Ligeti

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HarpingOn

vision changes
significant weight gain
rash
yellowish eyes or skin
dark urine
black/gray stool (my personal favorite)
fever
wheezing
swollen face or lips

I can drink again. During a three-month course of an anti-fungal (sexy, right?), I was under orders to avoid both grape and grain, lest my liver fail, rendering any of the aforementioned side effects. (Note: the list is not exhaustive. A struggling liver can in fact take many guises. My decision to hazard a glass of white wine on December 23 made for an interesting set of services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as I had the sensation that someone was attempting to extract an SUV from of my upper intestinal tract, all the while a hippopotamus loitered on my right temple.)

Fortunately, I’ve finished the medication round now. New Year, new me (and new toenails?). I wouldn’t say I’ve been celebrating as such, but I have renewed appreciation for some of the more bizarre drinking haunts in the city.

Friday, 1AM – Sake with lawyer-friend M. On late nights in East Village, one can find a fantastic assortment of despondent and depressed looking Japanese expats from NYU drinking away their sorrows. Decibel has no formal decoration, but is completely covered in Japanese graffiti and kitschy posters, adding extra grunge to this underground Tarantino -esque rice wine and tempura hovel. Of course, the quality of décor is proportionally inverse to the prices, as well the level of tipping expected by the staff: opening a bottle of Sake – though, not always the one you ordered – costs in excess of $95 and merits a 35% tip. (Fear not, I wasn’t paying.)

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Saturday, 10PM – Up in Harlem, my friend P and I headed to ROKC, a ramen bar where the beverage list is four times the length of the food menu. My Japanese barley vodka with lavender and elderflower was served to me in a light bulb, while my companion’s spicy jalapeño cocktail came in a nitrogen-frozen green bell pepper. Totally unnecessary. AND ALSO AMAZING. Although if you are peckish, you can get a truffle appetizer, consisting of 2 oz. of hard cow’s cheese drizzled in truffle honey, for only $20.

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Sunday, 7pm – A quiet drink with my friend A at Burp Castle, a Trappist-themed Belgian beer bar, complete with faux-Flandrian murals of Jesus being served beer by baby naked angels and winged friars, and overweight monks encouraging townsfolk to support both the Church and booming sex trade in a Belgian village. But be careful… SSSSSSHHHHHH! Bartenders enforce a noise limit as to keep the establishment as quiet as possible (I told you it was Trappist-themed). Talk too loud, and you are subject to a reminder from the staff that Burp Castle is the only bar in the city where having a truly quiet drink is in fact possible. Being told to “shush” by the bartender is precious. But on a busier night, beanie-clad Warby Parker bros can be witnessed doing some vigilante shushing, keeping up the exclusive-chic atmosphere that every NYC bar wishes it had.

Were I a truly committed alcoholic, I suppose I would actually care about what I was drinking. But I’ve completely succumbed to the New Yorker’s addiction to ambiance, rather than substance. Let’s be real: third-rate sake isn’t particularly nice, barley vodka with lavender tastes of L’Occitane gift basket, and Belgian beer can be obtained anywhere in the city and for less than $11 a pint. And yet it’s so fun anyway. Who cares?  These establishments aren’t intended for daily frequentation, as the self-conscious absurdity levels are really appropriate for the occasional visit – there’s a maniacal sincerity about the bizarre which makes it enjoyable for a short while, before becoming totally overwhelming.

I must say it’s been nice to unwind and imbibe in some of the city’s quirkier establishments. I’ve been practicing a little harder than usual lately, as I’ve got some naughty music on the docket at the moment. My recital this weekend includes come music of György Ligeti, whose project to untie himself both from past influences and any acknowledgement of any contemporary trends and styles (read: carefully cultivated mind-fuckery) wrought a corpus of seemingly tongue-in-cheek works, all sharing the common trait of phenomenal technical difficulty.

For instance, one work for organ called Volumina requires three assistants, patience in reading a score that looks like a piece of visual art, and a venue willing to let you perform the work in the first place. (Between the use of your elbows and palms on the instrument and the intentional straining of the instrument’s winding system, the work has a reputation not just for pushing organs to the limit, but in fact breaking them.) The piece starts with all stops drawn, and every note depressed but with the organ switched off – the first real thrill comes from hearing the bellows strain and try and fill the organ with wind as best it can.

Very likely to the audience’s relief, I will not be playing Volumina on Sunday. I will however be playing two of his études. They definitely fall into the “fun” category, as they intentionally subvert the organ’s traditional role as a patrician instrument, symbolically antiquated and conservative in stature. Harmonies is the title of the first etude. While there are chords all throughout the piece, one can hardly tell: Ligeti intentionally has a single stop drawn out only halfway so that the wind can’t make it through all the way through the pipes. Clusters of dissonant chords are held down by the performer, changing one note at a time for 8 minutes, so as to show the textural potential of pipes themselves when they aren’t fully engaged. The effect is interesting, it’s somewhere between the quietly ecstatic and the faintly annoying, as if your prissy handheld vacuum cleaner is slowly running out of batteries.

