In the Heat of the Day

An amount of time in coming, but: last month, I did what amounted to be this crazy-person sort of thing, in which Buck McDaniel and I performed two back-to-back concerts outside in the heat of the day for Make Music NY. (Which, in 10 words or less, is a coming-together of musicians around the city performing in public spaces). We put together two ambitious programs of new music (one at the gorgeous Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, and another at the NYPL branch on East Broadway), pieces by both ourselves & others, & we schemed some friends into partaking in evangelizing about New Music (Evan Kent, Sara Plunkett, and Benjamin Herrington).

Buck premiered one of the parts of the Cycles pieces that I’ve been working on—this one for solo piano—and with the group we also did an aleatoric, cycle-y piece that I wrote in two nights leading up to the day of the concerts, the summer solstice. Buck also wrote something similar for all of us, and with Sara we did these great arrangements of Southern folk tunes that he wrote, which you should all get into here. To finish the first set at the Basilica, we did Nico Muhly’s Drones & Piano; Buck was on piano, and the rest of us droned. I don’t think the piece was necessarily meant to involve brass, melodica (!), & cello, but it ended up being really excellent. We all droned behind the piano, in the cavernous, beautifully resonant vestibule of the cathedral—surely it was the right way to do it. The concert, which was about an hour (absolutely the correct length), attracted a number of onlookers from the street, which was of course the point, and so I suppose the plan worked in that sense.

Here’s Buck cycling (including a finger):

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At the second set, in the middle of Chinatown by the Manhattan Bridge, we had a decidedly different set of circumstances; we were on the top floor of the library, in this big “community room” that literally looked out on people’s clotheslines! Our audience consisted of a bunch of Asian mothers with their small children, a few elderly Asian men, and the very enthusiastic organizer of the thing. We did most of the music that we did at the earlier time, with some modifications (more melodica for my bigger cycles piece instead of the piano, and we did Southern Songbook using iPod speakers!). I think we managed to sufficiently freak out the ten people or so in that room (and the very enthusiastic organizer became slightly less so), but it was interesting all the same, and, if anything, well worth the trek to be in Kitchen Supply Central (I’m fairly certain Ben left us more than once to acquire pans and other utensils on our walk down there from the cathedral).

(An aside: what was really interesting for me was to be in the company of exclusively Southerners for the week (Evan from Arkansas & the balance from Mississippi). One is still recuper8ting from the effects of prolonged pin-pen merger exposure.)

What made that whole process a little more crazy than maybe it should’ve been was that I had just finished moving about a week earlier, to an apartment in the Northwest East Village [N.B.: let's all agree to never call it that, ever?], on E. 12th St. This had been a bit of a frenetic situation; the usual things: moving date moved back two or three times, painting then having to happen because there was a surfeit of Actual Drip Marks on the wall, and finally a refrigerator having to be replaced at the last possible moment because it did not actually drop below 45 degrees or so. But, j’arrivé, thank the Good Lord, etc. etc. All I can say is that I am fully over shopping at IKEA after having been to two different stores a total of three distinct times. That said, we did see this brilliant sign while stuck in traffic on the BQE after one such outing:

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I’ve been listening to metric tonnes of El Niño by homegirl (John C.) Adams recently, perhaps brought on because of this insane summer heat wave. I have very specific temporal relationships with certain pieces of music; I almost exclusively listen to Nixon in China during the winter months, and only think to put on Akhnaten in, like, March. The same goes for El Niño, which is cued specifically to July-August (though it is, in fact, a Christmas oratorio, so). I’ve been going hard on Act 2 for the last few weeks; I could listen to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson talmbout paine & sufferynge all day. What is there not to adore about this moment?

And there’s “The Three Kings,” which combines my favorite things (being countertenors and, for Balthazar, B-major):

El Niño, to me, is so effective because it’s really this larger commentary, disguised as an oratorio about the birth of Jesus, which weaves in material from all over the place (Biblical texts right next to mystery plays! Hildegard along with Rosario Castellanos!). What especially does it for me is the interplay of more recent events; see “Memorial de Tlatelolco,” relating to the massacre of student activists—who had by that time occupied universities and staged a number of protests against state repression of farmers & workers—by the Mexican government in the late 60s. While I’m not religious, and certainly not Christian, I think there’s something really poetic in the way he brings together an old, old story about the birth of one of the major figures of Western culture—a divisive figure himself—and the deaths of hundreds of students fighting against poverty. Moral of the story: it’s a great thing, everybody go listen on repeat whilst melting.

Last night I went to the first concert of the Zorn@60 celebration at Lincoln Center, which was superb. The first half was devoted to Shir Ha-Shirim, for a quintet of female singers (and it was indeed a quintet of all-stars). The second half, which included The Holy Visions (inspired—again—by Hildegard von Bingen) and an outrageous organ improvisation (The Hermetic Organ) that Zorn did, was equally mind-blowing. (He has a real proclivity for the word hermetic, appearing multiple times in the program notes & in that title also.) The great thing about Zorn’s music is that it’s timeless (as in, it decidedly did not feel like 30 minutes of unaccompanied vocal music at a time for those first two pieces). And, who knew that Alice Tully has such a gorgeous pipe organ (and, for that matter, that Zorn is such an excellent organist)! He sprinkled this fabulous effect throughout, where he’d shut off parts of the organ (can someone correct me on the Technical Terms here? I’m clueless), causing a dramatic glissando downwards, & provoking casual chortles each time from the audience.

Now. Can we all agree that laughing during concerts is possibly the most supremely annoying thing? Like, there are times when it’s obvious a composer wants all y’all to start cackling (I’m thinking this quacking in Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, for example). But, really. That organ effect was super-inventive and exciting and dramatic, and all I wanted to do was hear nothing at that moment before Zorn started slamming his forearms on the manuals again. There should’ve been some public shaming afterwards (which perhaps should have involved enjoining the offending audience members to enclothe themselves in those camo pants that Zorn wears). In any case, it was a concert well-done; yay John Zorn!

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