St. Peter’s Church, Chelsea
Friday, June 10th
72 , Partly Cloudy
1. The state of things becomes tangled, mingled like thread, a long cable, a skein. Connections are not always unravelled. Who will unravel this mess? Imagine the thread of a network, the cord of a skein, or a web with more than one dimension, imagine interlacing as a trace on one plane of the state that I am describing. The state of things seems to me to be an intersecting multiplicity of veils, the interlacing of which bodies forth a three-dimensional figure. The state of things is creased, crumpled, folded, with flounces and panels, fringes, stitches and lacing.
I am reading Michel Serres’ The Five Senses. I pass from “Veils” into “Boxes”, from new territory into familiar. I am reading on the train, closing my eyes, whispering each of his translated sentences in my head, feeling the connections between his words.
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, a Gothic revival embedded in the brownstones and New School-cool of Chelsea on 20th Street and 8th. Shadowy and solemn, with serious dark-stained pews that open with hinged doors, regular quatrefoil patterns deeply carved in the wall paneling. In an upper corner, a water stain reveals hidden variegated shades of cream and green behind its dark surfaces. The ceiling penetrates downward with dramatical ogival arches, and as the sun sets over the course of the concert, simple pendant lamps hanging between them will warmly light the room. A large gilded statue of an eagle is poised to take flight on the left side of the stage. Tilework and stained glass windows shimmer behind a stage cluttered with percussion instruments, a gleaming piano, and and the paraphernalia of a new music concert: more stands than chairs by half, cables crossing the stage, mics and speakers in all the corners closest to the stage, a table with a laptop surrounded by electronic gear butting against the first pew.
I walk in alone and seat myself in the back. Only one person slides into the pew behind me. I watch both strangers and friends chat quietly in anticipation, seated in the central pews ahead of me. I feel calm in this familiar setting, where I have come to remain unnoticed at the back. Tonight, I still have the setting sun in my eyes, still glowing from the summer air and ringing with the words I whispered to myself on the train. I slide to a place along the bench that is maximally uninviting to other groups, place my body in a posture that takes up space, lean my head back to catch the sun from the stained-glass windows, wait and watch. A dark-haired young man in glasses comes up the aisle five minutes after me with a friend in tow, glances at me, and remarks, “Look at these clowns sitting in the back. We’re getting seats close to the front.”
I am still waiting.
2. she who writes immerses her hands in the soft sign. A link so subtle that it is attached to nothing, a knot so tenuous that it is already passing into another order.
Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece X for large ensemble opens the program. Doggedly cadential, the piece is a dialectic interplay between stuttering short bursts of phonemic punctuation and open-voiced cadential chords that briefly unify and suspend the ensemble. It performs the physiological restriction of its players. Everyone speaks in short bursts and imbalanced mumbles. She describes her use of the IPA as “non-language”–this is somewhat hard to interpret, but inevitably inscribes linguistic characteristics and invites comparison with language–the closest meeting point being algebraic “language” or the simultaneously attenuated and truncated shorthand “language” of chemical formulas. She uses the phonemes as cells, objects, independent bodies. This does not interest me; conceptually, I see the IPA as a notational means to an end, a shallow method of coding language production. The relationship between an IPA symbol and the production of a living phoneme–wetly embodied in the tongue and throat, its formants inherently altered by meaning and intent and especially context, its shape vibrating nonstatic in time–seems to me just as inelegant and clunky as the relationship between say, your current BMI and the shape and movement of your body. This fundamental imprecision stilts the whole piece, and seems to be the disappointing conceptual foundation for all of the pieces of her “Mouthpiece” series. The sounds are restricted, cool, its motion inorganic and asymptotic, spilled water sliding thinly and ionically across a marble surface.
Evan Johnson’s piece after Couperin’s 1716 L’art de toucher le clavecin for piccolo and violin explores and instantiates the conceptual framework of ornamentation–schematized and repetitive, expandable and contractible in pitch, contour, and time. The piece flickers on the verge of silence, many of its most beautiful sounds the melding of non-resonant instrumental noises: wood and wire, hair and air. Within these complex and nearly inaudible bands, a pitch language so subtle and tidily beautiful that it is almost unremarkable, a pleasingly organized filigree on a soft-edged fractal core of silence. This piece demanded a virtuosic sustained sit from its listeners. The creaky pews put us in a pleasant straitjacket so as not to expose our every shift of weight; heads turn slightly at every protest from the benches. Hyperaware of my controlled still body, I feel the upper-partial flickers of piccolo and violin shimmer as my nerve endings, the sparks of brain activity in a softly reactive and electro-biological fMRI, a beautiful and inscrutable pattern in the repetitions.
