Saturday, October 06, 2007
Some music crystallizes in a very particular form: each detail has to be a certain way, and the smallest variation at the surface can effectively kill the piece. Other music is surprisingly plastic and robust under transformation. The too-wise-for-his-age Nico Muhly zeroes in on the plasticity of some music, pop music in particular. I'd like to add two examples of surprising robustness or fragility. Le sacre du printemps is a piece which has gone through a fascinating life cycle, and as it 's orchestral suite entered the stable of symphonic warhorses, its original rough invocations of the folkloric became angular details of the modern, and those details, those wonderful details, became precious. And to a great extent, it was in the orchestration of the piece that that preciousness was located. With canny ensemble chords that locked in intonation like barbershop or wind solos in forbidden but absolutely right registers, Le Sacre was a model of music inseparable from its orchestration. But when the composer's own two-piano rehearsal arrangement started making the rounds, or even better, The Roto Rooter Goodtime Christmas Band's five-minute precis (for a sextet dominated by low saxophones and trombones, with extended wind techniques taken straight from the partbooks of Spike Jones' City Slickers), well, the robust rough beauty and brutal dynamicism of the score returned, defeating a seventy-some years of preciousness. (Among other things, the RRGTCB version reminded me of how much I loved those tunes, those tunes). But here's a counter example: Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room is, in principle, a score that could be realized by any speaker, to any text, in any room, and with any number of variations in technical setup. Many such variations have been tried, but none has recovered the qualities of Lucier's own performances. His voice, his text, his room, have all asserted their presence in the identity of the piece; in particular, there is a dramatic curve to the performance, tied up with the listener's response to Lucier's reading of the text, and the process of erasing its imperfections by transformation through -- and, eventually, into -- the natural resonances of the room. There is a psychological particularity here which was , for the composer, unintentional, but its is in precisely that particularity, delicate and unresponsive to re-arrangements, that I am sitting in the room has become such a stable part of the repertoire.