Live Log 2023: An Eastman Excursion

I've grown to think of the Kenneth C. Griffin Sidewalk Studio of David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, with its two glass walls and views of the city streets and night sky, as a sort of prow of a great spaceship. It's cutting through the ether ahead of the institution, fearlessly parting the clouds and pointing the way forward. It's also generating excitement here on earth, which you can see from passers by who stop in their tracks to see what's happening, even though they can't hear the music. 

The prow of the ship: the Kenneth C. Griffin Sidewalk Studio as seen from the sidewalk

Of course, this impression is based on the fact that the only concerts I've seen there have been contemporary classical programs, first in their Kravis Nightcap series, and then an Artist Spotlight featuring Talea Ensemble and the Harlem Chamber Players on February 13th. I was so grateful to be there, too, as I had missed this blended group's previous performance of Julius Eastman's Femenine back in 2021. In fact, despite my decade-long devotion to Eastman's work, I've never been in the room where it happens, and my attention was primed by the time the musicians took their places.

Eastman expert Chris McIntyre introduced the work by explaining its genesis in 1974, during the composer's time in Buffalo and how the parts had sat in Elliott Sharp's files for decades before the work was revived about five years ago. Calling Femenine a "testament to his idiosyncrasies," he also mentioned that Eastman's conception of the piece involved several sleigh bell machines, which were not only very loud but prone to failure, so tonight they would use a tape. I later learned that this was not a loop but rather a continuous 70-minute recording of the machine, which may have explained the ephemeral motion of the underlying sound.

Once the sleigh bells started, Talea percussionist Matt Gold kicked off the piece on his with the sturdy, two-note motif on the vibraphone that serves as the engine of Femenine. Once set in motion, the piece moves through a series of cells, continuous movements with titles like Prime, Unison, and Pianist Will Interrupt Must Return. Not only is the orchestration flexible, but so too is the way the players navigate through the cells. Watching the different ways the players were engaged - whether violist Tia Allen's closed eyes or cellist Thapelo Masita's broad smile - it occurred to me that the piece is forgiving, but not easy. Even when you're sitting out, your focus cannot flag - and some of the repetitions may strain your endurance. 

Both from Harlem Chamber Players, Allen and Masita, along with their colleague, violinist Orlando Wells, and Talea violinist Karen Kim, made up the string quartet that sat at the front of the ensemble. They were joined by Harlem's Domenica Fossati (flute) and Eric Davis (horn), and Talea's Rane Moore (clarinet), Adrian Morejon (bassoon), David Friend (piano), Greg Chudzik (electric bass), Gold, and McIntyre, who led from his little red Nord synthesizer. 

Once the vibes set it off, everything was in motion, whether in unison or in a series of calls and responses between instruments and sections. The melodic cells sometimes acted as a balm, at others they sounded a note of triumph, even if unresolved. Friend's piano alternated between strong chords or wistful melodies, and was one of the defining parts of the sound world. Another was McIntyre's synth, which deployed tones seemingly crafted to represent the era in which the piece was written. Think Krautrock greats like Harmonia, or some of the sounds Rick Wright used for Pink Floyd. 

About 40 minutes in, the piece became an undulating carpet of sound, a space-rock reverie with echoes of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and The Who. Then came moments of extraordinary weight, with McIntyre giving the nod to Chudzik before they let the power chords fly. In a series that repeated several times with variations, those chords were followed by a flurry from the strings, with the piano sparkling and dancing around the harmonies. 

One variation had the heavy chords triggering a sequence from the strings that faded out, like a train passing or an echoing dub mix, with remarkable dynamic control from the players.  The winds played ostinatos, adding to the layers and then there was a moment when Kim's violin took flight in a sweet cadenza, and the room soared along with her. Apogee and ecstasy, just as I think Eastman would have wanted it. As the piece began to deliquesce, Davis played some melodies on the horn that felt uniquely American, connecting Eastman to hymns and Aaron Copeland. 

It was a fitting prelude to the gradual retreat of the instruments, which eventually left Gold's vibes alone, until he, too, stopped playing and let the fading sleigh bells have the last word. There was a collective pause before the ovation, as if the musicians and audience needed to confirm their feet had indeed returned to earth. Thanks to Talea and Harlem's collective commitment and sheer musical excellence, Eastman's conception was fully, vibrantly alive that Monday night, making for another remarkable experience at the Sidewalk Studio.

Back to earth: (L-R): Karen Kim, Domenica Fossati, Orlando Wells, Rane Moore, David Friend, Adrian Morejon, Tia Allen, Thapelo Masita, Eric Davis, Chris McIntyre, Greg Chudzik, and Matt Gold

Join me at the Griffin Sidewalk Studio on April 29th when the brilliant Zosha Di Castri curates her own Kravis Nightcap!

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