Zorn and Feldman at The NYC Opera: How Do You Stage Abstraction?

The piece takes its name from a drawing by Antonin Artaud created during his last days in the asylum at Rodez...I describe it as a monodrama because it is scored for only one singer...there is no text, no plot, and no stage directions predetermined whatsoever...the drama is contained in the music and the title...the visual interpretation of it is left up to the imagination and creativity of the director, stage designer, and singer to decide...it is my hope that the stage presentation somehow draws inspiration from the spirit of Artaud, his art, philosophy, and writings...but from there on the possibilities are wide open...

-John Zorn on his monodrama, La machine de l'être

Watching John Zorn's La machine de l'être and Morton Feldman's Neither at The New York City Opera left me wondering how one goes about staging works that are so highly abstract? Both "monodramas" seem inclined toward a dramatic setting, especially given that each incorporates an extremely virtuosic solo soprano part. But the complete lack of text in the Zorn and the elusive quality of Beckett's words in the Feldman, offer little in the way of direction. Who do you put on stage? What will the performers do?

In the case of La machine de l'être, the following occurs:

Two manequin-like figures, male and female, both dressed in dark suits, stand silently at the lip of the stage as the audience takes their seats. The house lights dim and the curtain rises revealing a large group of people wearing black burkas standing perfectly still against a dark background. The suit-clad figures who had previously stood at the front of the stage now quizzically walk around and eventually remove the burkas from two people, exposing a man in a bright red suit and a woman (the solo soprano) in a black dress. All of this occurs before a single note is played.

When the music finally begins, two large screens, both in the shape of cartoon thought bubbles, emerge from beneath the stage and hover above the burka people. Adaptations of Artaud's drawings are projected onto the screens. Another person is deburka-ed, this time it is a woman wearing what appears to be a very short, white night gown. Odd choreography ensues including burka people executing movements that bizarrely resemble voguing. Eventually the man in the red suit, along with one of the thought bubbles, disappears into the rafters. The other thought bubble bursts into flame. Fin.

Some of the visual elements (the thought bubble screens in particular) are clearly taken from the Artaud drawing of the same name. That said, much of the staging, regardless of relevance to Artaud, comes off as campy in a way that distracts from Zorn's score. It seems odd to incorporate such overtly political imagery into a wordless piece. One is automatically compelled to search for specific meanings and context. And yet, at the risk of cattiness, I must nonetheless confess that the the depth of inquiry here could be summed up in the following manner: Q. What's under the burka? A. People.

Zorn's statement that "the drama is contained in the music and the title" would seem to call for a staging that, at the very least, finds a way to both complement and elevate the overall sonic intensity. The notion of severely limiting the interaction between composer and choreographer/director is not new (i.e. Cage/Cunningham). Regardless, it is a very dangerous scenario that can easily go awry as evidenced here.

Thankfully the production of Feldman's Neither was devoid of political imagery. Before discussing the staging, I must say that this is some of the most stunning music I've ever heard. An entire orchestration class could be taught using nothing but this score. Unlike the Zorn, where I found myself distracted by the staging, Feldman's music continuously drew me in and had me staring into the orchestra pit throughout. With the noted exception of soprano Cyndia Sieden's mesmerizing performance (worth the price of admission alone), the visual happenings on stage almost seemed unnecessary.

That said, the set for the Feldman was certainly striking. The stage walls reminded me of the silver, reflective material used on fire-retardant suits. Mirrored boxes on wires were raised and lowered at various points throughout. The overall vibe leaned toward the surreal, as though entering the champagne room of a nightclub with lights swirling around a cluster of catatonic-looking people. James Holt on Twitter (@myearsareopen) appropriately likened it to a David Lynch film.

All in all I found the lighting to be the most effective staging element. One moment that truly stood out featured a flickering strobe beautifully integrated with syncopated wood block strikes bouncing back and forth around the orchestra. More problematic was the choreography. In addition to the solo soprano, a group of dancers moved about the stage (at times a bit noisily) throughout. Similar to the Zorn there were hand gestures that that seemed straight out of 80s pop culture, perhaps not voguing, but far too close. Other moments were more reminiscent of Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach choreography. I was particularly bothered by the way in which one by one the dancers exited the stage as the piece came to a close. Feldman's music is essentially without beginning or end. It is more akin to a cloud formation that floats into your consciousness and slowly moves on to parts unknown. To choreographically signal the end seems wrong.

Criticisms aside, it is indeed difficult to maintain visual engagement for 50 minutes. Part of the genius of Feldman is his ability to create textures that may seem static or repetitive, but upon closer listening are constantly shifting. This puts a clear onus on the director to find a visual correlation, a setting that is equally subtle and varied. I don't know that the New York City Opera's production succeeded from this standpoint, but unlike the Zorn, the avoidance of extramusical, political themes kept the focus where it should be, on Feldman's music. Perhaps the best staging would be total darkness.

