Sunday, March 9, 2008

Concert life

For whatever reason, there's been a dearth of live music in my life lately. Either there hasn't been much to interest me in Helsinki this season, or I just haven't felt like going out. Whatever the cause, I've made up for it in spades this past weekend. It started with a concert of music for Finnish kantele on Friday, in which my good friend Juhani Nuorvala participated in an improv piece for microtonally tuned kantele and synth, with live electronics. Lovely music, very restful, and redolent of Brian Eno's Music for Airports. My only complaint, which I voiced to him, was that I wanted it to last all evening instead of just fifteen-ish minutes.

Later that same night, I ended up at a concert of Czech music for strings put on by players from the Finnish Radio Symphony. I'd gone along with my friend David, of The Late Review, nominally to hear Janacek's String Quartet no. 1. It was lovely, as expected, and I can think of no other piece quite like it, the way it just seems to start in the middle of a drama, with no preamble or context. The real discovery of the night, though, was Erwin Schulhoff's String Sextet, a predominantly quiet, slow, obsessive, repetitive, magnificently bleak piece that took my breath away. I've usually liked Schulhoff's music when I've encountered it in the past, but have tended to find myself entertained rather than gripped. Knowing the composer's eventual fate, it was easy to picture the Sextet as his final utterance before being taken away to the concentration camps. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover it was written in the 2os, around the same time as the other Schulhoff piece on the program, a fun, if not especially deep set of dances for string quartet, light years away in mood. Glancing over the available recordings, I'm amazed the Sextet isn't more popular. Clearly a major statement, one that will hold up to repeated listening, I think.

Just this afternoon, I ended up at the Finnish première of Rhys Chatham's Two Gongs, in a performance held in an art gallery downtown. It was an impressive piece, all the more so that Chatham wrote at in his teens. Such an idea would never have even occurred to me at that age, and I wouldn't have seen the sense in it even if I'd heard the piece back then. Leaving aside the various problems I had with it as a composition, most of them having to do with the teeth-rattling dynamic levels, it was phenomenal. The waves of sound emanating from the gongs made a hard-hitting, physical impact. The semi-randomized patterns of harmonics and pulses resulting from various playing techniques were endlessly absorbing. Even jamming my fingers into my ears to preserve my hearing produced fascinating textural results. Overall, I'm glad I went. And yet…

It should have been the perfect environment for this music: a high ceilinged, resonant chamber with plenty of natural light filtering in, a few chairs for the audience, and some pretty paintings hanging on the walls. But the performance was endlessly marred by the attitude of the museum-goers who weren't listening to the concert. People, mostly middle-aged and older, strode around the gallery where the concert took place, looking at paintings, fingers stuffed theatrically in their ears, even deliberately crossing the space between the audience and the performers, staring us down with defiant, fuck-you expressions on their faces, as if to challenge our willingness to sit there listening to this horrible music, saying "we paid to get into this exhibit and see these paintings, and we're not going to acknowledge that there's any kind of performance going on, so deal with it." They'd leave the room and immediately begin having loud conversations just outside the open doorway. It made it impossible to focus on those slowly-evolving, iridescent patterns, which was the entire point of the piece.

I'm not one of those people who insists on absolute silence in concerts. I generally like quiet for performances, and hate when people fidget, rustle papers, or start clapping before the last note of a piece has finished ringing, but I'll willingly revise my expectations of quiet, depending on the occasion and setting. In a museum space with open exhibits, one can't expect or demand total silence, or require people to stay still. Two Gongs isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, and one should expect and allow for walk-outs, as well as encourage people to walk in from adjacent rooms if they're interested. To their credit, the gallery did post warning signs about the extreme volume, and requesting a minimum of noise for the barely hour-long duration of the concert. But it truly was ridiculous to be part a group of people trying to have an experience, with another group of people who don't understand that experience doing their level best to keep us from enjoying it, for whatever reason. If I don't like a concert, and can get out without making a big scene, I'll do so. But to disrupt the proceedings for people who are clearly into it, because of some animus I might have against the music? Boorish, shameful, and antisocial in the extreme.

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