Everybody needs some sort of pleasing, demonstrably physical release from their own bodies. It’s frustrating to realize that you can’t tickle yourself, and the promising erotic potential of screens leads inevitably to the conclusion that there is feeling tickled and then there is being tickled. Screens make the unitalicized version easy. Music can sometimes demand that being tickled be italicized. The lack of a demanded climax makes musical climaxes less sustaining but more sustainable. More than what we see, what we hear feels internal. The musical illusion of being tickled is real and nourishing.
Although millennials who follow current trends can count on having less sex than their parents (the first generation in a long time about which this can be said), it’s a safe bet to say they have taken – we have taken (I’m one of the oldest of the bunch) – the sustaining erotic potential of music to a previously unimaginable space where self and sound are fused into a hybrid subjectivity. And despite the heresy of moving even a few psychological inches away from the sacrosanct intimacy of the couple, there is wisdom in this trend. A species more in thrall to the consolations of sound, one less attached to the frustrations of trying to conquer the jungle of bodies, this might not be a terrible thing to end up becoming.
This point might be too much of a stretch to call it a point, but the connection I see (and hear) between my generation’s move away from sex (even the people who are having lots of it) into the arms of music and my suggestion for the format of the Graham Sommer Competition finale is this: people are willing to be (indeed, more and more they need to be) in extremely close contact with the music they love. But for music to make the leap into the inner circle of the self – the space where it’s not as much us as our skin, but definitely more us than our clothing – there needs to be an immediate opportunity for follow-up before the first impression fades, particularly for music as richly complex and unpredictable and truly new as the five pieces from this year’s finale.
A pop song with familiar progressions, a generically uplifting techno beat and mostly recognizable lyrical themes promotes itself to an inexperienced listener in a way that these pieces can’t (and shouldn’t need to). Everybody knows this. Yet the concert experience is a single, daunting first encounter with no follow-up, then an invitation to choose a favourite when the newness to be heard probably hasn’t even begun to sink in. Being asked to digest whole what we’ve barely begun to smell is a way to spoil an appetite. And seeing that people have voted for their favourite might reassure people on the inside that what is happening on stage matters, that the audience cares enough to have clear preferences. But caring isn’t necessarily of a piece with the choosing of favourites. Encouraging the unnecessarily quick formation of preference can sabotage the pleasures of surprising repetition.
The erotics of screens have enabled many people to discover, for better and for worse, previously unimaginable desires. The erotics of earbuds can do the same (with fewer unfortunate side effects) for genres of music outside the mainstream. Especially classical music (outside the classical mainstream), which rewards the slow, steady approach to falling in love so much better than more (musically) predictably genres.
The goal is not to make classical music more popular at all costs; the goal is to think of a simple formatting trick – something akin to the different ways food can be served – that can reconcile the productive difficulty of these pieces (even for people with 20 years of training) with the modern urge to get very close, very fast to objects that move us in the frenzied search to populate our environment with more us, the modern consolation for the alienation of atomized individualism. This is why, if Montreal is lucky enough to see and hear another edition of this competition, we should hear all of the finale’s pieces twice in the same night.
The stream I’ll be referring to:
Second (and Third) Thoughts
Since the speed date described in part 1 was evocative but too brief (and demanding) to generate much worth writing about, I came back to the pieces twice. My third listening session benefited from the excellent video production that was streamed live and available on McGill’s Music School youtube channel. The second session was aided by the (probably discouraged) recording that somehow made its way onto my Blackberry without the device melting down mid-concert.
The biggest revelation of re-listening involved my horrific-sounding audio-only version of the piece that took the $10 000 second prize, speed date number 1 from part one, Ashkan Behzadi’s Calluna. The role of gesture in Calluna was such that I recognized virtually nothing without seeing it played. It was proof that the composer’s experiment, exploring, in his words “the frontiers between gesture, sound and silence” had worked on me; I seemed to have remembered so many things that weren’t played, so pregnant were the silences that didn’t correspond with gesture. Calluna will never be a most-listened-to song on a Spotify playlist. But it might rack up a bunch of views on Youtube. When we see somebody running, it activates parts of our brain that are fired up when we run. Is it only because I play an instrument that it felt like I heard so much more than what Calluna actually allowed to sound?
To get a feel for the slightly comic drama of following the premiere of Calluna, which was as sad and funny as a bunch of utterly respectable people struggling desperately to succeed at smalltalking (ideas couldn’t quite find a place in the world of sound when their gestures were empty), watch and listen to the minute from 23:55 to 24:55, a minute with a particularly high ratio of gestures-that-actually-sound (it’s mostly the piano skating over the notes, only air-playing them). Then tell me: does Sara Laimon intend for the second piano cluster to sound at 24:53, or is it a missed ghost note that she quickly corrects? If you’re not a piano nerd, my apologies in advance.