Note: The New York City Opera's Monodramas production also features Schoeberg's Erwartung. I chose to focus on the Zorn and Feldman given that the former is receiving its world stage premiere while the Feldman is being staged in the U.S. for the first time.

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 Ekmeles.com. Below is a video of Grisey's Tempus Ex Machina, a piece that begins the larger Le noir de l'étoile.

Bunita Marcus Lectures on Morton Feldman

Over the past decade, Morton Feldman's music has been steadily recorded (an iTunes search brings up 89 results) and performed. Two collections of his essays and interviews, Give My Regards to Eighth Street and Morton Feldman Says, were published in 2004 and 2006 respectively. Still, there is much to learn about his compositional technique, a topic that Bunita Marcus recently addressed in two lectures.

Marcus met Feldman in 1976 and was a student and close associate until his death in 1987. Over the course of those years, she absorbed Feldman's unique compositional approach, particularly his use of grids.

Prior to elucidating the specifics of the grid, Marcus traced Feldman's notational evolution from the early graph pieces, to works in which pitch and orchestration were indicated but durations were free, to his eventual return to precisely marking all parameters. She emphasized that regardless of notational approach, Feldman always injected a profound ambiguity into the sound, disguising exact timbres and even pitch. This is clear throughout his oeuvre, but was nicely illustrated during the lectures when Marcus played what is perhaps the only recording (not commercially available!) of The Swallows of Salangan for chorus and chamber ensemble. The performance was conducted by none other than Mauricio Kagel.

In conjunction with his return to standard notation, Feldman began to experiment with composing on a grid. Using vellum manuscript paper, he would divide the page into a set number of measures (usually between 9 and 13) that would constitute the grid. Each measure was drawn to be equal in size (width) regardless of meter, tempo or general pitch activity. According to Marcus, most grids were one page in length and the exact number of bars was determined only after Feldman had heard the sounds and sketched out the ordering. The sound would further dictate how Feldman distributed meters across the grid. Thus, the duration of each grid (or page) varies depending upon meters and tempi.

Marcus showed examples of grids in a number of Feldman works including Flute and Orchestra, Violin and Orchestra, Neither and the First String Quartet. It is striking how some of the grids are reminiscent of traditional phrases. One can often see and hear a beginning, middle and end. Speaking from her own experience, Marcus talked about how, in addition to generating structure, the grid approach slows down the overall process of writing, enhancing the composer's ability to track the progress and pacing of a piece.

Feldman's use of the grid seems to have even impacted his text setting. Marcus recalled that upon receiving Samuel Beckett's two-stanza text for Neither, Feldman immediately covered all but the first line. After setting the first line, he moved the paper down to the reveal the second line. This line by line technique clearly parallels the process of constructing an instrumental work grid by grid.

In addition to examining formal concerns both local and global, Marcus made a number of interesting observations about surface details in Feldman's music. He often creates a sense of rubato via the careful deployment of polyrhythms. His use of slurs results in irregular rhythmic articulations. Similar out of synch moments occur when he assigns a percussive roll to multiple instruments rather than just one. One of my favorite slides from the lectures showed a sketch containing a series of pitches, each with a number written above. The numbers represented how many instruments Feldman planned to assign a given pitch. As Marcus pointed out, this careful distribution of forces is an effective way to naturally generate extreme dynamic subtlety without relying on dynamic markings alone.

Feldman's capacity to cleverly extract nuanced sounds from players is a virtue that Marcus continually extolled throughout her lectures. She talked at length about how complexity in Feldman results not from the individual part (horizontal), but rather from the vertical alignment of all parts. Furthermore, Marcus emphasized the fact that Feldman's scores rarely include sounds that a traditionally trained Classical musician cannot execute. This last point seems a bit misleading. While it may be true in the sense that Feldman generally avoided extended techniques and utilized fairly clear notation, his works nonetheless require unprecedented physical and mental endurance. As someone who has performed Piano and String Quartet, I can attest to the fact that Feldman's fondness for pulseless, shifting meters makes ensemble coordination quite challenging. I agree that composers must often find work-around solutions to seamlessly render dense passages. This is especially true given the fact that we are are rarely afforded the luxury of endless rehearsal time and patient, willing performers. While Feldman's notation may not be nearly as prohibitive as that of other contemporary composers, considerable demands lurk.

Marcus wrapped up her lectures by encouraging more scholarly investigations of Feldman's music. Indeed, the grid technique alone strikes me as the perfect subject for a book or thesis. Marcus stated that scholars must consult the original vellums because the measures in the printed editions are redistributed, thus eliminating one's ability to clearly see the grid. While it seems unlikely that publishers would be willing to print new editions in accordance with the grids, I hope that some of the vellums might be reproduced in a special volume. 

