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February 2008

Sung Speech

Dsc03840_2Tuesday night, I visited Issue Project Room for a solo performance by Robert Ashley, one of the leading figures of the downtown NY music scene in the 60's and 70's. He is best known for his "operas": multimedia works that are, "so vast in their vision that they are comparable only to Wagner's Ring cycle or Stockhausen's seven-evening Licht cycle." He is widely credited as the father of music television, primarily for his 1980 made-for-TV opera Perfect Lives.

Dsc03843_2About Tuesday's performance, Ashley had this to say:

"A LAST FUTILE STAB AT FUN is a 'lecture to be sung' with accompanying sounds. The text was written in 1979 as a lecture for the Walker Art Center and has not been done since or otherwise... It produced a kind of what-are-we-talking-about set of logical conclusions that came from I don't know where. It digressed into other questions of things I was thinking about then. Finally in 2008 I got it into a metered form as a 'lecture to be sung.'"

Ashley read at a small table, his amplified and electronically-altered voice supplemented with samples that sounded like souls trapped in hell. (The point was driven home with the blood-red lighting.) I missed most of the performance, but heard enough odd snippets to get the gist. The audience, about 80 strong, gave Ashley a sustained ovation once he finished.

Dsc03845_2There is some exciting news concerning the future of Issue Project Room, which has been plagued by lease issues for years. I'll provide details as soon as it's confirmed.

Good Causes

Pledgeometer08_325k_3 I'm not usually in the habit of shilling for institutions, but if you haven't done so already, you really need to get on sending in your pledge to WFMU. I just heard Tony Coulter and Scott Williams talking on air, chiding our other public broadcasting institutions who hold multiple annoying fund drives every year, with a good chunk of the proceeds going to pay the overinflated salaries of their top executives. (Yes, Laura Walker, they meant you.) These guys hold one fundraiser a year, because to do more, as Coulter puts it, would mean "selling their souls." (In case you were wondering, all the DJs at WFMU are volunteers.) As a result, they barely raise enough money to keep the lights on: Williams said there was a leak last year right over the turntables, and instead of calling a contractor to come fix it, they used a rain bucket. For two months. Sounds like my old college radio days...You can use the pledge widget I pasted in a couple of posts down, or call them up at 800-989-9368. C'mon, you know you want that T-shirt.

Also, there will be a second benefit for musician Andrew D'Angelo at Barbes tomorrow night, starting at 8p. Judging from the overflow crowd that packed the much larger Tea Lounge last week, my advice to you is: Get there early. And, be generous.

Meeting Messiaen

Dsc03786 I'm a bit too young to have met Olivier Messiaen while he was still alive, but the Messiaen Discovery Concert in Weill Recital Hall Sunday afternoon brought the man many consider to be the greatest composer of the 20th Century pretty close to life. When I arrived - late, as usual - British pianist and Messiaen scholar Peter Hill was speaking about the time he first met Messiaen at his Paris apartment in 1986. Messiaen showed him a small, antique chair, which collapsed underneath Hill the moment he sat in it. "A rather awkward beginning," Hill said.

Dsc03751Hill went on to become good friends with Messiaen over the last five years of his life, indulging his love of English poetry and bringing him coffee table books of birds. He played a recording of one of Messiaen's recessional improvisations at La Trinité Church in Paris, which sounded more conventional than his composed works for organ but sufficiently captivated the audience to keep them in their seats till the end.

Hill concluded by saying that Messiaen's final work, Eclairs sur l'au Dela was, "without question his orchestral masterpiece." He made note of the fact that it was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, but was surprised not to see it on the calendar for either this season or next.

"If the New York Phil isn't performing it this year," Hill said, "you should all immediately besiege them with requests to do so."

Amen to that. (I cast my lot via the NY Phil's customer service line last night.)

