Songs With Words

The finale of the “Wordless Music meets Miller Theater Festival” was a wildly uneven concert with luscious ambient pop, a stunning new work for string quartet and singers, and a deeply weird, puzzling and nonsensical performance from Dan Bejar. The program open with the JACK Quartet and sopranos Mellissa Hughes and Abigail Nims performing Jacob Cooper’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa. This is a work of recomposition, with Cooper taking the first movement of Pergolesi’s famous baroque Stabat Mater and slowing it down to a radical degree, down to less than a tenth of the original speed by dead ear-reckoning. Stately eighth notes become long tones, trills take on the character of microtonal music. The musicians play without vibrato and at levels consistently in the pianissimo range, and the plain tones, simple harmonies and the concentration of the musicians makes for an intensely powerful listening experience. Cooper has rededicated the work as well, to an Iraqi mother who protested the honor killing of her daughter and was in turn herself murdered. Musically beautiful and emotionally gripping, this is a stunning piece and was played with exceptional focus and control by all the musicians.

The second half brought a trio, featuring a collaboration between the ambient composer Loscil (Scott Morgan) and Bejar, a/k/a Destroyer, accompanied by Josh Lindstrom on the vibes. The music was a mixture of pieces that Loscil has recorded and his own arrangements of Destroyer songs. The blends of electronic sounds, vibes and electric guitar was soothing without being soporific, just lovely to the ear, especially Loscil’s throbbing, pulsing textures and glitchy beats. The vibes made an excellent blend, although Bejar’s guitar seemed only occasionally present in the mix. He also sang some of his woozy lyrics and recited what appeared to be a passage from a journal, an obscure text full of indecipherable private heuristics. It was slightly weird, ambient pop, pleasing and refreshing, but it was only the penultimate event. After Morgan and Lindstrom left the stage, Bejar performed his piece “Bay of Pigs,” singing to an electronic backing track while standing under a screen with project images. The results were a bizarre mess; Bejar’s lyrics are an inscrutable stream-of-consciousness ramble with no opportunity for a possible rhyme left out, no matter how awkward or ridiculous. The backing track was a mix of tacky ambient music and tackier disco, and the images on the screen were all of Bejar himself, in different moods; happy Dan, pensive Dan, stern Dan. Add on top Bejar’s uncanny resemblance to Adam Sandler in his performing style and you have something that was truly bad. The puzzle is whether it was bad by accident, or bad on purpose. As a work of music and a performance, it was thought-through, polished and confident, it’s just that the ideas are so terrible that it’s hard to conceive of something that is sincerely so unselfconscious, so egocentric and so lacking self-awareness. Is it meant to be a parody? If so, it is deeply weird. Is it serious? Then it is embarrassing. It was truly difficult to discern, but the fact that Bejar’s image on-screen lingered for a slow fade long after he had left the stage was a matter for concern.

So, Wordless Music uptown has come to a close for now. I’m not sure what exactly Ronen Givony had as a goal. The audiences were certainly different than I had seen at other series concerts. Turn out was decent but not spectacular, and there was a heavy complement of Columbia students. Interestingly, most of the few older patrons ran out during the dull rock of Do Say Make Think, while the students complained about the lack of action in Saturday’s program. It seems the series has at least expanded their audience, which I imagine was a goal, but these concerts, even at their best, didn’t offer the same constructive challenges that I had gotten used to in previous events. Wordless Music is still a young organization but has already made an impressive mark in music, and certainly seems to have a devoted following among both concert-goers and musicians. Givony is doing something that is necessary, and fundamentally simple, but is also unique; he is neither presenting settled answers about music nor offering safe eclecticism for its own sake, instead he’s asking question about music. The programs themselves are the questions, and the most frequent one is: where is the point where experimental ideas in popular and contemporary classical music meet? The point is there, but where it is and what it is changes depending on who’s on the program, and that’s worth hearing. The best of the Miller Theater festival (and it was mostly very good), offered in the moment depictions of the point. The worst, the concert of “The Happiness Project” and Do Make Say Think, presented music that didn’t even define one path to that point – the former was a high-concept project not truly ready for performance, and the latter was entirely generic. And generic music is the antithesis of what the series is all about.

The organization has presented enough concerts to have a good idea what to expect from their events, and that’s the proverbial two-edged sword. The good edge is the questions about the music, the problematic edge is the expected juxtaposition of contemporary classical and pop music known expected ways, i.e. Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, electronic music, literate pop. The audience is likely to be familiar with at least one half of those equations. I think there’s space, if Givony seeks it, to offer even greater surprise, with a bigger aesthetic payoff. For example, after seeing Tim Hecker twice under the Wordless Music banner, once with music from Arvo Part and another time with two other electronic musicians, I would like to see him on a program which also features the music of radical composer Giacinto Scelsi. Hecker pushes sounds against each other, while Scelsi pushes sound itself from the inside-out. It seems an ideal pair, and if Michael Tilson Thomas can sell Scelsi to an audience waiting to hear the Mozart Requiem, surely this would be child’s play at Le Poisson Rouge. It’s a way of taking the question a little farther, not where the musics meet but do they meet? It’s an exciting idea, but then again I’m just a critic.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

One thought on “Songs With Words”

  1. Hi sir. Sorry about delayed response. Thanks for the bay of pigs lyrics, but what I was actually striving to get at the show was the “Grief Point” words.
    I must say I like your blog and think you are a good writer, far better than my own shetty thrown-together entrees. I would like to say, give destroyer another chance! He has been one of my favorite musicians for about three or four years, over which time I’m slowly ingested all of his albums, and there are quite a few. He’s got some interesting things going on. If you have time.
    Thanks for your comment,

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