by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, November 8, 2004
The darkest, grandest noise of the musical season so far—the fanfare to an angry American autumn—was Michael Gordon’s film symphony “Decasia,” as played by fifty-five furiously committed students from the Manhattan School of Music, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, in Brooklyn. The performance took place back in September, but the experience is still burned in my mind. Gordon, one of the founding members of the New York-based Bang on a Can collective, created “Decasia” in 2001, in collaboration with the filmmaker Bill Morrison, the director Bob McGrath, and the visual designer Laurie Olinder. The idea was to create a contemporary equivalent of Disney’s “Fantasia,” a dream procession of image and sound. Morrison assembled the film portion from ancient, decaying footage that he found in various archives. The images are stitched together in seemingly random order, yet they tell a hallucinatory tale. Camels trundle across a desert, children stampede through a nunnery, a man in a fez performs a dervish dance, parachutists descend from the sky. As the nitrate stock disintegrates, the images melt and shatter.
Gordon’s score weds the hypnotic aura of minimalism to the detuned snarl of highbrow punk. It packs a punch on CD, but it needs a live performance to unveil all its power. At St. Ann’s, the orchestra was arrayed on scaffolding around the audience, in order to highlight Gordon’s spatial effects: bass instruments in the back tuned to the given pitch; instruments on one side tuned an eighth-tone above; those on the other side an eighth-tone below. Also, the music demands to be played at maximum volume so that it can acquire the proper monumental presence. With chattering figures building into great washes of sound, the score is a feat of symphonic minimalism akin to John Adams’s “Harmonielehre,” except that the façade of grandeur is as unstable as the images in Morrison’s collage.
In one hair-raising passage, four trombones slide up and down intervals of a minor third, beginning on E-flat minor, the unofficial key of death. Glissando trombones were a signature motif in twentieth-century music: they roared happily in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Livery Stable Blues,” and more darkly in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth.” Gordon’s trombones have both a festive and a sinister air, embodying the ambiguity of the work. Even as “Decasia” celebrates raw sound, it summons an atmosphere of dread. Too many of its images resemble Cold War footage of structures vaporizing in nuclear tests. Why, then, are you left with a visceral thrill? Perhaps it’s the joy of surviving what looks and sounds like the end of the world.
A month later, the experimental theatre La MaMa presented Sounds Like Now, a four-day festival of composers associated with New York’s venerable downtown scene. All manner of unearthly, post-John Cagean noises were heard, making “Decasia” seem like “Dance of the Hours.” Programs were long, some more than three hours. Minutes passed while new gizmos were plugged in and laptops booted up. There were, inevitably, spells of time-stopping tedium. When one composer’s modest set of burbling ideas had gone on twenty minutes too long, I began to feel the sort of silent-scream frustration that grips air passengers at the end of a hellish flight: the plane’s at the gate, you’re crouched under the overhead baggage compartment, but some unseen delay in first class prevents you from escaping. Of course, this being a crowd filled with the old guard of New York bohemia, listeners generally played it cool, nodding to a nonexistent beat.
History instructs us to pay close heed to the musical avant-garde, for the squawks and bleeps that Unabomber-looking composers unleash in depopulated lofts have a way of showing up twenty years later in the mainstream. Sounds Like Now convened many giants of American experimental music—the descendants of such lone wolves as Cowell, Partch, Cage, and Nancarrow. Alvin Lucier, whose 1970 spoken-word composition “I Am Sitting in a Room” is an iconic work of electronic music, offered up icy arrays of oscillating tones, and also tapped pencils over containers of various sizes. The untouchably far-out composer Robert Ashley gave us “Empire,” a scene from his opera “Atalanta,” which mixes family memories with a history of tomato soup. Pauline Oliveros created an achingly beautiful soundscape with the Deep Listening Band. Phill Niblock was represented by “Hurdy Hurry” and “Sethwork,” in which gyrating masses of tone seemed to be emanating from the listener’s own brain. (No, I wasn’t stoned.)
Downtown composers generally spurn bourgeois conceptions of narrative, but a little sense of arrival never hurt anyone. Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams achieved it in their jazz improvisation with the drummer Tani Tabbal: at the climax, Mitchell played steel-girder tones on the saxophone while Abrams and Tabbal spun a spiderweb of piano figuration and cymbal washes. David First and Tom Hamilton, who organized Sounds Like Now, caught a similar wave of energy in “Two Party System,” pairing long-held drones with rapid, flippy-dippy patterns. Kyle Gann’s pieces for Disklavier piano—“Texarkana,” “Bud Ran Back Out,” and “Unquiet Night”—were an oasis of crystalline chords and jitterbugging polyrhythms. And Morton Subotnick’s “Until Spring Revisited,” at the end of the festival, sent everyone home happy: the chief pioneer of synthesizer composition tapped madly on a laptop, generating swarms of pointillistic sound that coalesced into shining major triads. The wilderness of noise was bought up and drilled dry decades ago, but the plainest chords still have the power to surprise.
There was a fair amount of political commentary during the Sounds Like Now festival, spouting variously from the left, the far left, and beyond the fringe. If any avant-gardists raised hell for Bush this fall, I didn’t hear about it—although I admittedly made no effort to find them. The composer-pianist “Blue” Gene Tyranny set the tone by dedicating a melancholy, bluesy fantasia on “America, the Beautiful” to Ray Charles and John Kerry. Tyranny repeated this piece at the remaining five concerts—I couldn’t attend the fifth in the series—and each time he was joined by a new player, until the tune disappeared into a rage of improvisation.
Meanwhile, up at Merkin Hall, Phil Kline offered two pieces entitled “Rumsfeld Songs” and “Zippo Songs,” as part of a concert presented by John Schaefer’s “New Sounds” show on WNYC. (The cycle is also available on Cantaloupe Music, the same label that released “Decasia.”) The notion of making music out of Donald Rumsfeld’s press conferences, which include such T. S. Eliot-like ruminations as “As we know, there are known knowns,” sounds like a throwaway joke, but Kline, a composer with a keen ear for speech rhythms, delivers a cunning portrait of a bureaucrat’s soul. The music is fey and detached, leaning on the raised fourth degree of the Lydian scale, which supplies a lighter-than-air quality. By some arcane alchemy, Kline draws clean melodic lines from such unpromising material as Rumsfeld’s analysis of the looting of Baghdad: “It’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase.” I caught myself singing this the other day, to my alarm.
The “Zippo Songs” show the underside of Rumsfeld’s flippancy. In Vietnam, soldiers etched mordant sayings on Zippo lighters. Kline collected twenty-six of them into one of the most brutally frank song cycles ever penned. The texts range from the caustic (“If you got this off my dead ass, I hope it brings you all the luck it brought me”) to the mystic (“You’ve never lived until you’ve nearly died”). The detachment between music and subject works differently than in the Rumsfeld series: the soldiers’ voices seem to be floating in from the beyond, as, no doubt, many of them are. When you hear all the songs in sequence—at Merkin Hall, Theo Bleckmann sang with unpolished grace—you can’t mistake Kline’s agenda. Yet the music has too much psychedelic mystery to be characterized as mere hectoring from the left. As the composer-monologuist Chris Mann said at one point during Sounds Like Now, “I’m pretty sure that music itself votes Republican.”