Tag: audience reactions

“Where Is Evil?” (a reaction to anatomy theater)

Ed Note: David Lang and Mark Dion’s 75-minute anatomy theater sparked a great deal of critical commentary following the LA Opera’s world premiere performances of this Beth Morrison Projects production at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in Los Angeles in June 2016 and again during its subsequent New York premiere at BRIC House during the PROTOTYPE Festival in January 2017. Boston-based pianist, poet, and artist manager Oni Buchanan was so deeply affected by the performance she attended in New York City that she felt compelled to add her own observations which she shares here.—FJO

The new chamber opera anatomy theater by David Lang and Mark Dion provides layer upon layer of revelation—each peeling back from the opera’s heart like the transparent mylar overlays from an old anatomy textbook.  The opera, set in early-18th century England, follows the trajectory of a young murderess, starting with her public hanging and continuing through the spectacle of her public dissection in which the parties involved hope to demonstrate “scientifically” that her evil is corporeally writ within her.

The most immediate confrontation leveled by anatomy theater upon its audience proves to be the confounding experience of witnessing outright, unflinching, center-stage misogyny.  The objectification of the female body can’t get more literal:  Lang, Dion, and director Bob McGrath position a completely naked female—a corpse, no less—as the physical (and topical) focal point of the opera, laid out on a wooden pallet in the center of the stage.  The second ghastly understanding comes from feeling the tsunamic power of abstract fear which drives the action of the opera.  However coolly cultivated the applause of the bourgeois dissection spectators, however aggressive the swagger of the showman executioner, however dispassionately objective the assessments of the so-called anatomical “specialists”—it is ultimately the all-consuming, irrational fear saturating a society of great inequality which allows the horrors of this narrative to occur, to be “justified.”  Not simply gender inequality, but vast economic inequality as well—the murderess comes from poverty.  Take one imaginative step outward to include racial and religious inequalities as well, and the picture begins to look unsettlingly familiar, as Lang and Dion fully intend.  And the alarming present-day familiarity of an opera based on outdated early 18th-century anatomical practices and spiritual beliefs leads to what might be the most disturbing, subversive act of the opera:  Lang and Dion lead the audience through a normalization process that allows us to accept atrocity incrementally until suddenly we find ourselves staring at a spotlit fully-naked, blood-drenched female corpse emptied of its central organs and about to be carted out to “the back gate” for further “auction[ing] under the moonlight.”  How did we get here?

Let me briefly pause to consider how I got here, which should also serve to contextualize my remarks that follow.  Coming from a childhood in which my exposure to television and media was drastically limited, I encountered a very steep learning curve in college where I had to cultivate—almost from nothing—the ability to access critical distance from media, and from movies in particular.  In grade school, my exposure to media consisted of one TV show per week (an honor which was bestowed upon Knight Rider), as well as the incomprehensible splurge of stringently limited Saturday morning cartoons accompanied by French toast on TV trays (Dungeons & Dragons and Ghost Busters being the high points of these sessions).  Probably since it wasn’t an animation, I experienced Knight Rider in particular with edge-of-my-seat intensity.  There was no real person called “David Hasselhoff” or any modified Pontiac Firebird Trans Am; actors and props did not exist for me.  There was only Michael Knight and KITT.  I experienced danger and surging adrenaline in real time with them, making split-second decisions, skidding around corners at top speed, and escaping impossible situations when the alternative was death.  As might be expected, I had no critical distance to understand “parody,” and when I was accidentally exposed (in first grade, in the basement of my cousins’ house during an unsupervised hour of Thanksgiving) to an extensive excerpt of a horror spoof involving a serial killer who targeted a group of cheerleaders with rhyming names (Pandemonium), I suffered nearly unendurable nightmares for the decade to follow.

Fast-forward to my first year as an undergrad, when a group of friends thought I might like to see The Piano, being a pianist myself.  Inevitably I became so immersed in the narrative, so intrinsically aligned with Ada McGrath (no idea who Holly Hunter was), that when her jealous husband axes her finger at the dramatic high point, I involuntarily let out a blood-curdling scream in the theater, not even knowing it was me who was screaming.  Over a decade later, despite plenty of “media conditioning” in the intervening years, I almost started puking inside a theater during Pan’s Labyrinth and had to walk out midway sobbing uncontrollably.

