Space, Time and the Concert Experience

There are some pieces that demand a live performance. While recordings provide a glimpse into a work, the shortcomings of the recorded medium are often akin to the problems that arise when looking at paintings in a book - interaction is limited and physical scale is distorted.

This fact was made quite clear by all four of the Tully Scope Festival concerts I attended over the past two weeks. Previously I had only heard recordings of Xenakis' Pléïades and Persephassa. Les Percussions de Strasbourg's performance of these works last Saturday made me realize how much I had been missing. To hear the sound literally move around you in multiple directions, as in Persephassa, is an unforgettable experience. Only the most optimized surround sound configuration could come close to approximating the effect at home. And even then, it would be nearly impossible to replicate the extreme dynamic spectrum between brutally loud and hyper soft. Pléïades offers less in terms of sound moving around the listener, but nonetheless fills the space in stunning ways such as the in the opening of the "Metals" movement when all six percussionists play the six-xen, an instrument Xenakis himself designed. The richness of the overtones produced by this instrument is simply beyond description, especially in the superbly resonant Alice Tully Hall.

Les Percussions de Strasbourg also performed Gérard Grisey's Le noir de l'étoile. Like Persephassa, this piece distributes the six percussionists around the audience and takes full advantage of the spatial possibilities. Le noir de l'étoile features what is undoubtedly one of the most moving endings I've ever encountered. A large crotale-like disc mounted on a swivel is placed at the center of the stage. One of the performers strikes it once, causing it to ring and spin like the pulsars that inspired the piece. In the case of this particular performance, the metal disc was beautifully illuminated in such a way that as it spun, light rotated around the room like a mirror ball. Both the visual elegance and sheer drama of the moment could only be experienced live.

In a very different yet related manner, The International Contemporary Ensemble's (ICE) performance of Morton Feldman's For Samuel Beckett reminded me of how listening to Feldman's late works in a concert setting enlivens one's sense of space and time. Whereas Xenakis overpowers the hall and listener with ritualistic intensity, Feldman deftly projects a seemingly endless array of subtly-voiced sonorities. But the flatness of his sound world, defined by a complete denial of dynamic and formal development, is all the more intense when sitting amongst others with no possibility of pressing the stop button on a stereo. One has a choice, either submit to the flatness and allow the sound to engulf you, or become highly enraged. Both reactions seemed to coexist during ICE's performance. As the final notes of the piece drifted into silence, one woman audibly intoned, "Thank God!" (Quick aside: Who attends a concert of late Feldman, Webern and Xenakis without having some clue as to what's in store?) 

In the end, I am struck by how exhilarating and challenging these works continue to be despite the decades that have elapsed since each was written. Persephassa dates back to 1969! One could undoubtedly attribute this in part to the overall technical prowess of Xenakis, Grisey and Feldman. But I believe that the ultimate power resides in their collective understanding of how sound disperses into space and furthermore how space and time coalesce into scale. As in visual art, scale is critical to the interaction between a work and the audience. When we transfer these interactions to recordings and books, something very different, and often less dramatic, emerges.

For more thoughts on the effects of anti-development in Feldman and others, check out this blog post by Jeffrey Gavett at Below is a video of Grisey's Tempus Ex Machina, a piece that begins the larger Le noir de l'étoile.