If over the course of her lectures Marcus occasionally took on an evangelical tone, it was understandable. In addition to knowing Feldman personally, I can imagine that she feels a certain frustration with the lack of attention given to his music in the United States, especially on the part of mainstream orchestras, ensembles, scholars and pedagogues. What many fail to realize is that Feldman was not merely "experimental." There is a profound dialogue with the past that permeates his sound world. All composers must contend with this inescapable continuum, a fact that I am reminded of every day when I walk out of my apartment in Woodside, Queens - the same place where Feldman grew up. While Roosevelt Avenue may not be the Rue Fürstemberg, I can clearly see Feldman walking down this loud, steel-roofed street much as he saw Heine while wandering the Left Bank.

Nothing had changed in the street. And I saw Heine up at the corner, walking toward me. He almost reached me...What I feel the most is not in respect to the public, or even to myself. I have the feeling that I cannot betray this continuity, this thing I carry with me. The burden of history.

Review: Talea Ensemble Premieres Hans Abrahamsen's Schnee

The American premiere of Hans Abrahamsen's Schnee (Snow) for 9 players was performed by the Talea Ensemble on Friday, January 21st at the Scandinavia House in New York City. An hour in length, Schnee begins with extremely delicate, grainy, pulsating squeaks that are steadily and methodically articulated by individual string instruments. Over top of this eery ground, a gentle piano melody whispers from the highest register, a place where the noise of the hammers is nearly as present as pitch. The combination is austere and utterly stunning.

These sparse, noise-infused gestures would not seem to be the typical building blocks for canonic writing. And yet, Schnee is comprised of five pairs of canons occasionally interrupted by three brief Intermezzi. The second of each canonic pair is essentially an alternate version of the first. The changes are most notable in the orchestration. The squeaking string sound that begins the piece (canon 1a) is transfered to hissing pieces of paper rubbed against wood in 1b. The bouncing, off-kilter rhythmic interplay between breathy winds and stopped piano (stopped with mailing envelopes) in canon 2a is augmented in 2b when the same material is played by the entire ensemble including a wonderful stereophonic back and forth between the two pianos. 

When interviewed during the concert, Abrahamsen (pictured at left) said that he wanted the two versions of each canon to come together in the ear of the listener forming a sort of third dimension. This proves effective given that the canons are very well-defined in terms of tempo and texture and thus it is easy to hold the first canon in one's memory while taking in the second. The result is reminiscent of how Luciano Berio transformed some of his Sequenzas for solo instruments into Chemins for solo instrument and ensemble. A larger counterpoint emerges between past and present, the old version and the new.

Another interesting element to Schnee involves proportion. Each pair of canons becomes progressively shorter in duration. Thus, canons 1a and 1b clock in at 9 minutes apiece while 5a and 5b are only a minute each. As a listener, the generous time assigned to the first two pairs of canons seems extreme initially. This approach, however, allows for "space" to move around. To put it another way, Abrahamsen (like Morton Feldman) puts the listener into a state where every sonic detail can be grasped without the risk of becoming lost. This is important at the outset when scraping strings and rustling paper barely bleed into audibility. In the Talea Ensemble's performance, such quietude was exacerbated by the dry acoustic space at the Scandinavia House, a direct contrast to Ensemble Recherche's highly resonant recording of Schnee. While I generally favor a resonant setting, the dryness forced me to draw nearer and listen with even greater intensity, an effect that felt true to the musical material.

In manipulating the listener's sense of proximity to the sound, Abrahamsen creates a spacial interplay that is far more powerful live than on a recording. Also unique to the live experience is the hyper-focused atmosphere that enhances the unusual temporal and proportional qualities mentioned above.

Friday's concert began with two works by another Danish composer, Bent Sørensen. I often feel sorry for composers whose smaller pieces are programmed alongside another's magnum opus. However, Sørensen's The Deserted Churchyards and Funeral Procession (both for mixed chamber ensemble) were compelling on their own and set up the Abrahamsen rather nicely. Performed back to back without pause, these works reveal the composer's gift for creating striking timbral combinations (I must give credit to any composer who can subtly and beautifully incorporate slide whistle into a piece). Like Abrahamsen, Sørensen often manipulates material by redistributing it to different parts of the ensemble, setting up interesting points of comparison. He also shares an affinity for skirting the edges of audibility.

The Talea Ensemble deserves high praise for their outstanding musicianship which was deftly displayed in the Sørensen and Abrahamsen.  Both composers require each player to generate a vast array of sounds (detuned strings, running fingers up and down the piano without actually depressing the keys, executing whistle tones on the flute, dipping percussion in water) and at times require the partial deconstruction of an instrument (as when Abrahamsen has the clarinetist remove the mouthpiece and slam the palm against the open-ended tube) or augmentation (stopping piano strings with mailing envelopes). This is certainly not unusual for contemporary art music, but to execute the sounds well and to furthermore maintain one's focus for such long stretches of time reveals uncommon endurance and versatility.

Talea also must be credited for presenting important works that all too often go unnoticed in the U.S. Schnee was completed in 2008, recorded in late 2009 and was not performed in America until last week. I am hopeful that Talea's stellar performance will serve to broaden domestic interest in these two very important composers.