I offer this background to inform what follows.  Because what struck me as maybe the most telling barometer of how insidious and how deceptively crafted anatomy theater was—was that somehow I was able to sit through it.  A film director friend of mine texted me, “I wish I could have been there to watch you watch a woman be dissected.  That seems satisfying.”  How had this improbability come to pass, when a dentistry-obsessed cheerleader murdered with her own electric toothbrush still haunts my days?  How did David Lang and Mark Dion structure the music, pace the narrative, juxtapose the tonal shifts, overlay the absurdities and the acts of violence—how did they achieve the sleights of hand that would be necessary to enable anybody, let alone me, to stay in their seats and be both witnesses and participants in all the gore, the misogyny, the incredible injustices?  In a way, Lang and Dion deafened us all with the blaringly immediate vulgarity and loudness and ham-fisted manipulation, serving almost to distract from the actual lethal maneuvering under the surface.  I was so horrified at my ability to navigate the opera that I actually went back to a second showing to see if I could track the layers of architectural construction, the kinds of “duck and weave” moves Lang and Dion exploited, that could make such an outcome possible.

Anatomy Theater excerpt from Beth Morrison Projects on Vimeo.

SPOILER ALERT: Sarah Osborne (Peabody Southwell), the murderess at the center of the story, has committed the crime of suffocating her husband and both her children.  In a meta-move, Lang/Dion/McGrath don’t allow us, the ticket-purchasing audience, to enter the performance hall and settle in before the show.  Instead, we are led into the theater as part of the execution procession of the opera’s narrative, with the executioner roughly shoving and restraining the convicted woman along the way, bystanders jeering, and all of us coolly walking behind, amusedly participating while also scouting out our seats.  Already, Lang and Dion allow us, the audience members, to establish a nice comfortable distance.  The opera calls us out on it throughout, so we feel sufficiently accused, but never quite implicated.  Perfect, we were all put through the grinder just enough; our dues are paid.  Even Lang and Dion are winking while pointing: isn’t this a great rhetorical device?  Sarah Osborne implores us at the beginning of her confession, “Let pity move your hearts,” then describes the harrowing circumstances that led her to “extinguish” her husband and (instead of mother) “smother” each of her young children in turn.  Nevertheless, her guilt has already been decreed, and in a swift inexorable matter of minutes, a hood is muscled over her head, a noose tightened around her neck, and with a blunt shove, her motionless body swings limply before us.  How did we get here?  “Justice!  Is!  Delivered!” announces the executioner, and signals the audience to applaud, which we do.

Why isn’t the opera already over?  The main character is dead within the first five minutes. However, as the executioner Joshua Crouch (Marc Kudisch) points out, it’s not enough to convict Osborne for her “most heinous of crimes…that of being poor and desperate…that of being born a woman.”  And it’s not enough to execute her.  We aren’t finished with her yet—and not being finished, not having any kind of boundary where we can be satisfied and allow our endeavor to come to a close, is one of the most gruesome problems placed before us by Lang and Dion’s opera.  As Osborne’s painful account detailing the unjust and unbearable conditions of her life remains apparently insufficient to explain her actions, we the survivors are left looking for a more grandiose motivator, and settle upon the abstractness of “evil.”  How can we explain the presence of evil?  Where does evil come from?  Can we locate a corporeal source, a physical manifestation of this hideous motivator, that we might protect ourselves from it going forward?  If the source of evil lies in Sarah Osborne’s body, specific to the female form, how can we control that form and thereby suppress the threat of the evil that women carry within them?  Thus begins the exploration of the opera’s central aria: “Where is Evil?” as well as the breathtaking misogyny intertwined with the interrogation.

