Exploring obscure corners of musical activity has been a consuming pastime of mine for a long time, not only when I have been working as a critic, but at other times as well. The chances of coming across a brand new Varese, or witnessing the birth of an important new musical idiom, may not be very good on any particular night, but there are other rewards. Sitting in an audience of only 30 or 40 brings one very close to the music, emotionally as well as physically. When a performance turns out to be exciting, it can be especially exciting to be among the few people witnessing it first hand. If it does not, there is still a good chance that the event will be dull in some unique way, and that itself can be interesting. And perhaps most important, listeners at such events have a chance to make up their own minds, without having to filter out a lot of preconceptions picked up from ads, reviews, and word of mouth.
I must admit that some of my recent visits to experimental events in SoHo have been disappointing. In one case, the amplification was louder than my ears can take, and I was obliged to leave after 10 or 15 minutes. Another concert turned out to be an attempt at one-man extravaganza. The artist played several instruments creditably, and made intelligent use of a synthesizer and tape-delay system, but since he was dividing his efforts between this and his masks, and his puppets, and his acting, his short piece barely sustained at all, and it never did actually draw me in. In another case, a composer had gathered a few friends together for an evening of informal little theater pieces. The extremely self-conscious performers clowned around a lot, and their friends in the audience seemed to find it all hilarious, but I became increasingly annoyed. Anyone who did not know the people involved would have had much difficulty understanding the jokes, making the necessary excuses, or finding any musical or theatrical significance in the proceedings. The general atmosphere struck me as SoHo insularity at its worst.
Two other events, however, turned out to be well thought out and quite worthwhile. One was Michael Galasso’s program at 112 Greene Street, which I heard on December 2. Galasso is already known for the music he has provided for three Robert Wilson works, but he has seldom presented his pieces outside of theatrical contexts. He works in a perpetual-motion idiom with steady streams of fast notes, a bit reminiscent of works by Steve Reich and Philip Glass. But there is more concern with attractive scales and harmonies, and there is often an almost Middle Eastern soulfulness.
Galasso played violin throughout the evening, and he is a good violinist, though perhaps not quite good enough to do full justice to his difficult violin writing. His fast non-stop bowing patterns and his difficult cascading lines fit nicely on the instrument, but they demand the same kind of total smoothness and control that we have come to expect in first-rate Paganini performances.
One piece, ‘Prologue to Echo Ranch,’ involved also a cello and two flutes. The instruments came together in a most attractive mixture of sustained tones and running lines. I suspect that Galasso’s talent for ensemble writing is at least as great as his talent for creating unaccompanied violin pieces, and both seem quite promising.
Guy Klucevsek’s December 5 concert at the Kitchen was billed as ‘Music for 548 Reeds,’ which is just a roundabout way of saying ‘music for solo accordion.’ Accordion? Well, why not. Pauline Oliveros produced a lot of fine new music on the accordion, and William Schimmel has found a number of fascinating new techniques with it. The instrument is versatile enough to accommodate any number of experimental composer-performers.
Klucevsek’s approach goes in the direction of acoustical investigation. ‘Phantasmagoria’ involves playing clusters with both the right and left hands, and then making gradual transitions from one side to the other. For normal purposes the reeds on one side sound the same as those on the other, but this minimal work allows us to compare minute differences between them. ‘Coruscation’ employs a fast repeated figure. The two hands gradually go out of synchronization with one another and shift through intricate combinations of the basic pattern. ‘Tremolo’ involves exchanging trills back and forth between hands. ‘Differences’ consists of loud sustained tones and clusters, but also generates different tones. Difference tones are a well-known acoustic phenomenon, but are difficult to produce, let alone to control. It was impressive to watch Klucevsek conjure up these soft, low tones, which seemed to be oozing in through the walls. I did not sense a strong originality or an artistic maturity in Klucevsek’s work. Throughout the concert, however, I sensed integrity, curiosity, seriousness, real listening, and real grappling, all of which are healthy and relatively uncommon qualities.
Two stimulating concerts and three disappointments do not add up to a terribly impressive percentage, I suppose. In my experience, though, the chances of real musical excitement are not significantly better at Carnegie Hall, and quite apart from my function as a critic, it seems to me that attending such events is a valuable way to support the arts. Supporting the arts is usually considered a matter of big cash outlays. But those who are really concerned with the future of rock, or jazz, or experimental music, or whatever, can make equally meaningful contributions by simply taking out a couple of hours now and then to poke around in some of the more obscure lofts, bars, and storefronts and checking out unfamiliar names and unpredictable events. It is unhealthy when young musicians end up playing time after time for a few friends. Independent listeners decide for themselves when to clap, when to complain about the amplification level, and whether to go back to the 1977/david-tudors-homemade-pulsers event. This kind of input can be especially valuable, and all too often it is missing.