WINTER/SONIC GARDEN SHOW
Electronic music by Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Marina Rosenfeld, and Ben Rubin. Sonic Garden, October 17th – November 30th, 2002, Winter Garden, New York City.
Opposite the former World Trade Center site, the rebuilt Winter Garden of the World Financial Center is one of the most beautiful corporate-generated, public spaces I’ve ever seen. Dappled, brightly brown, marble floors under foot, huge glass and steel-domed atrium above, palm trees next to me as I wander, open-mouthed, full of questions about the “Sonic Garden” ambient music show I was about to hear. My questions were answered graciously and slowly in thick, resonant Caribbean English by security guards and maintenance men and women, as if this palace built by rich white men had been given away to the cleaners and guarders, rather than entrusted to the usual administrators, interns, curators, historians, proteges and owners of places like this. The complete absence of managers or official gate-keepers seemed strange, disconcerting, and unintentionally subversive, a chink in the armor of multibillion-dollar capitalism. This huge, marble, glass and steel hall with rows of giant palms and comfortable green steel benches seating two apiece was quiet, even intimate on a late Saturday afternoon and early evening of Thanksgiving weekend, the time I chose to take in the event.
“Sonic Garden” was a forty-minute electronic music concert enveloping the Winter Garden atrium several times daily from October 17th through November 30th, 2002. I was informed of the show by a small computer disk sent to me in the mail by one of the producers, Creative Time. As promotions go, it was useful, with audio samples from the show by the four composers and a menu of information options. The four pieces do not get titles other than “Winter Garden Sound Installation” and the composer’s name. Interestingly, I think this simple lack of individualizing titles shifts the attention to commemorating the new space. I got there for the last performance, 9 PM, to a very small, seemingly random group of people who looked very good in the space, draped on the grand steps leading down, on the benches, or walking leisurely by. A few seemed the kind who might have come for the new music.
Music in such spaces, no matter the style—and this was art music mostly—is deeply social music, like elevator music, movie sound tracks and marching-band music. Not to observe the interface of site, audience, time of day, the social and economic forces that brought us all here at this moment would be a sadly limited criticism. Narrow, textual analysis, piece by piece has its place, but this music was made for a site that had been nearly destroyed by the explosions that decimated the World Trade Center, symbolic hub of the world economic order. The miracle of a rich country is how quickly it can bring back something of this magnitude. The four pieces by four composers were not in any way pointedly or politically about the renaissance of the Winter Garden. Instead, they used the occasion to express the values of immersion in a provocative and pleasurable procession of sounds, for a very disparate collection of people, only some of whom were an intentional audience for this concert. Incidentally, talking didn’t disturb, but some louder, compulsive conversations had to be escaped in order to enjoy this concert of ten minute pieces by two well-known composers, Laurie Anderson and David Byrne, and by two unknown to me, Ben Rubin and Marina Rosenfeld.
Ben Rubin’s piece put the wild, “primitive” shouts of the traders in crude oil from the New York Mercantile Exchange nearby together with dreamy triadic synthesizer chords and a rather limp commentary. I was electrified by the raw male “chorus”—the shamanic voices of mercantilism itself. The absence of women on the floor of power was dramatic—and unremarked upon. These men’s voices emerged from a large rectangular pattern of recessed loud speakers beneath the gratings holding the roots of the palm trees. An inspired sound design, and a neatly done technical feat. But the piece misfired to my ears, losing the energy of the traders’ cries which determine the price of crude. The composer says in his program notes that his piece celebrates a “vital verbal culture” but he does not fully explore the strength of this idea. If he had stuck with his ethnography, we would have been thrilled, even if repelled, and certainly the wiser. Did the composer pull some punches in order to be a “good neighbor” to the Mercantile Exchange, prettying up the male bellowing on the trading floor? A composer exploring an unknown land, transmitting a vision, a tribute, could have had a wonderful role to play. David Byrne did make such a tribute in his apotheosis of the world of Jewish comics. I’ll tell about that later.
Marina Rosenfeld’s piece used the whole giant space as a resonant chamber for her delicate, isolated pools of electro-acoustic sounds—with plenty of space/time between each spray or burst. I felt instant satisfaction in the clear knowledge that the aesthetics of Cage and Varèse have born fruit in later generations. Of course, this kind of space would call forth these apostles of sound. My body relaxed in the pure pleasure of that moment.
David Byrne did something totally unexpected. Emerging like Rubin’s piece from the recessed speakers under the palm trees came brief one or two liner jokes by some classic stand-up comedians: Henny Youngman, Mort Sahl, and Alan King. You could wait for a joke to come to your bench, or go chasing it as it came from under another palm tree. Not every story was intelligible, but there were delightful moments. A final long soliloquy against bigotry from one of the comics was not a joke, and led almost without a break to:
Laurie Anderson’s mournful violin tones, a kind of slow wordless ballad. The immediate and powerful effect was to bring out the melancholy loneliness behind the punchy tough little nuggets from the previous comedians. It suggested the sadness of making jokes in the midst of the mortality of all things. I don’t know why this happened to me, though my companion agreed. Perhaps the Bach Cello Suites or any other of a number of lovely string pieces would have had the same effect on me coming after the comedians.
But as it went on, the initial effect dissipated and the piece became aimless and boring to me, so that I impatiently crossed the huge space and climbed the grand staircase to read the composer’s notes. There I learned that something complex was happening through processing. Tones beyond our hearing range were being produced, and I guess, a melody was made from these tones, shifted down into the range of human hearing.
Which brings us back to melody. The first minutes of Anderson’s piece were pretty, affecting, and the piece worked like a dream after David Byrne’s. I felt that I was in a three-dimensional film and the music was a better-than-usual sound track; the “film” showed people, couples, children, tourists ambling through the Winter Garden, ennobled by the floating atmosphere of sound and space around them. I was in the film and observing it, both. This wonderful moment couldn’t sustain, but I had a vision, really an epiphany that, for the worshippers of civil society and its contents, like myself, a spiritual and sensuous time shared with others in a wonderful public place is about the best we can hope for, as far as spiritual experiences go.
And that brings me back to the question of hosting. The miracle of reproduction technology made it possible not to be beholden to performing artists who need acclaim when in the flesh. Nor were there rich sponsors, obsequious administrators there, or the infrastructure of the power network behind it all—to be either avoided or cuddled-up to. We were all absolutely free agents whose only caretakers were those security guards and maintenance men and women with the rich Caribbean accents, in uniform, with hand-held communication devices, standing in for all those others who provided our evening’s entertainment.
But to undercut my praise-song to public art, there was no crossing of class lines into a free moment of conviviality among all of us there in the atrium space. Instead we drifted out in dribs and drabs onto a view of the WTC site at night, brightly lit and ugly, prefabs all around, and now, a rather routine, even hum drum location for the banality of evil. We just gave it a glance and went looking for a cab.
It had been a good evening in New York.
[first published in Musicworks #86 Summer 2003]