And thus opens the “dissection theater” with its “fresh quality female”!  Crouch, the executioner-turned-emcee, parades the body onto the stage, fully covered in a sheet.  He reveals the body incrementally, first unveiling the head.  We recognize Osborne—is it really her, though?  A mannequin of her?  A wax likeness?  Is there really going to be a dissection?  How is Lang going to accomplish this?  How realistic will/can it even be?  And thus begins our incremental acceptance of what follows.  Soon Crouch pulls the sheets back from Osborne’s legs, stroking them with loathsome arousal.  Is Lang really going to go there?  He just did.  Well at least the rest of her body is covered, other than her head and her legs.  Her body could be clothed, for all we know.  Crouch keeps peeking under the sheet which covers her chest, shuddering with desire and commenting on the rareness of such a young, “fresh and exemplary” female body.  Not long after, he tears off the sheet covering Osborne’s torso, revealing her to be utterly naked from the waist up, as well as from the thighs down.  Is Lang really going to go there?  He just did.  Well, her pelvic area is still covered.  “At least her pelvic area is still covered!” we think, as we recover from the shock of her upper body being completely naked and exposed before the audience.  Who auditioned for this role anyway?  Well, we haven’t ruled out the possibility that the body may still be a wax mannequin, after all.

Crouch now makes a bombastic introduction of the highly-reputed anatomist and scholar, Baron Peel (Robert Osborne), who makes his bloviating entrance by belting out, “Presently, I shall reveal (“and explicate!” interjects Crouch eagerly) the instruments necessary.”  Crouch lifts each of the “15 instruments” in turn, gesturing lewdly with each one toward the female corpse, and announcing them one by one (“The knife! The probe! Bone nippers!” Actually, to my count and re-count, there were only 14 instruments, but we were all too distracted to notice).  Classical hand-drawn anatomical illustrations are gorgeously projected across a giant scrim separating the main action of the stage from the audience (yet another dermis, yet another deflection into beauty traced artfully over brutality).  Meanwhile, the Igor-like Ambrose Strang (Timur), Peel’s assistant, has lurked onto the stage and has begun to prepare his various steel trays and buckets in the corner.  Where did HE come from?  Too late; Strang turns toward the audience and launches into the thick of the song, with himself and Crouch reverentially echoing Peel’s assertions (“Presently!…He shall reveal!”).

The absurdity and cognitive dissonance have gotten so over-the-top by this point that the audience is teetering at a breaking point.  Lang has to make an artistic decision. Does he pull back? Does he relentlessly push ahead?  What happens next defies expectation and yet is the fully logical extension of what has preceded.  Lang directs the “Presently, I shall reveal” song toward the pinnacle of campiness, of (dare I say) “gallows humor.”  The three male characters, spaced evenly across the stage, launch into a lunatic hybrid of the song, reminiscent of a cross between Pachelbel’s Canon and Madonna’s “Vogue.”  Each man is spotlit in quick succession, sings the word “Presently!” and strikes a pose, over and over, faster and faster, all in perfect 4/4 time, outlining harmonies.  Are Lang and his creative team really going to go there?  They’re going there right now.  They’re there.  We’re all laughing, kind of bemused and marveling at the same time.  This is really happening.  The body is still right there, center stage.  In an appropriately satirical stroke of luck, the performances of anatomy theater are sponsored in part by Tofurky.  How did we get here?

Now begins the dissection of the corpse, and our repugnant voyeurism alongside.  Conveniently, the pallet is raised and tilted toward the audience to make sure that all of us can rubberneck.  “Where Is Evil?”—the central song of the opera—introduces the endeavor to discover the exact physical location of evil through a thorough examination of the three major organs of Osborne’s body:  her stomach, spleen, and heart.  This whole while, the corpse has lain statuesque and pristine, a voiceless onlooker to the men’s assertions of authority and expertise.  Now back to business.  Somehow the loony, spotlit trio of “Presently” provides the momentum and disorientation needed for the audience to swallow the fact that the dissection is going forward.  We’re game.  Blood and entrails follow.  A lot of blood.  An intestine pulled out so endlessly and grotesquely that audience members are groaning and covering their eyes.  One audience member actually leaves the theater to vomit in the restroom, then returns.  Organs are removed, held up to the light, squeezed, cut into pieces, weighed, examined, “intimately interrogated.”  Peel orders Strang to “bring forth the chest riches” and the heart is cut out of Osborne’s body.  We still hope it’s a wax body, even though the glossy shine of the now blood-drenched torso appears to reveal what can only be Peabody Southwell breathing.

