Ronen Givony, who organized Monday's concert at the Good Shepherd-Faith Church, once asked a friend who works for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center "So, what exactly is chamber music, anyway?" She gave the conventional answer -- it's music performed by a small group of players for an intimate audience. Ronen replied, "Hmm... I was at the Mercury Lounge last night with about 50 people in the audience, and the band was violin, viola and cello -- is that chamber music?"
She didn't think so. Neither did Lincoln Center, apparently, because appearances to the contrary, it turns out they were not officially invovled in this hit. Instead, Ronen put this thing together himself, approaching drummer Glenn Kotche after his appearance at this year's Bang On A Can festival and asking if he'd be interested in playing the first event in a new series intended to bring together musicians and audiences from a variety of backgrounds (classical, jazz, improv, indie rock) for a night of 21st century chamber music. Glenn suggested incorporating the event into his fall tour with his Wilco bandmate Nels Cline, and on Monday they were paired with Downtown eminence Elliott Sharp and nu-classical piano virtuoso Jenny Lin, each playing solo and in various collaborative combinations.
[By the way, we know this hit was still chamber music because the audience was seated and drinking (complimentary!) wine. If everyone had been standing and drinking beer and/or liquor, that's not chamber music anymore.]
First up was Nels, who played an electronics-driven improv piece that began with funereal textures punctuated by occasional chirpy tweaks, eventually dissipating in a cloud of unpitched feedback. For a long time, there was much more knob-tweaking, pedal-stomping, Kaoss Pad-tapping, magnet-waving, and toy-megaphone-assisted-howling-into-the-pickups than any kind of traditional guitar playing, but when Nels finally emerged from all this with a clean sound and some jazzy arpeggios, it felt right. The performance also incorporated sampled-on-the-spot bursts of noise cut up and looped to make a hypnotic groove; ghostly, theremin-like effects; and snippets of a Carla Bley tune.
Next, Elliott Sharp joined Nels for an avant-guitar workout. Elliott's spidery two-hand hammering was a nice compliment to Nels's flowing atmospherics, but this much-anticipated duo (well, much-anticipated by me, at least) was a bit of a letdown -- the two players were so careful not to step on each other that the sparks never quite flew.
Elliott's solo set, on the other hand, killed -- equal parts prog-rock, flamenco, and Downtown-improv density, with brightly ringing harmonics and hypnotic polyrhythmic vamping. At one point, he played with both EBow and slide simultaneously, for a paradoxically earthy/ethereal sound.
Jenny opened with the first two preludes and fugues from Shostakovich's set of 24 (a very popular work amongst jazz musicians thanks to Keith Jarrett's recording). Jenny continued with two late (1990's) works by the recently-departed György Ligeti: the tender Étude No. 16 ("Pour Irina"), followed by No. 18 ("Canon"), a fleet chase-piece partly inspired by Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano music. Jenny played with impeccable chops and unsentimental sensitivity, and like Marilyn Nonken, she brings an excellent understanding of groove (or "rhythmic authority," to borrow Do The Math's excellent term), which means that she can hold the tempo without getting stiff, and stretch the time without going limp. One quibble: I love those Shostakovich preludes and fugues, but their inclusion seemed contrary to the contemporary spirit of the evening. In addition to the Ligeti, Jenny's new record, The Eleventh Finger, has works by living composers like Randy Nordschow and Arthur Kampella -- it would have been nice to hear one of those pieces instead.
As it happens, though, another living composer represented on The Eleventh Finger is Elliott Sharp, who came out to perform live electronic manipulations of Jenny's piano in a riveting performance of Sharp's "Suberrebus." This piece is a showstopper, with relentless repeated notes ricocheting off at all angles, sweeping stereo effects and torrents of breathtaking virtuosity followed up with distorted real-time commentary.
After a brief intermission, Glenn came out and launched into selections from his recent solo record Mobile. He began with his elaborate re-imagining of a Balanese music drama, "Monkey Chant," arranged for a pimped-out solo drumkit that would put Sonny Greer to shame. He was assisted in this performance by dozens of cricket boxes, strategically placed on the altar and dramatically unveiled midway through the epic piece. (The chirping continued for the rest of the concert. Glenn apologized in advance in the event we were assailed by a plague of locusts.)
Glenn continued with a sample-assisted version of João Gilberto's "Reductions Or Imitations," and his inhumanly good mbira-and-drumkit version of Steve Reich's "Music for Pieces of Wood." (Although I stand by what I wrote in June -- the duo version with Glenn and David Cossin is ever-so-slightly better, even if the solo version is more technically impressive.) He closed with all three parts of "Mobile," a hypnotic piece that begins intimately and gradually assembles itself into a towering, thrashing, unstoppable monster groove.
Nels then joined Glenn for another long-form postrock workout from Mobile, "Projections Of (What) Might...", with Nels contributing sounds that sometimes evoked bleak windswept plains, and sometimes meth-fueled frenetic paranoia. The duo eventually morphed into an oblique take on Sonic Youth's "Karen Koltrane," with Glenn contributing mbira loops and a minor pentatonic motive on glockenspiel.
The night ended with Glenn, Nels, Jenny and Elliott engaging in a bit of four-way improv. Ironically, given how dense most of the solo and duo sets were, the quartet was sparse and skittish. I wasn't sure how Jenny would fare in this context, being (as far as I am aware) the least experienced improviser of the bunch, but she didn't hesitate to mix it up and often took the lead -- at one point, she introduced a series of cascading arpeggios that were taken up in various forms by all the other players. Nels was the best listener and the most complimentary player, while Elliott preferred to play the provocateur/shit-disturber. Glenn played lightly and coloristically, sounding (understandably) a bit drained after his grueling solo and duo sets. The improv ended quietly with solemn dirge chords slowly fading away.
The Wordless Music series is set to continue with a concert in mid-November featuring violinist Andrew Bird and Albuquerque postrockers A Hawk And A Hacksaw, with monthly concerts planned starting in 2007.
In closing, a word on the audience: it was basically the same crowd -- and in a few cases, exactly the same people -- I saw at the Bowery Ballroom the night before for the Tortoise hit. Tickets were reasonably priced ($20). I would have pegged the average age at around 30. Obviously, the Wilco fans turned out in force, but many of them did not know quite what to expect from Glenn or Nels, let alone Elliott and Jenny. Everyone was focused and attentive throughout the 3-hour long gig, which involved a lot of complex and demanding instrumental music. And yet, the response was incredibly positive.
Here is a review from Talia, a 26-year old civilian whose usual musical inclinations run more towards the Arctic Monkeys, Mates of State, and Iron and Wine. (She gives it a B.)
Old-guard institutions like, oh, say, Lincoln Center, often scratch their heads and wonder how they will ever get young people to show up at classical concerts. This is how. It's really not that mysterious -- all it requires is the willingness to look beyond arbitrary genre distinctions and cloistered notions of what constitutes "art music."
Pictures below the fold...
Tickets to this event were provided by the concert promoter.