THE BAD, THE GOOD, AND THE CITY: The River to River Festival, Launch Event, June 1st, 2005.
By Daniel Goode
Tan Dun at Pier 17, South Street Seaport, 6/1/05, 8 PM
The Bad Narrative
You can count on Tan Dun to have one moment in a piece of his you wish you’d composed. In the New York performance of his Water Passion After Matthew there were actually two such moments for me in this hour-and-ten minute piece of kitschy East-meets-West in classical music style.
Still, it was hard to take seriously this sentimental version of the Matthew Passion by a genuine Chinese dissident who escaped to become a world-class classical music star. First, you had to swallow the fully-draped Asian prophet role of Baritone, Hao Jiang Tian, chanting, singing and shouting about how awful the crucifixion was, and many other events of Jesus’s life. Then there was the similarly emotional young Caucasian soprano, Elizabeth Keusch, going on about the same, barely intelligible even though amplified with the text, thank goodness, projected in tiny super-titles on twin screens, part of the multi-media paraphernalia, distracting, but probably necessary. (The sound quality wasn’t very pretty, however. A little tinny.)
Before I discovered the tiny super-titles—I assumed at first they were ads, thank goodness, too small to read—my unbelieving ears led me to ask Raphael Mostel standing nearby why there was so much religious imagery. He reminded me of what I hadn’t taken seriously: that the title of the piece actually meant something as explicit as a religious narrative. Of course Tan Dun wanted it so, and the St. Matthew Passion in English is unavoidably in your face, while in a foreign language it can be ignored, I’m afraid, if the music takes over as it does in Bach, though it didn’t for me in this piece. So, there was a story you had to pay attention to. But I wonder why the civic sponsors (Lower Manhattan Cultural Center) and commercial sponsors (American Express—we applauded them on cue from the WNYC host) wanted to treat us to a free St. Matthew Passion with lots of classical sturm and drang? Maybe because Water is in? Or because religious narratives are in, in the White House? Or because Tan Dun now has the freedom to be religious and New York City gets a little credit by sponsoring him in his artistic expression? All of the above?
Before I left my friend Raphael, I whispered to him that the piece seemed “a little collage-y to me.” He replied, I think —Tan Dun’s music was temporarily climaxing, so I’m not sure exactly what he said—that we hadn’t even come to the mixing of the flour and water yet, from which I was to understand that the bread and wine sacraments were still to come. I immediately fled to the bar overlooking the performance area to have my own little sacrament, while below and beyond me there was: the mixed chorus of say 75, three percussionists playing by turns 17 large bowls of water and many other things, microphones all over the place, one highly amplified woman violinist, Jennifer Koh, and one cellist, Wendy Sutter, equally amplified, twin screens with images of all performers and particularly the enlarged fingers and palm of conductor, Tan Dun, pulling music willfully from the ether, or at least from the willing ensemble. I was happier drowning my sorrows in a large plastic martini glass with three tired, falling-apart olives, another water sacrament, not part of St. Matthew’s. Oh, to keep the one-world feeling going, I should add that the violinist seemed Asian, the cellist clearly Caucasian. Tan Dun, it’s nice to be able to say, is an equal-opportunity employer. But what the percussionists were employed to do was more impressive to tell than to listen to: there were elaborate water pyrotechnics such as drumming rather mundane rhythms with upside-down hand-held goblets on the surface of the water in the big bowls; some amplified drips from hands held above the bowls, clicking stones in nice repeated three-part interlocking patterns, some dramatically-acted bowed squeals on the hand-held waterphones. And a few other things, such as a gong lowered into water after being struck. More there for a gee-whiz kind of journalist than for the listener craving music. Nevertheless, you can see how some hyperbolic prose about how these sounds were made could wow the curators. And nothing in the least offensive about such nice sounds. Just kind of ho-hum. Which is how the whole thing struck me. Not even a premiere to boast about, New York. And you can buy the CD, the program tells us, on Sony Classical.
So what were the two moments in the Water Passion I wish I had composed?
(1) The chorus urgently reciting a rat-a-tat percussive series of syllables (can’t tell you what, because I hadn’t yet discovered the tiny super-titles) climaxing in a magnificent high swooping glissando executed by either the soprano or by the percussionist on the bowed waterphone, making harmonics. It happened more than once, but I’ll never know who did the glissando, unless maybe I buy the CD.
(2) A lovely minimalist choral finale which, over a pedal tone, was sung a slow unison melody of: do—ti, re—do, mi—re, fa—mi, and a few other pairs of notes. That could have gone on much longer and become a grand closing of the musical gestalt. It didn’t.
The UnParade from the Hudson to the South Street Seaport 6/1/05, 12 noon.