Without proselytizing whatsoever, without any kind of reflection among the characters (in fact, because of their lack of self-awareness), Lang and Dion examine in persuasive and grisly detail the very fine boundary between objectivity and inhumanity.  What is the distance between the physical and the spiritual, “the heart” and “the heart”?  “Let pity move your hearts,” Osborne had pleaded.  After the physical heart is removed from her body, Osborne’s corpse draws in a gasping breath and exhales the words, “My heart…”  Another gasping inhale, then “My heart…” again, exhaled in a scalar melody.  A third “My heart…” and one recognizes the melody as itself a dissection from a 2001 song of Lang’s called “i lie,” written for women’s chorus.  I am overtaken by Lang’s fascinating move to extract the vital melodic line, a coronary artery perhaps, from another body of women, and allow it to re-animate this female corpse.  Osborne gathers her breath and delivers a ravishing elegy for her heart (“This was the heart that in my youth was open”) while Strang delivers the stats: “271 grams…unblemished and without corruption.”

Inevitably, when Osborne’s stomach, spleen, and heart are found to be perfect specimens, with no evidence of evil or malformation of any kind, Peel announces that the uterus must be removed and examined, the uterus, the “very seat of hysteria…filled with animal vitality.”  He tears the remaining pelvic cloth from her body, and Osborne lies fully exposed, all her privacy literally stripped away.  Is Lang really going to go there?  He just did.  We knew from the beginning he would.  We were waiting for him to get there, we, the complicit “Gentlemen” of the paying audience.  Let’s fast-forward.  The uterus reveals only perfection, the formal “dissection theater” comes to a close without locating the physical seat of evil, all four characters sing a glorious rendition of “Where Is Evil?” this time with Peel pointing outward to specific members of the audience rather than at Osborne’s corpse: “There it is.  There.  There it is.”  Great, we get it, we already got it, and Lang/Dion use this conclusion-facade as a deceptive cadence of sorts.  Lang’s opera has come to a close, and yet, the action of the opera continues after it ends, with Crouch issuing an invitation to the Gentlemen of the audience to “meet me by the back gate” for “further inspection of the parts…that haven’t yet been removed.”

Whether we have met Crouch by the back gate or not, eventually we all wend our way home humming “Where Is Evil?” to ourselves.  The opera metastasizes through our real-time physical landscape.  Sure, there’s our complicity in participating in the narrative, but after all, it’s a piece of art, and that bait and switch was part of the show.  But at some point over the course of our homeward commute, the hitherto unidentified and most insidious journey Lang and Dion have led us on comes blistering to the surface.  Through their pacing of the putrid, excruciating action, through their measured dosages of barbarity cut with slapstick, somehow they were able to feed us the whole rank slopbucket.  Each one of us ingested it.  And that revelation of our own individual ability in the very real world—beyond our intention and our professed morality and even our full awareness—survives as the “final” (and yet ever-expanding) horror of anatomy theater.  The various processes of rationalization we yielded to begin to dawn on us.  Sure, this was a piece of art, but what else could we accept, not quite cognizant we were accepting it?  Lang and Dion take their outrageous risks pitch-perfectly, lowering our guard all the while.  Nothing dogmatic, only the actions speaking for themselves, drenched in satire, drenched in blood.  How did we get here?  How did I get here?  Moving from the dissection theater to the theater of a present world narcotized by the toxic elixir of fear and complacence, I am led by the performance to ask, “Who am I?  And what am I capable of?”

Oni Buchanan

Oni Buchanan is a poet, pianist, and the founder and director of the Ariel Artists management company. As a poet, Buchanan is the author of three poetry books to date — Must a Violence, Spring, and What Animal. Buchanan toured as a solo pianist for over a decade, and ArpaViva Recordings has just released her fifth album, Hierosgamos.

The Appropriation Problem


“In Love Like Music” by Kool_Skatkat on Flickr.

In my last two articles for NewMusicBox, I defended composers who interact with cultural streams outside the one we call “new music,” and explained why I think those interactions are good for the arts. But, as several commenters pointed out, not all borrowings are morally or politically equivalent. The big question that I haven’t addressed yet is, when does influence become exploitation?

