Prison Life

To express my thoughts and feelings about this concert, I need to first write about the past, the accumulated history of ideas and the personal experience of listening, of what sticks in the ears, and, especially, the soul.

It may not be apparent, but the most direct elements of the music from this great evening, the driving beats, tunefulness and swaggering attitude that would have been just as at home on a record by Can, the Clash or Radiohead, were created and exist because of the long past of classical music. The ubiquitous and personal experience of pop music on the post-WWII generations of composers Connect their art to the larger public, but there’s a huge difference between enjoying pop music and making clearly expressive, serious music like Fred Rzewski, Corey Dargel, Jacob TV and Michael Gordon.

The difference has its roots in philosophy and aesthetics, but it manifests itself in the concrete materialism of industrialized music, flash-in-the-pan artists and styles that, no matter how accomplished and enjoyable, can do nothing more than capture one particular emotional expression and cement it in time and memory, with little nuance and no ability to hold together the contradictions and thoughts and feelings that make us human beings. Pop music may be affirming, but it is exceedingly rare that it is truly humanist, that it is sympathetic towards the things that it is not, and that the world of pop music — musicians, critics and fans — is barely aware that any other music exists attests to this.

Embracing humanist values means embracing humanity, and that, beyond all abstract technical achievement, is what classical music does, and has done, and what pop music has yet to develop as a fundamental value. At the core of Prison Life is that set of values, and the musicians’ taste and intelligence that not only put together such an extraordinary program of music, but supported it with great playing, the kind of musicianship that goes beyond hitting the notes and has the players committed to saying something.

Rzewski’s “Coming Together” and “Attica,” here presented as a diptych, are an astonishing prelude to action and a gracefully plangent aftermath. This performance was different than any others I’ve heard live or on record, and what I heard was an historically informed classical approach. Dargel was a great narrator, alternately intense and wistful, while Ransom Wilson gave the playing the kind of smoothly terraced, dramatic direction that is a legacy of classical music. Instead of just drive, anger, threat, the adrenalin of righteousness, that was a sense of beauty and sorrow that was new to my ears. “Attica” is almost invariably narrated, but Dargel sang the part here, again a first for me, and it entirely transformed the work. The piece was more beautiful for it, with a lyrical and pastoral flavor that moved it from the context of post-1960s protest music and into that of Beethoven and Schubert. It sees farther because it stands on the shoulders of giants.

“Grab It!” is a piece for solo tenor saxophone accompanied by an audio track, here on a boom box, assembled from the old Scared Straight documentary. The words and phrases are cut up and reassembled from the original, but the feeling of threat remains. Patrick Posey, dressed as a butch prison guard, strode out onto stage, arrogantly, and gave the piece of the kind physically rollicking performance it demands. There were some titters of nervous amusement over his outfit, but the artful brutality of his playing and the music drove home that this was something to be excited about, and nothing to laugh at.

Dargel’s new “More Last Words From Texas,” five short songs from the last words of prisoners executed in that state, was also brutal. Dargel’s moral aesthetic and his skill as a composer and performer turns these difficult thoughts and feelings into something, again, human. Some of the words reveal the fraught and even repellant hard-edged extremes of behavior, but there is nothing about the worst of us, and the worst of the worst people amongst us, that is anything less than human. The only monsters are in the fantasies of children and adults, it’s just that adults have the unfortunate opportunity to shape societies and governments around imaginary fears. As difficult as it can be, we need to know that it is people that do all these things, the good and the bad, and Dargel’s music is an example of the profound humanization that art can create.

He almost stole the show. But then Le Train Bleu closed with Michael Gordon’s Yo Shakespeare, one of the most important works of music of the last twenty years, and an extremely difficult one to play. It marks a pivot between the final reach of Minimalism and what lies beyond, and it’s pretty much all counterpoint and polyphony, fundamentals of music for six hundred years. The harmonies are as basic as they come, the piece pushes at the confines of time and pulse, the stuttering rhythmic lines and ostinatos laying down different units and different pace, like a three- or four-sided push-me-pull-you. Wilson and the ensemble played with precision and the right kind of tension, but there was nothing tight about them, no struggling to count or hit the right notes. It was, like everything else, played with the power of skill and the accumulated weight of history.

Prison Life can be experienced again Sunday at 7:30pm at Le Poisson Rouge, and if you have nothing to do, go see it.