Philip Glass at BAM (Brooklyn
Opera: Monsters of Grace
Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York
December 15, 1998
Music by Philip Glass
Visual Concept by Robert Wilson
Graphic implementation by Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company
review by Guy Livingston
Heralded as the first 3-dimensional computerized opera (so what?) this was a non-event of epic proportions. Whats worse (for me) is that apparently Im the only one who thought so. Critics all over, who have obviously never seen an MTV video, described the embarrassingly slow and clumsy computer graphics as technical wizardry enthralling mesmerizing and awesome. I would happily use those terms to describe, for example, Myst, a now-classic artistically-designed fantasy CD-Rom computer game. Or if you just want special effects, Id send you to your nearest video-arcade. But the ghastly foggy images that slowly staggered across the gigantic screen at the BAM were really just a distraction from the music, and obscured the fact that Philip Glass has done a really nice job writing riffs for this hyped-up event.
Its hard to call what Glass does composing, but his treatment of the texts by mystic Sufi writer Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi was enormously sensitive and surprisingly unpretentious. Early versions of the opera alternated 3-d video with actual live-actor scenes on stage. That might have had some impact. But the gee-whiz character of the high-technology images tonight kept the audiences mind off the music, to the extent that several people interviewed at random afterwards had no idea that there had been solo singers. The result is that in no sense at all was this an opera. Rather it was the sort of computer graphics that high-school students will probably be making in the year 2005, accompanied by some pretty decent incidental music. Robert Wilson, interviewed by Don Shewey in the New York Times (December 6, 1998), admitted, I was working with people who didnt know my work, in a medium I didnt know. Neither grace nor monsters: the show let us all down.
Incidentally, for those of you Manhattanites who have never trekked out to BAM, its a gorgeous theater, and the programming, as everyone knows, is daring and exciting. Even if youre just passing through New York, this is still worth the visit. And its not as far as you think!
UPIC, Voxnova and Nono (Paris)
Concert: Arts and Sciences Festival
January 9th, 1999
Vox Nova ensemble; Nono and Bancquart
Les Ateliers UPIC, at the Cité des Sciences et de lIndustrie, Paris
review by James Baiye and Guy Livingston
Since 1985, the UPIC electronic music studios in Paris have presented a clear alternative to the IRCAM, playing David to gigantic Goliath. IRCAM continues of course to be the official French center for electronic research, development and composition. But UPIC wisely avoids a certain franco-centrism, as well as offering a more user-friendly set of technologies for composers. Under the direction of Gérard Pape and Iannis Xenakis, the studio has produced a wide variety of work, and featured a exciting group of composers, ranging from Richard Barrett to Karlheinz Stockhausen. But UPICs financial and political resources are limited, keeping them from the dominant position that Boulez brainchild enjoys.
The highlight of Saturdays concert was the guest ensemble Vox Nova. This vocal group, led by Nicholas Isherwood, specializes (wonderfully and refreshingly) in early and contemporary music. Only two pieces were on the program: Meutre (Murder), a world premiere by Alain Bancquart, and A floresta e jovem e cheja de vida, by Luigi Nono. Unfortunately, the less said about the Bancquart the better: a paltry plot line, no development, and a surprise ending that was even more dreary than the rest of the piece. Scored for four-track electronics and 4 singers, the work chronicles a bad day in the life of Theseus and the Minotaur. Although the electronics were undoubtedly flawless, and the singing was solid, there was little else to commend this to the repertoire.
However, the concert came alive with the Nono. Vox Novas totally brilliant and committed interpretation put into sharp relief this enormously long, convoluted condemnation of the Vietnam War. Clocking in at a hefty 40 minutes, and scored for tape, four amplified singers (with percussion stands) and clarinet, this work belongs with George Crumbs Black Angels Quartet as the finest and most gripping anti-war music written post-World-War II. (And no, none of the latest trendy pieces about Sarajevo are even in the running.)