Coulée, the second étude, works on a similar principle of changing harmonies one note at a time, but moves at a faster pace. The two hands begin playing the same material in mirror of each other, until gradually, note by note, they come apart playing irregular patterns in contrary motion to one another. On one level, it doesn’t sound too difficult, as it’s simply an exercise in bleeding notes in and out of each other. But the organ is clumsy and imperfect, and the chaos of the work requires a great attention to smoothness and ease. There’s no sustaining pedal like on a piano, no possibilities for pitch bending like on a string instrument.

In addition, I’ve got another piece by a friend in Germany which I’ll be giving the American premiere this week. This is going to be really fun. Rather than exposing the instruments’ capacity to be stretched, it’s a work which takes its grandiose and authoritarian visage and plays with it. Wendeltreppe is not just for organ alone, but for organ and pre-recoded electronics,  taking a very slow and dramatic section of Bach’s Fantasia in G minor and repeats it over and over. The original material is very weighty because of the number of key changes, unsettlingly changing sharps and flats to come full circle through all twelve white and black notes in 4 measures of music. But in my friend Jan’s piece, this section is repeated over and over, playing back and forth between the two instruments. But while my part remains mostly the same, the other part gradually increased both in velocity and pitch, constantly wavering in and out of being “in-tune” with the organ. The effect is hard to describe, except that the gradual effect is that one part increasingly sounds like a VCR on fast-forward, while the organist is struggling to keep up. By the end, the organ has to drop out as it can’t maintain the pace, while the electronics continue to unwind, getting faster and faster and faster…

Ok, you’ve got me. Portions of my program are intended to discombobulate, potentially discomfort and confuse the audience to the point that they have to – well, unwind. This isn’t to say that there isn’t “substance” to the music (although, I’m not quite sure what many musicians mean by that these days), but that purpose of the music isn’t so enveloping as to push you towards self-reflection, discovery of truth, any of the good stuff. Following the music, and tracking its progress isn’t the point. You’re not allowed to stand at five feet’s distance, but precisely the opposite: you’ve got to hop in for the ride.

Going to bizarre bars and establishments taking hip to nth degree usually foot the bill just fine. But I’ve come to expect that from these placed. Sometimes it’s better to be surprised, to head to an exhibition or a concert expecting to be moved, and instead being overwhelmed by absurdity. Last week, Cate Blanchett did just that for me. At the Park Avenue Armory, Julia Rosefeldt’s Manifesto was on display, a video installation of 13 short films dramatizing the central tenets of major philosophical and aesthetic schools of thought. You had one on Marxism, Constructivism, Dadaism, etc. etc. I was curious to see what would be done with all of these. But in the first video, Cate Blanchett dressed up as a homeless Glaswegian man (complete with beard, beanie and trolley) amidst a disused industrial wasteland to recite Marx and Engels. Dadaism was an Irish-American widow, delivering a eulogy at her husband’s burial. You get the idea – it was cliché upon cliché, intentionally ironic about the messages.

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But there was something else too. Each of twelve videos was exactly the same length and coordinated with each other. Every 15 minutes, in the middle of whatever video you were watching, I heard a single voice starting to sing on a monotone, coming from an American evening news reporter decrying her manifesto’s truth that all men are “fake.” But the lone prophet heralded a greater noise – 20 or so seconds later a D minor 7 chord whirs around the main hall of the Armory, as all of Cate Blanchett personae started to sing the central and most famous portions of their manifestos on monotones.

I admit I started to ask myself: what’s the point? Is it to show the beauty of the extent of human thought amidst the absurdity of delivery? Is it to highlight the sameness of all these Manifestos? Why a minor 7 chord? Is the dissonance indicative of the inability for men to resolve these questions? Or is it a symbol of perpetuity? But in each instance I was distracted by the puppeteer dressing her puppet as a hipster, the New York housewife lecturing her children, the Russian turban-wearing ballet choreographer, the West Coast yuppy artist, the maniacal stockbroker, etc. I couldn’t actually infer any meaning, because I was too busy simply looking and listening to it all.

I love going to things like this; Rosefeldt’s exhibit flies in the face of a far too common misconception that the avant-garde, the weird, the strange, the “out-there” – whatever you want to call it, is indigestible. But it’s only that way if we make it so. I’m known for being rather vocal about the fact that too many classical musicians and their ardent fans often take metaphorical pills to eliminate the possibility that the absurd, the ridiculous (i.e. fun, maybe) cannot be processed. We expect that music is supposed to “do” x, y z – move us, incite us to reflect, lead us our higher selves. After all, classical music is serious, remember? But humans need down time, and weirder music can, like alcohol, be taken in moderation. Obviously a solid diet of Ligeti might saturate the musical liver too far in the opposite direction. But what if we as musicians kept trying to program not just in terms of appeal, but with the view that avant-garde music, new music and variety are all necessary? The canon is so exhaustive, that we can surely take a break, ditch the pills, and grab a drink. Humans have to unwind. Shouldn’t music?

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