Another way to show what I mean about the bizarre success of the composer’s experiment in gesture: listen, while watching, to any short clip once, then close your eyes and listen again. LRB writer Adam Shatz wrote glowingly a few weeks ago about a quartet concert that “never forgets the earthier pleasures of dance.” The Molinari Quartet didn’t even need to be playing actual notes to remember these pleasures (watch the minute from 19:29 to 20:29 to get a taste, including violinist Antoine Bareil’s epic unplayed note at 20:02-03). Calluna has to be seen to be believed and appreciated.
The second and third listens to Taylor Brooks’s Idioms and Chris Goddard’s Piano Quintet (speed date pieces numbers 2 and 3) pointed at the silliness of first impressions. I had only retained the clever buzzing from Idioms and the shock ending from Goddard’s Quintet. By the end of the second listen, I started getting a sense of Idiom’s idiom and began to hear the continuity in the fragmented starting and stopping. Goddard’s Quintet, by the third go-round, began to sound like an elaborate meditation on repetition. Listen to the 60 seconds beginning at 51:50 for a taste, and brace yourself for the switch from repeating a single note in as many ways as possible to the repetition of clusters.
The first impression of Alison Yun-Fei Jiang’s piece In Absent Waters (speed date piece number 4) was the warmest of the bunch. The reason for the lingering memory of warmth was the radiant passage leading up to a sumptuous, simple, reassuring major second in the strings. The sequence begins at 1:25:28, (major second at 1:26:10) and apparently didn’t move me alone: the piece was awarded the $5 000 audience prize.
During these two follow-ups, one thing made me doubt my doubt about the speed dating experience: my favourite didn’t change one bit. Thierry Tidrow’s Quicksilver, piece number 5 from part 1 of this review, was fantastic the first time, didn’t lose much from audio-only listening, and remained gripping to watch and hear in video form for listen number 3. It ended up winning the $15 000 first prize and if it would be absurd if it didn’t make it into mainstream (classical) circulation soon.
I have too many paragraphs sketched out about Quicksilver for even a Quicksilver-only review, so I’ll settle on this one: Tidrow’s piece was never hurried but always bubbling. Was the primordial ooze in a hurry? Are volcanoes? Quicksilver wasn’t. Yet in the span of 11 minutes it cleverly told a sonic story of epic sweep, rising out of a soup of instrumentally indistinguishable sound, building to a shimmering near-climax with the piano stylings evoking first Ravel’s Scarbo then Scryabin’s Fifth Sonata before exploding in a uniquely Quicksilver way. Compare Tidrow’s piano at 1:41:54 with this bit from Scarbo then this passage from Scryabin’s 5th Piano Sonata with the Quicksilver sound at 1:43:12. The 90 seconds starting at 1:45:37 that flirted memorably with a fragment from Brahms was one of the best waking-out-of-a-dream moments I can remember hearing from a contemporary composer.
Here is how this night of incredible music played out: speeches before and after each piece, three ten minute pieces followed by an intermission followed by two pieces followed by a long break (almost a full hour) for the audience to vote and the jury to deliberate. It was a 3-hour evening with less than an hour of music.
With minor tweaks in the length of piece and the number of finalists, and the more radical tweak of repeating pieces, the night could have played out like this: five 8-minute pieces or four 10-minute pieces performed without intermission or speeches (40 minutes of music is well within the usual amount of music for a first half). Then a half hour break for the jury to deliberate, wine to be served (if money needs to be taken from the prizes, so be it) and an onstage, informal chat with the composers where people could mill about as they liked. A miked-up Q & A session would be possible if organizers feel frisky.
After the break for mingling and exploring the world of adult beverages, the 40 minutes of music would be performed a second time without any interruptions besides applause in between pieces. Unless you hate what you’re playing there’s nothing disagreeable about a second shot at performing a piece when your adrenaline is pumping and the memory of a first performance is still fresh.
It’s during this second listening that new listeners would get a chance to hear what they thought they heard. It’s during this confirmation or refutation of initial musical suspicion – a follow-up listen that only the supremely motivated (by today’s standards) can be imagined seeking out once they’re out of the concert hall – that the chances of being grabbed by sounds that need a second chance to take hold of us are greatest. After these second thoughts, a few minutes could be opened up for people who wanted to vote.
It is self-defeating to encourage classical composers to write music that can tame us and be tamed by us quicker. There is a moment, a moment when something seemingly indecipherable starts to take shape inside us, a moment when what was foreign is transformed and when asking us whether we created this experience ourselves or discovered it outside of us is beside the point. The point is for the format of such a productively demanding concert to realistically give people outside the classical church a chance for that experience to happen. This concert was so good that it brought me to imagine a distant cousin of the Humble Brag (the Bitchy Praise). Those of us inside the classical church who care about the new stuff can do better than daring listeners to incredibly well-organized speed dating as initiation.
For more on the Graham Sommer Competition for Young Composers, click HERE.