For a large majority of serious music lovers, at least in the United States, Anton Bruckner seems to be little more than a curious outlier. Those who openly dislike him are inclined to accuse him of taking too much time to go nowhere. There is a preference for adjectives like “glacial” and similes like “watching paint dry.” Those more inclined to advocacy (I count myself among them) often hide behind weasel words such as “landscape,” putting up the best possible front to avoid coming to grips with the difficulties in describing both the music itself and the experience of listening to it.
Listening to the opening set last night in the Luggage Store Gallery (LSG) during this week’s installment of Outsound Presents’ LSG Creative Music Series, I found myself wondering whether a new generation of music-makers may find themselves more at home with Bruckner’s music. The set was taken by a group that calls itself sauti kelele, which is Swahili for “sound noise.” They performed as a trio consisting of Jordan Boyd on drums, Robert Kirby on both guitar and synthesizer, and Cameron Thomas working with electronically based or enhanced percussion.
The set consisted of a single piece lasting about 50 minutes. To put that duration in context, that is at least twice as long as any single symphony movement that Bruckner ever wrote, with the possible exception of the mammoth Adagio from his eighth symphony in C minor. Yet, true to Bruckner’s rhetoric, I found myself thinking of that adjective “glacial” without any negative connotations. While Kirby did not emphasize the qualities of the overtone series in his guitar work, there was something clearly “fundamental” in his opening tones; and both Boyd and Thomas were almost arrhythmic in approaching their instruments, as if they were suggesting a nebulous mass that had not yet congealed into any recognizable shape.
It did not take long, however, to appreciate that the set would involve a gradual increase in energy. Nevertheless, one was rarely aware that change was happening at any moment. One could only be aware of the immediate present and realize how much it had changed from what memory could recall. If that increase was gradual, it was also steadily persistent. Indeed, the climax reached (and probably exceeded) the threshold of pain for most listeners. Anything electronic was going full blast while Kirby’s bass drum thuds assaulted the ear drums the way a properly aimed right jab assaults the other boxer’s jaw.
Having reached their pinnacle, the sauti kelele musicians held their ground there before beginning a descent that was as gradual as the ascent. As expected, the music receded slowly but surely, eventually allowing itself to be absorbed into the silence of the gallery space. The listener who had withstood the entire 50 minutes (perhaps taking the time to block off her/his ears when the dynamics hit their peak) could settle back on the feeling that a massive journey had been achieved. The attentive listener might then have wondered about how (s)he had been so attentive when so little was happening. However, it was not the volume of it all that mattered but the discipline with which that volume was controlled, which could be read in the faces of all three of the performers.
Clichéd as the phrase may be, this was one of those sets in which the journey mattered more than the destination. Perhaps concert-goers have not yet been able to grasp the significance of that cliché when it comes to listening to Bruckner symphonies. Yes, this site has gone on at some length about landscapes of climaxes and the need to distinguish “lesser peaks” from the climax that “rules them all.” Sometimes, however, one should simply recognize change as an ongoing flow and then, as the old Sixties motto put it, “go with it.” That is how “going with” Bruckner can be a satisfying listening experience; and it appears that sauti kelele is after creating similar experiences.