Sunday, May 04, 2008

Tashi ragin' // "Girl" Friday

Attended a great concert this afternoon: the chamber group Tashi performing Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time at Town Hall.

I don't hear classical music live that often, so in some ways this was an unusual foray for me. In another sense, though, it was a total cliché. What I mean is that Messiaen is one of those touchstone composers that people who "don't normally listen to classical music" are always namechecking. The same way that jazz musicians LOVE to say that "They've been listening to a lot of Björk lately," experimental and avant-rock musicians are obsessed with referencing Messiaen (Weasel Walter of Flying Luttenbachers fame--he's playing tomorrow, incidentally, at Lit Lounge on Second Ave--is among those frequent namecheckers, but at least he was boss enough to put his money mouthwise by covering part of Messiaen's L'Ascension on FL's Cataclysm album). Messiaen is well ensconced in the canon of Stuff It's Cool to Say You Like, in other words, and the Quartet in particular is the one work that it's especially Cool to Say You Like.

Not that Messiaen and the Quartet are any less in vogue in the classical music subculture. Alex Ross devotes lengthy portions of "The Rest Is Noise"--might as well link to my piece on it which ran in Time Out NY a while back--to the man and the work. In fact, his top-ten list of modern classical recordings at the end of "Noise" is the first place I heard of Tashi's version of the Quartet. After I finished "Noise," I was all set to get on the classical train, and so I picked up a few of the CDs on that list, including the aforementioned Tashi disc, a CD of Schoenberg piano works and Messiaen's "From the Canyons to the Stars." I'm embarrassed to say that I've yet to listen to the latter two all the way through. So much for my being a well-rounded modern classical enthusiast. I did make it through Tashi's Quartet, however, and remember being pretty psyched on the work and the performance, which was why the listing for today's show caught my eye in Friday's Times.

Aaaaaanyway, pardon the digression. Basically that was a disclaimer because I don't want to be That Guy, i.e., the classical nonenthusiast who goes around raving about Messiaen. But alas, I am Him whether I like it or not. This was a really, really excellent show, and a lot of that had to do with the work itself.

Had this been a rock show, it would've been something akin to All Tomorrow's Parties' Don't Look Back series, i.e., Slint playing Spiderland live or somesuch. In the program notes we're told that Tashi was--in their early '70s heyday--"on the level of Jimi Hendrix in the classical music counterculture." (The pic above might help us to understand why.) Quartet was their signature work then, and if Ross's list is any indication, their recording of it is still the One to Get. Before January, they apparently hadn't performed Quartet together in three decades.

Like I said, I'd heard the CD before tonight's show, but only once, and that was a long time ago. And obviously I didn't hear Tashi the first time around, but again, they slayed tonight.

Sorry for the digression and procrastination re: actually Describing What I Heard. Mainly this is due to me feeling way outta my element in writing about classical music. I'll see what I can do. The first part of the program consisted of two short Renaissance works arranged for Tashi by the contemporary composer Charles Wuorinen. I know very little about Renaissance music other than it's supposed to be very florid and very complex--and that it's a major part of the fascinating musical cosmology of Charlie Looker. These pieces were indeed that, the first one, by Josquin des Prez, being very stately and proper and pretty and very much in line with stuff I'd heard before from the period. The second one, by Thomas Morley, was similar, though a lot more intricate: I'm really not equipped to throw words like polyphony or counterpoint around, but I think I will. Basically what I mean is that there were several independent melodic lines swirling around in what sounded like a "round" form (i.e., "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," not "unpointy"), but was probably something much more complex.

The next piece was "Quatrain II," a "response" to the Quartet by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, who I'd never heard before. My impression of this was largely eclipsed by the Quartet itself, but I remember being struck by how rhythmically free it was (how do composers notate material so that it just sounds like it's floating in midair?) and how a lot of the note choices elicited that sort of "alarmed," "uneasy" feeling that modern classical composers can tend to run into the ground. Enjoyed this one, but again, not much was left in the brain after hearing the Messiaen that came after.

The Messiaen piece. [Takes deep breath] Okay, here goes. One thing I've got to say about this piece right off the bat is that I love the instrumentation. From what little I know of the chamber repertoire, I don't think there are too many pieces scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. There's not really a lead instrument in the Quartet, but the clarinet parts in this one are especially striking. It didn't hurt that Richard Stoltzman, Tashi's clarinet man, was absolutely astounding. All of the players shredded, but he was really badass.

The Quartet has eight movements, and there's a really interesting assortment of material. Three of the movements are basically solos for one player or another, with the third being an unaccompanied clarinet feature, the fifth being a slow cello feature accompanied only by very minimal piano and the eighth being the same sort of thing but for violin. Several of the other movements are REALLY kinetic, especially the sixth, which is like this almost math-rock sounding (at least to me) rhythmic workout.

The third movement, Stoltzman's solo, was the first to really grab me. I was mainly marveling at his tone, how he was really touring the instrument in terms of timbre, from high and piercing to robust and woody. He got all these awesome effects: liquid trills, staccato outbursts, etc. Like all the players in Tashi, Stoltzman was really feeling this, darting and jerking his head as he played. Intense, intense and intense.

