Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Music in Too Many Parts

Last year, when San Francisco Performances announced their 2008-09 season, I asked for help in figuring out what to do about the planned performance of Philip Glass's Music in Twelve Parts. I ultimately purchased tickets, on the grounds that I would very likely not have another chance to hear the whole thing at one go, plus, I could always leave.

The performance was this past Monday night. I can't tell you what the encore was, because I only made it through part 9. Srsly, I hope there wasn't an encore.

Under different circumstances, I might have made it all the way through. I felt run down at the beginning of the weekend and still do. I reviewed a concert Saturday morning, and that night made a 2 a.m. trip to the ER with my mother (she's fine; it was nothing serious).

I had two problems with the Glass: amplification and sheer boredom. The piece was too fucking loud and the volume, which varied somewhat through the evening, eventually became intolerable. It's just not possible for me to fully enjoy or get lost in a concert when I'm worried about damage to my hearing.

I can't help but thinking that the amplification contributed to the boredom. Amplification flattens music by equalizing all voices; details disappear and you lose directionality. And amplification flattens how people listen because they simply don't pay attention the way they must to unamplified music.

In the case of Music in Twelve Parts, the engineers or producers or Glass himself balanced the amplification so that the keyboards completely dominated the ensemble. You could barely hear vocalist Lisa Biewala or the three wind players. Presumably this was an aesthetic decision, but I believe strongly that it was a bad decision.

But more on the boredom: jeez, what a repetitious piece. I know, I know, this could have been predicted - I did predict it, after all - but I was surprised to re-read the comment from last May and see the high opinions people have of Music in Twelve Parts. People! The newer Glass works I heard in 2007 were so much better.

Yes, Music in Twelve Parts was hugely radical for its time; yes, it's the Glass aesthetic and he is committed to it; yes, yes, yes, but I have to exercise some critical judgment here.

In the end, I wondered if the very formal concert hall presentation was a mistake. I see no way for the keyboard players to survive if acoustic instruments were used, but perhaps the amplification would have been saner in a small venue. Because of some kind of miscalculation about how many people would pick up their tickets at will call, the tiny Davies box office lobby was mobbed before the performance and many people were seated late. I think the piece is well suited for some kind of experiment that Greg Sandow would like. It would be intolerable for, say, Carter or Beethoven or, of course, Feldman: take out the seats, put down cushions, and let people come and go and talk all they want.

For that matter, you could turn the space into an opium den for the duration. That's probably the perfect state in which to hear this piece.


Tom DePlonty said...

Well, even those of us recommending the piece did so with the caveat that it might drive you nuts.

I imagine you're right on with the criticism of the amplification and the presentation - good grief, the thing is four hours long; people have to be able to come and go easily. And I know the piece only in the recording, in which you can hear the voice and winds clearly, and of course you can make the volume comfortable.

You wrote that it's hard to lose yourself in a performance when you are tired and uncomfortable, and of course that's going to influence your threshold of boredom. You do have to surrender yourself to repetition to enjoy a piece like Twelve Parts or Einstein. Whether that's the musical equivalent of opium-smoking, and the moral and aesthetic implications of same, others can argue. But I know I wouldn't be able to enjoy the piece at ear-splitting volume, either. So - bad piece, or bad performance?

Daniel Wolf said...

Ideally, this is a piece which should be less about hearing one particular instrument or another and more about hearing sounds which are not necessarily played directly by any indentifiable single instrument or combination of instruments (combination tones, resultant patterns, and other acoustical ephemera made vivid). In other words, this is music in which the sum has to be greater than the parts. Did the performance succeed in these terms? Is it possible that some of the music which you associated with the keyboards in the mix was actually something other?

Anonymous said...

take out the seats, put down cushions, and let people come and go and talk all they want.

It is my understanding that that is exactly the custom for concerts of works by LaMonte Young (and others of that ilk, assuming anyone dares to be of that ilk).

Thank you for confirming that the amplification was too loud. Fear of that is basically the only reason I decided not to attend - I'm very sensitive to volume and have been known to give up on Aaron Kernis - and now I don't feel so bad about missing an event that I would otherwise have loved.

Henry Holland said...

I think the piece is well suited for some kind of experiment that Greg Sandow would like


Lisa Hirsch said...

Today he's touting the use of Twitter in the classical world....including during concerts. I bit my tongue two minutes ago to keep from blogging or commenting that some of us prefer listening to music to reading our cell phones during concerts.

Hmm, maybe I shouldn't bite my tongue.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Tom, those are good comments. I would very likely prefer the piece on record - and in one-part doses. And, yep, my physical state did affect my enjoyment. I blogged at some length a year or two ago about performances I've walked out on, and why, and my mood or physical state was an issue in many cases.

You're right about the distinction between bad piece and bad performance. Might have been one, the other, or both.

Daniel, I had not considered that point. There were some sounds I heard - weirdly high-pitched, almost electronic - during some of the parts that could have been ephemera. But I think everything I associated with the keyboards was the keyboards; there was a visual match, for one thing.

I'd say the performance might have half-succeeded. Less amplification would have made the whole easier for me to hear.

Henry Holland said...

Today he's touting the use of Twitter in the classical world....including during concerts.

I've typed it before, and I'll type it again, but Greg Sandow is either:

a) a total idiot
b) a huckster trying to drum up work for his consulting business

Either one works for me.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yes, well. I should check out the comment thread on his blog to see what his regular readers thought.

Immanuel Gilen said...

A lot of people mentioned how annoying the amplification was. I was sitting in the terrace seats, behind the amplification, and I was just fine...
Sorry you didn't enjoy it (if it's a comfort, it looked like a lot of people gave up after Part 9)!

Lisa Hirsch said...

You were smart. I should have gotten either terrace or 2nd tier side seats - I've noticed in the past that if you're in those side areas the music sort of slides past you 20 feet away.

Anonymous said...

Take it from me, ambience, comfort/lack of fatigue, and mind-altering substances (well, beer or wine, I can't vouch for anything stronger) make no difference.

I was a music composition student in the late-70s/early-80s. We had a weekly composition seminar where one of the students or our composer/professor/mentor would present a contemporary composer or work of interest in a 90-minute small-group discussion. We were open to all styles, and had already listened to and discussed some "cutting edge" minimalist works by Terry Riley and Steve Reich.

When we got our hands on the newly-released 5-LP set of "Einstein" we decided that the seminar should convene at the professor's farm house for a full-length listen. A pot-luck buffet was spread, there were comfortable chairs, a couch, throw-pillows, a wash tub filled with ice and bottles of wine and Rolling Rock beer. We put on the first side…

At the start, there were probably 20 of us there, including interested faculty and student friends. By the end of side 9, there were less than a dozen. We had had our fill of food, booze—and Glass. We all agreed we had heard about 8 sides too many, just waiting for *something* to happen, and that it was time to go home.

It's been over 35 years, and I can say I have never, ever, had the desire to listen to Side 10—the final 20 minutes of "Einstein." Or, for that matter, much else of Glass's music…

No regrets, either.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ooooh, that you for that. Great account!!!

I like quite a lot of recent Glass, and I suspect that Einstein is best experienced as a total theatrical experience, not just as sound, but I take your point!