakers and multiple mics, Fieldwork managed to restrain its volume. One hoped for even less, and that modern musicians will learn that no one will ever complain if there are piano and pianissimo passages. Unlike that of speech, for which meaning hinges on adequate volume, the “meaning” of music lies in infinite combinations of elements, among which dynamic range can profoundly enhance emotional experience.
Given the brilliance of Fieldwork’s performance, it was impossible not to imagine them in additional permutations. For example, it would be great to hear Fieldwork with vocalists in the spirit of Kaija Saariaho or György Ligeti; in collaboration with contemporary choreographers; or in ambient extended-play settings that would gain in diffusion whatever might be lost in intensity.
Cage studied with the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai, learning that the purpose of music was to “sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.” Indeed, Fieldwork’s channeling of Schoenberg frequently took the listener off and away into atmospheric reveries. Whether music is the only proof required for the existence of G-d (as Kurt Vonnegut famously intoned) may or may not be of concern to Fieldwork’s genius composer-musicians. Their collaborative virtuosity makes its own case for a much higher order.