The Good Narrative
I was told about the parade by two fellow musicians in it: Chris McIntyre, trombonist and composer of a musical segment for seven trombonists, and Peter Zummo, long-time collaborator and friend of mine, and a fellow trombonist in this ensemble. Of course I couldn’t find the origination point of the parade from instructions or from locals in Battery Park City, but I found the UnParade soon enough, as its participants were walking east, and found them just as the seven trombones of Chris McIntyre’s 7X7 ensemble were making a segue from a “standard” to a dissonant seven-note chord while they rode the escalator up to the pedestrian bridge over West Street and on to Ground Zero. As they traversed the indoor bridge, the dissonant chord became a soulful Bb (in 5th position, Peter Zummo told me later), so that the players could glissando nimbly around it in magical ways. Once descended from the bridge and outdoors again, they crossed the southern perimeter of ground zero playing a low E drone with some tasteful licks occasionally rising out of the well of resonance. While I stuck with the trombone band for a long time, there were many other groups in the parade I became acquainted with during the tortuous zig-zags through the old Financial District between Broadway and the parade’s destination: the South Street Seaport and the East River.
The zig-zags became dizzying for a while as we hit Beaver Street, it seemed twice, but maybe not; suddenly we were on Stone Street for a moment, a short obscure alley turned totally into a European-style pedestrian mall and restaurant-café row, very yuppie one of the parade musicians said. I felt why not have some more Europe in New York—and since we don’t have another name for something as comfortable as this typical Euro-Urban amenity, let’s call it something familiar: yuppie, and try to think positive.
Close on the trombone band of 7X7 was composer/accordionist, Bob Goldberg’s BAN (“Brooklyn Academy of Noise”) memorial accordion marching band: eight accordions, and two drummers. Matt Moran, bass drum—someone who is in almost every Balkan band in New York, it seems, and Greg Burrows, snare. They played a snappy modal tune which could have been Celtic or not, and some dissonant chords, and every so often they turned in place like little planets: Charming! I had last heard Bob Goldberg’s environmental music quite a few years ago in the subway. Surprising and humble, this ensemble and composer. Delightful when one can just come on something like a Bob Goldberg band in an odd place in the city.
Working my way back to the seven-member trombone band, I noticed that behind them was a group of twelve school-aged African-American kids, in bright multi-colored head-to-foot clothing, accompanied by a rather dour-faced female teacher. The kids were enthusiastically chanting something that used the syllable “Ya,” while clapping, and there was a delicious moment when the rear trombones and the front row chanters intermixed, and the trombones picked up the chant to the kids’ delight. Just before this moment I managed to ask one nearest me where they were from. “P.S. 315 from East 23rd Street” chimed back the young man proudly, leaving me to add to myself: in Brooklyn.
There were other pleasant encounters—with the hand-carried boom-boxes of a Phil Kline piece, mysteriously soft, mixing perfectly with the urban soundscape so you had to listen to and discern and wonder what the sounds were; and with the raucous Hungry March Band, Sara Valentine doing her cheer-leading, tambourine-toting, drum majorette energy dance in front and around the wind instrument playing a cross between Balkan and Circus.
And finally at the endpoint of the parade an African stilt dancing and drumming group at the South Street Seaport, which one of them called out to me as Restoration Dance. In the program I found them listed as the “Obediah Wright Ensemble.” In addition to the huge, masked stilt dancers, there were nine women dancers in either green, yellow, red, orange, purple, or blue costumes, and four male percussionists.
Somehow interleaved with the stilt dance routine in the opening plaza to the Seaport, and before the women dancers entered, there was a rousing finale from all of the music groups that had marched in the UnParade. I was told by Peter Zummo that when asked what they could all play together, it transpired that it would be Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” From another concert program I learned the last stanza of Guthrie’s famous patriotic song has these final words: “As they stood there hungry I stood there asking/ If this land’s still made for you and me.” But those lines weren’t sung at this celebratory event, a friendly affair showing that City and artists can have a good day now and then, and this was certainly one. Why spoil it with a pointed political message even in the unlikely event that some in the crowd knew these final words, or even knew Guthrie’s politics. Writing this paragraph weeks later when of African debt relief and world poverty are in news, Guthrie’s final lines from Depression-era USA have to me an eerie resonance. [And proof-reading this article now after what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the line about the hungry standing there makes Guthrie’s left-ward lines especially relevant once more.]
It would be nice to think that an informal large-scale accretion of people, music, spectacle in a dense urban labyrinth could grow spontaneously. For someone casually encountering the events of the UnParade, it might seem spontaneous, and at least until one just focused for example on the incredible organization needed to control traffic in order to make it possible for the parade to wind west-to-east through busy lower Manhattan on a week day. The program booklet and full-summer schedule brochure shows how chock-full of municipal and commercial sponsors, organizers, and funders such an undertaking must be. To be chosen to perform at the River to River Festival might be symbolically like getting a huge grant. There is so little of this kind of layering of the mundane city in our lives with the potentially ecstatic energy of carnival. We really should grant ourselves more of it. It’s our society isn’t it? And are we not the richest society on earth? We should treat ourselves to these spiritual riches more often.