powerLESS

eighth blackbird; Argento Chamber Ensemble; red fish blue fish; Steven Schick; and others at the Tune-In Music Festival at Park Avenue Armory on Friday, February 18.

The program was outside my comfort zone, which was exactly why I wanted to go. It’s so easy to fall into picking only the familiar works you know you love—or maybe less familiar works by composers you know you love—that every now and then you have to shake yourself and dive into something unknown. The dizzying program at the inaugural Tune-In Music Festival, committed to “enhancing opportunities for contemporary musicians and composers,” certainly qualified: two works by twentieth-century/contemporary composers I’d never heard of, one by a twentieth-century/contemporary composer I’ve never warmed to, and a rather free arrangement of a work by Bach, the composer who brings out my most rigid, purist inclinations about interpretation—definitely not in my comfort zone.

But the conceit of the program intrigued me. Its title, “powerLESS,” alludes to a notorious line from Igor Stravinsky’s autobiography: “Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all.” (Another program in the festival is titled “powerFUL,” essentially taking the contrary position.) Stravinsky is being provocative, of course, but if you can get past the absolutism, it’s an interesting idea, demanding that we justify music for its own sake. Each work on this program seems to demand that kind of attitude. The music offers no narrative entry points, no extramusical suggestions to hold onto, no language at all. It’s music—sound—left to its own devices, and in that, it’s a fascinating assortment.

The program opens with in vain, a 2000 work by Georg Friedrich Haas, performed by the Argento Chamber Ensemble, which specializes in new music. Haas is a “spectral composer,” interested in exploring the full range of the overtone series, the way a single note actually comprises multiple pitches. (This often involves using computers to analyze timbre, resonance, and other acoustic properties of sound, though from what I’ve read, Haas is more low-tech in his approach.) in vain must typify that kind of spectral aesthetic. It’s a looming, visceral work that truly does seem to enclasp a vast spectrum of sound. In searching for how to describe the work, I thought, for a moment, of those infamous droning accents in Inception (behold). It’s an horrifically imperfect comparison—Haas’s work, with its ever-bending pitches and darkly shimmering sonorities, resonates far deeper than Hans Zimmer’s score—but both in vain and that chord in Inception feel prepared to swallow you whole.

The overwhelming nature of in vain is magnified by the fact that long stretches of it are performed in complete darkness. The program notes prepared the audience for the blackouts (which are themselves punctuated by occasional flashes of a massive strobe light), but the explanation sounded gimmicky to me, especially because I often listen to music with my eyes closed and didn’t see how the dimmed lights would be too different. I was completely wrong. Listening in imposed darkness within a cavernous space is much more extreme than merely listening behind shut eyelids. First, obviously, the fact that the musicians are in utter darkness, too—performing from memory, without benefit of a conductor or eye contact with their fellow performers—is truly impressive. Beyond that, though, the temporary blindness makes the experience of listening far more intense, especially when the music is already so massive in its scope. It’s in the darkness that Haas truly delves into the overtone series (suffice it to say that this involves the vibrations of pitch and the relationships between intervals—I really don’t want to get into a music theory lesson here), creating tones that shimmer with an eerie, phantasmic quality and oscillate their way into your bones.

The next work on the program, Kurt Schwitters’s UrSonate, was less inundating and more hypnotic, with the twenty-four instrumentalists of in vain cleared away to make room for a single vocalist. Steven Schick perched on a stool in front of a microphone, accompanied only by the echoes of his own voice (manipulated electronically by Shahrokh Yadegari) and images of his own face (video controlled by Ross Karre). Remembered primarily as an artist, Schwitter was active during the first half of the twentieth century, creating paintings, collages, installations, and the UrSonate, an exploration of the human voice as pure sound: about twenty-five minutes’ worth of highly expressive, rhythmic gibberish. Yadegari and Karre expand on the cadences and lines of the “text” (for lack of a better word), which gives this production something of an electronic art flavor, but it’s amazing how mesmerizing even the unadorned speech is. Schick finds eloquence in nonsense and gives every explosive consonant a deliciously percussive edge. It’s bizarre but riveting.

The final third of the program was the most familiar and the least compelling: an arrangement of a Bach Chaconne flowing directly into Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. The same eighteen musicians performed both works, and arranger Matt Albert, of the ensemble eighth blackbird, “preserved Bach’s harmonies, but strove to evoke Reich’s instrumental choices … and bring to the fore ideas only suggested in the solo violin original.” It’s an interesting concept, I guess, but giving the violin line to marimbas and xylophones robbed it of much of its resonance, and the whole thing felt weighted down, especially when the female vocalists started their Reich-ish pulsings.

As for the unbroken transition from the Chaconne into Reich’s minimalist landmark, I understand why they chose to do it that way—a traditional chaconne repeats the same harmonic progression (and often the same ground bass) over and over, making it, in a way, a precursor of minimalism—but to me, at least, the juxtaposition only highlights how much more interesting Baroque “minimalism” is than its twentieth-century descendant. Bach could take that seed of a chaconne or passacaglia and find infinite variations on it, changing the texture, manipulating the rhythms, alternating between major and minor, inverting the melody, weaving in accidentals, masterfully building the polyphony until it reaches a shattering climax. (I performed Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor on my senior organ recital, and it’s still one of my favorite musical works for any medium. It’s ingenious and passionate and tremendous fun to play. I adore it.) I’ve just never learned to appreciate minimalism the same way. The repetition in Baroque forms feels stimulating and beautiful; the repetition in most minimalist works just feels, well, repetitive.

Now I feel like a Philistine, but by this point it was late (with intermissions, the program ran three and a half hours long, which is sort of crazy), and all those endless pulsing crescendo-decrescendos started to get to me, and all I could think about was whether the musicians ever developed repetitive motion injuries performing the damn thing. (I was particularly worried for the poor girl playing the maracas.) Worst of all, Music for 18 Musicians, being more or less the same thing over and over for thirty or forty minutes, sounds like it could end every twenty seconds or so, literally, and I kept thinking that now, surely, it was drawing to a close, but no, never, it repeated again, and again, and again. It was exhausting.

It’s works like that that make me agree with Stravinsky’s line above with disgust—you’re right, this isn’t expressing anything at all, this is completely meaningless, please make it stop. But that’s unfair to Reich and also, frankly, to Stravinsky, who later said that he thought his maxim had been misinterpreted. He insisted that he had just rejecting the notion that “exact sets of correlatives must exist between a composer’s feelings and his notation” because music is “beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions” altogether. In a conversation with Robert Craft, he said, “Today I would put it the other way around: music expresses itself.”

As inflammatory as Stravinsky’s first statement is, that later revision reveals the underlying sentiment to be quite lovely. “Music expresses itself” is a perfect encapsulation of something like the UrSonate, which expresses nothing and everything in its poetic nonsense. For Stravinsky—and the works on this program—the question of whether music is “powerless” or “powerful” is beside the point. Music is, and that’s enough.