8bb at MCA: PowerLESS

Chicago-based, Grammy-award winning eighth blackbird was back at the MCA on Saturday for PowerLESS, the 2nd of 2 concerts exploring music's ability or inability to express anything whatsoever.  The program featured Bach's Chaconne from the Partita for solo violin in d minor and Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, each piece ostensibly making no attempt at expression.

The evening didn't begin, it emerged.  Peter Taub, the director of performance programs for the MCA, gave a short introduction, which concluded with the realization of a seemingly earnestly felt whim: striking a key on the vibraphone, one of the half-dozen mallet instruments on stage.  It happened to be a D, which then was intoned by the off-stage performers as they got into place.  What followed was a fascinating arrangement of Bach's Chaconne by eighth blackbird violinist/violist Matt Albert.  Albert said after the concert that he was struck by the idea to precede Reich's Music for 18 with the Bach, a work that, to him, expressed pure pathos.  [Expressed?!]  Albert's arrangement mimicked the timbre, texture, and flow of the Reich to come, avoiding gratuitous extended techniques, and helped illustrate the structure with textural shifts.  To me, the arrangement seemed to sap the piece of its pathos, changing its affect, translating it into something more cerebral.  

[Listen to the Reich on Youtube.]
The Bach concluded in the way it began with a sustained D, over which the pulse of Reich's Music for 18 began in the marimba--a sublime transition.  The six musicians from eighth blackbird performed up to their unusually high standards, a level which the 13 additional musicians--including Third Coast Percussion--upheld admirably.  The ease and the joy with which they played was infectious.  
For much of the audience, this was their first live performance of Reich's classic--it was for me.  What struck me about the live performance was its space--breadth, width, and depth--that allowed full immersion in the sound, something the flatness of a recording fails to achieve.  It is actually possible to hear all 18 musicians as they come to the fore and then sink into the mix.  Also, seeing this piece live made me appreciate how difficult it must be to perform.  Adam Marks, of the 5th House ensemble, said in the talk-back that the piece was easy in terms of notes but difficult for the stamina it requires--both mental and physical.  Towards the middle of the piece, the crisp, clear precision of the beginning started to waver ever so slightly as the ensemble showed signs of fatigue.  I wondered if Reich, whose phase pieces are so well known, anticipated this coming apart and together of the ensemble over the course of the hour-long piece.
Matt Albert called the Bach an expression of pathos and the Reich an expression of joy.  Feel free to disagree.  This program, PowerLESS, is meant to show that music "is powerless to express anything at all." (Stravinsky)  This music does not express the same thing to everybody, and thus the program was a water-holding argument.  I talked with many people afterward for whom the Reich was not pure joy but something more akin to boredom.  [Apparently listening to minimalism is not easy; here's one blogger's guide.]  On the last program, PowerFUL, the audience could more or less agree (thanks to the lyrics and program notes) what the music was about, thereby showing music's ability to communicate one thing to a group of people.  
This false dichotomy of music is really a continuum with certain pieces approaching either extreme asymptotically but never actually arriving.  It's a balancing act between the individual and the universal. If it's individualist, it's easy to be misunderstood; if it's universal, it's hard to say anything specific.  Perhaps this dichotomy is exactly what music expresses: a preference for one or the other, individualism or collectivism, libertarianism or communism.  "Let me write the songs of a nation, and I do not care who writes its laws." - Andrew Fletcher and/or Plato

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