Can These Bones Live? Conservatoire Blues
Opus III Festival
Conservatoire de Boulogne-Billancourt
How the Night Begins
The night began auspiciously behind closed doors. Paris does not begin – really begin – on time, ever, except for a few programs with patronage, where “starts atˮ is Article 33 in legal documents. Paris is still the capital of the impromptu party.
The modern world has a fetish for doors, most of them closed. (That they appear to be open is a trick of advertising.) They close silently and gently, most of them, so as not to disturb the goings-on inside.
I arrived a little late. The Nice Lady at the door was keeping a small crowd of us out. Others in the queue, being French, they have manners and a long fuse and were prepared to wait. I am from Brooklyn and the Lower East Side and do not. Merely a matter of twenty minutes until the first piece is over, the lady said. Ball games, the theatre, political rallies, art openings, literary debates of various kinds – one arrives and takes one’s place. It is practically de rigueur to arrive late at the opera just to be noticed. Arriving late with style is an art in itself. But not so for certain kinds of concerts.
It’s very delicate music, the lady said to the crowd. We remained unconvinced.
I threw a shit-fit. I got in the lady’s face and when that didn’t work, began pacing in circles that ate up the vestibule. The natives, regarding me as they would a bull tormented by a mosquito, kept their distance. (Maybe they thought I was going to spontaneously combust, like the drummer in Spinal Tap.) My performance must have had some effect because a man in security gear turned up to unlock the door. That’s a first, I muttered – a concert under lock and key.
We could go in, the Nice Lady said, as long as we stood in the back and didn’t breathe too deeply, at least until the end of the first piece.
The Conservatoire de Boulogne-Billancourt is a well-regarded school the faculty of which consists of many award- and multiple-award winners. It appears, based solely on the evidence of this concert, to belong to the Plinka Plonk School of Composition, which regards all music as chamber music and thumbs its nose at the last forty or so years of contemporary music.
Plinka Plonk, as surely you know better than I, consists of a firm grounding in the Serial Religion, great refinement of orchestral color, microtones in various mathematical arrangements, small groups of instruments holding what appears to be private, almost whispered, conversations, peppered with the odd, out of nowhere, polite crescendo that arrives and departs without bruising anyone. That it is intelligent music is inarguable. It is quite pleasant at times, subtle and even fascinating – mentally. The problem is what it leaves out: the sublime and the terrible, which operate on a completely different model. One cannot imagine Satie graduating from Boulogne-Billancourt with honors – or graduating at all. Plinka Plonk is a bit like the Man or Lady of the House who sets the rules for their Obnoxious Children – so that he or she can read the evening paper in peace.
The Conductor at the Cross
Not for nothing do small concert halls so closely resemble churches, with the half circle of the stage completed by the other, larger body of the audience, which must submit to the raised platform where the mysteries unfold. Power rests on the altar, where the high priest conducts the evening’s service. As if to prove the point, the conductor of L’Itinéraire, Alain Louvier, is dressed in black and walks on stage with all the humility of a genial episcopal priest. (Episcopalianism is a harmless religion, one step above the Unitarians, who make up ideas about a Reasonable God as they go along.) The conductor stands at the chamber’s dead center, at the intersection of orchestra, stage and public. Either he is the musicians’ elected representative or yet another pointless reminder of the patriarchy. Although he plays no instrument, he (almost always a he) directs the unfolding events with minute, careful gestures.
One can be agnostic vis-à-vis religion and ignore the overtones – but the underlying structure requires closer inspection. Stripped of our Credos, we offer each other substitutions on a daily basis. The conductor is a time-honored institution, and yet how does one justify the presence of this supernumerary who plays no instrument? Surely the musicians are competent and knowledgeable and know the piece cold. I can never completely dispel my suspicion that the conductor is there to keep the musicians in line, to prevent an interpretation of a passage, to stop them, in short, from getting carried away. Who knows what would happen then! It’s high time for the conductor to be hoisted on his cross. That would make for an interesting evening.
Someone once complained to Miles Davis that he didn’t play the way he used to, in the classic style. There’s an easy solution for that, he replied: stay home and listen to the records.
The Award Machine
Excepting two older French composers, Gérard Grisey and Hughes Dufourt, the evening’s composers were Conservatoire students who have won, in toto, 12 prestigious prizes. All except Grisey, who died of an aneurism in 1998, are alive and accounted for. Grisey’s Jour, contre-jour, which struck me as highly listenable, embodied his “scientific approach to sonic phenomena.ˮ If we include the professors at the Conservatory, such as Jean-Luc Hervé, or visiting scholars such as Louvier, the prize total goes up precipitously. Louvier, who has written “many scientific articles in musicology,ˮ is “very interested in the musical transposition of geometric curves and numerical sequences.ˮ Something seems to have been lost in all this intellectual accomplishment.
