Concerning Horses, As Gifts, And Their Mouths

Courtesy UC San Diego

Classical music is in decent shape, at least in the New York City area, despite the hand wringing from the likes of Greg Sandow. When someone in his position – and he’s literally paid to tell organizations what they are doing wrong and what they should change – says classical music presenters are not engaging the audience that digs “Glee,” I look around at events like the ongoing Tully Scope and wonder what the hell he’s talking about. The opening night concert in particular was packed with sharp and hiply dressed people a generation after mine, people of all races, and even some kids. This for a program of music from Morton Feldman and his personal peers.

Partly, this inability to see the same universe stems from what seems to be two very different ideas about what classical music is. On the one hand, there’s classical music as a body of symphonies, operas and chamber music that was developed through the Romantic era and into the early part of the last century, ending somewhere around 1950. On the other hand, there is the view that classical music is a living, expanding tradition that goes back to the earliest monophonic Western music and continues to develop and renew itself through a process of accumulating knowledge and reworking older ideas and methods in the context of new discoveries and experiences. If classical music is Brahms, and the kids aren’t digging Brahms, then the music has a problem. But it’s a lot more than Brahms – my view is clearly the latter one, and I will go so far as to say, with certainty, that it is objectively correct, while the former view is not only objectively wrong but ahistorical and antithetical to making art.

Feldman’s version of classical music sounds very different than Beethoven, but Beethoven leads logically and directly to Feldman. In fact, it is almost impossible to find a classical musician, no matter how experimental or avant-garde, who is truly outside this stream of time and process. Scelsi is inside it, Lucier is inside it, Stockhausen is inside it. The only figure I can pick who deliberately and successfully placed himself entirely outside this stream was John Cage, and he did so by being less a composer and much more a philosopher, asking questions about the conscious, human means of creating . . . anything. Cage and Feldman were friends, but their ideas are almost in opposition.

In the concert, Steven Schick conducted ICE in the music, including Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4, for radios. One person tunes, one person handles the volume, the piece is made up of the noise that comes out. What is it? Well, it’s whatever you think it is. Having heard it once, the effect is both made and lost, the argument is so deeply incorporated into contemporary musical culture that a performance of it seems like a slightly embarrassing artifact, like hearing your eccentric uncle tell you that same story he’s told you a hundred times before, the one that seems fresh to him and stale to you. Schick conducted with precision and care for the modulations of ‘tempo.’

The rest of the evening had Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments and Jalons from Xenakis in the middle, book ended by Feldman’s mysterious, intensely quiet and gentle solo percussion piece, The King of Denmark, and his late For Samuel Beckett. It’s a measure of the health of classical music, not only that this program was made, not only that ICE played the music with such complete command, but that there are so many phenomenal ensembles dedicated to the classics and the contemporaries that I have the luxury of knowing that ICE has a sound, and a style, and rather than simply being thankful for the chance to hear this music I can be critical about their interpretation. ICE has ridiculously fine precision and clarity, they treat every note, phrase, harmony and rhythm with exactitude and reveal all the details and ideas of the scores they play. This is nothing but good, but I find that it is not sympathetic to Webern to the nth degree. They are a match for that composer’s beautiful precision, but there is an inherent lyricism in his music that is not ICE’s primary point and purpose. Webern, to me, sings, a subtle but major distinction.

I have heard them play Xenakis before, and they make his music sound almost easy, and that makes the music much simpler to hear and grasp. If they don’t quite have the sonic weight and visceral roughness that lesser musicians might emphasize in order to convey the music – and that is important to Xenakis – they make this intellectually daunting work discernible, understandable. Again, it’s a great thing for music that there is more than one way to play Xenakis, and great that I, and you, can have your preferences.

Schick performed the percussion piece himself, in bare feet, and it was like a private, ritualistic dance. This is a tough piece to produce; on recordings it is so quiet and abstract that the distance between composer and listener is vast, in public, the music is so quiet that the normal coughing and shuffling in a hall does great damage to it. The piece also defies standard analysis, and description, it’s like watching and hearing an interior monologue, and Schick was delicately mesmerizing. In the Beckett piece, the combination of ensemble and the bright, dry acoustic of Alice Tully Hall produced a warm, brown sound. I found myself hearing how the instruments fit into the space, and wondering if it wasn’t resonant and soft enough for this beautiful, still music. I concentrated on the woody and reedy balances Schick and the musicians produced, listened to them drift in and out of the texture, the slabs of color wafting towards each other and gently deflecting. And though it felt like no time had passed, the forty-five minutes or so of playing came to an end, having worked their magic with exceptional power.

The Tully Scope 2011 Festival is ongoing through Friday, March 18. See here for events, times and tickets.


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.