Finding Something Out In The Night

(Cross-posted from my Galapagos Critic-in-Residence page)

Sometimes what matters most about a musical performance is not the tunes and the playing, but how things have come about, and how they could have. This must seem vague, so bear with me a bit.

The two performances I saw at Galapagos in May, percussionist Kuniko Kato playing her arrangements of pieces by Steve Reich, and the piano duo Anderson & Roe playing their arrangements of music ranging from “Billie Jean” to Carmen, and Stravinsky’s own reduction of the score for the Rite of Spring to piano, four-hands. These were both debuts in a way, not first appearances in public by these musicians but events meant to celebrate and promote new recordings.

One evening in between the two, I stood on the observation deck of the Austrian Cultural Forum, looking over West 52nd Street with the composer Bernhard Lang who, like me, has a formative background in jazz. If you found yourself on that street seventy years ago, or Bleeker street twenty years later, you not only had your choice of what to hear within walking distance but literally within earshot, but also your choice of what was new, of musicians and styles that you had never heard before, maybe never heard of, or even dreamed of, before. It seems exciting, and unimaginable now.

Because it is unimaginable now. Where is there anyplace like that any more? Small pockets of Williamsburg and Bushwick, perhaps, but a row of nightclubs and music venues featuring young phenoms and established stars, not only in popular music but the most cutting edge styles — remember that Be-Bop was once the avant-garde — that kind of thing has been priced out of Manhattan. Dumbo as a neighborhood is such a pluperfect example of cutting-edge hipness in consumerism that I half expect to bump into David Brooks any day, gazing in awe and wonder at the lengths to which the cultured bourgeoisie seek to enshrine their own narcissism in real estate. Not that Brooks could offer anything more than his knee-jerk, condescending tut-tutting. To know Dumbo, read J.G. Ballard.

Galapagos, perched on a windy corner, often seems a lonely outpost at night, surrounded by indifferent apartment buildings, with indifferent, silent denizens. Who goes there, who steps out of their building and strolls over to see what’s happening? The Floating Kabarette is a draw, but I mean music shows, out of the ordinary things, the kind of thing where, in a densely populated urban neighborhood, people passing to and fro stop to explore? This is a strange thing about the area. I live in a decidedly non-hip residential neighborhood in Brooklyn, and people are out on the streets all the time, into the evening, but Dumbo in the evening and at night could be a ghost town. But in this eminently walkable city, there is little time and space to wander and be curious, people just can’t afford it, lest the engine of the economy roll them over. Perhaps, too, people are shut in against the incessant, crushing noise of the D train rolling over the Manhattan Bridge, but if so, why are they living there?
It seems the Art Space struggles against this obstacle. Reich is titan of contemporary music and, in a country where composers don’t register on the public consciousness, he is generally popular with sophisticated fans of all sorts of music. Yet Kuniko’s concert was lightly attended, and much of the audience seemed connected to the music through the Consulate General of Japan. This was an excellent concert. The music, “Electric Counterpoint,” “Six Marimbas,” Vermont Counterpoint” and “New York Counterpoint,” with modest and lovely arrangements of Bach and Komitas, speaks for itself, and Kuniko’s craft is superior. Reich’s work lends itself easily to transcription to other instruments, and the pitfall is that it is so easy that the results can be lazy and dull. She has a subtle and imaginative ear for color, and moving the lead voice of the opening movement of “Electric” to steel drums was a gorgeous touch, adding a shimmering, sustained richness as well as a delayed attack that made for a new, ambient quality.

Percussion instruments call for a great apparent physicality in playing than guitars or violins or flutes, and that was visually important in the concert, not only the effort of Kuniko in striking metal and wood with beaters, but her dancing movements. She was filled up with the physicality of Reich’s beat, even as the sonic edge of the musical was gentler, as in the transfer of “New York” from piping clarinets to mellow marimbas. The music is very well known by now, but she made it refreshing. With her own ear and taste she responded to pieces that she clearly feels are beautiful and gave us music-making that took for granted the intellectual success of the composer’s process and craft and gave us the sheer beauty of it, and that’s a considerable thing.

Anderson & Roe do the same thing, responding to music that appeals to them and sharing it with the audience. What makes them special is the expressive verve and personal appeal in their playing. They play classical music, the real stuff, nothing is dumbed down for the audience. Arrangements of “Paranoid Android” are commonplace these days, and that’s because the origina material is so strong. Christopher O’Riley has revealed a lot of the sophisticated harmonic and structural qualities in Radiohead in his solo transcriptions, and using two pianos brings out even more depth in the motion of the harmonies and section to section juxtapositions. And in case you missed it amidst all the gossip and soap opera, Michael Jackson also made a lot of good music, and if you think there’s something wrong with ‘sophisto’ musicians playing “Billie Jean,” then you’re going to have to take it up with me, because when I was in a working band we played it as well. And it’s a good song.

Talking to the audience is good thing too, and if the duo are a little too garrulous at times, it doesn’t detract from their great playing and thinking. They play Stravinsky with fantastic power, and if the composers’ reduction takes away the mesmerizing instrumental colors of his orchestration, it clarifies texture and rhythm, and puts a premium on the pianists’ ability to carve expression and aesthetic focus through dynamics, and the two did so much with that. They have the chops to hit all the notes and to say something about them.
Their unabashed emotional and physical vitality adds a great deal: not only are they masterful players of Astor Piazzolla, which is expected, but they bring out the muscle in music that is, personally, far too sentimental for me, particularly the Rachmaninoff “Vocalese” and the Villa-Lobos “Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5.” The Rachmaninoff was special, not swooning but with a dry strength, and the exquisite cadenza brought them deserved “bravos.” Behind their flair, they are at their best in quieter music, pieces that reveal the fine quality of their musicianship. The arrangement of Carmen is the crowd-pleasing closer, it is well made and will please you as much as the opera does, but the highlights of the evening where the songful, soulful playing of “The Glitt’ring Sun” by Thomas Arne, and an enthralling performance of Schumann’s “Mondnacht,” which I wished would never end, and wished more that it would lay silence over the rattle outside, so that people in windows across the street might, curious, open them to hear something new, something that might draw them out into the night, and by chance wander and discover something new.