Wednesday, October 17, 2012

'American Explorers' at Tenri

As zero hour approaches for c)i's concert tonight at the Tenri Cultural Institute, I've been gathering my excitement, and gathering my thoughts about the concert. It's terribly varied program, measured aesthetically both from piece to piece, and within a composers output; Yehudi Wyner just said of the piece of his being rehearsed right now that "I'd never try the things I was trying in this piece again; I didn't have so much as a change of heart as a heart transplant!"

I'm also looking forward for the brief conversation with the composers that we have planned just after intermission. The program present several aporia that beg for further discussion. Two that leap out at me are the question of the American in music, and the tension between vocality and instrumentality in this concert of instrumental chamber music.  The concert bears the title 'American Explorations,' per the design of the Washington Square Contemporary Music Society's Lou Karchin. To me American culture seems to have a particular interest in rewriting either history, or it's particular position within that history. This tendency has been observable for some time, appearing in discussions of the American identity from de Tocqueville's 'Democracy in America' to Cornel West's 'The American Evasion of Philosophy'; More recently, and more specifically musical is Ross's 'The Rest is Noise,' which resituates the bulk of American concert music as a specific matrix of interaction between a tradition of European Art Music and American Popular Music. This seems to resonate strongly with Ricouer's notion of history, in which memory, imagination and forgetting interact to bring forth expressive acts and works that are both contingent upon historical frames while also reinforcing or creating particular historical framings. Any notion of the American would seem to me to have to account for both the diversity of these practices and stances, and in the persistent practice of starting over, for every composer and often for every piece.
<p dir=ltr>The question of vocality and instrumentality presented itself to me when reconnecting with Yehudi Wyner's 'Romances' for piano quartet being performed tonight. Yehudi speaks so elequently about the connection between songfulness and writing for instruments in his work. (A brief interview where it comes up can be read here: Lou has just finished a multi-year opera project, and Kyle has been studying voice now for several years, performing with c)i last year on her own work 'mothers. And yet all the works are strongly rooted in the physicality of instrumental performance. 'Spell' in particular highlights the the body in performance at the moment when the instrumentality of performance dissolves into noise and gesture. Many thanks to all the composers and performers and WSCMS for contributing so such a dynamic program, and for contributing to conversations like this, in words and in music. You all still have an hour to get over to 6th Ave and 13th; hope to see you there!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Some notes on Kyle Bartlett's 'Spell'

Eminent theorist Christopher Hasty once, in conversation, said something that I still find quite perceptive and relevant to Bartlett's music.  He said (paraphrased as required by memory & time) that her music 'seems as if it shouldn't work, but does.  It is almost not there.'  Throughout her output, increasingly in recent works, and clearly in 'Spell,' witness is borne to moments of origination and moments of dissolution; In the compositional process, in performance , and in the experiencing of the audience there are again and again transitions from chaos to control and back again, between a sculpted world of maximal density and complexity and a smooth space of quietudinal repose.  The severity and occasional violence of such rapid transitions is not (as a colorful wag once put it) a bold statement of anti-music, but rather an unveiling of the ontic character of music, esp. music in performance.  Music-in-performance is always about to not be, and is also new to being; each sound is a new action and, in the case of Bartlett's pure distillations of sound, gesture, and action, it is new to the aspiration of being music.  These are not vacillations but oscillations, as the domain of music (and in 'Spell,' the domain of music-for-strings) is orbited and approached and transected, but never inhabited for very long.

'Spell' operates on dual precipices of not-being: a divide between the striking and bowing, and between action and stasis.  Each divide bring different elements to the fore, showing these domains to be orthogonal and entwined in equal measure.  To provide a modicum of the diachronicism notes like this are expected to manifest, consider the progression of the work; an opening shadow-world of harmonics and whispers is interrupted by explosively percussive rhythmic unisons ending abruptly in a return to the opening stillness, but a stillness now threatened with a recapitulation of the interrupting violence.  And yet it would be a mistake to say that the interruption of that first material is simply 'surprising.'  By the delicacy of character and presentation, the opening is from its first moments in danger of dissolving into nothing, much as the base ferocity of the percussive material risks monomaniacal reduction to machinic 'bruit.'  Such oppositions persist through out the piece, each blossoming in repetition, as do fragile bridges between the domains.

Such a hermeneusis places us adjacent to Lyotard's formulation of the Sublime, situated in art as the anticipation of not-being; this threat of extinction and the need for new action to bring art into the Now makes, for Lyotard, the Sublime the very core of the Modern.
'Hidden in the cynicism of innovation there is surely a despair that nothing further will happen.  But to innovate is to behave as if any numbers of things could happen, and it means taking action to make them happen.  In affirming itself, will affirms its hegemony over time.' (Lyotard, 'The Sublime and the Avant-garde')
Lyotard's move to situate his sublimity in time is right and proper, but he interrogates the Sublime in the domain of the visual arts, and so finds himself focusing on the Sublime as an isolated event, often the perception or representation of physical or spatial momumentality (either of nature, of the infinities of color fields, or stark projections of negative space).  This vantage can result, if we are not careful, in teleological narratives in which the Sublime is a moment to be achieved.  Such a misstep loses the great insight of Bartlett's music -- the ontic character of the Sublime in art is not occasional and momentary, but pervasive and continual.  It can be discovered through delicacy or savagery, and peers out at us from corners at right-angles to the Real, enfolded in habit and history, and unfolding in each moment of music's obstinate, persistent capacity to be.