Sunday, August 07, 2016

BOAC At MMOCA: The Eno Has Landed

That there is a pipeline from indie rock to modern classical has been firmly established. What is less clear is the ultimate value of the music emitting from that spigot. My suspicion is that, as time tells its tale, the pieces produced by what might be called "rock informed" composers (Missy Mazzoli, Daniel Wohl) will prove more lasting than what those rockers have created for the concert hall. Or it may just be that if I don't like your band, I'm also not going to like your string quartet.

There is an interesting tangent to this rock-classical dialogue, represented by works like the trio version of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, or symphonic takes extrapolated from The Beatles' Revolution #9 or Brian Eno's Music For Airports, the last of which sucked us north up Route 8 from Stockbridge, MA to North Adams a few weeks ago. North Adams is a classic plot of small-town New England whose faded industry bequeathed us Mass MOCA, one of the most vibrant modern art venues in the northeast. 

Mass MOCA also hosts two major annual music festivals, Wilco's Solid Sound and Bang On A Can's Summer Music Festival. Wilco's event is always scheduled around the last day of school in NYC, a less than auspicious time for us to get out of town. Our reasons for missing the BOAC event are less clear-cut but let's just say that the words "Eno" and "live" in an email had my wife excited enough for her to insist I make a plan this year. It was even on my honey-do list. So I got it done, honey. 

Just to keep things simple, we treated ourselves and our daughter to dinner at Gramercy Bistro, the white-tablecloth restaurant that is right in the Mass MOCA complex. It was utterly worth it, with clever cocktails, sushi-grade tuna, and outrageous desserts providing a delicious prelude to what lay ahead. After dinner we ambled down to the building that holds the exhibition spaces, the excellent gift shop, and the performance hall, a large space ideal for any number of live events. 

Soon after we sat down, six members of the All-Stars came on stage for the first half of the show, which consisted of four pieces from their Field Recordings project, some of which were released last year on a collection of the same name. The first, by Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw is brand new, however. Called Really Craft When You, the field recording element came from interviews with quilters Shaw found in the Library of Congress archives, which she set to a fascinatingly fractured impression of jazz, featuring stellar work by drummer David Cossin, cellist Ashley Bathgate, and guitarist Mark Stewart. While she would occasionally repeat a phrase from the interview, there wasn't any Scott Johnson-style melodicism going on, more of a sense of weaving/overlay between words and music. Quilting, if you will. It was a deeply engrossing, and fully successful, piece, which I hope they record soon. Until then, you can hear its world premiere here.

Even with the mandate of the field recordings project, any composer would be up against it incorporating bird song into their music, what with classic works of musical ornithology like Cantus Arcticus by the (sadly newly late) Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara or works by Olivier Messiaen, many of which are inspired by bird song, and which are among the greatest music ever written. Considering all that, Gabriella Smith did an admirable job with Panitao, which was pleasant enough but lacked staying power for me. That I forgot it almost as soon at it finished may also have something to do with what came next. 

The third piece was Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's lapidary Hz, which used beautiful black and white footage and sounds of a hydroelectric plant as its pre-recorded element. It wasn't surprising that Johannsson included inspiration from the visual realm when you consider his recent sideline composing excellent soundtracks like the gloriously doomy Sicario. Hz is like time suspended, a sound that seemed to hover at the nexus of the performers, turning this way and that for our observation, almost a drone but with more dimension. Fortunately it's included on the album because I was ready to hear it again as soon as possible. 

Would that the intermission came next. Instead we were subjected to Rene Lussier's so-not-funny Nocturne, with a field recording of his wife snoring. Not for me, but fortunately not too long, either. 

The intermission was infinitely more entertaining, as I listened in on some music students chatting in the row behind me. I held my tongue until one of them said: "I just don't know about minimalism. I love Steve Reich but Philip Glass?" I had to weigh in: "Reich beats Glass every time!" They were amused and essentially in agreement. Since music is not a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, if I had wanted to say more I might have talked up Glass's film scores for Koyaanisqatsi and Mishima, or mentioned that I've never seen Einstein on the Beach, which is apparently an essential experience. It also occurred to me later that Reich is a composer who uses minimalist techniques. Glass is simply a minimalist. Somewhere in there lies the difference. 

This discussion was an interesting thing to have inform BOAC's performance of Music For Airports, which they launched into after the stage was filled to capacity with musicians and singers. There was also a brief intro by Mark Stewart, which let us know that Eno approved of their rework but had little to do with its creation, and that because of the structure of the music we should feel free to let our minds drift more than we would if we were listening to, say, Schubert.

As soon as the music started I fell in love again with Eno's drifting soundscape, with its Satie-esque melodies that crop up now and again and overall mood of intelligent melancholy. Also, BOAC's adaptation of his electronic textures sounded uncannily right without being mere mimicry. It could be the intermission discussion influencing me, but listening to Music For Airports in this way made me recognize anew the minimalist principles behind Eno's conception. 

Naturally there is repetition as the piece was assembled from tape loops. There are even repeating cells, just as Reich might use, it's just that Eno's are so long and slow that it takes a while to see them as such. This made the music completely riveting for me as I thirsted for this arpeggio or that trill to recur. Barring a performance of Winterreise, my mind would probably drift more during a Schubert concert! Besides minimalism, Eno's ambient recordings also brush up against New Age, a relationship that came a little too close during one of the noodly clarinet interludes Evan Ziporyn composed for the last section, beautifully played here by Ken Thomson. It was only a brief lapse, however, and without lasting effect.

I can't speak for the rest of the audience, but as someone whose foundational music is rock, I'm primed to take Eno's music seriously. Even so, I'm skeptical enough of these kinds of transformations that I was holding what I heard at Mass MOCA to a very high standard. I'm happy to report that Music For Airports can withstand any scrutiny as a magnificent work of art. Is it "classical music" of even a contemporary stripe? I think the answer is somewhere between "Why not?" and "Who cares?" 

While I would love to hear how Arthur C. Danto would break down the aesthetic philosophy behind what happens when you take an artwork completely out of the context in which it was conceived, in this case a recorded work never intended for the concert hall, and rebuild it elsewhere, I think listening to the sheer beauty we heard that night is enough of a justification for BOAC's project. I would also say that while their recording of Music For Airports is lovely, it's not as essential as seeing them do it live. Get there next time and don't miss your flight. 

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