Music without words is poop. Discuss…

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Newspeak: Chamber ensemble most likely to steal your new metronome

(Reviewed in this post: eighth blackbird, red fish blue fish, Newspeak, Frederic Rzewski, John Cage, Stefan Weisman, David T Little, Matt Marks, Louis Andriessen)

Does music have the power to express anything? Igor Stravinsky says no. Chinua Achebe says if it doesn’t, it’s poop. Stravinsky says your MOM is poop. Achebe says is that the best you can do? Stravinsky says take THIS! and composes a piece entitled “Mrs. Achebe Smells Like Dog Poop.” Achebe says pretty expressive piece, Mr. Seewhatai Didthere. Stravinsky says D’OH and facepalms exactly 11 times.

OK, I’m paraphrasing a bit, but this is the conversation that eighth blackbird has been engaging in with their recent programs presented as part of the Tune In Festival at the Park Avenue Armory. The former concert, PowerFUL, makes the case for music’s ability to communicate directly and (lest it ends up in Achebe’s pooper scooper of history) politically. The latter, PowerLESS, is an exercise in absolute music, music that expresses nothing other than the music itself.

Looking at the programming choices, one notices immediately that almost all of the pieces in the PowerFUL program involve text, either spoken or sung, and those that don’t, rely heavily on program notes to make their meaning remotely clear. The PowerLESS program has no text, at least no text with any semantic identity (which is not to detract from the power of Steven Schick’s performance of Schwitter’s UrSonate). The programs would suggest that, yes, music can express, but only with the supported by the crutch of words.

The opening piece of the PowerFUL program cuts right to the heart of the Music vs Theater duality. Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together sets the text of a letter written by an inmate shortly before the Attica uprising. The tone of the text seems content, at ease. There is no hint of any stress or duress at all, much less the magnitude of stress usually associated with prison life. Yet the performance deconstructs the text, first by setting it at an unnaturally slow pace, giving each individual word greater weight than the entirety of the sentence or paragraph. This seems to make the communication labored, forced, a mantra to retain one’s sanity in a pressure cooker. Chunks of text are repeated as new elements are occasionally introduced, continuing thoughts or clarifying context. Over the course of the piece, the activity of the accompaniment and the steadily more intense, anguished reading is directly at odds with the insistent serenity of the text.

This isn’t just music, this is theater. The success of the piece hinges on the pacing and shaping of the text over time. In conversation with 8bb after the show, I was surprised to hear that the composer leaves much of the piece up to the performers. There aren’t specific instructions about how each line should be delivered, and the instrumental parts themselves are largely left to the instrumentalists. eighth blackbird deserves much of the credit for the success of this piece, it was perfectly paced and very effective.

Members of UCSD’s red fish blue fish performed John Cage’s piece Credo in US. This sets popular forms of American music, bombastic marches being played on a phonograph or lounge music on a piano, against intricate rhythms on cymbals, paint cans, and the occasional buzzer. To say that the piece is meaningful is a bit of a stretch. The program notes claim it is a pointed critique of American society, but I’m not so sure it comes across that way. In the years since the piece was written, ‘serious’ music is quite comfortable incorporating more popular forms into their vocabulary, what seemed satirical yesterday may well be homage today. In any case, without the crutch of words, music’s ability to express something was less than forthcoming.

Speaking of incorporating popular forms, the three pieces that followed were performed by Newspeak, a chamber ensemble committed to exploring the boundary of rock and classical music (and, apparently, the only ensemble present that doesn’t have something against capital letters). Integrating an electric guitar and drum kit with more traditional chamber instruments, in this performance the ensemble seemed to serve primarily as a backup band for vocalist Melissa Hughes. This was probably unintentional, but the frontman dynamic is hard to avoid when a charismatic singer is working the microphone. A human voice singing text is going to be what ears latch on to. Humans are designed that way.

Composer Stefan Weisman manages to subvert this tendency in his ode to Mellville’s passive aggressive scrivener, Bartelby. Repeating the insistent phrase “I would prefer not to” on repeated pitches, Hughes barely emerges from behind the ensemble’s brooding haze of sound, evoking this cypher of a character. David T Little’s sweet light crude (forget what I said about capital letters), billed as a love song to oil, layers intentionally ambiguous phrases of text sung over stretches of atmospheric minimalist riffs. Some unfortunate clunky transitions evoke attempts by 70s era prog rock bands to stick together barely related material into an ‘epic’ multi-movement rock song (a practice perhaps best left on the OTHER side of the rock/classical boundary). The rock drum driven push towards the end would feel right at home in a packed stadium, though for me, the harmonic vocabulary remained a bit too rooted in the rock tradition for a concert hall, especially when set against other pieces of the evening.

Matt Marks‘s (who, along with Melissa Hughes, was responsible for The Little Death Vol 1 that I was fortunate to catch at The Incubator last summer) Portrait of Glenn Beck is a delightfully sly bit of theatrical manipulation. By setting text from Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Fox special to unabashedly stirring music, Marks creates an acute cognitive dissonance. This luminous, at times ecstatic music lends an emotional core to Becks’ words that transcend the original’s schlocky talk show histrionics. Regardless of how we feel about the political goals of the writer of this text, we cannot help but be affected by them emotionally despite ourselves. We emerge feeling somewhat duped, violated. We’re Lora Dern to Marks’s Willam Dafoe in Wild at Heart. This, more than any other piece of the evening is a raw display of music’s power, a power to completely short circuit the rational brain and create emotional affect. While Coming Together uses music to synthesize a subtext, Portrait of Glenn Beck uses music to erase a context.

The evening was capped off by what may well go down as the most accurate, intentional, and exhilarating rendition of Louis Adriessen’s Worker’s Union in history. I was well prepared for this piece, written for any loud sounding group of instruments, having just heard it at the Hot Air Festival at the SF Conservatory. While the Hot Air festival emphasized the haphazard, approximate nature of the piece by refusing to let the players perform on their primary instruments, this rendition was a model of ferocious rhythmic accuracy and dynamic precision. The piece’s meaning (a somewhat tongue in cheek metaphor for the challenges of populist political action) is, again, only clear if you read the program notes, but that hardly matters. The piece is such a thrilling roller coaster of cacophony that any meaning (much less a political one) just detracts from the fun. The audience was palpably energized at the raucous conclusion.

In eighth blackbirds hands, music’s innate power to express meaning may still be an open question, but it’s power to move, thrill, and excite, while perhaps never in question, was certainly on display.

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