Gotham Diary:
Cirque de chambre
15 February 2012

Circuses have never appealed to me. Animals don’t really interest me, and I don’t care for their smell. But it’s the human component that puts me off. In the circus, the illusion that the performing artist is having a good time — common to all the arts, even the ones that don’t involve performance; this is why everyone wants to meet artists (a mistake in most cases) — is exaggerated to the point of a smirking dare. Can you possibly be so stupid as to imagine that pleasure has anything at all to do with the clown’s leering grin?

All of this is precisely what made the circus appealing to modernists like Stravinsky, and to his sophisticated audiences, who considered themselves superior to bourgeois, fun-seeking naïveté. The pathos of circus life underlies the brittleness of Petrouchka, of course, but it was after World War I that Stravinsky made the pathos itself brittle, and never moreso than in L’Histoire de soldat, a circus-within-a-circus work that I wish I could have stayed for at last night’s ACJW recital at Weill Recital Hall. The important thing is that I got to hear the companion piece, commissioned by ACJW and Carnegie Hall, that was played before the intermission, a 25-minute work in three movements with pre-, inter-, and postludes, written by four composers as a consortium called Sleeping Giant. Had I been able to stay for the longer second part of the program — had I not had a date for Valentine’s Day dinner with my wife — I expect that I’d have found the Stravinsky interesting but slightly stale, at least after Histories, as the companion piece is called, proved to be both so interesting and so novel.

At dinner, after I’d described it, Kathleen asked me if I thought that Histories would work as a recording. I’d love to find out, but I’d have to sit through a second performance to be sure. Histories is the first piece of purely instrumental music that I’ve ever heard of, aside of course from Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, that asks the musicians to do something besides play. At one point, the four wind players left the stage for stations in the side aisles, from which they blew through their instruments so as to suggest winds or waves, although of course no suggestion at all may have been intended. It would be easy to make the staging of Histories sound silly, but in fact it was fun. That’s what makes Histories essentially unlike the work from which it draws its inspiration. Today’s younger classical-music composers are after serious fun. Nothing could be more rigorously strained out of their music than the cynicism that is always curdling the edges of Stravinsky’s work.


The four composers who constitute Sleeping Giant are Andrew Norman, Jacob Cooper, Robert Hornstein, and Christopher Cerrone (it seems that there are six giants in all, two of whom did not participate in this project), and their collaboration is rich enough but also sufficiently unified to suggest a new School of New York — a School of Brooklyn, more like. Born between 1979 and 1984, these musicians have evidently made a commitment to the traditional materials of classical music — the instruments, the system of notation, and of course the long list of compositions. But they are also young men of today, presumably unfamiliar with the deviceless life and as keen to have something happen right now as any gamer — or not! Although I can easily imagine a response to Histories that would dismiss it as racket and noise when it wasn’t repetitious, I’m very aware that such dismissals invariably attend early departures in new directions; you can go all the way back to Hugo’s Hernani for fine examples of fustian disapproval.  I am certainly not equipped to describe Histories in terms that would argue its musical accomplishments, but I can try to tell you why I liked it.

Histories adopts the orchestration of Stravinsky’s suite from L’Histoire du soldat: violin (Keats Dieffenbach), bass (Brian Ellingsen), clarinet (Paul Won Jin Cho), bassoon (Shelley Monroe Huang), trumpet (Nathan Botts), trombone (Richard Harris), and percussion (David Skidmore). And it borrows a few themes, or fragments of themes. But it is most like Stravinsky in that it doesn’t sound like Stravinsky at all; rather, it renews what you might call his exploration of the atomic structure of music. What is music, really, and what exactly does a trombone do? In order to engage an audience with these questions, you have to call attention to what’s going on on stage, and avoid sending the listeners off into reveries. Sleeping Giant has two principal strategies for making things fresh, and both depend on unblended textures in which, playing together, instruments nevertheless resist producing a “joint” sound. One strategy is to ripple the textures with complicated but comprehensible rhythms; another is to luxuriate reiteravely. The contributions of Mr Cooper (“Agitated, stumbling, like an endless run-on sentence”) and Mr Cerrone (“Marionettes”) exploit the first approach; Mr Hornstein’s “Recovering” embodies the second, taking a phrase from Stravinsky’s “Pastorale” and marbling it on the vibraphone.

Andrew Norman provides the prelude, the interludes, and the postludes, brief bits of amusing warm-up music that I should have appreciated better if I were more familiar with L’Histoire du soldat — my bad. His pieces established Mr Skidmore, the percussionist, as the MC/ringmaster of Histories. The proceedings were cued throughout by the scratching of a gourdlike instrument in the form of an oversized baguette. At Mr Skidmore’s signal, the other instrumentalists turned this way or that, or froze in place; it might have been dreadfully fatuous if it hadn’t been so light-handed.

The titles of the individual pieces proved to be singularly apt. Mr Skidmore’s virtuosos drumming propelled the “run-on sentence” of Mr Cooper’s composition. Did it go on for too long? I didn’t think so, but I probably would have been less patient thirty years ago. Although there wasn’t much in the way of a tune (I understate) and the drumming was insistent, I was never annoyed or eager for the piece to stop. It stopped just about where it ought to. Mr Cerrone’s “Marionettes” was exactly that, if you can imagine not little people on strings but ferocious tropical, perhaps prehistorical birds, all of them pecking at indigestible diamonds. I didn’t think of birds while the music lasted; it was only when it was over, and I asked myself, “What was that?” that the image popped into view. If you really pay attention to “Marionettes,” you probably won’t have the mental room for daydreaming about birds.


 This would be a good point to write about the enormous shift in sophistication that Histories registers — the shift, that is, from Stravinsky’s hyper-sophisticated faux-folk music. Sleeping Giant, for example, stands in utterly different relation to the popular; in our time, it is the popular that is overworked to the point of corruption, and classical music that is, somewhat astonishingly, artless. I shall leave it at that. I was grateful to hear Histories in the Weill, because gold-and-white neoclassical rooms are part of the classical-music tradition, too, and I am more at home in them than I would be (I expect; I haven’t been) at a downtown venue such as Le Poisson Rouge. The venue underscored the degree to which Sleeping Giant is up to something really new.