ViolaGate! Mini-riot erupts during piece for viola and electronics

Well, perhaps not rioting, but there was some pretty spirited heckling during JHNO’s performance at last night’s Longer Burning concert at The Royce Gallery presented by Pamela Z. Details are sketchy, but apparently in the middle of a rather loudly amplified piece, two audience members started complaining about the music even more loudly. One started applauding ironically in an effort to get him to stop playing, the other was less subtle and just yelled out “stop”. One audience member in attendance claims that the hecklers went as far to shout “This is a DESECRATION! I am a REAL violist and I can tell you THIS IS NOT MUSIC!”

Apparently this very vocal and persistent minority got under JHNO’s skin and he abruptly stopped playing, threw his viola onto the stage, causing considerable damage, and stormed off. After the outburst, an angry group of audience members (including original Kronos Quartet member Joan Jeanrenaud) amassed around the hecklers, arguing about proper decorum. Apparently one of the hecklers is a well known performer and educator, but no one has named names yet. (update: George Mattingly has identified the heckler as none other than Bernard Zaslav, former violist of the relatively forward thinking Fine Arts Quartet!)

From the accounts I’ve heard, it was a shocking and disturbing occurrence for everyone there. We mythologize stories of extreme audience reaction to the new, (the famous ‘riots’ after Sacre, the woman screaming ‘I Confess!” during Reich’s Four Organs) but with the general sanitization of the concert experience, actual displays of emotion are exceedingly rare (outside the opera house at least).

(ed. Please see the comments for responses from the heckler, hecklee, and concert presenter.)



Jun 2011

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  1. 1

    A rose is a rose is a rose. And a jerk is a jerk, I don’t care how old, disabled or “respected” he is in the wee little bubble of musical elitism he roams.

    I’ve never in my life ever heard the name Bernard Zaslav before hearing about his boorish behavior. I have, by contrast, known and respected John Eichenseer’s work since 1999. What I’m seeing from my seemingly polarized point of view is a very small handful of people who are trying to vocally positioned themselves as not only the arbiters of what constitutes viola music, of all things, but of what a performer should and shouldn’t do on stage.

    The musical universe is very, very big. If a man is “standing up for new work”, and at the same time, claiming to define it, I don’t see how it’s even possible to do anything but snicker behind his back, which is what fans of JHNO’s work are doing. I would suggest that Mr. Zaslav expand his musical horizons beyond the myopic if he is indeed “standing up for new work”, because he’s missing the boat entirely.

    ….which is, I should say, entirely fine for him if that’s what he chooses. We don’t all have to be on the same boat. But fer chrissake, sit down and shut up and don’t assume you speak for everyone when you have a humble human opinion.

    What is completely beyond my comprehension is how someone could be such a champion of music and yet have the gall to interrupt a performance. ANY performance. The arrogance and self-centeredness this act involves is indefensible.

    Apparently there has been an apology, yet all I’ve read so far is more self-centeredness, even from this man’s supporters. John’s reaction, though extreme, was entirely understandable, given the amount of courage it takes to even BE on a stage.

  2. 2

    Glad to hear of the apology– good move my friend. Certainly seemed appropriate.
    Yes, oh so fascinating discussion…I however entered this a little late in the game to chime in with my passionate personal opinions (and I love drama, don’t get me wrong). Appreciated the event, the passion, and the discussion that followed

    — What is music? what is ego? Yes, so much to ponder here:)

    All the best

  3. 3

    Wow! A privilege be a party to such a fascinating discussion and to have witnessed such a singular, even notorious, event, so even this late in the game I can’t resist weighing in with my two cent’s worth in the form of an email letter written to friends abroad describing the incident and the entire concert. As I’m not a musician, critic or anything of the sort my description below may be inaccurate or poorly informed.

    Hello Patti & Joel

    I realize you’ve got better things to do while in France than read emails
    (…) but I have to describe last night’s extraordinary concert, about which several people in the audience remarked that they literally would never forget it.

    The first three pieces, performed by Del Sol Quartet founder and viola player Charlton Lee were in a more unremarkable vein although none lacked musical interest. The opening piece by Edmund Campion used a signal from the viola and a common computer patch to derive an electronic accompaniment that echoed the viola part in a wildly transformed way and produced some nice interplay, and the other two were for unaltered solo viola. One by a Persian composer used a traditional non-western scale in a modern piece that might ruffle a few feathers back home (…)

    The drama came in an untitled improvisation for viola and electronics by JHNO (John Eichenseer) an itinerant music technologist and recording artist with a curriculum as impressive as it is varied, from busking in Turkey to providing music software for Dolby, Laurie Anderson and Bork. His piece featured the same digital looping and other feedback techniques in conjunction with complementary signal processing influenced by simple MIDI controllers used in practically all the electronic pieces I’ve heard over the past couple of weeks. But where most performers kept the signal processing under strict control to keep the real-time result from drifting into uncharted waters, JHNO’s confidence with the technical set-up made it possible to allow the computer patch to take on a life of its own, producing blooping tones with unrestricted dynamics arising from the feedback and resonance of the amplified viola. About halfway through the piece an older man in the front row shouted “brava” and began clapping loudly for an extended period. This seemed odd, but I thought if spontaneous applause at unscheduled points is allowed in jazz and opera, then why not in new music? It seemed like a good idea to me. This occurred at a point where the performer had gone up a whole tone on the viola and when an earlier passage looped back it sounded a bit like the slow exploration of a scale at the beginning of an Indian raga, so I thought the man might have been applauding a subtle bit of trickery but I noticed that a concert assistant worked her way around to have a brief word with him.

