Vital Signs is an ongoing travelogue about a novice classical listener's exploration of the NYC classical music scene and the classical music industry at large. It's also a behind-the-scenes look at an eponymous documentary focusing on the decline of the classical music industry and the emergence of a new classical scene.
I decided to ease into my classical adventure with the U.S. premiere of Planetarium, a collaboration between Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens, and Bryce Dessner, which was playing this past weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I'd seen both Dessner's band, The National, and Stevens play, and they both put on great shows. It was my birthday, and I thought I should do something special before heading back home to the far reaches of Queens, to my tiny room that is uninhabitable for reasons that required housing department intervention. I'd rather not expound.
Because BAM, as it's affectionately called, is only a twenty-five minute walk from my office in Dumbo, I got there with plenty of time before the doors opened. Time which I spent mulling around the lobby, trying not to stare at The National's Matt Berninger, who was leaning against the wall with a drink, looking like a grizzled dad who threw on some old jeans and trainers to go watch his kid's saturday morning soccer match. The poor man is pushing 6'5", which makes it pretty hard to hide from the 35 year-old hipsters that were aiming their iPhones at him, pretending to text message at arms length.
There's no bathroom on the main floor, so I took the escalator up to the second floor and found myself in the BAMcafe, which looks like a high-ceilinged ballroom,with two hundred people all hovering around a bar near the middle of the room. Not even in Stockholm have I seen such an assemblage of hip. When I emerged from the bathroom, I couldn't find the way back down. Wandering through crowd, I felt, with my backpack loaded with my lunch tupperware, like a lost child. Turns out, there was no down-escalator. In the midwest, where I grew up, we have these traps for hornets where they fly in but can't fly out...
When I finally found the stairs, I emerged on the main level from some sort of janitorial back-alley, only to notice that more members of The National were there. So was The Arcade Fire's Richard Parry, another very tall man. Also a Canadian, which explains the fur-lined parka. Canadians don't mess around with the cold. I took my seat and decided I should probably take stock of the audience for comparison to future classical shows. I was surprised at the diversity of the crowd. Not ethnic diversity. The crowd was at least 90 percent white. But the age diversity! The average age on the main floor, where I was sitting, was around forty. This is probably owing to the fact that tickets on the main floor went up to $65. The college-age crowd was in the balcony, where the tickets were $25. There were a surprising amount of people in the 50-60 range. I even spotted one man hovering around seventy. Apart from age, and presumably income, the only difference was that on the main floor, the men often tucked in their flannels. The most dressed-up people there were the ushers. In the future, writers will note that BAM was where the newly minted Creative Class gathered -- while the other symphony halls looked on in jealousy.
Three fourths of the string quartet were members in yMusic, a new music ensemble that we're working with for our documentary. The fourth was a violinist who looked like he was transported here from the Civil War. The stage was bare except for the quartet, which was bathed in light from above.
They opened with Bryce Dessner's "Little Blue Something." You can tell that Dessner has been writing music in a band for a long time; the song had a driving feel to it, and the players were all sawing away in unison. It was the most accessible piece played by the quartet. It was good.
After this first song, the violist Nadia Sirota took a microphone and welcomed the audience before introducing the pieces they were playing. Sirota, who also hosts radio, was comfortable with the audience, chatting with us. "The program which you have in front of you is wrong. We're calling an audible." Later, when introducing the members of the quartet, the violinist Rob Moose said, "This feels very Jazz clubby." It did. This friendly banter happens at most jazz and rock shows, but it was something I'd never seen at a classical concert. The crowd was attentive but relaxed. I had a nagging case of bronchitis, and when I periodically coughed, no one gave me a dirty look. (At Chicago's Lyric Opera, I've heard crowds hiss at chronic coughers like nesting geese.)
Next the quartet played Muhly's series "Diacritical Marks," which had a bi-polar feel to it. At times it was agitated, at times more melodious. This is very broad and almost meaningless critique, I know. The last pieces were from Steven's Run Rabbit Run,a reworking for strings of Steven's more-or-less electronic 2001 album, The Year of The Rabbit. All the electronic sounds, even white noise, have been replicated on the strings.
