All this week I’ve been listening to Tyondai Braxton’s Central Market, which received it’s first live performance last night by Braxton and the 40-person Wordless Music Orchestra, at an unfortunately under-filled McGuire Theater. It was the largest mass of humanity that I or any other Walker audience member had seen on the McGuire stage.
The Orchestra, much of it populated by folks you’d usually see on the streets of Williamsburg, incorporated many standard instruments (strings, flutes, a clarinet, brass) and some definitely non-standard ones, most notably kazoos, recorder, laptop, and synthesizer. All of these instruments were used to their full effect in performing selections from Central Market. They differed slightly from the record: the order was changed and one piece (“J-City”) was cut. It was great to hear some of the textures and instruments that didn’t feature as prominently on the album, including the six guitarists (including Braxton among them) and the army of pedals at their feet.
While listening to it this week, I kept hearing resonances of Stravinsky’s ballets from the early 20th century, most notably Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. There are elements of these two canonical works throughout Central Market, but most prominently in the playful melody lines played throughout the orchestra in “Opening Bell.” There’s more than a hint of the cross-rhythmic cacophony of The Rite of Spring in “Platinum Rows,” which became the finale of tonight’s performance.
When I looked online for some more information, I found a quote from Braxton in program notes for a performance at Lincoln Center this coming Monday, that he “tried to imagine what the Shrove-tide Fair from Stravinsky’s Petrushka would be like now.” Not only do the electronics of the piece give it a more contemporary feel than Stravinsky’s depiction of the Shrovetide Fair, the piece’s darker movements like “Dead Strings” and “Unfurling” represent a more sinister form of markets today, those seemingly all-important, yet incredibly fragile markets decimated by the financial crisis. It was in these moments, though, however symbolic they may be, that the piece lost its momentum; it’s fantastic when, the textures and sounds of these different instruments collide together as they hurtle along. (You can hear excerpts from the work on YouTube here).
A few things would’ve made the experience of seeing Central Market live even better. I wished the guitarists had been up front, rather than behind the strings and brass; I could only catch glimpses of what they were doing from my seat, but it looked very cool, a mixture of singing, hitting the guitar, picking out fast melodic lines, and other things that deserved more prominence than they received. More broadly, the piece seemed not to be as balanced as it could’ve been; some textures got lost in the mix at times. The sounds emanating from Michael Carter’s laptop and boards were too loud, moving their presence from an intriguing incongruity with the piece’s playful melodic strains to an unwelcome intrusion.
The program opened with violinist Yuki Numata and pianist James Johnston performing John Adams’ Road Movies. Because of the huge amount of space taken up by the chairs for the Orchestra, the duo were consigned to the back left corner of the stage. Both musicians ably handled the repetitive and cross-accented phrases that make up so much of Adams’ music, and Numata was particular adept at the piece’s numerous double stops and harmonics. Each movement was greeted with applause, and the first movement even garnered an audible “oh shit!” of approval from one audience member.
Next was In a Distance Place, a chamber piece by Caleb Burhans, who also conducted the performance of Central Market. The slow moving piece featured an unexpected recorder solo (played by Nathan Koci, who later switched to French Horn) and some lovely moments of dissonance between pianist Laura Barger and vibraphonist Yuri Yamashita at the work’s, which continued through the rest of it.
A nice surprise to close out the first half of the night was a performance of Andriessen’s Workers Union, the Dutch composer’s “symphonic movement for any loud sounding group of instruments.” There’s a score, but it only consists of rhythms and instrumental ranges that the group plays in unison, a political statement from Andriessen about solidarity with laborers. (I couldn’t help but think of Madison, WI while listening to this performance of one of Andriessen’s most overtly oppositional works.) The Orchestra was most certainly loud—at moments the kazoos sliced through the orchestra quite easily—they departed from the score by adding some different elements that approached harmony, but without aestheticizing the piece so that it lost its defiant gruffness and power.