The NY Philharmonic, in their newfound quest to be “hip and with it”, continues to hand out comps to anything resembling a blogger, so here I am, blogging. Chris and I had high hopes for last night’s CONTACT! show at SymphonySpace; we were particularly excited to hear Gerard Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, a huge song cycle written just before his death in 1998. Grisey’s music isn’t played very often here in New York, I assume because of the daunting demands it places on musicians, audiences, and stage managers alike; his language incorporates microtones (gradations of pitch outside the 12-note chromatic scale) as well as about half an acre of differently-sized gongs.
I’ll take a paragraph now to address the NY Phil’s PR department directly: “live-tweeting” Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil is bathetic on the level of “photo-blogging” your meal at Alinea; it speaks only of the tweeter himself. Take a step back and think, now; what does one hope to achieve by contributing 160 trenchant characters to the #nyphilcontact bucket? Nothing beyond “concert good” or “concert bad” means much to someone who wasn’t also present, experiencing the same sounds and images. A composer I vaguely recognized was sitting alone across the aisle from me, face perpetually bathed in his iPhone’s glow; was his twitter feed a stand-in for an absent companion? Here’s the other thing. Arts institutions are all about introducing technological gimmicks in the name of “outreach” and “embracing new audiences”, but what audience do we see contributing to the aforementioned bucket? Composers, PR people, hardcore new-music bloggers, the occasional “real critic”, i.e. the audience who would come to the concert anyway, and pay for it happily, too.
But I’m being mean and negative, and the Grisey was truly, spectacularly good. Chris and I agreed that the piece conforms to our rules for How to Not Be Boring. Namely:
- use sharply defined, instantly recognizable musical materials;
- structure your materials in a way that is audible;
- don’t use too much, or extraneous material.
If you, too want to write a 50-minute microtonal rumination on the transience of life, civilization, and the human race, then you should probably follow these rules. Incidentally, Not Being Boring should be the absolute bare minimum, and beside its value as virtuosic spectacle, I found Quatre chants quite moving; La Mort de la Civilisation was particularly beautiful, a glacial, methodic reading of partially destroyed inscriptions on Egyptian sarcophagi.
Of course, it also helped that Alan Gilbert, the small group of NY Phil musicians, and most of all, Barbara Hannigan (a soprano/total fox) gave a committed and riveting performance. It takes the charisma of a great stage actor to hold an audience’s attention for 50 minutes, especially while remaining still and silent during, say, a five-minute drum interlude; anyone who saw Le Grand Macabre last spring (or, as I did, watched the videos on YouTube) knew that Hannigan would be up to the task:
Seems likely she’ll become a regular at Gilbert’s Philharmonic, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Thanks for the beers, Phil, and until next time.