I have no basis for judging the difficulty of string instruments. If they had been playing metal guitar, I would have used the word "shredding" to describe the intricate and frantic work being done on the violin's fingerboards. Later, I wrote to Moose to ask if it had been difficult. Yes, he replied. Quite challenging at times. This was, I confess, somewhat surprising to me. I had foolishly assumed that Dessner and Stevens' pieces might sound great but they would not be difficult for classical musicians to play. I suspect this is a common prejudice. Introducing the Sufjan Stevens pieces, Moose presented them as "Composed [emphasis his] electronic pieces."
This is probably a good time to ask, What does it mean when we use the word composer, anyway? Why is it that the Wall Street Journal, when it wrote up the concert, allotted Muhly the title "composer"; Stevens "singer-songwriter"; and Dessner, "guitarist." The Oxford American Dictionary on my computer defines it as: "A person who writes music, esp. as a professional occupation." That would seem to include both Stevens and Dessner. But the word is fraught. It's one of those words like artist or writer. We, the jealous masses, roll our eyes at the 99 percent and only bestow the right to use the word on the 1 percent that can fulfill our expectations of greatness. So here it is: Dessner and Stevens, in their own right, are composers. And I'd want to say that even if they hadn't composed classical works. (Dessner for the group Clogs, and Stevens for his 2007 BAM-commissioned "BQE".)
At intermission, the woman in front of me was fumbling around for a dropped pen, when I noticed that she had been given the same blue press folder stuffed with xeroxed newspaper clippings.
"Who are you writing for?" I asked, unaware what the conventions are for press interaction at these sorts of things.
"The Times." At this point, I was glad she didn't ask me what I was up to, because I wasn't real keen on admitting that I know nothing about music criticism.
"So, does the Times send its classical critic or its pop critic?"
She smiled, "I write about classical."
"But so, is it classical music?"
"I think musicians want to play what they listen to. It's not like 60 years ago, when classical composers couldn't admit that they liked pop music. Nico Muhly gets big commissions. He's pretty much as much of an insider as you can be at this age."
Originally commissioned by London's Barbican, Eindhoven's Muziekgebouw Frits Philips, and Sydney Opera House, Planetarium is a spectacular genre-bending production that explores planets in our solar system, though the sun, the moon, and recently-defrocked-Pluto have been included for good measure. When the curtains opened, the stage was full. Stevens was in the center of the stage with a few keyboards. To his left was Dessner, on guitar. To his right, Muhly was walled off by a celesta and a keyboard, his music dimly lit by reading lights. Behind the men were 7 (!) trombones, a drummer, and the string quartet. And dangling above them all was a large dark globe onto which different video from was projected for each planet. On each side of the stage there were lasers that projected above the main floor onto the balcony.
I loved Planetarium. I don't care if you're not supposed to say that in music criticism. The music was sublime, and I was a sucker for the operatic feel of the production. At a few rare moments, the projections -- pigments mixing together, charcoal sketches, and even images from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn-were gimmicky and looked like a giant iTunes visualizer. But more often than not, it added depth to the music and helped the audience to understand the vision of each planet. As Stevens sang, "The stones cry out for Mercy.... As it is written, I am the god of war," the globe came alive with insectile geometric shapes before changing into a sea of fire. Muhly, who did the arranging on The Planetarium, conducted from his celesta and keyboards, which looked like giant control board. With his tussled hair and rapid movements, he gave off a mad scientist vibe, and as he swung his arms and pointed at various musicians, I couldn't help thinking that he was directing a planetary invasion by robots. Stevens often used a vocoder, so the lyrics were hard to hear. The show would have benefited from surpatitles. Perhaps this is my only criticism. I sat, enraptured, for the entire performance, and the music captured my attention in a way that concerts rarely do. As an encore Stevens, Dessner, and Muhly came back on stage and played Somewhere Over the Rainbow. I left Planetarium with my head in the ether, and started to make the long crawl back to Queens.