I spent a while debating whether I should write about this topic. I know my perspective is limited: I’ve never had the experience of watching people from more privileged social groups appropriate an artistic tradition that played a central role in my life. That’s partially because I’m white, educated and American, which means I’m the more privileged one in a lot of situations. It’s also because I tend not to feel very connected to the minority cultures that I am a member of. I’m queer and trans, but I haven’t participated much in radical queer and trans counterculture. I’m Jewish, but I’ve never felt a strong connection to Jewish tradition. (I’ve also spent my life in liberal cities and college towns with big Jewish populations; what little anti-Semitism I’ve experienced has been in the form of personal insults, not systematic exclusion.) Most of the time, if you put me in a room with what’s supposed to be “my community,” I’m going to start wondering what I’m doing there.

At the same time, I don’t think it would be right for me to write a series of articles about interactions between musical traditions without talking about the ethical and political issues involved. And I have spent a lot of time thinking and talking about those issues, because most of my music explores the cultural meanings of sounds and styles, and I don’t want to do that in a way that’s exploitative or disrespectful. I’ve had some pretty heated conversations, and I’m sure I’ve made bad judgment calls—but I do think I’ve learned something over the years. So I’d like to offer some thoughts on the topic, with the understanding that this is all provisional, and that I welcome other perspectives in the comments.

* * *

I’d like to start with something I’ve noticed in discussions of cultural appropriation. They often frame the problem in one of two ways: in terms of cultural property or in terms of what composers are “allowed” to do. In my experience, both of these approaches tend to result in the conversation getting sidetracked. The former leads to increasingly abstract musings about what it really means for a group of people to own a musical style, usually while ignoring the power dynamics that make inter-cultural influence so fraught in the first place. The latter leads to impassioned defenses of composers’ freedom of expression, which—much like the arguments that pop up whenever a public figure is criticized for saying something prejudiced—typically ignore the point that just because you can do something, that doesn’t mean you should.

Another way of framing things, which I think might make for more productive conversations, would be to say: music is a kind of social interaction. It’s written by people, played by people, and heard by people. I know there are musicians who, wary of the vagueness and unpredictability of things like “meaning,” prefer to see music purely as a collection of structures with objective properties. But denying the social aspect of music-making doesn’t make it stop happening; it just means that when it does happen, you don’t see it.

Case in point: there are a lot of white composers who draw influence, inspiration or sonic materials from other musical worlds—gamelan music, for example, or hip-hop. I don’t think that’s exploitative or disrespectful in and of itself; to my mind, it really depends on how you do it. (More on that later.) But some of these composers seem to take for granted, without even realizing it, that everyone who hears their music is also going to be white and probably a fellow classical musician, too. It’s not that they’re malicious; it’s that they’re so caught up in their own perspective, and in the often alarmingly homogeneous new-music social scene, that it never occurs to them to think about how their interpretation of another culture’s musical ideas might be perceived by someone who is actually from that culture.

“But you can’t predict what meanings people will find in your work!” some will say. That’s true, if “predict” means “know for sure.” But you can certainly be aware of the meanings that people might find in your work. Human reactions to art aren’t totally arbitrary. Sure, they’re affected by a lot of idiosyncratic factors, such as personality, taste, and mood, but they’re also affected by more predictable ones—symbols, values and meanings that are held in common by many people. That’s why, for example, it shouldn’t have been hard for Katy Perry (or her agent or her label) to predict that a performance assembled entirely out of Orientalist stereotypes would not go over well. Those images have a long and well-documented history.

* * *

So let’s say you’re a composer, and you’ve come across something that strikes you in some way. Maybe there are sounds in it that spark your imagination. Maybe there’s a story that moves you. Maybe there are structural ideas that could get you out of a compositional bind. Maybe you want to illustrate a more abstract point about the nature of authorship or history or global politics. Maybe you just find it exciting and want to pay tribute to that excitement. And let’s say that this thing you’ve found comes from a tradition that’s pretty far removed from the new-music world that you work in. What do you do?

