Wordless Music began it’s 2009-10 season uptown at Miller Theater Thursday night, and there were many words and plenty of singing, and strangely more than a few empty seats. While Le Poisson Rouge has been the series’ home away from home (like Al Sharpton, it’s a preacher without a pulpit), making it easy to think of it as ‘downtown,’ Wordless Music has no set geography. That’s the idea, as the series puts together combinations of pop, rock, jazz, classical, improvisational and world music with the goal of mapping out new territory, showing the way into places audiences didn’t know existed. To paraphrase a high-placed, anonymous administration source, they are creating our musical reality. The old uptown-downtown divide is irrelevant.
Those who decided not to make their way to Columbia missed considerable magic. The program was both almost impossible to accurately describe and yet completely surprising. On stage, together, were Nico Muhly, Sam Amidon and Thomas Bartlett, who together at different times and places make up Samamidon and Doveman, and perform Muhly’s compositions. At Miller Theater, they called themselves “The 802 Tour,” after a Vermont area code, and collaborated on performances of each others material. The exception were three shortened versions of pieces from Muhly first record, Speaks Volumes, which came after intermission. These are interesting study pieces, but only satisfy a powerful interest with certain compositional techniques, and suffered in comparison to the wonderful song-making the rest of the evening.
And that song-making was wonderful. More like griots than musicians, they strolled through contemporary pop music, originals and covers (a ballad performance of “Footloose!”), folk music and traditional shape note songs. Amidon and Bartlett shared the singing, the former with an absolutely idiomatic folk music style of dry, direct phrasing and pitch-perfect intonation, the latter with an intimate, whispering tenor, while Muhly mastered and directed the accompaniment on keyboards, electronics and piano (joining Bartlett in a lot of four-hands playing) and augmenting the songs with arrangements for the ACME String Quartet. The show began with a kind of ambient tuning, increasingly resonant chords on the piano and banjo over a bed of pleasantly glitchy electronic noise. This elided quickly into the vocal material, a kind of medley, each segment intriguing and satisfying so that one wished the music would remain where it was longer even as it made a quick transition to the next song, which itself replaced any feelings of loss and regret with an even greater satisfaction. The three musicians (with occasional backing from Dougie Bowne on drums and Oren Bloedow on bass), worked together with a polished and casual intimacy, they gave the impression of sharing something private and special and yet still keeping a great deal of mystery held close. The stage may as well have been the living room of their shared apartment, but the rest of the home was off limits to the guests.
A great deal of this effect was produced by the song arrangements. Hearing a musician like Amidon not just sing “O Death” but really convey the sadness and terror is magic enough, but to have that song recontextualized with plangent string chords and quiet, lovely electronic colors, and to see that work in person is like witness a magic trick, alchemy that works. The song retains it’s shape and modest core but becomes somehow taller, broader, deeper. Beyond the beauty of the performance there is the beauty of the conception which was sincere and broad-minded, a contemporary way of loving and preserving something by presenting it in a new way. Amidon, Bartlett and Muhly were making an in-the-moment combination of folk, pop, electronic and contemporary classical music, ignoring prejudices, telling new stories and making old stories new, pretty much the essence of Wordless Music. The generosity is breathtaking to contemplate.
The focus of the first half as Amidon’s work, with “O Death,” “All Is Well” and two shape note songs, although Bartlett quietly drew attention with his naively charming performance of the Kenny Loggins hit. After Muhly’s performances of “Skip Town,” “Quiet Music” and “Honest Music” after the intermission, Barlett performed a series of his songs, including “From Silence,” “The Angel’s Share” and “The Best Thing.” While the musicians had a set list, there was no set program for the audience, which added to the flowing, spontaneous feel of the event. The finale was a stunning, powerful performance of Muhly’s “The Only Tune,” a deconstruction and rebuilding of a folk song which builds tension as the singing and the music seem to fight against each other, then finds a release in beautiful, fulsome concord. It was a perfectly judged finale to an evening of enthralling, mercurial emotions, none quite definable even as the words of the songs tried to pin them down, as if pop songs had been performed with the searching manner of a Beethoven piano sonata.
The encore was one last medley, which included a fragment of a Mariah Carey song and ended with Amidon leading the crowd in repeated singings of the chorus to R. Kelly’s “Relief.” Slick R&B turned into a puzzle over lyrical meaning in Amidon’s description of the song as having nothing to do with reality, which then was turned into traditional group singing, a community art. Something new was made old and then new again, stories remade and retold. The sweet and gentle nature of the performances was the foundation upon which these enchanting stories were built.
(The Wordless Music Meets Miller Theater Festival continues Thursday, September 10 through Saturday, September 12, and tickets are still available for all remaining performances.)