Monday, June 1, 2009

Social Contracts and Endurance Tests in Musical Performance

It is not often that I run out of patience with a performance and decide to leave before it has "officially" concluded, but this is what I found myself doing after a little more than two hours of the Sacred Space SFJAZZ concert last Friday evening at Grace Cathedral. As I wrote in my review, the performances after the intermission did not really add anything to the performances that had preceded it. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove seemed to spend more time in the second half exploring standards rather than experimenting with new improvisations appropriate to the cathedral's acoustic idiosyncrasies; but he never sounded particularly inventive, regardless of what he was playing. On the other hand saxophonist James Carter jumped feet-first into a diversity of experimental approaches to what he could do with his sounds in that space; but, during the second half of the concert, it sounded as if he had exhausted all of his ideas during the first half. None of the pieces performed strove for the "epic" durations of Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz" session or John Coltrane's "Ascension;" but, however accessible the durations of the individual performances may have been, I found myself wondering if I was descending into boredom.

John Cage used to say that nothing was boring. You just hadn't experienced it enough for it to be interesting! I believe he attributed this position to his study of Zen. While I appreciate the discipline of this attitude, I find that I really do not subscribe to it. If so much of my research is into the social nature of music, then part of that nature is a "social contract" between "producers" and "consumers." I tend to think about that "contract" in terms of a "journey through time;" and, when it turns out that the journey is not really going anywhere, I find that I take issue with it. Perhaps another way of putting it is that the contract is a bit like one between a tour guide and a tourist. The tourist expects the guide to be an escort and probably a more perceptive set of eyes; but, in the spirit of that joke I recently told in reference to baryton music, you don't want your tour guide in Antarctica to tell you more about penguins than you would ever want to know! This seems one guideline for finding the distinction between stimulating and boring.

There are problems, however, with trying to apply this metaphor to questions of event duration. For example the commitment of well over four hours to the San Francisco Opera production of Olivier Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise really strained my patience in just about every possible way. The good news was that my box seat gave me a great view of the three Ondes Martenots and their performers; but, after a while, watching the musicians was not a "remedy" for my frustration with the opera itself! Messiaen had developed a richly motivic language for telling the story of Saint Francis; but, while the motivic language of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle could sustain telling a story that stretched over four operas, it did not take long for Messiaen's motives to outlive their welcome.

Having made this claim, however, I should state that I have no problems listening to my recording of this opera, provided that I listen to it in chunks more conducive to the commitment of my time. The whole opera consists of eight tableaux distributed over three acts. I think it would benefit from performing those three acts over three successive evenings, just as Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio is actually a series of six cantatas, each of which was intended to be sung at a difference Advent service.

From another point of view, I can cite an opera that probably took as much clock time as Saint François but managed to keep me fixed to my seat from beginning to end (without any intermissions). This was the Einstein on the Beach collaboration of composer Philip Glass with stage director Robert Wilson. Ironically, Wilson made it clear that he had no problem with members of the audience getting up to wander around during the performance. Put another way, each individual was free to take an intermission whenever (s)he wanted to do so, taking as long a break as felt comfortable. When my wife and I saw it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, we had front-row seats; and my attention was pretty equally divided between what was happening (very slowly) on stage and what the Philip Glass Ensemble was doing in the orchestra pit. Perhaps my attention was encouraged by my being more familiar with the music than I had been for Saint François (although in both cases I had listened to recordings before attending the actual performances). Thus, the only conclusion I can draw from my own data points seems to be that any "social contract" concerned with the attention paid by the audience has a lot of fine-print clauses in it; and it is probably just as well that any purported "breach" of that contract will never have to be argued in a court of law!

1 comment:

Dan said...

Presumably, though, the true tour guide finds his facts interesting, even though he's conveyed them many times, which amplifies Cage's point.

I'll admit the first time I experienced Sondheim's "Into the Woods," I found it pretty tedious and repetitive near the end, but with time I've grown to appreciate every moment.