In Nonos typical style, he shirks neither high drama nor low. The taped text, in a dozen languages, emanates from Vietnamese fighters, marxist unionists, actors at the RAI studios, and the U.S. Congressional Committee on the Vietnam War. These are complimented in high-theatrical style, and in nigh-impossible vocal combinations by the Vox Nova quintet. (The fifth player for the occasion being the fine clarinetist Carol Robinson.) Red lights, black and red costumes, and a flawless and committed vocal ensemble made the performance more than memorable, and compensated for some problems that might not have seemed serious in 1965. Now the work seems dated in certain details. Not for its use of tape, which is up-to-date and sounds as fresh as ever, but rather for a particular brand of political fervor, which in our cynical times, seems overly naive. And the work is too long, losing momentum towards the middle, but recuperating for a splendid finish. All-in-all, a fine show, and a rare opportunity to hear an aggressively political and musical masterwork.
Dallapiccola: Vol de Nuit (Paris)
Opera: Vol de Nuit (Night Flight)
January 12, 1999
Music by Luigi Dallapiccola
concert version by the Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir of Radio France, conducted by Marek Janowski
cité de la musique, Paris
review by Guy Livingston
No recording is currently in print of this fine work, whose operatic premiere was prevented by and lost in the shuffle of the Second World War. As a result, the work has never been fully produced. Its huge size (164 musicians on stage) and its awkward length (60 minutes exactly) make it difficult to program either solo or opposite another work. Perhaps Stravinskys Symphony of Psalms would be an excellent compliment to it, certainly better than the second-rate filler material dredged up for this evening: Wolfgang Rihms O Notte (homage à Luigi Dallapiccola), and two additional pieces by Dallapiccola: Prayers and Five Fragments from Sapho. These works, for medium ensemble, were a tedious prelude to the real event of this evening.
Based on the Saint-Exupéry story, the action takes place at an airfield office in Buenos Aires in the 1930s. A pilot, sent out on a risky night-mission, is missing, and presumed downed in the ocean. As they wait for radio contact from the pilot, the entire drama takes place between the director of the airfield, the telegraphist, the pilots colleagues and his wife. In the absence of any news, the psychological tension becomes enormously high... given the implied but never evidenced tragedy offstage, somewhere off the coast of Patagonia... As the characters are tortured by each other, by remorse, by guilt, by anger, and by the endless wait, Dallapiccola weaves a brooding web of continuous orchestral lines, punctuated occasionally by powerful almost-tonal Schönbergian choral interludes.
The orchestra, as is their wont on the radio or off, plays as if in mothballs. But the music carried the evening, with its poignant story and two first-rate soprano soloists in particular: Isabelle Vernet as the pilots wife, and Hélène Le Corre, as a mysteriously luminous inner voice.
Peter Maxwell Davies Opera (Nanterre)
Opera: The Lighthouse
French premiere performance
Music and libretto by Peter Maxwell Davies
Maison de la Musique, Nanterre, France
Ensemble Erwartung under the direction of Bernard Desgraupes.
January 14, 1999
review by Guy Livingston
One of the odd works which Peter Maxwell Davies produced in the 1970s is the obscure opera The Lighthouse, basically a three-person, one-hour re-working of Peter Grimes. Like Brittens masterpiece, this is bleak, dark, suicidal, delusional, humorless, black and white, and thoroughly British in its nautical and heavy-handed approach to contemporary music...all without Brittens cogent rays of inspiration. Yet its clear that Maxwell Davies, known to his cronies as Max, and still producing obscure operas today, felt a strong affinity with the three misfit lighthouse keepers of the opera, their solitude, their rejection from society and their internecine warfare.
