During three days in the concert desert that is mid-June, I managed to see both one of the most revelatory performances of this season, and one of the most foolish things I’ve ever seen anywhere. I would not have missed either of them for the world.
Since the late 1990s, the musical oasis that is the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP) at New England Conservatory has evolved into a week-long festival. It had eluded my notice until I went hunting around for more contemporary concerts after last year’s Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music. If the three concerts I attended this week are any indication, SICPP is a treasure of uncommon interest, a gift to the Boston musical community by the redoubtable, courageous and fascinating Stephen Drury.
Let’s move from the ridiculous to the sublime: Tuesday night saw the… performance? realization? reconstruction? reconstitution? of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Originale from 1961. Originale is ostensibly a performance of the composer’s Kontakte for piano, percussion and tape, but upon walking into Brown Hall you knew something else was up, what with the mirrored platform, ladder, café table, etc. scattered around the space. The piece almost immediately goes off the rails, the performers mildly squabbling, and then the outrageousness begins. Drury’s costuming somehow personified the arc of the piece: he starts in a tuxedo, changes to work clothes, and ended up a fairly elegant but anomalous vision in a kimono. According to the printed notes, the score is not much more than a time chart with notations of how it unfolded originally in 1961. Over the 94-minute span of this outing, an awful lot happens; it isn’t clear how much of what we saw was Stockhausen and how much the contributions of the SICPP participants, but it was absorbing no matter who was responsible. A credited cast of 17 interrupted and hijacked the proceedings, parading, shouting, preening, photographing and generally making chaos. Some of it was funny, but the occasions for actual laughter were few: too many surprising things were going on to stop and laugh at any one of them. Some of it was just slightly disturbing, like a dream gone bad. For the trivia minded, there were references to chase down: I felt very clever for noticing that a large stretch of text came from Carr’s speeches in Stoppard’s Travesties, which at one point were being voiced in antiphon with one of Wilfred Owen’s poems used by Britten in the War Requiem. People read from newspapers; two Native American’s chanted to a drum (but didn’t some later chanting sound an awful lot like the Peter, Paul and Mary song “500 Miles” if you listened closely?). There were some moments of tedium: we were an hour into the experience when a woman shook out garbage bags and tied them up like balloons for an aggressively long time. There was an astonishing moment of silence. By the end, was I imagining that there was a night-day, life-death structure to this whole thing – or was I just searching so hard for patterns that I found one by the end? I was reminded of the very first Stockhausen recording I owned (I don’t own many), a theater work called “Sirius”: the LP cover had a picture of a naked man lying on a beach, and the astrological weirdness of the work was so nutty to me that I taped the phrase “You can’t be…” above the title of the work on the record and displayed it thus in my dorm room. About halfway through Originale I remembered “Sirius” and I’m going to have to dig it up and listen to it again. I think I was taking it all too seriously.
What is most surprising about Originale, though, is how it sets the genius that underlies Kontakte into sharp relief. I dislike most music with tape, as too often it puts the performers in the position of waiting or deferring to a machine, but the tape in Kontakte feels alive: the music for the pianist and percussionist is constantly provokes and is provoked by the recorded sounds, and every moment is tightly argued but spontaneous in spirit. The restless surface of Kontakte may seem chaotic on first lesson, but when embedded in Originale the piece is positively rigorous, and each time the work returns to claim its rightful place, the mind leaps to it, finding refuge from the unpredictability that surrounds it. Drury and Stuart Gerber played with concentration and precision, despite being required to change costumes (Gerber went from tuxedo to biking shorts and a purple lei) and take a break to drink tea near the end (hence Drury’s kimono, perhaps). There were too many interesting happenings among the cast, and most would take too long to explain; I do want to single out Ketchup Smeared Screaming Man, whose serious, focused commitment forced those who found him merely funny to eventually stop laughing.
Theatrical works also appeared in earlier concerts: the very first work on Sunday, Michael van der Aa’s Transit from 2009 is a work for pianist in front of a film. The film depicts an old man in the grips of a paranoid obsessive-compulsive breakdown, something a more melodramatic Samuel Beckett might have conceived. The pianist (Louis Goldstein) pantomimes occasional gestures (mostly of hestitancy and recoil) as well as performing music that expertly threads the needle between soundtrack and independent work.
