Monday, September 13, 2010

Not for Some of Us Entirely Unexpected

Perhaps, as Nate suggests, it is best to just abide by one’s meta-commentary when one feels distracted by it, as, as often in the case, it won’t always be there; that is, there are experiences to be had that defy metastasis. And so, my next visit to the Philharmonie, for last Monday’s performance of Luciano Berio’s Stanze (and some other stuff too, but I was there for Stanze), by the London Philharmonic Orchestra (under the baton of young Vladimir Jurowski), though begun under a similar cloud of meta-wonder, found this concern obviated by the piece in question, which simply let me know that it was okay, once again, to just be present with music as it happens.

I don’t think my expectations could have been much higher for Stanze (which, as you might be aware, was Berio’s last piece that he wrote shortly before his death in 2003. It sets five poems—by Paul Celan, Alfred Brendel, and a couple other dudes—across four movements, for baritone, three male choirs, and orchestra)—I was actually prepared to cry during the performance, if it came to that. (So here I can at least partially apologize for my Adams-bashing, since, like, I understand what it’s like to really care about music, whether it’s populist fluff or anything else.) I think it can really be a problem, in art music, to care too much, because it really can lead to massive let downs (since, especially, a lot of the music that I like most is really hard to play, so performances can potentially fail to meet imaginary standards on a fairly regular basis)—and maybe I mention this too because I’m about to be obnoxiously positive about the concert, and it’s important to note that I wasn’t just self-fulfilling an awesomeness-prophecy, since I’ve been letdown by plenty of concerts.

But with the opening chord of Stanze—it starts with the Celan (“Tenebrae”) movement—as my entire body coursed up and down with sensation (a lot of tingling, warmth; you know, the kind of thing that I generally just label as an aspect of the visceral experience of live music) it was clear that it wasn’t going to be a meta-span of time. (The concert started with Webern’s Passacaglia (Op.1), which was well-played. Jurowski really worked it to bring out the melodramatic aspects of it. And, of course, it’s fun to already be hearing in Webern’s first piece, prototypes for the kinds of lines that he eventually drew through orchestras (and other ensembles) in his more developed works. Webern = Motherfucker. Stated.) In fact, I find myself crediting the piece—Stanze—itself with defying meta-ness. Something in its structure, its spatial presence, and its movement.

Because it’s a piece of music that absolutely invites the listener into itself. So there I am, listening to this music being performed, feeling myself invited into the world it’s creating, and entering into that world, essentially involuntarily (I didn’t tell my brain to decide to start feeling (for lack of a better word) tingles)—and never in my concert-going life have I sat through a piece of music during which I was so consistently physically animated by what I was hearing (certain pieces (say, the horn line in the 3rd Movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, or the last couple of minutes of the 1st movement of Brahms’s 4th Symphony) give me chills just about every time I hear them, but it’s always transient experience, lasting but a couple of notes or measures (and also, incidentally, this is probably what kept me as a classical musician and not more of a punk, since I don’t think I have had any analogous experiences with amplified music, or at least not such intense ones (born nerd, I guess))); one expects such jolts or tingles or goosebumps to fade again, but for almost the entire piece I felt like I was listening to the music with my entire body, not just my ears/inner ear/mind—and by the fourth movement (the Brendel movement), enjoying some of Stanze’s most humorous moments to this extent where I flashed into the awareness of how with the piece I was.

To bring something external into one’s interior in such a way—to feel like you are moving into something which is actually moving into you—eliminates the kind of hierarchy of piece-performance-audience that preconditions meta-experience in the first place. Because you can’t place one aspect above the other anymore. The piece itself is an exterior thing, but in hearing it I reconstructed I in my mind, so then, feeling invited to enter into this apparently external place, I am actually moving further into my interior, which isn’t really mine anymore, because it’s become the sound-world of the piece.

What I’m not entirely sure of is whether this kind of architectural musical presence is different from other varieties of feeling “sucked in” to a given piece (whether in live performance or recording). Jack and I (and my friend Dan was there too (and a bunch of other people)), a couple years ago now, saw a performance at Carnegie Hall’s chamber hall, of Boulez conducting some genius European kids playing his Le Marteau sans Maitre and Sur Incises. Marteau, of course, was awesome, but the performance of Sur Incises was absolutely exhilarating. I think it’s maybe 45 minutes long, but I couldn’t have told you if it was 8 minutes, 20 minutes, or three hours (or, I guess I knew it wasn’t three hours…), because it was just compelling in this way that absolutely sucked me in. I think with Stanze, the piece sucks you in but then says “Hey there, friend, take a look around!” And then you look around, and there’s something there to understand. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it’s definitely understandable.

