The New Yorker, April 16, 2007.
I had a curious experience in downtown Manhattan the other night. Early in the evening, I attended a concert of works for instruments and electronics by Alexandra Gardner, at the Greenwich House Music School, on Barrow Street. Then I went to the East Village to catch a late show by the clarinettist and composer Evan Ziporyn, at a club called the Stone. Arriving on Avenue C with a few minutes to spare, I stopped in at a corner deli, and, as I browsed for chips, I was amazed to hear the beautifully fractured finale of György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto on the P.A.—a New York Philharmonic broadcast, with Christian Tetzlaff playing and Alan Gilbert conducting. I felt as if I had stepped into an alternate universe where New York evenings unfolded to a contemporary-classical soundtrack.
We’re not at the point where Stockhausen’s “Gruppen” rumbles over the loudspeakers at Starbucks and American Apparel, but there’s more new music in the city than ever before. Forty years ago, New York had just two full-time new-music ensembles: the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble and the Group for Contemporary Music. Now there are more than forty such outfits, from Alarm Will Sound to Wet Ink. Although these groups sometimes play in the uptown concert halls, they more often appear downtown and in Brooklyn. The Stone features experimental composition alongside free jazz and non-commercial rock. So does Tonic, which, sadly, has been priced out of the Lower East Side and will close its doors on April 13th. And, on a recent night at the Williamsburg art space Galapagos, the ensemble ThingNY played a sometimes punishingly loud set of pieces for electric guitar, trombone, keyboards, bass, and drums, while, in an adjacent room, R. Luke DuBois mesmerized a hipster bar crowd with organically shifting masses of electronic tone. The latter event was part of a monthly series called Darmstadt, named for the legendary avant-garde gathering where Ligeti made his reputation.
An exceptionally vital group of young composers is driving the proliferation of new music. As they pontificate on blogs and Web sites such as Sequenza21 and NewMusicBox, distribute music via MySpace pages and Internet radio, and post flyers for their shows, they act for all the world like unsigned rockers trying to make it in the city. Some, like Christopher Tignor, have adopted a double identity, studying composition by day (in Tignor’s case, at Princeton) and playing by night in a post-rock band (Slow Six). Classifying their work becomes tricky; many composers of Tignor’s generation are erasing the line between classical and pop, dispensing with performers in favor of laptops, incorporating improvisation and world-music practices, or singing their own art songs in semi-pop style. Complicating the picture further is a new breed of pop artist who composes on the side. Glenn Kotche, the drummer of Wilco, has released an album of solo works on Nonesuch; Franz Nicolay, the keyboardist of the Hold Steady, also writes for the rock-inflected Antisocial Music collective. The long-reigning master of genre ambiguity is John Zorn, who founded the Stone in 2005, and whose madcap career has unfolded at the intersection of popular culture and jazz, rock, and classical composition—otherwise known as the corner of Second and C.
Since George Gershwin’s time, people have been talking about a total synthesis of pop and classical traditions. Such a fusion is probably as undesirable as it is unattainable: genre distinctions are part of what makes music comprehensible in the first place. Nonetheless, all music exists on a continuum, and it’s thrilling when a programmer decides to follow a common thread from one genre to another. In February, at Zankel Hall, the pop polymath David Byrne presented a concert called “One Note,” at which all the performances were, in some way, derived from a single droning tone. Drones hummed through a Persian-tinged folk-rock performance by the Iranian-American singer-guitarist Haale; formed bonds between an eclectic set of pieces by Alarm Will Sound (a Renaissance saltarello, Giacinto Scelsi’s 1973 composition “Pranam II,” an arrangement of an ambient track by Aphex Twin); and rumbled beneath an antic, captivating set of songs by the Parisian singer-songwriter Camille, whose style falls somewhere between Edith Piaf and Björk. Zankel has become a vital center for such experiments; John Adams’s In Your Ear festivals, in the same space, have roamed intelligently across the musical map.
Wordless Music is a major new series devoted to conversations between genres. It’s the brainchild of Ronen Givony, a junior staffer at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. An omnivorous listener who absorbs everything from Shostakovich string quartets to the digital collages of the Books, Givony one day asked a colleague why any music for small groups of instruments—classical or rock or jazz—couldn’t be presented as “chamber music.” With the enterprise of a born impresario, he decided to launch his own series, at the Good Shepherd Faith Church, on West Sixty-sixth Street.
One recent Wordless concert, toward the end of March, convened three groups from Canada. Polmo Polpo, a band headed by the guitarist and sound artist Sandro Perri, unfolded richly arpeggiated improvisations over deep bass notes. The ensemble Toca Loca offered a vibrant short set of works by Georges Aperghis, Dai Fujikura, Louis Andriessen, and Andrew Staniland (whose “Adventure Music” is an alternately beautiful and terrifying instrumental meditation constructed around recorded sounds of ice sheets cracking). Finally, the Social Music Work Group led a brassy and viscerally satisfying rendition of Terry Riley’s minimalist classic “In C.” At another concert, last week, a capacity crowd took in the gifted young pianist Gilles Vonsattel, who played Bartók’s “Out of Doors” Suite and Ravel’s “Ondine”; the Portland guitarist Matthew Cooper, whose one-man band Eluvium drifts from serene simplicity to apocalyptic noise; and Amiina, Icelandic string-quartet players who also make magical little noises on mallet percussion, harps, zithers, keyboards, musical saws, and bells of the hotel-desk type.
Everyone has something to gain from this exercise. Classical types can expose their wares to a new crowd: the youthful-intellectual demographic that classical presenters often talk about but seldom attract. At the same time, the so-called “pop” artists—none of them remotely of the Top Forty variety—can enjoy an atmosphere free of background chatter and clinking beer bottles. Listeners benefit the most; they experience familiar repertory from new angles or discover music that they otherwise might have missed.
Givony is now planning a second season, which will include more coolly transcendental Icelandic music—performances by Valgeir Sigurdsson and Múm—together with “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” a densely notated, glissando-heavy piece for strings by Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist of Radiohead. Givony is still looking for participants from the classical world, where he has encountered some blank stares. Anyone who imagines that Wordless Music is overrun by uncouth pop fiends has the wrong mental image: this crowd listens as intently as any audience I’ve encountered outside of Austria, and saves its whoops of enthusiasm for the end. At the moment, there is no more inventive music series in New York.
Link-heavy online follow-up.