Monday night’s concert featured the percussionist Allen Otte. His version of Herbert Brun’s (1918-2000) Touch and Go also recalled Beckett, if Beckett had done experimental stop-motion photography. Brun wrote Touch and Go in 1967 as a FORTRAN program that drew a score using a plotter: “the notated ‘language’ consists of the distribution, size and position of symbols on the pages and aims at eliciting from the musician a ‘musical’ response which combines instrumental action and coherent interpretation.” Otte’s realized it almost entirely on a table top, with a single light over his hands; his hands took on personality and character, without any specific narrative. The shape and attitude of his hands and the disposition of his instruments proved just as absorbing as the sounds produced in his tiny scenarios of rhythmic patterns. The “instruments” included chalk, pencils, brushes, a dustpan, a measuring tape. Some of the sounds weren’t sounds at all. One could not hear anything from the paint brush, but the sight of it and the character of the movement allowed you to construct what you would hear were you Otte. No narrative ever appeared in a seemingly a bit too fragile for its duration.
Again on his own, Otte enacted Frederic Rzewski’s The Fall of the Empire from 2007, a 40-minute or so piece of spoken texts adorned with simultaneous percussion, as something like a Homeric bard. But instead of texts about the Trojan War we had fragments about global warming, angels and monsters, Mother Goose rhymes about the deaths of sons, and a long fragment from a letter from Oscar Wilde’s time in the Reading jail. And instead of a lyre, we had tubular bells, automobile wheel rims, and a table of found objects (among many other instruments). Otte’s reading presence is quiet, understated, but intelligent and sensitive to the variety of texts involved. One required the printed texts provided to understand him at times, but that was preferable to declamation, as many of the texts already veer uncomfortably close to hectoring. Some of the moments came off as a kind of Prairie Home Companion for soft-spoken anarchists, but there were several episodes of depth. The real tour-de-force was the Wilde segment. Wilde writes of his isolation and loneliness in jail, at one point stating “we are the zanies of sorrow. We are the clowns whose hearts are broken. We are specially designed to appeal to the sense of humor.” Otte (who is credited with arranging this section) manipulated a kind of one-man-band apparatus, a washboard outfitted with a cowbell, woodblock and bicycle horn (among some other things). It was a silly thing to look at, and when Otte arrived at the “zanies” text his delivery broke down, and he began slapping himself and “clowning.” But it was not at all funny. It was striking and appalling and beautifully appropriate for the tortured words of the letter.
The highlight of Sunday’s concert, and the greatest revelation of the week for me, was Drury’s execution of Volume I of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos. This set of 12 pieces based on the zodiac calls for some preparation of the piano, a lot of playing inside the instrument, as well as some singing and speaking into the strings. The stage was lit in color: each section of four pieces had its own hue, red, blue, then green. There even appeared to be some lights inside the piano which reflected off the underside of the lid. Vivdily and entirely from memory, Drury realized Crumb’s colorful, occasionally lurid sound world without falling into a sonic swamp or overtly italicizing. The dignity and confidence of Drury’s concert demeanor ensures that unusual practices don’t distract from the music being made. Deadpan and unflappable in general, his shouts of Latin words into the piano as Crumb requires, don’t strike one as anything out of the ordinary. I had not thought much about Crumb in recent years; this episode has me reconsidering his legacy. I had previously dismissed his work as a little hysterical and overwrought, but this Makroskosmos carried an unbexpected gravity. When I go looking for Sirius, I might also dig up that old Nonesuch recording of Ancient Voices of Children (the one that you could not avoid in used record stores in the 1980s) and see how it has aged.
What I saw was just part of what SICPP has put on offer this week: there were six evening concerts at NEC, plus six afternoon concerts at the NEC and the Gardner Museum. The SICPP Iditarod, an eight-hour-plus concert featuring SICPP new works as well as other music from the last 100 years, will be presented in Brown Hall starting a 2 p.m.; you’re invited to drop in and drop out at any point.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.