Photo_022408_004_2Following was a screening of Olivier Mille's documentary The Crystal Liturgy, which assembled archival footage of Messiaen and his students. It was the first time I'd ever seen a moving image of Messiaen, and I was floored by his warmth, his down-to-earth charm and charisma. He was also a gifted and natural teacher, the unassuming sort who plays Debussy in class, rather than his own works. (Apparently, he memorized all four hours of Pelleas et Melisande, and would play the score in his head during his long captivity in WWII.)

The film also focused on his fascination with birds, following him out into the field where he would transcribe birdsong into musical notation, much of which would eventually find its way into his compositions.

"It is very challenging," he said. "I need to remember the first phrase while listening to the second. The bird doesn't wait for me."

This fascination with birdsong also revealed Messiaen's more eccentric side, showing him whooping and crowing like some kind of madman. His wife, Yvonne Loriod, looked on admiringly, plucking out the notes and rhythms on their home piano.

Dsc03787After a break, Messiaen's one-time student Pierre Boulez was joined onstage by Carnegie Hall Artistic Advisor Jeremy Geffen. Geffen was clearly nervous interviewing the 82 year old Boulez, a celebrated conductor and composer and, by some measure, the most notorious musical gadfly of the 20th century. Listen to what Messiaen had to say about him in 1944:

"When he first entered class, (Boulez) was very nice. But soon he became angry with the whole world. He thought everything was wrong with music...He was like a lion that had been flayed alive, he was terrible!"

Dsc03790 Boulez eventually abandoned Messiaen's classes, publicly ridiculing his sporadic tonality as retrograde, and his use of birdsong as just plain silly. In conversation with Geffen, however, Boulez was his usual charming self, preferring to tell anecdotes about his student days, and how much he enjoyed conducting Messiaen's thornier works, such as Chronochromie or Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. But, just when I was convinced Geffen was going to treat him with kid gloves, he broached the subject ever-so-delicately:

"So, for your generation of composers that came of age after World War II, how yould you evaluate Messiaen's music now?"

"Well, I can only speak for myself," Boulez said. "I cannot speak for Berio, for Stockhausen: they are no longer with us. But, I will admit that I don't like everything Messiaen did. I do not care for his use of bird calls. I don't care for much of his harmonics. I prefer Poemes Pour Mi to, say, Turangalia-Symphonie. But, that is a purely personal point of view. Music should navigate between order and chaos, and with Messiaen, I feel that gap is never bridged."

"Well, I think that's a lovely way to leave our conversation," Geffen said.

Lovely? More like someone left a pile of manure onstage.

Dsc03791Fortunately, there was music to end the day: an epic performance of Visions de l'amen for two pianos, which Messiaen wrote for himself and Loriod shortly after she became his student in 1943. Curiously, the gender roles were switched, with Michael Mizrahi playing Loriod's part (by far the more harmonically and rhythmically complex of the two) and Elizabeth Joy Roe playing the part Messiaen's wrote for himself. They gave a captivating and passionate performance, with the duel Steinways filling the compact hall with a huge, almost deafening sound that conveyed Messiaen's uniquely personal vision of religious ecstasy. Or, as he put it:

"a chorale of glory, a ceaseless carillion of chords and brilliant, scintillating rhythms...the whole rainbow of precious stones mentioned in the Apocalypse: sounding, jarring, dancing, coloring, and perfuming the light of eternal life."

Mizrahi and Roe received a well-deserved ovation, sending everyone out onto 57th Street with a trance-like glaze in their eyes. Boulez said that Messiaen often lamented there would be noone to take up his sui generis mantle after he passed. I hope that won't forever be the case: we could stand to hear more of his wide-eyed wonder.

P.S. As incredible as last month's LA Philharmonic performance of From the Canyons to the Stars...was, I spent most of it sitting on the edge of my seat, wondering whether or not I was going to make my redeye out of LAX. Fortunately, I'll have the chance to hear it again tonight, as performed by Juilliard's Axiom Ensemble at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on 65th Street. And, oh yeah, tickets are free.