I could have left at half-time, given the kind of once-in-a-lifetime quality (and it does seem likely enough that I’ll never see it performed again) of the Stanze performance (it was heartily applauded by the 60%-full hall, and Jurowski, in his last trip out for applause, held the score up above his head, which it definitely deserved. When I have this kind of concert experience, after it’s done, there is this kind of question as to whether or not anyone else just had the same experience (or something similar (and of course, it’s not that important a question, but one asks oneself regardless)), so seeing this kind of recognition from a lot of people—and importantly, the conductor himself was itself a real heart-warming thing.

But I stuck around. What the hell does one program with a piece like Stanze (and props to Dan Bassin for already having this conversation with me via internet chatting)? Besides the Webern up front, the 2nd half of the concert featured Prokofiev’s 3rd Symphony, and some forgettable little arrangement of some piano thing of his for orchestra. I was of a mood to more or less ignore the Prokofiev, even though I think his 3rd Symphony—having worked for the American Symphony Orchestra librarianing their Prokofiev summer—actually deserves some attention (unlike pretty much everything else he ever wrote (especially his 1st “Carl’s Boring” and 5th “Carl’s Boring Jr.” Symphonies)). I feel like it’s one of those pieces too that’s trendy right now (having heard it performed twice in 3 years makes it trendy), the way some pieces get trendy (like that mid-‘00s span where just about every orchestra on the planet performed Rachmaninoff’s fucking-hideously-terrible Symphonic Dances for utterly unknown reasons (I think it was some kind of Bilderberg conspiracy (kill all humans! with Rachmaninoff!))).

Wanting to ignore a piece like Prok 3 is easier said than done, because it really is a piece that demands some attention. It contains a bit of blustery hoop-la, for sure, but really also holds a lot of extremely interesting music. So, in the same way that Stanze lived up to all of it’s hype, the 3rd Symphony refused to be ignored. Though, of course, it lacks any of the subtlety of the Berio (and maybe you have to hear Berio live to really understand how subtle it is). In fact, after what I’ve just stated, the next adjective up to the plate for the Prokofiev is: loud. It was incredibly loud. In fact, I think it was one of the single loudest performances I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if this is because it was a slightly empty hall and an orchestra just going for it, or something more in my own head, where anything would have sounded balls-out loud to me. But I don’t have that much else to say about the Symphony, other than, if you don’t know it, go ahead and give it a listen or two; it’s worthwhile. (And Jurowski didn’t bother to hold up the Prokofiev score.) Incidentally, Jurowksi’s take on Webern’s Passacaglia made a lot of sense once the Prokofiev came around. But Stanze was a separate concert within that concert.

Bassin suggested Mahler’s 9th Symphony as a potential program mate for Stanze (or the Adagio from the 10th). I think that’s a good idea. Though, as a concert, it’d be… emotional.

I was recently talking to my friend Jen, who is a poet in New York (we’ve had this year’s-long ongoing conversation about poetry, which for the past year or so now has been focused especially on lyric poetry, and lyricism in general (what we would call either “lyric consciousness” or “lyric awareness”)), and Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Snowman” came up. And so, since it’s easily findable on the internet, I read it again, and got the same tingling sensation (how “tingling” became the word for this, I don’t know, but I guess I’m using it…) that I get every time I read it, which I mentioned to Jen, and she immediately commiserated about having the same reaction to the poem in the same consistent way. Which we both just took as an indication that we can’t help but be poets in the world; many people, presumably, read that poem and say “Damn, that’s some good shit!”, but to feel so compelled by a few sentences, to the point of being driven to try and make your own, I guess maybe that’s rarer? And maybe some people stay party-line on it, recognize that Stevens was a good poet, but ignore him for being too philosophical and intellectual. And everyone else is just bored.

But with that poem, he absolutely gets it, and nails it. That poem, to me, is inarguable (same way as Oppen’s “Psalm” or Plath’s “Balloons”). Same thing with Stanze. I have nothing at all negative to say. I just thank Berio for making such a gift before he died. And maybe Berio’s music isn’t for everyone, maybe the sound-fields can be off-putting for some listeners. Maybe he was too smart. But, shit, there’s absolutely nothing intellectual about experiencing that kind of performance. And I could (already have) blab and blab (blabbed and blabbed) about it, but I think I can just leave it at that (at all of this)…


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