The two simplest answers are both problematic. “Everything is fair game, so do what you want” is easy, but it can lead to insulting people, taking credit for their work, or stepping on things that are profoundly important to them. “It’s not yours to use, so don’t even think about it” is straightforward, but it can lead to a kind of separatism that keeps contemporary classical music insular and disconnected from the rest of the cultural landscape. Trouble is, it’s a lot harder to follow advice like “remember that music is a social interaction,” or even “remember that real people from a variety of backgrounds might be listening.” So I’d like to talk about a few of the questions that I find helpful when I’m trying to figure out whether a piece of music is doing right by its influences.

1. What’s the power relationship between the composer and the source?
JacobTV has built a career out of music based on recorded speech. But he’s oddly indiscriminate about whose speech he chooses to sample — and there’s a big difference between The Body of Your Dreams, which uses clips from weight-loss infomercials, and Grab It!, which uses clips from interviews with black prisoners on death row. The former is about as safe an appropriation as I can think of: if there’s one group of people you can confidently say has never been oppressed, it’s advertisers. (It’s worth noting that in the visual-art world, where the word “appropriation” often has a more positive tone, it usually refers to taking elements from advertising or commercial pop culture.) Grab It!, on the other hand, takes the voices of people who are already disenfranchised, and effectively censors them by cutting them into such small fragments that it’s almost impossible to understand what they’re saying—other than the word “motherfucker.”

Sometimes, though, the power relationship isn’t so obvious. What about, for example, composers that use ideas from pop music? On the one hand, pop music has vastly more economic power, cultural presence, and media support than contemporary classical music does. On the other hand, classical music has historically enjoyed a kind of prestige that popular music didn’t have access to until pretty recently, and there are still people in the classical world who think that way—enough of them that even composers who use pop-cultural tropes out of genuine love and respect risk being misread as trying to “improve” or “upgrade” something they see as inferior.

The phrase “popular music” covers a lot of ground, too—especially if you’re using the very broad definition that classical musicians tend to. Taking ideas from Public Enemy has a different sociopolitical meaning than taking ideas from Radiohead. Although here too, the answers aren’t always obvious: Chuck D thought it was “great” when experimental sound-collagists Evolution Control Committee used his voice in a mashup without permission.

2. Is the composer reinforcing existing cultural hierarchies?
When I first discovered the polystylistic music of Alfred Schnittke, I heard it as a brash declaration that all musical styles are equally valid. I was disappointed to learn that he was actually a big believer in “high” and “low” art, to the point that he consistently described the popular and historical styles he quoted as “banal,” “vulgarly functional,” and “the lower layers of [my] musical world.” When I listen to a piece like the First Concerto Grosso now, the ironic quotation marks around the tango and late-Romantic violin solo seem obvious.

John Zorn, on the other hand, has angrily denounced the idea of stylistic hierarchies: “The idea of high art and low art … is a bunch of fucking bullshit!” He’s also spent as much time playing in bands as writing concert music. I have a hard time imagining anyone taking the trippy noir jazz in Spillane as an attempt to “upgrade” something by giving it “high-culture” status. Since I’ve read interviews with both composers, it’s hard to know for sure whether I’m reacting more to their music or their rhetoric, but I can say for sure that I find Zorn’s attitude much more progressive.

3. How well does the composer understand the source?
The usual argument is that if you’re going to take elements from another tradition, you should know it inside out. For example, I’ve seen relatively little criticism of Evan Ziporyn’s gamelan-influenced pieces, and that seems to be partially because he’s lived in Bali, collaborated with Balinese artists, and played traditional gamelan music for decades. He’s done his homework; you can’t accuse him of ignorantly and haphazardly grabbing elements of another culture without knowing anything about their real significance (as people have said about Katy Perry’s AMA performance).

But I wonder if there might also be value in totally misunderstanding something, so that what you create in response comes across as “inspired by,” rather than “borrowing from,” the source material. I’m thinking, for example, of Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto. It also includes passages influenced by gamelan music, but they’re so utterly Poulenc-ified that you might not even realize what inspired them if you didn’t already know. And yet power dynamics have a way of creeping back in. Poulenc first heard gamelan music at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition—an event explicitly designed to whitewash French imperialism. Once you know that, the piece takes on a darker tone.


