This weekend (January 9-10), I attended two performances: the first, a Pierre Boulez tribute concert at (Le) Poisson Rouge, and the second, a performance of Du Yun’s new chamber opera, Angel’s Bone. Although in very different ways, both experiences seemed to push me to my limits. What I heard this weekend in NYC made me think about thresholds, and my ongoing masochistic relationship with contemporary music.
Dressed in my downtown designer’s best, I ordered an old-fashioned at the bar in LPR and eagerly awaited the night’s festivities. Having secured a spot, I took a quick glance around the room. It was packed. For a concert that was organized in a couple of days, this response was astounding. Only in New York could such a towering figure in classical music bring together the city’s finest young musicians, and inspire them to shred on some of the most difficult music in the repertoire. This was going to be good – I could hardly wait.
The performers played with elegance and poise. Miranda Cuckson gracefully danced around the complexities of Anthèmes 1, and in Le Martineau sans maître, the swirling lines played by Emi Ferguson stood out in stark contrast to to the jagged vocal leaps sung effortlessly by Charlotte Mundy. But it was challenging to get through, and by the end of the first half, I was painfully locked in a state of total bewilderment. What is it about this music that remains so difficult for me to listen to?
Around the turn of the century, Arnold Schoenberg and his young cohorts were determined to rip apart a tonal system that had faithfully governed musical structures for hundreds of years, unleashing the unharnessed power of a twelve-tone system. Once set into motion, it can sound like complete chaos, deliberately uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Yet, it’s these very qualities that keep me drawn to this music, and only wanting more.
On Sunday evening, I went to see a performance of Du Yun’s Angel’s Bone. The work is being presented as part of this year’s Prototype Festival, and the performances are being held at the 3LD Art and Technology Center, a modern, flexible performance space perfectly suited for this production featuring adaptable sets and haunting projections.
Diving deeply into the delicate subject of human trafficking, the story is painfully dark: Mr. and Mrs. X.E. are struggling financially until two angels land on their front lawn. Mrs. X.E. takes them captive and conducts business with neighbors who pay for their services. Yet by the end of the opera, both she and her husband eventually fall victim to the violence and monstrosity they had inflicted upon the angels. As soon as it begins, you immediately lose control, relentlessly bombarded by the opera’s graphic scenes and powerfully evocative score. You’re not quite sure what’s happening, but you know it’s not good, and the more brutal it becomes, the more violent the music, the more distorted the images, the more you feel like there’s no way out. The experience was challenging, stunning, and left me simply breathless.