    Several minutes later he did it again, but this time JHNO threw his viola to the floor causing the bridge and some electronic hookups to go flying off. Before anyone could take this in he dashed out through a side curtain. Long legged and gangly, he covered the distance in only two steps and disappeared. The patch played on admirably for at least five minutes longer without any new input and as it seemed to have been programmed to degenerate and diminish the old signal it slowly looped downward in a decrescendo that I thought was particularly beautiful. Then someone came on stage and touched a few things so I couldn’t be absolutely sure whether it had come to a stop by itself, but I think it had.

    No one in the stunned audience applauded until a young man came to the front and said “I’m a violist and I think we should actually applaud this piece.” Then lively applause broke out while the man who had applauded previously was saying “I’m a violist too and this is a travesty.” He was heading for his 80’s with a wife to match and his white hair was carefully fashioned in a European style that suggested a prominent musician or soloist, leaving the face clear and exposing a strong profile.

    His bizarre interventions hadn’t at all interfered with my enjoyment of the intriguing music, but a large part of the audience was indignant and started to sound menacing. As it was now intermission the disturbance served as a catalyst for a diverse and interesting audience disposed to exchange views with strangers but who may have needed an ice breaker like this to really get the ball rolling. Pamela Z was remarkably cool, correctly reckoning that allowing the man to remain would cause a much lesser disturbance to the event that having him thrown out. And she knew her audience well. There was some tough talk in several quarters but it went no further than that.

    The concert was exceeding well programmed and second half was even stronger. Hank Dutt opened with a solo viola piece reworked from a Bach cello suite or similar and its beautiful musical lines showed off his stunning technique. I certainly hadn’t remotely expected to see this level of virtuosity in a popularly priced concert. I had heard Kronos in the old days but I imagine thirty years of intensive practicing can do a lot for your technique. And subsequent pieces showed that technique was perhaps the least part of his musicianship. There was a prelude to a raga with Pamela Z playing a drone on a harmonium and JHNO, having returned after a walkabout to cool down, both of them sitting on pillows, harmonizing on a droning Indian string instrument and displaying, as we say, una cara de pocos amigos. His antagonist, still sitting front row center, applauded this and all other pieces while strictly observing proper decorum. The piece I liked best followed, composed by ex-Kronos member Joan Jeanrenaud. It used looping to build simple nearly minimal melodic lines into an increasingly denser polyphonic blend with harmonies that conveyed a range of emotions in a very poignant and beautiful way.

    Pamela Z then performed a piece using a proximity device to cue and control very clean, transparently recorded samples from the inside of what sounded like a very big piano. These elements elegantly accompanied a looped vocal mix resulting from a few discreet and pure vocal sounds.

    The finale for me was another high point. According to the program it was intended to bring together all the musicians, but JHNO evidently wasn’t in the mood. Pamela introduced it by saying it would be an improvised trio with two violas, totally unplanned. But what a level of improvisation! You would have thought they had been working together on this sort of thing for years, and perhaps they had. Three very strong improvisers, totally attuned to the interplay, and a trio is a particularly good number[of musicians] for this. On the level of the best jazz musicians, and it showcased the broader musical qualities of Duff who proved be just as good an improviser as he was a virtuoso performer, maybe better.

    (…) much as I enjoyed this exceptional concert what will always make it special for me was the chance to witness a sort of artistic proto-mini-riot, tame though it might have been. The thing is that it is so hard to epaté les bourgeoise these days, in fact they’re into a lot of things that might shock us.

    How exciting it would have been to witness the premiere of Rite of Spring or the fuss over the works of Berlioz, Strauss R, Satie, Antheil, Berlioz or Ravel. According to Wikipedia in our times this has notably happened only to Heinze (68) and Reich (73).

    So a great concert at a pleasing price that included wine and snacks. And I find the generic Californians taste much better when you don’t have to pay for them. I had 2 glasses.

    Enjoy gai Paris (…)


  4. Anthony #

    Pamela Z!!! Your music is THE BEST! I’m a huge fan, and go to CU to boot!

  5. 5

    Just as a postscript to this historical record, I just wrote a short post that contains an audio fragment from this concert, and a longer recording that I made last year which I quite like – all in the under-explored genre of ambient doom metal viola:

    All the best!


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