Where Speed Dating Survives, Part 1: Blind First Impressions
Caught in between unrecognizably different eras in the arts of mating, speed dating never had a chance. On paper, at least, it was a form of progress. What speed dating lost from the old world and what it lacked, compared to the world not-yet-hatched, made it an irrelevant, mercifully ephemeral social phenomena. The old world, for all its clumsiness and awkwardness, ensured (by demanding) the romance of chance encounters, of breaking the ice with strangers. The new world broke into the seemingly limitless space where an investment of attention, not risk, was the only thing required for (apparently) cruising efficiently, a comfortable addiction that never demanded the removal of ass from couch. Speed dating ruined the old world’s risky charm and didn’t come close to providing what the new world would offer.
What speed dating actually provided, the unique selling point that quickly became trivial, was a filter. It was a primitive filter, but it promised more efficient flirting and pleasure seeking. And if you drop primitive from the last sentence, you get a description of what the jury of the Graham Sommer Competition for Young Composers provided for both competitors and audience at Salle Pollack for the competition’s finale. The algorithm of the jury’s preferences determined which five candidates (selected out of nearly 100 applicants) made the cut for further musical intimacy. $15 000 would go to the winner, $10 000 to the runner up and there would be a $5 000 audience prize.
What an investment banker can blow in a wild weekend, a classical composer can stretch into a major new work over the course of a few months. Mercifully, $5 000 was guaranteed to all of the finalists, making the whole enterprise seem more about celebration and continuity than about savage competition. And on top of being paid for what they created, the quintet of composers were treated like royalty, which, as distasteful as the idea of royalty can be, was fantastic to see. Having wracked my brain for something critical to say about the promotion and execution of the evening (these things matter to me), I came up empty. Getting Salle Pollack nearly full with a genuine buzz for a concert of never-heard-before classical music isn’t something that happens by itself.
A preoccupation with first impressions and the ambition to create an enduring masterpiece don’t necessarily work hand in hand. So with most of the life-changing decisions taken in advance (just adding finalist in this competition to a CV can work wonders) the most interesting question of the night – independent of the $5 000 prize it determined – was which ten minute encounter would evoke the strongest audience desire for a second date.
It might be a stretch to compare a concert to a speed date, but that’s what I propose to do in this review, with one conviction lurking in the background: the move from seeing the world as one big screen to seeing the world on a number of specifically functional screens (the biggest used for passive pleasure, the smallest for intimacy with self and other, the mid-sized laptops and tablets vessels for our productive selves) is one of the swiftest, monumental transitions the human animal has ever been through. It has come about, apparently, as the result of our unorganized, spontaneous desire to see and swipe. And while this has had cataclysmic effects on the hopes of finding a romantic partner without giving up completely on romance, the transition has been much kinder to other forms of erotic pleasure. Music, for example.
The speed date format might be the perfect path for a competitive encounter with new music, but I have doubts. I doubt that reproducing a failed relic from the world of romantic discovery is as good as it gets. And considering the extreme scarcity of fantastic events like the Graham Sommer finale, it’s worth wondering about alternatives. I think the reason speed dating (mostly) disappeared from the world of romance can be linked with reasons for amending its iterations on the new (classical) music scene.
I studied classical piano for 20 years, years during which I was identified as somebody with a flair for contemporary music (we all had to play at least one Canadian piece every year in a kind of eat-your-vegetables approach to ensuring the transmission of new local works). Despite the length and depth of my training, if a stranger had asked me what I heard after the single sitting of this Young Composer Speed Date, the impress of my first impressions would have been limited: the first new piece was elusive. The second was a buzzing that cleverly refused to get started. Third was a dense and dramatic piece with a surprise ending. The fourth piece was effectively emo and was the warmest of all of them, the one which I assumed would win the audience’s favour until I heard the fifth piece. Number five was dazzling, with sound itself sounding like it was emerging for the first time.
If it had been an actual speed date, the first, fourth and fifth pieces would have succeeded in being memorable enough, for different reasons, to elicit a second encounter. But ask me to flesh out those descriptions more than that on the way out of Pollack Hall (I left before the winners were announced) and I would have been forced into critical bluffing, the kind of writing I sneer at when I read reviews of new classical music.