Bryn Harrison’s a form in search of itself bubbles over an indiscernible and varying quick pulse, tensile and pale. It is a nocturnal quiver, a long line of a buried loop replicating itself in a thin range of textures. The piece searches for but inevitably evades itself, spinning out its replications in barely-noticeable alternity. This is the smooth muscle in the body of this concert, dilated, unassumingly lateral and unfocused over its long unpunctuated lines. This piece was somewhat ill-served by the rest of the program; in contrast with the conceptual punches and vivid larger-than-life colors of the other pieces, a form in search of itself seemed pale and unapproachable. Its merit was providing a window into an alternative world for the ensemble, a cloudy, noninvasive, softly attenuated aesthetic that the ensemble has not yet fully sought. In another life, on another evening, I could have stayed in the piece for much longer than its running time–perhaps at home, with the piece standing on its own, I could have submerged myself pleasantly in the piece’s channels for at least twice as long, allowing myself to get lost in the recursive thoughts of awareness and memory that the piece gently encourages.
Alex Mincek’s pneuma for saxophone and large ensemble initially recalls many of my experiences with hearing Mincek’s work: bright primary hues moving in multidimensional bursts, aggressively midcentury with a fiercely creative 21st-century ear for instrumental sounds, somehow masterfully achieving nearly orchestral textures in a sinfonietta ensemble. I have listened to his “Color, Form, Line” many times on Wet Ink’s 2012 album ‘Relay’, and his pieces are well-programmed at the kinds of concerts I frequent in New York. Here in pneuma, his writing is characteristically peppy even in its darkest colors–objective and unobtuse, the ensemble sounds like a highly organized improvisation on one of Kazimir Malevich’s busier paintings. Mincek is not asking ontological questions of his materials as other composers on this program seem to be; refreshingly, his work here is to focus the ear on his intensely crafted product. I leave NPR on at my apartment a lot of the time. I grew up with local public radio on in the house constantly; it settles me to hear familiar voices when I’m wandering between rooms. This phrase floated up recently in a conversational interview with a fiction writer, “I’ve heard that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Something like a permutation of the simile kept coming back to me quippily during the performance of Mincek’s piece: his music is like architecture dancing. A small-minded phrase, perhaps, but here’s why I think it stuck with me. Though his music makes no significant attempt to poke holes in the materiality of instrumental music, his writing is so vivaciously written as to be inherently interdisciplinary; upon impact, it explodes into multidimensional color.
Of Eric Wubbels’ premiere tonight, I can only say for now: my body grew focused, electric. I shook, I grew cold and forgot about my coldness, I waited, I held my breath, I cried. Weston, my partner, has been immersed in this work for years now, losing sleep for weeks, talking about it and thinking about it and playing it incessantly. He believes in this piece so intensely, in the relationship through which it was created and in what it has become and what it represents for him. He believes in this piece to the extent that to hear him play this piece is to hear–almost in entirety–who he is right now. To hear him at his fullest capacity, focused and physically taxed to his utmost, nearly defeating himself moment by moment on a path at least partially of his own creation. To see him perform it, for the first time, in full, is to see a person so dedicated to its perfection as to be totally mentally consumed by his own virtuosic capacity. I cannot fully write of my feelings as I saw this done last night. To weave it into words would be a shame and an impossibility; he and I have been separated for years, and he is only now becoming real to me again.
The clouds have broken and the rain is falling now on the streets, at 6:30 PM on this Saturday night, the night after the concert. I hear the sounds of families still out playing on the streets, laughing in the cool rain slanting through the breeze.
The piece was monumental for me to hear. The final movement–an unearthly, devastating chorale–rang through the church, in this moment wholly unlike anything that has ever been heard before, and as I cried to see it I opened my palms on my lap to the sky involuntarily, alone and unashamed.