Memorable outdoor premieres you’ve heard and/or your most unusual exposure to a new piece of music Greg Sandow, Composer & Music Journalist
Greg Sandow Photo courtesy Greg Sandow Was it an outdoor experience? I’m not sure, and who cares? But when I was new music critic for the Village Voice in the ’80s, I remember being invited to a private event, somebody playing his sax in an abandoned building in the East Village. This was magical, the… Read more »
Was it an outdoor experience? I’m not sure, and who cares? But when I was new music critic for the Village Voice in the ’80s, I remember being invited to a private event, somebody playing his sax in an abandoned building in the East Village. This was magical, the site, the debris, the resonance of the sound, the surprise, the claiming of temporary echoing territory.
My most memorable outdoor musical experience, though — not a premiere, but I’m not keeping score — was at the Amnesty International tour in ’88 or ’89, when it came to the Los Angeles Coliseum. One of the singers was Tracy Chapman, whose first album was just out, and a huge hit. When she — alone on stage with just her guitar, in front of 90,000 people — started “Talking ‘Bout A Revolution” (do I remember the title right?), voices throughout the huge space started singing along softly, in the twilight. Simply magical.
Second to that would surely be the summer in the ’60s when the Four Seasons’ “Rag Doll” was the No. 1 pop hit. I remember being at the beach, and hearing people on all sides of me turn their radios up when that song came on. We in classical music sometimes forget the power of community, the way it underlines the meaning and value of music. On the beach (near Boston; can’t remember exactly which beach) that summer day, the community — temporary and limited as it might have been — was so tangible you could taste it.
Another memorable experience with some new music — Elvis Costello at the L.A. office of Warner Bros. records, singing songs from his album “Spike” with just his own acoustic guitar. This album is complex and heavily produced, more so than anything he’d previously done. I remember doubting that the songs were really good; too fancy, too much trickery, I thought. And then I heard Costello singing them with the utmost simplicity, with just his guitar. Suddenly it was clear what strong songs they are — and also what a genius (can’t use any other word) he himself is. His own power as a performer was naked, nothing supporting it, no studio help, no band, no backup singers, just himself and his guitar, making sense of material that I’d wrongly thought needed heavy production to make it work.
Most classical premieres, indoors or out, leave me cold. I don’t think classical composition is one of the stronger strands of art in the late 20th century, or at least not the kind of composition we hear in the concert hall. There’s a dryness to the whole affair, a sense of obligation. What’s missing is joy (though I do find that at a lot of Bang on a Can performances, and at anything Meredith Monk does).
The strongest reaction I ever had to music new to me came at a Diamanda Galas performance at the Kitchen early in the ’80s. I’d heard her sing something with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, but that was somebody else’s work. The performance I’m talking about was her NY debut as a solo performer doing her own stuff. To say she floored me would be an understatement. I remember writing a review that, to say the least, was powerfully favorable. My editor at the Voice, Bob Christgau, read the first paragraph, and asked me where Diamanda lived. “San Diego,” I said. So Bob called over to the photo editor: “Fred, send someone to San Diego right now! We need a picture of this woman.”
That, after reading a single paragraph. I don’t remember what Diamanda was performing then. Probably “Wild Women with Steak Knives,” and another of her early pieces. At intermission, Bernard Holland, then a junior critic for the Times, turned from the row in front of me with a huge grin on his face. “I LIKE her!” he said. I remember being almost frightened at one point, when Diamanda alternated her voice with periods of silence – and turned out the lights during the silences. I wouldn’t have been surprised, I wrote, to find her literally eating one of her enemies when the lights came back on. And I meant it. She was powerful, carnal, rooted — and real.