The opera is a sort of post-mortem on the fate of these three outcasts in their claustrophobic lighthouse, trapped for months by winds and sea. They have disappeared mysteriously, perhaps by murder, perhaps by suicide, but almost certainly having driven each other mad first. This is where the libretto excels: not at depicting the storm within one man, nor less the storms of nature, but rather in starkly illuminating the tempestuous relationships that develop between men in confined quarters. The show is more drama than opera: a sort of British No Exit with a marine hue and a gigantic lighthouse beacon upstage.
Maxs music may seem dated and depressing, but it fits the subject matter admirably. The libretto, unquestionably, is better than the music, which strains the limits of credulity and credibility at times, not to mention forcing the singers to unnecessary and sometimes unattainable notes. The production, at Nanterres Maison de la Musique, was strong and compelling, with few loose ends, and every note in place. Perhaps certain of the voices sang out of their range at times, but then again, Davies writing is sometimes outrageous in its demands on the performers. The Erwartung ensemble gave a finely calibrated performance of Davies subtle psychological manipulations.
Tenor Stuart Patterson played the voice of reason admirably, subsequently revealing a shocking dark side as the opera unfolded. Baritone Paul-Alexandre Dubois was fantastical in character and personage, acting and singing with debonair and debauched character. The third, and most naval-looking, was the bass Kelvin Thomas, as the voice of evangelical doom. In the climax, as he turns on the foghorn to summon The Beast, nothing could be more terrifying. And this is the operas great strength: the mysterious and sinister ending that leaves the lighthouse haunted by ghosts and black rats. A singular work by all means.
DJ Spooky "plays" UPIC (Paris)
Arts and Sciences Festival, January 24th, 1999
electronics and percussion concert
article by Dan Warburton
UPIC, an alternative suburban version of IRCAM founded in 1985 by Iannis Xenakis, rounded off its series of concerts at the Amphithéâtre Gaston Berger at the Cité des Sciences (appropriately) with a concert of works for percussion and electronics. Performer Roland Auzet looked uptight in the toytown drum solo of Stockhausen's "Nasenflügeltanz" (another bit of "Licht" extracted for easy consumption), probably because he also had to sing along and perform odd semaphore-like gestures (which did nothing to enhance the piece). The percussion writing was clean and precise, but if you want minimal kit playing and youthful exuberance, I'd suggest you try ten-year-old Denardo Coleman on daddy Ornette's "Empty Foxhole" (1966). Nicola Cisternino's "Aukele-nui-a-iku da 'Le Vie dei canti'" (the title is Aboriginal, and also refers to Bruce Chatwin) consisted of a well-crafted and spacious tape part and Auzet scratching about on the surface of two horizontally-mounted bass drums. For what he contributed visually to the performance he might as well have stayed in the dressing roomdecidedly, electronic music should be heard and not seen... Auzet's own "Arrès" for cymbalum and live electronics was concise and elegant, though God knows how the electronic transformation was brought about (it's not for the listener to knowpart of the mystique of IRCAM and UPIC is their positioning as guardians of arcane knowledge to which mere mortals have no access). The first half ended with a spirited and noisy reading of Xenakis' "Psappha", to which Auzet (one imagines with the composer's approval?) had added some gratuitous and annoying electronics that did absolutely nothing except detract from the composer's primal rhythmic force.
If the vast hall was well over half full, you can thank UPIC director Gerard Pape for inviting Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) to provide the second half of the show. Miller (who prefers to style himself as "writer and conceptual artist" rather than humble DJ) is responsible in no small part for a younger generation's resurgence of interest in Xenakis, so one can assume UPIC was returning the favor with this gig. What a sorry affair it was, though; Miller (complete with headphones worn over regulation hip-hop woolly hat) twiddled half-heartedly at some knobs on a desk and twanged at a thumb piano (after IRCAM's MIDI-flute, UPIC's MIDI-mbira?), while Auzet clanged out a few chords on the vibes and tapped a few patterns on the zarb. One can only suppose it was improvised, given Miller's apparent making-it-up-as-I-go-along approach, and it was pretty limp. There are dozens of improvising drummers far more impressive than Auzet (in France one could cite L^ Quan Ninh or Ramon Lopez) and many musicians more adept at live electronics than Miller (Lawrence Casserley, Marco Vecchi, Richard Teitelbaum..). The much-vaunted "revolutionary" transformation of sound in Miller's case was little more than a few souped-up digital delays... in short, nothing that Lee Scratch Perry didn't come up with a quarter of a century ago in his Black Ark studio. Miller is an interesting guy with some good things to say, but tonight was a far cry from his excellent "Necropolis" album.
