The Fifth Floor Collective, a composers’ consortium, presented Chicago-based pianist Andy Costello to the Community Music Center of Boston in the South End on Tuesday night in something of a return: Costello served as a visiting artist in the composition department at the Boston Conservatory last academic year. The evening was not exclusively musical enough to be called a concert, neither was it dramatic enough to be considered theater, and it was too serious and focused to be considered a “happening”. It was entitled “Surrealism Canned, an “auto-directed, auto-realized solo performance.” In a moment I am going to quibble about the first word in the title; the second provided the main conceit of the evening.
But first the scene: One walked into the small basement room and saw two rows of chairs arranged in a curve around a piano, a low bench, a couple of loudspeakers, and an open floor space filled with empty cans. A program was provided that consisted of two parts: one page headed “Please read before the performance”, and a couple of pages headed “Please do not read this until after the performance.” The page we were allowed to read contained a number of proclamations, or perhaps caveats, that threatened to make the piece critic-proof: “This show is me. It is about nothing and everything. I am about nothing and everything.” I think we were meant to note that an empty can is also nothing and… well, at least something (five cents in Massachusetts, if it’s the right kind)—or rather, a something that contains nothing. The “please do not read” page contained detailed descriptions of exactly who the names were, and what works of theirs he performed. It does not seem in keeping with Costello’s intent to give away all the details here, so rather than catalog the evening I will try to capture its spirit, only citing specifics when necessary.
As the performance started, more cans were brought into the mix: ten times Costello shook a backpack and then reached in to retrieve a can. On it was a “Hello, my name is…” label with the name of a writer or composer. Costello would remove the name label, affix it to himself, and then add the can to the collection on the floor. He then performed something by that individual. Those of us who have already been drawn to the experiments in indeterminacy from the 1920s onward were at home—although the material for the evening was previously prescribed, its order was to be random. It is arguable whether most artists enlisted in the service of Costello’s “surrealism” should be included under that rubric; leaving aside two of Costello’s contemporaries of whose philosophies I am ignorant, Costello presented John Cage, Gertrude Stein, Frederic Chopin, Andre Breton, Eric Satie, himself, Samuel Beckett, J.S. Bach, Robert Schumann. Breton’s membership in the surrealists is uncontroversial, as he wrote the Manifesto of Surrealism; the others fit uneasily at best. Breton’s definition of surrealism was “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express… the actual functioning of thought… in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” This definition was what Costello “performed” for Breton, simply reading it; but oddly, he disavowed it, claiming discomfort with manifestos in general. Neither the artists he interprets nor Costello himself seemed to fit the definition: among other things, they all are possessed of a great deal of “exercise of reason”, and clearly aesthetic concerns are paramount for all of them. So let’s just forget the surrealism angle—surrealism has exciting press, and may help draw people to Costello’s interests, but it had no important role to play here.
What did end up having a role to play was memory: as activated in the spectator and as displayed by the performer. For example, Costello “performed” all of Chopin’s Etudes, he only performed enough of each to make it recognizable, three or four seconds. This was just long enough to engage one’s own memory of each work, and Chopin’s genius became clear: only two seconds was enough to bring the entire etude into focus in one’s memory, so strongly characterized were each. It became exhausting to have this music activated and living in one’s head, only to be immediately supplanted by the next, and it was an unfamiliar combination relief and a pleasure that greeted his complete performance the last etude, the ameliorative D-major from the Nouvelle Etudes. An alienated experience of memory came with his exploration of Cage: he “performed the memory” of In a Landscape, sitting quietly in front of the piano with the keys covered, while a recording of a performance of his from Montreal was played over the loudspeakers; while he may have been recalling an experience that was deeply memorable, the experience for this spectator was one of emptiness, of hearing a reference to something rather than the thing itself. This set the stage for part of his Bach exploration, where the playback of him performing of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations was suddenly supplanted by his live performance: in this case, memory being replaced by immediate experience again provoked the sense of pleasure and relief that we experienced in the Chopin.
I think that gives the flavor of the evening. Stein, Beckett and Satie were more or less waved at; Bach and Schumann given extensive time. Shostakovich snuck in with Bach: Costello’s steely and granitic reading of the Prelude No. 1 from the Op. 87 preludes was one of the performing highlights of the evening; the other was a dreamy and sensitive reading of No. 14 from the Davidsbündlertanze. There were three brief recent compositions: Keith Kusterer is a member of the Fifth Floor Collective and acted as presenter this evening, and Costello played his Trivia Surreal, a motoric piano piece accompanied by odd, disjointed texts and vocalizations: did he just say “brassica”? Or “Philip Seymour Hoffman”? At the end there’s a tour de force of rapid text spoken a cappella, and I’ll not give away the game except to note that one is forced back on one’s memory to make sense of the work. David Reminick’s Crowded Branches has a similar rhythmic aesthetic but was more discursive and didn’t leave much of an impression. As part of the perfomance of “Schumann” we heard Gerardo Gandini’s Eusebius, “four nocturnes for piano or one nocturne for four pianos,” if my Spanish is correct. Played as four nocturnes, it was an eerie but formless dissection of the selection from Davidsbündlertanze. Given what had gone before, it seemed like a lost opportunity not to have used the loudspeakers to allow Costello to play the “one nocturne for four pianos” with three tracks of himself; perhaps it takes on a little more shape and texture when overlayed.
There was an “eleventh” episode (which given the structure of the event actually appeared seventh) where Costello spoke about what he had played to that point, constrained by a time interval determined by dice tossing, and in these brief vignettes, Costello seemed earnest, engaging and anxious to connect to his audience. In the end was this sense of openness that gave the event its appeal, more than any particular piece or performance; a modernist sampler, intriguing but undemanding, presented by a thoughtful and adventurous artist.