I’ll try to avoid any bluffing below, helped hopefully by the fact that the editor of Rampage is kind enough to be flexible with the word count limit and that I cheated on the single dip, speed dating format of the competition by returning not once but twice to the encounter. If I don’t have any transparently bad things to say about any of the pieces, it’s not because this is some sort of self-esteem building competition where everybody gets a medal. It’s because each one of them is worth getting to know.
It might have been start-of-concert enthusiasm, but the first piece had the performers enjoying themselves and the audience engaged. I was on the edge of my seat trying to figure out what was happening; it looked (more than sounded) like a play on what was, or wasn’t, being played.
There was furious action, a tremendous amount of watching and listening and counting and synchronizing, but only a tiny percentage of the gestures produced actual sound. It was some sort of theatre of inhibition: a fantastically interesting experiment in the way what you see changes what you hear, and the way you feel about what you hear, even when you don’t hear it. What I saw were anguished attempts at expression, a tremendous amount of effort going into every small squeak that managed to escape. Hearing these tiny squeaks of expressivity, seeing the strain the composer required of the performers for such tiny teases of sound brought a wave of strange sadness and loneliness. Communication is never perfect and it’s rarely easy. The silence of so many gestures made it impossible to forget what this first impression didn’t provide.
At one point, the second piece sounded like it would veer into lush neoromantic terrain before shifting to a short Copeland-esque jamboree that never quite took off. There was the recurring chromatic zigzagging of strings buzzing around the intervals of minor 2nd and minor 9th. The clearest moment was a quote from Debussy’s prelude Brouillards, which didn’t entirely interrupt the dance that hadn’t started.
The third piece changed the tone of the evening. After an opening with lots of movement but almost no sound (piece 1), then a piece which opened chromatically buzzing but harmonically immobile (piece 2), the straightforward descending minor third, a quote from Beethoven, was reassuring and grounding. The development of the bit of Beethoven brought some interesting instrumental imitation, pianist Sara Laimon muting the strings of the piano as the strings of the Molinari Quartet played pizzicato. And what followed the grounding opening was anything but stabilizing, so ending with a crystalline, simple F major chord in the upper register of the piano was a terrific shock.
Piece number four stuck out right away for sounding accessible and revealed (pieces 1 and 2 were reluctant to disclose themselves, this one was more than happy for you to take a seat). “Accessible” and “revealed” as a description of new classical music means it could be the edgy-sounding soundtrack to an ambitious TV series. The ringing piano basses gave our ears something familiar to latch onto right away. The dramatic, daunting opening, with effective Liszt-meets-Debussy-meets-Something Jazzier piano stylings moved into a swingy, exuberant 6/8 sounding passage and I wasn’t sure about the transition. But after a gushy, moving climax and a well-paced fade out my skepticism was conquered.
Piece number five was impossible to ignore. Right away it used the 4 strings and 1 piano as a unit, making the distinguishing of individuals within the group almost impossible as the act of playing a single note was made to feel like we were witnessing the emergence of the building blocks of sound. With minimal material developed to maximum effect – not much was happening but it was happening – the emergence of a single dominant seventh chord sounded like tonality itself was being discovered. In the buildup to this piece, it was mentioned that the composer quoted a text about alchemy as his inspiration for it. Referring to the science of magic and then producing something that actually sounded like scientific magic is a rare achievement.
Showing intense mental activity and acuity while only revealing a tiny bit of what you know and feel, a form of shy, clever elusiveness ensured that piece number one would be tough to forget. The second and third pieces weren’t as well suited to the format because they were too earnestly intelligent. Number four successfully etched its way into the zone of instant memorability by unashamedly bearing its need to us listeners. Like the elusiveness of the first piece’s approach, it was a smart speed dating strategy.
But the secret to musical speed dating, to the contemporary appetite for high risk and the promise of intense thrills, this secret was revealed by the night’s final piece. Making an extremely bold claim and then backing it up during a few minutes of irresistible interaction is what the market, offered this format of presentation, demands and rewards.
Part Two of this review contains full details about the new pieces and competition results.