Saturday, May 19, 2018

Tristan Perich’s Divine Violins

A concert doesn’t have to take place in an awe-inspiring setting like the Cathedral Of St. John The Divine to take on a sense of the sacred or ceremonial. But it’s impossible not to feel the weight of occasion when entering one of the world’s largest Gothic churches, even if it remains unfinished 125 years after the first cornerstone was laid. Yet as I walked through the cavernous space on May 9th for the world premiere of Tristan Perich’s Drift Multiply for 50 violins and 50 1-bit speakers I felt sure his work would rise to meet the expectations engendered by the space. 

The concert was part of Red Bull Music Festival, a three-week, city-wide festival of impressive scope. As much as I appreciate what Red Bull is doing, even this lifelong atheist couldn’t help thinking it was slightly incongruous to see coolers of their products for sale in a house of worship. After a moment I decided to embrace the dissonance even if I didn’t want to grab a drink. The last time I was here for a concert was back in 1981, as part of the Kool Jazz Festival - and I don't remember them selling cigarettes! 

The performers back then were jazz drumming legend Max Roach and his percussion ensemble M’Boom, who were joining forces with the World Saxophone Quartet. My recollection is that we were sitting even further from the stage than the anyone would be tonight and that the multiple drums created what felt like enormous cubes of sound that tumbled through the air before hitting the wall behind us and rolling forward again, chased by the white lightning of the four saxophones. It was intense, to say the least. 

Now, the stage was surrounded on three sides by seating and itself covered with the 50 seats needed for Perich’s piece, each with an attendant music stand and another small rod holding a four-inch speaker. Many of the chairs facing the front were taken already so I sat down in the first row at the south side of the stage. I recognized that sitting out of the path of the reverberations would be a different experience, yet still valid or they wouldn’t have put seats there. Perich, known for his One-Bit Symphony and other sonic explorations, is enough of an expert that I felt I would be in good hands no matter what vantage point I had. Also, even 50 violins wouldn’t create the bone-rattling racket of Max Roach & Co., so there would just be less air moving around to begin with. 

Before Perich’s piece was another world premiere by Lesley Flanigan of her own Subtonalities for voice and electronics. She sat at a table with a mic and a few pieces of equipment, which she used to dial in oscillating throbs or to loop her extraordinarily pure soprano - exactly the kind of voice you would expect in this space. I discerned sections - at least four, maybe five - in Subtonalities, a sense of structure that pulled me through. There were echoes of Popol Vuh and Fripp & Eno among the lush textures, her multitracked voice spiraling up towards the ceiling. If the piece felt a little long, that’s most likely due to my anticipation for Perich’s music. I can easily imagine losing myself in Flanigan’s textures in another context without giving a thought to length. I hope I will have that opportunity soon. 

Lesley Flanigan performing Subtonalities
There was a brief intermission and then the 50 violinists took the stage with astonishing ease - they must have practiced! - joined by Doug Perkins, the founder of So Percussion, who would conduct. He raised his baton...and they were off. I was instantly captivated, not only by the sounds, which displayed a high level of invention throughout, but also by observing the cross-section of players arrayed before me. Each one had a slightly different way of holding their instrument and bow and it was also fun to watch what an individual player was doing and try to pick out their contribution to the landscape. There were sections of nearly austere minimalism, with many violinists seeming to play similar figures, while others had an epic sweep, with players making big gestures and the electronics responding with starlit sparkle. 

A fraction of the 50 violinists for Drift Multiply
The entire length of Drift Multiply felt so assured and with frequent moments of sheer wonder that it’s hard to believe this is the first time anyone has ever used this configuration. I’m sure some of that solidity was due to Perkins’s expert time-keeping, a task in which he was aided by digital counters sprinkled through the orchestra. Even though the piece was substantial, I never felt that Perich had used up every last idea. Nor did it ever feel like a stunt. While there is certainly an element of performance or installation art, the whole thing was deeply musical and I hope that logistics don’t get in the way of future performances. There was a video crew and likely audio recording being done as well so I would keep an eye on the Red Bull website to see if they make it available for you to experience at home. Drift Multiply is a triumph of imagination and execution that may just give your living room, or wherever you listen, a touch of the divine. 

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