* * *

All of these questions are riddled with complications. And there are plenty of other questions you could ask: What’s the original meaning of the material you’re drawing on? Is your work the result of a collaborative interaction, or of looking at another tradition from afar? Are you using your source material to portray people in a stereotyped way? Are you making money off it? Every one of those issues deserves further discussion, but this article is long already. So instead, let me ask you: What do you think? How do you distinguish beneficial cultural exchange from exploitative cultural appropriation? Leave a comment and let us know.

A Temple for the Familiar

Though I’ve lived in New York City all of my life and Newark is only a 20-minute train ride away, I’ve hardly spent any time there. Aside from a workshop performance of a piece of mine there over a decade ago, I have pretty much traveled to Newark only to get on an airplane and go somewhere else. But over the weekend, my wife Trudy and I ventured there to hear one of the East Coast premiere performances of Steven Mackey’s piano concerto Stumble to Grace at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). Although Trudy—who was born and raised in Hong Kong—had been there once before, this was actually the first time I had ever attended a concert at NJPAC which is now in its 16th season.

Acorda de Marisco

Going to Newark this weekend not only was my first experience of NJPAC, it also introduced me to Açorda de Marisco

It’s never too late to rectify a sin of omission, however, and it was a great trip. NJPAC is quite an impressive hall, and it was thrilling to hear a live performance of Mackey’s piece—which received a committed and exciting performance by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (led by Jacques Lacombe) and soloist Orli Shaham—after having studied the score in some depth last year. Equally thrilling was our brief exploration of the nearby Ironbound district before the concert, especially our dinner at one of the neighborhood’s celebrated Portuguese restaurants, Seabras Marisqueira. I’ve yet to visit Portugal and have not eaten Portuguese food in decades. As far as I can remember, it was the first time I had ever tasted two of the most famous national dishes: Carne de Porco à Alentejana, which is cubed pork and clams braised in a garlic, white wine, and fresh coriander sauce; and Açorda de Marisco, a traditional Alentejo “dry soup” consisting of shrimp, clams, mussels, scallops, and cubed Portuguese bread crowned with a poached egg.

I’m making a point of all this because I’ve devoted my life to exploring things that are unfamiliar to me. It’s why I am always excited to hear a new piece of music, read a new book, visit a new museum or art gallery, try a new cuisine, or to travel to a place I have never before visited. And every now and again that unfamiliar place is practically right next door. However, I am often made aware—remarkably, at this late date, often much to my surprise—that most people do not share my unbridled enthusiasm for new experiences and derive the greatest pleasure from reacquainting themselves with things they already know.

Case in point: the centerpiece of the concert on Saturday night was not Steven Mackey’s concerto but Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, a piece of music that is performed almost every season by virtually every orchestra in the world. The concert was, in fact, titled “Tchaikovsky 5,” and it almost escaped my radar because that was also the subject line in the initial press announcement I received about the concert. Don’t get me wrong here. I actually like much of Tchaikovsky’s music, particularly his operas and songs; however, understandably, a concert advertised as featuring a performance of his Fifth Symphony would not be the event that would finally get me to visit NJPAC for the very first time. However, I have to admit that it was Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony that most of the people in the audience wanted to hear. Mackey’s piece and its performance deservedly received resounding applause, and the composer was on hand to take several bows. But after the Tchaikovsky, which was on the second half of the program, the audience was ecstatic. Nearly everyone was standing and the cheers did not let up for what felt like five minutes, until Lacombe started to lead the orchestra in an encore: yet more Tchaikovsky—an excerpt from The Nutcracker which the audience seemed to appreciate even more. It was as if I had been transported to the final game of the World Series and the home team had just won.

Now the question is: Do orchestra audiences love Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and the The Nutcracker so much because they are the greatest pieces in the repertoire? Or do they love these pieces so much because they’ve heard them so many times before?
Despite my aforementioned admiration for much of Tchaikovsky’s music, I am always suspicious of something that someone describes as “the greatest,” so I’m more inclined to believe the latter. And I see corroborating evidence to support that view in how the general public responds to most things in our society—e.g. the popularity of everything from “oldies” radio stations (which play songs people already have heard a zillion times over and over again) to the success of fast food restaurants all over the world. (There has been a line at every McDonald’s I have walked past on six continents.)

