I’m later to it than I’d like to be, but I wanted to offer some words on BMOP‘s Big Bang concert last Friday in addition to my earlier brief post of anticipatory excitement. The name of the concert is a clever pun. It not only refers to the percussion pieces that made up the program, but to the idea of creation, of beginnings. The three pieces that made up the program were all massively influential–even when considered on a purely conceptual level. Tracing annals in the history of music always lends itself to dispute, but by and large, this program represents the music of beginnings, of radical change. Each piece seeks a new kind of music that fits the World vision of its composer, that tries to embody and predict and keep up with social change. All of this music looks forward, each piece with its own strange individual beauty. It never mourns or criticizes or looks very long towards the Western tradition. Though many of the predictions this music makes–science and technology surpassing man, the dissolution of national and cultural boundaries–never really came to fruition, they all at least ring partially true today. This music represents movements in Western civilization and 20th century progress that we recognize, even if we didn’t necessarily go where this music thought we would.
The show-piece of the evening, Antheil’s Ballet mécanique (1924), gave the audience a sparsely populated and largely mechanized stage. I think most of us went into it not really knowing what to expect; “were there going to be actual airplane propellers?” “how many player pianos again?” “were the instruments and musicians really going to move about the stage?” “should we have brought earplugs?’ Well, the propellers were sampled, there were eight Yamaha Disklaviers and two human pianists, the musicians didn’t move as Antheil intended, except for one percussionist who hopped back and forth between a xylophone and a gong, and while it was loud enough that you couldn’t have even heard a cellphone ring, you probably didn’t need earplugs. Antheil was ambitious with Mécanique, so much so that one wonders how he ever thought it could be done as he first planned, at least in 1924. But, there was by no means disappointment among us in the audience.
The aesthetics of the piece’s staging were a spectacle of kinetic energy. The eight Disklaviers curved outward from the rear wall of the stage with their working exposed so that we could see these computerized pianos voraciously played through their programming. The music moved so quickly and had so much energy that one became utterly enthralled by its tempos and movement and chaos. The player pianos, and the sirens mounted above them (played by Paul Lehrman with a Wii controller, you could see his hand rising and lowering that small white device at the back of the stage), dominated Ballet mécanique‘s urban industrial soundscape so much that you couldn’t tell what the actual pianists were doing.
The Disklaviers seemed to drive the music while their human stage-mates followed along. Not to say they didn’t share the stage with some talented xylophone players, playing parts originally composed by Anheil for a mechanized xylophone. Even Gil Rose’s conducting was somewhat mechanized (a good thing for this piece of music)–he wore an earpiece playing a click track to keep the 643 time signature changes straight. Long sections of the music are comprised of nothing but the player pianos and sirens and to watch Rose go on waving his baton, conducting machines that more or less play themselves was a funny sight and likely exactly what Antheil intended; to see man dwarfed by his machines. The end of the piece includes twenty silences set in between eruptions of music from the sirens and player pianos and it felt like these machines were poking fun at us. As if they knew they had our attention and were toying with it–like a mischievous robot in a cartoon.Ballet mécanique captures those noises of modern industry and the sonic hurly burly of urban life in a form that some compare to a Cubist painting–all that chaos and brutality that Antheil must have seen emerging, and that he revels in here, so much so that he incorporates machines and mechanization into his score.
Varèse’s Ionization (1931) was inspired by a description of ionization processes in stars. This six-minute piece, scored for a large percussion ensemble, looks away from the towering monuments of technological progress and the din of crowds and industry, to the science of atoms. Military march rhythms are beat out on snare drums, a gong rings ominously, a siren rolls, while other percussive instruments chime in. All this seemingly arbitrary noise was brought elegantly together by Rose and his players into an immensely nuanced and intricately textured ordered system. It resembles the apparent macroscopic order of matter contrasted with its chaotic molecular constituents. Ionization seems to pull things apart and put them back together in a kind of reverse entropy.
With La Koro Sutro (1973), Lou Harrison (right) draws not from industry or science, but World tradition. The piece takes its lyrics from a Buddhist text translated into Esperanto and was performed by a 100-person chorus, a synthesizer drone, and a small (for this concert) percussion ensemble playing an American gamelan designed by Harrison. The instrument spread itself stridently across the stage; made up of wash-tubs, triangles, PVC pipes, several suspended sawed-off gas tanks, and a whole bunch of other things that make noise when you bang them. Leave it to the BMOP to, when they couldn’t get their hands on one of Harrison’s gamelans, build one. The music is divided into a “prologue” and six “paragrafos” all with different timbres. It moves from sounding minimalist and sparse to sacred or folky. Sung by The Providence Singers under Andrew Clark, the vocal lines are a mash-up of Gregorian, Chinese, and Japanese traditions. La Koro represents a (compositionally) complex amalgamation of World traditions, of radical multiculturalism. Harrison was drawn to exotic scales, tunings, rhythms, and instruments and sought to inform the Western tradition with traditions from elsewhere. He studied Indonesian gamelans, African drumming, Mayan legend, and, of course, Esperanto. The fact that it’s sung in this utopian language (it was commissioned by a World Esperanto Convention) is indicative of the multinational and multicultural ideal that Harrison is pointing at with his music; just as Antheil saw an ideal in technological progress and Varèse saw one in science.
This was an epic program and it’s hard to judge, because the music and instrumentation is so unique. One can’t really say that the player pianos were “off” or that they’ve heard better American gamelans elsewhere. Even without actual airplane propellers, the BMOP put on a great show–the kind of programming I may not want to hear every weekend, but when you do hear it, you know you’re hearing something special.