The literary establishment hands out its Golden Hyenas to irrelevant, when not incompetent, books. It especially prizes second-tier work published by overlooked figures and loves to reward those it has snubbed for decades, long after the poor bloke or mam’selle has given up the Holy Ghost. The Pulitzer embossed in gold on a book cover is the medal of mediocrity. Is there any need to trot out the list of writers who didn’t win the Nobel? The only deserving candidate who won it in his prime was Knut Hamsun. Even the good choices arrive long after the Great Work is complete. (One remembers Max Roach winning a MacArthur at age 70.) What about Joyce, Genêt, Borges, Henry Miller, Flan O’Brien, Celine, Simone de Beauvoir, Burroughs, writers who, despite their difficulties, defy the odds and stay in print year after year? Sacrés, outrageous characters who thumb their nose at convention and do it their way, are too hot to touch. The only award Varèse ever won was to have his pocket picked by two or three generations of academics who came after, and who now, with greying temples, instruct the young in the Proper Approach.
Does the Award Machine operate on the same principles in the musical world? I wouldn’t know for sure but – Chances Are.
Arturo Fuentes (Mexico, 1975) contributed Hallucination 01 to the evening’s noise. It was very, very good, exactly like the sort of weird, mind-bending conversation one has with oneself late at night, slipping in and out of time signatures, going nowhere but everything intensely related, with great interplay between the strings. The problem was not the violin, alto and cello but the bass clarinet, which could only offer the usual blips and blonks. Glissandi, a solo, short or long – out of the question. Forgive me, but I thought of Dolphy and David Murray and what they might have expressed in league with these talented musicians. The whole purpose of schools is to keep things neatly separated. Fuentes should escape now before they pin him to the wall like a butterfly. (“Such beautiful coloring! So sophisticated for a savage!ˮ) I left the concert wondering if there weren’t other, more wayward students playing in a dingy basement somewhere nearby.
The Music Factory
If real radical music is at Noise concerts scattered around town, it’s because you have a better chance of hearing something you haven’t heard before, sometimes having a surprising, even terrifying experience. The musical structures of the different performers are all ad hoc, highly individual, an underground (literally: caverns beneath bars or unused, in-between levels at parking garages) in which no one school predominates. There’s no point in being a purest: these concerts have plenty of their own sonic tedium, blips and blonks, the flip side of the academy, hysterical noise meant to impress. But all that misses the point: they get a paying crowd five nights a week during an economic crisis. I wonder if the award winners can say as much.
Many of the musicians went to the finest schools all right but they left that world, with or without degree and are searching for a new sound. Electronics in one set vie with acoustic instruments in the next, turntables with performers singing under blankets in another. Jeune Fille Horrible specializes in a kind of antic theatre, assembling a huge assortment of cast-off items and making music out of their rearrangement and destruction. Music is, to pinch a quote, a living substance, and sometimes, Invention lives next door to Amateur Hour.
Let us brood for a second on all the music Plinka Plonk avoids, in the theoretical sense, because its ideological foundation excludes the body, sustained tone, spiritual devotion, the sense of traveling from one place to another which, even if it is an illusion, is innate to man. (Anyone who thinks I am arguing in favor of tricky chord changes can stop reading now.) Let’s do the subtraction, according to the currently reigning academic chieftains. We’ll start by scratching almost everything from Joaquin Desprez to Monteverdi: out. Most of Mozart and indeed Bach as well: too high-spirited, too religious. Berlioz, that madman: definitely proscribed. Wagner: long gone. (Just as well.) The waltz: don’t trying dancing to that in your dorm room, it’s repetitive figures are pure retrograde. Boogie woogie piano, Thelonius Monk (I’m thinking of Kronos’s astringent settings for string quartet), Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, not to mention radical temperaments such as Harry Partch or Edgard Varèse, and certainly not apostates like Terry Riley or Phil Glass, well-brought up White Boys who actually listened to what was going on around them and gave it a radical twist.
* * *
I organize a small, once-a-month reading series, L’International, in Sévres, just outside Paris. Literary in nature, it doesn’t preclude collaboration between disciplines. Poets, writers and people with something to say attend and participate. The denizens of La Generale being indefatigable warriors – at least as far as parties are concerned – they always wreck the serious nature of the thing with some sort of post-event extravaganza. On the 7th it was a sauna and a concert by the Antonio Torres Band.
The band, conservatory-trained musicians, takes its name from the great 19th century Spanish guitar maker. They make their own string and percussion instruments from materials of all kinds, wood they find lying around. On the 7th they set up in a crowded atelier on the ground floor, a tight little room with a low ceiling. The musicians, who began slowly on their handmade guitars, harps, and drums, built slowly into a crescendo which turned into a barrage of either Holy Noise or just plain noise, depending on your taste. At the half hour mark, the audience joined in, banging on whatever was available and singing merrily, with part of the crowd scantily clad post-sauna. And then something happened. I don’t know if I can put it into words; a kind of transfiguration, in which music was no longer a foreign substance, but something we all contribute to, however awkwardly, innocently. Everyone played, or sang, or kept time. That was one evening, and only one kind of concert. It was an intense, communal experience.
The roots of music are shamanistic, libidinous, intensely spiritual – these three define the spirit of music as we feel it. The music of the academy is listened to from the neck up; the sounds we turn to in our grief and exaltation we hear with our whole bodies. Nothing in that impromptu formula precludes structure, intellect or sophistication.
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