In such an environment, a Temple for the Familiar if you will, new music—by its nature that which we have not before experienced—is doomed to failure, so the fact that Mackey’s piece, as stunning as it is, got any applause at all is a minor miracle. But what can we do to change that? For years I have harbored the belief that there is nothing more exciting than discovering something new, so it has been difficult for me to come to terms with the reality that few people agree with this particular world view. If most people want to relive experiences, whether in order to get a deeper understanding of what they have previously encountered or simply to enjoy a sure thing, then contemporary music needs to be presented differently. I’ve written about this issue many times before, even once in an essay with a name very similar to this one. But this time I’ll go out on a limb and suggest a possible new paradigm.

The new music community needs to make less of an emphasis on premieres and put more energy into making less familiar repertoire (e.g. recent compositions) more familiar by programming the music tons of times. A new piece should get programmed several times during the course of a season, not just one time or for a single consecutive run of performances. A new piece of music played during a season should be rehearsed throughout the season, not just the week before the gig. This, of course, will entail behavioral changes for all parties involved. The orchestra administration will need to re-allocate budgets to ensure there is ample time to do this. Musicians will need to rid themselves of the belief that they can truly do justice to any piece of music that they’ve only read through a few times. Publishers will need to be more flexible with how they rent materials to orchestras. Composers can’t miss deadlines and in fact should be held to tighter deadlines—if a piece being performed during the course of a concert season is not ready before the start of that season, it will have to be bumped to the following season or cut entirely.
Of course, emphasizing the potential familiarity of a new piece over its newness could have drawbacks as well. Perhaps a new piece won’t seem as fresh somehow if it’s done several times over the course of a season. Then again, no one seems to tire of The Nutcracker and everyone seems to have forgotten that once upon a time, it too was brand new. But of course that was back in the days before we had radio or Big Macs.

An Impression of Overwhelming Sameness

Last weekend the Experimental Music Yearbook held its first Los Angeles concert of the year at the wulf. Along with Eric KM Clark and Casey Anderson, I performed Christian Kesten’s untitled (placing in space) for violin, soprano saxophone, and accordion. For all its outward simplicity, it is a deceptively difficult piece to perform, with exposed, sustained textures that leave little room for error. But I found myself very taken with the piece, especially its approach to microtonality. At one point, the interaction between microtones creates powerful difference tones that sound like what I can only describe as a furious, blowing wind.
Here is an excerpt from a different performance:

Like a great deal of experimental music, it definitely demands patience from the listener. Another piece on the program seemed to test one concertgoer’s patience to the breaking point, as he attempted to engage his friends in whispered conversation throughout the performance. I wondered for about the zillionth time why this kind of music is so beloved among certain people and completely detested by others.

I will probably never fully know the answer to that question, but there is an approach to sameness and difference in this kind of music that I find fascinating. Often stasis is conveyed through repetition, but this is a different sort of stillness. Perhaps it originates with Morton Feldman, though I find the current vein of experimentalism to be somehow more extreme with its approach to stillness. The general retort is that of course this music is not really still at all—there are fine gradations that are undergoing change at every moment. Becoming attuned to those minute differences (and finding them interesting) is the only way to get anything out of this music.[1]

But I don’t wish to call people who don’t care for it bad listeners. By way of contrast, here’s one of my favorite K-pop songs, “Naega Jeil Jal Naga” (“I Am the Best”) by 2NE1:

While this song is full of apparent changes, a listener fixated on harmony (as I was when I was younger) would find this painfully static. I’m not saying that these kinds of music are similar, exactly, but I can imagine a listener having the same reaction to it, and struggling to discern difference when confronted with an impression of overwhelming sameness.
Avoiding this reaction entirely is impossible, because all music is still in some way. For change to have meaning, an element must remain fixed, and often the most hyperactive music conveys no motion at all. At times I feel paralyzed by this stillness, like the occasional dreams where I want to wake up but can’t move. But if I can accept the stillness, a miraculous change occurs: I can be awake and dreaming at the same time.


1. R. Andy Lee has written a great article about this from the performer’s perspective, “Minimalism is Boring.”