|Photo by Betty Freeman|
A couple of Saturdays ago, several of us, in a corner of the performance space at the Schindler House in West Hollywood, watched as a small spider did what spiders do best. She had anchored her new web between two lightbulbs on an overhead cable. From there she swung down on a strand of web, curving her trajectory to clear the heads of people in the front row, and then made her way back up on another strand, then down again, then up. All the while, the silky moans of Pauline Oliveros’ accordion filled the space with sound, gently guiding the crowd toward an experience of what she calls “deep listening.” Somehow the bond took shape, between the intricate design imposed onto the surrounding air by the spider and her web and by the sounds of Oliveros’ music. Later that evening came another kind of bonding, no less satisfying: Oliveros and shakuhachi player Philip Gelb drawing each other out in over a half-hour of serene improvised “conversation,” full of deep if wordless meanings. By then the spider was lost in darkness, but you could still feel her presence.
Deep Listening: In Oliveros’ world it suggests that charting the course of a classical symphonic movement or a romantic virtuoso exercise, however lavish their rewards, is still the base of the mountain. Up on the slopes are the infinitesimal sounds of spiders at their weaving, the rustlings and breathings in the room around John Cage’s famous “silent” piece, the slow drone of Oliveros’ accordion, tuned to harmonies that break clear of our well-tempered scale. Her instrument engulfs her body as it engulfs our senses; the only picture I can summon up comparable to watching her playing is the memory of Segovia wrapped around his guitar; he, too, could so transport an enthralled audience to the brink of silence, even in the 3,000-seat expanse of Carnegie Hall, as to command a kind of deep listening. Friends who have been there tell me that listening to music in India, where families with small children partake of the experience without abandoning their own sounds and rhythms — so that the world itself creates a part of the experience — also demands a way of listening far different from the artificial attentiveness we sometimes have to manufacture at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. (Please do not, however, take this as extending a welcome to cell phones as a component to the process of listening deeply at the Philharmonic.)
The Schindler House, with its marvelous flow from indoor to outdoor space, generates its own kind of music, and always has; it currently houses the MAK Center for Art and Architecture. In April 1935, the very young John Cage and his mentor, Henry Cowell, presented some Japanese visitors in a concert of gagaku — at that time a most exotic and unfamiliar art — at the House; the venture earned a net profit of $13. Three years later Rudolf Schindler designed a small performance studio on the roof of Peter Yates’ home at 1735 Micheltorena St. in Silver Lake, where Yates — a self-taught aficionado whose adoration of the compositional process shines a bright light in the annals of music consumership — invited musicians to perform new music for select audiences. His concerts, then known as Evenings on the Roof and later renamed the Monday Evening Concerts, still go on (at LACMA) and still challenge. The studio also still exists, and there will be music there — new, of course — this very weekend: two concerts under MAK Center auspices on Saturday, August 18.
Morton Feldman’s music also demands deep listening; the four hours on the edge of silence in his For Philip Guston do not reveal their secrets the first time around. His series of four pieces collectively titled The Viola in My Life provides a more accessible entrée; I would call the last of these — at hand on a new disc on the EMF (Electronic Music Foundation) label — truly beautiful.
The solo viola spins its web: short melodic curves swooping down and up, against bursts of orchestral commentary. I don’t want to belabor the spider analogy, but the sense of dimension in this work, of forces in motion in the near and far distance, and — as in all of Feldman’s work — of the shards of silence alternating with soft, mysterious sounds can hold you spellbound over a 20-minute span (as in this work) or over the four hours of Guston. Feldman’s Instruments II, also on the disc, similarly seeks to weld sounds and silences into a consistent linear experience but does so, to these ears, less successfully. It’s the viola that connects the dots and weaves the exhilaration in the first work — in Feldman’s life and, through him, in ours.
The performances are from David Felder’s excellent June in Buffalo Festival, with Jesse Levine the solo violist and an orchestra assembled from the new-music performing nobility worldwide. Felder, formerly of UC San Diego, has two short pieces on this disc as well — aggressive, intense music that forms glistening, rounded surfaces, where Feldman aims toward flat planes. Heard together, these four works -– the two by Felder interspersed with the two by Feldman — form an absorbing display of great contemporary spirits at work.
For a similar blending of near and far distances, listen to three works by Ingram Marshall on a new Nonesuch disc, Fog Tropes II. Marshall has a fascinating way of reaching out beyond the “normal” musical spectrum; previous works have included the clanking of iron prison doors on Alcatraz Island and the foghorns on San Francisco Bay; the new disc once again mingles the Bay Area’s marine layer into the playing of the Kronos Quartet. I find Marshall’s Kingdom Come even more attractive; into the playing of the American Composers Orchestra Marshall has blended the rough sounds from a taped panorama of folkways: a Croatian church choir in a dirgelike hymn, bells and solo chanting from other churches in the region and an ancient recording of a Bosnian Muslim chant. (The motivation here is the death of a close relative of Marshall’s, killed by a land mine in Bosnia in 1994.)
The element of personal involvement aside, this is powerful, extraordinarily deep-hued music. So is the third work on the disc, Hymnodic Delays, in which members of Paul Hillier’s Theater of Voices sing old American hymn tunes with their singing processed and tape-delayed to create a texture both old and new. This, too, is dark, rather sad music, but the happy overtone here is the presence of a talented American composer constantly in search for new materials, and with a pretty good set of ideas about how to use them.