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Frisson of the New at Mass MoCA


Just who cares about new music these days? Classical music is so busy dying, hardly anyone checks in on its red-headed stepchild. I mean, I guess I care. I follow the news, learn the new names, listen to recordings. But I’m a connoisseur, and we’re horses of a different color. And at the marathon concert held at the Bang on a Can summer festival at MassMoCA in North Adams on August 1, my species was not the only one in attendance.

As a marathon concert  (scheduled for six hours, naturally running over), people could come and go between pieces. One audience member declared to her friends that she would stay for one more piece (a John Zorn string quartet) because “I like violins.” After a Frederic Rzewski piece (somewhere between the high modernism of new music and that of the jazz avant-garde), two others decided it was time for a break: “Would you call it music?” “It was… interesting.”

So why did these people make it out to North Adams, to the former factory complex that is Mass MoCA, for a serving of what’s new in new music? Well, just as the minimalists showed us that perception of musical time changes with scale, a concert too is transformed. It stops being a concert and becomes an event. One can come and go as one pleases. A restaurant will be open for the duration if you’d like to eat. A staff member will track the program on a whiteboard, while closed-circuit TV shows the stage. And yes, please join us for a glass of pro secco if you’re still with us at the end.

The audience gracefully accepted all these offerings. The museum’s courtyard bustled with winers and diners (but, seriously, $5.50 for bottled beer?). People moved freely during the evening and the house was nearly full throughout. A cartoon-bubbled, all-caps NOW on the whiteboard’s active item gave urgency to see just what was going on in there. It’s no surprise the BoaC’s NYC marathon gets play-by-play coverage via live-blogging and tweets (same as when Obama, or Steve Jobs for that matter, makes a speech). Were you there?? Were you engaged in what was going on??

The aesthetic catch-all that BoaC is known for (their first marathon had both Milton Babbitt and Steve Reich in the flesh) isn’t just acceptable, but encouraged by these conditions. Old-school modernism? Forays into world music? You don’t even need to evoke exoticism (and none was); diversity and surprise become fuel for the fire of a raging spectacle.

All this being said, once your — is in your seat, you’re presented with a (nearly) non-stop banquet of musical delights (some might say vomitorium, but hey, check the etymology on that one). All musicians gave extremely committed and energetic performances. They’d been living and working together for the past three-and-a-half weeks, and it showed.

One of them, Paul Coleman, should be singled out as the only one who played the entire show. He was rarely seen on stage, but as the sound engineer, he was always heard. I don’t even want to think about the preparation and focus needed for such a monstrous, heterogenous program. That it all went so smoothly is a testament to the professionalism of him and the rest of the stage crew. I did wish there was more variety to the sound design, though. A cold, close-mic’d sound dominated. Some pieces, Shaker Loops in particular, would have benefitted from some warmth and bloom. Still, a disputed aesthetic choice is a relatively minor complaint.

With such a massive program, it would be unwieldy to touch upon everything. So, take these highlights as more personal takeaways than anything else: Meredith Monk’s Three Heavens and Hells set a child’s poem for four female voices. The three? People, animal, and thing, each with a distinct sonic picture. John Zorn’s cat o’ nine tails for string quartet (subtitled “Tex Avery directs the Marquis de Sade”) got the audience laughing at a number of spots, but I’m not sure Zorn has a sense of humor about such things. The performance had a looseness and sense of fun that beat out one I’d seen by the Kronos. Extra points to violist Andi Hemmenway for appropriate boots.

David Lang’s Pierced had gritty rhythms familiar to his music, but imaginative textures (inspired by Rover of The Prisoner, he claimed) that were just a little different. Eve Beglarian’s BachFeet: “Brownie, you’re doin’ a heck of a job” was missing the tape part with the titular text, but it was engaging all the same. Beglarian is a polystylistic magician who draws a straight line between unexpected genres and follows it. Her music consistently has a richness of craft and expression that’s a couple steps ahead of most of her peers.

Fred Frith is known equally well to post-rockers and new musickers (perhaps to others for his soundtrack to Rivers and Tides). His Snakes and Ladders was a well-balanced mobile of angular melodies. They lazily spun around each other, never quite overlapping in the same way twice. The program’s finale, George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique, was the showstopper it was intended to be. There were no dancers, but it was indeed a ballet, with much choreographed humor and wit. Brad Lubman conducted, taking his usually dance-like demeanor to a new level.

Put together, did the entire program tell a story? In a way it did. The Antheil was introduced as a piece in search of describing what it was like to live in the modern world (i.e., Paris in the 1920s). Its precision cacophony celebrated machines, urban intensity, the Sublime over the Beautiful- Modernism, warts and all. An early piece on the program was David M. Gordon’s Friction Systems, written recently as the composer’s Master’s thesis. It was also an urban music, but its sense of scale, speed, and simultaneities was of today’s cities. Festival faculty member Nick Photinos introduced it. He declared that Eighth Blackbird, his usual performing group, fell in love with the music because it “sounds like nothing we’d ever heard, and it’s really wacked out.” Long live the frisson of the New.

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Adam Baratz is a composer and pianist. He lives in Cambridge.

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