Book: Japanese Nineties Rock
Musiques Japonaises Independents des Années 90
127pp + 2 compact discs
review by Dan Warburton
If your French is up to it, here's a little something from our friends at Art Zéro webzine, an A to Z of new Japanese music with discographies of featured artists and groups to guide you (hopefully) through the seething jungle of fin-de-siécle Japan. Compiled by a group of writers, each specialising in genresnew music, RIO, electronica, prog, jazzcore (what the hell is jazzcore anyway?), the book is a useful reference tool, though hardly a cover-to-cover good read. Instead of organising along genre lines (which would have been almost impossibly problematic--where would you put Ruins? prog, improv or japanoise?), Jérôme Schmidt and his team have opted for an alphabetical listing of bands and artists which is sometimes hard to figure out. Though the preface states that the Japanese tradition of surname plus name is respected throughout (i.e. Otomo Yoshihide's "surname" is Otomo not Yoshihide), the back cover refers to HOPPY Kamiyama while he is to be found under K inside (Kamiyama being the surname).
Another problem for novices is the lack of comprehensive cross-referencing between artists; Keiji Haino (oops, sorry that should read Haino Keiji) gets a nice big paragraph before we learn in the penultimate line he is also the guiding force behind the group Fushitsusha (and better known as such). Nanjo Asahito's various outfits Musica Transonic, Mainliner, High Rise and Tobo Sara perhaps ought to have been gathered together under Asahito (or should that be Nanjo?) rather than scattered throughout the alphabetical sprawl of the book. In fact there is no section on Nanjo Asahito at all (!), surely a major omission given his influential status in Japanese music for over two decades. Then again, maybe that's why he got left out.. not nineties enough? Where is Toshinori Kondo (or is that Kondo Toshinori? oh fuck it), an undeniably major player in Japanese improv since his early recordings with the likes of Zorn and Centazzo, and more recently with Peter Brötzmann's Die Like A Dog)? All in all, it takes a bit of navigating to get the information you want, and the fact that the book is glued and not stitched means that within weeks of intensive use your copy will be falling apart.
Quibbles aside, it's worth the price of admission for the two free CDs, one containing some delicious previously unreleased gems by Ruins, Haino, Otomo, Acid Mother Temple, and a mind-blowing spoof on jazz rock by the Soh Band, the other a monumental compilation entitled The Best of Japanese Progressive Rock. This latter is the best example imaginable of Japanese cultural kleptomania, proof if ever any were needed that Emerson Lake and Palmer, Mike Oldfield, Yes, Genesis and all the rest of 'em just didn't lie down and die with the advent of punk. The late Roland Barthes would have had a field day--had he been a musicologist he might have described this as armada of signifiers adrift in search of a signified; it's all here, the hideous neo-baroque 4-3 suspensions (Rick Wakeman has a hell of a lot to answer for), the dreadful sub-Steve Howe guitar solos, the ludicrous run-around-the-kit drum fills at every conceivable juncture, plus titles to match ("The Judgement of Osiris", "Tides of History").. Words cannot express the vertiginous retching horror of Outer Limits' "Spanish Labyrinth" or Pageant's "Epilogue".. This could be the longest 72 minutes of your entire life, and I can assure you that Throbbing Gristle's "We Hate You Little Girls" (if you have a copy) will sound positively delightful if you play it just afterwards. Indispensable (the Japanese stuff and the Throbbing Gristle).