The Kitchen has grown up. Many still seem to regard this vital avant-garde center as a slightly glorified loft, which is sort of the way it began seven years ago. But its May 20 benefit concert was more like a function at an established museum of new video and music, which is sort of what it has become. The Kitchen music program is now far better funded, far better staffed, and far more active than the older contemporary music organizations in New York, such as the Composers Showcase or the Group for Contemporary Music, and the atmosphere has changed a lot. For the benefit there were not only chairs for everyone but also a couple of ushers, a healthy list of patrons and friends, potted plants on the stage, and even tuxedos on the male staff members. And despite scant advertising and special $10 ticket prices, the space was filled to its capacity of about 250 for both the 6:30 and the 10 p.m. programs. Moreover, the new director, Mary MacArthur, gives one the impression of a real professional in the field of arts management, the kind of person that a foundation would be likely to trust. The crucial point, however, is that the experimental music the Kitchen has nurtured has also grown up. Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, Robert Ashley, and Steve Reich don’t appear in slightly glorified lofts much anymore. Their work now seems more appropriate to, well, to an established museum of new video and music.
I have not written much about Glass, Monk, and Reich in the past couple of years. Their music was most exciting for me when they were first evolving it, and when I was first discovering it. I still enjoy hearing their work, however, and this is a good opportunity to update my impressions.
The most gratifying thing for me about Glass’s rich blend of electronic organs and amplified winds and voices has always been the sheer joy and sensuality that somehow come through. This is curious, because I know that Glass has more abstract things in mind, and to be sure, there are also many intellectual rewards within his rhythms and harmonies. But these intricacies would not hold my attention nearly so long if they were not presented with such exuberance. Some of his more recent pieces have been shorter, simpler, aimed at a more popular audience, and less substantial in my opinion, but that is not the case with his ‘Fourth Series Part I,’ which he presented here. Since this is an organ solo, the texture is naturally thinner than in his ensemble works, but the sensuality and intricacy are still there, and hearing his solo performance, I was particularly impressed by Glass’s performing ability. His fast tempos were always steady, he kept tricky three-against-four patterns right in synch, his feet never missed the pedal tones, and the sudden shifts between the long hypnotic sections and the shorter more decorative sections were always right on.
The most gratifying thing for me about Monk’s music has always been her own unique singing. Now, however, I have begun to realize that her music probably has as much to do with acting as with singing, and I’m not sure whether that has to do with increased awareness on my part, or a more internalized performance attitude on hers. In any case, when she sings her unaccompanied ‘Songs from the Hill,’ I now hear not only a series of curious and precisely defined vocal techniques, but also a series of curious and precisely defined characters. One song seemed to be coming from a mysterious little crying girl, another from a mysterious old braggart, and so forth. These excerpts were followed by music from ‘Tableau,’ which she now does with the assistance of Andrea Goodman and Monica Solem, who play recorders with unusual skill, as well as helping Monk to sing her wordless melodies and play her piano accompaniments. Here I am sure the music itself has grown, as well as my own perception of it. The voices match much more closely than when I first heard the piece in Town Hall a couple of years ago, and here too the theatricality is quite strong. I found it easy to fantasize characters and situations as the music moved through its many contrasting sections.
The most gratifying thing for me about Reich’s music has always been the fascinating rhythmic worlds he creates by approaching relatively simple basic patterns with such inventiveness and, at the same time, such intellectual rigor. The basic techniques may all have come from Ghana, but the music always ends up sounding like American minimalism. Sometimes the finished works fall a little on the dry side, or a little on the pretty side, but in his 90-minute ‘Drumming’ Reich seemed to reach the very core of his idea and produced one of the few works less than 10 years old that I am already willing to consider as a masterpiece. This presentation of the first part of ‘Drumming’ suffered slightly since Reich filled in the vocal rhythms himself instead of using the female singers who generally do them, but on all other counts it was a stunning performance. Watching the proceedings from the third row, I especially appreciated the exceptional talents of Reich’s percussionists, who often have not received their fair share of the credit. People like Russ Hartenberger, James Preiss, and Glen Velez, who performed on this occasion, never miss a beat or a bongo or permit an unintended accent. They phase back and forth across one another’s tempos with perfect ease, and seem to enjoy themselves fully at the same time. Clearly the ‘Drumming’ ideas could never have become the ‘Drumming’ masterpiece if Reich had not found musicians like this to work with.
Robert Ashley’s work tends to be less accessible than that of the others, because by the time people begin to figure out what he’s doing, and how important it is, Ashley has usually gone on to something else. Typically, the Kitchen audience seemed a little confused by ‘The Bank,’ a segment from his latest series, ‘Private Parts.’ Here Ashley reads disjointed half-explained stories in a mellow monotone against lush semi-popular instrumental accompaniments provided by his friend, ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny. It is true that the kinds of multi-media events Ashley did at the Once Festivals in Michigan in the ’60s were recognized as seminal events a few years after he did them. It is true that his later ventures into spontaneous-conversation-as-art are now well remembered, sometimes imitated, and discussed with increasing frequency. It is true that his recent documentary video series ‘Music with Roots in the Aether’ is gradually beginning to be appreciated. And in a few years people will probably begin to grasp ‘Private Parts’ too. I’ve heard two performances and one recording, and I’m still not too sure what is going on. I have begun to notice, however, that Ashley’s monotone voice is not really a monotone, but rather a moving tone that bears some relationship to the background music. I have the feeling that, as with most of his works, I will eventually learn how the piece works and how to listen to it, and that then the music will suddenly sound quite direct and self-evident. So far I’m still confused by ‘Private Parts,’ but I am clearer about Ashley himself. He is an unusually adventurous artist who risks much, generally keeps a few years ahead of the trends, and pays a high price in terms of audience acceptance. He is older than any of the other artists on this program, but he is also the only one of them who chose to come to this highly visible concert with a challenging new idea instead of a safe old one. More power to him. It is refreshing to find avant-gardists who continue to be avant-gardists, even as they approach 50.
Laurie Anderson’s work tends to be far more accessible than that of the others. She presented a series of her songs, which have pop music and cute lyrics; worked with an ensemble of seven musicians, which didn’t seem to have rehearsed much; told some stories, which were first-person anecdotes about her many travels; and ran about 20 minutes over her share of the time, which seemed unfair to the other artists as well as to the audience. She has an attractive personality and apparently a rather large following. But despite a few clever lines and a few effective projections, her work seemed trivial in comparison with the solid musical rewards of the rest of the program. It didn’t quite seem to belong in the sophisticated context of an established museum of new video and music, though I suspect it would have seemed acceptable and perhaps genuinely entertaining in, well, in a slightly glorified loft.