After the fourth movement, which is this kind of oddly sprightly jaunt, the fifth one just knocked me down completely. This was the feature for the cellist, Fred Sherry, and it was totally stunning. The Quartet has a lot of really forceful, kinetic, even violent passages, but this movement is totally placid--at least on the surface--and incredibly subtle. Messiaen's composition notes, some of which can be read here, refer to "A long phrase, infinitely slow, by the cello" and this description was totally at the forefront of my mind as I was listening; there were several passages, especially the incredibly drawn out final note, where it seemed like Sherry was taking an eternity to draw his bow across the strings. I just remember this section evoking a very sad, reflective mood, with these very subtle twinges of what sounded like paranoia. Some of the melodies in the more excited sections of the Quartet had that "alarmed" or "uneasy" (and I intend the quotes to convey a quality of ersatzness) quality that sometimes makes modern classical music sound way dated, but this movement had none of that. It was luxurious and heartbreaking and Sherry and the pianist, Peter Serkin, just nailed it.

Probably the coolest transition in the performance came right at this point, as Tashi launched into the sixth movement, definitely the most ballsy and kinetic section. A lot of it consists of these really jagged, almost martial sounding rhythms that for me immediately brought to mind early-'70s King Crimson (although as with my bandmates and musical compadres, it doesn't take much to conjure prog rock in my brain). This movement was definitely the peak energy point of the show; incredibly tight and strident. The seventh movement had more dynamic variation, but similar peaks of violent precision. I remember noticing that Serkin was particularly on fire during this one; he really convulses when he plays and he was bouncing off the stool at this point.

The final movement was just the violinist, Ida Kavafian, and Serkin, and it was amazing. Kavafian played with major passion (and plenty of bodily convulsion), and like Sherry during the fifth movement, extended her notes to insane lengths, especially the last one, which just seemed to keep on going. I really like how the Quartet fades out into nothingness rather than ending emphatically. As cool as the sixth movement is, it was the fifth and eighth ones that really got me--so rich and moving and subtly wrenching.

Again, I have little to compare it to, but this was an outstanding performance, and one that definitely made me realize I need to be hearing classical music live more. Hopefully someday I can move beyond the works that It's Cool to Say You Like, but for now, I'm more than happy being blown away by known commodities. The cool thing is that since this show was part of Town Hall's Free for All series (Laal and I had to wait in line for about an hour this a.m. to score free tix), there were probably a lot of other folks there digging this for the first time as well. Tashi respected that by putting on a vigorous, visceral, poignant show. I sensed nothing rote afoot whatsover.

Speaking of the well-wornedness of the quartet, obviously the fact of its being written in a German POW camp is a big part of its cache. I only noticed while writing this blog post, but Alex Ross did a lengthy New Yorker piece on the work's genesis back in '04. Haven't read this one, but I'm going to right now, and I can't imagine I'll be disappointed in the least.


Also, real quick: Saw The Country Girl on Friday with my mom, some other dear family and Laal, and I thought it was really cool and charming. Had heard terrible things about it, but I felt totally engaged and psyched. Peter Gallagher (hail his performances in "The Player" and "Short Cuts"), Frances McDormand (any Associate of Coens is a hero of mine) and Morgan Freeman (man, I wore out my VHS tape of Lean on Me, and do I even need to mention how amazing Shawshank Redemption is?); 1950s period piece by Clifford Odets about an alcoholic actor on the comeback trail. As my cousin said, the material is definitely a little "creaky," but man, this play had such a VIBE, and the actors--especially Gallagher as a fast-talking purist theater direction--really nailed it. You know how in the beginning of Barton Fink, you see his play being performed and there's this whole thing about the fishmonger hawking and the paperboy yapping the morning news and just that gritty, yet totally stylized Theater of the Common Man sort of thing? This play really had that feel, with the tough-talking female lead with the wounded heart and her alcoholic husband trying to please everyone, and the two of them loving each other even as they were propping each other up and tearing each other apart, and just the sheer sort of stock nature of the whole thing. It was really familiar and maybe even a little hokey, but there was something heartwarming about that, especially on Broadway. I felt like it was appropriate to be seeing something that classic and old-fashioned live onstage. A taste of another era, definitely.


jake said...

Great write-up, man. Messiaen's hipster vibe makes me uncomfortable too, but I'm glad more people are checking his music, regardless of motivation.

So quick question: When you mention "alarmed" and "uneasy" passages in modern classical music, do you basically just mean dissonance? If so, why does it seem cliched? A lot of the jazz/rock you write about is pretty thorny (e.g. - that excellent AACM mix below) and I'll bet you'd agree dissonance in those genres can be employed in countless ways, some good, some bad. Is there some essential difference between jazz/rock and classical I'm not getting?

Hank said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hank said...

Jake--yeah, in a way you're right: I think a lot of what I'm getting at is simply the use of dissonance in modern classical. It's more though that there's this certain *way* it's used in that medium that has come to seem like a cliche to me, i.e., it becomes a shorthand for "difficult"/"challenging"/"modern" etc. The truth of the matter is that a lot of modern classical music sounds pretty dated at this point, parts of the Messiaen included. That's not to say that some '60s jazz that was then considered avant-garde doesn't sound dated. I'll have to think more on whether or not I agree with dissonance being codified in quite the same way in that tradition though... Either way, it's a compelling point you raise!

Anonymous said...

Hank, I really enjoyed reading your account of the Tashi reunion. I just want to say that sometimes today's rocker who is name-checking Messiaen like you describe is on their way to becoming more. 20 years ago I was that very thing and it led me to Nancarrow, Perderecki, Xenakis, Cage, Zorn, Braxton, Stockhausen, Scelsi, Giuffre, composition lessons, the double bass, and many other wonderful things. It was the Tashi recording, by the way. It's the reason I covered a bit of the Quartet on my CD "Intersections," just to kind of pay homage.

Trendiness is a drag, and people who only nibble at the obvious without tucking into the deeper meal are dull, true, and NYC is full of them to be sure, but I have a little bit of sympathy, because after all, nobody starts off knowing everything.

Anyway, I wish I could have been there to hear the jams...