Beautiful cool Sunday afternoon. Instead of travelling to the sunny hilly fields and forests of the state parks just north of the city, I am rambling through the quickly renovating vast industrial area of Long Island City. Just a few years ago desolate old warehouses, now a steely surreal catacomb of residencies, over-priced high rises, artist lofts and chic restaurants, popping up in the unlikeliest of places, and obscure performing arts spaces. The “Secret Theater” is indeed secret, as I am lost despite my recent acquaintance with GPS and smart phones.
At last I stumble into it. Today’s concert is in a small black box theater with a handful of seats. Everyone, including myself, is white, sallow and depressed looking. (It is beautiful outside – why am I here?) The Composer’s Consort: Eight performers – dressed from casually neat to inherently slovenly. Eight works, one by each member.
The concert begins: seven middle-aged, and more, white men, all with advanced degrees – mostly from top music schools – and a pale, hollowed eyed Serbian women, in a short, sack-like dress. The ensemble, I guess, could be thought of as avant-garde, classical, indie rock – made up of small midi-keyboard (the Serbian women who rocks out with every musical gesture), guitar, bass guitar, soprano sax, accordion, drums, percussion – and poet.
The first work is an improv – the melody based on a theme strung together by whatever notes suggested by people who bought items at a bake sale – I presume to raise money for this event. And it sounds it. The poet intones his poetry – incomprehensible through the amplified sound. But enough meaning breaks through the cacophony to let us know about the existential nothingness of it all.
Every other piece by the composers is seemingly scored – at least they do seem to be reading music. The percussionist – overweight with thick blond hair that stiffly emerges downward from his scalp at impossible angles, plays his bongos with unswerving intensity – his eyes assiduously glued to the score – playing each tap, bang and thump, as if every gesture is actually notated. I think that maybe he is just following structure – or so I hope. Without a doubt the players are superb musicians, as good as they get – both in classical technique and the ability to improvise in every style. But… it is all so serious. It is now Malitza’s (the Serbian women’s) turn. Her modernistic rock song is monolithic, her vocals buried in the mix. She fingers her keyboard and sways with some world-weary burden as she sings, her head bobbing to the rhythm. I wonder what it is like to sleep with her – to make love to such “weltschmerz” – afterwards looking up at the cracks of a ceiling in an a barren downtown Brooklyn loft.
Some of the pieces are better than others. A work by my friend, Daniel, is one. It has discernible structure, meaning and feeling. He is a multi-wind player and best on saxophone – both as classical, jazz and anything else you can throw at him. Impressive and eloquent playing.
The accordionist’s work, he tells us, is a mix of Weimer beer hall songs, Lutheran hymns, and Thelonious Monk. He, and the others, sing out the hymns as atonal riffs swirl around the room. Or something like that. Would have come across as chaos, if the composer hadn’t provided the aural roadmap first. But sort of interesting.
Now the poet returns. His work is about a painting – a monologue from the canvas’s point of view – with musical accompaniment. Couldn’t be more perfect for such an afternoon concert. I presume it’s title – though I didn’t catch it – must be something like “I am Art.”
The concert closes. Everyone compliments each other. But are ushered out quickly as the next ensemble is eager to set up for the next performance – a group of thin, intense young women – frighteningly in their strict poise and intelligence. I don’t doubt they are fearsome performers. I grab a program on leaving to see who they are, as I return to the balmy afternoon sun.
The movie Untitled, a film-noir barely captures the dark reality in the living flesh. As I walk to subway to bring me back to Manhattan, I try to suppress an my giggles - the attempt to alleviate my own deep and existential questions of why. But the Christian thought was this: When I had first arrived at the concert a few hours before, Daniel was able to announce to his cohorts that we now had as many people in the audience as there was on stage. So the concert now could begin.